Lame duck champion?

Lame duck champion?

The honeymoon period for Santino Marella's astonishing Intercontinental Championship victory in Milan, Italy looks to have come to a screeching halt. With rumors circulating in the locker room that he's a lackluster champion and an undeserving titleholder, the native Italian is beginning to understand that winning the lottery can also have its setbacks.

Marella was hand-selected out of a crowd of thousands by Mr. McMahon to compete in an open challenge for the Intercontinental Championship. Miraculously -- with a helpful spear to Umaga from Bobby Lashley -- Marella walked out of the sold-out DatchForum with more than just gold.

Overnight, Marella went from relative obscurity to one of the most talked about Cinderella stories in sports-entertainment. Unfortunately, it's that fairytale scenario in which he won the title that eventually caused a backlash to form among veteran Superstars.

Terms like "Johnny-come-lately," "flash in the pan" and "one-hit wonder" started to surface when Marella's name would come up in conversation. The worst part for the champion? The animosity and jealousy toward him has only gained momentum in recent weeks, even after he's successfully defended his title on Raw and Heat.

With many of his peers wishing failure upon him, hoping he'll wind up being the lame duck they're attempting to make him out to be, the New Jersey resident claims that in order to win his critics over, he knows he needs to rely on his work ethic.

"It's not a right to be in WWE; it's a privilege," said Marella. "I have trained every day, often twice a day, for more than three years for this opportunity. Maybe I haven't earned my stripes in WWE yet, but I won't quit until I do."

In hindsight, Marella admits he should have seen this type of backlash coming. However, the excitement swirling around winning the Intercontinental Championship and becoming a WWE Superstar gave him tunnel vision. Now that the smoke has cleared, and Superstars like Chris Masters have started to prey on Marella's inexperience, the platform to prove himself has arrived.

"Some attitudes about me are slowly starting to change," said Marella. "They are beginning to change, but I know it will be some time before the industry and the guys in the locker room have complete faith in me because of how I won my title. And I've accepted that."

Helping promote that change resides in the zest with which he takes on his competitors. No matter how outsized, overpowered or how many times he is beaten down, nothing can keep Marella from finding the strength and will to get back up and fight.

"I wrestle with my heart," he said. "I'm not the biggest guy on the mat, but neither was Bruno Sammartino, Ricky Steamboat or Eddie Guerrero. They all had so much heart and made such an impact because of their dedication to improvement. There's that one saying: ‘It's not the size of the dog, but the size of the fight in the dog.' I try to live my life by that."

With surprise victories over the Masterpiece that led to retaliation in the form of two neck-wrenching Master Locks, the size of Marella's inner dog had better be the size of a Mack truck if he plans on leaving this rivalry with his title intact.

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