Last year, AJ Styles surprised everyone, not only with a WWE debut, but also with a rookie year on par with some of the very best in company history. Guys like Brock Lesnar, Kurt Angle and Alberto Del Rio had big first years with lots of accolades, but with AJ Styles it was different.
Angle was an Olympic Gold Medalist who took to "pro" wrestling (not just the matches, but the mic skills, rapport with the crowds and more) like a duck to water. Brock Lesnar was a once-in-a-generation freak athlete who had "main-event" written all over him. Alberto Del Rio was one of the most popular talents in Mexico (a market into which the WWE keeps trying to tap). Each had exactly what Vince was looking for in main-event talent.
AJ Styles, on the other hand, was an indie darling with a thick country accent and rabid following of supporters who wanted him in WWE and pushed to the moon; he was exactly the kind of guy Vince typically hated, signed, and left to wallow in mid-card obscurity. Instead, he debuted in the winter, was main-eventing in the spring, defeated John Cena in the summer and was WWE Champion as the leaves turned to Fall. It’s one of the most pleasantly surprising career ascents in recent memory.
It's not likely 2017 will see such a meteoric rise but there are several talented guys out there who are primed and ready for a World Title run if only the company would get behind them the way they got behind the Phenomenal One.
Here is a list of fifteen superstars, some who are with the WWE at this moment and some who are not (yet). All of them have what it takes to wear the Big Logo belt around their waist.
15 The Miz
The bottom two names on this list have something the other thirteen lack: WWE world championships. They are included because circumstances justify their place on the list.
In the case of Miz, his run as WWE Champion was almost universally panned. He was treated like a joke, won no important matches in any impressive fashion and his greatest victory as champion was against Jerry Lawler. It didn’t help that his run seemingly came at the expense of the more deserving CM Punk, who made more than enough of his opportunity only months after Miz dropped the title.
14 Finn Balor
Balor won the Universal Championship at SummerSlam last year, barely a month after moving up to the main roster. Fans had long worried that Vince McMahon and his merry band of RAW writers would ruin him, but with his SummerSlam co-main event title win, he seemed to have the headwind to carry the RAW brand for the foreseeable future.
Instead, he injured himself in the match and has been out of action ever since.
13 Braun Strowman
Now that the two former champs are out of the way, we come to the bottom of the list of guys that could conceivably be pushed to the top in the near future. Not all of these are superstars that fans necessarily want to see at the top of the card, but they possess enough raw talent or intangible attributes that the WWE marketing machine can make them believable main event performers.
12 Baron Corbin
Corbin is sort of SmackDown’s version of Braun Strowman -- so much so that the WWE made sure they interacted at the Royal Rumble, with Corbin eliminating Strowman after Strowman had eliminated seven superstars. But where Braun has been hindered by RAW's frustrating writing and booking, Corbin has seen his rocky main roster start slowly turn around.
11 Shelton Benjamin
Realistically, Shelton Benjamin’s time to be a world champ in WWE is about ten years too late. He was once regarded by fans the way Cesaro is now. He was a phenomenal athlete in the ring, capable of putting on a great match with seemingly anyone and though his mic skills were lacking, his sheer talent between the ropes won him over with crowds.
He never did get that main event push. The closest he got was probably getting his head kicked off by Shawn Michaels in one of those incredible wrestling moments that makes you miss everything about the old days (both wrestlers, JR’s commentary, an excited crowd, one less hour of RAW…).
Okay so yes -- Rusev is currently mired in a go-nowhere feud with Enzo and/or Big Cass. Like basically all of RAW feels like it’s been going on for six months with no developments or advancements to the “story” (what little of one there is) to show for it. Like an airplane that just circles the tarmac but never takes off, so is this storyline.
9 Adam Cole
It’s easy to look at Ring of Honor’s current World Champion and say he’s too small, too indie and too “un-mainstream TV” to be a WWE World Champion. And that would have been an easy argument to make five years ago, but a lot has changed in WWE in that timespan. Vince knows that raiding the independent scene and actually giving those guys a chance at the spotlight might entice jaded fans to buy a month or two of the WWE Network to see them in action.
8 Kazuchika Okada
If he wanted to join WWE, Okada would immediately have everything it takes to make it as a main event player. As with Shinsuke Nakamura, the language barrier would be the only factor that could hinder him, but WWE has shown a willingness to push special talents even if English wasn’t their first language.
7 Kenny Omega
After NXT scooped up indie talent from around the world, many fans wondered if there was anyone left for WWE to sign. Kenny Omega laughs at those fans. The 6’0", 200 pounder (from Chris Jericho’s hometown of Winnipeg) isn’t just the next great talent WWE should sign; he could be the best signee in a generation.
Omega is easily the hottest name in non-WWE wrestling. His aforementioned match with Kazuchika Okada was easily a top five match of the last ten years and will be hard to top as the best match of 2017. That might even be putting it mildly: Dave Meltzer gave it an ultra-rare six stars and said it might have been the best in history. Mick Foley called it the best he’s ever seen.
6 Bray Wyatt
After three and a half years on the main roster (not counting his stint as Husky Harris), Bray Wyatt is easily the superstar with the most untapped potential. When his character has a purpose there are few other performers on the roster who can better hold the WWE audience in the palm of their hands. Unfortunately, he has been squandered thus far.
5 Shinsuke Nakamura
Having Nakamura on NXT is like the Yankees signing Babe Ruth and sending him to the farm league. Maybe Vince and his cohorts were worried that his lack of English skills would make it hard for the WWE audience to connect with him, so they sent him to Full Sail to get us ready for him on the main roster.
After his very first WWE match, that was proven to be unnecessary.
4 Big E
If there’s one thing Vince loves to do, it’s to use a popular tag team to get a single star over. For almost two years, there has not been a more popular tag team than New Day. With their record-breaking title reign now over, there’s really nothing left for them to do as a tag team. But with the right storyline, the trio could easily turn into a main event stable with Big E chasing the gold.
3 Bobby Roode
Bobby Roode is still a relatively new face to NXT, having made his Takeover debut just last November. But as with Nakamura, the clock is ticking on how much time WWE is going to have with the almost 40-year-old superstar. It would be a real shame if fans look back on Roode’s career, after it is done, and wonder “what might have been?”
Cesaro should already be a multi-time World Champ by now. He’s got the look, talent, and though his accent limits his promos a tad, his ability to connect with people during matches rivals that of Kurt Angle or Shawn Michaels (two of the best at keeping your eyes glued to a match). For whatever reason, Vince has resisted pulling the trigger on him. There was a rumor going around last year that he didn’t think a “bald champion” would work.
That’s so insane and irrational it must be true.
1 Samoa Joe
Without a doubt the most main event world title-ready guy not actually in the main event is Samoa Joe. His NXT debut was a little slow, as he came in a babyface (with weird Street Fighter II music), but once he turned heel and began his quest to win the NXT title, the former ROH and TNA standout proved why he’s still one of the best pro wrestlers of his generation.
Though his time in NXT was shorter than some others, he accomplished everything he needed and is ready to take on the main roster. He’s big, he’s agile, he’s intense on the mic, he can work any kind of match against any kind of opponent; he’s the total package just waiting for his shot. This year needs to be the one he gets it. If in one year he’s not looking back on 2017 the way AJ Styles looks back on 2016, WWE will have dropped the ball indeed.
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