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.
In the six years since, Miz has barely even sniffed the main-event. Along the way, both his character and in-ring skills have improved ten-fold. For a time, he was arguably the MVP of SmackDown. A world title run now would be the “second chance at a first impression” that he has more than earned.
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.
You might think that, when he returns, he’ll slide right back into the main-event title scene on RAW, but time (and Vince’s infamous capriciousness) has a funny way of ruining things. It wouldn’t be surprising for Balor to return with a diminished role on Monday nights. That would be a mistake, however. One freak injury doesn’t change the fact that he is a generation-defining talent that deserves the big title run that was ripped from him last August.
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.
Braun Strowman is still greener than Shrek, but he looks the part and with Vince McMahon, that’s nine-tenths of what it takes to be a main event talent. The man pushed Great Khali to the World Title picture, for crying out loud. With Undertaker, Big Show and Kane all nearing retirement, new big men are going to have to step up to fill those roles, and as that happens, they are going to get their obligatory World Title runs. Strowman seems primed to be up first.
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.
After many pegged him a bust, he has found his footing on SmackDown and is now a highly popular featured player. He’s still very unpolished and limited in the ring, but there’s plenty of experience in the locker room to carry him through matches for the next couple years. And though he’s not Kevin Owens on the microphone, he has a strong command of his “no nonsense” character and with the right push (which SmackDown has been excelling at lately) he could really be a strong heel champion.
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…).
Shelton was supposed to return to WWE last year but an injury kept him from doing so. He’s lost half-a-step over the years, but he can still go, and if given a chance, might make Vince regret not giving him the ball sooner.
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.
Set that aside and consider what Rusev could bring to the table if given the chance. He has great charisma and natural timing in promos (which is not easily learned). He’s a smooth performer in the ring with a good combination of agility and power. He has the most popular valet since Debra tagging along with him. He has all the pieces in place and only needs the green light to be a legit main event heel. He may not get the chance, but he’s ready for it, nonetheless.
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.
So before you say Adam Cole is too small, remember Finn Balor went straight to the top last year. Before you say he’s “too indie,” remember AJ Styles just had a great run as WWE Champion. Before you say he doesn’t look like the kind of guy Vince would consider as champ, remember Daniel Bryan main-evented WrestleMania XXX. Cole has what it takes; all he lacks is the chance.
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.
Okada has the size (he’s 6’3", 235 lbs), the look (lean and muscular with striking blond hair) and certainly the talent (he’s one of the best wrestlers in the world, without question) to be an attractive signee for WWE. He gave an interview last year stating that he would never leave for WWE and that he hadn’t even been offered, but since then his match at Wrestle Kingdom 11 has captured the attention of the pro wrestling world. With the right (big) offer, he might change his mind. If he did, he could be an instant star in the main event.
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.
There is an iron. It is hot. WWE would be wise to open their checkbook and strike because this is a talent worthy of immediate world title success.
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.
Fans hoped he would be the next Undertaker, but that hasn’t materialized. Comparisons have been made to Jake the Snake but he was booked to win far more than Bray. As of now, Wyatt is basically “Witch Doctor Tugboat.” He’s big and scary until he gets in the ring, and then he loses every important match. And yet, through all of his meandering promos and go-nowhere feuds, fans have stuck with him. The second he wins a world title, he will be instantly credible. WWE just needs to pull the trigger.
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.
The obvious reason to bring him up and insert him into the main event immediately is because he is a remarkable performer with more charisma in his pinkie than half the roster could even dream of having. There’s another good reason to bring him up as soon as possible, though, and that is the fact that he’s already had a long career and only has so many years left to be one of the best on the planet. The time is now.
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.
When Big E (Langston) moved up from NXT, he had the look that Vince loves in a superstar, but as usual, they failed to develop his personality. He won the IC title but looked destined to remain stuck in the mid-card like his now-tag partner Kofi Kingston. Thanks to New Day’s success, Big E has found his voice and proven himself to be full of charisma and charm, ready to step into the main event.
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?”
Overall he has had a long and successful career, but since most of it happened in TNA, does it really count? In NXT, he has won over the fans (that glorious theme song doesn’t hurt) and shot up the card to the main event scene as the new NXT Champion, but NXT is not the main roster and no one with his talent should have their career end on Wednesday nights. There’s money to be made with him on the main roster as a main event talent, but only if the company acts fast.
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.
In another time, he would have been a superstar around whom to build the whole promotion, ala Bruno Sammartino, but in this multimedia age, where the ability to work a talk show interview carries as much weight as the ability to work a 30-minute match, Cesaro’s been held back. He’s more than ready, however, and when (if) he does get his chance, he’ll prove his doubters wrong.
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.