WWE is in an important transition period right now that will be paramount to the next decade in the company. The brand split is allowing new stars to get called up from NXT to the Raw and SmackDown Live brands. 2016 has seen the company now utilize two World Champions, two Women’s Champions, two Mid-Card Champions and two Tag Team Champions. The Cruiserweight Division on Raw, along with the 205 Live show, also needs a credible champion to represent its distinct brand. Many stars have held gold for the first time this year but that’s just the beginning of the new talent making an impact.
As we continue to progress in the brand split, many more talents currently on Raw and SmackDown Live will be tasked with stepping up. Opportunities will be opening up for new champions to be crowned and we’ll see if they can run with the ball. Some of the current NXT stars and free agents could also make their way up to the Raw and SmackDown Live rosters in a big way. We are going to look specifically at stars that have never held a title on the main roster. These are fifteen wrestlers that will win their first WWE Championship in 2017.
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15 Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows: Raw Tag Team Championship
The New Day being in the process of breaking the record for longest reigning WWE Tag Team Champions of all time doomed Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows. WWE signed them as hot free agents out of New Japan to become a huge part of the tag team division. They feuded with New Day for months on the Raw brand, but they suffered losses in every major match they were in.
WWE couldn’t fully push them due to the Tag Title record being in the back of their minds. Anderson and Gallows lost all of the momentum and excitement from their shocking debut by doing the job to New Day enough times. New Day losing the Tag Titles to Cesaro and Sheamus has finally opened up the tag division again. Anderson and Gallows are too talented to not hold the titles for a strong stretch of time in 2017. Expect them to be the ones that dethrone Cesaro and Sheamus early next year.
14 Austin Aries: Cruiserweight Championship
WWE is clearly trying to invest in the Cruiserweight Division and it's not working right now. All of the wrestlers are talented, but lack star power or familiarity with the mainstream wrestling audience. One man that has what's lacking right now is Austin Aries. His past success in TNA and ROH give him a more relevant track record than the other cruiserweight stars.
Aries is as talented as anyone else involved in the division and adding his personality would do wonders for a class of wrestlers struggling to find entertaining personas. His heel character and promo work have made him stand out in the wrestling industry for years. WWE has made him the color commentator for the 205 Live cruiserweight show during his time on the injury list. Aries being a strong part of the show means he is bound for it when he's cleared and there’s no doubt he’ll hold that purple title in 2017.
13 Naomi: SmackDown Women’s Champion
The SmackDown Live women’s division has been among the strongest points of the show since the brand split. We're actually getting two-to-three storylines per show about the female stars on the roster. Naomi has added new elements to her character in a change from heel to face. Fans “feel the glow” with her innovative entrance and her talent speaks for itself.
Naomi is arguably the most athletic women on the SmackDown Live roster and brings it in the ring every time out. She is currently dealing with an injury, but it appears to be minor enough to have her back in a short period of time. SmackDown Live loves to give opportunities to talents ready to run with the ball. Naomi’s talent will allow her to get the chance to finally emerge towards the top of the division next year.
12 Cedric Alexander: Cruiserweight Champion
One of the better wrestlers in the cruiserweight division has been Cedric Alexander. Fans at Full Sail chanted “please sign Cedric,” leading to Triple H unofficially signing him in front of everyone at the Cruiserweight Classic. ROH failed to push Alexander as a top star in recent years and he took a huge risk by leaving the company for a spot in the Cruiserweight Classic.
Alexander proved you should always bet on yourself if you can deliver strong performances. The presentation of the cruiserweight division has delivered lackluster results, but Cedric is one of the few to get positive reactions from the crowd. Alexander winning the Cruiserweight Championship at some point in the next year is a safe bet with him having all of the tools to lead the division.
11 Adam Cole: Intercontinental/United States Champion
Everyone on the list so far is currently on the WWE payroll, but Adam Cole is still a part of Ring of Honor. Cole’s contract expires in March and he recently lost the ROH Championship to Kyle O’Reilly. WWE clearly could use a talent like Cole, leading to the assumption that he is going to undergo a change of scenery.
Cole heading to the WWE is a safe bet and so is his success. The independent wrestling star has everything WWE looks for in a star. He looks great, can work and has strong character skills. Cole even has a reputation for being a PR wizard in making media appearances. With all that, we think WWE will push him to the moon. Even if he starts in NXT, Cole will get to the main roster quickly and capture a Mid-Card Title. SmackDown Live seems like a better fit and the Intercontinental Championship would look great around his waist.
10 Big Cass and Enzo Amore: Raw Tag Team Champions
Their main roster callup from NXT has made Big Cass and Enzo Amore among the most popular tag teams today. They don’t win most big matches and are often lost in the shuffle, but the fans cheer them like absolute heroes. Enzo’s way with words on the microphone and the athletic talent of Cass allow the polar opposites to gel together.
WWE has slowed down on pushing Enzo and Cass in the tag division due to New Day holding down the top spot as the record breaking champions. There will be more opportunity for the Raw tag teams in 2017. Big Cass and Enzo Amore are definitely going to get the titles for the first time soon. It could even come at WrestleMania 33, where the fans would eat it up.
9 Nia Jax: Raw Women’s Champion
WWE loves Nia Jax. As the cousin of The Rock, she is definitely someone they have valued for quite some time. Rumors circulated that there was extra attention given to Jax progressing compared to her peers at the Performance Center in her early days of training. Jax had a decent run in NXT that lasted under a year before she was drafted to Raw this past summer.
We don’t see her on Raw every week, but she is typically featured in a strong manner when she's onscreen. The company is protecting her for a reason and that reason is an upcoming Raw Women’s Championship reign. Charlotte Flair is still going strong as the top heel in the division, but it’s only a matter of time before change is needed to keep things fresh. Jax winning the title to start feuds with Bayley and Sasha Banks is bound to happen next year.
8 Neville: Cruiserweight Champion
The shocking return of Neville at Roadblock: End of the Line saw him turn heel by beating down T.J. Perkins and Cruiserweight Champion Rich Swann following their match. Neville showed intensity, absolutely destroying the faces of the current cruiserweight division. Fans have been begging for Neville to join the division for months and it’s finally happening.
Neville has a successful track record as a former World Champion down in NXT and has been a consistent member of the main roster for quite some time. Fans will care far more about the cruiserweight division with someone they know being a strong fixture in it. The best case scenario heading into WrestleMania 33 would be Neville either challenging or holding the Cruiserweight Championship as a dominant heel. WWE definitely knows how much this is needed and it’s more than likely to unfold.
7 Carmella: SmackDown Live Women’s Champion
Carmella's character change on Smackdown Live completely changed her for the better. Carmella came to the main roster in the draft on the SmackDown brand as a face. Everyone loved her in NXT with Big Cass and Enzo Amore and she tried to use that character on the main roster. It failed horribly with no one reacting to her at all.
Carmella attacking Nikki Bella and forming a strong heel character made her become a force in the SmackDown Live women’s division. The feud between Nikki and Carmella was one of the stronger points of the show following the brand split. Carmella showing her potential made her a hot commodity in the WWE. That wave of momentum should continue in 2017, leading to Carmella capturing the biggest prize for a woman on the blue brand.
6 Baron Corbin: Intercontinental Champion
Baron Corbin is one of the true success stories of the Performance Center. Guys like Kevin Owens, Finn Balor and Sami Zayn learned a lot there, but they were already world travelers that just had to pick up a few more tidbits to succeed in the WWE. Corbin entered with no wrestling experience, but backgrounds in the NFL and boxing worlds.
NXT allowed him to shine as one of their most hated heels. Corbin did a great job of picking everything up at a fast speed and debuted earlier this year to win the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. The SmackDown Live brand has the rising star on the show and the sky is the limit for him. WWE loves his story that paints the Performance Center in a great light. Corbin is definitely going to win the Intercontinental Championship at some point in 2017 and he could be in line for the WWE World Championship if he keeps improving.
5 Sami Zayn: United States Champion
Sami Zayn's overall talent is unquestioned, but he has been treading water on the main roster for quite some time. Aside from his feud with Kevin Owens, Zayn has lacked direction. A current feud with Braun Strowman is helping showcase him as the underdog of the underground once more. Zayn has a lot of similar traits to Daniel Bryan and WWE sees that. Rumors have circulated that the company is intentionally making his build slow to get fans behind him much like they did with Bryan.
Zayn is bound to rise up the rankings in 2017 with more of a role on the Raw brand. They need new stars to make a bigger impact for the brand split to continue thriving. Don’t be surprised to see Zayn capture the United States Championship and make his first main roster title reign a credible one. The title needs help and Zayn having stellar matches by defending it every week would add the prestige back to a championship, which seems to be lacking since Cena's title reign.
4 American Alpha: SmackDown Live Tag Team Champions
There’s no doubt that American Alpha is the most talented tag team currently on the SmackDown Live roster. Chad Gable and Jason Jordan dominated NXT capturing the brand's Tag Team Championship earlier in 2016, but dropped it quickly to move up to the main roster. SmackDown Live drafted American Alpha to make them a huge part of the tag team division.
The slow build for American Alpha appears to be intentional. With Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt currently serving as a dominant heel tag team, the right combination is there for a future match. It could come at WrestleMania 33 or shortly before, but Gable and Jordan are the right men to dethrone the two main eventers for the titles. Logic would dictate American Alpha defeating The Wyatt Family and holding the SmackDown Live Tag Team Championships for most of 2017 as the new premier tag team in the WWE.
3 Bayley: Raw Women’s Champion
Charlotte Flair's dominance with her undefeated singles match record at WWE PPVs is an important story from 2016. Flair has lost the title on Raw to Sasha Banks on three occasions, but always regained it at the next PPV event. There has to be a reason WWE continues to have Charlotte get the big win to keep her streak going instead of having it end to Banks.
Enter Bayley. The popular face has massive potential to make the company a lot of money. Young fans absolutely adore Bayley and that leads to huge merchandise sales. Bayley has the same appeal as John Cena, except the older fans wouldn’t dare boo her. WrestleMania 33 is looking to set up big a showdown between the fan favorite, Bayley, and the dominant villain, Charlotte. The perfect story is there for Bayley to end the reign of Flair and win the Raw Women’s Championship.
2 Braun Strowman: WWE Universal Champion
One of the biggest factors of the brand split is the WWE having more incentive to take calculated risks. Finn Balor, Kevin Owens and AJ Styles have all won World Titles following the split, due to the company wanting to put them in sink or swim positions. They all happened to be established. Someone the WWE believes in with less of a track record is Braun Strowman.
Vince McMahon apparently loves Strowman and believes he could be a future top star for the company. The brand split and a lack of depth at the top of Raw will ultimately lead to huge opportunities heading Strowman’s ways. WWE positioned him strongly in the Survivor Series brand rivalry war to get him acclimated with the main event scene. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Strowman is going to get the chance to be the WWE Universal Champion in 2017.
1 Shinsuke Nakamura: WWE World Champion
The star power of Shinsuke Nakamura is glaringly obvious. Despite the language barrier, Nakamura transcends to win over anyone watching him for a few minutes. His entrance, charisma, presence and in-ring quality make him one of the most exciting performers in the industry today. WWE has shown an open-mind to push anyone that develops enough fan support.
Nakamura is too good to remain in NXT for a long time. It's more than likely he’ll drop the NXT Championship early in the year and make a jump to the main roster following WrestleMania. SmackDown Live would be the best fit given his background training with General Manager Daniel Bryan. Nakamura is on such a high level that he'll rise to the main event picture instantly and win the WWE World Championship before 2017 ends.
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