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.
15 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.
14 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.
13 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.
12 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.
11 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.
10 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.
9 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.
8 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.
7 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.
6 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.
5 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.
4 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.
3 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.
2 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.
1 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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