“If Cena Wins, We Riot.” This phrase was famously placed onto a sign displayed throughout the 2006 ECW One Night Only show that was, a decade ago, meant to restart the Extreme Championship Wrestling brand underneath the World Wrestling Entertainment umbrella. Fortunately for the WWE and for all of the fans attending that show, there was no riot on that fateful night. Rob Van Dam defeated John Cena, with some help from Edge, to win the WWE Championship and also become the first ECW champion of that era. We have since seen numerous other versions of that sign, including one that promised a riot if Cena defeated CM Punk in Chicago at the 2011 Money in the Bank event. Punk beat Cena that night, and the WWE once again did well to put smiles on the faces of customers and avoid a potential ugly scene.
In reality, wrestling fans these days probably wouldn’t actually riot over the ending of a match. If fans in Canada didn’t riot over the “Montreal Screwjob” back in 1997, it’s probably, and thankfully, likely never happening at a WWE event. With that said, we do wonder how fans might react if some of the more popular performers on the current WWE rosters were released by the company for one reason or another. What is humorous is that this imaginary list of wrestlers begins with a performer who was not all that beloved at the beginning of summer. The WWE did well to create a storyline that helped get that individual over and he even won a championship in September. It turns out that WWE still does, in fact, know how to make a babyface a fan-favorite.
15 Heath Slater
Yes, that’s right. Heath Slater, the “One Man Band,” begins the list of WWE stars we’d riot for if they were to be released by the company. Slater has been a comedic character buried on the WWE roster since his early days in The Nexus faction. His gimmick this past summer was that he was so much an afterthought, both Raw and SmackDown “forgot” to select him during the 2016 WWE Draft.
Who among us could have guessed, at the time, the WWE was going out of their way to make us care about Slater so much so that we would rise to our feet at shows to cheer him on and hope that he would receive a contract on SmackDown. Slater eventually earned that contract after winning the Tag Team Titles on SmackDown along with former ECW champion Rhyno.
We cannot say, for certain, how long it will be before fans tire of Slater, but he certainly has been one of the better parts of SmackDown since the brand split.
14 Johnny Gargano
We admit that we may be jumping the gun with this selection. Johnny Gargano was part of the NXT roster up through September 2016 and he featured on the Cruiserweight Classic before earning a spot on the Raw roster as part of the WWE’s new cruiserweight division.
“Johnny Wrestling,” as the Cleveland native is affectionately known among fans in northeast Ohio, is, today, one of the most beloved babyface wrestlers in all of the company. Gargano is a great worker inside of the ring, he cuts solid promos, and he does well to earn cheers from fans as he attempts to fight back from behind during matches.
It should theoretically only be a matter of time before Gargano is competing for championships as part of the main roster. The WWE landed a gem in Gargano so long as the company does not squander his skills. We have to admit we are looking forward to a future feud involving Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa.
13 Sasha Banks
The supposed WWE “Divas Revolution” that kicked off in the summer of 2015 has admittedly been filled with ups and downs following the promising first night of this era of women’s wrestling in the company.
Sasha Banks, when healthy and available, has been one of the bright spots on the women’s portion of the roster. Banks is over among pockets of fans even though she worked as a heel throughout her time in NXT and some fans were angered that Banks did not receive her biggest WWE win, to date, at a WrestleMania or other big show such as SummerSlam.
What’s funny about this is that most knowledgeable fans and commentators would admit Banks is better as a heel than a babyface. She works better as a heel and her promos are suited for a heel. We want to see a heel version of the Banks character feuding with Bayley as soon as possible.
12 Zack Ryder
Sections of WWE fans still love Zack Ryder even though the company has done just about everything possible to make it clear Ryder will never be a World Champion while on the roster. Fans cheer for Ryder when he is wrestling as a singles act and when he is part of a tag team. They chant his name during shows and pop for his entrances. No, fans probably wouldn’t physically riot if it was announced the WWE had released Ryder, but they would experience feelings of disappointment because of the opportunity that was wasted.
Ryder got over all by himself via the Internet and the WWE could have had a future star on its hands if the promotion would have allowed the fans to choose their own babyface in this situation. What’s done is done, sadly, and Ryder will never be a massive star in the WWE because of the company’s own doing.
11 Becky Lynch
Unlike Zack Ryder, Becky Lynch has remained over and popular among fans even though certain storylines did her few favors. Lynch became a beloved worker as part of the NXT locker room and there were hopes that she would become a big star after she was called up to the main roster in the summer of 2015.
That did not happen right away, though, largely because the WWE chose to push workers such as Charlotte and Sasha Banks ahead of Lynch. Lynch’s moment in the sun came after she was drafted to the SmackDown brand in July 2016. She became the first SmackDown Women’s Champion of what is being referred to as the “new era,” and she is arguably the best female performer on that brand.
Fans would be downright baffled if the WWE decided to release Lynch out of the blue considering all that she has done over the past couple of years.
10 Dolph Ziggler
There is a part of us, as wrestling fans, that would not be shocked in the slightest if the WWE released Dolph Ziggler before the end of 2016. Ziggler became a popular worker among fans years ago due to his in-ring work and also because of the perception that Ziggler could not break through the alleged glass ceiling for whatever reasons. That second part even became part of an on-air storyline involving Ziggler in the summer of 2016, as it was pointed out that the Cleveland native could not win the big one. Unlike the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ziggler failed in his overall goal to become the top champion on the SmackDown brand.
Fans continue to be entertained by Ziggler, but the character needs a change if he is going to advance and not be released by the WWE in the near future. We still enjoy watching Ziggler and we’d be furious if the WWE released him.
We are trying to understand what the WWE is planning for Asuka as it pertains to her future. There is zero reason for Asuka to be on the NXT roster other than because the touring brand needs a female star who can perform well inside of rings. Asuka is above every other women on the NXT roster and she would arguably be the best overall wrestler in the WWE were she to be added to either Raw or SmackDown before the end of the year.
It wouldn’t matter if the WWE booked Asuka as a babyface or as a heel terrorizing other female wrestlers. We’d tune in to watch her destroy opponents. The WWE releasing Asuka before she made it to the main roster would understandably upset those of us who have followed her since her match in NXT. We hold out hope the WWE will get things right with the Asuka character in time.
8 Sami Zayn
“The Underdog from the Underground” is not the best nickname ever created by the WWE writers. Other than that, though, Sami Zayn is, to steal the cliche, a great underdog in storyline. Zayn lacks size when compared with the likes of Roman Reigns, Rusev and Kevin Owens. The WWE wisely continued the feud between Zayn and Owens that played out in Ring of Honor years ago and that feud helped make Zayn a star on the main roster.
While Zayn and Owens have had multiple matches in NXT, and also on the main roster, we will never grow tired of watching the two compete. Owens became the WWE Universal Champion in the summer of 2016, meaning Zayn now has to earn his major win on the main roster. We have no reason to believe the WWE would release Zayn anytime soon and it is a safe bet fans would flock to social media to complain about the decision if the WWE chose to cut ties with Zayn before he won a singles championship on the Raw brand.
Bayley is the best classic babyface produced by the WWE since the company turned John Cena from a rapping heel into the character he portrays today. Kids love Bayley. Grown men wear Bayley merchandise at live events and pay-per-view events. Women mark out whenever Bayley’s music hits before her entrance. Bayley plays a great babyface in peril and her character is relatable among fans.
The Bayley character is somebody who loved wrestling as a kid, who admires great workers, who worked hard to improve and who dreams of one day being known as the best wrestler in her division. She is essentially playing a grown-up version of our younger selves who watched wrestling as children. It’s such an easy story to understand. Fans around the world love Bayley and the WWE could realistically risk losing customers if the company releases her at any point in the foreseeable future. Do right by your fans, WWE, and make Bayley a big star.
6 Dean Ambrose
The story behind why we would “riot” if the WWE released Dean Ambrose goes all the way back to when the three members of the Shield originally separated. Some wrestling fans worried, at the time, that Ambrose would fall behind both Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins on cards and in the eyes of certain individuals making booking decisions in the WWE.
It seemed that was the case until 2016, when Ambrose won the WWE Championship as a babyface. Ambrose has enough talent to play that role in the ring and on the microphone, but it seems as if he is more of a natural heel. We’d like to see Ambrose play such a character and do so as a top heel over the next year or so. He could shine if put in such a position. Something needs to change with the Ambrose character, especially now that he is no longer serving as the top champion of the SmackDown brand.
5 Seth Rollins
Seth Rollins has deserved so much better from the creative aspect of WWE since he turned heel on the other two members of the faction once known as The Shield. Following the break-up of that group, Rollins was immediately turned into a cowardly heel who needed help to win big matches and who could only win the WWE Championship by cashing-in his Money in the Bank privileges. A title run that was relatively weak was cut short when Rolling suffered a serious knee injury that sidelined him for roughly half a year.
The WWE then chose to keep Rollins a heel when he returned even though the logical decision was to make him a heroic babyface. Rollins deserves a run as a top babyface heading into 2017, and it seems the WWE finally realizes this. The WWE releasing Rollins before he receives that opportunity would be nothing short of absurd.
4 Finn Balor
Imagine waking up tomorrow and learning the WWE chose to release Finn Balor before Balor recovered from the injury he suffered at the 2016 edition of SummerSlam. Admit that you would, for a second or two, consider causing a disturbance at a WWE event.
Balor remained part of the NXT brand long after he left no doubt he belonged on the main roster. He then worked on the Raw brand for around a month until he picked up an unfortunate injury while wrestling against Seth Rollins. Whoever you blame, if anybody, for that injury is a matter of opinion. What seems obvious, though, is that it would be brutally unfair if the WWE released Balor before he received a real opportunity to carry the banner for the Raw brand once he recovers. We expect Balor will be a big star in 2017. We hope the WWE feels the same way about him.
3 A.J. Styles
Here is maybe the hottest take of this entire piece: A.J. Styles has been the best overall worker in the WWE since he debuted at the 2016 Royal Rumble. Styles first appeared in the WWE as a babyface due to the reputation he earned as a great wrestler throughout his career, but the company chose to make him a heel and serve as the leader of The Club before moving him over to the SmackDown brand in July.
The Phenomenal One has not disappointed while working as a heel, to the point that it could be argued Styles has cut the best promos of his career this year. Styles deservedly became the top champion of SmackDown in September and the assumption moving forward is that he will hold that title up through the end of the year and maybe even until WrestleMania. Remember when it seemed as if Styles would never work in the WWE? We’re glad those days are long gone.
2 Kevin Owens
We probably would not have been all that shocked back in March, for example, had we learned at that time the WWE released Kevin Owens. Owens, after all, does not have a physique of a bodybuilder and the perception had by some fans is that the WWE would allow the Owens character to merely exist on the roster until the company moved on from the great wrestler.
Such fears disappeared, however, when Owens became the second ever WWE Universal Champion after Finn Balor went down to injury. Owens truly has been fantastic since his first night on NXT when he officially began his feud with Sami Zayn. He performed in match of the year candidates in both 2015 and 2016. Owens may not have been the company’s first choice to be the top wrestler on Raw, but we are nevertheless glad to see such a talent receive a big push.
1 Shinsuke Nakamura
There may actually be a sect of fans who watched Shinsuke Nakamura perform at the NXT Takeover: Dallas show and at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II who would consider causing a riot at a WWE show if the company released Nakamura before he won a major championship on the main roster.
Nakamura is the most charismatic individual working underneath the WWE umbrella today and he would probably be on either Raw or SmackDown if the NXT touring brand didn’t need him to sell tickets for shows. Passionate WWE fans who watch weekly editions of NXT cannot wait to hear Nakamura’s epic theme on a pay-per-view such as the Royal Rumble or WrestleMania. Nakamura is, simply put, tremendous in every way and the WWE choosing to release him for whatever reason would legitimately infuriate customers.
Breathe easy, though, because we have no reason to think the WWE would drop Nakamura before his contract expires.
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