One of the key elements of the professional wrestling business, and particularly WWE, is that it’s always in flux. As much as we might bemoan seeing one of our favorite stars get released, or choose to walk away, it’s important—perhaps necessary, even--for talents to leave to make room for new stars to arrive, different stars to return, and for new stories to be told.
But what new or returning stars might be on their way to WWE in 2018? Nothing is official, and contract negotiations, injuries, and shifts in creative direction can all lead to unexpected changes in direction. It’s an exciting time to speculate, though, because the pool has rarely been more wide open for talents to make their way into the biggest wrestling promotion in the world. WWE has entertained ties to the MMA world, and demonstrated a greater willingness to accept talents from the indies and abroad. Meanwhile, the demands of filling roster spots for Raw, SmackDown Live, NXT, 205 Live, and Network specials means more opportunities for more diverse talents to get signed. The net effect of all of this is that fans may well be surprised at some of the fresh faces heading to WWE this year. All the more so, some of the unlikely parties to get re-signed may be a shock.
This article takes a look at 15 individuals who might be inserted into the WWE roster in the next year’s time. The article includes eight debuts of talents who’ve never appeared for more than a cameo on WWE programming, and seven returning talents you may have thought you’d seen the last of.
15 Debut: Ricochet
There are very few independent talents who have garnered as much hype around them, or generated as many WWE rumors as Ricochet. The guy developed a cult following working promotions like Pro Wrestling Guerilla and Dragon Gate USA, took on a starring role for Lucha Underground under the moniker Prince Puma, and has most recently become a star for New Japan Pro Wrestling. While he’s making a comfortable living outside of WWE, he’s quite arguably the single most talented and over American wrestler active today to have never been under WWE contract.
Will 2018 be the year Ricochet bounces into the WWE locker room? While there’s no guarantee, the timing may be just right. He has accomplished about all there is to do outside WWE, and smaller talents like AJ Styles have paved a way for him to be taken seriously despite working at under 200 pounds. That’s not to mention that he could be an impressive addition at the top of the 205 Live roster.
14 Return: Bobby Lashley
Bobby Lashley looked like a true blue chip prospect for WWE. Not unlike Brock Lesnar, he was a big guy, jacked to the gills, with explosive athleticism and a legitimate amateur pedigree. WWE looked set to go far with him, too, making him the face of the fledgling ECW brand for a time, and casting him in a high profile angle with Donald Trump for WrestleMania 23.
Rumors abound as to why Lashley left WWE. The general consensus seems to be that he felt underpaid for his level of stardom and number of dates worked. The rumor mill also suggests conflict with management including Michael Hayes, drama related to real life partner Kristal Marshall, and that poorly timed injuries derailed the company’s plans for him.
Whatever the reasons for his initial departure, Lashley has grown as a wrestler outside WWE, starring for Impact Wrestling over the years, besides building a respectable side career as a mixed martial artist. Lashley is one of the last true dream opponents WWE might book for Brock Lesnar, and with Impact making more and more budget cuts, it seems likely they won’t be able to offer Lashley enough money for him to stick around in 2018.
13 Debut: Ronda Rousey
Rarely has there been a celebrity more heavily rumored to cross over to the professional wrestling business in a serious way than Ronda Rousey. Better yet, rarely has there been more support for the rumor of a crossover than in Rousey’s case.
Rousey is a self-professed wrestling fan, who wrote in her book about growing up a WWE fan. She’s one of the most famous mixed martial artists in the world, positioning her adjacent to the world of pro wrestling. These elements alone would be enough to feed rumors. You can add onto that her guest appearance interacting with The Rock, Triple H, and Stephanie McMahon at WrestleMania 31, plus her appearances in the crowd at the Mae Young Classic. On top of all of that? Rousey is widely rumored to be training for pro wrestling now, and after her MMA career seems to have come to a close after back to back losses, it makes complete sense.
For Rousey, signing with WWE is less of a an if, as opposed to when. With no UFC fights on her docket and her training well under way, 2018 looks like the ideal time. Might she face off with Charlotte Flair? Asuka? Stephanie? All of the names have been floated, and there’s a lot of conjecture one or more of these matches will happen this coming year, likely at WrestleMania.
12 Return: Ethan Carter III
Ethan Carter III rose to fame in Impact Wrestling booked as the nephew to Dixie Carter when she both ran the show behind the scenes and starred as an on screen authority figure. While Dixie’s work wasn’t so well received on either level, the gimmick did succeed in giving ECIII a real spotlight. He made the most of his opportunities to become explosively over as a heel. An ill advised face turn slowed his momentum, misreading why the fans were interested in him, but he nonetheless emerged as one of the top non-WWE stars in the world in recent years.
It’s easy enough to forget that ECIII actually did work for WWE before signing with TNA, wrestling as Derrick Bateman in developmental and on season five of the original, nationally broadcasted NXT. WWE never seemed to know what they had with him then, but after his success in TNA, there’s reason to believe WWE would give him another shot and afford him better opportunities this time around. He may not reach main event status in WWE, but could be a star for NXT or quite easily be slotted into the U.S. or Intercontinental Championship picture on the main roster.
11 Debut: James Storm
While Impact Wrestling gets a bad reputation for placing too much emphasis on guys who used to be stars for WWE or WCW, the company did build a number of its own stars. Consider AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, or Bobby Roode, each of whom won world titles for Impact before going on to stardom with WWE. James Storm stands right alongside these kinds of talents as a very talented, versatile veteran who spent most of his prime with Impact.
Storm actually did have a brief stint with NXT in between Impact contracts. Now that he has publicly cut ties with Impact because they couldn’t meet his expectations for pay, there’s every reason to think he’ll at least take up residence with NXT. He’s also got more than enough talent to justify a call up to the main roster.
10 Return: Chris Jericho
Few stars have come and gone on their own schedule in recent years more than Chris Jericho. The guy works few month stints with the company when it’s mutually beneficial to do so, then heads off to pursue other projects. Y2J made big news this fall when it was announced he was going to work with New Japan, facing Kenny Omega at their Wrestle Kingdom PPV in January. For many fans, this may have suggested that Jericho was all done with WWE, particularly considering that NJPW is quite arguably the closest thing WWE has to a worldwide competitor.
Jericho has spoken on the topic, though, to suggest that he wasn’t under any contract or obligation to WWE, but did discuss the situation with Vince McMahon. While it’s doubtful McMahon really approved of Jericho’s choice, the Chairman nonetheless seems to have a lot of respect for Jericho’s creativity and bold business moves. There’s a fair amount of speculation that WWE will move aggressively to get Jericho booked again as soon as WrestleMania, if only to re-establish him as a WWE talent first and foremost.
9 Debut: Rosemary
WWE has expanded its women’s roster nicely in the last few years, and it’s telling that the roster is now deep enough to support three competitive divisions across Raw, SmackDown, and NXT, each of which can comfortable offer more than one women’s match per PPV if needed. With this past year’s well received Mae Young Classic, and rumors of a women’s Royal Rumble brewing, the influx of female talent, and WWE taking them seriously, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
As WWE continues to expand, Rosemary stands out as one of the most talked about female talents not to have worked with the company. Besides being a strong in ring performer, she has one of the most unique looks in wrestling today and could fit nicely as a stand alone act, or teaming up with an act like Bray Wyatt or the Sanity stable in NXT.
8 Return: Brie Bella
For Brie Bella, walking away from the ring came down to her family life. First and foremost, she and new husband Daniel Bryan had designs on having children. Their daughter, Birdie, was born this May. Secondarily, after her husband was forced out of the ring by head injuries, there was a sense that Bella may have moved away from that part of her life out of support and solidarity as well.
With Bryan speaking openly about his efforts to get back in the ring, and Bella having had some time away, and time to recover from giving birth, might she come back to the squared circle? She’s hinted at it, and while it may not be a full time return for the female star, it wouldn’t be surprising for her to come back for at least one more match, perhaps teaming up with her sister Nikki again as her in ring career winds down.
7 Debut: Laurel Van Ness
WWE has moved away from hiring women strictly for their looks in favor of performers coming in with wrestling talent. Laurel Van Ness is that unusual talent who checks all the boxes as a solid in ring performer with some good experience behind her, and being a looker. The recent Impact Wrestling Knockouts Champion also has a WWE connection based on her real life relationship with Zack Ryder.
Die hard fans may recognize that Van Ness as not an entirely new face for WWE, as she previously appeared on air as Daniel Bryan’s kayfabe physical therapist whom he had an affair with. She was also a Tough Enough contestant. She never actually wrestled a televised match for WWE, though, and thus would technically be making her debut in a WWE ring if she were to wrestle there in 2018.
6 Return: Hulk Hogan
Hulk Hogan, quite understandably, was exiled from WWE after a tape leaked of him repeatedly using racist epithets. He was released from his part time deal, and largely scrubbed from the WWE website—no small condemnation for arguably the biggest star in the company’s history.
Since that time, WWE’s stance on the Hulkster has clearly softened. He’s back to getting the occasional reference on WWE TV and online. Rumors surfaced this fall about Hogan and long time business associate Eric Bischoff starting a new wrestling venture. Little has materialized as of yet, tough. It seems reasonable enough that WWE may try to bring home one of its biggest cash cows for another in a string of profitable nostalgia runs, perhaps in time for WrestleMania, maybe as an authority figure when Daniel Bryan or Kurt Angle transitions out of their current role. Hogan has even hinted that he’s game for one more match.
5 Debut: Cody Hall
Scott Hall is revered as a great wrestling mind and great in ring performer who probably would have been an even bigger star had his personal demons not gotten the better of him. Hall has come out relatively recently as suffering from PTSD from an incident that led him to kill a man as a night club bouncer. This incident may well have been the primary cause for his struggles with alcoholism and substance abuse over the decades to follow.
Scott’s son, Cody, has emerged as an intriguing talent. He not only shares his father’s surname, but was trained by his old man and has a similar body type. While Cody has a ways to go before he really compares with his dad, he has a lot of raw tools WWE appreciates. Pair that with the experience he’s garnered on the indies and in Japan, and he could be a big acquisition in 2018.
4 Return: The Rock
The Rock shocked wrestling fans when he returned to the WWE fold leading up to WrestleMania XXVII, and when he wound up announcing a proper return to the ring for WrestleMania XXVIII. These moments gave way to a fairly sustained run for The Great One, working three consecutive PPVs in 2013. Unfortunately that run ended in him suffering multiple injuries in his WrestleMania XXIX main event with John Cena. The injuries not only hurt The Brahma Bull, but upset his representation and business partners for having to delay work on his next film.
Since that point, The Rock has only made cameo appearances and not wrestled a full on match (barring his sub ten second farce against Erick Rowan at WrestleMania 32). But could WWE put the pieces together to bring him back in 2018? There’s little doubt WWE would like to, and with talents like Triple H and Kurt Angle working part time in the ring, there’s plenty of room for one last great Attitude Era rematch.
3 Debut: Eddie Edwards
Eddie Edwards is on the short list of most decorated wrestlers not to have worked for WWE. His resume boasts world title reigns with Impact Wrestling, ROH, and Pro Wrestling Noah, not to mention collecting a variety of championship hardware with smaller promotions. One of his biggest successes of all was the super over American Wolves tag team with Davey Richards.
Edwards’s name has shown up of late as a talent Impact can reportedly no longer afford. His name has also shown up repeatedly in speculation about top in ring talents WWE would be interested in signing to at least an NXT deal. As not only NXT but the main roster is increasingly packed with familiar faces from Impact and ROH, Edwards ought to be a lock for a 2018 signing.
2 Return: Earl Hebner
Earl Hebner recently parted ways with Impact Wrestling. This break up makes sense enough, as Hebner probably has the highest contract for any non-WWE referee. As Impact is increasingly cutting ties with top in ring talent for not being able to replicate, much less improve upon big money details, Hebner is simply an unnecessary luxury for them.
So could Earl find his way back to WWE? He didn’t leave on the best terms, with allegations of him and his brother trafficking in non-licensed WWE merchandise. Plenty of time has passed, though, and Hebner is one of the exceedingly few referees who could be a draw in a guest appearance. In recent interviews, Hebner has expressed an interest in coming back. It’s not outside reason that WWE would bring him in, if just for one guest referee spot, say at the 25th anniversary of Raw, or perhaps even a Hall of Fame induction.
1 Debut: Moose
Every now and again, there’s a star who emerges on the indies, or at least with a smaller promotion and fans instantly speculate when he’ll make his way to WWE. This isn’t a matter of sheer talent. For every outstanding performer like Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles who, over time, won’t be denied, there are comparable talents like Christopher Daniels and Austin Aries who never did get their WWE break, or didn’t have WWE make the most of their talents when they did.
WWE is traditionally more interested in credentials like big personalities, impressive physiques, and mainstream athletic pedigrees. Moose checks all of the boxes as a tremendous powerhouse whose charisma as gotten him over to an unusual degree among indie fans. Add onto that years playing NFL football and you have a guy whom you have to assume will debut for WWE sooner rather than later.