2017 was an eventful year in WWE programming. It saw legends like Goldberg and Kurt Angle work main event matches, guys like Jinder Mahal and Braun Strowman rise up the ranks. NXT talents like Bobby Roode and Shinsuke Nakamura become full blown stars on the main roster. We saw The Undertaker appear to retire, while an increasing number of underutilized talents like Cody Rhodes and Austin Aries took their talents to the indies.
A lot can happen in a year. AJ Styles came into 2017 a super over WWE Champion, lost the title going into WrestleMania season, and looked like he’d be relegated to the upper mid-card moving forward. Surprise, surprise, he regained the title in November and it appears likely he’ll finish the year much the way he did the year before, as a well respected world title holder. Meanwhile, there’s the case of James Ellsworth, who was a key cog in Styles’s booking for the late stages of 2016, only transition to playing Carmella’s heater, before ultimately getting released in 2017. Brock Lesnar finished out 2017 by suffering his first squash loss, quickly dominated by Goldberg. In turn he’s spent most of 2018 as the dominant Universal Champion after beating Goldberg at WrestleMania. This all goes to show how unpredictable a year can be.
So what’s ahead for 2018? Which stars will get the push of a lifetime, or finally actualize their potential? And which have already flown as high as they’re likely to, and may slip in the year ahead? This article prognosticates about eight WWE stars who will shin in 2018, and seven whom we already saw the best of in 2017.
15 Will Shine: Sami Zayn
It was the conventional wisdom that Sami Zayn would be the Ricky Steamboat of his generation. Whether or not he attained Steamboat’s level of world championship glory, Zayn came across as a pure face not to mention a great worker. It was difficult to imagine that WWE would ever turn him heel.
However, in 2017, Zayn had been on the main roster for over a year and a half and largely stalled out. This was a tough pill to swallow for a guy who’d gotten so over and wrestled so many great matches in NXT. Even on the main roster, he had had a match of the year contender with Kevin Owens at Battleground, and more generally made the most of the opportunities given to him. Still, he wasn’t going to get a main event opportunity over the likes of The Shield, John Cena, AJ Styles, or Shinsuke Nakamura. So, what to do with the guy?
At Hell in a Cell this past October, WWE pulled the trigger on a heel turn. His partnership with Kevin Owens in the aftermath has largely felt like a revelation. Using many of the same mannerisms, and telling a logical story about not getting opportunities by playing nice, Zayn has emerged as one of the best heels WWE has. 2018 will be the crossroads, though, when he either becomes a full-fledged main eventer, or just another guy. Hopefully, the momentum keeps up, and Zayn’s best is still ahead of him.
14 Peaked: Jinder Mahal
In 2017, Jinder Mahal got one of the least predicted, least organic main event pushes in WWE history. He started the year as a lower card heel on Raw, transitioned to SmackDown, won a battle royal, and suddenly found himself headlining against WWE Champion Randy Orton. The most shocking part of all? Mahal won. He not only won the WWE Championship, but successfully defeated Orton in rematches and turned back challenges from Shinsuke Nakamura.
It was widely speculated that Mahal’s push centered on WWE trying to grow its business in India. In the end, the experiment didn’t seem to succeed on much any level. Mahal failed to grow as an in ring performer or talker, and business in India did not substantively pick up. Meanwhile, rumors abound that WWE perceives a link between his world title reign and sagging ticket sales and TV ratings.
In the end, WWE pulled the plug on the Mahal experiment early. Despite pushing Mahal WWE Championship defenses as the cornerstone of a two-night stand in India, he wound up dropping the title the month before and was reset to wrestle Triple H in India instead.
It’s unclear what 2018 will hold for Mahal. Based on the half-year opportunity he got to reign with the WWE Championship, and how little good came of it, it seems unlikely he’ll sniff a world title again in WWE.
13 Will Shine: Ruby Riott
Ruby Riott was a stand out in NXT, playing a wild face who engaged violently with Nikki Cross. She was a veteran of the independent scene and her style and look invited comparisons to WWE legend Lita. It looked as though WWE may have gone cold on her, however, when she wasn’t included in a Fatal Fourway for the vacant NXT Women’s Championship at NXT TakeOver: War Games.
Little did we know that, rather than marginalizing Riott, WWE was grooming her for a main roster spot. Shortly after Survivor Series weekend, Riott debuted in on SmackDown as the leader of the new Riott Squad faction, alongside fellow call ups Liv Morgan and Sarah Logan.
While Charlotte Flair will probably remain the face of SmackDown’s women’s division, in entrusting Riott with this leadership role, it seems likely that she’ll quickly become the brand’s top female heel.
12 Peaked: Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar has had plenty of good years with WWE in which he’s been booked to dominate, and thrived in the monster heel role. 2017 could be viewed as something of a peak, for Lesnar spending nearly eight months out of the year as champ and beating a wide range of opponents, including Goldberg, Samoa Joe, Braun Strowman, and AJ Styles. But where does WWE go from here?
It’s heavily rumored that Roman Reigns is in line to challenge Lesnar for the Universal Championship at WrestleMania 34, and that WWE will use this match as another attempt to push him as the guy. With that outcome, there are real questions as to how or whether WWE will use Lesnar moving forward. His contract is reportedly up after ‘Mania. The guy commands a high booking fee and is only willing to work part time. There are real questions about whether this might be the end of the road for him. Even if WWE does continue to book him as a part timer, you have to think there’s a real chance this is the last world title reign for The Beast Incarnate.
11 Will Shine: Kevin Owens
Kevin Owens entered 2017 in an unusual spot. Yes, he was the reigning Universal Champion. By the same token, he never really picked up a decisive win in a big match situation, and was pretty clearly an afterthought relative to Brock Lesnar and Goldberg. As the year moved on, Owens spent most of it entrenched in the US Championship scene. That’s not to say WWE had written him off, but it looked like he wasn’t going to be a main event fixture.
This past fall saw a glimmer of something different, as Owens was booked opposite Shane McMahon for Hell in a Cell, and his new heel partnership with Sami Zayn became the hottest act on SmackDown. While there’s still some uncertainty about Owens’s standing, it seems that WWE recognizes his value. In particular if he and Zayn get sustained, proper main event opportunities, there’s reason to believe Owens will shine bright in 2018.
10 Peaked: Natalya
When WWE booked Natalya to challenge Naomi for the SmackDown Women’s Championship at SummerSlam 2017, fans were surprised. The prevailing theory was that WWE was just trying to elongate Naomi’s title reign before an eventual clash with Charlotte Flair in the fall, so The Queen could reach her destiny of claiming the title. Very few predicted Natalya would actually win the title and reign for a period of months, but that’s exactly what happened.
Natalya’s reign felt like a thank you tour—rewarding a long-time top-tier worker with a title reign toward the end of her prime as a performer. She’d only had one title reign previously, from 2010 to 2011, and so she both got her just desserts with this reign, and provided the heel base for Flair to work against and take the title off of for a feel good moment.
And what of 2018? With the introduction of the Riott Squad, and Carmella still lurking as the first Ms. Money in the Bank, Natalya has quickly been ushered out of the top female heel spot on her brand. Barring significant injuries or shifts in creative direction it doesn’t look likely she’ll get back to that position.
9 Will Shine: Braun Strowman
One of the biggest and perhaps most organic ascensions in WWE in 2017 was that of Braun Strowman. With his incredible size and strength, he was a serious threat going into the year. A hard hitting feud with Roman Reigns, followed by physically bullying Brock Lesnar set up the Monster Among Men as a new main event level star, though. The fans are behind him, and that seems to have motivated a slow, steady turn toward working face. Strowman came to blows with his heel TLC teammates. The following month, he was cast as one of only two survivors in the Survivor Series main event, after which he laid waste to Triple H.
So what’s ahead for Strowman? He’s over, he’s huge, and he has a lot of untapped potential, particularly in the face role. While WWE seems fixated on pushing Reigns as the face of the company, Strowman may yet usurp that spot, or at least emerge as a rock solid number two player in 2018.
8 Peaked: Jason Jordan
Jason Jordan has so many tools to succeed as a professional wrestler, including a solid look, athleticism, and amateur skills. In 2017, WWE took a big chance by pulling him from his American Alpha tag team, and casting him as Kurt Angle’s son. It looked like the company had designs on a big push, but the fans rejected the storyline, and Jordan hasn’t exactly won them over—particularly with his mic work.
A heel turn seems imminent for Jordan, and it’s possible WWE will salvage him and end up with an upper card or even main event talent after all. If this rocky start is any indication, though, Jordan could just as likely wind up as a cautionary tale—the prospect pushed too aggressively, in too wild of a storyline, and was thus ruined. Time will tell, but for now, Jordan’s prospects for 2018 look awfully murky.
7 Will Shine: The Revival
The Revival were never the flashiest team in NXT, and that was sort of the point of their gimmick. With their “No flips, just fists,” motto, the guys were all about fundamentals and old school tag team work. Over time, pundits began recognizing Dash and Dawson as not only NXT’s best team, but one of the best active tag teams in the world.
So, when The Revival finally got the call up to the main roster in 2017 it’s understandable that they were met with a lot of excitement. Sadly, The Revival weren’t able to capitalize on their buzz, as the guys have been woefully plagued with injuries ever since moving up. Projected programs with The New Day and The Hardy Boyz never got off the ground due to someone always being hurt.
While there’s a risk of WWE giving up on The Revival if they can’t stay healthy in 2018, if they can keep themselves off the DL, there’s every reason to believe they’ll thrive in the year ahead. The upside of the injuries is that, when they can work a full time schedule, they can still feel like a fresh, new act. Their hard nosed style will be a nice addition to either roster, and they couldn’t make excellent heel rivals to The Bar if they turn face again, or to The Usos over on SmackDown.
6 Peaked: Bayley
Bayley was part of the much celebrated Four Horsewomen of NXT who put on fantastic matches amongst each other and established the foundation for the Women’s Revolution on the main roster. Since moving up to Raw herself, the road has been uneven for The Hugger. She’s gotten opportunities for sure, even achieving the rare feat of walking into this past year’s WreslteMania as champion, and walking out with the title still in hand. However, the act has felt a little stale, and it doesn’t bode well for Bayley that Alexa Bliss not only relieved her of the title in the spring, but won their feud decisively.
What’s ahead for Bayley in 2018? The addition of Absolution to the Raw roster could give Bayley some opportunities as a plucky babyface standing up to them. However, her long term prospects don’t look great. Going into the new year, she’s, at best, the number four women’s star on Raw, behind Bliss, Asuka, and Paige, and there’s a fair enough argument she lands behind Sasha Banks, Nia Jax, Sonya Deville, and Mandy Rose for the time being as well. While she could regain some ground in 2018, it’s unlikely Bayley will get back to the spot she held at WrestleMania 33.
5 Will Shine: Bobby Roode
When Bobby Roode debuted for NXT, there was speculation that he was signed purely to work in developmental and help younger talents come along. His rock solid talents, paired with an iconic entrance made him a full-on star in NXT, though. In the end, WWE wall too eager to call him up to the main roster coming out of Roode’s first full year with the company.
Roode hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since moving up, but he has continued to perform solidly, and has all the more potential to thrive if WWE recasts him in his more natural heel role. Roode may have to wait until after WrestleMania and the inevitable influx of part time talents to get his proper push, but there’s reason to believe that when things settle down in the spring of 2018, he’ll be set up nicely to move into the WWE Championship picture.
4 Peaked: Bray Wyatt
Since his main roster debut in 2013, Bray Wyatt has been an anomaly on the WWE landscape. Yes, he plays an eccentric, vaguely mystical character. On top of that, he’s that odd wrestler WWE keeps at or around a main event level, and yet has rarely pulled the trigger on really pushing in a world title program. 2017 saw him finally reach the top of the mountain when he won the WWE Championship at Elimination Chamber and walked into WrestleMania with the strap.
Wyatt would go on to have an embarrassingly bad match with Randy Orton at ‘Mania. Their rematch—an ill-defined House of Horrors Match was little better (and many would suggest even worse). While WWE continued to book Wyatt toward the top of the card, he lacks the buzz that he had when teaming with Orton at the start of 2017, let alone when they first started feuding. It looked like WWE may add a new angle of intrigue with him portraying Sister Abigail as an extension of his character but that got cut short due to a poorly timed illness. Now, Wyatt looks conspicuously close to getting lost in the shuffle. Maybe the Sister Abigail angle will still play out, or Wyatt will finally make good on the face turn hinted at years back. For now, though, it looks as though the Eater of Worlds reached as high as he ever will in 2017.
3 Will Shine: Enzo Amore
Enzo Amore had a topsy-turvy year. Heading into 2017, his tag team with Big Cass was still popular but losing momentum out of stagnation. By summer, Cass had turned on him and largely dominated the resulting feud. Rumors abounded about major heat on Amore and it seemed like he might have one foot out the door.
Lo and behold, Amore would be transitioned to the 205 Live roster. In a land where few characters got to show much personality, the division became a newly heel Amore’s playground. He’s now a two time Cruiserweight Champion. It’s unclear what 2018 will hold, and how long WWE will let him get away with top tier mic skills and so little in ring ability. If he can improve in line with his push, though, and worthy rivals arise, 2018 could be a special year for the guy.
2 Peaked: Naomi
On a deep women’s roster, Naomi threatened to be one of those talents who got passed over and overshadowed by new faces. 2017 went well, for her, though, as her Feel the Glow gimmick came into focus. She not only won the SmackDown Women’s Championship, but went on win it a second time in front of her hometown crowd at WrestleMania.
The winds are changing on SmackDown, though. Charlotte has claimed her rightful spot atop the women’s division. Carmella is waiting for her moment to cash-in the first women’s Money in the Bank briefcase. And now there’s the Riott Squad, three brash new heels getting a big push. While Naomi’s job is probably safe, there’s little reason to think she’ll be able to break out of the middle of the pack on SmackDown in 2018.
1 Will Shine: Roman Reigns
It has become accepted that Roman Reigns is Vince McMahon’s personal chosen one to be the face of the company. As such, he’s the most reliable guy going into 2018—just like he was the most reliable guy going into 2015, 2016, or 2017—to get steadily pushed in big match situations. In particular, the consensus is he’s getting set up to challenge Brock Lesnar for the Universal Championship at WrestleMania 34.
As much as Reigns is sure to get opportunities the funny thing is that he has increasingly demonstrated that he actually deserves them. No, Reigns isn’t the hellacious worker that AJ Styles is, his talking game can’t match that of Kevin Owens, and he doesn’t have the magnetism that Braun Strowman developed this past year. Reigns does have the full package, however, when it comes to delivering reasonably each of the areas described, having the pedigree, and having the look WWE so desires in its top guy.
Reigns first challenged Lesnar in a WrestleMania main event in 2015, in a match that turned out to be much better than most expected. He wasn’t truly ready to carry the company at that time, but in 2018, he is much closer.