Another year in the WWE calendar is in the books and the annual post-WrestleMania company reshuffle has started in earnest. On the big night, we witnessed the return of the Hardy Boyz (Men???) which is currently sitting in my top 5 favourite ‘Mania moments of all-time. I cannot stop watching Matt tease the “broken” gimmick during the entrance while Jeff has fully reverted back to his “Team Xtreme” ways! Anyway, I digress…
Traditionally, this time of year brings about the beginning of several new chapters in the WWE storytelling arc and this has been further emphasized due to 2016’s brand split. Whether you believe that the split has been beneficial to the product or not, there can be no arguments about the increased level of intrigue it has provided to programming. Following ‘Mania, we had a number of hotly anticipated call-ups from NXT emerge on the main roster and then we witnessed the “Superstar Shake-Up.” A mini-draft of sorts, the Shake-Up has added a freshness to both rosters and has potentially reignited the careers of several men and women who were in danger of freefalling.
So how will the next 12 months look? Following the original draft in 2016, we have seen five superstars win their first world championship. Are we likely to see moments like these again as we head towards WrestleMania 34? Over the course of this article, I’ll examine the prospects in 2017 of each of those superstars drafted to the main roster or involved in the Shake-Up following ‘Mania 33.
23 Curt Hawkins
This was undoubtedly the most uninspired choice during the Superstar Shake-Up. Curt Hawkins has done precisely nothing since his return to the main roster during the brand split last year. A slew of vignettes seemed to promise at least a respectable lower mid-card run, but Curt rarely lasts longer than a few seconds in his televised matches. In fact, his promos usually last longer than his wrestling.
Moving Hawkins to Raw simply means that he will continue to act as an enhancement talent, only on a slightly larger stage. The next 12 months promise more of the same for Curt, only he’ll be losing on the red brand, not the blue one. While this is a disappointing use of a talented worker, this seems to be the role that Hawkins is destined to fill for the remainder of his career in the WWE.
22 Elias Samson
The Drifter from NXT found his way on to Raw during the Shake-Up in a move that had been rumoured since his defeat in a “Loser Leaves NXT” match by Kassius Ohno. Many observers see this as a strange move as Samson has always been seen as possessing a limited skill-set and struggling to connect with the audience. This could be something of a misinterpretation as The Drifter had an uncanny ability to generate some significant heat from the crowd at Full Sail University.
Despite not being the flashiest in-ring performer, Samson does have a gimmick and a personality that can elicit a lot of hatred from the audience, and if this is fostered, he might actually be pushed up the card relatively quickly. Genuine heat-magnetising heels are difficult to find these days and if Samson proves that he is one, don’t be surprised if he finds himself in the Intercontinental title picture in the next year.
21 Apollo Crews
Apollo Crews seems destined to be a missed opportunity story within WWE. An incredibly gifted athlete, Crews has always struggled to connect with the audience, and his charisma hovers between minimal and non-existent. Moving Apollo to the A-show doesn’t seem like a particularly good move for a man who has been lauded for his in-ring skills, something more akin to a SmackDown roster member. Having said that, he was floundering on the blue brand so maybe a change will do him good.
Realistically its going to be difficult for Crews to establish himself on Raw’s top-heavy roster and there may come a point where a tough decision is made. Either he will return to NXT to hone his character or he’ll return to the independent scene. A move back to the indies might not necessarily be such a bad thing – just look at what it has done for someone like Drew McIntyre, who now seems set to make an impact (no pun intended!) upon his return to WWE.
After receiving a monstrous push in late-2015, Kalisto has quickly disappeared into the dark void of WWE insignificance. Once seen as the natural successor to Rey Mysterio, Kalisto seemed to dash any hopes of this with his now infamous “lucha thing” botched promo following the draft. Despite being a former two-time United States Champion, the signing of Kalisto to Raw was received with little fanfare and hasn’t been espoused as a major coup.
All is not lost, however, as Raw does host the Cruiserweight division. This seems like the natural home for the flying luchador and this is likely where we will see Kalisto spend much of his time on Raw. Both Neville and Austin Aries have seen a career resurgence since moving to the Cruiserweight division and the same will be likely for Kalisto. Not only that, but his presence will boost the profile of the division further. Expect Kalisto to add more gold to his resume in 2017, but this time in the form of the Cruiserweight title.
The arrival of Tamina Snuka on SmackDown Live was used as a tease for the audience prior to the debut of Charlotte. And in all honesty, that is a fairly damning indication of where Tamina stands on the women’s roster. She has been out of action for a significant amount of time and while she is a talented performer, she will have to get over a certain amount of ring rust.
Tamina has always been best suited to the role of a lackey and I would expect her to fill this role on SD Live. With Charlotte no longer able to call on the services of Dana Brooke, I would envision Tamina becoming Flair’s sidekick. In this role, she’ll be a part of some major feuds in the division, but she is unlikely to hold the title herself.
18 Primo and Epico
It appears that Primo and Epico have shunned their “Shining Stars” gimmick after their introduction on SmackDown Live last week. Arriving following the Tag Team title match to provide a beatdown to American Alpha, it looks like this will be their first feud. Repackaging these two in an edgier, no-nonsense gimmick will represent one final throw of the dice to get them over. Los Matadores and The Shining Stars didn’t work, so lets hope plain old “Primo and Epico” strikes gold.
With the tag team division on SD Live being headed up by The Usos, New Day and American Alpha, these guys will provide a nice stepping stone for each of these three teams. A talented duo on their day, but don’t expect them to hold the tag team titles unless the other three options have been worn out!
17 Sin Cara
Sin Cara has slipped further and further down the WWE pecking order and is now in the depths of irrelevance. While the move to SmackDown Live will guarantee him a bit more airtime, it won’t propel him any further up the card. With no crowd investment and an undefined character, Sin Cara will simply fill the role of enhancement talent on the blue brand.
Sin Cara has been around for so long, that it would take a confident observer to predict his exit from WWE, but his time has surely just about run out. After a short run on the blue brand, I would expect Sin Cara to be gone from the company before next years ‘Mania. The brand switch will serve him considerably less positively than his old running buddy, Kalisto.
16 Mickie James
Mickie James has made a stunning return to WWE, proving that she still has all the tools required to be a compelling roster member. Her talents seem to be a better fit for the current era of women’s wrestling and she did a strong job of inserting herself into the title picture on SmackDown Live. Having moved to Raw, it’s likely that Mickie will use her star power to help elevate the younger talent. With an exciting group of women on the red brand, there doesn’t seem to be a need to put the title back on an aging, albeit talented performer.
The next 12 months are likely to see Mickie hold something of an upper mid-card “gatekeeper” role on the Raw women’s roster. Perhaps she will be involved in the title picture at some point, but it’s not a strong possibility that she adds the title to her long list of accomplishments.
15 Heath Slater and Rhyno
Raw’s tag team division seemingly took a major hit by losing The New Day to SD Live! However, the return of the Hardy Boyz coupled with the promotion of The Revival from NXT has softened the blow somewhat. Lost in the mix somewhere has been the switch to the red brand of the inaugural SmackDown Tag Team Champions, Heath Slater and Rhyno. These two oddballs were the surprise success story of last year following the brand split, although their appeal always had an expiration date.
Adding a couple of experienced hands to Raw’s tag team division will bolster it in a time of change, but Beauty and the Man-Beast probably won’t be positioned as a threat to the titles. Sadly, the next 12 months is possibly going to see the implosion of this team and a lower mid-card singles run for both men.
14 The Hardy Boyz
The long-rumoured return of Matt and Jeff Hardy to WWE took place at WrestleMania during the Raw Tag Team Championship match. Of course, the Hardys came out on top in the Ladder match to earn one of the loudest pops of the evening. Now sitting atop the tag team division on Raw, how does the next 12 months look for these two?
The biggest unanswered question is whether or not we’ll see the “broken” gimmick used in WWE. Although the legal battle with Impact Wrestling complicates matters, its likely that some version of the gimmick will find its way to WWE. How this is presented as part of a storyline is anybody’s guess, but hopefully it isn’t ruined by WWE creative. At some point we may see these two split up again and an upper mid-card feud that could elevate both men back to the main event scene. Here’s hoping!
13 Dean Ambrose
Dean Ambrose has been in a freefall since losing the WWE Championship to AJ Styles at Backlash in September. Despite currently holding the Intercontinental Championship, his stock has plummeted and he couldn’t even find his way onto the main card at WrestleMania 33. His move to Raw seems to signify that he is being positioned firmly in mid-card purgatory until a character shift takes place.
The aforementioned character shift needs to be the heel turn that Ambrose has been in need of for at least a year now. It could be argued that an Ambrose heel turn is almost as necessary as a Roman Reigns heel turn. After losing the Intercontinental title, this change in alignment should take place. His new dark persona will lead to exciting feuds against his former Shield brothers and Finn Balor.
12 Jinder Mahal
Initially thought to simply be the jobber replacement on SmackDown for Curt Hawkins, Jinder Mahal has moved from enhancement talent on Raw to being featured on the blue brand. Mahal’s impressive physical transformation has earned him a bit more airtime on Raw than he was used to in his previous WWE run, but his tag team with Rusev really never took off and he suffers from being a limited worker in a sea of very talented performers.
However, Mahal recently won the chance to face Randy Orton for the WWE championship, receiving a considerable push up the card on SmackDown. Whether or not this extends past his match with Orton remains to be seen, but for now we can expect Jinder to be a serious player on the blue brand, maybe even winning the US title at some point down the line.
11 The Revival
The much-lauded former two-time NXT Tag Team Champions arrived to much fanfare on Raw. Two successive victories over The New Day seemed to propel them to the top of the division. That was until Dash Wilder got injured. The news that Wilder will be out of action for two months has put the brakes on what seemed to be an inevitable push towards the Raw Tag Team titles for “the best tag team in the world.”
Hopefully the duo will maintain some presence on television during Dash’s time on the sidelines and the hope is that they will return by SummerSlam. Despite this setback so early in their main roster careers, I still expect The Revival to bounce back and win the Raw tag titles prior to ‘Mania 34. Big things are ahead for the “top guys.”
10 Tye Dillinger
Tye Dillinger’s debut on SmackDown Live, two days following WrestleMania 33, was the culmination of an emotional 15-year journey to make it to the WWE main roster. After being saddled with what appeared to be a ridiculous gimmick, Tye worked hard to get himself over as one of the most popular superstars at NXT. While an NXT championship reign may have eluded him, bigger things were in store for the Perfect Ten.
His tenure on the blue brand has started well with a couple of easy victories, which should lead to some higher end feuds with the likes of Dolph Ziggler and Baron Corbin. Dillinger will definitely find his way into the United States title picture soon enough and if his star continues to rise, don’t bet against him forcing his way into the WWE Championship mix.
9 Alexa Bliss
Alexa Bliss has been a huge success story since moving to the main roster from NXT. Her in-ring work has developed in leaps and bounds and this has led to two reigns as SmackDown Women’s Champion. Her new status as one of the hottest acts on the roster was cemented with her move to Raw in the Shake-Up. Adding her star power to the women’s division on the red brand will elevate a group already bristling with talent.
Immediately pushed as the number one contender to the title on Raw, Bliss will engage in a feud with Bayley. This feud is likely a placeholder to help set up a Sasha Banks heel turn and it may not be the program which leads to a title reign for Bliss. But it would seem unfathomable that Bliss won’t win the belt at some point in the next 12 months and become a three-time women’s champion.
8 Rusev (and Lana?)
While the move to SmackDown of Rusev has been met with celebration from the smark community, the same can’t be said for the apparent split with Lana. It would seem that Lana will now appear on the blue brand, but no longer alongside her husband. An unproven in-ring performer, a move away from her strong role as Rusev’s mouthpiece, could prove to be a bust.
The move for Rusev, on the other hand, is a potential game-changer. The Bulgarian Brute has been sidelined with injury and this presents the perfect opportunity for him to return sporting a new gimmick. Preferably he should return as a babyface and if so, he has all the tools to succeed as a main event attraction on the blue brand. This year will show a different side to Rusev, a shift to being a fan favourite and possibly even a world title run.
7 The New Day
With SmackDown’s ailing tag team division in need of a reshuffle, the arrival of the longest reigning tag team champions of all time has certainly helped. The New Day were starting to become a little stale on Raw and a new home on the blue brand opens up a host of exciting possibilities. The obvious benefit is their impact on the tag team division and the likelihood of a reign as SmackDown Tag Team champions.
Their potential on the blue brand extends beyond the tag team division, though, and 2017 will be the year that see’s The New Day regularly compete in singles competition as well as a team. One member, probably Big E, should win a singles title and this will lead to the eventual dissolution of the group and a Triple Threat match at ‘Mania 34.
6 Sami Zayn
The move of Sami Zayn to SmackDown was one of the most predictable, but also the most necessary, of the entire Shake-Up. Zayn is such a talented performer with a huge upside and his talents were being brutally wasted on the heavily storyline-influenced Raw. Sami will receive a major boost by working alongside Daniel Bryan on the blue side and this may lead to his eventual coronation as Bryan’s successor as the most organic babyface on the roster.
Initially it look as though Zayn will resume his long running feud with Kevin Owens over the United States championship. As much as we’ve seen these two wrestle before, the new setting for their feud provides a thrilling new context. The culmination of their series of matches should see Sami finally secure his first title on the main roster and possibly even move into the WWE Championship scene before the end of the year.
5 Kevin Owens
Signing Kevin Owens is a major coup for SmackDown. Despite his run as Universal Champion on Raw being underwhelming, he brings a genuine main event pedigree to SD Live!, as well as the United States Championship. His first major challenger is AJ Styles, but following this he will enter into a long feud with his old rival, Sami Zayn.
After dropping the US title to Zayn, KO will hover around the periphery of the main event scene. With Money In The Bank being a SmackDown-exclusive event this year, Owens would make the perfect man to carry the famous briefcase. After constantly terrorising the WWE Champion, Owens will cash in at his opportunistic best to claim his first WWE championship and he may well be the man to carry the belt into WrestleMania.
4 Bray Wyatt
With his very short run and disappointing feud with Randy Orton behind him, Bray Wyatt will settle into a new upper mid-card role on Raw. Sadly, his flirtation with the main event scene is likely to end here for the time being. An Intercontinental title run is not out of the question, but Wyatt may move away from chasing championships for now. Intriguing feuds with the likes of Finn Balor and Seth Rollins await the Eater of Worlds, but he won’t become involved in the Universal title picture.
A face turn before the end of the year would certainly help freshen up Wyatt’s act and would offer an opportunity to re-visit his feud with a heel Dean Ambrose in a new context. A mouth-watering clash with his former protégé, Braun Strowman, could be on the cards too.
3 The Miz
While many predicted The Miz moving to Raw during the Shake-Up, it still left several observers feeling a strong sense of disappointment. The A-Lister had established himself as SmackDown’s MVP over the last year and after his prime time feud with John Cena, it seemed that The Miz may be given another run as WWE Champion.
Perhaps his strong work on the blue brand has led to a “promotion” of sorts to Raw, but his world title aspirations may have to be put on hold for the time being. He looks set to resume his feud with Dean Ambrose over the Intercontinental title and he’ll probably earn his seventh reign with the belt at some point. He is one of the best natural heels on the roster, so it would be a waste of his talent for him not to re-enter the main event championship scene. Don’t hold your breath though, it looks like Miz is set to hold down the fort in the upper mid-card on the red brand.
Charlotte moving over to head up the women’s division on SmackDown was another heavily predicted trade and it has been met with a large degree of excitement. Without a doubt, the second-generation superstar is the most compelling performer in the entire women’s division and as a four-time Women’s Champion, she brings considerable star power to the blue side.
She will immediately be pushed to the top of the division in her new home and is surely being positioned as the wrestler to dethrone Naomi as champion. While a program with Naomi will provide great entertainment, the real money feuds will be against Natalya, Nikki Bella (if she returns) and her fellow Horsewoman, Becky Lynch. When WrestleMania 34 rolls around, a top tier feud between Charlotte and Lynch will be elevating the SmackDown Women’s Championship to new heights.
1 Shinsuke Nakamura
The most exciting roster addition of the entire shake-up period is undoubtedly the promotion of Shinsuke Nakamura from NXT. Perfectly positioned on SmackDown, there are rumours that he has been brought in to replace John Cena as the top babyface on the brand. Legitimately one of the best professional wrestlers on the planet, an array of dream matches await Nakamura.
He looks set to begin his main roster tenure with a series against Dolph Ziggler. This program will be a positive for both men and will push Shinsuke towards main event status. Shortly after this feud ends, the King of Strong Style will likely enter a program for the WWE title and could become the first ever Japanese world champion in the company. If the next 12 months is built on a WWE Championship scene revolving around Nakamura, AJ Styles, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, we are in for a treat on the blue brand.