A lot can change in a year. Main event pushes. Heel turns. Money in the Bank cash-ins. NXT call ups. Accidents and injuries. It’s all part of this crazy professional wrestling business, and while long-term fans can see some trends and major angles coming, we can also rest assured that the powers that be, as well as fate and happenstance, will have a few surprises in store.
The year 2017 is still young, with plenty of room for new stars to rise and new storyline twists and turns. WrestleMania can, in particular, be a turning point, as the WWE has a history of moving on to new storylines in the wake of the biggest show of the year, in addition to debuting new talents on the roster. With two full-fledged brands, plus NXT, there’s now more potential than there has been in a long time for WWE to make big moves, not to mention offer more opportunities for a variety of acts to shine.
So what’s up next? Is WWE still grooming Roman Reigns for the top spot, or is he going to be just another guy? What’s The Big Show’s role in the WWE landscape, over two decades into his career? What’s next for Seth Rollins, or for AJ Styles? Have we seen the last of Goldberg on Monday Night Raw? And what about John Cena—what might 2017 have in store for the face of the company as he approaches the twilight of his career?
This article predicts what 2017 has in store for fifteen different acts in WWE.
15 Roman Reigns: A Heel Turn
Since The Shield broke up on 2014, WWE has seemed intent on doing everything it can to make Roman Reigns “the guy.” He won a Royal Rumble and a WrestleMania main event. More often than not, he’s been in the WWE or Universal Championship mix.
One thing WWE hasn’t tried since Reigns’ initial work with The Shield: a run as a heel.
In the long term, I suspect WWE is committed to its vision of Reigns being the face of the company, and as such a conquering hero. But in the shorter term, the consensus from fans, pundits, and even legends like Steve Austin seems to be that Reigns would be best served with a heel turn. Working heel would allow Reigns to embrace the fans’ ill will and skepticism, and make the most of them as a villain, only to get an even bigger reaction when he turns face again.
Similar suggestions surrounded John Cena for years and WWE never pulled the trigger over there. Maybe the same will hold true for Reigns. WWE has already portrayed him as an edgier character, though and pitted him against The Undertaker, for which he all but had to play heel, so there is reason for suspicion.
14 Brock Lesnar: A Reign of Terror
Brock Lesnar looks to be the odds on favorite to beat Goldberg at WrestleMania and thus commence a new world title reign. Is WWE really interested in having a top title tied up with a part timer again, though?
I’d say yes.
Particularly with two different world titles in play, and with the United States and Intercontinental Championships being taken more seriously again, I can see WWE taking this chance on the Universal Championship. Lesnar may not appear every week (or even every month), but he’ll stay over and destroy anything that gets in his way when he is around. In this way, I could very much see WWE building Lesnar over the course of the whole year for a new top star to finally unseat him at WrestleMania 34. According to some rumor mills, Roman Reigns has already been tapped for exactly that spot.
13 American Alpha: Moving To Raw
Since they moved up to the main roster, American Alpha has been featured on Smackdown and has been well protected, suffering few losses and even getting the rub of defeating the Bray Wyatt-Randy Orton super team to win the tag titles.
The awkward reality now, however, is that the team has been dethroned by The Usos and there aren't many more matchups for them. While an NXT call up like The Revival could freshen their outlook, for now, there’s no one on the SmackDown side of things to really contend with them. Put them on RAW, though, and you can see Jason Jordan and Chad Gable not only hitting Grand Amplitude on teams like The Shining Stars, but having the potential for some real magic opposite acts like Gallows and Anderson, Cesaro and Sheamus, and The New Day. Particularly because WWE sees set on featuring American Alpha, there’s no better move than to get them on Raw.
12 Sami Zayn: United States Champion
Sami Zayn has spent the past year proving himself on Raw, particularly after the brand split and a rash of injuries took Seth Rollins and Finn Balor out of action, Zayn’s been the go to guy to stand up to bigger heels in storylines, and to give just about everyone their best matches in the ring.
I’m a Zayn fan and hope that one day WWE goes all the way with him in a main event push. The main event picture is a little too crowded to make room for him right now, though, especially with some of the aforementioned big names returned from injury. I do see WWE capitalizing on the guy’s clear talent and momentum, though, with at least a brief run with the United States Championship. Secondary titles like that are all but built for rising workhorses to put on great matches and have a storyline reason to give their all. Zayn and that title could fit one another like a glove.
11 Austin Aries: The New Face Of The Cruiserweight Division
After years as one of the best American wrestlers who’d never been featured in WWE, Austin Aries joined the NXT roster last year, and since returning from injury, has been plugged into the Cruiserweight Division. While there are a lot of talented guys in those ranks, and Neville in particular has been outstanding in his heel role, Aries is a great enough worker and talker to elevate the whole division to new heights.
Better yet, while the WWE Universe has seen hints of Aries as a heel via NXT and his work on commentary, he’s risen to in-ring prominence on the main roster as a face. When the audience has a chance to see him playing the douche, and particularly working his submission style against sympathetic faces, that’s when the magic might really start for him and this whole division.
10 The Big Show: A Last Shot At The Main Event
The Big Show has been vocal about the fact that his WWE contract expires February 2018, and he’s not sure whether or under what terms he’ll re-sign. Some of that might be a work, as he tried to inspire interest in his rumored dream match with Shaquille O’Neal, and conjure interest in his return to the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. Still, for the giant who has logged over two decades of work between WWE and WCW, you do have to wonder if he might be edging toward retirement or an even more reduced schedule.
Interestingly, despite getting older, Big Show has hit the gym and there’s a real argument to be made that he looks better physically than he ever has before. Add onto that an alarmingly good bout with Braun Strowman on Raw this winter, and the net result is that Show is still credible at the main event level. I foresee WWE cashing in on that status with one last main event push in a short feud with Brock Lesnar or another top player.
9 Shinsuke Nakamura: Moving Up To The Main Roster
NXT is the home for a lot of solid rising talent. Youngsters like The Revival and Ember Moon can make a fair argument that they can hang with main roster talents. And then there’s a guy like Shinsuke Nakamura.
Nakamura made a name for himself in Japan and particularly rose to the attention of US fans via his outstanding work opposite AJ Styles not long before The Phenomenal One left New Japan for WWE. WWE has demonstrated a willingness to take him seriously, including a residency at or near the top of NXT.
At 37 years of age, Nakamura isn’t getting any younger. Despite rumors that Vince McMahon “doesn’t’ get him,” I don’t see WWE squandering a talent this unique or high-performing in front of the relatively limited audience of NXT. Expect his main roster debut any time now.
8 Seth Rollins: A Victim Of Brock Lesnar
Let’s assume I’m right and Brock Lesnar does reemerge as the dominant monster of WWE, and particularly the Raw brand. Let's also assume WWE is setting up Roman Reigns to go up against him again. In the meantime, Lesnar will need credible faces to smash, crush, and conquer to reassert his dominance. I’m a big fan of Seth Rollins, and hope to see him reigning as a world champion again before too long. In the short run, though, I see Lesnar getting the receipt for the match he dropped to Rollins in the summer of 2015, and flattening him this summer or fall.
Rollins should do well in the role. He’s one of the few full-time guys who does have the credibility to meaningfully challenge Lesnar and enough fan support for them to care, and to sympathize with him. Moreover he has both the innovative offensive skill set, and the selling abilities to make another match with Lesnar count.
7 AJ Styles: Another WWE Championship Reign
Over the course of 2016, AJ Styles proved himself as one of WWE’s all time great in-ring workers, not to mention that his cocky heel persona won over the audience in his interviews. Styles kicked off 2017 by dropping the WWE Championship to John Cena in an instant Match of the Year contender. So where to now?
By continuing to tease that Styles might join the WWE Championship match at WrestleMania, before moving him into a featured story with Shane McMahon, WWE signaled that they're still taking him seriously. Whether he maintains his heel persona, or makes the face turn that I suspect fans are more than ready for, I see Styles rising to the top of SmackDown again in 2017 after the dust from WrestleMania settles.
6 Bayley: A Big Win Over Sasha Banks
As of yet, Bayley has struggled on the main roster. Yes, she won the Raw Women’s Championship, but just the same, she doesn’t have a great performance to her name since leaving NXT, and her title win came with an outside assist from Sasha Banks, and she’s lost as much as she’s won in non-title and tag team situations.
Vince McMahon is purportedly a supporter of Bayley, and in particular saw more potential in her as a top babyface for the division than Banks. WWE has teased an impending heel turn for Banks, and there may be no better way of getting Banks over at the next level than by following the template set up in NXT, with Banks playing the malicious heel and Bayley being the never say die face who overcomes her.
5 Baron Corbin: A Shot At The WWE Championship
Baron Corbin debuted on the main roster by winning the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania 32. Since that time, he’s been booked strongly, getting the better of Dolph Ziggler and Kalisto, eliminating Braun Strowman from the Royal Rumble, and getting booked into a feud with former face of Smackdown, Dean Ambrose.
The next natural step for Corbin’s career as an accomplished, tough big man is a world title shot. While he’s not yet, and may never be world champion material, he’s rapidly approaching the point when he could pose a credible threat at the main event level. With the brand split, and with part-timers presumably riding off into the sunset for the months ahead, Corbin looks likely for a shot at the WWE Championship by fall.
4 Goldberg: Out Of Action
This time last year, the idea of Goldberg appearing in WWE seemed pretty far fetched. The guy hadn’t wrestled in over a decade and was pushing 50. Things changed quickly, though, and he wound up being booked for a comeback showdown with Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series.
A squash win over Lesnar, a high profile showing at the Royal Rumble, and a quick pin on Kevin Owens, and Goldberg is part of the fabric of WWE again—the Universal Champion and a main event talent again. But will it last?
The fundamental problem with Goldberg’s current run is that, despite still looking like a million bucks, he was never a great worker, and age and time away from the ring haven’t improved upon that. Add onto that that his body isn’t up to taking intensive punishment at this point, and there are real questions as to whether he can put on more than a two-minute match. The novelty is wearing thin, not to mention the fact that Goldberg’s services can’t be cheap. I suspect we won’t see much of him post-WrestleMania.
3 Charlotte Flair: A Six-Time Women’s Champion
Charlotte Flair is, as of this writing, a four-time Women’s Champion on the WWE main roster. Many peg her to win a fifth title at WrestleMania. While the jury’s still out on that, I think we can all agree Flair is a special talent, with a size and athleticism uncommon to female stars, the Flair pedigree, and an ever-improving set of skills in the ring.
WWE seems to know what it has in Flair, and has thus built its Raw women’s division around her. While Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Bayley, Nia Jax, and Paige have all circulated in and out of the Women’s Championship picture over the last year and a half, Charlotte has been the constant and there’s reason to believe she’ll remain so. Moreover, it looks like she may well follow in her father’s footsteps in building a legacy around a remarkably high number of championship wins. Will she win the title, lose it, and win it again before 2018? I’d say it’s not only possible but, given how things went in 2016, entirely probable.
2 Samoa Joe: An Alliance With Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar looks like he’s on the cusp of reigning over the Raw brand, but he remains a part time talent, and even with Paul Heyman knocking it out of the park in promos on his behalf, fans tend to grow weary of part time champions. The answer? I’d pitch a proxy or gatekeeper. Someone fans can take seriously as an upper level heel who can headline while Lesnar’s away. Someone who people might buy as another Paul Heyman guy. Someone believable as a challenger if he were to one day turn face to work against Lesnar or, all the more interestingly, beat down Lesnar and pose a credible heel threat to the Beast Incarnate.
For me, Samoa Joe meets all of the criteria, besides being a seasoned veteran WWE can rely on to deliver, a relatively fresh face to the WWE national audience, and on top of all of that a hellacious worker who can deliver great matches. Joe’s immediate direction looks a little muddy, but the transition from working as Triple H’s hired gun to Lesnar and Heyman’s could be pretty fluid.
1 John Cena: An On-Screen Wedding
A focal point for Total Divas and for the rivalry between the John Cena-Nikki Bella pair and The Miz and Maryse is that Cena doesn’t want to get married again, and Bella may or may not be OK with that. The rumor mill is already swirling that Cena may propose to Bella at WrestleMania, though the worked shoot lines on this one are pretty fuzzy. Regardless, Cena continues to veer toward a part time schedule and outside commitments, and speculation builds that Bella might follow her twin sister into retirement soon,
While Cena and Bella’s relationship has, up until recent months, been relatively downplayed on WWE’s actual wrestling shows, it seems the company is now ready, if not eager, to make it a part of storylines. At WrestleMania, Cena and Bella will presumably go over the next most powerful active couple in WWE, and the next—perhaps final—logical chapter for their WWE careers may be an on-screen wedding.
While WWE weddings on Raw and SmackDown are nothing new, given the caliber of stars involved and the real life crossover, I predict WWE will not only televise the nuptials, but save them for PPV, creating something on the scale of Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth’s “Match Made In Heaven” from SummerSlam 1991.