Change is inevitable in WWE. New talents will come. Old talents will be released. And those who stick around? While there’s always the possibility of lingering in the same role for a period of years, most individuals will see some sort of movement.
Take Jinder Mahal. After having been released from his original WWE deal, he was brought back as a role player in the new brand split, and promptly returned to more or less the same lower mid card spot he’d last occupied. It was little surprise when he wound up in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania 33, and it might be considered an upset of sorts that he lasted until the final stages of the match before Mojo Rawley dispatched of him. Mahal wasn’t done, though, as the months to follow would see him win his way to number one contendership, actually unseat main event mainstay Randy Orton for the WWE Championship, and reign over SmackDown for half of 2017. Sure his stock may have slipped in the aftermath, but WrestleMania 34 still saw him win the United States Championship, thus shoring him up as a bigger deal on more solid footing than he’d been a year before.
You can contrast Mahal’s story with someone like Cody Rhodes. He made the most of every role WWE cast him in, whether it was a brash young heel component of Legacy, his Dashing gimmick or the super villain shtick to follow, or a big face turn to stand up to The Authority and The Shield. He looked as though he had main event written all over him, only to wind up trapped in a dead end Stardust gimmick for the rest of his WWE tenure.
The combination of a wrestler’s potential, management’s planning, and all manner of backstage developments make it impossible to know exactly who will be pushed or buried. This article nonetheless follows recent trends and prognosticates who looks to be on the cusp of big things, and who may hit rock bottom in the months ahead.
16 Big Push: Big E
Here are two forgotten facts about the early stages of Big E’s wrestling career. One, after Seth Rollins, Big E was just the second man to hold the NXT Championship. Two, Big E debuted on the WWE main roster by decimating John Cena at the end of an episode of Raw.
These facts are worthy of reminders because there’s a sense in which they feel like they apply to a different wrestler in a different lifetime.
Today, Big E is known as The New Day’s big man. He’s a powerhouse for sure, but he’s also been involved antics like throwing pancakes at his opponent, and acting concerned about the well-being of his team’s trombone.
Rumors abound, however, that WWE is looking to revisit Big E’s potential. He’s a legit former power lifting star who looks the part. Check out his big splashes and you can see the kind of hops this guy has. Add in that, as part of New Day, he has demonstrated huge personality, and you have a guy who truly represents all the tools necessary to work as a WWE main eventer. There’s a lot of speculation Big E will win a Money in the Bank briefcase imminently, which makes him an odds on favorite to win a world title before long. Maybe he turns heel in the process, or stays face celebrates the New Day’s tradition of playing fast and loose with the rules. Maybe he sticks with his running buddies, or strikes out on his own. Any which way, this could turn out to be a huge year for the big guy.
15 Burial: Shinsuke Nakamura
After one of the best featured runs anyone has ever had in NXT, and winning the 2018 men’s Royal Rumble, you’d think that Shinsuke Nakamura would be a main event mainstay for years to come. Unfortunately, whether it’s a lack of faith from management, or Nakamura not connecting well enough with the audience, WWE just doesn’t seem to want to pull the trigger on The Artist as a top guy. Nakamura came up short in repeated challenges to Jinder Mahal in 2017. In 2018, he has unsuccessfully pursued AJ Styles, and even turned heel in the process. While that initial turn had some buzz around it, the repetitive nature of him giving The Phenomenal One low blow after low blow has quickly grown tired. Nakamura may well be running out of chances.
Again, it’s difficult to say whether these failings are Nakamura’s fault, or a matter of WWE misusing him. But particularly after failing in his world title pursuits at SummerSlam and WrestleMania—arguably the two biggest shows of the year—and failing to even produce the instant classic matches many fans projected between him and Styles—the writing may well be on the wall for Nakamura. While he may have a prouder legacy than the original Sin Cara, he’s on a path to be remembered in a similar light: someone with tremendous potential who could never quite crossover at the highest level of WWE.
14 Big Push: Rusev
Rusev got a big push upon his WWE debut, booked largely like an old school heel foreigner in the tradition of someone like Yokozuna, Nikita Koloff, or The Iron Sheik. The Bulgarian Brute reigned as United States Championship after smashing every mid-card act in his path, before holding his own with (albeit, finally losing to) John Cena.
Rusev has had inklings of pushes since, but seems to always lose when it matters, including dropping his feud to Roman Reigns in 2016. More recently, it’s difficult to see where WWE is really going with him, as he’s been relegated to the mid card and tag team ranks without much clear direction.
In an unlikely turn of events, Rusev’s silly Rusev Day gimmick caught fire with fans, becoming a major merchandise mover, and making Rusev, along with his sidekick Aiden English, one of the most popular acts in the company. Rusev has the size, the unique look, and the in ring talent to be a major star. Now that he has a gimmick that has caught on, it seems as though it’s only a matter of time before WWE pulls the trigger on a proper push for him, to at least try the guy out as a main event attraction.
13 Burial: Big Cass
Big Cass seemed to have big things lined up for him more than once this past year. First, he split off from his tag team partner Enzo Amore, dominated their grudge match, and went on to quite handily defeat The Big Show at SummerSlam. An injury derailed the new giant for a period of months, but upon his return, he immediately took out a resurgent Daniel Bryan, thus seemingly putting himself close to the main event picture.
Cass lost his first match with Bryan at the Backlash PPV, tapping out clean to his much smaller opponent. From there, he was involved in a segment that saw him beat up a little person and reportedly take liberties, going further with the beating than management had directed him to, and thus drawing heat backstage.
Time will tell if Cass’s rumored heat is real, and if he can overcome it.
For now, though, he’s in a precarious spot on a stacked SmackDown roster where Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, The Miz are clearly ahead of him in the heel pecking order, and it wouldn’t take much for Rusev, Andrade Cien Almas, or the boys from Sanity, fresh out of NXT, to accelerate past him, too.
12 Big Push: Bobby Roode
Bobby Roode got a non-traditional call up to the main roster. WWE didn’t wait for the next round of post-WrestleMania promotions, nor as part of an essential angle. Rather, he was brought up to SmackDown simply because word was that management saw something special in him coming out of SummerSlam weekend, and after a successful freshman campaign in NXT.
Roode hasn’t exactly found his footing since. He’s mechanically sound, but has felt directionless for most of his main roster tenure, and miscast as a face when his persona and past history suggest he’d make a much better heel. As it stands, the man’s theme song seems moreover than the worker making his entrance to it.
The good news for Roode may well be that WWE recognizes it has a top heel waiting to happen in him. Whether he were to win Money in the Bank and cash in his briefcase in heelish fashion, or logically follow his under and mis-utilization into kayfabe resentments that result in villainous deeds, Roode has a ton of potential ahead of him. Particularly on Raw, with faces like Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Braun Strowman, and Bobby Lashley so dominant on the face side of things, Roode could prove an excellent thorn in their sides when he finally gets his heel push.
11 Burial: Kofi Kingston
Xavier Woods has been quoted in multiple interviews claiming that his original vision for New Day was for the team to cast a spotlight on Kofi Kingston, and one day usher the super talented career mid carder into a position in which he could win a world championship. New Day did succeed in giving Kingston, Woods, and Big E all more clearly defined identities, and they arrived as one of the highest profile tag teams of their generation. The unit did not necessarily move Kingston any closer to a world title.
If anything, it’s Big E who looks on the cusp of a breakout year with his rumored big push and potential Money in the Bank victory. And Kingston? He’s unlikely to prosper coming out of this scenario. At best, he and Woods may remain a top tier tag team on their own. More likely, though, Kingston will probably find himself as either Big E’s ally and thus a gatekeeper challengers will take apart to get at the big man, or Big E might turn heel in which case he’s likely to destroy his former running buddies personally.
There was a brief window, much earlier in Kingston’s career, when he might have had a shot at broaching the main event, but by all indications that ship has sailed.
10 Big Push: Andrade Cien Almas
After lukewarm beginnings in developmental, when the former La Sombra struggled to find his footing, particularly as a babyface, it looked as though he may never make it to the main roster, or would only do so as a lower card job guy. A heel turn and shrewd pairing with Zelina Vega paid dividends, though, as Andrade Cien Almas gathered steam and became one of NXT’s hottest acts, en route to a respectable championship reign, highlighted by fending off Johnny Gargano.
In moving up to the main roster, Almas got special treatment. Not only was he called up right after WrestleMania, but rather than debuting without fan fare like most of his fellow graduates, he benefited from hype videos advertising his arrival, immediately establishing him as a big deal competitor.
Almas’s relatively small size may be detriment to his long term prospects, but on a blue brand that skews smaller with top stars like AJ Styles and Daniel Bryan, Almas will get his opportunities to succeed. Particularly after WWE has suffered from a void in marquee stars of Latino heritage, Almas may well surge all the way to the main event picture, and perhaps even a WWE Championship run, in the next few months.
9 Burial: Nia Jax
Nia Jax is a unique figure on the WWE landscape as the division’s biggest star. She played a monster heel role throughout her NXT run and her start on the main roster, but transitioned to a face role in the build to WrestleMania 34 for her program with Alexa Bliss. The program was a reasonable, but left Jax with few viable challengers to face off, and an oddball dynamic of having hard time garnering babyface sympathy given her inevitable size advantage.
This dynamic surely contributed to WWE moving quickly to book Ronda Rousey as Jax’s challenger for the Money in the Bank PPV. It’s hard to imagine Rousey losing her first PPV singles match, which begs the question of where Jax could go from there? Sure, she’ll be in line for a return title shot, but with Rousey likely as not set up for lengthy reign, Jax will likely find herself locked out, and without a lot of obvious programs to transition to. That’s especially true as a face, where’ she’ll outsize any heel, and turning back heel herself so soon also abrupt and like she’s running in circles.
Jax won the biggest match of her career at WrestleMania, but it looks as though she’ll be slipping well down the card in short order.
8 Big Push: Bobby Lashley
The night after WrestleMania 34, Bobby Lashley made his return to Monday Night Raw. Lashley is physically jacked, and a particularly impressive athlete for his size. He’s got an amateur pedigree and has competed in MMA, drawing comparisons to Brock Lesnar.
Lashley has found himself in an odd spot since re-debuting with WWE. He’s being treated like a top tier talent, befitting his unique gifts as a performer, and where he left off with WWE as a guy hand picked to work a program involving Donald Trump, and a challenger to John Cena. On the other hand, he has felt a bit vanilla as a personality since coming back and it’s unclear who his character is, besides being a big guy.
Nonetheless, big things may well be in Lashley’s future. He’s one of the very few guys on the WWE roster who is believable as a challenger to Brock Lesnar—particularly among those guys who haven’t already had matches with him. Moreover, there’s a world of potential in Lashley as a heel, as demonstrated on and off in his time with Impact, but still unexplored in a WWE ring. There’s every possibility Lashley gets a world title reign in the next year.
7 Burial: Dolph Ziggler
Dolph Ziggler finished 2017 and started 2018 on an interesting foot. After having won the United State Championship, he promptly relinquished the title and, in kayfabe, walked from WWE. He made his surprise return at the Royal Rumble, only to prove largely ineffectual—entering at number thirty, but not making it to the final six performers, eliminated after just two minutes in the match. There were rumors Ziggler might have been in line to work Shane McMahon at WrestleMania to pay off his walk-out angle, but The Show Off instead found himself lost in the shuffle in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal.
When Ziggler moved to Raw, it felt overdue in a sense, and there was some intrigue attached to his new partnership with Drew McIntyre. However, between McIntyre’s size and the buzz around him, he’s already starting to overshadow Ziggler.
Time will tell if this pair sticks together and perhaps even wins the Raw tag titles. Before long, though, the writing is on the wall that McIntyre will eclipse Ziggler, and then the only question is if they’ll feud with one another, or Ziggler will take a backseat yet again as McIntyre’s side kick. In either case, the future is not looking particularly bright for Ziggler.
6 Big Push: Jason Jordan
Jason Jordan had one of the most uneven years of any WWE Superstar in 2017. He started it off by winning the SmackDown Tag Team Championship with Chad Gable, but their American Alpha team that had thrived in NXT failed to get much traction on the main roster, and they wound up quietly dropping their titles to The Usos, and receding into the background. From there, Jordan would get a singles spotlight, as he was cast as Kurt Angle’s estranged son on Raw. Despite his in ring talent, he largely floundered in the role, particularly for his limitations on the mic. Just as Jordan looked as though he could turn things around with hints of a heel turn, he got legitimately injured and taken out of action.
When Jordan returns, he likely as not has that heel run still waiting for him. While there are no guarantees, it’s as good of an opportunity as he’s likely to have in the tradition of guys like The Rock and Randy Orton—revealing more personality and feeding into the fans’ hate to rise up a brash young villain. Meanwhile, if even that doesn’t work, there’s also the fall back option of re-teaming him with Gable—recently moved to Raw—to see if American Alpha might thrive in a tag scene that’s a bit less top heavy than SmackDown was getting when they last worked together.
5 Burial: Bray Wyatt
On paper, Bray Wyatt is doing just fine. He’s finally working as a face the way many fans suggested he ought to, and he’s on pace to likely as not enjoy the longest title reign of his WWE tenure, holding the Raw tag titles with former foe Matt Hardy.
Make no mistake about it, though—Wyatt is currently playing second fiddle to Hardy—having lost to him, and gotten absorbed into his Woken universe. There’s nothing objectively shameful about that, given Hardy is a respected veteran and his Woken antics have gotten reasonably over, particularly on social media. However, WWE has never treated Hardy like a main event level guy (besides being on topped of the ECW brand for a bit), whereas Wyatt’s only a little over a year removed from a WWE Championship reign. Wyatt’s future prospects don’t look much better, either. If he stays on as Hardy’s sidekick, he’ll only further cement his mid-card status. If he turns on Hardy, it will feel a lot like going in circles to revisit their early 2018 feud that was largely a flop.
At this point, the best Wyatt can probably hope for is to stay tag champs for as long as possible, and cultivate new identity in that role. That’s a sad state of affairs for a guy who’d previously been working John Cena, The Undertaker, and Randy Orton in WrestleMania showdowns.
4 Big Push: Sasha Banks
After having served as the top rival to preeminent WWE women’s champions, Charlotte Flair and Alexa Bliss, it was more than a little odd to see Sasha Banks left out in the cold, working the women’s battle royal at WrestleMania 34. Moreover, she’s had a slow burn feud with Bayley brewing for months now, that many would have expected to boil over by ‘Mania, and yet the two were still standing edge of really exploding in the late stages of that battle royal.
Sasha Banks is in line to move on up the women’s standings, though, back up to a top contender’s spot, if not another championship reign.
She’s a heel turn away from greatness, having done about all she can as a face on the main roster, after proving herself as an even more compelling heel during her time in NXT.
Factor in a reality inspired beef with Ronda Rousey, after Banks vocalized her frustrations with Rousey showing up in WWE and stealing the spotlight from committed veteran wrestlers, and you have a natural issue to come when Rousey and Banks lock horns in the ring.
Could Banks be the first woman in WWE to defeat Rousey? That much is a bit of a stretch, but should she win the women’s Money in the Bank briefcase in particular, you can’t rule out the possibility.
3 Burial: Sami Zayn
Sami Zayn is one of the very best talents on the WWE payroll. He looked line up to be one of the great white meat babyfaces of his generation, only to dazzle onlookers with a remarkably entertaining heel run. However, after Zayn topped out as an upper mid carder who couldn’t broach main event status as a face, and after jobbing to AJ Styles, Braun Strowman, and Bobby Lashley as a heel, there are real questions about whether Zayn may have already peaked.
Where does Zayn go from here? He seems trapped in a no win situation opposite Lashley, putting over the big guy over and over to keep him built up before he graduates to a more substantial feud, maybe against Brock Lesnar or Strowman. After losing encounter after encounter, what grounds could Zayn have to be considered a title contender? Will he end up feuding with Kevin Owens again? It’s a pairing that consistently offers up good to great matches, but one that’s been done too many times to offer up any hope of fresh scenarios at this point.
Sadly, for all of Zayn’s talent, he’ll likely as not wind up buried over the year to come, firmly entrenched in the middle of the card and lost in the shuffle, barring something along the lines of a Money in the Bank win to rejuvenate his character, and offer him direction.
2 Big Push: Killian Dane
There are few truths more entrenched in the minds of hardcore fans than that Vince McMahon, and WWE at large, loves its big men. A part of this proclivity goes back to the roots of wrestling as, above all else, a spectacle. Fans get drawn into storylines, promos, and great matches, sure,. But if wrestling is to draw attention from the get go, that tends to happen via truly larger than life characters—humans demonstrably bigger than everyday fans, whose violence in the ring thus feels epic if only for the scale it’s occurring on.
Killian Dane is the embodiment of the awe inspiring big man, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing in at over 300 pounds.
No, he’s not as chiseled as a Braun Strowman or Lars Sullivan, but his beastly look and Irish roots lend him more of an old school monster’s mystique.
Dane has come to the main roster as a part of the Sanity faction, which is a good starting point to give him an immediate identity and give him running buddies to continue learning from and covering for his limitations. Sooner than later, though, we can expect this big man to accomplish some big things on WWE’s blue brand.
1 Burial: Naomi
Naomi has been a staple performer in the SmackDown women’s division since the new brand split. Whether she was positioned as Alexa Bliss’s top challenger for the title, as Charlotte Flair’s friendly rival, or, most recently, as the winner of the first WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal, she has consistently occupied a spot at or near the top.
Times have changed, though. Late 2017 saw Charlotte Flair shore up her position as the top face on SmackDown when she finally captured the Women’s Championship from Natalya. Since then, Asuka has come over to the blue brand to stand alongside Flair as the top two female talents. Becky Lynch is the workhorse a couple steps behind them. And where does this leave Naomi?
While Naomi could be positioned as a challenger to Carmella, particularly if WWE puts off Asuka taking the title off of her, it’s unlikely she’ll capture gold again anytime soon. Worse yet, with her husband’s tag team, The Usos, shunted down the tag ranks a bit, she may well lose that route to step outside the women’s ranks proper for a bit and still be featured. No, it appears Naomi won’t be feeling the glow of the WWE spotlight in the months ahead, and her best hopes may rest in someone higher profile than her getting injured to take over one of their spots.
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