With almost three months having passed since WWE’s 2016 brand split, many fans seem to be enjoying SmackDown Live far more than they enjoy RAW. In most cases, the booking is better and the matches are better, and the storylines make more sense. SmackDown has also been a great place for The Miz to continue his career renaissance, a great place for AJ Styles to live up to his advance billing, and it’s even given The Usos a chance to freshen up a stale character and finally turn heel. But not everyone has made the most out of SmackDown being the “land of opportunity,” as GM Daniel Bryan likes to say.
Just like we did for the RAW brand, this list will count down eight of the best and seven of the worst wrestlers on the SmackDown roster at the present. Who’s been terrific, and who’s been terrible on Tuesday nights thus far? Read on, and you’ll find out who they are.
NOTE – Similar to my RAW list, the SmackDown list evaluates everyone who’s competed on SmackDown Live or Main Event since the July 2016 draft, regardless of whether the match took place or not. (Very important for one of the entries here.) Again, wrestlers are evaluated mainly on wrestling and promo skills, with push and gimmick/persona also playing a role in how they rank. Main roster expectations for NXT alumni are not considered.
15 The Worst
7. APOLLO CREWS
As only a small percentage of SmackDown Superstars are doing poorly across the board, it’s a bit tough listing Apollo Crews as the seventh-worst wrestler in the brand as of this writing. But you can probably call this tough love, because Crews, despite his good look, talent, power-and-athleticism hybrid style, and athleticism, is simply not cutting the mustard with fans. His smiling, “happy to be here” persona is almost reminiscent of Rocky Maivia-era Dwayne Johnson, and it hasn’t helped that he’s been given a silly “spelling” gimmick as of late.
Crews is in desperate need of a gimmick change, because the more I watch him, the more I see a guy who may have been called up to the main roster a bit too early. Maybe working around his poor promo skills and making him an unsmiling heel badass of few words would help?
Again, this is a tough call, because Kane in his younger days was a force to be reckoned with, and a well-above-average worker for a big man. But Kane on the wrong side of 40 has oftentimes been hard to watch. Due to his age and lack of mobility that comes with being WWE’s oldest regular wrestler at 49, he’s no longer the intimidating Big Red Machine he used to be. It’s a miracle he still picks up (fluke) wins over younger, fairly well-pushed wrestlers like Bray Wyatt.
The best role for Kane at this point in his career would be as a special attraction/international house show mainstay who only makes occasional TV appearances, much like what we’re seeing from Big Show and Mark Henry on the RAW brand.
13 MOJO RAWLEY
Mojo Rawley used to play in the NFL (in preseason action only), is good friends with Rob Gronkowski, screams like a madman in the name of “staying hyped,” and makes the goofiest facial expressions, also in the name of hype or whatever it is. Did we forget something? Oh, right. He’s not WWE-caliber material in terms of wrestling ability, and once had “NXT lifer” written all over him.
Rawley does have some nice athleticism for his size and a good, Vince McMahon-friendly look that should ensure he gets his fair share of chances to succeed in the WWE. And his Hype Bros tag team with Zack Ryder does have some potential, mainly because Ryder’s a young-ish WWE veteran who knows his stuff. But we just can’t get hyped about Mojo, no matter how loudly he tells us to do so.
12 JACK SWAGGER
Maybe it’s time WWE cut its losses and cut the All-American American once and for all. We all know about Jackth Thwagger’s inability to cut a good promo, and while his college wrestling success does make him a good worker in principle, he’s also proven several times to be an unsafe worker. The only time Swagger wasn’t bland was when he had Zeb Colter as his mouthpiece, and it goes without saying that the man usually known as Dutch Mantel is an awesome heel manager.
With Colter/Mantel no longer in WWE and Swagger still working a babyface gimmick ill-suited to him, it looks like he’s used up all his chances and then some. Up to now, it still boggles the mind that this man was once a (very underwhelming) main event champio
11 BARON CORBIN
Want a few things more exciting than watching a Baron Corbin match? Calculus class. Paying your electricity bill. The 15th minute of a Triple H promo. Your annoying relatives’ vacation slideshow. And, lest we forget the old standby, watching paint dry. Granted, he’s got a good look for a WWE big man, and he’s made good progress since his NXT days. But his lack of charisma mixed with his below-average promo skills and basic move set makes his matches a perfect opportunity to leave your seat at the arena and head to the john. Or fix yourself a sandwich, if you’re watching at home.
All told, WWE may have once again gone with the wrong guy to win the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royale, because Corbin just isn’t showing enough potential to move past the midcard.
10 THE ASCENSION
The Ascension appears to be a mainstay of my “worst of” lists, so anything I say here may sound like preaching to the choir. They’re not that good in the ring. They’re not that good on the mic. Poor charisma. Their gimmick is derivative of The Road Warriors, Demolition, and Powers of Pain. Even Warlord and Barbarian, a.k.a. The Powers of Pain, had more promise than The Ascension ever did, because at least they had an effective manager (Mr. Fuji) as part of their act.
Fortunately for Konnor and Viktor, there’s one woman on the SmackDown roster who’s more than made sure that they don’t rank as the worst the brand has to offer at the present.
9 EVA MARIE
She’s got a great gimmick, and that gimmick involves having her SmackDown Live debut delayed for one reason or another. And a lot of the gimmick’s success has to do with the hammy male voiceover during her ring entrances. But what about Eva Marie the wrestler, which doesn’t take into consideration how WWE has done a fabulous job working around her natural heat-seeking abilities?
Based on her 2015-16 NXT run, and based on those occasional main roster matches before and during that run, Eva Marie is still the least-talented wrestler, male or female, in the WWE right now, in terms of both ring work and mic skills. In other words, it's "All Botch Everything" for the model-turned-wrestler, regardless of hair color.
(As an aside, you should know by now why we said “regardless whether the match took place or not” when discussing the criteria for having competed on SmackDown Live/Main Event since the 2016 brand draft.)
8 The Best
It would seem as if WWE has never fully gotten behind Natalya as a top-flight female wrestler. While she did win the Divas Championship in 2010, she had done so at a time when the belt was more like a participation trophy for the women of RAW, and she’s had to go through some indignities that would make many other wrestlers quit. Remember that farting gimmick, or the time she was The Great Khali’s storyline girlfriend, even if most fans knew she’s been dating Tyson Kidd since their teens?
Aside from being the most-tenured woman on the SmackDown roster, Nattie is arguably the most-talented in-ring, and not too shabby either when asked to cut a promo. But it appears as if she’s mainly there to act as a “gatekeeper” for the younger women, with start-and-stop storylines (like her heel turn on Becky Lynch) suggesting Creative really doesn’t have much for her at this point.
7 AMERICAN ALPHA
The newest entries in the “best” category in terms of main roster experience, American Alpha are one of SmackDown’s most technically-sound performers, making good use of their experience and success in the field of amateur wrestling.
The only complaint against American Alpha is that they may be too vanilla at this early part of their WWE careers. Neither Chad Gable nor Jason Jordan are Kurt Angle-level when it comes to promos and charisma, and that might hurt them a bit in the long run. But there’s no questioning their grappling skills, and they do have a good grasp of wrestling storytelling, as seen when they lost their rematch against the recently-turned Usos on the September 20, 2016 SmackDown Live.
6 BECKY LYNCH
Injuries and rumored backstage issues derailed Paige’s push as the “Anti-Diva,” but there has been no stopping Becky Lynch from stepping up as a rather unconventional female competitor in terms of look and gimmick. She was a great choice as the inaugural SmackDown Women’s Champion, and has made the most out of her decade-plus experience in the business, delivering consistently solid matches and promos since her 2015 main roster debut.
As mentioned in our previous best-and-worst list for NXT alumni, Lynch is probably the most complete member of the Four Horsewomen of the Women’s Revolution, again owing to her being the most experienced of the group. It would be interesting, though, to see how she performs as a heel in front of a much larger audience and market; she made it work in NXT, but can she do it as part of the main roster?
5 DEAN AMBROSE
Dean Ambrose being “only” fifth-best in the SmackDown roster may come as a bit of a surprise, but that’s mostly on account of his character getting stale in the last few weeks of his WWE World Championship run. Fortunately, he’s been tweaking his character a bit, and there’s a solid chance he may be turning heel at some point in the near future. Ambrose was, and still is talented enough to add some levity to his “Lunatic Fringe” character, but the increased premium on goofiness suggests that he might have jumped the proverbial shark toward the end of his World title reign.
Be that as it may, Ambrose has all the tools for continued WWE success in the main event, and adding a darker, heelish edge to his established in-ring persona could help him regain the momentum he’s arguably lost.
4 JOHN CENA
Yes, we know about John Cena’s “Five Moves of Doom” – his established formula to success in the ring. We know how he could get childish in his promos, and it does get tiresome to hear him keep screaming “THE CHAMP IS HERE!” regardless whether he’s got a title or not. And those chants of “YOU CAN’T WRESTLE!” and “CENA SUCKS!” are still uttered by many a fan at WWE shows. But even the biggest Cena detractors can’t deny that he’s not a bad wrestler. He’s also a great ring general even if he calls his spots way too loud (as faithfully documented by Botchamania), and if you ignore the tendency of his promos to get samey, his mic work is still one of his strongest points.
Cena is reaching the point in his career where he may be better off giving the rub to younger and/or newer talents. But it would be nice to see him at least tie Ric Flair’s record of 16 world titles.
3 DOLPH ZIGGLER
By the time you read this, Dolph Ziggler may or may not be a WWE wrestler anymore – it all depends on the result of his match against The Miz at No Mercy. But for what it’s worth, Ziggler is clearly among the cream of the crop, even if Creative can’t get behind him rising to the top. He’s shown an ability to make his opponents look like a million bucks in the ring, and his selling is so acclaimed that it’s inspired a popular wrestling meme of its own. He still may be better as a heel than as a face (he is, after all, @HEELZiggler on Twitter and Instagram), but his recent storyline with The Miz showed how good he can be if booked properly as a good guy.
It’s going to be a pity if Ziggler’s long tenure with WWE has to end with a loss to Miz at No Mercy. But if he wins, then a re-push to the main event should be in order. At 36, it’s not like the Show-Off has a lot of years remaining in his prime.
2 THE MIZ
I never thought I’d end up saying this, but The Miz is awesome. Often derided by fans for having an average-at-best workrate and for being a subpar WWE Champion in 2010-11, Miz has come a long way from his poorly-received face run of late 2012-mid-2014, and has capitalized greatly on his natural ability to get under the fans’ collective skin. As the reigning Intercontinental Champion since April 2016, he’s made the belt relevant once again, and the WWE return of his wife Maryse has helped make him even more despicable as the heel champion.
May it be dashing Zack Ryder’s hopes for a career revival, throwing shade at SmackDown GM Daniel Bryan for calling him a play-it-safe “coward,” or threatening to end Dolph Ziggler’s wrestling career, The Miz has been a fantastic heel this year. And, as an added bonus, he’s made some nice in-ring improvements despite being in his mid-30s, which not everyone his age is able to do.
1 AJ STYLES
WWE has a history of dropping the ball when hiring big-name free agents associated with other companies. But with AJ Styles, they’ve ran that figurative ball for a game-breaking touchdown. Despite making his WWE debut at the ripe old age of 38, the Phenomenal One has been just that in the nine months he’s spent with the company. He can finish off any type of opponent in many ways, and has been capable of delivering five-star-caliber matches, with his matches against John Cena standing out as the best in his “rookie” year with WWE. And while he did well in his initial face run, he’s been dynamite as a heel, and has proven to be very underrated and effective on the mic.
Word on the street is that WWE plans to keep the World championship on Styles for a long time. While far from confirmed, that’s a good thing for his legions of fans to hear, and a good sign WWE believes in this established veteran who’s getting his big break with the company late into his career.