2014 was a topsy-turvy year for WWE, mainly due to CM Punk’s abrupt departure and Daniel Bryan’s setbacks after conquering the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 30.
If the first half of the year saw WWE programming deemed tolerable, then it’s no question the last six months have been a little depressing, apart from the sudden Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins rivalry and the rightfully deserved rise of Dolph Ziggler. Since the company failed to build around their top superstar, John Cena, there aren’t many practitioners of the squared circle that can keep the interest afloat. The current champion, Brock Lesnar, makes an appearance once in a blue moon, with Paul Heyman serving as his mouthpiece. Even though the former ECW boss is a fantastic salesman, it’s impossible to hide the lack of a present champion when it comes to the world’s most prestigious wrestling title.
Roman Reigns was touted to win the 2015 Royal Rumble Match, and then go on to beat Lesnar at WrestleMania 31 for his first major championship as a singles competitor. However, there are now rumblings of those plans being nixed, since the 2014 Slammy Award-winning Superstar of The Year looks limited in the ring, green on the mic, and fans are beginning to turn on him with the notion of his presence as the top star being forced down everyone’s throat.
All of this explains why WWE needs the former ROH and Pro Wrestling Noah alumni more than ever. It’s not because Bryan needs to serve as the savior, because quite frankly, he’s better than that. He’s the best wrestler on the entire roster, and one would be foolish to argue that point. To say WWE is missing him right now would be an understatement of grand proportions. The promotion already took too long to award Bryan with the title that belonged to him, after the WWE Universe took matters into their own hands by nearly rioting and voiced their disapproval for recycled champions and part-timers stealing the spotlight.
The good news is Bryan’s return from a horrific injury spell will soon be upon us. The superstar made a blockbuster announcement on Monday Night Raw last week, confirming his presence in the 2015 Royal Rumble Match. While it’s uncertain Bryan will be in the main event at the “Showcase of The Immortals,” (even though there wouldn’t be too many complaints), it’s going to be interesting to see what WWE does with him. Frankly, almost everyone is glad to see him back after the grueling invasive neck surgery and mumblings of undergoing Tommy John Surgery to repair his elbow and ultimately, give him a new Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL).
In spite of that, Bryan’s return may flip the switch in regards to the main event at WrestleMania 31, seeing how Lesnar may be prompted for an exit for the UFC, and Reigns remains a little too premature for his first glorious title run.
Since we are on the cusp of seeing Bryan return to the squared circle, let’s look at 10 possible opponents that could greet the “Yes!” man after the 2015 Royal Rumble, based on the state of current affairs.
10 Big Show
This isn’t exactly the way onlookers would book Bryan when he makes his comeback, and frankly, nobody wants to see a repeat of Bryan feuding with Kane. That nearly destroyed the hype of his championship win.
With that said, Big Show recently turned heel for what seems like the hundredth time, and a short feud against the longtime veteran of the sports entertainment world could be quick and commence Bryan’s elevation back to the top. Show was one of Bryan’s supporters before The Authority made the former’s life a living hell, and since “The Largest Athlete In the World’s” role is now reversed, Show could ignite the flame by claiming he helped Bryan achieve his dream.
9 Tyson Kidd
Blooming with newfound arrogance, Tyson Kidd has been underutilized ever since The Hart Dynasty disbanded. He wasn’t exactly a premiere player, yet his work ethic and superb in-ring skills have been shadowed over the years by mid-card talent that either brought around an imaginary friend (R-Truth) or accomplished absolutely nothing with a push centered on size (Ryback).
Bryan and Kidd would presumably work tremendously well together, and since it’s best to tune up the band before a big performance, a quick program against the Canadian can help remove any kind of rust Bryan would have. After all, they’re two of the best workers in pro wrestling today.
8 Luke Harper
Ever since The Wyatt Family saw Luke Harper and Erick Rowan go their separate ways, Bray Wyatt has been embroiled in a feud against the madman Ambrose, and despite Rowan’s improvements, Harper became the first family member to hoist gold.
Recently winning the WWE Intercontinental Championship and then giving it right back to Dolph Ziggler at TLC 2014, it gives observers an indication that there are intriguing plans for the former Chikara and Evolve brawler.
Hopefully, those plans amount to something, and we can see more of the robust bruiser in the limelight. When Bryan took on The Wyatt Family before a short stint as a member in the second half of 2013, he battled Harper in a couple of singles matches that showcased him as a force to be reckoned with. In short, it was like Harper’s coming out party as something more than a mercenary. Although it would be sensible to build some type of story around this proposed meeting, a series of solid wrestling matches could be just what the doctor ordered for the returning superstar.
Much like Kane, a guy like Mark Henry is omitted from this list because, with all due respect to the Olympic weightlifter, he’s not exactly the most exciting candidate for a conflict against Bryan. Just because he’s a heel, it doesn’t mean he needs to be listed as a participant in the sweepstakes, even though there seems to be a shortage of evildoers on the main event scene.
Rusev will be in a precarious position when the time comes for him to lose, mainly because the feeling is there isn’t anybody outside of Cena that would make it appropriate. Then why not Bryan, if that’s the case?
The current WWE United States Champion and his muse, Lana, could tease the smaller Bryan about his injuries and his frame, if officials deem those insults necessary. The commentary team will probably bill their meetings as a “David vs. Goliath” clash, but true wrestling fans know the promising Bulgarian would benefit from working with a tremendous athlete such as Bryan.
On the flip side, Rusev doesn’t necessarily have to lose clean, either. The wrestling world is full of disqualifications, count-outs, outside interference, and other mishaps that could cut matches short, so WWE could actually use this opportunity to build up Bryan for something greater and more fitting.
According to several reports made by numerous wrestling websites, backstage morale is low based on Vince McMahon’s recent chat with Steve Austin on the WWE Network-produced Stone Cold Podcast. The WWE chairman didn’t exactly pull back when it came to criticizing most of his staff, claiming the current roster wasn’t that ambitious.
Austin put Cesaro over, but asked why the former WWE United States Champion wasn’t being pushed to great lengths. McMahon said he lacked charisma and verbal skills, also saying there was something missing.
This all seems ludicrous, since Cesaro’s hype was at an all-time high earlier this year when he won WrestleMania 30’s Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. It seems fair to believe McMahon never saw Cesaro perform under his real name, Claudio Castagnoli, where he won the PWG World Championship, and held a handful of tag team titles with Chris Hero as The Kings of Wrestling. Instead, they had him yodel, join The Real Americans as a European, and booked him as a “Paul Heyman guy,” which failed miserably.
Cesaro and Bryan are familiar foes, having stellar matches during their ROH days (Southern Hostility 2008, Vendetta 2008, etc.) and even tried to rip each other’s heads off at the IWA Mid-South 2005 Ted Petty Invitational in another superb contest. They’ve even teamed up together on a few occasions, too, in promotions such as Chikara. But some of Cesaro’s best matches in WWE were against Bryan on episodes of Monday Night Raw and SmackDown in both 2013 and 2014, where both of them excelled and stole the show every time they were pitted against each other. Maybe another series of matches would help McMahon realize Cesaro is one of the best wrestlers he has under contract.
5 Bray Wyatt
Quick to forget anything stale or downright immature, wrestling fans are not as gullible as they used to be. Bryan’s involvement as a member of The Wyatt Family was short-lived (about two weeks), and despite the Bryan-Wyatt feud being sizzling hot, many spectators didn’t quite understand the point of that storyline.
It all came full circle when Bryan battled Wyatt at Royal Rumble 2014, in a match of the year candidate that is easily forgotten because it happened so early. These two gifted wrestlers had the best match on the pay-per-view, and ended their feud the right way.
Wyatt is now in a bitter quarrel against Ambrose, and even though the hostility could go on longer without complaints, Wyatt would be an ideal candidate to complicate Bryan’s return. It’s been done before, but it was also one of the better feuds during Bryan’s rise to the top. “The Eater of Worlds” could brag about getting the better of his counterpart before Bryan’s title win, and that he came this close to saving him from the punishment he had to endure in 2014. This time, though, Bryan would have to prevail.
4 John Cena
It would be odd to match Bryan versus a face, which is why performers such as Roman Reigns or Randy Orton would seem like the wrong adversaries to book. On the other hand, Bryan got the nod over Cena at SummerSlam 2013, before getting screwed by special guest referee, Triple H, who facilitated Randy Orton’s win seconds later by cashing in his “Money In the Bank” briefcase.
Obviously, Cena nor Bryan would be turning heel for this one, but if Cena would be so kind to step down and let Bryan take over once more (which he would), these two professionals could treat the WWE Universe to another epic encounter. It would need to be a friendly fight, or at least one fueled by mutual respect. Whatever the case may be, they shouldn’t be subject to get involved in a program with their real-life wives, The Bella Twins.
The Massachusetts-born juggernaut can even topple Bryan, yet the conclusion would need to be reasonable. If Cena squashes Bryan and goes on to win his 16th world championship (tying the iconic Ric Flair), then it shuts the door on another title run for the Indy legend. The Cenation commander is best used to fight off the bad guys, yet if he crosses paths with Bryan for something like a No. 1 Contender’s Match for the title, it would seem fair and could also give the ratings a much-needed boost.
3 Triple H
Serving as the curtain jerker of this past year’s WrestleMania, Bryan wrestled Triple H early in the show because of his double booking, and even though their contest was touted to be a good one, it surpassed expectations as one of the best worked matches of the year.
Triple H is easy pickings for Bryan, even though “The Game’s” status remains unclear right now. Expected to take on Sting at WrestleMania 31, the current Executive Vice President could welcome Bryan back with hostility, since the man formerly known as “The American Dragon” mocked both Triple H and his wife, Stephanie McMahon, the night after Survivor Series 2014, when their reign of terror came to a close.
Since the future WWE Hall of Famer doesn’t compete that often anymore, this feud would be contested on the mic, more so than it would in the squared circle. In spite of that, Bryan and Triple H could work another phenomenal match against one another, but the rivalry doesn’t need to be stretched out in great length.
2 Brock Lesnar
When Lesnar conquered The Undertaker’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania 30, the original plan was for him to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship from Bryan at SummerSlam 2014. It wasn’t exactly clear if Bryan would avenge his loss, but there were rummages of Bryan going over Lesnar, as well.
Now that “The Beast Incarnate” holds the same belt Bryan had to relinquish months back, it would be fair for Bryan to storm right back from where he left off, and challenge the monster to a match for the title he never lost. If Bryan vs. Rusev could be considered as “David vs. Goliath,” there’s no question this constitutes as the same.
Lesnar’s current status with WWE is problematic, since the champion shows up for limited appearances. There’s also talk of Lesnar going back to the UFC, and the Viacom-owned Bellator is apparently also interested in signing the MMA free agent for a return back inside the cage.
If Bryan could return in time for a program against Lesnar, it wouldn’t exactly matter who goes over. If WWE had plans for Lesnar to overcome the leader of the “Yes! Movement,” then so be it, even though it would be honorable for Bryan to be victorious. It seems ambitious to predict Bryan getting the better of Lesnar, but remember, when Lesnar seemed unbeatable in 2003-2004 after demolishing the likes of Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker, it was Eddie Guerrero who beat the former UFC Heavyweight Champion for the WWE Championship.
Size doesn’t matter when it comes to wrestling.
1 Seth Rollins
Arguably the top heel in the company and holder of the “Money In The Bank” briefcase would be the perfect choice to take on Bryan when the latter makes his much-anticipated comeback.
Rollins has thrown a couple of Hail Mary passes in his tenure at the top, being one of the reasons why the fandom still needs to tune in to the product. His matches against Ambrose, Cena, and Ziggler have been quite amazing to say the least, and it’s only a matter of time before the architect of the defunct Shield stable wins a world title.
Building a story between Rollins and Bryan would be easy, since Rollins can generate heat easily, and say that Bryan was nothing without his beloved Authority leaders. With Rollins expected to be pitted against another top draw, rumor has it that Rollins could be a part of a Fatal 4-Way involving Cena, Reigns, and Lesnar.
With Ambrose close by, their mutual disdain for one makes for compelling television, but the Iowan is touted for much bigger things. He’s been clanking that briefcase for a while now, and it would be disappointing if Rollins goes home empty handed. He’s definitely the future, and he’s proven he can carry the company when some of the biggest stars are gone.
Just like Cesaro, Rollins squared off against Bryan on WWE programming, and they also had some incredible encounters together part of ROH, at events such as New Horizons, Breakout, and Southern Navigation, to name a few (all taking place in 2008). If two guys tore up the scene while performing in basements and small venues across the world, then leave it up to them to resume their incredible battles on a bigger stage, in front of a bigger audience.