After weeks of rumors over whether the WWE World Heavyweight Championship would be held on both RAW and SmackDown Live post draft, Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley made it official on the July 25th Raw: Seth Rollins will face NXT breakout star Finn Bálor at SummerSlam to determine the first ever WWE Universal Champion! Say what you will about this decision, let alone the name they chose for the championship, the New Era is off and running.
When WWE had duel World Titles during the original brand split, they brought in the already established WCW World Title belt. If they want to make this new championship equivalent to the richest prize in wrestling, they’re going to have their work cut out for them. Being the first person to hold a new strap is without question an honor, and Rollins and Bálor are excellent first candidates, but even more important is the journey the title goes on after that. It got us thinking just who might become Universal Champion over the next year.
While there may be another draft or some cross-promotional shenanigans that see someone from SmackDown take the title, we’re only considering those either on RAW now or who could easily become a part of the flagship brand in the near future in order to vie for it’s new spot.
15 Luke Harper
Heath Slater isn’t the only free agent in WWE! Luke Harper has been on the shelf since March, reportedly undergoing successful knee surgery with hopes of returning by October. All signs pointed to another split of The Wyatt Family when Bray Wyatt and Erick Rowan headed to SmackDown and Braun Strowman went to Raw at the draft. If the Wyatts are fully splitting, it makes sense to put Harper on Raw, but this may not be the case after last week’s SmackDown where Rowan revealed himself still in league with Bray Wyatt.
Whether WWE leaves Harper out of the stable and has him return on Raw, catapulting him into the main event picture, while maybe unlikely, isn’t without question. Harper had much more success in singles action than Rowan after the first Wyatt split last year. If given a huge push out of the gate, it’s possible Harper could be seen in the Universal Championship picture sooner than later.
14 Shinsuke Nakamura
WWE has proven in short order with Finn Bálor that they’re not afraid to push an NXT standout to moon instantly upon their main roster debut. Shinsuke Nakamura only arrived to NXT in April, but has quickly risen as arguably the brand’s most popular star. His edge of your seat entrance, fan pandering and crowd pleasing in-ring presence add up to a special commodity who’ll surely one day become a top player on WWE’s main roster.
WWE took their time with Bálor, are taking it with Samoa Joe and will likely do the same with Nakamura. Will he get the call within the next year? Perhaps not, but never say never. With a guy as over and exciting as Nakamura, it could happen sometime this year. Plus the idea of Bálor/Nakamura II at a big card like WrestleMania with the new Universal Championship on the line may create dollar signs too big to keep him in NXT for long.
13 Big E
The New Day are one of the best things WWE has given fans over the last year. If any of this trio are ready for a push, my money’s on Big E. Aside from being the bigger of the three, and given WWE’s history of pushing larger guys, Big E’s proven to be as good of a wrestler as he is a showman. New Day doesn’t need to be broken up in order for this to happen. Considering fan reactions and merchandising, splitting them would be pretty stupid.
The only thing that may hurt Big E being pushed to Universal Title status is the fact that New Day is a comedy act. It seems like every time a fun loving mid-carder is ready for the next step, they have to dour down in order to be taken seriously. It happened to Edge, Kurt Angle and Eddie Guerrero, and it may need to happen to Big E, just hopefully not for the sake of WWE’s hottest gimmick.
12 Braun Strowman
Another Raw, another squash on a defenseless local jobber. Braun Strowman was detached from The Wyatts thanks to the draft, and has been portrayed since then as an unstoppable beast, hungry to destroy on Raw. The next step is feeding him someone with more credibility and then it’s on to the rest of the roster. Strowman needs a couple of tweaks; some new ring duds and a mouthpiece like Paul Heyman would help, but it’s all coming together and his rise to the top could see him in the Universal Championship hunt soon.
With longtime giants like Kane, The Big Show and Mark Henry all being relatively close to calling it a career, it’s no wonder WWE is setting Stowman up to be its next monster. Wrestling companies need that awe inspiring big guy in order for their super heroes to conquer. Someone’s gonna need to fill in those over-sized boots when the legends leave and Strowman is likely the person to do just that.
11 The Undertaker
In order for the Universal Championship to be on an even playing field with its World Title counterpart, an infusion of legacy could be just what it needs. Putting the strap on the established legend for a short run would give the title an early boost. Undertaker has only held seven World Titles, not a lot considering he’s had a storied 26-year career in WWE. It would be cool to look back on the lineage of this belt in 26 more years and know that "The Deadman" held it.
Taker’s performances since his Brock Lesnar loss reveal he’s well past his prime, but wouldn’t it be great to see him win the Universal Title at the Royal Rumble and officially pass the torch to the New Era at WrestleMania? He doesn’t need the belt, he’s never needed any, but if this title is Universal because it’s for the WWE Universe I don’t know a wrestling fan worth their salt who wouldn’t love to see the new gold around The Phenom’s waist.
10 Sami Zayn
The once masked El Generico earned his stripes for two years in NXT as an instant crowd favorite. A shoulder injury put Sami Zayn on the shelf for almost a year until his return at the Royal Rumble. He’s been a mainstay since, given a nice push to higher than normal mid-card status. He’s been used in high profile bouts since the WrestleMania ladder match, mostly seen feuding with Kevin Owens.
Sami Zayn will likely be a Universal Champion one day and, if his elevation continues at the rate it’s gone since Mania, that day could very well happen within the next year. He’s a great in-ring competitor whom the fans truly love and WWE brass clearly feels the same way. If given the chance to have the ball and run with it, Zayn could break out as the main guy on the Raw roster and his much loved feud with Owens, this time for the title, would no doubt be a classic.
The Bulgarian brute isn’t quite main event status just yet, but let’s face it, Rusev could be positioned as WWE’s top heel tomorrow and nobody would bat an eye. After spending half a decade in FCW and NXT, Rusev debuted on the main roster at the 2014 Royal Rumble before stringing together one of the most impressive undefeated streaks in recent history. He’s a reliable draw with huge heat that WWE could put the Universal strap on easily within the next year.
The anti-American, new cold war gimmick harkens back to the days of Nikita Koloff and Nikolai Volkoff, only Rusev has proven a step up on the legends as a nimble big man who’s as technically sound as he can be brutal. Should WWE kick off the Universal Championship with a fan favorite like Finn Bálor, having him obliterated by Rusev and giving the babyface the seemingly impossible task of getting the title back would be fun to watch.
8 Samoa Joe
Samoa Joe is one of those anomalies in wrestling who never becomes stagnant or held back no matter where he is. He joins Ring of Honor, becomes the man. Joins TNA, becomes the man, while achieving every accolade they have to offer along the way. Joins NXT, guess who’s the man? When Joe finally arrives to the main WWE roster, is there any doubt what he’ll become? His push to main event status is inevitable. The question becomes not if he’ll be a World or Universal Champion, but when.
With nearly two decades of wrestling experience under his rather large belt, the seasoned veteran is set to face Shinsuke Nakamura for the NXT Title at TakeOver: Brooklyn II. Should Nakamura dethrone him, it’s possible we see Samoa Joe arrive to Raw or SmackDown soon after. Should he go to Raw, his imminent rise to the top of the card could no doubt see him as Universal Champion within the year.
Nobody on the Raw roster deserves it more. For the first few years of his WWE career, Cesaro was held back in silly tag teams and angles. Aside from stints with the US and Tag Team Titles and winning the inaugural Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania XXX, it seemed like Cesaro was never given a chance. Fans and wrestlers alike didn’t understand why as he had all the tools in the world to be the man.
During a December 2014 interview with Stone Cold Steve Austin, Vince McMahon stated Cesaro was held back from being a big star because he wasn’t “connecting with fans” and lacked “a certain something.” The Swiss Superman accepted Vince’s words as a challenge and things started to look up ever since. He got a decent push in 2015 and after returning from injury looks poised for a real opportunity. Here’s hoping it leads him to the Universal Title.
6 Roman Reigns
Reigns has at least equal in-ring skills to John Cena (that’s not meant to be a compliment) and all the charisma of a slightly wet mop, but since the disbanding of The Shield, the WWE Universe has been treated to the rise of "The Roman Empire," whether they like it or not. After a huge fan backlash when Reigns won the Royal Rumble, WWE spent more than a year trying to get him over. They put him in a feud with Mr. McMahon himself and brought Triple H out of quasi-retirement to job to Reigns at WrestleMania. Three World Title reigns later, the fans still aren’t on board.
Reigns' recent suspension for breaking WWE’s Wellness Program has thrown an interesting wrench into their plans. Many things since, the draft included, have likely changed because of this and begs the question of whether Finn Bálor’s push out of the gate over Reigns is an example of his continued punishment. Regardless, it’s doubtful Reigns will be kept out of the Universal Title picture too long.
5 Triple H
While Triple H hasn’t been a full time in-ring act for several years now, his wrestling days aren’t completely over. Just this year, The Game won his second Royal Rumble, for the World Championship no less, and went on to drop the gold to help Roman Reigns get over. It’s possible he’ll do this again, perhaps once more for Reigns or rather to aid the rise of a Superstar fans actually want in the main event picture, like Bálor or Cesaro.
Much like The Undertaker, Triple H isn’t a guy who needs another title at this point in his career. However, the allure of a brand new championship and wanting to give it some legacy may be too great not to add it to his collection of accomplishments. Triple H’s 15th World Title could be Universal gold. Love him or hate him, the fans respect Trips enough to accept it should he put the Universal Title on himself.
4 Finn Bálor
WWE has gigantic plans for Finn Bálor. The meteoric rise of the Irish-born Superstar on NXT saw him hold its title for nearly 300 days, becoming one of the company’s most loved stars despite being on its farm team show. While many NXT alumni have transitioned to the main roster, nobody’s been given quite the instant status that Bálor has since the draft. Make no mistake about it, Finn Bálor is the New Era.
While it makes sense to truly christen the New Era by giving the fans what they want and having Bálor become the first man to hold the title, as much as I’d love to see it, I just don’t think it’ll happen. Bálor is going to be a main event player for many years and I believe without question he’ll be Universal Champion this year, but this is WWE we’re talking about. Giving fans what they want to see isn’t always considered best for business.
3 Kevin Owens
Kevin Owens is one of the most interesting wrestling stories of all time. By all rights, he’s the guy who never should’ve made it to the big show; he doesn’t look like a World Champion and he doesn’t fight like one, but he defies the odds. Owens burned through NXT in a mere six months before being moved to the main roster and getting a clean pin over John Cena. It’s a testament to WWE trying something new and kudos to Cena for letting it happen.
He’s been a high profile attraction ever since, proving to be a risk-taking, moveable big man in the ring who just wants to fight. Heel or face, the fans love watching him perform. While he doesn’t have the time invested in NXT or even yet on the main roster that others have, Kevin Owens is no doubt ready. Winning the Universal Championship within the next year seems highly likely.
2 Brock Lesnar
Since returning from the world of mixed martial arts to the WWE in 2012, Brock Lesnar has been used exactly as he should: as an absolute, unstoppable beast. He won the World Championship, bested the likes of John Cena and Triple H and even became the man to break The Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak. Brock’s special deal sees him appear when he’s needed and when he wants to and not even his recent controversy with the USADA post UFC 200 seems to have affected WWE’s plans for him.
Lesnar would be a huge name to hold the new title in its infancy, one with which WWE would be more than comfortable and nobody could deny. Putting the Universal Title on Brock is an easy option that WWE could use to not only establish credibility for the gold itself but set up an instant push for whomever can take the strap off of him in a clean finish.
1 Seth Rollins
Seth Rollins has been poised as the man in WWE since the fall of The Shield. Triple H and Stephanie love him, Vince McMahon no doubt does too, and unlike Roman Reigns, the WWE Universe has accepted him as someone they like seeing in the main event title picture. I fully expect Rollins to become the first ever Universal Champion at SummerSlam, but even if I’m wrong, there’s no question he’ll get a run within the year.
Not even Rollins’ injury last year has kept him out of the spotlight. Having to vacate the World Title after one of the more impressive first runs in recent memory was a sad case for Rollins and for the company, but he came back without missing a beat and was thrust right back into his main event spot. There’s a reason Rollins went as the number one draft pick. He’s the heel face of the company and will likely be involved in the Universal Title picture for years to come.