When it comes to the world of pro wrestling, nothing -- and I mean nothing -- dictates an in-ring performer’s level of success quite like an audience reaction. Sure, certain performers making their way down a ramp from within the confines of their hometown arenas will undoubtedly receive more cheers than jeers simply for setting foot in them -- but, regardless of this relatively rare scenario -- in what’s been deemed by the WWE as “The Reality Era” -- a slew of the industry’s top-tier heels have been garnering a more considerable amount of audience pops than they do heat.
For better or worse, the ever-so-evolving landscape of social media has managed to parlay and embed itself into the wrasslin’ biz -- making it increasingly imperative for the creative brass of WWE and TNA to always maintain a sense of flexibility as it pertains to the creation of its ongoing storylines.
Whether it were predicaments such as Roman Reigns’s WWE heavyweight title push being halted due to less than ideal crowd reactions, or the Batista-Orton Wrestlemania XXX main event being changed to a three-way with the addition of a certain scorching-hot superstar Daniel Bryan -- the once clear line between heels and babyfaces is now severely smudged.
16 Kevin Owens
A newbie to your surface wrestling mark, Owens has actually been making a name for himself in the biz for 15-plus years -- longer than John Cena. Primarily trained by Terry Taylor, better known to circa-WWF fans as The Red Rooster, Owens is cut from a similar cloth to that of Bryan -- another ex-Indies darling. At first glance, the Canadian doesn’t strike you as a typical wrestling specimen -- then again, what does these days? Nonetheless, he damn sure has the in-ring repertoire to more than make up for it.
The scary part? With just three months-and-change on the WWE’s main roster, Owens still has yet to peak storyline-wise -- although he wasted no time putting on clinics and proving his exponential worth in his three-match, five-star program with Cena -- considerably one for the ages (really). He’s currently embroiled in a feud with another impressive talent; “The King of Swing” Cesaro. While he’s working as your quintessential heel, it’s nearly impossible to not want to cheer a man with such poise on the mic and grit inside the ring.
15 Seth Rollins
This piece would not be a proper one without mentioning “The Future” -- or better yet, “The Present.” Without any notice, Rollins -- the self-proclaimed architect of The Shield -- stepped away from a dominating faction and into the role of The Authority’s golden boy. Not only has Rollins arrived, he’s continually thrived since his groundbreaking briefcase cash-in at WrestleMania.
Rollins can flat out wrestle; so much so that he got the proverbial seal of approval to inherit Triple H’s Pedigree finisher.
Side note: Am I the only one who misses the Curb Stomp?
His current hot streak is undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg. With a plethora of NXT talent waiting in the wings, and a WWE roster that has a shortage of top-tier-caliber workers, expect Rollins to stick as an upper carder. Clearly, the WWE has bought into the Rollins movement and evidently, so have we.
14 Brock Lesnar
When one thinks of Brock Lesnar, two thoughts come to mind; ass-kicker and arena-filler. Sure, one would argue a few years back that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson puts the most asses in WWE seats -- but if he still is -- Brock is definitively giving him a run for his money these days.
Whether it was his inaugural run as “The Next Big Thing” or his post-UFC return as “The Beast Incarnate,” this freakishly strong embodiment of dominance seldom fails to disappoint and the WWE paid homage to that very testament by shelling out a "full-time" deal for him to work a part-time schedule.
Lesnar is the measuring stick for the boys in the back looking to work their way up the company food chain. On that same note, anyone involved in a program with the mayor of Supplex City surely knows that they’re on the right track.
13 Dolph Ziggler
His theme song lyrics pretty much sum up how this man feels every time he laces up his boots. He’s “here to show the world” but here’s the issue: Dolph is already over. However, with the creative brass? Not so much. Primarily working as a heel during his early years, coming up as a lesser known member of The Spirit Squad and Vickie Guerrero’s post-Edge boy toy -- “The Showoff” continued on to garner some of the company talent’s finest crowd reactions.
It was April 8, 2013 with deafening pops that Ziggler cashed in his Money In The Bank briefcase against Alberto Del Rio to become the new World Heavyweight Champion. Unfortunately, Ziggler’s reign only lasted 69 days due to concussion complexities.
Fascinatingly enough though, a double turn had taken place when he displayed a never-give-up attitude while wrestling Del Rio. Surprisingly, he’s yet to taste heavyweight gold since, although he has captured the Intercontinental strap on more than one occasion.
Dolph Ziggler is a true underdog inside the squared-circle, and we love him for it. His only downfall is his tendency to be loose-lipped when he’s outside of it, at least that’s what the dirt sheets tell us.
12 Sasha Banks
So she was born into a famous bloodline [Snoop Dogg’s cousin] -- that doesn’t mean this easy-on-the-eyes Diva didn’t earn her spot in NXT, and now on the main roster as a member of Team B.A.D. alongside Trinity and Tamina.
Trust me if you’re not already aware of it, they don’t call Sasha Banks “The Boss” for the hell of it. From an uber-successful three-year run in Triple H’s brainchild developmental system, to the Stephanie McMahon-phrased “Divas Revolution,” Banks has made quite the statement with her in-ring skillset and equally impressive finisher --The Bank Statement.
At the ripe young age of 23, the sky's the limit for this cream of the women’s division crop. Contrary to prior NXT crowd chants, she damn sure isn’t ratchet!
11 Wade Barrett
The WWE seems to have tried everything with Barrett except turning him face. The perfect opportunity would have been when Barrett had adopted the Bad News Barrett gimmick. What started out as goofy got over, as Barrett just executed his gimmick so well. Rather than take the newfound pops and run with it, the WWE had him stop doing his bad news segments. Meanwhile, Barrett seems to continuously be in purgatory on the main roster, without a clear direction. Maybe the fans should just be given an opportunity to cheer him and see where it goes from there.
9 Ethan Carter III (EC3)
From Daniel Bryan’s cheesy non-relevant sidekick to a top dog in TNA is a pretty drastic alteration of reputation. I’m talking about Ethan Carter III -- to stack up his not-so-cool Derrick Bateman persona against his current ECIII one is like comparing ripe apples to oranges, and some pretty damn rotten oranges.
As Dixie Carter’s spoiled nephew, the 32-year-old hasn't done too shabby since his TNA inception in 2013, which was preceded with his WWE release. In a mere two years, he’s already been embroiled in a slew of top-of-the-line feuds; Bully Ray, Kurt Angle, and Sting.
If you weren’t catching on to the ECIII, the company sure was, evening building stables around him. His present enforcer is a behemoth formerly known as Brodus Clay named Tyrus -- and he recently was victorious over Matt Hardy, leading to Jeff Hardy becoming his personal assistant due to the outcome.
Carter’s career-defining moment came when he defeated Angle to capture his first TNA World Heavyweight crown, and will surely be defending it and holding it for many years to come -- assuming the TNA stays financially afloat.
8 Bobby Roode
While it “pays to be Roode,” it’s nearly impossible to boo the physical specimen known as Bobby Roode -- if you’re a true, blue wrestling mark. He’s yet another promising grappler who was never able to get over in the WWE-- only performing in dark matches. It wasn’t until 2004 that Roode pounced on the TNA scene as a member of Team Canada alongside another now-veteran in Eric Young. Prior to his record-breaking solo championship run [256 days], Roode was best known as one half of the oh-so-dominating tag combo Beer Money alongside “The Cowboy” James Storm.
While a plethora of big name wrestlers have made their exit from the Nashville-based promotion, Roode is one of the few that have remained loyal -- reaching his true earning potential nonetheless. Whether you love him or hate him, it's safe to say that Roode will continue to be a mainstay at the top of the company’s pecking order.
At a mere 5-foot-4, this smaller-than-life Brit supports the theory that good things come in small packages. Spud, who wrestled for 11 years prior to joining Dixie Carter’s promotion, kicked off his TNA career as her the Chief-Of-Staff, but not before earning that very spot via winning the TNA Wrestling: British Boot Camp contest in 2013.
Eventually, he went on to turn face, feuding and losing to ECIII, instantaneously turning him into a fan favorite. He did capture the X-Division champion earlier in the year. He ultimately lost it by failing at a cash-in for Kurt Angle’s heavyweight strap.
Nonetheless, the man, for all his accomplishments in a big man-dominated activity, deserves respect. As pesky as he was in his heel days, how can you not root for someone that epitomizes the moniker of “underdog,” in every sense of the word.
6 Damien Sandow
Perhaps the WWE’s most compelling-underutilized worker, Sandow has continuously been made a creative afterthought time and time again to the WWE Universe for circumstances well beyond his control. Sandow’s career seemed on the rapid upswing in late 2012 when he formed The Rhodes Scholars with Cody Rhodes.
He picked up even more steam when he was obtained Smackdown’s Money In The Bank briefcase towards the end of 2013, which was the beginning of the end for him and Rhodes’s alliance -- all while making holding a mic like a wine glass. If it weren’t bad enough that he lost 11 out of his last 12 matches prior, WWE completely cut the cord on any hope of a Sandow push when they had him cash in and lose cleanly to John Cena.
From April to August of 2014, Sandow became a fish out of water, impersonating everyone from Magneto to LeBron James. This was until he came out as Damien Mizdow, the Miz’s stunt double, which struck gold with fans. The twosome inevitably broke up, but not before Sandow became runner-up to The Big Show in Mania’s Andre The Giant Battle Royal.
However, the company painted themselves into a corner once again when it paired with the equally directionless character of Curtis Axel to form The Meta Powers, a Mega Powers (Macho Man and Hulk Hogan) spoof tag team --Sandow became Macho Mandow. Unfortunately, the storyline was scrapped the minute Hogan’s racial remark controversy came into fruition.
Being that Sandow has been off TV now for quite some time, here’s hoping the third-time, whenever that will be, will be the charm for this talented and well-received wrestler.
5 Kurt Angle
Intensity, integrity and intelligence are the three Is that Kurt Angle preached over and over again -- but in actuality, is someone that’s had a career that closely mirrors them.
Sure, he’s had his addiction struggles, but the man can flat out wrestle.
From the get-go, Angle made the transition from amateur grappling to storyline-based pro wrestling look seamless. Some of the best in the biz,Stone Cold Steve Austin being one, credited him with being the fastest learner they'd ever met.
Whether he was working as a face, or a pompous heel, Angle always knew how to drive a crowd. How couldn’t he, being the wrestling machine that he was?
Prior to defecting to TNA in 2006, Angle had one of the most impressive runs anyone has had with the WWE to date; six world championships, simultaneous holder of the European and Intercontinental titles (Euro-Continental champ), a 2000 King of the Ring victory, and a slew of other notable accolades.
In both TNA and WWE, Angle built himself up an impressive resume of classic programs with the likes of Ric Flair, Triple H, Sting, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Jeff Jarrett, Brock Lesnar and that list goes on and on.
He’s the only wrestler to become a Triple Crown winner (WWE, WCW, TNA, IWGP, World Heavyweight Championship) in both companies. Good guy or bad guy, he’s a darn good wrestler, possibly even the best. It’s true. It’s damn true.
4 The New Day
It's funny how we loved to hate The New Day as faces, yet we can't stop cheering them as heels. That's because their heel persona just works so much better for their gimmick. When you're a heel, you can experiment more and take more risks. It has all clicked for the current tag champions, as they have crowds active in their promos. Big E and Kofi Kingston compliment each other well as partners, while Xavier Woods makes for a great mouthpiece/cheerleader on the outside.
3 Cody Rhodes
Against all odds, Cody Rhodes has made his Stardust gimmick click, but with the talent Rhodes has, it is very hard to boo him. Knowing he is the son of the late great Dusty Rhodes, you'd have thought he would have been turned face following his father's passing, but that has yet to happen. Instead Rhodes has now aligned himself with The Ascension. The direction is unclear for Stardust and his current gimmick doesn't scream main event star. Fans wish that would change.
2 Bray Wyatt
Who knew this man would go from CM Punk’s whipping boy on a watered-down version of The Nexus to the “Eater of Worlds” Bray Wyatt we currently know and love to watch?
Windham Rotunda was initially introduced as Cody Rhodes’s competitor on season two of NXT, Wyatt is now the leader of one of the most dominating factions today, The Wyatt Family.
Since the start of his successful run as the leader of The Wyatts, Rotunda has outright acknowledged just how frustrated he was playing the part of Husky Harris, which actually continued on for a short while when he was put back into FCW.
Currently, the WWE creative brass has yet to hand Wyatt a single one of its titles, but he has had a string of notable feuds; Chris Jericho, John Cena, Roman Reigns and more.
During his program with The Undertaker, Bray coined himself as “the New Face of Fear.” Sure, he was defeated, but getting an opportunity to step up against someone of Taker’s magnitude at the grand stage proved that at just 28 years old, he really does “got the whole world in his hands” when it comes to his wrestling future.
1 Paul Heyman
Okay, he's not an active wrestler, but... nobody could touch this man on a mic. Now primarily linked to Brock Lesnar, he is nothing short of brilliant.
If Flavor Flav is considered the best hype man in the Hip-Hop world, Heyman is takes that hard-earned status in the wrestling biz.
The WWE Universe, composed of a helluva lot more than one “Paul Heyman guy” has a penchant for absorbing and reciting back. much like the finest of sponges, his most popular sayings aka Heyman’s long drawn-out version of “Brock... Lesnar...”
As someone who’s mainly worked as a heel throughout his career, Heyman now finds himself as somewhat of a tweener since Lesnar returned a few months back to seek revenge on Rollins for his Mania cash-in.
Lesnar aside, Heyman, who was an important reference in CM Punk’s infamous pipebomb speech, also had a successful run as CM Punk’s manager during the latter’s 2012 lengthy title reign prior to turning on him at Money In The Bank on July 14, 2013.