For a wrestling fan, the WWE is entering a renaissance in their own story. Not only have they successfully conquered every viable threat to their monopoly of the business, but they have now evolved beyond simply replacing a single wrestling territory to re-invent the industry with a segregated roster of their own across multiple brands. When you look at RAW, SmackDown, NXT and 205Live in addition to their aggressive schedule of pay per views, and the need for new programming to fill their network, you start to recognize that the WWE is a complex machine.
Now while many citizens of the internet wrestling community simply debate what should be done about Roman Reigns or whether he is deserving of the opportunities that have been set before him, there is a roster of dozens of wrestlers to think about. Especially when considering how the WWE can maintain its momentum, stay relevant, and truly give the fans what they want without catering to the vocal minority of the WWE Universe that take to the internet to question every decision made about how talent is featured on their favorite WWE program. Looking ahead to 2017, here are 20 critical moves that the WWE should take to keep the fans on the edge of their seats.
20 Demote Daniel Bryan
Fans that followed the American Dragon’s career from his days on the independents and internationally, were vindicated when he ascended to the WWE World Heavyweight Title and made his own WrestleMania moment. We were crushed when an injury cut short a career that had just grasped the pinnacle of success. However, while it has been great to see Daniel Bryan find a way to stay involved in the business that he has a great passion for, his role as the general manager for SmackDown couldn’t offer a worse fit.
Unlike the dynamic of the ambitious villain Stephanie McMahon to fan-friendly Mick Foley on RAW, Daniel doesn’t offer a foil for Shane McMahon to play off of in their complimentary roles. The former Ring of Honor Champion knows about paying dues out on the road and would be a better fit as a mentor in NXT, sharing his wisdom with other stars on the rise – and helping them to steer clear of the risks that took his own career from him.
19 Push Cesaro
Remember when Cesaro became the first man to win the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania XXX? It appeared that the well-conditioned star was on his way to the upper echelon of the roster. Somewhere along the way, whether through injury or other circumstance, the WWE lost their direction on this. While Cesaro has proven to be a crowd-pleaser in both tag team action and has stolen the show in his series of singles matches against Sheamus, Cesaro seems to be caught in a mid-card rut.
Imagine the possibilities that exist if Cesaro was unleashed for a championship challenge against Kevin Owens. In this showdown, you have two wrestlers that truly love the art of professional wrestling and who have ascended from the obscurity of the independents to the top tier of the sport solely through their own hard work. Guaranteed – Cesaro-Owens would deliver the match of the year.
18 Hire Nicole Matthews
In large part, when it comes to the WWE women’s division, the company has focused more on creating stars in-house through their own development system. While there are a few ladies like Mickie James and Bayley that hold an impressive pedigree from their days in the ring prior to signing with Vince McMahon, there are a lot of top women appearing for Shimmer and other all-female promotions in North America that have seemingly been overlooked.
Given the new hard-hitting style of the women’s matches – including their elevation to be showcased in the recent Hell in a Cell, the Canadian standout Nicole Matthews would be a great fit. Matthews, who has reigned as Shimmer Champion and even conquered male opponents to win the Elite Canadian Championship Wrestling Men’s Title, could be a great villain to add to the mix, perhaps even renewing an old rivalry with SmackDown Women’s Champion Becky Lynch. Check Lynch’s Twitter account ... even she’s calling for this unheralded talent to be signed.
17 Fire Darren Young
Look back to that original roster of Nexus stars to debut in the WWE: Wade Barrett – gone, Ryback – gone, Michael Tarver – gone, Daniel Bryan – non-wrestling role, David Otunga – non-wrestling role, Heath Slater (we’ll get to him later in the list) and Darren Young. Unfortunately, while Young is a decent talent in the ring, it’s unlikely that he will be released anytime soon until he’s ready to move on to the next chapter of his life.
Darren Young, being an openly gay competitor, has been an advocate for equality in the sport of wrestling, and was even vocally opposed to the WWE agreeing to appear in any countries that are oppressive to persons of a different political persuasion. Releasing Darren Young would open the company up to a claim, whether false or not, that Young was released not because he wasn’t drawing money at the box office, but simply because he is gay. That shouldn’t be a card to be played in this game.
16 Back to the drawing board with Breezango
We can only imagine how excruciatingly painful it must be to be Tyler Breeze and Fandango – held in developmental limbo for so long that they will latch on to any opportunity presented, even if it offers no hope of a long term future. In their present configuration, they have as much chance of getting over as the Beverly Brothers – and their brief involvement in the Survivor Series tag team elimination match this year should be an indication of that.
At this stage in the game, they would almost be better to ride out their present contracts and then spend some time on the independents and Japan to find their mojo and return with the vengeance, having their self-worth re-affirmed. Tyler Breeze is entertaining, but perhaps because his vain character plays off as what we saw from Dolph Ziggler just a few short years ago, they haven’t hit upon the magic yet. Perhaps the same could be said for Fandango, who had a WrestleMania appearance right after his initial debut. He’s rarely had a sniff of the upper card ever since.
15 Demote Curtis Axel
In 1988, it took Curt Hennig only a matter of months to distinguish himself from the crowd and establish himself as one of the elite competitors of his generation. Whether as an Intercontinental Champion or showcasing his agility in matches against Hulk Hogan, Mr. Perfect is still recognized as one of the greatest WWE Superstars of all time.
By comparison, his son, Curtis Axel, seemingly has the physical attributes to be a star but he’s now had a rapid-fire evolution of characters and eight years under contract to get over and still hasn’t drawn a dime. Demote Axel to NXT to add a veteran presence to the locker room there, and open up a spot to elevate some overdue rising stars from NXT to the main roster. In the case of Curtis Axel, while he might have an opportunity to use his family name to open doors in Japan, should he leave the company now, he’ll never generate the momentum to earn his spot back in the WWE.
14 Elevate Insanity
The RAW brand has a great start on legitimately fearsome villains with Braun Strowman and Rusev in the mix, but they lack the eerie creepiness that SmackDown offers with the Wyatt Family. Bringing Insanity into the fold on RAW brings some loathsome characters that would add a level of aggression to the tag team division and compliment teams like Gallows and Anderson. They would serve to be a great replacement for the vacancy created with the departure of the Dudley Boyz earlier this year.
Their dominance in the Dusty Rhodes Classic should have been enough to make believers out of most. While they are still on their ascent, there’s a strong possibility of startling audiences to attention and revive the tag team division, which is overdue for change. Let’s not forget that Eric Young himself is one of the most underrated grapplers of our generation – WWE should avoid the same mistake that TNA made by leaving him ignored in the undercard for too long.
13 Hire Cougar Meat
While this team may be little known in the United States as a tandem, it is important that the talent relations department in the WWE take note of this dark horse tag team that could wreak havoc in the company. The team of Kyle Sebastian and Collin Cutler have been creating a commotion on the Canadian Pacific Coast in both singles and tag team competition. Most notably stirring up audiences both in and out of the ring during their recent run.
With their YouTube video series The Meat Market, these two escaped undercard purgatory to attract the attention of critics and promoters alike. Think about the chemistry and hilarity of Edge and Christian, combined with the subtle innuendo of Val Venis and you have a team that can not only deliver between the ropes, but also on camera in a manner that would be a perfect fit on any of the WWE’s brands.
12 Fire Kenny Dysktra and Mikey
Have you ever been out to a night club and seen the middle aged creeper and his wingman hanging out at the end of the bar, still clinging to the days gone by and thinking that they are just what the ladies are looking for? Seeing Kenny and Mikey from the Spirit Squad back in the WWE still sporting the same gear that we couldn’t take seriously a decade ago feels a lot like that. We are currently watching two middle aged dudes latching on to their glory days in the same manner that Married With Children’s Al Bundy waxes eloquently about his days on the football field for Polk High.
Yes, we understand that when you’re running a roster that needs talent for four separate brands, and you need to draw talent from everywhere and even play the nostalgia card from time to time. In this case however, these two cards need to be removed from the deck.
11 Back to the drawing board on the WWE.com Superstars page
There is an unsettling inequality that jumps out at you when you visit WWE.com and scroll through the Superstars page. Conspicuous in their absence are the non-champions from NXT. Now this might not seem like that big of a deal, considering that the focus of the WWE Universe is on their prime time shows RAW and SmackDown. However, when you see that newly signed wrestlers for the Live205 brand who have only been featured on a handful of televised matches are pictured – it sure speaks to the angst that someone might feel on the bottom of the food chain in NXT.
Wrestlers that have been caught in the developmental system for more than a year still don’t even have their picture included as part of the roster. With the rise of NXT as a brand that is selling out arenas, it’s time to include these men and women on the website.
10 Demote Heath Slater
When contract renewals come up and I see that Heath Slater still has a job, the only possible explanation that I can come up with is that he walked in on something he shouldn’t have been witness to. Perhaps one night backstage in an arena somewhere he saw something that he is holding that blackmail card as his insurance policy to ensure that he will remain employed. In Slater we have seen him promoted as a restless up-and-comer in Nexus, a one man band on his own, a three man band as a stable, a man without a country in the brand draft, and most recently as an overly boisterous redneck who’s proud of his double wide trailer.
When you’ve tried to re-start this guy’s career with the fans this many times and still got nothing, it’s time to take this one off life support. It’s not even a “guy we love to hate” but instead, “Ugh – why am I watching this?”
9 Elevate The Revival
We have our fingers crossed that the Revival’s Tag Team Title loss at NXT Takeover in Toronto signals the doors being opened a crack for Dash and Dawson to kick them wide open and declare their arrival on SmackDown. If you’re a long time fan of the sport, this duo will stir up recollections of the tag team scene in the 1980s – an old school throwback. The team would have just as easily fit in with the rosters that were working the territories as they do today in the modern era of professional wrestling.
Their repertoire and movements are reminiscent of tag team wrestling that we saw from Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, Bobby Eaton and Stan Lane, or Steve Williams and Ted DiBiase. You don't sell tag team wrestling by pairing a mismatched combination of solo guys, while leaving the teams you’ve invested in sitting on their thumbs. The Revival will bring about just that for the tag team scene.
8 Hire the Killer Elite Squad
When David Hart Smith was released in 2011, the word around the industry was that the third generation star had the ability between the ropes, but not the charisma on the microphone to be a good fit within the company. While his partner Tyson Kidd remained under contract, Smith was sent back out into the world to re-invent himself. Along with another WWE alum, Lance Archer, Smith has done just that, and they have dominated as a team in both the United States and Japan as the Killer Elite Squad.
Recently claiming the Pro Wrestling Noah Tag Team Titles for a second time, the team is a towering physical presence that would bring a new element to the roster. Think about what the few years in Japan did to re-ignite the career of Luke Gallows in the WWE. Bring back the Killer Elite Squad as villains, assign them to Paul Heyman, and let’s see a side of both of these previous stars that you’ve been missing.
7 Fire James Ellsworth
Okay, okay ... the joke’s over. Sure, at first we were amused by the introduction of James Ellsworth, a fish out of water that sadly represents the stereotype of the independent wrestling scene – an unconditioned, untanned, generic dude in a pair of boots that maybe has been billed as a champion in every promotion that he has appeared. He’s now served his purpose and it’s time to head back to the independents where, if he’s aggressive enough in his efforts to self-promote, he might experience a feast of bookings.
It's not unthinkable, as small organizations look to capitalize on his “fame” to add an “as seen on the WWE” plug on their upcoming event poster. This is no slight on Ellsworth, any one of hundreds of independent wrestlers would love to have the opportunity he’s enjoying right now. But it’s time to pack it in on a character that is destined to become our generation’s Gobbledy Gooker.
6 Back to the drawing board with Natalya
So the diva's revolution becomes a women’s evolution but the opportunities are only selectively administered? While the WWE has had us oohing and aahing over the Bayley and Sasha Banks showdown from the first NXT Takeover event, and we’ve watched the rise of Charlotte, Becky Lynch and others, someone seems to be getting lost in the shuffle. As the ladies are now gaining equal footing to their male counterparts on the roster, Natalya isn't even having her entrance televised some weeks.
Natalya, who is credited behind the scenes by the ladies that are years less experienced than herself for being a locker room captain, seems to be a victim of unfortunate timing. Upon her own introduction to the company, she spent most of her first four years as a valet. She did get a taste of championship success, but even her showdown with Charlotte to legitimize Ric Flair’s daughter to the wrestling community seems to be forgotten. It’s time for Natalya to get her real chance as an integral part of this golden age for women wrestlers.
5 Fire David Otunga
David Otunga on commentary is the audible equivalent to watching paint dry. He’s not funny, he’s not informative and he’s not entertaining. Fans who tuned in for the Survivor Series to be teased with only a brief early appearance by Mauro Ranallo to open the card, then only to be tormented with the forgettable drone of David Otunga throughout the rest of the broadcast had more to be upset about than the shockingly abrupt match between Lesnar and Goldberg.
Otunga is in great shape and was credible in the ring, and his expertise as a graduate of Harvard Law may be an asset to the company in many ways – but on the microphone as a pitchman to sell the product to the masses, this is not a good fit. The day that there are some great ringside commentators assigned to the pre-show panel including Jerry Lawler and Booker T while Otunga is collecting a pay per view payday is truly sinful.
4 Demote The Ascension
Sure, they look like they should be a surefire hit within the WWE environment with their apocalyptic attire and throwback painted faces that remind us of great tag teams like Demolition and the Road Warriors. However, the most important thing to remember about Konnor and Viktor is that they were introduced now almost two years ago with an opening ring interview burying those two former teams and declaring their own dominance. As Kid Rock would say, “It ain’t braggin’ if you do it and you back it up”.
We’ve waited through all of 2015 and are now here at the end of 2016 and not only have we not seen them dominate, we haven’t really seen them factoring into the pay per view situation with the other top earners, have we? The Ascension may have been great in intention, but have bombed in execution. Back to NXT and free up some TV time for teams that the fans want to see.
3 Back to the Drawing Board to open up PPV spots for NXT
Certainly, the internal rivalry between RAW and SmackDown made for an interesting underlying theme at this year’s Survivor Series, but when you are taking advantage of a signature pay per view to showcase the best of each of the company’s brands, don’t forget the popularity of NXT. The night prior, NXT drew a pretty impressive crowd on their own at the Air Canada Centre – a show that would feature none of the main roster headliners. Some of those top NXT talents are generating as strong of a reaction as anyone seen on network television.
Consider the inclusion of select NXT wrestlers for the card at the Royal Rumble, an undercard match at WrestleMania and any forum where the cream of the crop are to be showcased. This is no longer FCW; NXT isn’t just a stomping ground for the greenhorns, there are some road tested talents there that may just blow you away if given the opportunity.
2 Hire Kenny Omega
In the United States, the WWE has maintained a fierce stranglehold on the media’s attention for decades. It’s not uncommon to see a familiar face from the roster on the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine or other popular titles at the newsstand, or making appearances on daytime talk shows. The fact that Kenny Omega, a wrestler with limited exposure in the United States, was able to generate enough attention through his body of work in Japan to attract a Sports Illustrated feature is almost unheard of. On top of that, the independent media is citing him as the hottest free agent in the industry.
Certainly, if you’re looking for references you can do your fact checking in house – A.J. Styles, Nakamura, Luke Gallows, Karl Anderson ... they can all vouch for the talent that lays in wait. Yes, he requested a release from the developmental program a decade ago, but he hasn’t been sitting idle; he has created a brand for himself that is irreverent and intriguing to the world beyond wrestling.
1 Elevate Bobby Roode
Can anyone deny the overwhelming response that Bobby Roode has received in every single appearance since he debuted in NXT? Here is a guy that was close to signing a deal with the WWE in 2002 and when the contract was pulled out from under him, went out to establish his own legacy. It is validating to see him ascend to the spot where he belongs – but his talent is wasted in NXT when he could be an “X” factor talent on either RAW or SmackDown.
Consider this; had Shane McMahon not installed himself in the Survivor Series match implying that he is one of his brand’s top five headliners – what an incredible missed opportunity to play a wildcard and debut the “latest” star to SmackDown, Bobby Roode. But it’s too late to play Monday morning quarterback. Draft him to RAW so we can hear Corey Graves gush enthusiastically about him or call him up to SmackDown to strengthen the World Title mix among Styles, Ambrose and Cena. Either way it’s going to be GLORIOUS!