The Pro Wrestling Future 21–The 21 wrestlers that will lead us into the next generation

El Generico (Sami Zayn) vs. Kevin SteenThe future of professional wrestling.

How many times have you heard that uttered.

It can manifest itself in many ways.

Sometimes it’s based on bloodlines, as it was in November of 1984, when Barry Windham, the son of Blackjack Mulligan debuted with brother-in-law Mike Rotunda in the WWE.

Sometimes it’s based on physique, as it was in 1987, when Lex Luger and Sting debuted within weeks of each other in Jim Crockett promotions’ World Championship Wrestling for the NWA.

Sometimes it’s a natural occurrence, as it was with the 1992 WWE infusion of Razor Ramon and “The Heartbreak Kid,” Shawn Michaels, then in 1993 with Diesel, 1995 with Paul Levesque and Stone Cold Steve Austin, 1996 with The Rock, and 1998 with Kurt Angle.

Sometimes it fails, as it did in 2000, when Eric Bischoff and Vince Russo introduced the “New Blood,” and vacated all of WCW’s titles. Two months later, the group was essentially disbanded, and the final nails were driven into WCW’s future.

There are clearly many more examples of youth infusions over the years, and many more wrestlers that fit into the above categories than I’ve clearly mentioned. There have also been numerous changes to the wrestling industry that have altered the introductions of the new breed of wrestlers into the major federations.

Of course, you could argue that there’s really only one major federation.

During the 80’s and 90’s, the territories were more or less extinguished. When WCW and ECW were bought out by the WWE, it altered developmental dramatically. With territories gone and the secondary wrestling companies gone, the influx of indie promotions took over.

TNA was formed essentially utilizing indie wrestlers and leftovers from WCW, ECW and those that were cut from the WWE, and has more or less been the #2 promotion since then, although its unknown future has left that spot in doubt.

The WWE, under the direction of Triple H, has now created a minor league of sorts with their Developmental and Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, which provides the influx of talent to WWE’s NXT, which has turned into it’s own federation of sorts.

Over the next few days, I’m going to take a close look at several wrestlers that I believe to be the future of professional wrestling. For the sake of this piece, I’m going to look at the WWE as the lone major federation, and TNA, since it’s still televised as of this writing, as the far-distant #2.

They both have national television deals, so their talent has the opportunity to claim their stake on the future of the business.

I’m also going to look at NXT as the #3, understanding that as the developmental “territory” for the WWE, making a name for yourself here may give wrestlers a better shot at stardom than those in TNA, or elsewhere.

While I’m not excluding other indie promotions, such as Ring of Honor, I’m not planning on focusing there because the process to make it big for wrestlers outside of WWE and TNA, to some extent, is to sign a deal with either TNA or WWE developmental. Both roads are long.

This is not a comprehensive list. There are wrestlers, such as Jessicka Havok and Lana and Adam Cole and Charlotte and Drew McIntyre and Jack Swagger and Ricochet and Uhaa Nation and Kazuchika Okada (nice miss TNA) and the Young Bucks and Adrian Neville and Johnny Gargano and Jay Lethal and Michael Elgin and Samoa Joe and many others that will no doubt play a major role in the future of Professionial Wrestling. The WWE seems to have new stars abound, and with TNA trying to reinvent themselves, so do they. Ring of Honor is focused on the youth of professional wrestling, but their road is hazy at the moment.

I’m also okay including World and minor title holders here, as while they are a massive part of the present, they are also keystones to the future. I’m not going to include Randy Orton here though. He’s as young as many of the wrestlers on this list, but seems a lot older, since he debuted in WWE over 12 years ago.

You have to figure he will be a part of the WWE’s future, as will several other wrestlers a lot older. They won’t likely be a part of the next generation, even though they aren’t that far apart from them in age, in some cases.

My point?

This is my prospect board of sorts for the next generation of stars.

#21: Low Ki–I’ve always been a fan of former TNA X-division Champion Low-Ki, and am excited that he’s returning to a weekly televised wrestling program. Not only has Low-Ki returned to Spike, but he’s also apparently become the head agent for the X-division going forward.

I couldn’t be happier.

If you’re reading this, you likely know his background, growing up with ROH, TNA, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Japan, before heading to the WWE and winning NXT as Kaval. He would have a short run there after winning, before heading back Japan, TNA and the indies over the years. He’s really been everywhere and wrestled everyone, so he brings a unique perspectives to the ring.

What’s intriguing about Low-Ki is that he had supposedly retired in October of 2013, according to every major dirt sheet.

He’s been a bit of an enigma over the years, seemingly quitting several different times when things weren’t quite going his way booking-wise, so I’ve always been on the fence with him outside the ring.

Inside the ring, he’s a unique talent.

He’s a TNA original, and in the early days of the weekly PPVs, his feud with Christopher Daniels was stand-out to me. His strong style, size and ability are unique, and what he brought to the early days of TNA helped create the X-division style…that went far beyond size restrictions.

I don’t know that he will ever get beyond TNA at this point, as I’m sure WWE doesn’t want a thing to do with him, but as a booker, if TNA can scratch out a TV-deal with Spike, his career going forward could be interesting. He’s only 34, is clearly okay with getting over other wrestlers at this point, as he seems to be doing right now with his early program heading for the X-division title, and may be able to book the types of matches that can return the X-division to a unit to be proud of.

Samoa Joe is already the champion.

Nice first step.

Now, set up a Low-Ki and Joe feud, that can lend some weight to a belt that’s been hurt over the past several years.

Low-Ki as just a wrestler never seemed to be happy with his bookings. Low-Ki the booker could actually be interesting, as a wrestler.

He’s my one tenuous spot here in my top 21, but wanted to get him in here for his unique-in-ring style, to go along with a run as a TNA booker for a division that really needs to find its roots.

Alright, he’s likely just a personal indulgence, but if the guy ever straightened up his attitude, he could be something special.

#20: Kenta–I’m always tentative when the WWE signs a foreign wrestler, especially from Japan, and especially someone who speaks broken-English.

Kenta really is no different than many of the other Japanese wrestlers the WWE has signed over the years, but the hype that the signing brought forced me to take a closer look.

The WWE signed three major talents over the past month that have been rumored since the start of 2014. The timing likely has a lot to do with both Summerslam and the next six-month buy for the WWE network. The WWE is also expanding into the foreign market in  Japan before the end of the year, so perhaps this signing can be explained that way.

Of course, it may have something to do with Kenta being a really good wrestler.

Kenta is an outsider in the WWE, and Japanese wrestlers have historically had a hard time getting over with Vince McMahon running the show. Think about Funaki and Tajiri and the Ultimo Dragon, among many others that have come to the WWE to die a slow and comedic death.

At only 33, Kenta is a ring veteran, having wrestling for nearly 15 years already…in Japan. Everybody talks about the “WWE-way,” however, and he’ll have to work through NXT before making a debut with the main roster. His style is particularly strong and stiff, with a bunch of striking involved. It’s a style that has been seen recently with Daniel Bryan, but is something that he’ll likely have to smooth out some before he can make a legitimate roster run.

Kenta is a talent, of that you can be sure. He’s very similar in style to Bryan as I’ve mentioned before, as well as CM Punk, who quite literally stole his finishing move here in the states. That’s right, Kenta’s finisher is the “Go to Sleep,” and Punk didn’t even bother to change the name. He also was the innovator of Bryan’s running knee, so it could be interesting to see what Kenta brings tot he table going forward.

Will he use his old moves in a heel run against the thieves, or will he create new moves?

Could be interesting, if done correctly.

He’s a small wrestler, but is truly the creator of many like-sized American grappling moves.

I’m just not sure how a Japanese wrestler who doesn’t speak a lot of English translates to WWE booking. It could be amazing…or not…

#19: Kevin Steen–Steen just recently signed with the WWE, which was a bit of a surprise to me, since he’s clearly not a guy that has the WWE-look. Of course, neither did Mick Foley.

If you haven’t seen Steen wrestle, he’s the rare big guy that can wrestle with all types, big or small. You’ll see that again with another one of the wrestlers coming up on this list, and it’s the type of wrestler that can succeed in the current culture of the WWE.

Steen has had amazing feuds with several current WWE wrestlers, including the top hand in NXT, Sami Zayn. He had several classic matching with Zayn’s El Generico persona, and has faced off against many others on this list, including Cesaro and Seth Rollins, to name a few.

The saga of Steen and El Generico is phenomenal though…that involved masks and tables and careers and ladders.

What makes Steen special, though, is what could take him straight through this top 21 list like a bullet. He has an excessively versatile arsenal of wrestling moves, including top rope moves (frog splashes and afisherman buster and moonsaults and a 450 splash), multiple package piledrivers, and the Steenalizer, which I love.

There’s a bit of Scott Steiner in his arsenal, and there’s a bit of Scott Steiner in his shoot promos.

There are also rumors that he’s getting into some shape, which could really alter the game in his favor. His latest pictures show a much more slim figure for “Mr. Wrestling,” and I can’t wait to see a potential feud with Sami Zayn, or perhaps a partnership that carries them into WWE together, only to see a break-up and menacing feud.

It could be special.

While I’m interested in all three of the signing triumverate of Steen, KENTA and Devitt, I do believe that Steen has everything right now to be special, and the look is just icing. This #19 ranking may be WAY too low.

I had to put these WWE NXT signings lower though, not knowing what the WWE machinations might do.

#18: Fergal “Prince” Devitt–Devitt is admittedly the wrestler I know least about on this list, although he seems to fit into this new run of smallish wrestlers with a stronger style, similar to Daniel Bryan and CM Punk.

What’s most interesting about Devitt is that he truly doesn’t have a lot of experience with many current WWE wrestlers, so he’s similar to KENTA in that regard.

Devitt made his name wrestling for New Japan Pro Wrestling, and most recently, was the kingpin of the Bullet Club, which is currently being fronted by TNA Original, A.J. Styles.

Devitt has been the talk of the smarky wrestling world over the past several months after leaving NJPW, as he was rumored to be coming to the WWE since the day he left. The Irish-born star had led a rather humorous twitter campaign leading up to the signing.

It’s this energy that has many wrestling fans excited that he can be carry his vast energy and aggression into the WWE and be successful. He essentially lived in Japan since 2005, and was massively popular with the Japanese faithful.

Devitt has all of the questions that many other smaller wrestlers have, including fellow signee, Kenta. He’s small and explosive, and he fits in the mold of the flavor of the day, Daniel Bryan. But he has several things going for him.

1. The WWE clearly sees him as something more than a quick hit to get ratings in Europe and specifically, Great Britain. They already have Sheamus, a fellow Irish wrestler, so it’s clear that Devitt wasn’t just a guy they had to sign to pick up some views. He won’t hurt, but he wasn’t necessary.

2. His aggressive ring-style seems to be something different than anyone else is doing right now. Don’t get me wrong…he certainly has a style the is reminiscent of Punk and Bryan, but he goes above and beyond with his current arsenal of moves. Check out his flying double stomp off the top rope. I know this is a comparison that will scare some people, but there’s some Benoit in his wrestling-style, that I personally miss. I just don’t know how the WWE would feel about that, and it will be interesting to see how they alter it.

3. The WWE went after him, and by all indications, went after him hard. I want you to think about this. Rumors were abound that Devitt was about to win the IWGP Heavyweight title. This title is widely regarded as the SECOND biggest title in the World, next to the WWE title. Devitt left prior to this, and Styles, who took over Devitt’s role as leader of the Bullet Club won the title on his first night. While he didn’t sign with the WWE for several months, it’s fairly clear that something happened with the WWE for Devitt to give up a chance at a title he held in high regards.

If you can’t tell, I’m fairly high on Devitt and Steen, and the only reason why I don’t have them higher on this list is because I haven’t seen what WWE has planned for them. I think Triple H will take care of these guys, but you just never know.

It’s hard to ruin special, and Devitt and Steen are both that.

#17: Paige–There was a lot of buzz surrounding Paige after a successful NXT run had fans crowing about her potential. She made her entrance to the main roster the day after Wrestlemania 30, and defeated AJ Lee for the WWE Divas title.

Instead of sending her career into the stratosphere, her career more or less began grinding.

There are a ton of reasons for the struggles. She didn’t really have a gimmick as a face. AJ lost the title and then disappeared to be with Punk. The Divas division was in a bit of disarray because of the Total Divas show, and the focus that seemingly never pointed in her direction. And…did she ever have a face promo?

Then something funny happened.

She turned heel.

Paige can wrestle. She grew up in the business, as was documented in the video “Fighting with my Family.” She’s got a presence in the ring that is undeniable, and she has a unique look. She knows moves, is creative, and brings something the Diva divisions sorely needed, a foil for A.J. Lee.

The problem with her face turn is that she wasn’t like she was in NXT…a bad-ass.

Welcome back Paige.

Over the past several weeks, Paige has morphed back into that heel-esque bad-ass, and on the mic, while not quite a promo machine, you can see that she certainly can do the job.

Her feud and matches with Emma in WWE NXT was fantastic, and now she has Lee as a foil. It could be something special. The irony here is that even while these two fantastic in-ring performers are building a fantastic feud, they are playing backseat to Stephanie vs. Brie Bella, which has had main event runs on RAW.

Either way, Paige has an immense amount of talent, and hopefully it will continue to come out over the coming weeks and years. With Charlotte about to enter the mix, this could get fun.

#16: Sami Zayn–If you don’t watch WWE NXT, you should.

While many point to several other wrestlers as being the centerpiece of NXT programming, the heart and soul of the entire show belongs to Zayn right now, a spectacular high-flier who understands the ebbs-and-flows of a wrestling match.

Prior to wrestling as Zayn, he was El Generico in several other indie promotions, but most famously with Ring of Honor. As I mentioned a few wrestlers ago, the roots of his greatness lie in a years-long feud with Kevin Steen.

It was absolutely special, and worth a YouTube watch, if you haven’t paid attention to all things indie in the past.

What he brought to those organizations wasn’t necessarily different from any other athletically gifted wrestler in the ring. Like most indie promotions, Generico spent his time high-flying in a luchador-like fashion, hitting big move after big move.

Did he stand out?

To some extent.

Did many think he was special?

To some extent.

Once he got to WWE though, it’s easy to see why he really does stand out, and it’s more than just the jaw-dropping moves you can often see at many independent shows across the country.

What Zayn understands more than anything else is what makes a good wrestler. It’s why Antonio Cesaro will show up on this list, and it’s what makes Daniel Bryan one of the top WWE superstars. Zayn understands how to tell a story. Zayn understands how to sell. Zayn understands that to be a good wrestler, you have to make a name, but to become a great wrestler, you have to be complete.

In six simple words: Sami Zayn can tell a story.

His matches with Cesaro have #MOTY written all over them. He’s had amazing matches against Leo Kruger (Adam Rose), Adrian Neville, Bo Dallas…and really…anyone he faces off against.

What makes Bryan special? He makes everyone else he wrestles against special. Same with Michaels. Zayn has that quality. He understands that winning isn’t as important as getting over, and sometimes that means losing.

Zayn isn’t the NXT title holder. Why? Chasing the title draws better…ask Daniel Bryan. Ask Shawn Michaels. Ask Roman Reigns, who likely will have a run of over a year before he sniffs that WWE title.

Zayn’s match with Cesaro at NXT Arrival should be the match of the year. The story was amazing. The wrestlers spent the entire match giving back-and-forth, the way any GREAT match should go. Zayn lost that match, but came out of it the winner. Cesaro hugged him, and Zayn stayed in the ring for the ovation that followed.

He didn’t win a title that night…but boy…did he get a lot more of that.

That’s story-telling. That’s why Zayn’s great.

Zayn isn’t great on the mic, and he is small, and in many ways, he’s a lot like Daniel Bryan, which is likely a hindrance in his push upwards. He does draw people in with his mic-work, but I do wonder if it’s something WWE gets.

He really does “have it all.” Could he be a CM Punk? Could he be a Daniel Bryan? Can he be a superstar?

He can tell THAT story, I just don’t know if the WWE will let him.

#15: Luke Harper–I want to have Harper higher up on this list, but the simple fact that he’s 34-years old and relatively new to the big leagues keeps me from ranking him any higher. He’s polished…well…as polished as a big, bruising 6’5″ powerhouse can be. The WWE has created him as one of Bray Wyatt’s “family,” so it remains to be seen what kind of push he’ll ever get as a singles wrestler, but there are certain intangibles that I simply love about this guy.

The first time I saw “Harper” on the Independent scene was back in 2008 when he was still wrestling as Brodie Lee. I thought I was seeing the reincarnation of Bruiser Brody, the 1980’s brawler who had worked several of the major territories before he was killed in a now-infamous stabbing in Puerto Rico. Harper has many of the same in-ring intangibles that Brody did, and that’s not a compliment given lightly. Brody’s feuds over the years drew money, and it will be interesting to see what happens when Harper finally moves away from being a back-up to Bray, and moves into singles wrestling.

Delusional comparisons aside, Luke Harper is one of the best big-men in the WWE right now. Harper’s “look” really hasn’t changed since his Indie days, which served him well when the WWE was looking for backwater, cult-family followers for Bray Wyatt. His dirty tank-top and roughshod jeans have been his gear of choice for years, and it fits his menacing approach in the ring.

What Harper is in the ring is vicious. His base work is a forward, strong style wrought with uppercuts and clotheslines and a never-stop mentality. He’s created a monster-like persona, and while he isn’t being developed as the next Undertaker (and you thought I was delusional with the Brody reference), but there are many of the same intangibles with the undercurrent of his make-up. To go along with an impressive arsenal of big-man moves are the unexpected explosive moves that take him to the next level. His dropkick is high and tight, and he’s not afraid to dive through the ropes to the outside of the ring.

He really does have it all in the ring.

What makes him special though, and a top ten prospect?

It’s what makes every good ring performer special…his character.

He’s scary.

While Bray Wyatt can work a mic in a special way, Harper has done some things without the mic that really stand out to me. Pay attention to him the next time Bray Wyatt is working his promos. Harper is in the background, wide-eyed and crazy looking. His fingers are crazily brushing up against his nose like Arnie, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He’s like a caged beast ready to do something to whoever might be out there.

…and he can work the mic too.

All of the pieces are there for Harper to become something special in the years to come in the WWE, as long as Vince McMahon and Triple H understand what they have, and give him the proper push.

Can Harper become something special in an era when many of the ‘Big-Man’ wrestlers are over-40, and ready-to-retire?

Can Harper become a foil to Bray Wyatt, when he ultimately makes his move to face?

Can Harper be special?

I say he already is, he just needs a break.

Tomorrow I’ll take a look at the next group of wrestlers, which include some some champions, some TNA, and some dust and some Russians.

3 replies »

  1. AJ is not the leader of Bullet Club. Karl Anderson took over the leadership role after Devitt was removed. AJ might be a bigger name and the IWGP Heavyweight Champion but he’s not the leader of the faction.

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