And here we stand at the doorway of our top 7 compelling figures that will carry wrestling into the future. Over the past few months, we’ve talked bloodlines, physique, youth and talent. We’ve talked feuds and mic work, and we’ve talked potential and plateaus. We’ve talked accidental pushes, and purposeful failures, and we’ve seen a list of 21 grow from the ashes.
Is this an infusion of youth? In some cases it is.
But mostly, it’s a group of wrestlers that bring a unique skill set to wherever they are, and with that skill set, take their company further than it was before they started there.
Some are prospects.
Some have been prospects that have never gotten their shot.
Some were stars before they were stars, and are finally getting their push.
All continue to be interesting, and with the right push, could become something special.
It’s a new world out there to all fans of professional wrestling compared to the way things were in the 80’s and 90’s. Wrestling used to be based on territories, and then on a two company system, and its uniqueness stood out when TV was all about the BIG 3 problems, and even in the early stages of cable.
Since then, the WWE has placed a stranglehold on professional wrestling…er…sports entertainment…as a business, and when the business lost it’s “reality” and added the internet, it’s gotten…well…complicated. While there are companies out there fighting the good fight, like TNA and Ring of Honor, there really isn’t a second company that can compete with the behemoth known as the WWE, even with all their network problems.
Now, with HHH’s and WWE’s developmental center built, it’s possible that WWE could contain everything within the confines of Stamford, Connecticut, and Orlando, Florida.
Then there’s NJPW, which seems to be making strides as the second best company in the world. What happens on January 4th, with Jeff Jarrett promoting a PPV that will be viewable here in the states, could prove to be a game-changer for talent going forward.
We just don’t know yet.
While my focus here is on the WWE and TNA (at the time of this writing, TNA is still on TV, and as irrelevant as they are because of pretapings, they are still on a major-ish channel, and in front of a million fans ever week…although that is about to change), ROH and NJPW are represented here by several wrestlers that have spent time in one or both.
Here are my top seven who are perched in a position to change the game, thus completing my three-part, top-21 list.
Here are your top seven…
#7: Rusev–Right now, Alexander Rusev has everything you could want in a budding career. He has a gimmick that’s being heavily pushed but the WWE powers-that-be. He has an amazingly beautiful manager in Lana, who also doubles as his voice for promos. He even has a title now, and the WWE used his title victory to help sell their flailing network. Rusev isn’t the perfect wrestler, but there is something there, and his promise continues to grow.
As a team, Rusev and Lana have a shot to be special.
Normally, I’d say holding that U.S. Title was a negative, but the WWE has really done an amazing job building Rusev from an NXT talent to a legitimate potential main eventer, title included. He’s not there yet, but in early October the WWE brought The Rock out to share the ring with the Russian/Bulgarian duo, so it’s clear that they have big plans for him.
Somehow, the WWE has made the Anti-American, Cold War, Russian motif important 25-years after the fact. That’s no small feat for a company that can’t seem to tell a basic story well. Sure, much of that has to do with Lana’s solid mic work in overselling Putin and the Russians, but Rusev’s brooding physicality in the ring is the real draw here. The pair of them together though could go a long, long way.
Rusev’s slow build to the U.S. title has been fun to watch, and giving him that particular belt was the right thing to do. It somehow gives that title relevance again, without even having a match.
It’s the U.S. Belt.
Rusev hates the U.S.
Does it get any more basic than that?
Rusev started his build with Big E, another “monster” that was losing steam. This “feud” was simply used to get him over. The major turning point for Rusev was when he turned his attention to Jack Swagger and Zeb Coulter, which really blew up his angle. Swagger, a misguided talent who has blown two pushes so far, seemed to find his footing as the pro-American face to Rusev’s heel. It couldn’t have worked more perfectly.
The Swagger matches were fantastic, and helped elevate his work in the ring. Then, he then moved to Mark Henry, and while the angle was odd, it worked to give him more credibility. Beating Henry made him a bigger monster.
It was effective, even though the Henry side of it was annoying.
Then came The Big Show, who is a permanent fixture at the bottom of main event status for the WWE. Another perfect step for Rusev, and another “monster” notch on his belt. Swagger, Henry and Show were all former Heavyweight Champions, and while none were as prominent as they were when they were title holders, it’s still an important step.
Then came his championship victory over Sheamus, who is clearly a solid, lower-level main eventer in the eyes of the front office, which has in turn, likely bridged the same gap for Rusev. This is being cemented when the Bulgarian joined Team Authority in this month’s upcoming Survivor Series.
Rusev is now perched to really take off heading to Wrestlemania, and if the WWE was smart, they would keep him rolling until he somehow won the WWE World Heavyweight championship. It may take more than a year, but it’s the right thing to do. If he’s built as the Anti-American, and starts taking all the title belts with that angle, whoever beats him becomes a top face of the company.
If it’s me, Rusev is the perfect return feud for Daniel Bryan, and could work to get Bryan over quickly, and would lift Rusev to main event status.
Rusev isn’t perfect, but he seems to be fashioning himself as the modern day version of Nikita Koloff. Koloff’s heal run against Magnum T.A. in the mid-80’s lifted both wrestlers to the top of the NWA. Rusev is being built in a similar fashion. Like Rusev, Koloff’s first singles title was the United States Championship belt, and while Nikita’s career never reached the pinnacle of his sport as a World Champion, it was because of disinterest, not talent.
If Rusev stays interested, he will reach the pinnacle.
#6: A.J. Lee–Is there a better female wrestler in the business than A.J. Lee?
Likely, but she’s in the conversation.
Is there a better mic worker in the female divsions?
Don’t think so.
What makes Lee special isn’t her various runs as Diva champion, but her very current “fanboyish” persona that she’s carried as both a heel, and a face, and all areas in between. There’s truly never been a Diva like her before, and she likely could be the direction the company moves to in the future, as we’ve seen in recent month with Paige, who seems to fit into that same category.
Lee’s demented, crazy-stalker character that she developed through 2012 and 2013 catapulted her to the top of the Diva’s division, and to be fair, so did her wrestling ability. While the WWE does get a lot wrong, they moved her along at just the right speed.
To say that the women’s division was floundering when Lee began her arc upward would be the understatement of the century, but Lee’s character energized the division with personality that it really hadn’t seen in years. In many ways, her petite size is unique, but her in-ring ability is unquestioned.
What’s really hurt Lee over the years though has been the lack of a real rival to push her to that next level. Was Kaitlyn a big-time feud?
Do people even remember who Kaitlyn was?
What about Tamina Snuka?
Natalya was a good match-up for her, but WWE had devalued Natalya so much that the matches never really carried any weight.
Her record-breaking title run was a steady stream of non-descript “Total Divas,” and her most memorable scenes in WWE were with Daniel Bryan and Dolph Ziggler, who she interacted with in many memorable ways. But her wrestling was often overlooked.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Paige has been the perfect match-up, it has been compelling. Once they did the double-turn, with A.J. as the smart-ass face and Paige as the sardonic heel, this feud gathered legs. Their swapping of titles may have hurt the championship a bit, but we all knew Lee was the person that should be the champion. Paige will get there, and she got her taste of the championship gold, but this division needs to revolve around A.J. Lee
While the feud is curtailed a bit as we speak, I would have to imagine that it’s always going to be a few feet from the surface of happening. For now, A.J. Lee goes up against Nikki Bella, and will likely lose the best in the process. Nikki Bella, no matter how “experts” shake it out, isn’t a good wrestler, but unfortunately, they likely need that belt to continue the Bella Twins feud. Once that vets itself out though, look for Paige and A.J. Lee to be next in line, with A.J. shining through.
I haven’t even really talked about her mic work, which may be the bet the division has ever seen. She’s worked as the GM, and as the voice of several wrestlers. She’s gone up against Bryan and Ziggler, and has been able to outshine both.
She just needs Paige to continue to step up, or perhaps Charlotte, but that’s for another day.
How will she rank in the grand scheme of Female Professional Wrestlers? If she’s continues on the current path, and doesn’t quit, like her husband C.M. Punk, she is definitively a top ten talent.
#5: Ethan Carter III–Boy did the WWE miss out on this guy.
In 2006, Michael Hutter debuted in the WWE, and over the next seven years would throw everything that he had into every character that he portrayed. First, as Hutter, and then rebooted as Derrick Bateman for NXT.
Seriously, go and check out his WWE work on YouTube. What you’ll immediately notice is that regardless of what he was given, EC3 was full-on, all the time.
While it was clear that the WWE didn’t quite know what to do with Bateman during his run as a face/sidekick to Daniel Bryan, it was equally clear that Bateman didn’t care. Bateman’s talent as a wrestler was evident, but what really stood out what his ability to talk on the mic, and he did it with one of the best wrestlers in the business today.
With Bryan, he portrayed a comedic side with an American gimmick that he had cultivated with John Cena. Some of his best WWE work was during a double date with Bryan and the Bellas in which he pushed “Chicks….and America.” Bateman showed up on the date wearing a suit with American-Flag pants that he said he purchased on “Badd Street.” The date ended when Nikki Bella spilled champagne on the aforementioned pants. He stormed out with a classic, “See you Never.”
It was classic television, and the “WWE Universe” absolutely loved it, popping like crazy when Bateman appeared.
But it didn’t get him anywhere. When the WWE released him in 2013, TNA didn’t waste any time in bringing him in and giving him a prominent role in their company as Ethan Carter III, Dixie’s nephew, and a self-proclaimed 1-percenter.
Think about that for a moment. This is a guy that’s new to their business, and a guy that hadn’t really had even a moment in the sun with the Main Roster in WWE.
TNA put him with the owner, and brought him in at Bound for Glory, their Wrestlemania of sorts.
While ECIII brought his infamous humor with him from the WWE, what he took to the extreme was the fact that he was a bad guy. While he’s certainly popular in TNA circles, make no bones about it, he’s 100% heel. How many of those are going around these days?
While Carter hasn’t had a run with a title yet, he’s clearly been earmarked as the franchise of TNA. While several other stars have either left the company or been shown the door, Carter has continued his push to the top, and has done amazing things with the ball he’s been given. He’s worked programs with Sting, Kurt Angle and Bully Ray, and looked like gold against all three, who are all arguably top 50 wrestlers all time, even if they all are a bit past their prime years.
He has the look and physique of a champion, and has the in-ring ability to go with it. While he’s an incredible worker, like A.J. Lee, it’s his promo skills that truly make him stand out. He has a different cadence than anyone else in the business, and he has the inate abilty to put the crowd in his hand, and manipulating them at every stop.
Not only can he talk, but he has the perfect package of annoyance as the spoiled rich kid, turned “I’m going to kick your ass anyways” attititude. He has the clothing and the mannerisms that really push him over the edge with TNA crowds. If I were to comp him to anyone as a character, it would be the Shane-O Mac character in the WWE, except Carter is a full-time wrestler. While McMahon was really good, Carter has a chance to be something special.
Somehow TNA did what the WWE couldn’t. They created a persona that certainly resonated with Hutter, and he’s jumped in with both feet, as he’s done with everything that’s been handed to him over the years.
While he was lost in the shuffle in the WWE, he’s risen straight to the top in TNA.
He’s helped put over Dixie as a heel.
His partnership with Rockstar Spud was truly special during their run together, and provided heelish laughs on a weekly basis. I’m not sure there was anything better than those two every single week, title or not.
He’s shown a sardonically humorous side, but in matches with Kurt Angle and especially Bully Ray, he’s shown a tenacious and brutal side as well.
He’s a superstar…period.
It’s my belief that TNA’s plan is to ultimately put Carter in a feud with current champion Bobby Roode once the new year turns over. If that’s the case, look for Carter to win the title as a heel, and have a long run as the Champion. My hope is that they keep him heel, and utilize him in much the same way that the NWA and later WCW utilized Ric Flair. If TNA attaches their flag to Hutter/Bateman/Carter, the sky is the limit on how far they could go.
Let’s just hope he gets the chance.
#4: Roman Reigns–At one point, Roman Reigns was the #1 rated wrestler on this list. Like Bray Wyatt, Reigns is a multi-generational wrestler. Like Bray Wyatt, there are parts to Reigns’ game that just don’t add up.
The minute that I saw Roman Reigns on NXT, I thought, “this guy is going to be a star.”
When Reigns got his first NXT push, it was as “The Thoroughbred,” with an “I’m better than you” gimmick. In all honestly, it looked like they were going to go in the same direction with Reigns that TNA went with Ethan Carter, just without the humor.
For those that have followed wrestling over the years, one of the best debuts in all of wrestling since 1980 was Lex Luger with the NWA. Luger was promoted as the future, was made an associate of the best version of the Four Horseman there ever was, and eventually took over the spot of Ole Anderson. Luger was special in that role, and during that first stretch of his career, it looked like he was going to become the next major superstar.
Reigns bought into a similar gimmick in NXT hook, line and sinker, and had it continued, I think he ultimately would have brought it up to WWE with a lot of fanfare. His few opportunities to promo with that character were pretty good, were right in his wheelhouse. He did wear trunks back then, showcasing his physique, and I was hoping he would move back to that once he left the shield.
As far as wrestlers go, he was as RAW as you can get. So they put him with Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins, who had indy backgrounds and could carry much of the match and mic work, while Reigns could do quick damage, and say few words.
But he looked the part.
His run with the Shield was special, and over their year-plus together, Reigns slowly but surely was groomed as the de facto leader, taking the mantle from Ambrose at some point after he and Rollins lost their tag team championships. When the Shield turned face, Reigns was in control, plain and simple. He wasn’t great on the mic, but you could sense something there. He didn’t have an arsenal of moves, but you could sense something there too.
Once Daniel Bryan was injured, Reigns moved up to a top spot. Everything was there for the taking. He had signature moves. He looked like he could run over a truck. He had that brilliant entrance.
Then something happened.
While Ambrose and Rollins both continued to evolve, Reigns stayed exactly the same. Every match looked the same. Every promo was clearly canned. The fans that supported his push to the top, began to question whether or not he was ready.
You know your character is in trouble when people begin talking about an injury that puts you out for months as a good thing. Reigns went down, and many breathed a sigh of relief, since it would allow Reigns to perhaps reinvent his character. He needs to work the mic better, but I think that’s WWE’s fault for writing his promos. When he is doing interviews, he’s funny and personable.
Everything he isn’t with the cameras in front of him.
He’s still coming out to the Shield music, which needs to change. He needs his own music.
He’s still wearing that Shield getup, which covers his entire body in black. It was cool for awhile, but it’s time to showcase that special physique.
That’s a lot of fixing for a guy that’s in the top five. Thing is, if they fix it, they’ll have their next superstar for years to come.
If they don’t?
#3: Bray Wyatt–Bray Wyatt is in the top five, and he absolutely deserves to be. When I started this poll several months ago, you could have made a case that he should be #1. Things have changed, if only slightly, but there are warning signs that Wyatt and the WWE will have to address if Wyatt is to become a lasting superstar.
We all know about Wyatt’s pedigree. His father is former NWA and WWF superstar Mike Rotunda, and his mother Stephanie is the sister to WWE hall of famer Barry Windham. His real name, Windham Lawrence Rotunda, is to honor both the Windham and Rotunda sides of his bloodline.
He was born to wrestle.
In his previous WWE incarnations, he portrayed Alex Rotunda and then Duke Rotunda, before debuting on NXT as Husky Harris. he had a brief run with the Nexus, but Randy Orton punted him right back to FCW. His Harris character would remain for another few months, wrestling with is brother (Bo Dallas) and claiming a couple of FCW tag championships along the way, but his best work was yet to come.
Wyatt debuted in early 2012 on NXT, and was clearly a different wrestler than he was as Husky Harris. He tore his pectoral muscle, but out of that, came the Wyatt family. Wyatt began working the mic for his minions, and what came was absolute brilliance. His promo work was nothing short of spectacularly creepy. In some of the best vignettes since the Undertaker and Chris Jericho, Wyatt portrayed a personality never before seen on WWE television. The character was rich and full of depth, and he single-handedly gotten over both Luke Harper and Erick Rowan, and the backwoods weirdness of the three was simply special.
He has also had some amazing matches, both against John Cena and the Shield, but is he always that good? While his Last Man Standing match with Cena was one of the top ten or fifteen matches of the year, I didn’t care much for their Steel Cage match at Extreme Rules. While he had several good matches with Chris Jericho, they just didn’t resonate with the crowd. People didn’t buy that feud, and while you can blame smarks partially for that, it’s up to the wrestlers to take it to the next level.
What’s my point?
Wyatt has to be something more than a promo. He has to be something more than a creepy guy walking in the backwoods and abandon barns.
He has to be able to wrestler.
He’s often compared to The Undertaker thanks to his persona, but where they dramatically differ is their in-ring work. While I’ve heard some complaints of Taker’s early work, he was always a top notch wrestler. Bray Wyatt has the blood-lines. Bray Wyatt has the mic ability.
But does Bray Wyatt have the in-ring ability to be special? He’s working a main event feud right now with Dean Ambrose, who can talk and work. How this feud turns out could determine if Wyatt stays at the top of this list, or begins to slide down.
The problem though are the angles they are choosing for Wyatt. While his promos are interesting and compelling, do they really tell the tale of why he wants to take on these wrestlers? What’s going on with the Ambrose feud? Why did he interfere in the match?
Give Wyatt a black and white angle, and let the fans in on the secret.
It can happen with Ambrose, if they let it. It’s not make or break time for this character, but it is time that it moves forward. If they do, Wyatt could be the most compelling heel (or face) in the company.
#2: Seth Rollins–I just love Seth Rollins. I love everything about him. I love his look. I love his workmanship in the ring, and I even love his promo work in the situation that he’s in now. This is a guy that may be a top four or five worker right now, understands timing and most importantly, has an amazing presence in the ring.
In a lot of ways, Rollins reminds me of a young Shawn Michaels, when the original Heartbreak Kid that knew he was better than you, but wasn’t afraid to hide behind Diesel or Psycho Sid either.
If you go back to Magnus and his run as champ in TNA, you saw them build Magnus as a wimp, a paper champion. While the WWE is skirting that with Rollins, he continually steps up to the challenge as a wrestler. Yes, he gets out of finishes, but he also doesn’t back down.
It’s a really good combination.
What really catches my eye with Rollins is that he’s got this swagger about him, and now that he’s a heel, has grabbed that “chip on his shoulder” quality and put it into every move.
Like Jericho, and now, like Dolph Ziggler, Rollins’ greatest asset isn’t his offense, even though he’s a top ten WWE guy in that regard. It’s his ability to sell. Watch him in his next match at Survivor Series. If he gets punched, watch his reaction. If he gets hit with a finisher, watch him do everything he can to convince us he’s hurt.
He had amazing matches as a member of a three-man tag with the Shield, and as a tag team as well. In NXT, he was the first NXT champion, and trust me on this, HHH didn’t put that belt on someone that he didn’t really think about.
He’s had amazing matches with every top performer, and like Michaels, he always makes them look like a million bucks. His matches with Daniel Bryan were borderline masterpieces, and you could see a feud between these two down the road being pretty special.
While some critique his mic skills, I’m on the opposite side of the coin. When he’s in front of the mic, he looks like he owns it, and he legitimately pisses people off. He’s pretty compelling, with that scratchy voice, and he clearly wants the ball handed to him. My one knock on his mic work is that he seems relatively monotone, which is the complete opposite of where he was with NXT.
He also has that look.
As we speak, Seth Rollins is perhaps the top heel. I see that run going on for a long time. In the end though, he will turn face, just like Shawn Michaels. And when he does, his heights will know no bounds. Look for the Rollins and Ambrose feud to dominate wrestling over the next ten years, and be thankful for it.
It’s going to be something special.
Imagine if Michaels had stayed around those four years after Stone Cold took the belt off him. Yeah, it could be that special.
It could be real special.
#1: Dean Ambrose–Thank you Roman Reigns. Thank you Daniel Bryan.
I’m sure that when Ambrose put his career together, he didn’t plan on climbing on the injuries of others to get his push, but when the opportunity presented itself, Ambrose grabbed it and took off.
Well, maybe he did plan on climbing on the injuries of others. Would it really surprise you if Ambrose didn’t do something to these guys in a back alley? That’s not WWE’s creation…that’s all Ambrose.
No, I mean he’s legitimately crazy.
Ambrose has always been charismatic. Ambrose has always been an amazing worker and seller. What really puts Ambrose in the #1 slot though is the simple fact that he’s the best mic worker in the world right now. His cadence and demeanor with the mic is original and fresh, which is odd in this day and age. Perhaps ECIII is his only current equal on the list. His promos aren’t a mystery, but they are every bit as scary as Bray Wyatt’s.
While many focus on his similarities to Brian Pillman, the second I saw him wrestle, I thought “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. There’s something about his anger that truly transcribes being a heel.
He’s just a bad ass because he is.
In Rollins, Reigns and Wyatt, there are flaws to their brilliance. In Ambrose his flaws are his brilliance.
His anger makes him crazy. His crazy makes him unpredictable. His unpredictable makes him angry. His angry makes him pure gold.
I’ve already mentioned the biggest draw in professional wrestling history in Stone Cold, as well as Brian Pillman in comparing Ambrose, but that’s not all. He also gets compared often to Roddy Piper and Terry Funk. All are Hall of Famer, and he truly has traits of each.
It’s hard to explain his ring work, because it’s manic. He’s aggressive, and knows all the moves, but they have the feel of a train wreck. He sells as well as Rollins, but his facial expressions take them to the next level.
Like Rusev, who got to work with The Rock, Ambrose was put in the ring with Jake “The Snake” Roberts, and has been in the ring with the Undertaker as well. This is a guy that main guys want to wrestle with because of his work, and his ability to elevate whoever he’s with.
Where he really stands apart from his fellow Shield teammates, but shares with Bray Wyatt, is that people remember Dean Ambrose BEFORE he steps into a ring, and I have to give the WWE credit for making him a face. I didn’t see it coming. As a face, a true tweener, and not one that’s built, Ambrose will transcend the WWE World Heavyweight title.
As villain or face, Ambrose will become the best there is in the business.
Through all the comparisons, there’s never been anyone truly like him.
All rankings are subjective and literally built for discussion. Don’t be afraid to talk about it here. Since it literally took me three months to complete this piece because of time constraints on my part, I will reissue this in a couple of weeks with some shuffling and adding. I’ll add bios for each, as I get them.
Jim Pete is a founder and Managing Editor at Everybody Hates Cleveland, a former Senior Editor and Columnist at Indians Baseball Insider, and used to have fun putting his friends in hour-long head locks. Follow him if you would like to understand the Zen of pro-wrestling viewing on twitter@JimPeteEHC, and follow our website twitter @evrybdyhatescle. If you do, you’ll be able to create your own Survivor Series team going up against our site team.