Since capturing the WWE Championship at Survivor Series last November, CM Punk has proved himself to be a fighting champion by overcoming every obstacle he's encountered. With successful title defenses over the likes of Alberto Del Rio, The Miz, Chris Jericho and even Daniel Bryan, Punk has quickly restored prestige into the dying title and become the hottest commodity the company has to offer in the process.
Should Punk pull out yet another title victory at the No Way Out pay-per-view next month, he will exceed Triple H's lengthy 210 day reign as the longest reigning champ in the PG era set back in 2008. If the Straightedge Superstar walks out of East Rutherford, New Jersey on June 17 still WWE Champion, who will be next in line for a shot at WWE's golden prize?
Be sure to keep in mind that the following list of candidates doesn't solely included who's worthy of the title shot—since Superstars such as John Cena and Chris Jericho have already had their respective shots—but rather potential feuds I hope to see Punk engage in over the strap this coming summer.
Although CM Punk's sights are set on Daniel Bryan at the moment, Kane has somehow found his way into this ruthless rivalry as well. It's still unclear whom Kane is allies with since he's attacked both Internet darlings in recent weeks, but he's surely made an impact in doing so.
That being said, I sincerely hope he isn't added into the WWE Championship match at No Way Out that appears to be between Punk and Bryan for now. Kane can rightfully receive his shot, but only in due time.
A few weeks ago on SmackDown, Punk and Kane contested an extremely solid match that left me anticipating more from the former ECW Champions. Remember, these familiar foes were once tag team partners down in the Land of Extreme, so the history is certainly there for a rivalry that could be happening sooner rather than later.
While this selection may come in as a bit of a shocker, The Miz is certainly deserving of another run in the WWE Championship picture. Although Punk and Miz have brawled a handful of times over the course of the last year, they haven't been given enough time to truly shine either in the ring or on the mic.
Five years ago, Punk and Miz were involved in a heated rivalry over the once-active ECW Championship. Now, the two have battled over a more prestigious prize in the WWE title, clashing at both the WWE TLC and Elimination Chamber events in recent months.
Based on their near 10-minute encounter on the March 12 edition of Raw, Punk and Miz could easily provide an entertaining main event matchup if given enough time. Sure, Miz might not even be on television most of the time these days, but there's no better way to relaunch the former reality star's career than to insert him in a championship chase against the WWE's top dog.
Although he hasn't been a part of the WWE all that long since returning, Tensai has quickly made an impact with victories over the likes of R-Truth, John Cena and even the WWE Champion himself, CM Punk. However, Tensai's main issue at the moment is the fact that he's consistently pushed on television each week.
During a handicap main event match a few weeks ago on Raw, Tensai was able to decimate Punk and score a pin-fall victory over the WWE Champion. Personally, I liked what I saw between the two in that brief period of time given how they both have Japanese style backgrounds.
If there's one guy on the roster who can help get Tensai the heat he desperately needs to get over, it's CM Punk, as he's the most crowd connected character in the company today. Punk has the natural ability to pull the best match out of any opponent he squares off with, and pairing him with Tensai could exceed many viewers' expectations.
Since losing his World Heavyweight Championship to Mark Henry at last year's Night of Champions event, Randy Orton has sparingly been involved in the title picture. For as much as people complain about Orton being incapable of putting other talent over, the Viper has done quite the contrary by allowing rising stars such as Henry, Wade Barrett and Kane on multiple occasions.
However, Orton has recently re-entered the hunt for the World Championship by competing in a Fatal 4-Way for the strap at Over the Limit. Despite a strong performance, the man formerly known as the Legend Killer was unsuccessful in capturing the title.
While I'm not saying it's mandatory that Orton be included in the title picture at all times, it's only a matter of time before he eventually does set his sights on gold yet again. What better way to do so than against the current WWE Champion, CM Punk?
If you can recall, these two bitter rivals go way back, as it was Orton who cost Punk the World Heavyweight Championship back at Unforgiven 2008. Fast forward two and half years later and you find the two battling it out on the grandest stage of them all and beyond, where it was the Viper who emerged victorious in all their contests.
That being said, it would only make sense if Punk was still looking to exact his long awaited revenge on Randy Orton. Executing said task in a battle over the WWE Championship would be the best way to reignite this ruthless rivalry.
Although Mark Henry seemed to be the hottest act in all of wrestling throughout 2011, his career quickly took a nosedive after losing the World Heavyweight Championship at the WWE TLC pay-per-view event. Since then, Henry has suffered a handful of injuries that now have him sidelined for the foreseeable future.
Of course, Henry still has plenty to offer, as his series of matches with CM Punk over the WWE Championship in the weeks following WrestleMania 28 further showcased his pure dominance and sheer skill inside the squared circle. I thoroughly enjoyed all three bouts so much that I'm hoping to see an actual drawn-out rivalry between Henry and Punk occur over the WWE title sometime in the near future, as both former ECW Champions play the David vs. Goliath story to perfection.
Of course, you may be asking yourself why exactly Dolph Ziggler is on this list of potential No. 1 contenders for the WWE Championship despite failing to capture the title back at the Royal Rumble. But just hear me out. Ziggler is easily one of the most consistently athletic and entertaining acts on the roster, yet he's instead been relegated to losing to the likes of Brodus Clay, Kofi Kingston and R-Truth in recent weeks.
Upon losing the United States Championship at WWE TLC last December, we all thought 2012 would be Ziggler's year, since he was coming off two straight victories over WWE Champion CM Punk. However, just when it mattered most, the bleached-blonde Superstar came up short of walking out with the gold.
Shortly thereafter, Ziggler never really seemed to bounce back, as most of his matches since January have been deemed irrelevant. There's no questioning that Ziggler is deserving enough to be in the spotlight yet again, and it's only a matter of time before he'll finally be back in the chase for the championship.
Thankfully, Dolph Ziggler is primed for bigger and better things after walking out on his associates Vickie Guerrero and Jack Swagger this past Monday night on Raw. Watch out, Punk, this former World Heavyweight Champion is here to show the world.
Although they've been both been in WWE together for over three years now, it still amazes me as to how an actual feud between CM Punk and Christian has yet to be booked. Based on their two previous matchups on SmackDown in 2010 and 2011, these two former ECW Champions have tremendous untapped potential in the ring that shouldn't go unnoticed.
Only six days prior to WrestleMania 28, the two were scheduled for yet another in-ring confrontation, which sadly didn't come to fruition due to Punk brutally assaulting Christian before the match could even begin. Subsequently, Christian was pulled from the WrestleMania card and was later sidelined due to the Second City Saint re-aggravating Captain Charisma's previously injured neck.
Logically, Christian would have targeted CM Punk upon his return to the ring, but the attack was forgotten about altogether when Christian reemerged on the scene at WWE Over the Limit a few weeks ago and captured the Intercontinental Championship. In the process, Christian reverted back to his fan favorite persona, destroying any hopes I once had of seeing these two in-ring generals feud.
Regardless of Christian's recent turn, it's still possible that he can contend for the WWE title, and there's no better opponent to do it against than CM Punk.
Although 2012 has been the best of years for Cody Rhodes thus far, his stock is still higher than ever among fans and management alike. Just recently, dirt sheets reported that Rhodes might be in for a major promotion this coming summer in the form of a feud with WWE Champion CM Punk.
Since his WWE debut nearly five years ago, Rhodes has shown impressive progression in the ring, on the mic and especially with his growing character. However, he's been stuck in the mid-card for the last two years, and it wasn't until last August that he captured his first Intercontinental Championship.
After dropping the prestigious title at WrestleMania 28 and later regaining it in a flunky fashion at Extreme Rules, Rhodes has lost more and more momentum with each loss he takes on television every week. While it's still possible he may regain the Intercontinental Championship from Christian in the near future, I believe it's time to move on from the mid-card and into the main event title picture.
Sure, a feud with Sheamus would be fine and dandy, but it's pretty predictable we'd see more harm be done to Rhodes than good. Unlike the Celtic Warrior, CM Punk has the tendency to put over his opponents on more than one occasion, so having Rhodes feud with the Straightedge Superstar would be the safest bet.
Not only that, but the fact that these two rising stars haven't clashed in years makes me all the more excited for an inevitable rematch between Punk and Rhodes down the line.
Similar to Cody Rhodes, things have not been running smoothly for Wade Barrett so far this year. At the conclusion of 2011, Barrett was hovering above an injured Randy Orton atop a staircase, rendering the Viper inactive for nearly a month.
As 2012 rolled around, Barrett was quickly fed to the returning Orton and came up short of winning the annual Royal Rumble match. At the following month's Elimination Chamber pay-per-view, the Englishman was eliminated from the World Heavyweight Championship match after being pinned by Santino Marella.
On the following edition of Raw, Barrett was sent spiraling into the commentator's table by Big Show during a battle royal, severely injuring the British brawler's elbow that currently has him sidelined for the foreseeable future.
There has also been major talk of pushing Barrett heavily upon his return, specifically him winning the Money in the Bank briefcase in July and going to challenge CM Punk for the WWE Championship. If you can recall, it was Punk who exiled Barrett from the original Nexus stable on the premiere Raw episode of 2011.
It's no secret that the greedy Wade Barrett will do anything to acquire as much money as humanly possible, and it's blatantly obvious that a potential feud with WWE Champion CM Punk would make plenty of it.
Who said that a No. 1 contender for the top prize had to be an active member of the WWE roster?
Of course, I'm not referring to The Rock or even John Laurinaitis, but rather Brock Lesnar. His shocking return on the night following WrestleMania 28 was red hot to say the least, but his presence on television was quickly diminished following his loss to John Cena at the Extreme Rules pay-per-view.
On the following edition of Raw, Lesnar regained his momentum by breaking the arm of WWE COO Triple H within the first 10 minutes of the program. Subsequently, Lesnar "quit" the company and hasn't been seen or heard from on television since.
Obviously, Lesnar will indeed be back sooner rather than later to resume his feud with the Game, but what will occupy the Next Big Thing's time until his rumored finale at WrestleMania 29? The idea of pitting Lesnar against Rock for the WWE title for next year's grand event has been tossed around as of late, so having the former UFC Heavyweight Champion challenge CM Punk for the sacred title would not at all be out of the question.
With Paul Heyman also making his return to WWE just recently as well, the former head of ECW could easily have an epic war of the words with Punk as Lesnar looks on. Once it comes time for the anticipated Punk-Lesnar matchup, expect a flurry of intense mixed martial arts offense that could make for a very interesting and intriguing contest.
Could Brock Lesnar be the one to dethrone CM Punk as WWE Champion? Or will one of the aforementioned Superstars receive a shot at the prestigious title and walk away with the gold?
Be sure to drop a comment below with your thoughts on my list and any other Superstars you feel are also deserving of a chance at the WWE Championship. As always, your criticism and overall feedback on my latest piece is greatly appreciated.