WWE: Looking at the Next Generation of Main-Event Talent
For a number of years now, the same stars are seemingly always involved in world championship feuds; John Cena, CM Punk, Randy Orton, Big Show and Sheamus, to name but a few. Don't get me wrong, these guys have earned their spot at the top, but there is a distinct lack of competition for the top titles.
One of the main problems levelled at the WWE by fans is the company's failure to create new stars, which is why the same main-event rivalries are constantly being rehashed.
More comfortable relying on big names from the past like The Rock and Brock Lesnar, Vince McMahon at times seems reluctant, verging on unwilling, to establish the next generation of top stars.
That being said, progress has definitely been made in the last 18 months and a number of new stars have debuted whilst also receiving solid pushes in the process, something that will be examined in the following slides.
This article will look at some of the names contracted to the WWE who, with the right support from those backstage, can establish themselves as main-event level superstars in the years to come.
Note: The list contains stars who either haven't debuted yet or have yet to receive a sustained push at the top of the card. Rankings are based on both long and short-term potential, in-ring talent, personality and promo skills.
10. Outside Bets
Kofi Kingston has been a mainstay of WWE programming since his January 2008 debut, and is a four-time Intercontinental champion, two-time United States champion and three-time tag team champion. A talented worker and popular personality, the fact he is yet to receive a solid run in the main event despite remaining over with the audience could be indicative of his long-term role in the company. He's still only 31 years old, so time remains on his side, although this writer feels that 'The Dreadlocked Dynamo' will remain in his current role as a mid-card babyface.
Tyson Kidd is one the most underrated talents in the business, as well as one of the WWE's top in-ring competitors. However, he has never been pushed as a serious singles competitor in the company, and I fear that this will remain the case. Lacking in the personality and promo skills department, it seems that those backstage have little faith in him as a credible solo star, although his dynamic team with Justin Gabriel is capable of adding another dimension to the recently-reinvigorated tag team division.
Michael McGillicutty was part of the second season of NXT and a member of The Nexus but has accomplished little else in his WWE career, bar a forgettable stint as tag team champion. Disappearing from television, the third-generation superstar has been relegated to the likes of Superstars and NXT. A competent in-ring talent, there are rumours that Triple H sees long-term potential in McGillicutty so there is always a chance he can establish himself on the main roster. A repackaging under his given name of Joe Hennig could be an interesting avenue given his heritage.
Ted DiBiase was once thought of as the potential breakout star of Legacy, but a combination of poor booking and injury problems curtailed his development. There has always been high expectations for the son of the 'Million Dollar Man', yet he has never managed to elevate himself above the mid-card. Returning from a long-term injury to almost no fanfare at Night of Champions, DiBiase has again become lost in the shuffle. Still yet to reach his thirtieth birthday, there is always the possibility that the leader of 'The DiBiase Posse' can fulfill his undoubted potential.
Drew McIntyre was proclaimed as a future world champion by Vince McMahon himself following his debut, but in the three years since he has been continually buried by the creative team, killing all of his momentum. Still only 27, there is time for the Scotsman to elevate himself to the position of top star, but forming a stable with fellow neglected talents Heath Slater and Jinder Mahal doesn't bode well for the confidence those backstage have in 'The Chosen One.'
9. Dean Ambrose
Signed to a developmental deal in April 2011 after successful spells with Combat Zone Wrestling and Dragon Gate USA, the man now known as Dean Ambrose is regarded as one of the brightest talents in the company's feeder system.
Still yet to debut on NXT, never mind the main roster, Ambrose gained attention over the WrestleMania 28 weekend by becoming embroiled in an online war of words with 'Hardcore Icon' Mick Foley, although the angle ultimately came to nothing.
Nonetheless, Ambrose is an accomplished in-ring performer, and has competed against the likes of CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and William Regal during his time in the developmental system.
However, it is the other aspects of his game that earn him a spot on this list. Allowed to develop his own character during his time with Florida Championship Wrestling, Ambrose used his natural charisma and top-quality verbal skills to create an intense, unsettling heel persona that eventually began drawing comparisons to the late Brian Pillman's 'Loose Cannon' phase.
Watching some of his promos, the potential is clearly there for Ambrose to one day become a star on the main roster. Suited perfectly to the role of a smaller, dangerous heel in the mould of Pillman or a young Roddy Piper, Ambrose could carve out a niche for himself if allowed the chance.
I'm not saying that he will have a career to match the aforementioned stars, or by any stretch of the imagination that it will happen, but the potential is definitely there.
8. Kassius Ohno
Another top prospect in the WWE developmental system, Kassius Ohno only signed with the company in February 2012. Best known as Chris Hero, he is a highly accomplished singles and tag team competitor that has competed in no less than 16 countries across the globe, capturing numerous titles along the way.
After being repackaged under the unusual moniker of Kassius Ohno, he debuted on the July 4 episode of NXT, before entering a feud with second-generation superstar Richie Steamboat. One of the most talented in-ring talents the company possesses, it seems almost inevitable that Ohno will make it to the main roster in the near future.
One avenue to could be a reformation of his highly-praised Kings of Wrestling tag team with the former Claudio Castagnoli, Antonio Cesaro. Although I would rather see both stars build up their reputations as solo performers, if Cesaro finds that 'creative have nothing for him' then they could easily find themselves a dominant force in the reinvigorated doubles division.
As he works to adapt his hard-hitting ring style to something conforming more with the WWE's idea of wrestling, Ohno is more than capable of making an immediate impact on his eventual television debut. Most of the mid-card talent are treated as nothing more than jobbers to the stars, and the addition of different talents such as Kassius Ohno would create innumerable fresh and exciting conflicts.
The one thing I believe that could hold back his WWE career is the fact that he doesn't fit in with Vince McMahon's typical idea of a 'WWE Superstar'. Although he looks like a guy that could kick your ass, the WWE likes their top performers to have a certain aesthetic, so we can only hope that his excellent in-ring skills leave creative with no choice but to reward him.
7. Damien Sandow
Since making his television debut in May 2012, Damien Sandow has consolidated his position as a solid mid-card heel.
Refreshingly old-school in his demeanor, 'The Intellectual Saviour of the Masses' plays his character to perfection both in the arrogance of his promo work and the subtler aspects of his character, such as holding the microphone as if it were a glass of fine wine.
No slouch in the ring, either, Sandow has looked solid in his televised matches with the likes of Tyson Kidd, Brodus Clay and Sheamus. Establishing himself as a different style of heel to most others on television, Sandow's constant denigrating of the audience and 'better-than-you' mindset has garnered him decent heat from the crowd.
Currently embroiled in a tag team title feud as part of the 'Rhodes Scholars,' Sandow undoubtedly possesses the potential to become a top singles star in the years to come.
Following the inevitable disintegration of his team with Cody Rhodes, Sandow should at some point be positioned to challenge for the United States title to facilitate his rise to the top.
If 'The Martyr' continues to build on the solid progress made since his debut, he will one day become an integral part of an increasingly-thin collection of main-event heels.
Scheduled to face WWE Champion CM Punk at Hell in a Cell, Ryback is in the midst of the most meteoric rise to the top seen on WWE television in recent years. And that is the exact reason he finds himself at only number six in this list.
Since being repackaged as 'Big Hungry' in April, Ryback has squashed a seemingly endless amount of 'local competitors' and jobbers in both singles and handicap matches. Vince McMahon's new pet project, six months later Ryback finds himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Vince, Punk and John Cena on television.
The audience have reacted well to his presence at the top of the card, with the initial 'Goldberg' chants finding themselves more drowned out by the monster's signature 'feed me more.'
The reason Ryback finds himself so far down in these rankings is that he has yet to wrestle a sustained singles encounter on television with a competitive opponent, and will do so for the first time against the WWE Champion inside one of the company's premier gimmick matches.
Unless CM Punk carries him through the contest, the big man runs the risk of being exposed as a limited in-ring talent over the course of a lengthy match. Still winning squash handicap matches on Raw a fortnight before the event, the upcoming pay-per-view is the biggest test of Ryback's career by some distance.
Then there is the risk of burnout. Moving straight from squash matches to main events is a big ask of an as-yet unproven performer, and 'Big Hungry' would surely have benefited from feuding with talented mid-carders like The Miz, Christian and Cody Rhodes to enhance his development before making the step up.
A negative reaction to his upcoming title match could harm Ryback's burgeoning popularity, even though I expect a cheap finish to preserve both Punk's reign and Ryback's undefeated streak.
At this moment in time, Ryback could either solidify himself as the company's next real superstar or find all of his momentum dead in the water if he is exposed in a top-line feud. Only time will tell.
5. Seth Rollins
Widely acknowledged as the top talent in WWE's developmental system, Seth Rollins was deemed worthy of being crowned the first-ever NXT Champion on Aug. 29.
Perhaps best known for a three-year stint in Ring of Honor under the name Tyler Black, he was ROH World Champion for 210 days and defended the belt in excellent matches against the likes of Austin Aries, Davey Richards and Roderick Strong.
Signing a developmental deal in August 2010, Rollins has received praise for his work in NXT as he adapts his style to fit with today's WWE product.
It is a wise move by the WWE not to rush him to the main roster as too many performers have been rushed onto television without sufficient time to develop their character, only to then fall by the wayside. And at age 26, he is nowhere near his best years.
Upon his eventual debut, Rollins would benefit from entering a high-profile mid-card feud for either the United States or Intercontinental title to immediately establish the character as a threat, while also showcasing his in-ring skills.
The company are attempting something similar with former ROH alumnus Claudio Castagnoli, whose momentum continues to build as Antonio Cesaro. This would increase the competition in the mid-card, which would ultimately elevate one of two stars to the main event.
Seth Rollins possesses all the tools to succeed in the WWE, having bags of charisma and personality to complement his undoubted in-ring skill. Earning comparisons with CM Punk due to their similar journeys from ROH to WWE developmental, I feel Rollins is talented enough to forge his own identity in the company.
However, a similar trajectory, possibly involving a Money in the Bank win somewhere down the line, and who knows: the two may end up facing one another on WWE television in the coming years.
4. Antonio Cesaro
A 12-year veteran of the business before his WWE debut in April 2012, Antonio Cesaro wrestled all over the world under the name of Claudio Castagnoli, most famously during his time with Ring of Honor between 2005 and 2011.
Four months after his debut, Cesaro was already United States champion. Fans were elated to see a talented worker take control of the belt after the worthless reign of comedy character Santino Marella.
Hoping this would return some integrity to the neglected title, we were left disappointed when the match was instead relegated to the pre-show. Since then the belt has been sporadically defended, most notably at Night of Champions against Zack Ryder.
Cesaro possesses all of the qualities to become a main event talent in the WWE; an intimidating presence with terrific in-ring skills, the 'Swiss Superman' also projects supreme confidence in his abilities, which would make him a believable threat higher up the card.
The first step should be to rehabilitate the United States title. After the belt became nothing more than a shiny paperweight during Marella's reign, the championship should be built up along with the man who is holding it.
By defending the belt regularly on television and pay-per-view, Cesaro could be portrayed as a dominant champion who puts on stellar encounters with anybody who steps through the ropes to face him.
This would return relevance to both the belt and the mid-card, and would create fierce competition on Smackdown.
Ultimately, this could lead Cesaro to the main event and leave another talented mid-card worker to take his spot as champion. More than qualified to compete against the likes of Randy Orton, Sheamus and Wade Barrett, the World Heavyweight Championship scene would be bursting with fresh rivalries.
3. Cody Rhodes
Seemingly on the cusp of main-event stardom for a couple of years now, Cody Rhodes has been pegged as a future top star since his debut back in July 2007.
A four-time tag team champion, Rhodes has also captured the Intercontinental title twice and his reigns with the belt helped restore some prestige to the neglected championship. However, it seems that every time we believe his main-event push is imminent, the creative team sends him two steps back.
Following a 236-day stint with the IC belt, Rhodes was ideally positioned to move into the main event and feud with the likes of Dolph Ziggler and former mentor Randy Orton.
Clashes against such talented performers would have enhanced the youngster's reputation and deemed him worthy of a spot against the top stars. Instead, he continued an awful feud with the washed-up Big Show before embarking on yet another mask-related rivalry with the sloppy Sin Cara.
Now part of the 'Rhodes Scholars' team with Damien Sandow, Rhodes nonetheless finds himself with plenty of television time thanks to the renewed interest in the tag team ranks.
Despite not being involved in a great deal of singles action, the union between the two rising stars could ultimately benefit both in the short-term before they move back into solo competition.
Still only 27 years of age, Cody Rhodes still has more than enough time to ascend to the main event position he was destined for. Matches with the likes of Orton, Ziggler, Daniel Bryan and even a returning Chris Jericho seem to have glaringly obvious potential and would easily cement the second-generation superstar as a credible threat to one of the top titles.
2. Wade Barrett
The winner of the inaugural season of NXT, Wade Barrett has been tipped for the top since his debut with the WWE. And before the injury that kept him on the shelf between February and September, Barrett was involved in the highest-profile feud of his short career against Randy Orton.
When vignettes began airing to promote his return to television, it seemed as though creative were firmly behind Barrett as a potential top star. Instead, he perplexingly returned to television to little fanfare and squashed Yoshi Tatsu.
Slightly altering his gimmick to reflect on his background as a bare-knuckle boxer, Barrett has yet to sink his teeth into a rivalry of any consequence following his return to television.
A couple of hard-hitting encounters with Sheamus proved Barrett was a match for the World Heavyweight Champion in the ring, but overall he has lacked direction since his return.
On the cusp of main-event stardom, the obvious solution is to have Barrett feud with Orton upon the latter's return. And having him go over would surely cement Barrett's reputation as a top star, something he may have already achieved by now were it not for injury.
'The Great White' in particular is desperately short of credible heel challengers, and their television brawls proved Barrett could go toe-to-toe with the champion.
Ready-made feuds with the likes of Orton and Sheamus would offer countless fresh matches and strong booking would position Barrett in line for what many believe is an inevitable World Championship run, and cement his status as a permanent member of the main event.
1. Dolph Ziggler
The current Mr. Money in the Bank, Dolph Ziggler is almost guaranteed a World Heavyweight Championship run in the very near future. Whether he can use the opportunity to become a permanent fixture at the top of the card is entirely down to how the creative team books it.
It seems as though the WWE are stalling his progress. Consecutive pay-per-view losses to Chris Jericho and Randy Orton did more harm than good, as did a couple of failed briefcase cash-ins that led to 'The Showoff' coming across as no threat to Sheamus' title.
An incredible talent in the ring, Ziggler regularly has the best matches of the night when he appears and it seems as though he is more than ready for a spot in the main event.
However, he has inexplicably been booked to lose a succession of singles, tag team and multi-man matches. These losses have diminished Ziggler's credibility as a main-event threat, and it will be interesting to see how his title reign is booked.
If Ziggler is booked as a cowardly heel who always retains the title by fluke, he will not be taken seriously as a main-event threat and won't be able to sustain a spot at the top of the card. We all remember what happened to The Miz following the disastrous booking of his title run.
To be taken seriously as a main event heel Ziggler needs to have a title reign of substance, and clean pay-per-view victories over the likes of Orton and Sheamus would define him as a credible champion.
In the past, smaller heel champions like Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho were able to cement their positions as top stars following strong title runs, and Ziggler needs to be built up the same way.
A succession of high-quality title defences would allow Ziggler to showcase his excellent ring skills, and add a much-needed fresh face to a main event scene that has been littered with the same faces for too long.
'The Showoff' has the potential to be the HBK of his generation; a supremely gifted in-ring performer capable of constantly stealing the show in main-event matches.
So there it is, my thoughts on the WWE's next generation of main-event talent.
John Cena won't be around forever, and the company can hardly afford not to create new stars to replace him. Although a lot of it is hypothetical, the booking solutions are simple enough.
The main-event scene in the company is starved of talent at the moment, and this is why legends such as The Rock, Triple H and Brock Lesnar will not be stepping out of the spotlight anytime soon.
Do you agree with the article?
Is there anyone you feel I've missed out on?
As usual, sound off in the comments below.