The Top 10 Wrestlers of 2012

Scott CampbellFeatured ColumnistDecember 27, 2012

The Top 10 Wrestlers of 2012

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    With 2012 coming to an end, we now find ourselves looking back and debating the merits of the year as a whole. There are a number of stars that have enjoyed great success over the last twelve months, some more than others.

    While not one of the industry's greatest-ever years, it seems as though the business is in a state of transition, with an innumerable amount of young talents coming to prominence in promotions across the globe. In the next few years, this new generation of talent have the potential to create wrestling's next boom period.

    This list will take a wider scope and include stars from all over the world, as one promotion cannot accurately measure the amount of talent out there. Picking any top ten list has the potential to cause controversy, so let's cut right to the chase. Here are my picks for the top ten wrestlers of 2012.

     

    Note: This list covers wrestlers, not just WWE superstars. Rankings are based on factors including match quality, promo ability, popularity, success and character development from January to December.

Honorable Mentions

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    Bobby Roode began the year as TNA World Heavyweight Champion, and was the longest-reigning champion in company history by the time he dropped the belt to Austin Aries on July 8, in what was the best match of his stint with the belt. The "It Factor" then revived his feud with James Storm that had already been done to death, resulting mostly in audience apathy. Despite being one of the most improved wrestlers of 2012, he still fails to make the top ten.

    Davey Richards is arguably Ring of Honor's top star, and finally dropped the World Championship on May 12 after an impressive 321 days as champion, and his clash with Michael Elgin on March 31 was one of the best matches of the year. Tapered off towards the end of the year after dropping the title, which is why "The American Wolf" fails to crack the top ten.

    A.J. Styles has long been regarded as one of the world's premier in-ring talents, and again he proved himself in 2012. Despite the Claire Lynch fiasco killing all of his momentum, "The Phenomenal One" rebounded in an excellent feud against Christopher Daniels and Kazarian alongside tag partner Kurt Angle. Singles clashes with favored opponent Daniels once again brought out the best in Styles, who will hope to carry his new-found momentum into 2013.

10. Christopher Daniels

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    A somewhat surprising inclusion, the 42-year-old "Fallen Angel" showed a new side of his personality and improved his microphone skills considerably, resulting in one of the greatest twelve months of an accomplished 19-year career.

    Surprising everyone by generating interest in his umpteenth feud with A.J. Styles, the inclusion of Kazarian added a new dynamic to the storied history between Daniels and "The Phenomenal One," which saw the "Fallen Angel" and Kazarian trade the TNA World Tag Team titles with Styles and Kurt Angle in some of the best tag team matches seen this year.

    Despite his involvement in the horrendous Claire Lynch angle that blighted TNA programming, Daniels and his new lackey Kazarian generated some serious heel heat, with Daniels' promo work in particular coming on leaps and bounds. After the angle thankfully fell through, the "Fallen Angel" and Styles faced off in an excellent Last Man Standing match at Destination X, before competing in a breathtaking four-way ladder match at Hardcore Justice.

    Always renowned as an elite in-ring talent, Christopher Daniels added several more strings to his bow this year and his excellent in-ring efforts, coupled with the strides made in terms of personality and character, made it impossible to leave him off the list.

9. Jeff Hardy

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    After a disastrous 2011 that included the infamous Victory Road incident and culminated in a ten-day prison stint following drug trafficking charges, the rejuvenated "Charismatic Enigma" rebounded to end the year as TNA World Heavyweight Champion, while also putting in some of the best in-ring performances of his career.

    In the early part of the year, Hardy pursued then-champion Bobby Roode for the world title, which resulted in solid matches between the two. Showing an improved attitude and dedication to the business, "The Rainbow-Haired Warrior" also looked sharp in clashes with Kurt Angle and Mr. Anderson over the summer.

    Winning the Bound for Glory series in September resulted in Hardy capturing his third TNA World Heavyweight Championship in an excellent match against Austin Aries on October 14. The rematch a month later under Hardy's favored ladder stipulation was even better, with "The Charismatic Enigma" taking several spectacular bumps that were at least equal to his most famous WWE moments.

    At age 35, Jeff Hardy surprised almost everyone by putting his personal demons behind him and refocusing his attention on his in-ring exploits, which resulted in a consistency rarely seen over his 19-year career.

    (On an unrelated note, does anyone else find it incredible that Hardy has never needed surgery for a wrestling-related injury, despite all of the huge bumps he's taken over the years?)

8. Sheamus

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    Despite being heavily pushed since his debut back in 2009, it was this year that Sheamus finally cemented his position as the newest member of the WWE's main-event scene, whilst also enjoying the best year of his career so far.

    After somewhat surprisingly winning the Royal Rumble in January (many expected Chris Jericho to win), "The Celtic Warrior" rode a huge wave of momentum for the rest of the year. After winning the World Heavyweight Championship from Daniel Bryan in an insulting 18 seconds at Wrestlemania 28, the two were allowed to make amends with a match of the year candidate the following month at Extreme Rules.

    A summer feud with Alberto del Rio dragged on for far too long and led to some disappointing matches, but "The Great White" rebounded in his rivalry with The Big Show, and the man deserves a lot of credit for having a hand in some of Show's best matches in years.

    As well as enjoying the third-longest World Heavyweight Championship reign in WWE history, Sheamus also put on solid matches with opponents as varied as Bryan, Show, Dolph Ziggler, Wade Barrett and Antonio Cesaro, and fully deserves his place on the list of the year's top talents.

7. Prince Devitt

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    Quite possibly the best-kept secret in professional wrestling, the 31-year-old Irishman is one of the most complete in-ring performers in the business, and 2012 saw "The Irish Captor" enjoy another excellent year.

    As part of the Apollo 55 tag team, Devitt captured the IWGP Junior Heavyweight tag titles alongside Ryusuke Taguchi in an incredible match at the annual Tokyo Dome spectacular on January 4 against Davey Richards and Rocky Romero, only to drop the belts the following month. During the early months of the year, Devitt also contested some spectacular matches against the likes of Richards, Low-Ki and Jushin Liger in New Japan Pro Wrestling.

    Not content with only plying his trade in Japan, over the course of the year Devitt also competed in Mexico and a variety of independent promotions across the UK before returning to Japan to lift the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title for the third time on November 11 from WWE casualty Low-Ki.

    Prince Devitt is one of the most talented and popular foreign wrestlers in Japan, and enjoyed another wonderful year in the ring, including a record sixth stint as IWGP Junior Heavyweight tag team champion. For those who have yet to see the man in action trust me, he is one of the best in the business.

6. Dolph Ziggler

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    "The Showoff" spent the first part of the year treading water, failing to wrest the WWE Championship from CM Punk at the Royal Rumble before stealing the show as part of Team Johnny in a Wrestlemania 28 elimination match. A short-lived and ultimately pointless alliance with Jack Swagger followed, before more unsuccessful attempts at world title gold, this time involving Sheamus' World Heavyweight Championship.

    After capturing the Money in the Bank briefcase on July 15 in a match where he took some incredible bumps, Ziggler began gaining some serious momentum. Although consecutive pay-per-view losses to Chris Jericho and Randy Orton were hardly ideal, "The Showoff" put in some tremendous in-ring showings of which the audience took notice.

    Despite being booked to lose to Jericho, Orton, Sheamus and Ryback, amongst others, fan support for Ziggler has been growing as the audience begin to appreciate his talents even in defeat. Being the sole survivor in a traditional Survivor Series match was a vote of confidence, and a huge moment for the 32-year-old, who had been jobbing far too often in 2012.

    As well as improving his all-round game, Ziggler now finds himself up against WWE poster boy John Cena. Despite being booked as inferior to the face of the company (and let's face it, who isn't?), "The Showoff" has shown enough to prove that he will be a main-event threat in the company in 2013 when he eventually gets his hands on the World Heavyweight Championship.

5. Kazuchika Okada

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    Since returning to New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2010 following a disastrous stint with TNA, 25-year-old Kazuchika Okada has firmly established himself as the fastest-rising star in all of professional wrestling.

    Put himself on the map when he surprisingly defeated Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship on February 12, before defending the belt in an all-time classic against Tetsuya Naitō on March 4. He greatly improved his all-round game as world champion before dropping the belt back to Tanahashi in a hard-hitting encounter on June 16.

    He rebounded in style by winning the prestigious G1 Climax tournament on August 12, becoming the youngest-ever winner in the process. With this, Okada was guaranteed another shot at the IWGP champion at the annual Tokyo Dome spectacular on January 4. With the added stipulation that every match sees his contract for the title bout on the line, Okada's matches have become arguably the most important contests in NJPW.

    Going from a TNA jobber to one of the most well-rounded talents in all of puroresu in just two years, "The Rainmaker" has enjoyed an unbelievable 2012, and few would bet against him carrying this momentum into next year where he will surely break out as the biggest star in Japanese wrestling.

4. Austin Aries

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    Austin Aries began 2012 as TNA's X Division champion, and by the time he dropped the belt in July, he was the longest-reigning champion in the title's history at an impressive 298 days.

    In between this, "Double A" put in some excellent performances against the likes of Alex Shelley, Zema Ion and Bully Ray before trading the X Division title for a shot at the TNA World Heavyweight Championship, which he captured in a high-quality bout opposite reigning champ Bobby Roode on July 8.

    As world champion, "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived" developed his naturally cocky heel persona and entered into a feud with the perennially-popular Jeff Hardy, which resulted in two incredible pay-per-view matches against "The Charismatic Enigma" that saw Aries drop the title at Bound For Glory before losing the ladder rematch at Turning Point.

    Despite only being TNA World Heavyweight Champion for 98 days, Austin Aries was elevated to main-event status in 2012 and proved himself to be one of the most accomplished in-ring performers in the business, as well as vastly improving the other aspects of his game to position himself for what could be a career-defining year in 2013.

3. CM Punk

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    Began the year feuding with Chris Jericho over who really was "The Best in the World" before the rivalry took a more personal turn, resulting in heated matches at Wrestlemania 28 and Extreme Rules. "The Voice of the Voiceless" then spent the summer embroiled in WWE's best feud of 2012 against old nemesis Daniel Bryan, producing match of the year contenders at Over the Limit and Money in the Bank.

    He turned heel when he nailed The Rock with the Go To Sleep on Raw 1000, sowing the seeds for a match at the Royal Rumble. "The Second City Saint" then began feuding with John Cena for the umpteenth time, although the two had a surprisingly good match at Night of Champions.

    The addition of Paul Heyman as manager added a fresh dimension to Punk's character, and he was chosen as the man to give the superstar rub to Ryback, the company's fastest-rising star. He put in solid efforts against "Big Hungry" on television and at Hell in a Cell, before unfortunately finishing the year on the sidelines with a knee injury.

    Despite holding the WWE Championship for over 400 days, Punk still has to make do with playing second fiddle to John Cena on pay-per-view, although he now finds himself only weeks away from a highly-anticipated clash with The Rock. Expect the promos between the two to be nothing short of excellent.

    Although CM Punk became the longest-reigning WWE Champion in 25 years in 2012, defending the belt against all comers, I still firmly believe he enjoyed a better all-round year in 2011, and this is why he finds himself at only No. 3 in these rankings. The number of fluke victories ultimately did nothing to harm his aura in the long-term, although he could do with being booked as a stronger champion.

2. Hiroshi Tanahashi

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    One of the greatest world champions of all-time, the 36-year-old Hiroshi Tanahashi reinforced his reputation as one of the industry's top talents by enjoying another excellent year in the ring.

    He defended the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship for a record eleventh time against Minoru Suzuki at the annual Tokyo Dome spectacular on January 4, before finally dropping the belt after 404 days the following month in a quality match opposite Kazuchika Okada, which served to accelerate the youngster's rapid rise to the top.

    He recaptured the IWGP title from Okada in another excellent contest on June 16, beginning a record-equalling sixth stint as champion. He managed to hold onto the belt for the rest of the year, successfully defending it against the likes of Naomichi Marufuji and Yujiro Takahashi in consistently brilliant matches.

    Arguably the most complete in-ring performer in the business today, Hiroshi Tanahashi enjoyed another wonderful year in the ring, and is primed for a passing-of-the-torch rubber match at the Tokyo Dome against puroresu's newest superstar Okada on January 4.

1. Daniel Bryan

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    Undoubtedly the WWE's breakout star of 2012, Daniel Bryan has certainly made the most of his opportunities and overcome some poor booking decisions to become arguably the company's most popular star.

    He began the year as World Heavyweight Champion, and managed to drag decent matches out of much larger opponents Mark Henry and The Big Show. He lost the belt to Sheamus in a humiliating 18 seconds on his Wrestlemania debut before the two made amends with a high-quality rematch at Extreme Rules.  During this time, Bryan's "Yes" became the most popular catchphrase in the business since Steve Austin's "What?"

    He moved into the WWE Championship picture over the summer and faced off with former Ring of Honor colleague CM Punk in the best feud of the year, resulting in superlative matches at Over the Limit and Money in the Bank. The addition of Kane into the rivalry seemed unnecessary, but once again Bryan dragged solid matches out of his larger opponent.

    After failing to capture world title gold and surviving a terrible wedding angle with AJ, Bryan and "The Big Red Machine" were put into anger management classes, which yielded some of the funniest segments seen on WWE television in years. Team Hell No (as they became known) captured doubles gold on September 16, whilst also making the tag team division important again.

    Despite some questionable decisions by the creative team, Daniel Bryan remains one of the world's greatest wrestlers, and is certainly now one of the most popular. Proving wrong the doubters who feared the independent darling would never cut it with the WWE, Bryan is fully deserving of the No. 1 spot on this list.

Conclusions

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    There it is, my picks for the top ten wrestlers of 2012.

    Daniel Bryan is a deserving winner, although I feel Hiroshi Tanahashi had an equally remarkable year. Personally, I'm a huge fan of Kazuchika Okada and predict he may well top these rankings next year.

    Elsewhere, Austin Aries came on leaps and bounds this year and near 20-year veterans Jeff Hardy and Christopher Daniels surprised many with their showings over the last twelve months. And I'm sure I'll get a lot of hate for ranking CM Punk third, but I felt his character was in danger of becoming stagnant earlier in the year and besides, 2011 was most definitely "The Year of Punk."

    Now it's time to hear what you think.

    Do you agree with the rankings?

    Is there anyone missing you would have included?

    Who would you pick as number one?

    As always, sound off in the comments below!