Right now, WWE may be at its all-time, in-ring peak. They're on a great run of consecutive quality pay-per-view events, lots of quality matches on free TV each week, and so on.
Out of the ring, things have improved as well: When I was putting this list together, I realized that finding definitive "worst" picks would be much harder than I expected since there are so few outright terrible talkers getting time in WWE anymore. Narrowing down the "best" list also proved more difficult than anticipated, and came down to a matter of personal preference as far as one's view of what a wrestling promo should be.
As a result, there are some notable omissions here, but it shouldn't be seen as a slight if someone like, for example, Damien Sandow, isn't on the five best list. He's great, but he's not quite serious enough yet to be the very best.
Anyway, with that in mind, let's take a look at who in WWE is always worth the promo time and who should never be allowed near a microphone.
Cody Rhodes is a gifted speaker. That was obvious from his first WWE appearance, where he and his brother Dustin inducted their father Dusty into the WWE Hall of Fame.
The problem is he has never been able to parlay his public speaking ability into being a good pro wrestling promo. He's too polished, too smooth, too professional. There's no trace of relatable emotions or anything else that makes a traditionally good promo. He relies too much on what he learned in the traditional acting classes he took before breaking in.
He sounds too "trained," like Tony Robbins playing pro wrestler.
He's improved from past lows like his overwrought "crazy" promos when Rey Mysterio "disfigured" him, but he's still far off the mark from where he should be. He doesn't sound quite right as a babyface, like he doesn't sound "real" or relatable. As a guy being groomed for a top babyface spot, that's something he needs to take care of as soon as possible.
Traditionally, I haven't been a huge fan of Triple H's promos. They were overly long soliloquies lacking substance.
Recently, that changed. It started when he'd pop up backstage on Raw pointing out plot holes in the show. He was funny in a way that was unique to WWE and wasn't wearing out his welcome, so when he turned heel I was a bit worried that we'd get the old, boring Triple H back.
My fears were abated last week during the closing segment on Raw, as he was note-perfect in his new role as the evil "corporate' Triple H. He managed his time well, was polished, had a great delivery, and was condescending in a way that made you want to see him beat up. He was every bit as good as we were always told he was.
I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes.
Compare and contrast Cameron (Ariane from Total Divas) with her partner Naomi (Trinity from Total Divas) in the skit embedded above:
- Naomi sounds like a normal person. Not a great actress, but a she fits the gracious babyface role she's been given just fine.
- Cameron sounds like she's dripping with scorn and sarcasm as opposed to how it was written, as a naive babyface who doesn't know better.
After seeing her on Total Divas, it's easy to see why this is difficult for her. Yikes. The only reason she isn't "higher" is lack of mic time.
He's not quite as brilliant since hastily turning babyface, but only two months removed from his tour de force fake retirement promo, it would be ridiculous to not list Mark Henry here. While he doesn't always have the theatrical polish of some of WWE's other best talkers, he always succeeds at being believable.
What is there to say about Mark Henry? He completely fooled the most jaded of wrestlers and wrestling fans with that "retirement" promo. The only hint that it was an angle was John Cena's presence, but it was like it didn't matter: Seeing the "real" Mark Henry "candidly" talk about being able to be at home with his daughters erased any doubt.
I'm sure there were real emotions at play, but hey, that's how you're supposed to do this thing, anyway.
This is probably not all her fault, as she's had some goofy material to work with, but for someone who got a decent amount of TV time, Kaitlyn's performances have been fairly lousy. She's too overly rehearsed and (bad) "actorly" for a pro wrestling environment.
I could see her getting better, but moments like her asking if she's being "Punk'd" when she learned of her secret admirer have been cringeworthy.
As soon as Wayne "Dutch Mantell" Keown showed up on WWE programming as Zeb Colter, I was thrilled for a variety of reasons.
As a person, I was also glad that he got a nice gig in wrestling again, having not been a full timer since leaving TNA in 2009. His beloved 16-year-old granddaughter Amelia was tragically killed by a drunk driver last year. As Diamond Dallas Page has shown under much different circumstances and Bret Hart learned when his brother Owen died and their family imploded, the best support system for pro wrestlers is often being around other wrestlers.
As a wrestling fan, I was giddy. He's long been a favorite of mine, and the idea that he was coming in to WWE as a Tea Party loyalist who served in Vietnam with Papa Swagger (Jimmy Golden) was brilliant. You could not have found an older wrestler who looked the part with his Yosemite Sam mustache while being able to back it up on the mic the way he could.
The one thing I find fascinating about Dutch as Zeb Colter is this: He was never an in-demand star outside of Tennessee and he was never considered an all-time great promo, but when he showed up on WWE TV in 2013, he immediately blew away almost everyone in the company on the mic. Everyone knew he was talented, but the Colter role quickly put both his immense talents and the changes in the wrestling business in perspective.
While Jack Swagger fizzling out as a top heel has made him a mid-card act, he's still as sharp as he was before, just without as much of a platform. His sharp wit combined with the utter conviction in his delivery make him a great heel: Villainous enough that most fans hate him while being funny enough to be entertaining, but not so funny that it babyfaces him. He also gets bonus points for having a fantastic in-character Twitter account.
I'll be the first to admit that The Miz is a great goodwill ambassador for WWE. He tirelessly does public relations work and handles himself perfectly when he does talk show appearances, and he's good at getting booked.
He's also great at being the Miz character, a smarmy frat boy type who you want to punch in the face.
The problem is that even though he turned babyface around the start of the year, he still comes off on promos as a smarmy frat boy type who you want to punch in the face.
Just turn the guy. God only knows WWE needs more heels right now...
Punk has been among the best talkers in WWE for at least four years now, going back to his first heel turn on Jeff Hardy. The argument is more about where he stands right now.
This is the first time he's been the traditional fired up, emotional babyface in a blood feud. Before he was a babyface that didn't talk much considering the level of his push (much of his run pre-heel turn), various forms of cocky heels (cult leader Punk, Best in the World Punk, etc) and an acerbic, sarcastic babyface ("pipe bomb" promo through his heel turn on Raw 1000).
While he's done some fantastic work, especially immediately after Paul Heyman turned on him, this is the most he's ever sounded like a stereotypical pro wrestler. Which isn't to say that he's terrible or even does it too much, as much as that he clearly has a "promo voice" now and he previously sounded much more natural and conversational. Paul Heyman is always in promo mode, but there's nothing wrong with that.
The problem with Punk is more that it seems like there's an adjustment period going on. He's still excellent, just not quite as excellent. I'm curious to see what he does once he really gets back into his groove.
I don't care that she's barely talked since she debuted. Nobody this wooden should be near a mic on WWE programming.
Seriously, listen to her!
As long as Paul Heyman is on WWE programming, he will be one of the best talkers in the company. He's spent his entire adult life in and around pro wrestling, first breaking in as a photographer in the early '80s before becoming heel manager Paul E. Dangerously around 1987. He learned how to do promos the old school way, off the cuff, reading a crowd, which is a rarity in WWE in 2013.
When I say that, I don't mean scripting is inherently bad or that Heyman doesn't lay out his promos, but that the "old school" way is a more effective way of learning.
The cliche is that the best pro wrestling characters are exaggerated versions of their real life personas, and that's absolutely true for Heyman. While, on the surface, he's not that different from the Paul E. Dangerously of 20 years ago, a lot has changed since then.
For better or for worse, Heyman's...issues behind the scenes in running ECW inform his character. The Paul Heyman we see now is the Paul Heyman who didn't pay wrestlers for a month as ECW went into a tailspin. The Paul Heyman of 2013 weaves this backstory that establishes him as untrustworthy into every promo.
What's truly impressive is how layered his promos are. When he told CM Punk he did not send Brock Lesnar after him, the faux sincerity in his delivery was simultaneously believable enough that you couldn't fault Punk for buying it while somehow also being infuriatingly phony. That's a tough line to tow, but he did it perfectly.