10 WWE Superstars Who Should Have Been Bigger This Decade
It's almost surreal for fans to revisit the WWE landscape at this time 10 years ago to see how vastly different it was from what it is today—for better or for worse.
Between Raw, SmackDown, NXT, NXT UK and 205 Live, the company's roster is far stronger now than it was back then, except that there aren't nearly as many household names. Aside from Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns and a few others, WWE has done an abysmal job of creating new stars worth caring out.
At the tail end of 2009, the illustrious likes of John Cena, Randy Orton, Triple H, The Undertaker, CM Punk, Batista, Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels were still as active as ever. Even as they all gradually wound down their careers, WWE continued to focus on the old guard at the expense of everyone else.
There were some success stories, such as The Shield, Kevin Owens and AJ Styles, but they are in the minority. The rest never had a chance of getting over as top talent because of how they were handled, and after a while, fans started to lose interest in them the same way officials did.
Worse yet, there are a handful of wrestlers WWE missed the ball with who remain on the roster. They serve as a sad example of what happens when the company neglects potential stars.
In the past decade alone, countless competitors have come close to breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling but didn't for whatever reason. These 10 Superstars could have been the faces of the company had WWE not bungled their booking.
Aside from The Miz's slow and steady rise to the top, The Nexus was perhaps the best thing to come out of WWE in 2010.
The group of rebellious rookies from NXT's first season on SyFy made an immediate impact the night they debuted on Raw in June 2010 before taking the entire company by storm. They organically got over as a dominant stable, and although their attacks felt inspired by those of WCW's New World Order, the angle established all eight guys involved as threats.
John Cena's single-handed beating of the Nexus at SummerSlam that year is widely regarded as one of the dumbest decisions the company has ever made, as it was the catalyst to the group's downfall. Barrett was one of only members who managed to have a semi-successful singles career, with five reigns as intercontinental champion to his credit.
Unfortunately, none of them were remotely memorable.
Barrett portrayed a variety of characters during his six-year stint on the main roster, including a bare-knuckle brawler, a bearer of bad news and a king. He made the most of every role he was required to play, but not one was befitting of a future world champion.
From his height to his above-average mic skills to his passable wrestling ability, Barrett had everything going for him in the eyes of fans. There is no reason why he shouldn't have won a world title at least once, which would have made him the first-ever English-born world champ in WWE history.
The original leader of Nexus left WWE of his own accord in May 2016 to pursue acting and other endeavors. He currently provides color commentary for the National Wrestling Alliance, so at least one wrestling company was wise enough to recognize his strong suit and put him behind a booth.
Jack Swagger was touted as a prodigy during his early days in WWE on ECW, which gave fans high hopes for his future.
He was booked fairly well in the Land of Extreme and remained undefeated for several months (even winning the ECW Championship), but it was all downhill once he reached Raw in 2009. There, it was painfully apparent the powers that be had no idea what to do with him, making his Money in the Bank victory at WrestleMania XXVI all the more puzzling.
Instead of taking their time building him up, WWE rushed into having him cash in the contract to become world heavyweight champion. To the surprise of no one, his reign flopped miserably and was over within two months.
Swagger hardly sniffed the main event scene after that. It was almost as if the company never had any aspirations of making him a main event player but insisted on giving it a whirl without putting in the effort to make him mean something.
Granted, The All-American American was never going to be the face of the company, but he didn't deserve to be an enhancement talent, either. Officials had the opportunity to rejuvenate his stagnant career by turning him face in the summer of 2014, but that also went to waste.
An extremely forgettable run with the United States Championship was the only semblance of success he had prior to his departure in March 2017.
Alberto Del Rio
Alberto Del Rio arrived in WWE with much fanfare in August 2010 by beating Rey Mysterio clean in his first televised match on SmackDown. That cemented him as a major deal off the bat and as a logical candidate to win the 2011 Royal Rumble, which he did.
By virtue of his victory, he earned himself a shot at the World Heavyweight Championship against Edge at WrestleMania XXVII. The Mexican Aristocrat boasted for months about how it was his destiny to win the world title on the Grandest Stage of Them All, only to inexplicably fall short at the event itself.
Del Rio again failed to become champ the following month at Extreme Rules before finally taking the title off CM Punk at SummerSlam later that year. The moment couldn't have been booked better, with the returning Kevin Nash lending a helping hand and Del Rio's WWE journey coming full circle.
WWE followed up on his grand win by having him drop the strap to John Cena a mere month later. He got the belt back two weeks later at Hell in Cell, but by that point, his fate as a future glorified midcarder was sealed.
Del Rio never scored a single meaningful win during his short-lived time on top. Pinning Punk or Cena the same way he did Mysterio one year earlier would have done wonders for his credibility, but WWE had other ideas.
After doing nothing of note in 2012, Del Rio briefly bounced back by reverting to his heel roots and regaining the gold from Dolph Ziggler. Months later, it became clear that he sole reason he held it was so Cena could take it off his hands upon his return.
WWE tried again with Del Rio in 2015, when he re-signed and knocked off Cena for the United States Championship in his return bout. But outside of that, he floundered for the one year he was around.
WWE holding on to Ryback for almost two years after the death of The Nexus while he recovered from an ankle injury spoke volumes about how highly the company viewed him.
He didn't immediately ascend to main event status upon his return to the ring, and in fact, the simple-yet-effective squash matches were perfect in portraying him as a one-man wrecking crew. Over time, the WWE Universe rallied behind him and his "feed me more" battle cry, and by the fall of 2012, he was a WWE Championship contender.
With John Cena out injured, Ryback replaced him in the main event of Hell in a Cell against CM Punk for the WWE title. That would have been an ideal time and place to put the belt on him, but Punk's historic reign as champ and pending pay-per-view match with The Rock prevented that from happening.
The least WWE could have done was protect him in defeat that night and have him take the title at another event down the road, but the company instead insisted on booking him to lose whenever it mattered most from that point forward.
The final straw was when WWE turned him heel at the peak of his popularity. There was no salvaging him after that, and with no plan in place for him in that role, he fell by the wayside.
The company came to its senses by allowing him to revert to his babyface roots in 2014, but it was too late. Fans no longer viewed him the same way they once did, rendering him damaged goods.
Outside of one reign as intercontinental champion, there wasn't much left for him to do. He called it quits in May 2016 and received his release three months later.
Long before he was at the helm of All Elite Wrestling, Cody Rhodes was doing everything in his power to prove to the masses that he was main event material. That much is evident now, but you would never have known it during his days as a WWE midcarder.
Rhodes' rise saw him transition from the tag team ranks to the Intercontinental Championship scene in the span of a few years. His first title reign from 2011 to 2012 was phenomenal and should have been the launching pad to bigger and better things for him.
Alas, he was never able to get beyond a certain level because of WWE's refusal to do more with him.
That didn't stop Rhodes from taking everything given to him and turning it into gold. His alliance with Goldust in 2013 showed how natural he was as a babyface, while his work as Stardust showed his range as a performer. He was a blast to watch regardless of where he was on the card.
There were definite doubts that Cody lacked the necessary tools to be a believable singles star in WWE, but as seen in AEW, that couldn't be further from the case. Leaving WWE in May 2016 was one of the smartest things he could have done and led to the creation of a competing organization.
Perhaps it was for the best he was marginalized for as long as he was in WWE. There would be no AEW otherwise.
Drew McIntyre was released from the company in 2014 and brought back several years later. WWE clearly realized where it went wrong with him, but that doesn't make up for how the promotion ruined him in the first place.
The Chosen One ushered in the new decade as the undefeated intercontinental champion. He had a decent rest of 2010, which included a short-lived reign with the WWE Tag Team Championships, except that he would have been the most logical choice to win the Money in the Bank ladder match that year.
No explanation was ever provided as to why WWE soured on him after that, but it was obvious something changed with how he was viewed. He went from being Vince McMahon's hand-picked prodigy to a directionless midcarder in under a year.
McIntyre never recovered, and once he joined forces with Heath Slater and Jinder Mahal to form 3MB, there was no coming back from that. However, his release from the company forced him to reinvent himself and return infinitely more aggressive.
After the year he spent down in NXT, he should have been brought back to the main roster as a WWE Championship contender. Rather, WWE paired him with Dolph Ziggler so he could serve as his bodyguard of sorts.
His feud with Roman Reigns was fine, but his subsequent alliance with Shane McMahon did more harm than good. Nowadays, he's spinning his wheels on Raw, waiting for an opportunity to break out.
There's still time for him to reach the mountaintop, but he could have been a world champion by now if WWE played its cards right with him from the get-go.
Finn Balor had as hot of a start as anyone in recent WWE history, but a combination of bad booking and injuries have held him back from fulfilling his potential.
Following a decorated two-year stint in NXT, Balor made the move to the main roster in the summer of 2016. The timing couldn't have been better, with the WWE draft being brought back around that time, and Balor was drafted by Raw in the first round.
One week later, he won two matches in his official Raw debut, including against Roman Reigns, to punch his ticket to SummerSlam. There, he faced Seth Rollins to determine the inaugural universal champion and won.
Again, WWE was ready to make him the face of the flagship show. The injury he suffered at SummerSlam derailed those plans and caused him to miss many months of action.
Although that wasn't WWE's fault, its failure to follow up on his highly anticipated return the night after WrestleMania 33 most certainly was. He floundered in feuds with Bray Wyatt and Kane for the majority of 2017 and could never regain the momentum he lost one year earlier.
Despite being switched over to SmackDown earlier this year and a pair of Intercontinental Championship wins, Balor was on the fast track to nowhere on the main roster. He's been an excellent addition to NXT's star-studded roster in recent months, but it is somewhat sad that someone with so much upside had to resort to returning to the black-and-gold brand to be positioned as a star again.
When WWE signed Cesaro in late 2011, broke him away from Kassius Ohno and promoted him to the main roster soon after, fans figured big things were in store for him.
Sure enough, he won the United States Championship within months of his arrival on SmackDown and reigned as champion for the better part of eight months. His loss of the title the following spring could and should have been what bridged him to the main event, but WWE wasn't quite ready for him to shine on his own.
As a result, he was partnered with Jack Swagger as The Real Americans, and the two of them made for a better tandem than anyone could have imagined. Their alliance crumbled during WrestleMania season, which coincided nicely with Cesaro reigning supreme in the inaugural Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at the event.
Cesaro's stock had never been higher, and after proving he could hang with the likes of John Cena and Randy Orton in the ring, he was finally on the cusp of greatness in WWE. Even the pairing with Paul Heyman had the potential to be gold until it overshadowed Cesaro entirely and horribly backfired.
That was more than five years ago, and Cesaro never reached those same heights again. Vince McMahon infamously cited Cesaro as being "too Swiss" during an interview with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin on WWE Network, so it should have come as no surprise he has largely been positioned as a tag team player since then.
Could Cesaro be eyeing an exit in the not-too-distant future, or is he content settling for midcard mediocrity for the rest of his career?
It can be argued that WWE got it right with Bray Wyatt, but truth be told, it should not have taken him five years for him to become the megastar he is as The Fiend.
In fact, the entire idea for The Fiend may have never been born had WWE not watered down Wyatt's original gimmick properly and booked him into oblivion for his first few years on the main roster. His feuds with Daniel Bryan and The Shield early on in 2014 put him over huge, but then he ran into the roadblock that was John Cena.
All of Wyatt's misfortunes can be traced back to his defeat to Cena at WrestleMania XXX. It accomplished nothing and ruined any mystique Wyatt had built. The losses kept coming after that. Chris Jericho, The Undertaker, Roman Reigns and many others were all successful in silencing The Eater of Worlds, making him nothing more than a false prophet.
Needless to say, any talk among fans that Wyatt could have been the next Undertaker (in that his character transcended time) was squandered fairly quickly. He became just another guy on the roster after a while, and had it not been for The Fiend, that would have likely continued to be the case.
His first WWE Championship run in 2017 was so short that it meant virtually nothing, but at least his latest run as universal champion is off to a strong start. Assuming WWE doesn't fumble The Fiend, this coming decade is his to take.
No one has had more ups and downs in WWE this decade than Dolph Ziggler. Despite two world title reigns to his credit, he never quite reached the level of superstardom he should have in the company.
The 2010s started off promisingly enough for him when he won the Intercontinental Championship and hit the main event scene by 2011. Although he was knocked back down to midcard status soon after, he worked his way up the ladder in WWE by capturing the United States Championship and Money in the Bank briefcase.
His cash-in of the contract one night removed from WrestleMania 29 on Raw will be forever remembered as one of the greatest moments in the history of the flagship show. It felt like Ziggler had finally arrived as a world championship-caliber competitor given the raucous reactions he was receiving on a weekly basis around that time.
That should have been when WWE pulled the trigger on him as a top-tier babyface. Instead, he lost the title almost as quickly as he won it, never to be pushed as aggressively again. Injuries may have played a part in his fall from grace, but even while hurt, Ziggler rarely missed a week of television. He could always be counted on to not only appear but also deliver the goods both in the ring and on the mic.
WWE officials spent the next six years relegating him to the midcard scene and hindering his popularity any chance they had. A few runs with the Intercontinental and Raw Tag Team Championships weren't enough to wash away the years of poor creative decisions the company made with him.
Nowadays, he's the ultimate utility player over on SmackDown. The odds of him escaping midcard purgatory are slim to none, at least until he decides to take his talents elsewhere a la Cody Rhodes.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, is an Endicott College alumnus and aspiring journalist. Visit his website, Next Era Wrestling, and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.