On Monday night’s episode of Raw, WWE showed highlights of a press conference held by Triple H (in his real-life role as a corporate executive, rather than his onscreen role as an evil corporate executive) to promote an event called Takeover. It’s a showcase for WWE’s developmental roster, NXT, which will air May 29 on the WWE Network. “NXT is taking over the WWE,” Triple H said. And it wasn’t just promotional bluster. Since Triple H took over personnel development responsibilities for WWE, he has consolidated the program at a performance center in Florida, expanded its ranks, and built the NXT brand into a beloved farm league that launches wrestlers into the WWE spotlight with preestablished characters.
On Raw, Triple H, with Batista and Randy Orton, confronted the Shield, three upstarts who made the jump from NXT to WWE’s main roster two years ago, threatening them as only an evil exec could: “I brought you into this world, and you are looking at the three guys who are gonna take you out of it.” Earlier in the show, while arguing with an audience that has become increasingly enamored with his rival Bray Wyatt, John Cena insisted he loved the current crop of young stars: “I see greatness in the WWE superstars of today — names like Roman Reigns, names like Cesaro, names like Seth Rollins, names like our current champion Daniel Bryan.” He even mentioned current NXT favorites Adrian Neville and Sami Zayn to prove his bona fides. Then, when coming out to close the show, Ric Flair spurned his old Evolution running mates (Triple H, Randy Orton, and Batista) in favor of casting his lot with the Shield.
When A-listers like Cena and Flair are eager to associate with the kids from NXT, you know the youth movement is real. If WrestleMania 30 signaled the dawn of a new era — the Undertaker’s two-decade-long streak ended, the Shield dismantled Attitude Era stars Kane and the New Age Outlaws, and Daniel Bryan was elevated to the top of the company by defeating Triple H and then Orton and Batista — then NXT can be expected to produce WWE’s future flag bearers.
Bryan is the spearhead of this youth movement. In the vocabulary of sports valuations, he’s the game changer, the unlikely new archetype, the five-tool guy in a three-tool body, the undervalued asset, the Moneyball lens through which all future talent must be viewed and judged.
For the first time since the Attitude Era, WWE has a generation of wrestlers compelling and charismatic enough to main-event WrestleMania for years to come. Who are these future stars? You can find clips on the network or YouTube, or catch glimpses of their talent on Raw. But since it’s NFL draft season, this seems like the perfect opportunity to break down the up-and-comers’ upsides (and downsides) in true NFL-draftnik style. So, on the eve of Extreme Rules — WWE’s unofficial annual showcase for promoting future stars — let’s take a hard look at this new crop of wrestling talent and assess their progress to date, as well as their future prospects.
A note before we get started: This list isn’t comprehensive. Dolph Ziggler, Drew McIntyre, and even the Miz or Jack Swagger could play huge roles in WWE’s future; characters like the Usos have managed to seem perpetually new, despite predating the NXT structure; there’s a sea of other prospects toiling outside the WWE farm system; and the Ortons and Cenas of the world aren’t going anywhere. And, of course, the NXT track record isn’t flawless. There have been several defections from the ranks — Michael Tarver, Kaval (Low Ki), Percy Watson, Lucky Cannon, Eli Cottonwood, Derrick Bateman, and Jacob Novak have all moved on; Byron Saxton and Alex Riley have transitioned to the announcers’ side; and David Otunga may not be long for the big leagues. Caveats aside, however, here is the Masked Man’s NFL-style draft board of rising NXT and WWE talent.
The Masked Man’s Top 10 Prospects
1. Roman Reigns
Combine numbers for this second-generation grunter are off the charts. He was a three-year starter at defensive end for Georgia Tech, but his transition to the grind of wrestling has been seamless. Reigns has sky-high Offensive Efficiency metrics, an explosive first step, and nearly unlimited upside potential. He’s got superstar written all over him. He has the mystery and intensity of Goldberg or Edge or a young Batista, but in terms of sheer star potential, think 1980s Randy Savage or early-2000s Triple H (with none of the outside-the-ring issues). Rock-level stardom isn’t out of the question. If he can maintain his desire to improve beyond his impending climb toward main-event status, he could be unstoppable.
Prediction: Sunday at Extreme Rules, Reigns will team up with the Shield to take on a trio of entrenched veterans in Evolution (Triple H, Randy Orton, and Batista). Look for him to shine in the presence of those three and continue to excel above his two blue-chip teammates.
2. Bray Wyatt
You’d never know by looking at him, but Wyatt is a third-generation pro wrestler. Plus, he has a heck of a motor for a guy his size. One scout called him an Army tank with a Ferrari engine, and I think that’s dead-on. He has progressed by leaps and bounds since his first NXT appearance. He’s got that blue-chip bloodline, but he has evolved into his own man, a completely mature performer at a shockingly young age. Think the fearsomeness of a young Mark Calaway with the head space of Jake Roberts in his prime. Wyatt has benefited from working with good partners, but he also elevates the play of his teammates and even his opponents. His POET (Pop Over Enhancement Talent) is staggering. The only question is whether he can prevent his character from becoming stale and modify his game to fit the modern one. Sometimes it seems like there’s too much 1985 in Wyatt for him to be a world-beater in 2015. His strong start has set the bar high for his career. The key will be steady progress.
Prediction: Wyatt’s ongoing competition for a starting spot with John Cena has been compelling, but he needs a strong showing on Sunday to keep the scouts (and fans) from wondering if he’s slightly overrated.
With the Swiss “King of Swing,” you can’t help but notice the high wrestling IQ combined with uncanny strength for his size. He’s a total throwback with an old-school mentality. Huge student of the game. Great size, good look, and he’s a great locker room guy.
His True Suplexing Percentage is extraordinary. Some question his ceiling: He’s got the pinup body, but does he have the leadership charisma to go along with it? Sometimes he tends to blend in with the crowd, but then he’ll come out of nowhere with a mind-blowing maneuver. When he’s hitting on all cylinders, there aren’t many guys like him. Like a young William Regal or a more athletic Harley Race. He’s an unconventional talent in today’s game, but there’s no question that, rope-to-rope, he has perennial all-star talent, and he’s the kind of guy who can be a coach on the field. Great in tight spaces.
Prediction: WWE has taken awhile to warm up to Cesaro, even though the stats guys had him as a five-star talent. Now that the E is onboard, they’re letting him play multiple positions to figure out where he’s most comfortable. I have some concerns about establishing him too quickly as a babyface. Look for his manager, Paul Heyman, to steer him to a win over Jack Swagger and Rob Van Dam on Sunday, and then back to his more comfortable villainous role thereafter.
4. Seth Rollins
Unchartable physical skills, incredible engine, and the sort of unconventional ring style that can make him a star overnight. He’s got emerging technical and psychological superiority. Big-time playmaker. He’s been a champion at every level — from the indies to the lower ranks of the WWE — and he just knows how to win. Two years ago, we called him a cross between Jeff Hardy and CM Punk. The comparison still holds, though Rollins has shown flashes of being a new kind of star altogether. Maybe a tweener, size-wise, but he really flies around the ring and he’s the kind of speed merchant who will always find a place in the league. Plus, he has the passion and the drive to overcome whatever obstacles get thrown his way. His HoSS (Holy Shit Spot) percentage has scouts licking their chops.
Prediction: He’ll continue to excel as the “aerialist” of the Shield, but more so than his two teammates, Rollins will need to tweak his game and find a new role if he wants to make the leap to the next level. If he can reconfigure, he might have an even higher ceiling than Roman Reigns.
5. Wade Barrett
Extremely well-rounded skill set, but it’s not all good news for this Brit. A solid B+ performer to this point. He excels in all aspects of the game, though questions linger about his consistency and compatibility in certain matchups — he certainly seems to click with some dance partners more than others. His ceiling might be lower than some of the prospects ranked below him, but he’s ready to contribute in the ring right now. Huge wingspan, mental toughness. He’s an asexual Rick Rude with some heel Gentleman Chris Adams swagger. He’s got a perfect combination of snooty-heel puffery and tough-guy credentials, the perfect British couplet. But then again, we remember how that worked out for also-rans like Dave Taylor and Paul Burchill.
Prediction: Look for him to earn a big win to snag the Intercontinental belt on Sunday. What he does with that platform will tell scouts a lot about where his career is headed.
6. Dean Ambrose
With Ambrose, you’re talking about the sort of guy who has all the scouts oohing and ahhing, but he could just as easily slide to the mid-20s as go in the top 10. He has all the intangibles. Shades of antihero icons like Roddy Piper, Brian Pillman, and Raven. Much more physical than he appears, with sneaky good athleticism, and never afraid to stare down the gun barrel. Atypical personality has led some to question his character, but he’s no locker room cancer. Old-school GMs like his guts, and new-schoolers say his SEER (Sports Entertainer Efficiency Rating) is astronomical. If he gets his head in the game, he could be a real difference-maker.
Prediction: Consistency has been the name of the game for Ambrose — he has anchored the Shield with his verbal skills and his ring maturity. And consistency will take you a long way, but he’ll need something extra to live up to his pre-draft hype. Look for him to start down that road on Sunday, when he’s got a chance to steal the show during the match of the night.
The only diva to crack the top 10, Paige is a second-generation grappler via both her father and mother, so she’s a true student of the game. She’s young, but she competes like a veteran, with a natural feel between the ropes and a soaring ring IQ. Lots of physicality and size for her position — she’s like an unholy cross between Wendi Richter and Sherri Martel, and that may be only scratching the surface. A quick jump from the minors to the spotlight might derail lesser talents, but aside from some first-night jitters, her transition has so far gone smoothly.
Prediction: She has proven she can survive the spotlight, but her match against Tamina on Sunday will show whether she can be a go-to performer. The question isn’t her potential, it’s if she can help raise the talent in the depleted Divas division to her level. Can she persist as a star? Paige has the tools to be a long-reigning champion, but whether she has the character is another question.
8. Luke Harper
The hirsute Harper is a fast-rising sleeper. He was brought in as a low-downside guy to play garbage minutes, but the more game time he’s gotten, the more people see upside written all over him. Think Bruiser Brody meets Kane — the kind of big fella who’s been putting butts in seats for decades. He’s always around the action and a legitimate eye-catcher. Stylistic compatibility will be an issue, but he’s been consistent so far, and as long as he maintains that ability, he can be a factor at WWE’s highest levels.
Prediction: Harper will struggle to find time in the spotlight as long as he’s playing behind Bray Wyatt, but so long as he continues to shine when his number is called, scouts will notice. It’s only a matter of time before somebody grabs him and puts him in a starting role.
9. Big E
The former Mr. Langston is a quality individual, a prototypical downhill runner; he’s got an explosive first step and he plays bigger than his size. Despite an impressive run through Triple-A and a strong start in the majors, his appeal seemed to flatten out when given starter’s minutes. He looks like a million bucks in workouts and has a subtle charm in person, but he struggles to stand out on the big stage. The book isn’t shut on Langston, though — despite some high-profile losses, it’s hard to blame Big E for ref negligence — he’s got a nice RIVR (Referee-Independent Victory Rating) and plenty of room to grow. Plus, the front office continues to support Big E. He may have to forget his minor league dominance and learn to be a role player if he wants to last in the big leagues. Best-case scenario: Scott Steiner meets Tony Atlas.
Prediction: On Sunday he’s defending his Intercontinental championship against Wade Barrett, and most expect Big E to lose. There’s no shame in losing, though, as long as he dusts himself off and recommits himself to his craft. If he can overcome his first major loss, that’ll say a lot about his character and his future.
10. Alexander Rusev
Little is known about Rusev, but as with so many foreign talents over the years, what little we know has scouts’ mouths watering. You hear all kinds of comparisons: Samoa Joe, Ivan Koloff, Tazz. So far Rusev has been impressive, although it’s fair to ask if he’s been protected in his career to this point, and whether his envious WiPS (Weighted Pinfall/Submission Average) might be inflated thanks to inferior competition. His moves may be too 1980 for the modern game, but he’s good in a phone booth and has deceptive speed. If he can avoid the fate of international phenoms turned busts like Tiger Ali Singh and Ludvig Borga, he has a chance to shine in WWE’s currently homogenized field.
Prediction: He’ll keep winning against questionable competition — continuing Sunday in a handicap match against Xavier Woods and R-Truth — but like Ryback before him, Rusev will have to transition to mainstream competition at some point. How he handles that shift will say a lot about the rest of his career.
And Now for the Rest
11. Ryback. I’ve got Mr. Reeves ranked this high mostly because of his impressive MEMR (Main Event to Match Ratio), but the writing’s on the wall for this former headliner. He’s genetically gifted — a real physical freak who looks like a wrestler, though the jury’s still out on whether he actually is one. There have been some red flags outside the ring, but his fiery personality may be what eventually propels him to perpetual all-star status — or it might lead him straight to palookaville.
12. Fandango. A blue-chipper who lacks that elusive spark of greatness, Fandango has waltzed around the edges of the big time but has yet to plant a flag. His CRAC (Crowd Repetition/Applause/Chant) spiked early and has been in the tank ever since, but he’s got a good motor, a high ceiling, and he has made the most of a lousy situation. This kid loves wrestling, and he’s a real competitor.
13. Damien Sandow. Sandow spent a lot of time in the minors, working multiple positions over several stints before getting his call-up. That sort of aimless start often bodes poorly for a prospect’s future, but Sandow thrived upon his arrival in the E. Then he fell off. He makes everyone around him better, but that hasn’t yet shone through in his own performance. He’s the sort of guy who may make an impact tomorrow or in two years — or, sadly, never.
14. Titus O’Neil. A fifth-year senior, O’Neil has the walk of a superstar, but some of that is just the confidence that comes with maturity. WWE will have to find a spot for him in the starting lineup soon if it has any hope of getting its money’s worth out of him before he’s over the hill.
15. Emma. She’s a well-rounded performer with skills that (unfortunately for her) make her perfect for garbage time. She went toe-to-toe with Paige in the minors, so some scouts see her getting a chance on the big stage, but whether she can make the same impact at this level remains to be seen.
16. Heath Slater. He’s the ultimate movable chess piece, a minor player who can play up to the talent surrounding him. The kind of guy you can plug in to pick up fouls in the fourth quarter and trust he’ll look good doing it.
17. Curtis Axel. The negative view: He’s just a guy. The positive: He’s a third-generation talent, a blue-collar performer who always brings it. He’s currently about a .05 on the VOKK (Value Over Kofi Kingston) rankings, and he has the genetics that you’d think would put him way beyond that. The problem is that he may not have the instincts, and instincts can’t be taught.
18. Darren Young. He works his tail off, has good instincts, and he’s a high-character guy. But he can’t lose the stink of mediocrity. He’s hitting right at the Mendoza Line of pro wrestling talent, and most scouts question whether he’s ever going to do much better.
19. Brodus Clay. He’s got tons of physicality, he’s a big hitter, and he definitely passes the eye test. But he’s a throwback and he’s got work to do if he wants to keep up in today’s smarter, faster league. A big galoot just doesn’t cut it these days. Needs to develop.
20. Justin Gabriel. He’s quicker than fast. He really flies around — the kind of guy who can catch well in a crowd, but you start to wonder why he can never shake those defenders. In a vacuum he might look like a superstar, but in reality he’s a few steps behind — and there are a bunch of guys with similar skills moving up the ranks and nipping at his heels.
21. Erick Rowan. Rowan grew up outside the United States and didn’t start wrestling until later in life, but so far, in limited time, the results have been promising. He’s a height/weight/speed guy — a fine specimen — but you don’t quite know if he’s a wrestler.
22. Xavier Woods. Woods is young, but he’s got veteran experience. He’s a coach’s dream, and he scored off the charts on the Wonderlic, but even top-tier smarts might not be able to propel him past the practice squad. He’s part of a second unit with third-tier talent, and though he’s clearly a bigger star than his cohort, he may have already reached his potential.
23. Sin Cara. At times with Cara, it feels like you’re watching two different performers. Regardless, he plays with no brakes and has ridiculous verticality. He may be prematurely settling into the veteran phase of his career, however, and his history with injuries may be influencing a bland cautious streak in the ring that doesn’t seem to be winning Sin Cara much front-office support.
Looking Ahead to the Next Crop of Stars
The irrepressible Bo Dallas (another legacy athlete with the mat game in his blood) and the outlandish Adam Rose (a wily vet who has long been itching for a shot) are the next two prospects to get a chance to show their wares on the big stage. Keep an eye out for Triple-A champ Adrian Neville (a cross between Evan Bourne and Chris Benoit) and minor league standout Sami Zayn (an overachieving underdog in the mold of Daniel Bryan who studied under the legendary luchador El Generico); those two have the chance to be franchise players.
Don’t sleep on the charisma of Corey Graves (high marketability), although some scouts question how the Ascension (a frighteningly compelling tag team) will fit into the majors. Tyler Breeze (spotlight stealer), Mojo Rawley (high-energy guy), and possibly Aiden English (pure throwback) should get looks soon, and I’m spending a late-round pick on Simon Gotch, formerly Ryan Drago, who’s a luxury pick but brings a unique combination of old-school attitude and contemporary appeal.
On Sunday, at Extreme Rules, the old generation and the new generation come face-to-face.
Bray Wyatt gets Cena in a steel cage match, which could set the stage for an underhanded win by the young cult leader (be it via interference from Harper and Rowan or thanks to the sorrow-inducing powers of another children’s choir appearance. The Shield take on Evolution, and even if they lose — one begins to feel like there’s something afoot, be it a reversion to fiendish form by Ric Flair or a heelish double-cross by one of the Shield’s own — the chance to stand face-to-face with three legends will benefit the young bucks. And one can’t help but look at Bryan’s match against Kane as anything other than a showcase for the new champ — a welcome step toward cementing his main-event status. Plus, the other matches have me just as excited: Cesaro, Rusev, Bad News Barrett, Paige, and even Big E will get opportunities to shine, and that’s exciting.
It’s WWE tradition that the post-WrestleMania period is a time for new stars to debut and for up-and-comers to break out. Every match gives some prospect a chance to shine. If Extreme Rules feels smaller than ‘Mania and its Super Bowl status, well, that’s the point. This is when it really matters, when a performer can break out and prove his true worth to WWE. Between the lines, in the trenches, when only the diehards are watching — that’s where you become a star. What looks great about Extreme Rules is the future talent in every match — the possibility that you might be watching a “Stone Cold” Steve Austin or the Rock coming up through the ranks at each and every turn.
You might say the card has amazing upside potential.