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The Second-Annual Pro Wrestling Draft Board

On the eve of the NFL draft, it’s time to rank the most promising wrestlers on today’s circuit.

Extreme Rules is in the past, and if there’s one thing we learned from that show, it’s that the new WWE season is definitively here — the big match hype of WrestleMania is almost completely gone and the Rollins Era is in full effect. Since so much of the modern era in WWE has been a Cena-centric monotony — with occasional appearances by legends like the Rock and the odd oasis provided by a CM Punk or Daniel Bryan — the Rollins Era is fairly reassuring. With the exception of a few old standbys like Kane and Randy Orton, the spotlight is largely occupied by promising future stars and (relative) newcomers. This group is headlined by WWE champ Seth Rollins, of course, but also includes some instant institutions like Bray Wyatt, Rusev, Roman Reigns, and even Neville.

Last year at this time, we could see the potential for this coming to pass, so I ranked all the young, NXT-produced talents in my first Pro Wrestling Draft Board.1 Nonetheless, it’s pretty surprising to see how far so many of the performers on that list have come: Rollins is the no. 1 guy, Reigns is who WWE wanted to be the no. 1 guy (not entirely a knock), and others — Paige, Rusev, Harper, Big E, Wade Barrett — have all held championships in the past 12 months, which isn’t nothing, even in a fake sport. Extreme Rules was a fun if unspectacular show, but even if you give it a low grade, the future is truly bright.


1.

I asked my editor to retroactively bump Reigns down to the bottom of the first round, but, alas, journalistic integrity prevailed.

Since it’s NFL draft time again, it’s time for the second-annual Pro Wrestling Draft Board. Since so much of the future of WWE is already on Raw every week, we’re opening up the draft process to every wrestler under WWE contract, and we’re grading on more than potential. This is a comprehensive evaluation of what these guys are worth right now. If I were starting a WWE franchise — or another promotion — today, this is how I’d draft. Without further ado, here’s your top 20.

1. Seth Rollins

He’s undisputably the top guy in the business, and he’s earned every bit of his success. When he was chosen to split off from the Shield and join the Authority, it felt like WWE was giving him a crutch to compensate for having less wild-eyed charisma and a less steely presence than his cohorts Dean Ambrose and Reigns. A year ago, putting the belt on him would have seemed like a gimmick, but when he stole the championship at WrestleMania, it felt like exactly the right move. He’s the future and nobody’s complaining about it, which says a lot considering the state of Internet commentary. I long ago called him a five-tool guy, but even on the Bret Hart Scale — Look, Mic Skills, Wrestling Ability — he’s about as high as a wrestler can get this side of peak Ric Flair. And let’s add one more attribute to the mix: Intangibles. It’s draft time, after all. Look–Mic Skills–Wrestling Ability–Intangibles — let’s call it the Hart-Plus Scale: 9-8-10-9. (Total score: 36)2

2. Bray Wyatt


2.

I’m not ranking part-timers like the Rock (10-10-7-10), Undertaker (9-8-7-10), Sting (10-6-6-10), Triple H (9-9-9-7), Chris Jericho (6-9-7-9), and even Brock Lesnar (10-5-10-10); the semi-retired guys like Christian (5-9-8-9) and Goldust (9-7-8-7); or members of boring tag teams like Los Matadores or the Ascension. Or Jey Uso, because both Usos would have been in that last bunch if Jey weren’t hurt.

“The New Face of Fear” is a lot more subtle than Brock Lesnar’s “the 1 in 21-1” shtick from last year, but despite the fact that Wyatt lost to the Undertaker at WrestleMania, his motto has just as much truth to it as Lesnar’s did. He can stand to do some work in the ring — he’s over-reliant on gimmicks, his character doesn’t lend itself to 30-minute five-star classics, and only working in WWE rings has hurt his craft  but he’s got all the talent in the world. He can eat a loss without hurting his stature, which, despite spurious complaints about WWE “burying” guys, is a supremely important skill. If anything, he’s been too protected — keeping him in his surreal parallel universe keeps his character in check but it also limits his evolution. Regardless, there’s nobody in WWE I can imagine having more epic WrestleMania main event options over the next decade: Versus Rollins? Yep. Reigns? Yep. Ziggler? Yep. Neville? Yep. Sami Zayn? I think I’m going to faint. Hart-Plus Scale: 8-10-7-10 (35)

3. John Cena

Love him or hate him, Cena’s got star power, mainstream recognition, an imperviousness to injury, and, above all, merchandise sales that would keep a fledgling wrestling organization afloat forever. And despite nearly every “smart” fan’s opinion, he’s actually really freaking good in the ring. Sure, his act looks cartoony when he’s working with a suboptimal dance partner, and his STF has been convincingly locked in only three times — by my count, against Rusev in March, the Miz in 2009, and the Big Show in 2009, because Show’s so huge that even a loose chin lock looks like it’s stretching him in half. And don’t even get me started on that thing they used to do during Cena’s heyday where he’d take a bump outside the ring five minutes into every PPV match and Michael Cole would start screaming about how Cena’s been through hell and how can he be standing as if we were 45 minutes into an ironman match. Suffice it to say, he’s been booked in a less-than-ideal fashion. But he’s supremely talented, incredibly steady on the mic, and he manages to have as many people cheering and booing for him at the same time as a Ric Flair–Dusty Rhodes match in the mid-’80s. Hart-Plus Scale: 9-8-8-9 (34)

4. Finn Balor

WWE’s developmental territory, NXT, is a treasure chest of talent right now — and that’s after promoting its rock of the last year-plus, Adrian Neville, to the main roster. With Hideo Itami, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Tyler Breeze, and Enzo Amore, there’s enough ability there to turn Global Force Wrestling into legit competition for WWE. But there’s nobody with more upside than Finn Balor, the indie wrestling artist formerly known as Prince Devitt, who signed with WWE 11 months ago. He’s a half foot shorter than the McMahonic ideal, but aside from that no one has any knocks on this guy. He’s got a quiet confidence, a crazy entrance, and a combination mat-aerial style that makes kids go nuts, nerds pump their fists, and even purists politely golf clap. Throw in that he’s Irish — WWE love their international stars — that’s he’s a natural babyface who played a magnificent heel in New Japan, and that he’s prettier than 99 percent of the population, and you have a surefire superstar in the making. I’d go so far as to say he’s more of a sure thing than anybody WWE’s brought in since, hell, John Cena. Hart-Plus Scale: 10-6-10-8 (34)

5. Dolph Ziggler

Ziggler has immutable fan support, a great look, the ability to get cheers and boos in equal measure depending on his character, and the kind of ringwork that makes old-timers grin. And he’s almost made it to the top of the mountain, only to have his push derailed by injuries. Add to that a chiseled physique and tanned skin and he’s basically the WWE’s latest version of Daniel Bryan. I’m making a calculated (but admittedly risky) bet on his continued health and putting him in the top five. His match on Sunday against Sheamus was solid, but it was the postmatch events that really showed the range of his skill — he had the crowd out of their seats when he won, showed Shawn Michaels–level physical charisma when he teased dropping trou, and then sold the beating he took from Sheamus like a Ricky Morton made of flubber. He’s got everything it takes to be a long-term headliner — except, so far, a real opportunity. Hart-Plus Scale: 8-8-9-8 (33)

6. Bad News Barrett

With the possible exception of Cesaro, Barrett is the most talented guy on the roster who’s not even sniffing the main event scene. Sure, his injury history has a lot to do with that, but it says a lot that WWE put him in a noncontact role during his last rehab stint. This is not the first vote of confidence in Barrett. He was given a monster push out of the box when he debuted as the leader of the Nexus, which ironically may have sandbagged his career for a couple of years after that story line devolved into meaninglessness. But following a seemingly endless spate of injuries, he’s back, healthy, and operating at a high level. Maybe his new title of King of the Ring will give him the platform to get back to the top. He sure looks good in a robe. Hart-Plus Scale: 9-9-7-8 (33)

7. Rusev

The next six months will be big for the Bulgarian Brute. He’s two-thirds of the way through an epic rivalry with John Cena that will either prove to be his star-making turn (à la CM Punk) or signal the end of his relevance (à la Umaga). But the results so far have been very promising. He’s also on the verge of splitting from Lana, his longtime consort and the source of 95 percent of his heat during his first year on the main roster, so he’ll have to show he can make it on his own. The real hurdle, though, will be if he can stay afloat as a fan favorite when (and if) WWE decides to pull the trigger on a face turn. The track record for nationalist powerhouses isn’t great — the high-water mark for babyfaces turning into geopolitical terrors (Sgt. Slaughter) can’t wash away the memories of Nikolai Volkoff — but the fans really seem to love Rusev deep down, and he’s got the ring skill and real-life underdog story that could give him a decadelong career at the top. Hart-Plus Scale: 8-6-9-9 (32)

8. Roman Reigns

Last year’s top-ranked prospect, Reigns has almost everything you want in a superstar: the legit sports background, the mainstream-crossover-potential look, the wrestling legacy, and, above all, the endorsement of the front office. But he’s suffered — intensely — from the outward projection of the last item on that list, to the point that fans rejected his push to the top with the indignant voracity that’s normally reserved for skinny hangers-on and sons of promoters. (And, of course, guys like Batista and Cena, which, it has to be said, isn’t bad company.) After his embarrassing reception upon winning Royal Rumble this year, Reigns has exceeded all expectations, with an excellent feud with Bryan that culminated in a really great match, a beautifully devised WrestleMania main event against Lesnar, and a return to the second tier to reestablish his credentials. Feuding with the Big Show isn’t any great shakes, but he’s got the skills to earn the spot he was being hand-delivered, and he’ll hopefully get the chance to prove his voluble doubters wrong. Hart-Plus Scale: 10-5-7-10 (32)

Randy OrtonPaul Abell/AP

9. Randy Orton

Orton has had his ups and downs over his 13-year (!) career. At his worst, he’s a second-rate Cena, with less charisma and mic skill and a much higher level of variance in the ring; he coasts to athletically impressive but unmemorable matches. When he’s cast as an entitled heel, he’s an incredible standard-bearer, both in the ring and with his look. I often say I want to see every new WWE prospect standing next to Orton before I decide how well I think they’ll do. He’s proven that some guys are worth second (and third and fourth) chances, and he’s become one of the steadiest hands in the company — the sort of guy who is intrinsic to making a wrestling promotion succeed. Hart-Plus Scale: 9-5-9-8 (31)

10. Neville

A year ago, I never dreamed Neville would rank this high. As recently as a couple of months ago, I had him pegged as an NXT lifer, anchoring its move toward a touring troupe, while newer signees got called up ahead of him. Even when he turned up on the post-WrestleMania Raw, I didn’t have much in the way of expectations. But it actually gave him a platform, the crowd responded, and WWE took note, as you can tell by the increasing reverence paid him by the announcing team. I’m not sure he’ll ever be a world champ, and his star may well be eclipsed by Balor when he gets the call-up, but Neville is the real deal, and I’m excited to see where his career goes. Hart-Plus Scale: 6-6-10-7 (29)

11. Cesaro

On the one hand, Cesaro has been criminally underused by WWE — his Giant Swing was at one point the most popular move this side of a People’s Elbow, and he’s literally the only wrestler in history who hasn’t benefited from proximity to Paul Heyman. On the other, he forced his way into relevance in the tag ranks (along with Tyson Kidd) in such a fun way, which has to be considered an unexpected positive. Most guys need reps in the ring and good matches with good opponents to get to the highest level, but Cesaro was always a 10 in the ring. What he’s doing now — clawing for crowd reactions in lower-card matches on house shows — makes for the kind of reps he needs under his belt. The next time he gets a shot at the main event, he’ll be ready. Hart-Plus Scale: 7-4-10-8 (29)

12. Big E

In NFL draft terms, Big E has crazy upside and disappointingly low productivity. I go back and forth on him, largely because his character is so variable — through his career he’s alternately been a stoic muscle-head, which underutilizes him, or a court jester, which undervalues him. But I’m high on the (long-awaited) ascent of the New Day faction, so I’m indulging in hope for the Bigster here. Hart-Plus Scale: 8-7-6-8 (29)

13. Dean Ambrose

I love Dean Ambrose. His relative insignificance is the most mind-boggling bit of current WWE programming. But there are legitimate knocks on the guy, starting with the (difficult-to-admit) fact that he’s actually a little less amazing on the mic and in the ring than advertised by his supporters (myself included). He’s got all the right skills but defaults to cartoony forgettableness in promos and in matches. Consider that he’s not the kind of easily defined company guy WWE wants and that he seems to be slightly too comfortable in the mid-card, and it’s easy to see why the organization isn’t pushing him to the moon. On the other hand, he’s got the ability to be a transcendent star. Where he ends up is anybody’s guess. Hart-Plus Scale: 6-8-7-8 (29)

14. Luke Harper

Despite suffering in mid-card ignominy in an era when that shouldn’t be possible, Harper has quietly had the best month of just about anybody, starring in must-watch matches left and right and finding his footing as a domineering solo performer. (We’ll set aside for the moment that his promo skills won’t reach a respectable level until he decides what accent he has.) He gives old-school fans flashbacks to Bruiser Brody beating up their idols, and indie fans get the chills when he pulls out moves like his hurricanrana. His ceiling might seem lower than some other guys, but it’s a hell of a lot higher now than it seemed last year. Don’t underestimate him. Hart-Plus Scale: 8-4-8-9 (29)3

15. Stardust


3.

I left Sheamus out. Sorry! Here he is: 14b. Sheamus — It’s hard to fairly judge Sheamus, because I’m so in love with his current persona, but his preceding year was almost excruciating. He’s like the Kevin Love of WWE — in the right situation he’s an All-Star, but in the wrong one you’re almost better keeping him on the bench. (There’s probably an injury joke in here, too, but I’ll go easy on Cavs — and Sheamus — fans.) It’s hard to rank him with the elite, but it’s also impossible to ignore his upside. Hart-Plus Scale: 9-6-6-7 (28)

Cody Rhodes has proven he can do the most important thing a wrestler can do: stay relevant. What he’s yet to prove is that he can bring that relevance to the main event scene. If becoming this generation’s version of his dad, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, isn’t attainable, it’s not out of the question that he’ll be the Reality Era’s version of a different portly megastar — Mick Foley, who propelled a career of character changes into an unlikely calling card. Cody’s got the talent to be huge, but only if the, ahem, stars align. Hart-Plus Scale: 7-7-8-6 (28)

16. Samoa Joe

A borderline legend on the indies and an institution in second-tier-fed TNA Wrestling, Joe’s supposedly starting with WWE in June. He’s too old to keep in developmental too long and too good to be held down by WWE’s bookers. Right? RIGHT?? I’m hopeful. Hart-Plus Scale: 7-6-9-6 (28)

17. Kalisto

The utter failure of the Sin Cara Project proved that undersize luchadors aren’t automatically Rey Mysterio, no matter how big the marketing push behind them. But it doesn’t mean there’s not an appetite for these performers, as Kalisto has proven in a short time on the main roster. He’s only half of a tag team (alongside the aforementioned Mr. Cara), but the reaction he’s gotten from the crowd is so much louder than Sin Cara’s that it’s hard to quantify. Based on very little, I can totally see him in the main event, at least as a short-term solution. That’s a lot more than you can say for most guys. Hart-Plus Scale: 7-2-9-9 (27)

18. Daniel Bryan

There’s no end to the superlatives you can attach to Bryan, and there’s not a lot more I can say here that I haven’t already said in numerous columns. His ring skill is matched only by the adoration the crowds have for him. But he’s out again with a mysterious injury — he was sent home from the U.K. tour, deemed unfit to compete at Extreme Rules, and, most recently, pulled from the house show cards — and it’s impossible to overlook that. It’s an imperfect scale, so I’m docking his intangibles, which would otherwise be his highest marks. Hart-Plus Scale: 6-5-10-5 (26)

19. Sami Zayn

After an almost unforeseeable run of sheer excellence in NXT, the only question about Zayn is whether his act will translate to the main roster — especially when his perennial underdog slot is already occupied by none other than Bryan. I don’t want to set this up as an either-or, but Zayn has superstar potential if WWE’s broad-strokes booking can find space for him. If Bryan’s career is actually in question, Zayn’s could take off sooner rather than later. Hart-Plus Scale: 5-7-9-8 (29)

20. Jimmy Uso

Of all the fliers I’m taking on this list, this might be the biggest. But he’s been a part of arguably the most successful tag team in recent WWE history, and the main thing holding the Usos back was that the tag team division is largely perceived as the spawning ground for future singles stars, and the twin Uso brothers are functionally indistinguishable in terms of character and move set. The recent yearlong injury to Jey gives WWE a chance to set up Jimmy for a deserved singles run — if for nothing else than to set up the feud with his brother when he returns from the DL. Hart-Plus Scale: 6-6-5-6 (27)

The Next 25

21. Kevin Owens (5-8-7-6=26)
22. Damien Sandow (6-7-6-6=25)
23. Big Show (9-6-4-6=25)
24. Bo Dallas (4-9-6-5=24)
25. Xavier Woods (5-8-6-5=24)
26. Kane (8-5-6-4=23)
27. Uhaa Nation4 (7-4-7-5=23)
28. Tyler Breeze (6-6-6-5=23)
29. Heath Slater (3-5-5-9=22)
29. Mark Henry (9-7-4-2=22)
30. Hideo Itami (5-3-9-5=22)
31. Ryback (8-4-3-6=21)
32. The Miz (6-7-5-3=21)
33. Enzo Amore (5-10-1-5=21)
34. Fandango (7-4-6-3=20)
35. Tyson Kidd (4-4-9-3=20)
36. Kofi Kingston (6-3-7-4=20)
37. Titus O’Neil (9-6-2-3=20)
38. Curtis Axel (3-5-7-5=20)
39. Jack Swagger (6-4-7-2=19)
40. Erick Rowan (7-1-3-7=18)
41. Adam Rose (5-5-5-3=18)
42. R-Truth (3-5-5-4=17)
43. Darren Young (4-4-5-2=15)
44. Sin Cara (6-1-6-0=13)
Mr. Irrelevant: 45. The Bunny (3-0-6-3=12)

 ♦


4.

He just signed, so his WWE-approved name is yet to be determined, but this guy is legit.

These are obviously graded on how WWE has used them and, more importantly, how it’ll be willing to use them in the future. I mean, if I were booking some territory in Ohio in 1988, I’d grab Ambrose, Xavier Woods, and Big Show and watch the money roll in. There are a million ways to look at these guys, but for these purposes WWE defines the terms.

But check out that list again. Five or 10 years ago, would you have predicted that the WWE model would include wrestlers like Bryan or Samoa Joe or Balor or even someone like Rollins? Even Bret Hart, the guy who invented the scale used in this column, was the unlikeliest of champions. He was undersize and under-charismatic, but he ascended to the throne. Bret grades himself a 7-7-10 on his best day, and I’d give him a 9 for intangibles. But he never should have even gotten the chance to succeed. That’s the great thing about pro wrestling — talent can rise to the top. Even when you least expect it. Even in the WWE.