The Replacements: Punk’s Gone. Bryan’s Gone. Reigns Is Gone. Who’s WWE’s Next Big Thing Now?Courtesy of WWE
At SummerSlam, WWE announced that next year’s event would be moving from Staples Center, where it has spent the past six years, to “New York and New Jersey.”1 It was intentionally vague, because WWE seems to be unsure if the event will be held at MetLife Stadium, where the New York Jets and Giants play, or next door at the smaller Izod Center (a.k.a. The Worst Major Event Space in America).2 It seems risky for WWE to try to fill up a football stadium twice a year, every year. After all, WrestleMania gets the huge crowd because it’s WrestleMania, and watering that down could hurt the attendance for both shows.
There’s an easy argument in favor of turning SummerSlam into a second mega event, however: If WWE built up the card to make it a ’Mania-size supershow, fans would travel from far and wide to see it. The problem with this scenario, though, is a familiar thorn in the side of the pro wrestling world: card subject to change. Think back to the start of 2014. You could have fantasy booked this year’s SummerSlam to be a singularly epic event that could have filled Michigan Stadium. But that card would have included CM Punk (who quit), Daniel Bryan (who got hurt shortly after winning the title at WrestleMania), Batista (who left his homecoming run early because he was unhappy with his booking or to promote Guardians of the Galaxy, or some combination of both), Triple H (conceivably available but unused), and the Undertaker (whose health is always the subject of speculation, as Fred Durst’s recent “leaks” to the public proved once again). In the wrestling world, personalities sell tickets, and even though the fighting is fake, the injuries are real. When a major star drops off the active roster, it can affect ticket sales for months or longer.
And boy golly has WWE seen its fair share of vanishings this year. After Punk walked out, Bryan took over the smark-fan spotlight. When Bryan got hurt, John Cena was pulled back into the main event as WWE accelerated the breakup of the Shield and shotgunned Roman Reigns into the Next Big Thing slot. And it’s not just the main event scene. A series of personnel cuts a few months back reduced the roster size significantly.
All in all, of the 18 men who appeared on the WrestleMania 30 card (excluding the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal), eight of them (Bryan, Triple H, Roman Reigns, the New Age Outlaws, the Undertaker, Batista, and Ryback) are either gone, injured, or otherwise not on the booking sheets right now. Of the 30 men in the Battle Royal, nine of them are not active wrestlers for WWE (Brodus Clay, Rey Mysterio, Alberto Del Rio, Yoshi Tatsu, Christian, Jinder Mahal, Drew McIntyre, Santino Marella, Brad Maddox), three are functionally NXT talents (Tyson Kidd and Justin Gabriel, and Sin Cara), David Otunga is occupying some weird netherworld of continued semi-employment, and many of those still on the roster are more or less MIA at the moment (Fandango, Big E, Kofi Kingston, Xavier Woods, Zack Ryder, Darren Young).
With the WWE talent cupboard perhaps as bare as it’s been in years, on Saturday news leaked that Reigns had been rushed to a hospital in Nashville — the site of Sunday’s Night of Champions PPV — to have emergency surgery on an incarcerated hernia. Suddenly his match against Seth Rollins was bumped from the card and his place as next year’s presumptive WrestleMania main-eventer3 was in doubt. Without Reigns, the main event scene that had been held together by meta fan excitement, Brock Lesnar’s unexpected return to regular WWE appearances, and a Band-Aid in the form of Cena suddenly seemed shallow.
Night of Champions ended with Rollins hijacking a Cena win and trying to cash in his Money in the Bank title shot on a prone Lesnar, an attempt that was stymied by Cena. The main event to that point had been very good — as had the entire card. Reigns’s absence was painted over by the return of Rollins’s foe Dean Ambrose (who had been put out of action by Rollins stomping his head through a pile of cinder blocks, or, in real life, because he was filming a new WWE movie project), and the rest of the card featured a litany of standout performances. But the high point of the Lesnar-Cena match, judging by crowd reaction, was Rollins’s unannounced appearance. And the highlight of Monday’s Raw was the formal introduction of Ambrose to the main event scene.
In pro wrestling, fans always thirst for the exhilarating hypothetical. When the present isn’t satisfactory, the Next Big Thing provides hope. Bryan carried us through much of the past year, and the rise of Reigns held down the spot for a few months. But now, with them (and so many others) out — and the main event scene relatively depleted — who will be positioned as the new face of the wrestling world? Cena and Orton aren’t going anywhere, but it’s safe to say that Cena-Orton MMCCCXLI won’t be headlining WrestleMania 31.4 There are positions to fill, and they’ll be filled by guys we’re watching on a weekly basis. Who will they be? Let’s investigate.
When Rollins debuted, I called him a five-tool prospect, potentially a Vince McMahon–approved version of Jeff Hardy–meets–CM Punk. During the first year of the Shield’s run, he was frequently overshadowed by Reigns and Ambrose and I prepared to eat my words. But since Rollins split from the trio and joined forces with the Authority, he has blossomed into a clear star in the making. He’s both a great chickenshit heel — a far cry from the babyface I’d expected — and the workhorse of WWE’s top tier. He can get a good match out of anybody. In a matter of months he has changed his trajectory from perennial midcard standout to Guy Who Can Convincingly Take Out Brock Lesnar. With the Money in the Bank briefcase keeping him in the title picture, he’s in pole position for a huge push if Lesnar’s deal with Triple H falls apart, or if any babyface ends up with the title by ’Mania 2015. And he deserves it. Odds of main-eventing WrestleMania: 10-1
The “Lunatic Fringe” of the Shield has been a revelation as a good guy since Rollins broke up the group. Just as most pegged Rollins for a good guy, Ambrose was the clear-cut villain-in-waiting, with heavy shades of Jake Roberts, Raven, Brian Pillman, and Roddy Piper in his gravel-voiced, easy delivery and a surprising variety to his indie-whetted move set. To see Ambrose standing in the ring with Cena on Monday was confirmation of his ascension — at the start of the show, he subtly threatened Cena to the loud approval of the crowd, and at the end, they stood together as Ambrose’s music played. If that’s not an omen, I don’t know what is. Odds of main-eventing WrestleMania: 20-1
The depraved idol-smasher made such an impression upon his arrival that it became conventional wisdom that he’d eventually be a top guy. But Wyatt’s uneven ascent up the WWE ladder — as his feuds seem meandering and about a month too long — has left fans wondering whether the spotlight will actually find him anytime soon. Rumors abound that WWE wants to turn him into a good guy, which is a categorical error. He should be able to smash evil idols without changing his character wholesale. Regardless, even if his route has been haphazard, Wyatt’s future stardom seems undeniable. He just needs to recalibrate his delightful gibberish and make 10 percent more sense to be a perennial star who can work with anybody at the top of the roster. Odds of main-eventing WrestleMania: 20-1
I’ll be honest — the Irishman’s odds would be a lot steeper if it weren’t for the beard he was growing at Night of Champions. Bryan’s spot is up for grabs, so why not fill it with another hirsute pug? Although the longstanding rumors of his personal relationship with Triple H are in dispute, no one denies that the WWE front office has confidence in him. He’ll be a potential main eventer until he retires; the question is whether fans will accept him. A heel turn would go a long way toward making him believable as a top-level star — and interesting again. After Sheamus’s amazing match with Cesaro on Sunday, I half expect them to end up forming a mutual respect society and challenging for the tag titles. Whether or not that happens, Sheamus is a good worker, a solid character, and overall he’s in a better position to take over WWE than most people give him credit for. Odds of main-eventing WrestleMania: 40-1
Sheamus’s current adversary isn’t much further down the ladder. He’s got the smark pedigree that propelled Bryan to the top, and his physique and wrestling ability can make almost every other wrestler jealous. His budding jump to the top of the card this spring was aborted by the breakup of the Shield. (If Bryan had stayed healthy, the trio would have stayed together and Cesaro would have gotten a turn at a top-five slot.) His ill-timed departure from Paul Heyman’s tutelage hurt his stock, and credible rumors persist that Vince McMahon is perpetually apathetic toward him. But it’s undeniable that he’s got the fans’ support, even as a villain, and when he works babyface, his Giant Swing is more beloved than 90 percent of the good guys on the roster. And he’s got Cena’s stamp of approval, which is worth a lot. Odds of main-eventing WrestleMania: 50-1
The Bulgarian brute (and honorary Russian) has been marching steadily up the card, taking out every America-loving hero in his way. His breezy disposal of his last two antagonists — Jack Swagger and Mark Henry — speaks loudly to WWE’s plans for him. But imagining those plans always seems to leave you with Rusev versus a flag-waving Cena at WrestleMania, and the way things are going, Cena’s dance card may be otherwise occupied. But setting that aside, it’s clear Rusev will soon be hovering around the main event. Even if he’s not directly feuding with guys like Cena, he can be a kind of Lesnar Junior, which is not a bad place to be for a rising star. He may be something of a one-note foreign baddie now, but he has the wrestling ability and the unique look to pivot into a long-lasting role with the company. And with a gimmick — and a win-loss record — like Rusev’s, you’re never that far off from the big time. Odds of main-eventing WrestleMania: 50-1
The WWE-bred wrestler with the most meta fan support has finally regained some of the footing he lost after concussions derailed his first championship run in 2013. A competitive (and shockingly entertaining) feud with the Miz has seen him (as of Monday) back in possession of the Intercontinental title,5 and his stock is at a 2014 high. Saying that Ziggler is a Shawn Michaels type just waiting for his shot at the main event is almost tired at this point, but it’s worth mentioning if only because he gets crowd reaction and his biggest moments are Daniel Bryan-esque. I wouldn’t necessarily bet on him being the next big star, but he’s always just an injury to a top guy away from being called up. If his own injuries don’t get in the way, that is. Odds of main-eventing WrestleMania: 75-1
I can’t believe I just typed that name. But of all the youngish midtier talents who have a real shot at making good — Bo Dallas, Big E, et al. — Swagger is well positioned to finally fulfill his potential. And he has shored up all of his notable weaknesses since aligning with Zeb Colter and turning to the light — his promos (with Zeb’s help and without) are compelling, and the crowd is, finally, excited to see him. He might not be on the Ziggler level of career resurgence, but he’s not out of the conversation. Odds of main-eventing WrestleMania: 150-1
Anybody From NXT
With the steady promotion of its WWE Network show and its recent PPV-style supershow, NXT Takeover, NXT — WWE’s developmental outfit — has reached a new level of wrestling-fan cultural currency. Two weeks ago on Raw, the Takeover main event was previewed with a tag match on Raw, which was a little like MLB airing an unannounced Triple-A home run contest right when everybody was tuning in for the All-Star Game. Almost more important than the Raw match was that three of its participants — Adrian Neville, Sami Zayn, and Tyler Breeze — are super-talented smart-fan favorites who will earn spots on the roster sooner rather than later. One can easily imagine a scenario in which Neville pops up to challenge the WWE champ (and settles into an Evan Bourne–meets–Dynamite Kid spot on the midcard), or Zayn re-creates the Daniel Bryan rise to stardom, or Breeze takes a half-Miz, half–Shawn Michaels route to the top of the card. But despite the dreams of the Internet wise guys, that’s probably not happening in the next few months. Odds of any of them main-eventing WrestleMania: 7,500-1
Adam Rose’s Rabbit
The mysterious rabbit-costumed wrestler, who had previously been no more than a member of Rose’s rave-going posse, has emerged over the past several weeks as a more-than-passable comedy performer. Despite the painful history of costumed characters and the letdown that comes with any unmasking, fans are eager to see who’s underneath the floppy ears. The names that have been rumored — Darren Young, Christian, even Zayn — make leaving the costume on seem like a slightly better option. But hey, stranger things have happened. Odds of main-eventing WrestleMania: 10,000-1
The problem with imagining all of the possibilities is that only a couple will become reality. The mega SummerSlam 2014 card I imagined at the top of this column would have been great — but it would have almost certainly excluded the rise of the Shield trio, the resurgences of Ziggler and Swagger, and who knows what else. It might have even kept WWE from anteing up and renegotiating Lesnar’s contract, paying him enough to make him a viable (which is to say, semi-regular) champion. Once upon a time, Lesnar’s nickname was “The Next Big Thing.” He more than lived up to that promise. It remains to be seen whether anybody on the current WWE undercard has it in him to take that next step. But hey, at least we’ll always have the thrill of an exhilarating hypothetical. We can always dream.
Filed Under: professional wrestling, WWE, Night of Champions, SummerSlam, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, The Undertaker, John Cena, Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Rusev, Jack Swagger, Bray Wyatt, Sheamus, Cesaro