WWE currently has around 75-80 “superstars” on the roster, and the list ranges from top-tier main eventers to new names most fans haven’t heard of yet and performers they probably thought were gone. Some of these people are tremendously talented, while some have the in-ring ability and charisma of a cinder block. Every industry watcher with a Web site seems to have an opinion about which workers are best, who needs to be cut, who deserves a bigger push, and about the only thing everyone seems to agree on is that WWE Creative has no idea what it’s doing. Frankly, I can’t really with argue with that last bit.
The problem with this particular who’s best and who sucks argument is the same as with all who’s best and who sucks arguments: what are the criteria? What does “good” mean? How you answer that question pretty much dictates the rest of your argument.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the WWE roster from a particular angle, and today Tuesday Morning RAW poses the question this way: if you were starting a new promotion and could pick five current WWE talents for your roster, who would you select (and why)?
Here’s my theory, and we’ll start with those criteria I mention above.
1: Now. This is a new promotion and if I’m going to succeed I need to be able to hit the ground running. If it takes me two years to develop some headliners I’ll be out of business. So I need a core of stars who can help get me over starting on Night 1.
2: The future. That said, since we’re talking about a start-up venture and I only have five picks, I can’t afford to waste them on guys who are playing the back nine of their careers. You may be at the top of the industry right now, but if you’re skills are on the decline I can’t afford to build around you. The key word is “build.” I need a foundation that will be strong in five years, maybe even ten. So many of the WWE’s top stars are out.
3: In-Ring Skill and Talent Development. I want to stage a promotion that leans more heavily on in-ring action than the current WWE product. That is, the Doc Sammy Wrestling Association will be a tad more pro wrestling and a tad less sports entertainment. I get that it’s a soap opera, and yes, my performers need to be credible on the mic and in the dreaded backstage skits. But one reason WWE has had to wander farther and farther afield, relying on routinely stupid outside-the-ring gimmicks, to tell their stories is that they have almost completely abandoned their commitment to telling stories inside the ring. I don’t want my promotion to be a throwback to the ’70s, but I do want the actual matches to be the focus. That means that a guy like John Cena, for example, is going to be a problem because he’s simply not very good in the ring.
Also, a related issue: you need a lot more than five guys to make a promotion successful. You need a mid-card. You need the ability to grow young talent. And if you’re serious about making a go of it, you can’t afford dead space in your shows. All this means that whoever you pick, they have to be workers who can make others better. If I have a raw new talent with potential, I have to be able to plug him into a program with an established star who can a) teach him, and b) make him look credible in the ring while doing it.
4: Versatility. Very few pro wrestlers are capable of generating over-the-top pop as both heel and babyface. Even the greatest are usually better on one side of the fence or the other. But the ability to drive a storyline wearing either the white hat or the black makes life a lot simpler for creative.
5: Low risk. I can’t afford to waste a pick on a guy who’s going to wind up dead of an overdose or sitting in jail for DUI or beating his wife. So no problem children.
So, there are the rules that will govern my draft. With these in mind, who are my five picks?
1: CM Punk (Phil Brooks). Punk’s catchphrase is “best in the world.” And he very well may be. He’s one of the most technically gifted performers in the industry today and he’s fantastic at making others look better. He even makes John Cena, a guy with five moves and the lamest finisher in wrestling, look good. That isn’t easy.
Punk has proven his ability to get over with fans as a face, even though he’s probably a better heel, and his “pipebomb” routine has added a whole new dimension to how promos work. The truth is, even the smarks aren’t always sure if he’s working or shooting, and that brings a rare edge to an industry attended by fans who, thanks to the Internet, are well aware of what’s going on behind the scenes.
So with my first pick, I select Phil Harris. No brainer.
2: Daniel Bryan (Bryan Danielson). If Punk isn’t the best in the world, Bryan is. His workrate is ridiculous. He’s innovative, he’s fast and agile (compensating for his smallish stature), and like Punk, he will not only make you look good if you’re working with him, he’ll make you look better than you have any real hope of being on your own. He’s been successful as a heel, although he’s one of these guys that crowds want to love (in a way he’s sort of the opposite of Punk here). So he’ll spend more time as a face. Even better, he can work serious, he can do slightly crazy, and he can do funny.
From the standpoint of acting and personality, he’s the creative department’s wet dream.
3: Dolph Ziggler (Nick Nemeth). Nobody in the WWE today sells like Ziggler. He can take a clothesline from the rawest rookie in the locker room and go down so violently you’d think he’d been hit by sniper fire. He has spent the last year or two unselfishly putting over everybody on the roster and to all appearances being a true team player. He’s maybe the best pure athlete in WWE next to Kofi Kingston, and his charisma fills the building and spills over into the parking lot.
Recently the creative team has aligned The Miz with the legacy of Ric Flair, and Miz has even adopted Flair’s figure four finisher. But creative missed the boat here. The truth is that Ziggler’s “Showoff” character is the modern, updated, slightly more frenetic heir apparent to the Nature Boy persona created by Buddy Rogers in the 1950s and perfected by Flair in the 1970s.
If you fancy yourself a wrestling creative and you can’t work with this guy, you need to go back to stocking shelves at Walmart.
4: Dean Ambrose (Jonathan Good). Ambrose is a recent call-up and the alpha dog in the Shield faction. While he’s still new and needs to develop some polish, he has an unconventional, interesting-to-watch style can clearly work in the ring. We haven’t seen him as a face yet, but he has an “it” factor that you can see from space with the unaided eye. Right now his character is a slightly unhinged heel who reminds you of a latter day Peter Lorre, and my guess is that he’ll turn face in the coming months and blow the lid off the place.
If you’ve seen him, you know what I mean about his presence. He’s an absolute, can’t miss superstar.
5: Ryback (Ryan Reeves). I labored over this one. A lot. Ryback was pushed way too high and way too soon, and now WWE has backed itself into a creative corner where they risk destroying his credibility. He still has a lot to learn in the ring and I doubt he’s ever going to be a technical workrate hero. However, he’s over. Moreso as a face, but I suspect he’d be even more compelling as a heel if the creative team had the ability to think more than a week into the future. He also has some size, and none of my other picks is especially big. A promotion needs a monster or two, and if Mark Henry or Big Show were 25 instead of 41 I’d take them in a heartbeat. But they aren’t.
With Ryback I’m violating criterion #3 a bit, but I’m banking that the other four picks can develop him as a worker and also that I can assemble a creative team that can outperform what he’s dealing with right now.
- Damien Sandow: big, great heel heat, funny, good worker – I almost took him over Ryback.
- Cody Rhodes: all he really needs is a good creative team behind him.
- AJ Lee: when I start thinking about women, be they in-ring or support performers, AJ is top of the list. She’s a very good athlete and she’s compelling as hell. You just can’t look away from her, no matter what she’s doing.
- Kaitlyn: a lot of critics seem not to think much of the current women’s champ. But what I see is a) a very good in-ring worker, who’s b) actually credible as an actress in backstage vignettes, and c) has a certain girl-next-door sweetness about her. My creative team can work with that.
- Big E Langston: new and raw, but holy hell, what a monster. If I had to take him instead of Ryback, I’d be okay with that.
- Antonio Cesaro: I have no idea what the fuck is wrong with Vince McMahon and the creative team. This guy is a serious old-school talent, a physical powerhouse who could be a main eventer in the right hands.
- Wade Barrett: Another almost in the monster category. Big, chiseled, good-looking, and he sneers as well as anybody since Billy Idol.
- Alberto Del Rio: nephew of the legendary Mil Mascaras and a tremendous in-ring talent. He’s limited by his ability to connect with the fans in English – he speaks it, but not fluidly – and probably is a lot more effective as a heel.