By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder
Yeah, I’m still stealing this Barbara Walters bit. What can I say? I like it. I’ve been able to do it every year (with one exception) since 2012.
This list is subjective, as always. These are 10 people who, for reasons both good and bad, stood out to me over the course of 2017. We’ve got unlikely champions, call-ups from NXT whose journeys have been more tumultuous than anticipated, a veteran who’ll be on the Wrestle Kingdom 12 card, and many more.
So let’s get down to business…
Jinder was one of WWE’s biggest gambles this year. The company made him their poster child for their attempts to break into the Indian market. In the process, Mahal went from glorified enhancement talent to WWE Champion in a matter of weeks. With help from the Singh Brothers (the former Bollywood Boyz), Mahal scored three consecutive pay per view victories over Randy Orton. He went on to retain over Shinsuke Nakamura at Summerslam and Hell in a Cell.
Though he held the title for most of the year, Mahal became a controversial figure for a variety of reasons. The question of whether he deserves this sudden shove into the limelight has always been there, with his matches and promos being highly critiqued. Also, the nature of his physique has been in question for quite some time. Many have suggested his increased musculature has come from steroids, or other performance enhancing drugs. The racial overtones used in his program with Nakamura did him no favors either. He actually got “That’s too far!” chants during a promo in October when he said of the Japanese star: “You always rook the same.”
Signs pointed to Mahal being the champion and the focal point of WWE’s two December shows in India. But by the time they got there, not only had the belt been taken from Jinder, but one of the shows had been cancelled. The “Maharaja” was still in a high profile match with Triple H. But he ended up eating the pin. He’d also been pulled from a headline match against Universal Champion Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series.
While success inevitably breeds envy and criticism, it’s safe to say the Jinder Mahal experiment hasn’t worked out the way anyone hoped. He may have an uphill battle ahead of him if he wants to stay near the top of the card.
The “Empress of Tomorrow” made her long-awaited debut on the main roster in October. While she’s maintained her undefeated streak, Asuka has run into a familiar problem. Like many of her peers, she’s had trouble translating her NXT success to the main roster.
To WWE’s credit, they brought Asuka in with a ton of hype. But her match with Emma at No Mercy left fans underwhelmed. She scored a hard-fought victory, but she wasn’t presented as the dominant destroyer they’d come to know. They quickly switched gears, placing her in enhancement matches akin to those done for Braun Strowman and Nia Jax early in their Raw tenures. But you only get one chance to make a first impression, and for Asuka it had come and gone.
Thankfully, they seem to know what they have in her. She was the sole victor in the women’s match at Survivor Series, has started to score decisive wins over lower card wrestlers like Alicia Fox and Dana Brooke, and has publicly declared her intent to come after the Raw Women’s Championship. Asuka would be a perfect pick to win the recently announced Women’s Royal Rumble Match.
Asuka got off to a rocky start. But she seems to be picking up speed. I’d certainly hate to see her end up like a certain other woman on the Raw roster…
Bayley’s 2017 was…okay. Just okay. She started out fairly strong, defeating Charlotte Flair on Raw to win her first Raw Women’s Title, and then breaking Flair’s pay per view undefeated streak shortly thereafter. She would go on to retain the title in a multi-woman match at Wrestlemania. Things seemed to be going well for her.
But by mid-year she’d fallen off track. WWE writers seem unsure of how to write Bayley. To an extent that’s understandable. Her character is very unique. You don’t see very many relentlessly positive, squeaky clean underdogs in 2017. But when paired against the spunky brat Alexa Bliss, she became a wishy-washy wet noodle. Bayley needed to show fire against Alexa. We needed to see that she could get angry when she had to. We didn’t get that. Instead we got bad dialogue, capped off by an absolutely atrocious “This Is Your Life” segment that was meant to garner sympathy for her.
By the time summer game around, she was getting the opposite. There were noticeable boos for WWE’s resident hugger, even when she was sidelined with a separated shoulder. These days, Bayley essentially just another name on the roster. From a creative standpoint, that’s an absolute travesty. Bayley is a special kind of character, who at one point had a special connection with a variety of fans. If there’s one person in all of WWE who could use a little character rehabbing, it’s her.
4. Matt Hardy
When it came to Matt Hardy, we spent most of 2017 waiting.
But just a few weeks ago, an on-screen breakdown led to the emergence of “Woken” Matt Hardy. The difference between Woken Matt and Broken Matt? Semantics. He’s got the same gear, the same hair, the same accent. For all intents and purposes, Broken Matt Hardy has come to WWE.
We haven’t seen a lot of him yet. It’s mostly been pre-taped promos, going back and forth with Bray Wyatt. Die-hard wrestling fans were already sold on Broken Matt. But the more casual fans watching Raw are seeing him for the first time. So far so good. Crowds have been reacting fairly well, and Matt has even breathed a tiny bit of life back into Bray.
There’s no shortage of options as to what can be done with this alternate version of Matt Hardy. In Impact, Jeff got in on the action as Brother Nero. But Matt’s wife, father-in-law, and children also became on-screen characters. We saw outrageous stuff on location at the Hardy compound. We saw a friggin’ drone. If Matt has a decent amount of control here, which he reportedly does, he could be one of the best parts of Raw in 2017.
Enzo faced a lot of criticism in 2017, but wound up proving a lot of his haters wrong. He started the year doing his usual shtick with Big Cass. Now he’s got the Cruiserweight Title and has essentially been made the star of 205 Live.
He could very well have fallen off the map after Cass went heel on him in June. But he ended up cutting some of the most passionate, scathing promos we heard on WWE TV all year. When Cass went down with an injury, Enzo was quickly moved into the Cruiserweight Division and put with Neville. Smart marks cried foul when Enzo somehow pinned Neville for the Cruiserweight Title in September. But the double turn that followed, turning Enzo heel and Neville babyface, turned out to be amazing. Enzo’s mic work and undeniable star power are undeniable. He’s earned his spot.
Enzo reminds me a lot of an early incarnation of the Miz. He won’t win any prizes for his wrestling. But his character work is on a different level than almost everybody else. When he talks, you believe him. In WWE, that’s a golden ticket that can take you almost anywhere. Enzo can be a singles wrestler, a tag team wrestler, a manager, an announcer, or whatever they need him to be. If Enzo is as tenacious and hard-working as Miz, he’s going to be around a long time.
And as long as we’re talking about him…
6. The Miz
Mike Mizanin’s suitability for pro wrestling stardom has been questioned from the start. Mainly because of his background as a reality TV star. But his wrestling ability has also been heavily critiqued. Throw in his success, including headlining a Wrestlemania, and he’s been a polarizing figure amongst die-hards.
But 2017 seemed to be the year Miz finally won over his critics. The majority of them anyway. He’s no slouch in the ring. But it”s mostly been a matter of his mic work and the presentation of his character. The continued inclusion of his wife Maryse, the slick suits, the good to great promos week after week, the incorporation of Bo Dallas and Curtis Axel as his “Miztourage.” It’s all come together. Now, roughly seven years after he main-evented Wrestlemania, he once again feels like a main-eventer. In 2017 he continued to make the Intercontinental Title feel prestigious again. He defended it, and in some cases traded it with, the likes of Dean Ambrose, Jeff Hardy, and Roman Reigns. It’s likely he’ll challenge for it again when he returns. Then again, perhaps it’s time for a new frontier…
Perhaps 2018 is the year Miz once again becomes WWE Champion.
7. Sami Zayn
Under the WWE umbrella, Sami Zayn was always portrayed as a sentimental underdog. It’s a role he wears well. Case in point, his work with Braun Strowman early in the year. But the underdog role isn’t always a good one to have. Yes, cases like Rey Mysterio Jr and Daniel Bryan will always exist. But the thing about being an underdog is that you sometimes have to lose. A lot. And despite what some in the WWE creative department would have you believe, wins and losses matter. As such, Sami Zayn’s time on the main roster as “the Underdog From the Underground” hasn’t been the most eventful. Even Sami himself has dropped hints of his frustration at how things have gone.
Then Hell in a Cell came around, and Sami aligned with nemesis Kevin Owens against Smackdown General Manager Shane McMahon. In the days to come it became clear that the underdog had become the villain.
It was just what the doctor ordered. Zayn tapped into a side of his personality that’s delightfully annoying, and become an atypical sort of heel. He described it on a podcast as: “…like when you’re dating a girl and she kind of has these quirks, but they’re lovable. But once you break up, it’s like, ‘oh, God! She was so annoying! … the things you used to love about her, now, you hate about her because you don’t love her anymore.”
Lovable or not, it’s working. Zayn has been a lot of fun to watch these past few months, and at the Royal Rumble he’ll be wrestling for the WWE Title. Now that’s progress.
8. Shinsuke Nakamura
Hopes were high this past spring when Shinsuke Nakamura was called up to Smackdown. Performers like him don’t come by every day, and having him be on American television for the first time (not counting NXT) was a big deal. But WWE isn’t exactly known for giving their performers the best material to work with, even less for letting the performers be themselves. So the question of how he’d fare loomed ominously.
Coming from someone who hasn’t seem much of his work in Japan, Nakamura’s time on the main roster has been underwhelming. Almost a year later, it still feels like we hardly know the guy. The announcers call him things like “Artist” and “Rock Star.” But those are empty nicknames. Who is this man? Why is he the way he is? Granted, they’re not exactly writing Shakespeare for him. His program with Jinder Mahal was a low point for WWE television all year, particularly when the racial stuff started coming into play.
Still, bad creative can’t take away the performer Nakamura is. The crowds are still into him. There’s even been a little bit of buzz about him winning the Royal Rumble Match this year. Hope isn’t lost for Nakamura’s WWE tenure yet. But the guy needs a hit. That one great match. That one great promo or vignette. Something.
9. Braun Strowman
There’s an argument to be made that Braun Strowman, not Roman Reigns, should be WWE’s poster boy. At the very least, he’s not hearing the kind of boos Roman is.
It’s fitting then, that Strowman’s best work this year was with Reigns. They had an uncanny amount of chemistry, especially when you consider Strowman’s experience level. He’s only been around a few years. But these matches with Reigns have been damn good. That image of Strowman heaving a chair at Roman’s head is as awesome today as it was when it happened.
More importantly, Braun Strowman represents a tremendous success on WWE’s part. They’ve created a genuine homegrown star. And unlike a John Cena or a Roman Reigns, the male fans aren’t threatened by him. So if WWE went with Braun, he could potentially have a relationship with the audience that we haven’t seen from a “chosen one” in a long time. A top babyface that the fans actually want to cheer for. Imagine that. This could be it. This could be the year the “Monster Among Men” stands at the top.
10. Chris Jericho
Chris Jericho’s choice to compete at Wrestle Kingdom 12 made a hell of a statement about NJPW’s foray into the United States, and its potential as an alternative to WWE. It also speaks volumes about who Chris Jericho is as a performer, and his resolve to continually challenge himself and grow. As if he wasn’t already the most versatile and multi-faceted performer in wrestling history.
Jericho also ended his latest WWE tenure on a high note. Coming into 2017, his rapport with Kevin Owens continued to be highlight of Raw every week. It culminated in a “Festival of Friendship,” which was arguably the most entertaining segment all year. Jericho and Owens weren’t nearly as compelling as enemies. But Owens got a Wrestlemania victory out of the deal, which is a nice feather in his cap. It’s a feather in Jericho’s cap too, as he got to help elevate yet another wrestler on their journey to WWE superstardom.
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