WWE: Who is the next big thing?

Rules of Professional Wrestling, #1: As the Earth does with the sun; every wrestling promotion must revolve around one top star – a name and face that will become your brand, your identity, and your ticket to filling arenas and planting butts in front of television screens.

When you think of The Terminator, you think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, just as the Muppets revolve around Kermit T. Frog and Marilyn Manson conjures up, well, Marilyn Manson. With the exception of a few, almost every wrestling promotion in history has built themselves around one larger-than-life superstar who stands out above all the others. None more so than Vince McMahon with the WWE: In the 1980s, Hulk Hogan WAS pro wrestling, before Stone Cold Steve Austin took the ball in 1998 and redefined the industry. Even today, the WWE cannot function confidently without John Cena selling merchandise, bumping television ratings and keeping live attendance numbers stable. No matter how many stars are in the sky, one always shines brighter than the others.

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A small selection of John Cena merchandise available...

The problem with this set-up is that, inevitable, a new superstar will have to be found, created or stumbled upon by accident in order to keep the cycle running. John Cena won’t be around forever, and consensus amongst most wrestling fans is that the WWE need to start creating some new headline names to move the company forward. If Cena is mysteriously pushed down the stairs tomorrow morning (most likely by a maniac who breaks into his home with a sledgehammer, leaves giant nose prints on the doors and then makes their escape in a Triple H-branded tour bus), who is going to take that step up to the top of the ladder and make their mark on the business? Who is the next big thing? Let’s meet the candidates.

CM Punk

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If you’re a fan on the internet, chances are that Punk is the very first name that came into your head. That’s probably because you’re an idiot. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because the push of a new straight-shooting cult hero has shown what can happen with the right talker saying the right things at the right time. Given the chance to just go out and talk people into the buildings, few are currently better, if any at all, than CM Punk.

The problem with Punk is the hype that that has been thrust upon him (he was put in front of a thousand screaming internet fans in the Hammerstein Ballroom on his WWE debut and given a hero’s welcome, whilst Money In The Bank landed him in his home city of Chicago against Cena, which propelled him to superstardom for all of one night). The die-hard supporters of Punk, most of whom have occupied the internet since his days in ROH, have repeatedly made their voices heard, even masking many of his shortcomings in the ring. Whilst fluid and realistic  he can also be prone to sloppiness, lacking the finesse and charisma that made Shawn Michaels one of the greatest workers in history. Even the Punk character, whilst striking an initial chord with disillusioned fans, comes off on the wrong side of whiny, and that makes it difficult for many to invest as they did with the last true wrestling rebel, Steve Austin.

Could Punk be the next Austin? With a personality that naturally deviates towards an unlikeable-verging-on-dickish heel persona, it’s unlikely. Someone like Punk will always split the audience, not too dissimilarly to how Cena does. The loss to Triple H at Night of Champions didn’t help his cause much either. However, of everyone who has been given a shot so far, Punk has shown the ability to take the ball and run as far as he can before the writing team reel him in. It’s unlikely that he’ll become a top-level megastar but, like Edge and Chris Jericho before him, he could keep himself on the cusp for a very long time. That’s good for business good for business; not unlike the two legendary Canadians, the wrestling business needs a CM Punk right now and no one plays the role of CM Punk better than CM Punk.

The Miz

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Once known as the Marty Jannetty of his tandem with John Morrison, The Miz rapidly made a name for himself as a solo star and enjoyed a lengthy, if not poorly executed title reign at the beginning of the year. A star whose light shone brightly leading into Wrestlemania XXVII, the Awesome One has fallen from grace long before his time.

Where his ring ability may fail him – a decent worker at best, capable of good matches with good opponents but ultimately at a mid-card level of ability – his mic skills are on par with the best in the business. More importantly, Miz has something that the likes of Punk, Orton and even Cena lack: mainstream acceptance. Late night talk shows love having him on their shows (Conan O’Brien gave Miz his stamp of approval, and he won everyone over on Lopez Tonight), gossip sites consider his reality show credentials pre-WWE to be worth keeping him in their sights, and celebrities actually know who he is. Mike Mizanin, the man who once bored SmackDown viewers senseless with his “hoo-rah” catchphrase and failure of hosting the Diva Search, is now the WWE’s meal ticket for every celebrity function in town, as well as the credibility that goes with it.

Yet, celebrity status can only get you so far once you step between the ropes. As a name, The Miz is the closest to The Rock (note: close, not equal) as anyone in wrestling. As an in-ring talent, he’s a step below Cody Rhodes. That may work for a main event of Raw, but try placing it at Wrestlemania and see what happens. In fact, they did do that, and we did see what happened, and now he is jobbing to Air Boom with R-Truth and likely to be mingling with Miss Piggy and Animal come Halloween (which isn’t a bad thing, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong). Yet, with his speaking skills, his media work and his ability to carry himself like a bona-fied superstar, we most certainly haven’t seen the last of this “most must-see champion” with the title around his waist.

Randy Orton

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Considering the story of The Viper so far in his career, it could be argued that Orton should be, by rights, next in line to the WWE throne. Numerous titles and main event spots would back that up, as would his credentials once the bell rings: effortlessly good-to-great matches under his belt with a variety of different wrestlers over the last seven to eight years. With a resume like that, it’s hard to argue against him.

You can therefore imagine everyone’s surprise that Orton has never fulfilled those high expectations, no matter the chances afforded to him. Even when WWE put him over strongly against lower positioned talents who could use the rub of a victory far more than Randy, his popularity and influence still seems to wane in contrast to Cena. For whatever reason, something keeps holding Orton back from taking the final leap towards carrying the company forward.

It’s not his talent, nor his look (which probably does him more favours than anything else). His talking abilities are somewhat limited and a little wooden, but it’s the character that lets him down the most. At his peak of fan interest, he was a villain; possessed with the ability to switch at any moment and take out the biggest superstars without a second thought or subsequent remorse. As a babyface, it’s difficult to balance such a character with being fan-friendly, so it’s easy to forgive Orton for falling a little short. Until those tweaks are made, however, the former Legend Killer will forever be in Cena’s shadow.

Alberto Del Rio

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Of what little was known of him before he made his way to the WWE, Del Rio has been a revelation. Taking the best bits of the old John Bradshaw Layfield character, adding an additional layer of talent and employing the services of Ricardo Rodriguez as his personal ring announcer, ADR has become one of the hottest new stars in years. Moreover, his ascension was home-made; the character, the name, and the push were all created by Team WWE, and that is usually the most important factor in guaranteeing a lengthy period of success for anyone, let alone Del Rio.

A now former WWE champion, Del Rio’s biggest test is forthcoming. It’s well known that his initial reign was planned months in advance to coincide with a tour of Mexico, in the hope of capitalising on having a local guy as the company figurehead, as well catching the eye of the American population of Hispanics, which was the main catalyst for Rey Mysterio and Eddie Guerrero becoming as popular in the WWE as they did. For whatever reason (likely ratings-based), the decision was made to put Cena back in the driving seat at Night of Champions, but that could change with Hell In A Cell only a week away. If Del Rio can help the WWE break Mexico and tap into a potentially lucrative market, there’s no reason short of finding a steroid needle stuck in one of his buttocks to pull back on pushing him as a champion again.

With an ever-improving workrate, strong promo work and a character that has caught on with the audience, Del Rio is in a great position. If Mexico takes to him as their national hero, he could solidify his place in the upper echelon for years to come. The company have faith in him, as seen by their rare insistence of letting him beat opponents cleanly in the middle of the ring on a weekly basis, and keeping a cool head on his shoulders would take him above and beyond what Eddie Guerrero managed to accomplish (became champion but ultimately blamed himself for subsequent SmackDown ratings and succumbed to the pressure of his perceived responsibilities). Turning heads in countries beyond America is something no longer taken for granted by the WWE, and Del Rio’s success or failure in these areas will determine whether he becomes the next Rey Mysterio Jr. or Jesus Castillo, Jr. Who? Exactly.

Zack Ryder

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Okay, now I’m just being silly.

Or am I? A former Edge lackey who turned on the radio and became the Long Island Iced Z, capitalising on the growing subculture of ‘Guido’ even before Jersey Shore took it to the masses and scarred the image of Snooki into our collective nightmares. Does that sound too far-fetched? How about taking the initiative to make his own Youtube show that not only doesn’t embarrass himself or the company, but actually has managed to get him over with a section of fans that would otherwise never have given a rat’s ass about him with how much time the WWE were investing in his “push”? In effect, he made himself a bigger star on his own accord.

Naturally, you’d expect Vince McMahon to be a vindictive swine and bury the guy six feet under, which seemed to be the plan for a few weeks. Now, though, the company seem to have seen the potential and are throwing themselves behind it, giving the guy plugs on Raw for his Z! True Long Island Story videos, aligning him with professional Wolverine, Hugh Jackman and even giving him the occasional victory as well. He’s not setting the world on fire, but neither did Disco Inferno in 1997, and look how he turned out… wait, what do you mean that was a bad example?

Who do you think has the potential to accept the torch and keep it ablaze without burning the whole company to the ground? Could it be one of the five aforementioned, or maybe someone I’ve forgotten? Maybe they don’t even work for the WWE, and that’s not even bringing up the scary possibility that it may be too late; maybe there will be no new superstar after all. Then what?

Whatever your thoughts, leave them in the comments section below, or on the TWO forums.

Mitchell Jones
Follow Mitchell on Twitter: @mitchelljones

Thanks to Richard Hapeman, Reckless Dream Photography and Zack Ryder for the accompanying photos.

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