2016 was a groundbreaking year for WWE, as the company overhauled (and split) its roster, revitalized SmackDown, introduced a handful of new championships, fully bought into the women’s wrestling revolution, and welcomed dozens of new stars to the main roster and NXT.
Who is primed for major success in 2017, and which stars will take a back seat? Here are 10 WWE stars who will define the upcoming year.
She has to overcome the fact that she shares Raw with Charlotte, who is the undisputed face of the women’s division (according to her results, anyway) and has been a champion more often than not during her time on the main roster. Since Bayley made her first surprise appearance at Battleground, though, she’s been a massive hit with fans.
There’s a very good chance that Bayley will be the next Raw Women’s Champion, but the question is if she can hold onto the belt longer than Sasha Banks managed to.
If not for his heartbreaking shoulder injury at SummerSlam – where he popped his joint back into place and delivered an excellent performance anyway – Balor very well might still be the Universal Champion. WWE clearly wanted the former NXT champ to be a major part of Raw, having him go fifth overall in the Draft, only for his title reign to last one night.
When Balor eventually returns (at the Royal Rumble, perhaps?), he should be thrust right back into the main event picture. We’re still hoping for a Demon vs. Deadman match at WrestleMania 33 in Orlando this April.
John Cena’s 2017 can’t possibly be as bad as his 2016 was. Cena he was limited for the first half of the year due to a shoulder injury and returned (in astonishing time) only to lose three times to AJ Styles.
The stage has been set, however, for Cena to match Ric Flair with 16 World Championship reigns, and it could happen as soon as January 29th at the Royal Rumble.
Triple H has regularly popped up in photos on Twitter with newly crowned champions who came from NXT, and he’s made appearances at WWE press conferences – but The Game has all but vanished from weekly programming, which is especially strange given his shocking return to hand Kevin Owens the Universal Championship months ago.
WWE fans have waited months for some kind of resolution, and it seems likely that Triple H is involved in WrestleMania in some capacity.
Orton’s return from injury in mid-2016 resulted in a strange match against Brock Lesnar that left him a bloody, concussed mess in the center of the ring, but he quickly pivoted and latched on to the Wyatt Family in one of the most interesting storylines on SmackDown.
Orton’s too big of a star to simply be a tag team champion (or Wyatt’s puppet) for long, though. Whether he breaks free, or the Wyatt family become one of the dominant forces in WWE – the tail end of 2016 was just a setup for what is to come this year.
Shinsuke Nakamura’s WWE debut just before WrestleMania 32 was one of the most surreal moments of 2016, and his NXT title win at TakeOver: Brooklyn was epic, but WWE seems to be waiting for the perfect moment to unleash his electric presence on the wider main-roster audience. Whenever he moves up from NXT, though, he’ll be an instant sensation.
It would be nearly impossible for AJ Styles to top the year he had in 2016, which saw him become the WWE World Champion just nine months after debuting in the company – but if Styles can retain his title at the Royal Rumble, he could be in line for a CM Punk-style epic title reign with no clear star on SmackDown to overtake him.
Even if Styles loses the title, though, he’s established himself as the must-see wrestler on the roster. Styles consistently stole the show month after month on pay-per-views, and can make a legitimate claim to the title of “best in the world.”
Asuka’s arguably spent too much time in WWE’s developmental division, where she’s head and shoulders above her NXT competition and hasn’t lost a single match since coming to WWE.
Asuka’s been so dominant in NXT that whenever she does finally get the call up to the main roster – assuming that happens – she’d logically have to be immediately inserted into the Women’s Championship picture on either show.
The only thing holding Asuka back is her ability on the microphone – she can cut basic promos in English, but she’s not at, say, Shinsuke Nakamura’s level. Still, Asuka’s proven that she can get her point across speaking in Japanese, even if the audience doesn’t understand, and she could always be paired with a manager.
He’s “The Guy.” “The Big Dog.” And many fans loath Reigns, he seems to be getting more favorably split reactions from the crowd in recent months.
WWE’s simply invested too much in Reigns’ character to let him fall by the wayside now. He’s going to be a major player for a long time to come, whether he’s celebrated or not.
Renee Young’s become an indispensable part of WWE broadcasts and is the best studio voice in the company. She carries pay-per-view pre-shows, Talking Smack and Unfiltered are both excellent, she joined the cast of Total Divas in the current season and she’s recently entered a feud with The Miz and Maryse over her real-life relationship with Dean Ambrose.
Bonus: Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle’s return to WWE has been rumored for years, but here’s what we know:
– Kurt Angle is still putting on great wrestling matches at the age of 48
– Kurt Angle’s said he’s talked with Triple H about a potential comeback in 2017.
That’s enough reason for us to keep hope alive that his music will hit at the Royal Rumble in a few weeks. If Angle does ever return, it’d be a Goldberg-beating-Brock Lesnar-level moment.