Regardless of what type of enterprise you’re talking about, one of the most important concepts in any entertainment intended for a mainstream audience is timing. This especially holds true for professional wrestling, where looking current is one of the most important parts of creating multiple live broadcasts every week. WWE has a particularly hefty strain in staying fresh, thanks to their dauntless schedule and always increasing audience, and while the writers have some power in keeping things up to date, much of the challenge is left on the wrestlers themselves to fit into the grand scheme of things and make their character work in the modern day. Of course, in certain instances, wrestlers find that they could have been far more successful if they had only been lucky enough to be born a few years earlier than they were.
Wrestling has tried a couple of time-travelling characters, and they were all pretty stupid, so we’re not going down that territory here. We’re just going to point out which gimmicks would have worked better during different points in WWE history than they seem to be working today. Some of the following wrestlers are extremely talented, and have the drive to make their gimmicks work in every era, but the fact remains they may have done better if they were only a little bit older than they are, or maybe if history had just gone a little bit different than it did. Keep reading to learn which 15 modern day WWE superstars could have been even more successful if they worked in a different era of wrestling.
15. Jack Swagger
Let’s get something out of the way right from the start: just because these superstars could have worked better in a different era, that doesn’t mean they’re complete failures as they stand today. Jack Swagger is pretty much destined for the midcard at this point, but he’s not without his success within WWE. When he was only 28 years old, Swagger won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, which made him a main event contender pretty early on in his career. Unfortunately for Swagger, fans never really connected with the All-American American, and his title reign was short-lived. Once he lost the belt, he was shunted down the card, and is now stuck with his consistently xenophobic “We the People” gimmick.
Swagger’s biggest problem is his general lack of charisma, but there was actually an era in which he could have highly excelled. Look no further than the six year WWE World Heavyweight title reign of Bob Backlund for a precedent on the kind of success an All-American boy could achieve in the late 70s and early 80s. Swagger’s lack of charisma wouldn’t have been a huge problem, as long as he could wrestle well enough, and he definitely has that part taken care of. As a matter of fact, back then, they probably wouldn’t even care about his drug habits.
14. Roman Reigns
Roman Reigns is another superstar who is clearly very successful today in terms of the way WWE treats him, but we think the fan backlash against his push would go a whole lot differently if it happened a few decades in the past. The reason fans hate Reigns so much is the feeling he was handpicked by Vince McMahon to be a success, and hasn’t exactly done anything noteworthy in the ring to back it up. His goofy babyface promos aren’t doing him any favors, either. McMahon is steadfast in pushing Reigns anyway, though, and with an unfortunately good reason: he’s had decades of experience deciding who the main event superstar is going to be, and this is pretty much the first time he’s misfired so harshly.
While a given superstar’s talent and performance in the ring will ultimately decide whether they’re a legend, a has-been, or a never-was, while the cameras are rolling, whether or not they’re a success depends on whether or not Vince McMahon wants them to be. Fans took this at face value for decades, accepting whatever hero Vince told them was the good guy, and booing whoever Vince said the bad guy was. It wasn’t until the Attitude Era that fans started ignoring the script and cheering for whoever they wanted, and more people probably would’ve accepted Roman at face value had he existed before that time period.
Adrian Neville, or sometimes simply Neville, is one of the most exciting and unique WWE superstars on the roster today thanks to his high-flying and fast-paced offense. The Man That Gravity Forgot has had some incredible matches against Sami Zayn, Kalisto, and Chris Jericho, but there are few superstars in WWE today who truly match his style. While this may change with the rush of new signees after the Cruiserweight Classic tournament, for the time being, Neville is one of very few high-flyers working for the McMahon family, and in fact, that might be part of the problem. While all of the workers on our list would do better in a different era, Neville might do better to go to a different company altogether—WCW, or even ECW.
WWE only recently revived their cruiserweight division, so maybe they’ll prove us wrong about this one pretty soon. But everybody can already look back on WCW’s cruiserweight division and realize how Neville would have fit in perfectly amongst their superstars during the Monday Night Wars. Although WWE had less cruiserweights than WCW, they still had more people to match Neville’s style during the late 90’s than they do today, as well, showing that Neville would’ve fit in anywhere at one point in time. Unlike today, where he needs to wait for his company to redefine a division before he can truly shine.
12. The Revival
The Revival is such an incredible tag team they deserve at least half of the credit for NXT’s entire tag team division over the past few years, when it truly started to shine. Most of their opponents have been impressive as well, but few teams gel as fluidly as Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder, and that holds true in any era. However, we feel that the two could have been even more successful than they are today if they were around during the era their name implies they’re reviving: the 1980s.
While tag team wrestling occasionally gets a spotlight shined on it when a popular team comes along today, especially throughout the NWA, the top tag teams were regularly an equal draw to the top singles competitors in terms of fan interest. A team like The Revival could easily fit in, and we’re not just saying that because Scott Dawson already looks like one of the Andersons. The Revival did pretty well in the NXT Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, but this is the sort of team that could have easily dominated the Crockett Cup. Time will likely prove talent of this caliber always rises to the top, but the journey might have been faster and more impressive if it took place right around the time these guys were born.
11. Shinsuke Nakamura
Shinsuke Nakamura is a difficult case to talk about in our list, because it’s clear that The King of Strong Style is the biggest superstar in the room each and every time he decides to grace an arena with his presence. However, as it stands right now, he has yet to even officially step into a WWE ring. Shinsuke is confined to NXT, the developmental training ground that’s supposed to serve as a training ground for superstars of tomorrow, despite the fact he’s clearly one of the top superstars of today. The only thing holding Shinsuke back from challenging for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship is the fact NXT needs a marquee star for its touring company, which is apparently the only role the company hired Shinsuke to perform.
Nakamura literally impresses fans with his every move, as the crowd screams with glee at his dancing and winks of approval, but Triple H and Vince McMahon see it fit to keep Nakamura in the minor leagues. It’s true Shinsuke still shines and puts on the best match every show, and maybe he would get lost in the clutter of WWE, or they could somehow ruin his mystique. With talent like his, though, that’s pretty darn unlikely, and if he had only jumped to WWE before NXT needed a big name to back it up, he would have shined like the superstar he is on the main roster. That’s a fact most fans find glaringly true in almost any era other than today.
10. King Konstantine
King Konstantine is a very new and almost entirely unproven wrestler, so it would be fair to call us premature in putting the guy on a list like this. However, all we need to see from him is his look and his gimmick before we have reservations and start to wonder if he might have worked better in a different era. Konstantine is a Serbian former amateur wrestler named Radomir Petković, who signed with WWE in December of 2015 after winning multiple bronze and silver medals in Greco-Roman wrestling at the European and Mediterranean Games.
Konstantine’s basic gimmick seems to be that he is big, tough, and vaguely Eastern European, much like Rusev. We kept Rusev off this list since he somehow makes it work, but the idea of two big bad pro wrestling communists in 2016 is a little too much for us to handle. Back in the 80s and especially a few decades earlier than that, evil Soviets made up a hefty portion of the wrestling oeuvre, but these days a wrestler needs more than a Russian accent to be a bad guy. That said, if Konstantine proves us wrong as he moves up the ranks, we’d be happy to eat our words on this early assessment.
9. The Authors of Pain
The Authors of Pain, Gzim Selmani and Sunny Dhinsa, are one of the newest and most impressive tag teams in NXT today, but one needn’t look far to see why we think they might have done better in a different era. The Authors made their grand debut by attacking American Alpha after their match at NXT TakeOver: The End, and immediately revealed an alliance with WWE Hall of Fame manager, Paul Ellering. Ellering was the previous manager of The Road Warriors, and his new team is similarly a flashback to the monsters of that era. They aren’t quite as out of place in today’s world as another team that we’ll touch on in a moment, but The Authors of Pain would likewise probably do better had they been around in the 1980s or even earlier.
Tag team wrestling is far from dead these days, and in fact The Revival is more than just a name of one of the best teams around today. Despite the fact tag team wrestling is going through a resurgence, teams like The Authors of Pain don’t really fit in with the plan of increasingly crisp matches that show off talented and innovative new superstars. Selmani and Dhinsa may indeed have the talent to back up their brutish looks, but had they been around several decades earlier, the look could have been more than enough. Unfortunately for them, both guys were born in the 90s.
8. Titus O’Neil
Titus O’Neil is doing rather well for himself in relation to his talent level, but it would take something seriously unexpected to happen for him to experience a late career resurgence and become one of the few superstars who got better as they aged. O’Neil isn’t a bad wrestler, but he’s pretty bland, and it says something that the only marketable fact WWE can find about him is that he was named the “Celebrity Dad of the Year.” He was in a long running team with Darren Young called The Prime Time Players, and though the team were victorious in capturing the WWE World Tag Team titles, fans never completely connected with their smiling babyface shtick the way they may have done decades prior.
Today’s WWE is respectful of a man who wins father of the year and likes his kids, but that doesn’t mean they particularly care about him or like to watch his matches. The goofy dancing babyface routine likewise just feels passé these days, and doesn’t add anything to the match. If O’Neil were around in a Southern territory during the 80s, he could have been their standout face superstar a la The Junkyard Dog or Ron Simmons. These days, however, Titus is just another guy clouding up the midcard.
7. The Ascension
The Ascension, Konnor and Viktor, are by looks one of the most dominant and imposing tag teams in WWE today. Unfortunately for the duo, they’re more of a joke when it comes down to reality, often losing their matches and being treated as inept as a team despite their staggering size and menacing face paint. They started strong in NXT, winning the NXT Tag Team titles and holding them just days shy of an entire year, but they’re time since jumping to the main roster has been anything but dominant. The idea was that The Ascension were a throwback to 80s monster duos like The Road Warriors and Demolition, and it sort of worked in front of a small crowd in NXT, but WWE decided to shatter any credibility the idea may have had as soon as they debuted.
The strange thing about The Ascension is that WWE not only seems aware they would have been more successful in a different era, but it almost feels like the only reason the team still have jobs is so the company can remind us of that fact and have them lose to prove that era is in fact still over. The Ascension almost never wins these days, but if they were around in the 80s or even early 90s, we have no doubt they’d have multiple year long title reigns in some Southern territories out there. In the very least, they wouldn’t be mocked and treated like jokes.
To keep this one short, everything we said earlier about Neville is at least five times as valid for Kalisto. We’ll elaborate a little bit, but the fact is Kalisto is an intensely talented cruiserweight wrestling in an era where cruiserweight wrestling is very much in stasis. Until the Cruiserweight Classic started, the only other wrestlers working Kalisto’s style were his partner, Sin Cara, and Neville. Since all wrestlers were typically working together, or at least all babyfaces, there was little opportunity for them to show off their skills against one another. Even when Kalisto had an opponent like Alberto Del Rio, who is well versed in the lucha libre style Kalisto uses, the result was somewhat sloppy due to their size differences.
Had Kalisto been wrestling two decades earlier, we have no doubt he would have been going toe-to-toe with Rey Mysterio, Jr. and Ultimo Dragon as one of the standouts in WCW’s cruiserweight division. WWE may have even utilized him in order to make their Lightweight division stand out for once, as he could have brought a fire to matches against Taka Michinoku that Mr. Aguila just wasn’t bringing at that point in his career. Either way, monsters like Rusev probably wouldn’t have been squashing Kalisto like they are today.
5. The Usos
Jimmy and Jey Uso are the twin sons of WWE Hall of Famer Rikishi, and the cousins of former WWE World Heavyweight Champions Roman Reigns and Yokozuna. The brothers clearly have an impressive bloodline, which is why WWE used that word to describe their pairing with Reigns on television. However, the Usos are also known for receiving remarkably tepid reactions from the crowd, and have the general stigma as heat killers who can’t get over no matter how hard they try. Part of the problem is WWE keeps hammering home the family gimmick as opposed to giving them any sort of personality of their own, and they’re doing this because it used to work.
The Usos are basically an updated and less offensive version of a team their father became famous with, The Headshrinkers. The savage aspect of the gimmick was toned down to match the times, but the idea is still simply that the two are vaguely foreign and related, and if booked as faces, the crowd should cheer them to support the Samoan family legacy. The crowd isn’t biting with the Usos, but they did with The Headshrinkers during the New Generation Era, and audiences might have liked them even more decades earlier than that.
We’re hitting a point on our list where the superstars are talented enough to succeed in virtually any generation of wrestling, but there are always levels of success that need to be considered in a discussion like this. We might be going out on a limb here, but we think Cesaro is the type of wrestler who not only could succeed in any era, but he could have been one of the top stars to put wrestling on the map as far back as the 1960s, serving as one of those few men who held the WWE World Heavyweight title for multiple years in a row. If not a storied WWE Champion, Cesaro at least could have brought incredible international prestige to the NWA World Heavyweight title, and have gone done as one of the most legendary wrestlers in history.
As it stands today, Cesaro is pretty much universally considered the most underrated wrestler working for WWE, and that’s been the case for quite a few years now. Cesaro’s superstar potential dramatically shoots through the roof with his every match, but Vince McMahon is so keen on ignoring him that the modern era might be the only one in which he would never become a champion.
3. Dolph Ziggler
Most fans know Dolph Ziggler is an incredibly talented WWE superstar, but for whatever reason, when people talk about who they’d like to see him face off against in the ring, they always name retired or even deceased wrestlers as his would be opponents. The obvious connection is Mr. Perfect Curt Hennig, who many feel Ziggler adopted his style from. There’s also The Loose Cannon Brian Pillman, who shares more than a few physical similarities with Ziggler. Branching out from Pillman you could include the entire Hart Foundation, especially Bret and Owen, and the trend here is more than just the fact all of these wrestlers are dead or retired.
A few of those wrestlers had amazing, groundbreaking gimmicks, but the fact remained that they were all wrestlers first and entertainers second, something sorely missing from modern day WWE. Ziggler is of the same school, in that he’s capable of supporting whatever gimmick WWE gives him, but for the most part he lets his performance in the ring speak for itself. He definitely has the ability that with the right writing, he could once again be WWE World Heavyweight Champion. In the early 90s, though, he wouldn’t even need the writing – he’d be a former King of the Ring always in line for a title shot thanks to his consistent performances.
2. Bray Wyatt
Bray Wyatt and his Wyatt family might not fit perfectly into this list of ours, in that we admit they do a pretty great job at forcing the WWE Universe to conform to the atmosphere they provide whenever Wyatt feels the need to make his presence known. Bray himself is the creepiest cult leader wrestling has seen in decades, but part of that is the fact he’s the only person to tackle evil quite so succinctly in quite a long time. However, he’s not the first, and in fact he might have done a little bit better for himself if he had been around the last time someone struck pay dirt with it. We’re talking about Raven’s band of misfits in ECW, and we think Wyatt could have had quite the war against the hardcore David Koresh.
Raven would be far from the only ECW opponent worthy of the Wyatt Family’s interest, as the whole promotion was tailor made for a cult leader to wreck havoc and cause chaos. Any member of Wyatt’s family could fit right in with the hardcore atmosphere, and the crowd would be able to join in on the many pier six brawls that company was known for in an instant. WWE fans like playing along with Wyatt’s shtick, but ECW fans took their support to the extreme as well, so there’s no saying what kind of fear the eater of worlds and his supporters could have brought to the 90s, if only he were prepared to do so.
1. Sasha Banks
Sasha Banks is a difficult case for this list, in that she’s unquestionably in the perfect era to truly succeed as a female wrestler thanks to WWE’s increased focus on serious women’s wrestling over the past several years. In the late 90s, there’s little doubt Sasha would have been forced into being yet another in a string of pretty WWE divas with little wrestling talent, or at least little opportunity to portray that talent. Nowadays, on the other hand, she’s regularly allowed to steal the show, and her matches with Bayley in NXT were considered some of the best of the year, whether competed by males or females.
With all of that in mind, we think The Boss gimmick was tailor-made for the Attitude Era. While Banks uses modern fashion in her style, the idea of a bad ass b*tch who’s cooler and more talented than everybody in the room works in absolutely any time period, and none were more in your face and prepared for controversy like WWE in the late 90s. Banks would have easily overtaken Sable’s ego thanks to her genuine talent, and might have forced a revolution of her own several decades before it even happened thanks to her unstoppable drive to be legit.