This year may be nearly be over, but it’s hardly the end of the world as we know it. While most media outlets are busy cataloguing their favorite and least favorite entertainment from the past year, it’s about time people accepted the fact it’s virtually over and moved on to the next one. The same is true for Vince McMahon and how he runs his WWE Universe, as almost nothing of note happens during the December months anymore, the real company focus already shifting towards the first quarter of the next year.
For this reason, it’s also a timely choice to start thinking about which sports entertainers we expect are ready to break through to the top, as 2018 very well may be the year they do it. There are also plenty of wrestlers who have slowly been climbing up the card, and it may be 2018 where they cement their status in the main event. That’s not even mentioning the significantly larger number of wrestlers who don’t yet work for WWE but very well might, with the potential of signing a contract in the near future all fans need to get excited.
Truth be told, there’s no time machine or crystal ball that let’s us know for sure how WWE is going to progress into the future. More than anything else, the past year has proven that Vince McMahon is an outrageously unpredictable individual, as is his industry in general, and even those who studied the man for decades are bound to get surprised now and again. Barring any major surprises, however, it’s not impossible to guess who the next true superstars of sports entertainment could be. For a preview, keep reading to learn about the 15 pro wrestlers we expect the most from in 2018.
15 Shinsuke Nakamura
With all due respect to the “King of Strong Style,” it needs to be acknowledged that 2017 was one of the weakest years of Shinsuke Nakamura’s career in recent memory. After years of dominating New Japan Pro Wrestling, Nakamura made his way to the states in early 2016, and his initial output in NXT was totally up to par with past performances. Things haven’t been so great since he moved up to the main roster, though, with a number of disappointing matches against names like Jinder Mahal and John Cena slightly damaging his profile, and at a time more eyes are on him than ever before. That said, there’s still no doubt in our minds Nakamura is an outrageously talented and charismatic individual, and now that SmackDown is out of crazy land and Mahal is no longer WWE Champion, it’s possible future title shots will be a whole lot better for all involved. Even if Nakamura doesn’t reach that height, as long as he’s away from Mahal, we expect his next year will go much better than the last.
14 Shayna Baszler
For the past decade, Shayna Baszler has slowly been building a reputation as one of the most viciously terrifying monsters fighting in various MMA organizations. While she hasn’t participated in that many high profile bouts, Baszler is nonetheless notable for being part of Ronda Rousey’s “Four Horsewomen,” alongside Marina Shafir and Jessamyn Duke. In all honestly, though, our interest in Baszler is almost entirely confined to her performances in the Mae Young Classic tournament, all of which were top notch. Baszler was arguably the most memorable character to come out of the limited WWE Network special, with her in-ring intensity truly second to none. It doesn’t matter that she came up short in the tournament finals, as the hard work she put in on the way there said it all. NXT has recently started airing vignettes for her arrival, suggesting they know she could be a big deal, and it should be an exciting ride see them capitalize on that knowledge.
In a pattern wrestling fans have seen far too many times already, it could easily be argued that Asuka’s prospects in the business almost immediately plummeted when she was called up from NXT to the main WWE roster’s Raw brand. This is despite Asuka unquestionably being the most dominant performer in NXT history, reigning as the undefeated Women’s Champion until the day she left the developmental league. While her first few matches on Raw were nowhere near up to snuff, there’s still plenty of time for the Empress of Tomorrow to live up to her name and continue her destructive streak into the future. The mistake of her debut against Emma was quickly retconned with a definitive win, and she’s continued barreling through the entire female roster since then. It won’t be long before Asuka gets some serious spotlight for a lengthy Raw Women’s Championship match, which is where her talents truly shine. From there, it should be easy for Asuka to reclaim her position as the top female wrestler around.
12 Kairi Sane
Though she isn’t the only female on this list, in some respects, Kairi Sane stands as a microcosm for our expectations about the generally status of women in WWE from this day forward. This is because Sane was the inaugural winner of the Mae Young Classic, and she wrestled four incredible matches to do so, last defeating former UFC star Shayna Baszler. Prior to her big win, Sane was already wrestling fantastic matches for the Japanese all-female promotion World Wonder Ring Stardom under the name Kairi Hojo. Whatever they called her, Kairi found incredible success, winning the World of Stardom and Goddess of Stardom Championships (honestly, we’re not sure which one of those is the better title). Obviously, WWE recognized Sane’s talents from the moment she debuted, hence picking her as the winner of their historic tournament. It would all be a waste if Sane didn’t go on to be something special, so it’s almost a certainty that WWE will keep pushing her into the future.
11 Pete Dunne
As WWE continues to expand internationally, there’s a good chance the company will have a lot more Pete Dunne’s in its near future. The current WWE United Kingdom Champion has been wrestling throughout Europe since he was 12 years old, already a seasoned veteran despite only being in his early 20’s today. This experience has allowed Dunne to wrestle some of the most exciting matches in recent history, usually over the title he now holds and against his fellow Englishman rival, Tyler Bate. The two first tore the house down in the finals of the UK Championship Tournament, followed by an even better rematch at NXT TakeOver: Chicago where Dunne captured the gold. Chances are, things aren’t done between these two firebrand young grapplers, and perhaps more importantly, they’ll have to start increasing their already extremely impressive move sets when faced with new challengers.
10 Tyler Bate
Everybody always says the youth of the world writes the future, and that’s definitely the case with Tyler Bate, a man who wrestled two of the best WWE matches of the year despite being unable to legally drink alcohol. It’s not just Bate’s prodigious ability to grow a moustache that’s getting people excited, either, as his incredible contests against Pete Dunne speak louder than any facial hair ever could. Given Bate’s extremely young age, it can probably be assumed he has more potential for growth than even his rival in these early classics. As with anyone else in WWE, there’s always the potential that Bate’s prospects will suddenly disappear when he shows up on the main roster. In fact, there’s already been a hint this may be the case, with his initial 205 Live appearance being wholly underwhelming. The good news is he has more time than anyone else on this list to break through to the top, so even if it doesn’t happen in 2018, Bate has plenty of time to become a star.
9 The Authors of Pain
Despite being pushed as a big deal from the day they debuted, we need to be honest and admit there’s no way The Authors of Pain could have possibly wound up on a list like this last year about their prospects in 2017. It was clear Akam and Rezar fit the WWE mold for big bad monsters and likely would experience great success in the future, but they had yet to back it up inside the ring in a significant way. Surprisingly, they spent most of this past year doing exactly that again and again, starting with their NXT Tag Team Championship victory over #DIY. Since that pivotal match, the Authors of Pain have held on to the belts almost a full year, wrestling better and most violently destructive matches every time they have to defend them. It’s getting to the point where they have absolutely nothing left to prove in the minor leagues, and so long as Vince McMahon doesn’t turn them into a joke like he did with The Ascension, they may well do even better when called up to Raw or SmackDown.
8 The Revival
No matter how firm we are about any of the predictions on this list, it really can’t be overstated just how completely unpredictable the sports entertainment business often is. Not only do wrestlers need to combat with Vince McMahon’s at times notorious indecisiveness, but there’s also the fact that an injury could easily take a wrestler off this list and into the hospital for the whole year. That’s basically what’s happened to The Revival since they were called up to the main roster, with the caveat that as a tag team, the injuries forced them to temporarily split up rather than altogether stop. However, both when Dash Wilder was injured shortly after their main roster debut and now that Scott Dawson is injured at the time this article is being written, WWE decided to have the other kinda just sit around and do nothing, waiting for his partner to return. Dawson is almost off the injured list, so hopefully 2018 will finally be the year they’re both healthy and able to show off the great promise they developed in NXT.
7 Bobby Roode
Already in his 40s and thus the oldest wrestler on this list, the career of Bobby Roode has already seen a number of “glorious” years, as it were. He’s already the longest reigning TNA World Champion in company history, and his career has only gotten better from there since signing with WWE in 2016. A reign as NXT Champion almost immediately followed, and though it didn’t last particularly long, the reason was more that Roode was clearly ready for the main roster from the start. Now that he’s there, things have cooled down a little from his “glorious” beginnings, but there’s still plenty of time and opportunity for Roode to continue being one of the best technical wrestlers in the world today. If nothing else, he’ll at least have to move away from his never ending feud with Dolph Ziggler eventually, and chances are he’ll come out of it with the greater prospects of the two.
6 The Velveteen Dream
Less than a year ago, Patrick Clark, or The Velveteen Dream as he is now known, was an absolute joke in the wrestling industry. This isn’t an editorial about his skills or prospects, either—his only notable moments inside the ring were other wrestlers making weird faces at him, shocked by his outlandish appearance. Little has changed about how The Dream dresses and acts, aside from the fact he’s gradually learned how to back it up in the ring and then some with incredibly passionate and hard fought matches. Specifically, his battle against Aleister Black at NXT TakeOver: War Games has been heralded as a star making performance for The Dream despite the fact he came up short of victory. A silly thing about wrestling is that a weird, outrageous character goes from laughable to amazing if the matches make it work, and that’s exactly the transformation The Dream is in the midst of right now. 2018 will probably be the year he fully breaks through, whether in NXT or if they decide he’s already prepared for the main roster.
5 Drew McIntyre
Putting Drew McIntyre on this list almost feels like a blast from the past, as he just as well could have appeared on one just like it almost a full decade ago. The Celtic Colossus made his original WWE debut way back in 2009, and achieved a decent amount of success when he was there, including a reign as Intercontinental Champion. Things quickly went south, though, and McIntyre kept sliding down the card until his release in 2014. Since then, though, it’s been straight back to the top, with McIntyre returning to his native Europe and dominating a number of international promotions as their champion under the name Drew Galloway. He wasn’t done stateside, either, as he also briefly held the TNA World Championship. Given how incredibly successful McIntyre became abroad, his recent stint in NXT has strongly felt like a second chance, and he’s been knocking it out of the park every step of the way. Because he recently lost the NXT Championship, it feels obvious McIntyre will be on the main roster and reclaiming his original status in the company, if not an even better one, very soon.
4 Andrade “Cien” Almas
The unpredictability of professional wrestling has come up a lot throughout the course of this list, and no one wrestler in the WWE Universe today better explains than Andrade “Cien” Almas. Despite having achieved a decent amount of success in Mexico as La Sombra and becoming reasonable popular during his time in America, no one expected Almas to upset Drew McIntyre and win the NXT Championship at NXT TakeOver: War Games. While the victory coming out of left-field made it feel extra special to fans, maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised after all. Almas has been delivering great matches in the ring for a while now, and he can bring an audience to energetic excitement with facial expressions alone. Throw in the recent addition of an attractive valet and it was clear WWE could do something with his talents if they so choose, and it looks like they finally did. Next time around, people won’t be so surprised when Almas wins the big one, as we expect many huge and impressive victories in his near future.
3 Braun Strowman
At the rate Braun Strowman is rapidly progressing into one of the most popular WWE superstars around, he may well make his way to the Hall of Fame by 2020. Okay, so maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but the odds of him winning the WWE Universal Championship a few times by then are extremely high. Braun started off as a mere fourth string member of the Wyatt Family, a group that was already facing diminishing returns. He stalled a little after going solo, yet 2017 was the year he truly broke out of his shell and started beating up ambulances all the way to the bank. The downside is that WWE seems a little bit reticent to capitalize on Strowman’s growing popularity, having him come up short in his first few high profile title matches. On the other hand, as long as WWE doesn’t wait too long to pull the trigger, a few initial failures only make the crowd celebration when he finally wins that much better. Chances are we’ll see this firsthand before anyone expects.
2 Kenny Omega
To the wrestling fan who exclusively watches WWE, there’s probably no reason to get excited about Kenny Omega. The self-proclaimed Cleaner has been pretty clear about the fact he has no interest in leaving his current position at New Japan Pro Wrestling, and for the wrestling fans wise enough to look outside Vince McMahon’s sphere of influence, that’s exactly what’s so exciting about him. Omega is the rare non-Japanese wrestler, or gaijin, to become as big a star in the country as any of the natives. While athletes like Stan Hansen, Vader, and Scott Norton have been in this position in the past, what sets Omega apart is his incredible charisma on the microphone, which may even overshadow his considerable skills inside the ring. The WWE Championship may never be in his future, yet Omega is a lock to become IWGP World Champion sometime soon. Even if he doesn’t win that chunk of gold, the matches he’ll wrestle establishing the IWGP United States Championship are bound to be star studded affairs all wrestling fans can love.
1 Ronda Rousey
Of all the names on the list, this one is easily the most “out of the box,” as there’s still no official word on former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey making her way to the WWE Universe full-time. In fact, Rousey recently stated the exact opposite is true, and that she may be too busy to become a wrestler anytime soon. However, believing one should never say never in pro wrestling, and that anything can happen in the WWE Universe, we’re going to cross our fingers and hope it was the original rumors that spoke the truth. Even if Rousey isn’t working towards a WWE contract right now, 12 months is a long time, and all she has to do in order to get wrestling fans seriously excited is announce she finally signed a deal. That could definitely happen at some point before 2018 is over, and if it takes place early enough, she might even show up back in a WWE ring. What she does is almost immaterial to the issue she could redefine what it means to be a superstar.