For the past six decades plus, there has been no greater prize for professional wrestlers than the WWE Championship. As 2017 comes to a close, 50 men have managed to reach that heavily sought-after pinnacle and fans can rest assured even more will attempt to join them in that upper echelon of the business for a long time to come. Naturally, the question is which superstars have the necessary talents, skills, and connection with the audience that could potentially bring them the gold.
In all honesty, thanks to the ever-changing opinions and whims of one Vincent Kennedy McMahon, it can be incredibly difficult to predict with any degree of certainty who will be the next WWE Champion, or when they might win the title. It’s even harder to guess when a wrestler could pick up the gold for the first time — younger wrestlers are generally untested, meaning it’s hard to say what Vince thinks about them, and the older they get, the faster their championship potential tends to diminish.
Difficult, though, the task may be, there’s no stopping more imaginative pundits from giving it our all and making some educated guesses on the situation. Ultimately, no one will know who the next WWE Champion is until they beat the current champ for his gold, but there’s no harm in speculating and suggesting who deserves to win it, even if they never actually do. Even if they don’t manage to win the big one any time soon, the point is there are plenty of fans wishing they would, which should be enough for McMahon and his crew to at least consider the idea. Assuming he actually listens to them, keep reading to learn about 15 wrestlers who could become WWE Champion for the first time in 2018.
15 Andrade “Cien” Almas
Truth be told, up until quite recently, there’s no way Andrade “Cien” Almas would have made his way to this list. While significantly talented in the ring, it was a huge shock to wrestling fans everywhere when Almas won the NXT Championship at TakeOver: War Games. Obviously, it would be just as surprising if not more so were Almas to suddenly get called up to the main roster to nab an even more prestigious title less than a year after his breakthrough moment. On the other hand, whenever a wrestler wins the NXT Championship, it’s a clear-cut sign that WWE management in general sees something special in their work. Past NXT Champs like Shinsuke Nakamura, Bobby Roode, and Samoa Joe instantly started challenging for top gold when they were called up, and there’s no reason to expect differently from Almas. The one thing that might keep this prediction from coming true is if he chooses to stick around NXT for the entire year, a scenario that feels equally likely to him getting called up and becoming champion.
14 Kevin Owens
Having already reigned as WWE Universal Champion for several months, essentially setting the tone for what that belt stands for, it could be argued Kevin Owens doesn’t need to be on this list. However, despite his considerable accolade, the Prizefighter has never won the WWE Championship, and since he’s been moved from Raw to SmackDown, that’s the one title he should be concerned with. Given his history with gold, it’s almost surprising Owens hasn’t had a serious shot at the belt since moving from one roster to the other. Contrary to WWE’s efforts, it’s also notable that Owens is now more popular now than he ever was holding the big red belt, a common byproduct of feuds against the company authority. Throw in a renewed friendship with Sami Zayn, meaning he always has someone to watch his back and help out when times are tough, and Owens could definitely make his way to the top of SmackDown very soon, just like he did on Raw.
13 Fínn Balor
As the first ever WWE Universal Champion, Fínn Balor is in a very similar position to Kevin Owens when it comes to whether or not he actually belongs on this list. Then again, Balor held it for all of a single day before being forced to vacate the gold due to injury. Rather than stick around on Raw and continue offering fans diminishing returns with questionable feuds, maybe it’s time he jumped over to SmackDown and started challenging for the blue brand’s top title. Balor would fit in better with the more athletic roster, and could easily shoot up the card considering there are less readymade main event superstars over on SmackDown. In the very least, Balor would get back to championship contention by switching brands, with the stink of his one day reign marring his chances are recapturing the Universal belt anytime soon. This isn’t fair to a man of his talents, unless he manages to redeem himself with a certain other shiny gold belt.
Unfortunately, the time is fast approaching when fans of Cesaro should just give up on WWE finally recognizing he’s one of the most talented wrestlers on their roster. It was three years ago that Vince McMahon publically stated he believed Cesaro lacked the “it factor” necessary to “grab the brass ring,” something the Swiss Sensation and his many fans have long disagreed with, to say the least. On the other hand, Cesaro has used the time since then to keep improving upon his already considerable skills, and thanks to his tag team with Sheamus, he’s been receiving the most spotlight he’s had in a very long time. Considering Sheamus is a past WWE Championship himself, one can only hope this will eventually force McMahon and company to get the picture and reward Cesaro with the singles title he’s deserved all along.
11 Matt Hardy
At 43 years of age, Matt Hardy is the oldest wrestler on this list, and therefore perhaps the least like to become WWE Champion any time soon, let alone ever. That said, fans of the elder Hardy boy shouldn’t necessarily abandon all hope just yet, as his recent WWE return brought him back with a higher profile than ever before. In his time off, Hardy rebranded himself as a Broken/Woken madman, making him one of the most talked about sports entertainers on the Internet. He also won a TNA Championship or two, which isn’t necessarily something that Vince McMahon cares about, but it does prove he has the necessary skills to reign over a major promotion. There’s also the fact his brother Jeff is a former WWE Champion, a reality that does indeed prove McMahon has had his eyes on the Hardyz for a long time. With Jeff injured and Matt firing on all cylinders lately, maybe it’s time he got a shiny gold belt of his own.
10 Baron Corbin
Based solely on his look, it’s a small wonder how Vince McMahon hasn’t made Baron Corbin the WWE Champion already. Corbin’s debut on the main roster also suggested that great success was in his near future, winning the Andre the Giant Battle Royal at WrestleMania 32 in his first official WWE match. Things largely fizzled out from there, though, with Corbin the victim of a half dozen start and stop pushes that suggested McMahon wasn’t quite sure how he felt about the guy. Easily the most obvious indication of this was Corbin winning SmackDown’s Money in the Bank briefcase, only to lose his title shot after cashing in. Since then, Corbin has experienced a bit of an upswing once again, defeating AJ Styles for the United States Championship and retaining it against the Phenomenal One in their rematch. Corbin went on to lose the US title after two months, but that might have been the sign WWE is ready to give him another go in the main event, possibly by way of another feud with Styles over a more prestigious belt.
9 Kofi Kingston
For as popular, entertaining, and all around fun as The New Day has been over the past three years, it needs to be said that they’ve been together for a pretty long time as far as modern tag teams are concerned. Not that anyone necessarily wants the group to break up altogether, but it might be time they started branching out of the tag division and move on to something bigger. In the very least, Big E and Xavier Woods could continue performing as a tag team while letting presumptive leader Kofi Kingston start rising the solo ranks. Way back when the team formed, Woods claimed their main purpose was to make Kofi the WWE Champion, so it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch for them to resume working towards that goal. Kingston has always had the talent and charisma necessary to serve as the face of WWE, and with Woods and Big E backing him up, it should be easy for him to also become the company’s champion.
8 Adam Cole
Truth be told, Adam Cole is easily the most “out there” pick on this list. The former standout Ring of Honor Champion has only recently made his way to the WWE Universe, and as 2017 is coming to a close, he’s still stuck down in NXT as the leader of The Undisputed Era. On the other hand, given the amount of fame and success Cole and his lackeys managed to find on the independent scene, they probably won’t be stuck down in the minor leagues for all that long. Cole in particular made his debut by attacking then NXT Champion Drew McIntyre to raucous applause, making his title aspirations immediately known. It’s also a sign that WWE are willing to throw him into top storylines right from the start, and if that continues once he inevitably gets called up to the main roster, maybe this pick isn’t that unlikely after all.
7 Drew McIntyre
It was more than 8 years ago that Vince McMahon introduced Drew McIntyre to the SmackDown audience as a “future world champion.” While that has technically come true for several promotions around the globe, WWE surprisingly hasn’t been one of them, as McIntyre’s initial prospects in the company he once again calls home diminished quite rapidly. The plus side to McIntyre’s gradual fall from grace is that after leaving WWE and finding success elsewhere, McMahon and his staff realized what a huge mistake they had been making by forgetting about his talents. After winning a handful of championships in Europe, McIntyre returned to the WWE Universe and almost immediately became NXT Champion. On one hand, this was a slight drawback from his former status on the main roster, but it also means WWE is totally ready to give him another shot. Chances are he’ll be back on Raw or SmackDown real soon, and McMahon’s prediction about Drew may finally come true in his company.
6 Sami Zayn
Aside from the championship success only a select few manager, wrestlers who have been in the game as long as Sami Zayn have typically done it all. It was therefore a huge surprise for his fans when Zayn turned heel for the first time in his career, aligning with his old friend Kevin Owens to run roughshod over the SmackDown roster. In contrast to what WWE intended, this has made Zayn more popular than ever before with certain crowds, and regardless of fan reactions, he definitely is receiving the most spotlight of his career through the villainous team. The one drawback is that being linked with Owens has largely taken Zayn out of the solo division for the first time in many years, as well, and it’s hard to win the WWE Championship in a tag team match. However, this alliance will only last so long before one of them decides they need the most prestigious title in WWE all for themselves, and assuming it happens sooner rather than later, the desire may be all it takes for one of them to help the other win it.
Quite frankly, it’s a little hard to understand why exactly Vince McMahon refuses to recognize what he has in the Bulgarian Brute Rusev by rewarding him with a WWE Championship or two yet. Rusev has the size and look of a destructive monster in the ring, and unlike most men who that’s true for, he can also back it up with incredible matches and unique promos, especially when Lana is at his side. Of course, rather than use this fact to their advantage, WWE separated Rusev and his wife on several occasions, repeatedly relegating his character to a mere foreign menace stereotype. The way things are going, it’s unlikely he’ll be winning the WWE Championship any time soon, but that’s no reason for fans to give up entirely on the guy and his chances in McMahon’s company. Especially with the changing WWE landscape, it’s possible Vince or one of his cohorts will finally get the picture with Rusev next year, and the moment they do, there’s bound to be some serious gold in his future.
4 Bobby Roode
Glorious though the time Bobby Roode spent in NXT was, his prospects with the main WWE roster over his first few months on SmackDown haven’t quite lived up to his early reputation. Those expectations were even higher for fans who followed Roode through his time as a top superstar for TNA, who are surely questioning what the hell Vince McMahon is missing about one of his most talented employees. Then again, this is almost always what happens when an outside success makes their way to the WWE Universe, as they often need to “re-prove” themselves to McMahon as being capable of adapting to the WWE style. Granted, that’s what NXT is supposed to be for, but rumor has it Vince doesn’t pay much attention to what’s going on down there, so a few months fighting for the US title in failing efforts was almost inevitable. The good news is that after Roode has a few great matches or gives an especially powerful interview, Vince will surely get the picture, and the WWE Championship might see some glorious results.
3 Samoa Joe
Moving like a wrecking ball wherever he goes, if Samoa Joe doesn’t get a chance to win the WWE Championship sometime soon, he may well tear the company down to the ground in frustration. Okay, so maybe that’s going a bit far with it, as the real man behind the character probably understands how that would do more harm than good. Point is, he’s been on the main WWE roster for almost a full year now, and the few shots he had at the Universal title didn’t exactly go his way. Notwithstanding strong builds and heavy crowd support, Joe always lost his matches against Brock Lesnar in relatively short order, forcing him to move on from the big red belt for the time being. There’s always the blue brand, though, and many fans likely agree he could do better on Tuesday nights than he does on Monday regardless of what gold he may or may not win. Joe’s the type of monster who focuses entirely on wrestling and in-ring talent, which SmackDown has long been more respectful about than over on Raw. This makes Joe yet another superstar who only needs to switch up his brands before seeing lots of gold in his future.
2 Braun Strowman
Despite a complete lack of gold in his WWE tenure thus far, Braun Strowman is one of the fastest rising prospects in all the pro wrestling world. 2017 in particular may go down as the year he truly became a top star, and the only thing missing that could make Strowman a bona fide main eventer is a WWE Championship reign. This is no doubt a bit of a surprise given his humble origins as the fourth string member of the Wyatt Family, yet the moment he beat up an ambulance with Roman Reigns trapped inside, it was clear Strowman could make fans go wild with his sheer destruction. Multiple early shots at the Universal Championship have come up short, perhaps due to the fact Vince McMahon plans that title’s lineage out way in advance, and giving it to Strowman would have messed up his narrative. Rumors surrounding the WWE Championship are strangely less common, so Strowman could jump ship at any moment and win the gold, making his many fans extremely happy in the process.
1 Shinsuke Nakamura
At no fault of the wrestler himself, Shinsuke Nakamura had one of the most disappointing 2017’s anyone could imagine. It started off well enough, with Nakamura debuting on SmackDown to much fanfare, and there were plenty of positives to be seen throughout, like his high profile victory over John Cena. Unfortunately, the King of Strong Style also came up short in his several challenges for the WWE Championship, and worse than that, he was regularly mocked and insulted for his race by the reigning champ, Jinder Mahal. Offensive as that was for the modern era, WWE easily could have fixed the problem by have Nakamura beat up the stupid racist and steal his title belt, but that ship has pretty much sailed. The only solution left for getting that bad taste out of the fan’s mouths would be to allow Nakamura to continue challenging for the gold against more respectable opponents, and he might even be able to get a good match out of them if he does. Once that starts happening, Vince McMahon will realize how much star power he’s always possessed, and might right his wrong by making Nakamura champion at long last.