No matter what job a person has, they need to constantly adapt and evolve their skill set in order to be good at it. This may be especially true for artists and entertainers, who need to ensure their output is trendy and relevant with the times. For the most part, pro wrestlers are the most rough and tumble “artists” a person could find, yet this concept still holds true in their industry. Whether working for WWE, New Japan Pro Wrestling, or somewhere on the independent scene, sports entertainers need to constantly revitalize and switch up their acts, or else the wrestling audience will stop caring about them.
Unfortunately, not every wrestler in the world has entirely mastered the idea of evolution. While some superstars used the year 2017 to reach all new heights and perform better than ever before, others fell to the lowest lows of their careers. Seriously diminishing returns are a bad thing all over the card, but they’re obviously worst of all in the main event. Naturally, that happens to be where the most degradation of talent has occurred in the WWE Universe this past year.
Of course, there is a plus side, in that even a wrestler who stunk up the ring throughout 2017 might find a way to make a spectacular comeback in 2018 or later. Plus, the wrestlers who did an incredible job over the past year will probably get rewarded for it, bringing a bunch of great, new fresh faces to the top of the card for the first time. To see who that may be, and who they may replace, keep reading and discover the 8 most improved wrestlers of 2017 and learn about 7 who just got progressively worse.
15 STEPPED UP: Sheamus
From a technical standpoint, it could be argued that Sheamus kind of suffered a downslide this year. The multiple time former WWE Champion is no longer taking any main event spotlight, and by the end of 2017, it looked like he probably wouldn’t be back in such position for quite some time. On the other hand, this was also the year his tag team with Cesaro, The Bar, went from a random mishmash of partners with nothing in common into one of the hottest acts in wrestling today. While the team’s origins as feuding partners was pretty old hat, their gradual development as vicious yet chic Europeans brought new life in Sheamus, causing the Celtic Warrior to appear better in the ring than he has in years. He might be stuck in the tag team division for a little bit, but that might be the position he deserves right now.
14 JOKE: Jason Jordan
Sometimes, the worst thing Vince McMahon can do to a wrestler is push them into the spotlight before their ready. Most of the time these days, fans bring this fact up in relation to Roman Reigns and why crowds rejected him. However, there’s another performer proving why this is such a bad idea, and he’s Kurt Angle’s imaginary illegitimate son, Jason Jordan. In fairness, Jordan is decent in the ring, and he had some pretty great matches as part of the tag team American Alpha in NXT. Unfortunately, the kid is also a vacuum of charisma, and slotting him into an extremely high profile angle made this incredibly clear to everyone who watches him try and cut a promo. With the crowd unable to accept Jordan as a noteworthy superstar, it’s hard for his matches to matter all that much either, and thus every solo match he’s had has fallen significantly short of his NXT output.
13 STEPPED UP: Cody Rhodes
For all Vince McMahon does to try and convince the world WWE is the be all end all of sports entertainment, time and again, select wrestlers have proven the exact opposite may be the case. In 2017, no one has done more to foster the idea WWE is the only game in town than Cody Rhodes, who wrestled for McMahon from 2006 to 2016, which he decided was long enough. Since then, Cody has been appearing in just about every noteworthy independent promotion around, and ironically, it’s now more than ever that he looks like a true superstar. Wherever Cody goes, he’s instantly slotted into the main event and challenging for top titles, including the ROH Championship that he now holds. Some might argue this doesn’t matter, because WWE offered him more mainstream visibility, but Rhodes himself shatters that notion by pointing out he’s also making more money than ever before, so exposure itself doesn’t really matter. Being a great wrestler does, though, and that’s what Cody’s been doing this year.
12 JOKE: Triple H
On the one hand, it probably feels a little bit unfair to include Triple H as one of the wrestlers who declined the most over the past year. The Game only wrestled two televised matches plus a handful of house show appearances, and it’s not like his face was all over the TV the same way it has been in the past. However, the mere fact the WWE COO continues to unnecessarily insert himself into main event storylines as his power increases backstage is not a good sign. It’s also worth noting that those two matches he had on screen weren’t that good. First, he wrestled Seth Rollins in a non-sanctioned match at WrestleMania 33 to little acclaim, followed by a highly maligned Survivor Series match, earning special criticism for the fact he put himself over the entire roster by winning the damn thing basically on his own. Both times, fans had their fingers crossed hoping it would be Game Over, yet it unfortunately doesn’t look like that’s the case just yet.
11 STEPPED UP: Alexa Bliss
When WWE started promoting the idea of a women’s wrestling revolution, superstars like Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, Paige, and Bayley were selected to lead the charge. In 2017, though, it seems like the WWE woman of the year may well have been the Five Feet of Fury who calls herself Alexa Bliss. Despite her smaller stature, Bliss won the SmackDown Women’s Championship shortly after her arrival in 2016, and one year later, she’s since jumped to Raw and won that brand’s Women’s Championship, as well. It also feels like Bliss is getting better on the microphone practically every week, with her facial expressions and charisma improving whenever she’s on camera. Of course, the matches are increasing in quality as well, showing she’s completely deserving of this extra spotlight. WWE still isn’t booking its ladies all that well in general, but with women like Little Miss Bliss handling the material, we have faith they’ll start getting it right soon enough.
10 JOKE: Randy Orton
At the beginning of 2017, there was a rumor Vince McMahon made a grandstanding announcement that Randy Orton would be the face of his company for the next year. For at least six months, that very much seemed to be the case, as Orton won the Royal Rumble and then went on to reign as WWE Champion for the ninth time after defeating Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 33. The downside is that McMahon picked a pretty terrible wrestler to represent the WWE Universe, and he’s been making the exact same horrible mistake for over a decade now. To many fans, Randy Orton has always been outrageously bland and boring in the ring, with absolutely no charisma or unique ring skills to back up his top level position. Sure, Orton has a good physique, and his resume looks impressive, but the guy has bored the hell out of fans for over a decade and just keeps getting worse. Forget Roman Reigns; it’s Orton who Vince McMahon needs to give up on already.
9 STEPPED UP: The Authors Of Pain
It was barely over a year ago that Akam and Rezar appeared out of nowhere at NXT TakeOver: The End to attack former NXT Tag Team Champions, American Alpha. In a move that seems just a little unfair in retrospect, the many armchair WWE critics on the Internet were very quick to cast aside these two new giants as slow and uncoordinated. It is true that The Authors of Pain looked a little out of place in the modern WWE Universe, their look and destructive attitude making them look like they should have been around back in the 1980s. Their first few matches further fostered this idea, as they were short, succinct charges where they didn’t look all that special. However, they started getting it together during the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, and have only continued improving since winning the titles themselves in January. They’ve gone on to hold those belts for almost a full year now, with now end to their destruction in sight, and the matches just keep getting better, too.
8 JOKE: The Big Show
Having been in the wrestling spotlight much longer than the average superstar, it’s quite possible The Big Show has been the focus of more “surprise comebacks” than any other superstar in history. That said, his early 2017 comeback was genuinely one of the most shocking yet, due largely to the fact he lost an incredible amount of weight and was sporting impressive abdominal muscles for the first time in his career. Then again, so what the giant happened to have abs? He still totally sucks inside the ring, and working his way to a six pack didn’t make the very bland giant formula that has shaped every match he wrestled his entire career. Because he’s still very big and very tall, though, Vince McMahon keeps pushing the embodiment of all things large into the main event, allowing him to drag down new superstars like Braun Strowman with repeat weak matches.
7 STEPPED UP: Kenny Omega
Even wrestling fans who almost exclusively watch WWE should be well aware of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s rising new star, Kenny Omega. The self-proclaimed Cleaner earned a second nickname as the Best Bout Machine throughout 2017, wrestling not one but three matches against IWGP World Champion Kazuchika Okada that earned an unprecedented six stars or more from wrestling critic Dave Meltzer. There was also a 5 ¾ star match against Tetsuya Naito, and in every match, it was Omega who held the crowd in the palm of his hand. Obviously, his opponents were no slouches, yet Omega’s showmanship and flash is truly something special, a quality he’s slowly been developing in Japan and on American indies for over a decade now. The crazy thing is, Omega still has plenty of potential to get even better, as he’s only just recently started to show us how talented he is.
6 JOKE: Bray Wyatt
Hoo boy. There’s “getting worse” and then there’s a wrestler completely destroying his or her own career. Unfortunately for all the “fireflies” in the WWE Universe, their cult like leader Bray Wyatt suffered the second fate before 2017 was even halfway over. The irony is that this loss of reputation was directly related to Wyatt winning his first and thus far only WWE Championship, and going on to wrestle one of the absolute worst matches of the year when losing it. Wyatt’s ensuing feud with Randy Orton, who defeated him for the gold, was embarrassing every step of the way, especially their much maligned House of Horrors match at Payback. Perhaps because the audience was so universal in their rejection of Wyatt’s performances in the ring, his interviews have largely descended into absolute pure nonsense, a far cry from the psychological mind games he was capable of not that long ago. Given the way Bray’s year went, it’s highly doubtful he’ll ever hold the WWE Championship again.
5 STEPPED UP: Andrade Cien Almas
Thanks to the Internet and various wrestling insiders somehow reporting on virtually every thought to pass through Vince McMahon’s mind, it’s very rare anything genuinely unexpected can happen in the WWE Universe. For this reason, it was an especially feel good moment when Andrade Cien Almas pulled off a massive upset and defeated Drew McIntyre for the NXT Championship at NXT TakeOver: War Games. Almas has been delivering great performances in the ring for NXT, and he was a standout in New Japan Pro Wrestling and Mexican promotion CMLL for quite some time before jumping to WWE. Still, Almas wasn’t exactly presented as a main event level talent up to his big win, seen more as a steady hand in the midcard who could always deliver an entertaining performance. That he managed to capitalize on that and become champion is a good sign for how NXT rewards the hard work of its employees, and hopefully it will translate to the main roster pretty soon.
4 JOKE: Jinder Mahal
Hey, the whole Jason Jordan thing wasn’t all that great, but at least it didn’t destroy the most respected accolade in the WWE Universe. That’s exactly what happened when Jinder Mahal won the WWE Championship, though, and despite everything Triple H and Vince McMahon have been saying in candid interviews, it’s because the career jobber didn’t improve in the slightest upon winning the gold. If anything, he got a whole lot worse, with the one thing Mahal added to his character work after becoming champion being gold old fashioned racism. As if that weren’t horrible enough to disqualify him already, there’s also the issue Mahal has always been terrible in the ring, and forcing him to work 20+ minute sports entertainment spectacular main events isn’t helping matters in the slightest. Every second of air time WWE gives Mahal he gets a little bit worse, and the mere fact he buffed up his physique has done nothing to change this.
3 STEPPED UP: The Velveteen Dream
The first time Patrick Clark walked down the NXT aisle and stepped into a wrestling ring wearing his Prince inspired gear as The Velveteen Dream, reactions spanned from mockery to laughter to disgust to a combination of all three. While the WWE audience was most certainly involved in this response, the loudest voice of all gradually became Aleister Black, a fellow NXT talent who felt Dream’s flashy flamboyance was an insult to the sport. As such, Black refused to even say the Dream’s name, leading to an incredible career-defining match between the two at NXT TakeOver: War Games. Although Dream lost the match, it was his incredible resilience and refusal to quit that completely stole the show. In just one match, Dream went from a questionable joke to a serious threat, and oddly enough, it’s the duality of those two perceptions that should make him a huge star in the near future.
2 JOKE: Kane
By this point, whenever Kane appears on WWE television it feels like the entire company is getting dragged into hell—and not in the good way. Quite frankly, this has been the case since at least 2011, and if one was to ask a more cynical fan, they might dial that all the way back to 1999 or so. Kane’s character has literally done everything at this point, and only a very small fraction of it was entertaining in any manner other than the car crash variety. This past year in particular has been atrocious, as Kane no longer has any purpose or right to be in a ring anymore. The dude is running for Mayor of Knox County for goodness sake, isn’t he too busy for this stuff? In any event, we probably wouldn’t be complaining if his matches were decent or the angles put over young stars. Unfortunately, the opposite is true in both cases, as all Kane does anymore is stink it up with wrestlers who should be getting groomed for the future.
1 STEPPED UP: Braun Strowman
Of all the names on this list, there’s really no doubt that Braun Strowman had the best 2017 from a career perspective. Vince McMahon’s latest and greatest monster has been slowly climbing up the card since splitting with the Wyatt Family in 2016, and a number of key moments over the past 12 months have solidified him as a top name for years to come. First, there was his incredible backstage attack on Roman Reigns that culminated in him destroying an ambulance with The Big Dog inside. Later on, Strowman wrestled a number of significant matches against WWE Universal Champion Brock Lesnar, including delivering the standout performance in the Fatal Four Way main event of SummerSlam. The only downside of Strowman’s breakout year is that Vince McMahon has been reticent to truly capitalize on it, as there have been a number of chances for him to win the WWE Universal Champion where he came up short. Still, there’s a good chance his day will still come in the near future, and he may just keep getting better until it does.