As the old saying goes, ‘to be the man, you gotta beat the man.’ But what does it really mean to be ‘the man?’ That prestigious distinction is reserved for those who reach the highest level possible in WWE, those elite few who manage to not only get to the top, but stay there and have the company built around them.
They’re the ones who carried WWE through different eras: from Bruno Sammartino to Bob Backlund, to Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, to ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and the Rock, to Triple H and the Undertaker, to John Cena and Randy Orton.
But what about those who strive to reach the top but end up short?
As crazy as it might be to believe, WWE does in fact try to build multiple stars at once, because there’s always a fear that when they pull the trigger on one guy, something bad will happen and they’ll need someone to fill the spot left by that first person. Unfortunately, in more cases than not, WWE has tried to build guys up into stars, but somewhere things go wrong...terribly wrong.
Whether it’s through those wrestlers’ own mistakes and poor judgment, or by some prejudice or creative misdirection by the WWE itself, many guys who fans everywhere were convinced would reach the top and become the next ‘top guy’ a la John Cena and Randy Orton, never reached that point. In a sad way, the ten men listed here could’ve had the WWE built around them, and they all could’ve been much bigger merchandise movers and long-term champions for the company.
Yet, no matter how much they or the people around them tried to make things work, these ten wrestlers simply couldn’t become ‘The Man’, no matter how much praise was spoken of them.
10 The Big Show
With the right booking, Big Show could’ve been the next Andre the Giant in terms of aura and significance. With his enormous stature and highly-impressive agility, Show could’ve easily been taken all the way to the top if WWE had done what they did to Andre and presented him as a truly indestructible force.
Instead, his monster push was soon replaced with fat jokes and condemnation at the hands of smaller-sized stars. Guys like the Rock and Steve Austin made Show out to look like an idiot, especially when Rock mocked him and got the upper hand over him on several occasions.
Had WWE done the right thing and booked Show properly from the beginning, he would’ve made the company far more money and could’ve even been a more successful champion as well. All they had to do was replicate the presentation they had for Andre for Show. By treating him as a legitimately unique specimen and as a special draw, natural human curiosity would’ve made him far more of a star than fat jokes and directionless booking ever did.
9 Shelton Benjamin
Here’s a guy who could’ve been so much more, was on his way there, but was held back by…whatever lame excuse you want to believe. Shelton Benjamin was a great talent, pure and simple. He had amateur wrestling experience, was incredibly athletic (it wasn’t unusual for Benjamin to steal the show when he was in a big match), had the look, and wasn’t half bad on the microphone. It also helped that he was Brock Lesnar’s roommate in college.
Yet for whatever inexplicable reason, WWE cut off his legs from under him and sent him down the card. Some say it was because he allegedly disrespected a WWE Hall of Famer, while others point to darker and more controversial reasons for his poor booking. Whatever the case, Benjamin was an enormous missed opportunity. He’s someone that could’ve reached the WWE Championship if given the right booking and proper respect for his athleticism. Instead, he’s forever remembered as one of the most notorious ‘what could’ve been’ stories in modern WWE history.
The claim that Cesaro doesn’t connect with the audience is a bigger load of garbage than the one floating in the Pacific Ocean. He has proven that he has every essential requirement to be ‘the Man’ in WWE.
Does he have incredible strength to match his impressive physique? Yes.
Can he work against any kind of opponent and still get a good reaction from the audience? Absolutely.
Is there a noticeable response from the fans whenever he does or says anything? Without a doubt.
Can he move merchandise and appeal to different demographics? Undeniably.
The truth is, the only real reason Cesaro hasn’t reached the top yet is because there are some people backstage who simply don’t want him to make the ‘planned’ superstars look bad, which is unfortunate given how much natural fan support he’s getting. If he were to be pushed into the top position as ‘the Man’, he’d have an international appeal that many of today’s top WWE stars could only dream of achieving.
7 'Dr. Death' Steve Williams
Here’s a guy who was scheduled to have a monster push in WWE and feud with Steve Austin within his first six months in the company. ‘Dr. Death’ was a highly-respected genuine badass who had made a name for himself around the world and especially in Japan as one of the toughest and most dangerous wrestlers on the planet.
These assets made him a perfect candidate for the WWE Championship, but instead of letting him do what he does best (i.e. wrestle), he was put into the dreadful Brawl For All tournament, which was built around shootfights, and destroyed Williams’ career before he could even meet Austin in the ring.
Had Dr. Death’s WWE career gone differently, he would’ve easily reached the WWE Championship and become ‘The Man’ as he was one of the best, toughest, and most talented wrestlers on the planet during the 1990s. The WWE Championship seemed like a natural achievement for him.
6 The Miz
Here’s a guy that managed to reach the top of the mountain, only to plummet back to the bottom of the barrel, all within the span of a year or so. WWE mismanaged his WWE title reign on so many levels, especially during his feud with John Cena leading to WrestleMania XXVII. It was glaringly obvious that Miz was the third wheel in the major feud between Cena and the Rock, and so no one really cared about him as a top heel, no matter how awesome his presentation was at the event.
As a result, people felt that since WWE itself wasn’t taking Miz seriously as ‘the Man’, the fans did the same, rejecting everything he did, until his star power dropped to back where it was before he won the MITB briefcase. This was very unfortunate, as Miz could’ve become so much more than a forgettable WWE talk show host and a former world champion (with WWE emphasizing the former part as much as possible).
5 Wade Barrett
When it comes to inexplicable creative ignorance, no story speaks louder than that of Wade Barrett. He was given a monster push as the leader of the Nexus in 2010, and even when his team lost to team WWE, many were still convinced that he was a future world champion. Yet for seemingly no reason whatsoever, WWE gave up on his main event push and saddled him with one poor gimmick after another, culminating with the dreadful King Barrett gimmick.
Here’s a guy who could’ve easily and with little doubt been WWE Champion many times over, given his size, skills and legitimate toughness. He was also willing to do anything WWE did and rarely, if ever, caused any problems. WWE’s failure to run with Barrett as a top guy is thus one of the main reasons for people to be worried about future top guys, in that WWE will find a way to screw up their booking one way or another.
When he first arrived in WWE, it seemed obvious that the monstrous-yet-surprisingly-agile Vader would reach the highest echelons of the company in no time whatsoever. After all, he was intimidating, a fantastic worker for someone his size, and had an international reputation from his days in WCW and NJPW. Few other WWE superstars had this combination of assets, so it was assumed that Vince, who loved big men, was going to push Vader to the moon…and that was the plan, until backstage politics demolished Vader’s career.
Vader ran afoul Shawn Michaels, who hated Vader’s stiff style, actually threatened to have Vader fired for allegedly ruining a match, and eventually sent Vader falling down the mid-card without any hope of ever getting to the top like he deserved.
If those problems hadn’t occurred, Vader would’ve definitely been WWE Champion, as he could make any opponent look like an underdog in a match against him. His skill in the ring would’ve also led to some surprisingly good matches against his smaller brethren, which is something that WWE was in dire need of, especially when WCW and other promotions were outdoing WWE in the ring quality department during the mid-1990s.
3 John Morrison
Based on everything you saw from the fan’s perspective, John Morrison had everything needed to be ‘The Man’ in WWE. From his look, to his athleticism (visually-stunning parkour skills included), to his overall presentation, Morrison looked like he was a shoe-in to become the next top guy in the company.
Alas, it was his backstage behaviour that forever hindered him from reaching the top. His on-again/off-again girlfriend Melina was causing him considerable friction with the rest of the locker room, and things reached critical levels when it was alleged that she was sleeping around with him knowing about this. Yet, as the allegations go, he chose not to confront anyone about these actions, fearing for his position, and Vince, who loves genuine toughness, saw him as cowardly and weak, thus giving up all hope on pushing Morrison as a true top guy.
If Morrison had more control over his private life, it’s likely he would’ve won the top prize in the company, instead of being known as ‘that Jim Morrison look-alike whose girlfriend ticked off the entire locker room’.
2 Dolph Ziggler
Though he might not be as physically impressive or charismatic as other top guys in WWE, it was obvious that WWE had plans for Ziggler at one point. After all, why else would he have won the World Heavyweight Championship from Edge and Alberto Del Rio? Alas, Ziggler shot himself in the foot on several occasions, which prevented him from reaching the top of the company like he should have.
First, Ziggler was notably outspoken on social media and in interviews, going against company policy and making his fellow stars look bad. Even if he were in character, the direction of these interviews did far more harm than good. Then, just when it looked like all was forgiven and he was gaining some momentum, he got injured, and WWE developed a reluctance to push him, fearing further injury and disappointment.
These two elements combined have led to Ziggler being sent back to midcard purgatory, with little chance, if any, of ever getting out, despite the obvious skills and assets he has that would’ve made him a great champion.
1 Ken Kennedy
Ken Kennedy really looked like he was going to be the next big star alongside Cena and Orton. The signs were obvious: he beat everyone on SmackDown, feuded with the Undertaker, and, according to rumors, was slated to be Vince McMahon’s ‘true’ illegitimate son, which would’ve been as monstrous a push as one can imagine.
Sadly, injuries hindered that particular direction, and from there it was one problem after another. This potential world champion was caught lying on national TV about steroids (which had become even more controversial after Chris Benoit’s death), and then allegedly injured Randy Orton, culminating in his dismissal from WWE.
Had things gone as they were meant to, Kennedy would’ve reached the top of the company in very short order, and would be rubbing elbows with John Cena right now as one of the biggest and most successful stars in WWE. After all, there’s no way a guy with Kennedy’s assets wouldn’t have become ‘The Man’ at least once if everything had gone as originally planned.