1 – Dean Ambrose (WWE)
Any time WWE’s ugly duckling has been in an even remotely well-told story, he has flourished into the brilliant star an open-minded eye could see in his early CZW and FCW promos.
Frequently removed and re-inserted into the main event scene, he is always welcomed with open arms by a great portion of fans, who seem to just be waiting for the Lunatic Fringe to rise to world title prominence.
His feud with Brock Lesnar should be one, if not the most interesting Wrestlemania 32 feud, as Ambrose’s die-hard attitude clashes perfectly with Brock’s conquer-all-destroy-all approach. Not to mention, Paul Heyman and Ambrose on the mic.
Ambrose is one of WWE’s best promos and presents some of WWE’s best and most believable acting, and his ring work, while not stellar, is more than serviceable.
Whenever WWE decides to be consistent in their push of Dean Ambrose – and 2016 isn’t a bad bet considering his Mania opposition – he will be an even more entertaining fixture than he is now.
2 – Catrina (Lucha Underground)
Ah, Lucha Underground’s dark femme fatale…
She could have been just shady, as she placates Fenix’s chances at Lucha Underground (and her) champion Mil Muertes and denies the oli-and-water trio of Ivelisse, Angelico and Son of Havoc their due rematch against (also her) champions, the Disciples of Death. And it would’ve been fine.
She could have been just a seductress, by mesmerizing the Temple’s fighters, whenever she saw fit to stop their neurons from firing on account of anything other than her sexy but manipulative voice and predatory eyes. That would’ve also been fine.
But she puts the two together very effectively, while exuding a dark, mysterious power, manifested by her frequent appearing and disappearing acts.
And… she’s now the “proprietor” of Lucha Underground, following Dario Cueto‘s strange exit and temporary exile.
Aaaand… she’s on a collision course with the Baddest Bitch In The Building… Ivelisse.
There aren’t many female characters outside the WWE NXT batch anchored by the 4 Horsewomen that clearly deliver, but Catrina’s balance of effective acting, presentation and ring technique (when it is called for) clearly put her on that list.
3 – Shinsuke Nakamura (WWE/NXT)
The former 3-time IWGP World Champion and 5-time IWGP Intercontinental Champion and arguably pro wrestling’s most charismatic performer is as solid in his antics and storytelling as he is with his performance between the ropes. For now, he’s one big question mark.
But should WWE book him within the same parameters of reason with which it booked AJ Styles, buckle up. Seriously. Buckle. Up.
4 – Ethan Carter III (Impact Wrestling)
Arguably TNA’s first bona fide, established homegrown star since AJ Styles, the formerly arrogant rich boy finally saw his 2-year undefeated streak and World Title violently snapped away, in a match that featured a double turn, as heel-to-be Matt Hardy pummelled an uber-tenacious EC3 to the ground, but could only win his title when EC3’s bodyguard Tyrus (the former Brodus Clay) stabbed Carter in the back.
This moment became cathartic for both EC3 and the fans. After finally being given a reason to, the TNA crowd jumped on his bandwagon with both feet and without hesitation.
And EC3’s character took his first TNA defeat by becoming an even bigger ass-kicking threat, which is only now beginning to unfold – proving that, in wrestling, a loss may indeed be the best thing that’s ever happened to you.
Carter consistently cuts great interviews, shows great intensity, is highly believable and will be the leading man for TNA in 2016, giving the company much needed main-event steam.
5 – Pentagon Jr. (Lucha Underground)
Now here’s an interesting character. One of AAA’s contributions to Lucha Underground and real-life brother of aforementioned Fenix, Pentagon is a man obsessed with honoring his master/”maestro” with violent sacrifices, while exuding his chant-inducing “Cero Miedo” (“zero fear”).
He was one of the breakout characters of the second half of Lucha Underground’s first season and rocketed into Season 2 with a bang – or should I say… a break: he jumped champion Mil Muertes with a Backstabbler and then performed his trademark sacrificial stretch-and-arm-break routine.
He has shined ever since being given the ball, in the ring and in his storylines, as he’s brushed shoulders with LU’s most prolific characters in Catrina, Vampiro, Sexy Star, Prince Puma (Ricochet) and, if only for a moment, the champion himself.
But that will soon change, as Muertes vs. Pentagon is an early main event candidate for Season 2’s Ultima Lucha finale.
6 – Kenny Omega (NJPW)
The new IWGP Intercontinental Champion has finally reached higher ground.
Like recent WWE signee Shinsuke Nakamura, Omega is a world-class wrestler and entertainer and has emerged as the big winner from WWE’s New Japan mini-raid, by grabbing the Intercontinental Championship and leadership of the Bullet Club, when “The Cleaner” outed former de facto leader AJ Styles in a memorable in-ring segment.
Omega’s chance at the upper echelon may have come of the heels of a few exits, but it is not only deserved, but also something off of which New Japan will see dividends… as will the fans.
7 – Kevin Owens (WWE)
Kevin Owens is a ship ready to sail, if only WWE would just get on.
From the moment he debuted on NXT, he has been doing nothing else but delivering, with consistent A-level ring work and an already very established easy-to-hate personality – a rare thing in today’s WWE.
With memorable feuds with Cena and Zayn (and Cole?) anchoring his WWE resume, he’s proven he can (more than) hang and make the most of what he is given.
With another top performer to play off of in 2016, he’ll continue to mature into one of WWE’s most compelling (and complete) characters.
Eli Drake (Impact Wrestling) – here’s your wildcard. Some of you may be going “Who?”, but… “let me talk to ya!“. Drew Galloway’s former The Rising partner is, in my heel opinion, TNA’s current sleeper midcarder.
Like Ambrose, he is not Seth Rollins in the ring, but he delivers the late 80s/early 90s heel routine that fits his character. And he shines with his promos, reactions and expressions, where he provides a very compelling mix of smart-ass zingers, overflowing confidence and salesmanship, of himself, his next match and his rival.
And, like Owens, he may do a lot of things other heels do, but he does them in a way that he clearly owns them. Not as a contrived performer who was handed a script.
At 33 and in possession of a King Of The Mountain title shot (TNA’s current midcard title), it’s time for TNA to get going on this star-to-be-made.
“And that is not an insult. That’s just a fact of life.”
Y2AJ (WWE) – From the moment he’s shown up in WWE, “The Phenomenal” AJ Styles has been booked in the completely opposite way his fans most feared.
With Miz and Jericho deserving a lot of praise for leading the WWE crowds toward a very powerful perception of the former two-time IWGP Champion, Styles has come across as something that few have in WWE: a top wrestler with whom championship-level superstars have trouble hanging with.
And while some clamour for a quick ignition to a Styles versus Owens feud, I believe it makes a lot of sense to continue to let this steak burn slowly.
By hooking Styles up with Jericho, Styles gets a charismatic promo-cutting partner with whom he should have ring chemistry and can help him navigate through whatever curve balls WWE can throw (even to an experienced veteran like AJ), and Jericho gets a jumpstart to his current WWE tenure, previously mired in cool dad references and other painful moments which have beckoned questions as to the whereabouts of the Jericho of old.
These two need each other and have a lot to gain from their partnership. As do we, especially if a feud with The New Day heads to Wrestlemania 32.
Here’s to a good wrestling year!