Much like 2014, 2015 felt like another transitional year in the WWE. Since the dawn of Ryback, the product has seemingly been gearing towards the next generational superstar (i.e. Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, John Cena). The problem is that superstar has not made his/her presence felt just yet.
We’re on that path now.
With that in mind, it’s time to look back on who made the most of their opportunities. Who was WWE’s most valuable asset in 2015?
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)
Brock Lesnar – Full-time or part-time, it’s still special when Lesnar graces a WWE ring. His tenure as champion was marked by excellent contests against John Cena, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns. He and The Undertaker made a strong case for “Rivalry of the Year.”
Bray Wyatt – Wyatt would make the list if he was used in more original ways. WWE creative seems to have found a formula with him and is sticking to it. Still, I think Wyatt is one of a couple of unsung heroes in the development of Roman Reigns.
Daniel Bryan – 2015 was a short year for Bryan, but he still managed to dole out plenty of quality matches. Competing against Roman Reigns in the main event of Fastlane was one of his most important matches. After seeing an amazing ladder match at WrestleMania 31 and series of matches against Dolph Ziggler, one can only imagine what his reign as Intercontinental Champion would have been like if not for his injury.
Charlotte – Her last few months in NXT seemed directionless as she lost the NXT Women’s Championship early in 2015, but she still put on great matches and was vital to the development of Dana Brooke and Emma’s presence as NXT’s top heel women. Her call-up to the main roster paid off big time as she ended Nikki Bella’s historic reign as WWE Divas Champion.
Kane – “The Devil’s Favorite Demon” just isn’t fresh anymore. Still, Kane deserves a wealth of credit for the work he did in 2015 as lapdog for The Authority and his Jekyll-and-Hyde storyline challenging Seth Rollins for the WWE Championship.
#10 – Sheamus
A lot of people are tired of Sheamus, but 2015 was just the year he needed to remain relevant in the WWE, and besides, all of that talk is misguided, anyway. He completely revamped his character with a new look, new entrance music, and new attitude.
While his programs with Dolph Ziggler and Randy Orton felt a little tired, they were still reliably good wrestling, and after winning the Money in the Bank briefcase and cashing in to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, his career makeover was rewarded with a brief run as champion.
He might be higher on this list – but I do indeed remember the incredibly asinine and senseless “Kiss Me Arse” match (though he and Ziggler worked well together), and this League of Nations nonsense just isn’t taking off.
Accolades: WWE World Heavyweight Championship, Money in the Bank briefcase winner
Pay-per-view record: 5-4
Signature rivalries: Dolph Ziggler, Randy Orton, Roman Reigns
Match of the year: vs. Roman Reigns, TLC
#9 – Dean Ambrose
“The Lunatic Fringe” considers himself a valuable multi-tool in that he can work with anyone, anywhere on the card, and excel at it. Whether you consider that brash or not, he is completely accurate in this assessment of his self.
Ambrose didn’t have a lot of championship success in 2015, but he showed his true value in putting over Rollins as champion during their mid-summer program. Now, he’s restoring prestige to the WWE’s Intercontinental Championship and aiding in making Kevin Owens look like one of wrestling’s most dastardly evil-doers.
He’ll win the WWE World Championship eventually, but he doesn’t need it to validate the quality work he puts out week in and week out.
Accolades: Intercontinental Championship
Pay-per-view record: 5-7
Signature rivalries: Luke Harper, Seth Rollins, The Wyatt Family
Match of the year: vs. Seth Rollins, Money in the Bank
#8 – Bayley
What’s not to like about Bayley? She became one of the faces of women’s wrestling in 2015, and she did it her way – through wrestling ability, and not scampering about in a bikini. Not only is Bayley a premiere worker, but she is one of the WWE’s greatest role models, and is unquestionably their greatest female role model.
Assuming she stays the course and is allowed to remain true to herself, the WWE could have a woman as the “face of the franchise” for the first time in its history. That’s how good Bayley is, and that’s how important her spot in the company is.
Accolades: NXT Women’s Championship
Pay-per-view record: 4-1
Signature rivalries: Dana Brooke & Emma, Sasha Banks, Nia Jax
Match of the year: vs. Sasha Banks, NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn
#7 – The New Day
Voted Rolling Stone’s WWE Wrestler(s) of the Year, the New Day revitalized tag team wrestling and did so in grandiose fashion. Not only did they capture the WWE Tag Team Championship twice, but they shattered the glass ceiling in the WWE.
Need an example of how to seize the brass ring? Let the New Day be your guide. Here we have three extremely talented professionals who were beginning to flail about on the mid-card. When this gimmick failed to take off, Big E, Kofi Kingston, and Xavier Woods took the opportunity to make it their own.
Fast forward to the end of 2015, and these three have “matured” into the funniest, most entertaining part of weekly WWE programming and some of the biggest movers of merchandise on WWE Shop. Don’t let that fool you, though – all three have legitimate chops in the ring. Their battles with Cesaro & Tyson Kidd, The Dudley Boyz, The Uso’s, and The Lucha Dragons were all among the respective night’s greatest contests.
When is the last time the WWE has boasted a group of performers who were as humorous as they were talented? Edge & Christian?
Accolades: WWE Tag Team Championship (twice)
Pay-per-view record: 6-6
Signature rivalries: The Uso’s, Lucha Dragons, Cesaro & Tyson Kidd, The Dudley Boyz
Match of the year: vs. The Uso’s vs. Lucha Dragons, TLC
#6 – Finn Balor
Finn Balor became the face of the NXT brand in 2015. Rightfully so, some have called “The Demon” the best wrestler in the world. He’s certainly padded his resume since coming to WWE’s developmental brand.
His initial program against The Ascension (with partner Hideo Itami) was solid, his match against Adrian Neville was one of the greatest of the year, and he created one of NXT’s greatest moments of the year in Japan, where he defeated Kevin Owens to start his reign as NXT’s luminary.
Add his extravagant entrances and body paint, and you have everything you would want in a professional wrestling superstar.
Full Sail University is Balor’s blank canvas, and on it, he creates masterpieces.
Accolades: NXT Championship, Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic Championship
Pay-per-view record: 6-0
Signature rivalries: The Ascension, Kevin Owens, Tyler Breeze, Samoa Joe
Match of the year: vs. Kevin Owens, Beast in the East
#5 – Kevin Owens
Kevin Owens not only wrestled quality matches, but he shattered stereotypes in 2015 – namely, that only musclebound gargantuan superstars could succeed in the WWE. He made an immediate impact upon his arrival in NXT and spent early 2015 as its’ champion after mauling Sami Zayn.
What was originally thought to be a move to attract attention to NXT and sell WWE Network subscriptions turned out to be Owens’ call-up to the main roster. He debuted on Raw in May of 2015 by answering John Cena’s United States Championship open invitational a week after Zayn had answered it. He eventually told Cena that they would meet, but on his terms, and delivered a pop-up powerbomb to the champ.
The wrestling community was shocked when he pinned John Cena cleanly at May’s Elimination Chamber pay-per-view.
The two would go on to have the hottest program of the summer, and while many thought Owens would dissipate into the mid-card like so many NXT call-ups before him, he stuck around. He was featured in a high-profile rivalry opposite of Cesaro, won the Intercontinental Championship, and made it to the final four of the WWE’s World Heavyweight Championship Tournament that culminated at Survivor Series.
Owens is among wrestling’s elite for both his wrestling acumen and his famous promos and overall dis-likeability.
Accolades: NXT Championship, Intercontinental Championship
Pay-per-view record: 7-5
Signature rivalries: Sami Zayn, John Cena, Cesaro, Dean Ambrose
Match of the year: vs. John Cena, Elimination Chamber
#4 – Roman Reigns
Roman Reigns started 2015 by being booed out of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By year’s end, he would win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in that very same building to a chorus of “Thank you, Roman” chants.
If that isn’t the finest example of a wrestler’s progress, I don’t know what is. Reigns has always been an obviously talented athlete. When he was a member of The Shield, he reveled in his role as the silent badass. Upon the group’s disbanding, it seemed as though WWE’s creative team felt the need to try and force Reigns to be something he isn’t.
Charisma is one of those things that is present in many different ways. Dusty Rhodes and Goldberg were both very charismatic characters, but no one would’ve expected Goldberg to cut a Dusty-style promo backstage or wear polka dots to the ring. Likewise, can you imagine Dusty Rhodes being the silent destroyer that Goldberg was? It just doesn’t make sense (and provides some pretty weird imagery).
You can’t script charisma – it has to show naturally. That was the biggest hang-up in getting Reigns over with the crowd. His promos were often awkward, but when they turned him loose in the ring with a steel chair and allowed him to show his vicious side, the fans responded in a positive manner.
If you look at his portfolio for 2015, he had 5-star matches with the likes of Daniel Bryan, Brock Lesnar, Bray Wyatt, Sheamus, and even the Big Show. So, yeah – the ability is there.
If WWE’s writers don’t sabotage him, Reigns could be poised to finally become what he is envisioned to be: the next great generational star.
Accolades: WWE World Heavyweight Championship (twice), 2015 Royal Rumble winner
Pay-per-view record: 7-7
Signature rivalries: The Authority, Bray Wyatt, Sheamus
Match of the year: vs. Daniel Bryan, Fastlane
#3 – Sasha Banks
“The Boss” began to come into her own in late 2014, but it’s safe to say no one saw her 2015 coming. After winning the NXT Women’s Championship in an extraordinary Fatal 4-Way match at NXT TakeOver: Rival, Banks had one of the greatest championship runs of the year.
Her in-ring work is impeccable, proven by her ability to shell out match after match worthy of “Match of the Year” consideration – including two classics against Bayley and one against Becky Lynch. All three present an argument to be the greatest women’s wrestling match not only of the year, but of all time.
Factor in that Banks’ merchandise sells better than any diva not named Paige, and that arenas around the country repeatedly chant “We Want Sasha!” whether she is in the ring or not, and the total package that is Sasha Banks equates to the greatest women’s wrestler in the world.
Accolades: NXT Women’s Championship
Pay-per-view record: 2-5
Signature rivalries: Becky Lynch, Bayley
Match of the year: vs. Becky Lynch, NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable
#2 – John Cena
Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, John Cena had one of if not the greatest years of his storied career in 2015. He galvanized the long-dispirited United States Championship and introduced us to what would become the most exciting aspect of Monday Night Raw in years: the U.S. Championship Open Challenge. Fans tuned in week in and week out to see who would answer Cena’s call.
As if that wasn’t exciting enough, the matches turned out to be of the highest quality. Matches against Cesaro, Dean Ambrose, Neville, Sami Zayn, and many more consistently stole the show.
Perhaps most important was the fact that Cena restored the U.S. Championship to such prestige that he could main event house shows with it. When Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose were headlining a live event in Nashville, Cena was headlining (against Kevin Owens) in Pittsburgh. Theoretically, this allowed WWE to double its revenue that night without making fans feel as though they were cheated out of a bona fide title fight.
Cena also further added credibility to Seth Rollins’ WWE Championship run by putting the champion over at SummerSlam. He worked 2015 as if he was tired of hearing fans chanting “Cena sucks,” and wanted to prove to the world that he can go with anyone in this business today.
In the end, even the snarkiest of internet wrestling trolls were anxiously awaiting his return from a short hiatus throughout the holiday season.
Accolades: United States Championship (twice)
Pay-per-view record: 8-5
Signature rivalries: Rusev, Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins
Match of the year: vs. Kevin Owens, Elimination Chamber
#1 – Seth Rollins
Despite missing the last 2 months of the year, Seth Rollins still unquestionably holds the top spot in the WWE. He is arguably the best in-ring worker on the main roster, and his character work has him trending towards the next Ric Flair/Shawn Michaels type of heel champion.
Some would say his championship reign was underwhelming – but that’s rooted in an issue with how Rollins is booked and how his promos are scripted. When you have successful title defenses against the likes of John Cena, Randy Orton, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, Kane, and to a certain extent, Brock Lesnar, who else could you ask for? His championship reign may have been marred by awful storylines, but it was loaded with main event after main event that pushed the quality of the one before it.
He took on every veritable face character in the WWE and won. In doing so, he returned the main event slot on a pay-per-view card back to glory.
Rollins was also pivotal in making WrestleMania 31 one of the greatest shows in event history. His cash-in of his Money in the Bank briefcase during Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar’s match is one of the all-time great ‘Mania moments.
Every angle involving the WWE World Championship was centered on Rollins’ weakness as champion, his inability to win without the help of The Authority, and his subsequent squirming his way out of tough situations with championship in tow. Some may consider that lazy, but it’s a tried and true method for creating a star.
Rollins offers something to every WWE fan – whether you’re “in on it” or not. Some fans tune in to see him defeated, while others tune in to simply see him in action.
The simple truth is that no one had the right combination of consistent 5-star matches and championship success as Rollins did. He competed in several “Match of the Year” candidates, and was involved in some of 2015’s most memorable moments (the ‘Mania cash-in, the statue unveiling on Raw that led to the return of Sting, the Ambrose ladder match, Jon Stewart costing John Cena the WWE Title), further proving that it’s Seth Rollins’ world and we’re just living in it.
Accolades: WWE World Heavyweight Championship, United States Championship
Pay-per-view record: 8-5
Signature rivalries: Randy Orton, Dean Ambrose, Kane, John Cena, Roman Reigns
Match of the year: vs. John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar, Royal Rumble
Stoney Keeley covers the WWE for WrestlingNews.co, and is a Featured Analyst for Pro Football Spot. You can follow him on Twitter at @StoneyKeeley, and follow Pro Football Spot at @pfspot.