Every year, a wrestler or wrestlers come out of nowhere to seize the attention of WWE audiences. Last year saw the meteoric rise of The New Day. Kevin Owens made a huge statement in defeating John Cena in his first pay-per-view match. Becky Lynch asserted herself as a key cog in the Divas Revolution.
No one’s quite had a year like that. But, there’s still plenty of wrestlers to choose from when we’re talking about breakthrough performers. Several candidates started the year in a completely different place than where they are now. They’ve scratched and clawed to win the affection of the WWE Universe. They’ve made enormous strides in terms of character development or in-ring skills. There’s a number of reasons that one could be labeled a ‘breakout superstar.’
The bottom line is they made a connection with the fans, and none of us saw it coming.
On to the list!
5. James Ellsworth – What’s pro wrestling without a good jobber? Ellsworth undoubtedly stole the show as Braun Strowman’s first victim after the brand split, but no one could have foreseen the commotion this “turtle without a shell,” as JBL calls him, would cause.
Now, at year’s end, Ellsworth finds himself right in the middle of the WWE Championship picture between Dean Ambrose and AJ Styles. The sympathy people feel for him has been utilized to put Styles over as a heel and Ambrose as a face.
It’s funny. It’s useful, but most of all – this is a case of a man seizing a golden opportunity. Whether you’re in favor of Ellsworth’s push or not, you have to acknowledge what a tremendous job the man has done in this role.
4. No Way Jose – It’s safe to no one could’ve seen No Way Jose coming from a million miles away, not when Levis Valenzuela, Jr. was struggling to get air time on NXT and serving as little more than enhancement talent. But, there comes a time for every developmental prospect when it’s time to “go big or go home.” So, No Way Jose was born.
In April, the vignettes for Valenzuala’s reboot began to air, but it was unclear as to what exactly the gimmick was going to be. He stormed the screen and instantly won the crowd over with his upbeat personality. But, let’s be honest – the dance moves helped, too. Every time No Way Jose enters an arena, it’s like an instant party. However, make no mistake – this isn’t strictly a feel-good comedy gimmick.
Jose showed solid range in his feud with Austin Aries, and really – he’s a big guy. It’d be a shame if all of that size went to waste. “The Greatest Man that Ever Lived” brought out the fight in No Way Jose, and he delivered, showing a sizable mean streak. It was the “don’t mistake kindness for weakness” mantra personified.
There’s no doubting the immense potential of No Way Jose, and wherever he goes, he’s sure to take the fiesta with him.
3. Rich Swann – A lot of diehard wrestling fans were well aware of who Swann was when he showed up on NXT. He came to the WWE with a reputation as one of the most exciting wrestlers on the independent scene. In his first match, he went toe-to-toe with Baron Corbin, but it was his second match on NXT programming that really caught the attention of fans. Swann had a fantastic showing opposite Finn Balor in March. It all should’ve been a sign of things to come.
He would go on to participate in the inaugural Cruiserweight Classic until he was eliminated by eventual winner T.J. Perkins. Swann stuck around and teamed with No Way Jose during The Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, which allowed him to let more of his personality shine.
As fans have come to know of his background, his infectious personality, and his spectacular wrestling ability, they’ve gotten behind him. After just a few months on the main roster, Swann finds himself as the current Cruiserweight Champion. The sky’s the limit for “The Outlandish One.”
2. Alexa Bliss – After spending just under three years in developmental, Bliss finally got the main roster call-up during the WWE Draft. She would head to Smackdown, where it appeared she’d have a chance to develop as Becky Lynch, Nikki Bella, and Natalya stood as the focal points of the division.
After Lynch became the first Smackdown Women’s Champion, Bliss was presented as her first opponent. While many (myself included) thought the feud would be used to develop Bliss but ultimately put over Lynch, Bliss took the ball and ran with it. She’s put in the work to become a strong in-ring performer, but her development in promos has been astonishing. The “Five Feet of Fury” herself has become one of Smackdown’s greatest heels.
The brand split allowed Bliss to get out from under the shadow of the Four Horsewomen in NXT and she’s excelled at every opportunity. Now, she’s the Smackdown Women’s Champion and deserves every minute as champion she gets.
1. Braun Strowman – When The Wyatt Family was split up as a result of the WWE Draft, Strowman was the odd man out. While “The Black Sheep” went to Raw, Bray Wyatt and Erick Rowan would head over to Smackdown. A repackage ensued for Strowman, as his first night on Raw showcased a new look with new entrance music. Before, he was the quiet enforcer of The Wyatt Family. Now, he’s on his own for the first time in his young career.
The question was whether or not he could string together some entertaining performances. He did just that. As a part of the WWE’s initiative to bring back local jobber squash matches, Strowman wrestled, and subsequently demolished, new local talent each week. With Byron Saxton interviewing jobbers before every match, they were able to put Strowman over hard, and he backed it up with dominant performances.
He’s improved tremendously from where he was a year ago. If you caught his appearance on the Stone Cold Podcast, you already see his potential as an entertaining personality. Strowman seems like he’s putting it all together. Now, it looks like he could eventually become the next great giant in WWE history.
2017 Watch List: Tye Dillinger, Nia Jax, Jack Gallagher, Ember Moon, Elias Samson, The Bollywood Boyz, & Oney Lorcan
Stoney Keeley covers the WWE for WrestlingNews.co, covers the NFL’s Tennessee Titans for Pro Football Spot, and is the Editor of The SoBros Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @StoneyKeeley and the SPOT’s Tennessee Titans Twitter feed at @spot_titans.