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Next Top Guy: Breaking Down The Possible Contenders

If you ask a casual wrestling fan what the most illustrious position or role a worker can have the majority will probably reply that it’s being the WWE Champion or the World Heavyweight Champion, TNA World Heavyweight Champion, those delusional enough will say the ROH Word Champion and if they viewed wrestling in its heyday but also suffer from a spot of Alzheimer’s, the NWA World Heavyweight Champion.

No matter who they are or how they reply, chances are they’ll be wrong, because the true highest ranking role a worker in the world of professional wrestling can have isn’t symbolized by a title (at least not all the time) or an official label, but instead by a term most hardcore or passionate fans refer to as “the top guy.”

There has always been a “top guy,” throughout the sixties and majority of the seventies Bruno Sammartino was enshrined as “the top guy,” before him some could argue Vince McMahon Sr promoted Ed “The Strangler” Lewis as such.

With Sammartino’s drawing ability fading and age beginning to catch up, an attempt was made to replace him with Bob Backlund, and despite early success the alteration failed.

Under a new “entertainment” based branding, with the use of Hulk Hogan‘s mainstream popularity Vince McMahon Jr would channel this into the creation of “Hulkamania,” the driving force behind World Wrestling Federation’s rise into the atmosphere, with Hogan leading the charge, but once you get to the top there is but only one place to go, which is down.

In the aftermath of the steroid scandal in 1994 and as revenue was at an all-time low, Vince McMahon needed someone new to bear the brunt of the storm, which brought forth the run of Bret “Hitman” Hart as the companies “top guy,” however some fans grew tired of Hart quickly, which brought forth Shawn Michaels who until 1997 along with Hart, guided the ship through tumultuous waters until the revolution of Austin 3:16 began and “The Texas Rattlesnake” assumed his position.

Under Austin’s guidance, the company broke records, broke new ground, more merchandise was being sold, viewership in a then modern era was at an all-time high, fans were flocking from all over the world to watch Stone Cold Steve Austin humiliate and terrorize evil boss Mr. McMahon.

Other names such as The Rock made waves of their own, challenging Austin for his position, some even argue matching him as the company entered a new millennium.

As Steve Austin’s time grew limited due to several injuries and The Rock became part-time to feature in major motion Hollywood pictures, for the first time ever it appeared that a heel was both the focal point of the company on and off screen, as “The Game” Triple H broke through the glass ceiling many said he never would with Austin and The Rock in the picture.

Despite Austin becoming a consistent on-screen fixture in several varying roles, Triple H remained as the company’s biggest draw, it seemed however that nobody knew who the true top guy was.

Brock Lesnar was intended for the role, but his desire to play football and inevitable departure left Triple H manning the role as they groomed his successor, which would eventually be “The Doctor of Thuganomics” John Cena.

Cena became a fan favorite with his edgy, often comedic rapping on the Smackdown brand, at the time of his victory over JBL for the WWE Championship at Wrestlemania 21 he was only 28-years-old and fit the image the company sought out; a muscularly defined individual who could appeal to the mainstream and was over with the products fan base.

However, much like fans had done to Bret Hart in the nineties, they turned on John Cena within months of his inaugural WWE Championship reign. Unlike with Hart, there was no “Shawn Michaels” like character to challenge Cena who would continue the role and to this day is recognized by the majority of wrestling fans, casual and hardcore alike as the top, number one guy in the WWE, having sought off challengers to his throne such as Randy Orton and CM Punk.

Now, after seven years there is more discussion than ever that John Cena’s time is numbered. Last week, the following report surfaced from Wrestling Observer Newsletter:

With 35 year old John Cena currently dealing with back, elbow, hip and neck issues, there has been a lot of talk for months about who is the next top guy for WWE. With Vince McMahon’s days likely numbered, some believe that the next top guy after Cena will be Vince’s last ever hand-picked top guy – Dave Meltzer; WON

My initial response was, “Huh, another one of these, reports like this surface every year, remember when Orton was being “groomed” for the top guy position when he turned face back in 2010?” But then I realized my ignorance had lead me astray, because unlike past reports, this one had actual merit.

Reality of the situation is this, John Cena has been the “top guy” within WWE for the past seven years, he rarely takes breaks, truth be told one could even go so far as to say, the WWE and his job is this man’s entire life, he has been divorced from his wife, does media appearances and Make a Wish Foundation pledges almost every day, he is even appearing at shows hurt just so fans aren’t let down.

But his recent elbow surgery will probably wake people up, John Cena is coming to the end of his road. 35-years-old, suffering from several injuries, rarely takes a break, always features in the big matches, in fact the only reason Cena is still the top guy is probably due to the fact he still sells, he’s proven time-and-time again John Cena is money, John Cena puts asses in the seats.

The report quoted above goes on to say:

While Cena won’t be replaced as the top guy until his body breaks down or until the public tires of him, there is a feeling that you have to think about the future now as Vince has never gone with anyone older than 40 as his top guy because people think he cuts bait early and then moves on – Dave Meltzer; WON

This is the most interesting paragraph featured in Meltzer’s report, not because it states Cena still has time left, but because when you coincide that with the final line, and then look at the WWE roster, you’ll notice the majority of names people will scream for the position are cutting close to not only Cena, but the 40-year-old cut off age as well.

Let’s examine some potential names for the position of “top guy” should Cena’s time be cut short.

Wade Barrett
Wade Bar-ruh is 32- years-old, so he doesn’t really fit the mold of someone who can take the ball and run with it after the current wave of top guys are all retired and gone, and on top of that, his current return probably isn’t going as planned.

He isn’t connecting with live crowds much at all, not that he was getting Stone Cold Steve Austin-like reactions to begin with.

But I think the damage that has been done to his character has taken a toll on the WWE Universe, and we just don’t have a reason to really view him as anything special right now.

That could definitely change, Barrett seems to have a small cult following like many of WWE’s midcard talent, and with reports of a possible Nexus return lead by Barrett this guy’s character could literally go anywhere, but it isn’t looking good right now.

After some cool return vignettes, we got… the same person, just with a beard and a finisher that the crowd don’t seem to care about. Poor finishing maneuver and poor character development aside, Barrett still gets disqualified from this one, almost solely off age alone.

The Miz
The Miz is going to be 32-years-old in a couple of days, look at how up-and-down his career has been, he had quite the epic rise from the bottom of the barrel reality television show reject that was thrown out of the locker room by JBL for dropping chicken on the floor.

Becoming WWE Champion, featuring in an angle with John Cena and The Rock, headlining Wrestlemania, and then he had quite the epic fall from WWE Champion back to the bottom of the barrel.

He’ll have multiple-month stretches where he looks hungry and will be improving, and then, out of nowhere, he’ll have multiple-month stretches where he looks like he doesn’t care and will wrestle like a student in his first few months of training. Then, out of nowhere again, he’ll go back to looking hungry; it’s the weirdest thing.

Until that is taken care of, I don’t think Mike will be a “megastar”, period, now or in the future. It almost comes down to trust again. Can the company trust him to keep doing the in-ring things someone at the top of the roster should be doing?

He’s proven that he can do all of the extracurricular stuff.. the media appearances, constant interviews and jibberyjoo like that.. but he can’t stay consistent in the ring to save his life right now.

Zack Ryder
Zack Ryder is an interesting choice. He’ll be turning 28-years-old about a month after Wrestlemania 29, so he certainly has the age thing working for him. Look at his career, though.

While he remains somewhat over, the company hasn’t been able to commit too much of a push, and the push they did give him seems like forever ago, he’s back to being an afterthought now.

What intrigues me is his newest YouTube video, if you haven’t seen it, Ryder hints at how he might need some changes to his gimmick if he’s ever going to be taken seriously and looked at as a “top guy”.

Ryder has proven he can get over with his current character, but he will never, ever, ever be taken seriously with this “Broski” bullshit; if you believe otherwise you’re delusional, it just isn’t happening.

I’ve read Ryder’s fans theories about how he would be a future WWE Champion, how he was the future of wrestling and how.. blah blah blah.. shaking my head just thinking about all of that. He is in dire need of a change, even if it’s something relatively small. Something like a heel turn, where he blames the WWE Universe for turning him into a joke would work. He could adopt an angrier, more aggressive style in the ring.

It’s worth a shot for several reasons, mostly because a comedy character will never be the top guy, and even if he got past that, he plays a comedic underdog and if an underdog wins too much you lose all interest and people begin to turn; as things stand now, Zack Ryder is certainly not the next “megastar” of the WWE.

Dolph Ziggler
Dolph Ziggler is another popular pick for this from people that I’ve seen. His name almost always comes up immediately, but for a lot of those people, I think they see Dolph as being younger than he really is.

I was having a discussion about Dolph a month or two back, and the subject of Dolph’s future in the business came up. Someone said that the sky is the limit for Dolph, because he’s “only like 26 or 27″.

He’s actually 32- years-old, putting him right smack dab in the middle of the age bracket for a lot of the names already brought up in this editorial.

Yes, we probably haven’t seen the biggest and the best part of Dolph’s career as of yet, merely due to the fact he’ll probably be given a transitional World Heavyweight Championship reign in the coming months, but he’s too old to be considered for something along these lines, by the time Cena stops drawing or his body breaks down, Dolph will only have aged further.

Cody Rhodes
Cody Rhodes is someone that has a lot of similarities with The Miz when it comes to inconsistency and how stale they are. Cody’s character is an absolute casserole of stagnant promos and a lack of freshness.

It’s always a possibility that Cody will get pushed. He seems to receive two or three pushes a year, no matter what his character does and doesn’t do.

He has yet to be really pushed to the main event though, despite being “next” for several years now. That has to concern even his biggest fans and supporters. He’s only 27-years-old, which really works in his favor here and his father has some push behind-the-scenes, but I’m afraid of what I’ve seen from his career this far.

He hasn’t been truly pushed yet, and there’s a reason for that. It’s difficult to picture him going from what we’ve seen from his booking to John Cena or Triple H-like “megastar” booking, even over the span of a few years.

Come back to me in a year or so, and we’ll see if things have changed at all, but right now Rhodes seems destined for a tag team run with Damien Sandow, and when you look at where he was a year ago, that’s what I call a fall from grace.

Daniel Bryan
Daniel Bryan. The man who has produced arguably the most amazing year of character development and pushes that we’ve seen in a long, long time. He’s not over the hill, but he’ll turn 32 a month-and-a-half after Wrestlemania 29, so he isn’t exactly wet behind the ears either. At face value, he’s certainly someone that could become a “megastar” if the company gives him a chance to be one.

He’s capable of doing everything you could ask him to do. If the company needs someone to go out on television or pay-per-view and have a lengthy match with rave reviews, they can count on him to make it happen.

If the company needs someone to go out and be diverse with his promos, whether it’s something on the comedic side or a serious, intense delivery, they can count on him to make it happen. If the company needs someone to participate in a skit or a backstage segment and deliver entertainment without even saying a word, they can count on him to make it happen.

Even with all that said, he can’t be viewed as the “megastar” to carry the company on his back when several of the aforementioned have retired, because he’ll be close to 40 by then, if not over 40 already.

And I hate saying this but his size doesn’t help, size doesn’t matter in wrestling anymore when it comes to winning titles or gaining pushes, if you’re small and talented you’ll get what you deserve, Punk and Bryan are true examples of that, but is Daniel Bryan someone you want as the brand of your product?

Randy Orton
Well, he’s younger than a majority of the names listed, although not by much (he’ll turn 33-years-old a few days before Wrestlemania 29), but there’s one major problem with him and we all know it.. I don’t think the company trusts him anymore.

With his Wellness Policy violations, other fines and suspensions through the years, and how it always seems like he’s in some sort of trouble with the most recent example being him flipping the bird to a fan on live television, is he really someone you want representing you on a PG product?

Orton would be perfect if “Attitude” was the name of the game, but it isn’t and probably will never be again or at least anytime soon.

I know… he was chosen to represent the company in the 12 Rounds movie sequel, and that’s cool and all, but there’s a big difference between that and being trusted into the limelight every week, day in and day out, Orton isn’t frequently making media appearances as it is and he’s one of the top guys in the company.

I’m not saying he’ll never reach that level again, but I do think it could be a while, but the point of this is to look for the next “top guy”. Orton is already at that point, but at nearly 33-years-old, having suffered more injuries than Cena, being more injury prone and his record of offenses against several policies, Orton has very little going for him, asides the fact he is still one of the most over wrestlers on the planet.

CM Punk and Sheamus
I’m reading a lot of people making arguments for Punk and Sheamus, but let’s look at the facts, shall we? If WWE wanted to pull the trigger on Punk they’d have done it by now. He is currently the second guy in line behind John Cena and even features more on the show nowadays than Cena does; Punk sells and has a huge fan following whether he is a face or a heel.

But Punk is just over a year younger than John Cena. He’s been wrestling almost non-stop for over fifteen years now; yeah, hard to believe but it’s true. Punk has a lot of qualities that work in his favor, some having already been stated, others would include his straight edge lifestyle being a perfect image for the company, especially a professional wrestling company.

But with that, comes his body. Punk doesn’t take pain killers, his in-ring style which features high risk manoeuvres and such has negatives, he’s suffered injuries in the past – why do you think his elbow is taped up heavily whereas a couple years ago before his elbow injury it was as it always was? Punk would be a good fit, if he were younger, but sadly he isn’t, so being the top bad guy really is the next best choice.

And then we have Sheamus, “The Great White,” the current World Heavyweight Champion and in a lot of people’s eyes, the guy who WWE already believe is the next John Cena. However there is one small issue with that, Sheamus is older than John Cena.

Now I realize they could break the 40-year-old age barrier, but doing that brings its own issues and I highly doubt WWE want to encounter those.

If you’re the “top guy” your road schedule is hectic, you work nearly every show, every day is another media appearance or charity pledge, you’ll be featuring heavily on shows and the majority of the time wrestling the longest matches featured on said events. That’s why a younger guy is always sought after, that is why age is the biggest issue for many of these guys and Sheamus is no different.

In-terms of marketability and fan reactions, Sheamus is pretty over with WWE’s main demographic, he frequently gets large pops, the odd time usually in a city known for “smark” audiences such as anywhere in the Northeast of the States, he’ll be jeered but that’s about it. His merchandise seems to sell well and almost every week you can find a report of Sheamus appearing here, there and everywhere.

With his connections to both Triple H and Vince McMahon well documented, maybe he is still in with a shot, but it really does depend on when Cena’s time nears a close. John doesn’t seem to be finishing anytime soon and with Sheamus being older, the longer John continues, the shorter Sheamus’ chances become.

NXT
Sure, I could look at the NXT and FCW rosters to see what they have there, but I don’t want to do that, for two reasons. One, we’ve seen with some recent releases that despite what we may think, NXT really is nothing more than the replacement to Florida Championship Wrestling, it just got a set revamp and features a few more main roster stars; remember, WWE don’t really even want us watching it unless we’re from Florida.

Two, the choices are obvious and almost everybody is going to say the same thing and give the same reasons. Seth Rollins (he’ll turn 27-years-old a month-and-a-half after Wrestlemania 29, current NXT Champion so he has some backing, but a lot of people are still skeptical on if he can go far), Dean Ambrose (26-years-old, with all the hype built for his debut, I feel unless he meets the very high expectations, we got a potential flop on our hands).

Bray Wyatt (26 a month-and-a-half after Wrestlemania 29, has potential to be a top heel, but do you really want the guy representing your company to have got inspiration from Jonestown?), then you got Kassius Ohno who’ll be turning 33-years-old on Christmas Eve and for me hasn’t adjusted or clicked with the audience as he’d of liked, has a chance but it would take some revolutionary.

Other names I could mention are PAC under NXT, but with him having yet to debut, for me It’ll depend on if they give him the time to settle in and adjust unlike how they did with Sin Cara and if they allow him the freedom to perform as I know he can, as they did with Daniel Bryan and CM Punk, unlike say Matt Stryker or Jamie Noble, two great in-ring workers held back due to stupid gimmicks.

And of course Kofi Kingston, my reasoning for exempting Kofi is his current position. R-Truth isn’t going anywhere, they can turn him face, turn him heel, turn him inside-out for whatever I care, Truth is in his forties and it doesn’t look as though Little Jimmy has great shelf value, as viewers seemingly grow tired of his antics.

Kofi requires freedom to achieve anything, unlike say Barrett, Rhodes and Ryder, we haven’t even got a recent Kofi Kingston singles push to work off of, as the company seem to show little faith in him.

One observation I’d like to make, is not only will this probably be the final “top guy” chosen by the rule of all that is professional wrestling and sports entertainment Vince McMahon, but this will be the first post-WCW/ECW death choice where talent from both companies really don’t feature anymore. We’re at a stage now where with the territorial system dead and the independent system having few bright sparks, talent in the lower leagues isn’t as fleshed out as it used to be.

When WCW and ECW died, wrestling talent was everywhere, almost literally everywhere. WWE had talent employed they didn’t even need, those who were released were stuck on the independents who were thriving at the time and until TNA opened few could only gain decent pay checks by going abroad, now however, over a decade after the fall, the talent has all but dried up.

It all makes for some pretty bleak reading, doesn’t it?

Make sure to keep up with all my latest postings from here on WrestleEnigma.com and WrestlingINC.com by following my official Twitter account @DragonSagaWE

About Jason Patrick

Jason Patrick is an Irish writer and journalism student, he is the brain behind bringing Ring of Honor content to Wrestle Enigma and is an avid fan of the promotion, as well as others such as WWE, NJPW and some independent promotions. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonPatrickWE
  • JacobStachowiak

    Holy god, anybody but Miz and Ryder….and Punk but that’s obvious….no Bo Dallas or Big E Langston buts that’s also obvious…..I’d also like to take Tyler Black out of the equation because he’s fucking Tyler Black.

  • SiD

    Pretty cool article here, man, I enjoyed it.

  • Sahil Maherali

    I honestly think the WWE should run the ball with 6 leading men.
    Raw
    Face- Zack Ryder
    Tweener- Cody Rhodes
    Heel- Ziggler

    Smackdown
    Face- Ted Dibaise
    Tweener- Bryan
    Heel- Barrett

    Alternate between these 3 guys only by what the crowd wants. I feel Cody has the best potential. He is a great wrestler, his finisher is main event worthy, plus he is already somewhat known to the public. If the WWE board really wants to push him, pay tv shows to put him on the show. For example he can be a cop on Hawaii 5-0, Barney’s new associate on How I Met Your Mother, A new lawyer on Suits, A Neal Caffery Poser on White Collar, a guest boyfriend on Pretty Lil Liars, A role in Fast 6 with Rock, In Modern Family he can come as a life guard that Gloria’s husband thinks she likes, He can be on Mordern Family as a gov employee, and many more examples. The WWE just has to invest in this guy.

    I think the WWE can surely secure this guy as a main eventer head dog with this plan:
    Sandow and Rhodes break up. Rhodes goes on a rampage and Barrett convinces him to join the Barrage and they can go on a Rhodes Barrage. These guys go and interupt main matches and defeat anyone that come in their way. They take out top guys like HHH and Cena and Punk and Shameus. Undertaker then emerges and says that he needs to bring the company back to its place. He then challenges Barrett. Barrett says that Rhodes will have to be in the match. Undertaker agrees. Now we have a 2-1 handicap match. This match can go where both guys destroy the dead man while getting beat up pretty badly themselves. As Barrett is about to give Undertaker the final punch with his new finisher and Rhodes hypes up the audience, he relizes something is wrong, Cody then gives Undertaker a Cross Rhodes, Barrett who is shocked also recieves a Cross Rhodes. Cody then pulls Taker over Barrett to pin him. He then gets in the ring with the 3 of them the next night and Barrett is mad that Rhodes went against his back and helped the dead man. Cody then says that he doesn’t need a Barrage. He can take out Taker by himself. Undertaker then comes out and there is a 3 way feud like tension happening. Taker then puts his arm out to Rhodes and says I’m glad you helped me bring the WWE back to where it belongs and he will achieve great things. At that time Undertaker then leaves but Barrett attacks him from behind and gives him a tombstone piledriver which Rhodes then turns into a Cross Rhodes. These 2 men feud it out with Rhodes being a tweener.

  • http://twitter.com/E__RAGE Eric

    Wow great article here man. Now it is tough to pick a new top guy. It seems like there is no real pick to go with here, but we might be surprised in the end. Look at Cena, this kid who debuted with same color wrestling shorts and knee pads would go on to be the WWE”s top guy. There’s always more than meets the eye to these talents so I think we’ll get a surprise as to who will be the top guy in the future.

    BTW loved the Bray Wyatt comment about getting “inspiration from Jonestown.” Gave me a nice chuckle.

  • http://twitter.com/bmdavis09 Brandon Davis

    Amazing. wonderful article. agreed on almost every point.