As the WWE/AEW rivalry enters its first full year, stars like Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, Seth Rollins, Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley, Kenny Omega and many more mainstays are sure to sell tickets and mountains of merch as the dependable, time-tested faces of their respective promotions. Nevertheless, as the wrestling world steps into a new decade, there is a palatable air of change. Be it because of legitimate counter-programming demanding more creative attention, the rise of NXT, the dependency on social media promotion, or other less tangible things, both companies are throwing considerable weight and effort behind a number of stars to sell not only seats, but to capitalize on an ethos, a new direction for new times.
With that in mind, let’s break down the stars that seem ready and willing to lead the charge for their promotions in a new, more demanding era, as well as just what gives them that seemingly unattainable “it” factor.
Assuming there are no Ruthless Aggression John Cena missteps, Drew McIntyre is already a done deal. And, oh, how he’s earned it. After a middling debut in 2007, a sustained but relatively un-dynamic winning streak in the early ’10s, and a whole lot of tag team misfires, McIntyre was initially released from his WWE contract in 2014. What the Scottish Psychopath did from there is most important to where he is today:
McIntyre returned to ICW, bowed his head, worked hard and made a name for himself. Then? he went to Evolve, bowed his head and made a name for himself. He repeated this pattern across companies and rivalries, title runs big and small, in the likes of Impact Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and became a new a more confident, enigmatic, and effective wrestler of not only pedigree but substantial buzz. AND THEN? He returned to WWE via NXT in 2017, bowed his head, worked hard, paid his dues as if he was a new man yet again, and earned his spot as not only the 2020 men’s Royal Rumble winner, but (if merch is to be believed) the eventual Beast Incarnate beheader.
The placement of that sword really can’t be coincidence, can it…? pic.twitter.com/1dRhHV3P0x
— Gary Cassidy (@consciousgary) February 17, 2020
Truly, Drew McIntyre is likely one of the hardest working and most experienced athletes in the WWE today. Sure, his character is essentially “big man in a cool duster”, but an already fun bit about pointing to the WrestleMania sign every time someone mentions it makes that minor issue seem extremely surmountable, especially with the best of WWE’s writing behind him. McIntyre exudes in-ring charisma, ability, and tenacity that only the best of the best have. And? He’s already proven he’s willing to put in the work.
Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley are poised to elevate the NXT Women’s Championship to its highest acclaim ever this year with a WrestleMania match, and yet the star of the whole affair is still Bianca Belair. The EST of NXT has been working hard this year, and it shows. She makes her own gear, she delivers a high, infectious energy to all her promos — “you don’t even go here!” — she set the record for the most eliminations in a women’s Royal Rumble, and if her appearances on After The Bell and UpUpDownDown are to be believed, she remains humble through the whole thing.
Bianca, an accomplished athlete scouted by Mark Henry, has obviously been eager to learn throughout her NXT tenure over the last three years. It’s paying off in spades. She’s charismatic, incredibly agile and strong (lifting Rhea Ripley over her head at TakeOver: Portland) and enough of a draw that the aforementioned ‘Mania match with Rhea and Flair might just become a triple threat. Can you ask for much more in such little time with a company that values paying your dues over most anything else? Certainly not. Belair is a star, and WWE knows it.
Keith Lee is a sight to behold. Eager, charismatic, and deft, few big men move as gracefully as Lee does. He wrestles with intention, works a great promo, and knows the sheer physicality of his presence is more than enough to “sell” him in most cases — certainly, enough to earn an early career-defining moment at the 2020 Royal Rumble where he entered the ring with Brock Lesnar, who excitedly proclaimed Lee was a “big boy”.
Lee entered NXT in 2018 with a considerable amount of buzz, having been awarded with five stars from Dave Meltzer for a PWG match with Donovan Dijak, and having ranked in Pro Wrestling Illustrated‘s top 500 wrestlers of 2018, but it’s the hard work he’s been doing since, capitalizing on the ins-and-outs of ring work that he’s good at that makes it seem like Lee is finally ready to really “arrive”. The North American Championship is a good start, but for Lee it is very obviously only a start.
Much like Drew McIntyre, Shayna Baszler is a known quantity. An accomplished MMA fighter, a well-defined character between her Submission Magician and Queen of Spades gimmicks, and a two-time NXT Women’s Champion, Baszler was a name familiar to anyone plugged into the WWE Universe well before her recent biting attack on Becky Lynch.
So what qualifies her for this list? The ability, potential, and tenacity to become more than the sum of those parts with her pending main roster debut. The biggest complaint one can level against Shayna currently is that her promo work is weak, that she sounds like she’s reading someone else’s lines (because she is, but that’s neither here nor there). A high profile feud with Becky Lynch, arguably the most over star in WWE, will fix that, will provide an opportunity to develop character and ability in the very few areas that Shayna is lacking in, and provide a chance to show off even more of the legitimate athletic ability she posses in spades. Will she meet the challenges of a high profile WWE position? It sure seems like she’s ready to take a big bite out of everything WWE has to offer at the coming Elimination Chamber at the very least — they even let her say a naughty word on TV!
Profits are up! After a crowd favorite run in NXT from 2016-2019, Angelo Dawkins and Montez Ford are set to make a big impact on Monday Night Raw. A crowd endearing attitude, gimmick — we want the smoke! — and a seemingly bottomless well of charisma set these guys apart. Sure, Vince McMahon’s best idea for them right now seems to be a poor SNL imitation, but after seeing Angelo and Montez set the crowd alight at a recent house show and then the next night in a Raw spot setting up a feud with AOP, Murphy, and Seth Rollins — some of the most pushed wrestlers on the brand — I have no doubt that they will supersede that “funny promo” niche, capitalize on the opportunity to show off their enrapturing in-ring ability, and become fan and company favorites.
Angel Garza will be the 205 Live success story. A descendant of luchador family royalty (and cousin of Humberto Carillo), a charismatic character who vacillates wildly between face and heel but retains fan interest, and an incredibly adaptable and adept in-ring performer, Garza was always destined for a good main roster run. Especially now that he’s in the midst of a Rey Mysterio adjacent feud accompanied by Zelina Vega, two performers whose entire capacity in the company seems to be getting other roster mates over at this point. Just look to his unexpected, but incredibly well-recieved kiss with a fan on a recent Raw to see the raw charisma this guy is carrying around, waiting to hone his focus into a very good U.S. Championship run at least.
Fans have love for Luchasaurus and Marko Stunt, but Jungle Boy Jack Perry is the standout star in Jurassic Express. Chris Jericho is reportedly extremely impressed with the young Tarzan’s ability, noting that Perry is only 22 and has a lot of room, and the potential, to grow. He’s not wrong — Perry is enigmatic, expressive in the ring, and just getting started. The gimmick may seem limited, but it has provided Jungle Boy the opportunity most wrestlers yearn for: to simply try things with a safety net. Too weird? The dinosaur did it! Not weird enough? We’ll ramp it up!
Perry has set himself up well to explore just exactly what works for him and his stablemates. And, having held titles in Pro Wrestling Revolution and All Pro Wrestling already, he’s got the pedigree and confidence to carry on solo if needed, too. Companies don’t end matches in draws with their reigning champion unless they believe in the challenger — Perry is just that guy.
Darby Allin has paid the physical and promotional dues and is at worst, one good match away from really arriving if he hasn’t already. A self-made star, Allin’s performances across the board are enthralling, energetic, and downright dangerous in a way few professional wrestlers can really execute. Never seen a match where one wrestler has his hands taped behind his back? Allin did that. Never seen a skateboard or the dangerous enthusiasm pro skaters exude, actually used in the ring? Allin does that. And, he puts in the work to get over and improve all himself.
Relating stories ranging from cooking food on a George Foreman grill in Anytime Fitnesses while in the throes of wrestling training to pulling off death-defying skateboard stunts with two broken ankles for Tony Hawk on a recent Talk is Jericho episode, Allin proved that he has not only the ideas to become a household name, but also the tenacity. He films all his own vignettes, he stays up all night brainstorming new angles, he executes his finisher with aplomb, and he’s more ready than anyone to make it big on his own terms. AEW clearly wants to ride with in him, too, putting him up against the likes of Moxley, Jericho, and Rhodes with no hesitation.
Cassidy is arguably the most over wrestler in AEW, and he hardly ever wrestles. A no-frills character with enigmatic presence and the ability to turn an audience with as little as a thumbs-up, OC has the wrestling world’s attention in a sleeper hold. Or, maybe he’s just sleepy. Either way, there’s a kind of confidence about him that makes more sense when you find out he worked hard on the indie scene for more than a decade alongside the likes of Drew Gulak across Beyond Wrestling, Chikara, and more.
Possessing experience and expertise that few others in AEW have and being willing to wait, turn it on and off at a whim’s notice just buying time before one big pop, Cassidy knows what he’s doing and we’re just waiting to see him deliver. Heck, I was at a recent Raw taping and more people were dressed up as OC than Roman Reigns. No tag team with Jake Hager though, please.
Britt Baker is AEW’s most obvious work-in-progress, but she’s making strides quick. After middling debut as a dentist who wrestles and not much else and an even worse initial attempt at a heel turn on the Jericho Cruise, Baker has found her stride. She called out Riho for being an absentee champion, she told a Texas crowd they had “chubby Whataburger faces”, and she stepped up her in-ring presence with a live tooth extraction. In a way, it’s exciting to see AEW play it by the seat of their pants. A great number of their roster debuted with strong heel or face angles, gimmicks, exhaustive fame, and buzz. Comparatively, while Baker was an accomplished independent scene wrestler, it seemed like she never really found herself — we’re watching it happen now with all the highs and lows that brings.
Tapping into the inherent fear everyone has of going to the dentist seems like as good a bet as any.
While Statlander’s alien gimmick is palpably underdeveloped, her ring presence isn’t. The first female graduate of the Create A Pro Wrestling Academy, Statlander finds herself alongside Allin, Baker, and Jungle Boy as a wrestler with tremendous potential and the energy to make it happen. Ranked among the best female wrestlers of 2019 Pro Wrestling Illustrated and Sports Illustrated, Statlander captures audience and critics’ attention with in-ring inventiveness, a playful attitude (boop!), and extreme athleticism — nothing to balk at.
The only thing that seems off: her wonky character work, neither here nor there, and not much more than a bewildered gaze at best, is in the best place possible to grow and succeed. AEW is willing to take chances WWE simply wouldn’t. They’re willing to let an alien come face-to-face with the brand manager of the company, willing to provide the room for performers to try things and fail, and to grow with the support of stars like Jericho and Cody Rhodes, who have both professed their faith in her. At worst, she’ll simply drop the gimmick if it doesn’t take off. At best, she’ll become as enigmatic and enthralling a character as Orange Cassidy himself.
Brodie Lee (Luke Harper)
Now, this one isn’t as sure-fire as Darby Allin or the very-likely-debuting-soon Matt Hardy, but damn the potential is exciting. After languishing under WWE 2012-2019 as little more than a Wyatt Family member, a Bludgeon Brother and worse, Luke Harper — or should we say Brodie Lee? — is free. As AEW lacks truly big men, and Lee looks for new freedom and control over his character, it feels practically kismet that the two will meet soon. Get him in there against the likes of PAC, Wardlow, and Jake Hager as soon as his no competes clause ends in March and I’ll die happy. Across WWE, Chikara, 2CW, ROH, and Dragon Gate, Lee has paid the dues, AEW will likely let him collect the check.
While we like to talk and write about wrestling here at AIPT a lot, we don’t have all the time in the world for debates about things, pops, or angles that haven’t happened yet, or seem less likely than those above. With that in mind, here’s a shortlist of honorable mentions from each televised company that has our curiosity, but maybe not our attention just yet.
WWE: Aleister Black, Lio Rush, Dakota Kai, Tegan Nox
AEW: Adam Page, Sonny Kiss, Luchasaurus and Marko Stunt
What do you think? Any obvious standouts we missed? Strong feelings about all the pro-wrestling pontificating above? Sound off in the comments or join us via the details below!
Do you love wrestling? Do you have strong opinions on AEW, WWE, NJPW, Impact, ROH, and the independent scene? Do you like to write about wrestling? Then we want you on our team. AIPT is currently recruiting wrestling writers. Apply to write for AIPT today!
Like what we do here at AIPT? Consider supporting us and independent comics journalism by becoming a patron today! In addition to our sincere thanks, you can browse AIPT ad-free, gain access to our vibrant Discord community of patrons and staff members, get trade paperbacks sent to your house every month, and a lot more. Click the button below to get started!