One of the big complaints about WWE that I see is that they haven't been able to properly build new stars for the future. They rely on their older talent too much, and when that doesn't work, they look to bring in even older names from the past to pop a television rating or two.
TNA, at various points of their existence, has seen similar complaints lobbed in their direction, with people saying the company would rather push wrestlers from WWE's “trash pile” than create their own homegrown stars.
There is a lot of truth in both sets of complaints, folks. They aren't always true, but it's pretty easy to look at history and see repeated instances of the “old guard” being pushed over the “new guard”, even when fans were chomping at the bit to see the new talent take over.
With that said, it's not as though the future of pro wrestling is completely hopeless. I've been scouring the web and doing my fair share of research on the future, and it actually looks pretty bright. In my research, I have compiled a list of 30 wrestlers from various corners of the world. Some are male, and some are female. Some are already on the biggest stages of the business, while others are trying to work their way up to those levels. What every single person on this list has in common, though, is that they are under the age of 30 years old, and that they are, to varying degrees, the future of the industry. To make it easy to keep track of, I had to set a time cutoff. Therefore, these people can be turning 30 very soon, but they're eligible for the list as long as they are 29 or younger as of January 1st, 2017.
Feel free to put them in whatever order of “brightness” you would like, but for my column, I'm merely listing them from oldest to youngest, so don't complain if your favorite isn't at the top. Are we all caught up now? Good. Let's get to moving.
Becky Lynch (Born on January 30th, 1987): There is so much focus placed on the women of Raw, but if we're being honest with each other, Becky is a better in-ring performer than any of Raw's women. She may be working with a “lesser” talent pool on Smackdown, but that allows her to shine brighter and not get lost in the mix. Thus far, she has helped to bring out the best in Alexa Bliss, showing her veteran side in their feud. That could be a very good spot for Becky on the Blue Brand, even if it's just for a brief period.
Kyle O'Reilly (Born on March 1st, 1987): When I first saw O'Reilly wrestle, it was in the middle of the “era” where it seemed like every other indy wrestler had some sort of MMA influenced in-ring style. A lot of it almost blended together, and that made it difficult for some of them to stand out, O'Reilly included. Experience, experience, and more experience has really paid off for him, though. He still uses a similar style, but his time wrestling around the world has helped him tremendously. He's been successful in both tag team action (teaming with Bobby Fish to form reDRagon) and singles work (winning the PWG World Title in 2014 and holding the the RoH World Championship as of the end of 2016), and it seems like his “name” is only now blowing up, making it a huge possibility that his 2017 is huge.
Bray Wyatt (Born on May 23rd, 1987): It's crazy to think that he's been with WWE in one gimmick or another for nearly eight years now, signing his very first contract at the age of 21. The Wyatt character has had so much potential, but losing every “big” match you have tends to put the kibosh on that pretty quickly. With Randy Orton involved with the Wyatt Family for the time being, Bray looks as strong as he ever has, getting his first taste of WWE gold (silver, but you get the point) by becoming one-third of the Smackdown Tag Team Champions at TLC. There is a lot of buzz surrounding his name for 2017 now, with people predicting things like “Royal Rumble winner” or “Money In The Bank briefcase holder” for his future.
Zack Sabre Jr (Born on July 24th, 1987): Perhaps the best technical wrestler on the planet right now, Sabre has been a very hot commodity in recent years. He's been wrestling all over the world, putting on an endless string of solid matches against opponents of all types, including a wrestling nerd's dream come true against Kurt Angle in England for Revolution Pro Wrestling. A couple weeks later, Sabre was a participant in the Cruiserweight Classic, instantly becoming the favorite to win. He didn't win, of course, but making it to the semi-finals allowed him to showcase his in-ring style to a new group of fans. If he's already this skilled in the ring, imagine how good he could be in, say, five years if he can stay away from injuries.
Johnny Gargano (Born on August 14th, 1987): Before Gargano signed with WWE, he was viewed as one of the more solid in-ring talents on the independent scene. He was someone that could succeed in anything he did, albeit without having to be too flashy. While it appears that he has stepped his game up for the “big time”, he's still one of those wrestlers who is good at everything he does, while not being great at any of it. That's not a knock on him at all. Being a well-rounded worker is far from a bad thing. His tag team with Tommaso Ciampa has been setting NXT on fire, having multiple Match Of The Year candidates with The Revival, and they don't appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
Apollo Crews (Born on August 22nd, 1987): Perhaps the most underutilized man on the entire WWE roster, Crews seems to go back-and-forth between mini-pushes a lot. It'll look like he's in line for an actual push, then he'll disappear, only to reappear a few weeks later and start the whole thing over again. As I mentioned in a previous column, I would like it if the Smackdown writers could develop some sort of character for him, because that's all he's missing right now. Most people are calling for a heel turn, but it doesn't have to be one. As long as he is given a reason to go out there and do what he does, his skills are more than enough to shine.
Kazuchika Okada (Born on November 8th, 1987): If you're going to make a list of the top names WWE should look to add to their roster, Okada needs to be at the top, or else I'm not going to take you seriously. The stereotypical Japanese wrestler is on the smaller side, but Okada is 6'3” and weighs 235 pounds, making him in between Dean Ambrose and Randy Orton on the size scale, and those two guys are never portrayed as “small”. Like Shinsuke Nakamura, Okada possesses a kind of natural charisma and showmanship that transcends language, which would allow him to get over anywhere without having to own a perfect grasp of the local language. Oh, and there's the whole “nobody on the planet has had more four-or-more-star matches in the last few years than him” thing, too, which is pretty important. To be this good at such an early age is crazy. He could be around for 15 more years if things fall his way. Even scarier? You could say he hasn't peaked as a performer yet. He's only 29 years old. If you want to compare it to other people, Shawn Michaels was 29 in 1994, and it's pretty easy to say he had yet to reach his prime then. Ric Flair was 29 in 1978, a full 11 years before a lot of people say he had his single best year as a pro. If he can avoid injuries and complacency, Okada might have a brighter future than anyone on this list.
Sanada (Born on January 28th, 1988): Sanada is an interesting selection to me. Some fans might remember him from his year spent wrestling for TNA. His highlights there included a run as the X-Division Champion that lasted nearly four months, and a weird story where he turned on The Great Muta to side with James Storm and become The Great Sanada for a little bit. However, his time before TNA, when he wrestled for All Japan Pro Wrestling, was very successful, including four different title reigns. Now that he is working for New Japan as part of the dastardly Los Ingobernables de Japon stable, his stock is rising, especially with New Japan being on the lookout for new names to push up the ranks after losing so many people in the past year-plus.
Marty Scurll (Born on July 26th, 1988): A new generation of British wrestling has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, and one of the people at the forefront of that movement is “The Villain”. He has taken his trade all around the world, leaving a trail of memorable matches behind. His work in America, first with PWG and now Ring Of Honor, has been drawing rave reviews. He's really picking up momentum in America, winning PWG's legendary Battle Of Los Angeles tournament in September, and then winning the RoH Television title two months later. That is further opening the eyes of fans who are new to him and his work, and his 2017 looks like it's going to be something special.
Ember Moon (Born on August 31st, 1988): Ember has almost become the “forgotten woman” on the WWE roster. The main roster women get a lot of the hype, as they should, but when discussion turns to NXT, Asuka gets almost all of the attention. First of all, that's a shame, even if it's just for the fact that Ember's Eclipse is one of the most incredible finishing moves in wrestling. As one of the only legit contenders for Asuka's NXT Women's Title, their paths are going to cross. Most assume that Asuka will be called up to the main roster before long, which might leave the door open for Ember to become the top priority in NXT in 2017.
Jason Jordan (Born on September 28th, 1988): As I have said in a previous column, Jordan has a bigger and brighter future than his tag team partner, Chad Gable. He's got more of a “WWE look”, and his combination of size, strength, speed, athletic ability, and amateur wrestling background probably has Vince McMahon salivating. American Alpha kind of came out of nowhere (in the sense that they weren't booked all that well to start) to win the Smackdown Tag Team Titles, ending their 2016 on a high note. It remains to be seen, however, if they can truly connect with live crowds every week like they did when they were in NXT. If they do, and I believe they can, then they can go down as one of the better teams of this generation. They're that good. They can step in the ring with any type of tag team and put on a good match. Because they're a tag team in WWE, though... wait until the inevitable split, where Jordan could REALLY shine, especially if he turns heel on Gable.
Ricochet (Born on October 11th, 1988): There have been a lot of great high-fliers in wrestling history, many of whom possessed a tremendous amount of athletic ability as they soared through the skies. In Ricochet, you have someone who, it can be argued, is better than any of them. The types of things he does in a wrestling ring seem to defy any law of physics imaginable. He's been rumored to be on WWE's radar for a couple years now, but even without being there, he is a huge star worldwide, winning titles in the United States, Japan, and England. Whether you've seen him as Ricochet, or as Prince Puma in Lucha Underground, it's difficult to watch him wrestle and not have him leave a lasting memory in your head.
Kento Miyahara (Born on February 27th, 1989): New Japan gets most of the publicity in the world of Puroresu, and for good reason, but there's more to the sport than just what they deliver. Over in All Japan, Miyahara has been the promotion's top guy for all of 2016, holding the Triple Crown Heavyweight Title since February. He's the youngest man to ever hold that prestigious title, which goes back to 1989 and has seen some of Japan's most legendary wrestlers win it. His current reign is already the ninth longest in its lineage. It's not as if he's keeping the title with bad matches, either. He hasn't had anything below “good” since winning the title, and with six successful title defenses, he's a fighting champion, having defended it more than any Triple Crown Champion since Satoshi Kojima, who held the title for nearly a year-and-a-half in 2005-2006. There is a lot of added pressure on his shoulders, because he's a potential life saver for a promotion that has been going through some tough times in recent years. Giving him this push has created a new star, and it has helped business out in a time when they desperately needed it. Because of that, there's always the concern that he'll eventually “jump ship” to a bigger and more stable company, but for the time being, All Japan will continue to utilize him in the current fashion and hope for continued success.
Bayley (Born on June 15th, 1989): She has the potential to be a game-changing character for WWE. Her ability to connect with the younger audience is very John Cena-like, and that can only continue to open doors that the “Women's Revolution” has already begun to open. Early rumor is that the company wants to have her win the Raw Women's Championship at WrestleMania 33, which is as big an honor as you can get these days. It could be the “start” of an epic career, with plenty of time potentially left ahead of her.
Adam Cole (Born on July 5th, 1989): In basketball, whenever an incredibly talented prospect comes along, he's often given the label of being the “next Michael Jordan”. In wrestling, a lot of the incredibly talented prospects are given the label of being the “next Shawn Michaels”. In 2013, Adam Cole was being referred to as the “next Shawn Michaels” all over the internet. He held the Ring Of Honor World Title and the Pro Wrestling Guerrilla World Title at the same time, and was putting on Match Of The Year candidates seemingly everywhere he went. Fast forward to the here and now, and Cole may actually have more buzz, because he's becoming a more well-rounded performer and has been picking up experience in Japan. He's one of those people that fans know will be in WWE one day, and it's only a matter of when.
Cedric Alexander (Born on August 16th, 1989): His performance in the Cruiserweight Classic nearly had him “made” from the beginning. He can wrestle well in multiple different styles, and as an added bonus, he's just under WWE's weight limit for the Cruiser division, meaning he can still work with non-Cruiser opponents in the future and not look like he doesn't “belong”, now that a lot of the main roster talents in WWE aren't larger-than-life like they used to be. Honestly, he isn't being used the way a lot of people thought he would be to this point, but in the interest of fairness, that can be said about pretty much every single one of the Cruiserweights since the CWC ended. I do feel that the aforementioned size comparison to the main roster will be valuable to Alexander moving forward, though, giving him one of the better advantages that any of the Cruiser guys has.
Andrade Almas (Born on November 3rd, 1989): The “catch” here is that Almas went from being one of the biggest names in all of Lucha Libre (wrestling as La Sombra in Mexico's CMLL promotion) to being a middle-of-the-pack guy, at best, in NXT, so many people feel his future is only bright if he returns to Mexico. Personally, I feel that it's a little early for that kind of talk, especially now that Almas has turned heel and is winning more matches than he was before the turn. He was even included in NXT's recent Fatal Four Way to crown a new #1 Contender for the NXT World Title. His talent level is just too high for him to be held down for long. Now that he's gotten a bit of his swagger back, I'm thinking that he's going to be in line for a big push in 2017. He could take another step up in NXT, especially if we see some more big names called to the main roster, or he could make the jump straight to the Cruiserweight division and shine there.
Hiromu Takahashi (Born on December 4th, 1989): Perhaps better known as Kamaitachi, Takahashi is an exciting high-flying talent from Japan that has spent a considerable amount of time working in Mexico for CMLL. This has allowed him to pick up different styles of aerial offense, making him fluent in the Japanese style as well as in pure Lucha Libre. He has been seeing a lot of internet buzz due to his feud with Dragon Lee (more on him later), which has seen them face off in rings for CMLL, New Japan, as well as for Ring Of Honor. If you're the kind of person who cares about these things, Dave Meltzer gave three of their matches 4.5 stars (12/4/15 in CMLL, 1/24/16 in New Japan, and then 3 /4/16 in CMLL), and another one 3.75 stars (9/30/16 in Ring Of Honor). They have crazy chemistry together, and a lot of it is due to that blend of styles that Takahashi has. As the newest member of Los Ingobernables de Japon, and with a match at Wrestle Kingdom 11 against Kushida for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title (that will air after this column is completed), more attention is being paid to Takahashi than ever before, and he seems ready to showcase exactly what he can do.
Jack Gallagher (Born on January 7th, 1990): Some say he's one of the best things going in WWE right now, Cruiser division or otherwise. Some say he's more of an acquired taste, with his VERY old school style being so jarring from what a lot of fans are used to these days. Either way, he stands out, and that's what matters. He's also currently being given time on television to display a personality, which is something that none of the other under-205 guys are getting to do. People will underestimate just how important that is. While you can't exactly picture Gallagher getting a huge push beyond the Cruiser division, he should remain a very integral part of what we see on Raw and 205 Live every week moving forward.
Fenix (Born on December 30th, 1990): With three full seasons of Lucha Underground to work with, you could look at the entire catalog and say that Fenix has been the promotion's most consistent performer, if not it's overall best. Delivering the Lucha in Lucha Underground, I don't recall seeing a bad match that he's had against anyone. That kind of excitement and style is reminiscent of WCW-era Rey Mysterio Jr, when you'd see Rey on television and pay-per-view and know you were in for a great show, no matter who he was facing. I'm not saying Fenix is as good as Mysterio is/was, nor am I saying Fenix will go on to have the same level of success that Mysterio has had. I am saying that the template is definitely there, and that Fenix has the necessary tools to follow the same roads that Mysterio did.
Rich Swann (Born on February 15th, 1991): Like the aforementioned Jack Gallagher, it's good that Rich Swann has such a bright personality that he gets to show off whenever he's on television. He's the fun-loving guy that knows how to flip the proverbial switch in the ring when he needs to. He likes to dance and enjoy himself all night long, and that is already more than the company has given to TJ Perkins (other than “I used to be homeless and I dab for no reason”) and THE Brian Kendrick (other than “I used to wrestle here a while back”). He even has a good backstory for whenever the company wants to play that card and show how he's overcome obstacles in his life, as well. In a sometimes sad and depressing Cruiserweight scene, Swann has been a bright spot and will continue to be one into 2017.
Alexa Bliss (Born on August 9th, 1991): The following statement isn't hyperbole at all, folks... Alexa may have better control over her facial expressions than anyone that has ever been involved in the pro wrestling industry. She is capable of showing several emotions in a single promo, without actually having to say a word. When she's cutting a promo, just watch her entire face, but especially do so when she's on screen while someone she's feuding with is cutting a promo. Her eyes and the faces she makes respond to anything said before her mouth ever gets a chance to. There are trained actors in Hollywood who don't have that kind of range. As far as her in-ring skills are concerned, she has showed continued growth since debuting in NXT. When she was called up to the main roster, some felt it was too soon, considering she went ahead of Bayley and Asuka. Not only has she proven that she belongs, but she is right there with Becky Lynch as the best of the women on Smackdown. As the current Smackdown Women's Champion, all eyes are on her heading into the new year.
Sasha Banks (Born on January 26th, 1992): She might be the biggest wild card of anyone on this list. Right now, she's incredibly over, and is having a really good year. She's someone who is passionate about what she does, and she has the potential to go down as one of the greatest women in the history of pro wrestling. On the other hand, her body type and her determination to “hang” with the guys on the roster could make it so that she doesn't exactly have the longest future. Injuries and pain are a part of the business, without question, but some people deal with those things more than others. If Sasha can stay away from anything too major and nagging, you could argue that her future is brighter than just about anyone on this list.
Pete Dunne (Born on January 31st, 1993): When WWE announced their tournament to crown the first ever United Kingdom Champion, the first participant that stood out to me was Pete Dunne. Admittedly, some of you reading know a lot more about the wrestling scene in the United Kingdom than I do, but Dunne's work has already impressed me in what I've seen of it. I dig his self-titled “Bruiserweight” style, which tends to focus more on the strikes and hard-hitting action, instead of the aerial offense that a lot of wrestlers his size like to use. This is the third time WWE has reached out to him (he lost to Jack Gallagher in a qualifying match for the CWC, and was part of a recent group tryout in the UK), so someone with some kind of “stroke” with the company seems to be a fan of his, as well. That can only mean good things, you would think. The fact that PWG brought him in for their Battle Of Los Angeles tournament last year is also a tremendous sign that his star is on the rise. If you've never seen him work, the United Kingdom Championship tournament will be a fun introduction for you.
Will Ospreay (Born on May 7th, 1993): Earlier, I mentioned that Ricochet may be one of the greatest high-fliers in wrestling history. However, there is a certain portion of wrestling fans who feel that Ricochet isn't even the best aerialist in wrestling today... Will Ospreay is. After getting his start training at a Lucha Libre school in London, Ospreay has gone on to skyrocket up the ladder, wrestling all over the world and wowing fans with his elite athleticism and lack of fear for his own safety. With less than five years of experience, all he has to do is stay relatively healthy. That is already an issue, though. He already has issues with concussions, a separated shoulder, slipped discs in his spine, as well as sciatica. If he can find a way around his injury issues, there is no doubt that he will only continue to grow as a worker, with WWE already having him on their radar.
Akam (Born on May 20th, 1993): Even when you talk to people who watch NXT regularly, not much is known about Akam or his tag team partner, Rezar. They're big, bad dudes. That much is clear. But they actually bring more to the table than that. Akam is an accomplished amateur wrestler from Canada, who was in competition for the Olympic Games twice, losing in the qualification round for 2012 and walking away from the sport in 2014 to sign a WWE contract before the 2016 qualifications took place. Now that he's one-half of the Authors Of Pain team, people are beginning to take notice. He's still incredibly raw, but he has a solid base to work with. On top of that, it's not like there isn't history of tag teams similar to this finding success. Look no further than AOP's manager, Paul Ellering, who managed two big, bad dudes who weren't going to put on technical classics, but still won their matches because they were going to beat the holy hell out of their opponents. It's easy to make the AOP/Road Warriors comparison because of Ellering, and it's blasphemy to say they're the same, but come on, there are parallels to be made. Based on nothing but history alone, Akam and Rezar have plenty of potential to be successful. They're in the middle of getting their biggest push in NXT, so it could only be a matter of time before that potential is realized.
Noam Dar (Born on July 28th, 1993): Yes, he's involved in a dumb storyline with Cedric Alexander and Alicia Fox right now, but hey, at least it's getting him on television every week, right? I'm not surprised that Dar is in a storyline involving a woman, though. During the CWC, you would always see women on social media posting about how good looking they thought he was, and so on. If you have someone on your roster that gets that kind of attention, why wouldn't you involve them in a story with a woman, even if it's him being overly creepy towards one? As I've said, he's a Cruiserweight that is getting to show some sort of personality, which means he gets to stand out a bit. At only 23, he's one of the youngest people on the WWE roster, even though he has eight years of pro experience. It's a safe bet to expect bigger things in his future based on that.
Trevor Lee (Born on September 30th, 1993): When he first signed with TNA, I wasn't sure what to expect. I was already a fan of his independent work, but I didn't know if he'd be able to find success with TNA. I was worried that he'd be lost in the mix. Three weeks after his debut, he and Brian Myers (better known as Curt Hawkins) won the TNA Tag Team Titles. Sure, they lost the titles a week later, but the fact of the matter is that they won in the first place. A few months later, he won the X-Division Title and actually held that belt for four months. Now that he's a member of The Helms Dynasty (with Andrew Everett, managed by Shane Helms), he's getting a lot more shine and television time due to the Broken Matt Hardy story (Lee and Everett were both trained by Matt and Jeff Hardy). That time is letting the “Carolina Caveman” show not only his skills in the ring, but his comedic chops, as well. You need some of those comedic skills when you're involved in such over-the-top ridiculousness as we've seen with TNA in recent months. Rumors are that TNA will be allowing Matt Hardy to have more creative freedom in 2017 (if he re-signs with them), so one would assume that people like Trevor Lee will get a boost from that.
Rezar (Born on June 16th, 1994): While his tag partner brings an amateur wrestling background to the table, Rezar brings MMA experience, having six professional fights (four victories). Like Akam, Rezar is still what you would consider a raw prospect, but he's been a pro wrestler for less than a year. He has plenty of time to continue growing. Pro wrestling history is littered with tag teams like the Authors Of Pain, and almost all of those teams found some level of success in their time together. This is exactly the type of team that has to make Vince McMahon happy, as he envisions them going to the ring and destroying any and everything that stands in their way. As long as they continue to pick up the little things and get more experience, there's no telling how successful they could end up being. Maybe they'll win titles like the Road Warriors did. Maybe they'll end up being more like The Ascension. Who knows?
Lio Rush (Born on November 11th, 1994): I'll be the first to admit... I had never heard of Lio Rush before December of 2015, when Ring Of Honor announced him as one of the competitors in its Top Prospect Tournament for 2016. I did some research on him before the tournament and two things immediately stuck out. One, his size. He's billed as 5'6” and 160 pounds. Two, his experience. Going into the TPT, he had only been a pro wrestler for a year. I watched some highlights, and I saw someone who could fly around the ring, but someone who could also take things to the mat, as I would later find out he was an All-American amateur wrestler in high school. He would go on to win the TPT and sign a contract with RoH, and his journey is really underway. When you watch his matches, you can actually see him getting better and better. The fact that he's only been a pro wrestler for two years now means that he has all the time in the world to continue improving. He just turned 22. Keep him away from injuries, and you have the potential for a really entertaining career here.
Dragon Lee (Born on May 15th, 1995): The man is 21 years old. 21. That's it. With just two years of pro experience, he's still a relative baby to this wrestling thing. Earlier, I made a semi-comparison between Fenix and early-era Rey Mysterio Jr, but the real comparison for Rey Rey might be Dragon Lee. When Rey was 21 years old, he was fresh off of a brief run in ECW, where he opened the eyes of so many wrestling fans who saw him do things they had never seen anyone else do. Also at 21, Rey debuted for WCW, and the rest is history. CMLL seems to have given Dragon Lee the ball for him to run with, and he's already off to a fantastic start. The aforementioned feud with Kamaitachi is going to end up being legendary on multiple continents. Again, I'm not saying this man is the “next Rey Mysterio” or anything like that. That would be foolish at such an early point in his career, but if anyone has the potential for it, it might be him.
Before anyone says it... yes, there are 31 names on this list, but I'm making the executive decision of placing Akam and Rezar together. They're a tag team, and we don't know much about them at all yet. Where one goes, so does the other. For now, think of them as a single entry.
Did I miss out on anyone? There were a bunch of names I had to eliminate at the last minute for whatever reason, so your lists could very well have them included. Who would you add to the list, and who would you remove from it? Hit me up on Twitter (@HustleTheSavage) or in the comments section to let me know. I look forward to hearing from you.