Monday night, the WWE will take an opportunity to reset and reload their storylines by redrafting the talent roster for Raw, Smackdown, and ECW. This is, in the opinion of a casual viewer, a very good idea - ratings are down, superstars are nonexistent, and raise your hand if you're hurt (Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Undertaker, Rey Mysterio, Booker T, Mr. Kennedy). So on Monday in an anything-goes draft, they'll have a chance to infuse some life into what's been a current down cycle in the WWE and build some momentum towards SummerSlam...
...but here, instead of trying to predict what direction the writers will go in for the tri-brand draft by relying on my rusty e-wrestling skills, we'll instead take this opportunity to take a look at who's still alive and kicking - even if injured - in today's WWE. So, as they write "fake" storylines for the draft, they're also writing "real" issues behind that in determing who is most valuable, most marketable, and the like - who are the breadwinners in today's WWE?
So this is a right now Top 25 - not who's had the best career or who's the most talented, but an overall power ranking of sorts for the 25 best wrestlers today. Injured superstars are included, but those who come and go are not (sorry Mick Foley, Steve Austin, and Hulk Hogan). Those on the cusp or rumored to be headed towards WWE in the near future are also not included (sorry Chris Jericho). That being said...away we go, in reverse order for pseudo-dramatic effect. These are the 25 names I would build wrestling around today, who I would draft if I had a say so. By the way, wikipedia is an excellent wrestling resource, and YouTube is an excellent way to waste a day watching old matches.
Career Highlights: WCW Television Champion, WWE United States Champion
You've got to give some credit to a 48 year old midcard mainstay. WWE knows what they're doing in playing him simple ("My name is Finlay, and I love to fight!"), and he's an easy heel for anyone on their way up as a face. He's just important enough to make the midcard and the Top 25.
Career Highlights: 5 time ECW Champion
Though not nearly as effective without Metallica behind him, Sandman is still an easy crowd pleaser in the line of Hacksaw Jim Duggan, in that he can walk to the ring with a cane and a beer and the people will love it every night for about 10 minutes. For that reason alone, he's valuable. They'd be stupid to take him out of ECW in the upcoming draft.
23. Elijah Burke
Career Highlights: none yet...
...but here's somebody that does need to be taken out of ECW. Burke is relatively young and has built a relative following as a heel on Tuesday nights, now they need to see what he can do on Raw or SmackDown. He's got the talent and charisma to go much farther than this, so you can call this a potential inclusion.
Career Highlights: WWE United States Champion (current)
Here's another guy who hasn't been around very long, but appears to be on the relative fast track to success in WWE. His feud with Benoit produced some decent wrestling, though he definitely needs some new in-ring attire to be taken more seriously. He is the current United States champ, but like Burke, he also has potential upside...
Career Highlights: WWE United States Champion, WWE Intercontinental Champion
Carlito is an example of an "almost" guy, who's been in a few main events and flirted with the next level, but never quite broke through. His current feud with Ric Flair may or may not have any shelf life, and beating Flair may not move you far up the ladder these days. He's got the charisma and the versatility to play both the face and the heel well, but may do better on a less crowded SmackDown. Again, potential.
20. Shelton Benjamin
Career Highlights: 2 time WWE Tag Team Champion, 3 time Intercontinental Champion
The victim of some bad gimmicks during his run, but immensely talented and fun to watch in the ring, Benjamin is another tweener. He's had three runs with the IC title and has scored pinfall victories over some of the bigger names in the company. Teamed with Charlie Haas, they are an effective tag team (two titles), but perhaps he's being wasted. He's been out of the big picture storylines for almost a year now - hopefully they can use the draft to bring him back in.
19. CM Punk
Career Highlights: none yet...
Another rising star, like Burke, who may be able to benefit more away from ECW. He's probably more likely to remain on Tuesday nights than Burke, because they still need ratings too. Rose quickly with fans and they teased a heel turn with him right after WrestleMania, but that didn't last. They need to use his momentum now to help him rise - if they get the ECW title off Bobby Lashley, he could easily wear it in the future...
18. Booker T
Career Highlights: 5 time, 5 time, 5 time, 5 time, 5 time WCW Champion...
WWE World Heavyweight Champion, 2006 King of the Ring, 14 time tag team champion
...and that's among others, as Booker has been around the block a time or three. Booker has been out for a couple months but is scheduled to return later this month. He can play the face and the heel (King Booker) very well, and has really been underrated throughout his career. You tend not to miss him until he's gone, but WWE could definitely use him right now in any capacity. I miss Harlem Heat.
17. The Great Khali
Career Highlights: none yet...
...at least no titles yet, but Khali has been the receipient of a major push on two occassions in just a little over a year, walking right into a favorable feud with The Undertaker upon entering the WWE, and then going round and round with John Cena here recently. There will always be a place for a giant in the WWE, and somewhere like ECW, Khali could really dominate. The translator/no mic skills will only work for so long, and Khali isn't good enough to hold either of the two major titles. ECW could benefit from him, or he's always a physical threat against any good face.
16. Jeff Hardy
Career Highlights: 3 time Intercontinental Champion, 7 time Tag Team Champion
At times better alone, at time better with brother Matt, Hardy is still crazy enough and entertaining enough to be a solid upper-midcard draw. He's never going to be world champion - at least no time soon - but Hardy is always great fodder for someone like Khali, and is yet another name that could go farther somewhere like ECW.
Career Highlights: WWE Intercontinental Championship
While Umaga has the same lack of communication as Khali and isn't as physically imposing, he makes up for it with sheer aggressiveness, and has also received major pushes, competing with Cena for the title at the Royal Rumble, and being front and center in the Vince McMahon/Donald Trump ordeal at WrestleMania. This is yet another guy that won't be holding the world title, but is solid as a heel and has come along way since his days in 3 Minute Warning.
14. Mr. Kennedy
Career Highlights: WWE United States Champion, 2007 Money in the Bank winner Kennedy has grown on me recently, at least up until his most recent injury. His gimmick might need tweaking to get him to the next step, but he's got the charisma and the talent to go to the next level. He's been involved in big money feuds already with Undertaker and Bobby Lashley, and was in line to get a huge push after winning the Money in the Bank match at WrestleMania, but a triceps injury currently has him out. Can be a nice addition to any brand upon return.
Career Highlights: WWE Champion, 10 time Tag Team Champion
Kane, who is among the last generation of superstars to cross the 40 year old barrier, is still a viable force in any brand. But to me, he hasn't been as effective with the mask off. He got totally jobbed at WrestleMania by Khali, and the more big bodies that are around (Taker, Khali, Snitsky) the less effective Kane is without the hellfire and brimstone gimmick. While I'll agree that parts of that may have run their course, he's just not complete without them. Still, he's one of the fewer and fewer guys left that people who tuned in to watch Austin and Rock will still remember today, which gives him value. And he's always good for a feud with Undertaker.
12. Chris Benoit
Career Highlights: WWE World Heavyweight Champion, 2004 Royal Rumble winner
...and, aside from a legion of WCW titles, Benoit is also a WWE Triple Crown winner and another name that fans from 5-10 years ago would still know today. Benoit is also 40, but can still go. His day in the sun as a main eventer may have passed, but team him with someone and he can get the job done. It's hard to have him be a superface or a great heel, he just doesn't draw enough from the fans either way. Still, they don't come much more solid than the Wolverine.
11. Ric Flair
Career Highlights: 16 time World Champion
The Nature Boy is 58 years old, and can't have much more in the tank as far as in-ring performance goes. Maybe one more WrestleMania, or two to get to 25, we'll see. As an aside, no matter how "boring" the in-ring action might be, whoever thinks it's not a good idea to get Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair to lock up at WrestleMania 24 or 25, and that people wouldn't love every second of it...well, I hope none of those people are working for WWE. Flair still gets in the ring and dances, still wrestles fairly regularly, and has been involved with Carlito of late. He's also incredibly valuable with others (The Four Horsemen, Evolution) and will always be one of the best in the game on the mic. Ric Flair could wrestle once a month, and he'd still be worth this spot.
10. Rob Van Dam
Career Highlights: WWE Champion, ECW Champion
RVD is also one of only six men to have won the Grand Slam (WWE, Tag, Intercontinental, Euro). His status at the moment is unclear, due to injury and contract negotiations, but since he's still with WWE as of this blog, he counts. RVD got his moment in the sun last year by winning the title from John Cena last May, though he didn't hold it long. He got close to being a consistent main eventer several times over the last few years, but never quite got there. Still, Van Dam is always exciting and will always have fan support, and is still valuable in the WWE.
9. Rey Mysterio
Career Highlights: WWE World Heavyweight Champion, 8 time Cruiserweight Champion
Due back from injury soon, Mysterio is another easy face who can fly around the ring and get fan support. He was able to get to the main event better than RVD and held the World Heavyweight Championship for four months last year. He may never be a consistent main event superstar, but Mysterio will be a fan favorite again when he returns, and thus quite valuable to Raw/Smackdown.
8. Bobby Lashley
Career Highlights: 2 time ECW Champion (current), WWE United States Champion
The biggest problem with Bobby Lashley is that he smiles too much. His mic skill leave room for improvement no doubt, but he's quite the physical force and needs to wear a personality as dominant as his in-ring performance. He and Batista are really the only current superstars in WWE capable of this sort of physical dominance. He got the push and the win for Donald Trump at WrestleMania. Down the road, Lashley can easily become a Raw/Smackdown main eventer and win the big belts - he's still relatively young at 30. If he toughens up and gets out of ECW, he'll have his shot.
7. John Cena
Career Highlights: 3 time WWE Champion (current)
The problems with John Cena are well documented, but they're not all his own. Cena struggles to be THE face of the company, because right now it lacks a dominant heel - someone good enough to win the title and keep it for a lengthy period, and someone who you simply love to hate. As a result, when you put Cena against relative newcomers (Umaga, Khali) or against those without enough heat to sustain it (Booker), or against another face (HBK), he's not going to get the unconditional love from the fans. An excellent question here is, after this 18 month reign as the strained superface of the company, could he become an effective heel? There's lots of fans, especially the smart ones, who don't like him already. And here's the other problem: who's out there for him to take down to make people hate him? And again, the lack of surrounding talent hurts him - there's no one that's popular enough with the fans for Cena to backstab and attack that would make that much of a difference. When Steve Austin turned heel, he had to attack The Rock, side with Vince McMahon, and then attack Jim Ross to seal the deal before people really started to actually dislike his character. Cena, of course, isn't Austin and is booed 50/50 when he gets in the ring with another face like HBK. But this current path isn't getting it done for Cena. And I don't want to see Cena vs. Triple H at WrestleMania next year, because we've not only done that before, but Cena doesn't have the face pull to make that an even matchup. He's getting stale and needs something new. He's got the charisma and enough talent to stay in the main event, he just needs some help.
Career Highlights: 2 time WWE Champion, World Heavyweight Champion (current)
Edge is also a WWE record 12 time tag team champion. You may not realize it, but Edge has been in the main event spotlight for the better part of four years now, and has been involved in some memorable feuds and big money matches. Of all the current superstars, Edge might be my non-DX favorite. He doesn't have a stupid gimmick, he's an effective heel but still comes across like an everyman, he's very driven and very talented. I liked his feud with John Cena last year, and there could be potential there down the road. Edge is a main eventer and should continue to do so, and while he's not on legendary status with the likes of HBK and HHH, he may be by the time he's done. All around solid, I wish the fans appreciated him more.
Career Highlights: 2 time World Heavyweight Champion
Batista, who also draws mixed reactions from some fans, though much less so than John Cena, has been the PWI Wrestler of the Year back in 2005, and, along with Lashley, is among the last of the truly physically dominant performers in the WWE. His personality lacks the charisma of Cena, but that hasn't been a problem for others in his mold like Goldberg or Brock Lesnar. Still, he's a powerhouse that will always be in the main event conversation on Raw or Smackdown. He lacks the mic skills and the current longevity to make him a legend, but he's valuable, no doubt.
4. Randy Orton
Career Highlights: World Heavyweight Champion, Intercontinental Champion
Among the WWE superstars on the current roster who weren't around in the late 90s during the WWE's peak, Randy Orton has the brightest future. He's the youngest (only 27 - and did you know he was born in Knoxville?!) and has been in and around the main event for years. He held the Intercontinental belt for seven months in 2003. He's been in feuds with Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley (and The Rock by proxy at WrestleMania XX), Triple H at the disbanding of Evolution, Undertaker, and even Hulk Hogan. His real life self-destructive behavior has gotten him in trouble more than once, and has perhaps kept him from ascending even higher. Batista, Edge, and Cena have all held more belts than Orton, but perhaps Orton has been involved in the most high profile angles. If his personal life stays straight, Orton - who can function well as a face and even better as a heel - can become one of the definitive faces of this company for the next decade. There's a lot riding on him.
3. Shawn Michaels
Career Highlights: 4 time World Champion
The Showstopper, The Icon, The Main Event...HBK is currently sidelined with knee surgery (sold as a concussion on TV) and should be back in November. Even at 41, Michaels is still, without question, the best in-ring performer in WWE, and is arguably the best in-ring performer in wrestling history. Put Shawn Michaels in the main event, and he will deliver. HBK is in a weird place, because he got hurt in January 98 and was put out of action for four years right at the genesis of the "Attitude" era in WWE that saw the rise of Austin and Rock (and Triple H in HBK's absence), and by the time he returned in August 02, the steam was running out of the machine. So the younger fans who love Stone Cold and Rock-E are less warm to HBK, have no idea what the heel HBK was like, only know what they read about Montreal (10 years in November, believe it or not), and in DX's most recent incarnation, saw HBK as the humorous sidekick to Triple H. And, even as a huge HBK mark, I'll admit that Shawn isn't at the top of his game unless he's going against someone at the top of theirs. It's not that Shawn isn't complete without Bret Hart, but that he needs someone who will rise to the occasion the way Bret Hart did to make him the very best. Undertaker and Triple H have been that foil at different times, but the face vs. face matchup with John Cena didn't really provide it. No matter what, HBK will always be at or near the top of lists like these as long as he's physically able to compete. When you watch Shawn Michaels, you're watching something special.
2. The Undertaker
Career Highlights: 5 time World Champion
Taker's not young either, though just a year older than Michaels at 42. But he's been around the block longer than anyone, making his debut way back at Survivor Series 1990. And especially at WrestleMania time, where Taker is 15-0 and the kids mark out, Taker is money in the bank. He's at his best the way he was before he got hurt - playing the silent deadman with the bells and the smoke and the chanting. He could never carry the company by himself, though really only Hogan, Austin and Rock have been able to pull that one off. But, like HBK but for different reasons, as long as he's still competing, he will be at or near the top of these lists. The older the wrestling fan, the greater the appreciation for the Deadman.
1. Triple H
Career Highlights: 10 time World Champion, 5 time Intercontinental Champion
You say, "10 time World Champion?!" Check this out:
I. Triple H d. Mankind (Raw, August 99)
II. Tripe H wins Six Pack Challenge to win vacated title (Unforgiven 99)
III. Triple H d. Big Show (Raw, January 00)
IV. Triple H d. The Rock, 6-5 in IronMan Match (Judgement Day 00)
V. Triple H d. Chris Jericho (WrestleMania X8)
VI. Triple H awarded vacant World Heavyweight Championship by Eric Bischoff (Raw Sept 02)
VII. Triple H d. Shawn Michaels in 3 Stages of Hell Match (Armageddon 02)
VIII. Triple H d. Goldberg/Kane in Triple Threat Match (Armageddon 03)
IX. Triple H d. Randy Orton (Unforgiven 04)
X. Triple H wins Elimination Chamber (New Year's Revolution 05)
Hunter Hearst Helmsley is the man. That's 10 titles, and he hasn't actually held the belt since he lost it to Batista at WrestleMania 21. With a full talent roster, there's still no one more valuable than Triple H. DX is fun and will sell merchandise. But there's no heel more valuable on the entire roster than The Game. With HBK on permanent face status, Triple H is the best (and only) true main event heel on the roster, which all the almost faces on the roster need to go up against. Triple H is also the last and best known remaining superstar from the WWE's highpoint in the late 90s/early 00s. Thus, he maintains the role of franchise player. Good on the mic, good in the ring, will fight through two torn quadriceps, and simply one of the best in the game. If everyone was healthy and I was picking on Monday night, I'd take Triple H with the first pick in the draft, and it wouldn't take me long to arrive at that conclusion.