The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
Wrestling is a business driven by personality. Both from inside the ring and on camera, to backstage and behind the scenes, various personalities and attitudes shape the industry. The following is a glance at the five most intriguing wrestling personalities, and what their success (or failure) could mean for the future of the business.
Daniel has entered an experimental phase of his career. Upon his return to wrestling it seemed like he was destined to return to his role as the divine babyface of WWE, beloved by all fans. Shady booking and feud with The Miz that never quite reached its potential changed that; rapidly Bryan was going from a returning hero to just another guy on the roster.
So Bryan did what seemed unthinkable the night he returned to wrestling; he turned heel. In a surprising twist, by turning heel Bryan elevated himself back up the card into a position (WWE Champion) that he was denied when he returned as a babyface. All of that played into the story that was being told; the good-guy Bryan was denied his ultimate dream (winning the world title) so he had to become the bad-guy, by cheating to steal the world title from AJ Styles.
Previously it would seem impossible to turn Bryan heel, because it was assumed that no matter what, the fans would cheer for him. Bryan and WWE however, have come up with a clever strategy; by having Bryan turn on his supporters in a realistic manner. Heel Bryan wouldn't just insult the fans (something every heel in wrestling does), he would make it personal. Bryan called out the fans for forgetting about him, for losing faith in him and supporting other wrestlers, something Bryan fans DID do, especially after Bryan announced his retirement. Throw in a touch of liberal preaching and Bryan had managed to successfully turn himself into the bad guy.
There is a belief among some in wrestling that it's hard for a heel to get real heat because the fans are so sophisticated now that if they recognize a heel doing a great job, they will cheer for them. I don't find this to be true; just that wrestling can no longer lean on morality to manipulate the emotions of the fans. Bryan isn't just a heel saying heel things; he has turned his struggle into a personal war with the fans. It helps that he has an actual babyface that fans like in AJ Styles to work against; the fans would be reluctant to turn on a heel Bryan if he was working against a weak babyface, but in Styles, they have a suitable alternative to cheer for.
Bryan always has gotten credit for his in-ring capabilities; but he's always been underrated in his promos and his charisma. Sad, heel Bryan is the best promo right now in WWE, and his potential to take part in real, classic feuds that pit a great heel against a great babyface make him arguably the most intriguing performer in wrestling.
The meteoric rise of Becky Lynch mirrors the rise of Bryan several years ago. Like Bryan, Lynch was a popular wrestler that fans felt was underappreciated by WWE management, and they made it their mission to make their support as obvious as possible. Also like Bryan, Lynch's rise to the top of WWE has been mostly accidental; WWE never planned on Lynch becoming their most popular performer, but the fans en masse decided that she was going to be their favorite, and pushed her into the spotlight.
Just like Bryan, Lynch has proven to be up for the challenge. An underrated talker, Lynch has undoubtedly been the most consistent performer in the women's division, and with the possible exceptions of Styles and Seth Rollins, the entire company. I'm not going to lie, I always thought Lynch was a good talent but I never personally saw her as the obvious choice for WWE to build their women's division around. The last few months she has proved me completely wrong.
Lynch's complete ability to achieve in every facet of the industry has been extremely impressive. She's a good talker, with a bite and an edge that most performers lack; and she's always been a good worker. Flying under the radar a bit is her social media game, which has been a huge reason for her success. Wrestling fans now consume the product 24/7, which includes following wrestlers on social media, and Lynch's Twitter account, particularly during episodes of SmackDown, has been a tour de force. Historically, wrestlers have only had the ability to impact fans when they were featured on programming, either on television or at a live event. Today, wrestlers can connect with fans whenever they want, a crucial component to winning the support of wrestling fans is through social media, and nobody has done a better job of that than Lynch.
Lynch's adoption of the nickname "The Man" is indicative of where she is headed. The polarizing idea of a woman using that nickname is not subtle; Lynch isn't content to just be a popular female wrestler; she wants to become the most popular wrestler, period. Given the state of the other big names in WWE, she might have already accomplished that.
As New Japan Pro Wrestling crashed upon the shores of the United States, the company was led first and foremost by the members of the Bullet Club, whose social media savvy and marketing skills set the foundation for America's interest in the Japanese company. Behind those men was Kazuchika Okada, the accepted ace of the company and the perennial champion. Even though Okada served often as the main foil to the beloved Bullet Club, his class inside the ring was so exceptional that he became a key part in the company's growth outside of Japan.
Coming in behind those two pillars was Hiroshi Tanahashi, the old ace of NJPW who by the time the company had begun to make major inroads in the American market, had been effectively replaced by Okada. When Tanahashi won the 2018 G1 Climax, there were a fair amount of Western fans who were wondering why this old guy was getting a match at the Tokyo Dome. To some fans, it felt like the company once again pushing the same babyface in the top position, not unlike WWE's commitment to John Cena over the years.
That line of thinking dismisses the obvious benefits of a Tanahashi title chase. While his rise to success predates most American fans interest in the product, Tanahashi took over as as a major star when NJPW was at its lowest point as an organization. Attendance was down and the company's gamble on Brock Lesnar failed when Lesnar wanted more money, NJPW balked at his demand, and Lesnar surrendered the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. Tanahashi would pick up the fallen pieces, and as the top name in the company revitalize the Japanese wrestling market with his peerless charisma and dramatic performances. His success would eventually pave the way for Okada, the Bullet Club members, Tetsuya Naito and others to help grow the company, eventually leading to unparalleled global success for New Japan.
While Tanahashi, 42, has been replaced by Okada as the face of NJPW; Tanahashi the performer has never conceded that he has been surpassed by his rivals; in his promos and the way he carries himself, Tanahashi fully believes that he still is the ace of the company, and at Wrestle Kingdom he'll be able to prove it. Against Kenny Omega, who represents a new era for NJPW, one that is built on international expansion, Tanahashi could not have a better opponent to be his final challenge. In January, the old ace will attempt to turn back the clock and defeat Omega, and in a lot of ways, the ideas and suspicions of fans who don't understand his impact on the company.
While Cody Rhodes has been lauded as a pioneer of sorts for achieving career success after voluntarily leaving WWE, PAC has flown under the mainstream radar, but has already re-established himself as one of the most exciting wrestlers in the world. While he was a standout on the independents before he worked for WWE, PAC, under the name Neville, did make serious improvements during his time in WWE.
During his first stint on the indies PAC worked as a babyface that flew around the ring. In WWE, he learned how to refine his character and eventually became a very good heel while also incorporating more diversity into his moveset, showing that he could put on a great match without taking a bunch of risks.
PAC has adopted that heel character for his new career outside of WWE, and he has been great. Like Lynch, his Twitter account has been a must-follow for fans of indie wrestling, and he's returned to his old stomping grounds of Dragon Gate and already captured their version of the world title, defeating Masato Yoshino earlier this week.
In a time where it looks like the independents are going to be split between different alliances with larger promotions (mainly WWE and NJPW) it's important that there are still some true outlaws left. PAC's January match against Will Ospreay is a true dream match between arguably the two greatest aerial wrestlers of the decade squaring off for the first time. PAC is another example of a highly-motivated wrestler finding tremendous success outside of WWE.
A lot of wrestling fans probably haven't heard of Tony Khan; and it's possible they will never have a reason to learn his name. It's also possible that Khan could end up becoming the most important man in professional wrestling outside of Vince McMahon. If the rumors about Khan getting involved with a new professional wrestling organization, one anchored by the members of The Elite, Khan could be responsible for the biggest development in the industry since the closure of World Championship Wrestling.
Some background on Khan: He's the 36 year old son of Shad Khan, a billionaire who owns both the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC in the English Premier League. Khan the younger has front office roles in both organizations, and has also started several of his own businesses, including an entertainment investment group and a sports and media analytic company. He has also been a lifelong wrestling fan, been a subscriber to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter since he was a teenager, and sat ringside at ALL IN.
Given the fact that WWE received over $2 billion in their new television contract, it seems to make sense that a wealthy investor would try to invest in another wrestling company. Obviously getting WWE money is impossible for a start-up company, but with the proper investment and the appropriate understanding of the wrestling business, it certainly seems possible that a wrestling company could land a solid television deal, even if they received a deal 5 percent of what WWE got, that is still $100 million.
For years some fans have been hopeful for a wealthy investor to become involved in wrestling and create a true competitor for WWE. Khan, backed by his father, may end up being that investor. He has already filed trademarks for the name "All Elite Wrestling" which would imply that he is working with The Elite. The fact that Omega, The Young Bucks, Rhodes and Hangman Page are all going to become free agents at the start of 2019 also indicates they may be up to something bigger than just re-signing with NJPW and Ring of Honor.
If Khan starts his company, has some of the top draws outside of WWE, and lands a suitable television deal, the race will be on. With WWE's swollen roster and aggressively adding new talent, it's likely that some wrestlers on the current roster will look for a new opportunity, similar to Rhodes and PAC, and jump over to the new promotion when their contract is up. Khan could end up being a non-factor, but there is a lot smoke around him that suggests he could be opening a rival company in 2019.
Must Watch Matches
Tomohiro Ishii vs KUSHIDA: ****1/4 - Over the Top Wrestling Fourth Anniversary Show
Flamita, Bandido and Shane Strickland vs Tetsuya Naito, EVIL and SANADA: **** - Over the Top Wrestling Fourth Anniversary Show
WALTER vs Will Ospreay: ****3/4 - Over the Top Wrestling Fourth Anniversary Show