So, wrestling. One year ago, I didn't give two shits about wrestling. However, living with my roommate of 16+ months Kevin changed all that. Kevin is a wrestling lifer; he hosts a wrestling podcast, he writes wrestling articles, he reviews wrestling DVDs, and he watches at LEAST seven to ten hours of wrestling programming each week. The dude's into wrestling. And around January of this year, I had seen enough wrestling vicariously to change my opinion. Wrestling is soap opera for dudes. And it's pretty awesome.
I'm not quite as deep into wrestling as Kevin or a few of my other friends, but I've had fun following along with the 2013 product put forth by WWE, the largest wrestling programming family in the United States. I typically watch WWE Raw, WWE Smackdown, and WWE NXT every week, plus I went into archived episodes of NXT dating to late 2012. In addition, I've watched around six or seven pay-per-view (PPV) WWE events. Later tonight I'll be watching Hell in a Cell with Kevin and a few others; Hell in a Cell is a WWE PPV that features two matches taking part in large steel cages. I'm pumped to see how it turns out, especially the tag title match between The Rhodes Brothers, The Shield, and The Usos.
Having watched a fair amount of wrestling for the past ten months, I naturally picked some favorite and less-preferred wrestlers. One thing I noticed, though, was that a large proportion of my favorites were younger guys and gals. Maybe it's because they have more to prove, maybe it's because most of them are right around my age (I turned 27 last February), or maybe it's because NXT is my favorite wrestling show. (NXT is a taped one-hour weekly show run by the WWE that's hugely entertaining. Most NXT wrestlers are younger men and women trying to break into the WWE's bigger shows.)
So whatever. I decided it would be more specific and more interesting to make a list consisting of only under-30 wrestlers. Here is the list, plus a few honorable mentions.
A Whole Bunch of Divas
WWE and NXT divas Bayley, Emma, Naomi, and Summer Rae are all under 30 years old and they're among my favorite female wrestlers on the shows I watch, but they didn't make the list. The NXT ladies in particular are among my favorites, because they seem to have sharper in-ring work than the divas on WWE shows and have more consistent personalities and rivalries. Seriously, the NXT divas are great. Emma in particular is one of my favorites, so much so that she was probably 11th or 12th in my overall under-30 ranking.
A Whole Bunch of Guys Over 30
Some of my favorite NXT and WWE guys who don't qualify: Daniel Bryan, C.M. Punk, Dolph Ziggler, Goldust, Damien Sandow, Antonio Cesaro, Tyson Kidd, and Brock Lesnar. Too old; too bad.
So I've only seen Mojo in two NXT matches, only one of which was on the NXT show. But he's got a great look (dude is fucking enormous), a positive, fun gimmick (he is SUPER EXCITED ALL THE TIME), a workable catchphrase (STAY HYPE), and he's from Alexandria, Virginia! That's the next town over from where I grew up! Anyhow, I am looking forward to see Mojo move up the NXT totem pole, but he has not had enough impact to crack my top ten.
In the main list below, I have four members of WWE tag teams. Tag matches are the best - the rules and dynamic for changing wrestlers are a fun wrinkle, and more wrestlers in the ring allows for a faster flow of combat plus team moves and combinations. Tag matches are great, and I wish that WWE expanded their roster of tag teams. The Samoan twin brothers Jimmy Uso and Jey Uso are two of the best. They have a great look, an exciting, multiple-stages entrance theme, and plenty of exciting moves, including double superkick and a massive splash finisher. I really like The Usos and I wouldn't mind seeing them win the tag titles for a reign of their own (a possibility in tonight's PPV match), but they aren't in my personal top ten. Close, though.
Oh, Tyler Breeze. Of all the wacky gimmicks on the NXT main roster, Breeze's selfie-taking vain male model had the fastest rise in popularity among the fans. Breeze owns it as well, using his phone in the ring, hitting on the backstage interviewer Renee Young (Renee is a delight), and doing some decent in-ring work in spite of his ridiculous outfits and boots. Tyler Breeze is immensely entertaining in interviews, and his persona is extraordinarily popular. I haven't been wowed by him in the same way as a few other wrestlers, but Tyler Breeze is a hell of a performer.
Bo Dallas was a confusing ranking for this list. I believe that the WWE was trying to set up Bo to be a top babyface (a "good guy" wrestler who plays by the rules and is meant to have the support of the crowd) in NXT. However, Bo's attitude is sort of annoying, and he didn't get over the way I think he was meant to ("over" is a wrestling-talk synonym for popular). Now, I don't know if this was an on-the-fly change or if it was intended from the start of Bo's career, but the WWE writing team decided to keep Bo's personality intact but to ratchet up his annoying nature.
Long story short, Bo Dallas is a heel wrestler because he is so. FUCKING. irritating. ("heels" are wrestling villains, but are sometimes more popular than faces). Now Bo's the NXT champion and is so disliked that he earns "NO MO' BO" at every NXT show. And it's brilliant. I went from feeling neutral about Bo Dallas to hating Bo Dallas, and I'm pretty sure that's exactly how the WWE wanted it to go. As much as I dislike Bo's character, it's executed brilliantly and he's a very good technical wrestler to boot. But I'm not giving him a spot in my top ten, goddammit.
Sollosi's Top Ten Favorite WWE Wrestlers Under Age 30
10. Adrian Neville
Neville is an NXT guy (get used to that acronym) who has THE BEST finishing move in the WWE or NXT: a corkscrew 450 splash or "Red Arrow." That move, a twist-flip-skidoo off the top rope onto a prone opponent, is goddamn electrifying and would be more appropriate in a videogame than in real-damn-life. Neville himself, though, isn't as exciting as his signature move. He's heavily muscled, but small in stature and lacking charisma. He has tremendous agility and solid technique, but lacks talking skills and isn't as much of a total package as others on this list. Neville's a top NXT face who's held a few titles as a member of tag teams, but rarely gets the crowd fired up unless he's setting up that finisher. I still like him, though, and his highlight reel potential is up there.
The current NXT Divas Champion, Paige is going to be a major WWE star as soon as she gets a little older. At 21, she is the youngest wrestler on this list but is as ring-savvy as any woman on the NXT roster. Her English accent, stunning good looks, and ruthless persona complement that excellent ring work to make Paige incredibly over with the crowd; she undoubtedly features into the WWE's long-term plans with the Divas division. Alas, Paige is stuck on NXT and on this list. She'll be on the major WWE shows before her 23rd birthday, mark my words.
8. Bray Wyatt
Wyatt's almost the opposite of Neville. While Neville is muscular, agile, and somewhat lacking in charisma, Wyatt is heavyset and one of the most compelling talkers in the company. As the leader of the "Wyatt Family" faction of Southern-accented cultists, Wyatt combines the magnetism of Huey Long with the creepiness of Max Cady. In the ring, Wyatt moves extremely well for a guy his size and is able to convey much of the creepiness from his promos into his in-ring work, but doesn't look great when his opponent isn't skilled enough to sell Wyatt's moves and could probably stand to slim down for his stamina's sake. Wyatt's impressive talking and equally-impressive beard are good enough for eighth.
By the way, performing cool wrestling moves takes skill, but it might even take more skill to make your opponent look good. Taking hits well, or "selling" is important to making matches more exciting, by giving big moves more impact. Elite sellers like Dolph Ziggler are valuable assets to the WWE. So yeah, Wyatt usually looks pretty good on offense, but his WWE debut against veteran big man Kane wasn't a great match in large part because Kane doesn't sell moves very well. Alas.
7. AJ Lee
AJ, the current Divas champion of the WWE, is only 26 and is the girl of your dreams AND nightmares. Her wrestling persona is basically a controlling, obsessive, vindictive, CRAZY ex-girlfriend that you BETTER NOT call crazy. She's only 5'2", but this only makes her look even better in the ring when selling the moves of taller women. AJ's convincing attitude, very good promos, and great in-ring work make her the WWE's top overall diva performer in my opinion, even if a few other women in the Divas division are better wrestlers. AJ's finishing move, a submission hold called the "Black Widow" is real neat.
6. Roman Reigns
Let's talk about The Shield. The Shield are a faction of three wrestlers that were first introduced in late 2012 on NXT: Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns. For several months, they dominated the NXT scene and never lost a tag match, while one of them held the inaugural NXT Championship title. Their promos were anarchic, threatening shaky-cam messages culminating in Reigns screaming "BELIEVE IN THE SHIELD." They first appeared on WWE shows by interrupting matches, beating up other superstars seemingly at random, then departing. The trio debuted officially at the 2012 TLC pay-per-view in an AWESOME match against Kane, Daniel Bryan, and Ryback. Since then, they have fought in dozens of matches almost every week, focusing in particular on 2v2 and 3v3 tag team matches. They were undefeated as a group for a long stretch, and Rollins and Reigns held the WWE tag titles for about five months.
Spoiler alert: The Shield is a large part of why I got into wrestling. I read an article on the new group on Grantland (my favorite blog network) and asked Kevin about them. A few weeks later, I had seen their TLC match and was watching them every week on TV. The only piece of wrestling merchandise I own is a Shield shirt. So whatever. I'm a huge fan of the Shield, and as a team they're my favorite thing in the WWE. Reigns is my least-favorite of the trio, but that's hardly an insult. Reigns has a devastating spear move, brings insane intensity into every match, and looks like Khal-fucking-Drogo. For awhile he was set up to be The Shield's unstoppable heavy hitter, but has recently been the victim of a pinfall for the first time. I like Reigns (obviously, since he's #6 on this list), but I think the other two Shield guys are a little more interesting.
5. Big E Langston
I had to make Big E number five, because in NXT (where he was the second NXT champion, after Seth Rollins but before current champ Bo Dallas) Big E's calling card was beating opponents with a five-count pinfall instead of a normal three-count. E would enter clapping some chalk dust in a rage to the whole crowd chanting "FIVE" and annihilate his opponents. Big E was undefeated in NXT matches until losing to Bo Dallas. E has an imposing look with ABSURD muscles (5'11", 290 pounds), great facial expressions and body language, and a killer finishing move in the Big Ending. Big E is also one of the funniest superstars on the WWE roster, consistently entertaining in promos and with a downright hilarious Twitter feed. And the dude is only 27. Big E will be contesting Curtis Axel for the Intercontinental Championship title later tonight, and I hope he wins it. My guess is he'll have a reign with one of the two big titles by late 2015.
EDIT: OK, so it looks like Big E's match in Hell in a Cell tonight got canceled, due to his opponent, Curtis Axel, suffering an injury. Well that sucks.
4. Cody Rhodes
Unlike pretty much EVERY other person on this list, Cody Rhodes has zero history with NXT, whether it's the awesome current NXT or the old NXT reality show. Rhodes is the son of legendary wrestler Dusty Rhodes and the half-brother of the fan-favorite wrestler Goldust, with whom Cody is now in a tag team. Prior to teaming up with his brother, Cody was part of the Rhodes Scholars team with Damien Sandow (one of my favorite over-30 WWE guys) and the Legacy tag team with Teddy DiBiase (...I only know that because I looked it up). Cody's look isn't anything particularly noteworthy, but he's excellent in the ring and a pretty good talker, even if he's not quite as impressive as his father or brother.
Cody's current story arc is my favorite thing going on in the WWE at present. Cody was betrayed by Sandow at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view (breaking up their friendship), eventually fired by the WWE (really he was just on his real-life honeymoon, but they worked it into the story), and eventually was redeemed and rehired by teaming up with his father and brother in a tag team title match against The Shield, winning the tag titles. Cody and Goldust are defending those newly-won tag titles against The Shield and The Usos tonight, and I can't wait. That's my three favorite tags in the same match. I don't even care who wins, but for story purposes I hope it's the Brothers Rhodes. This current storyline, Cody's special moves (The Cross Rhodes is a great finisher), and his bright future with the WWE make him one of my favorite under-30s.
3. Seth Rollins
Back to The Shield again. Rollins is a longtime indie wrestler whose big break came through winning the first NXT championship in mid-2012 and then becoming part of The Shield. Rollins' look isn't as distinctive as that of Ambrose or Reigns, but he's the most agile of the trio, the best move-seller, and the only one that could be considered a "high flier" (a wrestler who performs several leaping moves from the top rope as part of his repertoire). Rollins' superior technique and selling ability are huge. I look forward to his matches just to see him sell bumps and spears like he's been hit by a truck - his sell of a ladder move from Ryback in that 2012 TLC match made me think "holy shit get him to the emergency room." Rollins is above-average in every respect, but is an excellent technician, one of the best sellers in the WWE alongside Dolph Ziggler, was a force on NXT, and is part of my favorite wrestling faction. That's a top three guy.
2. Dean Ambrose
Part of what makes The Shield such a great trio is their camaraderie and teamwork. There is no leadership drama, nobody standing above or below the others in stature, and a focus on victory over personal glory. But with that said, if The Shield has a de facto leader, it's Ambrose. He is the only member currently holding a title (the U.S. Title, which is probably the least-prestigious of the WWE's four singles titles), and is by far the strongest talker of the trio. Overall, he is an extremely solid wrestler, with a good look, good physique, excellent techniques, a good finishing move (a brutal headlock driver), and elite mic skills. His small flourishes in the ring, like his over-the-top facial expressions and sneaked-in dance moves as he stands up only add to his flair. There are very few wrestlers I enjoy watching more than Ambrose, and I think he'll be the first one the WWE pushes when The Shield inevitably breaks up.
1. Sami Zayn
The best combination of athleticism, technique, and charisma in the WWE short of Daniel Bryan or C.M. Punk. Zayn is incredibly agile in the ring, with spin moves, flying DDTs from a standing position, and insane rope work as regular moves within his skillset. His body language is superb, always effectively communicating the in-ring story being told by the match and possessing a rare exhilaration and enthusiasm in his work. On the mic Zayn is extremely likable and smooth, with a surprising lack of intensity - when he's flirting with Renee Young or explaining his actions after being screwed by NXT management you can't help but root for him, and he's not even breaching real-world logic in his speech (something that happens... a lot.). Look, Sami Zayn is the best thing in NXT and my guess is that he'll have a brief title run in late 2013 before he starts blowing fans away on regular WWE TV. Just watch his matches against Antonio Cesaro and Jack Swagger. You'll see what I mean. And he's only 29.
So those are my ten (...or 19) favorite WWE and NXT wrestlers under 30 years old. These men and women are the future of WWE (and in some cases, the present of WWE) and I look forward to seeing each of their careers blossom. So pardon me while I go and try to play some Disgaea D2 before the pay-per-view starts. Peace.