What a difference a year makes. When 2016 started, AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura were at the top of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Today, they’re at the top of WWE and NXT, respectively, while Kenny Omega and Tetsuya Naito have taken their spots in Japan. European wrestling was by and large only popular in Europe. Now Zack Sabre Jr. is known to WWE fans through his work in the Cruiserweight Classic, and wrestlers like Tommy End and Damo are working in NXT.
It’s hard to predict what wrestling will look like by the end of 2017, but there are definitely some names to look out for. People who started to make waves in 2016, some who debuted last year, and others who haven’t yet made their mark but are poised to have some major growth. We at Paste picked a handful of wrestlers to look out for this year.
I’m not sure what makes a guy climb on top of a 20-foot pole and then dead drop himself onto another human being, but the fans at Evolve sure do love it. After a successful tryout, the Seattle native became the first wrestler from a seminar to sign a WWN contract in September, and hasn’t looked back since, wrestling for Evolve, Full Impact Pro and Style Battle against the likes of Brian Cage and Tony Nese. He’s an underdog with highlight reel of eye-popping, jaw-dropping bumps, and a fearlessness cultivated through years of skateboarding. In his match with Cage, the Lucha Underground star tossed Allin out of the ring and onto a nearby stage. In a fatal fourway at Evolve 64, Allin started the match by rushing at Chris Dickinson and getting back body dropped clear out of the ring. He also cuts a mean promo, channeling the dark, brooding style of Raven. Time will tell if his in-ring style is sustainable, or if he’ll transition to something a little safer, but Darby Allin has the ability and the reckless abandon to become a crowd favorite all over the world. – Paul DeBenedetto
“The Wicked Witch of WWE” grew by leaps and bounds in 2016. Already coming off of a strong 2015—in which she shed her babyface persona and went full Cruella de Vil, complete with her bumbling henchmen Blake and Murphy—Bliss owned the Smackdown women’s division in the second half of last year, winning the Smackdown Women’s Championship and working with Becky Lynch in one of the best feuds in the entire company. Her heel work is second to none, and she can make any segment with nothing but a facial expression. Crucially, her in-ring work continues to improve, making her a seemingly unstoppable force in the year ahead. Last year, Alexa Bliss made people stand up and pay attention. Now that we are, here’s hoping for even more in 2017. – Paul DeBenedetto
British Strong Style immediately sets up an expectation of submission wrestling and hard strikes, with faint echoes of Antonio Inoki’s famous fighting spirit. But while Dunne, Seven and Bate all could wrestle that style, and have previously, they’re instead holding court over the U.K. indie scene with the methodology of three young William Regals, boasting a glorious flare for rule-breaking. Pete Dunne is perhaps the most punchable human in wrestling right now, with his Warped Tour Draco Malfoy appearance, while his usual muscle, Trent Seven, is perfect in his role as the backup for Dunne’s mouth. The real revelation here is how duck-to-water Tyler Bate has been in embracing the rough and ragged style of British Strong Style. Those who are only familiar with Bate from the WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament, or in CHIKARA (where Bate and Seven are the current Campeonatos de Parejas), will be stunned at the surly and vicious persona he’s recently adopted in Progress. While Seven and Dunne are gleefully selfish, only interested in the furtherance of their careers, Bate has become a tiny blonde wrecking ball, more concerned with the lizard brain motivations of violence and voiding his bladder. All three of these gentlemen have signed much-debated WWE contacts, so it’ll be interesting to see how that affects their prospects on the U.K. indie scene, or if they’ll be called to Florida sooner rather than later. Either way, the future is bright for British Strong Style. – Ed Blair
Dalton Castle put together some of the most entertaining programs of 2016, finishing up his feud with Silas Young over his “boys” early on in the year before closing it out by teaming with and eventually wrestling against Colt Cabana. But championship gold eluded Castle in 2016: Despite winning a No. 1 contender match at Global Wars, Castle suffered a somewhat surprising loss to Bobby Fish at Best in the World, leaving fans to wonder if his time would be coming after all. Now that Kyle O’Reilly has left the company, and Adam Cole seems on the way out himself, it seems like the perfect time for a well-deserved title run for Castle. The “Party Peacock” is the most beloved Ring of Honor regular not named “Jackson” and has the skills in the ring and on the microphone to justify being the top guy in the company. Ring of Honor has the opportunity to lock down one of the most charismatic wrestlers in the world, and it had better do so soon, because WWE is almost assuredly waiting in the wings. – Paul DeBenedetto
It’s not my style to talk about masked characters and the wrestlers who portray them, but it is to Jeff Cobb’s credit that we discuss the dichotomy of who he is as a wrestler unmasked, and that frighteningly opposite masked character he portrays on Lucha Underground. Jeff himself has been in pro-wrestling for almost five years now, but he hadn’t reached a wider audience until people were introduced to the Monster Matanza on LU. To see him wrestle without the mask blocking his face, to interact with him after shows, is almost shocking. Cobb is a fun-loving and kind guy, enthusiastic about meeting every fan and generally a joy to encounter. His in-ring style is so precise and calculated, not to mention athletic for a guy of his size. But whether he is destroying people from behind the Matanza mask or trying to tap out Matt Riddle in the middle of the ring at an Evolve show, Cobb’s love for what he does is palpable. With a whole half of a season of Lucha Underground still waiting to be seen by fans—and at least one match for certain, between Matanza and Rey Mysterio, Jr.—there is no telling what wild, heart-pounding entertainment Cobb will provide us with as 2017 rolls on. – The Lady J
Rachael Ellering has an incredible presence about her because she is the intersection of so many important qualities in the wrestling world: She is all at once enthusiastic and focused, immensely humble and remarkably gifted. Listening to her discuss her journey from competitive powerlifter to Resistance Pro Wrestling’s Women’s Champion is enlightening. Ellering was the only woman in her class at Lance Storm’s wrestling school in Canada and traveled all over North America to better her craft. When she won her first championship in November, with little more than one year under her belt, she invited the little girls in the audience to climb into the ring with her to celebrate. To see Ellering interact with her fans of all ages, how kind she is and how generous she is with her time, is inspiring. Her positive attitude matched with her hard-hitting in-ring style will surely make Ellering one to watch in 2017. With great matches at Shine, Queens of Combat and WrestleCircus under her belt, and already gaining experience wrestling in dark matches at both NXT and Ring of Honor tapings, it’s only a matter of time before Rachael Ellering’s name is on the top of everyone’s “wrestlers to watch” list. – The Lady J
At the end of 2016, Atsushi Kotoge gave up the GHC Junior Heavyweight singles and tag title to pursue Pro Wrestling NOAH heavyweight glory. He’d done it all as a junior heavyweight, holding both titles multiple times. Much like New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Kenny Omega, a weight class change was the only direction left. As a heavyweight, he’s already provided one of the defining moments of wrestling in 2017 so far: About 25 minutes into a tag team match against Go Shiozaki and Maybach Taniguchi, Kotoge delivered an unspeakably brutal headbutt to Shiozaki that resonated throughout Korakuen Hall. In a split second, Kotoge proved his worth as a heavyweight. Since that match, he’s been paired up against the three most recent GHC Heavyweight Champions, and even though he’s lost each time, it’s easy to see that big things are on the horizon for this former Osaka Pro trainee. As Omega and Kota Ibushi have proven, the sky’s now the limit for smaller wrestlers in Japan. He’s got the tools to hang and the heart to survive. Anyone who’s able to justify a division shift with one move is worth your attention, and in this time of underdogs, Kotoge’s rise to eventual GHC Heavyweight gold should resonate more than usual. – Ed Blair
At some point, this list was about twice as long, due solely to the promising future of NXT’s women’s division. Saturday night saw that future shining brightly at NXT Takeover: San Antonio, as Billie Kay, Peyton Royce and Nikki Cross put on an excellent match against NXT Women’s Champion Asuka. But as Asuka prepares to exit, the criticism persists that the division is too thin, or that there’s somehow not the quality of wrestler as there has been in the division’s past. To this I say: Nonsense. Outside of Kay and Royce—the best argument for a women’s tag division I’ve seen yet—Cross and Ember Moon are already being positioned as a top contenders for the belt. Liv Morgan, Aliyah and Daria Berenato fill out the midcard nicely. And waiting in the Performance Center wings: Kimber Lee, Heidi Lovelace, Evie, Andréa and Crazy Mary Dobson. That’s not to mention the occasional unknown quantity: Alexa Bliss, who’s on this very list, was a competitive bodybuilder before making it to WWE. The state of the NXT Women’s Division is strong, and 2017 will prove it. – Paul DeBenedetto
With less than two years under his belt, former UFC fighter Matthew Riddle took to pro wrestling like no one since Kurt Angle. In a little more than a year since debuting with Evolve, Riddle has taken the company and indeed the country by storm, as one of the most talked about wrestlers on the independent scene. Since winning Evolve’s Style Battle in January of 2016, Riddle has gone on to battle Chris Hero in a must-watch best-of-three series at Evolve, and had a strong showing against Kyle O’Reilly at the Pro Wrestling Guerilla Battle of Los Angeles. His popularity even reaches across continents: Just this month he won the Progress Wrestling Atlas Championship from Rampage Brown, and a week later, went toe-to-toe with Katsuyori Shibata for Revolution Pro Wrestling. There really doesn’t seem to be any ceiling on Riddle: He is truly one of the most gifted athletes in wrestling, with tons of natural charisma and a look that makes an eventual run in WWE seem like a foregone conclusion. Forget limiting it to 2017: For Matthew Riddle, the future is whatever he wants it to be. – Paul DeBenedetto
The former Kamaitachi made a huge splash upon his return from excursion to New Japan Pro Wrestling. For weeks, a “ticking time bomb” video splashed across screens at NJPW events, with a countdown clock similar to the Y2J promo videos around the turn of the millennium for Chris Jericho. When the timer ran out in November at Power Struggle, out came a returned Hiromu Takahashi, a former Young Lion who’d spent the last three years wrestling in the U.K., in Mexico for CMLL, and in the United States for Ring of Honor. Now he was back, to challenge junior heavyweight “Ace,” KUSHIDA. Along the way, Takahashi joined forces with Tetsuya Naito and Los Ingobernables de Japon, and pinned the Junior Heavyweight Champion in a tag team match, before defeating KUSHIDA at Wrestle Kingdom 11 in the best IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match in Tokyo Dome history. Not a bad way to make a return. But beyond the title change, the match was an important one: For months, the junior heavyweight division had become stagnant, with little to watch outside of the Best of the Super Juniors tournament and an ongoing feud between KUSHIDA and Bushi. A promising title feud with Will Ospreay didn’t deliver as anticipated. Now with Takahashi, the division has new life, and a new star for years to come. – Paul DeBenedetto