By John Napolitano
The 10 Pro-Wrestlers Who Have Captured My Heart and Imagination in the Last 10 Years
The sight of Mick Foley revealing his patented barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat as an equalizer to the onward marching Rated-R Superstar on March 27, 2006, right before their all-time classic match at WrestleMania was the spark to the gasoline that started the blazing inferno that is my lifelong passion for professional wrestling.
Ten years ago, it was this extraordinary exchange on the go-home Monday Night Raw leading up to WrestleMania XXII that got me hooked on the genre. I had never seen anything like it; this large, disheveled, and seemingly crazy plaid clad man so hated this young, slimy, and conniving loudmouth that he would take a lethal object to his skull in order to assert his dominance. Of course, kayfabe was alive and well for the younger version of myself, but pro-wrestling’s ability to remove me from reality and keep me coming back for another fix of adrenaline has persisted over the last decade.
Whether it has been in Mrs. Hoffman’s fourth grade class or my journalism courses at Hofstra University, I have had many favorites as a pro-wrestling fan over the years. My first article in a series that will explore my top 10 favorites over the last 10 years will discuss which WWE Superstars have captured my heart and imagination more so than anyone else. These articles will only include programming that I have witnessed firsthand as it happened. Who are my top 10 favorite WWE Superstars since March 27, 2006?
10. Kevin Owens
The Marieville, Quebec, native flew onto my radar in the summer of 2014. At the time, I was not familiar with his work in Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerilla, All American Wrestling, and Combat Zone Wrestling, but I knew Kevin Owens was a major signee for WWE. I was amazed by his NXT debut against CJ Parker on December 11, 2014. I had never seen someone his size work so well; it was clear from the moment that the bell rang at NXT Takeover: R Evolution that Owens was destined for more than just a lengthy developmental career.
I am confident that Owens will be a main player in WWE for years to come. He displays an arrogance and a swagger so refreshing that I question why he isn’t already a five-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion. I have said time and time again that Owens should be the top heel in the industry, but patience is a virtue.
From the grungy guitar riff in his entrance music to his trio of broadways with John Cena, Owens is an easy addition to my top 10 countdown in the short time that he has been a WWE Superstar.
Favorite Match: Kevin Owens vs. John Cena (Money in the Bank 2015)
9. Dean Ambrose
Speaking of WWE Superstars who should be at the top of the ladder, enter Dean Ambrose. The “Lunatic Fringe,” also known as the most over babyface in WWE, has a ruggedness and style reminiscent of old. I first found favor with Ambrose when he began to emerge as the alpha dog of the S.H.I.E.L.D. His calculated but psychotic speech inspired me as if I were watching vintage Jake “The Snake” Roberts film.
When the “Hounds of Justice” disbanded in June 2014, I was certain that Ambrose would be the diamond to emerge from the stable. As it happens, the warden of the “Ambrose Asylum” is the only S.H.I.E.L.D. member to not yet hold WWE Championship gold. He had multiple opportunities to reach the top of the mountain, but has come up short at every turn. Ambrose’s inability to secure the richest prize in sports entertainment raises his stock as an underdog and my interest in his character. The night Ambrose does claim the WWE World Heavyweight Championship will be a victory for the entire WWE Universe.
Favorite Match: Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins (SummerSlam 2014)
It is with the utmost certainty that I can claim: Cesaro is the best professional wrestler I have ever seen. His body of work in that 20-foot-by-20-foot squared circle speaks for itself. The Swiss Superman is an exceptional technician, strongman, and aerialist. Unfortunately, that alone is not enough to push Cesaro to the top of this list.
I know that Cesaro is capable of much more than the brass of WWE would like you to believe, but he has done little to excite me outside of his in-ring prowess. Over the years, his character development has consisted of being Swiss, being a patriotic Swiss-American, and being able to swing his opponents around by their legs. Cesaro’s undefined character is a direct result of his limited microphone time, but make no mistake about it, The Sultan of Swing lets his walking do the talking. He is a skilled tag-team and singles combatant and has the potential to put on a five-star match every time he steps in the ring. One can only hope that Cesaro finally hits his stride when he returns from injury this April.
Favorite Match: Cesaro vs. John Cena (Monday Night Raw: July 6, 2015)
7. AJ Styles
Along with Graham’s strong recommendation, the “Phenomenal One” AJ Styles was one of two reasons why I became a viewer of TNA in December 2009. His look, in-ring ability, and down-to-earth persona alone made IMPACT Wrestling destination television. Styles’ series of matches with Kurt Angle were true works of art, and when the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair endorsed him as the best wrestler in the world, I put serious stock into the TNA original. Meeting Styles at a Northeast Wrestling event in November 2014 was one of the highlights of my wrestling fandom. His match with Matt Sydal and Matt Taven was, to this day, one of the best wrestling matches I have witnessed in person. He even had time after the show for a brief conversation and a photo when he could have walked right by Graham and me.
Above everyone else, I had always dreamed of seeing Styles in a WWE ring, and that dream came true at the 2016 Royal Rumble. He has only been in WWE for three months, but he is affirming everything I have ever known about him to be true. He’s a workhorse, he’s charismatic, and even in the land of the giants, he’s a bona fide star. It’s worth mentioning that his introductory program with Chris Jericho has been my favorite rivalry in years. The swerves, the matches, and the storytelling they’ve showcased are an example for how all feuds should play out in this industry. If Styles stays the current course, he will be a multi-time world champion and main event WrestleMania before his time in WWE expires.
Favorite Match: AJ Styles vs. Chris Jericho (FastLane 2016)
6. Seth Rollins
What can I say about the “Undisputed Future of the WWE” that hasn’t already been said. Seth Rollins took the calendar years of 2014 and 2015 and put them on his back. With Daniel Bryan out of action and then WWE World Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar working part-time, WWE was in desperate need of an antagonist who could put a caboose every 18 inches. The “Architect’s” cowardly, all bark no bite antics have been extremely entertaining, but over the last two years he has shined like no one else in between those ropes. Combined with his loudmouthed linguistics, Rollins’ aptitude for acrobatics and fondness for the flashy have made him a staple of WWE programming.
Nothing made me realize how much I appreciated the presence of Rollins more than when he was sidelined with long-term knee injuries on November 4, 2015. There are few occurrences that can throw off a narrative more than bidding farewell to the main character and all that implies. How different would this Road to WrestleMania be if we were preparing to see Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose vs. Roman Reigns for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship this Sunday? Instead of imagining what could have been, let’s look to the future. When Rollins does return, he is primed for one of the biggest babyface runs in recent memory. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, especially when someone as talented as Rollins is absent. The ovation he will receive upon his return will be reminiscent of Triple H’s at Madison Square Garden circa January 2002. Whether the higher-ups in Stamford have Rollins organically evolve into a babyface or stick to the top heel game plan, you can rest assured that he will be entertaining.
Favorite Match: Seth Rollins vs. John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar (Royal Rumble 2015)
5. Chris Jericho
I admit that Chris Jericho’s introduction to the WWE Universe on August 9, 1999, is one of my favorite pro-wrestling moments of all-time, but in fairness to this article, I will only account for his character in the time that I have been a fan of the product.
There was no bigger rock star in my eyes than the blond, bedazzled, and boisterous babyface that was Chris Jericho in his return to WWE on November 19, 2007. He verbally victimized then WWE Champion Randy Orton as the savior and antagonist to the “Age of Orton.” I had yet to witness someone so skilled on the microphone and so entertaining without even stepping in the ring.
Despite “Y2J’s” return as a brash babyface, my excitement for his character peaked in 2008 when he ditched the leather jackets for the three-piece suits. I despised his enhanced vocabulary and disgust for the WWE Universe so much so that I would become visibly angry during his promos, as he called fans parasites and vultures. Jericho had the ability to draw emotions out of me like no other heel during my tenure as a wrestling fan. Eventually, I began to appreciate the genius behind his “Best in the World” character too much to have anything but admiration for Jericho.
Above all else, Jericho’s benevolence towards WWE makes him one of my all-time favorites. He has accomplished every feat one can hope to achieve in the pro-wrestling industry, and he has had major success outside of the business. No one would blame him if he hung up his boots and accepted his rightful first ballot hall of fame nomination tomorrow, but Jericho is determined to give back to the business that has given him so much. Whether that’s raising the stock of younger talent or putting on a five-star match here and there, “Y2J” is a legend among legends.
Favorite Match: Chris Jericho vs. CM Punk (Extreme Rules 2012)
Of course, there is a special place in my heart for the “Rated-R Superstar.” He is, after all, very much responsible for my pro-wrestling fandom. With the exception of one John Cena, Edge will go down as the most successful WWE Superstar of my childhood, having garnered 11 world championships and revolutionizing what it means to be a heel. In fact, for most of his career, Edge was the moral opposite of John Cena, which really resonated with me during my rebellious anti-Cena phase.
Like Chris Jericho, Edge was one of the dastardliest villains in pro-wrestling history. The “Ultimate Opportunist” was a character that everyone loved to hate. The worst part about him was that he was so damn good. Edge was despicable, calculating, slightly psychotic, a coward, a loudmouth, and a ring general all rolled into one. Despite the loathsome nature of Edge, I could not help but envy the Toronto native; his success was gravitating.
Along with his incredible character, Edge was a master storyteller. He could relay dozens of emotions just with his eye movements and facial expressions. He had a vast understanding of in-ring psychology and an unbelievable knack for making his programs appear heinously heated. Whether they were with Matt Hardy, John Cena, or Undertaker, Edge’s rivalries were extremely emotional. There will never be another “Rated-R Superstar,” although Seth Rollins is flying pretty close to the Sun, but if only for making me a fan of professional wrestling, Edge ranks fourth on this prestigious countdown.
Favorite Match: Edge vs. John Cena (Unforgiven 2006)
3. CM Punk
Who doesn’t love The Best in the World CM Punk? The Second City Saint was undoubtedly the most entertaining WWE Superstar to come down the pike in years. Punk came with an earned arrogance, a chip on his shoulder, and he wore it like a badge of honor. Whether he was a babyface or a heel, he had no problem telling the WWE Universe that he was the pinnacle of pro-wrestling, and who could argue with him? He held the WWE Championship for a record 434 days, a testament to the creative team’s faith in his ability to sell tickets. Punk’s face should be plastered on the modern era WWE Mt. Rushmore because he truly changed the game.
Honestly, I was not a fan of CM Punk B.P (Before Pipebomb). In my naïve eyes, he did not have the look of a WWE Superstar. His white meat babyface phase bored me, his tenure as the leader of the Straight Edge Society confused me, and the New Nexus angle seemed like a desperate reach for relevance. I was simply too immature to understand the genius behind The Voice of the Voiceless. That all changed on June 27, 2011.
The famous pipebomb promo transcended my entire view of pro-wrestling, emphatically blurring the lines between reality and kayfabe. There have been few instances in the last decade that have left me utterly speechless. Aside from HBK’s epic return to Monday Night Raw in October 2007 and Daniel Bryan winning the world championship in New Orleans, Punk’s historic work-shoot on the machine that is WWE is one of my favorites.
So it was all aboard the Punk bandwagon from that point forward. Naturally, when I look back at Punk’s career, I find his work to be ingenious. How can you not love to hate an egomaniacal, drug-free Jesus impersonator?
The Straight Edge Savior renewed my love for pro-wrestling during the boom period that was The Summer of Punk. That spring was the first time since I was introduced to this genre that I had decided not to order WrestleMania. I was simply losing interest in the product, and had Punk not aired his grievances on live television, I would not still be a fan of pro-wrestling.
Punk’s long-lasting legacy will be that he made wrestling important again. He was determined to make great wrestling matches a priority during his time on top. I stopped expecting phenomenal wrestling during the dark days, 2009-2010, and Punk put on a phenomenal performance every time he stepped in the ring. Between his brilliant broadways and his outspoken promos, CM Punk should be recognized as one of the greatest of all-time, but there are two other WWE Superstars who more so captured my heart and imagination.
Favorite Match: CM Punk vs. Undertaker (WrestleMania XXIX)
2. Daniel Bryan
The sheer excitement that I felt witnessing Daniel Bryan hoist the WWE and World Heavyweight Championships on the commentary table, accompanied by an orchestra of pyro, in New Orleans, Louisiana, is unparalleled to the disappointment I felt when he announced his retirement on February 8, 2016. The G.O.A.T. had years of untapped fame and success ahead of him. As a diehard Bryan fan, I am relieved that his untimely exit from pro-wrestling will result in years of health and happiness added onto his life, but I selfishly yearn for his return.
Bryan is another WWE Superstar who didn’t catch my eye upon his debut. His match against then World Heavyweight Champion Chris Jericho on the first episode of NXT was exceptional, but I felt Michael Cole’s incessant demeaning of The American Dragon was lowering Bryan’s stock. It was not until his heel turn and program with Big Show in late 2011 that I began paying close attention to the Aberdeen native. He was miles more entertaining as an annoying heel with a Napoleon complex. Following his program with CM Punk in early 2012, I knew Bryan could be a major player in WWE.
Alongside Kane as one-half of Team Hell No, in the words of Booker T, Bryan joined my fave five. These strange bedfellows were too entertaining to ignore and, to this day, are my favorite tag-team in WWE history.
My fascination with Bryan peaked when he embarked on his greatest odyssey to date -- his rivalry with the Authority. One of the greatest storylines ever, Bryan’s refusal to succumb to the will of Triple H and Stephanie McMahon was awe-inspiring. It was during this time that Bryan was responsible for some of the greatest sights and sounds in recent memory. One of the most remarkable visuals I ever had the pleasure to witness was when he, as the conductor, led a symphony of “YES!” chants from atop a 20-foot high steel cage. Who can forget when he occupied Raw in Memphis, Tennessee, filling the ring with hundreds of members of the “YES! Movement.” Bryan is the catalyst by which many of my favorite pro-wrestling memories exist.
Ultimately, Bryan will be remembered as an underdog in the truest sense of the word. He wasn’t just an underdog in terms of his size, but his monumental success came despite the best efforts of the higher-ups to slight his popularity. He was never intended to main event WrestleMania, let alone become a top star. It took the fans hijacking Monday Night Raw and the 2014 Royal Rumble, turning on Batista, and CM Punk taking his ball home for the creative team to finally budge. Bryan made the fans open their eyes and WWE open their ears. When my grandchildren ask me about his biggest contribution to this business, I will tell them that he made the WWE Universe wake up. No longer will the masses be fed the same old, tired programming, at least not without a fight, and Daniel Bryan is to thank.
Favorite Match: Daniel Bryan vs. Batista vs. Randy Orton (WrestleMania XXX)
1. Shawn Michaels
He thinks he’s cute, he knows he’s sexy, he is the “Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, and he is my favorite WWE Superstar, not only of the last 10 years, but of all-time. No one has jumped out of my television screen and into my living room quite like Michaels has. My favorite claim to make about San Antonio’s own is that I have never seen him put on a bad match. From 2006 to his retirement in 2010, I was always elated to see The Showstopper hit the ropes.
Michaels’ antics during the D-Generation X reunion in the summer of 2006, despite their tame and sophomoric nature, were pure gold in my nine year-old eyes. From dubbing over the backstage powwows of the Spirit Squad to shoving Mr. McMahon’s head up the bulbous backside of Big Show, Michaels was at the helm of some of my favorite childhood memories.
I referred to different moments in pro-wrestling that have left me utterly speechless over the last 10 years earlier in this article. I cannot even attempt to do justice to the reaction that transpired in my living room when a returning Michaels intercepted a charging Randy Orton atop the entrance ramp on Orton’s appreciation night. I had thought that HBK’s departure from the ring at the hands of The Viper was a shoot, and when his entrance music hit, an absurd surge of adrenaline burst through my being. I knew from that moment on that Michaels was my horse in this race for as long as he was running.
Whether he was one-half of DX, going an hour with John Cena in England, inspiring millions with his feud with Chris Jericho, working for the villainous JBL, or obsessing over beating The Undertaker at WrestleMania, Michaels could do no wrong. He was to wrestling what The Beatles were to Rock n’ Roll. He is the best in-ring performer to ever lace up a pair of boots, and he is my favorite WWE Superstar of the last 10 years.
Favorite Match: Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker (The 25th Anniversary of WrestleMania)
SEE ALSO: "John's Jargon - Why, Why, Why!: Daniel Bryan's 3 Greatest Rivalries We'll Never See in WWE"