Every year Pro Wrestling Illustrated releases its PWI 500, ranking the best wrestlers in the world (and a few hundred others). And every year I complain about the results. Well, not this year.
In a strange way, I think it's because of TNA's increased instability. As one of the editors discusses in a commentary, this was an issue last year, too. And this year's top star from the promotion reached only #18, and that would be Lashley, the one-time second coming of Brock Lesnar. With fewer and fewer eyes on its product, TNA has had the chance to gamble on Ethan Carter III (#30) for whatever future it has left, while seemingly spending just as much time showing what its apparent successor Global Force Wrestling might be able to do better. (At this point it's become difficult to remember who is a TNA guy and who GFW.) Bobby Roode (#22), Kurt Angle (#25), Eric Young (#33), Drew Galloway (#37), Jeff Hardy (#47), and Austin Aries (#50) all had impressive years with TNA, and were rewarded for it. The problem is, none of them really pulled away.
(You'll note for the record that out of TNA's seven top finishers, five have previously competed for WWE. Samoe Joe, #46, competed for TNA during the grading period, and then made his WWE debut for the NXT brand. Some fans criticize TNA for being apparently reliant on WWE personalities. But WWE wouldn't be what it is today if it hadn't raided all the best available talent in the '80s. Slightly different story. But still, exactly the same. In baseball, someone can play for the Red Sox and then the Yankees, and the world does not technically end.)
Taking TNA somewhat out of the equation left WWE with a lot of ground to cover. Technically, the top wrestler in the ranking this year, Seth Rollins (you know how little PWI thought his name would sell copies when this was one of those covers that went out of its way to obscure who exactly would take first), is about as "weak" a champion as anyone TNA fielded. Rollins, no matter how great, is a transitional champion. He's not the top guy because of his overwhelming popularity, but because he can get the job done until WWE can position someone else to take that spot. Still, he was absolutely the logical choice on PWI's part. Normally the magazine goes with whoever came out on top at WrestleMania, and managed to stick around as champion for a lengthy amount of time. Rollins certainly did that, but had already been a standout before that despite his utility status.
WWE had wanted Roman Reigns to be the top guy, but realized he wasn't ready. Rollins was. So they went with Rollins. Reigns still landed #4 on the list, which might be considered somewhat generous. The problem is that there were so few viable champions to list in the top ten. Brock Lesnar was ineligible for his limited schedule (despite being ludicrously dominant during the period and arguably the most popular attraction in wrestling today). John Cena, the 500's only three-time top ranked wrestler, took #2, and he was the only other world champion during the grading period. That ranking was generous, but nothing to complain too much about. Even Randy Orton (#6) and Rusev (#8), who clearly benefited from a somewhat limited field, are more acceptable than similar ranking in years past (here I'm think of Bray Wyatt taking sixth in 2014, only to rank #21 this year, which on the whole is exactly where he should have been last year, too).
Rounding out the top ten are A.J. Styles (#3), Shinsuke Nakamura (#5), Jay Briscoe (#7), Alberto El Patron (#9), and Kevin Owens (#10). Owens probably made an excellent case for ranking higher than he did, making a tremendous impact in both the WWE and NXT rosters during the grading period. Compared to his year, the other guys were practically also-rans. Styles has been impressive wrestling in Japan, which has shown far less reluctance putting him in the spotlight than TNA ever did. But he's been slow to be relevant anywhere else. Time will tell if his recent winning of a title shot in ROH finally lands him the last piece of gold he'd need to complete a remarkable career before a potential jump to WWE and/or NXT. (One can dream.) Nakamura is PWI's annual Japanese star tossed into the top ten. For whatever reason, Hiroshi Tanahashi (#11) keeps getting left out. Briscoe has been with ROH from the start, and has come into his own as one of its leading faces (or, heels). This is recognition he fully deserves. El Patron, as PWI itself references, is in the same spot as Styles, soaking up love around the wrestling community if not actually being given the opportunities he could easily handle. Even Lucha Underground didn't make him champion. Still have no clue why.
Prince Puma (#16), was that promotion's pick instead. As good as he is, being champion didn't give him near the same profile as El Patron, or Johnny Mundo (#32) for that matter. Johnny Mundo is the former John Morrison. I'm glad he's found a new spotlight. I'm no longer obsessed with his needing to be a promotion's champion. But it wouldn't hurt.
Personally, I would have ranked Dolph Ziggler in the top ten. But PWI is probably gunshy, given how many times WWE has backed away from pushing the guy as far as he can conceivably go, even though Ziggler has been on the right trajectory since last November. I'd also have liked Dean Ambrose (#13) in the top ten. I mean, you could substitute Randy Orton at least, right? Ambrose scored multiple major card main events during the grading period. He's all but the second coming of Steve Austin. PWI will be kicking itself a year from now.
On the other hand, Neville (#15) is ranked too high, Jay Lethal (#17) too low. But there are so many spots. I wish Sami Zayn (#23) could have done better, but he's lost a lot of time on the shelf. He can easily climb higher next year. Finn Balor (#28) is another excellent representative of the NXT generation. I'm surprised Sheamus (#42) ranked so low.
But as I said, these are quibbles. This was a good ranking, given that the whole field is in massive transition. TNA is sliding downward. ROH can't seem to decide if it wants to put in the necessary work to improve itself. NXT has been called the hottest thing in wrestling. Lucha Underground looks like its closest competition. And WWE probably wishes Daniel Bryan (#14) had not gotten a concussion, or any of his other recent injuries. A year ago, he was the one who started the next wrestling renaissance. Now he'll be lucky if he isn't left behind. And Rollins is forced to do what he can, however brilliantly, until someone else takes his spot. Which is inevitable.
But who? This was the kind of PWI 500 a real fan loves to see. Everyone's scrambling. Everyone wants to be the next big star. Let's see who succeeds next year, because by then, I think we'll have a definitive answer.