by Alex Ashe




Since its late-’90s heyday, the WWE has struggled to establish compelling main-event stars, evidenced most by the stale John Cena’s role as the face of the company for the better part of a decade. But his main rival and toptier counterpart, CM Punk, is a snarky, tattooed antihero, essentially the Batman to Cena’s Superman. His compelling speeches and rebellious spirit most evoke the great “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, but in contrast to Austin’s beer-fueled antics, Punk celebrates his trueto-life, straight-edge lifestyle. The long-teased dream match between the two is wrestling’s equivalent to Mayweather-Pacquiao.


A 5-foot-10 vegan, Daniel Bryan is the complete antithesis of the pro-wrestler archetype, yet no one’s stock is rising faster. A trainee of perennial showstopper Shawn Michaels, Bryan is WWE’s most exciting and technically skilled wrestler, and now looks poised to join Cena and Punk atop the company’s food chain.


For the most part, a wrestler only looks as strong as his opponent allows him to. “The Show Off” Dolph Ziggler understands this better than most and commits to sufficiently selling every move, even if it means routinely adopting the form of a rag doll. Win or lose, he constantly makes his opponent look great in the process, an invaluable and underappreciated skill.


The legendary Undertaker still wrestles a couple matches a year, clinging to the holy grail of manufactured accomplishments, a 21-0 record at WrestleMania. Meanwhile, his (storyline) brother Kane, a WWE cornerstone since his 1997 debut, continues to work a full-time schedule. A solid in-ring performer, he can also seamlessly alter between menacing and comic roles. If his run ends soon, it’ll be for the best possible reason. The man behind the mask, Glenn Jacobs, is an extremely intelligent Libertarian idealist who is considering challenging Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) in next year’s primary.


Throughout 2012, storylines romantically linked the diminutive and quirky AJ Lee with Bryan, Punk, Kane and Cena, who she ultimately spurned for her current beau, Dolph Ziggler. Through it all, Lee has personified “crazy” and consistently entertained whether by way of her matches or simply her priceless facial expressions and body language. Whatever the WWE writers give her, she knocks out of the park.


The colossal Henry legitimately earned his title of World’s Strongest Man during his decorated career as a competitive powerlifter, prior to joining WWE in 1996. He’s been a fixture of the company ever since, but his best work has come in recent years while completely embracing the role of a relentless bully. Most recently, Henry brilliantly faked a convincing retirement speech in a ruse to blindside Cena and challenge him for his WWE Championship.


A relative newcomer, Sandow has made a quick impression thanks to his awesome gimmick as “the intellectual savior of the masses.”   Prior to his matches, Sandow saunters to the ring dressed in a scholarly robe and thoroughly patronizes the audience, all while holding the microphone like a wine glass.


Sure, the outcomes are planned, but arriving there isn’t always easy. The bigger stars typically have more say in regards to their booking, and sometimes guys are simply unwilling to lose when asked. It’s an unwritten rule that if you’re established and nearing the end of your career, you use your stature to put the younger guy over. One of the few big-name veterans left on the roster, Chris Jericho has recently made a habit of this. Knowing that losing won’t hurt his reputation at this point, he’ll often defer to guys who need the win to establish themselves.


A throwback to the era of colorful gimmicks based on certain sects of pop culture, Fandango is basically a take on a “Dancing with the Stars” coach. It’s a simple yet entertaining shtick in which the wrestler dances to the ring with his female partner amidst catchy entrance music and over-the-top pyro, often incorporating a ballroom dance move into his match. It’s tough to forecast the character’s staying power, but by giving him the win in his debut match against Jericho at WrestleMania, WWE seems to have big plans for Fandango.


The Shield, a savage trio of newcomers, debuted last year and have since beaten up nearly the entire roster. Most notably, they had the honor of slamming the Undertaker through an announcers’ table, writing him off TV presumably until Summerslam or Wrestle- Mania season. Ambrose, the group’s standout member, has a Heath Ledger-as-Joker vibe about him, and can portray an unhinged lunatic to an unsettling degree. A seasoned hardcore wrestler, Ambrose will be a huge star if WWE sheds its PG rating while he’s around.