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The Magnificent Seven 3.23.14: The Top 7 Biggest WWE Stars Since WrestleMania 20
Posted by Mike Chin on 03.23.2014

It has been ten years since Wrestlemania last took place at Madison Square Garden, under the tagline, "Where it all Begins… Again." Hindsight tells us that, in some regards, Wrestlemania 20 was a false start. The two men to walk out world champions were each de-pushed within six months, and deceased within the next three and a half years. And rather than continuing a tradition of Madison Square Garden as the every-ten-year home base for Wrestlemania, that show may have actually ended that institution.

But a lot has changed since 2004. New stars have risen while others have concretized their places as primary draws for the company and as future (or even, now, current) Hall of Famers. So, in this week's column, I'm taking a look at the seven men to enjoy the greatest career growth as WWE stars since Wrestlemania 20.

(Author's Note: I don't like honorable mentions, but so no one thinks I forgot him, Brock Lesnar was in close contention for a spot on this list. Because he developed his legendary status more as a UFC fighter than as a WWE superstar, and because he's wrestled so little since Wrestlemania 20, I opted not to rank him, despite evolving from solid main eventer to breakaway pay per view draw in the interim. In different ways and to a different degree, the same rationale holds true for The Rock missing this list.)

#7. Rey Mysterio

Rey Mysterio came around at just the right time, and landed in just the right circumstances to far exceed the expectations most folks had for him in 2004. While Mysterio was very arguably in his in-ring prime before he ever debuted in WWE, WCW was the only comparable US stage he ever wrestled on, and they never really let him blossom beyond the lightweight division. Mysterio started in a similar place in WWE, and though he had more interactions with the heavyweights in WWE, he didn't look to have much shot at ever getting higher than the upper mid-card.

Mysterio arrived in a post-Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels period when a smaller athlete had a shot at the main event, and a post-Attitude Era point when wholesome family figures were coming into vogue. On top of all of that, when Eddie Guerrero tragically passed, Mysterio was just the inspirational figure to spin a positive story out of a tragedy, and thus he had the opportunity to win the Royal Rumble and go on to win his first world title at Wrestlemania 22.

Since that point, Mysterio has persevered as a consistent upper-card act, and won world titles twice more (albeit only benefiting from cup-of-coffee reigns each subsequent time). Nonetheless, in the traditional land of the giants, Mysterio has built a fine career for himself over the last ten years.

#6. The Undertaker

Yes, ‘Taker was a big deal long before Wrestlemania 20. But in 2004, his ‘Mania match was a forgettable comeback affair, pitted in a plodding slugfest against Kane. If we were to accept that match as a harbinger of what was to come for The Dead Man in the ten years to follow, we would be looking at a fading legend riding out his last days in the ring.

Instead, over the decade to follow, ‘Taker's undefeated streak at Wrestlemania went from statistical anomaly to the stuff of legend. Yes, the years to follow included an unreMarkable casket match at Wrestlemania 22, but otherwise, it has featured an inspired outing against up-and-coming Randy Orton, the best match of Batista's career, a fantastic showdown with Edge, two legendary bouts with Shawn Michaels, two solid bouts with Triple H, and a MOTYC with CM Punk. Along this journey, The Undertaker went from very legit veteran main eventer to certifiable WWE legend with a resume that only those in truly rarefied air can touch.

#5. CM Punk

The Straight Edge Superstar technically made his Wrestlemania debut at Wrestlemania 22, as one of John Cena's anonymous gangster sidekicks for his elaborate entrance. A year after that, he was appearing as a featured performer in Money in the Bank. The following two years, he was winning Money in the Bank, which translated to two world title reigns, the first a milk toast run as a neutered face who was sort of an afterthought to John Cena and Batista; the second as a thriving heel star on Smackdown.

Punk had carved out a perfectly suitable legacy for himself, and there was little shame in slipping a notch down the card to face Rey Mysterio at Wrestlemania 26, and he'd enjoyed marginal ascent the year to follow, facing number-two face Randy Orton at Wrestlemania 27.

Then came The Pipe Bomb.

In one night, CM Punk transcended the pro wrestling faithful to reach a broader audience and catapulted to a point at which he was second only John Cena among WWE luminaries. While the span between that promo and the 2011 Money in the Bank PPV arguably marked the peak of his career, Punk did just fine for himself over the years to follow, highlighted by an over-a-year-long reign as WWE Champion, back-to-back pay per view matches with The Rock, stealing the show at Wrestlemania 29 with The Undertaker, and a MOTYC with Brock Lesnar at the following SummerSlam.

Particularly given the current sabbatical that Punk may or may not come back from, you can argue that he doesn't have the longevity of several other names on this list. Just the same his star burned very brightly, making him the only man on this list to progress from total WWE anonymity to superstar status over the last ten years.

#4. Edge

Edge sat on the DL when Wrestlemania 20 went down. Upon his return, questions stirred around him—primarily whether he could ever bust through the glass ceiling and become a legitimate main event talent.
Add a shoot affair, Lita as his femme fatale sidekick, the wonders of the very first Money in the Bank run, and presto-chango, Edge became the top heel in wrestling. Ten world championships, four world title matches at Wrestlemania, and truly epic feuds with John Cena and The Undertaker—these were the steps that concretized Edge's place as one of WWE's all-time greats. Not too shabby for ten years of progress (especially impressive for just eight years, given his career-ending spine injury).

#3. Batista

Though Batista enjoyed a less than warm welcome upon his return to the WWE this January, there's no denying his meteoric rise in the wrestling business. Wrestlemania 20 saw him playing muscle head enforcer to Randy Orton's rising star and Ric Flair's crazy old legend act. A year later, he was main eventing the biggest show of the year, pinning Triple H clean to win his first world title. Over the six years to follow, Batista never ventured far from the main event scene, first as a face star who enjoyed his greatest success on Smackdown , and closing out his initial WWE run as a main event heel on Raw, warring with John Cena.

No, Batista is not a star on the level of The Rock, Brock Lesnar, or John Cena. But he is a guy who went from generic upper mid-card heel in 2004 to one of the biggest stars in the business over the years to follow, ready to challenge for another world title at Wrestlemania 30.

#2. Randy Orton

It wasn't a surprise that Randy Orton evolved into a main eventer since Wrestlemania 20, but rather a case of fulfilled prophecy. The third-generation wrestler was groomed for stardom. ‘Mania 20 was in many ways his coming out party, locking horns with the likes The Rock and Mick Foley, and winning. A month later, he shored up his legitimacy, beating Foley in a brutal hardcore match. That summer he would become the youngest world champ in WWE history. Sure, the middling execution of his face turn in the months to follow slowed Orton's progress, but it didn't change the overall arc of his story, rising as WWE's most consistent main event fixture not named John Cena in the years to follow.

#1. John Cena

Could anyone else fill this spot? Like Orton, Cena walked into Wrestlemania 20 with the writing on the wall. His US Championship win over Big Show that night was a clear signal of a star on the rise, working his way up the card in the old fashioned tradition of men like Randy Savage, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, The Rock, and Triple H—making a pit stop in mid-card royalty on his way to main event glory.

Sure enough, one year later, John Cena would join Batista in winning his first world title at Wrestlemania. The difference is that Cena would go on wrestle in world title matches in seven out of eight of the Wrestlemanias to follow. What about the year he wasn't in the title match? Oh right, he was main eventing against The Rock.

John Cena is the Hulk Hogan or Stone Cold of a period in wrestling that happens to be less hot. Over the last decade, he's proved himself as committed, talented, and reliable, besides being a genetic freak when it comes to his abbreviated recovery time from major injury. Love him or hate him, there is no one who touches John Cena's record as the star who has enjoyed the biggest net rise since Wrestlemania 20.

Read stories and miscellaneous criticism from Mike Chin at his website and his thoughts on a cappella music at The A Cappella Blog. Follow him on Twitter @miketchin.


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