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The Magnificent Seven 3.30.14: The 7 Most Improved WWE Stars Since WrestleMania 29
Posted by Mike Chin on 03.30.2014

Wrestlemania is, without question, the biggest event on the US wrestling calendar. Pro wrestling has no off-season, thus Wrestlemania itself seems as fair a time as any to denote the end of one wrestling year, the start of another.

A lot can happen in the span of the year. While familiar faces like John Cena, Triple H, The Undertaker, and Brock Lesnar will fill featured roles at Wrestlemania 30, as they have many times before, other stars have risen over the past twelve months. This week, we take a look at the seven stars who have come the furthest this year.

#7. AJ Lee

There's an argument to be made that AJ Lee hasn't actually gained ground. After all, she stood in the corner of World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan at Wrestlemania 28 and between then and Wrestlemania 29 she enjoyed a huge surge from a cult favorite among the divas to the GM of Raw and an integral player in storylines involving not just Daniel Bryan, but also CM Punk, John Cena, and finally Dolph Ziggler.

In a sense , Lee is lower profile now than she was in years past, no longer a figure in the WWE main event scene. Just the same, she graduated from quirky sidekick to a player in her own right—the dominant figure in the Divas division who, despite not being featured on the eponymous show on E!, has held onto the Divas strap for eleven months and counting, turning back challenges from The Bellas, Natalya, The Funkadactyls, and Kaitlyn. Along the way she's proven herself as far more than just a pretty face, but rather one of the premier female performers this side of The Attitude Era. Popular theory has it that Lee is just waiting for Paige to get call up from NXT—if that proves true, I can't wait for the matches to follow.

6. The Usos

I remember reading an interview about a year ago in which The Usos indicated their next goal was a match on the main card at Wrestlemania. I remember thinking to myself that the sons of Rikishi shouldn't hold their breath. I'm happy to have been proven over-skeptical in this case. Over the course of the last year, The Usos strung together a series of polished performances, many of them with The Shield, but also with The Rhodes Brothers, The Real Americans, and The New Age Outlaws. Moreover, WWE, allowed them to get over, arriving at their first Tag Team Championship in such a fashion that felt like a moment on Raw.

A few months ago, I probably would have slotted Cody Rhodes or his team with Goldust for this spot, but while their luster seems to have temporarily worn away, leaving Cody in a similar spot to where he was last year, as a mid-carder on the fringe of ‘Mania, The Usos have elevated over the long term and have a real chance at remaining players for a period of years to come.

#5. Big E.

A year ago, Big E. had a last name, and though he had been established as an imposing figure, he also functioned as little more than a bodyguard figure for Dolph Ziggler. The Intercontinental Championship isn't a ticket to the uppercard the way it once may have been, but it remains a vote of confidence in Big E.'s favor. With CM Punk gone indefinitely, Mark Henry demoted and on his way out, The Big Show not getting any younger, and Sheamus coming back from injury still stale, Big E. has moved up to one of the top five full-time faces in WWE. If he stays out of trouble and find his place in some sort of meaningful program, there's every reason to think he'll be on the fast track to at least flirt with the main event in the next twelve months.

#4. Cesaro

After a red hot start in WWE that saw Cesaro springboard to the US Championship, he wallowed in the lower-mid-card for months before settling into an underachieving tag team with Jack Swagger. Around that time, he re-espoused the giant swing that he had previously used on the indies, and slowly built a cult following for the impressive number of rotations he could pull off, and for managing the move on progressively larger opponents. The WWE brass seemed to take notice of the guy's momentum and skill this year, elevating him from the doldrums to a place in the upper midcard when he wound up with a spot in the 2014 Elimination Chamber match, and exceptional matches with John Cena and Randy Orton during the build (not to mention his brilliance NXT work with Sami Zayn).

While it's possible Cesaro will get lost in the shuffle, teaming with or feuding with Jack Swagger, a face turn looks increasingly likely, and with it the opportunity for Cesaro to vie with WWE's other young studs for a spot in the limelight. While it's not a shoe-in, main events featuring Cesaro and Daniel Bryan paint a bright future for the WWE's in-ring future.

#3. Roman Reigns

While I'm inclined to agree with the skeptics who say Roman Reigns has not yet demonstrated the in-ring chops to really graduate to the main event just yet, I'm also on the side of the optimists who think that he could get there in the next year or so. Better yet for Reigns's prospects, WWE has demonstrated its faith in laying the groundwork for a big push, via monster showings at Survivor Series and in the Royal Rumble Match.

The Shield seems to be making a detour into face-dom en route their break up, which is a happy enough step for the sake of keeping the awesome three-man crew intact for a little longer, and all the more so for paving a more logical progression—I can't imagine Dean Ambrose working face for long, and when he inevitably goes bad for good, he'll make a worthy stepping stone for Reigns on his journey to the top of the card.

#2. Bray Wyatt

When last he was seen on the main roster, Bray Wyatt was known as Husky Harris, "The Army Tank with a Ferrari Engine." While his potential was clear, he never graduated from his spot as a Nexus flunky.

What a difference a year can make.

Back in NXT, Wyatt cultivated the sinister, borderline demonic character we've all come to know and love. His return to the main roster was marked some of the best promotional videos in the history of WWE. While he may not be at the tip-top of in-ring workers today, he's good, and very few are better at character work. Thus, he's rightfully earned a spot toward the top of the card—beating Daniel Bryan clean at the Royal Rumble, and graduating to one of the highest honors imaginable—a worthy foe for John Cena at Wrestlemania.

Win or lose at ‘Mania, there's every reason to expect Wyatt to be a main event player for the foreseeable future.

#1. Daniel Bryan

Daniel Bryan has kinda sorta been a main eventer for two years now. But when we remove the veneer that the World Heavyweight Championship was really as important as the WWE World Championship, we start to understand that Bryan hadn't truly arrived as a prime time player until this past year.

Wrestlemania 29 came across as a victory lap for Bryan. After losing his war with Sheamus and coming up short against CM Punk, he had overachieved to a ridiculous extent, emerging from a feud and then a tag team with Kane as a big of a star as he had ever been—Team Hell No's successful title defense against Dolph Ziggler and Big E. at the biggest show of the year came across as an affirmation of his team as an exceptional one.

This summer saw Bryan's true ascension, though. Rumor had it he would win Money in the Bank, but that proved both untrue and unnecessary as Bryan got his WWE Championship just the same, and shocked the world, beating John Cena clean in the main event of the best PPV WWE has put on in years.

Sure, Bryan seemed to lose some steam in his disappointing feud to follow with Randy Orton and his wacky entanglement with Bray Wyatt. But it all seems to have worked out for the best because now Bryan is headed for what may be the biggest night of his career at Wrestlemania 30—challenging Triple H and potentially progressing to the main event.

I suspect Bryan will win his first bout next Sunday, since Randy Orton-Batista really needs a face to balance things out. I'm dubious of him taking the championship, since doing so would not only give him a Chris Jericho-esque claim of beating Triple H, Randy Orton, and Batista in the same night, but also make it difficult to logically program anyone as a challenger to him. Just the same, his Wrestlemania matches stand to grant him almost-as-good returns. A war with Triple H will afford Bryan an excuse for not being at his best in the main event, and an excuse to chase Batista or Orton in the months to follow.

(An alternative bit of fantasy booking: Bryan beats Triple H but gets so badly hurt it looks like he can't compete in the main event, only to emerge mid-way through and steal the title, thus giving Batista and Orton a legitimate excuse to chase him.)

Regardless of how Wrestlemania 30 works out for Bryan, he's gone from a big star to the star of WWE over the last year, and thus there's little doubt he's the man to have come the furthest over the last year.

Who do you think enjoyed the greatest career growth over the last year? How do you think the Wrestlemania 30 main event will work out? Let us know in the comments section.

As an aside, if you haven't seen it yet, I invite you to check out my 68,000 word countdown of all 287 Wrestlemania matches on Buzzfeed. That's all for this week. See you in seven.

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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