As 2011 draws to a close, all of us here on the staff of the Kappa Publishing family of wrestling magazines would like to sincerely thank you for your loyalty and support over this past year. And what a year it’s been.
The Rock made his triumphant return to WWE. CM Punk became the most talked-about superstar in the sport. Homegrown TNA stars Robert Roode and James Storm eclipsed legends like Hulk Hogan and Sting. And ROH took its biggest step to date toward becoming a national force with its sale to Sinclair Broadcasting Group.
In the coming weeks, you’ll find out who you chose as the winners of the PWI Year in Wrestling Awards for 2011. But, looking even further ahead, I thought I’d give you a very early look at who might be in the running when we’re counting ballots this time next year.
I’ll leave out some categories that are particularly difficult to predict, including Comeback of the Year, Inspirational Wrestler of the Year, and Rookie of the Year. And, just please, don’t hold me to any of this. A year ago, I predicted John Morrison could contend for 2011’s Wrestler of the Year award. How could I have known?
2012’s Tag Team of the Year: Unless TNA or WWE radically changes its approach toward tag team wrestling, it’s likely that the crop of candidates for this award will remain slim pickings a year from now. Kofi Kingston & Evan Bourne have a lot going for them—youth, excitement, popularity—but with little competition to speak of, it’s unlikely that Air Boom will be featured in many meaningful tag team matches in 2012. TNA’s best hope for a standout tag team in 2012 will depend on whether Chris Sabin heals from an ACL injury and can reunite with Alex Shelley in The Motor City Machine Guns. With far more visibility than ever before, there’s a strong possibility that a duo out of ROH’s deep tag team roster finally takes home this prize in 2012. And they don’t come any tougher or more polished than the now-seven time ROH tag team champions, Mark & Jay Briscoe.
2012’s Woman of the Year: Although the best women’s wrestling in the U.S. is likely taking place in independent promotions like SHIMMER and Women Superstars Uncensored, the reality is that, with their huge audiences, WWE and TNA will once again dominate voting come next year. WWE’s best hope for winning the award may rest with a returning Diva, such as Layla El or Karma, if she’s feeling up for returning to the ring soon after giving birth to her child. TNA’s women’s division is still head and shoulders above WWE’s, and veterans like Mickie James, Gail Kim and Tara can always be counted on to deliver a quality effort. If TNA or WWE would wise up and hire some of the sport’s most talented ladies, such as Madison Eagles or Mercedes Martinez, they’d all but be guaranteed this award.
2012’s Match of the Year: If one match in particular isn’t at or near the top of the vote tally next year, WWE will have some serious egg on its face. I’m speaking, of course, of The Rock vs. Cena. This generation’s version of Hulk vs. Andre will have a full year of build, a gigantic audience, and a hot Miami crowd undoubtedly cheering on “the Great One.” What’s more, there will have been plenty of time to lay out as perfect a match as possible between the two stars, and also to ensure that both men are healthy and in shape going in. If rumors of Chris Jericho’s return to WWE pan out, he would instantly top the list of WWE wrestlers capable of having a 5-star match, particularly if he’s in the ring with someone along the lines of CM Punk or Daniel Bryan. Speaking of which, Punk and Bryan would be guaranteed to have blockbuster affair if given the proper stage. Similarly, if built up the right way, the next clash between former tag team partners James Storm and Bobby Roode could have the emotion and gravitas to deliver a MOTY contender. And ROH is always good for some incredible matches each year. I’m thinking a Davey Richards vs. Shelton Benjamin heavyweight title bout could be something special.
2012’s Feud of the Year: The most obvious pick for this category would be The Rock vs. John Cena. But given The Rock’s Hollywood commitments, it’s likely that his wrestling return will be short-lived, and won’t include many, if any, rematches with Cena. As I touched on earlier, Chris Jericho has been taking some jabs at CM Punk in recent months, perhaps hinting to a possible feud upon his return. If anyone knows what it takes to inject passion and intensity into a wrestling feud, it’s Jericho—and Punk might be a close second. In TNA, there are still plenty of unsettled issues between Storm and Roode that could take several months, and hopefully several quality matches, to play out. And, even in its third year, there are few wrestling rivalries more volatile than that between Kevin Steen and El Generico. You have to think those two will spill some serious blood in 2012.
2012’s Most Popular Wrestler of the Year: Having been in Madison Square Garden when he won his latest world title, I must say that I’ve heard few pops louder than the one CM Punk received that night. Punk may not be the kind of wrestler who will expand WWE’s universe of fans, but he is the kind of wrestler who can win over nearly every fan in that universe. And Punk’s booming popularity should only grow in 2012. Fans who only know Daniel Bryan from his WWE body of work may be slow to warm up to him. But he has much the same charisma and talent as Punk, and could similarly win over fans in 2012. Over in TNA, James Storm has been showing the kind of charm and toughness that made Steve Austin one of the biggest stars ever in the sport. He, too, could make a run for Most Popular Wrestler in the New Year.
2012’s Most Hated Wrestler of the Year: One name in particular comes to mind: John Cena. With each year that passes, Cena’s jeering section has overtaken more and more of his cheering section. These days, it’s tough to make out a single, discernable clap among the chorus of boos every time Cena takes the stage. There have been hints dropped about Cena finally making his “turn” official in the coming months (perhaps leading up to or immediately following his WrestleMania match against The Rock.) But even if he doesn’t formally embrace his dark side, there’s a strong chance of Cena earning the top spot in this category next year. Other candidates could include a returning Jericho, for whom heeldome is something of an art form, Bobby Roode, who is off to a good start as a bad guy world champ in TNA, and Kevin Steen, who is officially back in ROH and is about as evil as they come.
2012’s Wrestler of the Year: It’s so hard to predict a year ahead of time who will dominate the sport in 2012. But certainly some wrestlers will be off to better starts than others. At the top of those lists are the sport’s reigning world champions—CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and Bobby Roode. In many ways, all three men exemplify what pro wrestling could, and should be in the modern era. They are relatively young, fresh, charismatic, athletic and passionate about their professions. Much the same could be said for several top contenders for their respective titles, including James Storm, The Miz, and Dolph Ziggler. One thing seems likely: After dominating the top tier for most of the last decade, established acts like John Cena, Randy Orton, Kurt Angle, and Jeff Hardy will become far less relevant in 2012 than they have been in a long, long time.
That’s it for me. On behalf of everyone at Pro Wrestling Illustrated, The Wrestler and Inside Wrestling magazines, I’d like to wish everyone reading this a very happy New Year. See you in 2012.