25. KATSUHIKO NAKAJIMA.
Until his sensational recent heel turn Nakajima would barely have cracked this list. I always found his character to be flat, bland and uninteresting. However he showed signs of what he was capable of when he battled New Japan in multi-man matches and the showdown with Shibata would have been remarkable. It never happened and Nakajima continued playing hand-slapping babyface during his near year-long GHC title run. The heel turn has not only freshened Nakajima up but totally transformed him. He’s now awesome.
24. ONEY LORCAN.
One of my favourite NXT acts. Always brings it. His hard-hitting mentality to pro wrestling is the kind of thing you normally only see in Japan. He hits so fucking hard. His ‘hold the other guy and slap him’ spot is probably my favourite thing in wrestling. He looks a bit like Smeagol so I can see why WWE don’t want to push him but he’s all kinds of great.
23. TIMOTHY THATCHER.
America didn’t deserve Tim Thatcher so he moved to Europe where he could be fully appreciated by the masses. Tim Thatcher is Ringkampf. Watch this guy wrestle, he does all the little things right. Everything that old-timers complain about in modern wrestling is the opposite of Thatcher. He thinks everything through logically. His in-ring is terrific but at 16 Carat he killed it with his emotions. I was almost in tears at his pre-tournament promo.
22. MATT RIDDLE.
This year has been a big step for Riddle. 2017 he took one match and nailed it down. Wrestled it all over the world and got his jollies being popped for the Canadian Destroyers and no selling German suplexes. 2018, he switched it up. Over Mania weekend Riddle showed his range, culminating in that sensational match against Will Ospreay where he showed aggression and ruthlessness. He’s learned a tonne about pro wrestling and is now applying it. We knew he had the raw athleticism to be a star but he’s gone beyond that and is getting into the psychology of how matches are put together based on the storyline coming in. He really, really gets it.
21. AJ STYLES.
I’m very impressed with how AJ has taken to WWE. Not the in-ring as we all knew he could do that. It’s more ‘everything else’. The promos, the publicity, the angles. Those were his weak points in TNA. So TNA focused on his in-ring to distract us from all of that. In New Japan he really showed what he was capable of, from an in-ring perspective but in WWE he’s shown his true depth. WWE has helped AJ to become a better rounded performer and the reward has been a lengthy run as the ace of Smackdown.
20. KOTA IBUSHI.
Kota is a loon. He doesn’t need to wrestle. He doesn’t need to join WWE. He doesn’t need to shoot himself with fireworks. But he does. If more wrestlers came into the business with the kind of financial freedom that Ibushi has it would make more unique stars. So many wrestlers find themselves having to chase paycheques to make it. Kota just wants to make himself happy.
19. IO SHIRAI.
NXT bound Io has been one of Japan’s leading female stars over the past five years. Her talent is undeniable. The problem she now faces is similar to that of Kairi Sane, who moved to America and discovered everyone was far taller than her. Io is basically the same height. On the plus side they can wrestle each other and hit that ****1/2+ territory. Maybe that’s how they turn them both into stars.
18. PETE DUNNE.
Speaking of small; Pete is a guy who’s changing the perception of smaller guys in WWE right now. No one is talking about Pete being a cruiserweight. That’s never mentioned but he is very small. The only reason it’s not stood out yet is the general lack of height among Indie darlings coming into NXT. The great thing about Pete is all his NXT stuff has been good. He has a high floor. Everything he does feels important.
17. REY FENIX.
I kinda wish I spent more time watching lucha because if there are more Rey Fenix’s out there I don’t want to miss them. He’s probably the most underrated wrestler in the world and often gets overlooked because of his flashier brother Penta. Fenix is, by some distance, the better technician. He’s also an incredible flier and a potential global star in the making.
16. ILJA DRAGUNOV.
Dragunov is a little rough around the edges but he’s so intense. The man lives the Ilja way. He gets hyped up the day of the big match and doesn’t stop being hyped until he’s back home after the show. Incredible energy, incredible desire. He has a willingness to take abuse in the ring like no one else currently working outside of death match guys. In his own words he wants to be beaten up. He wants to feel that pain. That’s what drives him. Makes him overcome.
15. JOHNNY GARGANO.
Johnny Wrestling came into NXT with a lot of love from the Indies but a relatively low level of expectation. Gargano is small for WWE, under six feet tall, under 200lbs. It’s only the changing landscape of the feeder Indies that’s allowed him to be considered. From there he’s gotten over with his raw talent and by wearing his heart on his sleeve. Even before the big Ciampa angle he was drawing the crowd in with his selling and storytelling.
14. KENNY OMEGA.
I know a lot of people have Kenny higher, close to #1. For me he’s a fun wrestler but he’s not a guy I go out of my way for. I really enjoy his work and how hard he tries to improve. I also appreciate his immersion in Japanese culture from the video games to the language. Omega is the absolute prime example of making a career for yourself in Japan. No one else has done it better.
13. MAYU IWATANI.
The second highest placed women’s wrestler on this list. Mayu tries so hard it defies all reason. She’s aware she’s the Stardom ace and that Stardom is regarded internationally as a big deal. She knows she has to bust her ass in every single match to get the company to stay where it is. With Kairi and Io gone the pressure intensifies. The promotion has done a good job of building from within but Mayu remains their crown jewel. I hope she can stay healthy, and should probably stop taking bumps down flights of stairs.
12. YUJI HINO.
Hino is one of those guys where I’m constantly flabbergasted he’s not more famous. He’s built like a tank (5’10”, 243lbs) and is mostly torso. He has the ideal body for chop duels. Lots of surface area. He spent 12 years of his career hidden away in Kaientai Dojo and is only now getting the chance to show what he’s capable of. Every time a Japanese company runs a tournament I hope he’s in it.
11. KENTO MIYAHARA.
Kento just barely misses out on the top ten. Of the non-NJPW stars in Japan he’s probably closest to smashing through that glass ceiling. He quickly established himself as All Japan’s ace, taking a spot that materialised due to injuries and a lack of other options. Just because there were a lack of options didn’t mean he was the wrong one. He’s taken that spot and made it his. And he’s done it without resorting to massively altering his character. He’s just the best version of Kento. Living his best life.
To be continued…