Youth is treasured in our society. The younger you are, the more potential people see in you. In the wrestling business, however, youth is a tricky issue.
Most professional wrestlers just starting out in the business take anywhere from five to seven years before they reach their "prime" in the ring. It takes years to figure out how to work with various styles that you can put on a good match with anyone. It takes even longer for some to figure out how to cut a respectable promo. There are exceptions, of course, for the very talented, as I outlined in a previous FanPost.
With the average retirement age in pro wrestling somewhere around the mid-40's, (with some sad souls pushing well past that) the age of 35 seems to be the point in a performer's life where you know what sort of product you're dealing with. Anyone older than that is probably not going to be breaking out new moves or suddenly become a virtuoso on the microphone.
Talent between the ages of 25 and 34 (which is most of the WWE roster) are in the process of trying to define their characters and connect with the audience. It's a rare commodity to find a completely polished product not on the downside of 35.
With that said, let's take a look at which youngsters defy their youth and appear to be on the advanced track to stardom, despite not being old enough to run for president.
35. Mojo Rawley (27)
The hype man cracks the Top-35 on potential alone. He's got the size, the athletic background, and just enough natural charisma that you can see a few years down the line he'll be something. Right now though, it's like watching clips of Terra Ryzing from back in the 80s.
34. Drew McIntyre (28)
The chosen one seems to have been chosen to ride out his career as a comedy jobber with 3MB. Still has a good look, serviceable mic skills, and knows his way around the ring. It would be an upset if he ever got out of jobber-land, but he has the tools to do it.
33. Heath Slater (30)
Some might wonder why I'd put Slater above McIntyre if McIntyre has more potential. It's because Heath Slater was never meant to be a star. What he's doing now he's doing perfectly. Even enhancement talent can be judged by how well they do their job, and nobody on the roster loses in a more entertaining manner than Slater.
32. Curtis Axel (34)
If you take away charisma (which apparently God did with him) then Axel has all the tools. Even if he never achieves a higher status than what he has now, he's the perfect definition of a "good hand" that can be used for a long time to train newcomers and make upper-midcarders look good.
31. Ryback (32)
The other half of Rybaxel, only the one who got the charisma. Shame he never got the ring skills of his partner, though. Still, the guy is an impressive physical specimen with enough 'crazy' in him that he holds your attention. Might not ever be the main-eventer some thought he would be, but still has time to carve out a permanent roster spot for a long time.
30. Kofi Kingston (32)
The guy has spent the first six years of his career as a babyface with virtually no character development. He's over enough he doesn't have to worry about losing his job, but not over enough that fans are clamoring to see more of him. WWE should definitely turn him heel, if only to see if he can do it and what it would look like. It might extend his career more than anyone thinks.
29. Tyler Breeze (26)
The selfie guy in NXT is probably the most fully-developed character still in the minors right now. I don't see him headlining any WrestleMania's in his future, but if booked correctly, he could end up being what everyone thought Dolph Ziggler would be.
28. Damien Sandow (31)
The intellectual savior of the masses has fallen on hard times lately. It's almost like he's being punished for something. The last time I saw a wrestler go through this many indignities was, ironically, Triple-H when he was serving his penance for the MSG incident. Still, the guy has got tons of talent, especially on the mic, which should help him get through this down period in his career.
27. Jack Swagger (32)
Man, is Jack Swagger a case study in someone looking the part, having all the physical tools, and just not being able to put it together. His work with Zeb Coulter has re-invigorated his career, but you know he's thought so little of that when the Real Americans finally broke up, they didn't even feud on a pay per view with his former partner.
26. Fandango (32)
If Tyler Breeze had the most fully-developed character on NXT, you could make a strong case that Fandango owns his character as much as anyone else on the main roster. Tons of talent, oozes charisma. All he needs is to be taken more seriously and get out of the comedy feuds.
25. Dolph Ziggler (33)
Some day we'll all look back on Dolph Ziggler's career and wonder what might have been if those calling the shots took him as seriously as the smark fans do. I would have put him lower on the list, but I knew people would scream about it. So here he goes.
24. Emma (25)
Other than Paige, she's the most talented female worker on the roster. Their match at NXT Arrival was the best women's match I've ever seen. Has a much brighter future ahead of her than what she's stuck doing now.
23. Konnor (34)
22. Viktor (33)
The Ascension duo are pretty much the only real tag team in NXT and due for a call up to the main roster soon (I suppose as soon as NXT finds another tag team). They have a good look, good gimmick, and are fully invested in their characters. They'd debut on the main roster as the only real "team" (outside the Usos) that are more than just two guys thrown together.
21. Alicia Fox (27)
She wouldn't have even made the list two weeks ago, but he work on RAW has been a revelation. She always had noticeable skills in certain areas, and impressive size for a female competitor. The female bully gimmick she's running with now is absolute gold. Who would have thought last month that Alicia Fox would add more spark to the Diva's division than Emma.
20. Eric Rowan (32)
The bigger of the two Wyatt family heavies, Rowan has noticeably less skills than his partner, but has been improving by leaps and bounds since he debuted on the main roster. Has been a heavily featured player in multiple storylines, and is probably the most terrifying looking of all the Wyatts.
19. Sami Zayn (29)
Still adapting to the WWE style down in NXT, Zayn has all the tools required to be no worse than a midcarder when he gets called up. Does the babyface in peril thing about as good as you can do it. Charisma like you wouldn't believe. It's like someone took Kofi Kingston, Daniel Bryan and El Generico and made a wrestler.
18. AJ Lee (27)
The former Divas champ hasn't been on tv in a while, but that doesn't mean she hasn't been missed. Contributes a ton to the division, including being the best promo on the female roster. When she does come back, it'll be to a better Divas division, which will make AJ Lee better in the process.
17. Bo Dallas (23)
It's too early to call Bo Dallas a prodigy, since he hasn't really debuted on the main roster yet with this new gimmick. That said, the guy is only 23 years old and managed to develop a highly complex (by wrestling standards) meta character that fits his look perfectly. It will be absolutely fascinating to see how WWE audiences take to him and this gimmick. Hopefully he's got that ability to flip the switch when the red light comes on and show everyone what a real star looks like the same way his brother did.
16. Cody Rhodes (28)
If you've seen those JBL & Cole show clips on youtube, then you know how good Cody Rhodes is in skits and other comedic bits. If you've seen him wrestle anytime in the past few years, you know he can go in the ring. All he seems to be missing is an opportunity. I have a feeling he'll get it sooner or later once his brother retires for good.
15. Rusev (28)
They might want to change his nickname from "The Bulgarian Brute" to "The Bulgarian Bundy" if he keeps running through the WWE's African American superstars. Nonetheless, the guy has got a unique look, a manager who seems to defy the laws of hotness, and a strong push behind him. All he needs now is a descent storyline to get fans invested in his character.
14. Big E (28)
A guy who, by all rights, should be higher up on this list. I'm not sure what happened backstage with creative, but Big E has been in some sort of doghouse the last few months, even though he spent most of that time as Intercontinental champion. Still, the guy his a powerful, charismatic performer with a natural likeability. He'll survive this current stumbling block and come out stronger, I have no doubt.
13. Luke Harper (34)
A near 7-footer who can do the moveset of a luchador. It's a shame the WWE didn't pick up this guy earlier, as he's getting up there in years for a guy who only debuted a year ago. Still, he's a beast in the ring and has many more years to develop a character separate from the Wyatt's, should they go that route.
12. Jay Uso (28)
11. Jimmy Uso (28)
The WWE tag team champions have represented themselves well since winning the belts. They've basically scratched and clawed their way from tag jobbers to champions while simultaneously doing something unheard of today - getting the crowd to care about tag team wrestling again. All they need are credible opponents to work with.
10. Randy Orton (34)
Amazingly, Orton is still under 35, and in fact, just turned 34 a month ago. He's been with the company for over a decade and has probably reached his peak, both physically and performance wise. He probably doesn't have much left to show us that we haven't already seen from him, but you never know. Orton is creative enough and smart enough a performer to keep subtly tweaking himself to keep us just interested enough to not change the channel.
9. Adrian Neville (27)
The current NXT champ is short, but not small. He's got a weird face, but a stunning body. He has a rather pedestrian moveset, but also possesses the single most beautiful finishing move in wrestling today. In other words, the guy is feast or famine. When he does get called up to the main roster he'll either be a huge star, or Justin Gabriel 2.0. I'm betting on the former.
8. Bad News Barrett (33)
Since being given the Bad News gimmick, Barrett has slowly worked his way back from not appearing on tv at all, to appearing sporadically behind a podium, to appearing weekly on television, to finally winning a tournament to crown a new Intercontinental champion. The talent was always there. There are very few guys on the roster who have the complete package. Barrett is one of them.
7. Dean Ambrose (28)
Ambrose has been understated since his debut in the Shield. He's not the attention-grabber that Roman Reigns is. He's not the ooh-aah high-flyer that Seth Rollins is. He's just the best promo guy and first member of the Shield to hold a singles title. Doesn't necessarily fit in with the Shield being face now, since he's so good at heeling, but he's got a future as bright as anyone's on this list.
6. Roman Reigns (28)
I'll take some heat for this, but I'm not one of those who thinks it's a foregone conclusion that Roman Reigns will be a huge star one day. He's still really green in the ring and while he has a great look and some mighty fine signature moves, I can easily see Smark fans turning on him as soon as he jumps to the next level. If you're the type who hates guys who have the same match over and over again, you might be disappointed with where Reigns career is headed. That said, the guy is still a blue-chip prospect.
5. Bray Wyatt (26)
He's got the whole (wrestling) world in his hands. If you had to poll 100 wrestling fans on who they thought would be the top heel in the company 10 years from now, about 99 of them would pick Wyatt. And they wouldn't be wrong. He's got everything you look for in a pro wrestler - size, skills, promo ability and a commitment to the gimmick not usually seen in today's superstars. Who doesn't see this guy headlining at least one WrestleMania in the future?
4. Paige (21)
The prodigy. A 21-year-old wunderkind who would have been on the roster a long time ago if the WWE didn't have an age requirement to be up on the main roster. She's put on the best Diva's matches since the Lita-Stratus era and the single best women's match I've ever seen. There isn't a male wrestler on the roster who can match her age-to-skill ratio.
3. Cesaro (33)
If Cesaro proves anything, it's that there is still room in the WWE for wrestlers. Still room for guys who don't have to cut a blistering promo to get over. Still room for guys who don't need pyro or catchy music to get attention. Still room for a guy with simple black trunks and amazing physical strength to get over on nothing more than simply impressing the audience with his skills in the ring. What an amazing concept.
2. Seth Rollins (27)
Now, if WWE performers were stocks, Seth Rollins would be the one I would buy up en mass and sit on for a few years. In my estimation, having watched wrestling for over 25 years, this is the guy who is going to be the breakout star from the Shield. This is the guy who is going to be the next big thing once he goes solo. I don't even need to watch his matches, I can sit there with my eyes closed and listen to the crowd reaction every time Rollins does something. He creates a buzz. He might be the overlooked member of the Shield now, but he won't be for long. The guy has the brightest future of anyone on this list.
1. Daniel Bryan (32)
Assuming his neck injury isn't more severe than previously reported, Bryan should now be cemented as one of the top two or three guys in the company for the next decade. He's overcome so much on his road to the top that it would appear to take a lot for Bryan the established star to remain as interesting as Bryan the up-and-coming star. But if anyone can do it, it would be him.