Most underutilized wrestlers of 2016

A big portion of Rusev's year in 2016 was spent playing the fool for Roman Reigns. Nick Laham for ESPN

We're getting down to the end of 2016, and while it was a truly bright year for a number of wrestlers who had years for the ages, some others were not quite so lucky.

In a company and a business that's so big and only has limited opportunities to utilize, there are always going to be some superstars who are underutilized. But as the WWE on ESPN staff gathered to celebrate some of the best elements of professional wrestling in 2016, we also had a bone to pick over a handful of talents that were egregiously mishandled and overlooked -- and they deserve to be recognized too, as we hope for bigger and brighter things come this time next year.

First and foremost, we have a man who didn't get to crush anywhere near as much as he should've, to his "Ravishing Russian" wife's dismay.


United States Championship reign aside, Rusev is capable of much more than what he was used for in 2016. He has the size, the look, the agility -- and we're starting to see that he can do great work on the mic as well. He spent a portion of the year stuck in a stale League of Nations stable, put Roman Reigns over on multiple occasions and closed out 2016 in a preshow match at the Roadblock: End of the Line pay-per-view. Rusev is too talented to be squandered in insignificant programs. He has the ability to be featured in main events as a dominant force and top heel in the company, and I think that'll come. I'd be baffled if we're sitting here at the end of 2017 with Rusev being regulated to preshow matches. -- Sean Coyle

The "Bulgarian Brute" Rusev remains one of the perpetually underutilized characters in the WWE. In 2016, Rusev began the year as a member of the go-nowhere group League of Nations. While they were victorious in a six-man tag team match over The New Day at WrestleMania, they then served as cannon fodder for the retired Mick Foley, Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin immediately afterward; the group was soon disbanded. Despite winning and holding the United States championship for over four months, none of his rivalries had any juice before he ultimately lost the title to Reigns at Clash of Champions. During that feud, he was made to look like a fool multiple times. Rusev could be a top-level monster heel, and hopefully 2017 will allow Rusev to "Machka" for the WWE Universal championship. -- Nick Irving

I agree with everyone who is selecting Rusev. He's had some great moments in his run at WWE, but he didn't have his one shining moment in 2016. He needs to be crushing bigger and badder competition. A meaningful rivalry between him and Owens, or Rollins, or even Strowman would be great. He's underrated on the mic too! At times, Rusev showcases a personality and charisma that may even allow him to work as a fun face in the future. Bottom line -- he's funny, and downright lovable on Total Divas. His appearances recently have been award worthy, especially the moment that showed him proposing to Lana: "So ... do you mind engaging me and stuff?" Legendary. -- Steve Braband


His tag team with Sheamus aside, Cesaro's ability in the ring and his new James Bond-meets-Jason Statham gimmick is built for a singles run for a world title. As pro wrestling fans, we want to see things that seem impossible, we want to see things that look unique, and we want to see things that look different; Cesaro fits the bill in each of those categories. The Swiss Superman spent most of 2016 trying to find his way after a horrific injury to his original tag-team partner, Tyson Kidd. When it seemed that the "Cesaro Section" was beginning to come out in full force, his role took a backseat to new NXT arrivals. Hence the best-of-seven series, which should have led to a world-title feud but has turned into a fun tag team with Sheamus. They ended The New Day's streak to become Raw tag-team champions, but like many times before, Cesaro must settle for being a few rungs short of that proverbial brass ring. -- Andrew Davis

Fans marvel at the Swiss Superman's feats of strength and wrestling prowess, but he cannot seem to get above a certain level in the WWE hierarchy. His best-of-seven series with Sheamus earlier this year was monotonous, and his entrance music continues to be, at best, puzzling. He has gone through a multitude of gimmicks in his career and only now seems to have found one that works with this James Bond-esque character. His current tag-team partnership with Sheamus feels like a situation where the two were put together because the creative team doesn't know what to do with them as singles competitors. The saving grace is that the arrangement allows him to hold a championship, albeit the Raw tag-team championships and not a singles title. Hopefully he will be able to reach new heights as a singles competitor in 2017. -- Andy Smith

Sami Zayn

He gets this honor because of the huge drop-off from the start of the year, specifically from where he was when he finally reached the main roster for good, to where he is now. Zayn seemed destined for big things as he was part of both high-profile ladder matches -- the Intercontinental title bout at Wrestlemania, and the traditional Money In The Bank match -- and then he "won" a feud over longtime rival Kevin Owens by taking what was supposed to their "last" match at Battleground in July. One month later, Owens won the Universal title and placed himself firmly in the main-event picture. Meanwhile, Zayn has been in limbo, put into an odd feud with Braun Strowman (and a lesser extent, Foley), and trying to do another "plucky underdog overcomes the odds" angle, a la Daniel Bryan. Zayn did get a mostly forgettable Intercontinental title match against The Miz at Survivor Series out of this angle and a random, throwaway match against Owens on Raw, and it's still worth wondering what the final payoff of this angle will be. Maybe actually going through with the oft-teased "trade" to Smackdown Live would lead to treating Zayn as an actual main-event threat, as he should be. -- James Quintong

Tye Dillinger

I can remember Owens telling me during an interview prior to SummerSlam that no one in NXT was more deserving of a call-up to the main roster than Tye Dillinger. Insanely over as a glorified enhancement talent, Dillinger has managed to earn the respect and admiration of the NXT universe with his solid in-ring work and charismatic gimmick -- and in the process, he made himself a legitimate NXT championship contender (as we saw when he competed in a Fatal 4-Way match on NXT TV in early December). The "Perfect 10" does a fantastic job of putting over NXT's top stars, but with Raw and SmackDown's rosters thin, he could easily do a similar job on either of the main brands. -- Nic Atkin

Dolph Ziggler

It's hard to understand why the WWE brass refuses to make this guy a focal point. With respect to Lex Luger, Dolph Ziggler is the total package. Between his incredible in-ring performances, his visceral likability and his down-in-the-dumps promos, there is little reason Ziggler shouldn't still be main-eventing consistently. For years, he has pingponged up and down the WWE hierarchy, and this year, after consistently coming up short against The Miz, Ziggler finally upended his opponent in a career-saving duel at No Mercy to become the Intercontinental champ for the first time since 2014. Thirty-seven days later, it was over. It's easy to recognize the importance of keeping the Miz as a top-tier heel, but in the process, Ziggler finds himself floating in Smackdown Live purgatory. Is he a star among stars, or not? And let's be real here: With Dean Ambrose's act getting a little jaded, Smackdown needs a baby face fans can really get behind. -- Matt Wilansky

Bray Wyatt

We are finally getting close to a proper amount of respect for Bray Wyatt, but for most of the year he was just another guy on a very talented roster. That is not how it is supposed to be for a guy who is as talented as almost anyone in the place. Seeing him next to Randy Orton not only elevates them both, but reminds us of how much Wyatt is capable of doing. Any year that does not feature him in at least one very prominent rivalry is a year wasted. -- Peter Rosenberg

The Miz

I understand that he is currently the Intercontinental champion, and that alone is a "majour" honor, but he belongs in the main event. For the first time in his career, I can honestly say that The Miz actually is awesome. The ring work is there. The mic work is there. The crowd hates him. The company loves him. He has it all, and no disrespect to the Intercontinental championship, but it is beneath him at this point. He is the most must-see performer in WWE history. -- Greg Hyde

Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson

I'm going with a tag team whose WWE run has been completely botched since the summer -- Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson. Their introduction was good, their pairing with former Bullet Club running buddy AJ Styles was fantastic while it lasted, but ever since "The Club" was split up, Gallows and Anderson have languished on Raw and never been given the opportunity to run with the ball. They shouldn't have had a lengthy, often groan-inducing feud with The New Day while their pursuit of the all-time longest tag-team title reign was seemingly inevitable, and they shouldn't have been made to look like fools on numerous occasions by Enzo Amore and Big Cass. Gallows and Anderson could've been the biggest beneficiaries of ending The New Day's streak, and even if they do end up beating Cesaro and Sheamus somewhere down the line, what then? They're incredible talents, and Anderson in particular has been inexplicably made to look like one of the weakest members of the Raw tag-team division -- he has a repertoire bigger than most guys on the roster, and as he used to like to point out quite often, he made the finals of New Japan Pro Wrestling's G1 Climax in 2012. When you look at the other Bullet Club imports the WWE has brought in -- Styles and Finn Bálor -- and what they've done, you can see just how badly the ball was dropped with these two. -- Tim Fiorvanti