I thought Drew McIntyre was going to be the guy. I thought Clash At The Castle was going to be his British Bulldog moment, and I thought we’d go off the air with an iconic celebration image that would live forever in every highlight reel celebrating the Scottish Warrior. Nope. It wasn’t meant to be. Roman Reigns extended his more than two year run with the Universal Championship and added another great moment to his already stacked resume.
I’m happy for Roman Reigns. He’s been the biggest star in wrestling for the last two years, and if you’re the biggest star, you should carry the belt most of the time. I know that seems obvious, but it certainly hasn’t always played out that way in WWE over the past few decades. So, good for Roman.
But at some point, he’s still going to need to lose. WWE can’t keep -- in my opinion -- both the WWE Championship and the Universal Championship on someone who has publicly said he’s taking a step back. And besides that, there are just too many other good guys who are ready to step into the role. Part of being a champion is being on television most weeks. So, let’s go over the contenders and talk out the 25 most likely people to take the title off Roman Reigns…
25. Montez Ford
Plenty of all-time greats including Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart started their WWE runs as members of a great tag team. The Street Profits won’t be remembered as fondly as The Hart Foundation, but I think they’ve had a modern day equivalent of The Rockers-type run. At some point, they’re going to break up, and when they do, it’ll be extremely interesting to see how much of Montez Ford’s smoke WWE wants. He’s good on the mic. He’s among the more athletic guys on the entire roster, and the fans like him.
This is still a huge longshot though because the timeline just doesn’t match up. First the Street Profits need to go their separate ways. Second, he needs to win over the fans as a singles competitor which is, by the way, not easy. Third, he needs to compete for some mid-card titles, and then fourth, he needs to get to the point where he’s main-eventing. That’s probably going to take years.
24. Happy Corbin
It’s going to be a rough few months for Happy Corbin. He’s taken some Ls since his loss to Drew McIntyre at WrestleMania 38, and his character is clearly going through a crisis of confidence. I expect the wheels to come entirely off the clown car over the next few months in really embarrassing fashion, much to the delight of the crowd. But at some point, I expect Triple H to start building him up again, and when that happens, there’s a non-zero chance he could end up in the main event scene. That’s just what happens when you’re a 6 ft 8 former football player who generates consistent heat from the crowd.
And this dude generates heat every time. He had the crowd rooting for Mad Cap Moss like he was a prime Ultimate Warrior. Corbin is also, by the way, the last person to pin Roman Reigns back in November of 2019. So, I’m not saying this is going to happen, but I feel very comfortable with putting Corbin at 24 here.
23. CM Punk
There are a ton of reasons why this is never going to happen. Let’s run some of them down: Punk has a serious injury and is likely going to be out for six months or more. Punk is currently under contract with AEW. Things didn’t exactly end super well with Punk in WWE the first time around. There are just so many headwinds to ever pull off a match like this, but let me give you one reason why he’s on this list ahead of many other wrestlers actually in WWE: the point of wrestling is to generate a compelling storyline people are interested in.
So yeah, the entire freakin’ wrestling industry would be really interested in CM Punk and Roman Reigns. You could headline a stadium show with that match. If there is money to be made, you always have to leave the door open a sliver, and with all of Punk’s umm... issues with AEW, that sliver definitely has a tiny bit of light coming through.
22. Finn Bálor
Some wrestling fans are pretty convinced Triple H running WWE creative will be a great thing for Finn Bálor long-term. Maybe that’s true. They certainly have a long history together from their NXT days, but I’m going to need to see him doing programs with someone other than Dominik Mysterio to believe that.
Bálor is a former Universal Champion, and he’s terrific inside the ring. He could put on some banger matches if he was given the opportunity. I’m optimistic we will see that happen under Triple H, but there’s still an Andre The Giant-like gap between that level and winning both belts off Roman Reigns in a big premium live event spot. Maybe they can start by giving us his bangin' entrance music more often.
It’s probably really stupid to put MJF on this list. His contract isn’t up until January 2024, as he’s repeatedly told everyone, and even if he jumps to WWE, which he probably will, there’s no guarantee he’ll immediately move into the title picture. He could end up more in the Intercontinental level, or he could end up doing a three month program with The Miz where they just come out and roast each other every week in like a passing of the heel torch kinda thing. Plus, what are the chances Roman even holds the belt that long? Very low.
But MJF is one of the most captivating promo guys I have ever seen, and while I’m not going to confuse him with a prime Mr. Perfect, I happen to think his in-ring work is good. It feels like we’re just a few years away from him working the crowd into a frenzy at major WWE stadium show. So, yeah, I think he belongs in the top 25 here.
20. Bron Breakker
Wrestling fans love to talk about the next big thing, and more than a few of them have been anointing Bron as the next big star for awhile now. Maybe that’s true. The dude looks like he could powerbomb Mark Henry with one hand, but dominating NXT is a lot different than dominating the main roster. Getting over with your average fan is a lot different than getting over with the hardcore wrestling fans that watch NXT.
Can you picture a scenario in which he comes over to the main roster and runs up a huge winning streak and puts himself into the title picture semi-quickly? Sure. But I don’t think it’s super likely in the immediate future, nor do I think, at this point in his career, he’s done anything close to enough to deserve the honor of taking the belts off Roman.
19. The Miz
Some of you are going to flame me for putting The Miz on this list, but the dude makes the most of every single storyline put in front of him. The writers toss him in with celebrities like Bad Bunny and Logan Paul, and he does a great job. They ask him to do comedy stuff, and he does a great job. They want him to use Miz TV to get other people over? He does a great job. He just gets it. I think he’s one of the greatest mid-card heels ever, right up there with Ted Dibiase and Bobby Heenan, and over the last decade, he’s bounced back up to the top of the card now and again when the right storyline calls for it.
Do I think The Miz is going to beat Roman Reigns? Of course not. It would go over about as well as Goldberg beating The Fiend. But do I think there are 19 other people more likely to beat Roman Reigns? No. The Miz still gets a heated crowd reaction every time he comes out, and there are a lot of guys in WWE who are allegedly higher on the card that don’t. He belongs on this list.
I’ve enjoyed Edge’s comeback a lot. He’s still sharp in the ring and as good as ever on the microphone. I’m so happy younger fans have gotten to see the Hall of Famer work, but if he was going to win the title, it feels like it already would have happened. The opportunity was certainly there after he won the 2021 Royal Rumble. Vince McMahon chose another route, and nothing about Triple H’s booking decisions since he took over indicate Edge is moving up the card. He’s still getting good matches and being treated with respect, but he’s not looking stronger or moving closer to the main event.
Besides, winning one of the big titles is about more than just creating a fixed moment, or at least it should be. Edge winning the title would be great the night of, at least if it had the proper build-up, but at this point in his career, I’m not sure I buy him as the regular champion everyone is trying to dethrone. Love Edge, though!
17. Karrion Kross
And then all-time WWE legend Roman Reigns’ two year plus title run was ended by Karrion Kross. Does that sound like a sentence that should exist? I like Karrion Kross. His black and white creepy presentation with Scarlett is already one of the better visual looks in WWE. He’s quite imposing in the ring, and I think his ceiling is really high. He was also immediately dropped into the main event picture and seems headed for a program with Drew McIntyre, which is a big vote of confidence.
But come on. It would be ridiculous for him to take the belts off Roman Reigns and not in a fun swerve kind of way, but in a late WCW, now you’re just being weird for the sake of being weird way. Let this dude pay his dues for awhile on the main roster and then we can talk about him being a credible threat for a career-defining moment like that.
16. Matt Riddle
I think Riddle is at a bit of a crossroads with his character. His laid back stoner has been more intense during his program with Seth Rollins, and it’ll be interesting to see whether that subtle tweak gets even more pronounced or whether he reverts back to the extreme levels of high he injected into the character originally. On a personal level, I probably enjoy him a bit more as comic relief and would rather he turn the dial back up, but I suspect a lot of other people feel he needs to get less cartoony to truly be a main event contender.
Roman Reigns beat Riddle in a heater of a match on Smackdown back in June. It was so good, in fact, that it had a lot of fans questioning why it didn’t happen at a premium live event. I had the same feeling. Riddle has been pretty over with the crowd this year, but if they wanted to go in this direction, they should have done it right after Randy Orton first got hurt. Him interacting with Roman made more sense at that point, and there was more heat on the feud.
15. AJ Styles
AJ Styles is probably the person I had the hardest time ranking on this list. He’s done absolutely nothing lately to warrant a spot this high on the list. I mean… if my only context was watching the product for the last six months, it would be insane to rank him above Riddle. But also, I have more context than that and he’s AJ Styles. There’s a reason he still gets random AJ Styles chants in a lot of his matches. Is it so hard to believe, if he were given anything to work with by creative, that he could go on a heater and get back on top? I don’t think so.
At 45, AJ Styles definitely doesn’t have a two plus year Roman Reigns like run at the top left in him, but I think we’d all love to see him get a few more incredible moments in big spots at some premium live events. Right now, he’s certainly not the guy to take Roman’s titles, but with a few smart creative choices by the writing team, he could be back on top in a hurry.
14. John Cena
Can you imagine how many keyboard fights wrestling Twitter would get into if John Cena was the one to take the belts off Roman? He’s going to come back at some point, and I don’t think it’s just going to be for one match. He has been very clear that he’s got another run in him, and he obviously has a very long history of holding any and all WWE titles. In fact, there was a point earlier this year when I was pretty convinced he was going to take the US Title off Austin Theory.
If you’re still not convinced he should be at number 14, let’s do a quick thought experiment. Let’s say John Cena came back and won the titles off Roman Reigns, and WWE announced he would be appearing on Raw or SmackDown every week for 3 months. Do you think that would generate a lot of headlines outside of the wrestling bubble? How widely do you think that would be covered and how much interest would it potentially generate?
13. Bray Wyatt
I’m still angry about so many Bray Wyatt booking decisions. Vince McMahon did not understand what he had here. He undermined his momentum in what felt like every single big match, and he ultimately pulled the plug in what has to be one of the most shocking WWE releases of all-time. But now Triple H is in charge and dropping quotes about how Bray is one of the most creative people he’s ever worked with.
I was optimistic we would see Bray and/ or The Fiend almost immediately, but there’s obviously still some kind of hold up. I don’t know if Wyatt isn’t ready to return yet or there’s still some work to do on the money end. Maybe he’s considering AEW or WWE isn’t as interested as I would be. I’m not really sure what’s going on, but if/ when Bray comes back, he’ll almost certainly be in the title picture immediately. There would need to be some build-up, but it’s pretty easy to imagine a scenario in which he steadily gained momentum and grabbed the titles at an upcoming premium live event.
12. Braun Strowman
I’m a little uncertain about where to put Braun Strowman on this list. On the one hand, he’s a big returning name who has had plenty of success in the world title picture in the past. He’s also the most physically imposing dude on the roster, apart from Omos and maybe Brock Lesnar, and he’s been getting some good crowd reactions so far. All of that screams main event picture.
On the other hand, I have a really hard time making the case for why Braun Strowman, above all the other people on this list, should be the guy to take Roman’s belts. I just don’t really see him as the guy long-term, and I don’t think his win would really tell enough of a story. So, yeah, he’s in play. This is a path WWE could take, but there are just so many others that look more appealing.
11. The Rock
The Rock vs Roman Reigns is the odds on favorite to headline WrestleMania 39 in Los Angeles, and if/when that happens, The Rock is certainly a credible threat to win. He’s the biggest crossover star in the history of the wrestling business, and he’s currently one of the most famous people in the entire world. If he wants one big retirement match, like Stone Cold Steve Austin got last year, he’s going to get it and probably beat whoever he wants. His cousin, Roman Reigns, would almost certainly put him over too.
That being said, The Rock also grew up in the wrestling business, and while him winning the belts at WrestleMania would be a huge moment, I don’t really think it would make sense from a storyline standpoint. It’s hard to imagine he would stop making movies and stick around, and it’s also hard to imagine he’d be excited about immediately dropping the belt on Raw or Smackdown. So, if this match does happen, which is still a big if, it probably won’t be for the titles, which means Roman would need to lose them to someone else.
Prior to Clash At The Castle, Sheamus would have been way lower on this list, but his match of the night performance alongside Gunther resulted in one of the coolest post-loss ovations in the history of the business. And somehow that momentum carried all the way over to Smackdown. The Celtic Warrior was getting Attitude Era-like crowd pops last Friday, and if that mass appreciation continues, people are going to start buzzing about the Fella getting one more run at the top.
I’d love to see it. Sheamus has been putting on banger after banger for a decade now in WWE, and while he’s been well-appreciated by many during that run, not nearly enough have recognized the Hall of Fame career he’s having. The crowd is going to need to play a big part here, but if they keep up the energy and appreciation, Sheamus will beat his way through better and better competition.
9. Randy Orton
Man, Randy Orton was hot before he went down with an injury. Crowds were working themselves into a frenzy every time he got a hot tag from Matt Riddle during an RK-Bro match, and there were rumors WWE was angling for a program in which Riddle fought and lost to Roman Reigns and then Randy came in like an angry big brother to challenge the Tribal Chief at the next premium live event. I have no idea if that was a real plan or merely an item from a brainstorming session, but the fact that it seems plausible shows just how over the Viper was.
We don’t know Orton’s timeline or what WWE might want to do with him whenever he returns. It’s possible they’ll send him back to the tag-team scene with Riddle or put him in a feud with someone outside the title picture. But if he comes back with anywhere near the same pull he had when he left, expect him to be involved in major storylines ASAP.
It’s not just Vince McMahon. Everyone who watches wrestling should be high on Austin Theory. The dude is really good in the ring, is particularly good for his age on the microphone, and also has a face almost as punchable as The Miz, which is a desirable quality in a wrestler. I think he has some WrestleMania main events in his future, but he doesn’t need this win right now. He has to be considered, given he holds the Money In The Bank briefcase, but I just don’t think he’s earned this yet.
Also, the recent booking decisions for his character don’t exactly make it feel like he’s building to something. He’s tried and failed to cash in at two major premium live events. He’s taken losses to people like Kevin Owens on television. He dropped his US Title to Bobby Lashley. These don’t seem like precursor steps to earning a victory over a prime Roman Reigns. That being said, there is certainly a chance Triple H and company use the briefcase to get one of the belts off Roman (maybe via triple threat match where he doesn't get pinned), which is why he's so high.
7. Bobby Lashley
How over is Bobby Lashley with WWE fans? That’s a serious question. I’ll admit, hand up, I thought turning him baby face was a bad call and the crowd would not respond. I was certainly wrong about the second part. He’s definitely over with fans, and his entrances are fabulous and among the best in the company. But is he over with fans compared to say Randy Orton or Drew McIntyre?
That’s ultimately the question. Lashley has MMA credentials and looks like he’s about to beat up everyone in the room. He’s also really elevating the US Championship, and alongside Gunther, making the secondary titles actually mean something again. As a huge mid-card belt fan, that really warms my heart, but none of that necessarily means he’s the guy for the entire company. I could see putting one of the belts on him again, but he’s not the guy I’d make the singular focus of the company. Maybe I’m wrong though and others are seeing a little bit more? He’s certainly very good.
6. Kevin Owens
People think winning Championships is the only way to be a successful wrestler. Kevin Owens main evented night one of WrestleMania 38 with Stone Cold Steve Austin in a match that everyone I’ve ever spoken to had an absolute blast watching. Then he somehow turned the most midcard storyline in the history of wrestling (Ezekiel vs Elias) into the most talked about storyline on social media for like two months. Now he’s back with The Prize Fighter, and it feels like Triple H is going to push him back into title contention.
I’d honestly rate him even higher than this, but I think the title picture he’s going to end up in is the Tag Team Championship. He seems destined to make up with Sami Zayn and then challenge The Usos for their own unified belts. Imagine how loud that crowd is going to be if WWE is able to build properly for that match. I’m already hyped at like an 8/10 and we’ve only gotten hints so far.
5. Drew McIntyre
Shocked! I’m still shocked Clash At The Castle didn’t end up with Drew McIntyre raising the belts. The back-and-forth in that match and all the near falls had me even more convinced, but Triple H and company had other plans. That doesn’t mean Drew McIntyre is done. He’s clearly still one of the biggest names in the company. He’ll hang around the title picture, but if they were going to put the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship on him, that was the time to do it. The crowd would have elevated it to even greater heights.
I’m not going to write Drew McIntyre off. He’s still a believable threat to beat Roman Reigns on any given night. Not many people have been built up to the point where they could pin him without any shenanigans, but the chances of him being the guy fell dramatically after that loss earlier this month.
4. Brock Lesnar
I know what you’re about to say. But Brock Lesnar just lost to Roman twice. How is he ahead of Drew McIntyre? Because if Brock Lesnar had told WWE that he would stick around for six months after SummerSlam and defend the belt at least once a month, I think he would have won. He’s either the biggest or the second biggest attraction in the entire sport, and even though he’s lost a bunch this year, this is honestly the most I have ever enjoyed him. His mic work -- which was a concern for some without Paul Heyman -- has been spectacular.
I’m not super interested in Brock Lesnar as champion if he’s not going to be on TV most weeks, but if he wants to come back and do another run, slap the belts on him again. I’d love to watch him pummel challenges each month at the premium live event.
Saying I loved the Gunther and Sheamus match at Clash At The Castle is not enough of a ringing endorsement. It was one of my favorite matches in years. It was brutal, sure, but it also told a good story and had a wonderful flow to it. I really hope we see those two dudes go at it again, but at this point, I would pay to watch Gunther fight anyone. His clothesline are more interesting than 90% of the moves other people are doing, and his presentation, especially with Imperium back together, is top notch. Ludwig Kaiser is also spectacular on the mic. Maybe my favorite intro since Road Dogg and The New Age Outlaws.
If it sounds like I’m marking out for this dude, it’s because I am. He’s amazing. But I also don’t really think he needs the big belt right now. Let him continue to dominate fools for another 6 months or a year at the Intercontinental level. He should be on every premium live event beating the hell out of someone. Then, at some point down the road, he can ascend to WWE and/ or Universal Title contention.
2. Seth Rollins
Seth Freakin’ Rollins is, for my money, the best wrestler in the entire world. He does everything well, and he’s really put in the work over the last year. He’s taken so many stupid losses against people he never should have lost to, and more often not, his match is the best of the night anytime he’s wrestling. The crowd would love to just unapologetically root for him in a match. That doesn’t mean he needs to turn babyface or stop doing whatever insane nonsense he’s been doing, it just means he needs to face someone like Roman who is a bigger heel.
It feels like Seth is organically building. The crowd is singing his theme song more and more. The pops on Burn It Down are getting a little bit louder each time. I’d love to see all that momentum and love from fans come together to create an all-time moment.
1. Cody Rhodes
After Cody came back to WWE to enormous fanfare and gave us a spectacular match with Seth Rollins, his path to the title seemed so clear. After he gave that excellent promo where he talked about his dad and winning the title for him, it all seemed destined. Every pop from the crowd and every match win just felt like further evidence of what was obviously coming… and then he got hurt. He gave us a spectacular and grotesque match for the ages on the way out, but at the time, it still felt like someone else would definitely swoop in and be the person to beat Roman.
But that doesn’t feel like such a guarantee anymore. Rhodes is probably going to be back at The Royal Rumble, and there is a strong likelihood, he’s going to win and set up his title shot at WrestleMania.
Is there anyone else on this list that could make more of that moment? I don’t think so, and until a better candidate presents itself, he’s going to remain at number one.