There are a handful of wrestlers on the WWE's roster of talent that are treated as though their reputations are made of teflon. For a long time, performers like Kevin Owens, Bray Wyatt, Becky Lynch, Samoa Joe, Cesaro and a handful of others took more than their fair share of losses, largely because of their ability to have a great match with almost anyone, in any style, while telling a story to the best of their abilities. Then, they'd dust themselves off and roll right on to the next step, and they were believable and supported in such a way that they were always just a couple of wins away from jumping right back into contention, only to be set up to lose again.
While this worked, more or less, for extended stretches of time, the long-term damage to credibility that comes with being a perennial loser of big matches eventually takes its toll, one way or another. Lynch used that down period as a launching point to stardom when she hit her breaking point, while Wyatt ultimately had to go away and completely reinvent himself with a new persona and a lot of legwork in getting fans to invest once again.
For Owens, it felt as though he was nearing one of those make-or-break moments in recent months. After joining the main roster in the biggest way imaginable, by going face-to-face with John Cena and defeating him, Owens enjoyed a number of high points along the way -- his Universal title reign, his stretch alongside Chris Jericho as "best friends," his nose-to-nose moment with Vince McMahon that led to a Hell-in-a-Cell match with Shane McMahon and a renewing of his longtime partnership with Sami Zayn.
But somewhere along the way, Owens slowly lost his edge and seemed wayward as he slowly drifted downwards. He quit Monday Night Raw nearly a year ago and set up a wide range of possible re-entry points, only to return the following week and nullify any potential gains. There were glimpses of bright spots in his brief affiliation with The New Day, followed by an entertaining rivalry with Kofi Kingston, but he once again came up short and returned to spinning his wheels.
With real tension among the WWE audience about how Raw and SmackDown have struggled to tell consistent stories, and Shane as an easy target as a constantly visible figure wielding power, taking the chance to set up Owens as the quintessential anti-authority figure made sense, and he has knocked it out of the park. One of Owens' calling cards has been his ability to run his mouth, tweak his message to the task at hand and then either back those words up with immense physicality or manipulate any situation to his benefit.
No matter how the match between Owens and Shane McMahon plays out at SummerSlam, Owens is proving he belongs as one of the pillars of SmackDown. Whether or not that leads to him becoming WWE champion by the end of the year remains to be seen, but for now, the work he's done in a few short weeks has set him up as one of the most popular and supported wrestlers in the WWE -- and he's someone who has proven himself highly capable of maximizing on that energy every time he steps in the ring. Now we just have to wait and see if the WWE utilizes that and rides the wave, or simply sees it as another opportunity to use Owens' abilities and momentum to vault someone else on the way up. -- Tim Fiorvanti
The ESPN WWE Power Rankings are determined by a panel based on the perceived valuation each wrestler has to the on-screen WWE product. Number in parentheses ( ) indicates first-place votes.
Marc Raimondi: Kingston has been WWE's best example in a long time of protecting a champion and, for the most part, keeping him strong. His matches since beating Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania have not been outstanding, and arguably not as good as one would expect given his ability. But his character has been sound, and he has been booked as a credible top titleholder, which was certainly no guarantee. Kingston's program with Randy Orton heading into SummerSlam could end up being his best work yet.
Michael Wonsover: Sometimes it takes only one promo to completely change a superstar's career. Owens wasn't doing much of significance storyline-wise before he grabbed the mic on SmackDown two weeks ago, interrupting Shane McMahon, and delivered a memorable rant from atop the commentary table. Owens spoke in depth recently on the "Chasing Glory" podcast with Lilian Garcia about wanting an extended run as a babyface, and at a moment's notice here it is. Owens has a different edge to him as an anti-authority babyface in the mold of a "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. The stunner has even suited him well as a new finisher. Owens' ascent has given us exactly what he has decried -- another major show (SummerSlam) including a Shane McMahon match -- but this time there's a logical and meaningful reason behind it. Let's hope this run lasts longer than "Big O."
Sean Coyle: The return of Bray Wyatt has been nothing short of extraordinary and fresh. After months of teases and prerecorded "Firefly Fun House" segments, Wyatt made his return at the expense of Finn Balor on Raw. From the staggered lighting effects to the warped version of Balor's theme, Wyatt made a major splash in his first in-ring appearance in ages. He followed that up with a brilliant use of Mick Foley's own signature move, the mandible claw, on the Hall of Famer at this week's Raw Reunion show. Wyatt and Balor are scheduled to tangle at SummerSlam, and it's likely to be the continuation of something special that Wyatt's building here. Brace yourselves.
Andrew Feldman: The man's man is the focal point of the WWE right now, whether or not Becky Lynch wants to admit it. Rollins has earned the main event spot week after week, with an upcoming battle against Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam for the Universal championship Lesnar snatched away at Extreme Rules. He's still the most reliable person on the WWE roster, which is why he has been matched up with a variety of opponents lately, including AJ Styles, that have allowed him to showcase some incredible in-ring ability. It's probably better if Rollins doesn't get bogged back down with Lesnar for months to come; he needs something fresh, in relatively short order, to keep from feeling stale.
Wonsover: Call them the Bullet Club, the OG BC, the Club, or the OC, it doesn't make a difference. Whatever you call them, these three guys are money on the screen together. AJ Styles, Karl Anderson, and Luke Gallows have been in the WWE for 3.5 years at this point, but have spent only a small portion of that time as a faction. The three have undeniable chemistry and, most importantly, bring personality out of the soft-spoken Styles. Styles vs. Ricochet has been must-see TV, but I have a feeling the OC will continue to torment many more foes after they're done with the "One and Only." After an extended stretch of spinning his wheels, Styles has quickly started moving back in the right direction.
KC Joyner: After a month away from WWE, Lesnar was a surprise late entry in the Money in the Bank ladder match and then rushed in to claim the briefcase. Brock had Paul Heyman keeping him in the back of everyone's minds, and after multiple fake cash-in attempts, Lesnar won the Universal title for the third time with a cheap attack after Seth Rollins took part in a grueling match at Extreme Rules. Like any truly great heel, Lesnar is able to keep his heat under any circumstances, which is why he is the only irreplaceable wrestler on the WWE roster.
Raimondi: Is Lynch as red-hot as she was late last year or heading into WrestleMania? Not even close. But she's still a major, featured part of WWE programming every week and has done well with what she has been given. Lynch feels like a star more than most others on WWE TV these days. Her program with Lacey Evans was OK, and at first I didn't love the idea of Natalya being her opponent for the Raw women's title at SummerSlam. But the direction they are going in, using the pair's shared history, has been good -- and Natalya has been cutting some of the best promos of her career with Lynch as a foil.
Matt Wilansky: Shinsuke Nakamura was near the top of a fairly robust list of underutilized WWE stars for too long, but he finally owns gold again after beating Finn Balor for the Intercontinental championship at Extreme Rules. The first time around, as U.S. champ, he hardly made an impression, but Nakamura has charisma and talent to spare when given anything to sink his teeth into. His match with Apollo Crews on Tuesday was a preview of the kind of energy you can get from an engaged, invested Nakamura. Let's hope his ascent is a sign that other deserving, underutilized acts like Crews, Rusev and Ali (among others) will find more time in the spotlight.
Coyle: Just like that, Randy Orton is back in the WWE championship picture, right where he belongs. One of the most consistent, and psychologically effective, performers in WWE history has shown no signs of slowing down. Need proof? Watch his war of words with Kofi Kingston on SmackDown this past week. Orton delivered the best type of promo, one that felt like a shoot. Sign me up for Orton vs. Kingston at SummerSlam and potentially beyond.
Wilansky: Bayley finally seems as if she's more than a one-dimensional, if affable, loveable champ. Bayley is a legit star who has every right to not only hold the SmackDown women's championship, but successfully defend it for months to come. While the prospects of Ember Moon are intriguing, it's nearly impossible to imagine a title change at SummerSlam. Most importantly, it's a fresh matchup, a new contender and a story that stepped up in intensity in recent weeks on SmackDown. Perhaps down the road, Charlotte Flair will find her moment against Bayley -- but let's hope that isn't for a while.