The goal of any wrestling show, beyond just making money, is to produce at least one big moment that makes fans excited enough to tune in again next week to see what happens.
WWE has gone through a long spell of questionable creative decisions, unsatisfying endings to stories and underutilization of certain wrestlers. But when Roman Reigns returned at the end of SummerSlam, almost everyone watching that show was locked in to seeing what happened next on the following Friday's edition of SmackDown.
That intrigue was magnified several times over when, in the closing moments of SmackDown, Reigns dropped Paul Heyman's "that is not just a prediction -- that is a spoiler," line, and the camera panned back to reveal Heyman, who added "Believe that" with a mischievous smile. That was the only hook anyone needed to watch on at Payback, and with Reigns showing off a darker side as he won back the Universal championship, there's plenty of intrigue in how he'll kick off his title reign on SmackDown.
Reigns has instantly become the main attraction for WWE upon his return, and it's the perfect match of a star that's embracing a new challenge and a fresh, unpredictable storyline.
That's the primary reason why, less than two weeks removed from his return, Reigns has instantly taken over the top spot in the latest edition of the ESPN WWE Power Rankings. Reigns and Heyman have the eyes of the wrestling world on them, and after years of fans begging for something new from Reigns -- something other than the same chest protector-wearing, cardboard cutout prototype of a "good guy" character -- Reigns has something he can really dig his teeth into.
Reigns isn't the only one who shifted the balance over the last few weeks. Keith Lee has gone from NXT champion, to former NXT champion, to Raw debutant, to someone who beat a red-hot Randy Orton in less than seven minutes on pay-per-view. Big things are clearly in Lee's future, and even though he asked for patience on the topic, the sooner we can have his music sorted out and out of the conversation, the better off we'll all be.
As I shout "you've gotta be joking me" one last time at the thought of considering The IIconics in the past tense, our panel joins me in breaking down our top 10 most valuable wrestlers to WWE's current on-screen product. -- Tim Fiorvanti
1. Roman Reigns
Arda Ocal: In video games, there is a term known as a "buff." It means a power up, an augmentation, an advantage, a leveling up of sorts. Paul Heyman is a buff for WWE superstars.
The "Paul Heyman buff" is a real thing. Just look at the superstars that Paul has endorsed -- most of that list reads like a Hall of Fame in its own right. When Paul Heyman is in your corner, chances are you will come out of it much better than when you went into it. Roman Reigns was always a top player in WWE -- nobody is disputing that -- whether you liked it (and him) or not. He is a much better performer than many would give him credit for, and a lot of the hate on him is unwarranted. His return was surprising for many reasons, and his alliance with Heyman is both clever and terrific. The math here is Roman Reigns + Paul Heyman buff = unstoppable main event force for the foreseeable future.
2. Randy Orton
Ocal: The reason Randy Orton is so high on my list is that, even as a casual fan, Orton is the most important performer in WWE as it pertains to status and the details in the ring. Orton has always had that "generational athlete, wrestling is in his blood, immense potential" tag to him, but this is truly a renaissance in his career. A title isn't needed for Randy to make any feud, match, or moment important. He made Keith Lee a viable main roster talent in 7 minutes.
Orton is the type of wrestler I would tell aspiring wrestlers to watch. Every mannerism, every decision. The way he positions for the camera and emotes with no movement wasted, every grimace he makes after a missed RKO, how he sets up for the punt. Every sneer, twitch and convulsion, everything is meticulously planned, and it's a masterclass in detail. If I only have time to watch one segment of WWE a week, I'm looking for Randy's segments.
Andrew Feldman: Drew McIntyre has shined at a time when WWE needed him most. The pandemic era was led by a reinvigorated McIntyre with tremendous charisma, attention to emotion and excellent in-ring efforts, which put him into another category on the roster. WWE has put him into massive spots with top talent and has him currently involved with Randy Orton as Orton continues yet another career renaissance. If there was no pandemic, McIntyre could be on every talk show, making movies and doing so much more, and perhaps that will come down the road. But for now, he'll keep on thriving in the ring and on the mic and who knows, maybe he'll actually get his chance against Tyson Fury as well.
4. Keith Lee
Fiorvanti: I'll admit I was part of the contingent that got wrapped up in the anger and confusion of Keith Lee's music and ring attire changes, and that briefly distracted me from the bigger picture -- Lee and Orton going toe to toe as equals in Lee's Raw debut. That Lee followed up that performance by soundly defeating Orton in his main roster pay-per-view debut speaks volumes of where he's heading next. A No. 1 contender's match didn't go his way on Raw, but Lee's match with Dolph Ziggler allowed him to show off a little bit more of his deep moveset. Lee might stay entangled in the ongoing McIntyre-Orton storyline for a little while yet, but stacking up more big wins in the short term is the most important thing that can be done for Lee right now.
Having to hit the ground running is no easy assignment, but considering his skillset and disposition, I'm of the firm belief that Lee will be up to the task.
5. Bayley & Sasha Banks
Feldman: I feel like any commentary on Sasha Banks and Bayley will be outdated the moment this gets posted. But that is exactly what has made them such a success -- consistent progress, forward momentum and unpredictable twists along the way. The pair has thrived on every show, put on amazing matches -- especially against Asuka -- and it's likely we will ultimately see their relationship gradually deteriorate to the point that they'll have no other choice then to finally face each other. When that happens, the time will be right ... unlike the rushed feud they had years ago. It's going to be awesome. The real question at this point is which one will turn on the other?
Matt Wilansky: With all the twists and teases and goings on in the various women's divisions right now, one thing is clear: Asuka is the right person to be wearing the Raw women's title. Her in-ring energy and tactics are second to none, and her matches are consistently entertaining. She's so solid in the ring that whatever storyline she has going on takes a backseat to watching her perform and outmaneuver the rest of the roster bell to bell. A lesser wrestler could've been swallowed up by the ongoing story between Sasha Banks and Bayley, but Asuka used the opportunity to elevate herself.
7. Seth Rollins
Fiorvanti: Dominik Mysterio has rightfully received a lot of credit for his performances in recent weeks in the first televised matches of his career. He outperformed any and all expectations at SummerSlam, Payback and Monday Night Raw. But just like Adam Cole deserves a lot more credit than he received for a really entertaining match against Pat McAfee, Dominik Mysterio would've been nowhere without a capable, enthusiastic and willing opponent in Seth Rollins.
Rollins was once again unsuccessful in his push toward the WWE championship, he's battling with one of his disciples, and another (seemingly former) follower has returned to NXT. It may be time for reflection and refocusing for the "Monday Night Messiah," but hopefully enough people appreciate just how talented a performer it takes to have the confidence and the know-how to have a match with even the most skilled of rookies on a big stage.
8. Bray Wyatt
Wilansky: You have to feel for Wyatt. Really. The guy can't catch a break. For all the fun, twisted storytelling, he continues to spend more time chasing titles than holding on to them. His most recent Universal championship reign lasted all of a week. Revenge could be on his mind, but stopping the pairing of Reigns and Heyman right now seems all but impossible. Perhaps, as he did leading into WrestleMania, Wyatt can put aside his world title aspirations and turn his attention to other pursuits. Maybe he can mix it up with someone who can match up with him in terms of being ... out there, like Intercontinental champion Jeff Hardy.
9. Big E
Kel Dansby: Big E's solo run has gotten off to a hot start. His in-ring work has long been worthy of a strong singles push, but his raw honesty on Talking Smack shows that he has everything needed to be a top guy. Big E is the perfect superstar to fill the top babyface role that was previously held by John Cena.
10. The Hurt Business
Dansby: The Hurt Business, and Bobby Lashley in particular, has quickly become one of the most dominant stables in WWE. The formation of the group has led each of its members to dig into what they do best. Lashley, in particular, has benefited from MVP being the voice and the inspiration for the trio, and his level of intensity and general ruthlessness has never been higher. Lashley has been dominant on Raw Underground, and he captured the United States title from Apollo Crews at Payback.