This one will be a peculiar mix of talent, I’m sure, so let’s just dig right in:
XLV. AJ Styles
This guy should be a living legend. Everyone from Michelle McCool to John Morrison has been accused of ripping him off; to have established a style and move-set that is that recognizable would be remarkable in any era, but certainly the modern one. Styles is at the very least the heir of Shawn Michaels, a superstar who has completely obliterated the line between light and heavyweight competitor. He just happens to be the most consistent and recognizable and acceptable face of TNA.
“Consistent” may not be a word you hear associated with Styles too often. He’s one of those wrestlers Pro Wrestling Illustrated constantly complains about, even after putting him atop the 2010 PWI 500, the first TNA star to accomplish that honor. But the truth is, AJ Styles has been consistent since at least 2002, when he first came to national prominence as one of the first pillars of TNA, having established undeniable indy credentials the likes of which friend and rival Christopher Daniels can still only dream about. Styles has had multiple runs as TNA champion, including an epic reign that spanned half a year between 2009 and 2010 that saw him perform just about every conceivable role for a company standard-bearer, which was all the more remarkable in that halfway through, he was expected to continue that reign during the dawn of the Hogan/Bischoff era. He’s the only wrestler on any talent roster who can be instantly plugged into any program and being taken seriously (except by stingy critics).
He’s everything Shawn Michaels was never able to become, actually. HBK achieved his dream, and then descended into a nightmare that eventually robbed years off his career, only to make a comeback that basically placed him in the “purgatory” Styles has enjoyed, while still amassing championships, no less. When all is said and done, AJ Styles will be known as one of the most significant superstars in the history of professional wrestling. He’s done more than Ric Flair and Sting, even, despite the lack of similar recognition and sustained acclaim. If TNA fans treat him like this, it’s no wonder no one expects he’d get any respect from WWE, because it’s everything he can do to defy his hometown critics! And to think he was going to retire in 2009. His best years are still ahead.
XLVI. Scott Steiner
No superstar ever suffered more from success than Scott Steiner. He finally reached the pinnacle of singles success in WCW, only for the company to implode around him. Probably the best-developed heel of that time, he was to become one of WWE’s prized acquisitions in the fall of 2002, but showed up on Raw in 2003 and suffered the backlash of the Triple H backlash (a true wrestling paradox!) instead. He spent the rest of that year in a program with Andrew “Test” Martin, another wrestler whose unfortunate brushings with fate forever mired his career, and then showed up again in TNA in a successful supporting role no one respected…
Yeah, so the one-time tag team partner of Rick Steiner (his actual brother!) was always known as a muscle-based wrestler, but used to be more fluid and agile before seriously pumping up (not to be morbid, but he’s also still alive!) and losing the respect of the fans. But this dude seriously had game! (No pun intended!)
All of which is to say that like AJ Styles, Scott Steiner’s legacy should hopefully age more gracefully than his career.
XLVII. Too Cool
“Grandmaster Sexay,” Brian Christopher Lawler! “Scotty 2 Hotty,” Scott Taylor! Together, they were among the most unlikely and unintended superstars in the history of the WWE! Granted, adding the still more unlikely dance sensation Rikishi to the mix probably helped a great deal, but Too Cool was itself one of the great tag teams of the last great tag team era.
Lawler probably ruined his career in the aftermath of the Benoit murder-suicide, becoming one of the worst emissaries of professional wrestling, but the Hip Hop Drop will still be legendary decades from now, surpassed in brilliance only by The Worm, a move that made Scotty 2 Hotty an icon well beyond the point where WWE seriously expected to see him on the payroll (scored him two WrestleMania appearances!). That’s all I’ve really got to say about Too Cool, that they’re infinitely worth remembering, even if in the grand scheme they didn’t pass the test of time as regular members of the wrestling community quite like the Hardys, Edge, and Christian (let alone JBL!). But who would deny them, if the circumstances presented themselves, a reunion tour?
XLVIII. Lex Luger
The juggernaut with the worst timing in wrestling, Lex Luger was supposed to be the Next Big Thing a couple of times, both in WCW and WWE, and maybe even in TNA, if things had turned out differently several times.
In WCW, he had to contend with Ric Flair and his own buddy, Sting, who probably replaced him as the new franchise player. In WWE, so the story goes, he leaked the results of WrestleMania 10, and lost his shot at the WWE title. Back in WCW, Sting once again overshadowed him as the New World Order’s greatest threat. And in the early days of TNA, he became embroiled in controversy with the death of Miss Elizabeth. The dude just could not catch a legitimate break.
So I’ll always cherish things like Summer Slam and Survivor Series 1993, when he really did seem like he was going to go all the way, or the fact that he was Nitro’s first big splash, or that he was the “Total Package” long before people refused to accept Chris Masters in a similar capacity. Maybe if WWE ended up putting together a DVD set of Luger’s greatest moments, history might better remember that he really did make an indelible contribution to professional wrestling.
XLIX. Brock Lesnar
Even before he jumped the WWE ship in 2004, the buzz had worn off of Brock Lesnar. He possessed all the talent to be a bigger star than anyone else in the history of wrestling, but you’d hardly know it. Within a few months of his departure, people were already quick to call his old stomping grounds, Smackdown, the unacknowledged red-headed stepdaughter of the WWE. If the company’s biggest star had just been competing exclusively for that brand, what was that supposed to mean, then?
Lesnar made the leap in 2002, and worked his way up the roster in rapid succession, winning the King of the Ring, and then stealing Summer Slam from Shawn Michaels’ comeback. Lesnar himself found the pattern that then emerged a little uncomfortable: repeated matches with the Big Show and Undertaker, plus the much-heralded contests with Kurt Angle, including the infamous WrestleMania XIX encounter with the botched shooting star press. Suffice to say, Brock Lesnar is the star who lost the most from the brand split. Matches against opponents like John Cena and Paul London (it really happened!) were extremely atypical. Brock himself could sometimes be difficult on that front. But the fact remains, there was never and has been since anyone quite like Brock Lesnar.
After quitting the ring for the gridiron (a bid that nearly succeeded), he took a few more matches, by necessity in Japan, at least one a return engagement with Angle, and then…MMA. I’d say that a masterpiece film like WARRIOR would never have been possible without Brock Lesnar, surely the most charismatic MMA fighter to emerge from UFC and its rivals. Should Brock ever compete in the squared circle, rather than the octagon, again, it’d be in an instant the biggest wrestling news in years. He’s still got time to make that kind of decision, too! Do his few years in WWE already constitute a lasting legacy? You bet.
L. Booker T
Almost the reverse Scott Steiner, Booker T is the tag team star who emerged as a frontliner in WCW’s final days, and just about managed to continue his momentum into WWE. With his brother Stevie Ray (who was actually the first of them to tease a ringside career) in Harlem Heat, Booker was a standout in WCW long before he worked his way through the singles ranks. As he himself reminded the fans, he started amassing a considerable amount of world championships, and headlined the Alliance once the Invasion took place in WWE. He sat on the backburner for years, and then gracefully seized the first available opportunity to reclaim his thrown (I mean, as a world champion).
Then he made the switch to TNA, and had some success there, and then came back to WWE, where he has since the start of 2011 been sitting ringside for Smackdown. Not too bad for someone who used to be accused (rightly) and using thinly-veiled versions of The Rock’s patented moves. But only Booker can pull off the Spinaroonie! He’s another star who would absolutely benefit from a DVD package, and he’s as likely as anyone to eventually get that honor from WWE. And then, Booker T would be on his way to immortality!