No one knows for sure what the next 12 months will bring to WWE. In just the last few weeks, a flurry of moves from NXT to Raw and SmackDown were announced and a McMahon quartet completely changed the on-screen power structure of both shows.
Meanwhile, NXT seems to be adding depth by the week as independent standouts and homegrown athletes ascend the ladder in Orlando. With change in the air throughout the WWE, the opportunity for dramatic upward mobility seems more possible than at any other time in recent memory — and with that in mind, we’re breaking down a dozen stars who seem ready to take the next big step forward in their careers in 2019.
Main roster title contenders for 2019 — These four stars will make the last big leap into the spotlight, claiming a world title by the time all is said and done in December
McIntyre returned to the WWE fold in April 2017 as part of NXT, and by August he’d become the NXT champion. After a few months as champion, McIntyre’s momentum came to a screeching halt late in 2017 as he tore his left biceps and lost the NXT championship to Andrade “Cien” Almas.
He spent the next five months rehabbing and recovering, and rather than returning to NXT, he stormed back onto Raw as Dolph Ziggler’s compatriot with a mission of taking over the show. Over the rest of the year, McIntyre stood toe-to-toe with the likes of Braun Strowman, Finn Balor, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, Kurt Angle and, finally, Ziggler. McIntyre and Ziggler became Raw tag team champions in September and then got drafted to become Strowman’s equalizers to The Shield. Opposite the biggest stars Raw had to offer, McIntyre never looked out of place and proved how far he’s come since his first stretch in the WWE.
The dissolution of his partnerships with Strowman and Ziggler weren’t the cleanest and most well-executed moments, but McIntyre’s win over Angle in November and absolute decimation of Ziggler inside a steel cage to end the year proved just how high his standing is on Monday nights. McIntyre is one of the favorites to win the 2019 Royal Rumble, and whether it’s Brock Lesnar or Strowman waiting for him at WrestleMania (or even a move to SmackDown), McIntyre projects as a major player and strong title candidate over the next 12 months.
Moon began 2018 as the NXT women’s champion and successfully defended that title in January in Philadelphia against Shayna Baszler. The next night she appeared in the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble match, and although Moon ultimately lost her title to Baszler in New Orleans, she made her debut on Monday Night Raw that same weekend.
Her rivalry with Baszler was strong, but Ember Moon’s legacy in NXT was built upon her series of matches against Asuka. Moon’s mobility and move set have allowed her to showcase a style all her own on Monday nights, with particularly impressive performances in the women’s Money in the Bank match and against the likes of Ruby Riott and Liv Morgan in her first year on Raw.
It’s likely that the first few months of the year will center around Ronda Rousey and her conflict(s) with Becky Lynch (and Charlotte Flair). But as the year winds on, don’t be surprised to see Moon enter the upper echelon of the Raw women’s division (or potentially even move to SmackDown) as she makes a major move in the second half of 2019.
Considering her standing in WWE, it’s hard to believe that Ruby Riott’s tenure with the company has been less than two years entering 2019. Riott’s abbreviated run in NXT began during WrestleMania weekend in 2017 and included a memorable triple-threat title match in Chicago and a handful of standout matches. By November 2017, Riott was a part of the SmackDown roster leading a trio known as the Riott Squad flanked by Liv Morgan and Sarah Logan.
The group has jelled far beyond expectations on SmackDown, and now on Raw, with Riott quietly amassing an impressive resume over the past year. She was part of the first women’s Royal Rumble match and flashed what she was capable of in her first shot at the SmackDown women’s championship at Fastlane in February against Charlotte Flair. Riott’s standout matches include a pair of short, action-packed bouts against Sasha Banks, a triple-threat Money in the Bank qualifier against Banks and Ember Moon, and, perhaps most notably, one of Rousey’s best one-on-one matches to date on Raw.
Money in the Bank seems tailor-made for Riott and her partners in crime, and whether it’s Raw or SmackDown, Riott’s ability to put on a solid match with anyone on the roster will pay off in a big way once she tastes gold for the first time in WWE.
It’s crazy to think about, but Big E has been part of the WWE main roster for more than six years. While the majority of that time has been spent alongside Xavier Woods and Kofi Kingston as part of the New Day, it’s easy for some to forget what Big E was able to accomplish before becoming a part of one of the most iconic tag teams in WWE history. He was the second-ever NXT champion, and defeated Seth Rollins for that honor. Big E was also Intercontinental champion, adding to his five reigns as a tag team champion.
New Day puts on a tremendous performance every time they step into the ring, to be sure, but all you have to do is look at how stale the tag team division on SmackDown became toward the end of the year with a seemingly endless cycle of the New Day, The Bar and The Usos. Fresh blood has begun to circulate, though, and that should allow the members of New Day to evolve and pursue singles glory.
Don’t think this means they have to break up by any means, though. There’s a long history of teams and factions coming together to push one or multiple members of their team to the top of the ladder. Big E has the charisma, the look and the means to do big things as a singles star — just look at his performance in the No. 1 contender’s gauntlet on SmackDown back in June to get a taste of what he’s capable of. Money in the Bank has gone to waste over the last couple of years, but under the right circumstances it can help to make a star — and who better than Big E (and the New Day) to take advantage?
NXT champions in 2019 — This group of four features established stars and those on the rise who could reach the top of the mountain in NXT in 2019.
From the moment Adam Cole, Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly debuted in Brooklyn in 2017, it’s been clear that they are the most popular act in NXT by a fair margin. When the Undisputed Era’s music hits, Cole runs through his crowd-pleasing routine and gets almost everyone in whatever building he’s in to scream, “Adam Cole, Bay Bay!” at the top of their lungs.
Cole became the first NXT North American champion in a six-man ladder match in New Orleans, and spent a good chunk of the year battling with Ricochet, Moustache Mountain, Pete Dunne and EC3. He’s played a crucial role in both NXT War Games matches, and even ventured outside the boundaries of WWE and NXT by taking on international star WALTER in EVOLVE. Once Johnny Gargano, Tommaso Ciampa and Aleister Black settle what they have going on, Cole will lead the Undisputed Era’s charge toward holding all of the gold in NXT in 2019.
The first time WWE fans saw Bianca Belair was as part of the inaugural Mae Young Classic in 2017. In a pair of matches, the homegrown WWE talent dispatched Sage Beckett and held her own against eventual winner Kairi Sane. Belair dealt with some minor injury problems and worked out some kinks over the next year, but step by step she managed to build up some momentum along the way.
She hasn’t lost a single one-on-one match to this point, and Belair stepped up in a big way in the second half of 2018 in matches against Dakota Kai, Deonna Purrazzo, Mia Yim and Nikki Cross. Belair’s pair of matches against Cross opened a lot of eyes and allowed Belair to really find herself in the ring, and after winning a Fatal 4-Way No. 1 contender’s match, Belair gets her first shot at the NXT women’s championship and Shayna Baszler. While the timing doesn’t seem quite right at this moment, once Baszler, Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir inevitably join Ronda Rousey to set up the Four Horsewomen versus Four Horsewomen supershowdown, the NXT women’s division will be wide open — and Belair should be able to take advantage.
There are only a handful of scenarios that make sense in which Matt Riddle doesn’t become NXT champion by the end of 2019. Riddle’s ability to connect to every audience has already been on full display in his first few months with NXT, and his versatile move set and charisma make him a natural foil for almost all of NXT’s top stars. The list of potential matchups — from Adam Cole to Ricochet to Pete Dunne to Johnny Gargano to Keith Lee and beyond — is downright mouthwatering, and each of those matches would bring Riddle in line to challenge for the title.
The only real risk to that equation is that Riddle catches on so fast that he has a Kevin Owens-esque meteoric rise to the main roster. He’s unlikely to retire Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania this year, as he’s loudly campaigned for, but Riddle will either be NXT champion or featuring prominently on Raw or SmackDown by year’s end.
The runner-up in the second annual Mae Young Classic has only started to scratch the surface of what she’s capable of in her limited time in NXT. Her semifinal match with Rhea Ripley was an eye-opener for those who were unfamiliar with Shirai’s work in Japan, where she was one of the aces of the prominent women’s promotion Stardom.
As 2019 rolls along, Shirai and Kairi Sane could easily be NXT’s best contenders for the soon to arrive women’s tag team championships, but Shirai’s path to the top of the NXT women’s division likely goes through her longtime friend on the way to Shayna Baszler or whoever sits on the throne at that point. For the time being, her alliance with Sane and Dakota Kai should provide a fruitful opportunity to show off her dynamic, hard-hitting style; her moonsault in street clothes during the NXT women’s championship match at Evolution was just the tip of the iceberg.
Major players in NXT in 2019
There is no way that a man of Keith Lee’s size should be able to move as nimbly and as acrobatically as he does. Lee rode a wave of momentum on the independents into NXT, and it’s likely he’ll get his first taste of a TakeOver in the months to come. Big-man battles with the likes of Kassius Ohno and Dominik Dijakovic would be a great spotlight, but style battles with a guy like Ricochet might ultimately be the right way to open some eyes as to what Lee is capable of.
While the Raw and SmackDown women’s rosters are rife with technical submission specialists, Deonna Purrazzo’s skill set in NXT positions her well for a strong showing in 2019. She’s already bounced between the Mae Young Classic, NXT and NXT U.K., and in the months to come her versatility should shine through as she pushes slowly toward the top of the division.
The Street Profits have largely been off of NXT TV in recent months while other tag teams took the spotlight, but Angelo Dawkins and Montez Ford have been busy holding down the EVOLVE tag team titles on the independents in the meantime. As they slowly reintegrate themselves into the tag team title picture, Ford stock should start to shoot up. He has the charisma, the energy and a shockingly dynamic high-flying move set for a guy who’s just over three years into his wrestling career — all of which has come under the WWE banner. At 28, Ford is nearing his prime, and a potential singles run could start to develop late in the year.
Dijakovic and Keith Lee each garnered a lot of attention in their otherwise unprecedented series of big-man matches with action that would’ve looked crazy for guys half their size. The moment those two guys enter the same NXT ring, look out for magic. While his lone match since his “official” debut was a squash, look back to Dijakovic’s matches against Ricochet and the Velveteen Dream for a small glimpse at what he can do in the ring.