In 2021, countless talents across the entire professional wrestling industry enjoyed breakout performances that saw their work viewed by a completely new audience.
WWE saw the imposing Omos enjoy a considerably great debut year in-ring-wise. His freak-of-nature stature benefitted him, as he and AJ Styles stood atop Monday Night Raw’s tag team division for a good chunk of the year. More recently, Liv Morgan has risen to the top of the card, with another Raw Women’s Championship encounter vs. Becky Lynch due for WWE’s Day 1 pay-per-view on 1 January, while Damian Priest, as the reigning United States Champion, has produced a banner debut year on the main roster and the star power of Bianca Belair finally shone through in the first half of the year.
In NXT, meanwhile, the rebranding to NXT 2.0 brought with it a plethora of new and refreshing names: Bron Breakker, Von Wagner, Carmelo Hayes, Toxic Attraction’s Gigi Dolin and Jacy Jayne, Tony D’Angelo, Cora Jade, and Grayson Waller are amongst them.
This has been no different everywhere you look; All Elite Wrestling, IMPACT Wrestling, Ring Of Honor, Major League Wrestling, New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and just about everything in between has produced many breakout talents, ranging from top-level World Championship contenders in Jungle Boy and Josh Alexander to rising independent talents in Jack Cartwheel and Daniel Garcia.
In 2022, who’ll follow in their footsteps as the next batch of breakout stars?
He’s only had two matches to date, but HOOK is already a breakout star in the eyes of the AEW faithful. Victories over Fuego Del Sol and Bear Bronson in scintillating contests have meant HOOK is viewed as a future pillar of All Elite Wrestling.
Initially appearing on the 25 November 2020 broadcast of AEW Dynamite, the real-life Tyler Senerchia was restricted to a silent background role in his father’s stable, only ever appearing alongside Ricky Starks, Powerhouse Hobbs, and the remainder of the group whilst training on the down-low with AEW’s coaching staff. When his debut was confirmed for the 10 December edition of Rampage vs. the aforementioned Fuego Del Sol, there was real excitement in the air at the prospect of seeing HOOK finally wrestle.
The match with Del Sol was received exceptionally well on social media, as the son of “The Human Suplex Machine” impressed many with his vast knowledge of technical wrestling. He moved with such poise that this could have passed for his fiftieth match, let alone his first. When he applied the Tazmission (now dubbed the Redrum) on Fuego, he did so with expert precision; clearly, AEW was on to a winner.
“His work in the ring, it didn’t seem it was a debut. He threw a lot of shooting sh*t in there. I’m gonna tell you he’s the young Marlon Brando of wrestling. Fuego is a hell of a worker too. You can’t have a bad match with that kid. He (Hook) did a lot of stuff that was a mixture of Judo and shooting. Wrestling is great when you look shoot, but you work.”
Once he’s got a few more matches and feuds under his belt (vs. Cody Rhodes, the reigning TNT Champion, appears to be on the hitlist for HOOK), he’ll be recognised as one of AEW’s, if not the world’s, most promising young talents.
When you tune into WWE Raw every week, it’s now become a running gag that Veer Mahaan most likely isn’t going to be there. In any other instance, this would garner a few surprised looks. WWE wasn’t doing anything groundbreaking with Veer prior to these weekly vignettes airing; he was effectively booked – alongside Shanky – to give Jinder Mahal a pair of lackeys in the absence of The Singh Brothers. They were there to make Mahal’s opponents look good without the former WWE Champion having to lose.
Post-Draft, however, Veer was left in a difficult place. Both Jinder and Shanky found themselves drafted to SmackDown, though not together, leaving Mahaan expected to flounder. If WWE has told us anything, it’s that Veer almost certainly will flounder before being booted in WWE’s next round of mass releases.
But, what if WWE were calculated in their booking of Veer? They reportedly haven’t got anything major actually planned for him. These vignettes are merely a placeholder until they think of something.
What if, after all these vignettes, he actually doesn’t show up until the Royal Rumble, eliminates a batch of entrants, and is then dumped out of the ring by a gaggle of four to five other Superstars? He’d be on the perfect track to breakout in 2022 as a certified machine, perhaps with a United States Championship reign and undefeated streak in his back pocket, too. Again, it would be very unusual for WWE to go down this route, given their previous track record, but the possibility is there.
When Steve Maclin joined IMPACT Wrestling this past summer, he showed something that, previously, he had never been allowed to show; as it turned out, he was an outstanding in-ring talent. In WWE, you see, the then-Steve Cutler was always cast in pairings. He was never given a proper chance to stand on his own two feet.
Initially positioned as an unstoppable beast, Maclin ran through a who’s who of meaningless goobers, doing so in increasingly convincing fashion. As each match passed, the anticipation grew for what was to follow, but IMPACT has been clever with him. They’ve kept his unpinned streak intact by placing him in multi-man contests for when he wasn’t due to win. At Bound For Glory, for example, it was a three-way for the X Division Championship between Maclin, El Phantasmo (who took the pin), and Trey Miguel (who won the vacant X Division Championship). Thus, Maclin was protected.
The Anthem-helmed promotion has essentially confirmed he’ll be a breakout star for 2022. He’s due to face Miguel once more for the X Division Championship at the Hard To Kill pay-per-view, airing on 8 January. That it’s only now a singles match (his title match at Turning Point in November saw Laredo Kid also involved) makes you believe Steve Maclin will be crowned the new champion by the morning of 9 January.
Even if he does lose to Trey, what does Maclin actually lose? His unpinned streak that, as of this writing, has lasted for around seven months. Should he lose, Maclin can simply move on to another story arc before circling back around to the title picture by the year’s end.
Like HOOK, you could argue that Cora Jade is already a breakout star given her impressive body of work since joining WWE this year.
The former Elayna Black, Jade has made waves throughout NXT 2.0 this past year, going so far as to score wins over WWE/NXT stalwarts Dakota Kai and Mandy Rose, as well as Taya Valkyrie back when she was known as Franky Monet. In this year’s women’s WarGames match, she shone more than anyone else in the match, scoring the pin for her team over Toxic Attraction’s Jacy Jayne after she appeared to dislocate her shoulder. She was superlative for the duration of her time in the match.
Going into the new year, Jade has been presented with the biggest chance of her three-year career, as she and former champion Raquel Gonzalez will both contend Mandy Rose for Rose’s NXT Women’s Championship on the 4 January New Year’s Evil special of NXT 2.0. That she’s already at this stage of her WWE career shows that the company has high aspirations for her future there, regardless of if she actually dethrones the former “Golden Goddess” of her title.
That she’s only 20-years-old is beneficial to WWE. If both parties are keen to do so, there could easily be fifteen or so years in this relationship, so long as WWE doesn’t suddenly pull the plug on her impressive run.
In 2022, Wardlow is going to turn on MJF in what will be one of the greatest, slow-building babyface turns of at least the past decade.
All Elite Wrestling must execute this turn by the end of 2022 to overrule any fears of the turn feeling stale by the time it actually occurs. The first seeds were planted from the moment the big beefy man debuted in AEW as MJF’s bodyguard; that happened on the 13 November 2019 edition of Dynamite. In other words, AEW has been building and building to this inevitably awesome angle for a little over two years.
Already, Wardlow is positioned as an ungodly beast capable of some real damage. Take this match from the 14 June Dark: Elevation episode (it’s the first match from the broadcast). Wardlow destroyed Jason Hotch in just one minute, seventeen seconds, with it taking just a thrust Spinebuster, a back body-drop, and a stiff knee strike variant before Wardlow had his arm raised via referee stoppage. Jason had been knocked out.
The Pinnacle member has maintained this level of intensity in every match he’s partaken in, with more notable wins coming against Matt Sydal, Wheeler Yuta, and The Inner Circle’s Jake Hager, Ortiz, and Santana. He is to AEW what Omos was to WWE; this big monster, standing behind a smaller, cockier wrestler (in Omos’ case, AJ Styles), with their entire purpose being to eventually turn on their partner. WWE jumped the gun on that with Omos and Styles, but AEW, in being tactical, is building Wardlow up as a legitimate main eventer.
2022 will be the breakout year for Wardlow in AEW, unless this Omicron variant has anything to say about it.
Like Cora Jade, Rok-C is only 20-years of age, but her current position in professional wrestling is of someone far older. She’s an impeccable talent, as Ring Of Honor fans have realised to the fullest possible extent. In the absence of the Sinclair-helmed promotion, Rok-C has a real chance at becoming a breakout star, while reaching a much-wider audience.
Joining ROH in April, Rok-C has attained a number of huge victories over big names, including Holidead (Thunder Rosa’s former partner in The Twisted Sisterz), Angelina Love, and Sumie Sakai, the inaugural ROH Women of Honor World Champion. At September’s Death Before Dishonor pay-per-view, Rok-C actually defeated Miranda Alize to become the company’s first Women’s World Championship.
Although ROH went on hiatus just three months after this monumental victory, the success for Rok-C doesn’t appear to be over quite yet.
Title defences followed against both Gia Scott and Willow (Nightingale), with the aftermath of her Final Battle clash with Willow seeing Rok-C challenged by the AAA Reina de Reinas Champion, Deonna Purrazzo. That match is seemingly due to occur on IMPACT Wrestling in 2022, with the IMPACT Knockouts World Championship possibly also being up for grabs, should “The Virtuosa” dethrone Mickie James at Hard To Kill.
Add on to that her recent tryout with WWE, 2022 looks set to be a career-best year for Rok-C. If she isn’t viewed as a breakout star this time next year, something will have gone horribly wrong along the way.
Throughout 2021, The Dark Order’s trajectory changed completely. It had to, really. What instead followed in 2021 was a story of redemption for the group. Their attempts at recruiting “Hangman” Adam Page were hilarious, but ultimately, they were pivotal to Page’s individual arc across the year. Goosebumps are still felt when they entered together for that big ten-man elimination match.
Of the group’s members, though, there’s one destined to breakout in 2022 more than the rest. Dark Order member five, Alan Angels.
Angels has shown incredible promise in 2021. In his bouts vs. the far more-experienced Bryan Danielson and Kenny Omega, Alan looked like he belonged opposite them. That was important. Had they both acted as squashes in Danielson and Omega’s favour, respectively, Angels would have suffered incredibly. The Omega bout, in particular, was an important contest for long-term viewers. When they first collided in April 2020, the match wasn’t received too well; Angels shouldn’t have looked good against Omega, according to some critics. Alan Angels needed to have that match, though.
Through association to The Dark Order and Adam Page, he’s been able to flourish tremendously, even moreso after his mask was removed by Evil Uno on an August broadcast of Dark: Elevation. It acted as a symbolic representation of his evolution into a trusted wrestler, rather than a background member of a stable.
In 2022, Alan Angels has real potential to rise through the ranks of AEW, perhaps to the point he’s potential AEW TNT Champion material. AEW has thus far largely used that title to elevate their future main eventers (Cody Rhodes and the late Mr. Brodie Lee aside). Angels fits that category perfectly.
It’s tricky to pick WWE Superstars when the topic of potential breakout stars for 2022 comes around, as half of the roster may not even be around this time next year. The likes of Tegan Nox and Trey Baxter would have been superb options for such a feature, but alas, they’ve both been cut.
Xia Li, however, could be a dark horse.
In NXT, the Chinese martial arts sensation floundered prior to being paired with Boa and Mei Ying. Even then, Li wasn’t achieving anything groundbreaking, though she did finally make it on to a TakeOver, when she battled recent AEW signee Mercedes Martinez on June’s TakeOver: In Your House in victorious fashion. Ultimately, though, it was never going to work out. Xia was on her way to becoming another nobody in the background whose sole purpose, so long as she wasn’t released, was to put other acts over.
Surprisingly, though, she joined the SmackDown roster in the 2021 WWE Draft, having worked a number of dark matches beforehand. Now with the moniker of “The Protector”, Xia debuted on the 10 December SmackDown episode, saving Naomi from a Sonya Deville, Shayna Baszler, and Natalya onslaught, but she’s yet to wrestle a televised main roster contest.
Perhaps WWE has done this for a reason. They could be waiting until the new year before properly pulling the trigger on her new run. This is the first big run of her career, after all; she can’t be expected to ace it straight away, so she needs time. Like with Veer Mahaan, the Royal Rumble will present the perfect opportunity to get her flowing with the main roster. She’s not winning the match evidently, but a solid run should set her on the right path to impress in 2022.
You may have forgotten Kip Sabian was even signed to AEW, as he hasn’t wrestled since the 31 March Dynamite, where he and Miro lost to Best Friends’ Chuck Taylor and Orange Cassidy in the unique Arcade Anarchy match, but he is indeed still on the payroll, nursing a shoulder injury that he underwent surgery for this past May. There’s currently no timetable for Kip’s return to the fold, but realistically, you’d expect him to resurface in early-2022, perhaps as early as AEW Dynamite’s debut on TBS next Wednesday (5 January).
When he’s back, the chance is there for AEW to showcase Kip in a variety of hot matches to rebuild his momentum, leading to a major storyline shortly thereafter. His two biggest roles to date – the wedding angle with legitimate partner Penelope Ford and the intertwining feud vs. Best Friends – were both received rather poorly, the wedding in particular. Wrestling weddings very rarely work, as such tropes as someone else ruining the event are impossible to get around.
Really, the only thing holding Kip back from breaking out is that he’s in a world where at least 90% of the roster is a gifted professional wrestler. Kip’s mesmerising style and unique look helped him stand out on the British independent scene, but in AEW, it’s not enough.
That’s why, in 2022, Kip Sabian should return with a whole new vibe. He’s already been teasing a new look on social media in his absence from television that could turn him into a real breakout star. Again, his in-ring style is great, but he can’t be a great wrestler in the land of outstanding wrestlers. If booked correctly, Kip could easily be a future pillar for All Elite Wrestling.
You already know that when Gable Steveson officially debuts, WWE is going to push the hell out of the guy.
Why wouldn’t they? The guy is going to be the next Kurt Angle, or at least, that’s what WWE’s vision is for him. You already know they’ve got the breakout star of 2022 graphic made for December next year, with Steveson’s place plastered all over it.
It’s important to say that Gable isn’t being included in this feature simply to poke fun at WWE inevitably putting him right at the top of the card. He’s a legitimate grappler who won gold in the Tokyo Olympics this past July. You’d be foolish to not give him a mention as a legitimately potential breakout name for 2022 and beyond. He almost certainly will be given his accolades.
WWE shouldn’t Kurt Angle the guy, though, and by that, it means they shouldn’t have him holding any championships for at least a year. Irrelevant of if Angle was ready or not, the then-World Wrestling Federation hotshotted his success by having him holding two titles – the Intercontinental and European Championships – less than a quarter of a year into his run. Of course, he ultimately was ready to put the company on his back, as he’s now viewed as one of the world’s greatest wrestlers, but, truthfully, Vince McMahon and co. should have waited.
They must wait to pull the trigger on Gable Steveson’s success. He shouldn’t be main eventing WrestleMania vs. a Roman Reigns or a Brock Lesnar straight away, for example, which is perhaps why he was drafted to the Raw brand, away from those two behemoths. The temptation would be too much for Vince, you see. Gable can get there by himself. He truly is going to be a big, breakout name within professional wrestling, likely bringing mainstream attention to WWE.
A recent fist bump between him and Bobby Lashley could indicate Steveson’s maiden voyage in WWE.