CM Punk has had a hell of a ride over the last year and a half.
Although he had been solidified as an upper-midcarder and one of the WWE’s brightest young talents for a while, it wasn’t until the summer of 2011 that Punk began to emerge as the second-biggest star in the company. Now, as we near 2013, Punk is approaching one year as the WWE Champion, and he has cemented himself as one of the top names in the business.
Punk has made a huge impact on the WWE during that span—restoring prestige to the WWE title, giving the company another big draw alongside John Cena and now, developing into the top full-time heel that the WWE has been desperately looking for.
The WWE has to be more than happy with the tremendous progress Punk has made over the last year. But with Punk now firmly established as a top guy, the search begins for the next big superstar.
The question is: Who will be the next WWE star to make an impact like the one Punk has made over the last two years?
You could easily make a case that Daniel Bryan has already done that. After all, 2012 has been “The Year of Bryan” in much the same way that 2011 was “The Year of Punk.”
Then again, it remains to be seen whether or not Bryan has already peaked. He’s grown to be so popular over the course of this year that there are some who think that he might not be able to reach a higher level than he did this summer.
I actually think Bryan is currently the best all-around talent in the WWE, and, like Punk, has all the tools to become one of the top two or three guys in the company in the not-so-distant future. But he appears to have been passed on the WWE totem pole by a 290-pound beast who’s always hungry: Ryback.
In just seven months on the main roster, Ryback has gone from a star with a bright future to one of the WWE’s top stars seemingly overnight. While it’s been refreshing to see a new face at the top of the WWE, there are serious questions about Ryback deserving to be there.
At this point in his career, he hasn’t proven to be much more than an impressive physical specimen with a catchphrase that’s really over with the crowd. Sure, he has the support of the fans, but as someone who likely won’t develop into a great wrestler anytime soon, he probably isn’t the top star that the WWE wants him to be.
That’s why I don’t think that Ryback will make the type of impact that Punk has over the last two years. In fact, the man who I think will do that is none other than Dolph Ziggler.
I know that, like with Ryback, there are serious questions about Ziggler’s ability to truly reach that elite level in the WWE. Mainly, there seems to be a belief that he isn’t good enough on the mic or as a solo act to become the top star that many want him to develop into.
I call BS on that because, in the few opportunities that he’s had to shine as a talker, Ziggler has showed that he’s definitely above average on the stick.
If the WWE can put him in situations where he has to speak more frequently, he will only continue to develop. Much like Bryan, I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised when he finally gets the chance to cut promos on a consistent basis.
If “The Showoff” can do that, he’s just one step away from superstardom. He’s easily one of the top three in-ring talents in the WWE, and as we all know, he’s the absolute best bumper and seller in the business.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Ziggler has some incredible in-ring psychology and has proven capable of working with anyone he steps into the ring with. It doesn’t matter if you put him in the ring with Randy Orton, Sheamus, Kofi Kingston or John Cena—Ziggler makes it work, regardless of who he’s facing.
He’s much like Punk in that respect. He can—no matter the circumstances—put on a great match with anyone, which is, of course, a quality that you want out of your top-level stars.
And make no mistake about it: Ziggler is right on the cusp of becoming one of the absolute biggest names in the business. He’s been teetering on the borderline of the main event for a while now, but as the current Money in the Bank holder, he’s one cash-in away from solidifying himself as one of the WWE’s top stars.
To be honest, that’s long overdue.
Outside of maybe Punk and Bryan, no one has been as impressive as Ziggler has been over the last couple of years, and Ziggler is the only one of that trio that has yet to have a legitimate run as World Champion. No worries, though, because he figures to be next in line.
Ziggler has developed into one of the WWE’s best heels and its top all-around talents, and there’s always the chance that he goes solo and/or turns on Vickie Guerrero, which could be just what he needs to become an even bigger star than he already is.
Punk broke out shortly after parting ways with the new Nexus, and Bryan emerged as one of the WWE’s biggest stars when he started to separate himself from AJ Lee.
Whenever the creative team decides to have Ziggler and Vickie split, “The Showoff” is poised to follow in the footsteps of both Punk and Bryan and become the breakout star of 2013.
Drake Oz is a WWE Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter!