2017 was a wild year in the world of professional wrestling, but it's finally drawing to a close. Over the course of 12 months, the WWE on ESPN staff has watched hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of wrestling programming, and we've seen the best (and worst) of it all. In recognition of the greatest achievements inside of the squared circle in 2017, we've gotten together to make our picks in 10 different categories, covering individual performances, teams, rivalries and shows.
Our "Best of 2017" continues with a look at some of the most improved wrestlers of 2017 -- men and women who all took big steps forward in their careers over the past 12 months
Few knew what to expect from Braun Strowman after he made his WWE debut in August 2015, emerging from the darkness to attack Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose as the newest member of the Wyatt Family. That's mostly because almost no one knew who he was; after years of competing as a professional strongman, Strowman signed with the company in 2013, spent two years training to wrestle from scratch and had only had half a dozen NXT Live Events (none of them televised) before he was thrust into the brightest spotlight of Monday Night Raw among several of the company's biggest stars.
He spent the better part of the next year as the muscle of the Wyatt Family, but even as he got comfortable by getting intense on-the-job-training, he was largely protected within the structure of tag team wrestling. The training wheels came off for Strowman when he was separated from the rest of the Wyatt Family in the 2016 brand separation draft midway through the year, but even then he enjoyed the comfort of lightning-quick squash matches against enhancement talent, first one-on-one and then two, three and even four at the time. He slowly worked his way up the ladder as he demanded competition from then-GM Mick Foley and lingered around the edges of the main event until the very first Raw of 2017.
It was on that night, Jan. 2, that Strowman made two key leaps. First, he dismantled Sami Zayn in a last man standing match that stretched almost 17 minutes -- far and away his longest one-on-one match to date. Second, he came out and interrupted Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho, Goldberg and Roman Reigns at the end of the show, and it took a double spear by Goldberg and Reigns to take him down. His ascent continued through January against all of the biggest stars on Raw, including a Universal title match against Owens that only ended because of a DQ. He had nine eliminations in the Royal Rumble, and it would only get better as the calendar turned to February.
He defeated Mark Henry in short order, and then had the first of three matches against the Big Show unlike anything ever seen in the WWE, as the two giants chain-wrestled and flew around like cruiserweights. After WrestleMania, they did it all even bigger -- in a match that ended when they collapsed the ring and then in one final showdown that ended when Strowman threw Big Show through a steel cage after winning. If there are two rivalries that would define Strowman's ascent to the upper echelon of the WWE, this would still only be the second-most important.
Strowman's wars with Reigns helped crystalize the giant as one of the top acts in the business -- and it worked because, despite all logic saying it shouldn't have been possible less than three years into his in-ring career, Strowman managed to harness his physical gifts and charisma into an all-around presentation that fans love. The phrase "I'm not finished with you" will forever ring in fans' ears as they think of all the violence and all of the ambulances destroyed over the course of 2017 -- and Strowman couldn't be in a much better position heading into 2018. (Tim Fiorvanti)
The most exciting thing in wrestling is seeing a star break through to the main event, and Braun Strowman has soared to the top of Raw. The monthslong Roman Reigns-Strowman rivalry made Braun look like the baddest man in WWE. Let's look back at his feats of strength, shall we? Threw a dumpster with Kalisto in it? Check. Tipped an ambulance with Reigns in it? Check. Broke the ring after superplexing The Big Show? Check. What will he do next year? (Sachin Dave Chandan)
Just try to tell Braun otherwise. Seriously. He'll throw you into an ambulance and flip it over. But in all seriousness, Braun has improved from being simply a physical monster to one of the biggest deals in all of wrestling in a very short amount of time; so much so that not many people would have been surprised had he beaten Brock Lesnar back at No Mercy. Who knows what the Monster Among Men has in store for 2018. (Nick Irving)
Who wants to walk with Elias? At the beginning of 2017, no one did.
He was just another guy in NXT, appearing on TV every so often and almost always losing. His drifter character had potential, but it was apparent none of that was going to be realized in NXT.
Elias never appeared on the main card of an NXT Takeover during his two years on TV. He never even had a meaningful program. Just as he was about to begin one with Apollo Crews, Crews was called up to the main roster. Elias was regularly used as comedic relief and a way for other talent to get over. That's why when he had a "Loser Leaves NXT" match against Kassius Ohno in March, it seemed as if his loss might legitimately lead to his WWE departure. Instead, after the briefest of appearances as "El Vagabundo," it was exactly what Elias needed to realize his potential.
Elias was immediately more interesting than he ever was in NXT when he periodically began showing up in the background of other promos and matches on Raw in April. Weeks of seeing Elias pop up while wielding his guitar made his debut match against Dean Ambrose actually feel big. Two years removed from losing to Bull Dempsey at the NXT Takeover: Brooklyn tapings, Elias was keeping up with an established star move for move in a match on Monday Night RAW. Elias is deceptively nimble and remarkably strong at a shredded 6-foot-1 and 217 pounds. He's held his own in the ring against the likes of Jason Jordan, Finn Balor, Matt Hardy and, most notably, Roman Reigns. He's also been comfortable on the mic; he really knows how to work a crowd into a frenzy with his songs and promos.
Perhaps Full Sail wasn't a big enough stage for "The Drifter." Elias is a rare example of a wrestler who is instantly a better fit on the main roster than NXT. He has all the tools to become a star, which is remarkable for someone who seemed close to legitimately being on his way out of the company at the beginning of the year.
Now who wants to walk with Elias? (Michael Wonsover)
I'm ready to walk with Elias. It's rare that a gimmick totally flops in NXT and then hits the main roster and has success, but that's what happened here. The Full Sail crowd completely rejected "The Drifter" Elias Samson, but upon his move to Raw, something just clicked. He lost the nickname, lost the last name and gained another gear. Elias should also get most improved musician, as his songs and guitar playing have both improved dramatically. He's also got the crowd in a great spot, both hating his crowd-slamming songs and loving how good he is at getting them to eat out of the palm of his hand. But his recent matches, especially against Roman Reigns, are showing how this guy can really go in the ring. (Matt Willis)
I feel like I went contrarian with this pick, but the reality is that while Braun Strowman has really stolen the show, it's Alexa Bliss who has stolen most of the momentum of the women's evolution on Raw.
After being drafted to SmackDown from NXT in 2016 in a truly surprising moment, Bliss' first efforts on the show were meager as she struggled to tap back into the true "Bliss" personality. Fast-forward to her victory over Becky Lynch for the SD women's championship, and all of a sudden the character had taken a huge turn.
In 2017, with the exception of one disastrous night with Bayley as her target, Bliss' promos became must-see. While many of the other women on the roster jockeyed for position, Bliss stood out playing the perfect heel and put on strong matches when the division needed it most.
Her work over the past year has been a blast to watch, and considering her aspirations in the business, she's clearly just getting started. (Andrew Feldman)
One cannot deny the fact that Jinder Mahal was not on anyone's radar as a future WWE champion at the start of 2017. The expectation was that Mahal's role in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania was more about Rob Gronkowski's friendship with Mojo Rawley than it was with the man now known as the "Modern Day Maharaja." But in April, it was Mahal who won a six-pack challenge to win a shot at the WWE title. With a noticeable change in physical appearance, an improved storyline of wealth and fame among the people of India and new allies in the Singh brothers, Mahal would go to win that WWE championship. Through the summer and fall, Mahal defended the title against Randy Orton, Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles en route to holding the belt for 170 days. While he may not be the most gifted in the ring, there is no doubt that Jinder Mahal has become a major player in WWE. (Andrew Davis)
This past April at WrestleMania, Jinder Mahal was used as a prop to get NFL star and Mojo Rawley's bff Rob Gronkowski, involved during the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. After all, you can't spell jobber without "job." And that was, perhaps, more important to Jinder after his release from WWE back in 2014. After his move to Smackdown shortly after WrestleMania, everything changed for the Modern Day Maharaja, who won a six-pack challenge to face Randy Orton at Backlash. He would then win the title from Orton, starting a long reign as WWE champion that lasted into November. Simultaneously, WWE began a push into India, which could explain the sudden change in stature for Mahal; it could also be that he transformed his body and his image as a stellar heel in the company. Combined with the Singh Brothers, Jinder was convincing as a main eventer, and while there is still room to improve, he has shown that hard work and dedication have their rewards. (Pete Ferlazo)
You know that thing about unfulfilled potential, right? It's cliché in sport, but it obviously applies to so many athletes. Naomi, more than anyone, deserved a shot at the top of the WWE women's roster.
After years of occasional pushes that ultimately fell flat, as well as injuries, Naomi finally capitalized on a big opportunity at Elimination Chamber, beating Alexa Bliss to win the SmackDown women's title. Unfortunately, Naomi injured herself in that match, and two days later, she had to relinquish the belt.
But a couple of months later, on the grandest stage of them all, WrestleMania, Naomi won a six-pack elimination bout, where she became SmackDown women's champion a second time. It happened in front of her hometown of Orlando, Florida, and this time she'd hang on to her championship for 140 days. Here's hoping her time as the leading woman isn't finished yet. She brings energy and charisma every time she's in the ring. (Matt Wilansky)
When he appeared on Tough Enough a couple of years ago, it was evident that Patrick Clark had talent. He is incredibly athletic, has a passion for the business and was eliminated from the competition way too soon. The WWE clearly saw the potential and signed him to a contract just a few months later. However, it wasn't until this year that he struck gold when he debuted his Velveteen Dream character, one oozing with unconventional charisma.
The flashy persona is built upon a strong psychology game, and Clark has really dedicated himself to that role. He reached the pinnacle of his year at TakeOver: War Games, when his outstanding feud with Aleister Black culminated in one of the best matches of the night. His outlandish presence clashed with the stoic nature of Black, creating one of the most memorable encounters of the year. The performance earned Dream high praise and should serve as a launching point to a strong career. (Sean Coyle)