The most underutilized elements of 2017 in the WWE

Rusev struggled to gain traction for most of 2017, but he discovered an unlikely light at the end of the tunnel in a partnership with Aiden English and the advent of Rusev Day. Courtesy of WWE

Well, 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 underutilized elements in the world of wrestling in 2017 -- the performers, titles and even an entire show that has not been used to its full potential over the last 12 months


Hey, remember when Rusev rode a tank into WrestleMania? Remember when he was completely dominant and the ultimate heel? Remember when his persona was so brutal that boos rang through every arena, every night?

Ahhh, good times.

Unfortunately, at this very moment, it's far from Rusev Day. While a new push may have just begun as part of his strange pairing with Aiden English, Rusev's 2017 has been mostly forgettable.

His match against Randy Orton at SummerSlam didn't even quality for a popcorn break as it lasted all of a few seconds, and his Flag Match at Battleground against John Cena simply didn't deliver after a long, plodding journey to an inevitable end.

The WWE has an elite talent who has proven he has the charisma to make any segment great. The accolade is a brutal finisher and Rusev needs to get back to being the angry superstar that brought him to glory.

Now please Rusev, go machka something. (Andrew Feldman)

Tye Dillinger

The "Perfect 10" gimmick, unoriginal on the surface, was truly brought to life by Tye Dillinger through his charisma and ability to connect with an audience. More than 10 years after he signed his first WWE contract, Dillinger caught fire towards the end of his NXT run earlier in the year and had an exciting main roster debut as the 10th entrant in the 2017 Royal Rumble match, but after his official move to the SmackDown Live roster, he has yet to be put in a position to really take off. Sure, he's had some good matches, most notably when fighting for the United States championship against AJ Styles and Baron Corbin, but he hasn't had to opportunity to truly sink his teeth into anything substantial.

It's puzzling, as Dillinger has all the tools to succeed on the main roster. He is a solid worker, he can talk, he has a gimmick that has caught on and most importantly, crowds are receptive towards him. He seems like a perfect candidate for a United States championship run, and maybe that's yet to come, but to this point, it simply hasn't happened yet. (Sean Coyle)

Dolph Ziggler

If WWE on ESPN had existed for the last decade and handed out such an award as "most underutilized", it probably would've belonged to Cesaro for most of that stretch -- but Dolph Ziggler would've cracked the top three on multiple occasions. With Cesaro helping to carry a heavy load as one of the cornerstones of the Raw tag team division, he's not eligible this time around -- but even if he was, he'd have probably lost out on this [theoretical] award anyways. Since debuting in 2008 (and no, we're not talking about being a caddy or a member of the Spirit Squad), Ziggler has shown all of the potential in the world, all of the tools, and gotten very little confidence from the "powers that be" at any point during that run.

He's made everyone he's stepped into the ring with better over the last nine years, and knocked on the door of the main event many times during that stretch. Ziggler peaked the first time with Vickie Guerrero as his manager, when he held the World Heavyweight Championship for less than two hours in 2011 before losing it back to Edge the same night on SmackDown, but that particular rivalry cemented his status among believable world title contenders.

He gained a cult following after winning the Money in the Bank briefcase in 2012 and joining up with Big E and AJ Lee, but he lost on a fairly regular basis and even had to defend his briefcase in a ladder match against John Cena. He finally cashed in Money in the Bank in one of the most memorable day-after-WrestleMania Raw moments ever to become World Heavyweight Champion for the second time, but a concussion derailed his second and, to this point, final world title reign -- which ended after just one defense. In subsequent years, he challenged for and won several midcard titles while drifting slowly down the ranks, but seemed to be in the midst of a career renaissance after a career-altering promo and a thrilling Intercontinental championship rivalry in 2016 -- but even that's gone by the wayside in 2017.

He's become the nominal gatekeeper for new debuts from NXT to go from rookies to the main event in a hurry, with faceoffs against guys like Shinsuke Nakamura and Bobby Roode, but he lost most of his believability as a threat or winner in most of his matches and rivalries. As he pointed out during a recent appearance on the E&C Pod of Awesomeness, and interview with our very own Matt Wilansky, it does little good for younger guys to beat him no matter how much he bumps around for them (and he can still do that with the best of them) when the crowd can see how the matches and rivalries are going to go from a mile away.

Ziggler even hinted to Edge and Christian than he's nearing a crossroads in his wrestling career. For a guy as athletic as he is at age 37, who can cut promos, bump like he's been hit by the hardest strikes imaginable and connect with a crowd when given even the slightest hint of a promising storyline. Even with his shock United States championship win at Clash of Champions, that moment of success was followed by a promo on Tuesday where he laid that title in the middle of the ring and walked back up the ramp. If Ziggler indeed walks away from the WWE for a long stretch or for good, it would be hard not to look at the promise of his career and not be left wondering "what if?" for a guy that under different circumstances could have been this generation's Shawn Michaels. (Tim Fiorvanti)

Apollo Crews

Apologies to Neville, Cesaro and Luke Harper, but Apollo Crews has been underutilized for a long time, even before 2017. Crews was a highly-touted prospect and treated as such when he made his debut at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn in 2015. Crews looked like a bona fide star with his muscular physique, unreal athleticism in the ring and money smile. Unfortunately, that night ended up being the peak of his NXT career.

Crews was called up suddenly the day after WrestleMania 32, abruptly ending his NXT run before he could really establish himself. His only other TakeOver match was a loss to Baron Corbin in London. The short run didn't allow Crews to become well known to NXT fans, let alone WWE fans, or allow him to fully adapt to the WWE style. For that reason he quickly found himself wrestling lower on the card on Raw and, more often than not, being kept off TV entirely. Titus Worldwide seemed like Crews' chance to finally become the star he was destined to be, but the duo usually still tends to just lose in quick matches whenever they're lucky enough to be on Raw in any given week. There's no reason an other-worldly talent like Crews should be used so sparingly.

Yes, Crews struggles on the mic, but so do many other WWE superstars. He'll only get better with reps, which he hasn't been given in either NXT or WWE. Crews should at the very least be putting his in-ring skills to good use, very much in the same way Cesaro does every week. He's legitimately one of the best workers in the company, but fans would only know that by seeing his work outside WWE. Crews, at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, is capable of doing practically anything anyone can do on 205 Live. Hopefully in 2018 Crews finally gets the opportunity to show it. (Michael Wonsover)

The cruiserweights

In 2016, WWE held the Cruiserweight Classic, a much-anticipated tournament that far exceeded expectations. Immediately thereafter, it introduced the cruiserweight championship, established the cruiserweight division and launched 205 Live to showcase a division that had captured the imagination and excitement of the WWE Universe. The company seemed to be heavily invested in the success of the cruiserweights, but that was a year ago.

In 2017, this division has been treated like a complete afterthought, despite tremendous matches and rivalries involving dynamic stars like Austin Aries and Neville; the former is already gone, and the latter is in purgatory after last appearing on WWE TV in late September. WWE even announced a new show, Mixed Match Challenge, scheduled to air live in the same exact time slot as 205 Live currently airs, so expect this trend to continue into 2018.

It's unfortunate, because some of the best wrestlers in the company's history have been cruiserweights, and some of the best wrestlers on the current roster are cruiserweights. While the wrestlers will shoulder most of the blame, the division is not struggling due to lack of talent. Ultimately, the company is responsible. (Greg Hyde)

WWE Universal championship

There are several WWE talents who could rightly be considered "underutilized" (Cesaro, Samoa Joe, and Rusev come to mind), but nothing has been more underutilized in the WWE this year than the Universal championship. Ever since Kevin Owens lost the title to Goldberg at Fastlane back in March, the Universal Championship has been mostly MIA on week-to-week television; neither Goldberg nor Brock Lesnar, who eventually beat Goldberg for that title at WrestleMania 33, wrestled a single televised match on Monday Night Raw in 2017.

While having legends like Goldberg and Lesnar as champions help elevate the prestige of the newly-created Universal championship, their part-time statuses also relegate the title to something you only see once every other month or so. Since Lesnar won the championship from Goldberg in April, he has only defended it three times -- roughly once every three months -- and it seems entirely unlikely he'll wrestle again in 2017. While it becomes a big deal whenever Lesnar does appear and his fights always have a big-fight feel to them, I believe the Universal championship's absence hurts Raw's week-to-week product. (Nick Irving)

Finn Balor

After becoming the first Universal champion, Finn Balor had to give up his title the following night after suffering a significant shoulder injury during his match with Seth Rollins at SummerSlam in 2016. He was well on his way to becoming the face of the new era in WWE, with a unique combination of speed, agility and ingenuity, having quickly picked up major wins against the biggest names on Monday Night Raw.

In 2017, Finn returned the day after WrestleMania on Raw and it appeared he was set to pick up where he left off. Well, it turns out, not so much. The former NXT and Universal champion could never quite get back to that level (though he did take part in the Fatal Five-way match to determine the No. 1 contender to Brock Lesnar's title at Extreme Rules) and meandered his way through forgettable feuds with Elias and Bray Wyatt along the way.

WWE tries to put him over by calling him "extraordinary" any chance they get, as well as reminding us all he was the FIRST Universal champion every time he walks to the ring, but his usage has seen a sharp decline since June. The fans still love him, but I just have to wonder if WWE still does. (Pete Ferlazo)

Luke Harper

Luke Harper could have had a spot on this list for the last few years, but this year felt like the closest we've gotten to a breakout for Harper and his graduation from such a dubious recognition. As we drew nearer to WrestleMania, Harper seemed poised to join the Randy Orton-Bray Wyatt WWE championship matchup, and with good reason. Harper's character, mostly a silent follower of Wyatt during his run, had gained nuance and depth. He was jealous of how close Orton and Wyatt had grown, and protective of his mentor, as he didn't trust Orton, and rightly so. Just as importantly, he was having the kind of long, impressive matches he's always been capable of but never got to showcase under the WWE banner.

Harper nearly earned a world title chance with a battle royal victory, but a draw with AJ Styles led to a 1-on-1 match, which he lost. He was inexplicably left out of a WWE championship match at WrestleMania that he would've undoubtedly made better, and the result was the start of one of the most disappointing and underachieving stretches in the careers of both Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt. Instead, Harper was a bit player in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, off TV for a long stretch, and now finds himself trying to gain footing back as he's once again reunited with Erick Rowan as one half of the Bludgeon Brothers. Harper's in-ring ability sets him apart -- he's a big man with the ability to fly, and has a variety of impressive offensive moves in his arsenal. He just needs a shot, and, at this point, a drastic gimmick change if he's ever going to sniff the WWE championship again. (Matt Willis)

Samoa Joe

After a strong two-year run in NXT, where he was champion twice, Samoa Joe has had difficulty making an impact on the main roster. Since his debut on Monday Night Raw on Jan. 30, Samoa Joe has gotten lost in the shuffle. He's gone 3-3 in pay-per-view matches this year; only one of those wins came in a one-on-one match. Less notable still was his most recent "win" as a member of Team Raw in this year's Survivor Series; Joe was the first member of Team Raw eliminated that night and was unable to eliminate any members of Team SmackDown. Considering his work in the past, Samoa Joe should be a bigger threat in the Universal title picture. (Meghan Tobin)