You might believe that in the scripted world of professional wrestling -- where winners and losers are predetermined -- that whomever receives top billing was simply chosen by the company's leadership.
That's true to a certain extent. But other times, no matter how much an organization's decision-makers ignore a performer, they find their way to the main event anyway.
There was CM Punk during his run with WWE, a plucky wrestler smaller than his main event cohorts, but won over crowds with his biting mic skills and daredevil style inside the ropes.
Daniel Bryan followed, an undersized underdog who wasn't coveted by WWE officials but willed his way to the headline spot with incredible technical wrestling and an uncanny connection with the crowd.
Jade Cargill, Bianca Belair, MJF and many others have broken out over the years, pushing their way to the top through sheer talent, determination and constant improvement.
But 2023 has undoubtedly been the year of L ... A ... Knight ... Yeah! He crashes the ESPN Pro Wrestling Power Rankings ahead of Saturday, when he'll challenge wrestling's top star, Roman Reigns, for the WWE Undisputed Universal Championship at Crown Jewel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (1 p.m. ET, Peacock).
Where do pro wrestling's top women, me and tag teams stand in the ESPN Power Rankings? More importantly, which ranked wrestlers have seen their star rise the most? Mike Coppinger, Arda Ocal and Marc Raimondi take a look.
(Editor's note: ESPN's voting panel consisted of Marc Raimondi, Kendall K. Howard, Cheyenne Leeman, Andreas Hale, Marc Raimondi, Sach Chandan, Terrance Williams and Eddie Maisonet.)
IYO SKY is flying high
Raimondi: IYO SKY has been on the shortlist of the very best women's wrestlers in the world for about a decade. As Io Shirai in Japan's World Wonder Ring Stardom promotion, the incredibly gifted high-flyer was putting on mind-blowing matches years ago with the likes of Kairi Sane (then Kairi Hojo), Mayu Iwatani and Meiko Satomura. Shirai was the ace of Stardom and, along with Hojo and Iwatani, helped the organization get off the ground and grow into the best all-women's promotion in the world, where it stands currently.
SKY's best run in WWE before this year was as the NXT women's champion during the pandemic with no or few fans in the crowd. She had some memorable moments, like doing a moonsault with a garbage can over her head off the top of the cage during War Games, but that was mostly it. Sure, SKY and Dakota Kai had solid matches as WWE women's tag team champs in 2022, as well. SKY did well with everything WWE had for her creatively, despite not being able to speak English perfectly, but it seemed like there was a ceiling over her head.
Until this year. Something changed in the spring. Maybe it was the match against Bianca Belair at WWE Backlash. The fans in Puerto Rico got behind SKY, though she was the heel, against the ultra-babyface Belair inexplicably. Seemingly, WWE enthusiasts were ready to see the reins come off, to see what SKY could do. She did not win that match or the title at the time, but less than two months later, she took the Money in the Bank briefcase and then cashed in on Belair at SummerSlam to become WWE women's champion for the first time.
SKY had a great singles match on SmackDown against Asuka in September and has had solid performances in matches against Charlotte Flair, including a triple threat with the two of them and Asuka. Next up with Belair again, Saturday at Crown Jewel in a rematch of perhaps SKY's best match on the WWE main roster. If the last few months are any indication, fans should expect something special.
L.A. Knight is overlooked no more
Coppinger: CM Punk and Daniel Bryan were overlooked in WWE, in part, because they were undersized compared to the leading men Vince McMahon is known to prefer: bodybuilder types like Hulk Hogan, The Rock and John Cena.
For Knight, looks were never the issue. Nonetheless, it took him until age 40 to truly break out. Knight didn't even begin 2022 as Knight, but Max Dupri, a manager and talent agent for the comedy tag-team Maximum Male Models.
When he finally ditched the gimmick last October, returning to his braggadocious NXT character, Knight truly was on the path to the sort of mega-stardom he always talks about in promos.
Wrestlers usually emerged from programs with the late, great Bray Wyatt worse off. Not Knight. He used the feud with the supernatural Wyatt as a springboard, showcasing his larger-than-life persona, underrated in-ring skills and, of course, catchphrases.
A throwback to WWE's Attitude Era, Knight was still not being pushed when 2023 began. Slowly but surely, the crowd began to cheer for Knight, even though he played the heel. It became apparently just how popular Knight was when WWE was in Los Angeles for WrestleMania in April. The pops were boisterous for "The Megastar," who won the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal that weekend.
The chants only grew louder from there. They even chanted his name in Saudi Arabia when Knight wasn't on the card.
And now, coming off a tag-team victory alongside John Cena against The Bloodline, Knight is poised for his biggest star turn yet, a bout against Roman Reigns for the biggest prize in WWE.
No one could have seen this coming when the year started, not even Knight himself, who outpaced Cena in merchandise sales for the month of October. Imagine that.
MJF and Adam Cole find a new way to reinvent themselves
Ocal: It would be an easy choice to pick MJF and Adam Cole as the tag team that has most impressed since the start of the year - they weren't a tag team at the start of 2023. In fact, when the team started together in the summer, more wrestling fans were wondering if this would simply be a vessel to get them to a marquee singles match instead of their development as a legitimate tag team. Turns out it was both.
The MJF-Adam Cole saga has been beautiful. The storytelling has on point, and it has felt like these two, at the top of their game, have hit every single beat out of the park. They are, after all, two of the best pro wrestlers on the planet today.
All In 2023 at Wembley Stadium was all the proof you need to solidify that this works not only as a singles rivalry but as a long-term tag team. Better Than You Bay Bay opened the event by winning the ROH tag team championships. Then, a half-hour title match to close the show with MJF on top. Wrestling fans got to see more of both, even if the tag team and the singles rivalry can co-exist (even if on hold due to Cole's injuries) only for so long.
These two performers are versatile in the best ways -- put them in any situation, any scenario, with any talent, and they will find ways to thrive. That's what you ask for in pro wrestlers. Make yourself look good and elevate those around you. We're not in those conversations behind the scenes, but it just feels like these two, in particular, have that paradigm -- how can we make the best thing possible and everyone takes a step up? Those are the kind of people wrestlers want to work with and wrestling fans want to watch. It's paying dividends on screen.