There was no obvious, unanimous choice for 2014’s WWE Wrestler of the Year. Daniel Bryan was unable to follow through on the tremendous momentum he carried into – and out of – WrestleMania 30, thanks to a succession of nagging injuries. CM Punk bowed out of the business altogether. Babyface heir-apparent Roman Reigns hit the shelf with a hernia, although he was still months from maturing into the marquee guy.
Fellow former Shield brothers Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins both benefitted from massive pushes, but neither has found a feud that fully exploits their magnetism and talent. Upstart heels Bray Wyatt and Rusev continue honing their personas, but both seem a year away from putting it all together. Current World Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar humbled the Undertaker and pummeled John Cena (who, in fairness, had nothing short of a solid and steadying 12 months), but has otherwise been largely in absentia. So when the dust settles from that pile-on of competitors, who’s left standing? Much like at Survivor Series, the answer is Dolph Ziggler.
And that’s no coincidence, nor is acknowledging him as our pick for WWE Wrestler of the Year some kind of pat recognition. The 34-year-old former amateur standout (real name: Nicholas Nemeth) has ridden a succession of waves to near prominence since debuting as Spirit Squad member Nicky circa early 2006. That includes runs as U.S., Intercontinental, Tag Team and World Heavyweight Champion. (Memorably, he damn near tore the roof off New Jersey’s Izod Center after snagging the latter belt for a second time, making his eventual face turn fait accompli.)
But as his peers rose and fell, ping-ponged up and down the card (how are ya, Cesaro?) and/or dipped out for a hush-hush repackaging throughout ’14, Ziggler emerged as a stabilizing figure for fans to latch onto. Despite several years portraying different shades of heel (his Twitter handle remains evidence of that tendency), it’s hard to imagine where Raw and SmackDown’s good-guy contingencies would be right now without his omnipresent heroics. Not just by taking storyline stands against Triple H and the Authority, but via kicking ass and, indeed, stealing the show against the likes of preeminent villains Seth Rollins, Randy Orton and Kane time and time again – even when getting his ass kicked. Never has Ziggler’s utility as simultaneously extraordinary enhancement talent and singularly gifted main-event athlete – when asked to, the guy could be either Shawn Michaels or Marty Jannetty – been more essential to the brand’s weekly entertainment value.
And at last, his diligence was rewarded with the hat-trick triumphs of a brief-but-spirited IC title run, the aforementioned Survivor Series upset and his breathtaking reclaiming of said IC strap from Luke Harper at TLC… and Stairs, elevating him above most of the performers previously aiming for his gold (hence it landing in more meaningful hands with Luke Harper) and into a primo roster spot that may be hard to wrest away from him – returns of Reigns, Bryan, Orton et al. be damned.
Despite his sideline as a stand-up comedian, Ziggler’s only real weakness may be commanding the crowd with a microphone in his hand, but that charisma could well evolve in 2015 as he strikes a balance between bestowed appeal and earned braggadocio. Nitpicks aside, no other sports entertainer reaching that large an audience over the past 300-plus days delivered so tirelessly and unselfishly, making everyone around him look better while blue-streaking his own prestige out of mushy midcard status. And for that, this former male cheerleader is our 2014 WWE Wrestler of the Year, and someone we’ll be rooting for as he enters the peak of his career.