Three Years Later, Pour One Out For WWE’s ‘Next Generation’ Championship Class Of 2011

In 2011 the Summer of Punk bled into an awkward autumn, but by December the future looked bright. In a photo taken after TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs ’11, WWE showed off its “new generation” of champions: WWE Champion CM Punk, World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan, Intercontinental Champion Cody Rhodes, United States Champion Zack Ryder, Divas Champion Beth Phoenix and WWE Tag Team Champions Air Boom. If you were around when it was originally posted, you might remember it giving you great pride. Things are finally changing.

2014 featured a lot of talk about “grabbing the brass ring” and “making an impact.” Having “it.” 2014 also featured a rise in popularity for WWE NXT and a new batch of Superstars gathered from the best independent and international promotions, advertised as the “leaders of the new school.”

So, what happened to the old new school?

WWE Champion CM Punk. You might’ve heard about this guy. Despite having the longest WWE Championship reign of the modern era, Punk was never the focal point of the company. He rarely main-evented shows despite being the default Top Guy, and a dogpile of injuries and frustrations led to him leaving the company in January 2014. Earlier this month he announced he had signed with UFC and would be fighting (for real) next summer. WWE made its most tested champion dislike wrestling so much it looks like he’ll never go back. He’s this generation’s Randy Savage in a way he never anticipated.

World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan. The Daniel Bryan you see in the team photo exists just before the “yes” chant overtook him like Ashitaka’s curse and changed him into a “goat-face.” After a series of stops and starts, Bryan finally got the ball at WrestleMania XXX in one of the greatest single-night performances ever. In the month following that show he was hit with half a dozen rapid-fire tragedies, and by June he was out of the company and stripped of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship due to injury. For the past 6 months the only Daniel Bryan news has been “I heard it’s getting worse, but I hope he comes back” on loop. We’re hearing it’s getting worse, and we have no idea if he’ll ever come back.

Intercontinental Champion Cody Rhodes. Currently painting himself green and losing matches to a little person dressed like a reindeer. Cody is the king of guys who are ready, but keep getting passed over for the next big thing. They’ve almost pulled the trigger on him half a dozen times, and every time they forget to he makes the best of what he’s been given. If that means growing a bad mustache and having your character be 100% “has a mustache,” so be it. If it means being Extra Goldust, so be it. He’s in the middle of a run as “Stardust,” who started off grand and ended up a hissing Christmas tree ornament.

United States Champion Zack Ryder. Living proof that “grabbing the brass ring” is meaningless. Ryder created a grassroots movement on YouTube before WWE cared what YouTube was, and it propelled him to the United States Championship. A month after this photo, Ryder was thrust into a story with Eve Torres that saw him become John Cena’s helpless, hapless little buddy. That turned into a gimmick where he had to rhyme everything with “Broski” and call women whores. He faded into the darkness, spiking his hair and yelling “HEY WAIT A MINUTE, WHAT ABOUT MY THING?” He’s currently down with an injury, but it’s not like he’d be on TV if he was healthy. He claims he’ll be back and grab the brass ring again. Meanwhile, WWE promotes the hell out of YouTube and never mentions him.

Divas Champion Beth Phoenix. Phoenix left the company less than a year later for “family reasons.” She’s now a mom and kinda looks like a foxy kindergarten teacher, and never came back to wrestling.

Tag Team Champions Air Boom. Three years before this, Kofi Kingston was the happy, smiling, clapping half of the tag team champions. Here, he’s the happy, smiling, clapping half of the tag team champions. Three years after this, he’s one of three happy, smiling, clapping guys hoping to win the tag team championships. Guess what he’ll be doing in 2017?

Evan Bourne would wrestle his final televised match for WWE less than a month after this photo was taken and get his second suspension for violating WWE’s wellness policy. Before that suspension was over he was in a car wreck, breaking his foot in four places and putting him on the shelf for a year. Two years of nothing later, WWE finally released him.

And that’s the story of the 2011 New Generation. Only four of them remain, and only two are on the active roster. Those two are mired at the bottom of the tag team division. Two aren’t even pro wrestlers anymore.

There’s an important lesson to be learned here. It has something to do with not just getting your young stars to the top but nurturing them, keeping them there and continuing to give them the tools and environment they need to prosper. It has something to do with that. Here’s to hoping that in 2017 we aren’t sighing about Adrian Neville’s career-ending neck injury, complaining about Hideo Itami ditching pro wrestling for MMA or weeping quietly to ourselves about Evolve Champion Kevin Owens.