2016 was an up and down year for the WWE, but there are 2 things that are for certain: the in ring performances were phenomenal, and it was a year of amazing debuts. We have seen so many people come up from NXT with the brand split, some who have debuted down in developmental, and some stand out performers who have come straight to the main roster, making it a year of change for the company. We’ve already ranked the in-ring performances in past lists, so today, we are going to rate the year long performances of 15 debutants in the WWE for 2016.
Note: this relates to a wrestler’s first start on their current brand, so a main roster debut is considered, as is any debut in NXT.
15. Nia Jax
It was obvious from the time she was hyped on NXT that the WWE would be huge on Nia Jax, and similar to Dana Brooke, she was pushed to the main roster without a significant run in developmental. That’s where the similarities between those two end however, as Jax has been shown off as a monster, and has definitely improved in the ring. She may not have had a title shot thus far, and has mainly been destroying nobodies, but her presence and sheer uniqueness have made her stand out in her six months on the main roster. Don’t expect her in the title picture before WrestleMania, but following the big event, she should be involved with the top stars such as Bayley, Charlotte and Sasha, whether the big belt is on the line or not.
14. The Club
The Club came over to WWE much hyped from New Japan, as they were the most dominant tag team in the world, and boy oh boy has that gone down hill. Despite this reputation, WWE have treated the duo terribly, but even during these story lines, the team have showed off their talent and chemistry in the ring. Lately, the booking of Anderson and Gallows has improved, and their dominance has been shown off more, and it looks very promising heading into 2017. They might not have had an amazing year like many expected, but the aura of dominance still exists, and if WWE can continue this into a title run, then maybe we will see the Club revisit old form from Japan.
13. Ember Moon
Ember Moon, known in the indies as Athena, came to WWE with much hype, and after a wait she debuted at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II, and it’s safe to say that she won the crowd over immediately. She has had an amazing career on the independents, and it has paid off as she has shown incredible athleticism and possesses a great look which will help her go far in the WWE. Currently riding an undefeated streak, Ember is the obvious challenger to dethrone Asuka and her dominant title reign, and if handled correctly, could be the next face of NXT. This will all be set up on the back of her great debut year in 2016, and despite the fact that she hasn’t wrestled as often as we could have hoped, she has connected with the fans like no other challenger in the women’s division.
12. Jack Gallagher
Jack Gallagher was a relative unknown for most WWE fans in the United States when he was announced for the CWC, but the moment he showed up with his unique, gentlemanly style, fans instantly connected with him. The ‘Extraordinary Gentlemen’ backs up his unique charisma in the ring too, channeling the old World of Sport stars from the UK in years gone by, and was completely different to anything we else we saw in the CWC. He may have only lasted till the second round, but he was brought into the fold for RAW and 205 Live, and so far has been the only performer outside of Rich Swann to show some character, and the fans have gotten behind him. His year with WWE was quite brief, but he made enough of an impact to make this list, and look for him to have a huge 2017, potentially (and my hope) a matchup with fellow countryman Neville at WrestleMania.
Carmella played sidekick to Enzo & Cass in NXT, but once they left for RAW shortly after WrestleMania, she was left down in developmental to show what she could do on her own, and for a brief time, she showed that she was a capable performer who could play well to her character. Then she was drafted to Smackdown, and was tasked with introducing herself to a whole new audience, and she struggled early on, as most people didn’t recognize the relationship between her and Enzo & Cass. Since a heel turn on Nikki Bella, Carmella’s promo ability has improved a lot, and she has learnt to play into her character more, and it has resulted in a great and surprising 6-month run that has her poised as one of the top women on Smackdown.
10. Cedric Alexander
Despite losing in the second round of the CWC, Cedric Alexander was the Cinderella story of the tournament, with his classic against Kota Ibushi garnering him raucous “Please sign Cedric” chants, which Triple H and the WWE followed up on. His popularity continued on to the main roster, but lately a terrible storyline with Alicia Fox has threatened to derail his year, while his amazing in ring performances continue. Overall it has been a great year for a man who probably didn’t expect to be featured prominently in the WWE anytime soon, and without winning any titles or having much time to develop his character, he has become a fan favorite. He is another cruiserweight who will improve in 2017, and might be a cornerstone of this division as it continues to work itself out.
9. Baron Corbin
Baron Corbin has the size and attitude to be a star in WWE, but his in ring work never reflected that potential during his NXT days until the very end, at which point he was called up to the main roster, and won the Andre the Giant memorial battle royal in his very first match. Since then he has been gradually improving, and after his match with Kalisto at TLC, it is clear that Corbin belongs in the main event and needs to be taken seriously. Fast forward a few weeks and WWE realized this too, as they put him in the main event for the WWE title with AJ Styles and Dolph Ziggler, and he didn’t look out of place at all, so look for Corbin to improve on his good 2016 as he looks to make 2017 his year.
When Bayley finally made her debut on the main roster the RAW after SummerSlam, it was a momentous occasion, and the fans treated it as such, serenading the hugger with cheers from the beginning of her performance until the end. She has remained just as popular throughout her few month run, and despite average booking, the fans still erupt every time she appears. Lately it has been improving, as Stephanie McMahon has been talking down to Bayley for several weeks, setting up her underdog persona, and it is obvious that the WWE are leaning towards a huge match for her at WrestleMania. Despite inconsistent booking, Bayley has been great on her first few months on RAW, and this will no doubt set her up as a major player in the women’s division for years to come.
7. Sami Zayn
It’s hard to fathom, but Sami Zayn was still residing in NXT at the beginning of 2016, given how good a performer he is, it should have happened several years ago. It almost did, until his shoulder injury in a match with John Cena, but he has come back stronger, and despite not being booked well, he has had a great 2016. He was a stand out in the ladder match at WrestleMania, and finally finished his feud (for now), with Kevin Owens in a match of the year candidate, and he has even made a program with Braun Strowman (who has been seriously underestimated) incredibly entertaining. Hopefully WWE have recognized his greatness, and with WrestleMania on the horizon, Zayn should be treated as the star he is and be in a feature match on the card.
6. Rich Swann
It was obvious that the WWE had big plans for Rich Swann when he was announced for the CWC, but he fell one match short of the live finale show, but that hasn’t slowed down the high flying star. Since that, he has been one of the only competitors in the cruiserweight division to truly connect with the fans, and it has been apparent that his fellow cruiserweights definitely ‘can’t handle it’. He is now the reigning Cruiserweight Champion heading into 2017, and the future looks brighter than ever for him, if WWE could capitalize on his charisma and likeability further. He has an emotional story, and that gave him the connecting with fans during the CWC, but for botching most of the division on RAW so far, Swann has turned out well.
5. Alexa Bliss
Not many people thought much of Alexa Bliss being drafted to Smackdown back in July, but ever since entering the title picture, the Harley Quinn cosplayer has looked in her element as the top heel on the program. She has proven to be better than expected with promos, and most of her matches with Becky Lynch have told great, emotional stories, and have been very engaging for the fans. It remains to be seen where she goes as Champion once her story with Becky Lynch is over, but if she keeps up her fantastic and very consistent performances, the company will have no choice but to put her in a major match at the upcoming WrestleMania. For now anyway and for her debut year, Alexa Bliss looks like she belongs in the upper tier when it comes to the Women’s Revolution in wrestling.
4. TJ Perkins
TJP might have struggled to connect with the crowd on RAW (as all the cruiserweights have), but it’s hard to doubt what he has accomplished during his first year in WWE. He was the first Cruiserweight Champion on RAW, and he achieved this by surviving a grueling 32-man Cruiserweight Classic to become its inaugural winner. During this tournament, he put on thrilling matches with the likes of Kota Ibushi, Rich Swann, Johnny Gargano and in the final, Gran Metalik. He submitted each and every one of them with his knee bar, and although he lost his cruiserweight title, he remains one of the top stars in the division, which will hopefully improve as a whole in 2017. TJP is also a veteran of over a decade in the business, with much more to offer, and will get to show off more of his talents as his career goes on.
3. American Alpha
When this duo of Chad Gable and Jason Jordan came together in NXT, fans were very unsure of how it would go, but the quirkiness of Gable and the pure, unadulterated power of Jordan have won the fans over, and this led to an amazing NXT run. After finally reaching the mountain top in a stellar match with the Revival in Dallas, the duo were picked as the backbone for the Smackdown Live tag team division, and have not disappointed in their limited opportunities. Despite only being on the main roster for 6 months, they have already captured their first Tag Team Championships, and with an improved division around them, they should prove that they are one of the best tag teams to come into the WWE in the last decade.
2. Shinsuke Nakamura
With all the hype surrounding the King of Strong Style and his debut at NXT Takeover: Dallas, it would have been all too easy for him to fail and not live up too it, but Nakamura knocked it out of the park in a battle with Sami Zayn, and fans have absolutely adored him ever since. Putting on classic matches with Zayn, Austin Aries and Finn Balor, Shinsuke got his chance at Samoa Joe, and traded the Championship with him, leaving Nak a 2-time NXT Champion, and the undoubted face of the brand. With new challengers like Andrade “Cien” Almas, Austin Aries and Bobby Roode on the horizon, 2017 will be a great year for the Japanese superstar, but it may struggle to top his first year with the WWE.
1. AJ Styles
There was no one else even close to taking the top spot, as AJ Styles had perhaps the best debut year in WWE history, equaling the brilliance of both Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle. Styles was the number three entrant in the Royal Rumble, and ever since that night, he has excelled in any position WWE have put him in. His year also includes victories over Chris Jericho, Dean Ambrose and John Cena, twice, oh and he also won the WWE Championship. Whether heel or face, Styles has been brilliant and he hasn’t put on a single bad match, with 9 matches in the year 2016 alone being rated 4 stars or higher by Dave Meltzer, it seems that WWE have a star on their hands for as long as he wants to continue wrestling.
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