Every year there are stars who define the wrestling business—sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse. Great stars do more than put on great matches, or win big ones. They draw us into storylines. They assemble bodies of work. They make us care.
This article looks back at the best wrestler for every year since 2010, and considers the stars who made us want to be wrestling fans, who had influence, and who created moments. When we look back at a year in wrestling, these are, ideally, the men and women we think of first for their contributions to the business during that twelve month period.
This article also looks at the worst wrestler for every year since 2010. To be fair, I’ve taken some liberties with the word “worst.” The literal worst wrestler in most years is probably a regional performer who the overwhelming majority of wrestling fans probably never have and never will come across, because he or she will justifiably remain in obscurity. Instead, I focused on guys who did a spotlight and an opportunity and who I would argue left the wrestling world a little worse for that visibility.
To make things a little more interesting, I made the choice not to repeat and allow any individual to appear on the list more than once. Call it the CM Punk-Daniel Bryan-AJ Styles rule, as that trio would threaten to dominate the countdown for this period of years. So, I instead picked what I felt were their single best years to give each the nod just once.
16 The Best of 2010: The Miz
Fans tend to reflect quite poorly on The Miz’s late 2010, early 2011 world title reign, and I’ll be the first to admit that he probably wouldn’t crack the top fifty best pure in ring workers during that era. The Miz did, however, catch fire in 2010. Starting with a heated program with MVP over the US Championship, Miz cemented himself as one of, if not the single best talker in the business for that time. When he won Money in the Bank, he occupied an interesting spot as a very natural, good pick to hold the briefcase, while he was simultaneously someone fans weren’t quite ready to accept as a main eventer.
I look to The Miz’s work at SummerSlam 2010 as largely defining of his legacy for the year. Notice that he didn’t actually have a match at that show. He was, however, a central point of intrigue. The Nexus angle had taken over Raw and the question of whether Miz would stand alongside John Cena and his team to beat back the young heels was a key sub plot that played out over the course of the show. Miz had Chris Jericho and Edge trying to recruit him, tried to claim the spot, got usurped by Daniel Bryan, and ultimately taking out Bryan in spectacular dick heel fashion in the late stages of the main event. Miz was a heat magnet and top tier wrestling storyteller for this year.
15 The Worst of 2010: David Otunga
The aforementioned Nexus angle caught fire the summer of 2010. While many fans balk at it for John Cena beating back the group in their SummerSlam main event and the group largely floundering afterward, it was hot for its time. The stable also launched several longer term stars in Wade Barrett, Ryback, Heath Slater, and Darren Young. Justin Gabriel had a terrific run in those early days of the stable, and while not everyone would agree with me, Michael Tarver looked as though he could have potential.
The weak link of The Nexus? As far as I’m concerned, it was a David Otunga, a guy with a killer physique and reasonable talking skills that made it all the more frustrating that he looked so downright awful when he actually worked a match. While many of the Nexus crew were believable, at least in the short term, as top their Otunga looked completely out of his element as a wrestler.
14 The Best of 2011: CM Punk
CM Punk made the most of the strange creative choice for him to take over The Nexus in early 2011. While it felt like a bit of a square peg-round hole situation, his skills as a talker nonetheless shone through, and it all culminated in a good enough match with Randy Orton at WrestleMania. By summer 2011, Punk was a frustrated, burned out, hypercritical wrestling star on the verge of opting out of the mainstream wrestling world. Then WWE decided to make his frustrations an angle.
In the now famous Pipebomb promo, CM Punk took himself from star status to top star status with his conviction, wrestling smarts, and irresistible personality. Little could he have known at the time, but the worked shoot promo set him up to get the better of his summer feud with John Cena and wind up staying with the company. He and Cena would have the match of the year at Money in the Bank, and after some frustrating stop-start pushing in the fall, Punk wound up defeating Alberto Del Rio for the WWE Championship at Survivor Series for a reign that would carry him all the way through 2012.
13 The Worst of 2011: Mason Ryan
In CM Punk’s version of The Nexus, Mason Ryan showed up as a heater. To be fair, Ryan did have an awesome look, somewhat comparable to Batista. When he first appeared on the main roster, he immediately drew attention, and looked as though he could be an eventual main eventer.
Unfortunately, Ryan simply could not work at all, looking clumsy and lost in the ring. If protected correctly, a guy with a great look can get by for a while as his skills improve. Ryan’s limitations were a bit too exposed by his booking and he never really did show any progress. Thus, he became a glaring example of a guy who got a break on account of his size and physique who simply didn’t have the tools to be a successful wrestler in the long term.
12 The Best of 2012: Austin Aries
In 2012, Austin Aries made TNA his playground. He went from very talented heel, planted in the cruiserweight-ish X-Division to a heel so good that TNA had little choice but to turn him face, and who wound up parlaying his long X-Division Championship reign into a shot at the company’s world title. While the prevailing belief at the time was that Bobby Roode would hold the title for months to follow and most likely drop it to former partner turned rival James Storm, the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Aries forced a change in direction. Aries was the man.
For in ring performance, his talking game, bending TNA to his will, and quite arguably laying the foundation for an eventual WWE run from 2016-2017, Aries gets the nod as the best wrestler from 2012.
11 The Worst of 2012: John Laurinaitis
It’s not entirely fair to call John Laurinaitis a wrestler in 2012 given he had stopped working in the ring full time years before, but he did have a match—a WWE main event no less in 2012—and thus qualifies for this article. In 2011, Laurinaitis became an on air authority figure during the white hot Summer of Punk angle. In 2012, he was entrenched in his character, feuding with CM Punk and later John Cena.
The trouble with Laurinaitis was that he drew X-Pac heat at an authority figure level. Sure, he got booed, but the kinds of boos that come from fans who genuinely don’t want someone on their television screens sucking up air time, rather than being the kind of talent fans love to hate. He was unentertaining in his primary role on the mic. Moreover, he had never been a virtuosic performer in the ring and, as an older man, was largely painful to watch, especially in a high profile role like his.
10 The Best of 2013: Daniel Bryan
There would be a reasonable argument for Daniel Bryan to rank as the best wrestler in the world in 2011 or 2012, or even earlier from his sterling work on the indies that ultimately got him his big break in WWE. But 2013 was the year when WWE gave Daniel Bryan his big break and he made the most of it.
Daniel Bryan started 2013 in the over-achieving Team Hell No—one of the best periods in Kane’s long career, and long past when most critics thought he’d be capable of greatness. Between comedy and working a rock solid big man-little man team in the ring, the two got over at the highest level, particularly in competition with a trio of new stars billed as The Shield.
Coming out of the Team Hell No run, Bryan got his shot at the main event, challenging John Cena for the WWE Championship. The two put on a match of the year contender with an epic conclusion of Bryan picking up the clean pin, before Randy Orton and Triple H robbed him of the title via Money in the Bank shenanigans and a double heel turn. Bryan would, from there, be situated as the company’s top face for most of the fall, chasing Orton. While the run was creatively frustrating for Bryan so rarely getting the upper hand, the matches were still great and Bryan shored up his spot as WWE’s top all around performer.
9 The Worst of 2013: Curtis Axel
You have to feel bad for Curtis Axel at some point. He’s a third generation star and the son of the great Curt Hennig. He’s an excellent mechanic in the ring. When given the right material—particularly on a comedic level—he has by and large delivered. Still, between his own absence of charisma and the way he’s been booked, the guy has just never gotten over with the fans.
2013 marked WWE’s truest attempt at getting Axel over, giving him the new name, pairing him with Paul Heyman as a manager, and booking him to defeat talents including Triple H and John Cena. Every big win the guy scored, however, was tainted by interference or winning via countout in ways that made it hard for fans to really felt like he’d won. A totally flat Intercontinental Championship reign followed, before WWE seemed to give up again and relegate the guy to the lower card. For his over exposure and inability to capitalize on opportunities, Axel goes down as 2013’s worst.
8 The Best of 2014: Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar has had a great career in professional wrestling, including his killer run on the WWE main roster from 2002 to 2004 that saw him win world championships, a Royal Rumble, King of the Ring, and a WrestleMania main event. When he came back in 2012, he not only picked up where he left off, but added a violent and realistic edge on account of the real life MMA credentials he had developed in between. However, as 2012 wore on, and throughout 2013, Lesnar seemed to settle back down. After losing to John Cena and trading wins with Triple H, he came across as a top talent, but not the kind of special talent he would become.
2014 saw Brock Lesnar end The Undertaker’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania. Unfortunately, the match itself wasn’t much good, but the spectacle of The Dead Man losing remains one of WWE’s legitimately most shocking moments of all time. Lesnar would really hit his stride, though, come SummerSlam. There, he accomplished the unthinkable again—positively destroying John Cena over the course of 16 minutes to hand The Champ the most decisive defeat he’d had since first becoming a main eventer. Lesnar followed up with a very good rematch with Cena.
Despite being a part timer with very limited dates, in 2014 Lesnar reasserted himself as WWE’s most magnetic, unpredictable, and entertaining attraction. The run put him on the short list for greatest monster heels of all time.
7 The Worst of 2014: Titus O’Neil
Titus O’Neil never has been and probably never will be a very good professional wrestler. Paired with Darren Young as The Primetime Players, the two seemed to hit as much of a stride as they were going to, as their charisma and good look made them a fun enough act for the tag division.
2014, however, was the year when O’Neil split up the team, attacking his partner and turning heel. Unfortunately, neither man was really equipped to cut it on his own, and O’Neil in particular floundered in his badass heel gimmick, impressing no one and soon jobbing out to everyone except for Young himself. Perhaps it’s little surprise that WWE would end up reuniting these two down the road for another decent run as a team.
6 The Best of 2015: Seth Rollins
Every now and again, WWE has a truly definitive wrestler who is the clear cut work horse and top star for a year. 2015 saw Seth Rollins emerge as a bona fide main eventer. First, he was the athletic and cowardly heel that helped deliver a classic triple threat with John Cena and Brock Lesnar at the Royal Rumble. Then, at WrestleMania, Rollins delivered both the match of the night with Randy Orton, and an all time great WrestleMania moment when cashed in mid-‘Mania main event to steal the WWE Championship from Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns.
Rollins would carry on, putting on good to great main event matches opposite Orton, Dean Ambrose, John Cena, Sting, and Kane (not to mention a forgotten gem opposite Neville). Rollins was WWE’s top in ring performer for the year, but also came into his own with his heel persona for a great all around act before he got injured in the fall.
5 The Worst of 2015: Sheamus
Sheamus is a former world champion, has a great and distinctive look, and is actually a decent enough worker in the ring. Unfortunately, when he returned from the injured list in 2015, he was also wildly unentertaining.
The game seemed to have passed Sheamus by in 2015, as WWE tried to push him as a main event level talent while Seth Rollins was so much more entertaining in the ring, Roman Reigns had developed into a heat magnet, more interesting acts like Dean Ambrose, Dolph Ziggler, and Cesaro were waiting in the wings, and Sheamus just didn’t have the clout of other established top stars like John Cena and Randy Orton. He largely floundered on his comeback before winning the Money in the Bank briefcase out of nowhere, and then coming across as a weird placeholder top heel stealing the title from Roman Reigns and then dropping it back to him.
It would take a year, but fortunately, Sheamus and WWE would re-find their footing when he landed in a very good tag team alongside Cesaro.
4 The Best of 2016: AJ Styles
AJ Styles could reasonably have been placed on the shortlist for best wrestler of the year every year from 2005 on, but 2016 was the year when the unthinkable happened: The Phenomenal One made it to WWE.
Styles debuted at the Royal Rumble to a big reaction from the crowd and put on a fine performance there. His work as a face in the months to follow was rock solid, if a bit directionless. Once he had the benefit of a heel turn working opposite Roman Reigns, however, Styles exploded. First he gave Reigns some of the best matches of his singles career. Then he had a magical feud with John Cena culminating in a classic at SummerSlam. Finally, he got the best out of Dean Ambrose in a WWE Championship feud that was Styles’s coronation. While some of Styles’s months as champion got squandered in a silly feud with James Ellsworth, Styles nonetheless made everyone around him look like a million bucks while furthering his own legend as the best in the business at that time.
3 The Worst of 2016: Alberto Del Rio
Alberto Del Rio has a lot of skill and experience, and when he’s on and motivated, he’s one of wrestling’s finest. When, however, he chooses to phone it in, he’s an infuriatingly boring talent. That’s the Del Rio of 2016 in WWE.
To be fair, Del Rio’s 2015-2016 run with WWE represents something of a chicken and egg situation. Was Del Rio unmotivated because WWE booked him poorly, or did WWE book him poorly because he was unmotivated? Whatever the answer, Del Rio was a profound disappointment as a singles act, and the League of Nations stable he was a part of came across as blundering goofs who, despite stealing a WWE Championship reign, largely represent a low point in the careers of everyone involved.
2 The Best of 2017: Asuka
There are dominant champions, and then there’s Asuka. Asuka started her NXT Women’s Championship reign by defeating Bayley in 2016. It has been over a year and the reign is still trucking along. Better yet, despite not being super big or super powerful, Asuka has built a bit of a Brock Lesnar-like mystique about her. She often dominates with fast striking offense and her signature Asuka Lock. Just the same, she also knows how to sell peril, like in a Fatal Fourway at TakeOver: San Antonio when she got the best out of Billie Kay, Peyton Royce, and Nikki Cross, or her triple threat victory over Ruby Rio and Cross at Takeover: Chicago. Perhaps best of all there was her showdown with Ember Moon WrestleMania weekend at Takeover: Orlando, in which she resorted to slightly nefarious means to protect the title.
Asuka has put on great matches with far less experienced dance partners, and emerged as the most kayfabe credible champion WWE has to represent the very best of the wrestling world in 2017.
1 The Worst of 2017: Bray Wyatt
Bray Wyatt is a talented performer. He’s one of the best talkers of his generation and, particularly with the right opponent, he can deliver in the ring. If there’s one thing that 2017 proved for him, it was that Randy Orton as an opponent and the WWE creative team did The Eater of Worlds absolutely no favors.
Wyatt won the WWE Championship at Elimination Chamber in what should have been a great moment and segued into a rivalry with friend turned foe Randy Orton. That all seemed fair enough, except then the two went on to have an absolute embarrassment of a stinker at WrestleMania. It’s on the short list for worst WWE Championship matches ever at the biggest show of the year with nonsensical projections of bugs on the mat to sell Wyatt’s magic powers, only for him to still eat an RKO lose the title. From there, Wyatt got a non-title rematch in a House of Horrors match which was somehow even worse—a completely humorless, directionless, and ultimately unrealistic brawl through a house before an anti-climactic finish.
2017 was the year when WWE proved it did not know how to book mysticism or camp within its more realistic, sports-oriented product of the day. Wyatt was the primary victim of this failed alignment and has had a terrible year as a result.