This list is certain to stir up debate. Every year, there's one individual who makes a bigger mark on the wrestling industry than everyone else. Every year, someone emerges to bring the business to new heights, or pave the way for future generations.
Every year, wrestling fans love to pick their wrestler of the year, based on what the performer accomplished that year and how they performed night after night.
This list won't necessarily be about who put on the best matches. After all, being a professional wrestler isn't solely about the bell-to-bell work. Here, we're looking for a total package. Who trancended the industry? Who was involved in the most pivotal moments? If we were strictly going with in-ring work, then Kurt Angle and Daniel Bryan (or Bryan Danielson) likely would have swept the 2000s. But we're looking for more.
The bottom line is, when deciding each wrestler of the year, we answered the question of, 'when you think of this year, you think of .... In addition to that, we'll mostly be sticking with WWE wrestlers, as it's hard to measure the impact every wrestler in every promotion around the world makes.
As always, you're welcome to leave us your thoughts for who you feel was the wrestler of the year, in any year since 2000. A noticeable snub on this list is Shawn Michaels, but not due to HBK's shortcomings. The fact is, Michaels was never positioned to be the best in any given year, as he was mostly there to get the most out of other performers and he often got placed all over a particular card. As far as a calendar year though, it's hard to see where HBK could have earned a spot here.
With all that explained, enjoy our list and leave your thoughts!
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18 2000: The Rock
When Stone Cold Steve Austin had to take nine months off to recover from neck surgery, The Rock had the chance to claim the no.1 spot in the company and he made it count. The Rock used this time to bring his fame to another level. He was the face of the company in the year where they had their most successful financial year, setting PPV buys and selling out arenas throughout the year.
Unlike a lot of other top faces though, The Rock didn't need to be WWE Champion to make the biggest impact. In fact, The Rock spent much of 2000 chasing the title. He won the Rumble, then enjoyed his fourth and fifth reigns as WWE Champion. By the time 2000 ended, the WWE had established their second icon of the Attitude Era.
17 2001: Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle had perhaps the greatest rookie year in WWE history, as by the time it ended, he was already a Grand Slam champion and King of the Ring winner. Angle began 2001 as champion and it was also a year that saw him emerge as one of the top performers on the mic as well as being the best technical wrestler on the roster. His comedic side emerged in a program with Stone Cold Steve Austin with both vying for Vince McMahon's affection.
While Austin made a huge impact in 2001, turning heel at WrestleMania X-Seven, his subsequent heel run didn't work out. The Rock took a hiatus for Hollywood, Triple H suffered a major quad injury, so that left Angle as the guy who spent the year having the best matches and it was clear he had arrived as a top star.
16 2002: Kurt Angle
The 2002 calendar year was a massive year of changes for the WWE. First of all, the company changed their name to WWE in May 2002. Austin walked out on the company that year, Hulk Hogan returned, The Rock began his transition to Hollywood and Triple H came back to begin his reign of terror over the WWE.
While Angle wasn't always given the top program, he constantly stole the show, no matter where he was placed. He gained more and more respect from the fans, who began to recognize just how special a talent Angle was. Angle was drafted to SmackDown in 2002 and quickly made it his show. While Lesnar had quite a rookie year himself, he was still a little green and he had an awkward face run.
15 2003: Brock Lesnar
Lesnar continued his spectacular rookie year in early 2003, winning the Royal Rumble by last elminating The Undertaker. He went on to WrestleMania to headline against Kurt Angle in what many felt was a wrestling clinic. Of course, that match is also infamous for Lesnar's botched Shooting Star Press, but the total body of work can't be ignored.
Lesnar reigned as champion until Angle returned from neck surgery and exchanged the title with Angle, winning it back in a thrilling 60-minute Ironman match on SmackDown. This feud with Angle also led to Lesnar's heel turn and Brock cemented himself as one of the most dastardly heels ever seen on WWE television. After the WWE tried to make him a top face, Lesnar found his true calling as a top heel.
Meanwhile on the RAW brand, Triple H was dominating the whole year. So of course, Lesnar wins here.
14 2004: Eddie Guerrero
Eddie Guerrero was a complete afterthought after the company released him in 2001, but when he was given a second chance in 2002, he began climbing the ladder. He spent the next two years finding the right gimmick and began getting more meaningful feuds. By the time 2004 came around, the crowd was ready to embrace Guerrero as a world champion.
In one of the more shocking title match outcomes in history, Guerrero defeated Brock Lesnar at No Way Out 2004 to win his first WWE Championship. Guerrero would reign as champ for four months, engaging in a feud with JBL, and eventually feuding with Kurt Angle when Angle recovered from an injury.
Guerrero truly established himself as top star in the business and despite what Kevin Nash will tell you, the business didn't die when Guerrero was on top.
13 2005: Samoa Joe
Okay, so we'll steer away from the WWE here, because 2005 was all about John Cena and Batista being pushed to the moon. Batista didn't quite catch on as the company's top face and while Cena eventually grew to be that, 2005 was when some fans began to sour on him. You could call it a transition year for the company.
Instead we'll go with a guy who was really starting to make his mark in the smaller companies with Samoa Joe. Following his departure from Ring of Honor, Joe was signed by TNA and went on a memorable undefeated streak. Joe immediately impressed and became known as the Samoan Submission Machine. He would remain undefeated until late 2006, when Kurt Angle defeated him at Genesis.
12 2006: Edge
Edge really broke out as a singles star in 2005 when word broke that he and Lita had an affair behind Matt Hardy's back. The real-life situation was turned into a storyline and from there, Edge took off as a top heel.
He began 2006 in dramatic fashion, becoming the first wrestler to cash in the Money in the Bank and set a trend that would be copied for years and years. Edge unjustifiably was pulled from the WrestleMania 22 main event in favor of Triple H, but he stole the show in a Hardcore match with Mick Foley. Edge would eventually win the title back in June and had one of the best feuds of his career with John Cena. Any doubts about Edge as a top star were laid to rest by the time 2006 ended.
10 2007: John Cena
Sorry folks, but when you're the face of the biggest wrestling company in the world for 10-plus years, you're obviously going to be considered the wrestler of the year on occasion. Cena nearly spent the entire calendar year as WWE Champion, and he likely would have set a modern record had he not torn his pectoral muscle in October.
Still though, Cena had some amazing matches in 2007 and headlined WrestleMania 23 against Shawn Michaels. He and HBK then had the match of the year in 2007, a 60-minute marathon in London, where Cena put HBK over.
While Cena started to build his share of critics due to his more family friendly character, there's no doubt he made the biggest impact in 2007. Nobody was questioning who the face of the company was by this point.
9 2008: Chris Jericho
Chris Jericho returned in late 2007 after the Cena/HBK marathon in London inspired him to come back. However, the first few months of his return were duds, as Jericho learned quickly that he'd have to reinvent himself to stay relevant. Jericho then revamped his character. He began wearing suits to the ring, and talking in a cold, calculated manner. His heel turn led to the feud of the year against Shawn Michaels, where they had an epic Ladder Match for the WWE Championship at No Mercy.
Too many times, wrestlers just rely on old tricks to stay relevant in the industry but this was the year Jericho began to prove he was no ordinary worker. He wasn't shadowed by the top stars of the Attitude Era anymore and he fully seized the opportunity.
8 2009: Chris Jericho
Jericho's amazing heel run continued well through 2009. He began an angle in early 2009 where he would attack legends week after week, which led to him facing Ricky Steamboat, Roddy Piper and Jimmy Snuka at WrestleMania XXV. He was originally set to face Mickey Rourke, but those plans were scrapped.
Jericho wasn't always put in the main title picture, but he enjoyed a great run in several programs. After an injury to Edge nixed a potential run for the two as tag team champions, Jericho was paired with The Big Show as his tag team partner. He also head an amazing feud with Rey Mysterio where he was obsessed with unmasking Mysterio. Jericho put on the best promos, the best matches and was a refreshing sight for fans who had grown tired of Cena and Randy Orton headlining shows.
7 2010: John Cena
Let's face it, 2010 was a crappy year for the WWE. The PG Era was in overdrive, as there never seemed to be anything close to edgy on WWE programming. Then, The Nexus storyline began and it seemed we were headingi in a new direction... until Cena's team beat Wade Barrett's Nexus at SummerSlam. So why would I pick Cena here? Well, because he sums up what kind of year it was in the WWE.
The year included Jericho leaving the company to tour with Fozzy, Batista quitting the business, Shawn Michaels retiring and Triple H transitioning to a bigger role behind the scenes. There's no doubt that 2010 was the John Cena show, but don't worry folks, things get better on this list.
6 2011: CM Punk
See? Told you things would get better. By early 2011 CM Punk had become the leader of The Nexus, as the group branched out to either the New Nexus or The Corre. Punk began getting more mic time as the leader of the group and he should have main evented WrestleMania XXVII against John Cena. His presence would have made Cena's early program with The Rock a lot more intriguing.
After being snubbed out of the main event, Punk was set to leave the company that summer, until WWE decided to use his expiring contract as a storyline. Punk of course, cut his infamous 'pipe bomb' promo on the June 27th edition of RAW and kicked off the 'Summer of Punk'. While Punk's hot run was undone by Triple H beating him at Night of Champions, he would eventually win back the WWE Championship at Survivor Series, which leads us to 2012.
5 2012: CM Punk
From January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2012 the only WWE Champion was CM Punk. It's almost inconceivable to picture a wrestler holding a world title for an entire calendar year in today's WWE, but Punk accomplished that. What's also unique is Punk spent half the year as a babyface champion, then the second half of the year as a heel champion. Eventually Paul Heyman was placed with Punk and the two quickly became the most entertaining act in the WWE.
Punk spent much of his babyface run feuding with Chris Jericho, then with John Cena again once he turned heel. The seeds were also planted for his feud with The Rock. Punk surpassed John Cena in merchandise sales around this time. Pretty amazing for a guy who once wasn't even recognized as a WWE Superstar when trying to get into Madison Square Garden.
4 2013: Daniel Bryan
Daniel Bryan really broke out when he found his "YES!" gimmick. It was initially meant for him to generate heat by overcelebrating every minor victory, but it had the opposite effect, as it's become the top chant in wrestling, still heard at times today. Bryan was pushed out of the main event picture in 2012 and spent much of 2013 teaming with Kane as part of Team Hell No, but the WWE couldn't keep him down forever. Bryan was the hottest star in the company by mid 2013 and he defeated John Cena for the WWE title at SummerSlam, only to go on in a long feud with The Authority.
The company kept trying to knock Bryan down a few pegs, but the chants only got louder and Bryan hot 2013 run eventually persuaded WWE to put him in the main event at WrestleMania XXX.
3 2014: Brock Lesnar
Okay, I know this one will get some heat, considering Lesnar was a part-timer in 2014 and still is today. But really, when you end The Undertaker's WrestleMania streak, that alone makes you the wrestler of the year. Even though Lesnar only competed in a handful of matches in 2014, his matches made the most impact.
Daniel Bryan likely would have owned this year had he not suffered a neck injury shortly after his title win at WrestleMania.
Lesnar eventually returned in mid 2014 to feud with John Cena and defeated him in a 16-minute squash match, delivering 16 German Suplexes, giving birth to "Suplex City."
Brock Lesnar was all anyone could talk about in 2014 and ultimately, generating buzz is what wrestling is all about.
2 2015: Seth Rollins
Seth Rollins spent much of 2015 as the WWE Champion. There's no doubt that he's the first one who comes to mind when you think of the 2015 calendar year. Carrying his Money in the Bank briefcase, Rollins became the first man to cash in MITB at WrestleMania, inserting himself in the main event mid match. Rollins' cash in provided a historic WrestleMania moment and from there, he would routinely put on clinics throughout the year. He feuded with several top stars and has the distinction of being Sting's last wrestling opponent.
The year ended on a sour note, as he tore his ACL in early November, but that wasn't enough to outdo all the work he did throughout the year. Rollins proved to be the breakout star of The Shield.
1 2016: AJ Styles
This one's a no-brainer. When you make your debut in January of a particular year and end that year as WWE Champion, you can say that's quite the year. AJ Styles made his long overdue WWE debut at the Royal Rumble, entering at no.3 and from there, he emerged as a top star in the company, quickly making a believer out of longtime skeptic Vince McMahon.
While he lost his WrestleMania debut against Chris Jericho, Styles was inserted in the title picture right after. What really brought out Styles' best work though, was his feud with John Cena. They arguably had the company's match of the year at SummerSlam, which saw Styles go over Cena clean.
He then won his first WWE Championship at Backlash against Dean Ambrose and he held that title the remainder of the year.
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