Unthinkable elections, celebrity deaths, a world in more upheaval than ever before – 2016 has been a chaotic year filled with a lot that many would like to forget. The crazy spilled over into the world of pro wrestling too. In many ways, 2016 has been perhaps the most eventful---for good and for ill---year the pseudo sport has seen in ages.
There have been big, news-making years in the past: 1985 saw the advent of WrestleMania and with it, the dawning of the WWE’s ascent (as they scooped up key talent from NWA, AWA and others) to the top of the sports entertainment world. The 1997 calendar year was another one, as the Attitude Era saw a shift to adult-oriented TV programming which led to an escalation of the Monday Night War and the second pro wrestling boom. A few years later was another big milestone year, 2001, when WCW and ECW both folded, leaving Vince McMahon the sole torchbearer for the genre.
Those years were mostly defined by single big events---WrestleMania, The Montreal Screwjob, the WCW buyout---but 2007 was a year filled with news from January to December and much of it was bad. It was a year that featured everything from Vince Russo taking over TNA’s creative team, to WWE’s revived ECW being neutered to the point where Vince McMahon (in a do-rag) won the title. Scott Hall and Goldust were teetering on the edge of substance abuse death, John Cena feuded with Kevin Federline...
And oh yeah…Benoit.
Since then things have stabilized but with 2016 a new contender has emerged as the most noteworthy year in modern wrestling. Let’s take a look at this past year and break down all the big stories, good and bad, that made this one a year to remember…
15 THE HELLOS
It wasn’t all bad in 2016. There were some notable debuts that we’ll look back on, fondly, as years go on. AJ Styles debuted in January and within a few months became one of the top superstars on the roster, winning the title in his first year with WWE. Finn Balor was called up to RAW and in his first PPV match, won RAW's Universal Title. Shinsuke Nakamura debuted in NXT and set the world on fire in his first match. Five months later he was NXT Champion.
All three guys---internet heroes---won a world title within their first year. It’s a new era indeed. And then there’s Bobby Roode who finally escaped the black hole of TNA and won everyone’s hearts the moment his theme song hit. Oh and there’s Matt Hardy, who debuted his “Broken” character this year and managed to become an internet sensation after twenty years in his brother’s shadow.
14 THE WELCOME BACKS
In addition to debuts, 2016 was also a year of the comeback, and none was more surprising than the return of the prodigal son, Shane McMahon. Six years after leaving WWE (when it was clear the future of the company would run through Stephanie and Triple H) Shane returned, in a storyline that seemed to blend reality and fiction, demanding a say in the McMahon family business. It all culminated, most improbably, in a Hell in a Cell match against Undertaker at WrestleMania. If Shane had won he’d have been granted partial control of the company. Naturally he lost…but still got control anyway (#WWELOGIC).
At the end of the year, another shocking return took place, as Goldberg made his way back to WWE, despite laughing at the idea for over a decade. Even more incredibly, he won his return match, against Brock Lesnar no less, in a classic “1998 Nitro” squash. Oh and Undertaker announced he was back to semi-part time too. Whew.
13 THE GOODBYES
Alas, 2016 was not all about the newcomers; it was also about the goers. Ryback engaged in a contract standoff that ended in his termination. Alberto Del Rio, so soon after returning to the company, hit the road after frustration with his push (or lack thereof). As he was walking out the door, he and Paige began a star-crossed romance that would see the gothic Brit hit with a wellness suspension and a “sudden” need for neck surgery, taking her indefinitely out of action. She’s still under contract…but so was Ryback, so who knows.
Most tragic was the loss of Cody Rhodes, who seemed to be most deserving of a main-event push. Rhodes left after thinking he would never get a chance to be a top guy. Soon after he did, the company split the brands, a terrible bit of bad timing as he’d likely be a top player right now had he stayed.
12 THE STILL-AROUNDS
On the other hand, there are a handful of guys who seem to be getting the “JTG” treatment (guys who should have been fired years ago but keep hanging around). Sin Cara is still here, and despite the man under the mask changing he’s still a botch machine with zero heat. Apollo Crews looked like he could have been a rising star on NXT but he was called up too soon and now is floundering on SmackDown with no direction.
Fandango beat Chris Jericho at a WrestleMania, not even AJ Styles can say that, but since then he’s been a jobber to the stars with no discernible reason for employment. He entered into a tag team with Tyler Breeze, who is a classic example of the main show writers not knowing what to do with an NXT standout. They’re all still around though, so there’s always hope.
11 THE SAD FAREWELLS
Retirements and death are an annual part of the wrestling world. To start with, this year we saw the end of Daniel Bryan’s career. Concussions stemming from years of abuse on the independent circuit caught up to him and he was forced out of the spotlight too soon after entering it. On the other side of the spectrum was Sting: The decades-long veteran finally worked for Vince McMahon in 2015, competing in a WrestleMania bout with Triple H. He then disappeared, only to return that fall for a surprise WWE Title match. He lost both and announced his retirement in early 2016, never having the one match everyone wanted: A fight with The Undertaker.
Even more tragically was the death of Chyna after years in and out of rehab for drug abuse. She was just one of the several wrestling-related deaths this year, but certainly was the most high-profile and heartbreaking.
10 THE CORPORATE UH-OHS
On the business side of things, WWE boasted where they could but there were things to be worried about too. WrestleMania is always the biggest show of the year and in 2016 WWE put on the show for a whopping seven hours. They broke the 100,000 attendance mark, which was their goal, but the show itself was largely considered a disappointment, with a flat main-event and too many matches that ended with the wrong finish.
The WWE Network expanded with new shows and events, and entered new markets too, but no matter what the company did they were unable to break through on their subscriber numbers. They held steady this year, but mostly thanks to so many free month promotional offers. They’re still a long way to go from matching the money the PPV model was bringing them. NXT (which routinely outclasses the main show offerings) makes the $9.99 worth it though, but not much else does.
9 THE PUNISHMENTS
There are three guys who probably wish they could do 2016 over again. Titus O’Neil had some bad timing and got suspended early in the year, after trying to horse around with Vince on camera right after Daniel Bryan’s tearful retirement speech.
Roman Reigns meanwhile had perfect timing, if you’re an anti-Roman Reigns guy, after getting a wellness violation in the early months of what was supposed to be a long title reign. He was forced to drop the belt to Dean Ambrose (by way of Seth Rollins) and was taken out of the main event for almost the rest of the year.
And then there’s Adam Rose, who mattered so little, his timing is irrelevant. He was busted with a wellness violation too, but instead of taking his 60 days in stride, he went on a bizarre tirade online defending himself. Shortly thereafter he was arrested for domestic violence and that was that.
8 THE DRAMA QUEENS
If it’s big drama you’re interested in, 2016 had it. TNA was a mess all year long, with the company constantly on the brink of collapse. Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan inexplicably appeared as the company’s savior, before Dixie Carter ruined everything.
Meanwhile, there’s Hulk Hogan, who’d been fired from WWE in 2015 after The National Inquirer leaked audio of him making racist comments. However, 2016 began his comeback, as Hogan dropped a leg on the tabloid site Gawker (who had previously leaked a sex tape of the 63-year-old), leading to the website’s complete shutdown. Though the victory doesn’t erase Hogan’s racist comments, it earned him enough goodwill to potentially lead to a 2017 return to WWE. That’s 2016 for you.
Oh yeah, lest we forget: WWE Hall of Famer Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. That’s the most “2016” statement ever to be written.
7 THE SPLITS
One of the biggest wrestling stories of the year was WWE bringing back the brand split. When they did the split in 2002 it was to accommodate an expanded roster (due to the acquisition of WCW and ECW). The 2016 version was all about making SmackDown a show worthy of its live Tuesday timeslot on USA. Though the roster isn’t really big enough to satisfy two shows, SmackDown has become must-see TV, at the expense of the expendable RAW.
RAW, meanwhile, is desperately trying to hold on to its viewers. It brought back the Cruiserweights as a way to fill out the three hour broadcast (insert your Monday Nitro jokes here). Naturally, WWE’s dumbed down and safe style makes the cruiserweight matches a bore, but at least it’s not Big Show vs Kane part 200.
And let’s not forget “free agent” Heath Slater, who spent the early weeks of the Brand Split being the best thing about both shows.
6 THE GLASS CEILINGS
Another major happening this year was the sudden serious approach to female competitors. After over a decade of the women being “divas” whose sole purpose was to give the live audience a bathroom break and the home audience a chubby, WWE shifted to treating them---shockingly---like human beings. The “Divas” Title was rebranded to the “Women’s” Title. Talented workers like Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Becky Lynch and (eventually) Bayley, were called up from NXT (where this new approach to women’s wrestling began) and, after a slow start, finally managed to recondition the audience to take them seriously.
This year alone saw women main-eventing TV shows on the regular, main-eventing a PPV (which was a laughable notion just two years ago) and, in the final PPV of the year, competing in an IRON
MANWOMAN match. There’s still a long way to go, but main-roster women’s wrestling moved light-years toward relevance this year.
5 THE NEW LOOKS
The split didn’t just give the women more opportunities and make Heath Slater a star. It also greatly expanded the number of championships floating around (2015 had five, 2016 now has nine) making it impossible to see every title defended on brand-combined PPVs. Whether the belts end up being watered down will depend on booking but right now the company has done a good job making every title relevant (except for the US Title).
In addition, WWE gave both shows new set designs, new camera angles and new segments (to stretch out the shows that now feature half the roster they did a year ago). One segment that’s made a comeback is the old-school “jobber match” where an established superstar beats up on a mismatched opponent. A couple times this summer, Braun Strowman made mincemeat of a nobody named James Ellsworth, who ended up being so popular he’s now a recurring character on SmackDown.
4 THE MAINSTREAM BUZZES
In 2016, after years of being a sideshow and a joke to the serious sports world, WWE expanded their brand beyond the entertainment world. They partnered with ESPN to have major title changes announced on the ESPN ticker. More interviews on ESPN's various channels also happened in 2016, giving a bigger audience to their superstars.
The biggest bit of mainstream publicity came by way of Brock Lesnar, who made waves when he was announced as a competitor at UFC 200. If Vince was worried that Brock might try to leave him again for MMA, he needn’t have been: soon after winning his fight, Brock was suspended from additional fights for failing a drug test. Despite the suspension, he wasn’t punished by WWE and went on to cave Randy Orton’s skull in at SummerSlam. The double-standard was mocked by the same sports writers WWE had been trying to win over, but any publicity is good publicity, right?
3 THE MVPs
One shocking return not previously mentioned was that of Maryse, the beautiful diva who is also Miz’s real-life wife. The two were immediately paired up on the big RAW-After-WrestleMania and together have become everything Miz used to mockingly boast of himself: must see. Their pairing made the Intercontinental Title relevant (yay), made Zack Ryder irrelevant (boo, I guess) and gave SmackDown a heel worth tuning in to boo every week.
Miz has spent the second half of 2016 feuding with SmackDown GM Daniel Bryan in a bizarre version of Austin vs Mr. McMahon. The feud goes back years, but really kicked back into gear after the Miz cut the most passionate and powerful promo since CM Punk’s 2011 Pipebomb. It’s almost crazy to think, but The Miz might just be the MVP of the Brand Split and were it not for a guy named AJ, might be deserving of Superstar of the Year.
2 THE TITLE CHASES
A few high profile title changes happened this year, from Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe winning their first NXT straps, to AJ Styles winning his first WWE Title. Dolph Ziggler and Miz were locked in a seemingly-endless fight over the Intercontinental Title, and Kevin Owens was gifted RAW’s Universal Title by Triple H.
Meanwhile there’s the WWE (now RAW) Tag Team Titles: The New Day has held on to the belts with a vice grip since mid-2015. Their reign, as of this writing has reached 473 days and will exceed Demolitions record of 478 by the time the December 11th Monday Night RAW airs. It’s presumed that they are soon to drop the belts now that the record is broken, but this year will be remembered for their many (many.) close calls in retaining the “penny belts.”
And then there’s the US Title, which no one cares about anymore.
1 THE BIG MOMENTS
Lots of things will make 2016 unforgettable, from Chris Jericho’s list to the Shield’s brief reunion, but none was bigger than what happened with John Cena.
After over a decade of dominance, the face of the company entered a feud with AJ Styles that looked like it would end like so many before (with Cena’s hand raised). Instead, Styles beat Cena…clean…on a major PPV…without any interference. It was the first time since becoming “the man” that John Cena lost a feud.
Now, 2016 had its share of big moments and disappointments, but the fact that Cena lost such a high-profile match to an “indie-darling” in his first year with the company made it all the more remarkable. Cena’s loss, coupled with Styles’ later WWE Title win, signaled that the company was changing the guard. Forget all the other stories; we’ll remember 2016 as the year Cena moved out of the spotlight.
That’s the biggest story of all.
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