It’s been a crazy year in professional wrestling. If you had told me at this time last year that the NXT champion would be Shinsuke Nakamura and that AJ Styles would be competing for the WWE World Championship, I would have thought you were either crazy or that Vince McMahon had died. Neither seems like the prototypical WWE Superstar, but both have proven that their styles can shine in the WWE.
It’s a sign of the WWE’s New Era which has brought us a brand split, some new titles, and has moved on from some superstars past. Some of the guys and girls we’re used to seeing on TV every week have been pushed aside for new talent. Others, in some ways, have refused to give up their spot and have taken on a new life with the massive changes within WWE.
For every Baron Corbin, whose stock has risen this year, there’s a Sheamus who has lost his main event status. The latter held the WWE World Heavyweight championship for a month in 2015, but is as far out of the title picture in 2016 as you can be.
Here’s a look at eight WWE superstars who have gotten better this year and eight who have gotten worse.
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16 Worse - The Club
Remember when Gallows and Anderson were a pair of ass-kickers in NJPW, holding the IWGP tag titles three times during their run? That was 2015 and this is 2016 where the Club is making genitalia and fart jokes on RAW and not looking nearly as strong as they didn’t when they came into the WWE. I thought the pair would come in a possibly challenge for the WWE Tag Team belts and they have gotten a chance to wrestle for them, but did anyone think they were actually going to win? These guys should not be a comedy act. The whole reason they were signed by WWE was because of what they showed in Japan and they were the furthest thing from a couple of funny guys.
The longer they are stuck in this storyline with the New Day, the less people are going to take them serious and at some point, they’re going to lose their spot to a tag team coming up the card.
15 Better - Rusev
Now, 2015 was a great and terrible year for Rusev the wrestler. He was killing it for a while, on an undefeated streak and made his first WrestleMania appearance driving a tank as the United States champ. He proceeded to lose to John Cena and from there his year went down the toilet. He went into a terrible storyline with Dolph Ziggler and Summer Rae which was just an awkward mess. Rusev should be out there as a monster heel, not as a guy who is trying to make out with a woman who isn’t his wife. The whole thing lessened the character’s strength after WWE gave him an undefeated streak and built him up as dominant.
He followed that up as a member of the League of Nations, the lamest stable since nWo 2000. Luckily for the fans, Rusev is back with Lana as a strong heel and once again carrying the US title.
14 Worse - Bray Wyatt
What is this guy’s role in the company at this point? He seems to get a good pop when he comes out and everyone likes his entrance, but is Bray Wyatt a main event player in the WWE? Looking at how this guy has been booked, it’s pretty clear that there aren’t any plans for Wyatt to be at the top of the card. Can anyone take him seriously considering his record in big matches is dismal? This year alone, Wyatt has just one win in four PPV matches. I never expect him to win when it counts and he isn’t a contender for any WWE title right now.
Did you know that he has never won a WWE title? The guy is booked like a monster, but hasn’t won a thing and can’t win when it counts. In 2015 Wyatt was in a match with The Undertaker at WrestleMania. Yes he lost, but it was still a match with the Deadman. This year he made an appearance in which one of his goons got squashed.
13 Better - Roman Reigns
People still hate the guy but he’s almost in his proper place. The push Roman was getting was out of this world and many in the IWC weren’t on board. Roman was the champion little kids wanted to see, the next John Cena in that he was getting pushed and management didn’t care what the audience thought. But then he got popped for a Wellness Policy violation, got pushed down just a touch and now he’s more of a high level mid-carder. I don’t care what anyone says, Reigns can wrestle in the ring, talk on the mic and should be a contender for the US title. If it wasn’t for a very vocal part of the fan base that wasn’t going to buy in, Reigns might be a top level guy right now. He held the WWE Championship in 2015 and 2016 with fans barely behind him for either run. I think that 2016 has been better in the sense he may finally be gaining some fans and that he continues to improve.
12 Worse - Alberto Del Rio
I was really excited when Del Rio made his return to WWE last year and to beat The Face That Runs The Place John Cena in his first match, winning the United States championship. It looked like the WWE had some solid plans for Alberto and that he might be in for big things. But it didn’t take long until that surely wasn’t the case. His pairing with Zeb Colter was awkward for starters and didn’t last very long for them to separate. Del Rio did hold the US title from October 2015 until January 2016, but it was downhill from there. He was a member of the League of Nations which was basically the worst faction since The Corre.
Sure he held the US belt back in January, but he lost it again 12 days later and hasn’t sniffed a title since. Name someone that Del Rio has feuded with this year besides Kalisto. I’ll wait. To top it off, Del Rio asked for his release from the company in August while he was on a Wellness Policy violation.
11 Better - Breezango
I may be in the minority, but I love Breezango as a tag team. Do I expect them to have a long run with the SmackDown Tag Team belts? Probably not, but their gimmick is fantastic in that it is so absurd. Tyler Breeze and Fandango were going nowhere quickly when they were on their own in 2015, but in their short time together this year, I’m hooked. I think they could be a solid heel team given some more time to develop. Both are good in ring workers and their arrogance could get them some strong heat from the fans. So far in 2016 they’ve scored wins over former tag team champs the Lucha Dragons and The Usos, so who knows? They were in the SmackDown tag team tournament and lost to American Alpha in the first round but last year neither of these guys was considered for a WWE title.
10 Worse – Cesaro
Cesaro, through no fault of his own, has been buried this year. Every time it looks like he’s going to finally break through, Cesaro gets slapped back down into a lame storyline. Seriously, I couldn’t care less about a best-of-seven series with Sheamus. That’s a guy that can’t get over no matter what he does and now Cesaro is stuck in an extended program, with him that nobody cares about. He should have been in the final four after Finn Balor relinquished the Universal Championship. It sucks as I have been a long time Cesaro fan. He continues to prove himself to be one of the better wrestlers in the ring and he definitely has the support of the fans. In 2015, Cesaro held the WWE Tag Team titles with Tyson Kidd and if it wasn’t for an injury to Kidd, the pair might have had another chance to win the belts.
9 Better - Chris Jericho
This heel run by Jericho has been one of his best and that’s saying something considering that Jericho is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and the first Undisputed Heavyweight Champion in WWE history. His artsy arrogance has been fantastic and his work in the ring continues to be good. His program with AJ Styles this year was a little long, but the two put on some great matches. Y2J’s work with Kevin Owens has also been very good. Jericho has been great for guys making their way to the main roster like Styles and recently Enzo and Cass. I seriously can’t remember any of Jericho’s feuds from 2015 but remember almost everything he’s done this year. He’s been that much better although I didn’t think much of his feud with Dean Ambrose.
I don’t necessarily want to see Jericho carrying any titles, but you have to think he’ll have a face-off with the new Universal champ Kevin Owens down the line which could be pure gold.
8 Worse - Sasha Banks
It’s almost as if Sasha Banks hit her peak when she had the 2015 Wrestling Illustrated Match of the Year with Bayley. She was also named their Woman of the Year and the NXT Women’s champion before making her debut on the main roster. Yes, she won the WWE Women’s title this year, but the run lasted just 27 days before she had to take time off to heal up from injuries. Why even give her the belt? I feel it makes her look weaker to give it up so quickly as opposed to continuing the chase when she returned. What does she have left to do when she does finally come back? And let’s be honest, the match she had with Charlotte at SummerSlam was a complete snooze fest. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of what her fans expected this year after such a dominant 2015.
7 Better – The Miz
The Miz’s promo aimed at Daniel Bryan on Talking Smack was the best thing many of us have seen in a long time. He’s been the Intercontinental champ since April when he won the belt from Zack Ryder, who won it the night before at WrestleMania. Previous Miz runs didn’t really move the needle but for some reason, he’s really been shining over the past few months. Maybe it’s because he’s onscreen with his wife and that gives him more confidence, although Miz has always been able to handle his own on the mic. Can you remember anything that The Miz did in 2015? He was a mid-carder who had that breakup with Damien Sandow, but he didn’t do anything else of note. He had a great run with Mizdow in 2014, but for whatever reason, 2015 was a throwaway year. Whatever it is, 2016 has been a good one for Miz and it looks to continue.
6 Worse - Brock Lesnar
He’s not in the title picture, has a 3-2 PPV record this year, has been popped for a failed drug test and was at the wrong end of an argument with Chris Jericho. To be sure, Lesnar is still a huge attraction. His appearance in a WWE ring still generates a huge buzz and wrestling fans for the most part love the guy. But if you’re talking about wins and losses and actual in-ring competition, Lesnar isn’t making an impact. Twice there have been tournaments for the Universal championship and he wasn’t part of either of them. He is nowhere near being a title holder that he isn’t even mentioned with other contenders. But at the same time, he’s touted as the most dominant wrestler in WWE. They why wouldn’t he want to fight for a title? The only match of his this year that has gotten my attention was against Randy Orton and that was hardly a contest.
5 Better - Cody Rhodes
It took leaving WWE for the son of a son of a plumber to get us all talking about him again. Let's face it, 2015 was not a good year for Cody Rhodes. As he continued with the Stardust character, which was never over, he saw himself buried in matches against the likes of R-Truth and Titus O’Neil, midcarders at best. Rhodes allegedly pleaded to WWE management to end the Stardust gimmick and move on. In May of this year, he asked for and was granted his release. Since then, Rhodes has faced off against Kurt Angle, Zack Sabre Jr. & Mike Bennett and he’s marked participating in Pro Wrestling Guerilla’s Battle of Los Angeles off his bucket list. All of this is music to the ears of any card-carrying member of the IWC. And who knows, maybe Rhodes’ awesome 2016 away from WWE can make for an awesome return at say the Royal Rumble in 2017!
4 Worse – Dean Ambrose
Sure Dean Ambrose is the WWE champion, but does anyone care? The Lunatic Fringe seems to have hit a wall when it comes to momentum and fandom. There are plenty of people who think putting the belt on Ambrose was a smart move, but the reaction he’s been getting since becoming champion has been mixed at best. One side seems to believe that Ambrose is a great champ, but I’m on the other side and think that Ambrose has gotten hokier and his carrying the belt hasn’t done anything to make me more interested in the SmackDown brand. Consider that his match with Dolph Ziggler for the strap was the fourth match from the top of the SummerSlam card. One of the oldest and most prestigious belts in this business was slotted behind a six-women tag match that had no stakes whatsoever. That’s not good. Whatever edge he had when he was with The Shield, and his subsequent feud with Seth Rollins, has been lost.
3 Better – AJ Styles
It’s tough to get better when you’re an international superstar, but that’s the kind of year it’s been for AJ Styles. Styles tore the house down when he debuted at the Royal Rumble in January and he’s been on fire ever since. He had a solid run of matches against Chris Jericho and followed it up with a great program against John Cena which ended with Styles pinning the Face That Runs The Place in the center of the ring. Now Styles is in line for a WWE World title shot and it seems like everyone is behind him taking the belt from Dean Ambrose. Except for my wife. She hates Styles because she’s a Cena fan. At this time last year, Styles was in the middle of a great run, but this year he’s the hottest guy on the WWE roster and it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere.
2 Worse – Paige
What happened to the former WWE Divas champion? In 2014 she topped the Pro Wrestling Illustrated Female 50 and in 2015 she finished second. This year, she’ll be lucky to see the Top 10. She had a match against Charlotte in June for the WWE Women’s title but failed to win it and that was basically the highlight of her year. In early August she took time off to heal up from back and shoulder injuries. Just two weeks later Paige was suspended for violating the WWE’s Wellness Policy. That’s pretty much the scarlet letter in WWE and could lead to her being pushed down the card. Considering her current boyfriend Alberto Del Rio asked for and was granted his release, could we see the end of Paige’s run in WWE coming soon? It's amazing how quickly things can change, going from being one of the top female workers in the world to nearly irrelevant in the span of two years.
1 Better – Kevin Owens
KO has been on a pretty solid run since he debuted on the main roster last year. While he had a couple of runs with the Intercontinental title and a major win in his debut match with John Cena, I don’t know that anyone would have thought that Owens would be on the top of the RAW roster in 2016. He won the WWE Universal championship after Finn Balor had to relinquish the belt and at this point, nobody can dispute his place on the roster. Of course, if it wasn’t due to an injury to Balor, who knows where Owens would be right now, but as he continues to show, he’s a great worker in the ring and can talk people into the building. There's no doubt 2016 has been very good to Kevin Owens and it looks like it will continue for the rest of the year as he is now an undisputed main eventer for WWE.
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