2016 was a roller coaster year in pro wrestling, but now it’s time for a little reflection.
I thought it might be a nice little goof for everyone if we rolled back the clock to the distant days of January. What twists and turns would have most surprised us? Which swerves would we have laughed at if our future selves had traveled back in time to tell us?
It’s a question more relevant in 2016 than most other years. This wasn’t business as usual anymore. We got swerves, surprises, and Paul Ellering suspended in a cage above a wrestling ring. Most of it was good. Some of it was bad. All of it was wrestling and things felt just a little bit less predictable than usual. When was the last time we could say we were so pleasantly surprised by a year of WWE television?
Here’s ten things which would have made you laugh in my face if I’d told you at the start of 2016.
1. AJ Styles became WWE Champion
Twelve months ago, AJ Styles was at the height of a career renaissance as leader of the Bullet Club. In Japan. His legacy in America looked like it would be forever intertwined with TNA, the always struggling promotion for which he wrestled most of his career. Even the very idea of Styles wrestling in WWE was firmly in the realm of fantasy booking. Until a strange thing happened.
From entering the 2016 Royal Rumble at number three to wrestling Chris Jericho at Wrestlemania, Styles showed he could hang at the very top level of his industry. But surely they wouldn’t let him near the world title picture, right? What’s this though? They put him in a feud with John Cena? And he just beat John Cena clean? That doesn’t mean he’ll get a title shot, though.
Oh wait. AJ Styles is the WWE World Champion, capping off possibly the best debut year in WWE history. Did anyone expect this to happen?
2. Shane O’Mac Returned
Shane McMahon hadn’t been seen on WWE television since 2009. Rumours continue to curdle even now about backstage tension between Shane and his sister Stephanie. When his music hit on an edition of Monday Night Raw, though, interrupting a segment with Stephanie and Vince, the crowd lost their minds. Shane O’Mac had come back to save us from mediocre wrestling.
That’s not exactly true of course, but the idea of Shane McMahon returning was so out of left field it genuinely surprised a lot of people. That he went on to face The Undertaker at Wrestlemania in a Hell in a Cell doubled down on the shock factor. As of the brand split, Shane has been mainly used as a fairly bland on-screen personality, but we’ll always have that massive pop from the moment he returned. It was seven years in the making.
3. Goldberg Returned (and squashed Brock Lesnar)
Ask anyone on January 1st 2016 what the biggest return of the year would be, and only an eternal optimist would have mentioned Goldberg. The one time star of WCW hadn’t wrestled in more than a decade. His original WWE run, back in the Ruthless Aggression era, never amounted to much either. If truth were told, he hadn’t really shown much inclination to step back into the ring, despite years of being asked.
But thanks to WWE 2K17, the latest WWE video game, it all happened at once. Goldberg had agreed to have his likeness appear in the game. Soon, the questions were louder and more frequent than ever. Would he be coming back? What would he want out of an in ring return? Finally the match was set for Survivor Series 2016, against the beast Brock Lesnar. Certainly Goldberg never had the wrestling ability of an all time great, and pushing 50 he wasn’t likely to find it all of a sudden. But just seeing him make his classic entrance and step in the ring with Brock would be enough, right? It didn’t matter if he ended up eating 20 suplexes and taking the pin, did it?
Except Goldberg won. In less than 90 seconds. Tell me you thought that was going to happen in 2016 and I would laugh in your face.
4. Chris Jericho became more relevant than ever
Near the start of 2016, Chris Jericho was back in WWE. It was going to be his usual three month run to fill a spot at Wrestlemania. He called the New Day Rooty-Tooty-Booty. This was Y2J coasting like he’d never coasted before. Then something happened, and it started with AJ Styles.
Playing the heel in his Wrestlemania feud with Styles somehow gave Jericho a new drive. He abandoned his expensive light up jacket for a douchey scarf and miraculously made ‘stupid idiot’ his new catchphrase. Whether it was feuding with Styles or Dean Ambrose, or being best friends with Kevin Owens, Jericho may never have been so entertaining. And that’s saying something. Even before 2016, the guy was an all time great. His ability to reinvent himself, though, was proven beyond doubt this year.
Oh, and let’s not forget about the List of Jericho, which has on occasion been treated as more important than actual world championships of late. The List might have even made him the most over guy on the roster.
5. Matt Hardy transformed into a viral sensation
I don’t want to sound mean or anything, but Matt Hardy was never a star. The guy was a midcarder at best. His brother Jeff had the ‘it’ factor, but Matt seemed destined to have his singles career overshadowed by his early days as a tag team wrestler. He was at TNA for god’s sake; the basket case of American wrestling.
The hows and the whys of the Broken Matt Hardy character matter less than his sheer existence and success. His mannerisms are strange and over the top. That hair and coat make him look like Ludwig Van Beethoven joined the Sinister Six. There’s even some merit to the argument that the Final Deletion and what I’ve seen being called the ‘Broken Universe’ is a kind of anti-wrestling. It has fireworks, sentient drones and Gregory Helms beating up a boat. It’s entertainment, but is it still wrestling?
I’m kind of torn on Broken Matt Hardy. There are moments where his world descends from wrestling into mere farce. There are also moments where he’s entertaining as hell. Whatever he is, the internet has welcomed him as a memetic sensation. For a guy who was less than irrelevant in January, Matt Hardy has become one of the most sought after names in all of wrestling.
6. Women Headlined a main event pay-per-view
This was something that should have happened a long time ago. Then again, pretty much every major moment in women’s wrestling should have been allowed to happen years before now. Sasha Banks and Charlotte (Flair?) have had the feud of the year. They’ve broken down barriers and grabbed the headlining spot on Monday Night Raw out of sheer talent and work rate. Main eventing Hell in a Cell was the culmination of years of hard work from a boatload of women wrestlers. It was also the beginning of something else.
The match has divided fans, but it’s hard to argue the feud didn’t deserve it. Honestly, the current batch of women’s stars in WWE have deserved this all along, but it’s ultimately Vince McMahon who makes the call. Are we surprised he finally let it happen? The guy who made a fortune in the Attitude Era by using women as sexualised sideshow acts? Who decided to call women ‘Divas’? I’m not saying Vince is a born again feminist, but having Sasha and Charlotte main event a pay-per-view shows which way history (and the people making it) is forcing the WWE to turn. More of this please.
7. Shinsuke Nakamura ended the year as NXT Champion
I’m not sure which is most surprising at the end of 2016: that Shinsuke Nakamura left New Japan for WWE, or that he’s still in NXT as the year closes. Both, at this point, are major talking points. Nakamura had been one of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest stars for years. The youngest ever IWGP Heavyweight Champion, he’d headlined New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom supershow multiple times. Then, out of nowhere in January 2016, he signed with WWE.
What’s perhaps more shocking, though, is that at the start of 2017, he’s still in WWE’s ‘developmental’ brand. The most naturally charismatic wrestler of his generation is still stuck on NXT. To me that’s astonishing. If WWE wanted him to build a western fan base before debuting him on Monday Night Raw then he’s done his job already. Throw him into the Royal Rumble and give him what he and every wrestling fan has wanted since the Spring.
8. Kenny Omega won the G1 Climax
If you’re a WWE fan who keeps hearing people go on and on about Kenny Omega, let me be the one to explain. Omega this year one the G1 Climax in New Japan Pro Wrestling – the first non-Japanese wrestler to do so in the tournament’s 25 year history. It was a shock, because at the start of the year Omega was still part of New Japan’s junior division. Only heavyweights competed in the G1. If any non-Japanese wrestler was going to win the G1 in 2016 it would be AJ Styles, but he’d just left for WWE.
In a matter of months, though, Kenny Omega became the ultimate foreign supervillain. He was a main event draw in Tokyo, and at the G1 he was wrestling to prove a point. He’s also really, really good at wrestling. I mean, this guy’s not just great. When he wanted to be this year he was the best wrestler in the world.
Beating Hirooki Goto in the tournament final put Omega on a path to face the top star of New Japan for the IWGP Heavyweight title. Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega will square off on January 4th 2017 at Wrestle Kingdom 11, proving just how far Omega has come in 12 months. If he signs with WWE in the next couple of years he could easily be the biggest wrestling star on the planet.
9. The Miz and Dolph Ziggler had a feud of the year candidate
Seriously, would anyone have given a rat’s ass about this feud early last year? At one time Dolph Ziggler could have had a great career if creative had gotten behind him. By 2016, fans had sadly grown weary of waiting and moved on. The Miz, meanwhile, had been pretty much universally despised by most wrestling fans since he headlined Wrestlemania 27. These were guys destined to put on average midcard feuds for what remained of their in-ring careers.
Luckily for them, the brand split came at just the right time. Without us noticing both Miz and Ziggler had become veterans. And when veterans get a chance to feud over a belt, they show the kids how it’s supposed to be done. Ziggler and the Miz’s battle for the Intercontinental Championship represented the peak of what the Smackdown brand had to offer in 2016.
The promos were great, the story felt real and organic, and the match quality never faulted. That title vs career stipulation paid off in one of the best matches of the year. Neither Miz nor Ziggler are going to be main event guys. If they’re given the chance to keep stepping up like this, though, that won’t matter. Most of us will be happy with them just being this damn entertaining.
10. John Cena Missed three of WWE’s big four Pay-per-views
In years gone by, John Cena has been an absolute machine. His injury recovery speed is superhuman. It’s rarer than it looks to have a crossover star who’s also freakishly resilient and almost never misses big money events. That used to be John Cena. In 2016 it was not. Not only is this unexpected, it’s also something that’s got to be keeping Vince McMahon up at night.
Cena spent the first half of 2016 out injured. The guy who never misses Wrestlemania wasn’t fit for either the Royal Rumble or Mania. Sure, he was around for Summerslam (and an epic encounter with AJ Styles). Was he really too busy filming his reality TV show to appear at Survivor Series? WWE’s top star of over a decade has been missing a worrying amount this year. For a company that’s always built itself around one top guy that is a problem, especially when they seem incapable of making a new one. Or even spotting a potential candidate when it’s staring them in the face.