2016 - Best & Worst and What’s to Come - Big Vin Vader @bigvinvader
2016 ended up being a great year for the WWE, especially after such an incredibly rocky start. The roster is stronger than ever, and the company wisely reached out to international talents to expand their reach and influence, not to mention the quality of programming. That we saw events such as the Cruiser Weight Classic, and signings like Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles really shows how committed WWE is to improving their game and embracing the independent and global wrestling worlds. On top of this, several wrestlers on the roster made marked improvements on their in-ring and promo work. Dean Ambrose had a number of matches that revealed his growth as a wrestler, moving beyond the wild brawling he usually brings to the table. The Miz dropped arguably the best promo of the year, then followed it up with a series of incredible matches which proved him to be the fighting champion many assumed he never could be. And Alexa Bliss stepped up her heel game, standing out among such well-respected peers as Becky Lynch and Sasha and Charlotte, even winning the SmackDown Women’s title in a match that revealed her in-ring prowess as well.
Things may not have gotten off to the best start, and the company made a number of regrettable decisions, even through the end of the year. By late summer, however, it was apparent that there were big plans in effect, and the direction we’ve been presented with has been more satisfying than not. Independent wrestling favorites have been pushed to the forefront as well as trusted with major titles, stupid gimmicks have taken a backseat for the most part, and several stars have proven themselves both for the first time and anew. Beyond that, NXT is an incredible developmental brand, with several great veteran and younger performers.
So, here’s my list, entirely subjective of course, regarding the ups and downs, as well as a few of my favorite matches of the year.
-Kevin Owens—I don’t even know where to begin with Kevin Owens, he’s one of my favorite things right now, period. His in-ring work is tremendous, making him easily one of the best wrestling talents the company has. On top of that, his mic work is top-notch, with his promos and backstage vignettes alike proving his all-around skills. While his title reign hasn’t been great, it still does me good to see that the company (and especially Triple H) have faith in Owens and his abilities by keeping the Universal Title on him for so many months. Of course, all of that could be squandered come the Royal Rumble if Reigns wins and, effectively, proves the assertions that Owens is an ineffectual champion without Jericho’s help. Regardless of whether he retains or loses the title at the Rumble, 2017 should prove to be a big year for KO, and he’s already proven himself to the fans and company alike.
-AJ Styles—One of the greatest workers in the world signs with the company he was never expected to join, and somehow manages to take everything by storm. The fans are totally behind AJ, even as a heel, and he’s put on the most consistent string of matches of nearly anyone on the main roster. WWE has big plans for him, and at no point has Styles made a misstep to prove them wrong in their confidence. Nobody else even remotely seems like a good choice to be the World champion, and AJ is so talented that he makes all of his competition look downright ineffectual. Hopefully with the promise of NXT call-ups and new signings, he’ll be presented with some credible challengers and be able to put on more classic matches (he already has several with both Samoa Joe and Shinsuke Nakamura).
-The Cruiser Weight Classic—Too many highs to begin to delve into here, although I do need to mention my introduction to Jack Gallagher and Lince Dorado, my favorites of the tournament. From top to bottom, the CWC was one of the very best things on the WWE Network this year. The diversity of the talent pool was amazing, and nearly every performer delivered at least one stellar match. Some, like Kota Ibushi, Cedric Alexander, and TJ Perkins consistently brought hard-hitting, high-flying action to the table and earned scores of new fans. The division may feel a bit watered down now that it’s made it to the main roster, but over the summer, there was no better place to go for impeccable technical wrestling.
-Women’s Wrestling—From the presence of the most talented female performers in company history, to the long-overdue move past the insulting Divas belt and title, 2016 was a fantastic year for Women’s wrestling in the WWE. The matches that Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Bayley, Becky Lynch and others put on this past year equaled and in many cases bettered the performances of the men on the roster. Not only were there better and more prominent matches on PPV cards, but the fan interest in the division finally equaled that of the men’s competition. No longer is women’s wrestling filler on the card, and long gone are the days of lingerie and swimsuit competitions. In terms of consistent quality and longevity, Charlotte and Sasha had arguably the rivalry of the year. The women of WWE have all the talent in the world and their place in the company finally reflects that fact.
-The Revival—Like watching a lost mid-80s tag team at the heights of their powers, killing every PPV match and working with the style and psychology of a lost art. Hopefully they get called up soon, because as great as it is to have them in NXT’s very solid tag division, they have way more to offer the world and the timing would be perfect to continue their rivalry with American Alpha. Such clear cut heels and faces are uncommon nowadays, especially when you consider how tremendous both teams are as far as technical wrestling ability. SmackDown has a pretty damn weak tag division, and such smart, dominant heels are exactly what that brand needs to give it a kick in the ass. They’ve already proven themselves at every NXT event they’ve worked, so why delay in bringing them to a bigger stage?
-Owens-Zayn Rivalry—I wasn’t hipped to their years of battling back and forth on the indies, but it shows exactly where WWE’s minds are at that they continued such a storied feud on their main programming. Even more inspiring is how impressive the continued rivalry turned out to be on a larger stage, and Owens and Zayn’s matches early last year truly emphasized what top-notch talents they both are. Indeed, they both stand, regardless of their respective pushes and positions in the company, as two of the best as well as most popular wrestlers in the WWE today. Also worth noting is just how many great contests they’ve been able to put on since ending the feud for good, which shows just how deep their talents really are.
-RAW Live—It’s no secret that RAW is pretty hit-or-miss most weeks, with a definite advantage going to the latter side of the equation. RAW’s December show in Columbus was a nice exception, a pretty consistent episode that provided some entertaining segments and some decent matches. Even the matches that normally would have been filler didn’t overstay their welcomes, meaning the whole thing felt way more satisfying than it would watching from home.
-Hidden Gems collection on the Network—They found the Last Battle of Atlanta, the origin of Hell in a Cell as well as the Shark Cage clause that’s been busted out several times this year. And that match is as brutal as it is historically important, a type of Southern hardcore wrestling that needed no barbed wire or weapons to make you understand the gravity of the spectacle. Also included was one of Terry Funk’s finest moments in his “retirement” match with Bret Hart from a live ECW event in 1997. Don’t miss it, the collection covers modern classics as well as matches of huge historical impact.
-Vader given 2 years to live—Obviously one of my favorite wrestlers of all time, and an awe-inspiring performer no matter what you think of him. It’s a shame that he’s in such a bad state now, but his career record speaks for itself. While I was floored upon reading the news, I hope that Vader is able to enjoy his remaining time, and appreciate the incredible impact he has made on the world of professional wrestling. From me to Leon White: thank you for all of the entertainment and fantastic matches over the years.
-Wrestlemania 32 & SummerSlam—Somehow the company’s two biggest shows were two of its worst all year. Add to that the fact that both were preceded by incredible NXT Takeover events, and the whole thing seems even more disappointing. I had high hopes for both events, and while each did present some great matches (The IC ladder match and Women’s 3-Way at the former, Cena vs. AJ Styles at the latter), the events failed to coalesce as a whole and just felt poorly-booked and generally unsatisfying. One would hope that WWE has learned from these mistakes, but as the year seems ready to start with another Roman Reigns push, you have to wonder how the major shows will fare.
-Finn Balor’s injury—I was completely on board with the massive push the company were giving Finn Balor, it was one of the best-executed moves of the entire year, and a decision anyone would have a hard time finding fault with. Of course the whole thing fizzled just as it was beginning, and Balor’s injury at SummerSlam proved just one more disappointing moment on a card full of them. The sidelining was one of the worst things that could happen to such a hot star, even if it gave Owens the title in the meantime. Hopefully this year will bring the two former NXT champions together in another classic of a match. Regardless, whenever Balor does make his full return, you can bet that he will continue to be pushed as one of the company’s top talents.
-Various Storylines and Issues—As with any year, there are a ton of little complaints I can make about the way things progressed this year. From the League of Nations, to the Social Outcasts, to “Make Darren Young Great Again,” the WWE showed just how little they know what to do with their undercard talents. On top of this, there were the various releases of talented, yet misused wrestlers such as Damien Sandow, Wade Barrett, and others. While the main roster and NXT are seemingly stronger than ever, things like this just stand to remind us of why the company is still struggling to find a place for its entire roster of talent nowadays.
-Daniel Bryan Retires—A tragedy no matter who you ask, this one blindsided fans early in the year. One of the WWE’s most popular and gifted wrestlers forced to retire due to consistent serious injuries, not to mention the seizures he was reported to be having as well. It’s nice to have him filling in as a talking head and authority figure, and his commentary work for the CWC was fantastic. And of course his retirement led to one of the biggest what-if feuds of the year as the Miz continues to taunt Bryan. Bryan wants to make a comeback, and god know the fans want him to, so hopefully his condition can improve with a little time off.
-Rick Rude HOF induction—One of my favorite wrestlers of all time, a world-class performer and incredibly sound all-around worker. I’ve watched more Rick Rude matches in the last few months than anyone else, and they don’t fail to entertain. Seems like it’s possible and people are talking about it nowadays. I realize Rude’s death reflected the tolls the business can take on performers’ bodies, so it seems possible that he’ll be overlooked in favor of safer options. Regardless, it would be great to see the Ravishing One recognized on a massive stage just before Wrestlemania.
-Big year for Finn Balor—Not just Balor, but the other many indie wrestling talents on the roster as well. The push Balor was getting reveals just how behind the former independent workhorses the company is now. All of these guys, and the presumed future call-ups from NXT and the indies, have more than proved their worth over the past year and have been rewarded for their incredible performances. On that note, I don’t want to see Kenny Omega in WWE. Can you imagine a world where bored fans chant “CM Punk” during an Omega match? I sure as hell can, and the work he’s been doing in New Japan is priceless, and should not be interrupted, especially since he’ll have less freedom in-ring. Besides, look at how many offers he’s already refused. That’s not someone eager to sign with the company.
-NXT call-ups: Samoa Joe, Shinsuke, the Revival—In the case of the former two wrestlers, their pedigrees speak for themselves, and it does seem kind of absurd that two world-renowned talents are still stuck in “developmental.” However, they do have a very unique and important niche carved out in NXT, and it seems unlikely that they could get away with the kinds of full-contact matches and moves they’re utilizing at Full Sail. The Muscle Buster (for better or worse) would likely have to go in Joe’s case, and we’ve all seen how WWE mismanages Japanese talents on the main roster. On top of that, consider how important promos are to the main event picture on either RAW or SmackDown, and it seems less likely that Vince in particular will stand behind a wrestler like Shinsuke Nakamura. In the case of the Revival, they happen to be much more suited to the main roster’s brand of sports entertainment. My only reservation, however, comes with the fact that American Alpha seemed damn near on their way to being buried before their recent victory to claim the SmackDown Tag Titles. Should their rivalry with the Revival continue on the main roster continue, we’re in good hands, but I don’t see things going nearly as smoothly as that.
-Dean Ambrose/Triple H (Roadblock)—No one expected Ambrose to win, but he put on a hell of a show, performing some impressive technical wrestling he hasn’t shown off since. Great psychology in targeting Triple H’s leg and his mid-match use of submissions really got me going. Only quibble, the finish: why have Dean rush in at 9 to beat the count then take a pedigree and go under? It’s insulting, and a count-out loss would have at least had a point. But despite that, a match that frankly didn’t need to happen ended up being one of the first true surprises of the year, as far as my own wrestling viewing was concerned. This match alone was more impressive and engaging than much of Ambrose’s (long-overdue, but woefully mismanaged) World Championship run.
-Ziggler/Miz—Career vs. Title (No Mercy)—It was hard to pick just one match from the incredible series these two put on this fall, but in the end this was the most emotional and inspiring of the three contests. It was one of those few matches that truly seemed like the finish was up in the air. The rumors about Dolph seeking a production role, as well as the success the Miz found in the latter portion of the year really made it seem like he would retain the IC belt and force Dolph into retirement. Instead, we got the best, most exciting match I’ve yet seen from the two of them. Forget about what happened in the aftermath, because the moment that Ziggler won this one was one of the best crowd reactions I heard all year, not to mention one of the most satisfying conclusions to a PPV contest the WWE managed to pull off.
-Styles/Cena—SummerSlam—This one was so good I had to watch it twice within 24 hours. The fact that Styles beat Cena clean after his heel turn, as well as John’s disappearance from television for a few weeks afterward really stressed the importance of his victory. It was such an intensely physical, back-and-forth contest that it seems almost impossible not to have been moved by the teased finishers and near-falls. Another perfect example of why AJ Styles was one of the top performers of the year for WWE, not to mention case in point that John Cena is capable of some truly tremendous matches despite his mixed status with the fans at this stage in his career. On top of everything else, this was the hands-down best match on the SummerSlam card, and was so exciting it almost made up for what a waste of time that PPV was otherwise.
-Sasha/Charlotte—HIAC—The historical qualities of this match really upped the ante, and despite the disappointment from some quarters, the whole bout proved to be just what we needed to see. Sure, there were problems, like the injury fake-out that took up far too much time before the match, and the problematic finish, but overall this one was truly impressive. The match was physical as hell, and there’s no denying that the crowd was entirely behind the two women taking the main event slot. Charlotte proved yet again that she’s one of the best athletes on the entire roster, and Sasha put up a hell of a fight that made her look great, at least until the ill-advised title change in her hometown. Hopefully this was a sign of what’s to come in the near future for the division.
-Revival-#DIY—Brooklyn Takeover II & Toronto—This one I wasn’t going to split hairs on since I genuinely feel both matches lived up to the same standard of quality. The Brooklyn match was the first time I paid serious attention to either team and it instantly made me a fan. I can’t recall any match holding me enthralled so quickly, and there was not a single wrong move made in either contest. There was great tag team action, old-school psychology, satisfying finishes, and even the high-stakes addition of the NXT Tag titles changing hands. This was a fantastic rivalry, the sort you don’t see often anymore, especially given such clear cut roles for both the faces and heels. That the two teams put on another corker a few short months later, with a double tap-out finish that bettered the Revival’s initial win in August, speaks volumes about each individual’s incredible talents.
Big Vin Vader covers professional wrestling for Pencilstorm. follow @bigvinvader