Every year, there are WWE Superstars who rise above the pack and put together a year full of accomplishments that demand recognition. Some have memorable title reigns, some wrestle in multiple Match of the Year contenders, and some create incredible characters that kept us glued to the screen. And a very few manage to do all of that, and end up at or near the top of this list of the very best of the best, the WWE Superstars we most enjoyed watching in 2016.
10. The New Day
We have to recognize the fact that in 2016 (and a significant part of 2015), The New Day were the Tag Team Champions. And we don’t mean they won the titles a bunch of times, we mean that until the brand split forced Smackdown to create their own champions, The New Day were the only Tag Team Champions in WWE for the entire year. For a record-breaking 470-plus days, The New Day held onto the tag titles like they were welded to their waists, breaking the old record set years ago by Demolition in the process. Certainly, it began stretching belief by the end, as several talented tag teams were denied title reigns while New Day moved ever-closer to setting a new mark, but it’s hard to deny that for much of the year, and for a long time before that, New Day were one of the best reasons to watch WWE programming. They were a seemingly endless font of creativity both in the ring and behind the scenes, they carried a division that for a long time was basically non-existent, and it will be interesting to see if they can re-invent themselves in 2017, whenever their epic reign inevitably comes to an end.
9. Roman Reigns
It’s really a shame that WWE’s creative team has badly damaged Roman Reigns’ character to the point that he is in serious danger of becoming unsalvageable in his current role, but if by some miracle they would ever see that an actual heel turn would be the saving grace for Reigns after years of pretending he’s beloved, they would actually stumble into a wrestler that could carry the main event for years. And while poor fan reactions and bad decisions by those in charge have hurt him badly from one side, to his credit, Reigns has stepped up his game from an in-ring standpoint, justifying some of the faith that WWE has in his ability to be a big part of the company’s future. Reigns has shown he can work a WWE main event style of match against a wide variety of opponents, and has been a part of some of the better matches in the company this year, even as his popularity continues to plummet while he stays shoehorned in a role he’s not right for. If WWE can get out of their own way and stop being stubborn, 2017 could be the year where Reigns finally breaks out for good.
8. Dean Ambrose
2016 was the year where Dean Ambrose finally put it all together and broke through as a true main event Superstar. Sure, he feuded over the WWE Title in years before now, but no one really saw him as a serious contender. This year, however, Ambrose moved away from being just a wacky guy whose plans resembled the plot of a Looney Tunes cartoon (and often resulted in Ambrose losing big matches in increasingly ridiculous ways), and leaned into becoming more of a tough-as-nails underdog, a guy with a hardcore reputation who never stopped fighting. The fans responded, and when Ambrose was tapped to fill-in for an injured Reigns before WrestleMania, he delivered an excellent feud with WWE Champion Triple H that had some people hoping he would be tapped to replace Reigns in the WrestleMania main event. That didn’t happen, but Ambrose was rewarded with a featured match against Brock Lesnar, and although it failed to live up to the hype, it established Ambrose as a bona fide main event wrestler, which would pay off mid-way through the year, when Ambrose would win Money in the Bank, cash it in that same night, and become WWE World Heavyweight Champion for the first time. In the latter half of 2016, Ambrose has continued to be one of the most entertaining parts of the Smackdown brand, and also put on some spectacular matches along the way. Of course, feuding with AJ Styles has helped, but Ambrose has more than held up his side of the in-ring work.
7. The Revival
While The New Day may have held court on the main roster with their year-plus title reign, down in NXT, The Revival were doing exactly what their name implied, and resurrecting the concept of old-school tag team wrestling, which hasn’t been seen in WWE in a very long time. Having lengthy feuds with two teams more than capable of keeping up in the ring, in American Alpha and #DIY, but Dash and Dawson have consistently brought the goods from both an in-ring and character perspective, modelling themselves against legendary brawler teams like The Andersons and playing the roles to the hilt. The Revival’s style has involved every trick in the tag team wrestling book, and it has resulted in matches that play out like chess matches, full of moves and counter-moves, working crowds into frenzies and reminding us of the days of the British Bulldogs and Hart Foundation, when tag team matches were a featured part of any event, and not just a sideshow, or dumping ground for singles wrestlers with nothing better to do.
6. Sasha Banks
There can be no doubt that in the ring, few can match The Boss. Sasha Banks spent 2016 absolutely bringing it from a wrestling perspective, having some of the best matches on several PPVs, including WrestleMania 32, and helping to make history at the same time. By the end of the year, Sasha had participated in the first Women’s match to main event Raw in over a decade, and then did it multiple times! She also participated in the first Women’s Hell in a Cell match, which was also the first time a Women’s match was the main event of a WWE PPV, and rounded out 2016 with the first Women’s Iron Man Match on the main roster. Over the course of those matches, she also won the Women’s Title three times, all on Raw, and her sometimes reckless attempts to raise the bar in her matches left us with our hearts in our throats more than once. If there was a weakness for Sasha in 2016, it was that she seemed uncomfortable in her role as Raw’s top female babyface, as her character always seemed more natural as an arrogant heel, leading many to hope for the days where we’ll see the “true” Boss once again. In addition, her wrestling style led to a worry that she might be injury-prone, and a mid-year back injury nearly put her out of commission, and may have muddled the direction of the Women’s Division for several months. Overall, though, a great year for The Boss, one she could still improve upon in 2017.
5. Samoa Joe
As much as people liked seeing Samoa Joe sign with WWE, some questioned if he had anything left to give at that point in his career. He’d seemingly grown less and less motivated during his TNA career, as it became apparent there was no direction for him, and while his NXT debut was well-received, he definitely looked in far worse shape than he had been in his prime. Those questions are gone now, as Joe seems to have found new motivation in NXT, and has been putting on spectacular matches, as well as refining his character into one of the very best on the roster. A late 2015 heel turn positioned him against a pair of NXT’s biggest babyfaces in 2016, first feuding with Finn Balor in a feud which culminated in the first Steel Cage match in NXT history, then moving on to the newest hot property in NXT, Shinsuke Nakamura. As a result, Joe ended 2016 as the very first two-time NXT Champion, and while he ultimately could not hold onto the title, there are rumblings that the New Year might hold even better opportunities for him, with a potential main roster debut as early as the Royal Rumble potentially in the cards.
There may be women in WWE that everyone likes more (in fact we’d guarantee it), but the fact of the matter is that Charlotte has carried the bulk of the load for the emerging WWE Women’s Division, and quickly grown from her 2015 debut as a slightly wide-eyed rookie into an incredibly effective heel who is set up to be the center of that scene for years to come. Charlotte was unbeatable on Pay Per View in 2016, going undefeated in PPV singles matches since her main roster debut, amassing a 15-0 record. Along the way, she oversaw the transition from the Divas Championship to the Women’s Championship, by winning a spectacular Triple Threat match at WrestleMania, where the new title was introduced. She also put on more than her fair share of great matches, including a great many with her nemesis, Sasha Banks, and that lists of historical “firsts” accomplished by Sasha were all accomplished while facing Charlotte. While Sasha Banks is more popular and Bayley is more beloved, Charlotte has done the queen’s share of the work building an effective Women’s Division, through hard work and a constant evolution of her character.
3. The Miz
2016 was the year when a lot of people woke up and realized that The Miz is actually a really good pro wrestler. Sure, he’ll never be the flashiest in-ring worker, but he’s more than competent, he was involved in his share of great matches, and whatever deficiencies he might have are more than made up by the fact that his character is one of the best in the world right now. It’s always refreshing to find wrestlers willing to play heel characters that aren’t trying to get cheers, because too many people have forgotten that heels aren’t supposed to be liked. And the Miz has cornered the market on being completely unlikable, because even when he does something cool, you just can’t support him because it feels wrong. He is a rude, loud-mouthed, arrogant jerk who cuts every corner, weasels out of every situation, and the really frustrating part is that he still manages to win matches that you know he should lose. His near-stranglehold on the Intercontinental Title for most of the year has elevated the belt, simply due to his selfish desire to have it and willingness to do anything to keep it. His work has been so exceptional, people have been talking about how he deserves a future World Title reign, something we thought we’d never hear again after the first one.
2. Chris Jericho
Every time Chris Jericho comes back we wonder if this is going to be the time where he doesn’t manage to remake his character into something incredible. There have been some dips in the road, but once again, Jericho came into 2016 and reminded people that he actually is the best in the world at what he does, and what he does is entertain. His latest return may have started with Jericho as a bland babyface, but after turning heel on AJ Styles early in the year, Jericho spent the rest of 2016 evolving his heel persona yet again, making us hate him for his stupid facial hair, lame expensive scarf obsession, and refusal to wear a shirt under his vests. But of course, the crown jewel would have to be the List of Jericho. A time-honored gimmick of any annoying heel trying to get their authority figure in trouble by documenting their failures quickly became a highlight of Raw, due to Jericho’s completely over-the-top theatrics which resulted in adding new names to the List. In addition, Jericho found the perfect partner to bounce his heel act off of, teaming up with Kevin Owens and declaring that the duo were the best friends that have ever existed. The sheer earnestness with which Jericho insists that he and Owens are inseparable, even though everyone knows that Owens got to where he is by turning his back on every friend he ever had, has had the expected effect of getting the crowd back behind Y2J, with things building to a fever pitch over anticipation of Owens’ sudden but inevitable betrayal as 2016 came to a close.
1. AJ Styles
There really isn’t even an argument that can be made, as after years and years of working for other organizations, AJ Styles finally made his way to WWE and showed why he very well might be the absolute best wrestler on the planet. When it was revealed that Styles was leaving New Japan Pro Wrestling only days after participating in an incredible Match of the Year candidate against Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 10, wrestling fans were cautiously optimistic. After all, the knock on Styles for years has been that he’s too small and not good enough on the mic to succeed in the WWE environment. But from the moment Styles made his shocking debut in the Royal Rumble, virtually everything he’s been a part of in 2016 has turned to gold. WWE eased him in with an early feud with Chris Jericho, then threw him right into the deep end after WrestleMania, as Styles would main-event the next two WWE PPVs in matches for the WWE Title. While he was unsuccessful in capturing the belt then, even better days were ahead. Styles next entered a feud with John Cena, which he not only won, but did so decisively, culminating in another Match of the Year contender against Cena at SummerSlam that saw him cleanly defeat “The Face That Runs The Place”. Only a few weeks later, a mere eight months into his WWE career, AJ Styles defeated Dean Ambrose to become WWE World Champion, and held the title through the end of the year.