Sometimes it’s hard to remember exactly why we keep watching WWE programming. In the never-ending weekly grind of TV shows and PPVs, it’s easy to get hung up on negativity and forget about all the bright spots that take place. With that in mind, we decided to go back through the year and talk about all the moments in the past 12 months that made us happy, made us excited, and yes, even made us “mark out” just a little bit. And it turns out, even if it wasn’t the best year ever, there still were a lot of great things happening in WWE this past year, so here’s what made us stand up and cheer the loudest in 2016.
10. Day Of The Demon
We knew that Finn Balor would likely get some sort of push when he finally debuted on the main roster after spending months holding up the main event of NXT. After all, he’s a solid veteran wrestler who’s marketable both as a international Superstar, and because of his “Demon” character that just screams “merchadising”. But it’s unlikely that anyone thought Balor’s introduction to the wider WWE audience would be quite as huge as it was. Balor was taken as a Top 5 pick by Raw in the Brand Extension Draft, which was surprising on its own, but on his first night with the brand, Balor rose to heights that almost no WWE Superstar has ever accomplished in their debut. Balor was first placed in a Fatal 4-Way Match against three of Raw’s top talents, Kevin Owens, Rusev, and Cesaro, and emerged victorious, which would be a huge debut on its own. But then, Balor wrestled a second match, one-on-one against Roman Reigns, the multiple-time World Champion who WWE had made no secret of pushing as their top babyface star, with the winner facing Seth Rollins in the main event of SummerSlam for the newly-created WWE Universal Title. Balor shocked the world by not only winning, but defeating Reigns cleanly, making his WWE main roster debut a massive success. His PPV debut wasn’t bad either, as Balor would beat Rollins to become the inaugural WWE Universal Champion, the first WWE Superstar to ever win a World Title in his first match on a WWE PPV.
9. NXT Takes Over Dallas
In choosing the “Best PPV of the Year”, it was definitely a close race, but one thing that was certain was that the majority of our options involved the multiple NXT TakeOver specials which took place over the year. And once we weighed all the factors, we decided that the honor had to go to NXT TakeOver: Dallas, which took place on WrestleMania weekend. While every TakeOver had its share of excellent matches, this event truly had some of the best of the year, including a classic tag team battle between American Alpha and The Revival, another match in the series between Samoa Joe and Finn Balor, and Asuka defeating Bayley to claim the NXT Women’s Title. But the biggest and best match on the card, undoubtedly, was the one which revealed Shinsuke Nakamura to the NXT audience. The second the opening strings of his new entrance music hit, Nakamura was a huge star. His introduction had an aura of importance, which demanded attention from the very start. Nakamura’s opponent that night was Sami Zayn, wrestling his final match in NXT after over two years of being one of the pillars of the brand, adding an emotional element to the match. The two Superstars then went out and absolutely tore the house down in a hard-hitting match unlike anything seen in WWE in a long time, if ever, and gave Nakamura a debut worthy of the King of Strong Style.
8. The Rise of Ellsworth
You’d think it would be hard to explain how someone who looks like James Ellsworth, a relatively tiny, chinless man with almost no muscle definition and a perpetually confused looks on his face, would become one of the most beloved characters in WWE, but it really isn’t. James Ellsworth is possibly the most relatable Superstar in the company, an average guy who’s in way over his head, but determined (or delusional enough to believe) that if he tries his best, good things will happen. He’s what we’d imagine we’d be like in the unlikely event we ever got to step inside a WWE ring. Thus, when Ellsworth succeeded against all odds, even though he rarely had much agency in his victories, it was a win for fans everywhere. And when a microphone was pointed in his direction, his earnest honesty was instantly endearing. Probably the high point of Ellsworth’s incredible journey was his third victory over AJ Styles in a Ladder Match, which earned him a WWE contract and a World title shot, simply because while Dean Ambrose did interfere at one point, Ellsworth actually took direct action to win the match and realize his destiny as an real WWE Superstar.
7. The Cruiserweight Classic
Thanks to the prevailing belief of Vince McMahon that “bigger is better”, WWE has never really gotten a handle on the concept of cruiserweights, something which came around to bite them in the Attitude Era, when WCW made an entire division of smaller wrestlers one of the cornerstones of their weekly shows, and reaped all the benefits of showcasing their innovative, high-flying style. WWE’s own attempts to copy WCW’s success have regularly met with failure, largely due to an insistence that cruiserweights still work the same “WWE Style” as the heavyweights, in order to not overshadow the main event talents. In 2016, WWE finally managed to get a bead on how to present Cruiserweights, and the result was the first Cruiserweight Classic, a Network-exclusive tournament featuring talent from all over the world, most of them not even under WWE contract, who were allowed to wrestle basically without restraints and ended up putting on incredible matches which made the tournament one of the Network’s most-watched shows. WWE instantly made plans to revive the Cruiserweight title on the Raw brand, but unfortunately, haven’t managed to recapture the magic of the tournament up to this point, as it seems they’ve once again fallen into that familiar pattern of handcuffing the in-ring product and removing everything that made the division special in the first place.
6. Women’s Wrestling
After a false start in 2015 that saw WWE attempt a “Diva’s Revolution” that basically ignored the biggest problem with their treatment of female wrestlers in the very first word, WWE made some very necessary adjustments in 2016, and made the smart decision to actually focus the new “Women’s Evolution” around the same wrestlers who had brought the concept to the forefront in NXT. Starting at WrestleMania, WWE publicly retired the term “Diva” and their often-mocked Divas Title, announcing that they would begin referring to their women as “Superstars”, just like men, and bringing back the Women’s Championship, which had a similar design to the men’s World Title. That was a huge first step, but the other part of the equation was giving the women the thing they’d most been missing: time to put on great matches. WWE, true to their word, spent the rest of 2016 giving the women of Raw and Smackdown the time they needed to put on some absolute classic matches. This year, Women’s Division matches main-evented Raw multiple times, as well as a Pay Per View for the first time in history. Along the way, they also participated in the first Hell in a Cell match and first Iron Woman Match on the main roster, as well as Tables Matches, Falls Count Anywhere matches, and plenty of just plain great wrestling matches, several of which were actual Match of the Year contenders. In addition, WWE worked on replenishing their Women’s Division in NXT, and began making plays to sign some of the top female talent in the world, culminating in plans for an all-Women’s tournament airing on the WWE Network, set for sometime in early 2017.
5. AJ Styles Debuts
After spending the majority of his career in TNA, then fleeing the crumbling company for what looked like a comfortable position in New Japan Pro Wrestling, nobody believed that AJ Styles would ever wrestle in WWE. In fact, very early in his career, Styles had reportedly turned down a WWE developmental contract, allegedly over issues he had with the company’s “values” following the Attitude Era. And as 2016 dawned, a 38-year-old Styles looked quite happy to wind down his long career in Japan, putting on incredible matches with some of the top talent in the world. Then something incredible happened: immediately after putting on a legitimate Match of the Year candidate against Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 10 (NJPW’s biggest annual show of the year, similar to WWE’s WrestleMania), Styles announced that he was leaving the company, and officially a free agent. Now considered one of the very best wrestlers in the world, Styles could basically write his own ticket, and managed to negotiate himself a reportedly lucrative deal with WWE that allowed him to bypass NXT and debut immediately on the main roster, which he did only weeks after Wrestle Kingdom, as a surprise entrant at #3 in the Royal Rumble match. The live crowd went wild (meanwhile, WWE’s cameras missed part of his entrance in favor of focusing on Roman Reigns in the ring, but because he got such a huge ovation, WWE actually had to release “unseen footage” on their website afterwards so that the home audience could see it), and Styles used that momentum, along with his enormous talent refined by years of experience, to catapult himself into one of the top stars in WWE incredibly quickly, ending 2016 as the WWE World Champion.
4. The List of Jericho
Never doubt the power of Chris Jericho to reinvent himself in incredible fashion. When he made his latest return to WWE, Jericho was looking more like a dad trying to be cool in front of his kids, and was drowning as a babyface. Instead of giving up, however, Jericho leaned into the skid, and came out the other side with a fresh character that was intentionally out of touch, wearing expensive scarves and calling people “stupid idiots” because in his deluded mind, those were cool things to do. Then he came up with a master stroke to put the whole act over the top: the List of Jericho. Originally conceived as a list of faults with Raw GM Mick Foley, it very quickly degenerated into a means for Jericho to attempt to shame those who had wronged him in any way. No one was ever quite sure what the end result of being on the List would be (although it seemed to involve everyone named eventually getting “it”), but Jericho went completely over-the-top with the act, to the point that his comedically overwrought declaration of “You Just Made The List!” became one of the highlights of the weekly shows (and, obviously, spawned a t-shirt bearing the phrase), swinging Jericho all the way back around to beloved character once more, even though he continued to fight it by remaining best friends with Kevin Owens.
One day, we’ll probably get tired of Bobby Roode’s NXT theme song, and that will be a very sad day. Everything about the song is incredible; the overblown pomp, the triumphant lyrics, the combination of gospel music and garbage rock that all comes together in a seamless package which screams “Pay attention to me!” It is by far the most-watched entrance theme video on YouTube, by a wide margin, and we are shocked, absolutely shocked that this didn’t immediately become the newest WWE theme that crosses over into professional sports and suddenly starts appearing as baseball players’ walk-up music, team introductions, highlight packages, and after big home wins. Extra credit goes to Roode and fellow NXT Superstars Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano for creating a series of viral videos, using the hashtag #GLORIOUSBOMB, to help get the word out. In two TakeOver events thus far, Roode has had suitably over-the-top entrances to go along with his music, and we simply can’t wait to find out what they’ll come up with in the future, especially if and when he makes his main roster debut.
2. Here Comes The Money
In February of 2016, it’s safe to say wrestling fans were a little depressed. The Road to Wrestlemania was in full gear, with Roman Reigns in the driver’s seat, and a crushing sense of inevitability trailing in his wake, as he thundered along on his way to winning the WWE World Title in the main event of Mania, despite fan reactions to the contrary. To make matters even worse, at the start of the month, it was suddenly revealed that Daniel Bryan was never coming back to wrestle, ever again, leading to an emotional farewell on an episode of Raw which took place the same evening he announced his retirement on social media. But suddenly, with Vince McMahon standing in the ring on an episode of Raw, the crowd came to their feet in absolute shock when they heard the entrance theme of someone who hadn’t been around in seven years. Yes, Shane McMahon broke his years-long self-imposed exile from the company that his family owned in order to try and give the product a shot in the arm, and for a while, it absolutely worked. Shane said all the right things to appeal to fans: he said the product had grown stale and boring, deserving stars were being wasted while others were receiving far more than their due, and that he was there to change the way things worked. After years of evil authority figures dominating the screen, Shane was seen as a breath of fresh air and a sign of real potential for WWE to actually shake things up. Of course, they would mess things up fairly quickly, but the moment where the WWE audience believed Shane McMahon had returned to save them all was certainly one to remember.
1. 86 Seconds
Headed into Survivor Series, it’s probably safe to say that there were mixed opinions about how the Brock Lesnar-Goldberg re-match would actually turn out. Sure, Goldberg had made the most of his appearances since returning and actually seemed to be getting over as a legendary figure coming back for one last shot. But many fans still remembered the disaster that was their original match at WrestleMania XX, and the prospect of both men being twelve years older, with Goldberg having not wrestled at all since that match, didn’t leave a whole lot of optimism for the quality of the encounter. But for once, WWE did the smart thing, as the match featured an arrogant Lesnar caught flat-footed, hit with two Spears and a Jackhammer, and pinned. The entire match lasted 86 seconds, and left every wrestling fan in shock at what they had just witnessed. Nobody had ever manhandled Lesnar in such a way, but it was absolutely the perfect way for that match to go down. For at least one night, Goldberg was back.