Is wrestling the only thing the internet didn’t undermine this year? Thanks to technology, wrestling fans have more options than ever before. We can watch a big New Japan show on New Japan World one night, a show from Ireland or Ybor City on FloSlam the next night, catch the latest CMLL event on YouTube, get weepy-eyed about the past with a 30-year-old Jim Crockett Promotions show from TBS on the WWE Network, and then stick with the Network the next night for the latest WWE PPV. The variety of wrestling available to fans online today is staggering, and makes it easier than ever to keep track of the greatest wrestlers around the world.
Many wrestlers stood out in 2016, which was a year of fantastic in-ring action around the globe. Three talents in particular were given great opportunities in WWE and New Japan and absolutely crushed them, establishing themselves as the three best wrestlers in the world. Elsewhere the biggest promotion in the world finally caught on to the fact that women’s wrestling is every bit as exciting as men’s wrestling, and often even moreso. Old stalwarts continued storied careers while hungry young talents started to make their mark in earnest. 2016 might not have been a good year, but it was a great year for wrestling, if you knew where to look. If you were following these 25 wrestlers, than you definitely found it.
Check back in early 2017 for Paste’s lists of the best tag teams, matches and wrestling characters of 2016.
25. John Cena
John Cena missed quite a bit of time this year due to injury and Hollywood commitments, but it would be folly to overlook how big a role he played in elevating A.J. Styles to the position he’s reached in the WWE today. The pair’s feud was Styles’ first truly significant work in the company, helping him transition away from The Club (along with the draft, which sent them both to Smackdown) to become the best singles star in the company today, as we all hoped would happen. It was their spectacular Summerslam singles match in particular (certainly a MOTY contender) that reminded everyone in the wrestling community not only how great Styles is, but how great of an in-ring storyteller Cena can be whenever he has the right opponent. Much in the same way that C.M. Punk always drew classic matches out of Cena, Styles has done in 2016. Even as he transitions into more and more acting and comedy work, Cena has forever been one of the most passionate wrestlers in the business. His love for the in-ring work is unquestionable, and he’s always seeking to improve. And as he transitions away from perpetually being a constant main event contender, we can’t wait to see how the character of an older, wiser, grittier Cena will continue to evolve.—Jim Vorel
24. Bobby Lashley
Yes, that Bobby Lashley. Donald Trump’s former Wrestlemania representative had his best year in the business as a dominant champ in a dwindling promotion. It’s not the size of the stage that matters, though: Lashley’s badass heel character would’ve been a force in any promotion, with a presence and legitimacy that greatly outshone the company he works for. Along with Drew Galloway, Ethan Carter III and Eddie Edwards, Lashley was part of a surprisingly great TNA main event scene, and his matches with all three were some of the few (non-Matt Hardy) highlights in a horrible year for TNA. Lashley has recovered from his “too much, too soon” WWE push of a decade ago, learning how to carry himself as a true champion both inside and outside the ring. He should be on the shortlist of former stars WWE is desperate to bring back.—Garrett Martin
23. Zack Sabre Jr
The current Pro Wrestling Guerilla champion was one of the biggest names in WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic—and, along with Kota Ibushi, one of the biggest names to not sign a deal with WWE after the Classic was over. Long considered one of the best pure wrestlers in the world, Sabre had another fine year in 2016, wrestling fantastic matches for promotions throughout the world, from PWG and WWE to Evolve, RevPro, Progress and more. Highlights included his RevPro British Heavyweight title win against AJ Styles in January, his RevPro series against New Japan’s Katsuyori Shibata, and his PWG and Evolve matches against longtime friend and nemesis Marty Scurll. Sabre’s technical skills remain some of the best in wrestling today, with a catch-as-catch-can style that’s somehow as smooth as it is complex, with brutal Japanese-style strikes thrown in for good measure. If you’ve only seen him in the Cruiserweight Classic, you’ve only scratched the surface of what makes Sabre such a great pro wrestler.—Garrett Martin
22. Shinsuke Nakamura
It may be true that Shinsuke Nakamura has lost a step or two from his peak in New Japan, but even a Nakamura at 85% is a far more electric performer than almost anyone else on the planet. If there was ever any doubt whether Shinsuke’s personality and image would effectively translate to the American wrestling audience, his ecstatic embrace by the NXT audience put it to bed. There simply isn’t an entrance in pro wrestling today that is more of an event than when Nakamura comes down to the ring, and the company wisely didn’t hamper his in-ring style very much or give him a character to play that wasn’t simply “Shinsuke Nakamura.” If anything, his only problem in 2016 was the fact that many of his NXT matches were throw-aways against lesser competition, with only three real marquee matches against Sami Zayn, Finn Balor and Samoa Joe. The utter shock of the audience members at Takeover: Toronto to his defeat by Samoa Joe just goes to illustrate how strongly Nakamura has been booked, that his victory seemed like a foregone conclusion. It feels like his best work in the WWE is probably still to come, in the form of a longer-term storyline against a worthy opponent, but there’s no doubt that any live Nakamura match remains appointment viewing at this point.—Jim Vorel
21. Marty Scurll
Pro wrestling in the UK exploded this year, and its most valuable player was arguably Marty Scurll.
After wrestling one of the matches of the year against Will Ospreay at Revolution Pro Wrestling’s High Stakes in January, Scurll went on to tour the indies, making a name for himself in the United States by wrestling for the likes of Evolve and Pro Wrestling Guerilla. He won the PWG Battle of Los Angeles in September, and later signed a contract with Ring of Honor, where he quickly won the ROH Television Championship and stole the show with rival Ospreay and Dragon Lee in a triple threat match at Final Battle.
“The Villain” might be just the shot in the arm Ring of Honor needs. With Adam Cole almost certainly gone in 2017, and many of the company’s recent shows relying on outside talent from its relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling, Scurll is just starting to reach his potential and offers a legitimate draw for ROH fans. If the company plays its cards right, it could have a top star for years to come.—Paul DeBenedetto
20. Becky Lynch
The brand split was the best thing that could’ve happened to Becky Lynch. Despite shining in a Wrestlemania triple threat match with Charlotte and Sasha, and playing a pivotal role as the sympathetic face during Charlotte’s heel turn earlier in the year, Becky would’ve been stuck in the shadow of the other so-called Horsewomen if she had stayed on Raw, a talented gatekeeper for the upper echelon of the women’s division. That’s a nice way of saying she would’ve been a stepping stone, prepping up-and-comers for main event feuds with Charlotte, Sasha or Bayley. She gets to be the star of the show on Smackdown Live, and despite a brief absence due to injury, she’s run with it, reigning as the first Smackdown Women’s Champion, and helping Alexa Bliss prosper during one of WWE’s better recent feuds.—Garrett Martin
19. Kairi Hojo
All of you Macho Man Randy Savage fans, look away; you’re not going to like this. With the absolute best diving elbow drop in professional wrestling, pirate princess Kairi Hojo is closing in on the heels of her former Stardom teammate Io Shirai heading into 2017.
Though Shirai has been garnering a great deal of (deserved) attention in 2016, the balance to her new dark persona seems to come in the form of agile and aggressive Kairi Hojo. Coming up on her fifth year anniversary since debuting in professional wrestling, she has made a name for herself as both incredibly fun to watch and a quality in-ring performer.
Marred only by a concussion suffered in September, current Wonder of Stardom and Goddesses of Stardom title holder Hojo could potentially be catapulting to WWE in the coming year. With strong showings as a tag competitor, she could find herself right in the sweet spot of WWE’s NXT program, which has put new focus on women’s tag matches in late 2016. Having been discovered by Stardom’s Fuka while working as an actress, Kairi will likely have no problem connecting with WWE’s global audiences and leaving a lasting impression.—Lady J
When you see the name “Pentagon Jr.” listed on a card, two things are guaranteed: someone’s going to get a beating, and the audience will be getting their money’s worth.
With only six years under his belt, Pentagon Jr. took 2016 by storm. The Mexican luchador started the year off strong, finally picking up a win in his fourth appearance at AAA’s annual Rey de Reyes event. Between July and August, he picked up titles in AAA (Latin America Title), Chicago’s AAW (Heavyweight Title), and California’s PCW (Heavyweight Title). Pentagon left a mark with his participation in PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles in September, too, especially his incredible tag matches with Fenix against Chris Hero and Tommy End as well as the Young Bucks.
Looking for prime Pentagon violence? Look no further than his appearances in seasons two and three of Lucha Underground, where his journey to becoming Pentagon Dark was littered with battered bodies and broken arms. Currently off TV after a beating from the Black Lotus triad, expect a vengeful Pentagon to return in 2017 looking for blood.—Lady J
17. Adam Cole
If the over-extended Bullet Club absolutely had to introduce new American-based members, they at least made a great pick with Adam Cole. A clear superstar for years now, Cole reaffirmed his position as the best of the best in Ring of Honor by winning his second ROH World Championship, ending Jay Lethal’s year-plus reign in the process. Meanwhile, out in California, he joined the Young Bucks to face Ricochet, Will Ospreay and Matt Sydal in a six-man tag for Pro Wrestling Guerilla that is easily one of the best matches of the year. Cole’s versatile in the ring, as adept at fast-paced, high-flying matches as he is brawls and technical showcases, and he’s been one of the most naturally charismatic wrestlers on the independent circuit for years. Based on his sterling 2016, all those rumors of a WWE jump in 2017 make perfect sense.—Garrett Martin
16. Tomohiro Ishii
Maybe it’s still real to Ishii too? Nobody today makes it look more real than this hard-hitting brawler. That headbutt sequence in his match against Katsuyori Shibata at Wrestle Kingdom 10 is hard to watch but impossible to look away from; it’s just two exhausted, totally spent warriors digging down deep and ramming their heads against each other full bore because that’s all they have left. Ishii excels at that kind of almost minimalist violence—he is a striker and a slugger, not a high-flying flip man. He brought that grounded approach to Ring of Honor throughout 2016, winning the TV title from Roderick Strong and having fine matches with Strong, Bobby Fish and others. His best work remained in New Japan, though, where he challenged Tetsuya Naito for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in a great match and had an instant classic with Kazuchika Okada during the G1 Climax. The Stone Pitbull’s combination of power and technique has made him one of the most reliable and distinctive wrestlers of the last few years, and he didn’t take it easy in 2016.—Garrett Martin
15. Io Shirai
If you didn’t know the name Io Shirai when 2016 started, you probably do now—or you’d better learn it fast.
The current World of Stardom Champion proved why she walks to the ring with all the swagger of someone ten times her size. Back in May, the fearless and hard-hitting Shirai was holding four separate titles (two as part of a team and two singles titles), including her current one. She won the inaugural tournament involving Stardom and four other women’s promotions from around the world to become the SWA Undisputed World Women’s Champion.
After a particularly gut-wrenching heel turn back in November, a new, extra-vicious Io is putting all of women’s (and even some of men’s) wrestling on notice. With an unbelievable appearance facing off against Pentagon Dark as part of the Black Lotus Triad in a December episode of Lucha Underground, and amid rumors of a future with WWE, it seems there is no stopping her in the new year. Future opponents, be warned.—Lady J
NXT accomplished something with Asuka that they’ve never quite done with any other female performer—they brought in a woman (one who barely speaks English, at that) from abroad and immediately made her feel like an upper echelon performer from the very beginning. Much of this comes down to Asuka’s innate physicality and ability to emote—every time she’s on screen, she projects a truly unique melange of predatory cunning, allure and effortless cool. Backed by one of the best entrances/themes in wrestling today, she came in and steamrolled the competition, amazing NXT live audiences with her viciousness, beautiful technical wrestling transitions and an aura of danger that easily surpassed that of monster heel Nia Jax. Today, with most of the other top-flight female competition already up on RAW or Smackdown, Asuka seems entirely on a different level from any of the competition remaining in NXT. The likes of Billie Kay or Peyton Royce will have to be elevated massively to seem like any kind of credible threat to Asuka’s dominance.—Jim Vorel
In 2016 Bayley accomplished one of the rarest feats in wrestling: she made the jump from NXT to WWE without being handicapped or diminished in any way. She capped off her brilliant “developmental” career with a fantastic feud against Asuka, including two of the best NXT matches of the year at the Takeover events before Wrestlemania and Summerslam, before debuting on Raw as a full-timer in late August. Her kid-friendly, super-posi character has translated well, with both kids and unironic lovers of pro wrestling supporting her on the main stage as much as they did in NXT. Since August she’s scored three wins over Charlotte, who’s been the dominant force in the women’s division since it was launched, and together they make up the most unabashedly old-school, black and white face-heel dynamic WWE has seen in years. As we head into 2016, these two are poised to have the next defining rivalry of WWE’s women’s division.—Garrett Martin
12. Kevin Owens
A few years ago, if you suggested that the WWE Champion (in this case, the “Universal” champion) heading into the Royal Rumble would be Kevin Steen, people would have looked at you like you’d taken one too many chair shots to the dome. For all his talent both in the ring and on the mic, Kevin Owens simply doesn’t have the look of a classical WWE world champ. He’s too fat; he doesn’t have the muscle definition, he doesn’t have “the look.” But kudos to the company for giving Owens a chance after building him up with their midcard titles, such as the Intercontinental Championship. It was like a return to the way champions were built in a bygone age, and Owens has made the very most of his opportunity. There’s no one in the company who is better at improvising on a live mic, or turning cheers into heel heat whenever necessary. He’s the best “real” heel that the WWE has had in years; the type that JBL once defined as a guy who doesn’t seek cheers for anything he does. That’s not to say K.O. can’t do comedy, as his friendship with Chris Jericho has been one of the few storylines of any real worth on RAW in the past six months. He may not be a conventional champion for the WWE, but he’s a master performer in every field where a champion should excel.—Jim Vorel
11. Sasha Banks
How beloved is Sasha Banks? When they took “The Boss” off TV for nearly two months after Wrestlemania, in an effort to build anticipation for a feud with Charlotte upon her return, chants of “We Want Sasha” hijacked women’s matches at televised WWE events almost weekly.
One of the “Four Horsewomen” of the WWE, Banks helped elevate the women’s division along with her cohorts in matches like the Wrestlemania triple threat for the Women’s Championship that many believed stole the show. Her brief team-up with Bayley at Battleground and first championship victory on Monday Night Raw were some of the most memorable moments of the year.
For better or worse, Banks and Charlotte Flair dominated women’s wrestling throughout the second half of 2016, in arguably Raw’s strongest feud. The two women main evented both Monday Night Raw and a pay-per-view, and boasted the first-ever women’s Hell in a Cell match. Such was the impact of their feud that when, weeks later, Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss wrestled in the main event of Smackdown Live, it was barely noteworthy. The bar had already been set. And if this year was any indication, Sasha Banks will help raise that bar even higher in 2017.—Paul DeBenedetto
10. and 9. Ricochet and Will Ospreay (tie)
It seems impossible to talk about one without the other: Ricochet and Will Ospreay were two of the most buzzworthy performers of 2016, in part because of a now-famous match that blew up the wrestling internet. But the 28-year-old Ricochet and the 23-year-old British sensation Ospreay can also lay claim to being the two most exciting wrestlers in the world.
Thirteen-year veteran Ricochet is a regular in both Lucha Underground, where he wrestles as the masked former-champion Prince Puma, and in New Japan Pro Wrestling. In 2016, he twice became NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Champion and twice became half of the Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions with Matt Sydal. Ospreay, meanwhile, helped put UK wrestling on the map alongside contemporaries like Zack Sabre Jr. and Marty Scurll, putting on one the best matches of the year with Scurll at January’s Revolution Pro Wrestling show High Stakes before he, too, made an impact in New Japan, debuting as the newest member of Chaos in March and later winning the Battle of the Super Juniors tournament.
It was during that tournament that the high-flyers made perhaps their most important contribution to wrestling in 2016, and not just because the match was jaw-dropping in its complexity. It also became a sort of litmus test for what you believe wrestling to be: When wrestling legend Vader blasted the match as a “dancing gymnastic routine,” the two men fired back, standing firm as ambassadors for a generation that treats wrestling like performance art rather than sport. (Ospreay smartly turned the mini-feud into a payday, facing Vader in a main event match for RevPro in August.)
Whether or not you liked the match is beside the point. What the two men offered is a look at the future of wrestling, and the future is now.—Paul DeBenedetto
8. Katsuyori Shibata
Some truly great performers make pro wrestling seem so real, you forget for a moment that what you’re watching is a staged fight. And few wrestlers make it seem more real than Katsuyori Shibata.
Shibata, who is currently both NEVER Openweight Champion and Revolution Pro Wrestling British Heavyweight Champion, started 2016 with one of the best matches of the year, a grueling battle against Tomohiro Ishii at Wrestle Kingdom 10 that saw both men go back and forth with kicks to the back, chops to the chest, and any number of strikes that would make even the toughest tough-guy wince.
Around “The Wrestler’s” waist, the NEVER Openweight Championship was elevated to new heights, thanks in part to a back-and-forth series with Yuji Nagata that helped rejuvenate the veteran’s career, some great matches with the likes of Kyle O’Reilly and Tetsuya Naito, and a feud with Pro Wrestling NOAH that at times looked so violent it blurred the line between fantasy and reality.
For some, Shinsuke Nakamura is the “King of Strong Style.” But if “strong style” has one true king, it’s Katsuyori Shibata.—Paul DeBenedetto
The central star of WWE’s most exciting division might be the most well-rounded performer in the entire company today. As her series of matches with Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Bayley proved throughout 2016, Charlotte is a fantastic worker who has continued to learn and grow since hitting the main roster in 2015. Her technical work has always been strong, and she’s started to experiment by peppering riskier and more elaborate moves into her repertoire (like that diving corkscrew moonsault to the outside of the ring that she pulled out on Raw this fall). As a character, she’s the best classic heel on television today, turning into a great interview over the course of the year, and playing perfectly off faces like Banks, Lynch and Bayley. She’s the kind of talent you can build an entire company around, and that’s essentially what WWE is doing with their women’s division. She might be Ric Flair’s daughter, but the best term to describe her comes from one of her dad’s greatest rivals: Charlotte’s truly the total package.—Garrett Martin
6. Hiroshi Tanahashi
New Japan’s “Ace of the Universe,” the “Once in a Century Talent,” turned 40 in 2016. He spent the first half of the year with a serious shoulder injury, and the rest of the year with the regular aches and pains that wrestlers have to increasingly contend with as they grow older. Despite that, he still put on some of the greatest wrestling matches you’ll ever see in 2016, starting with his all-time masterpiece against Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in January. Tanahashi’s shoulder was so bad he actually took a little bit of time off, missing the first-ever New Japan ladder match he was supposed to partake in against Kenny Omega in June. That didn’t stop him from excelling throughout the G1 Climax in July and August, with tremendous matches against Sanada, Ishii, Naomichi Marufuji and more. Even an aging, banged-up Tanahashi is a world-class talent able to outshine anybody else in the entire industry on any given day, and if he’s healthy enough in 2017, he could easily top this list next year.—Garrett Martin
5. Kazuchika Okada
New Japan has spent the last five years prepping Kazuchika Okada to succeed Tanahashi as the company’s ace. It finally came to a head at the start of 2016, when Okada scored his first Wrestle Kingdom victory over Tanahashi in what might be the best match of the entire year. Okada has been the unquestioned leader of New Japan throughout 2016, a pivotal role with the departure of Shinsuke Nakamura, and he’s proven time and again that he has earned the position. His highlights include an unforgettable G1 match against Ishii and world-class encounters against Marufuji, Sanada, Tetsuya Naito and more. It’s tough to pick an MVP for New Japan this year—you’ll notice that Kenny Omega and Naito are both higher on this list, with Omega having a better year in-ring and Naito coming off one of the biggest breakout years any wrestler has seen in quite a while—but it’s easy to see why Okada is the promotion’s centerpiece. He’s one of the greatest wrestlers in the entire world and looks more like a world champion than anybody else in the business today. And, at only 29 years of age, he should be firmly ensconced as New Japan’s ace for many years to come.—Garrett Martin
4. Chris Hero
Chris Hero’s 2016 is best summed up by a whirlwind four days in November: On Nov. 10, a Thursday, he was in the UK, defeating Tomohiro Ishii in the best match of New Japan and Revolution Pro Wrestling’s Global Wars weekend. On night two, Friday, he wrestled another strong match, this time against Katsuyori Shibata. From there he was back on a plane to the U.S., where on Saturday, he faced “Hot Sauce” Tracy Williams at Evolve 72, before wrestling in two separate matches Sunday night for Evolve 73.
For Hero, the hardest working man in professional wrestling, all that hard work paid off: 2016 was arguably the greatest of his 18-year career, and certainly one of the most prolific. In addition to Shibata and Ishii, a brief sample of Hero’s opponents includes Cody Rhodes, Matt Hardy, Zack Sabre Jr., Dick Togo, Jushin Liger, Marty Scurll and Michael Elgin. He wrestled in the PWG Battle of Los Angeles and wXw’s World Tag Team League in Germany. He held Pro Wrestling NOAH’s GHC Tag Team Titles along with partner Colt Cabana, as well as the Evolve tag team titles with Tommy End in January. He helped elevate Matthew Riddle with a great three-match series, and generally made any show he was on feel special.
Time will tell what 2017 brings — there are reports of him heading back to the WWE, after the company dropped the ball and cut ties with him three years ago — but in 2016, to paraphrase a popular chant, “Chris Hero wasn’t nothin’ to fuck with.”—Paul DeBenedetto
3. Kenny Omega
Kenny Omega has been one of the best wrestlers in the world for years, but in 2016 he finally completed his ascent to the top of the card. At the start of the year he dropped the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship to Kushida in an excellent match, and then starred in a hell of an angle when he kicked the WWE-headed AJ Styles out of the Bullet Club. He hasn’t looked back since, pinning Nakamura in one of his last New Japan matches, beating Tanahashi to win the vacant IWGP Intercontinental title, taking Michael Elgin to the limit in New Japan’s very first ladder match, and, oh yeah, becoming the first westerner to ever win New Japan’s prestigious G1 Climax tournament over the summer. During the G1 he had perhaps the match of the year against Tetsuya Naito, an all-time classic that shouldn’t just be boiled down to one unbelievable GIF. Every step of the way Omega has risen to the occasion, knocking every match, promo and angle out of the park. Clearly he’s been ready for the top for years, and his non-stop march to the main event was the best wrestling story of 2016.
There’s a very slim line between all of our top three this year—you could jumble them up in any order and the results would make just as much sense. If anything, Omega’s at number three because it feels very likely that 2017 will be an even bigger year for him, especially if he wins the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 11 next week. For Omega, 2016 was about climbing that mountain; in 2017 we’ll see how long he can stay up there. We’re betting he won’t be climbing down any time soon.—Garrett Martin
2. Tetsuya Naito
When Tetsuya Naito lost his 2014 Tokyo Dome main event spot to Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi in a fan vote, he could have easily fallen into obscurity. Two years later, he’s turned himself into a worldwide star.
After reinventing himself in Mexico in 2015 and launching Los Ingobernables de Japon, the most successful Japanese stable since the Bullet Club, Naito took another leap forward in 2016 by first defeating IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada at Invasion Attack. Although he eventually dropped the belt back to Okada, the rest of his 2016 included an ongoing IWGP Intercontinental Championship reign, and one of the best matches of the year during the G1 Climax Tournament against Kenny Omega.
Most recently, Naito was voted Tokyo Sports’ MVP of 2016, the first time since 2010 that the award has not gone to someone named Okada or Tanahashi. Los Ingobernables shirts dot the crowd at every New Japan show. Along with Omega, Naito is a key reason New Japan was able to effortlessly move forward after the WWE’s January talent raid of AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows.
At Wrestle Kingdom 11, Tetsuya Naito will try to exorcise the ghosts of 2014 once and for all by taking on Tanahashi for the Intercontinental Championship, part of an undercard to a show headlined by Heavyweight Champion Okada vs. G1 winner Omega. Luckily for them, there will be no fan vote this year.—Paul DeBenedetto
1. AJ Styles
A year ago Styles wasn’t even in WWE. Today he holds one of the company’s two main championships and is clearly its current MVP. After excelling in every promotion he ever stepped foot in, Styles has quickly risen to the top of the biggest wrestling conglomerate in the world, almost single-handedly making WWE worth watching throughout 2016. His feud with John Cena featured some of the best WWE matches in years, particularly their epic clash at Summerslam. The true sign of Styles’s greatness isn’t what he can do against one of the best wrestlers on the WWE roster, though; it’s what he’s done, show in and show out, against anybody on the WWE roster. If a WWE wrestler had a match with Styles in 2016, there’s a great chance that it was that wrestler’s best match of the year. That’s true for Cena, Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, Chris Jericho, Kevin Owens, the New Day, and, of course, James Ellsworth, the hapless everyman who Styles helped turn into one of the most over performers on Smackdown. He’s the best pure in-ring performer WWE has seen since Daniel Bryan, and perhaps the best ever.
One of the most valid criticisms about WWE and Vince McMahon is that they have to put their personal stamp on everything. They have to rebrand every wrestler, give them silly new nicknames like “the Vigilante” that the announcers repeat ad infinitum, and try to fix what isn’t broken in order to justify their own self-promoted reputation. Somehow a 39-year-old “redneck” from Gainesville, Georgia, was able to completely avoid that silly process, and through sheer skill won over the fans and forced his way to the top of the card. This shouldn’t be that surprising—again, Styles has main evented in pretty much every company he’s ever wrestled for, and has been one of the absolute best wrestlers in the world for well over a decade now—but in order to envision this happening for Styles in WWE in 2016 we’d have to toss out almost everything we’ve ever known about how that promotion does business. That’s how good Styles is, and how great his 2016 was: he effortlessly bounded over years of systemic hurdles and overcame WWE’s own self-defeating machinery. Here’s hoping his 2017 is just as good. .—Garrett Martin