Wrestling is at its most fun when it combines great athleticism with great characters. Sure, Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada was a great match in its own right, but it worked on a deeper level because we were so invested in the two men telling that story in the ring. Now and forever, great gimmicks help make great pro wrestling.
And looking back on 2016, there was no shortage of great characters that helped elevate their respective products to the next level. Unexpected surprises, old stalwarts reinventing themselves, new stars—there was a lot to choose from. We narrowed it down to our absolute five favorite gimmicks of 2016.
These two are a package deal. It was right around Maryse’s return the day after Wrestlemania 32 that the Miz really started to shine as a heel, going from an immature crybaby to an aggrieved WWE superstar who demanded respect. With Maryse in his corner helping to steal victories, the Miz wasn’t just the wrestler you hated, but the wrestler you loved to hate. That transformation truly come together during an episode of Talking Smack in August, when the Miz cut his infamous promo against Daniel Bryan, a man so beloved by diehard fans and casuals alike that it was impossible not to seethe with anger while watching: Bryan was a man who wasn’t allowed to do the thing he loved anymore thanks to injuries, and here was Miz rubbing it in his face, demanding credit for never being injured, screaming into the camera as Bryan walked off set and the show went off the air. It was the perfect lead-in to Miz’s feud with Ziggler, the perpetual underdog who lately couldn’t win the big one—until he did, against the most hateable guy in the business. The fallout of that feud left a little to be desired, but there’s no denying that in 2016 the Miz was doing some of the best work of his career as the most believable jerk in wrestling.
While a lot of people attribute the success of the Attitude Era to its mature content, the real key to its success was good storytelling. And not just at the top of the card, but in the middle, and towards the bottom. Everyone had something to do, and a direction in which they were headed. But for years now, it’s seemed like WWE’s midcarders were destined for obscurity. Storylines start and stop for no reason, gimmicks change regularly. But for a brief moment in time, the WWE got it right again: Heath Slater’s redemption story was one of the most satisfying story arcs of any in 2016. When Slater wasn’t drafted to either Raw or Smackdown, it felt like just another joke on a guy who had become the butt of every joke. And maybe it was. But fans really started to get behind Slater, and the company ran with it. When he went face-to-face with Brock Lesnar—who famously told Slater he doesn’t “give a shit” about his kids, before decimating him—we felt bad for him. When he wrestled week after week for a Smackdown contract, we rooted for him. And when he and Rhyno finally won the Smackdown tag team titles, we lost our minds. It was a story so obvious it felt fresh again: The longtime loser who finally makes good. Along the way we got some questionable decisions to poke fun at poverty stereotypes (what would a WWE storyline be without questionable decisions!) but ultimately Slater himself was one of the most interesting, charismatic and—most importantly—over characters of the year.
Oh, how far he’s come. Just a few short years ago, Tetsuya Naito was getting booed out of Osaka. Now he’s arguably the most beloved performer in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Naito’s revamped rulebreaker persona and the launch of Los Ingobernables de Japon was one of the more interesting stories of 2015, but his ascension last year to one of the top New Japan stars was truly masterful. After losing to Hirooki Goto at Wrestle Kingdom 10, Naito would come back strong, winning the 2016 New Japan Cup and successfully challenging for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, a title he routinely disrespected. But no matter how many times Naito tossed around the belt, or bullied Milano Collection A.T., or ragged on longtime New Japan ace Hiroshi Tanahashi, the fans ate it up. Los Ingobernables shirts became top sellers. Naito’s rise to stardom helped cushion the loss of AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows. His popularity among wrestling fans spans continents. And if New Japan plays its cards right, it could have its own version of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Because while Naito the hero was destined to fail, Naito the anti-hero is a stroke of genius.
Has anyone in the history of wrestling reinvented himself as often and as successfully as Chris Jericho? It’s hard to imagine: Chris Jericho is now going on 27 years of being a professional wrestler with no signs of slowing down. And in what has become a staple of Jericho’s career, 2016 saw the Canadian grappler switch personas yet again, this time as a sniveling primadonna and the best friend of Kevin Owens. Everything he did and said became a catchphrase: Crowds couldn’t get enough of being called stupid idiots. They relished at the opportunity to “drink it in, maaaaaan.” At times, the “List of Jericho” felt more important than the new Raw Universal Championship. Even his scarves became minor plot points. All the while, the 46-year-old Jericho was still able to put on good matches with the likes of AJ Styles, Roman Reigns and Sami Zayn, amongst others. Eventually, Chris Jericho will have to retire. Let’s just hope it’s not any time soon.
Is it supposed to be a joke? Is it serious? Do I like it because it’s good, or do I like it because it’s really bad? These are the questions everyone asks when they watch their first Broken Matt Hardy vignette. We may never have the answers to these questions, but we’ll watch week after week until we do.
In what was a year otherwise marred with controversy for TNA, Broken Matt Hardy was the most consistently watchable thing on Impact Wrestling. Like Chris Jericho, Hardy has been in the wrestling business for more than 20 years. And like Jericho, he’s managed to completely reinvent himself with one of the most compelling gimmicks of 2016. The story began inauspiciously enough: Hardy battled his brother Jeff in a match that left the former severely injured. He was off TV for weeks, with Jeff seemingly moving on to a new storyline, battling a group dressed as his old Willow character. But it was revealed that this, too, was part of the larger plot: Matt Hardy had lost his mind, and was now orchestrating the “deletion” of his “Brother Nero,” Jeff.
Week after week the slickly produced vignettes—filmed in Hardy’s home by TNA producer Jeremy Borash and Hardy himself—were some of the most fun and perplexing segments on television. Peripheral characters—his gardener Señor Benjamin, his infant son “King Maxel,” a drone, and even a beat-up old rowboat—all became co-stars. And after years of being “the other Hardy,” Matt has grown into the most interesting and compelling character of his entire career. Now even Brother Nero himself plays second fiddle to Broken Matt.
Paul DeBenedetto is Paste’s assistant wrestling editor.