We’re now a few weeks into a brand new year in professional wrestling and, as is the nature of most fans of this industry, we are equally concerned with what we have to look forward to in 2017 and what wrestling terrors will be unleashed upon us. That’s the nature of the sport; there is so much material in WWE alone that there is simply no possible way for any one fan to be pleased with everything that happens in the ring over the course of any given week, let alone an entire year.
Lucky for us, it’s an exciting time to be a wrestling fan. So much has changed over the last year, and most of it has been for the better. Vince McMahon seems to finally be open to the prospect of making future Superstars out of the most talented guys on the independent scene instead of exclusively building his talent pool from homegrown big men who can’t land a dropkick to save their lives. The brand extension has apparently breathed new life into the writing teams and given many underused stars more time to shine, the tag team division is booming, and for the first time in history, WWE has begun to acknowledge women as valuable athletes.
So, what got us here? A hell of a lot happened in 2016 and the cynical wrestling crowd loves to talk about what is going wrong with the WWE product. That’s fair enough, considering Vince McMahon has never pretended to be trying to present a wrestling product, instead referring to his line of work as “sports entertainment.” But let’s take a different tack with this one and look back at some of the positive things that happened in WWE by ranking the best feuds in the company in 2016.
15. Roman Reigns vs Triple H
To kick off the list of 2016’s greatest WWE feuds, one must look to the Royal Rumble which, as usual, kicked off the WWE World Heavyweight Championship rivalry for WrestleMania. This one, however, is more obligatory for the list than anything else. At this point, WWE still just didn’t understand the fans and what they wanted to see. The crowds were rapidly rejecting Roman Reigns at every turn and the company’s solution was to take the title from him and put it on a guy they grew tired of years ago, Triple H.
But that’s not to say nothing good came of this feud. Triple H and Roman Reigns are both skilled workers, to say the least, and while their WrestleMania championship match left a lot to be desired it did what WWE has been trying to do for years in solidifying Reigns’ spot in the main event picture, for better or worse. Though he may never be universally cheered in the likeness of his former Shield brethren Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, it would seem Roman Reigns started becoming accepted in some form or fashion as the main event player following this program.
14. Samoa Joe vs Finn Balor
Samoa Joe was yet another longtime wrestling veteran who fans thought they would never see compete in a WWE ring. Like AJ Styles, Samoa Joe had become an independent wrestling icon long before WWE finally snatched him up and assigned him to the NXT brand in order to ensure the developmental territory’s lasting success. One of Joe’s defining rivalries since joining NXT has been against the incredibly popular and successful Finn Balor.
Balor was known in Japan under the ring name Prince Devitt and was, himself, an international sensation before coming to WWE. Both men are two of the most respected NXT Champions in history and that is in no small part due to their amazing feud throughout 2016 over the title. The rivalry between these two megastars spanned several memorable matches and culminated in the brand’s first ever steel cage match for the NXT Championship at NXT TakeOver: The End.
13. Becky Lynch vs Alexa Bliss
At the beginning of 2016, no one thought WWE would go from having one Championship for lackluster “Divas” division to having two respected Women’s Championships, but it happened. When the brand extension was adopted midway through the year a new SmackDown Women’s title was established and the company never looked back. It was the dawn of a new era in women’s wrestling, but WWE really needed to get this right in order to get the message across that they were actually listening to their fans.
That’s why the rivalry between Becky Lynch, the inaugural title holder, and Alexa Bliss, her first challenger, was so important. There weren’t many expectations going into the feud, especially with Alexa being a virtual unknown to anyone who hadn’t followed NXT to that point. Alexa showed a remarkable talent for playing her character with some of the best acting skills in the company, and she eventually snatched the title for herself in an exciting Tables match at the TLC event.
12. Sheamus vs Cesaro
If the rivalry over the Raw Tag Team Championship between the New Day and the team of Sheamus and Cesaro was one of the best of the year, then the precursor to all of that must be recognized because Sheamus and Cesaro would never have come together as a team without first beating the hell out of one another. The two have been longstanding rivals and have incredible chemistry, so when Raw General Manager Mick Foley booked them in a “Best of Seven” series fans knew they were in for a string of great matches.
When the brand extension came the opportunity to slow down the storytelling in WWE and there are few better examples of how this can be beneficial than with these two Superstars. Now working together to dominate the Raw tag team division, this is a storyline that has essentially been in the works for over half a year and the ball is still rolling.
11. Randy Orton vs Bray Wyatt
You would be excused for thinking it would be impossible for Randy Orton to have a fresh and compelling rivalry at this point in his career after he has done everything imaginable more than once over the past decade and a half. Alas, that is not the case, as upon his return following a lengthy hiatus he was thrust almost immediately into a feud with the “Eater of Worlds” Bray Wyatt, and it was nothing like any of us expected, although it may not have started out that way.
After a series of matches, Randy Orton shocked the world when he joined the Wyatt Family, and the story goes on from there. Orton and Wyatt even won the SmackDown Tag Team Championship together, becoming another example of the rejuvenated tag team scene. This unique storyline has captivated the SmackDown audience, but perhaps the best thing to come of us is that it has given new life to Bray Wyatt, whose career has been in the toilet following years of undeserved losses.
10. The Miz vs Dolph Ziggler
Much like no one expected Randy Orton to have a compelling angle going for him in this day and age, The Miz and Dolph Ziggler were two WWE Superstars fans and company alike had practically given up on a long time ago. The Miz “peaked” at WrestleMania XXVII when he was victorious in the main event of the biggest show of the year by defeating the biggest star in WWE today, John Cena. Since then, The Miz has been shuffling between mid-card status and completely unused status. Dolph Ziggler, on the other hand, has had so many stops and starts to his career he had long grown stale.
But when these two men, who have amazing chemistry, are in the ring together they make magic. So a revived rivalry between them over the Intercontinental Championship following the brand extension has gotten the blood pumping again for both of them. The addition of The Miz’s wife, Maryse, into the fold has injected some much-needed character into his act and Dolph Ziggler has been having the best matches of his life.
9. AJ Styles vs Chris Jericho
At the Royal Rumble in 2016, one of the biggest debuts in WWE history happened when AJ Styles appeared as an early entrant into the match. He would go on to likely have the best year of anyone in the company, but it all got kick started by a program with the amazing WWE veteran Chris Jericho. Styles signing a WWE contract was something that had been anticipated by wrestling fans for so long that everyone was beginning to accept that it just would never happen, but when it did we were rewarded with a WrestleMania dream match between two of the most popular athletes of all time.
Initially the two started out as “friends,” competing against The New Day for the WWE Tag Team Championship, but “Y2AJ” didn’t last long as Chris Jericho eventually grew tired of the crowd favoring the former TNA and NJPW star over him and turned on his partner, leading Styles and Jericho to clash at WrestleMania 32 in a match Jericho surprisingly won. It was a great way to kick off the year of Styles.
8. Roman Reigns vs Rusev
Like it or not, Roman Reigns is a huge part of WWE now. It has become increasingly clear that WWE will not bend to the will of the WWE Universe in their quest to push him as a main event player, and if Reigns ever makes the oft-requested heel turn it will come on WWE’s own terms. They seem to know what they’re doing, though, as Roman Reigns has become a legit enough badass to restore some glory to the United States Championship.
Following the brand split, Raw needed the United States Championship to become a big deal once again, considering WWE’s talent pool was now spread thin. This was the launching of a new era and Raw was to be in direct competition with SmackDown Live, so Championships required legitimacy. Reigns and Rusev brought the title to new heights in 2016 with a lengthy and physical rivalry during which they proved they had some great ring chemistry.
7. The New Day vs Sheamus & Cesaro
The brand extension has certainly garnered its fair share of detractors, but there is no denying the wonders it has done for some previously lesser used talents. The tag team division has been split into two entities so that each show, Raw and SmackDown Live, can each have its own Tag Team Championship. What has resulted is the most exciting and colorful tag team title picture WWE has seen in many, many years. New and unique tag teams are forming and more established teams are evolving into better versions of themselves.
That’s why the Raw Tag Team Championship feud between The New Day and the newly minted team of Sheamus and Cesar felt so fresh. Everyone has a renewed desire to be the best team in the business. The history-making title run enjoyed by Big E, Kofi Kingston, and Xavier Woods came to a halt at the hands of Sheamus and Cesaro near the end of the year, giving us one of 2016’s most memorable moments in all of wrestling.
6. #DIY vs The Revival
Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder came together as a tag team in NXT when NXT needed tag teams like nobody’s business. The opportunity was theirs to be seized, and seize it they did when they defeated the Vaudevillains to win the NXT Tag Team Championship. They lost the titles to American Alpha some months later but regained them, making them the first ever two-time NXT Tag Team Champions. Their reign as the most dominant team on the brand was soon to be challenged by two indie darlings by the names of Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano.
Dawson and Wilder, known collectively as The Revival, have become known for their old school smash mouth style of wrestling, which paired beautifully with the hard-hitting independent style of Gargano and Ciampa, known as #DIY. The Revival and #DIY beat the hell out of one another for months, leading up to a two out of three falls match that WWE.com listed as the match of the year where #DIY finally dethroned the champs.
5. AJ Styles vs Dean Ambrose
AJ Styles certainly had a banner year, with it being widely rumored that he has become a personal favorite of Vince McMahon, but the rivalry that finally saw him rise to concrete success within WWE came following the brand split when he entered into a WWE World Heavyweight Championship program against the champion, Dean Ambrose, who had won the title only a couple of months earlier at the annual Money in the Bank pay per view.
Ambrose, long a fan favorite among the WWE Universe, found himself in unfamiliar territory when going up against AJ Styles, who frequently receives warm crowd receptions despite his portrayal of a heartless and sometimes cowardly heel. Many fans favored Styles over Ambrose and apparently Vince McMahon did, too, as Styles came out of this feud – which included the new resident jobber in WWE, James Ellsworth – with the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in tow.
4. Seth Rollins vs Kevin Owens
Just a few weeks after the 2016 brand extension went into full effect Monday Night Raw was all set to crown its own world champion. The newly minted title was called the Universal Championship and the title drew no shortage of ire from WWE fans for its name and the bright red color of the belt. All of that went out the window when Finn Balor became the first man to hold the title at SummerSlam and the WWE Universe started getting excited for the future of the company with Balor at the helm.
However, Finn was injured in that SummerSlam match and was forced to vacate the title one night later. WWE quickly recovered by crowning Kevin Owens as the second Universal Champion and having him challenged by the beloved Seth Rollins. Owens and Rollins may not have had the best writing to work with, but they wrestled several great matches, instantly lending some credibility to the Universal Championship in its earliest days.
3. Samoa Joe vs Shinsuke Nakamura
While Samoa Joe and Finn Balor were going to war over the NXT Championship, WWE somewhat silently signed Japanese wrestling megastar Shinsuke Nakamura to a developmental contract. Nakamura was an instant hit with American audiences and shot straight into the main event scene with high profile wins over some of NXT’s biggest stars, namely former NXT Champions Sami Zayn and the man who had recently lost the title, Finn Balor.
Shinsuke Nakamura introduced the NXT crowd to “strong style” and captivated audiences with his haunting entrance. Nakamura’s infectious energy and hard hitting in ring style made him a perfect fit as a rival for NXT Champion Samoa Joe. During this extremely physical rivalry, both men became two-time NXT Champions, something which had previously never been done before. The feud has put both Nakamura and Joe on the map as the most anticipated main roster call-ups of 2017.
2. AJ Styles vs Roman Reigns
If the program with Chris Jericho helped AJ Styles get his foot in the door in WWE and the feud with Dean Ambrose brought us the moment Styles finally solidified his hold on the company as the WWE Champion, then the rivalry with Roman Reigns was what helped AJ Styles show the WWE Universe exactly what he was made of. This rivalry helped bridge the gap for Styles between Jericho and Ambrose and gave Styles some of his best matches since signing his WWE contract.
And let’s not make this all about AJ Styles. Roman Reigns himself proved a lot in his series of showdowns with Styles, although most fans will never let themselves see it because they just have too much fun booing him. Reigns showed he could handle a big, exciting main event title match with one of the world’s biggest wrestling stars and come out of it looking like a real champ. This feud may be where both men truly arrived in WWE as main event players.
1. Charlotte Flair vs Sasha Banks
At the end of the day, you have two types of wrestling fans: those who appreciate what female wrestlers bring to the table, and those who will never be able to accept women as legit athletes. Unfortunately for the latter group, they probably didn’t allow themselves to appreciate one of the most iconic eras in modern wrestling history when Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks changed the course of the entire sport in 2016 with their back and forth rivalry that did more than blaze a trail for future women grapplers, but also put the men of WWE on notice that their spotlight was endangered.
Over the course of the year Flair and Banks broke many glass ceilings. They were the main event of Raw several times and competed in a Falls Count Anywhere match, an Iron Man Match, and were the first all-female main event of a WWE pay per view with the first ever women’s Hell in a Cell match. And whether those classic encounters meant anything to you personally, there’s no denying that there was no more talked about rivalry in 2016 than Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks.