For all the complaining about poor booking and misuses of certain Superstars that plagues social media on a weekly basis, 2016 was an incredible year for WWE.
It’s easy to heave disapproval at WWE for its creative direction (or lack of), but it’s also clear to see that fans were treated to some quality entertainment when looking back at 2016 as a whole.
Aside from the shallow depth of creative thinking and some nonsensical booking decisions, the past year can definitely be given a pass mark. Some fans seem to forget just how dire things were even as recently as 12 months ago.
Though it’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time, WWE made inroads to catering for its audience which had soured on the product in recent years.
In a bid to move away from the same old same old that was, as Shane McMahon put it, “running this company into the ground,” a new wave of talent was promoted to the main roster and the card was given a dramatic overhaul.
To further please its audience, a number of performers young, old and new to WWE were brought into the company to bring back old fans, draw in new ones and please those who had become disgruntled.
2016 was filled with so many highlights that it was a near-impossible task narrowing it down to just 20. However, these moments cover a good spread of the positives that came out of the year.
Without further ado, these are the 20 best WWE moments of 2016.
20. Enzo And Cass Debut On Raw After WrestleMania
The episode of Raw after WrestleMania always brings surprises, and arguably the best of them came when Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady made their long-awaited debut.
Having seen the Royal Rumble, Fastlane and WrestleMania go by without an appearance by the Certified G and his seven-foot friend, the pair’s debut took viewers by surprise.
The wait may have been excruciating, but Enzo and Cass did not fail to deliver when they were given their opportunity. In a hilarious and creative promo cut on the Dudley Boyz, Smacktalker Skywalker aka Enzo just about cemented himself as the company’s top microphone worker.
19. Women’s Hell In A Cell
Say what you will about the booking of the first ever Hell in a Cell match contested by women, just having two females compete in such an epic contest speaks volumes about far WWE has come.
It doesn’t feel like too long ago when the “Divas” were demoted to two-minute scratch matches in the middle of important segments on Raw. Just to see Sasha Banks and Charlotte stand in the middle of the ring while the cell lowered was almost a surreal moment in itself.
Best of all, Banks and Charlotte continued to prove that women can be just as rough and tough as the men with a number of insane spots executed throughout the contest. Not to mention the match was significantly better than the two HIAC matches that preceded it that night.
18. Sami Zayn and Shinsuke Nakamura Show Respect
Without a doubt, Sami Zayn’s final NXT match against the debuting Shinsuke Nakamura at TakeOver: Dallas was WWE’s match of the year.
Many critics labelled TakeOver: Dallas as a superior event to WrestleMania 32 which followed it, mainly because of the display Zayn and Nakamura exhibited. In just over 20 minutes, everyone in the audience was a passionate Nakamura fan and their adoration of Zayn was cemented.
To cap off their stunning showing, the passionate embrace and show of respect at the end of the contest was the perfect way to send off Sami Zayn to the main roster and catapult Shinsuke Nakamura directly into the NXT main event picture.
17. Bayley Belatedly Debuts
The brand split did well to create plenty of controversy rather than get fans excited for the dawn of a supposed new era. Nevertheless, the brand extension brought about plenty of excitement as top stars from NXT were to be given their time to shine.
However, there was one omission from the draft that stuck out like a sore thumb: Bailey. Given her prominence in NXT, strong relationship with the fans and groundbreaking acts in WWE’s developmental system, it was a shock to the system when Bailey was left out of the draft while the likes of Nia Jax and Alexa Bliss went up.
16. Samoa Joe Fights Off The Medics
As frustrating as WWE’s protocol regarding blood and head injuries is, it is completely necessary and a positive advancement of professional wrestling. With that said, Samoa Joe’s blatant disregard for medical assistance during his NXT Championship bout with Finn Balor at TakeOver: Dallas was awesome.
In what was expected to be the culmination of their bitter rivalry, Samoa Joe and Finn Balor’s main event match was constantly stopped by doctors who insisted on treating the cut Joe received early in the match.
15. Kevin Owens Flips Through Two Tables
2016 was a bad year to be a #SaveTheTables activist, as displayed in the video. However, one spot particularly in the Intercontinental Championship match between Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose clearly outshined all others (0:42). While it may not have been as dramatic as Dean Ambrose’s fall off a ladder at TLC, Owens’ body would have taken one heck of a beating.
The rivalry between Owens and Ambrose was exactly what WWE needed in a time when fans were staunchly against the Roman Reigns forced-era. While the top of the card may have been suffering, Owens and Ambrose were slugging away keeping up the quality of shows from the undercard.
14. Triple H Turns On Seth Rollins
You got us, WWE. In one of the few times WWE pulls a swerve and it either a) effective or b) good, most fans were completely duped. We may have known an eventual Seth Rollins-Triple H feud was on the way, but not in this fashion.
During a Fatal 4-Way match to determine the new Universal Champion after Finn Balor’s unfortunate injury, Triple H made his first appearance on WWE programming since losing at WrestleMania 32. First making his impact felt on the outside of the ring, The Game delivered a Pedigree to Roman Reigns before the dramatic conclusion.
Entering the ring and seemingly setting up Kevin Owens for a Pedigree, Triple H shocked the WWE Universe by turning on Seth Rollins – The Authority’s puppet for well over a year – and gifted Kevin Owens his first major championship.
13. Cesaro’s Rant
Whether it was kayfabe or not – which is still up for debate – Cesaro’s negative reaction to being drafted to Raw was must-see viewing, as it marked one of the first times a WWE Superstar has spoken out against management since CM Punk.
The brand split was hyped to be the chance for Superstars to make a name for themselves on both brands, but particularly SmackDown, which had (and continued) to label itself as the land of opportunity. So when Cesaro was drafted to Raw to continue his monotonous WWE career, he wasn’t happy to say the least.
In a passionate backstage promo, Cesaro vented his frustration and used key phrases we’re not accustomed to hearing on WWE programming such as “in-ring product,” taking shots at WWE’s constant willingness to put non-wrestlers at the forefront.
12. Chris Jericho’s Thumbtack Bump
If you have ever accidentally stepped on a pin, needle or tack, you’ll know how excruciating it can be. Imagine that feeling multiplied by 69.
For the most part, the Asylum Match between Dean Ambrose and Chris Jericho was slow and downright dull. If any extreme-style match could have done with a thumbtack bump, it was this one.
With that said, you can’t help but have a heap of respect for any pro wrestler who agrees to fall onto a bed of thumbtacks. The fact that it was Chris Jericho – a man who has already accomplished everything there is to be accomplished and has nothing to prove – decided to take the fall and not Ambrose speaks volumes about how dedicated he still is to WWE.
11. Zack Ryder Wins The Intercontinental Championship
Whether you’re a Zack Ryder fan or not, his unlikely and completely unpredictable Intercontinental Championship victory at WrestleMania 32 was a feel-good moment for any WWE fan. As a hard worker behind the scenes who just wanted to experience WrestleMania, nobody could have foreseen him actually winning the seven-man ladder match.
As Ryder stood atop the ladder holding the IC Title, there was genuine belief that maybe WWE had turned over a new leaf and things were going to change. Even if it was false hope, the fact that an underdog like Ryder got to have his WrestleMania moment was enough to send fans at the stadium and at home into raptures.
10. AJ Styles Debuts In The Royal Rumble
Throughout the past decade, there has always been on guy on the independent circuit, in Japan and TNA that stands above all else, and that fans have been desperate to see in a WWE ring: AJ Styles. However, it had been long accepted that that ship had sailed.
Even when reports were confirmed that AJ Styles was in the building at the Royal Rumble, it was still hard to believe that The Phenomenal One would finally make his glorious WWE entrance.
And what an entrance it was. Just watching his debut video back – waiting for the crowd to understand who was about to come down the ramp and hearing the thunderous roar when they pieced it together – is enough to send shivers down your spine.
9. AJ Styles Beats John Cena Legitimately
Speaking of AJ Styles, his epic feud with John Cena was one of the highlights of 2016. It was incredible enough that AJ Styles even made it to WWE, but to have him pitted against the company’s top man was the stuff dreams are made of.
Despite the hopeful wishes of the smart WWE fans, it was unlikely that AJ Styles would ever claim a legitimate victory over John Cena. Though he won once in singles action at Money in the Bank, the victory was tainted by interference from The Club.
Summerslam did well to completely throw fans through a loop, as Styles and Cena wrestled an incredible match in which The Phenomenal One again prevailed, this time clean as a whistle. More than just a victory over John Cena, Styles’ win on a stage as big as Summerslam signified that WWE was ready to treat him like the world-class performer he is.
8. Shinsuke Nakamura’s Debut
From the moment Shinsuke Nakamura’s signing was announced after Fastlane to his debut at NXT TakeOver: Dallas, WWE fans were captivated by the flamboyant Japanese star.
Even so, nobody could have predicted how quickly he would win over the WWE Universe in a matter of minutes. When the then-unfamiliar tune hit and Nakamura appeared for the first time, fans were hooked.
7. Stone Cold, Mick Foley And Shawn Michaels Unite
It doesn’t matter the time, place or circumstances, when Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mick Foley and Shaun Michaels appear in the same ring, it’s must-see TV. Of course, there is no more apt location than WrestleMania.
After a surprise victory against The New Day, The League of Nations (remember that thing?) claimed that no three men could match them. Enter Stone Cold, Foley and Mr WrestleMania.
6. Seth Rollins Returns At Extreme Rules
Seth Rollins was arguably the biggest loss during WWE’s injury crisis of 2015 that left it without a number of top tier Superstars. As the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, Rollins had essentially been carrying the main event picture on his shoulders for the majority of the year.
To see him be forced to the sidelines with a serious knee injury – suffered at a house show, no less – was devastating, especially considering the upcoming WrestleMania was going to be his big payoff for 12 months of hard work.
Although he didn’t make it back for ‘Mania, Rollins made one hell of a reintroduction, delivering a Pedigree to former Shield stable mate Roman Reigns and holding “his” championship high as Extreme Rules went off the air.
5. Dean Ambrose’s MITB Win And Cash-In
2016 was off to an awful shaky start as WWE continued to persist with making Roman Reigns the face of the company. While Reigns was a great marketing machine for younger fans, it was blatantly obvious who audiences wanted to see as their champion: Dean Ambrose.
Still, the company ignored the cries and it seemed as though Ambrose would never get his opportunity to hold the championship both his Shield mates Reigns and Seth Rollins had held.
When Ambrose retrieved the Money in the Bank briefcase, it was hard to not think that Ambrose would cash in that very night and become the WWE World Heavyweight Champion. Though we could see it coming, his stunning cash-in on new champion Rollins shot him into main event status, exactly where the WWE Universe felt he belonged.
4. AJ Styles Turns On John Cena
From the moment AJ Styles stepped into a WWE ring at the Royal Rumble, this was the moment everyone had been waiting for: AJ Styles and John Cena in the same ring at the same time.
Unsurprisingly, the crowd reaction was insane when it finally eventuated, with dueling “AJ Styles” and “let’s go, Cena” chants ringing throughout the arena. The noise was so immense that both men could hardly begin the promo.
When it did begin, nobody was let down. AJ Styles finally turned heel and was free to be the character he flourished as on the independents, as well as the stars being aligned for what would be an epic rivalry.
3. Goldberg Returns
Most fans could have put two and two together when Goldberg was made one of the cover Superstars for WWE 2k17, but seeing Goldberg finally return to WWE was still surreal. Considering he had been mostly inactive since leaving WWE over a decade ago, it seemed unfathomable that he would ever wrestle a match again.
Goldberg’s iconic long walk entrance brought back a wave of memories from his WCW days, as well as his early dominance in WWE. Once he grabbed a microphone, it was as though he hadn’t even been away.
2. Shane McMahon’s Cell Dive
You could make a list just detailing Shane McMahon’s insane acts after returning this year, but we wouldn’t want to go too heavy on one topic. While we’re here, his long-awaited return, multiple elbows from the top turnbuckle through announce tables and that insane coast-to-coast spear involving Roman Reigns all deserve recognition.
However, it’s hard to go past seeing Shane McMahon attempt an elbow drop from the top of the Hell in a Cell structure. Though most could have predicted it happening, it was impossible to imagine Shane would go through with it.
Time seemed to freeze as Shane dropped from the top of the Cell, and the explosion that was the sound of the announcers table collapsing sounded like a car wreck. Thank God WWE placed an airbag in the table otherwise Shane could have legitimately died, though the way he hit the announcers’ desk wouldn’t have tickled.
1. Divas Title Retired, WWE Women’s Championship Revealed
Amidst all the great moments WWE provided in 2016, none was better than the company removing the label of “Diva” and placing its female competitors on part with men by referring to them as “Superstars”. Bigger than just a single moment of elation, this moment almost made up for 20 years of women being represented as sub-par performers.
For all the progression that the Women’s Division had made in 2015, it was still difficult to take them seriously when their ultimate prize was an oversized Barbie accessory. WrestleMania 32 changed all of that.
The Divas Championship was officially retired and replaced by the WWE Women’s Championship, a title with a similar look to the then-WWE World Heavyweight Championship competed for by the males. It signified that WWE was finally ready to move on from the era of Bra and Panties matches and see women for the wrestlers they are.