2016 is almost over and it will mark one of the most shocking years in wrestling history. WWE continued to thrive with new stars coming into the company along with familiar faces returning. The company entered the next phase with NXT growing and developing stars ready for the main roster. WrestleMania 32 set a record for the best attendance in company history with over 100,000 fans in the arena. There were new concepts introduced to improve the product. WWE had lots of progress in the positive aspect.
Unfortunately, WWE would see many negative things hit them too. Injuries, disappointments and certain wrestlers letting them negatively impacted the company. TNA had more struggles but somehow managed to make it out of another year alive. Smaller promotions like Ring of Honor, Evolve Wrestling and PWG remained consistent secondary options. New Japan and various United Kingdom promotions added an international market for wrestlers and wrestling fans.
The wrestling business will have had a memorable year for both positive and negative moments. WWE’s shake ups created a trickle effect for everyone involved. We’ll look at the surprising things to happen across the board here with fifteen of the most shocking stories in wrestling all year.
15. Roman Reigns Fails
WWE positioned Roman Reigns into the top for the second consecutive year and it once again fell apart. Reigns defeated Triple H in the main event of WrestleMania 32 for the WWE World Championship. The moniker of “the guy” made it clear that Reigns was now the top guy in WWE. Fans continued to boo him out of the building most weeks rejecting the push for the second time in as many years.
Reigns was the one to fail himself this time around when he violated the WWE wellness policy by failing a drug test. WWE was forced to suspend Roman and have him drop the WWE World Championship to Seth Rollins. Reigns received the biggest push of the past decade but ruined it by violating the wellness policy at the worst possible time. WWE demoted him lower down the card for a few months until he returned to the main event picture against Kevin Owens on the final PPV of the year.
14. The Kevin Owens Show Begins
One of the most unlikely scenarios to play out in 2016 was the ascension of Kevin Owens. Anyone who watched him during the Ring of Honor tenure as the top star on the independent circuit knew how talented he was. The problem was his unconventional look and nontraditional wrestling style made it a pipe dream to see him in WWE. Owens signed in 2014 and had one of the best two-year runs you’ll ever witness.
The biggest moment of Owens’ career came following an injury to Finn Balor. WWE needed a fresh new talent to serve as the Universal Champion. Owens was selected to win the title on Raw with Triple H helping him defeat Seth Rollins. The title reign has lasted over three months with Owens being among the top heels in the industry today. WWE released an official “match of the year” playlist on the WWE Network. Owens has more matches on it than anyone else cementing himself as a legitimate top star in WWE today.
13. Cruiserweights Are Back
Vince McMahon has always had the reputation of not believing in the smaller wrestlers. There have been exceptions to the rule, but the potential of a cruiserweight division returning to WWE seemed hard to believe. Triple H found a way to make it happen with the Cruiserweight Classic experiment taking place on WWE Network. The tournaments featured cruiserweights from all over the world battling out and were impressive enough to bring the cruiserweight division back to Raw.
TJ Perkins won the Cruiserweight Classic and that earned him the Cruiserweight Championship as the division went to Raw. The cruiserweights have not been able to stand out well enough with a lack of depth and fundamental issues. Most of the current stars do high risk movies and wrestle at a faster pace.
That makes it tougher for the smaller wrestlers to get by on solely their in-ring work. Rich Swann has showed personality but the others will have to follow his lead to make the division boom going forward. The fact that the cruiserweight division returned in 2016 was still a huge moment.
12. Chris Jericho’s List
The use of Chris Jericho in WWE in recent years has been very disappointing. From the days of the lackluster feud with Bray Wyatt to the pointless WrestleMania 29 match against Fandango, it started to feel like Jericho was damaging his legacy. 2016 was the year Jericho reminded the world just how entertaining a performer he is by getting the most ridiculous things over. Jericho rocked a silly scarf all year with his list.
The List of Jericho features him composing a silly collection of the people that have wronged him. Fans have taken to the list and it has made Jericho among the most popular stars in the company. At 46 years old, Jericho is having one more main event run thanks to the silly list becoming a huge success. 2017 will likely see him enter a top angle against best friend Kevin Owens. Jericho’s list just made our list in the most meta of ways.
11. New Day Breaks Record
The New Day debuted just about two years ago to huge disappointment and hatred from the audience. Fans booed Kofi Kingston, Big E and Xavier Woods as they danced to the ring preaching about the power of positivity. It appeared New Day would go down among the biggest flops in wrestling but they completely turned things around. The trio turned the fans emotions against them by playing up the annoying characters and blossomed into elite heels.
New Day was so entertaining that they were forced to turn face and have been the most successful tag team in years. WWE is making merchandise all over WWE Shop for New Day with everything selling like hot cakes from t-shirts to Funko Pop figures to actual cereal. It led to New Day breaking Demolition’s record as the longest reigning WWE Tag Team Champions to end the year. No one could have predicted this. New Day went the entire calendar year as the champs and cemented their names in the history of WWE.
10. Broken Matt Hardy
TNA appeared to be a sinking ship all year with wrestlers bolting and management having more issues financially. One positive thing to come from TNA this year was the huge risk taking of Matt Hardy. Instead of living off his name value as a respected veteran, Hardy completely reinvented his character with the appearance of “Broken Matt.” A feud with his brother Jeff Hardy saw them battle on their actual property in one of the most creative pieces of storytelling you’d find in wrestling.
Both Hardys went all the way with the new Broken characters to create relevance in TNA for them. WWE even copied the Final Deletion match between Matt and Jeff a few weeks later with New Day and The Wyatt Family battling to less fanfare. Fans chant “Delete” at shows all over the world as a nod to Broken Matt’s threats of “deleting” his enemies. Matt and Jeff will be on WWE’s radar as free agents in March thanks to one of the best years of their respective careers.
9. Shield Triple Threat Feud Flops
The Shield breaking up in 2014 after one of the best runs ever for a faction led to fans having the dream match of Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose battling in a triple threat match. You’d assume WWE would have saved this for a potential WrestleMania main event. It happened at the Battleground PPV event earlier this year. WWE wanted to start the brand split era with a bang as this being the final show before the split truly began.
Things didn’t go as well as we all would have hoped. On the prior PPV, Rollins defeated Reigns to win the WWE World Championship and Ambrose cashed in Money in the Bank to take the title from him. That seemed like a fine way to set it up, but Reigns was suspended for the entire month meant to set up the match. Rollins was coming off a long stint on the shelf with injury. Ambrose was just now getting acclimated to the main event picture. The match also came off very disappointing and left fans very sad with the dream match not delivering anything special.
8. Alberto Del Rio and Paige vs. WWE
The most shocking romantic relationship to start in 2016 definitely featured Alberto Del Rio dating Paige. Considering Del Rio is significantly older than Paige and he was still married to another woman, the news shocked the wrestling world. WWE clearly didn’t like this and tried to split them up in the brand split. Both wrestlers were suspended for violating the wellness policy with drug test failures.
Del Rio requested a release and Paige went on the shelf with a neck injury. Paige violated the wellness policy a second time leading to a huge battle between her and WWE. The anti-diva claimed the drug in question was a prescription to help deal with her injury. WWE struck back by saying it was not a prescribed drug. The war of words and tension continues. Paige being cleared at some point in 2017 will be interesting. WWE values her star power but the relationship with Del Rio has put her in the doghouse.
7. Goldberg Destroys Brock Lesnar
Bill Goldberg returning in itself was a huge shock in the WWE Universe. The WCW legend originally was just meant to be the face of the WWE 2K17 video game for nostalgia purposes. Fans started chanting “Goldberg” at WWE shows in the summer, most noteworthy towards Brock Lesnar at Summerslam. WWE decided to take the risk of bringing the 49 year old veteran back into the company for his first match in over 12 years.
The risk seemed to be paying dividends with mainstream coverage coming for Goldberg’s return. WWE went all the way with it by having Goldberg defeat Lesnar at Survivor Series. It was the first decisive loss to Lesnar since he ended The Undertaker’s streak at WrestleMania 30. Not only did Goldberg cleanly defeat Brock, but he decimated him in 86 seconds. It was one of the most shocking moments in WWE history. The eventual rematch between the two is already highly anticipated.
6. AJ Styles Debuts to Dominate WWE
Wrestling fans have wanted AJ Styles in WWE for over a decade but it never seemed possible. The smaller size, Southern accent and reputation of being a TNA star all were things reportedly preventing Styles from getting a chance in WWE. It finally happened at the Royal Rumble. Styles rebuilt his name in New Japan and Ring of Honor enough to get signed by WWE and bypass NXT.
The crowd erupted with one of the biggest ovations of the year when Styles debuted in the Rumble match. AJ proved why many consider him the best wrestler in the world during a series of classic matches against Roman Reigns. That helped establish him in WWE but the two wins over John Cena are what saw him reach main event status. Following the wins over the biggest star, Styles went on to win the WWE World Championship over Dean Ambrose and is ending the year as champion. We can only imagine what his legacy would look like if he joined WWE five years ago.
5. CM Punk Gets Destroyed in UFC
This isn’t an actual wrestling story but it shocked the wrestling world as much as anything else. CM Punk left WWE in 2014 out of frustration. The popular wrestler decided he would try his luck in the mixed martial arts field by going to the top of the food chain in UFC. Following a few setbacks and injuries, Punk finally made his UFC in September against young fighter Mickey Gall.
Punk wasn’t able to put up a fight and barely got any strikes in. Gall had control for the short fight ending it by putting Punk in a rare naked choke. The classy post-match speech of Punk giving credit to Gall and claiming he would continue working to get better made him come off well. Still, the way he left WWE made his fight controversial in the wrestling world. Many rooted for him but WWE management had to have a good laugh. Punk could easily find his way back in wrestling sooner or later with the MMA career going poorly.
4. Daniel Bryan Retires
The rise of Daniel Bryan is one of the better stories WWE has presented in recent years. Bryan’s journey to the top of WWE as an underdog made him the people’s champion during the final years of his career. Sadly, injuries started to hit right when he reached main event status. Bryan’s concussion related injuries led to WWE keeping him sidelined despite his beliefs of being able to compete.
Time passed and WWE refused to clear Bryan. Various doctors gave differing opinions on if he was healthy enough to wrestle. One convincing doctor finally talked Bryan into retiring from wrestling. The emotional moment saw him officially announce his retirement in-ring competition in February in his home of Seattle. Bryan expressed gratitude for all the joys and good things to come from his career. WWE transitioned him into the General Manager of Smackdown Live. There are rumors of Bryan wanting to wrestle again outside of WWE, but the fact that he and Brie Bella have a child on the way may end those hopes.
3. Shane McMahon Returns
A name no one expected to be this important entering the year was Shane McMahon. Following a departure about six years before the return, Shane appeared to be done with pro wrestling following Vince McMahon essentially choosing Stephanie McMahon and Triple H over him to run the company in the future. The arena erupted when Shane returned to tell off his father and sister after the long time away.
Shane’s return was to set up his WrestleMania 32 attraction match against The Undertaker. We witnessed another highlight Shane-O-Mac moment when he leaped off of the Hell in a Cell structure to dive on the announcer’s table. The popularity of Shane convinced Vince to keep him on-screen as the Commissioner of Smackdown Live. Shane had another noteworthy performance at Survivor Series in the big Raw vs. Smackdown match putting his body on the line. As GM, Shane continues to play a huge role on Smackdown and could be in for another big WrestleMania match next year.
2. Brand Split
The original brand split pitting Raw and Smackdown against each other as a way to create competition was ultimately a failure. There were some great moments and new stars made, but the integrity of the split would get compromised. WWE went forward with the project this year. Stephanie McMahon and Shane McMahon feuding on-screen for control of the show led to Vince McMahon splitting the roster in half with each McMahon kid having their own show.
Stephanie running Raw with Mick Foley as her General Manager has led to Raw continuing to have the bigger star power as the flagship show of WWE. Smackdown Live was given to Shane with Daniel Bryan as his GM setting up a bit of an alternative show centered on creating new stars through the in-ring work. Both shows have done well in different respects. It is too early to tell how things will shake out but the future of WWE changed for a long time thanks to the brand split this year.
1. Women’s Wrestling Makes History
WWE tried branding a women’s revolution in 2015 and it didn’t take off. Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch being called up from NXT improved the division, but WWE’s presentation remained the same. That all changed in 2016 in a huge way. For the first time ever, WWE legitimately booked the women’s division as if the performers were credible stars of equal worth to the male wrestlers. The classic show-stealing match at WrestleMania 32 between Charlotte, Banks and Lynch set the tone for the year.
History was made when Banks and Flair main-evented WWE Hell in a Cell inside of the structure. It was both the first women’s match inside of the cell and the first ever PPV main event featuring two women. Raw has many great wrestlers, but Sasha and Charlotte have been presented as the top stars at least equal to the male main-eventers. Smackdown Live has a thriving women’s division with two to three storylines per week dedicated to the ladies. WWE actually went all the way in creating credible women’s division that may very well have been the most entertaining facet of the product all year.
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