It’s been a hell of a year in general, with the world changing in ways never really conceived of, it’s time to take a look back at the product we received from WWE. I cannot remember a time when the company has been so prolific, especially in PPV events, and with the make up of the company in an unprecedented flux, it’s an extremely exciting time to be a fan. Here, I’m going to highlight some of the best aspects of WWE wrestling in the past year. This will just be 5 of the biggest points, and to break it down to each specific match and superstar, we’d be here all day. Think of this more of a primer of points to go back and watch on the network. Having just done so myself, you will not be disappointed.
The Rise of Kevin Owens
As we exit 2016, one wrestler on the Raw brand is unquestionably on top, and consistently brings high quality matches in every single one of his matches, Kevin Owens. Even though he came up to the main roster in 2015, this was the year that WWE gave him the big push to the top where he flourished. To start the year in the IC title mix, Owens contributed to the growing prestige of the one great belt (more on that later). Working well with Ambrose (who has been somewhat problematic in certain points of the year) and moving onto the bigger matches such as the multi man ladder match at Wrestlemania, he was clearly the stand out star of the mid card for that time.
It was around July, however, that Owens really began to take off, having a classic match with Sami Zayn at Battleground, a feud I’m sure will be revisited at some point in the future, and moving on to the best friendship in WWE with Chris Jericho. After Finn Balor’s unfortunate injury after Summerslam, Owen’s was given the chance to “grab the brass ring”, and did just that by winning the WWE Universal Championship, and cementing himself as the top guy on Raw. When you look at it now, he’s the perfect face to hold that belt, being so heelish and solid all around the crowd has a hard time booing him. For a man his size, he’s incredibly athletic and hits spots you’d expect from cruiserweight, and, pulling out of his time in the indies, he’s more than willing to have crazy, seemingly injury prone spots. This is all excellent, but what makes him stand out over guys like AJ Styles, is his bleeding charisma. The work he’s doing with Chris Jericho is truly special, and he makes Raw must view TV. While Daniel Bryan was carried by crowd backing, and guys like Rollins manages to hook you with smarminess, no one grabbed an audience by the throat and screamed ‘I’M THE BEST!” like Kevin Owens does, and that unique character, at least in today’s product, commands you watch.
Shinsuke Nakamura Takes NXT By Storm
There were a bunch of strong debuts in NXT this year, from Bobby Roode to Austin Aries, but few have made the bang in such a short time than Shinsuke Nakamura. If you know him from NJPW, this should come as no surprise, but, when looking at WWE’s treatment of international stars in the past, it’s important to highlight Shinsuke for being a truly special talent. When it comes to international characters, especially East Asian wrestlers, history is troubling at best. With the creative shift in the company, especially NXT, a promotion that’s booked by Triple H, Shinsuke’s talent bursting through the glass ceiling is an excellent site to see.
Nakamura shouldn’t be treated any differently than what he has in NXT now. With his incredibly different and unique character and style, his odd motion and walking style draw you in. Also, with his strong style wrestling, which we saw very little of in WWE prior to this year, the simple spectacle of the incredible stiff strikes he throws are mesmerizing. The only point that led to concern, and it was a large one, was his mic skills, in that English is clearly his second language, and history would dictate that this would hold him back (unfairly). However, his odd character both lends himself to that, and his limited time on the mic is always effective. The question is, with his time at the top of the NXT mountain happening now, there’s nowhere to go but the main roster, and with a legendary entrance, it will be a moment to remember (hopefully in 2017).
The Last of a Dying Breed: The Miz
WWE is entering a weird stage in its history where almost everyone treads the line of tweener, at least on the upper mid card to the main eventers. In many cases that status is dictated by the fans, such as John Cena, Kevin Owens, or Roman Reigns, but some are just in a practical sense, just as it was in the Attitude Era. There are certainly some pure babyfaces left in the company, namely Sami Zayn and Bayley, but the far ends of the heel/face spectrum are fairly bare. With that, excluding an outsider gimmick like Rusev, the idea of a heel who’s just a heel for being a jerk a la Rick Rude appears to be dying. Thankfully, these guys aren’t going away without a fight, and the best heel of the year, without question, comes from that Rude mold; and that’s The Miz.
The Miz has always been easy to hate, just off his early push to the Championship a few years ago. However, this year, and his coveting of the IC belt, have been one of the best heel years in recent memory. It was solid from the start, winning the IC belt quickly after Mania, but it really took off after the draft, where Miz captured eyes with what appeared to be a work-shooting promo cut against Daniel Bryan, which was the most impressive mic work since the famous Pipe Bomb. This led to an excellent feud with Dolph Ziggler (a seeming proxy for Bryan who can’t actually wrestle for health reasons), where these real life friends stole the show every time they squared off. Coming off this feud, still holding the Intercontinental belt in the prestige it deserves, The Miz continues to steal the show with his jerk character, stealing matches by cheating and throwing it in your face. For old school fans, The Miz is a breath of fresh air of hate, and the future is looking like a main title push for him at some point.
Tag Teams Done Right
Tag Team wrestling in WWE has struggled for a long time now, as teams rarely seem to get over, or are just two singles wrestlers thrown together for a clearly brief moment. In 2016, WWE changed this by establishing strong Tag Teams on all of their shows, with a record setting title run from The New Day. While some of their opponents have struggled to be compelling, The New Day captured the hearts of the crowd and never let go, consistently being one of the biggest pops of the night. Adopting a Freebirds style of belt holding, where the trio occasionally wrestle in different teams but for the same belts, all three guys; Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston, and Big E, all are very solid wrestlers, and work beautifully together. Also, it’s excellent that this team of three African American men are owning large chunks of Raw. With a world that sometimes seem to be going backwards, The New Day are always fun to watch. Black Excellence, proudly stated by the team, is a perfect designation for this team.
NXT had strong year of Tag wrestling as well, and that was guided by the old school team of Dash and Dawson, now known as The Revival. Unlike guys like Samoa Joe or Finn Balor, Dash and Dawson commanded attention with little known about them prior to NXT, and their work as a team is unlike anyone we’ve seen in quite some time. When you see them come out in their varsity like jackets, screaming at the crowd about how excellent they are, you want to hate them, but they consistently put on 5 star matches. They have a style straight out of the heyday of the Four Horsemen’s Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, a perfect tandem that will go to any lengths to win. On top of that, they put on 3 of the top 10 matches of the year, first with American Alpha (another excellent tag team) and then two classics, and probable match of the year with DIY. While other teams hit wonderful spots, Revival tell stories; they suck you in and just when you think they’ll zig, they zag. That’s what stands out in today’s scene, and, with their call up coming, I cannot wait for their future.
The Women’s Revolution
The “Diva’s Revolution” started last year, but in 2016 it shined, and, in a moment that should make you stand and cheer, the distinction of “Diva” was put to bed. If you’ve read any of my reviews this year, you know of my reverence for these women wrestlers, but I cannot stress enough just how historic this year has been for Women’s wrestling in WWE. Aside from the company finally embracing this division, Charlotte and Sasha Banks had the best feud in wrestling since Punk Cena, and, history will show that we will view this in the same light that we view Rock Austin of the Attitude Era. These two told an incredible story, and while the booking was pretty odd, and Charlotte appears to have the backing of the booking committee over Sasha, there’s no way to overstate just how strong these two wrestler’s together are. Every match they have seems historic, and, in a way like only Shawn Michaels has done in the past, they pull your emotions through each match and moment, whether it be a singles match on Raw or Hell in a Cell or an Ironman match at a PPV. It appears that their feud is over for now, but, for the first time in a while, there’s a strong mid card in the women’s division just ready to take that top spot.
That headline feud is great, but what makes this year even more special for women’s wrestling is just how deep the roster is. Yes, that marquee feud is over, but Bayley and Nia Jax are ready to step up and contest for the title. In addition to that, the other two brands are just as strong with their Women’s Division, having Alexa Bliss and an incredibly underrated Becky Lynch holding it down on Smackdown, and Asuka dominating with strong style in NXT. Those are just to name the champions, there are strong midcarders on each brand as well, and WWE continues to sign surprising and exciting indie talent to fill out the roster on NXT. The big question going forward, however, is how WWE will book the midcard feuds. As Ashley touched upon in her wonderful Nia Jax piece, these women need more of a push, especially in airtime. I know my desire to see these women competing for IC or even World titles is a ways off, but they deserve a push. Short of that, WWE will be underselling these incredible wrestlers, and we, as an audience, are getting short shrifted.
2016 has been a tough time in many ways, but wrestling has been incredibly strong, and I only touched upon WWE! There’s also companies like Lucha Underground and New Japan Pro Wrestling who have been incredibly strong, and TNA is changing the game with the wacky but entertaining Total Nonstop Deletion. For 2017, I urge you to get on board, it’s been a wild ride this year, and the future is bright.