2011 saw CM Punk drop a pipe bomb, cutting a promo that brought in lapsed fans around the world. 2014 saw the rise of Daniel Bryan and the destruction of The Shield, cementing a main event player with one step and creating three more with another. 2017 had arguably the greatest match of all time between Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada. Omega would once again make headlines in 2019 when he and the rest of the Elite (sans one Villain) joined Tony Khan in the creation of All Elite Wrestling.
While the 2000s saw wrestling hit a hard decline after the dissolution of WCW, the exodus of stars like Steve Austin and The Rock, and a 2007 scandal that almost shut the whole sport down, the 2010s did a lot of work to reestablish professional wrestling as something new. It wasn’t this huge mainstream icon anymore — with everyone and their mother owning an nWo shirt — but wrestling did become something special for the hardcore fans.
2016 is the epitome of this notion.
This was the year saw WWE reinvent itself, the rise in popularity of NJPW and other regional promotions, the explosion of wrestling YouTube, and important pieces being put in place that would be crucial in years to come.
And like many good wrestling years, it all started on the eve of January 4.
AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Gallows & Anderson Join WWE
If you watched Wrestle Kingdom 10 live, congratulations — you were a little ahead of the curve. You were also witness to two of the best matches of the year, those being the main event match between Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi and — more important to this topic — the dream match between AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura.
Styles and Nakamura put on a clinic for sure, but the bigger news coming out of the event was that Nakamura and three central Bullet Club members were leaving New Japan and headed to WWE.
Though this seemed like an absolute loss for NJPW, this ended up being beneficial to both promotions in a way.
On the more obvious note, WWE got some killer performers. Gallows & Anderson debuting “like a bullet” on Raw was exhilarating, and Shinsuke Nakamura’s NXT debut against Sami Zayn is the stuff of legends. But then there’s AJ Styles. His short-lived run with Y2AJ; his series with Reigns, Ambrose, and Cena; wearing Cena’s armband like a headband on SmackDown Live — Styles wasn’t even there at the beginning of the year, but by December, it was impossible to imagine WWE without him.
But then, there’s the positive effect that this loss had on New Japan. If you were a casual fan like me, the news of these four guys coming to WWE probably prompted a response of, “Who?” Styles’ name rang a bell for many thanks to TNA, and Luke “Doc” Gallows was in CM Punk’s Straight Edge Society a few years back, but who was Karl Anderson, who was Shinsuke Nakamura, and what’s a New Japan?
A lot of people sought out Wrestle Kingdom 10 after this announcement to figure out who WWE just gained, and this became the entry point for many in discovering Okada, Tanahashi, Tetsuya Naito, KUSHIDA, and the Junior Champ’s opponent at the event — a little-known wrestler named Kenny Omega.
The Elite Become The Elite
AJ Styles (or Karl Anderson if you want to get serious about it) was the leader of Bullet Club when those four men signed with WWE, and this created a power vacuum at the top of New Japan’s card. One Canadian gamer with a penchant for bicycle knees was quick to jump at that spot, and he made sure to bring his friends with him.
After Styles was violently kicked out of Bullet Club at NJPW’s New Year’s Dash, Nick Jackson, Matt Jackson, and Kenny Omega stayed behind to assert themselves as the new top guys in Bullet Club. Was their claim contentious? Absolutely — they were junior heavyweights and did not have the longest tenure in Bullet Club — but they were hellbent on proving themselves.
That year, Omega gained and lost the IWGP Intercontinental Championship before going on to win the annual G1 Climax tournament on his first attempt, becoming the first gaijin to win the tournament ever. The Young Bucks won, lost, and regained the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Championship that year, and they also briefly held the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship with Omega.
These were all personal accolades, but the biggest impact they made that year was in May when they created Being the Elite, a YouTube series that acted as part-travel vlog and part-sketch comedy series. By being on YouTube, free from the paywall of NJPW World, The Elite managed to grow their brand far bigger than just any ordinary trio.
Being the Elite was and still is a quality show in its own right, but for giving fans peek into the lives of The Elite, the show’s ability to get wrestlers over (e.g. SoCal Uncensored, Flip Gordon), and the fact that it would lead to the promotion of All In and the subsequent creation of All Elite Wrestling, it goes beyond just being a good show and instead acts as one of the most important setups in wrestling today.
The Impact of the Indies
When Cody Rhodes left WWE in April 2016, few realized how impactful this would be to the independent scene. The moment he posted his list of goals post-WWE — shouting out Chris Hero, the Young Bucks, Katsuyori Shibata, Pat Buck, and PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles, among others — it was clear to see that Cody would be using his WWE notoriety to both get into doors and lift others up.
After matches in EVOLVE and Northeast Wrestling, Cody made a notable appearance in what has gone on to be recognized by many as the best Battle of Los Angeles ever. Cody was just one big name, though; more than that, this BOLA showcased a who’s-who of wrestling today.
Pentagon Jr., Fenix, Jeff Cobb, Ricochet, Adam Cole and the Young Bucks, Tommaso Ciampa, Tommy “Aleister Black” End, Cedric Alexander. The list goes on and on, and this show is only a snapshot of what independent wrestling was like this year.
And it wasn’t just the indies. Impact Wrestling, though financially in a bit of a rut, had struck creative gold by allowing Matt Hardy and Jeremy Borash to run wild with their Broken Universe. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it seemed like everyone was talking about “The Final Deletion” that summer, and chants of “Delete!” rang from crowd for the next few years.
If you like NXT or AEW today, you like the independent scene in 2016.
The Rise of British Wrestling
Wrestling YouTube — particularly the WhatCulture Wrestling channel — blew up in 2016. The personalities on display, like the Adams, King Ross, and Jack the Jobber, were so popular with fans (and despised by folks tired of their listicle style) that, when WhatCulture announced that they were starting their own promotion in May of that year, all eyes were on them to see if they’d sink or swim.
And, for a while, they swam!
WhatCulture Pro Wrestling highlighted the burgeoning independent scene that was coming out of the United Kingdom at that time. That list of BOLA 2016 competitors from earlier purposefully skipped out on the likes of Marty Scurll, Will Ospreay, Zack Sabre Jr., Mark Haskins, Pete Dunne, and Mark Andrews, names who were carrying the U.K. independents on their backs.
If you were watching RevPro, PROGRESS, ICW, IPW:UK, or the new WCPW at that time, you were seeing the formation of British Strong Style, Jimmy Havoc continuing to slice and dice opponents, Zack Gibson being just the worst, Grado and Joe Hendry stealing our hearts, and Big Damo (now NXT’s Killian Dain) crushing them.
PROGRESS had been kicking British wrestling into high gear since its formation in 2012, and the trio of Ospreay, Sabre, and Scurll among others getting bookings outside of the U.K. did a lot to put eyes on the scene. But for me and a lot of non-British, YouTube-binging wrestling nerds, promotions like WCPW did a lot to get us through that door.
WWE’s Incredible Hot Streak
SmackDown Live from the 2016 draft to WrestleMania 33 is my favorite era of WWE, period.
AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose, and John Cena made for an ungodly main event scene with fiery promos and wrestling that matched the intensity. The Miz’s love for the Intercontinental Championship and Dolph Ziggler’s desperation to get it from him made the belt feel important again. Heath Slater and Rhyno’s partnership was heartwarming, and they and Becky Lynch were the perfect fit for SmackDown’s inaugural tag team and women’s champions respectively.
Then there was Raw, especially the unbelievable July 25 episode. Finn Balor’s debut made him look like a star, Sasha Banks took the Women’s Championship from Charlotte and hit “that” suicide dive, Braun Strowman re-debuted without the Wyatt Family and killed James Ellsworth. (Side note: did you know Nia Jax fought Britt Baker during this show? I just found out while researching.)
2016’s Survivor Series main event was the pinnacle of all of this, showcasing many of the names stated earlier while also showing off the revamped Wyatt Family and the amazing pairing that was Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho (who at this point was getting “The Gift of Jericho,” a clipboard, and the word “it” over all at once).
The draft meant that both shows had to give you reasons to watch them, and that meant we got a lot of amazing characters at this time. Ambrose was a kingpin, Styles was a face that ran the place, Enzo & Cass and The New Day were Enzo & Cass and The New Day. Everyone was crushing it, and that’s just the main roster.
The night before Survivor Series, NXT had an amazing tag team match between The Revival and #DIY, two teams that defined this era of NXT. Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe also held up the main event scene, and Asuka’s incredible undefeated made for a very noteworthy women’s division.
WWE also put on the first (and to this point only) Cruiserweight Classic, putting names like TJ Perkins, Cedric Alexander, Akira Tozawa, and Jack Gallagher in the public eye, giving guys like The Brian Kendrick another lease on life, and bringing in Zack Sabre Jr. and future Wrestle Kingdom main eventer Kota Ibushi for four matches a piece (not even counting Ibushi’s NXT outings).
After the injury-plagued year that was 2015, 2016 being this insane was a nice change of pace for the world’s biggest wrestling promotion, and it set the stage for what WWE would do in years to come.
2016 was the year where one-half of WrestleMania 36 Night 1’s main eventers debuted in WWE. 2016 was the year where three-fourths of AEW’s executive vice presidents rose to power, while the last fourth exited WWE three months later. 2016 was the year where cinematic matches were reinvented, bringing us right back to that WrestleMania main event.
And even with all of the things mentioned earlier, I still left out Lucha Underground, Ring of Honor, and a deeper dive into all of the other regions I surely missed out on, like Mexico, Canada, Germany, etc.
The past few years have seen a lot of drastic shifts in the modern landscape of wrestling, but I believe that from an entertainment standpoint and a historical standpoint, 2016 will go down as one of the most important years for wrestling of all time.
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