In 2016, WWE turned towards the future. The WWE Network expanded both its user base and its program offerings. The NXT developmental program graduated a new class of Superstars to the main roster. The main roster split into a Raw brand and a SmackDown brand, a healthy move for a company that had gotten complacent due to lack of competition. And women’s wrestling continued its upward ascent.
There’s been a notable upswing in match quality across the board. The WWE does a fantastic job of picking and cultivating the top indie talent in the world, and the trainers at the WWE Performance Center provide a high bar for quality control. Here are the best WWE matches of 2016, chosen for their technical polish, their narrative power, and their raw, infectious energy. It may all be predetermined, but none of that matters during a great match.
AJ Styles makes his singles PPV debut
Match: AJ Styles vs. Chris Jericho
Date: February 21, 2016
A familiar talking point in recent years has been that the best active American professional wrestler in the world doesn’t work for WWE. But this past January, AJ Styles made his debut at the Royal Rumble, and the live crowd went absolutely insane. His first singles PPV appearance was at the following month’s Fastlane against Chris Jericho. It was a perfect showcase for the Phenomenal One. He performed nearly all of his signature moves, and Jericho enhanced his opponent by playing his heel role to a T.
It’s always a little worrisome when a non-homegrown talent signs to WWE. Will he or she be forced to job to everyone on the roster? This match quelled some of those worries, even if Styles’ loss to Jericho at WrestleMania would later reignite them.
Sami Zayn meets the King of Strong Style
Match: Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura
PPV: NXT Takeover: Dallas
Date: April 1, 2016
Sami Zayn was the classic hero of NXT—an earnest, high energy, squeaky clean babyface. But then out came Shinsuke Nakamura—lurid, perverse, and dripping with sexual charisma—and the fans didn’t know who to cheer for.
This was the undisputed Match of the Year. From the mind games at the beginning, to the variability in the middle, to those brutal knee strikes at the end, this contest was ring storytelling at its finest. Both men will struggle for the rest of their WWE careers to top it.
The women steal the biggest show of the year
Match: Becky Lynch vs. Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte
PPV: WrestleMania 32
Date: April 3, 2016
It’s appropriate that on the same night WWE killed the “Divas” title and replaced it with the “Women’s Championship,” the featured women’s match was the best match on the PPV card. But this was no ordinary PPV. This was WrestleMania, the biggest show of the year, when wrestlers are expected to leave it all in the ring in the hopes of registering a classic “WrestleMania moment.”
That evening, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, and Charlotte Flair did a stellar job of combining spectacle, dangerous spots, and technical prowess. They made it all look like a single, fluid performance rather than a series of staged spots. Notable highlights included Charlotte’s moonsault to the outside and Banks’ tribute to Eddie Guerrero, which, beyond her iconic outfit, included one of his signature Frog Splashes.
A Fatal 4-Way gives everyone the chance to shine
Match: The Miz vs. Cesaro vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn
PPV: Extreme Rules
Date: May 22, 2016
Usually, the more participants there are in a match, the more likely that the match will be bad. There’s simply too many heads to keep track of, and the entire affair can devolve into a sloppy, indistinguishable brawl.
But this Fatal 4-Way for the Intercontinental title did the impossible. It shone an equally bright spotlight on four Superstars with completely different wrestling styles. It’s a strong testament to the wrestlers’ communication—to roll out and “rest” to allow their opponents the time to shine.
Owens and Zayn end their feud (for now)
Match: Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn
Date: July 24, 2016
Owens and Zayn have tangled with each other many times over the years, particularly when they both wrestled for Ring of Honor. But this blowoff to their WWE feud ranks as one their best matches. It was gritty, technical, and full of love/hate drama. It’s the sort of chemistry that’s only possible when two people work with each other for decades and know each other’s playbook, inside and out.
The Revival is the greatest tag team in the world
Match: The Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder) vs. Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa
PPV: NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II
Date: August 20, 2016
The Revival are not a flashy team. They don’t do daredevil flips or high spots that could land them and their opponents in the ER. But they wrestle better than any other tag team. So many tag team power moves, coordinated followups, and bait and switch tactics to fool the referee.
Their contest against Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa in Brooklyn was the sort of wrestling match where it’s difficult for a highlight reel to do it justice. The pacing is 90% of the appeal; you have to watch the entire thing to pick out the subtleties.
Bayley says goodbye to NXT
Match: Asuka vs. Bayley
PPV: NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II
Date: August 20, 2016
Asuka is the current NXT Women’s Champion, or at least until Ember Moon gets a little more experience under her belt. How do we know that Asuka is that good? Because Bayley tried really, really hard to crack her, and she failed.
Bayley is the living, breathing symbol of NXT—the try-hard girl-next-door who rose to the top of the promotion with a combination of hard work and raw talent. Per wrestling tradition, before she left NXT for the main roster, Bayley put over her toughest opponent. She threw everything she had at Asuka twice—once at Takeover: Dallas, when she lost the belt to Asuka, and again at Takeover: Brooklyn II, when she failed to recapture it. It solidified Asuka as untouchable, and it was absolutely thrilling to witness.
AJ drops Cena down to part-time status
Match: AJ Styles vs. John Cena
Date: August 21, 2016
I was in the crowd at this year’s SummerSlam, and the atmosphere was electric. Nothing—not even Finn Balor’s triumphant win over Seth Rollins—could top this match.
John Cena is booked so strongly that a win against him, even with cheating and outside shenanigans, is shocking. But a clean win against Cena, with a 1-2-3 count in the center of the ring? It’s almost unheard of. Styles’ path to the main event was sealed from this moment forth. And now that Styles is the current WWE Champion, the inevitable rematch (perhaps at the Royal Rumble?) is going to be epic.
Triple H adopts a new son
Match: Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns vs. Kevin Owens vs. Big Cass
Show: WWE Raw
Date: August 29, 2016
Triple H hasn’t been on TV much recently, and that’s probably a good thing. When The Game makes an appearance, it sucks the energy out of the room and away from the newer Superstars. But WWE needs his gravitas on special occasions, like this one.
The WWE Universal Championship was vacated by Finn Balor. Raw held a Fatal 4-Way to crown a new Champion, and Triple H came barreling out of the crowd. Most fans thought that he would help Seth Rollins, who he and Stephanie McMahon shared a weird mother/father/son dynamic with. But instead, he laid out Rollins with a Pedigree and literally handed the title to Owens. It was an incredible moment. Triple H symbolically reinforced his growing status as a boss behind the scenes, and in the process gave Owens the biggest rub possible.
The Miz just keeps getting better
Date: Dolph Ziggler vs. The Miz
Date: September 11, 2016
Miz is a Real World alumnus, and so the hardcore fans (and his fellow wrestlers) were against him from the start. But the anger and resentment all came to a head on an August episode of post-SmackDown show Talking Smack, when The Miz tore into fan favorite Daniel Bryan with an emotional, angry promo that blurred the line between fact and fiction.
Miz has been reinvigorated since then, turning in stellar match after stellar match. His match against Dolph Ziggler at Backlash was our first PPV exposure to this new, angrier, more intense Miz. It was a revelation to see what the guy is capable of when he has a little motivation. At this rate, he’ll be WWE Champion by the end of 2017.
The Cruiserweights defy death
Date: Kota Ibushi vs. TJ Perkins
Show: Cruiserweight Classic
Date: September 14, 2016
Remember when the Cruiserweight division wasn’t treated like an afterthought on WWE programming? Granted, it’s getting better (Neville’s heel turn last Sunday was a good start), but we’re still a long way from the Cruiserweight Classic, when the entire division was white hot. The semi-final showdown between Kota Ibushi and eventual winner TJ Perkins was the best of the bunch. It showed that, booked properly, the smaller guys could hold their own on a big stage.
Cesaro and Sheamus fight a battle of attrition
Match: Cesaro vs. Sheamus
PPV: Clash of Champions
Date: September 25, 2016
Cesaro and Sheamus engaged in a Best-of-Seven series that was somehow appropriately matched: the former is underappreciated by the front office, and the latter is underappreciated by the fans. But combined, they proved both groups of naysayers wrong, delivering old school, hard hitting contests: a throwback to the 80’s Saturday Night’s Main Events.
It was power versus power and brawn versus more brawn. Although fans complained about the finish—the seventh match ended in a no-contest—it all turned out well in the end. Both men are now Tag Team Champions, and hopefully that will lead to even bigger moves in the near future.
The Revival is still the greatest tag team in the world
Match: The Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder) vs. #DIY (Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa)
PPV: NXT Takeover: Toronto
Date: November 19, 2016
Alright, let’s talk about these guys some more. The Revival are a classic heel tag team, and they built up so much heat from their Brooklyn contest that a rematch against #DIY was inevitable. This time, the good guys came out on top, and they did it by forcing both of their opponents to tap in a humiliating loss.
Given its emotional build, this rematch was even better than the first match. But the pathos only existed because of the prior match. Combined, the two matches form a single work of athletic storytelling that have to be watched in full to be appreciated.
Too many tag matches emphasize the individuals over the duo, because too many tag teams are two singles wrestlers who were thrown together at random. It takes hours of practice and mind melding to make tag team wrestling look seamless and smooth. These two teams managed it better than anyone else has in recent years. Bravo.
SmackDown pulls off the upset of the evening
Match: Team SmackDown (AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose, Randy Orton, Shane McMahon, and Bray Wyatt, with James Ellsworth) vs. Team Raw (Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, and Braun Strowman)
PPV: Survivor Series
Date: November 20, 2016
The Survivor Series format—5-on-5 elimination tag matches—has been dying a slow, agonizing death for years. It simply isn’t a sustainable format when every wrestler has personal issues and axes to grind. How could everyone get on the same page and form a team, even for a single night?
But this match worked. It worked well because the participants didn’t ignore their personal issues—there was a ton of in-fighting on both sides. Everyone shone bright, particularly Shane McMahon, who was concussed by a nasty Spear courtesy of Roman Reigns.
Sasha Banks wins the title on Raw (again) before losing it on PPV (again)
Match: Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte
Show: WWE Raw
Date: Nov. 28, 2016
It’s a shame that the feud between Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair included so many title changes. A few less of them would have given each match additional consequence. It felt much too predictable. Sasha wins the title on Raw. Charlotte wins the title on PPV. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The feud included a lot of WWE first-times. The two women contested the first women’s Hell in a Cell match. They contested the first main roster women’s Iron Man match. But still, their most impressive, cohesive match of the bunch was this Falls Count Anywhere match on Raw, especially the finish. That final Banks Statement, where Banks wrapped Charlotte around the crowd railing surrounded by screaming fans, solidified the Bo$$ as the chosen champion of the people, belt be damned.
Baron Corbin is a star heel in his infancy
Match: Baron Corbin vs. Kalisto
PPV: TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs
Date: December 4, 2016
Baron Corbin is a product of WWE’s developmental program, and for a long time, he was a monster adrift. In both NXT and on the main roster, he appeared awkward and ungainly—a combination of nerves and lack of experience.
But ever since the brand split, the Lone Wolf has been killing it on a weekly basis. He moves and speaks with more confidence every passing week, and WWE is currently building him up for a title shot—incredible news for this unlikeliest of Superstars.
But he’s earned it. His David vs. Goliath faceoff against Kalisto at TLC was star-making, with a ton of brutal, hardcore spots. He smacked Kalisto out of the air with a chair for Chrissakes. In both Corbin and Braun Strowman, we’re witnessing the rise of WWE’s next big, monster heels.
That about wraps it up. The year’s best matches were, if we could use a single word to describe them: