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WWE in 2016: The Year of the Feud

In a year of big change, the epic battles defined everything. This is the greatest that WWE had to offer this year, including the best matches and the wrestler of the year.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Ten days ago, during WWE’s Roadblock: End of the Line PPV, after Charlotte Flair made Sasha Banks tap out at the end of a 35-minute match, my friend leaned over to me and said, "That was the match of the year." I was so wrapped up in it — in Sasha’s tears and Charlotte’s demonic grin, in the euphoric haze after a grueling and well-constructed iron-man match — I replied, "You’re totally right."

I quickly came to my senses. That couldn’t be right. Was it better than their main-event match at Hell in a Cell? Was it better than their SummerSlam match or the Raw match that Sasha won to set up the SummerSlam rematch? Was it better than the triple-threat match among Flair, Banks, and Becky Lynch at WrestleMania 32? I mean, it wasn’t as good as their matches on Raw on October 3 and November 28, right? Right?

It had all blurred together in the best way possible. Many fans have complained about how Charlotte and Sasha have traded title victories with abandon. Some have even complained that the feud has continued for as long as it has. (The two superstars have functionally been at odds since they both debuted on Raw in July 2015, though the current tilt has been on since June.) But the title-swapping has served to underscore a few ideas: that Sasha and Charlotte are evenly matched, that the Raw women’s division is a seat of incredible competition, and that women’s wrestling in general can play host to the kind of epic storytelling that made Charlotte’s father Ric’s feud with Dusty Rhodes so memorable. (If you took all of Dusty’s short reigns and reversed title wins and sped them up to keep pace with the 2016 event cycle, you’d probably have just as many fans complaining about the helter-skelter storytelling.)

WWE can try to ape the mainstream success of Ronda Rousey in the UFC — and it should be lauded for doing so — but there’s a big difference between MMA and pro wrestling. Real fighting loves a force of nature — we watched Rousey and Anderson Silva and Mike Tyson to see dominance in action, competition be damned. But while squash matches certainly have their place in WWE, wrestling fans demand the appearance of competition in exchange for its literal absence. We know it’s fake, so the wrestlers have to work harder to earn our respect. And for a top-flight match, we demand that backstory be built in. Wrestling beefs are often about perceived slights or outside-the-ring transgressions, because two wrestlers fighting for the glory of victory can seem too straightforward for a fake sport. But a truly legendary rivalry transcends that. It takes the personality conflicts and the sharp-edged promos and wads them up in a ball that — by Match 4 or 5 or 20 — becomes the very thing that they were trying to avoid: a fight for victory, because that’s the only thing left.

In 2016, WWE rediscovered the art of the feud. Charlotte-Sasha was the cream of the crop. The feud was nominally about dominance in the women’s division (later the Raw women’s division, after the brand split). On another level it was about proving the merit of women’s wrestling in general, but by their Falls Count Anywhere match on Raw at the end of November, it was about making history.

There’s also the aspect of in-ring storytelling that often goes underobserved. Wrestling matches have to tell stories, so if the finish is going to revolve around Wrestler A reversing Wrestler B’s big move, Wrestler B has to hit that move earlier in the match so the crowd will understand when it’s reversed. At Roadblock, Charlotte and Sasha went about reversing each other’s moves from the jump — which they were able to do because of the built-in history of their rivalry. The longer the feud goes, the broader the in-ring vocabulary that they have to work with. Charlotte and Sasha have had good matches for years, but by the end of 2016, their vocabulary was so good that they weren’t dashing off morality tales; they were writing epic legends.

WWE found similar success with John Cena vs. AJ Styles, pitting the longtime face of the company against the biggest name in wrestling who hadn’t made a mark in WWE. It was a perfect meeting of an icon trying to retroactively prove his legitimacy and a wrestler who had everything to prove. They went at it at Money in the Bank, as part of a six-man match at Battleground, and again at SummerSlam, where they had one of the best matches of the year. AJ won, and it was a moment for history. Finally Cena had run up against an indie wrestler he couldn’t beat. When they again were set at odds on SmackDown in late September, it felt like Cavs-Warriors 3. They had earned that level of excitement.

In the modern wrestling era, surprising a fan is a nearly impossible task (though AJ’s debut at the Royal Rumble was about as close to it as you can get). Engendering a real human reaction — anger, joy, exasperation — is even harder. Fans know too much from internet rumors, and they’re too well trained by the stone-hewn traditions of the sport, particularly under WWE’s auspices. The one emotion that you can evoke is appreciation, and a good feud is the way to get you there.

It’s the end of the year, so I’m going to break down the best that WWE had to offer in 2016. But the things I’ll remember are the big feuds: Charlotte-Sasha, Cena-Styles, The Miz–Dolph Ziggler, Kevin Owens–Sami Zayn, and hell, even Sheamus vs. Cesaro. Wrestling is a storytelling form as much as an athletic exhibition, and a good feud is the heart of the craft — it just doesn’t always come easily.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Feud of the Year: Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks

I’m putting this one in the main-event slot because, frankly, it deserves to be here. So much of picking the best of 2016 is splitting hairs, but this one is clear. There were lots of great feuds in WWE this year of various lengths — even Goldberg-Lesnar was about three degrees more interesting than it had any business being. But there was only one Sasha-Charlotte, only one feud that spanned the calendar and stayed fresh — and meaningful — the entire time. Their feud wasn’t just a triumph for women’s wrestling — it was a triumph for the future of the art form.

Runners-up: Cena-Styles, Styles-Ambrose, Miz-Ziggler, Owens-Zayn, Becky Lynch–Alexa Bliss

Meta Story Line of the Year: WWE Realizing There’s a Wrestling Universe Outside the Company

I wrote about it in April, and since then we’ve seen Styles and Owens become champions and foundational rocks of the company, as well as any number of other extra-Stamfordian highlights: the Cruiserweight Classic, Shinsuke Nakamura, Asuka, Samoa Joe, Kota Ibushi — the list goes on.

Runners-up: John Cena vs. Mortality, WWE vs. NXT, Shane McMahon vs. the legend of Shane McMahon

Wrestler of the Year: (Tie) Kevin Owens and AJ Styles

Charlotte carried the "new" women’s division, and was the best pure heel on the roster by a wide margin. Roman Reigns had his best year, Dean Ambrose proved that on a given night he can be as over as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Seth Rollins came back from a major injury to continue making you forget he’s been in the majors for only four years, and Brock Lesnar is still looming in the margins. John Cena, despite starting the year injured and taking some time off later to make movies and a TV show, had a late-career year that should be recognized for increasingly exceptional ringwork and, above all else, his help making a star out of Styles, after he did the same for Owens last year. Cena is the low-key MVP of 2016 simply because the real winners were legitimized and put in a position to succeed by Cena.

Owens had a slew of good-to-great matches that didn’t crack my stacked Top 10 — his Hell in a Cell match against Rollins was excellent, for instance — but his superstar turn was almost accidental. WWE seemed content to let him hang around the periphery of the main-event scene — IC title runs, Sami Zayn brawls — until adversity struck and Next Big Thing Finn Bálor injured his shoulder in his title-winning match at SummerSlam. With no clear road map forward, WWE could have played it safe and put the Universal title belt on Rollins or Lesnar, but they took a gamble on Owens, and it paid off.

Styles was the most popular wrestler in the company within moments of his Rumble debut, but instead of letting him rest on his babyface laurels, WWE again took a surprise route and turned him heel and then — even more surprising — let him be a compelling, likable bad guy. At the moment of the brand split, Ambrose was the rock of SmackDown, the champion WWE had worked hard to legitimize, who would be the face of the brand. But Styles declared himself the Face that Runs the Place, and his career has a way of self-actualizing. His run at the top of the Tuesday show has often made it more must-watch than Raw.

If 2016 wasn’t the Year of the Feud, it was the Year of the Heel, and Owens and Styles (and, of course, Charlotte) were the reasons why.

Top 10 Matches of the Year:

1. Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, ‘NXT TakeOver: Dallas’

I have to be honest: When I saw this match live in April, I underrated it. Well, not at the moment: I was ecstatic and invested in every moment of the match in a way that I haven’t been in years. But I deducted points for it being a niche match — it was a strong-style match meant to showcase Nakamura in his NXT debut, and Zayn was the perfect dance partner. More than anything I assumed that I was too wrapped up in being a part of that amazing crowd, and that the match wouldn’t hold up as well on TV and in comparison with the big matches in the year’s big, main-roster PPV shows. Which is all to say: I was wrong. Or, more appropriately: I was right in the moment. I shouldn’t have doubted my primal love of the match, and certainly shouldn’t have nit-picked it. Nakamura somehow seems more impressive in NXT than he did in Japan, where he built his legend. And, aside from his matches with Owens, Zayn hasn’t been given the chance to really shine on the main roster. But both men went out and had a match that couldn’t be topped with an infinite number of chair shots or high-risk maneuvers or titles on the line. They told a story in the ring, and put on a career-defining performance. And even in a wrestling year as bountiful as 2016, that was more than enough.

2. Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks, Falls Count Anywhere, ‘WWE Raw’

See above for the significance of this feud. But lest it need to be underscored any more, that these two had a match of the year on an episode of Raw three weeks before their great iron-man match at Roadblock: End of the Line should speak to the level of commitment and intensity Charlotte and Sasha bring to every encounter. This was the best match, but it almost doesn’t do their feud justice.

3. (a) AJ Styles vs. John Cena, ‘SummerSlam’

3. (b) AJ Styles vs. Dean Ambrose, ‘TLC’

3. (c) AJ Styles vs. Roman Reigns, ‘Extreme Rules’

Call this the Styles Trilogy. The first month of Styles’s WWE career was a near miracle — to get signed after a long career outside the WWE and get over with the fans to the point of near distraction was a fairly shocking turn of events. To keep his momentum after turning heel against Cena was another pleasant surprise, and to carry the new SmackDown brand on his back over the past several months has shown his value to the company lies in more than just hype. But his divine power is in carrying other wrestlers to amazing matches. Cena has been getting better with every passing year, Ambrose has had very good matches, and Reigns has an underrated oeuvre despite some big-moment flops. But all three will look back on their matches with Styles as among the best they’ve ever had.

4. The Revival vs. DIY (Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa), ‘NXT TakeOver: Toronto’

The NXT tag division had a hell of a year — The Revival vs. American Alpha matches at NXT TakeOver: The End and at NXT TakeOver: Dallas and The Revival vs. DIY at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II could all easily be on this list, as could The Revival vs. Enzo Amore and Big Cass at WWE Roadblock — a main-roster debut for both teams and a sort of coming-out party for the NXT tag division. Count that moment along with Styles at the Rumble as the debuts of the year. The Revival-DIY match in Toronto was a best two-out-of-three falls bout, and, rather than leaning on the stipulation to artificially build suspense, they loaded it with so much passion and storytelling that the format almost burst at the seams. It was an amazing match, full stop, but it was built on the back of the other great NXT tag matches this year — they all deserve praise. Let’s just call this the NXT Tagteam Memorial Mushpot and let them all bask in the glory of praise on The Ringer dot com.

5. Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens, ‘WWE Battleground’

These guys have had so many great matches that it’s almost unfair to count them on these lists — hell, their throwaway match on Raw a few weeks back could have made this list a couple of years ago. The only knock on them is how any new match rates against the bar they’ve set in WWE and in the indies, like Aaron Gordon getting points deducted in the Slam Dunk Contest for not executing a quadruple lutz. In a year of feuds, Owens-Zayn doesn’t quite meet the level of the others up top, not least for the arbitrary reason that it wasn’t in the main event. But it set the template for great WWE feuds now and forever: two guys who love and hate and can’t escape one another giving absolutely everything in every match they share. This match at Battleground was next level, but more than anything it was a tease for the moment when they can have a match like this in the main event — and a promissory note that, as unlikely as it seemed at the time, they’ll definitely be there together someday.

6. Cesaro vs. The Miz vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn, ‘Extreme Rules’

It’s worth noting that this has also been a banner year for multiperson matches in WWE. The women’s triple threat at WrestleMania, the №1 Contender’s match on Raw after SummerSlam, Styles-Ambrose-Cena at No Mercy, the Money in the Bank ladder match, even the five-on-five men’s match at Survivor Series. Traditionally, WWE has used these matches as storytelling tools or spot fests (there are some notable exceptions), but it felt like 2016 marked a shift toward letting such matches be the canvases for 4D storytelling that they should be. This four-way match was the height of the multiparty form: overlapping story lines and fluid allegiances spurred by the justifiably compelling goal of winning the IC title. And kinetic power — from the first moment of the match when Zayn sprints across the ring to kick Owens in the face to the end, it’s a high-octane brawl. And special kudos go to the winner, The Miz, who reunited (on screen) with his wife, Maryse, and defied all expectations to have one of the best runs in WWE in the second half of the year.

7. Kota Ibushi vs. TJ Perkins, ‘Cruiserweight Classic’

As a writer, it’s a dereliction of my duty to say, "Just watch it." But if any match deserves it, it’s this one. For one thing, there’s not a lot of story here to go over, but mostly it’s that the CWC was an indie-wrestling clinic that can be appreciated only by immersion. Ibushi is a world-class talent who can do literally anything, as far as I can tell, and I’m not using "literally" overemphatically — I literally don’t know what he can’t do. If he levitated in his next match and stretched his arms out to 20 feet like Mr. Fantastic, I’d nod and golf clap. Perkins is a sort of cruiserweight Randy Orton — he wrestles up to the level of his competition, ceiling be damned. Perkins didn’t set the world on fire as the face of the cruiserweight division, but he’s got a lot of potential, especially if WWE takes the training wheels off the division in the ring. I’m going to stop writing now, though, because seriously: Just watch it.

8. The Miz vs. Dolph Ziggler, ‘No Mercy’

I’m not going to do this story line justice, which is sad because it almost feels like it happened in the shadows of all the other great moments of 2016. But this was a completely organic underdog story that saw Ziggler’s career underachievement and Miz’s incredible career-rejuvenation act as dueling, driving forces that propelled both men to new heights. They have great chemistry — they’re friends outside the ring, and that helps — and they were buoyed by the involvement of Daniel Bryan, the beloved former-wrestler turned SmackDown GM. When the feud began, it seemed like Bryan might be a distraction since fans were salivating over his potential (but impossible) return; after SummerSlam, Ziggler and Miz had put the ghost of wrestling past behind them.

9. Roman Reigns vs. Dean Ambrose vs. Brock Lesnar, ‘Fastlane’

Matches with foregone conclusions are rarely fun, and Reigns went into this match as the heavy betting favorite. But fears of his inevitable rise were tabled one night for the antic pleasures of peak Ambrose and the HD fear Lesnar exudes through the screen. Every moment of the match was well-plotted and every high was well-earned. Sure, everybody booed Reigns at WrestleMania, but at Fastlane, for a moment at least, it felt like he really deserved the title.

10. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Samoa Joe, ‘NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II’

Never in my life have I worried that a wrestler would jeopardize his career by wrestling too damn hard, but I found myself chanting, "Don’t get fired," at Joe throughout the match.

Bully of the Year: Roman Reigns

WrestleMania 32 was the culmination of Reigns’s years-long, front-office-mandated slog to the top of the mountain, as he defeated Triple H to win the WWE championship. While John Cena took years to build up the animosity of the fan base for always being in the top spot, Reigns managed it before he even got there, earning a place in the record books alongside such overpushed anti-avatars as Greg Gagne and Lex Luger (and earning one of the most ignominious Wikipedia subheads of all time: "Controversial rise to high-tier status"). He lost the title in June to Seth Rollins, who was forced to return from injury as a bad guy despite overwhelming cheers to remove the belt from Reigns, who not coincidentally had failed a WWE drug test before their match at Money in the Bank. He then embarked on a creep-defining feud with U.S. champ Rusev, which primarily involved Reigns interrupting Rusev and new wife Lana’s wedding celebration and slut-shaming the bride. When he made his return to the main-event picture in November, he and Rollins spent their free time beating up Owens and his running buddy Chris Jericho for no conceivable reason other than to endear the WWE fans to their enemies. Rather than seeming like heroes, the former Shield-mates looked like mean-spirited jocks. If you set aside the fact that WWE is clearly trying to position Reigns as a hero, he’s had a hell of a run as a heel this year — the kind of cocky, flexing bully that wrestling crowds have been booing for decades.

(WWE)
(WWE)

Reinvention of the Year: Chris Jericho

Chris Jericho in winter was a novel concept for a long time — the former champ who was once one of the best wrestlers and talkers in the world, sticking around past his prime to make up-and-comers look good. But with his diminishing skills and repetitive booking, even that act was going stale. (It didn’t help that he went over clean against the beloved AJ Styles at WrestleMania.) But in the second half of the year, Jericho refashioned himself into a whiny deplorable, a misbegotten villain in midlife trying to maintain his spot in the main event by cozying up to the champ. He pulled from every page of the heel playbook: the scarves, the limp-wrist posturing, and most notably the List of Jericho, where he kept names of those who had wronged him. And in cataloging his grievances, Jericho made us forget all the grievances we had with him just a few months prior.

Honorable Mentions: The Miz (legitimate pro wrestler), Daniel Bryan (smart-mouthed talking head), Triple H (largely invisible deus ex machina)

Letdown of the Year: Brock Lesnar

At his best, Lesnar blurs the line between reality and unreality better than anyone else. See his bludgeoning of Randy Orton at SummerSlam that left the wrestling world (once again) wondering if the Beast had gone off script. Or even his two-minute loss to Goldberg, which … But as counterintuitively fulfilling as shock finishes can be, they don’t add up to much in terms of oeuvre, and Lesnar’s 2016 left a lot to be desired. A solid triple-threat match against Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns in February, a blah No Holds Barred match against Dean Ambrose at Mania, the Orton massacre, and the quick loss to Goldberg — this, with a couple of house-show wins thrown in, is Lesnar’s 2016 in WWE. His record outside the company is even more depressing: He made a return to UFC and defeated Mark Hunt, but Brock failed two drug tests and was subsequently fined $250,000 and suspended for a year, functionally ending his real-fighting career.

Quick Hits

Team of the Year: The New Day

They set the record for longest reign as WWE tag team champs, and they deserved it. Now on to bigger and better things.

Honorable Mentions: Enzo and Cass (who lived up to the hype, more or less), The Wyatt Family (Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton and Luke Harper) (who may prove to be the rare example of someone both elevating the worth of the title and being elevated by holding the belt at the same time), Demolition (for most mentions for a team that hasn’t wrestled in 20-plus years)

Pop of the Year: The Return of Shane McMahon

Shane’s comeback showed us that in pro wrestling, it’s often all about the big moment, and sustained excitement is almost impossible. Shane’s daredevil fall off the top of the Hell in a Cell cage at WrestleMania was matched only by his fall down the ladder of significance to wrestling fans. We still love him, but the shock return can carry you only so far.

Honorable Mentions: AJ Styles at the Royal Rumble; Dean Ambrose cashing in at Money in the Bank; Austin, Mick Foley, and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania; Bayley’s Raw debut

Rookie of the Year (After AJ Styles): James Ellsworth

No rookie has come as far as Ellsworth — from his first appearance as a one-off jobber to Braun Strowman on Raw to an integral cog in the SmackDown main-event scene. And nobody has done more with a severely limited skill set since Mae Young got Dudley-bombed. He’s one of the most compelling characters on WWE television and he frankly shouldn’t even be employed. He’s a fun-house-mirror version of Goldberg — the irresistible accident. Listen, Ellsworth will never be a champion (not a legitimate one, anyway), but he deserves our praise.

Honorable Mentions: Alexa Bliss, Rich Swann, Anderson & Gallows

Comeback of the Year: Goldberg

I don’t have a lot to say about Goldberg’s return that I haven’t already said, but, Jesus, that man looked great for 49. (His birthday was this week, so he’s 50 now.) And the hype that attended his return ran parallel with his ageless physique. Some things in wrestling are indefinable, and some people are so popular that it’s impossible to explain or to quantify. Goldberg is one of these rare specimens. His match against Lesnar at Survivor Series was nothing and everything at the same time. It was the exact inverse of what made the Charlotte-Sasha feud so compelling — it was two minutes long and it was absolutely wonderful. I know, I know, it wasn’t a months-long feud — it was at best the tip of the iceberg, but in pro wrestling, not everything has to make perfect sense.

Honorable Mention: Brian Kendrick returning from a seven-year sabbatical to become the heel anchor of the cruiserweight division