2016 was a dire year. At least one of your favorite celebrities died. Given the awful choice between the crushing status quo and the most destructive options imaginable the western world kept basically voting to light its pubic hair on fire. The police are criminals, water is poison and it's getting harder to tell what news is fake. Not even the gorillas were safe from gun violence. 2016 was a rotten bastard of a year.
It's a small wonder then that the often disappointing world of professional wrestling managed to have a blow away record setting glorious year. It was 12 months of unprecedented wish fulfillment. So much happened that you totally forgot that one time WrestleMania main event player and human shower drain clog Alex Riley was released, Adam Rose's life imploded amidst a domestic dispute and a drug binge, Jimmy Snuka beat the criminal justice system once again, Jamie Noble's stabbing and Damien Sandow being banished from relevancy. 2016 was a year where PWG felt it needed to name a Janurary show Lëmmy in tribute, the their next show was named Bowie and three months later a show was named Prince.
...did I mention that it was a good year for the in-ring product?
New Japan's annual January 4th Tokyodome show, WrestleKingdom 10, drew a crowd of 25,000 people and broadcast audiences from around the world making the company the world's largest mass distributor of stiff kicks to the chest. It was like New Japan was trying to get as many match of the year contenders out of the way as early as possible. The show featured it's traditional gimmick battle royal, the Junior Heavyweight Tag Young Buck Clusterfuck, and Toro Yano and two unfrozen cavemen
being named the first ever NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Champions. A year of Kenny Omega dominating the Junior Heavyweight scene ended with The Cleaner losing his title to KUSHIDA with the help of corner man Doc Brown
. The upper half of the card was wall to wall strong showings but none made as strong of a impact as Shinsuke Nakamura taking on AJ Styles for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Even the main event which saw Kazuchika Okada finally Rainmaker Clothesline the J-Rock power mullet Sampson that is Hiroshi Tanahashi out of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and the top spot in the company didn't draw as much attention. Maybe that's for the best if you're a fan of what New Japan offers...
The next morning puro fans would wake up to a cold and bleary world and the news that some of New Japan's most talented stars and Luke Gallows had signed with WWE. It was a totally unexpected shake-up for both companies and it didn't take long for the changes to take shape.
The IWGP Intercontinental Championship that Nakamura had made prominent enough to main event was vacated. At the Royal Rumble that same month AJ Styles debuted before an elated crowd and a puzzled Roman Reigns. Not only would Styles have a strong showing in the Royal Rumble but he would go on to have one of the best years in the industry's history, but more on that later. The real story of the Royal Rumble was the big title change. Yes Kalisto defeated Alberto Del Rio for the United States Cham-nah I'm just kidding. Triple H won the second ever World Heavyweight Championship Royal Rumble by eliminating Dean Ambrose. In past years fans might have been outraged at Hunter using his influence to put himself in the top position in the company but this was more or less a transparent attempt to get Roman Reigns into the main event of WrestleMania while disguising the fans booing the booking decision as heel heat.
In interviews about his decision to work for WWE Shinsuke Nakamura would claim he signed largely based on the massive potential for a match with somebody he trained with in his early days
. Yeah, about that...
Unfortunately the doldrums of Winter brought some bad news, the first of which was the final formal retirement of Daniel Bryan. Concussions and various other bodily injuries forced him into sitting things out at the peak of his career and it seemed like a sad inevitability. From a selfish fan's perspective the worst part is that we'll never get to see all of the interesting work he could have pulled off with all of the hard working indie guys he helped pave the way for. Yes just as the current crop of indie standouts D-Bry had convinced the world could be a draw started to make it to the main roster we were robbed of the king of the indies. It was the bittersweet end to a year long emotional roller coaster. Bryan's emotional farewell was quickly undercut however by Titus O'neil viciously tugging the arm of Vince McMahon
thus ensuring he's be the most concrete burial since that time Vince walled Marc Mero off in the catacombs of his mansion.
Appropriately enough the match to determine the new IWGP Intercontinental Champion was held at a New Japan show titled “The New Beginning.” With Nakamura having left the company Kenny Omega started using the Bomaye Knee, renaming it the V-Trigger because of course he did. If he could throw Shoryukens he would. The Capcom references didn't stop there as copying the powers of other wrestlers became sort of a running theme for Omega in 2016 like an evil MegaMan. The show was headlined by Kazuchika Okada defeating Hirooki Goto who set a record for failing to win the IWGP Heavyweight title in eight consecutive attempts. Okada actually disagreed with those who criticized Goto for not stepping up and actually offered him a spot in CHAOS during a post-match interview. Goto declined confirming that none of the writing painted on his body going into the match included the phrase “if you can't beat them, join them.”
Over in WWE the other other KO was capturing IC gold. Kevin Owens won WWE's Intercontinental Championship off Dean Ambrose via pinning Tyler Breeze in a five-way match on a random episode of RAW. Yeah, not as much thought went into that one but fuck it. Champ Owens Champ.
On February 21st WWE Fastlane happened to the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland Ohio. Don't tell me it didn't happen, I saw it happen. There was almost nothing of note outside of Reigns becoming #1 contender in a triple threat with Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar. That's not true actually, I mean who didn't commemorate the team of Big Show, Ryback and Kane defeating The Wyatt Family with a commemorative tattoo? Truly they're a trio that will be remembered by history. The Big Show, Ryback and Kane, friends forever.
The next night on RAW Stephanie McMahon was named the first annual recipient of the Vincent J. McMahon Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. Before she could receive her nepotism trophy which was in no way identical to the one 2K gives out for winning the annual tournament for their shit game
she was interrupted by the shocking return of Shane McMahon. The prodigal son would announce that the reason he returned was to pop ratings by taking control of RAW in what was basically grim foreshadowing of things to come. Then Vince came out and the word lockbox was said and before we knew it Shane and Undertaker had a Hell in a Cell booked for WrestleMania that neither man's geriatrician could possibly be ok with.
March started off on a real bummer of a note with the passing of an underrated legend in Eiji Ezaki AKA Hayabusa. He was key in the early days of blending Lucha Libre with Japanese light heavyweight wrestling and creating a fast paced aggressive style that inspired pretty much the entire independent wrestling scene in decades to come. Not only did he popularize moves like the Falcon Arrow and the 450 splash but he also invented moves like the Phoenix Splash. Tragically the career shortening injury which would leave him wheelchair bound for most of his final years lead to a fatal subarachnoid hemorrhage at the all too young age of 47. His influence was seen as everyone from Kalisto to Seth Rollins, Neville, Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Kenny Omega, Sami Zayn and both New Japan and WWE as a whole
paid their respects.
The 12th annual New Japan Cup filled the first half of the month with amazing matches and concluded with a March 12th show headlined by Hirooki Goto taking on shit-hot shit-heel Tetsuya Naito. Just as the curse bound to Goto by ghosts from the realm of wind and darkness dictates New Japan's samurai once again came up with a loss. Post-match Los Ingobernables offered Goto a spot as a smudge on the bottom of their boots before Okada made the save and this time Goto accepted his handshake. Ultimately though the night belonged to the rising star of Tetsuya Naito who as per usual made it clear he didn't give a shit.
Speaking of not giving a shit: did you know WWE had two Network specials called Roadblock in 2016? You might be mistaken for not remembering it because it almost seems like WWE was unsure of whether or not to save the PPV for December right up to when they were putting the show on. The whole thing seemed non-committal as The New Day retained over Sheamus and Peasant Barrett, The Revival retained over Enzo and Big Cass and Charlotte managed to go without losing a tile and gaining it back on RAW because she was facing Natalya. The show also saw Brock Lesnar beat up the Wyatt Family because apparently it needed to be established that Brock Lesnar is scary and the Wyatts aren't. Still it was a unique use of the Network and we did get to see a good long match between Triple H and Dean Ambrose in which the man of many Hs retained the WWE World heavyweight Championship accomplishing absolutely nothing.
Invasion Attack saw Roppongi Vice win the IWGP Tag Team Titles off Matt Sydal and Ricochet and KUSHIDA defend his Jr Heavyweight title against Will Ospreay in what had to be the best debut of the year. In 15 minutes Ospreay went from somebody the audience knew nothing about to one of their favorite wrestlers. Watching him is like watching a better choreographed Spider-Man film with less believable animation. The main event saw Naito use his New Japan Cup win to challenge Okada. Naito finally capture the prestigious IWGP Heavyweight Championship he's been chasing for years from the company's top ace before promptly tossing is away like a piece of garbage.
He might be the most despicable, disrespectful, deplorable moody little piece of shit in wrestling right now. Basically he's the best.
April's also the time of the year wrestling fans look forward to most, the big spectacle, the show everything leads up to...
I'm talking, of course, about the NXT show before WrestleMania. NXT TakeOver: Dallas packed 9,000 people into the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. The card featured only five matches but all five were fantastic in their own way. The show had a blazing hot opener with American Alpha finally capturing the NXT Tag Titles from eternal top heel champions The Revival. It's not often such raw emotion comes from a tag match but NXT proved in 2016 that it could do so time and time again. Perhaps the least great match was shoot dick Austin Aries taking on work dick Baron Corbin in a bout that debuted Aries and established Corbin as newly confident and comfortable in the ring. Arguably the most hyped match though was the heart and soul of NXT Sami Zayn returning after seven months of injury to take on the debuting King of Strong Style Shinsuke Nakamura. With all that hype it still seems unreal that they exceeded expectations. Fans chanted for the match to never end. James Caldwell of Pro Wrestling Torch rated it 10 out of 5. As a single standalone wrestling match it might be one of the greatest in history, an absolutely transcendent work of art. It's almost a shame that a match between two talents as good as Asuka and Bayley had to follow it. The crowd was already exhausted but watching the perfect babyface take on an undefeated powerhouse certainly got them back into the show. Bayley is basically what WWE wants their top stars to be, and unbreakable heroic figure that legitimately inspires people. Asuka is a dangerous unstoppable force of nature and the inevitable conclusion of seeing the empress of tomorrow choke out Bayley still managed to stun the crowd. In the main event NXT Champion Finn Balor came dressed as Leatherface but it was Samoa Joe who proved to be the terrifying monster. After being busted open early a screaming violent Joe terrorized the screen with piercing glares straight out of a horror film.
Balor just barely escaped the dreaded Coquina Clutch with a Bret Hart-esque kick off the turnbuckle into a Shiranui pin for a narrow victory that left Balor trying to catch his breath.
Then Samoa Joe became NXT Champion on a random house show.
WrestleMania 32 also happened in April in front of a disputed 101,763 people in the AT&T Stadium. It was in just about every way the opposite of NXT with a massively inflated budget, loads of filler and a run time of roughly seven semesters. The show opened with Kalisto taking on Ryback in front f a crowd still taking the ski lift to the top of an arena so large it looks like it curves back inward in the background of in-ring shots. Team Total Divas beat all the women heels in a 10 minute 10 Diva tag match when Brie Bella locked on the her husband's finisher for the last win of her career even if she does come back. In a feel good moment Zack Ryder won the Intercontinental Championship in a ladder match against four of WWE's best midcard wrestlers and Sin Cara. He would lose it the next night to The Miz but still, it was fun for 24 hours to pretend Vince McMahon was going to give Ryder's fans something satisfying. Chris Jericho and AJ Styles had a good match, part of a series of good matches. The League of Nations beat The New Day in what was somehow not a Tag Title match at the biggest show of the year. That would of course be invalidated by The New Day beating them the next night on a free TV title defense. Brock Lesnar sleepwalked through Dean Ambrose trying to drag a good match out of him. A lunatic taking on “The Beast Incarnate” shouldn't be that boring. After a set of WrestleMania main event worthy entrances Charlotte defeated Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks to become the first WWE Women's Champion. The shift from the term Divas marked the final nail in the coffin for the days when anyone without a Y chromosome would be automatically relegated to a five minute match filled with hair pulling and cat fight slaps. Now that just happens to the undercard. Equality! The build for The Undertaker and Shane McMahon culminated in Simba leaping off the Hell in a Cell through a conveniently placed announce table themed air mattress. Taker dragged the limp body of the boss' son to a pin but once again the result was negated the next night on RAW when Vince McMahon's heart grew three sizes and he decided to let Shane run the show anyway. That might have actually been a cardiovascular problem due to anabolic steroid abuse though. The second annual Andre the Giant Battle Royal saw Baron Corbin debut and win by eliminating Kane to claim his throne as the new tall guy who shows up to ruin things. WrestleMania 32 was also the show where Erick Rowan faced The Rock in a match that went on after all of that. It was only six seconds long but still The Rock looked sweaty and blown up after a single move. It's weird how this show of all shows has me alleging that some of these wrestlers might not have completely natural physiques. Luckily the main event was between the completely natural Roman Reigns and Triple H. After years of false starts and a Stephanie McMahon wetmare the record breaking crowd was properly primed to fucking hate Roman Reigns' big title win. It was the unsatisfying conclusion to a show that was long enough to give me an existential crisis.
The rest of the month was filled with big debuts. Baron Corbin made his proper main roster debut going to a double countout with Dolph Ziggler. Apollo Crews, Enzo Amore and Big Cass all showed up on the RAW after WrestleMania. The next week Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson debuted by attacking The Usos in a dominant display of nothing to come for the bald Bullet Club baddies.
April was also the month Chyna passed away. Her life since leaving WWE in 2001 was filled with substance abuse, bitter shoot videos and pornography turned bitter shoot videos. It was clear to everybody she was in a bad way. The Ninth Wonder of the World was found dead on the 20th at her California home of an accidental overdose of alcohol, diazepam, nordazepam, oxycodone, oxymorphone and temazepam. It's hard to tell if the physical damages or the mental ones more lead to her dependency issues. Her funeral was attended by hundreds of fans and friends and her brain was donated to study the effects of CTE. Hopefully the wrestling world can learn from her death to better take care of its performers both before and after they've left the spotlight.