Unlike 2015, 2016 was actually a really good year for the WWE product. If you look at the past decade as a whole, only 2011 comes close to 2016 purely in terms of the quality of the product. It was probably due to the fact that they had come off a very rough year in 2015 and post-WrestleMania, the direction began to change.
The year didn’t really start off on a high note, particularly because it was a repeat of 2015 where fans were protesting the Roman Reigns mega push. This time around, WWE decided to go through with it and it was probably for the better, since they managed to get that coronation out of the way.
WrestleMania 32 itself came off as quite disappointing, but their hands were somewhat tied in the first place. Many top superstars were injured and out of WrestleMania 32, which meant that WWE really had to reshuffle their plans. However, the arrival of Shane McMahon brought about some promise and after WrestleMania, the entire direction had altered. WWE began to promote this “New Era” and along with it, fresher superstars.
We began to see the likes of AJ Styles have a rapid rise to the top, main eventing back-to-back PPVs for the World title even though he was just a few months in. The Intercontinental title picture had suddenly heated up after The Miz became champion and he ended up having the best run of his career that year after Maryse had returned.
As for the World title scene, it had taken a lot of twists and turns, but ultimately, it ended up in the right hands. Fans weren’t happy about Roman Reigns as WWE Champion, but for the 3 PPVs that he held it, he had made some solid title defenses and put on some incredible matches as well.
It was by far the most entertaining WWE title reign since Seth Rollins‘ in 2015 and he ended up losing it to none other than the returning Seth Rollins. As for AJ Styles, his year was nothing short of a roller coaster. He competed at January 4th in the Tokyo Dome for NJPW and would make the jump to WWE later that month amidst heavy speculation, debuting at the Royal Rumble match to an incredible reaction.
He started off on the right foot and he really didn’t slip up in his first few months. He openly admitted later on that when he arrived, he expected to be a midcarder and from the reports, it seemed as though WWE expected the same. However, the reactions grew stronger – both on TV and live events and his matches were consistent, making Vince McMahon an instant fan of his.
It comes as no surprise that he realized what an asset AJ Styles was to the company. It’s not often that you see superstars pushed so heavily within one year of debuting, but Styles was one of those exceptions and fans were thrilled about it. Even though he came off back-to-back losses to Roman Reigns, it didn’t affect him too bad. This was perhaps because he feuded with John Cena immediately after.
Leading into the summer of 2016, everything would change for Styles. If the Roman Reigns feud convinced backstage officials that Styles was a top player, then the Cena feud certainly convinced the larger fanbase who wasn’t too aware of him before. Moreover, his unexpected heel turn shook things up big time and helped him drastically improve his mic skills – his only weakness in wrestling. He would have a near 3-month feud with John Cena where he faced him in two singles matches and one tag team match in between.
While he did lose the tag team match, he beat Cena at Money in the Bank in an incredible match and then beat him clean at SummerSlam, stealing the show and cementing his status as a main eventer.
Right before his iconic SummerSlam match, he was chosen as the second draft pick for SmackDown Live and the fourth overall pick – a huge feat where he was chosen before the likes of Roman Reigns, John Cena and even Brock Lesnar! Thanks to his win over Cena, he had become the defacto #1 contender to the WWE Championship.
And within less than 8 months of his debut, Styles was once again main eventing a PPV for the WWE Championship. This time around, he would walk out victorious and win the WWE Championship, continuing his streak of winning the top titles in major promotions. The AJ Styles that arrived in 2016 was the right AJ Styles to arrive. Had he arrived a bit earlier or later, there probably wouldn’t have been that spot for him, but ultimately, the cream will always rise to the top.
Styles would top off the rest of 2016 with a series of title defenses and more interesting rivalries, mainly with Dean Ambrose. He would essentially become the leading star of SmackDown Live and ended his 2016 as the WWE Champion. It couldn’t have been more perfect for The Phenomenal One and nobody realized that less than a year later, he would embark on a year-long championship reign. AJ Styles was undoubtedly the superstar of 2016 and there’s nobody who even came close to being on his level.