For the four of you who care, I have put together my list of the Top 5 professional wrestlers in 2016 from across the wrestling spectrum. I made my selections based on not only in-ring ability, but the impact they had on the sport in general. Obviously there are some factors which will always be out of a performer’s direct control, such as how well they are booked; the opponents they are given; and the overall health of the companies they work for. However, truly great wrestlers will find a way to transcend these limitations, sometimes in ways we’ve never seen before. Enjoy.
- AJ Styles (World Wrestling Entertainment/New Japan Pro Wrestling) – When 2016 kicked off, Styles was in one of the headlining matches at the Tokyo Dome; a few weeks later he was in the Royal Rumble before going on to wrestle at WrestleMania. That’s a story in and of itself, but what Styles would go on to do for the rest of 2016 was nothing short of — dare I say it? — phenomenal. When news broke that AJ was ending his immaculate two-year run in New Japan to work for WWE, I wasn’t alone in fearing the worst. Despite the capacity of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan to overcome Vince McMahon’s outmoded ideas of what a star looks like, they only did so after years of sacrifice. At 38 years of age, the clock is ticking on AJ’s prime. Would he even get a chance to shine? Whether McMahon wanted to give him that chance right away or not, Styles carried Roman Reigns (WWE’s “chosen one”) to two spectacular matches after Mania before going on to wrestle classic bouts against John Cena while forcing Dean Ambrose to raise his in-ring game. Except for Cena, no other wrestler in the company carries himself like a true star the way Styles does. When he steps in the ring, he is not a “sports entertainer”; he is a professional wrestler — one who moves with fluidity, ferocity, and passion. Styles, it seems, is incapable of having a bad match and there’s nothing stopping him from continuing his top-shelf run well into 2017.
- Chris Hero (EVOLVE, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, various independent promotions) – What AJ Styles did in WWE, Chris Hero replicated on the American and international independent scene. Following his release from WWE in 2013, Hero re-tooled himself into one of the best wrestlers in the world, working a style reminiscent of the big American brawlers from All Japan Pro Wrestling’s heyday in a way that is just as compatible with Luchadores as it is with British-style grapplers. Although some fans have called attention to Hero’s substantial weight gain over the past couple of years, it seems to have had no effect on his in-ring abilities. In fact, at 6’4″ and north of 280lbs., Hero looks like a monster compared to most of his opponents. His repertoire of elbow strikes, scissor kicks, and piledrivers is simple but effective. Hero, unlike most indie wrestlers, has mastered the art of “less is more” while possessing great instincts for how to pace a bout. Moreover, based on the crowd and his opponents, Hero knows right when it is time to go to the mat, take some hard bumps, or just brawl all over the building if need be. With rumors swirling that Hero is WWE bound in 2017, it will be interesting to see how much latitude he is given to be himself. Regardless, Hero has left behind a body of work on the independent scene to cement himself as one of the great wrestlers of this era.
- Kenny Omega (New Japan Pro Wrestling) – There’s nothing like a crisis to create an opportunity. When AJ Styles, along with Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson, and Luke Gallows left New Japan in January, many wondered how the company would recover from such a quick loss of top-level talent. Kenny Omega, the Canadian-born independent wrestler who had made a name for himself with quirky (if not comedic) matches and a decent run as a junior heavyweight, saw that it was finally time for him to shine. While some doubted that Omega had the chops to be a top-tier guy in New Japan, he steadily proved the critics wrong by throwing on some muscle, dropping some of his trademark goofiness, and wrestling like a man possessed with proving he is the best the company has to offer. After shocking many by winning New Japan’s annual G1 tournament with back-to-back classics against Naito and Goto, he will main event the Tokyo Dome next week to challenge Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP World Championship. The match is opportune, not just as an opportunity for Omega to demonstrate once and for all that he has what it takes to be “the guy,” but because it will give Okada a fresh opponent — something he has desperately needed for more than a year now. Should Omega win at the Dome, it will be one of the biggest stories in Japanese wrestling history, one that Kenny is talented enough to tell.
- Broken Matt Hardy (Total Nonstop Action, various independent promotions) – If on January 1, 2016 you would have told me that one of the most talked about wrestlers of the year would be Matt Hardy, I would have laughed. Today, I, like many other die-hard wrestling fans, can do nothing except marvel at Matt’s broken brilliance. Hardy’s home promotion, TNA, may be the dumps, but that didn’t stop this 25-year veteran from undergoing one of the most astonishing metamorphoses in wrestling history with a vision of how to take the campiest elements of the sport and combine them with a B-movie mentality which never loses sight of its own seriousness even if parts are intentionally ironic. Hardy, as his on-screen persona assures us, lives on a higher plane of consciousness with the universe as his guide. Along with Brother Nero (formerly Jeff Hardy), Broken Matt is on a quest to prove that they are the greatest tag team across time and space by rendering all other teams obsolete. If this all sounds incredibly strange, it’s because it is; but it is also incredibly entertaining. Granted, Hardy’s wrestling-meets-fantasy spectacles such as “The Final Deletion,” “The Great War,” and “Apocalypto” aren’t for everyone, but he deserves all the credit in the world for thinking well outside of the pro-wrestling box and for getting a “sentient” drone, Vanguard 1, more over than half of the WWE’s main roster.
- Matt Riddle (EVOLVE, various independent promotions) – Most rightly regard Kurt Angle, the former Olympic gold medalist, as the greatest pro-wrestling prodigy of all time. In 2016, Matt Riddle gave Kurt a run for his money. After an initially spectacular, then tumultuous, run in Ultimate Fighting Championship, Riddle turned his sights to wrestling and quickly elevated himself from “an athletic guy with promise” to one of the best workers on the independent scene today. By fusing his legitimate mixed martial arts background with excellent in-ring instincts, he automatically enhances any card that he is on no matter who he is facing. More than that, Riddle also has an eye for the little things, such as how to sell a crowd on his comebacks or let his arrogance work believably against him in a manner one would expect to see in a professional fight rather than a cartoon. Stylistically, Riddle is a grappler with strong-style edge to him, but he has proven that he is full capable of turning up the intensity and going blow for blow when the situation calls for it. Riddle is now poised to be pro-wrestling’s next big thing — the only question is where he will finally land. WWE may be leery of signing him right now because of Matt’s outspoken support for marijuana legalization and use, but how long will that keep them from locking up a guy who has all of the potential in the world to be headline WrestleManias for years to come?
- The Miz (World Wrestling Entertainment)
- Tetsuya Naito (New Japan Pro Wrestling)
- The Revival (Dash and Dawson) (NXT)
- American Alpha (Jason Jordan and Chad Gable) (NXT)
- Kevin Owens (World Wrestling Entertainment)