2016 has been something of a rebuilding year for the WWE. After a year wracked with injuries, John Cena’s emerging entertainment commitments, and a creative team either hamstrung by the whims of a sociopathic septuagenarian or completely tone deaf to its audience, the world’s largest professional wrestling organization has made some interesting steps over the past 12 months. While the brand split and continued success of NXT provided an opportunity for several new stars to rise to prominence, Vince couldn’t let Triple H have too much fun. The result was a year split between pushes for a select few stars new to the top of the card and the continued dominance of some familiar faces.
This year 7 men held the top title(s) in the WWE, each with varying degrees of success. So who were the best and worst Champions of the year? Lets rank them from worst to best:
#7: Seth Rollins
Won the title: Money in the Bank, June 19
Duration of title reign: 5 minutes
Notable matches: None
We start with THE Man…with the shortest reign of the year. After several months on the shelf with a devastating knee injury, Seth Rollins returned to challenge then-champion Roman Reigns for the title he never lost. In a pretty decent match that saw the be-vested incumbent champ booed relentlessly, the returning Rollins landed the rare clean victory over the WWE’s chosen one in the main event. While that sounds like a remarkable story of good triumphing in the face of adversity, Rollins was actually working heel at this point. Perhaps that’s why the writers thought it was okay to have Dean Ambrose cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase just moments after the Seth scored the 3.
While the defeat was a bit deflating, The Architect would stay in or near the main event for the rest of the year, challenging for the title on numerous occasions against the likes of Dean Ambrose and Kevin Owens. Unfortunately, given that he’s headed toward a Wrestlemania match with Triple H, however, odds are good he won’t be sniffing either of the big belts for quite a while.
#6: Finn Balor
Won the title: Summerslam, August 21
Duration of title reign: 1 day
Notable matches: None
The Demon King started his run on the main roster with a bang. Drafted from NXT as the third pick for the Raw brand, the former Prince Devitt was treated like a big deal immediately. On his first night on the flagship show, Balor beat Cesaro, Rusev and Kevin Owens in a Fatal Four Way, then went on to take a clean win over Roman Reigns in the main event. That’s one hell of a first impression.
Over the next few weeks he and Rollins would get into it with each other a few times, leading to a seriously premature debut of the Irishman’s Demon King persona that threatened to derail the character’s appeal. All this lead to a Summerslam match that, while technically sound, fell a little flat. This was partly due to the crowd at the Barclays Center letting the company know exactly what they thought of the bedazzled fruit rollup that is the WWE Universal Championship (hint: they didn’t like it) and the fact that Balor sustained a serious shoulder injury from a mistimed buckle bomb a few minutes into the match.
To the grappler’s credit, Balor popped his shoulder back into place and continued on for another 10+ minutes, winning the match with both his Coup de Grace and 1916 finishers. Unfortunately, Balor’s reign would span a single interview on Good Morning America before he was forced to surrender the title on Raw. Balor has yet to return to action, though here’s hoping he’ll be back in the body paint in time for the Royal Rumble.
#5: Roman Reigns
Won the title: Raw, December 14, 2015; WrestleMania 32, April 3
Duration of title reign: 101 days (combined for 2016)
Notable matches: vs. AJ Styles (Extreme Rules); vs. Seth Rollins (Money in the Bank)
The Big Dog started the year in possibly the best position he’s been in since the dissolution of The Shield. Having bested the heat vacuum that is Sheamus for the belt on a random Raw, Reigns was set against the greatest heel of the past 20 years: Vince McMahon. Unfortunately, any hope that THE Guy had moved past his “sufferin’ succotash” days were dashed when Reigns started referring to the Celtic Warrior’s balls as “Tater Tots.” In addition to these terribly scripted promos, Roman was again booked too strong – routinely trouncing the entire (admittedly shitty) League of Nations stable single-handedly – and failed to establish the connection with the audience that sustained the similarly super-heroic Cena for so many years.
This first reign came to an end at the Royal Rumble. Reigns was forced to put his title on the line in the titular match, entering at the dreaded #1 position. Despite being “taken out” of the match midway – via a transparent injury angle that allowed him to chill out in the back for a solid 20 minutes of the match – Roman was eliminated in third place by eventual winner Triple H. More on him later.
His second reign of the year (third overall) would come about when he faced Triple H in the main event of WrestleMania 32. The match itself was a forgettable if overlong affair, though honestly, those terms could safely describe the entire event. Fortunately, his first feud in this latest run was against the Phenomenal AJ Styles, which produced back-to-back show-stealing main events (the latter of which earning 4.5 stars from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter). Immediately following that match, a returning Seth Rollins would Pedigree an exhausted Reigns to start the feud that would knock Roman out of the (world) title scene. Reigns would then serve a 30-day suspension for his first wellness violation, leaving Ambrose and Rollins to carry the build to the much anticipated (and thus slightly underwhelming) Shield Triple Threat that would lead into the brand split.
More than a hundred days with the title and it feels like Reigns’ reigns were a missed opportunity. Despite the WWE’s best efforts, Roman is no more over than he was at the beginning of the year, and his unending face push despite the chorus of boos that accompany the intro notes to his theme song continues to baffle fans screaming for a heel turn. Sadly, it looks like nothing will change for the SWAT-vested Samoan in the near future.
#4: Triple H
Won the title: Royal Rumble, January 24
Duration of title reign: 70 Days
Notable matches: vs. Dean Ambrose (Roadblock)
Despite being ostensibly retired, well into his 40s and a bona-fide executive working out of a board room, Trips just couldn’t resist giving himself yet another title reign in 2016. Yet despite all the complaints from the IWC about part-timers taking spots from the real workers, The Game’s title win was actually greeted with rousing applause. Sure, that probably had more to do with the WWE Universe wanting the belt off of Roman than any desire to see NXT’s Dad back at the top of the card, but a pop is a pop in the modern world of professional wrestling.
Bucking the trend of the champ heading immediately into a rematch (largely because Roman allegedly took time off for some elective plastic surgery), Trips’ first – and only successful – title defense came in a star-making bout against Dean Ambrose. The match was the high point of an otherwise forgettable Network Special (read: televised house show) and may’ve given the bigwigs the kick in confidence they needed to give Ambrose a run with the belt later in the year. Regardless, the feud with Dean was clearly just a holdover until Roman was back.
Once Roman came back in the picture, however, the end result was never in doubt. Again, while it was probably more due to the crowd’s feelings toward Roman than their appreciation for The Game, Trips managed to garner positive reactions from the crowd whenever he actually showed up. What really drops him this low on the list is that he literally only had two matches as champion, and that second one wasn’t very good. Still, Triple H managed to drag Ambrose to potentially his best singles match on the main roster, and that’s something to be celebrated.
Speaking of Deano…
#3: Dean Ambrose
Won the title: Money in the Bank, June 19
Duration of title reign: 84 Days
Notable matches: vs. Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins (Battleground), vs. AJ Styles (Backlash)
For Dean Ambrose, the third member of The Shield to win a world title (and the highest ranked of them on this list), 2016 was all set to be his year. Riding a wave of popularity as the goofy Lunatic Fringe character, Ambrose entered the title scene via the Money in the Bank briefcase, which he won in a match featuring Alberto Del Rio, Cesaro, Chris Jericho, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. Dean wouldn’t wait long to cash it in either, knocking off Seth Rollins immediately following his title win over Roman Reigns later that night. Naturally, this led to a triple threat match between the former Shield members at Battleground where the winner would retain the belt heading into the brand split, which Dean won.
Cracks began to appear in what should have been a Cinderella story of a title reign the night after Backlash, when the first pick of the inaugural brand split draft went to Rollins instead of Ambrose, the reigning and defending WWE champion. It was around this time that the former Jon Moxley would appear on the Stone Cold podcast where he would be labeled a complacent champ by the Texas Rattlesnake (presumably ’cause Stone Cold said so). Combine this damning condemnation from the greatest wrestler of the past 20 years with the fact that his character became less like Brian Pillman and more like more like Daffy Duck, and Dean’s slide into mediocrity was well underway.
His match with Dolph Ziggler at Summerslam was a well-worked bore, never really getting out of first gear. Indeed, it wasn’t until he began feuding with the Phenomenal AJ Styles that Ambrose’s profile (or match quality at least) began to improve. His title loss was a decent enough affair, but the subsequent matches really showed the The Lunatic Fringe’s potential. Of course, he’s been saddled with the albatross that is James Ellsworth, which will apparently keep him out of title contention for a while. Of course, given Smackdown’s relatively thin talent pool, it’s likely only a matter of time before he’s got a shot at making up for some of the shortcomings of his first reign.
#2: Kevin Owens
Won the title: Monday Night Raw, August 29
Duration of title reign: 100+ (Current Universal Champion)
Notable matches: vs. Seth Rollins (Hell in a Cell), vs. Sami Zayn (Monday Night Raw)
Finn Balor’s injury was a make-or-break moment for the company. After introducing a new title belt only for the inaugural champ to go down with an injury in the very match in which he won it, they could have gone the safe route and let previous champs like Rollins or Reigns maintain the status quo – or they could do something interesting and give a new guy the rub. On August 29 we got our answer…sort of. Kevin Owens ended up winning a Fatal Four Way elimination bout against Rollins, Reigns and (for some reason) Big Cass thanks to some timely intervention from a returning Triple H. Toward the end of the match, Trips emerged from the audience to knock off both Reigns and, in the real swerve of the night, Rollins en route to KO’s first heavyweight title win in the WWE.
Would it have been nice for the former Kevin Steen to score a clean pinfall on one of the legitimate challengers in the match (he did pin Cass)? Absolutely. Do I mind an opportunistic heel winning a title because someone else got screwed over? Not at all. The trick is for creative to make an earnest attempt to book the heel champ as a capable, yet unscrupulous predator. Think Edge in 2005 or Legend Killer Randy Orton. Instead they Paired KO with Chris Jericho as a team of angry Canadian dads that are hetero life mates who think everyone else is stupd. Yet where a comedy act would be the death knell for many performers, Owens managed to make it work. Jeri-KO (or the significantly less fun Team Kevin and Chris/Chris and Kevin) have been the highlight of Raw for the past several months, both due to their comedic chops AND skills in the ring.
True, Owens has won most of his matches via interference from Jericho, but there’s little denying the man’s prowess in the ring or on the mic. His standout bout with Sami Zayn on a recent episode of Raw shows that, when booked to be competitive, Owens is elite between the ropes. Unfortunately, he’s being booked as a bit of an afterthought, typically taking a backseat to his opponent and Jericho…and Jericho’s ever growing list of things he hates.
Still, as Owens prepares to head into battle with Roman Reigns this Sunday, he remains vastly more over as champion than Roman or Ambrose, and has amassed more goodwill with fans than Seth, Finn or Trips managed in their brief runs.
#1: AJ Styles
Won the title: Backlash, September 11
Duration of title reign: 94+ (current WWE Champion)
Notable matches: All of them not involving James Ellsworth
In 2016, WWE audiences got a chance to learn what the rest of the wrestling world already knew – AJ Styles is the best professional wrestler in the game today. Whether he’s working face or heel, his matches are ubiquitously instant classics. His mic work, which admittedly was fairly questionable prior to his heel turn in May, is the best it’s ever been, and he’s the most over person (probably more than even Daniel Bryan) on the Smackdown roster. The Champ that Runs the Camp is almost always the best part of anything he’s a part of, though it wasn’t always the case.
Styles debuted with the WWE at this year’s Royal Rumble in an auspicious manner, with the camera crew actually missing most of his entrance in favor of a curious steady cam shot of Roman Reigns’ confused reaction to the Phenomenal one’s then-unfamiliar music. Styles would last little over 29 minutes in the Rumble before being eliminated by Kevin Owens with little fanfare. A questionably-booked feud with Chris Jericho (which Styles would lose 2-1) followed, leading into a title feud with then World Champ Roman Reigns (which Styles would lose in a sweep) – both of which led to claims that the former TNA mainstay was being buried by a vindictive Vince McMahon (who has never much liked talents that made their name outside the WWE).
That would all change when Styles faced off with the shining star of the WWE, John Cena (not to be confused with the Shining Stars, which – let’s be real – ain’t shit), turned heel, and started to prove his worth to the company. As a heel, AJ could turn up the aggression, be funnier in promos and cheat to win if necessary. Yet Styles’ most important victory, over Cena at Summerslam, was totally clean. After becoming the new Face that Runs the Place, Styles took on Ambrose for the title at Backlash – winning the belt in the match of the night. Since then, Styles has been the best thing on WWE television (that isn’t NXT).
In his brief time as champ, Styles has led Ambrose to some of the best matches of his career, made a star of cartoonish jobber James Ellsworth, and looks to return legitimacy to Dolph Ziggler in the coming weeks. He’s not only the most over character on the show, he’s the best performer on the show – and the best Champion the WWE had in 2016.