1/6/15 – Andrew Berg – @WrestleRosters
With 2016 upon us, it is once again time to look back on the last year and rank the best wrestlers over the course of that year. With Lucha Underground and ROH joining WWE and TNA on national TV and NXT continuing to forge its place in the conversation, it was a full year for wrestling on American TV. Due to their prominence on a large stage, WWE stars fill many of the top spots, but this list will also include wrestlers from every major American promotion.
Moreover, rankings such as these are never perfect or definitive. At their best, they can start a conversation, so feel free to jump in with your own rebuttals or rankings in response. Due to the length of the Wrestler of the Year (“WOTY”) project, these posts will be broken down into several pieces. Expect to see the rankings broken down into segments over the next couple of weeks.
With so many wrestlers deserving recognition this year, I’ve decided to break the honorable mention section into three sub-categories.
Wrestler of the Week Wins – 2, Match of the Week Wins – 3
As usual, Lesnar didn’t spend much time on TV, but when he was part of WWE programming, he made the most of his time. Lesnar has become the ultimate special attraction. When he’s on TV, the main event comes to him. It’s easy to forget now, but Lesnar spent the first ¼ of the year as WWE Champion and put on memorable matches at the Royal Rumble, Wrestlemania, and Hell in a Cell. It’s a testament to his popularity that he essentially turned babyface simply by agreeing to re-sign with WWE.
WOTW – 0, MOTW – 3
Okada makes the list even though he does not have a contract with an American wrestling promotion. Between the American broadcast of Wrestle Kingdom 9 and his various tours of the US with ROH, Okada was like a small-scale Lesnar. Every time he was on American TV, everything on the show revolved around him. For those able to watch AXS TV, the replays of NJPW shows are must-see wrestling. At 28, there is plenty of time for Okada to make a bigger name for himself in the US. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes the biggest crossover star from Japan since The Great Muta.
WOTW – 0, MOTW – 2
Similar to Okada, Styles appeared in ROH through the company’s talent-exchange with NJPW. Also like Okada, he had a tendency to steal the show every time he showed up. Styles has pieced together about the best possible career for a modern wrestling nomad. His stints in ROH, TNA, and NJPW all featured him near the top of the card and all coincided with memorably good runs for the promotions. With Sting busting his WWE cherry over the last year, Styles inherited the title of “best wrestler to never work for WWE.” Of course, rumor has it that he might lose that status in the coming months.
Mil Muertes and Pentagon Jr
WOTW – 0, MOTW – 3 (Muertes). WOTW – 1, MOTW – 0 (Pentagon)
Lucha Underground was the single best hour of wrestling on TV each week until its season ended in early August. Muertes helped to redefine the ideal of the monster heel and incorporated many of the mystical elements that have made Undertaker legendary in WWE. Pentagon had a rough start, but built to a brilliant feud with Vampiro that ended with one of the most fun matches of the year and a bone-chilling student-teacher twist. Even though LU had a limited run, this mention will not be the last for the revolutionary promotion.
Ethan Carter III
WOTW – 0, MOTW – 0
If there was a third category for Promo of the Week, EC3 would have made his way onto the list a few times. It was a rough year for TNA, full of unanticipated interruptions, network changes, and storyline overhauls. One constant was EC3, whose in-ring skills have improved to a workable level next to his elite mic skills. TNA seems to recognize that he is their best building block as they reset their company, yet again.
WOTW – 2, MOTW – 2
Although he flew under the radar at times, Orton was on his way to another top 10 WOTY finish until another shoulder injury cut his year short. His most memorable feud came early in the year when he and Seth Rollins had a falling out as teammates in The Authority. It led to one of the best matches at Wrestlemania and an ensuing challenge for Rollins’s newly-won WWE Title. He went on to have less distinguished programs with Sheamus and the Wyatt Family that both featured plenty of good matches. Even when he’s not the top guy in the company, Orton works reliably smart, solid matches and rarely embarrasses himself. He also appears to have learned the value of periodically disappearing to keep himself fresh.
Sami Zayn, Tyson Kidd, Daniel Bryan
WOTW – 1, MOTW – 2 (Zayn). WOTW – 1, MOTW – 2 (Kidd). WOTW – 2, MOTW – 2 (Bryan)
Maybe there really is something to the old wives’ tale that it’s harder for smaller wrestlers to stay healthy. Zayn started the year with a brilliant NXT Title program with old friend Kevin Owens and got a foothold in WWE in his great debut against John Cena. His shoulder was injured in that match, though, and we haven’t heard from him since.
Kidd was on the best run of his career while he and Cesaro redefined themselves as a charismatic and creative tag team before a freak neck injury likely ended his career.
Bryan finally made it back from neck problems of his own to wrestle a series of great matches this spring, but saw his Intercontinental Title reign scuttled when a concussion knocked him out of action again. When you hear about the problems on the WWE roster right now, consider how much depth vanished when these three were all injured around the same time.
Just Missed the Cut
WOTW – 3, MOTW – 0
No wrestler was harder to leave out of the top 10 than Wyatt and he should be a mainstay on future lists as long as his health permits. On the other hand, he didn’t have a single match of the week all year, which is indicative of the fact that he simply has not wrestled many memorable matches. His Wrestlemania showdown with Undertaker was marred by his own injured ankle. The rematch with the Brothers of Destruction at Survivor Series was little more than a squash match. He had a fun feud with Roman Reigns in between, but even that is most memorable for a crazy brawl at the end of an episode of Raw. Wyatt is still young and one of a select few who could top this list next year, but he simply hasn’t shown enough consistency yet.
WOTW – 2, MOTW – 2
Neville was one of many wrestlers whose high point of the year came in a US Open Challenge against John Cena. Between that match and his run to the King of the Ring final, Neville looked like an instant star on the main roster. He got lost in the shuffle, though, and has languished in largely comedic feuds with Stardust and The Miz since then. The in-ring skills are there whenever WWE is ready to use them.
WOTW – 1, MOTW – 1
NXT’s women’s division has distinguished itself because it sticks to time-tested wrestling principles and executes them very well. Nobody is a better example of that principle than Bayley. She’s not the most athletic wrestler, the best technician, or the most eloquent speaker, yet she stands out as a major star in NXT. Her gradual march up the NXT women’s division was a textbook case of how to popularize a babyface wrestler. Her two matches with Sasha Banks for the title perfectly capped that development.
WOTW – 0, MOTW – 2
After more than a year of an unblemished record, Briscoe finally lost a match and his ROH World Title to Jay Lethal at the company’s Best in the World PPV. Even so, it was a very good year for Briscoe as he continued to grow into the role of an established, elder statesman for the company. A brief rivalry with Adam Page near the end of the year was one of his first examples of giving a rub to an upcoming wrestler. Teaming up with his brother Mark more regularly has also helped to energize an already strong tag division.
Check back in the coming days to read more about the Best Wrestlers of 2015.