The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of Wrestling Inc. or its staff
When A.J. Styles first debuted in WWE at the Royal Rumble; it was a surreal moment for hardcore fans. Not only was the sight of seeing Styles tangle with guys like Chris Jericho and Roman Reigns exciting, the fact that he was "A.J. Styles" world-renowned superstar and treated as such was such a great experience. We all like to criticize WWE for their poor booking, but there is no denying that in 2016 they have booked Styles as well as humanely possible.
Styles has had such a great 2016; really he is a run-away winner for my Wrestler of the Year award. He started off 2016 in grand fashion, wrestling Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in the Tokyo Dome in a match that will surely be in contention for most Match of the Year awards. After that he left New Japan Pro Wrestling to sign with WWE, and from day one he has been a big star for the company. After strangely losing to Chris Jericho at WrestleMania he then became a top contender for the WWE Championship, battling Roman Reigns in a series of really good matches. He then feuded with John Cena and did something that literally nobody has been able to do; cleanly defeat Cena in a series of matches. After getting through Cena he won the WWE Championship and has successfully defended it throughout the fall against Dean Ambrose. He heads into 2017 as the undisputed king of SmackDown.
The most amazing thing about Styles' 2016 is that he flies in the face of what we have come to expect from WWE. If anyone was going to have the year that he did it certainly wasn't going to be an "indie" darling that was under six feet tall and had made his name in other companies. For whatever reason, Styles was evaluated differently than any of the other former TNA/ROH/NJPW stars that WWE has brought in over the last several years. Instead of getting his ring name changed (like Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Adrian Neville, KENTA and numerous others) Styles was presented as A.J. Styles and he didn't have to go through NXT, he immediately was put on the main roster. More importantly, Styles was treated as a big star by the announcers and by management, he quickly went into big feuds, by-passing any need to climb the ladder of success.
In a lot of ways Styles marks a turning point in WWE's evaluation of incoming talent. When he debuted they were not expressly concerned with his ability to get over with the live audience; they were confident that a large portion of the fanbase already knew him and those who did not would soon become fans as long as everyone else reacted to him as if he was a big deal, which they did. Styles is really the first guy in forever to come into WWE, without being a part of another major promotion like WCW, and be rapidly pushed into the main event. He is similar to when guys like Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, Rick Rude, Chris Jericho, Vader, etc. would jump from the WWF to WCW or vice-versa in that the WWE already accepted that fans knew he was, so instead of trying to re-package him in their own image, they just let him be A.J. Styles and lo-and-behold he got over.
In addition to the championships and big matches he has won, Styles has had just some awesome matches in 2016. Obviously Styles is one of if not the very best pure in-ring wrestlers in the world today; but it still nice to see him having matches in WWE that were just as good as his matches in NJPW. Out of the 12 matches that I have rated for him in 2016, his average star rating is 4.08 which is just obscene, surely higher than anybody else in 2016. Even more impressive is that he has done it by having matches with good but somewhat limited in-ring performers, like Reigns, Cena and Ambrose.
Most importantly though Styles has been good for business. Despite criticisms that he is just a spot-wrestler that doesn't draw, the fact is WWE is confident enough in his ability that they have made him the champion of SmackDown and put him over Cena; something they certainly don't do for everyone. With Styles as champion ratings for SmackDown have improved dramatically, albeit that is for a number of reasons including moving to USA, Cena appearing on most shows and the show going live, but still there is no credible argument that pushing Styles is bad for business.
As good as 2016 has been for Styles, 2017 looks like it could be just as strong, with a rumored match with The Undertaker and a definite rematch with Cena coming up early next year. He has proven himself to be one of the most dependable talents in the world and will likely achieve similar things as long as he is healthy. Nobody could have predicted Styles' run in WWE going this well; it just wasn't in their track record; but thankfully Styles was pushed correctly and fans were treated to the best year any wrestler had in 2016.
AJ Styles vs Dean Ambrose: ****1/4 – Just a super main event, everything that you would want out of a Tables, Ladders and Chairs match. Styles hitting the springboard 450 plancha through a table is probably the WWE spot of the year and it's amazing a guy Styles' age can still do crazy moves like this without getting seriously injured (small ankle injury notwithstanding). Ellsworth coming out to screw Ambrose may have felt like a cheap ending to some, but I thought it was fine considering the story they have told leading up to the match with Ellsworth assuming a key role. I think everyone would be best served though if Ellsworth only does one match against Ambrose on SmackDown because the last thing we need to see is a long feud between Ellsworth and Ambrose.
Dolph Ziggler vs The Miz: **** - Not quite as good as their match at No Mercy but that was a lofty standard to match. I liked this match because the psychology and selling was on-point, by the end of the match you could really sense the exhaustion that both men were feeling as they hobbled up the ladder. When guys like Ziggler and The Miz are working so hard and having long, dramatic matches, it really makes the Intercontinental Championship seem like a big deal, which is a rarity today.
Becky Lynch vs Alexa Bliss: *3/4 – This was a problematic match and it really had nothing to do with either Lynch or Bliss, just that it is really hard to have a 15 minute Tables match. Since there are no near-falls or submission situations, the only real option you can have to prolong the match is tease table spots and you can only do that for so long before the match becomes a bit boring. The finish was sudden and while I understand that they want to build Bliss as a new star in the division; having Lynch lose clean puts her in a difficult situation. Bliss didn't cheat at all to win the match so it is hard for a babyface like Lynch to feel anything put personal regret which isn't necessarily constructive to getting fans behind you.
Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton vs Heath Slater and Rhyno: ** - Orton and Wyatt are going to be a dominant team on SmackDown and the announcers, especially JBL, really stress that they are an unstoppable force. The match was just okay, Slater and Rhyno have run their course but the issue is the SmackDown tag ranks are devoid of many teams that could realistically challenge Wyatt and Orton. Outside of American Alpha and The Usos's, the rest of the division is really gimmick heavy teams (The Hype Bros, The Ascension, The Vaudevillians, Breezango) none of whom are particularly over.
Kalisto vs Baron Corbin: **1/2 – This was a bit better than I expected. Kalisto is doing yeoman's work in trying to get Corbin over, as he took all of the tough bumps in this match and does his best to get Corbin's size and attitude over. Corbin has a good presence but very little else, he isn't very good in the ring and he really struggles on the mic.
Nikki Bella vs Carmella: *1/2 – The weakest match on the show and the post-match stuff was really bad. They had their hands tied in this one because it was a No Disqualification match and since they can't use Tables, Ladders or Chairs because those were being saved for later, there was very little they could do. That being said the fire extinguisher spot needs to be retired, they like it for the shock value but we see it way too much today and I know it is wrestling but is condensed foam, not tear gas.
Overall I thought the show was pretty strong. Some of the matches were below-average but the good thing was that two of the matches were very good and those were the matches that got the most time so it never felt like the show was dragging.