WWE's roster is more talented than maybe at any time in the promotion’s history—yes, even the Attitude Era or right after the WCW buyout—and indie wrestling had plenty going for it, too.
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The problem with saying 2016 was a remarkable year in pro wrestling is that nearly every year is a remarkable year in pro wrestling. The form is never static, and even in its most boring periods, there's always been something new and interesting. In the early-to-mid 1990s, there was Extreme Championship Wrestling. In the mid-to-late 2000s, there was a rejuvenated American indie scene and New Japan Pro Wrestling. You can always find something to sink its hooks into you.
But 2016 really was a remarkable year. Continued love affair with Roman Reigns aside, WWE has transitioned to a company populated almost exclusively by men and women who would have had no place in its ranks just five years ago: high-flyers, fat guys, scrawny guys, weird guys, women who can wrestle. If the storytelling is still captured by WWE's insistence on 50-50 booking, the roster is more talented than maybe at any time in the promotion's history—yes, even the Attitude Era or right after the WCW buyout.
That's come with a heavy price, however, as WWE has accelerated its attempts to snatch up every wrestler on a smaller stage in sight. And since WWE is the biggest, most prestigious wrestling promotion on Earth, that means every wrestler. As much as A.J. Styles, Bullet Club, and Shinsuke Nakamura coming over thrills me on a deep level for the simple fact of accessibility, NJPW was better off with them, and we will always be better off with stronger, healthier competition for WWE.
There are rumors that Ring of Honor is liable to be subject to a NJPW–style talent raid, with everyone from Jay Lethal to Veda Scott supposedly coming to WWE in the not too distant future. And we closed 2016 with the sight of WWE starting a British brand, directly opposite an important event Progress Wrestling and featuring several of that promotion's prominent stars. It was ruthless, recalling the sort of strategic moves that ended the Territory Era, when the McMahons drove everyone else out of business. WWE's historic penchant for small-business-unfriendly machinations seems refreshingly intact, 40 years on and counting. You can expect that trend of running opposite small promotions and signing every indie worker in sight to continue, until everyone wonders how we're awash in wrestlers with no place to ply their trade except in WWE performance centers, and why everyone on TV looks and acts the same.
That's dark stuff, though perhaps no darker than anything the NFL or MLB do with their monopolies. The stuff in WWE's ring in 2016 was pretty damned great, with the exception of a stinker of a WrestleMania. Nowhere was WWE better than in its revamped, electric women's division. There were misgivings at first: Charlotte Flair was joined at the hip with her father, who seemed to drive more storylines than his daughter, and it took an agonizingly long time for Sasha Banks to get the screen time she deserves. Fast forward just a bit and the best, most important compliment is apparent: the women are simply part of the show, given equal opportunity to bump, bleed, and do crazy things in the ring. They can do all that, and they do.
Charlotte wouldn't be a bad candidate for wrestler of the year; she was surprisingly raw (no pun intended) when she came up from NXT, leaning on the indisputable fact that she's far and away the most physically impressive athlete on the women's roster to carry her through matches. Since her debut, she's become much better at the little things the greats nail down, like pacing, verbal tics, and how to play to the crowd.
On the other hand, it's impossible to ignore A.J. Styles. He went from very good wrestler to greatest in the world once he left TNA. He then, improbably, turned it up even further in WWE. The rumors were that he was set to disappear into the midcard after his Royal Rumble debut, but WWE brass were so impressed with his pop and just how good he was that they quickly elevated him to the top of the card. He's doing this at 39, working at a pace that drove wrestlers like Shawn Michaels to surgeries and retirements. Every match he wrestles seems like a fuck you to Dixie Carter, TNA's chief, who lowballed him during contract renewal talks in 2013. Vengeance is a good motivator, and it's only a shame that the reality of time means that we won't get this A.J. Styles for too much longer.
Non-WWE wrestling had plenty going for it, of course, and two things stand out in particular. The first is the match of the year, between Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi at NJPW's Wrestle Kingdom 10. It came very early in the year and had stiff competition—mainly in Styles' matches with Roman Reigns and John Cena—but nothing could top the old, intimately familiar foes at the top of Japan's wrestling scene going at it one more time.
It was magic, and if you want to convince someone skeptical of the in-ring portion of pro wrestling—most folks can find something to enjoy in a Ric Flair promo or an old Rock skit—show them this match. It was athletic storytelling at the highest level, contrived drama so good that the real melted away. The image of Okada exhaustedly hanging onto Tanahashi's wrist, a prerequisite for his Rainmaker clothesline, is one of the pro wrestling images of the decade.
The storyline of the year was also found outside WWE's walls, in sputtering TNA, of all places. Matt and Jeff Hardy reinvented themselves to be a weird ironic comedy act. Except it's maybe only partly an act. We'll never know, because Matt refuses to break kayfabe. Ever.
It's both a crazy throwback to a time when everyone pretended it was all real, even on their off days, while also being a wink and a nod to modern immersion in irony and weary humor. The Hardys are running the risk of diminishing returns nearly eight months in, but then you think about whether any storylines run for eight months these days, and how they've taken it on the road to indies to make a cottage industry of Broken Hardys Deletion money. How can the conclusion be anything other than letting this strange, hammy, fundamentally self-directed thing go on forever?
So 2016 was a good year for pro wrestling, despite a few stumbles and the inexorable devouring of the industry by WWE. 2017 looks to be set for more, and another Wrestle Kingdom is just a couple scant weeks away, almost a guarantee that the year will start well.
And as a personal note—I try not to write too personally—thanks for reading this weekly column, and before, when it was less regular. It's been a delight to write about wrestling history, current events, and the social crosswinds which drive both. I deeply believe that, even when it's silly, pro wrestling is important because of what its continuing popularity says about who we are and where we're going. That's why it's worth paying attention to.
It may also be the only thing that is real.
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