Lists, as we know, are no longer just for year's end. Critical rankings have become the backbone of daily online content, both watering down and helping to organize cultural conversation. But the only ones that really matter are those meta-lists we compile come December, those that state definitively: "These were the absolute best or worst of a particular class of thing." And for our purposes, that thing is pro wrestling. And in this instance, the class in question is WWE. (Besides, all the NJPW, ROH, etc. stars will find their way to NXT within 2017 anyhow.) And here, then, is our no-disqualification, eligibility counts anywhere (i.e. either Raw or SmackDown), numerically ordered roundup of WWE's top 10 performers for 2016.
Never mind them being mired in a go-nowhere beef with Rusev, or that they never managed to pry the belts from New Day (after all, no one did until earlier this month). This smack-talking tri-state duo immediately caught on after graduating from NXT, which – as the Ascension, Tyler Breeze, Apollo Crews, Carmella and others can attest – isn't always easy. Their shtick is juvenile and not always clever, and Big Cass is arguably destined for solo glory down the road, but they are manna from merch heaven and essentially double as tag performers and WWE's in-house hype men. Forget how we're doin' – Enzo and Cass look like they're gonna be just fine.
Dean Ambrose had his time in the sun on SmackDown, and doesn't appear to be going anywhere. And Roman Reigns – critics be damned – has been a fine U.S. champ. But of all three ex-Shield members, Seth Rollins is still the brightest star. He may have spent chunks of 2016 on the shelf and/or without a title, but once the Architect was re-established as a fan favorite, unlocking his full repertoire of in-ring acrobatics, it was if Raw re-deployed a nuclear weapon. The wait for him to claim the Universal Championship will prove long and winding, but worth it when an appreciative arena explodes.
Just ask Cody Rhodes (or, at present, simply Cody), who's been a vocal advocate for Mike Mizanin's commitment and ability. It didn't take Maryse's return to get him back in the company or viewers' good graces. Bottom line is when he's not filming a Marine sequel or off on some other goodwill mission, the Miz shows up at every taping, boots up, does battle and demonstrates why he's resumed his rightful place as the Intercontinental Championship circuit's steady anchor. With John Cena in absentia, the Miz's confidence carrying a non-wrestling segment is that much more vital, but he continues to step up in lengthy endurance matches, culminating this year in he and Dolph Ziggler's terrific blowoff at TLC. Due respect to Rusev and Lana, but Miz and Maryse are the real power couple onscreen in WWE.
We see what we want to see. It could be that outspoken fans willed Heath Slater up from squash city and into the posh penthouse life of a SmackDown contract and bona fide stint as one half of the tag team champions. Or the whole arc – down to playing on audiences' sympathies – was completely engineered in a writer's room. But before this gets too Westworld-ian, let's agree on this: the one-man band's emancipation from oblivion was overdue, and it's not a novelty. The guy can wrestle, and he's got a gimmick. If Rhyno was recruited to help get the white-trash hokum over in exchange for free airtime to promote his (failed) state-rep bid, no harm done. Made a ton more sense than tasking Slater – who's far more appealing in a 50/50 tandem – as leader of a motley crew. In a post-brand split era, no wrestler need get left behind, especially not one who's got kids.
There were some growing pains for KO after a breakout 2015. He and Sami Zayne burned off their longstanding feud in a series of matches that plateaued somewhat by mid-spring, before Owens was slotted at number 19 overall (!) in the brand-split draft back in July. But fortunes turned once Finn Bálor's shoulder created a vacuum for the WWE Championship (later redubbed the Universal Championship), and for reasons driving the long-term narrative between Seth Rollins and Triple H, and certainly due to it being earned, Owens got to wear the strap. It's been something of a soft transition into being "The Man" ever since, with team JeriKO helping to mask the obvious lack of a natural adversary till Bálor's return. Owens has made the most of it though, feeding off Chris Jericho's charisma while distinguishing himself as a layered antagonist. And bottom line is, for the better part of this year's second half, he was the man to beat.
Still scratching your head over Goldberg's mauling of Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series. The most polarizing booking decision in recent memory was also the most cynical in some time. Brock doesn't need a scripted win against his good buddy to burnish his standing, nor does it affect his pay. Lesnar is the real deal, and has nothing to prove. Goldberg, on the other hand, talks a big game about having nothing to prove, but it's not like he was coming back to lay down, and he was able to stage a comeback on his terms opposite his ideal opponent, the man he respects more than any other active competitor. We'll see what kind of legs his third act has heading into and (we assume) beyond the Royal Rumble, but so far it's been a win-win for Goldberg and WWE, who've been burned by this kind of thing before.
It was an erratic 12 months in the wider view, with Banks battling the occasional nagging injury and weathering the usual merry-go-round of TV time that can lead to a sense of dysfunction among the women's ranks. But as is the case in all entertainment, it's about final impressions, and between that rip-roaring Hell in a Cell match with Charlotte and regaining the title from her nemesis, Banks has reasserted herself as force for the Raw brand. Plus, anyone who's been to a WWE live event lately can tell you: She projects major star wattage for someone generously billed at 5-foot-5, and owns every set of eyes in the house. And she's only getting better.
How fitting for Y2J to appear among this ranking's upper echelons following a campaign during which he eked grade-A material out of "The List." As has been discussed here and elsewhere throughout the IWC, the Ayatollah reigned (no offense, Roman) from nearly wire-to-wire, bringing the goods as a babyface in the early months before finessing what could be one last, legendary heel turn for the 46-year-old. This was not the get-me-over guy who laid down for Fandango at WrestleMania 29. This was a Chris Jericho fired up after a couple thankless part-time runs, reassembling his repertoire of petulant shtick and dead set on staying put in the main event. Although his sneakiest feat in 2016? Playing simultaneous sidekick and sensei to "best friend" Kevin Owens.
Once papa Ric was out of the pic, the most fearsome woman in WWE (nope, not you, Nia Jax) took the throne and owned it for all of 2016, no matter whether she or rival Sasha Banks held the gold. Like Style, it all clicked when Charlotte was unshackled and encouraged to be mean, calculating and just a wee bit entitled. Her moonsaults don't always land, and her tears aren't always pretty, but Charlotte is a stunning athlete who's raising the bar every week for how commanding a women's champion can be. Banks (who gets her due a couple entries down) and others have been as good as any male or female on the roster, but without Charlotte as foe or foil, Raw would still have been headlined by the boys.
He came, he conquered and, most crucially, he stayed healthy. Has there ever been a more cleanly executed transition from eons spent toiling internationally and in TNA to the McMahon clan's big top? In some ways, Styles assumed more of the risk, leaving lucrative and legendary residencies with New Japan and Ring of Honor at age 38 (now 39) to gamble on the no-guarantees pressure cooker of WWE. But what superstar – particularly one who deferred his initial shot with WWE development nearly 15 years prior – could resist the itch to debut as a hotly tipped outsider in the Royal Rumble, let alone get lined up for major storylines with names like John Cena and Chris Jericho? You could argue Styles was primed for success, but the onus was on him to seize his moment, first by flashing teases of world-class technique and then quite literally springboarding front and center as a cocky villain with no one on SmackDown who could rival his game. He is truly in a class of his own on Tuesday nights, and however the rest of his run turns out, 2016 concretized his reputation as once in a generation.