When it came down to selecting the 2016 male wrestler of the year, there really wasn’t much of a contest according to the ballots submitted by the Top Rope Press staff. AJ Styles had a year for the ages, starting out with an unbelievable match with Shinsuke Nakamura at WrestleKingdom 10 (which won our match of the year), and finishing the year as the WWE Champion.
Styles has long been looked at as one of the top performers in the world, so the great matches he strung together throughout the year wasn’t really a surprise to longtime fans of the wrestling world. He had arguably the greatest match in the history of TNA (alongside Samoa Joe and Christopher Daniels) over a decade ago at Unbreakable 2005. AJ was always the highlight of the show during his time in ROH. His move to New Japan brought out a whole new side to Styles, though.
While with TNA, Styles was never really pushed beyond his comfort zone in character development. Though he did have a somewhat memorable run as a “free agent” toward the end of his tenure with TNA, it wasn’t until he became the leader of the Bullet Club in New Japan that Styles showed that he could shine not only in the ring, but also on the microphone. That time in Japan as leader of arguably the best and hottest stable in the world certainly made his transition to WWE in 2016 much easier.
— WWE (@WWE) January 25, 2016
Following his debut at January’s Royal Rumble, Styles immediately moved into a feud with Chris Jericho. Throughout the story, Jericho treated Styles like a “rookie” despite AJ having over 15 years experience in the sport. The angle embodied everything that many fans believe, that WWE doesn’t really believe you’re a star until you’ve held that position in their company. Jericho, being a longtime veteran of WWE, was the perfect foil for Styles (at least on the microphone). While Chris often seemed to struggle keeping up with AJ in the ring throughout the feud, overall the program would have to be considered a success (despite AJ losing at ‘Mania, still a questionable call).
Styles’ WrestleMania loss was immediately followed by him becoming the number one contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Title the next night on RAW. AJ defeated Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho, and Cesaro for that distinction (pinning Jericho in the process). This moved Styles into a program with new champion Roman Reigns, resulting in two consecutive PPV main events. With Reigns receiving all kinds of criticism and blowback at the time, Styles quieted the critics a bit by producing two four-plus star matches with Roman. In fact, these bouts are probably the best matches of Reigns’ short career.
Shortly after his program with Reigns (where he failed to capture the title), Styles turned heel and officially reunited with his former Bullet Club teammates in Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows to form “The Club.” In doing so, Styles attacked John Cena and started a program with the face of the WWE that lasted throughout the entire Summer. There was a six man tag match at Battleground that involved The Club taking on Cena, Enzo, and Big Cass, but the real story was the two singles matches that Styles and Cena had at Money In The Bank and SummerSlam. Two more big time PPV matches, two more four-plus star matches (with the SummerSlam bout being the superior of the two). Styles was on a roll, by this time clearly claiming the honor of WWE’s top PPV performer of 2016.
Everything then came to a head at September’s Backlash show, with Styles defeating Dean Ambrose to win his first WWE World Heavyweight Championship. While this match was very good, it was their rematch at TLC that really stole the show and was in the running for Styles’ best WWE match of the year (the Nakamura match from NJPW WrestleKingdom 10 was his ultimate masterpiece from 2016).
In fact, the pure number of awesome matches that Styles had throughout 2016 is almost unparalleled in wrestling history. Outside of the Nakamura match from January 4, if you were to narrow it down to his three best other singles bouts of the year, you’re probably looking at the match with Ambrose at TLC, the Cena bout at SummerSlam, and the Reigns match from Extreme Rules. He was also involved in the stellar RAW vs. SmackDown elimination match at Survivor Series that was off the charts.
I recall throughout the mid 2000s, there was often discussion on what would happen if Styles went to WWE. I always said that I wanted to see it, but many others argued he would get buried there due to not having the typical WWE size and look. However, 2016 proved that Styles is the type of talent that rarely comes along in the wrestling industry, and that kind of star just cannot be held down, no matter what the perception of a star might be within an organization. He’s a unique talent, one that probably won’t be seen again for a very long time.
It’s a pretty good bet that 2017 will see Styles in contention for this award once more. It’s also a good bet that AJ will have a strong run as the top babyface on SmackDown in the coming year. If that doesn’t happen, WWE is missing out on a gold mine (plus, the crowd already badly wants to cheer him). While longtime TNA and NJPW fans knew just how special of a talent AJ is, now the entire world knows due to his big time performances this year on wrestling’s biggest stage.
Runner-Ups For 2016 Male Wrestler Of The Year
Styles ran away with this year’s award. Four other performers received one vote each from Top Rope Press staff members. They were: Shinsuke Nakamura, Tetsuya Naito, Kenny Omega, and Kyle O’Reilly.
Methodology: The TopRopePress.com staff participated exclusively in our year end awards project. Staff members first submitted nominations for each award category. Following our nominations phase, voting among staff members took place by secret ballot to determine the winners.
Note: Styles placed third in last year’s Male Wrestler of the Year balloting. The 2015 award was won by Seth Rollins.