With another year of WWE action in the books, it's time to take a look back at the year that was. We've seen quite a lot in a year - the brand split, the debut of AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura's arrival to NXT, Goldberg's return to WWE, The Miz dropping a new age pipe bomb on Daniel Bryan, the Cruiserweight Classic, so on and so forth. You get it. But, the question I'm here to answer is simple: which WWE superstar had the best 2016?
The rules are simple....kind of. It's not about pure kayfabe, work rate, or overall greatness as a wrestler. I tend to operate in the gray area in between all. To make this list, a wrestler had to have the right combination of kayfabe success (championships, prominence on the card), a good work rate (sorry part-timers), and just overall enjoyment (if this was the primary metric, Sami Zayn and Rusev would top the list every year). So, take a deep breath - here we go!
10. Samoa Joe - Something about Samoa Joe just screams, "main event." He struts out carrying the 'big fight' aura with him no matter if it's an everyday episode of NXT or the biggest TakeOver event of the year. He's shelled out quality main events with every foe he's come across, but particularly, his feuds with Finn Balor and Shinsuke Nakamura have felt bigger than any rivalries NXT has had before. He has the presence of a champion, he's wrestled at an elite level, and has two NXT Championships in 2016 to go with it. Along with Nakamura, he's raised NXT to feel like more of a bona fide wrestling organization than an indy fed with an underground following. That work can't go unnoticed.
Accolades: 2x NXT Champion
Pay-per-view record: 2-2
Signature rivalries: Finn Balor, Shinsuka Nakamura
Match of the year: vs. Finn Balor, Steel Cage Match, NXT TakeOver: The End
9. Sasha Banks - Injury after injury after injury. Banks had a breakout 2015 (ranked #3 on my top 10 of 2015), but couldn't carry it over into 2016. Still, no one can deny the sheer body of work Banks together in 2016. Her program opposite Charlotte Flair alone was the stuff of pro wrestling legend. Sure, people argue that the 'hot potato' booking of the Raw Women's Championship hurt the division, but I disagree. It made both women look as elite as they truly are, as though either woman could win on any given night. Banks winning her first Women's Championship on Raw was one of 2016's most special moments.
Accolades: 3x Raw Women's Champion
Pay-per-view record: 3-5
Signature rivalries: Charlotte Flair
Match of the year: vs. Charlotte Flair, Monday Night Raw, July 25
8. Roman Reigns - People like to boo Reigns because they think it's the cool thing to do, but it is totally unwarranted. Reigns is one of the best wrestlers on the planet, plain and simple. But, because fans like to hijack shows, Reigns hasn't caught on as he should have by now. His body of work for 2016 is incredibly impressive: an excellent feud with AJ Styles, a solid program against Rusev, and getting the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and the accompanying fireworks to close Wrestlemania.
Accolades: 2x WWE World Heavyweight Champion, United States Champion
Pay-per-view record: 6-5
Signature rivalries: Triple H, AJ Styles, Rusev, Kevin Owens
Match of the year: vs. AJ Styles, Extreme Rules Match, Extreme Rules
7. Shinsuke Nakamura - The King of Strong Style debuted in NXT at TakeOver: Dallas after a fever pitch of anticipation. He did not disappoint. Over the course of the Spring, Nakamura had a string of some of the best matches of the year. Taking on Sami Zayn, Tye Dillinger, Elias Samson, Austin Aries, and Finn Balor, he put on a dazzling performance against each opponent. It culminated in Brooklyn, when Nakamura defeated Samoa Joe at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II to win his first NXT Championship. Nakamura and Joe feuded throughout the fall and swapped the title. Nakamura is the unquestioned MVP of NXT in 2016.
Accolades: 2x NXT Champion
Pay-per-view record: 3-1
Signature rivalries: Austin Aries, Samoa Joe
Match of the year: vs. Sami Zayn, NXT TakeOver: Dallas
6. Chris Jericho - Jericho had a career renaissance in 2016. After several drab face runs, the "Best in the World" turned heel early in 2016 and had a stellar feud against AJ Styles. During a lackluster feud with Dean Ambrose, Jericho salvaged a bad Asylum Match by taking a bump into thumbtacks, and somehow getting a potted plant over with audiences. Then, the stuff with Kevin Owens (as Jeri-KO) is an entirely different chapter of Jericho's awesome 2016. Maybe he didn't have the kayfabe championship success, but he was always around the top of the card and firmly inserted himself in the WWE Universal Championship picture by year's end. Factor in his awesome matches against Sami Zayn and Seth Rollins, and all in all, 2016 was kind to Jericho.
Accolades: Really awesome scarf
Pay-per-view record: 4-7
Signature rivalries: AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Sin Cara (couldn't resist)
Match of the year: vs. Seth Rollins, Roadblock: End of the Line
5. Charlotte Flair - She's undefeated in pay-per-view championship matches and has been a revelation as one of the greatest heels in women's wrestling history. What else can really be said about the year that Flair has had? She's main evented pay-per-views, she's made her dad Ric cry, and she's defeated every opponent that's been put in front of her. She's the woman you love to hate and hate to love. The Raw Women's Championship has become the most important title on Monday nights, and she is the figurehead of the Women's Division. She is without a doubt the women's MVP of 2016.
Accolades: 4x Raw Women's Champion, Divas Champion
Pay-per-view record: 12-1
Signature rivalries: Becky Lynch, Brie Bella, Natalya, Sasha Banks
Match of the year: vs. Sasha Banks, Hell in a Cell Match, Hell in a Cell
4. Dean Ambrose - Ambrose finally broke through in 2016. He kicked off the year as Intercontinental Champion, and had a stellar feud with Kevin Owens, but his title count didn't end there. Not only did he win the Money in the Bank briefcase, he actually cashed it in and won his first WWE World Heavyweight Championship on the same night. He's been a real workhorse for WWE, too, though - he's shined in contests opposite Owens, Reigns, Jericho, Rollins, Dolph Ziggler, AJ Styles, and every wrestler in between. He'd be in contention for the top spot if not for the hokey way he's been booked since losing the title. He borders in between "The Lunatic Fringe" and sappy comedy character inconsistently, and it's quite simply not that entertaining. He got the Brock Lesnar slot at Wrestlemania, but the match was a huge disappointment. That being said, there's no denying that 2016 saw Ambrose become a bona fide main event player in WWE.
Accolades: Intercontinental Champion, WWE World Heavyweight Champion, Money in the Bank briefcase winner
Pay-per-view record: 8-7
Signature rivalries: Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho, AJ Styles
Match of the year: vs. Triple H, Roadblock
3. Kevin Owens - Owens had a breakout 2015, but 2016 saw him get the accolades to back it up. He walked into Wrestlemania as the Intercontinental Champion, though Zack Ryder would leave Dallas with the belt in tow. He had a tremendous match with Ambrose at the Royal Rumble, amped up with his feud with Sami Zayn, and teamed up with Jericho to form one of the most entertaining tag teams on WWE programming. The year culminated with Owens earning his first WWE Universal Championship on an August edition of Monday Night Raw. To this day, he remains the longest reigning Universal Champion in WWE history. Everything this man touches turns to gold. It's hard to pick Owens' best match of the year - there's a such a large sampling to choose from because he's wrestling and cutting promos at such an elite level. He really turned 2016 into The Kevin Owens Show.
Accolades: Intercontinental Champion, WWE Universal Champion
Signature rivalries: Dean Ambrose, Sami Zayn, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns
Match of the year: vs. Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins vs. Big Cass, Monday Night Raw, August 29
2. The Miz - What John Cena did for the United States Championship in 2015, The Miz did for the Intercontinental Championship in 2016. The A-Lister had successful defense after successful defense - taking on the likes of Ryder, Cesaro, Owens, Zayn, Darren Young, Apollo Crews, and Dolph Ziggler. After the brand split, The Miz was afforded the opportunity to become one of WWE's brightest stars and ran with it. He's become one of the faces of Tuesday night's Smackdown Live. His feud with Ziggler really allowed him to 'turn up the heel' and draw vitriol from audiences.
He's been a part of some of the best wrestling storytelling of the year with his bickering with Daniel Bryan. That led to arguably the greatest promo of 2016 in the WWE, when Miz verbally assaulted Bryan on an episode of Talking Smack. He's been in cage matches, ladder matches, and title vs. career matches alike, and delivered in them all. It was a banner year for the Cleveland native, and if not for a WWE Championship run in 2011, would probably be considered his best. The Miz has put on a master class in how to play the heel.
Accolades: 2x Intercontinental Champion
Signature rivalries: Cesaro, Dolph Ziggler, Daniel Bryan
Match of the year: vs. Dolph Ziggler, Title vs. Career, No Mercy
1. AJ Styles - Styles was a part of one of the biggest moments of 2016 when he made his surprise debut at the Royal Rumble in January and finished the year as WWE World Heavyweight Champion. He's been apart of two of the greatest feuds of 2016, taking on Cena and Reigns. His showings with Jericho and Ambrose weren't exactly bad either. He has at least five Match of the Year candidates - Reigns at Payback and Extreme Rules, Cena at Money in the Bank and Summerslam, and Ambrose at TLC. He is the unquestioned WWE MVP of 2016 and there's not a close second. Styles is the best wrestler on the planet right now.
Accolades: WWE World Heavyweight Champion
Pay-per-view record: 7-5
Signature rivalries: Chris Jericho, Roman Reigns, John Cena, Dean Ambrose
Match of the year: vs. John Cena, Summerslam
Honorable Mentions - Finn Balor, Becky Lynch, The Revival, Seth Rollins, and Sami Zayn were the only other competitors in serious contention for a top 10 spot. If not for a record Tag Team Championship reign from The New Day, The Revival would absolutely unquestionably be the top tag team on the planet. There's still plenty who would argue that they already are. Rollins was gone for half the year, and upon his return, was lost in the shuffle of the excitement of the brand split and Dean Ambrose's first WWE Championship reign.
Zayn was the best in-ring performer of the year - constantly having quality matches and delivering underrated promos. He just didn't have the kayfabe success to warrant a spot on the list - no titles, no big main events, nada. Lynch won her first Women's Championship on Smackdown after the brand split and had a quality program with Alexa Bliss, but before the split, she never quite got the spotlight she deserved.
As for Balor, he was the hardest to knock off of this list. He had an excellent run as NXT Champion to start the year, competed in one of the brand's deepest and longest-running rivalries opposite Samoa Joe, and even wrestled Nakamura before leaving WWE's developmental brand. He was one of Raw's first draft choices, and was immediately made a big deal upon debuting on the main roster. "The Demon" showed up to vanquish Seth Rollins in a fine match at Summerslam before vacating the title due to injury. If not for that, he'd probably be higher on the list.
Stoney Keeley covers the WWE for WrestlingNews.co, covers the NFL’s Tennessee Titans for Pro Football Spot, and is the Editor of The SoBros Network. You can follow him on Twitter at@StoneyKeeley and the SPOT’s Tennessee Titans Twitter feed at @spot_titans.