FearlessRiOT’s Year-End Top 10: Favorite Male Wrestlers of 2016

#10. Cedric Alexander10

One thing I wish for Ring of Honor is for them to one day receive a more prominent television deal; their brief time on Destination America in 2015 was the most I’ve ever got to see of them on-screen, and because of that, I was exposed to a number of talented wrestlers I’d never heard of before. One of them was Cedric Alexander, who after pairing up with Veda Scott as a manager, immediately grabbed my attention with his display of uncanny athelticism in subsequent matches. When I learned he’d departed ROH and joined WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic, I was hoping he’d win the whole shebang. He was defeated in the second round, but I couldn’t get mad about that because 1) Kota Ibushi, who ousted him from the bracket, is amazing and 2) their match is easiely one of my favorites of the entire year. The crowd agreed, chanting “PLEASE SIGN CEDRIC!”, to which WWE has listened and followed through with following the tournament’s conclusion. Now, when not being the apple of Alicia Fox‘s eye backstage, he’s tearing it up in WWE’s Cruiserweight Division, hopefully with an eventual title reign in the future.

#9. Seth Rollins9

Seth Rollins had to miss out on this year’s WrestleMania; the very well-done WWE 24/7 documentary Redesign. Rebuild. Reclaim. took a look at Rollins’ road to recovery after a devastating injury last year, including his reaction to having to spend WrestleManhia 32 sitting on the sidelines. The piece quickly made Seth Rollins one of the most sympathetic figures in all of wrestling at that moment. So how does WWE capitalize on him upon his return? Have him pick up where he left offpick up where he left off as a heel who didn’t want the fans’ cheers. Because that made complete and total sense, I say without a hint of sarcasm. I mean, the “Roman Reigns as a top face” experiment was working out so well. Seriously, though, that didn’t stick; Rollins eventually did receive his face turn and has been in opposition against Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens ever since. Rollins hasn’t had the smoothest heel-face transition, as evidenced by the fact that they actually tried to have him get “Sparkle-Crotch” over, but maybe it’ll play out in the long run and find it’s footing in 2017.

#8. The Brian Kendrick8

Welcome back, The Brian Kendrick. You’re finally getting the solo spotlight in WWE that you’ve always deserved, even if most of the fans who attend the shows don’t necessarily appreciate it. Kendrick is the Cruiserweight with the most going for him right now aside from maybe current title-holder Rich Swann; Kendrick has an established character with motivation, a backstory for why he is the way he is, and a methodical in-ring style that while not as high-flying as the rest of the division is pretty damn effective. He’s really putting his veteran smarts to good use against the younger talent. But as I’ve said before, it seems like most fans kind of sit on their hands when he’s on. That’s a shame because the work he’s doing right now – on the ring and on the mic – is AMAZING. Almost makes me wish his Interim WWE Title reign from in the Championship Scramble match from 2008 was official. Oh, well. A purple Cruiserweight belt will do for now.

#7. Dean Ambrose7

At TLC this year, Dean Ambrose received a reaction I didn’t think was possible after his wildly popular breakout a couple of years ago: a portion of fans were actually started booing him. I knew some of the Internet crowd were starting to sour on his Looney Tunes antics, but it turns out that maybe some of the people who actually attend shows aren’t so into WWE’s Bugs Bunny anymore either. But his hit-or-miss comedy bits aside (though I don’t care who you are, him dressing as The Mountie when Smackdown was in Canada was funny), one thing that’s hard to doubt is Ambrose’s love for the business. This year saw him win the World Championship on a reign that actually went on for a number of months, and stand toe-to-toe with John Cena in the promo game. All this before having to put up with James Ellsworth and AJ Styles for the remainder of the year. In his appearance on the Stone Cold Podcast, Ambrose was challenged by the Texas Rattlesnake to “Be edgier. Take more chances. Be more Dean Ambrose.” I believe the evolution of Ambrose could be on the horizon.

#6. Shinsuke Nakamura6

BREAKING NEWS: Shinsuke Nakamura is now a two-time NXT Champion after defeating Samoa Joe in his home country of Japan literally a couple of days ago as of this writing. This cuts Joe’s second reign extremely short as the rivalry between these two rages on in NXT. A common criticism of many Indy stars is that while athletic, they lack charisma and charm. Not the case with Nakamura. Since the King of Strong Style arrived at the top of the year, he’s been a phenomenon in Full Sail, making a great first impression by way of two things: 1) his kick-ass entrance music (complete with seizure-enducing lighting) and 2) his debut show-stealer with Sami Zayn. Since then, he’s upped his cool as NXT’s new top face, even getting professional violinists to join him for his TakeOver entrances not once, but twice. Also, he’s now the second two-time NXT Championship winner. We all want to see him on the main roster one day, but does it have to be anytime soon?

#5. Kevin Owens5

The only thing keeping K.O. from being any higher on this list has been his booking as the Universal Championship. He’s had the RAGÚ sauce-looking belt (yes, it looks like hardened RAGÚ, and you know it’s true) since Finn Bálor vacated it due to injury after SummerSlam, and he hasn’t been booked as strongly as he was when he was NXT Champion, or even once he was first called up in the middle of 2015. Sure, the main roster and NXT clearly have vastly different booking methods, but oh, what could have been. But the fact remains that he is, in fact, the WWE Universal Champion; the supposed top dog of is brnad. Not onlt that, but he is the longest reigning in the title’s brief history, as his BFF Chris Jericho loves to brag about. In addition to always finding as way to win, Kevin Owens is also the funniest deadpan comic alive aside from maybe Aubrey Plaza. How can you not laugh whenever he takes the mic or just ad-libs during matches? Or hell, even when he torments that interview staff? He may recieve more cheers than a heel really should, but the effort he puts into his heeldom is very much appreciated.

#4. Broken Matt Hardy4

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve had a hard time getting behind Matt Hardy over the years. Jeff was always seen as the most interesting Hardy, and I’ve always been in that camp, as his devil-may-care attitude and risk-taking style were too exciting to ignore. Meanwhile, Matt’s most interesting period to me was the 2003 Mattitude Era, and after that ended, even on his feuds with MVP and Edge, he still didn’t excite me very much. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded if her retired in late-2015. However, I may have underestimated his ability to entertain, because in 2016, that’s all he’s done. Turns out all that he needed was more creative freedom; in unleashing his imagination, he’s created the Broken Universe. Everything about it, from the extraordinary xylophone to the dilapidated boats to the obsession with green beans to the ridiculous accent to the Lake of Re-Incarnation to his baby King Maxel having a wrestling career to his Raven Baxter-like premonitions, is completely absurd. He said as such when he had amnesia (yes, that’s happened). But it’s something you can’t stop watching and it’s taken the wrestling world by storm and put TNA back on the map. If it were up to me, he would never DELETE this character; it may be the greatest so-bad-it’s-good thing since The Room.

#3. Chris Jericho3

Reinvention and adapting are the keys to survival. As human beings, we change as we grow older and as real life takes us in different directions. Chris Jericho understands this, and maybe if we’re lucky, his next New York Times Bestseller will provide us with the wisdom to adapt to change as well as he has over the years. Some things about Chris Jericho certainly haven’t changed from his earlier days, as he’s still witty and snarky as all hell, but it’s the material that differs. Instead of ripping into Stephanie for her alleged promiscuity, he’s now sucking up to her at every opportunity. Instead of bragging about his luxurious rockstar hair, he takes people claims of him wearing the Bon Jovi. Instead of long words we’d need a thesaurus to understand, he just calls people stupid idiots. Instead of the List of 1,004 Holds, it’s just The List, where people go if they’ve irked Jericho’s nerves. Honestly, I actually considered giving The List of Jericho it’s own spot on this list, and probably would have if not for the fact that it’s an inanimate object. Then again, Yoshihiko is a thing. But the point is that Jericho has been golden pretty much all year; we’ve been blessed with the Gift of Jericho throughout 2016, and it’s been a pleasure to drink it in (maaaaaaaan!)

#2. The Miz2

2016 is the year that we all need to stop sleeping on The Miz. We as a fandom have discredited him long enough and it’s about time we cut the crap. True, when The Miz came in, he was a goofball former reality TV star with terrible fashion sense and all the charm of someone who deserved to be punched in the face over and over. But then something happened to him over the course of his career: character development. He went from the Chick Magnet (explaining this terrible shirt) to having The Hottest Chick in the Game by his side. He went from reality TV numbnut to the top of the A-List of the direct-to-DVD movie market. Take that, Eric Roberts and Bruce Willis. And throughout 2016, he’s earned his MVP status by snatching Zack Ryder’s U.S. Title from him the night after he won it at WrestleMania and embarking on a huge I.C. Title World tour, constantly getting the better of Dolph Ziggler in their epic rivalry, and constantly verbally murking Smackdown GM Daniel Bryan in one promo after another on Talking Smack. He also won another of the year’s best matches, the Fatal 4-Way epic at Extreme Rules. It’s about time The Miz was given the respect he deserves. But even I have to admit that Miz was out-MVP’d by one man…

#1. AJ Styles1

It happened. If finally happened. 18 years after beginning his pro wrestling career, 12 years after I was first exposed to him the first time I watched a TNA broadcast, and about a couple of years after jumping the sinking TNA ship, it finally happened. AJ Styles arrived as an official WWE Superstar, zooming past NXT and straight into a main roster stint, starting as a surprise Royal Rumble entrant. And anyone who doubted he’d succeed in WWE, being an under-six foot former TNA employee and all, were suddenly in for a big surprise. His match with Chris Jericho at WrestleMania? Decent, despite little fan reaction. His feuds with John Cena and Roman Reigns? Off the chart, and giving us one funny hashtag. His WWE Championship victory? A pleasant surprise. And his promo game? Better than most were expecting. Even if you’re tired of the presence of The Chinless Wonder James Ellsworth, it’s hard to deny that Styles’ angle with Dean Ambrose has made for some interesting television and has given us at least a couple of amusing moments. I also can’t forget to mention his match with Shinsuke Nakamura at the top of the year at Wrestle Kingdom. Certainly no one else will forget about it. The Champ That Runs The Camp is the MVP of 2016, and I’ll have no arguments to the contrary.

Honorable Mentions:

+ Eli Drake – TNA Wrestling has actually done a good job of making stars out of superstars in WWE who were underutilizd. One of those men is Eli Drake, who I could listen to on the mic all day. He has the gift of gab and it might make him a World Champion on day. And that is just a fact of life.

+ Jay Lethal – Jay Lethal is still one of the best wrestlers to never sign with WWE, and he’s still one of Ring of Honor’s marquee names. That said, why is it that the most attention I’ve seen given to the guy this year is because he shaved his head bald? Everyone could use a change sometimes.

+ Moose – Another wrestler I became familiar with by way of their time in Ring of Honor. Not necessairly one of the most exciting wrestlers around, but he is one of the most explosive. And he has his fans as he beat Tessa Blanchard for PWI Rookie of the Year last year. Also, his punching taunt is fun to join in on.

+ Finn Bálor – Poor Bálor. Poor, Poor Bálor. Called up to Monday Night RAW, wins two matches in his debut night, and goes on to become the first Universal Champion, only to suffer an unfortunate injury that kept him off the self almost half the year. He has a nice main event slot on RAW waiting for him when he returns though.

+ Ethan Carter III – One TNA wrestler on the list and it’s shockingly not Dixie Carter’s fake nephew. Not to say that he had a bad year or anything. He had to struggle back to the top, but he did main event Bound for Glory for the World Title, so he’s certainly not an afterthought.

+ Rusev – The way WWE alternates between booking Rusev as a threat and booking Rusev as a joke will give you whiplash if you try to keep up with it. He can be a very funny guy, but it’s confusing that a man with as much behemoth potential as him is constantly jobbed out this much. His marriage to Lana must keep a smile on his face though.

+ Cesaro – Why is he not on Smackdown? RAW is WASTING him!

Sami Zayn – See: Cesaro.

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