To paraphrase the late great Gorilla Monsoon, pandemonium was literally breaking loose in 2016. Yeah, that phrase doesn’t necessarily make sense — but neither did a lot of things about, within, or involving the professional wrestling industry. Here’s our list of the top stories of the year. Because it’s not really possible to rank these in any meaningful way, and as a nod to WWE NXT superstar and SLAM! Wrestling’s pal Tye Dillinger, let’s just call these all the top “Ten!”
10. WWE brand split done right this time?
In July, WWE split the roster into two separate and distinct RAW and Smackdown brands. This was promoted as a way to boost the competitive spirit of the roster, give some of the lesser-used superstars some coveted TV time, provide some additional content for the WWE Network, and generally to shake up the staleness that had been plaguing WWE TV shows. But it’s not the first time they’ve tried this — it’s actually a repeat of the period between 2002 and 2011 when the company was split down these same lines (we’ll pretend the third WWE ECW-lite brand never existed because, well, that’s the nicest possible thing we can say about it).
That first split started off exciting enough, but ultimately fizzled when they simply ignored the roster and had big names jumping from show to show in absence of storyline reasons to do so, and clearly positioned Smackdown as the lesser brand (though in terms of in-ring quality, blue was best).
While it’s only been a few months now, with this new split, it seems like the company is avoiding those pitfalls.
Intercompany matches have been quite rare and as a result, when they’re done they seem more meaningful — the Brock Lesnar-Randy Orton match from the summer was a good example, and while the brand vs. brand Survivor Series matches sometimes felt clumsy, they really did have a special air about them.
With a McMahon helming each show, and both of them running live now, there’s a perception that the company is more likely to keep both of them looking strong. The shows have distinct and unique feels to them. Smackdown really does seem like it’s an edgier environment where anything can happen and talents are encouraged to take risks — and its third hour, the Talking Smack post-show, often seems real and unscripted. While RAW provides more familiar characters, plots, and storylines — but with the bigger marquee names (John Cena being the exception) that people still love to see.
Ultimately it will be a business decision as to whether this continues — ratings of the weekly shows and revenues from the more-frequent brand-specific pay-per-view events are going to be the true measure of success. In the meantime, though, the split seems to be heading down the right path.
10. Sting hangs up his boots and bat for good
After a 30-year career, during which he became one of the most popular characters of all time and the (painted) face of World Championship Wrestling, legendary wrestler Sting (Steve Borden) announced his retirement this past April.
To list all of Sting’s accomplishments would take us well into mid-next year. Suffice to say, he was a highly-decorated champion, winning multiple titles and industry awards over the years, including being named the Pro Wrestling Illustrated Wrestler of the Year in 1990, number 1 in the PWI Top 500 in 1992, and is the only person to be inducted into all of the TNA, WWE, and Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame.
Possibly more important than his wrestling accolades, though, Sting is also considered by his peers and fans and others with whom he’s dealt as a bona-fide real life babyface. His frequent WCW nemesis Ric Flair perhaps summed it up best by saying that Sting was “way too nice to even be in the wrestling business.”
In the end, a neck injury did what stars like Vader, Mick Foley, Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen, the nWo, and The Authority couldn’t, and that was put Sting on the shelf for good. But fear not, little Stingers. As recently as this summer, Sting told JBL on a WWE Network special that he would still be interested in taking on The Undertaker in an battle of WCW icon vs. WWE icon. If that happens, you’ll surely be reading about that one in this list next year.
10. Total Non-Stop Acrimony — the tumultuous year in TNA ownership
It looked like the action would indeed stop in 2016, after ownership and management changes within TNA Wrestling that resulted in defaulted loans, a hostile takeover attempt, a potential lawsuit, and finally an investment from a Canadian media company committed to keep the company alive.
Through court documents released in November, it was revealed that Smashing Pumpkins singer Billy Corgan, who had been working with the company on the creative and talent development side since 2015, had lent money to the company to support it in a time of cash-flow challenges. As part of this agreement, should TNA have defaulted on the loans (by all accounts, a legitimate concern), Corgan would assume controlling interest in the company as Dixie Carter’s shares were effectively put up as a guarantee. Believing the company had run out of funding options (including a possible buy-out by WWE which was apparently in discussion at some point), Corgan filed a lawsuit to enforce the share turnover. TNA and Dixie Carter contested the claim, however, buying them time to look at other options.
In the end, Canadian company Anthem Sports & Entertainment — parent company of The Fight Network, TNA’s Canadian broadcaster — ponied up the cash and bought in. With that, Corgan was out, Carter is back in, the company taped shows again starting in January, and the dire predictions about the company’s future have been put to bed … at least for the time being.
10. NXT / 205 — this ain’t your granddad’s WWE
In 1983, Vince McMahon purchased the WWF (now WWE) from his father, and immediately went out to change the global wrestling landscape, by raiding talent from every other major company in North America.
In 2016, WWE conducted a different kind of talent raid focusing on a vastly different type of talent. NXT, the company’s developmental system, continued to bring in established independent stars from across the world, most notably Japan’s Shinsuke Nakamura, and from TNA Wrestling, Samoa Joe, Bobby Roode, and Eric Young. The main roster saw call-ups like Finn Balor, and the arrival of TNA’s franchise player AJ Styles. Former indy darlings like Austin Aries, Johnny Gargano, Tommaso Ciampa were signed.
And while the company’s focus in the 1980s and through the early ’90s was on hiring physical giants, in 2016 the reverse was true. The Cruiserweight tournament brought in a new generation of younger, faster, smaller talents from promotions like EVOLVE and Ring of Honor like the incredible Rich Swann and TJ Perkins, who years ago would have been jobbers at best on Sunday Night Heat or Velocity, not getting showcased on RAW, PPVs, or getting their own weekly TV show in 205 Live.
It’s funny, because I’m sure if you look back in the archives of the internet, you’d find interviews with Triple H bemoaning the future of the industry because of young, flippity-floppity guys that are too small and only cater to a tiny cult following of Internet marks and that they’d never make it in a WWE ring. Yet he’s the guy who’s ushering in the new era both as the architect of NXT and the Cruiserweights. For that, we’ve got two words for him: Ironic much?
10. Linda McMahon joins Trump cabinet
After two failed bids to become a Connecticut senator, one may have thought that Linda McMahon’s political forays had come to an end. But shortly after her friend Donald Trump won the U.S. Presidential election, one of his early announcements was to state his intention to nominate Linda McMahon for the position of Administrator of the Small Business Administration.
Predictably, some media outlets criticized the choice, and memes soon spread showing a clip of Linda kicking Vince in the crotch as part of a wrestling match, suggesting this would be her policy administration style (though, really, kicking people in the crotches would be better than grabbing them as her new boss is admittedly fond of). But that glosses over the fact that, as the former President of WWE who was instrumental in growing WWE from a small mom-and-pop company to the publicly-traded and global brand that it is today, it’s hard to argue that she isn’t an astute business leader and can really bring forth positive change to that office.
What will be more interesting, though, is to see whether she can parlay that role into future political success — after all, who wouldn’t want to the see a steel cage surround the Oval Office some day?
10. Hogan squashes Gawker
Whatcha gonna do, brother, when the Gawker.com website posts portions of your sex tape with your friend’s wife that was made without your knowledge, and then leaks transcripts of the tape in which you utter racial slurs, thereby getting you fired from WWE, turning you in to a societal pariah, and costing you all sorts of goodwill from your little Hulksters? Well, if you’re Hulk Hogan, you sue the pants off of Gawker quicker than you can say “Legdrop of Doom.”
In March, the jury found Gawker liable and awarded Hogan the sum of $115 million USD in damages and another $25 million USD for punitive damages. A few weeks later, and Gawker filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and put itself up for sale. Univision purchased Gawker Media, shut down the Gawker.com site, and ultimately settled with Hogan for $31 million USD. His mega-power tag team partner in the lawsuit was billionaire Peter Thiel, a co-founder of Paypal, who helped fund the action.
With that amount being paid, it’s believed that this was Hogan’s highest-grossest movie ever (though the performance actually falls somewhere between No Holds Barred and Mr. Nanny.
10. Ten-bell salutes
There’s no question that 2016 was a tragic year for celebrity deaths — Hollywood and the music industry in particular were riddled with sad headlines about superstars passing. And, unfortunately, wrestling wasn’t immune to its share of departed stars as well.
Probably the most widely-known wrestler to leave us in 2016 was former WWE star Chyna (Joanie Laurer), who passed away in April at the age of 46. Bigger and stronger than any of the women in the company, Chyna broke ground by regularly competing against men, including competing in a Royal Rumble match, the King of the Ring tournament, and becoming the first woman to hold a principal championship in WWE (she was a two-time Intercontinental champion). As a member of D-X, Chyna was a key player throughout the WWE’s Attitude Era, until she left the company in 2001. After leaving WWE, Chyna battled personal demons throughout the rest of her life, and her career took a downswing, with appearances on reality TV shows and ultimately pornographic movies. Shortly before her death, Chyna had purportedly been petitioning to get inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, an idea that Triple H had effectively dismissed a few months earlier, suggesting her adult film appearances would be problematic in that regard. Since her death, both he and Stephanie McMahon have appeared to soften on that stance, and despite distancing the company from her in the years leading up to her passing, the company did air a video tribute to her on the RAW after her death.
Other notables that hung up their boots for the last time included: Blackjack Mulligan, both of the ECW original tag team of Axl Rotten and Balls Mahoney, Frenchy Martin, Lord Littlebrook, Denny Kass, legendary tough guy Gypsy Joe, Lord James Blears, Archie “the Stomper” Gouldie, “Wolfman” Willie Farkus, and “Canada’s Greatest Athlete” Iron Mike Sharpe. Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, who once famously took on Japan’s wrestling god Antonio Inoki and who was a marquee guest at the first WrestleMania, also passed away during the year. Sadly, this is by no means an exhaustive list.
10. Phil Brooks gets “Punked” in UFC debut
Citing a loss of passion for wrestling, Phil “CM Punk” Brooks famously walked out on WWE in 2014, and signed a contract with UFC, looking for greener pastures. In September 2016, the only thing that was green was Punk himself as he walked into the octagon for his mixed martial arts debut.
Many MMA pundits assumed the fight would not be easy for Punk, given his lack of fighting experience, his advanced age at the time for a fighter, and a tumultuous year of training during which he injured his shoulder and had to have back surgery. But it didn’t stop Punk from heading into the cage at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena — where coincidentally he’d had his last wrestling match — to face off against Mickey Gall, a relative newcomer himself, though with a perfect 6-0 record (3 amateur, 3 pro). Too bad it didn’t.
Because two minutes and fourteen seconds later, it was all over. Punk basically got dominated, and quickly tapped out to a rear naked choke. All that was missing was the deep voice booming out “Flawless Victory.” Since then, UFC honcho Dana White has been non-committal about Punk appearing again in the UFC, so it’s possible this career has also come to an end. Still, you can’t feel too bad for Punk — he ended up pocketing a cool half million for the fight, and is married to AJ Lee. Can’t fight worth a damn. But we’re still jealous.
10. WWE Hall of Fame quietly inducts wrestling pioneers
Though the WWE Hall of Fame has been in existence (note, not physically) since 1993, it didn’t really become a thing that most fans knew much about or cared much about until 2004 at which point the inductees were honoured in a ceremony that fans could watch and/or attend. Over the years, the WWE HoF has been subject to many criticisms. Most notably, the apparent snubs seemingly based on Vince McMahon’s personal animosity towards someone — the biggest of which being Bruno Sammartino and Randy “Macho Man” Savage, which have now been addressed. But there is also a school of thought that says that since theirs is the largest industry-created Hall of Fame, WWE should celebrate the entire history of the sport, and not just focus on its own past.
To that end, as part of the 2016 Hall of Fame Ceremony, WWE created a new Legacy wing of its Hall of Fame to posthumously induct a number of the early pioneers of the business: Mildred Burke, Frank Gotch, George Hackenschmidt, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Pat O’Connor, Lou Thesz, and “Sailor” Art Thomas. Though these names weren’t publicly announced in advance, nor were they inducted through a formal presentation at the ceremony, they were recognized with a video package at the event.
While the list of inductees is still fodder for debate and the selection process still open to legitimate criticism (no offense to Rikishi, but he’s in there and Sputnik Monroe isn’t?), at least the company is making some progress to completely honour the past and pay homage to those who paved the way for the superstars of today.
10. Matt Hardy storyline takes TNA to new heights (or new lows)
Matt Hardy had been having some success in TNA Wrestling in the early months of the year, even winning the company’s world championship, but he certainly wasn’t setting the world on fire, but rather seemed to be just doing the same-old, same-old. But then something changed. In the early summer, he declared himself to be “Broken,” changing his hairstyle and his accent and manner of speech to a distinct staccato with a never-before-heard accent, and referring to his brother Jeff as “Brother Nero.” Over the next few weeks, his persona became even stranger and over-the-top like a C-grade remake of a Bond villain. When he challenged Nero to a match on the Hardy compound, referred to as “Final Deletion,” the result broke strange new ground for a wrestling show.
The match was filmed and aired like a motion picture, complete with multi-camera cut-edits and a musical soundtrack. The two of them battled it out in an outdoor ring, but the chaos eventually spilled out into the compound. A fireworks cannon was used. The term “dilapidated boat” entered the wrestling lexicon. Senor Benjamin, the family gardener, and Vanguard 1, an automated drone, played key roles in the match. The ending came with Jeff climbing onto a giant Hardy logo, only to have Matt light it on fire, sending Jeff crashing to the ground for a pin. The whole thing was bizarre, like an avant-garde movie trying to recreate a ’60s acid trip.
And they were just getting started. Over the next few months, things got even stranger, with the introduction of Matt’s wife Reby and their baby King Maxel joining in. Brother Nero brought in additional personae including the creepy Willow. By year’s end, the company held an entire two-hour episode of Total Non-Stop Deletion in the broken universe.
Is it divisive? Oh, absolutely. Some pundits have called the focus on comedy and fantasy and deviation from “making it look real” as the worst thing ever in the history of professional wrestling. Meanwhile, others have embraced the lunacy of this theatre of the absurd, and argue that it’s sports entertainment, so how does matter if it’s “pure,” as long as the people watching the product like it.
As the saying goes, some people like chocolate ice cream and some like vanilla. In the case of the “Broken” Matt Hardy stuff, it’s more like LSD-laced Tutti Frutti with fire-ant sprinkles. But it sure isn’t the same-old same-old.
- The prodigal son returns — After a seven-year absence, Shane-0-Mac and his death-defying leaps return to WWE.
- Dwayne Johnson rocks — Former WWE superstar owns Hollywood, gets People‘s Sexiest Man Alive title, is named as one of Time‘s Most Influential People, teases running for President in 2020.
- Start of a new streak? — Bill Goldberg returns to WWE, conquers Brock Lesnar, enters Rumble.
- WWE gets Future Endeavoured — Poorly-used superstars Wade Barrett, Ryback, Alberto Del Rio, and Cody Rhodes (and possibly Paige) leave WWE.
- Vader has no Time for this — Will Ospreay vs. Ricochet match amazes some, angers others.
- Rise of the empire — UK wrestling stars shine in North America, prompting WWE to announce a 2017 UK tournament.
- Hart-breaking — Bret “Hitman” Hart and older brother Smith Hart both announce cancer battles.