The breakout Superstars of 2016
If somebody had asked you on Jan. 1, 2016, which Superstars would be fighting over the WWE Championship come December, chances are you probably wouldn’t have said AJ Styles — who was three days away from headlining a show in the Tokyo Dome — and James Ellsworth — who was a weekend warrior with a desk job. Fact is, you never can quite predict who will break free from the pack and create their own opportunity in WWE. This year, everyone from a reformed cult member/power lifter to a mismatched tag team who are doing it for the kids made their mark. Get to know them, along with six other breakout acts of 2016 we never saw coming, presented by Mountain Dew.
Braun Strowman — The Monster
A good big man is hard to find, and not since Big Show debuted in WWE in 1999 has a giant shown as much promise as Braun Strowman. The Monster Among Men seems to possess it all. The height, strength, power and presence needed to become an enduring figure not just on Raw, but in the history books.
And sure, 2016 was the breakthrough year for Strowman, but defeating local competitors across the globe and being a key member of the Raw Survivor Series team is just scratching the surface. The year ahead will bring championships, possibly even the big one … and wouldn’t that be fitting. — RYAN PAPPOLLA
#DIY — The Little Tag Team Who Could
Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa both carved out ever-expanding cult followings on the American indie circuit, but it wasn’t until they became tag team partners that they reached new levels of Superstardom. The duo now known as #DIY chased The Revival for the NXT Tag Team Championships during the second half of 2016, finally winning the coveted title at TakeOver: Toronto in a grueling 2-out-of-3 Falls Match.
It was a long road to the top, but these close friends never wavered, no matter what obstacles were thrown their way. Now, Gargano & Ciampa are the NXT Tag Team Champions and, arguably, the brand’s most popular tag team. And they did it all themselves. — SCOTT TAYLOR
Charlotte Flair — The Queen
The legacy of royal figures is determined by their victories and the significance of what they do while they reign. Well, 2016 made it very clear that Charlotte Flair’s rule will be an historic one.
Proving that The Queen is not just some fancy moniker, Charlotte went down in the books as the last Divas Champion, the first WWE Women’s Champion and the victor of the first Women’s Hell in a Cell Main Event Match all in one calendar year … among many other accolades that word counts simply won’t allow.
She shouldn’t have to ask us to bow down any longer. It should just be a prerequisite at this point. — RYAN PAPPOLLA
James Ellsworth — The Underdog
Ever feel like throwing in the towel on your dreams? Don’t. Instead, take a long, hard look at James Ellsworth. After being mauled in his July debut against Braun Strowman,the most unlikely Superstar thought he would simply “fade away,” returning to a life in Baltimore and his job helping people with mental and physical disabilities find employment. The WWE Universe, however, had other plans. Using social media, fans urged WWE to give Ellsworth another chance. Since then, he’s squabbled with Dean Ambrose and AJ Styles, even defeating the WWE Champion on three separate occasions. To paraphrase Ellsworth himself, any man with a dream has a fighting chance. — GREG ADKINS
Daniel Bryan — The Reluctant GM
There’s an undeniable freedom possessed by a man unbound by orthodoxy or self-censorship. If you’re scratching your head trying to conjure a current example, do yourself a solid and tune into “Talking Smack.” There, you will witness Daniel Bryan unencumbered by fear or filter. Why should he be? After all, this is a man who, at WrestleMania 30, had 75,167 fans chanting “Yes!” in unison only to be told, less than two years later, that he could never compete in a WWE ring again. His spirit was broken. Hell, it may still be. But that’s what makes Bryan such a revelation: He’s not concerned about expressing his opinion, no matter whose knickers get knotted. And to that, we say, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” — GREG ADKINS
Heath Slater & Rhyno — The Odd Couple
“We’re gettin’ a double-wide, bay-bay!”
That was the unforgettable refrain Heath Slater offered his wife after he and partner Rhyno became the inaugural SmackDown Tag Team Champions, and Slater secured himself a WWE contract in the process. And it wasn’t just a domestic upgrade that had the West Virginia native happier than a pig in poop. Two months earlier, he had endured the humiliation of going unpicked during WWE’s Draft. Told he could earn a contract were he to win the tag team titles, Slater unsuccessfully sought a partner. That is, until former nemesis, and ECW madman, Rhyno volunteered. After shocking the world, the peculiar pairing enjoyed an 84-day reign — and some of the most bizarre chemistry in WWE history. And they did it all for the kids. — GREG ADKINS
The Brian Kendrick — The Comeback Kid
We’re calling it a comeback, but transformation might be the more accurate word. When The Brian Kendrick reemerged in WWE for the Cruiserweight Classic tournament after a lengthy hiatus, it was as if we were watching a completely different person. No longer a high-flying baby-faced Superstar, “The Post-Apocalyptic Scavenger” returned a grizzled veteran with a new rugged in-ring style.
Many forgot about the former WWE Tag Team Champion, and why not? It had been more than five years since he was last seen in WWE. Previously out of mind and out of sight, Kendrick’s rise to becoming WWE Cruiserweight Champion shows he’s not only back in WWE, but he’s better than ever. — SCOTT TAYLOR
AJ Styles — The Champ
Can a whole year be counted as a moment? Because, much like AJ Styles’ activity in the ring, it feels like he never stopped flying from the nanosecond he entered third in the 2016 Royal Rumble Match way back in January.
Let’s check inventory. First WrestleMania match? Check. Beat John Cena? Check. Beat up John Cena? Check many times over. Win his first WWE Championship? Yeah, check … and it only took him nine months. That’s scary good, or, “Phenomenal,” as it may be.
“The Champ that Runs the Camp” didn’t just break through in 2016. No, he obliterated the whole freaking foundation. Now let’s see what he does in 2017. — RYAN PAPPOLLA