In a lot of ways, it's sad to see 2016 come to a close for WWE. It was a revolutionary 12-month span that saw the return of the heir to the throne, the debut and triumph of a global talent that was never supposed happen and the abrupt retirement of a too-young legend. Then there was the unthinkable relationship between WWE and UFC and the slaying of a beast by a titan absent for a decade. The roster was divided, new championships were created while champions were destroyed. And Heath Slater won a title belt.
That last one alone proves what a remarkable year it was. So how could 2017 possibly top that? Who knows? But something will inevitably pop up. It always does, because that's the beauty of pro wrestling. Just when you think you have it all figured out, Vince McMahon throws you a wicked curve ball.
Taking a look back at 2016 and a look ahead to 2017 with me are Scott Fishman and Aaron Oster.
WWE's Biggest Moments Of 2016
Brock Lesnar Returns to UFC
We're talking about just a year or so removed from him making a decision to re-sign with WWE instead of going back to UFC. Now he finds a way to bring the two together and works out a deal with each side that's mutually beneficial. I don't know whether that particular pay-per-view got more buys that when CM Punk fought later in the year, but I do know, based on all the mainstream media coverage, that this was a huge event. I'm actually surprised WWE didn't promote it more on television. It was interesting on that pay-per-view to see WWE SummerSlam promoted. For me, that was a hell-freezing-over type of moment.
Shane McMahon vs. Undertaker at WrestleMania
Here Shane has been absent from WWE for so long, and he comes back with a lot of snow on the roof. You're wondering how much does this guy really have left in the tank athletically. But he comes out and wrestles an absolute dandy against Undertaker, including that ridiculous suicide leap off the top of the cage. My hat is off to Shane McMahon.
Daniel Bryan Retires
I'm kind of surprised no one else talked about this. Just all the mainstream media coverage that it got and the awareness that was brought to the lingering concussion issues. That to me is the top moment of the year because that really transcended the world of pro wrestling. It became a major sports story for the year… Yes, we all saw it coming, but how often does a pro wrestling retirement land on the front sports page of major newspapers across America? When does that happen for wrestling?
Shane McMahon's Return and Brand Extension
It's one of those unexpected things that happened with Shane McMahon coming back that nobody saw coming. Especially in today's social media when everything is out there. Just for them to get that genuine surprise from the fans and audience and a lot of people that are "on the inside," I think that was a great thing. Plus, so many people didn't think that was actually going to be happening again… I'm going to tie that with the brand extension itself. I think that transforms SmackDown into what it is now with it being a live format show again.
Goldberg Returns, Destroys Brock Lesnar
Having Brock Lesnar lose to Goldberg in such decisive fashion, I don't think anybody saw that coming. Goldberg returning to WWE was a great moment in itself, but just having him beat Brock Lesnar in the way that he did spoke volumes. It got people talking. It was a buzz moment in 2016 and now moving forward into the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania. It set up a lot.
AJ Styles Signs with WWE
I'm a huge AJ Styles fan and have been since TNA. Just the fact that he made such an impact in such a short amount of time. No one thought AJ Styles was going to be in WWE, and then he ends up showing up at the Royal Rumble. I was actually there, and the reaction he got right from the beginning was incredible. I'm sure it even surprised WWE. He has really run with the ball. You couldn't ask for a smoother transition. You hear a lot of guys talk about the WWE style and how guys can't kind of adapt to that. I think that he is a shining example that yes, you can do it and do so well.
I thought his return was a huge moment. They built it up properly, and quite frankly I thought it went better than any wrestling fan could have possibly expected. I don't think when they had him coming in they planned on Goldberg beating Brock Lesnar, but they realized how much that crowd loved and responded to him. Good job by WWE to run with it. I thought it was a wild moment and something I did not think would happen. And if it did happen I did not expect it to go down like this.
AJ Styles Debuts in WWE
Yes, he debuted at the Royal Rumble and he had that great feud with Chris Jericho, but the moment where he had that "Oh, this is AJ Styles, and they're going to run with this" was Memorial Day. John Cena returns after they've been hyping it for weeks, and AJ Styles comes out, and they have that Rock-Hulk Hogan type of moment with a split crowd. And then that segment ends with AJ Styles standing over a broken John Cena. It was just a perfectly done segment. To see that moment where a crowd is united behind AJ Styles standing over John Cena, that was really something. You could have told me he would come to WWE, but you could never have told me that moment would happen. He would later beat John Cena cleanly at SummerSlam and win the WWE Title. It was the year of AJ Styles in WWE. And that moment more than anything proved he is no longer the big fish in the small pond. He is as good as anybody on the planet including John Cena.
Shane McMahon Comes Home
If we're talking about an on-screen moment, nothing better encapsulates not just wrestling, but the year in whole, as Shane McMahon returning. You got a surprise… To have him come out to that ridiculous pop from a genuinely shocked crowd. And then using Shane to make some changes (in WWE). He's the on-screen catalyst for the new guys coming up and getting more chances. Shane McMahon, more than anyone else, was WWE in 2016. I had that as number one. It was just a huge moment.
WWE Predictions For 2017
John Cena Goes Even More Hollywood
I see John Cena going even more Hollywood and following in The Rock's footsteps. His decision to do this for him is the right thing career-wise, but then you think back to just a few years ago to his matches against Rock at WrestleMania. His whole thing was Rock left WWE and abandoned the WWE Universe and he's coming in for these few matches. Cena was saying he's always WWE and was all-in for WWE. And here we are in 2017, and he's a bit of a hypocrite in that regard.
Hulk Hogan Returns to WWE
I think that especially toward the later part of the year, maybe around SummerSlam, we could see the red and gold return. I think enough time has passed that WWE would feel comfortable bringing him back.
Undertaker Wins Title at WrestleMania
My number one prediction is a bold one. I'm predicting one final title run for Undertaker… (And with him appearing on RAW in New Orleans) I think the location makes sense, with it being the city where he lost to Brock Lesnar and the streak ended. With an announcement reportedly coming that WrestleMania is returning to New Orleans next year, it makes sense to bring Undertaker to Monday night.
I think it's going to be an interesting year in NXT as far as filling the void of all the talents already called up. It's going to be interesting seeing how that evolves with these new faces getting opportunities. The ones that got called up left some big shoes to fill. What will WWE do with that? There's a lot of talk about Samoa Joe and Nakamura getting called up to the main roster. One of those two is probably going to happen sooner rather than later. It looks to be the case in the next couple months with WrestleMania season coming up.
AJ Styles Dominance
I think AJ Styles will continue to run with the ball, barring any injury or anything out of the ordinary. He seems to be reliable, which WWE is very big on.
WWE Creates John Cena's Successor
It will be interesting to see what WWE does with John Cena getting more and more opportunities away from the company. He seems dead set on being part of WWE still, and you have to admire that with all the hours he puts in. But WWE now has even more of an urgency to build new stars. You can go to the well fewer times now with so many guys they've already called back. You have Goldberg. How many others can you call back? Kurt Angle if he's going to be coming this year. You can't always go to these guys anymore. They're not getting any younger.
NXT 2016 Call-ups Create 2017 Roadblocks
I think that you're going to see people staying there a lot longer than they should. In particular, I think Asuka does not make a main roster appearance in 2017. That's something a lot of people would not expect. I think that they're going to keep more draws like Asuka, especially because they're having a little trouble touring and getting even the smaller venues filled. So, they need to keep people like Asuka down there.
Filling Nakamura's Shoes
I think Nakamura does eventually move on, but they fill his role just as he did in 2015 with a debut and push to the moon. That's Chris Hero's job this time around. He's going to show up, and he's going to be immediately pushed right into the spotlight. If you're looking for a guy from the outside to fill that role, look for Matt Riddle. He's a relative newcomer to wrestling after being in UFC for a while… that's my big prediction for 2017.
The Rise of Sami Zayn
One guy that I think they're going to push, maybe not to the very top, but as a very high mid-carder is Sami Zayn. They've been giving him a lot more TV time lately… WrestleMania is going to have a big moment with Sami Zayn, and my prediction is that Sami Zayn beats Braun Stroman for the U.S. Title at WrestleMania.
Kurt Angle Returns
I think you're going to start seeing Survivor Series built around nostalgia. It's really going to be the nostalgia pay-per-view, and that's where Kurt Angle comes back. You have Kurt Angle return to WWE at Survivor Series this year.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.
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