2016 was a big year for the WWE, as the company made several bold moves to keep themselves at the top of the wrestling industry for years to come. Now that 2016 is just about over, it's time to look back at some of the biggest stories of the year.
Our "top stories" list is a collection of the year's biggest news stories, featuring events and decisions that changed the WWE landscape. Some of the stories are about specific wrestlers, while others are about events or decisions made by the company.
One of the WWE's most popular wrestlers, Daniel Bryan shocked the world in early 2016 when he announced his in-ring retirement on Twitter. Along with CM Punk, Bryan helped transform the WWE and opened the company's eyes to the true value of elevating indie wrestlers as their "top guys". Having risen to the top of the WWE despite countless setbacks (Bryan's size and unconventional look were both seen as detriments to WWE brass), Bryan had one of the greatest Wrestlemania moments in WWE history when he defeated Triple H, Batista, and Randy Orton to become the WWE World Heavyweight Champion at Wrestlemania XXX.
Unfortunately, Bryan suffered several injuries over the next two years, including a major neck injury and a severe concussion. While Bryan pushed the WWE to clear him for months, a new brain test revealed signs of permanent brain damage that caused him to reconsider and formally retire.
Bryan has stated on the record how hard it was to retire and admitted that he struggled with depression for months afterwards. However, he returned to television over the summer as a commentator for the Cruiserweight Classic and the general manager for Smackdown. His wife Brie Bella also retired this year and announced she was pregnant in the fall.
The "Road to Wrestlemania" is always filled with surprises, but this year might have topped them all with the surprise return of Shane McMahon. The son of WWE owner Vince McMahon, Shane was a fixture on WWE for many years until he left the company in 2010. According to multiple reports, Shane left after his father made it clear that Shane's sister Stephanie and brother-in-law Triple H were being groomed as Vince's eventual replacement.
After a six year absence from television, Shane made a surprise return in February and announced his intent to "turn around" the WWE. Vince offered Shane control of Monday Night RAW, but only if he could defeat the Undertaker in a Hell in a Cell match at Wrestlemania. Shane lost that match, although he performed a daring 20 foot jump off the top of the cell onto the announcer's table. The following night, Vince gave Shane control of RAW anyways, kicking off what became known as the WWE's "New Era".
Shane has remained involved as an on-screen WWE character. He's currently the commissioner of Smackdown Live and participated in a traditional Survivor Series match along with Smackdown's other major male stars.
2015 had an extraordinary amount of injuries, so it's not too surprising that the WWE chose to bolster their roster with tons of new talent from their developmental system and from various indie promotions. The biggest wrestler signed to a WWE contract was AJ Styles, who debuted at the Royal Rumble and finished 2016 as the WWE Champion. Outside of Kurt Angle, it's arguable that no wrestler has had a greater first year than AJ Styles.
The New Era kicked off with a ton of new call-ups from NXT, including Baron Corbin, Apollo Crews, and the Vaudevillains. Bayley and Finn Balor made their long-awaited main roster debuts over the summer, as did Alexa Bliss, Carmella, American Alpha, and Nia Jax.
The WWE hasn't shied away from highlighting their young talent either. Bliss, American Alpha, and Styles ended 2016 as championship belt holders, while Finn Balor was the first ever WWE Universal Champion.
There's plenty more talent waiting in the wings. Japanese legend Shinsuke Nakamura debuted in NXT in 2016 and is the developmental brand's current champion, while superstars like the Revival and Samoa Joe seemed poised to make their main roster debuts in 2017. That's not including a boatload of rumored signings, including indie wrestlers Chris Hero, Kimber Lee, and Heidi Lovelace.
The WWE made major headlines in the late spring when they announced they would split their two main shows into seperate brands with different rosters. The Brand Split was made to help boost Smackdown's slipping ratings and give the company a reason to boost the number of "premiere events" (AKA PPVs) aired on the WWE Network each month.
Like any major change, the brand split had a mix of positive and negative effects. On one hand, the brand split turned Smackdown into a "must watch" show, with cohesive storylines and continuity that naturally progressed over several months. Smackdown is easily the WWE's best show every week, even with a significantly smaller roster than Monday Night RAW. The brand split has also given more wrestlers more opportunities to shine by doubling the number of championships. Becky Lynch, American Alpha, Finn Balor, Bray Wyatt, Sasha Banks, and Alexa Bliss all earned their first WWE championships in 2016, thanks in part to the brand split.
However, the brand split has also caused a degree of burnout among WWE fans. The WWE currently airs 6 hours of live programming each week, not including weeks where there's a PPV. There's just too much television for a WWE fan to watch every week, which has led the WWE to considering scaling back their PPV events in 2017. The brand split has also exposed the WWE's thin roster at times, as both Smackdown and RAW have relied on the same rivalries to carry their programming for months. For instance, AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose feuded from September from December, while Sasha Banks and Charlotte's rivalry extended from before Wrestlemania through the end of the year with few breaks.
Despite the protests of many vocal fans, Wrestlemania 32 was the coronation of Roman Reigns as the new "top guy" of the WWE. The WWE had pushed Reigns as their new main star for nearly two years, even though he often drew more boos than cheers. After defeating Triple H and a small army of goons during the first part of the year, many WWE fans resigned themselves to an extended reign of the "Roman Empire" and his WWE Championship reign.
However, just before the brand split was supposed to take place, the WWE announced that Roman Reigns had violated the company's wellness policy and would be suspended for 30 days. When Reigns returned, he promptly lost the WWE Championship to Seth Rollins and was pinned by Dean Ambrose a month later in a Triple Threat match for the WWE Championship. The following month, Reigns lost to Finn Balor in a qualifying match for the new WWE Universal Championship at Summerslam.
It's unclear how much Reigns was "in the doghouse", but it's pretty obvious that the suspension caused the WWE to at least reconsider Reigns's place at the top of the WWE's card. Reigns's suspension directly led to Dean Ambrose, Finn Balor, and Kevin Owens getting opportunities at becoming the WWE's new "top guy", although none have really replaced Reigns.
Reigns will challenge Kevin Owens at the Royal Rumble next month for the WWE Universal Championship, which should say a lot about whether Reigns has redeemed himself in the eyes of WWE's decision makers.
Tournaments aren't exactly a new concept in the WWE, as the King of the Ring tournament was among the WWE's earliest annual events in the 1980s. However, the WWE stepped out of its comfort zone in a big way this summer when it held the Cruiserweight Classic, a new 32 wrestler tournament held over the course of 10 weeks.
What seperated the Cruiserweight Classic from previous tournaments was that the bulk of its participants weren't established WWE wrestlers. Headlined by Japanese superstar Kota Ibushi and British indie darling Zack Sabre Jr., the CWC was envisioned as a showcase for wrestlers from around the world...and an extended tryout for possible signees.
According to the WWE, the Cruiserweight Classic was one of the WWE's most-watched shows all summer on the WWE Network and led to the rebirth of the WWE's cruiserweight division on RAW. Nearly a dozen CWC participants signed WWE contracts and now regularly appear on Monday Night RAW, NXT touring events, and the new 205 Live weekly show.
Thanks to the success of the Cruiserweight Classic, the WWE is moving forward with several other tournaments featuring indie wrestlers. The WWE has already announced a UK tournament in January, and there are rumors that a women's tournament is also in the late planning stages.
Countless celebrities and public figures died in 2016, including the former WWE superstar Chyna. Chyna was a pioneer in the women's division and was the first (and only) woman to win the Intercontinental Championship. Booked as an enforcer for Triple H and D-Generation X, Chyna often feuded with male wrestlers during a period where intergender matches were extraordinarily rare.
Unfortunately, Chyna's legacy at the WWE was marred by backstage drama. Chyna used to date Triple H in real life and left the company when he started dating his future wife Stephanie McMahon. Chyna, like many other wrestlers from that era, also struggled with addiction and periodically appeared in tabloids after she left the WWE.
In April 2016, Chyna's manager found her body at her apartment. Several months later, a coroner confirmed she died of an accidental overdose from several types of pain pills.