This has been an exciting and tumultuous year for professional wrestling. There were companies that were on the brink of extinction and there were some that had new life breathed into them. Some of the biggest stars of the industry were absent for much of this year, while some who were at one point not considered main event material finally got the push they deserved. While many companies made waves, the Golden Headlocks will award the best of World Wrestling Entertainment (Raw, Smackdown, NXT, the Cruiserweight Classic and 205 Live this year. The staff of The Scrum Sports wracked their brains for weeks to narrow down the choices and then finalists to come up with solid awards for each category.
MOST IMPROVED SUPERSTAR: THE MIZ
This was a no-brainer. Over the course of 2016, Mike Mizanin went from a mid-card joke that was halfway decent promo putting on mediocre matches to one of the better Intercontinental Champions in recent memory. Ever since the brand split (and likely better new writers on SmackDown Live) as well as his seductively evil wife Maryse starting to accompany him to the ring, the Miz’ game saw a massive upgrade. The bubbling tension between him and recently appointed General Manager of SmackDown, Daniel Bryan, boiled over during an episode Talking Smack that was truly the most must see interview segment of the year. Miz’ new aggressive ring style, that came to life during his recent feud with longtime rival Dolph Ziggler, made the IC title feel a bit more special than it had in a long time. The Miz is one of the most must see champions on either Raw or SmackDown and the fact that I now speak so highly of the Miz, of all people, is why he deserves the award for most improved superstar this year.
BEST RETURN TO WWE: SHANE McMAHON
While a few of us felt that Goldberg or even The Brian Kendrick made a huge impact in their respective returns, no one changed the day to day business of the Raw and SmackDown product like Shane-O-Mac has. Though him losing the match at WrestleMania for control of Raw, only for his dear old dad, Vince McMahon, to give him a shot the next night made the whole match feel like it was for nothing, Shane later being appointed the Commissioner of SmackDown was the best thing that could have happened. Fresh writing, more focus on the in-ring action, appointing fan favorite Daniel Bryan as the General Manager (as well as still keeping the great Mauro Ranallo on commentary and SD Live remaining only two hours long compared to the chore that is the three hour Raw) are why Shane McMahon had the best return to the company this year…his return literally changed the face of the company.
BEST COMMENTATOR: MAURO RANALLO
This wasn’t even a contest. Ranallo was the first WWE commentator in a very long time that made the product feel like a legit sport, something that I haven’t felt since Jim Ross was calling the action there. Mauro breathed new life into not only SmackDown, but also into Jerry the King Lawler, who seemed reinvigorated during their all too short partnership. Though WWE made the mistake of putting him with the sometimes overbearing JBL and still trying to find his voice David Otunga, not to mention adding an unnecessary fourth commentator in Tom Phillips, Mauro still is the captain of that ship so to speak, and he balances all of his duties with aplomb. In a few years, I could easily see Corey Graves or even Renee Young (if they wisely make her third commentator on Raw or SD) winning this, but as of now, as far as WWE commentary is concerned, Ranallo has no equal.
BEST MERCHANDISE/PARAPHERNELIA: THE LIST OF JERICHO
Without sounding like broken record, this one was abundantly clear. While Bayley’s wacky inflatable flailing tube dolls are perfection for her character and the abundance of Cesaro Section signs earlier this year feeling like the ultimate middle finger by the fans to upper management for not pushing the Swiss Superman, James Ellsworth being a walking talking “gimmick” to the Unicorn Horns and Booty-Os of the New Day who are the ultimate “take a $#!^ gimmick and turn it into soufflé” story of the year, NOTHING got a bigger pop than the list that Jericho would put people on when they pissed him off. The list got a louder pop at times than about 80% of the roster (which is a sad state of affairs for a company that’s constantly criticized for its inability to make big stars these days). The funny part of it all is that we still haven’t received a comprehensive breakdown of who is on the list…and who is on there more than once.
BIGGEST DUB-TEE-EFF MOMENT: SHINSUKE NAKAMURA’S ENTRANCE AT NXT TAKEOVER BROOKLYN II
I can hear the hot coals that the wrestling purists are ready to rake me over. A match not winning this award will ruffle some feathers for sure. Some would list either AJ Style’s WWE debut at the Royal Rumble, or Shane McMahon’s dive off of the Hell in a Cell at Wrestlemania, or Brock Lesnar leaving Randy Orton in a pool of his own blood at SummerSlam, or the first ever women’s Hell in a Cell match, or even Brock Lesnar getting squashed by Goldberg in under two minutes at Survivor Series. But there was something that was just surreal at NXT Takeover Brooklyn II. Samoa Joe and Shinsuke Nakamura’s feud was reaching fever pitch. They needed something big to really make this match legendary. Enter, famed violinist Lee England Jr. He performed The Rising Sun, Nakamura’s entrance theme, while the king of strong style made his way to ringside. The entire arena not only sang his entrance theme louder than any NXT crowd entrance sing-a-longs, but it went viral and got many people who don’t even watch Raw or SmackDown to start watching NXT. I’ve heard his theme used as a ringtone on more than one occasion since. I think it will be a really long time before that big of an impact will be made again with simply a ring entrance.
BEST STORYLINE: THE CRUISERWEIGHT CLASSIC
Though a few of us argued that a tournament doesn’t count as a storyline, I counter that the fact it had its own television show clearly means that it counts. Though the reign of Queen Charlotte as one of the top heels in the entire company was impressive, as was Goldberg’s first promo when he returned to Raw, spouting the infamous “YOU’RE LAST” line to Brock Lesnar and best friends Jeri-KO have given me quite the laughs and the heat between Daniel Bryan and the Miz has me watching Talking Smack now, the Cruiserweight Classic was a dream for not only wrestling purists, but fans that have felt something missing inside since WCW went under and we lost the opportunity to see those great Cruiserweights on weekly U.S. television. Mauro Ranallo and Daniel Bryan on commentary treated it like a shoot, just as MMA commentators would and it gave true authenticity to the proceedings. For those who did watch and this was their first time seeing wrestlers like Zack Sabre Jr, Cedric Alexander or Kota Ibushi compete in action, to say it was a treat is an understatement. I implore anyone that is on the fence about purchasing the WWE Network, the 9.99 per month, hell, an entire year’s worth of payments make it worth it just to see the ten episode 32 man single elimination tournament (despite WWE creative dropping the ball once those guys debuted on Monday Night Raw).
BEST FEUD (WOMEN’S): CHARLOTTE vs. SASHA BANKS
There were some that really wanted to put Asuka vs. Bayley on the list, myself included. But honestly, that feud was short (in a good way) and at times felt one sided because of how dominant the great Asuka is. However, Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks stole the show on most episodes of Raw this year. These women put on some of their best matches against each other and have natural chemistry when sparring on the microphone or in the squared circle. The feud did wane at times because of the sometimes unnecessary bumps taken, which caused injury in some cases, the belt changing hands too many times, or the fact that this program is running the risk of having gone on way too long. However, these women brought out the best in not only each other, but in women’s wrestling, something that the poorly thought out Diva’s Revolution didn’t quite nail the landing with.
BEST FEUD (MEN’S): AJ STYLES vs. JOHN CENA
While D.I.Y. vs. The Revival was my personal choice (but the fact it was on the lower profile NXT, not Raw or SmackDown may have hurt it) and a few felt that Miz vs. Ziggler could have been it (but Ziggler losing the IC belt so soon after his big “win or leave WWE” match, making him feel like even more of a mid-carder for life), the Cena/Styles feud fired on all cylinders. Before WWE started writing AJ like a joke, he proved night in and night out that he was every bit as good as himself or the IWC stated he was. As much as Cena wanted to say he was the face that runs the place, there was always a side glance or a bit of concern with how Cena carried himself in Styles’ presence, almost like he knew that Styles would one day have his number. That day was SummerSlam. Cena pulled out every big gun in his offensive arsenal and couldn’t put Styles away. For the first time, Big Match John got a taste of his own medicine and that panicked look on Cena’s face put over Styles more than any championship ever could. THAT is how you get someone who was big in other promotions, over with the WWE audience that may be unfamiliar with them. Creative/booking should learn from this when they handle other big talents from other companies.
BEST CHAMPION (WOMEN’S): ASUKA
There was some discussion with this as a few felt Charlotte more deserving of this award. However, when you look at the number of different opponents that Asuka had to go through and the fact that she’s plowed through all of them like a wrecking ball, is no easy feat. When competing against opponents with the heart of a Bayley, or the veteran experience of a Mickey James, to remain undefeated since winning the NXT Women’s Championship is no easy feat. Asuka is a force of nature and the NXT Women’s title is all the better for it.
BEST CHAMPION (MEN’S): TIE BETWEEN FINN BALOR (NXT CHAMPIONSHIP) & SAMOA JOE (NXT CHAMPIONSHIP)
There’s just something about the NXT championship titles that bring out a whole other side of the people fighting over them. The athletes there treat the titles with prestige and those feuds over the titles with intensity. And when it comes to intensity, no two men ooze that better than Samoa Joe and Finn Balor. When these men feuded for the NXT title, it elevated that championship to a level that even ascended beyond the WWE championship. The champion of NXT always felt special. Once Samoa Joe and Finn Balor began their feud over the championship, it became THE belt to follow.
BEST TAG TEAM: THE NEW DAY
Though a few of us were pulling for The Revival, there was no doubt in our minds that The New Day was the most deserving. These guys took a gimmick that should have been a death knell career wise, yet they turned it into something entertaining. Kofi Kingston, Big E and Xavier Woods were always talented workers, but now that they’re given the proper time on the microphone, they proved that they could entertain the masses night in and night out. If their WrestleMania XXXII entrance (coming out of a giant box of Booty-Os, all dressed up as the Saiyans from Dragon Ball Z) didn’t solidify them here, their breaking Demolition’s record and becoming the longest reigning tag team champions in WWE history surely does.
NEXT BIG THING OF 2017: SHINSUKE NAKAMURA
This one was as divisive as it gets. A few felt that American Alpha was going to be the breakout tag team, showing their dominance next year. A few of us, myself included, felt that it is Samoa Joe’s time and that he’s likely about to be called up (preferably to SmackDown) to run roughshod over that entire roster. However, Nakamura’s charisma, in ring ability and carrying himself as an elite champion (not to mention his years of experience around the world) all add up to the King of Strong Style making waves with the WWE universe in the near future.
MATCH OF THE YEAR (TAG TEAM): D.I.Y. vs. THE REVIVAL (NXT TAKEOVER TORONTO)
There were quite a few quality tag matches this year, the majority of them coming from NXT. These two team need to teach classes on how to be a babyface and heel team, respectively. They know how to build heat, when to cut off offense, when to make hot tags and when to build towards a finish better than any other tag teams in the industry. And a 2 out of 3 falls match allows them the time to show their entire arsenal. When they pick a spot for a weapon, they do so perfectly (such as when Gargano was about to kick Dash and Dawson’s heads off, but Dawson used the NXT title belt to block, causing an “injury” to Gargano’s shin that he sold for the rest of the night like a pro. In the end, Ciampa and Gargano defeated their long time rivals and after several months in the hunt, they finally won the NXT tag team championships. Personally, this win was possibly the most emotionally moving of any title change this year.
MATCH OF THE YEAR (WOMEN’S): CHARLOTTE vs. SASHA BANKS (RAW 11/28/16)
These women had many good matches this year, but this one, in Charlotte’s hometown, solidified this as a feud for the ages. There was way more storytelling in this match and way fewer unnecessary high spots (making the few that they did do matter). The raw emotion when Sasha won the championship, then to have Charlotte’s dad, the Nature Boy Ric Flair, hold Sasha’s hand up high was the perfect cap to this feud. While it wasn’t the blow off match of the feud (which it should have been), this one far exceeded my expectations and topped all of the women’s previous encounters this year.
MATCH OF THE YEAR (MEN’S): SAMI ZAYN vs. SHINSUKE NAKAMURA (NXT TAKEOVER DALLAS)
This category had a plethora of nominees, all deserving. Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa during the Cruiserweight Classic was one of the best babyface vs. babyface matches of the past 15 years. The same can be argued for Cedric Alexander vs. Kota Ibushi from the CWC. Finn Balor and Seth Rollins had a brutal fight over the WWE Universal Championship at SummerSlam. However, the excitement over Sami Zayn returning to NXT coupled with the mystique of Nakamura, making his NXT debut, created the perfect storm, hyping up this match. And to say it was a match undersells it completely. These men had a war. Anyone who has seen his work in New Japan Pro Wrestling knew the kind of intensity that Nakamura brings with his offense. But no one expected him to push Zayn to unseen levels of aggression (outside of his feud with Kevin Owens). Zayn went after Nakamura with strikes and kicks that very well should have busted the King of Strong Style open. In the end, Nakamura eked out the win over Zayn, but both men left it all on the mat that night and the crowd in the arena, along with those watching at home, are grateful for their hard work.
TOP SUPERSTAR OF THE YEAR: AJ STYLES
The staff mulled over this one for quite a bit. Charlotte had an impressive run as one of the top heels on Raw. Kevin Owens got the push that no one thought he’d get (for the same reasons that CM Punk and Daniel Bryan were held back). Brock Lesnar was Brock Lesnar. Samoa Joe ran roughshod over the NXT roster. Even the comeback story of The Brian Kendrick was an impressive one. But at the end of the day, the Phenomenal One had
Huge pop for a debut at one of the biggest shows of the year (the Royal Rumble).
Instant recognition among the smart marks.
Showed those not in the know immediately that he can go with the best on the roster.
Improved his mic skills, which were always his Achilles heel.
Took what felt like a rushed heel turn and made it work.
Won championship gold.
And this is the big one, got John Cena, the man who felt like he’d never pass the torch, to finally pass the torch (I dare anyone to watch that match at SummerSlam and say that wasn’t a passing of the torch).
Whether you agreed with our picks and enjoyed the read or vehemently disagree and wish to vent your frustration, please leave comments. We do hope you continue with us here at the Scrum Sports as we go into 2017 and see who will be top contenders for the 2017 Golden Headlock Awards.