Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in this week’s edition of the Figure Four Weekly newsletter for subscribers.
Though the malaise of three-hour Raws and seemingly constant content often made it difficult to appreciate in the moment, 2016 was a transformative year for WWE that featured high points in diverse in-ring action.
Some of the same problems that have long existed still remain as we enter the New Year. Raws are, indeed, too long. Main event booking on the flagship show has been as stale as ever with the same handful of talents being shuffled around without a compelling direction. And even with the influx of new talent into the company last year, many of them haven’t been used to their full potential.
But those problems don’t outshine what was the best year in company history in terms of match quality. WWE has never before had as many excellent matches in a given year. The roster has never had so many talented workers.
Where WWE succeeded most in 2016 was making a genuine effort to present their product in different ways. The most obvious example of that has been the quality of SmackDown since the company once again attempted a brand split in July.
SmackDown wasn’t totally useless prior to the WWE draft. The show usually featured good matches, but it existed mostly as a watered-down two-hour version of Raw without signature moments or much angle advancement.
The brand split changed that. SmackDown (and Talking Smack after the show) became a legitimate must-see program every week. Led by the otherworldly performance of AJ Styles both as a character and inside of the ring, the show has consistently utilized nearly every talent on the roster to their strengths. Styles boosted the brand’s pay-per-views and TV shows by wrestling every match seemingly in an attempt to prove that he’s the best wrestler in the world and capable of carrying the company.
Styles’ main events and WWE Championship programs helped carry the brand, but other talents have thrived as well. The Miz has done the best work of his career. Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss have been solid women’s champions. The Wyatt Family has once again become a compelling act with Randy Orton joining the group. Baron Corbin has shown a lot of promise. Even Heath Slater and Rhyno were a bright spot on the show for a brief period.
In addition to its women’s title programs, SmackDown has been able to always juggle more than one feud within the division at once with Nikki Bella, Natalya, Carmella, and Naomi also doing good work at times. WWE’s 2016 might ultimately most be remembered as the year that the women’s revolution finally took hold on the main roster.
It wasn’t always perfect. The rivalry between Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks went on for too long. They had too many pointless title switches. The redeeming qualities of their Hell in a Cell main event — the first time that a women’s match has ever closed a WWE PPV — were at least equaled by the low points. But just being able to main event a PPV with a women’s match that didn’t at all feel out of place was a considerable achievement.
Despite the problems, Charlotte and Banks were often the best part of Raw. The existence of meaningful women’s matches has tremendously helped programming while making an actual attempt to appeal to all portions of the audience.
WWE presented a unique product that the company never would have in previous years over the summer with the Cruiserweight Classic airing on the WWE Network. For a few months, the CWC was some of the best programming that the company has ever produced. WWE seamlessly integrated the diverse styles of lightweight wrestlers and allowed some who didn’t even end up signing with the company to shine.
Led by the instant classic between Cedric Alexander and Kota Ibushi, the tournament produced some of WWE’s best matches and moments of the year. Raw’s cruiserweight division and the early introduction of 205 Live haven’t had the same success. But Rich Swann being given a shot as the division’s champion, along with Neville’s stellar work in the first few weeks in his new role as a heel seem to suggest that better days are ahead in 2017.
The plethora of other options and a lackluster year for the brand overall made it so NXT’s role in the diversification of the WWE product in 2016 was mitigated. NXT was home to the best tag team wrestling in the company with The Revival always delivering in big matches and Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa serving as their best opponents to date. Their two TakeOver matches in Brooklyn and Toronto were among WWE’s best of the year and stood above everything else NXT did in 2016.
With SmackDown serving as a more effective alternative to Raw and 205 Live featuring many of the wrestlers who otherwise would have made their way through NXT, it might be best for NXT to carve out its identity by embracing its role as developmental going forward. Fans want to watch talents improve and develop over time. They want to get invested in their journeys. If stars like Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe aren’t immediately going to be placed on the main roster, fans want to watch them have short runs in NXT before being promoted to those deserving spots.
While the use of Nakamura, Joe, and Bobby Roode may have helped ticket sales as NXT attempts to become a viable touring product, it’s undeniable that buzz for the brand cooled off considerably last year.
The announcement of the United Kingdom Championship tournament and whatever is to come of that seems to indicate that the diversification of the WWE product will only continue into 2017 and the years to come. Triple H has said that they don’t expect fans to watch all of the content they put out as it’s happening, and it seems like we’re heading into an era where programming on the Network that appeals to niche audiences will make it easier for fans to pick and choose what they want to watch based on personal preference.
That won’t change many of the flaws inherent in WWE programming. Though there were better episodes towards the end of the year, Raw will still be too long. Much of the creative will still be uninspiring. Part-timers will still be heavily featured as we enter WrestleMania season. The company will still have problems creating legitimate mainstream superstars.
Those flaws shouldn’t be overlooked. But the transformation of WWE should only continue into 2017. The company will produce more great matches. More of the best wrestlers from around the world will sign with WWE, while many talents on the roster will get chances that we didn’t think were possible even a few years ago. And WWE will continue to find new ways to present a diverse variety of content. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re undeniably getting better.