2016 was a year of change for WWE, going back to the brand split that had been so hit and miss back in 2002-2011. It gave two distinct shows and opportunities that were not available before with exclusive championships available for each brand. With the success of NXT encouraging Vince, HHH and company to make numerous call-ups to the main roster, Raw and Smackdown were ready to split off into their own rosters once again, bolstered by a number of returning names and Cruiserweights. The Best of Raw & Smackdown Live 2016 tells the story of a company split in two and the fight for dominance between Stephanie and Shane McMahon, and their chosen General Managers – Mick Foley on Raw and Daniel Bryan on Smackdown Live.
Disc 1 starts a good few months before the Brand Extension kicked in, giving attention to a number of fresh talents on the roster. "The Phenomenal" AJ Styles made his debut at the Royal Rumble and we see him settling into his groove, battling Chris Jericho for respect before forming Y2AJ and fighting alongside the keeper of The List. Styles also met fellow indy darling Kevin Owens in a great match from Smackdown, showing two guys that many of us never believed would even make it to WWE. It’s a solid effort from both men, and if you’ve been following their careers over the years from ROH, TNA, NJPW and beyond you’ll recognise how far both of them have come. Styles especially has arguably become the best in the world and his work improved tenfold in New Japan.
AJ wasn’t the only big name to surprise WWE fans in early 2016 as Shane McMahon made his long awaited return to WWE television on Monday Night Raw in February, intervening in the Legacy Of Excellence lovefest between Vince McMahon and his daughter. Shane finally provided a face the fans could get behind after a long bleak period under Stephanie and her husband HHH. This would kick-start the main journey towards the Brand Split by having Vince push his children into battling each other over company supremacy.
Disc 1 has a great mixture of in-ring performances from the likes of Charlotte vs Becky Lynch to HHH vs Dolph Ziggler, as well as a highly emotional segment with Daniel Bryan as he announced his retirement in front of his home town fans. It was certainly a hectic start to 2016 but there was a lot more to come!
Disc 2 shows what an impact Shane had on the landscape of WWE with his return. We saw a number of debuts on the main roster including Apollo Crews, The Club and Enzo & Cass. In amongst all the fresh faces trying to make a name for themselves, John Cena returned to once again reclaim his top spot with an electric promo sharing the ring with AJ Styles. With the crowd going wild with the possibility of a dream match, AJ turned heel with help from Gallows and Anderson, and arguably THE feud of 2016 was born.
Before the Brand Split, we saw a couple of great multi-man tag matches. Raw played host to New Day teaming with Enzo & Cass to take on The Club and former NXT champions The Vaudevillains, while Smackdown gave us the unstable Dean Ambrose forming an alliance with Sami Zayn and Cesaro to face a dastardly threesome of Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho and Del Rio. A great mixture of old and new working together to deliver some fantastic matches.
With six draft picks having to be made from NXT, we got some well-deserved promotions to Raw and Smackdown such as Finn Balor and American Alpha, three of the most popular men from down in Florida. On Disc 2 not only do we see Finn hit the ground running in a #1 Contender’s Match versus Roman Reigns on Raw, but also two former NXT talents in Charlotte and Sasha Banks bring the house down in a Women’s Championship match. 2016 was certainly the year the Revolution really stepped up a level for the Women’s Division and they pushed the boundaries way beyond what had been before. Smackdown Live also had a #1 Contender Match, but upped the ante with a 6-Pack challenge between Cena, Ziggler, Crews, Styles, Baron Corbin and Bray Wyatt!
Disc 3 rounds out the year much like how it started, giving opportunities to new talent and shifting the focus to wrestlers we hadn’t seen much of at the top. NXT once again lost one of its biggest stars as Bayley signed with the Raw Women’s division, while an entire Cruiserweight division was created for Monday nights to help fill out the 3 hour weekly show. The Cruiserweight Classic tournament aired exclusively on the WWE Network and had fans talking around the world with its new and exciting talent with many transitioning to Raw since, including the first Cruiserweight Champion TJ Perkins. On this disc we see a high flying Fatal 4-way starring Gran Metalik, Rich Swann, Brian Kendrick and Cedric Alexander as they battle for a shot at Perkin’s title.
In another important Fatal 4-way match, Roman Reigns received another shot at being champion as he took on Seth Rollins, Big Cass and Kevin Owens for the vacated Universal Title after Balor sadly had to relinquish due to injury. With Owens on top at Raw and AJ Styles dominating over on Smackdown Live, WWE had a renewed energy to it with new blood driving the business. You can also count everyone’s favourite man with two fists James Ellsworth in that, seen here getting involved in Styles vs Ambrose. All the new superstars didn’t mean there wasn’t room for nostalgia though, as Disc 3 hosts the highly anticipated return of WCW legend Goldberg. With a hot crowd and a killer promo, Goldberg looked more dominating than ever and finally felt like the man we always wanted in WWE.
This set winds down with perhaps the only way it could do – two high profile Women’s Division matches from each brand for their respective titles. NXT call-up Alexa Bliss got her shot at Becky Lynch’s title on Smackdown Live while Charlotte and Sasha Banks once again battled over the Raw Women’s Championship, this time in a Falls Count Anywhere match. We are left with the overall impression that 2016 was the Year of Women’s wrestling and it’s hard to argue. WWE really got behind their females in a way they’ve rarely done before, much like the unexpected pushes of men like AJ Styles and Kevin Owens. It feels like a company willing to change for the better these days, and it’s a much more exciting product for it.