WWE might still dominate the wrestling world, but there’s much more to wrestling than what you can find on USA or the WWE Network. The internet has continued to be a godsend for independent and international wrestling promotions, helping companies like Evolve, New Japan and many more grow their fanbases. Meanwhile TNA and Lucha Underground offer alternatives to WWE on basic cable (albeit on stations that many providers don’t carry), and Ring of Honor continues to get more clearances for their syndicated show while running more pay-per-views than ever before. WWE is prohibitively the biggest game in town, but even they want to get in on the underground action, with a world class development system that’s booked like an old-school weekly studio show and the current Cruiserweight Classic tournament bringing some of the best high flyers from around the world together on the WWE Network. Wrestling fans who know where to look are in the midst of a modern golden age of wrestling, with more worthwhile shows and promotions than almost anybody could ever keep up with.
With so many options, we didn’t just look to WWE for our list of the best wrestlers of 2016 so far. Our panel of experts are active fans of a wide variety of promotions, and it shows in our list. Only seven of the 20 men here are full-timers for WWE, and two of them spent all of the first half of the year in NXT.
That first half note is important: we’re only considering what happened between January 1 and June 30, 2016. This is a first-half list, so wrestlers like Kota Ibushi and Brock Lesnar, who only had a few matches the first half of the year, didn’t do enough to be considered. We also took a holistic approach, considering all aspects of wrestling, including match quality, microphone skills, movesets, psychology, selling, their ability to tell a story in a match, how well they play their character, and more. Somebody like, say, Dalton Castle, who’s a very good wrestler and an amazing actor and character, might rank higher than somebody who’s more consistent in the ring. And we don’t weigh any promotion higher than any other. A top guy in Ring of Honor or Lucha Underground (or even TNA) was judged by the same criteria as a top guy in WWE.
This wasn’t an easy process. Five voters—Paste wrestling editor Garrett Martin, Paste staff writer Jim Vorel, Paste and Vice Sports contributor Ian Williams, comedian and former Paste wrestling columnist Jamie Loftus, and lifelong wrestling fan (and big shot animation director) Mack Williams—submitted ballots with their personal top 20, and after crunching the numbers we came up with the following list. All of us had at least one personal favorite painfully miss the cut, and so here’s a healthy list of honorable mentions.
Honorable mentions: Adam Cole; Fenix; Drew Galloway; Tomohiro Ishii; Bobby Lashley; Pentagon Jr; Kyle O’Reilly; Katsuyori Shibata; Roderick Strong; Timothy Thatcher; Sami Zayn.
And finally, Jamie Loftus requested space for a defense of the Big Show, her favorite wrestler of all time. She actually wrote two defenses, so here are they both are.
The best wrestler working now or ever is Sir Paul Wight, the Big Show. While some, nay, nearly all would choke to death on their own panini at the mere thought of including a wrestler whose regular hunger for pizza and cigs cannot be denied, I say this: perhaps, instead of technical prowess and skill, we should judge a professional wrestler on their purity of heart, and whether or not they have starred in a movie with an extended poop sequence on a school bus. In these regards, Big Show is the ONLY contender, so please join me in congratulating him as the World’s Greatest Wrestler.
Before we begin, I’d like to take a moment to imagine Paul Wight, the Big Show, looking into his bathroom mirror every morning listening to a slow acoustic version of his own theme.
It’s no secret that I have a gigantic boner for the Big Show, and it’s no secret that most people Do Not Get It. People will say, “Jamie, he eats pizza and rips cigs before matches.” To which I say, “Uh, idiot, he vapes now.” To which they say, “That’s somehow less classy.” To which I say, “He was the heir apparent to Andre the Giant!” To which they say, “Yeah, and how did that work out?”
Then a voice from above, either Vince McMahon or God, sounds from the skies. “But is he actually a good wrestler?”
To which we both say, “Eh.” BIG SHOW FOREVER.
And now, the 20 best pro wrestlers of 2016 (so far.)
Another guy who didn’t make it in WWE’s developmental system, EC3 has thrived since leaving, being one of TNA’s lone bright spots. What’s more, he’s young; TNA is strangely old for a promotion which once teemed with young talent. Regardless of how you feel about Final Deletion, the Hardys aren’t the right age to build a company around.
So enter EC3. He’s a deft wrestler and passable on the mic, but mainly he has a look which TNA sorely lacks: tan, buff, good-looking in a perhaps bland way, but one which is highly marketable. TNA strapped a rocket to him, giving him the world title a scant two years after his debut, over Kurt Angle, no less. As good as that is, the future is even brighter. He’s the sort of guy the next 6-8 years of TNA can be built around, if they hang onto him.—Ian Williams
KUSHIDA has one of my favorite gimmicks in pro wrestling. He really loves Back To The Future and dresses like Marty McFly!
That’s it. That’s the gimmick.
But don’t let the puffy vest and stone washed denim fool you. Since leaving tag team partner Alex Shelley and the Time Splitters behind, KUSHIDA has consistently been one of the best singles wrestlers in the world.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s been booked against many of the other best wrestlers in the world for the past 12+ months. Since June 2015, KUSHIDA has turned in 4+ star matches against the likes of Kyle O’Reilly, Kenny Omega, Ricochet, Bushi, Jushin Thunder Liger, Ryusuke Taguchi, Taiji Ishimori, and Will Ospreay.
Forget “The Power of Love”... Huey Lewis should record a song about the power of the Hoverboard Lock.—Mack Williams
Will Ospreay, along with Ricochet, is indisputably one of wrestling’s greatest young high-flyers, and at the same time one of the more divisive figures in the business in 2016. When the two young wrestlers (Ospreay is 23; Ricochet, 27) faced each other this spring in NJPW’s Best of the Super Juniors tournament, their combined athleticism proved completely electric, immediately creating one of the year’s most talked-about matches thanks to the insane feats of aerial precision and choreography on display. At the same time, though, the match received just as much criticism from old-school grapplers, who are seemingly challenged by the kayfabe-breaking tendencies of this new breed’s hyper-unrealistic offense.
Indeed, various individual moves of Ospreay such as his corkscrewing 730-degree roundhouse kick look like moves straight out of Street Fighter, but those who criticize such feats are all too likely to project a simultaneous tone of jealousy. Yes, Ospreay is still somewhat green in the more subtle arts of ring psychology, but the kid is 23 and already tearing it up and putting on thrilling matches with some of the best in the business today. He might need the proper stylistic partner to really make him shine, but at the same time, the feats that he (and Riochet, and others) are capable of are all the more impressive in wrestling’s post-kayfabe, self-aware adulthood. If these kinds of sensational displays of athleticism are able to draw new viewers into wrestling, then everyone will benefit. Fresh off his big win in the Best of the Super Juniors tournament, the sky is the limit for the still-evolving Ospreay.—Jim Vorel
Who would’ve thought Samoa Joe would still be at the top of the wrestling world over a decade after his ROH peak? He was never bad in TNA, but he’s one of many wrestlers who just kind of disappeared during his stint there, his lack of motivation was crystal clear as he muddled through poorly defined storylines and spent long stretches of time with no obvious direction. A quick burn through Ring of Honor in 2015 helped, but it’s his NXT run over the last year that has really rejuvenated Joe, building him back up into the absolute monster he was on the indies and during his first few months in TNA. And it’s not just the how he’s been positioned or portrayed—that’s part of it, sure, but Joe has more than risen to his booking, putting on his best run of matches in years and cutting some of the most believable and intimidating promos on any WWE show. He’ll be an instant monster heel whenever he’s called up to Raw or Smackdown, and if anything can help Roman Reigns finally get over as a face, it might be a feud with this guy right here.—Garrett Martin
In spite of being the perpetrator of one of the worst color clashes in sports entertainment memory, there’s no doubt that Cena is the biggest hit across the board and especially with the kiddos since the Rock was cookin’ on the regular. In spite of the fact that he has just as many detractors (Cena sux btw), he’s one of the biggest stars in the company with good reason—he’s buff, he can play bit roles in Judd Apatow movies and give off the impression that he’s a good sport, he’s a halfway decent reality show foil and he wears the hell out of a tank top. That plus being a pretty unbreakable technical wrestler with sometimes magical healing turnarounds and the most Make-A-Wishes granted than any other celebrity, and you’ve got the essence of Cena. He’s the company’s answer to a tough-but-not-too-tough guy after the macho backlash of the Attitude Era, and he’s more than proved his worth as a wrestler and a crowd draw.—Jamie Loftus
Ring of Honor has lost several key talents to the competition in 2016 (Moose, Roderick Strong, Cedric Alexander), and their partnership with New Japan seems increasingly one-sided (It’s rare for NJPW stars to put over ROH talent). However, there is a paisley lining behind these dark clouds, and his name is Dalton Castle.
The Party Peacock and his Boys are the hottest act in Ring of Honor. Castle was recently profiled by Rolling Stone magazine. Every move and mannerism oozes a charisma unlike anyone in wrestling (except maybe Shinsuke Nakamura). And Castle has the legit in-ring skills to back it up—his deadlift German suplex is a thing to behold!
And how about The Boys? The fan-waving valets were a key part of his long running feud with Silas Young. They’re also the inspiration behind the modified Briscoe Brothers chant—“Fan up! Fan up!” It’s hard to picture Castle’s meteoric rise without them.
2016 has seen Castle moving up the card in ROH, recently challenging Bobby Fish for the ROH TV title. While championships have eluded him thus far, it’s only a matter of time before Dalton Castle is holding the gold… that is, if ROH can hold on to one of the hottest stars in wrestling today.—Mack Williams
In the earlier Will Ospreay blurb, I would have called Ospreay the best British wrestler in the world today, except for the fact that Zack Sabre Jr. also exists. Widely considered one of, if not the, best pure technical wrestler in the world today, Sabre Jr. is in the same class as others such as Ricochet—technically “young” at 28, but with an absolutely ludicrous amount of experience and mileage already in his career, with more than 10 years of combat. Among hardcore wrestling fans, he now rates with the sort of esteem once reserved for an ROH-era Bryan Danielson: a master wrestling craftsman.
Stylistically, Sabre Jr. is a hybridized wrestler who combines an old-school interest in mat and chain-wrestling with an array of wrenching submission holds and a stiff striking style coming right out of Japanese puroresu. As a striker, he almost seems at times to be attempting to channel Danielson, or perhaps NJPW’s Katsuyori Shibata with their similar builds and use of the “penalty kick.” But it’s really Sabre Jr.’s grappling that has set the wrestling community ablaze; his effortless transitions between holds and positions is the sort of rare talent that comes along once in a generation, as is his intensity in attacking with a variety of submissions. 2016 in particular has been Sabre Jr.’s biggest year to date, as more and more fans and organizations recognize his reputations and lead to marquee matchups with wrestlers such as Roderick Strong, Chris Hero, Ricochet and even Kurt Angle. He has become the sort of wrestler who you expect to draw a world-class match out of any opponent, and it makes us all the more excited to see what happens as he has his first WWE exposure in the ongoing Cruiserweight Classic.—Jim Vorel
If Cesaro hadn’t missed some time with a bad shoulder injury, he’d probably be higher on the list. He’s a top tier worker, one of the four or five best in WWE today, and with his current persona the company’s finally hit on a character that’s working for him. Part Bond, part Jason Statham, Cesaro is killing it as the sharp-dressed man of few words, with his grim smile before dismantling an opponent almost as intimidating as Asuka’s in NXT. Upon his return he was immediately thrust into the multi-man mix for the Intercontinental title, where he was one of the bedrocks of a series of astounding car crash matches for the title. Since returning in April, Cesaro has routinely been in the best or second best match on Raw and Smackdown almost every week, usually long, brutal affairs that stress how uncommonly strong and technically proficient Cesaro is. His matches always bring a jolt of excitement to often tedious television.—Garrett Martin
Remember that viral clip of two wrestlers basically recreating The Matrix in a New Japan ring? Ricochet was one of them. When it comes to high-risk action and sheer athleticism, nobody can beat Ricochet, not in New Japan or the indies, and not in Lucha Underground, where he wrestles under a mask as Prince Puma. His series of New Japan tag matches with partner Matt Sydal brought a jolt of electricity to already stacked shows, always standing out even when the best wrestlers on earth faced off in the main events. His matches with Will Ospreay, first at Evolve 59 in April and then in New Japan’s Best of the Super Juniors tournament in May, were instant classics that might wind up as influential as the Tiger Mask and Dynamite Kid series from the early 1980s. Ricochet regularly does things that don’t seem humanly possible, and hopefully he’ll stay healthy enough to keep doing them for years to come.—Garrett Martin
Hero’s always been a guy who’s run a bit hot and cold. When he’s invested, he’s absolutely one of the best wrestlers in the world. When he’s not, he’s merely good.
He’s invested right now.
It’s a strange thing that he’s back on the indies at all, and his firing from NXT for his unconscionable (to WWE brass) dadbod seems very much to Hero’s gain. It may be that his natural home is on a smaller stage, where he can just fill a room with his size and talent. There’s no shame there, no pejorative intended. Some guys simply thrive outside of WWE’s arenas.
There’s something of Barry Windham in his prime to Hero. Not just in his look—big, bulky, long blonde hair—but in his style. He’s far nimbler than a guy his size and body type should be. He’s got a nasty streak in the ring. He can work a crowd, heel or face, with the simplest things; a facial tic or a clothesline. There are far, far worse things to be than this generation’s Barry Windham, and that’s 2016 Chris Hero’s floor, not his ceiling.—Ian Williams
Hardcore fans seemed to be tiring of “The John Cena of Japan,” but that hasn’t stopped Hiroshi Tanahashi from turning in 5 star matches. At Wrestle Kingdom 10, Tanahashi lost to Kazuchika Okada, ending (for now) a years long feud over the IWGP Heavyweight title. Many consider it the best match so far in 2016… and it took place on January 4th!
After Wrestle Kingdom, Tanahashi moved on to feud with Kenny Omega over the IWGP Intercontinental title. Unfortunately, Tanahashi’s shoulder, presumably held together with duct tape and chewing gum, was in no shape for a match. The honor of competing in NJPW’s first ever Ladder Match would go to the company’s biggest gajin face, Michael Elgin.
Tanahashi carried NJPW for the past 10 years, air-guitaring his way into the heart of fans… but much like John Cena, we’ve entered the twilight of this great wrestler’s in-ring career. Tanahashi is competing in this year’s G1 tournament, but if his first match was any indication, he’s not completely healed. Despite the injuries, don’t be surprised if the “100% Ace” turns in another Match of the Year candidate in the next month.—Mack Williams
Yes, the grumbles go, Lethal has perhaps held the title too long. And yes, it’s odd to see a heel win cleanly so often. But think back (or watch the old tapes) to Ric Flair in the mid-’80s and compare the two men. Stylistically, not so much, but the idea of a smarmy heel who could and would cheat, but also won clean all over the place. You can see Lethal’s antecedent in the Nature Boy, cockily daring someone to take the strap from him.
If anything, he’s underrated. Looked at over his career, he’s worked so many styles and bits it’s dizzying. What’s more, he’s aced them all. He’s done comedy. He’s done serious. He’s been face, heel, in-between. Even the best tend to work one style for decades. Not Lethal. There’s a restlessness in him which demands he reinvent himself every so often. His deftness in doing so is a testament to how good he is.—Ian Williams
Most wrestlers would have their career defined by winning a Wrestlemania they hadn’t even had a match in, but Rollins is one of the strongest rays of light in the industry, on the mic and in technical ability. Forget the dick pic—actually, I choose to remember the dick pic—the man’s been an unforgettable talent, from becoming the inaugural champ of NXT to his triumphant return at this spring’s Extreme Rules PPV. While undoubtedly one of the best wrestlers in sheer ability and nearly unrivaled mic skills (in this gal’s opinion, beat only by peak New Day), Rollins is maybe most notable because of what a gap he leaves when he’s absent—this is a reference to his prolonged injury that left him out of this year’s Wrestlemania, and also another reference to the dick pic. It wasn’t that bad.—Jamie Loftus
In 2016, no wrestler has been the subject of as much speculation as Finn Balor. Since WWE’s January raid on NJPW, Finn has toyed with fans via social media, constantly teasing his promotion from NXT to the main roster.
It only seemed natural. Finn made a name for himself in Japan as founder of the Bullet Club, and now three members of “The Club” were signed to the WWE roster. Finn was winding down his run as NXT champ in a long-running feud with Samoa Joe… eventually losing the title at a house show. A house show! Arguably the biggest title change at a house show in 22 years (Diesel vs Backlund 11/94)
The Joe/Balor feud has dominated NXT for the past six months, with the two main eventing three consecutive Takeover events. Unfortunately, these fantastic matches have been overshadowed by the “will he or won’t he” rumors regarding Finn’s (and Samoa Joe’s) future.
After all that, Balor’s main roster “debut” was anti-climactic. Picked 5th in the draft, Balor was introduced in a short video package, not even appearing in person. On the bright side, Bálor will be wrestling for the RAW brand. A heel turn could find him reunited with Bullet Club members Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows, a move hardcore fans would find tooooo sweeeeeet.—Mack Williams
One of the joys of being a wrestling fan is watching firsthand as everything finally comes together for a wrestler, when booking, in-ring ability, interview skills and fan reactions all sync up and elevate a worker to a new level. We’ve been lucky to see it happen with Kenny Omega since he became a New Japan full-timer in late 2014, and that ascent has climaxed in 2016 with him becoming a legitimate top-card draw for the promotion. With AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura both leaving for WWE, New Japan had to make new stars in a hurry, but didn’t have to look far—Omega was already there, already a prominent leader of the Bullet Club, and already ready for that main event push. A victory in a fantastic match with New Japan ace Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship sealed the deal.
Omega is great at all the crucial aspects of being a wrestler—he’s a world class worker, cuts great promos, understands psychology and how to sell, and can move seamlessly between high-flying and more realistic ground-based wrestling. His biggest moment so far this year might be the ladder match he had with Michael Elgin for the IWGP IC title, the first in New Japan history, and he’s also had a number of always exciting six-man tag matches with his partners in the Elite, the Young Bucks. (Their six-man match against ACH, KUSHIDA and Matt Sydal at Ring of Honor’s 14th Anniversary PPV in February is one of the best ROH matches of the year.) And to top it all off Omega (along with the Bucks) understands more than almost any other wrestler how to use today’s technology to sell his gimmick and storylines. Their YouTube videos have become almost as important to their aura as their matches. Omega’s unofficial interpromotional feud with WWE’s Xavier Woods, waged entirely through social media, videogame tournaments and the occasional open reference on New Japan shows, has been one of the weirdest and funniest stories in wrestling this year. Omega’s become such a big star this year that it’s almost unthinkable that he won’t pop up in NXT or WWE at some point in 2017.
Owens is the beefy Canadian dad we all wish was our uncle, or maybe I’m just a pervert. One of the most notable NXT crossover success stories to make it huge on the main roster, Owens’s lovable gruffness and physical agility matching that of Chris Farley at his peak (and that is meant to be a huge compliment) make him a unique talent to have on hand. While it’s a pretty commonly held fan opinion that he’s far too talented a wrestler technically to be repeatedly denied titles and belts on the main roster as he has been for the past year or so, he’s got the mic chops to make even an eye-rolling creative choice highly watchable. As Kevin would say back in his PWG days as Kevin Steen, “This is wrestling, fuck face.”—Jamie Loftus
Of all the wrestlers in this top 10, Tetsuya Naito might be the most difficult to immediately explain to an outside observer, in terms of what has currently put him at the top of his game in 2016. To understand it, you need to understand the culture of NJPW and Naito’s history. Suffice to say, Naito benefited tremendously from his 2015 heel turn. Stuck in a babyface malaise, fans recognized that Naito was a very talented high-flyer in the ring, but lacked an x-factor. Their relative indifference to him, and the idea of Naito facing Okada for the title at Wrestle Kingdom 8 in 2014, led to their title match being preempted in the main event by the “lower” Intercontinental Title match, and it was clear that a change was needed for Naito. And so, he went away to Mexico and began hanging around with a bad crowd.
When Naito returned to Japan he was changed, now representing the Mexican stable “Los Ingobernables.” But the amazing thing was his attitude change—this new version of Naito was indignant and lazy, refusing to participate in matches that weren’t important enough to demand his presence. At the same time, he still performed very well in the ring … but only when he wanted to. In a Japanese wrestling culture where respect, hard work and years of toil are necessary to make any advancement, this shrugging, sulking attitude and lack of respect was the ultimate affront, and it suddenly made Naito one of NJPW’s most interesting characters. In 2016, he’s finally capitalized on the potential he’s shown through his whole career, defeating both Hirooki Goto and then Okada himself to capture the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the first time. Although Okada now holds the belt again, Naito’s time is definitely now, so look for him to have a big conclusion to 2016.—Jim Vorel
Kazuchika Okada is the most important Japanese pro wrestler in the world today, in the sense that NJPW’s future is entrenched firmly around “The Rainmaker,” who is just now in the physical prime of his career. Especially following the shocking defection of Shinsuke Nakamura and several other key Japanese talents to Western wrestling promotions, Okada is one of the key people being expected to shoulder the load, and it’s no easy task in a Japanese market that seems to be waning somewhat in its interest for wrestling despite the consistently high quality of the product.
As a wrestler, Okada is the complete package—you might compare him to Japan’s equivalent of the WWE’s Seth Rollins. He’s a model for how NJPW grooms stars, having trained in Mexico before wrestling lower in the card in Japan, then being sent to TNA in America for a more extended wrestling internship. When he returned in early 2011, having put in his dues, it was clear that the organization was ready to pull the trigger, and as “The Rainmaker,” a star was born. Using his tall, lean frame, Okada sits in a perfect midpoint between traditional Japanese heavyweights and a more athletic, versatile new breed, employing a balanced mix of hard-hitting strikes, slams, submissions and the occasional high-flying maneuver. His short-armed lariat finisher remains one of the most protected in the business, but it’s really the more “basic,” transitional moves where one can clearly see Okada’s brilliance at work. Every pro wrestler can do a dropkick, but only Okada can make a dropkick into a signature move that people pay to see, or loop over and over on YouTube just to verify that it’s physically possible.—Jim Vorel
Styles started off the year facing down Shinsuke Nakamura in what might be the best match anybody will have in 2016. If you haven’t seen Wrestle Kingdom 10, go hit New Japan World right now, or wait a few weeks until it shows up on New Japan’s AXS TV show. It was a technical masterpiece between the two best wrestlers in the world today, with nary a missed beat or unnecessary flourish. Within days word leaked out that he would finally be headed to WWE after two years in New Japan and over a decade in TNA, during which time he became the biggest active star in the business who had never signed with the industry’s biggest company. After skipping NXT entirely and making an unforgettable debut in the Royal Rumble, Styles has thrived on the biggest stage, getting the best matches yet out of Roman Reigns and engaging in one of the year’s best feuds with John Cena. Styles has always been a world class athlete, ever since I first saw him on a NWA Wildside show in a small redneck bar in Georgia in 2001, but it’s always been assumed he wouldn’t go far under Vince McMahon due to his size and mediocre promo skills. Well, size isn’t as much of an issue in WWE as it used to be, and Styles has been almost as great on the microphone as he’s been in the ring this year. His debates with John Cena have been textbook old school heel promos, proving that Styles is truly the total wrestling package.—Garrett Martin
The weird thing is, it feels like he’s maybe lost half a step. The years have rolled by and the injuries have mounted. But it doesn’t matter. He has that ineffable “it”, the combination of charisma, fluid movement, and ability to make things look real that make for a real star. Just a wink to the crowd can send them into a frenzy, and the force of those knees? There’s not many men or women in WWE who focus on their offense looking painful, legitimately, awfully painful, anymore.
The fact that he’s translated so seamlessly to a new style is testament to his greatness. And, really, who else has been in more match of the year candidates this decade than Nakamura? The second he hit an NXT ring against Sami Zayn, he had one. He has one nearly every night. He’s number one for a reason.—Ian Williams
Mobile lead image of Shinsuke Nakamura by Tabercil.