AJ Styles IWGP title

The wrestling calendar year, once again, started out with a bang, as New Japan presented their traditional January 4th show from the Tokyo Dome.

‘Wrestle Kingdom 10’ was a watershed event headlined by two 5* matches; Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles.

The event also featured a sleeper Match of the Year Candidate in the New Japan Rumble.

This match, a Japanese love letter to America’s annual battle royale, included non-stop entertainment. Not least with suprise appearances from Haku (complete with BULLET CLUB t-shirt) and a nunchaku-wielding, 68-year-old Great Kabuki. The match also involved interactions between Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger and his personal favourite wrestler, ROH’s Cheeseburger; and booker Jado dancing with an infantilised female popstar.

Kazushi Sakuraba topped off the entertainment with a truly badass appearance, complete with bloodied and bruised face, just days after a heavy MMA loss as part of RIZIN FF’s New Year festivities. The crowd responded strongly to the near-mythological former PRIDE star.

2016’s turning point in wrestling history came, however, ending New Japan’s incredible run of content; from the inception of BULLET CLUB, through Jim Ross calling WK9, to Styles and Nakamura finally meeting.

That aforementioned watershed was the advent of the “New Japan Radicalz” in WWE.

WWE’s imperial ambitions were to become a trend of 2016, with countless overseas and independent talent being signed up, to mixed results.

Indeed, former IWGP champion AJ Styles fortunes greatly exceeded the expectations of many pundits. After making a huge debut in the early going of WWE’s Rumble match, immediately interacting with Roman Reigns, Styles went on the become WWE Champion in a true feelgood moment.

On the way to winning the gold, the former TNA posterboy defeated John Cena cleanly. This feat has only occured on average once per year, for roughly the past decade of WWE programming. The prestige of such a win cannot be overstated.

In business terms, AJ also developed from being a cult hero on a par with the likes of Sabu or El Generico, to being one of the most Google’d athletes on the WWE roster for almost the entire year.

He also put on, perhaps, Dave Meltzer’s most favourite WWE match of the year. A TLC match with Dean Ambrose, which carried a weak PPV card in December.

If 39-year-old Styles can sustain this in and out of ring form for the next couple of years, surely there will be no argument against his place in the pantheon of wrestling greats.

Styles’ fellow “Radicalz”; Luke Gallows, Karl Anderson and Shinsuke Nakamura did less to emulate the success of Messrs. Benoit and Guerrero.

Gallows & Anderson, although kept together as a team, were quickly split from Styles and, subsequently, saddled with a bad comedy gimmick. Penis-jokes and medical gross-outs did little to help the Good Brothers.

Nakamura, also faired less well.

Assigned to NXT, Shinsuke was able to wow crowds early, with his superb in-ring talent. However, it quickly became apparent that he was to be stranded on the development show for the forseeable future. Nakamura’s motivation levels fell, and WWE has seemingly become little more than a retirement home, free from the arduous NJPW style, for Shinsuke. A lacklustre autumnal feud with Samoa Joe failed to match his January showdown with Styles.

With his English language skills now greatly improved, only time will tell if 2017 will be a more productive year for ‘The King of Strong Style’.

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