2017 was a weird year in WWE. Bill Goldberg appeared in a headlining position at Wrestlemania, Jinder Mahal was plucked from obscurity to hold the WWE Championship for well over 100 days, Randy Orton had his worst year as a main eventer, Roman Reigns, “the face of the company”, will finish the year with a losing record on PPV, despite beating John Cena and The Undertaker, and Alexa Bliss turned what Charlotte and Sasha built in the women’s division to something completely different when the bell rang.
However, standing out amongst them all was ironically, “The Monster among Men” Braun Strowman. He’s been a Wilt Chamberlain-like figure as he’s ascended to MVP status just outside of his first year unleashed from the Wyatt Family. He’s been so good that any type of Wyatt Family reunion like the one The Shield did to assist Roman Reigns would be completely unnecessary. He has unquestionably created some of the year’s most memorable moments. Who can forget him flipping the ambulance Reigns was inside, putting The Big Show down like Old Yeller several times, and walking away from a MURDER attempt by Roman Reigns under his own power at Great Balls Of Fire? When looking back on it, that moment will probably serve as his unofficial face turn.
Fans were clamoring for this guy to dethrone not only Reigns but Brock Lesnar himself. Strowman navigated an era that didn’t seem built for him to be the type of star every section of the fanbase could rally behind. He’s big, with no independent experience, and not really a great wrestler, but he found a way to connect as a monster that was 1997 Kane like. Strowman’s appearances felt important, and more importantly…awesome! Back in the Attitude Era it was, “How will Steve Austin ruin Vince McMahon’s life this week?” Strowman’s question was what or who will he destroy. He’s WWE’s most organic success story since Daniel Bryan, and that is without putting the World Title on him. While he may not have the physical belt, he took the mythical one that fans respect for a huge portion of this year.
Yes, many others contributed to Strowman’s excellence, starting with Roman Reigns himself who if nothing else can say he helped cultivate his new generational rival. Don’t forget about Sami Zayn though, who was critical in taking Strowman from squashes to the main event. The Big Show also cannot be forgotten by anyone for how generous he was in making his replacement with a seemingly higher ceiling. Let’s hope Braun doesn’t turn 5 times in the next 4 years.
However, brewing under him was last year’s standout who quietly strung together an excellent run himself. The Phenomenal One, AJ Styles.
Styles entered 2017 with the mindset of extending his Mania to Mania brilliance, and without question he did it. He went toe-to-toe with John Cena on the microphone, and although they didn’t top it, he was the key to WWE’s answer to Okada/Omega I, just weeks later at the Royal Rumble. His loss of the WWE Championship cast a long shadow over the title all year, as WWE then had Styles be the centerpiece of the Elimination Chamber, several TV matches on Smackdown leading up to Wrestlemania, as well as the most gripping story of them all, feud with Shane McMahon. AJ Styles story was him literally fighting the company on not only his behalf but his fans as well, who felt AJ was robbed of the title to set up a Wrestlemania card that wouldn’t out-do what he could do in a championship match.
After taking essentially a civilian to a 4-star match in Orlando, Styles path was derailed as he was moved out of the spotlight for most of the summer, with his shadow once again casting strongly in contrast to the WWE Title scene that operated like a river on fire in his absence. He was a serviceable supporting player, but flashed the AJ Styles that ruled 2016 every so often, with him fully re-appearing at TLC when he was called in to wrestle Finn Balor on less than a week build, which was a corner turning moment overall for WWE in 2017. For too long it seemed like the most talented wrestlers were stuck bringing up less talented ones, and getting Balor vs Styles on PPV was a steak dinner for hungry fans of great in-ring performance.
Even in defeat, Styles rode the wave of that match into getting back the championship that so many fans thought he should have never lost, when he defeated Jinder Mahal to a mammoth ovation in Manchester, England to set up Brock Lesnar vs AJ Styles (Champion vs Champion) at Survivor Series. I was on with Chad Matthews on The Doc Says, and said it was the biggest match in theory WWE did all year. WWE’s best wrestler vs it’s biggest “draw.” Despite his PPV record, Styles kept the focus on his performances more than ever, a HBK’esque trait.
The Last Lariat
The great AJ Styles vs Braun Strowman debate of 2017 will essentially come down to which type of wrestling fan you are. If you value the moments from a huge guy that does astonishing things, Strowman is your guy no doubt. If you can look deeper into seeing a guy perform any role when asked, step up when needed, and blow matches out of the water regularly, Styles came back charging hard to end the year like no one else in WWE could have. Strowman’s progression from lumbering big guy to building block for the next 5 years is nothing to sneeze at, and AJ Styles continuing to do this at his age should definitely be recognized. The question is, which side are you on. Like Jay-Z in 1997 would ask, “Who Ya Wit?”
Rich Latta is a writer for LordsofPain.net & host of the One Nation Radio Podcast on SocialSuplex.com He appears monthly on Chad Matthews’ podcast The Doc Says after Raw PPVs. Give him a follow on Twitter, @RichLatta32 or drop him a comment below. If you like hip-hop, check out his music here. www.Soundcloud.com/RichLatta