Imagine it's Jan. 1, 2016 again.
Then imagine me telling you that the far-and-away best WWE superstar of the year will be AJ Styles.
(Then imagine me slinking away as your earlier self asks who won the presidential election.)
But here we are: AJ Styles, who began 2016 as the best wrestler not on the WWE roster, ended it as the best wrestler on its roster. After one last thriller Jan. 4 for New Japan Pro Wrestling against then-IWGP Intercontinental Champion Shinsuke Nakamura (who'd make the jump to New York right along with his opponent), Styles shocked Orlando by entering WWE's Royal Rumble at No. 3 later that month. His half hour in the match, highlighted by exchanges with Roman Reigns and Kevin Owens as the crowd chanted nonstop for the former TNA franchise, was just the beginning.
Styles began his run with a fun feud against veteran Chris Jericho, presumably to acquaint him with WWE's style of wrestling for the hard camera. Though Styles' WrestleMania loss to Jericho is even more of a headscratcher in hindsight, the feud overachieved. Every match mattered to the story, which saw Jericho turn heel just days after WWE went so far as to market shirts sporting their portmanteau tag team name, "Y2AJ." If that fake out didn't make you pay attention, Jericho's vicious Raw beating — which saw Styles bump for three Codebreakers like shotgun blasts — did.
The Styles matches will go down as the surprisingly resurgent Jericho's best in 2016. And he's not the only one who shared his top work this year with Styles: "The Phenomenal One's" next opponent, Roman Reigns, had his best outings, too, in the main events of Payback and Extreme Rules. Terrifically matched dance partners, Reigns and Styles also told a story that saw the latter reunite with Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson as The (Bullet) Club, and more importantly, reprise his more natural heel character.
It's a cliche heard as often in pro wrestling as anywhere else: The more things change, the …
Styles' braggy infantilism is what made his summer feud with John Cena more than just a e-fed matchup come to life. And their epic at SummerSlam? Shocker: Cena's best match of 2016. That clean victory over WWE's ace gave Styles the momentum he needed to become Smackdown's top guy after being drafted to the show in WWE's second brand split. All he needed was the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, which Styles took from Dean Ambrose and retained against "The Lunatic Fringe" in, yes, his best match of 2016 at TLC last week.
During the Ambrose feud, Styles has also turned in some of his best promo work ever with his jockish bullying of James Ellsworth, an even unlikelier success story this year. But that may be the only category where someone topped Styles in WWE in 2016. Nothing but a "what if?" prospect at the beginning of the year, Styles in WWE has proven better than any wrestling fan could have imagined. His talents in the ring and out have taken him to the top of the top, and in 2016, no one deserved it more.