Best male wrestlers of 2016

AJ Styles had an undeniably historic first 12 months in the WWE, starting with his surprise Royal Rumble debut and ending 2016 with the WWE world championship still around his waist. Lexey Swall for ESPN

After running through the rest of our end-of-year acknowledgements, we've reached the pinnacle -- our picks for the best male and female wrestlers of 2016. To be honest, there was a serious consideration given to following the WWE's lead and classifying this a single category, but our plan -- first and foremost -- was to recognize as many standout performers and performances as we could.

In honesty, that idea didn't work out as well as we had initially hoped. In both instances, one wrestler in particular absolutely dominated the competition, and if you've paid any attention to the ESPN WWE power rankings in 2016, you can probably guess who those two wrestlers are.

In the race for best male wrestler of the year, there could truly be only one -- a "phenomenal one", as it were -- who had the year of a lifetime after debuting in the WWE in late January.

AJ Styles

When the screen said those three words, you knew the WWE was not going to be the same. I...AM...PHENOMENAL! The debut of AJ Styles in the Royal Rumble was an amazing signing for WWE, and for these past 12 months we've seen why his nickname and reputation precede him. Feuds with Chris Jericho, Roman Reigns, John Cena and Dean Ambrose, among others, catapulted him into the main event scene and numerous 4-star matches. And then he made a heel turn that somehow made the WWE universe love him even more. Before this year, those who watch a lot of professional wrestling knew what Styles was capable of, but to see everything that's come to fruition as he holds the WWE championship in his first year shows you that although the journey may have taken longer than all would have liked, it didn't take Styles long to captivate the WWE universe. Heck, the guy even got James Ellsworth over. -- Andrew Davis

This is such an easy year to pick best superstar. Both the women's and men's divisions were filled with amazing talent, but it is so clear whose years were the most "phenomenal". From his somewhat predictable debut, when he received a somewhat unpredictable reaction from the Orlando crowd, AJ Styles has led the pack. We always knew Styles belonged in the big leagues, but did anyone truly believe he would dominate to the extent he as? Regardless of expectations, that is what he did for almost a full calendar year. Good guy, bad guy, and in between -- it made no difference. The guy was almost flawless. -- Peter Rosenberg

There may have never been a better debut year for a WWE superstar. AJ Styles probably has three contenders for feud of the year (Chris Jericho, Roman Reigns, John Cena) and has consistently put on main event classics at least once every month since debuting in the Royal Rumble -- 12 years after turning down a developmental deal with the company in order to make his name in TNA and eventually New Japan Pro Wrestling. Like Steph Curry in 2015-16, Styles will likely be the unanimous MVP -- and like Curry, he may also be in the top-10 most improved year-over-year, given the way he has stepped it up on the mic (an aspect many considered his only weakness when he arrived in WWE). The heir apparent to Shawn Michaels, the 39-year-old Styles can go down in WWE history if his body holds up long enough to let him. -- Nic Atkin

I'll be honest -- when AJ Styles debuted at the Royal Rumble, I didn't get my hopes up. I wanted the best for him, but with so many talented wrestlers in the WWE, there was a real fear he'd get lost in the shuffle. Instead, he proved that he is in a class all by himself. He is clearly the most athletic and most skilled wrestler on the planet. His matches are almost always the best match of the night, regardless of who his opponent is. It doesn't matter if you're talking about TNA, ROH, WWE, NXT, NJPW, or anyone else in the world. In 2016, no one came close to AJ Styles. -- Greg Hyde

Styles may not be having the exact same debut year as Kurt Angle did in 2000 in terms of accomplishments or Ric Flair did in 1992 in terms of big-name impact, but there hasn't been a WWE rookie in the modern era who has performed as consistently spectacularly as "The Phenomenal One." Styles' in-ring work and the amount of 4-plus star matches he has been a part of has been staggering. He has performed on an elite level as both babyface and heel, and he's elevated everyone he has stepped into the ring with. Just as hard as it was to imagine Styles, the former TNA and NJPW star, finally getting his chance on the main event level in WWE, it's now impossible to imagine him anywhere else. Styles belongs, and he dominated 2016. -- Brian Campbell

Since making his debut in the Royal Rumble, Styles has proven he belongs at the top of the WWE. He has consistently put together quality matches with household names like John Cena and Chris Jericho and has more than held his own on the microphone. In less than a year, he made it to the top of the card -- and he has the staying power to remain there as long as his body holds up.-- Andy Smith

Chris Jericho

Chris Jericho has been in the WWE for more than 17 years and has achieved more than most superstars could dream of. And yet, in 2016, he might have had the best year of his career. Jericho is the king of reinventing his character, and he has an ability to work babyface and heel roles alike supremely well. As the smug best friend of Kevin Owens, this particular turn and evolution has been fascinating. He took a list of people and things he disliked -- the "List of Jericho" -- and turned it into a phenomenon. Who else could have accomplished something like that? Add in his ageless skill in the ring, his ability to get over catchphrases and, more importantly, elevate other superstars, and Jericho could be considered the most influential piece of the WWE roster in 2016. -- Sean Coyle

Kenny Omega

If we're talking about making wrestling history in 2016, you have two guys who stand out above the rest -- AJ Styles and Kenny Omega. While Styles had an unprecedented first year in the WWE, Omega broke through an equally incredible glass ceiling by becoming the first gaijin (foreigner) to ever win the vaunted G1-Climax in Japan in the tournament's 26-year history. Along the way, he had at least five different matches that could easily qualify for match of the year, including a five-star classic with Tetsuya Naito on the penultimate night of the G1. Omega started the year as IWGP junior heavyweight champion at WrestleKingdom 10; from there, he kicked Styles out of the Bullet Club and became the new leader, grew the group so that it now includes Adam Cole and Cody Rhodes, won the G1-Climax and, one year later, will be the main event at Wrestle Kingdom 11 at the Tokyo Dome in an IWGP heavyweight championship match. Omega is the king of the Bullet Club, and with everything the current and former members of the faction are doing (and will continue to do), the head of that faction has earned his status as wrestler of the year. -- Tim Fiorvanti

Roman Reigns

Spit up in your mouth if you will, but here's the thing -- name a wrestler who gets a more heated, hostile and rowdier response than Reigns? Most loathe him; some still see him as the superhero the WWE was hoping he'd blossom into, but the bottom line is that he's a regular top-card guy. He main-evented Wrestlemania (again) and closed out the 2016 pay-per-view season in the final match against Kevin Owens. Six times in all, Reigns was part of the main pay-per-view event -- more than any other performer in the WWE. In July, Reigns was suspended for 30 days for violating the company's wellness policy. Certainly that's not what he or the WWE would have scripted, but the punishment only enhanced his stature as a divisive, spoon-fed figure whom fans love to hate. In the end, a successful performer isn't about the number of wins or titles, but the level of the sound meter when he's walking to the ring. -- Matt Wilansky

Dean Ambrose

We finally got our "Shield Triple Threat" match in 2016, and who won (clean)? Dean Ambrose did. Aside from ushering in the brand split as the undisputed world champion and his recent matchups with AJ Styles, don't forget that he also won Money in the Bank and cashed it in the very same night. He and Styles got James Ellsworth over with a variety of comedy setups and unique storytelling that somehow didn't seem too ridiculous, despite Ellsworth's diminutive stature. He had an awesome, no-DQ Intercontinental title match at the Royal Rumble with Kevin Owens and a long, memorable rivalry with Chris Jericho that saw the destruction of a pet plant and a $10,000 jacket -- and you felt equal levels of emotion for both items. Like so many others, I originally wrote down Styles because he probably had the best overall in-ring performances of 2016. But Dean had a great all-around year in 2016 and rarely left the main-event level. -- Steve Braband