On Aug. 11, 2016, the WWE on ESPN vertical came out of the gate firing. Triple H broke down in-ring psychology and character development, Stephanie McMahon talked about the transition from having a "Divas" division to all members of the roster being identified as "superstars," Darren Rovell broke down the financial status of the company and we looked at the potential of Conor McGregor becoming a WWE superstar somewhere down the line. Funny how some things come full circle.
We produced hundreds of pieces of content over the past 12 months, from dozens of different contributors. Profiles of stars, both in the WWE and out of it, recaps of every major WWE event and more WWE stats than you could possibly wrap your head around.
As we look forward toward even bigger and better things in year two, some of our contributors looked back and remembered their favorite piece from the past year. Here are some of the best.
I picked the Oral History of Savage/Steamboat at WrestleMania III. This is one of the greatest matches ever. The variety of voices and the perspective each person in this story brought to painting the picture of this iconic moment in wrestling history makes this memorable, especially considering they all come from an era where the superstars were not so open about the inner workings of a match or the business.
Bringing this section to life was a tremendous collaboration across many different people within ESPN, and over the past year we've produced some incredible content that allowed us to tell the stories of the wrestling world beyond the ring.
There are a number of pieces that I look back on as my favorites, but I consistently find myself looking at the Art of the Promo with Paul Heyman. Sitting in the basement of one of our buildings here on campus, Paul spent time with Ben Houser and Brian Campbell, explaining why every word that comes out of his mouth matters. He explained his approach, his execution and why it is so pivotal to know who he is trying to reach at every moment. All of it comes together on the quick moments on the mic each week and fans sit with baited breath, waiting to find out what he's going to say next.
And oh yeah, it's really just all about the money. It's about selling whatever he's trying to sell -- and there is simply nobody better to explain how it's done.
I was told by multiple people that Bob Backlund was every bit the good person his character and autobiography suggest he is, and those people were spot on. He is a quality person to the core and always has doing the right thing on his mind. The best part of interviewing him was when Backlund invited my family and me to his house to see his workout/trophy room. Having a former NCAA and WWE champion show my sons how to do single- and double-leg takedowns is an experience we will never forget.
I loved Ben Houser's piece on Ted DiBiase and his transition from professional wrestler to pastor. I love hearing stories about wrestlers whose life on the road took them down the wrong path, but then they either find God or re-commit themselves to their families (Lex Luger and Shawn Michaels also come to mind). It also never gets old reading or hearing stories about how DiBiase actually lived the Million Dollar Man gimmick outside the ring!
This story does a fantastic job of delving into the psychology of one of the greatest technicians in pro wrestling history -- Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat. Steamboat is out of the spotlight these days, so learning that he's still passing down his knowledge to younger wrestlers was reassuring. My favorite anecdote from the piece is when Steamboat teaches a wrestler something so simple as to not showboat after a big move. This piece reminded wrestling fans that it was the little things that made Steamboat so great -- a lesson wrestlers can continue to learn from today.
I'm going to go with a weekend combo piece, the first two pay-per-view recaps we did as a team:
Less than two weeks after WWE on ESPN launched, we had to cover one of the biggest weekends on the WWE calendar. Talk about pressure. It was not only vital for the team to preview TakeOver: Brooklyn II and SummerSlam, but we had to put forth a memorable effort in covering the events -- the first two live events featured on the vertical. As The Revival and #DIY, along with AJ Styles and John Cena, told their stories to perfection in the ring that weekend, the WWE on ESPN crew was there to capture it, kick-starting what would be a full year covering the fascinating world of professional wrestling.
My name might technically be in the byline, but this particular piece is so strong because of the man it features -- Adam Cole (Bay Bay). The then-two-time ROH champion spent an entire day in Bristol, including a session stretching well over 30 minutes breaking down a single match -- a career-changing contest in Manhattan's Hammerstein ballroom. It makes me sad that the director's cut of this video, which stretched to almost 27 minutes, hit the cutting room floor, because the depth to which Cole was able to explain the nuance and emotions of each major beat of this match was an education. Even in the three-minute cut, you can appreciate just how much this match meant in the careers of O'Reilly, who recently joined NXT, and Cole, who seems likely to do the same in the near-future.
Greg Hyde (Stat Guy Greg)
My favorite article so far was "The Match That Lifted Adam Cole's Career to a New Level." The article, and the accompanying video, was released one week before Adam Cole's match against Kyle O'Reilly for the ROH world championship at Final Battle 2016. Not only did it do a masterful job of illustrating how intense Cole and O'Reilly's rivalry had been up to that point, but this story established WWE on ESPN as the place to go for not just WWE coverage, but pro wrestling coverage, period.
My favorite piece was Cody Rhodes: The American Nightmare's dream come true. I thought Cody had been shamefully underused in WWE since he did the masked version of his "Dashing" gimmick. Upon leaving WWE, Cody wrote a manifesto in which he referenced his family's rich history in the wrestling business, with or without the WWE. From there he has gone on to make a name for himself all around the world, wrestling in featured matches on shows for TNA (Impact Wrestling ... or GFW), New Japan and Ring of Honor, all in the span of a few weeks. The validation of all this came when Cody won the Ring of Honor world championship from Christopher Daniels on June 23. As someone who grew up in North Carolina watching Dusty Rhodes chase Ric Flair for the world championship, it felt great to see Cody step out from under the WWE umbrella and reclaim his family legacy.
Personally, I've always enjoyed the articles where we all weigh in as a group and do our fair share of fantasy booking and predictions. Why? It's reminiscent of a bunch of friends talking pro wrestling, and I think that's what we want to portray with our work -- because that's what we are, a bunch of pro wrestling fans. This is our SummerSlam "Bold Predictions", and now that we're nearing the second-biggest event of the year, you can see how on, or off (in my case), our predictions were. I like to think ours might be more fun than the actual product, too.
While the original focus was WWE (hence the name), our team quickly realized that wrestling was global -- and nobody personifies that sentiment more than The Elite, made up of Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks, Nick and Matt Jackson. In and out of the ring, The Elite provide entertainment in New Japan, Ring of Honor and any other wrestling ring they happen to find themselves in. This particular article also featured the Bullet Club (the overarching stable that houses The Elite and other stars) exit of Adam Cole and the subsequent entrance of "The Villain" Marty Scurll, which was weaved into existing ROH storylines through the very popular YouTube series "Being The Elite."
Even after this article appeared, the ongoing moments of this show along with what the trio does in the ring, continues to change the dynamic of their characters in NJPW and ROH; Omega and fellow Bullet Club member Tama Tonga teased dissension in the G1 Climax, all because Omega allegedly puts The Elite above the Bullet Club. It doesn't seem like WWE is in the future for The Elite, at least not the near-future, but love them or hate them, Omega and the Young Bucks are the present and future of professional wrestling.
Sort of going the cheap route here, but the wrestler profile pages are an incredible resource. The most basic component of a successful sports website is information, and we provide a wealth of detail on every roster member, easily accessible from any number of locations.
How can you beat the Super Bowl of wrestling? No matter what we cover, how we cover it, when we cover it, everything leads to the climax of the season, WrestleMania. Brock versus Goldberg, Roman Reigns against The Undertaker. And that's just the start. But the true joy in covering a high-profile event like this is the behind-the-scenes detail. This video lends some fascinating backstage perspective, which most fans weren't able to see. WrestleMania is more than just a one-off event; it's a sprawling spectacle with a months-long build that rarely fails to live up to the hype. And WrestleMania 33, arguably, will go down as one of the top 10 of its kind. Bring on WrestleMania 34!
Sachin Dave Chandan
My favorite piece from WWE on ESPN's hot first year is about Samoa Joe's hot first year on Raw. This piece was in advance of WWE's Great Balls of Fire, and set the stage for Samoa Joe's superfight against Brock Lesnar, while looking back at the long, submission-filled road that led him to success in TNA, Japan, NXT, and now on Raw. My favorite anecdote from the story was when WWE thought so little at first that they signed him to a nonexclusive deal in NXT, but after seeing the merchandise sales shoot into the sky in short order, realized that they wanted him full time.
My favorite piece from WWE on ESPN's first year would be an article from our 2016 year-end retrospective, "Most shocking moments of the year in professional wrestling."
Professional wrestling is built on shocking and memorable moments, and 2016 was full of them. From Goldberg defeating Brock Lesnar in 86 seconds at Survivor Series, to the debut of AJ Styles and return of Shane McMahon, it was a fun piece to look back at the year that was. It also happened to be the first ESPN.com article that I contributed to, so I might be a tad biased.