Best wrestling rivalries of 2016

Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair came to blows while teaming up on Raw, showing that some conflicts are bigger than any supposed brand loyalty (though they still ultimately won the match). Courtesy of WWE

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of reasons why someone might become a fan of professional wrestling, but what keeps people coming back can be boiled down to the level of a story being told.

You can come up with the most epic storyline of all time, but if the guys in the ring can't tell it right, or the fans aren't feeling it, it doesn't matter. It takes in-ring chemistry between two rivals -- along with a great story, fan connection and a dash of an organic element -- to tell the best stories that wrestling is capable of producing.

Some of the best rivalries of 2016 will fade with time, but one or two will last in the minds and hearts of wrestling fans around the world for years to come. When coming up with our picks for the No. 1 rivalry of the year, the WWE on ESPN staff had one feud in particular that stood out above the rest, in terms of popularity -- one that should stand the test of time, and whose effects will echo in wrestling history.

Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks

This rivalry was truly historic. In an era when everyone has a short attention span and demands instant gratification, it's basically impossible to captivate the WWE Universe for the better part of the year as these two did. There is no denying the fact that Charlotte Flair had an amazing year, but in 2016, she did it all in tandem with one amazing dance partner -- Sasha Banks. Banks and Flair have faced off one-on-one for the "Raw" women's championship on six occasions. Their record: 3-3. But more than just being evenly matched, they competed in epic matches that elevated both themselves and women's wrestling. -- "Stat Guy" Greg Hyde

Not only did Flair and Banks put forth the most compelling rivalry of 2016, but they transcended women's wrestling as a whole. As they traded championship victories throughout the year, they became the first women to be featured as the main event for a WWE Hell in a Cell pay-per-view, and the first women to compete in a Hell in a Cell match. What these two talented ladies accomplished this year opens up the door for so many exciting possibilities in women's wrestling in 2017 and beyond. When their careers are done and long afterward, this rivalry will be not only the best this year in all of wrestling but also the greatest rivalry in the history of women's wrestling. -- Sean Coyle

It wasn't always pretty, but it ended perfectly. A certain sect of the WWE Universe has a tendency to resist a rivalry that is clearly being painted as the rivalry or the year before anything happens. Sometimes, though, the rivalry that is supposed to be the best is the best. Between some scary moments and injury scares inside (and out of) the ring, and some sloppy moments on the mic early on, there was reason for concern -- but as time went on, this rivalry became everything it was supposed to be. -- Peter Rosenberg

AJ Styles vs. John Cena

It wasn't a golden year for feuds, by any means, but AJ Styles and John Cena's summer program yielded a couple of unforgettable matches at Money in the Bank and SummerSlam. The prolonged "AJ Styles/Let's go Cena" chant before Styles' memorable heel turn was something to behold, as both men stood in awe of the "Raw" crowd. Few superstars create such raw emotion in fans of all ages, hard-core and casual. While the rivalry was on the shorter side, we're getting the opportunity to revisit it heading into the 2017 Royal Rumble -- and I'm all for it. -- Nic Atkin

For years, Styles was known as one of the best wrestlers in the world who wasn't in WWE, so it was a treat for fans when he was able to go toe-to-toe with the company's longtime top star. Styles made the most of his opportunity. The duo matched wits on the microphone and created a compelling storyline that played out over a series of matches that culminated in Styles defeating Cena at SummerSlam and declaring himself "the face that runs the place," with the evidence to back it up. Cena is at his best when he has an opponent who can hang with him in the ring, and Styles matched Cena every step of the way. The feud proved that Styles is a star and can compete on the biggest stage -- something that plenty of wrestling fans already knew. -- Andy Smith

Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn

It doesn't matter when or where, this rivalry dating back to their NXT days -- and a decade before both joined the WWE -- never gets old. In fact, every time their paths cross, it only gets better. Twice this year, Owens and Zayn stole the spotlight in pay-per-view events, at "Payback" and "Battleground." Each affair was a super-charged, high-flying rumble that never lost its intensity from start to finish. Although the rivalry fizzled out as the year went on, the innate dislike for each other did not. In early December, Owens and Zayn reconnected in the ring on "Monday Night Raw", and it was spectacular. In a whatever-you-can-do-I-can-do-better bout, Owens and Zayn each flipped over the top rope in spectacular fashion. Later, Zayn launched himself through the ropes in a circus-like DDT before succumbing to a pop-up powerbomb in the end. Their chemistry together is ridiculous, and the action unparalleled. Let's just hope they continue to cross paths for years to come. -- Matt Wilansky

AJ Styles vs. Dean Ambrose

While both had early-year feuds that could've been considered for best rivalry of 2016, Styles and Ambrose were both at their peak when they came together at Backlash in September. It was a 25-minute match to kick off the "SmackDown Live" push to be the "A" show, and they achieved that on this night thanks to Styles. The heel turn from Styles was an impressive risk, considering his positive response from the WWE Universe while he was a "good guy," but his character went to a new level when he hit Ambrose with a low blow to win the title. The feud continued for months by adding different stipulations and characters -- most notably, James Ellsworth. Watching Ambrose chase the title and Styles holding on to it was tremendous and captivating. A great rivalry occurs when both characters come out of it as superstars, and in this case, both Styles' and Ambrose's roles in this feud have elevated each man, making them two of the most popular performers in WWE. -- Andrew Davis

The Miz vs. Daniel Bryan

The best rivalry of 2016 was actually a hot feud in 2010, only this time, one side was unable to show off his stuff in the ring. Some old wounds from the Miz-Daniel Bryan feud that go back to the original version of NXT were reopened in an epic confrontation on the Aug. 23 episode of "Talking Smack", with Bryan calling out Miz for "wrestling like a coward" and Miz responding that Bryan was the coward for walking away from the fans. While Bryan tried to find ways to throw obstacles in Miz's way, like keeping him off the "SmackDown Live" team at Survivor Series, Miz kept on antagonizing Bryan by mimicking some of his old in-ring moves and mannerisms. And after Miz beat Dolph Ziggler (with whom he had a tremendous rivalry in its own right) at TLC, he dedicated his win to Bryan: "Without your motivation, always hating me, and denying me, and giving Dolph Ziggler chance after chance after chance, it motivated me to be the greatest Intercontinental champion ever." You can tell that Bryan (like most fans) is itching to get another shot at Miz, even though Bryan isn't cleared physically to do so. It will be interesting to see how much further this feud can and will go in 2017. -- James Quintong

The Revival vs. the NXT tag team division

As two-time NXT tag team champions, The Revival has anchored the tag team division of WWE's "third brand" for over a year now. 2016 saw Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder utilize their "no flips, just fists" mantra in some of the fiercest rivalries in all of WWE, and got the very best out of their clashes with Enzo & Cass, American Alpha, and #DIY. Due to the intensity of their rivalries, the NXT tag team championships have never meant more than they do now. The Revival's rivalries with everyone in the tag team division have produced some of the very best matches of the year -- chief among them their two-out-of-three falls match against #DIY at NXT Takeover: Toronto. The Revival are poised to join the main roster in 2017, when they will undoubtedly produce more high-level feuds on "Raw" or "SmackDown Live." -- Nick Irving

Roman Reigns vs. AJ Styles

This one won't draw the same praise as Styles' more memorable feuds with Ambrose, Cena or Chris Jericho, but that's only because it wasn't as long. In what proved to be a short and sweet program that only lasted two pay-per-view main events (both in May), the Reigns-Styles feud had all the makings to be Styles' best work of the year if it had been allowed to extend. Although he was booked to come up short in the two pay-per-view title matches against Reigns, then the WWE world champion, their matches at both "Payback" and "Extreme Rules" were important because of how well Styles proved he belonged at this level -- and that likely instilled the confidence in the powers that be that Styles could be trusted with the big opportunities he'd get later in the year. The program also produced Reigns' best in-ring work of 2016 by a large margin -- which is a testament to what makes Styles so great. -- Brian Campbell

Roman Reigns vs the WWE Universe

Yeah, sure, this is a stretch, but there is no bigger love-hate relationship than Reigns has with the fans. His "I'm THE guy" speech after WrestleMania nearly collapsed that arena with a cascade of boos. No matter what city he goes to, Roman has his enemies -- and those enemies are more vocal against him than any other full-time WWE superstar. My 2017 wish is that Roman goes nuclear heel and unleashes a promo the likes of which we've never seen from the "Big Dog." -- Steve Braband