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#BestForBusiness: The Highest Paid Wrestlers of 2016



Are you richer than a pro wrestler?

Probably not. Forbes recently published its list of top earners in the WWE for 2016 based on publicly-available data and insider interviews. The numbers aren't generally staggering; an average NBA player on a mid-level contract that pays between $2.9-5.7 million per year makes more than all but a handful of WWE stars. But it's still extremely generous money that places the WWE's top stars solidly in the top 1% of income-earning households in the USA—and we don't think anybody says no to that.

There are a couple of exits from last year's list, but frankly they aren't very surprising. What's more interesting is the free-fall of three top stars due to injury-triggered layoffs, a not-so-shocking rookie contract for a certain phenomenal talent, and shake-up at the top of the rankings.

Enough with the suspense, let's get right down to it!

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Off the list: Big Show, Kane



The two beloved big men are winding down their WWE careers, which explains why they've dropped off the list of the ten highest earners of 2016. But with earnings in the neighbourhood of $1.3-1.5 million each though, fans don't need to start feeling sorry for them too much.

10. Randy Orton ($1.9M)



The Viper is on top of SmackDown right now with his newly-won WWE World Championship, and he certainly deserves it.

Even a past-his-prime Randy Orton remains to be one of the company's most recognisable face in mainstream media, and the massive downside guarantee written into his contract plus the payout from his infamous SummerSlam main event war with Brock Lesnar ensured that a 2016 that saw him wrestle just from July onwards was just as solid as his past ones, compensation-wise. He may have free-fallen from last year's lofty #4 spot, but with a hopefully-healthy 2017 ahead of him, he should back at the top of the charts in no time.

T-8.  Seth Rollins ($2M)



Seth. Freakin'. Rollins. He certainly is The Man, but his massive knee injury from the latter part of 2015 was a damn expensive one. All told, his five-month layoff to rebuild, redesign, and reclaim his lost glory cost him the opportunity for a big-time WrestleMania payout that would have rocketed him ahead of both Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose as the best-paid former Shield member of 2016.

Calling it now: In next year's Forbes countdown, Rollins is going to be the third-highest earner in the WWE. He really is the future.

T-8. The Undertaker ($2M)



We're still heartbroken over the Phenom's apparent retirement, but the man certainly made out pretty well for himself in 2016 despite only actually appearing five times and wrestling just once. After 33 years of grinding, including a spectacular 23-2 WrestleMania win-loss record that will probably never be broken, he sure deserves it.

Considering how well Taker's merchandise continues to sell—especially his bad-ass #ThankYouTaker farewell shirt—we have a feeling 2016 won't be his last year on this list.

7. Shane McMahon ($2.2M)



Quick, if someone offered you two million dollars to fall off a 30-foot high steel cage and go crashing through a table, would you do it? Shane McMahon did, and his single WrestleMania match against Taker was enough to propel him to the seventh-highest WWE salary of 2016.

And don't forget—it isn't as if Shane O'Mac needed the money. All on his own, he was already easily worth just north of $30 million. Respect. Now we're even more curious what his sneaker cabinet looks like.

6. AJ Styles ($2.4M)



NJPW's loss was the WWE's gain, but that isn't to say the Phenomenal One didn't gain something for himself as well. A legendary rookie year that saw him claim the WWE Championship and main event his fair share of shows was enough to net AJ Styles a cool $2.4 million—even more than what emerging NBA stars like Rudy Gobert, Devin Booker, and Zach LaVine are making on their own rookie contracts. It was a prolific year that saw him become just one of four Superstars to have worked 12 pay-per-views in 2016. The others? Roman Reigns, Kevin Owens, and Dean Ambrose.

Maybe some day he'll actually have enough to afford a proper non-soccer mom haircut. But for now, congratulations, AJ. You just made the list.

5. Dean Ambrose ($2.7M)



The Lunatic Fringe may have lost some of the steam that made him a red-hot player in 2015, but he's the classic example of putting in the hustle to take home the dough. His 2016 schedule involving him in 194 matches was the heaviest in the company by far, and helped push his merchandise to a consistent draw at live events.

We suppose this answers the question of why Ambrose's house on Total Divas is so damn nice. We still can't imagine him doing his shopping at Crate & Barrel though.

4. Roman Reigns ($3.5M)



Love him or hate him, it's his yard now, and his ATM account is a hell of a lot bigger than yours or mine. The Big Dog main evented the first seven pay-per-views of 2016 and is the company's #2 merch mover, all of which helped bump his already-sizable downside guarantee to astronomical levels.

The Wrestling Observer Newsletter suggests however that due to John Cena's part-time schedule of late, Reigns has actually nosed ahead to become the top merchandise guy for 2017. Expect him to keep rocketing up this list in the years to come, if that's the case.

3. Triple H ($3.8M)



He knows how to play the game, all right. As an in-ring performer, Haitch took home a solid $2.5 million—par for the course among top-shelf WWE talents.

It's his role as WWE Executive Vice President for Talent, Live Events & Creative that really greased his plate though. Thanks to his executive pay, stock endowments, and performance bonuses, the King of Kings took home another $1.3 million. Somehow, we doubt he's feeling too bad about crashing and burning against Seth Rollins at WrestleMania.

2. John Cena ($9M)



Cena may still be the king of merchandise and slowly becoming a certified mainstream media playa, but his reduced schedule may have come back to hurt him. Five months on the injured list with a bum shoulder and another three months off to do Hollywood means that he's off the top of the list for the first time. The Forbes list doesn't consider earnings from outside the WWE however, so any endorsements and movie salaries the Doctor of Thuganomics signed aren't considered. But it's pretty safe to say he made more than this basic estimate.

In hindsight, Cena probably got off cheap with his engagement ring for Nikki Bella. The classic Tiffany & Co. sparkler featuring a perfect brilliant-cut 5 carat diamond in its centre plus another half-carat worth of smaller diamonds flanking it in a platinum setting reportedly cost $75,000. Frankly, he could have sprung for a larger one.

1. Brock Lesnar ($12M)



It's good to be the Beast. Despite a relatively light 2016 schedule of just 11 matches (of which he won eight), his earnings ensured that he earned over a million dollars per fight. That's a great payout, no matter how you slice it. His ultra-popular "Suplex City" shirt just keeps going strong too, so that's another plus.

Forbes estimates, however, that Lesnar's single UFC fight from last year grossed him more coin than all his earnings from WWE in total, thanks to his then-record $2.5 million fight fee (of which he eventually lost 10% for his famously failed drug test) and a huge cut from pay-per-view earnings.

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Some notes:

Pay scales haven't been affected too much with the WWE Network



One of the biggest controversies of the WWE slowly killing its pay-per-view model and migrating fans to the WWE Network was how talents would be paid. They've traditionally been awarded a cut of PPV revenue, and the company has remained opaque as to how compensation will change with the new business model.

Having said that, the numbers we're seeing here at the top of card are generally in line with what 2015's biggest earners made, so we figure that talents are still netting what they used to.

One-Percenters Still Rule



The WWE's top ten highest-paid wrestlers from last 2015 cornered approximately $31 million in total earnings—a figure that comprised nearly two-thirds of total salaries paid for the year. 2016's top ten talent took home even more combined. Their $41.5 million total payouts represent over 30% growth against last year, thanks mainly to Brock Lesnar's larger-than-life contract.

We don't have visibility on how much lower-card workers make—rumours suggest it's in the lower six-digit range—but we do have to wonder how they feel about the big boys' compensation growing at this level, considering the WWE as a whole increased its revenue by just 11% in 2016. We would imagine there's a widening of the gap going on, and wish the WWE would be more transparent with its compensation practices across the board.

Is There A Gender Pay Gap?



Most intriguing is the absolute absence of any woman wrestlers in the top ten. You'd think the short-lived #DivasRevolution would have helped equalise salaries, especially with the hot runs of such electric talents as Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and the rest. Unfortunately, these fierce ladies aren't anywhere on the list of top ten biggest earners of 2016. Hopefully, we see this change in the very near future.

Heads up, WWE. What we really need is a #SalaryRevolution.

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Is there anyone on this list that surprises you? How do you think next year's list will look? Let us know your thoughts below, you number-loving nerds.

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Mark De Joya (@MDJSuperstar) is a marketing professional by day, but dreams of being the Vince McMahon of the Philippines by night. He writes anything to do with numbers for Smark Henry: People Power, our weekly fan survey, and Best For Business, our regular financial report. With 18" arms and a 385-pound deadlift, he is also the official bouncer of the Smark Henry offices.

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