While 2016 may have been a down year in many respects, it was a banner year for excellent professional wrestling action. WWE continued its expansion on The WWE Network by launching the Cruiserweight Classic. The CWC hosted some of the best matches of the year, and introduced its audience to some of the most talented wrestlers in the world. It’s truly remarkable that performers like Rich Swann, Drew Gulak, Tony Neese, Cedric Alexander and many more were given a shot under the WWE auspices. The UK expansion suggests there is more of this to come.
WWE’s booking on the main roster was mediocre, but the in-ring product was as good as it’s ever been. And no one was better in that ring this year than AJ Styles. After debuting at the Royal Rumble and enduring a couple months as the “Redneck Rookie,” AJ laid claim to being the best wrestler in the world, winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and defending it in a series of classic matches. Shane McMahon returned, and Daniel Bryan publically retired in one of the most heartfelt segments Raw has ever produced.
New Japan Pro Wrestling rebounded nicely after losing AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Gallows & Anderson in one fell swoop by elevating Tetsuya Naito and Kenny Omega into top positions. Naito’s capture of the IGWP Heavyweight Championship made him the first man not named Styles, Tanahashi, or Okada to hold the belt in years. Los Ingobernables de Japon grew incredibly popular, Kenny Omega was white hot, Will Ospreay burst onto the scene, and Katsuyori Shibata finally got a quality singles title run.
NXT was gutted after Wrestlemania, losing talents like Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Enzo & Big Cass, Apollo Crews, and Baron Corbin. Bayley and Finn Bálor would follow soon thereafter. Much of the year was spent in rebuilding mode, focusing on talents like Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe, both of whom won the NXT Championship on multiple occasions. Bobby Roode debuted with one of the all-time great entrances. The Revival, American Alpha, and DIY raised the bar regarding tag team action.
Ring of Honor and the other independents hummed along. The Young Bucks sat atop the indy ladder (no pun intended), but special props must go out to Jay Lethal and his historic run with the ROH World Championship. Adam Cole returned from injury, joined Bullet Club, and regained the ROH Championship before losing it at the end of the year to a deserving Kyle O’Reilly. Cody Rhodes began reinventing himself, and Matt Riddle earned my vote for Rookie of the Year.
Impact Wrestling was in disarray for much of the year. On multiple occasions Billy Corgan had to loan money to keep the promotion afloat, until he sued them for essentially lying to him about the state of the company. But from within this turmoil rose, like a phoenix, Broken Matt Hardy. His career resurrection came via some of the most inventive wrestling segments I’ve ever seen. Who would have thought at the beginning of 2016 that a drone, a dilapidated boat, a one-year old, and a gardener skilled at preparing the “battlefield for massacre” would be more over than a lot of stuff on Raw!
The following list contains the top 63 matches I watched in 2016, plus a number of honorable mentions. These selections are weighted towards WWE, NXT, and New Japan since those matches are just easier to watch. I couldn’t get myself overly interested in TNA, and time constraints kept me away from a lot of action on the independents.
Here’s a tally of the number of times a particular wrestler appears on this list:
13: AJ Styles
8: Dean Ambrose, Kevin Owens, Roman Reigns
6: Chris Jericho, Kenny Omega, Kazuchika Okada, Sami Zayn
5: Charlotte, KUSHIDA, Michael Elgin, Tetsuya Naito, Sasha Banks, Seth Rollins, Katsuyori Shibata, Will Ospreay, The Young Bucks
4: Tomohiro Ishii, Johnny Gargano, Kyle O’Reilly, The Miz, The Revival, Shinsuke Nakamura, Dolph Ziggler
#63: The Young Bucks vs. Roopongi Vice vs. Matt Sydal & Ricochet vs. reDRagon (c) for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships – Wrestle Kingdom 10 – The very first match of 2016 for me ends up on my list of one of this year’s best. These four-way matches have often been criticized as flippy-dippy spot fests, which dampened my enthusiasm going in. But if those were this division’s criticisms for a while, this match did much to evolve and mature the style. The match did not start as a tornado, but as a genuine sequence of one-team-gets-an-advantage, then the next has their turn, etc. And here’s the important point – they weren’t racing through them. The speed was still there, but just at more sensible pace, one that gave moves just a bit more time to breathe.
Matt Sydal & Ricochet, each wrestling one of the biggest matches of their careers, shone like stars. These two just have an innate confidence that breeds charisma. They carry themselves like total professionals. Ricochet did a handful of outrageously impressive athletic maneuvers that you didn’t think were humanly possible, as usual. Cody Hall interfered in some big moments and influenced the flow of the match. A coordinated 8-man suplex that grew steadily bigger until Romero couldn’t even find his position was super fun. There was a short sequence where Romero got to look like the king. Not quite enough reDRagon for my taste, but it doesn’t ruin what turned out to be a fun four-way junior tag match that actually made sense.
#62: Austin Aries vs. Shinsuke Nakamura – NXT TakeOver: The End – The wonderfully energetic NXT TakeOver fans set the tone by singing Nakamura’s theme song at multiple stages of this match. After some mat wrestling to start, Aries dominated. He worked over Shinsuke’s knee, neck, and back for an extended period until Nakamura countered with a spinning enziguiri. The King of Strong Style took over with some seriously hard strikes. A lot of signature offense from both men was countered, which gave the match a fresh feel. After Aries hit a Death Valley Driver on the apron, he seemed to have the match won. With Nakamura about to be counted out, Aries decided to fire his kill shot by going for his high-velocity tope between the middle and bottom ropes. The impact was decisive, but left us with the sense that the match could have gone either way.
#61: KUSHIDA vs. Kenny Omega (c) for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship – Wrestle Kingdom 10 – Several months earlier, and after a prolonged build, KUSHIDA scored the biggest victory of his career when he defeated Kenny Omega for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. In a surprising turn, Omega won back the title in their rematch leaving us wondering where exactly KUSHIDA’s career was headed. Evidently, it was headed towards one of the best matches of the year – the rubber match at Wrestle Kingdom 10.
Kenny Omega’s freakish speed, strength and length make him one of the most legit and terrifying strikers in pro wrestling. Much smaller in size, KUSHIDA wrestled with exquisite technique, figuring out ways to counter Omega at the right moments. KUSHIDA had Taguchi at his side literally playing the role of Doc Brown, while Omega had the Young Bucks selling his role as the Terminator. Omega did a masterful job of selling the arm, which led him to performing an impessive one-armed sitout powerbomb. Great strikes, expert selling, and a completely invested crowd made this an excellent way to start off 2016.
#60: Katsuyori Shibata (c) vs. Tomohiro Ishii for the NEVER Championship – New Beginning Osaka – After the sensatinal performance Shibata and Ishii put together at Wrestle Kingdom 10, we knew this rematch for the NEVER Championship was going to be a stiff, shoot-style affair. Similar to Undertaker/Lesnar matches (though to a lesser degree), you could feel the mood shift to “shit just got serious” when the bell rung. It was conveyed in the details, like the way each man covered up when backed into the ropes. They reprised a motif of their first encounter – letting their opponent try to keep them down with their best shots. We witnessed literally a solid minute of exchanging forearm shots that grew progressively harder. They voluntarily traded suplexes. When Ishii or Shibata returned to his feet, the other would glare as if insulted that they would even attempt to continue. The crowd audibly rose each time they did.
The frequency with which each man held an advantage eventually lowered until Shibata looked like he was nearly out on his feet. A reverse into a Nakamura-style armbar led to a great near-submission. (I am convinced Ishii is one of the best sellers in all of pro wrestling.) I loved the “holy shit” backhand that hit so hard it could have knocked a cruiserweight to Sendai. After a battle with tons of “ooos” and “ahhhs” from the crowd, the audience conveyed their appreciation post-match with tons of cheers. Great stuff!
#59: AJ Styles & Chris Jericho vs. The New Day (c) for the WWE Tag Team Championships – Raw March 7 – After a rather enjoyable feud between AJ and Y2J to start Styles’s WWE run, the two decided to form the tag team Y2AJ. These two ring veterans with ample technical and aerial prowess seemed an unexpectedly appropriate fit. In this match, they ran up against The New Day who, as Michael Cole was eager to put over, had been champions for almost 200 days – a fact that only seems to be mentioned immediately before a team loses their titles. Styles and Jericho came to the ring wearing brand new Y2AJ T-shirts. The table seemed set for a title change.
All five men did many of their signature moves, but usually in creative ways. Trouble in Paradise was countered into the Walls of Jericho. AJ’s flying forearm was done over the top rope to the floor. There were about six really good near falls, and one submission spot where I was almost positive Kofi was going to tap to the Walls of Jericho. Great camera work and excellent timing held everything together. Big E gets the win by employing a brute strength counter to a Jericho flying maneuver, but the lasting image of this match will be Jericho turning on Styles, performing three Codebreakers and then stuffing the Y2AJ shirt right into AJ’s mouth. I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that Jericho’s burning of the Y2AJ T-shirt on Smackdown while glaring through flames was a real nice touch.
#58: Broken Matt Hardy vs. Jeff Hardy – TNA Impact July 12 – THE FINAL DELETION!!! You have to give credit to Matt Hardy. Over the course of a couple months, he completely reinvented himself into a deranged, “broken” version of himself. Of course, he blames his brother Jeff, or should I say “Brother Nero.” The climax of their feud was an insanely original battle on the Hardy Compound in North Carolina. This match built for weeks and the payoff was literally fireworks.
We begin with a birthday party (seriously) for Matt’s one-year-old son King Maxell who, according to Matt, will eventually carry on the Hardy name once Brother Nero is deleted. He instructed his gardener, Señor Benjamin, to “prepare the battlefield for massacre!” I need that on a T-shirt. Matt then sent an army of drones to attack Jeff in his own home. Jeff fended them off with his guitar. Jeff knew the attack came from Matt because Matt’s face appears in a hologram to inform him that the massacre will be tonight! “Oh, hell no!” Jeff yells as he chased after Matt’s drone on his dirt bike. With Jeff distracted, Matt performed the most villainous slow lawnmower ride ever as he diabolically mowed over Jeff’s intricately constructed lawn art. Matt’s facial expressions on the lawnmower is one of the highlights of 2016.
Referee Craig Keener showed up in the middle of the night to find Matt badly playing a violin given to him by his good friend Antonio Stradivari. Matt claimed to have foreseen the arrival of Craig Keener in a vision. Jeff showed up and they started to have a match. At one point, Jeff did a Swanton Bomb out of a tree onto a ladder. They shot fireworks at one another. Matt takes cover under a dilapidated boat named Skarsgård. They fought into the water (the Lake of Rejuvenation) where Brother Nero disappeared and Willow rose from the lake! Matt got the advantage, but after pinning Willow, his mask was removed to reveal that it was actually Señor Benjamin. The switcheroo! Finally, Jeff went for a Swanton off a dirt hill, but Matt lit the hill on fire, causing Jeff to thud to the earth below. Matt finally deleted his brother, making Jeff Hardy obsolete. This whole segment could easily be described as “wrestlecrap” or it can be taken as one of the most hilarious and original things to come out of pro wrestling in a while. Credit to the Hardys, because I place this in the latter camp.
#57: Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte (c) for the Raw Women’s Championship – Raw October 3 – It was great to see this match main event Raw, as it deserved to. With Dana Brooke barred from ringside, Sasha Banks put her body as risk once again. Charlotte’s corkscrew moonsault to the floor was jump-out-of-your-seat awesome. Sasha’s reclaiming the championship was a great moment.
#56: AJ Styles vs. John Cena – Money in the Bank – The face-off on Raw that started this feud was greeted with dueling “AJ Styles” and “John Cena” chants that lasted the better part of three minutes. The fervent fan support each had earned over the last decade plus imbued this contest with high energy. During a contract signing six days previous, Cena compelled AJ to sign a contract that barred Gallows and Anderson from ringside. AJ hesitated, but ultimately agreed to fight on his own.
AJ Styles dominated most of this match, cutting off Cena each time he started to establish momentum. Styles seemed a step faster, dodging punches, parrying holds, and at one point almost literally running circles around him. Sequences like the leapfrog into the Phenomenal Dropkick and the Cena’s flying shoulder blocks into the slam were cut off before completion, then resurrected later when openings presented themselves. This lack of predictability helped keep the crowd buzzing. AJ worked the Calf Crusher like a master, and Cena sold it by cancelling his running the ropes before hitting a pained Five Knuckle Shuffle. As usual, AJ’s selling made Cena look like a million bucks when he was able to muster some offense. People have criticized the ending, and I admit to not loving it, but least it provided an excuse for a rematch. I got the feeling that both men held back a bit, so that the feud could be continued at SummerSlam.
#55: AJ Styles vs. Roman Reigns (c) for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship – Payback – The first major title defense of WWE’s post-Wrestlemania “new era” featured the Phenomenal AJ Styles, fresh off a highly successful run in New Japan Pro Wrestling, versus the establishment champion Roman Reigns. Over the previous several months the fans had turned against Roman Reigns largely due to the fact that they did not appreciate his being booked above wrestlers the fans thought were more deserving. In their eyes, few were more deserving than the recent arrival, AJ Styles.
Styles did a magnificent job of bringing the most out of Roman here. His selling and psychology made Roman looked like a badass monster, and the crowd was invested. AJ executed a ton of great offense including a Phenomenal Forearm through a table. When Roman was counted out, Shane McMahon restarted the match as a no-countout. Roman got himself disqualified by unintentionally hitting Styles with a low blow. Stephanie McMahon restarted the match as a no-disqualification. Gallows and Anderson made their inevitable arrival and beat down on Reigns for just a few moments. As they backed away, the Usos attacked them from behind leading to a melee. AJ and Reigns both dove over the top rope onto the throng before eventually entering their closing sequence. After a really fun match, the McMahons announced backstage that a rematch would happen in three weeks at Extreme Rules. Based on this performance, that decision was made on merit.
#54: TJP, Johnny Gargano and Kota Ibushi vs. Marty Scurll, Tommy End and Will Ospreay – Evolve Mercury Rising – This was the best of the annual Wrestlemania weekend 6-way tag team matches that I’ve seen. The large crowd was hot and gave this match a ton of energy. The men in the ring returned that energy by putting their bodies through a physical war. With so many combinations of wrestlers, the action stayed fresh and the match went long while managing to gain steam throughout. There were great bouts of coordinated tag team maneuvers, and innovative moves like Will Ospreay hitting a diamond cutter from the top rope as Scurll and End held their opponent higher than the top rope. The match spilled into the crowd, where Ibushi and Ospreay literally fought onto the rafters before doing moonsaults off of them! That’s right, moonsaults from the rafters. Ibushi and Ospreay then had the opportunity to go mano a mano. They traded stiff lightning-fast strikes before their partners returned for a great closing sequence. It’s surreal to think that four of the six would be involved with WWE by the end of the year, and the other two (Scurll and Ospreay) will probably get there eventually.
#53: Sami Zayn vs. Roman Reigns vs. Chris Jericho vs. Sheamus – Raw July 25 – This four-way match was set up to determine a new number one contender for the WWE Universal Championship. The winner of this four-way would face in the main event the winner of a four-way won earlier in the evening by Finn Bálor. Everyone looked good hear, included Zayn who felt like the glue that help it together. His precision timing and facial expressions really stood out. Reigns had his moments of dominance, Jericho was intelligent and seemingly always in the right place at the right time, while Sheamus had the opportunity to let loose with an array of power moves. It’s difficult to tell stories in four-way dances, and while this match didn’t transcend this limitation, it was a really fun ride with tons of near falls that built to a great pay off.
#52: The Revival (c) vs. Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Chiampa – NXT TakeOver Brooklyn II – This match served as the set up to their rematch, which was not only my favorite tag team match of 2016, but one of my favorite tag team matches of all time. The finish with Gargano tapping out was heartbreaking, but necessary given what was to come.
#51: American Alpha vs. The Revival (c) for the NXT Tag Team Championships – TakeOver: Dallas – It is amazing that wrestlers like Chad Gable, Jason Jordan, Dash Wilder, and Scott Dawson who are so young to the business can put together a match so subtle and sophisticated. The Revival has learned how to execute expertly timed, old-school heel tactics and misdirection, like when Dash climbed under the ring to pull Jordan off the apron and prevented the hot tag, or when he covered Dawson’s feet with a towel while he was in a pinning situation to add leverage. For their part Gable and Jordan came out brimming with energy and excitement and it carried over to their work in the ring. Stereo suplexes that Dash and Dawson tried (unsuccessfully) to counter by grabbing hands as they faced each other was a nice touch. There were some great near falls, a reversal of roles where Gable saved Jordan, and a blind tag that gave The Revival a taste of their own medicine. The tears in Jason Jordan’s eyes conveyed just how much this victory meant to him. Watch a great way to kick off one of wrestling’s best shows of the year!
#50: Asuka vs. Bayley (c) for the NXT Women’s Championship – NXT TakeOver: Dallas – Asuka had run through all of the competition NXT’s Women’s Division had to offer and had earned an undefeated record. Bayley had established herself as a champion worthy of the title – a performer who had put on arguably the best WWE’s Women’s match in history at TakeOver: Brooklyn. In this contest Bayley pushed Asuka further than she had ever been pushed before, a situation that created great drama. You got the feeling that Asuka had been fighting with children until this point and now there was a real challenger in front of her. Asuka eventually wore Bayley down with strikes, dropkicks, and then finally the Asuka Lock, which Bayley fought bravely but eventually passed out to. It was a great finish in that Bayley never gave up and just had to sit on the floor after the match listening to Asuka’s music and celebration as she tried to regain her strength. In a post-match interview she claimed that felt as if she had let her fans down. Given the quality of this contest, I would beg to differ.
#49: Kazuchika Okada (c) vs. Hirooki Goto for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship – New Beginning Osaka – To develop his new persona, Goto came to the ring looking like 1990s Hakushi – white body and face paint detailed in black with what looked to be artfully drawn Japanese characters. Okada, on the other hand, looked as confident – borderline arrogant – as I’ve ever seen him. Goto did a good job of slowly establishing himself as the heel. He didn’t abide by a clean break. He beat up Okada viciously on the outside. Ironically, the boos he generated were accompanied by growing cheers. After working holds for a while, Goto hit a second rope Ushigoroshi followed by a Shouten Kai, but Okada was in the ropes. Somehow Okada hit a quick Rainmaker Clothesline, but was too beaten down to make the cover. That set off the last four minutes, which were excellent. There were a ton of attempts to hit the Rainmaker Clothesline and Shouten Kai by Okada and Goto, respectively. Some impacts hit, an equal number were countered or dodged in a display of talented chain wrestling. The finish was decisive and left both men looking strong.
#48: Kamaitachi vs. Dragon Lee (c) for the CMLL World Lightweight Title – Fantastica Mania Night 2 – The lucha libre wrestling style is predicated on high flying maneuvers that routinely defy logic. Strikes can seem like taps. Big spots appear contrived. Needless to say, this midcard match on a relatively unimportant show between two luchadors I had never heard of left me not expecting much. Then Kamaitachi and Dragon Lee got to work and those expectations were totally blown away!
Perhaps because this was my first exposure to either of them, the sheer number of incredibly innovative, ridiculously athletic moves shocked me. Kamaitachi performed rolling northern lights suplexes. Dragon Lee did a Fosbury Flop that transitioned into a hurricanrana from the ring apron to the floor. He followed with a back senton from the top turnbuckle to the floor. Let me repeat that: Dragon Lee went to the top turnbuckle then threw himself towards the floor back first. Sick.
The impacts of these moves gave the match a distinct flavor – part lucha, part Japanese strong style. Kamaitachi told a story by working over Dragon Lee’s knee for the entire match, leading to a wonderful near-submission. There were a number of sequences in which they were countering each other so quickly that you could barely catch your breath. The last few minutes saw something close to ten dramatic near falls. These men put their bodies on the line and created – almost out of nowhere – one of the best matches of the year.
#47: KUSHIDA (c) vs. BUSHI for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship – New Beginning Nagata – This was the blueprint for how to book a babyface overcoming all odds. Dastardly heel antics, a double misting, the gradual transformation in the behaviors of the Young Lions at ringside. I feel like KUSHIDA came out of this looking like a superhero. BUSHI had a couple awesome near falls at the end of the match.
#46: Dolph Ziggler, Zack Ryder, Sin Cara, Sami Zayn, The Miz, Stardust, and Kevin Owens (c) for the WWE Intercontinental Championship – Wrestlemania 32 – This car crash was also, according to Zack Ryder, the biggest moment of his career. It’s nice to see a guy who works so hard get rewarded, even if he did wind up losing the title the next night on Raw!
#45: Dean Ambrose (c) vs. Kevin Owens for the WWE Intercontinental Championship (Last Man Standing Match) – Royal Rumble – This rematch from TLC was Owens’s chance to regain the Intercontinental Championship. He had stalked and tortured Ambrose for weeks, building up tension, anger and violence that would culminate at the Royal Rumble in this Last Man Standing match.
During his time in Ring of Honor, Kevin Steen excelled in hardcore matches. This 21-minute classic proved he hadn’t lost his touch. As required by a feud of this nature, there was no feeling out process. Both men laid into each other with forearms and chops from the opening bell. They battled with kendo sticks and chairs in all sorts of combinations. The barricade was broken, Michael Cole was collided with, and both sets of ring steps were sent flying. But the key element was the ferocity Owens and Ambrose brought to this fight. Neither man would allow himself to give up, even after some incredibly high-impact moves. The match will perhaps be best remembered for three big table spots, the last of which may go down as an iconic Owens moment.
#44: Gran Metalik vs. Zack Saber Jr. – CWC Semis – This was the best Metalik (who wrestled as Mascada Dorada in Mexico and Japan) match I’d ever seen. There was hot action bell-to-bell including a collection of lightning fast technical counters, stiff strikes, and even a head butt thrown in!
#43: AJ Styles vs. Roman Reigns (c) for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in an Extreme Rules Match – Extreme Rules – WWE did a great job of building this rematch from Payback three weeks earlier. Styles and Reigns remained laser-focused on one another, with the intensity between them ratcheting up a notch each successive week. The Club of Gallows and Anderson and The Bloodline of the Usos clashed in support of their leaders, though AJ seemed reluctant to accept the assistance. After AJ balked at attacking Reigns with a chair at the end of Raw, and Reigns hit him with one anyway, it was on!
To put it bluntly – AJ Styles took a royal beating in this match. Roman’s offense was impressive and delivered with great force. He turned a Razor’s Edge into a sitout powerbomb. He gave AJ a high-rotation back body drop through the announce table. He connected with a couple vicious spears. AJ gave almost as good as he got with his usual array of high-octane offense including a Styles Clash onto a chair. The 1interference from The Club and The Usos was limited to just a couple minutes of action, and seemed balanced for each side. This was effective in maintaining the idea that neither man was a saint, and this was a battle fought in a gray area. While the surprise return of Seth Rollins wasn’t technically part the match, it certainly capped the night off well.
#42: Katsuyori Shibata vs. Tomohiro Ishii (c) for the NEVER Championship – Wrestle Kingdom 10 – The NEVER Championship has come to represent the extremely hard-hitting Japanese strong style largely by virtue of the efforts of Ishii and Makabe in 2015. Shibata not only kept pace with last year’s classics, but in my view, improved upon them. The match featured some of the stiffest strikes you would see all year. Initially, each man left himself open to prove he could take the other’s best shots. There were countless wicked counterstrikes that demonstrated consummate toughness and kickouts at a count of one that would have leveled normal wrestlers. Numerous instances of fighting spirit gave me goose bumps. Now if only I could get the sound of clunking skulls out of my head.
#41: Steve Corino vs. BJ Whitmer in a Fight Without Honor – Best in the World – It’s hard for me to think of a feud in modern professional wrestling that has built for as long as this one has without a match to support it. What started as Steve Corino consistently criticizing BJ Whitmer on commentary metamorphosized into one of the most bitter and angry feuds in recent memory. BJ showing up at Corino’s house was one of those creepy steps that took an already hot feud to the next level.
This was absolutely brutal. And when I say that, I don’t mean like a hard-hitting TLC match, I mean like Axl versus Ian Rotten from the old ECW. Within the first minute, Steve Corino lost a tooth. There was blood, rubbing alcohol thrown into the blood, vicious shots to the head with chairs, and broken pieces of table. There was a sock filled with quarters. There was a beer bottle smashed over Whitmer’s skull, followed by Corino’s cutting Whitmer open using the broken shard. Both men’s wearing of white amplified the effect of the blood. Near the end they brutalized each other with strong style strikes. It seemed like Whitmer was finally going to get his comeuppance, when the lights turned off and Kevin Sullivan appeared. It made the finish seem a little flat and rushed, though it’s difficult to say such a thing given the physical toll that both men put themselves through. Regardless, very few (if any) matches this year reached this level of hardcore-edness, and even if they did, it’s hard to imagine anyone will deserve the mantle more.
#40: Kota Ibushi vs. TJ Perkins – CWC Semis – This was the best TJ Perkins match I’ve ever seen. Everything Kota Ibushi did was outstanding. There were stiff kicks and some great near falls, like with TJP kicked out of the Golden Star Powerbomb.
#39: The Revival vs. American Alpha (c) for the NXT Tag Team Championships – NXT TakeOver: The End – This is going to seem like a weird comparison, but this rematch for the NXT Tag Team Championships reminded me of Bill Clinton’s speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Clinton’s remarks were truly masterful, a work of rhetorical genius. His turns of phrase, argument structure, and employment of metaphor made the best case for President Obama’s reelection of the entire campaign. I’ve watched it multiple times, and each time I do I discover a new trick, a new layer of quality. It was flat out brilliant.
Like Clinton’s speech, this match rewards multiple viewings. It was constructed in a way that only two teams with massive amounts of chemistry can manage. The Revival were spectacular with their interference and expertly timed misdirection (is there a team that’s done it better?), many of which occurred faster than I could consciously process. Gable was beaten down early, but in a way that never sacrificed the match’s momentum. Jordan’s expected hot tag was followed by a peppering of clotheslines, dropkicks, and suplexes. There were a number of really cool spots, including a Doomsday Device that was countered into a belly-to-belly suplex. These teams displayed moves you rarely see, and counters to those rarities. I won’t spoil all of the details, largely because I haven’t discovered them all yet! Just watch it.
#38: Will Ospreay vs. KUSHIDA (c) for the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship – Invasion Attack – The 22-year old Will Ospreay is a British sensation. His innovative, lightning-fast aerial offense and technical prowess have put him in the class of wrestling’s elite high-flyers. He so impressed Kazuchika Okada that Okada offered him a spot in his Chaos faction and lobbied New Japan to grant him this IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship match against KUSHIDA.
As excellent as Ospreay is through the air, this match exemplified just how good an in-ring storyteller he is as well. Both men started with an impressive chain of innovative counters to wet the crowd’s collective palette. Then KUSHIDA went after Ospreay’s injured left arm, which completely changed the match. Ospreay attempted a handstand springboard and collapsed upon discovering that it couldn’t bear his weight. Like a shark smelling blood, KUSHIDA honed in on the arm, attempting to weaken it further before applying his signature Hoverboard Lock. In response, Ospreay modified his offense on the fly (get it!?) to perform the same maneuvers without applying pressure to the arm. His hands-free springboard off the ropes into an enziguiri was a thing of beauty.
KUSHIDA hit a spectacular Spanish Fly-like top rope flip into the Hoverboard Lock, something I’ve personally never seen before. The match then transitioned into “fighting spirit” mode where both men exchanged stiff strikes. The series of counters and near falls that followed near the end was technical wizardry, edge-of-your-seat action. Irrespective of the finish, this was a star-making performance for Will Ospreay, and one of the better matches of 2016.
#37: Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns vs. Dean Ambrose (c) for the WWE Championship – Battleground – Given the talent level and history of the men involved, it was only a matter of time until the former members of The Shield faced each other for pro wrestling’s greatest prize. Roman was months removed from his Wrestlemania christening as the next ace of the company. Seth Rollins vacated the title due to a knee injury, reclaimed it in an earlier match against Reigns, and then lost it immediately to Dean Ambrose. The cashing in of the Money in the Bank briefcase meant that all three men had been WWE Champion within a ten-minute span. This three way seemed the natural progression of this story.
Yet of a couple of unexpected factors played into this match. Roman Reigns had been suspended a little more than 30 days prior due to failing a drug test. This set the usually hostile crowd even more against him. It also set the possibility that he would immediately win back the title lower than it would have been otherwise. In addition, this show was just six days removed from the brand split. Ambrose and Rollins had been drafted to Smackdown Live and Raw, respectively. With Raw being the flagship, it was entirely possible that Rollins would win here.
This was the classic example of a well laid out WWE main event. There were no dead spots. Everything flowed. Each man was in the right spot at the right time, like a spot-on comedy set where the hits keep rolling. Roman still looked every bit the monster, but was jointly powerbombed through the announce table. As Ambrose walked away for just a moment, Seth nailed him in the back with a chair, a nice nod to the original dissolution of the group. Rollins was all over the place, even flying into frame to break up a count as if he’d dropped from the rafters. This was a strong match with a sensible finish – part being in the right place at the right time, and part getting the job done on your own.
#36: Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Finn Bálor – NXT 344 – Billed as a dream match, Nakamura and Bálor would battle for the first time in NXT. It was highly suspected before the match that Bálor was on the verge of getting called up to the main roster. This match thus stood as a top guy doing the job as he goes out of the company. From that perspective, the result of the match was never in question. And despite that, this match made me believe that Finn Bálor could actually pull the upset.
There were several reasons why. Finn came to the ring, not as the demon, but as a man ready for a major fight. There was something special about the way he carried himself. It felt like he knew he was better than Nakamura. Shinsuke’s entrance was great as usual, amplified by the singing of the building. The same crowd was focused and invested throughout, furthering the big fight feel. Bálor went deep into his bag of tricks and pulled out a number of moves and submissions I’ve never seen before. It made everything seem fresher, more unexpected. Nakamura spent most of the match selling a brutal attack on his left knee. These men did not hold back. This was a strong style match and the kicks, chops and forearms connected solidly. Bálor performing the Coup de Grâce as a counter to the Kinshasa let to one of the closest two-counts I’ve ever seen. It made my heart jump. I wish it aired without commercials, but regardless, this is well worth checking out.
#35: Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte (c) (with Dana Brooke) for the WWE Women’s Championship – Raw July 25 – Charlotte and Sasha Banks rose through NXT together. Their talent and hard work elevated women’s wrestling not just in WWE, but globally. Their three-way match with Becky Lynch stole the show at Wrestlemania. It exemplified the potential of women’s wrestling now and into the future. Since April, Charlotte had been chugging along as the newly christened WWE Women’s Champion while Sasha largely nursed an injury. Now, on the first post-draft Raw, Sasha was going to get her chance to leave her mark on a new era.
They locked up hard to start. Dana Brooke quickly interfered by grabbing Sasha’s leg. After Sasha hit her double-knee Thesz Press from the apron to the floor, she tossed the Women’s Championship belt into Dana’s arms and played dead, a la her wrestling role model Eddie Guerrero. The referee saw it and Dana was ejected.
Now a clear one-on-one match, the psychology of the match began to develop. Sasha showed her swagger, catching a kick and yelling, “I don’t think so!” They held nothing back. Sasha dove through the ropes and nearly broke herself in half upon landing. Charlotte hit a moonsault from the top rope to the floor. When Natural Selection couldn’t put Sasha away, she locked in the Figure Four. They traded hard shots, but Sasha managed to get to the ropes. Sasha managed to lock in the Bank Statement, but when Charlotte escaped she declared, “You will never beat me.” Sasha’s immediate response was to lock the move in again, ultimately tapping the champion out. It was a beautiful crowning moment, with the crowd chanting, “You deserve it.” In pure boss fashion, she used the mic to explain how great she is, as Charlotte backed up the ramp in anger and disbelief over what had just transpired. She would ultimately get her rematch several weeks later at SummerSlam.
#34: Seth Rollins vs. Kevin Owens (c) for the WWE Universal Championship – Hell in a Cell – After Seth took control early, Owens exploited Rollins’s injured back to completely dominate the next phase of the match. Eventually the two men exchanged a GREAT back and forth sequence to bring the alive. Rollins followed a suplex of Owens onto the apron with a pair of topes. Owens countered with a fire extinguisher shot to Rollins’s gut, then an “accidental” spraying of the referee. As the door opened to let the ref out, Jericho locked himself in, leading to a sea of Y2J chants.
After some back and forth, Rollins pedigreed Jericho, then powerbombed Owens through a pair of tables. Rollins huge frog splash seemed like the killing blow, but Jericho interfered with the referee, causing a furious Rollins to beat on him with a chair. Owens took advantage of the distraction with a pop-up powerbomb, but Rollins kicked out. The two-on-one advantage eventually overwhelmed Rollins, who suffered a decisive DDT on a chair, followed by a powerbomb through two more to retain the championship. This was a great match despite the weird crowd reaction that resulted from Rollin’s face turn coupled with Owens being a heel the fans love.
#33: Tetsuya Naito vs. Michael Elgin – G1 Climax Night 4 – This G1 main event at Korakuen Hall absolutely rocked! Naito worked the knee, Elgin sold expertly, and it remained a focal point of the story for the entire match, eventually leading to the finish. Despite the pain, Elgin would not surrender, countering all of Naito’s signature offense with his peerless display of power. Big impacts were given time to breathe. A collection of great counters heightened audience investment. The way the pin was arrived at was smart and fluid. It was a clear victory, but neither man really lost here.
#32: Tetsuya Naito vs. Katsuyori Shibata – G1 Climax Night 8 – Shibata entered with both his knee and shoulder heavily taped. He also entered angry and not willing to take any nonsense from Naito. This led to his propelling Naito at high velocity into the guardrails, sending him toppling into the crowd. Naito responding by wrapping Shibata’s knee in the guardrail, then executing a dropkick from the apron into the guardrail. Naito focused his offense on Shibata’s knee, mostly with a collection of excellent submissions. Naito’s taunting allowed Shibata to gather his fighting spirit, and the battle equalized. The end sequence was really snug and told a great story. I’d pay to watch these two guys go at it any day of the week.
#31: Dean Ambrose vs. AJ Styles (c) for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship – TLC – AJ Styles bumped like only he can, causing all of Ambrose’s offense look outstanding. The finish will likely be remembered for James Ellsworth’s pushing Ambrose off the top of the ladder into tables on the outside, allowing AJ to reclaim his championship. However, it should not diminish what was one of the better matches of 2016.
#30: John Cena vs. AJ Styles – SummerSlam – John Cena calls himself the “face that runs the place,” while AJ Styles just believes he’s the best in the world. This contest was an instant classic with a clean finish(!) that truly helped elevate Styles into the top position on Smackdown Live. Styles would use his massive victory during what would end up being SummerSlam’s best match to launch a WWE World Heavyweight Championship reign that would dominate the blue brand for the remainder of the year.
#29: Ricochet, Will Ospreay, & Matt Sydal vs. Adam Cole & The Young Bucks – PWG Battle of Los Angeles Night 2 – Make no mistake; this was a spotfest, but they were REALLY good spots. This match was chock full of synchronized triple team maneuvers that only these guys can pull off. Flips and huge bumps were present, of course, but then there was Adam Cole kicking Ospreay’s head off as he was doing back flip. Ospreay bit Adam in the dick. There was a Doomsday Device onto the floor. Ricochet’s amazing dive to the floor, reverse Frankensteiner from the top, and high elevation 450 splashes were sights to behold. This match contained a slew of great, high impact combos, one huge move after another, just flowing into one another. The finale was maybe the best I saw all year. As Nick Jackson sprung off the top rope for an Indytaker, Ospreay intercepted with his own springboard ace crusher, followed by a SHOOTING STAR MELTZER DRIVER. Oh, then they hit triple synchronized shooting star presses. Seriously, buy the Blu-Ray just for this match.
#28: Tomohiro Ishii vs. Kazuchika Okada – G1 Climax Night 13 – This match started so hot, and with such high-impact moves that there were plausible near falls in the first thirty seconds! These two members of CHAOS know each other exceptionally well. This familiarity no doubt played a large part in the chemistry they displayed in the ring. From the outset, they told the story that Ishii was every bit the match for Okada. Once the crowd caught on to that, they were hooked. As usual, Okada was very fluid, but Ishii matched his counters every step of the way. Okada and Ishii kept trying for the Rainmaker Clothesline and brainbuster, respectively, but had to settle for other high impact moves that couldn’t quite finish up their opponent, but which lead to a collection of outstanding near falls. The finish was genuinely satisfying. I just sat in my chair muttering, “Man, that was really, really good.”
#27: Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens vs. Cesaro vs. The Miz (c) for the WWE Intercontinental Championship – Extreme Rules – The dawn of the “New Era” of WWE saw the elevation of three of the best wrestlers in the world – Zayn, Owens, and Cesaro – into a more prominent position on the card. The reintroduction of The Miz’s wife Maryse breathed new life into what was otherwise a very stale character. These pieces came together at Extreme Rules and the result was a nearly 20-minute long classic Intercontinental Championship match.
Four-ways can degenerate into chaos, but these four men did a great job of balancing one-on-one action with all-out collective mayhem. Cesaro looked like a machine, dishing out ample uppercuts and surviving a ton of punishment. Sami Zayn had the opportunity to show off more of his wrestling chops pulling out the Blue Thunderbomb and a Code Red that brought the crowd to its feet. Owens played the brutal antagonist, cutting off Sami every chance he could get and doling out his fair share of kicks, cannonballs, and suplexes. Maryse injected herself at just the right moments to maintain Miz’s heat. There were tons of near falls, with everyone hitting their finishers multiple times, only to have them broken up. The entire crowd was on its feet and even resurrected the chant “fight forever.” In the end, Sami Zayn’s enmity towards Kevin Owens proved the difference, and distracted him enough to lose the match. The announcers immediately nominated this as a match-of-the-year candidate, and I’m inclined to agree.
#26: Michael Elgin vs. Kenny Omega (c) for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship in a ladder match – Dominion – After Kenny Omega claimed the Intercontinental Championship vacated by the departing Shinsuke Nakamura, Hiroshi Tanahashi was slated as the next challenger. An injury to Tanahashi made his partner, Michael Elgin, the natural replacement. Elgin and Omega would collide in the first ladder match in New Japan Pro Wrestling history. They could have taken things slowly, building a base and educating the audience to ladder matches slowly like Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon did at Wrestlemania 10. They could have. But they did not.
The early sections of the match were well paced, with each move allowed time to develop and breathe. And though they were working in front of a less educated Japanese audience, Omega and Elgin kept the moves original, even from an American standpoint. Before the match, Red Shoes found the Young Bucks hiding under the ring and ejected them, setting the tone for what Kenny Omega intended to do to win this match. There was a lot of interference, especially at the end. We saw a run ins from Adam Page, Takahashi, the Young Bucks, Captain New Japan, Yoshi Tatsu, Matt Sydal, and Ricochet. It got chaotic.
But at the core was an intense, violent, painful looking affair between two of the best wrestlers in the world. It went approximately 35 minutes and both men took a royal beating. Michael Elgin executed some ridiculous power moves from high up on the ladder. Kenny Omega did the same in ways that utilized his unique combination of power and agility. The end of the match was heavily booked, but it did succeed in creating a lot of drama for the final two minutes or so, and for that, despite the interference, it has to be given a lot of credit. You could’ve walked out of this match feeling that the interference diminished the victory, but I didn’t leave feeling that way. It’s for this reason that I make new Japan’s first ladder match one of my favorites of the year.
#25: Will Ospreay vs. KUSHIDA (c) for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship – Dominion – The first contest between Ospreay and KUSHIDA at Invasion Attack a few month’s prior was a star-making debut performance for Ospreay. In this rematch, Ospreay was coming off his victory at the Best of the Super Juniors tournament, giving New Japan a great way to pair the two of them back together quickly.
This match had pretty much everything you could love about wrestling. They started off fast with a series of counters. KUSHIDA worked over Ospreay’s left arm, while Will tried frantically to contort his body every which way to escape and relieve the pressure. The match also had its fair share of stiff, strong style strikes, which heightened the intensity. After Ospreay was able to distance himself a bit from KUSHIDA, they began a series of counter wrestling sequences, with each having an average of four moves countered before a great finishing impact. Will pulled out all of his amazingly innovative offense, while KUSHIDA was smooth and on top of his game. The final sequence was a ton of fun, and the finish helped establish a star while the loser came out looking strong. This is the way all wrestling should be booked.
#24: Will Ospreay vs. Ricochet – Best of the Super Jr.’s XXIII – Day 6 – The Taz Show had a gimmick this year in which listeners could call in and suggest all-time dream matches between cruiserweights. The match that immediately came to mind for me was this one – Will Ospreay versus Ricochet. These two men are arguably the best high-flyers in the world right now. Their physical skills allow them to things literally no one else is capable of. But in addition to their off-the-charts athleticism, both men have the capacity to wrestle a technical style, to execute stiff strikes, to tell a story in the ring, and most importantly, to connect with the crowd.
This was, in a word, dazzling. The match itself is very difficult to recap because the moves they performed were so original that I don’t know what their names are! There was a sequence right at the beginning of the match where both men were bouncing off the ropes trying to get an advantage with an extended sequence of strikes or holds, and every time there was a counter. It got faster and fiercer until both men did handsprings off of the opposite ropes, backflips and each landed with a signature pose facing each other in the middle of the ring. They flew like superheroes. I’ve never seen anything like it.
I would describe much of the match as surprising and sudden. I watched it while eating lunch at work but still couldn’t help but yell “oh my god!!!” out loud at least six times. Will Ospreay followed up a cartwheel corkscrew Fosbury Flop — which itself is a thing of absolute beauty — with an inverted hurricanrana from the apron. It was so sick I literally strained a muscle in my neck responding to it. Each counter seemed to build anticipation. You could hear the crowd’s “oooos” and “ahhhh” growing in intensity as the match continued. This was a Japanese audience chanting, “This is awesome” and “holy shit.” The conclusion of the match saw a stiff exchange of uppercuts, a phenomenal forearm by Ricochet, an attempt at the Rainmaker clothesline, Ricochet’s signature suplex/brainbuster combination, which was reversed, until Will executed a running Spanish Fly in the middle of the ring. The finish of the match saw a jumping Ace Cutter from the second turnbuckle halfway across the ring. It was absolutely spectacular. Afterwards the men shook hands, intensely, as the crowd chanted, “one more match.” Boy, do I hope we get it.
#23: Kyle O’Reilly vs. KUSHIDA – Best of the Super Jr.’s XXIII – Day 1 – This was all sorts of awesome. These two men met in the finals of last year’s Best of the Super Jr.’s tournament and delivered one of the best matches of the year. Kyle O’Reilly entered Day 1’s main event looking to avenge that loss, and once again these two produced a classic. There were two themes running through this match. First, O’Reilly was looking to weaken KUSHIDA’s leg while KUSHIDA worked over O’Reilly’s arm. As the match wore on, both were selling worsening injuries to those body parts. Second, they were countering each other’s moves with a fluidity and grace rarely seen in a wrestling match. The result was a barrage of submission attempts that gradually wore each man down. When the fight broke to the outside, O’Reilly crushed KUSHIDA’s knee over a chair, sat him in it, and kicked him in the chest HARD. When he tried to do a running knee from the apron, KUSHIDA executed an insane counter into an armbar. After KUSHIDA’s Hoverboard Lock almost submitted O’Reilly, they fought to the top rope. Kyle’s inverted exploder from the top rope was countered into a cross body for another great near fall. O’Reilly then grabbed KUSHIDA’s arms and repeatedly, brutally stomped him in the face. He then manipulated KUSHIDA into a reverse cross-armbreaker to tap him out. After the match, O’Reilly announced that he would win this year’s tournament, and received a ton of cheers from the crown in response. This marked a fantastic start to the tournament.
#22: Kyle O’Reilly vs. Katsuyori Shibata (c) for the NEVER Openweight Championship – King of Pro Wrestling – Kyle O’Reilly earned a victory over Shibata at Field on Honor in Brooklyn a couple months prior. This MMA-style rematch for the NEVER Championship exceeded the original by a fair margin. O’Reilly had bulked up, adding close to 20 pounds of muscle in his attempt to move up to the heavyweight division. If this match is any indication, that transition will be a successful one. They started with catch-as-catch-can mat wrestling, followed by a barrage of stiff strikes and submission attempts. O’Reilly exploited every advantage he could, working knee bars, cross arm breakers, and rear chokes. Shibata absorbed an absurd amount of punishment and endured the pain of an injured shoulder. O’Reilly and Shibata showed a great deal of respect for each other after the match, helping elevate O’Reilly in the process. Great stuff.
#21: Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte (c) for the WWE Women’s Championship – Wrestlemania 32 – Credit goes to the women for delivering the consensus best match at this year’s Wrestlemania. This match for the newly minted women’s championship (so long divas) imbued the contest with major importance, which gives it a nudge up. Sasha, Becky and Charlotte competed at a level that exceeded their best collective matches in NXT and set the stage for what would ultimately be a banner year in women’s wrestling.
#20: Chris Jericho vs. Cesaro vs. Alberto Del Rio vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn vs. Dean Ambrose – Money in the Bank Ladder Match – The winner of this six-way (originally slated to be seven-way) ladder match would earn the infamous briefcase with a contract to face the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at a time an place of his choosing. After an excellent match that fired so fast as to be a challenge to faithfully recap, Dean Ambrose emerged victorious. Ambrose would go on to cash in the briefcase later in the evening against Seth Rollins, leading to a situation in which all three former members of The Shield held wrestling’s top championship within a five minute span. Not a bad night’s work for the Lunatic Fringe.
#19: Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsuya Naito (c) for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship – Dominion – This was the rematch for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship Naito had won at Invasion Attack. That match was an instant classic, partly by virtue of that crowd’s unadulterated embrace of Naito. At Dominion, however, the crowd offered heavy support for Okada. Los Ingobernables were ejected from ringside, leading to the true one-on-one contest Okada had been asking for.
This match followed the classic Okada script – smart wrestling at the start followed by some big moves, then a closing sequence better than almost anyone else on the planet can construct. During the contest, Okada proved himself the master of multi-move wrestling chains. The fluidity of them was like a dance that needs to be watched. The finish genuinely surprised me, but New Japan booking is usually well thought out. Both men would be well positioned in advance of Wrestle Kingdom 11.
#18: Dean Ambrose (c) vs. AJ Styles for the WWE World Championship – Backlash – For whatever reason, Dean Ambrose’s reign as champion hadn’t really been clicking. Possibly his personality doesn’t fit what the championship requires. Or maybe the way he’d been booked over the past year and that fact that he won the championship using Money in the Bank had diminished the accomplishment. In contrast, nothing had been off with AJ Styles. Since his debut at the Royal Rumble eight months earlier, AJ had proven that he is arguably the best wrestler in the world. His matches with Jericho and Reigns had been excellent. His recent win over John Cena at SummerSlam was viewed as an instant classic. Moreover, the character and swagger of AJ Styles had never been more spot-on. The table had been set for a title change. The build-up was straightforward. AJ thought he was the new “face that runs the place” and Ambrose disagreed. In the previous week Ambrose had antagonized Styles with a shot to the groin.
Despite AJ’s being a heel, the crowd was clearly behind him in this match to the point where the fans were booing Ambrose. This was a hard-fought affair with high effort. AJ toyed with Ambrose early, manipulating him into pinning combinations to send the message that he could win at any time. Styles is a fantastic seller, and he absorbed a few brutal looking shots, including a headfirst catapult into the ring post. They fought outside the ring, over the announce table, and briefly into the crowd. Both men hit almost all of their signature offense. Ambrose did his top turnbuckle elbow all the way to the floor. The finish saw AJ return the favor as he low-blowed Ambrose behind the referee’s back and hit the Styles Clash for the victory. AJ Styles had become the new WWE World Heavyweight Champion in less than a year (let that sink in for a moment), and in a marked departure from most main events we’ve seen these days, he only needed one finisher to do it.
#17: John Cena vs. Dean Ambrose vs. AJ Styles (c) for the WWE World Championship – No Mercy – For the first time that I can remember, the main event of the PPV kicked off the show (largely to avoid running into the second Trump/Clinton debate). Smackdown had done a great job of building up the tension between these three. AJ just thought he was the best, which annoyed Cena and pissed off Ambrose who lost his title to AJ after a low blow. Cena and Ambrose exchanged some really great promos with Ambrose calling Cena a “part timer,” Cena responding that he flies all over the world representing WWE and saying that Ambrose isn’t good enough to even hang around him, followed by Ambrose’s indignation that Cena would deign to think he knows how hard he works, or that he’s better than him. Great action here.
#16: Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte (c) for the Raw Women’s Championship – Raw November 28 – Charlotte was back in “Flair Country,” her home town of Charlotte, North Carolina, and she was excited all evening for her post match victory celebration over her top rival, Sasha Banks. Charlotte’s retaining her title seemed to be the result following a double countout, but Raw GM Mick Foley wouldn’t have it. He ordered the match to be restarted in the main event as a no-disqualification, falls count anywhere match.
Charlotte and Sasha held nothing back, delivering one of the stiffest women’s matches you are likely to see. Notable spots include Charlotte executing a moonsault from the Raw announce table to the floor, and Charlotte sweeping Sasha’s legs out from underneath her on the apron sending her crashing into the floor and ring steps. They threw each other around ringside, into hard objects, and introduced to kendo stick that Sasha used to hit Charlotte in the stomach as a way to escape the Figure 8. They fought into the crowd and Sasha thrust Charlotte between a metal railing and applied the Bank Statement, giving Charlotte no option but to tap out. Ric Flair coming out to congratulate Sasha and Charlotte’s anguished cries were nice touches on a really fun match.
#15: Dolph Ziggler vs. The Miz (c) for the Intercontinental Championship in a Title vs. Career Match – No Mercy – Dolph Ziggler had been positioned for the previous few months as the guy who couldn’t get the job done in big matches. He was the first challenger to Dean Ambrose’s WWE Championship post-brand split and came up short at SummerSlam (in an underwhelming match). He challenged the Miz twice for the Intercontinental Championship and lost due to outside interference. In perhaps the strongest stretch of Miz’s career, he cut scathing promos on Ziggler, even bringing back members of the Spirit Squad to mock his WWE origins. To prove that he still belonged, Dolph put his career on the line in exchange for one last shot at the Intercontinental Championship.
The Miz dominated most of this match. He knew all of Dolph’s moves and had a counter for almost anything he threw at him. The pace was brisk throughout, as it should have been given the stakes. Miz continued to taunt Daniel Bryan by breaking out a number of the Smackdown GM’s former moves. Eventually the Miz injured Dolph’s ankle and even ripped off his boot to amplify the pain. On one leg Dolph fought out of submission attempts, finishing maneuvers, outside interference, an exposed turnbuckle, and even the return of Kenny and Mikey to earn a huge victory. The Miz was devastated, and the crowd was elated. The moments after the match when Ziggler embraced the crowd and absorbed their acclimation looked great. Excellent storytelling here from start to finish. This might have been the best match of either man’s career.
#14: Kenny Omega vs. Hirooki Goto – G1 Climax Finals – If you asked most people to predict which two wrestlers would be facing off in the finals of this year’s G1 Climax, you could have made big money on the long odds of Kenny Omega vs. Hirooki Goto. Yet despite it all, both men had a great tournament and deserved to be in this spot. The crowd seemed largely behind Omega, particularly when Goto attempted to exploit the knee injury Omega suffered at the hands of Naito the previous night. Goto’s attack was a great way to continue the story and sell the point that he would do what was necessary to win.
While the match couldn’t exceed the ridiculously high bar set by the A Block and B Block finals, this was still my third favorite match of the entire tournament. As usual, Kenny Omega wrestled like he could never get tired, and Goto fought with a fierce fighting spirit. After a lengthy back and forth, the finale saw Omega’s numerous attempts to hit the One Winged Angel. When he finally hit it and got the three count, the building exploded, as Kenny Omega had become the very first foreign wrestler to ever win the G1 Climax tournament. His victory speech given in both English and Japanese was a nice touch that showed how he is really one of the very best in the world today.
#13: Kota Ibushi vs. Cedric Alexander – CWC Round 2 – This was easily the best I’ve ever seen Cedric Alexander look, and I consider myself to be a very solid Cedric Alexander fan. This match had everything – a delicious blend of mat wrestling, chains, counters, high-flying, strong-style, and fighting spirit. Cedric had cut over 20 pounds to be in the tournament, and he looked great as a result. The fact that he sacrificed a Ring of Honor contract for this opportunity made him a sentimental favorite.
Once they got going, this was fast as hell and featured a number of long, gorgeous chains. Cedric dominated Ibushi for a lot of this match. Ibushi missed his triangle moonsault, so Cedric countered by racing back into the ring and diving on Ibushi with a high tope con hilo. Ibushi responded later by modifying his moonsault by coming off the top rope! Cedric survived to hit a brutal brainbuster, but Ibushi kicked out at two. Instantly Cedric followed with a spin kick to the head for another two count. These two great near falls in such close succession sent the crowd into hysterics.
This performance made Cedric Alexander into a star. The chanting of the audience brought Cedric out for a curtain call. As the crowd chanted, “Please sign Cedric,” Triple H came out, shook Cedric’s hand, and gave the thumbs up. It was a special moment. To see an audience he’s not used to performing in front of to respond to him like that was, in his words, “a moment that will never be topped in my career…it was once in a lifetime…I’d go so far to say that behind the birth of my daughter it was the most important moment of my entire life.”
#12: Hirooki Goto vs. Kenny Omega for the Main Event Contract at Wrestle Kingdom – King of Pro Wrestling – Goto established himself in more of a heel role by attacking Omega with the briefcase before the bell. The Young Bucks responded with stereo superkicks on Goto, followed by Omega double stomping Goto from the apron to the floor. Omega took control, then Goto exploited Omega’s injured ankle. There were some fluid counters until Omega’s beautiful Terminator dive took Goto out.
As Kenny nursed his ankle, the Young Bucks and YOSHI-HASHI engaged in shenanigans on the outside. Red Shoes threw all three of them out. After Goto’s top rope Code Red garnered a near fall, Omega attempted to springboard into the ring from the apron. Goto intercepted Omega and pushed him backwards into the air and through a table positioned adjacent to the railing, cutting Kenny in the process. What a wicked spot! In what may have been a mistake, Goto refused to let Red Shoes count Omega out, even though a victory would have sent Goto to the main event of Wrestle Kingdom.
Goto forced Omega back into the ring and hit the Ushigoroshi. Only a two count! The crowd started buzzing. Kenny fought desperately, but Goto connected with the Shouten-Kai. Another two count! Kenny’s quick roll-up almost got Goto, then a lightning-quick dragon suplex evened things out. On their knees, Omega and Goto traded shots as they fought back to their feet. Kenny connected with a brutal knee strike (he’s gotten so good at those), then a cross-legged neck breaker for yet another near fall. Kenny responded with one more brutal knee, then forced Goto into the One Winged Angel for the three count! What a match!
#11: Jay Lethal (c) vs. Adam Cole for the ROH World Championship – Death Before Dishonor – Going into this match, Jay Lethal had been a champion in Ring of Honor for about two years, both as Television Champion and then World Champion. His popularity was arguably at its peak. Then Adam Cole joined Bullet Club and started raising hell. With the help of The Young Bucks, Cole shaved the champion’s head. Nigel McGuiness responded by declaring that Adam Cole would never get another shot at the ROH World Championship. Desperate for revenge, Lethal begged Nigel to make a match between him and Cole. Nigel obliged.
Adam Cole came to the ring with the confidence of a star. Before the match Lethal refused to take his eyes off of Cole. As they faced off, Lethal touched Adam Cole’s hair, intimating his plan to cut it off. Cole responded by pulling Lethal’s hair out of his trunks! Lethal methodically stalked Cole, determined, but never letting his anger overtake him. Lethal set up a table then hit a perfect cutter on the outside. He set Cole up on the table, but missed Hail to the King, causing a large welt to appear on his back. Cole got this huge grin on his face, but Lethal recovered and hit five topes to the outside, two more than usual. The choice to go for a sixth was spurred by thoughts of revenge, but it did not pay off. Cole dodged, sending Lethal flying into the ringside barricade. He covered again, though, and they traded some really stiff blows.
Adam Cole nailed a low blow, then hit the Last Shot. Lethal kicked out. He then countered a guillotine choke brilliantly into the Lethal Combination. Cole kicked of Lethal’s Hail to the King. Now the crowd was fully invested. What followed was a brilliant set of high impact maneuvers including a flurry of kicks, a top rope destroyer, Last Shots, a Lethal Injection, last-moment kick outs and great psychology. When Adam looked down and out, he flipped Lethal the bird and slowly got back to his feet. The resolution was decisive and led to a great moment (and run-in) to close out the show. Lethal and Cole went for the better part of a half hour and totally stole the show, both from an in-ring and psychological point of view.
#10: Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks (c) for the Raw Women’s Championship in an Ironman Match – Roadblock – Following their five previous matchups, this contest had no rematch clause. Charlotte and Sasha would culminate one of the greatest feuds in recent memory in a 30-minute Ironman Match. This was excellent wire-to-wire. The first seven minutes were filled with excellent chain wrestling. The first fall didn’t occur until over halfway through, with Charlotte taking advantage with a top rope variation of Natural Selection.
Charlotte inflicted a decisive knee injury when she jumped on the back of Sasha’s knee while her leg was draped on the second rope. Sasha would sell the injury masterfully for the rest of the match, including through some dramatic submission attempts. They put on a wrestling clinic, building the intensity gradually in such a way that the match felt like it was over in a flash. With two seconds left, Sasha was forced to tap to the Figure 8, tying the contest.
Since this was the finale of the feud, there had to be a winner, and the referee commenced sudden-death overtime. The period contained some limited back-and-forth wrestling, but Sasha’s knee was in too damaged a condition to survive a second Figure 8. As blood streamed down her face from a busted nose, Sasha tapped out allowing Charlotte to become the four-time women’s champion.
#9: AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (c) for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship – Wrestle Kingdom 10 – This was billed as a dream match – the first ever one-on-one contest between two of wrestling’s very best, and boy did it deliver! Despite their lack of previous in-ring time together, AJ and Nakamura wrestled as if they knew everything the other was going to do. Every sequence from the opening bell was entertaining. Each man sold big impacts like they’d been shot with a cannon. Nakamura tried working AJ’s back, while AJ went after Nakamura’s legs. There was great mat wrestling, chain wrestling, submissions, high-flying strikes, psychology, and fantastic near falls. Basically they beat the hell out of each other. Oh, and Nakamura’s response to AJ’s Bullet Club finger-gun gesture was hilarious! This stands as 24 minutes of the best wrestling you’ll see all year. Did you expect anything less?
#8: Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn – Battleground – The feud that had been building since Steen and El Generico teamed/fought in Ring of Honor came to its conclusion (for now) at Battleground. These men had been at odds since Kevin’s debut in NXT. Owens attacked Sami moments after Sami won the NXT Championship, injuring him and stealing his championship. Sami appeared at the Royal Rumble and eliminated Kevin Owens. They cost each other the Intercontinental Championship on multiple occasions. They realized that this feud was costing them their careers and needed to end.
Owens dominated early, cutting off each of Sami’s comeback attempts. When the referee asked Sami if he wanted to submit to a headlock, Owens shouted, “Yes he does!” which was a great way to keep the action hot in the early going. There was a scary moment when Sami tried for the Arabian Press, but missed, landing hard on his shoulder on the apron. Sami has had shoulder issues (which Owens took credit for), so the miscue actually played well into the psychology of the match.
The match picked up steam. Sami executed a sick brainbuster onto the apron, which took a heavy toll on his shoulder. Both men, beaten, crawled back to the ring. They exchanged a furious barrage of punches, fighting themselves to the point of exhaustion. Sami’s attempt for the spinning DDT through the ropes was countered by a superkick, then an Owens Bullfrog Splash for a near fall. A brilliant combination of chain wrestling counters incited the crown into a standing ovation. Owens managed a pop-up powerbomb, but Sami got his foot onto the rope. In a moment reminiscent of Undertaker vs. HBK from Wrestlemania 26, Owens asked Sami, “Why won’t you stay down?” He slapped Sami, but got a big one in return. Sami fired into suplexes then a Helluva Kick. As Owens slumped towards the mat, Sami held him, considering his options for a moment, giving the audience a breath to consider everything that had led to that point. Ultimately, Sami decided to stand him back up and deliver a second vicious Helluva Kick to win the match in strong fashion. This was a can’t-miss joyride.
#7: Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins vs. Kevin Owens vs. Big Cass for the WWE Universal Championship – Raw August 29 – One day after winning the newly minted WWE Universal Championship, Finn Bálor was forced to vacate the title due to a torn labrum. In response, Mick Foley and Stephanie McMahon set up a set of four matches, the winners of which entered this four-way elimination match to determine a new Universal Champion. Roman garnered the most boos (and many cheers), Owens and Rollins had similar support, while Big Cass generated a lot of intrigue as the newcomer who promised to shock the world.
Action occurred inside and outside the ring, with each man having his chance to shine. Reigns and Cass faced off in the ring for the very first time, and Cass eventually hit a memorable running boot that drove both Roman and him over the top rope and to the floor. Cass was eventually double teamed, then eliminated by an Owens frog splash.
The pace picked up, featuring a lot of high-impact offense and a slew of near falls. With Roman on the verge of causing another elimination, Triple H appeared out of nowhere. The man who hadn’t been seen on the main roster since Wrestlemania kicked Roman in the gut, pedigreed him on the outside, and tossed him and a staggered Rollins back in the ring. Seth crawled for the cover at Triple H’s instruction and got the pin, drawing a HUGE cheer from the crowd. While Rollins recovered in the corner, Triple H threw Owens back in the ring, positioning him in the opposite corner. As Rollins approached to attack, Triple H pedigreed him right in the middle of the ring. The crowd went nuts for the double-cross, but more so for the realization that Kevin Owens was about to become the Universal Champion. Owens stared at Triple H, frozen in disbelief, until he realized that he needed to make the cover. He rushed over to Rollins and three seconds later became the second ever Universal Champion. Fantastic story told. New champion crowd. Super unexpected moment. Great, great match.
#6: Kenny Omega vs. Tetsuya Naito – G1 Climax Day 18 – The final match of Block B would be decisive. The winner would advance to face Hirooki Goto in the Finals the following day. Goto had won his block by virtue of a tie between Tanahashi and Okada in their main event. The challenge Omega and Naito faced was that Tanahashi and Okada’s match may be remembered as one of the greatest G1 matches of all time. Being able to approach that bar would take all of their talents. And they pulled it off.
Kenny was demonstrably not impressive by Naito’s entrance. Naito took it slow early, knowing that he could win the block with a tie. Steve Corino on English commentary astutely observed that the strategy would put considerable strain on Natio’s cardiovascular system and compromise him in the following night’s finals. Taking it slow would be quickly erased as an option, because Kenny Omega turned on the jets and would not let up. The key to the match was Omega’s knee. Naito attacked it early and often, leaving Kenny to hobble around for literally the entire match. Superior job of selling the injury. The small delays in Kenny’s offense would often be exploited by Naito, who always seemed to know exactly what to do in those limited timeframes. Kenny would then bounce back ferociously and unexpectedly. This seesaw theme repeated with new variations throughout the match. The psychology through all of it was sound and compelling.
Kenny bodyslammed Naito kidney-first into the ring apron. Then he powerbombed through a table beyond the guardrail. Then he did a tope con hilo over the top rope into the crowd and onto Naito. The pace never let up, largely due to Kenny’s relentless motor. He absolutely crushed Naito with a series of knee strikes, some employed as counters. There were tons of great near falls after this. Naito’s super reverse Frankensteiner. Kenny’s Strong Zero. As the time ticked below four minutes, Kenny desperately tried time and again for One Winged Angel. Naito suckered Kenny in with a slam, but his diving head collided with Kenny’s jumping knee. One Winged Angel was blocked, so Kenny turned it into a German suplex. Finally the One Winged Angel hits and KENNY OMEGA WINS HIS BLOCK!!! The shot of Naito being dragged from the ring while still grasping towards Omega in the ring was gorgeous.
What a war. With the win, Omega became the first Canadian to advance to the finals of the G1 Climax. For me, the result was genuinely shocking since I thought New Japan was using this tournament to set up a rubber match between Okada and Naito at Wrestle Kingdom. But perhaps this was the way to tell the story of Naito being unable to win the biggest matches without the help of Los Ingobernables. For Kenny Omega, this was the biggest match of his career, and the best I’ve ever seen him perform. If played the right way, Kenny Omega took a big step up towards top star status.
#5: Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi – G1 Climax Day 17 – Going into the final day of Block A action, a number of scenarios were still in play. Okada, Tanahashi, Goto, Marafuji, and Bad Luck Fale all still had chances to win the block. Fale would be upset by Tama Tonga, while Marafuji would be eliminated by Goto. Goto had lost to both Tanahashi and Okada earlier in the tournament and held no tiebreaker advantage. His only chance of winning was if Okada and Tanahashi went to a 30-minute time limit draw. Otherwise, the winner of this main event would be the winner of Block A. After having put together numerous classic matches over the past few years, most recently at Wrestle Kingdom 10, this match had a lot to live up to.
And it delivered in a big way. The crowd was vocal even before the opening bell. After a series of chain wrestling sequences, Tanahashi ended a clean break with a slap to Okada’s face. Enraged, Okada exploded into a quick succession of high impact maneuvers, struck the Rainmaker pose, then went for the Rainmaker Clothesline just three minutes in. Tanahashi’s roll-up quickly swung momentum in the other direction and led to a standoff. That was one hot firecracker to set off so early, but it educated the audience that in this match, anything was possible at any time. After some innovative mat work, the action spilled to the outside. Tanahashi hit the first of many dragon screw leg whips by twisting Okada’s leg across the top of the guardrail. Tanahashi stayed on the offensive and connected with a huge High Fly Flow off the top turnbuckle to the floor. When it looked as if Okada might get counted out, Tanahashi went to retrieve the champion, who surprised him with a piledriver onto the floor.
A series of flurries with surprise counters followed. About 20 minutes in the crowd got the sense that any move now could be the last. Tanahashi almost got a submission with a really deep, Liontamer-like Texas Cloverleaf. He hit a reverse slingblade, a High Fly Flow onto Okada’s back, but hit Okada’s knees on the third attempt. Okada seized the moment, set up Tanahashi for a piledriver, only to see it reversed. Tanahashi went for the High Fly Flow again but Okada connected with his signature dropkick. The rest of this match was a thing of beauty for which no recap can do full justice. The seesaw of momentum swung with high magnitude and frequency, driven largely by Okada’s repeated attempts to hit the Rainmaker Clothesline. After an exchange, Okada refused to release his grip on an exhausted Tanahashi’s wrist, a nod to their encountered earlier in the year in the Wrestle Kingdom main event. He pulled Tanahashi in and connected with a big Rainmaker-style clothesline. He tried to finish him off with a second, but Tanahashi reversed into a full nelson suplex. “ONE MINUTE LEFT,” they announced over the PA system! Okada kicked out and hit a cradle piledriver. Tanahashi kicked out, so Okada went to finish him with the Rainmaker Clothesline, “THIRTY SECONDS LEFT” but Tanahashi reversed into the sling blade again. Is your head spinning yet? Tanahashi flew to the top turnbuckle “TWENTY SECONDS” and connected with the High Fly Flow. In a pivotal moment, Tanahashi decided “TEN SECONDS” he needed one more High Fly Flow to finish Okada off. He flew back to the top while many members of the audience were begging him to cover Okada before he ran out of time. Tanahashi hit the second High Fly Flow, and may very well have scored the pin, but time ran out at the referee’s count of two. They tie, and while Goto may have won the block, we all came out as winners. No two wrestlers in the world may have better synergy than these two. It was so good I got goose bumps just writing this recap.
#4: Tetsuya Naito vs. Kazuchika Okada (c) for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship – Invasion Attack – For almost four years Tetsuya Naito had stood on the doorstep of greatness. His in-ring talent was undeniable, yet there was some aspect of his character that just didn’t click with the fans. After winning the G1-Climax tournament, Naito was guaranteed a main event match for the IWGP Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 8. The stars were aligned for the Stardust Genius to finally ascend to the top of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
But in an unexpected twist, a fan vote elevated the IWGP Intercontinental Championship match between Nakamura and Tanahashi to headline the show. Naito not only lost his championship match to Okada, but he had also lost the fans. He started getting booed, something he never forgot and apparently never forgave. Many wondered whether Naito had peaked, a man with so much talent who would never be “the best.”
After competing on a couple Ring of Honor shows in the United States, Naito took a brief sojourn to Mexico where he began to embrace a part of his personality that just didn’t care anymore. He would saunter to the ring slowly and apathetically. He walked away from friends during tag team matches. In a break from the respectful Japanese culture, Naito began attacking Young Lions, referees, timekeepers, and announcers. He received frequent help from his new friends BUSHI and EVIL, ultimately constructing the stable Los Ingobernables de Japon. He wasn’t a heel so much as a fed-up man who had lost his conscience. And as measured by his merchandise sales, Naito was ironically becoming one of the most popular performers in Japan.
By virtue of winning the New Japan Cup the previous month, Naito had earned this rematch against Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. This was to be no carbon copy of their match two years earlier. This was a new Naito, one the fans were ready to accept at the top. As such, the building buzzed with a big fight feel. As the arrogant champion Okada came to the ring, it was clear that the crowd – one of the loudest I’ve ever heard at a New Japan show – was split 80/20 for Naito.
The match itself was excellent. Okada was quick and smooth, frequently executing beautiful wrestling counters. But Los Ingobernables would interfere, leading to effectively a three-on-one battle. In a great moment, Okada threw all three men into the second row, then did a flying cross-body over the guard rail onto all three of them.
The latter stages of the match were brilliantly executed. Okada came within a hair’s breadth of passing out to Naito’s Pluma Blanca (Koji Clutch). The champion recovered with some devastating offense including ultra-stiff strikes, shotgun feet, and a coast-to-coast dropkick. Okada’s arrogance was palpable until Red Shoes the referee went down. Los Ingobernables stormed the ring and Okada fought them off, but not before BUSHI misted him in the eyes. With everyone down, a new member of Los Ingobernables arrived – SANADA! SANADA attacked Okada, and after several great counters Naito was able to finally hit Destino for the victory!
Naito’s win made him the first IWGP Heavyweight Champion not named Okada, Tanahashi, or AJ Styles since January 2011. Tradition dictates a coronation ceremony, but Naito opted instead to kick the referee and throw the title down in the middle of the ring as if it was a piece of trash. He would later claim, “I’m more important than this. I’m the guy…It’s wrestling me that’s the bigger privilege.” Tetsuya Naito just turned New Japan Pro Wrestling upside down.
#3: DIY vs. The Revival (c) for the NXT Tag Team Championships – TakeOver: Toronto – The duo of Tommaso Chiampa and Johnny Gargano were considered long shots to ever make it to WWE. While both are undeniably talented, they lack the size Vince McMahon usually desires out of his wrestlers. But when the longest reigning Dragon Gate USA champion in history and Ring of Honor’s former Psycho Killer appeared the 2015 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, it gave all fans of independent wrestling a defying-the-odds story that was easy to get behind.
Chiampa and Gargano did not win the tournament, but they did perform well enough to earn themselves NXT roster spots. While other teams like American Alpha and The Revival were establishing themselves, the team that would eventually become known as DIY paid their dues and built their resumes. When they finally earned a chance at the NXT Tag Team Championship at TakeOver: Brooklyn (see #52 on this list), we all hoped the upstarts could tear down the reigning “top guys” of Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder. The emotion for that match was organic, which made Gargano’s tapping out all the more heartbreaking.
In the months that followed, Gargano and Chiampa carried the loss like a weight around their necks, noting that the feeling of letting their fans down in Brooklyn was not easily forgotten. This match would be their final opportunity at the tag team titles, to be contested as a best two-out-of-three falls. And it happened to not just be the best tag team match of 2016, but one of the best tag team matches I’ve seen in my entire life.
This match was brilliantly constructed. Astute fans of their previous contest would have noticed many moments in which one team went to perform a move that worked in their previous contest, only to find it countered in this one. In this way their performance was simultaneously familiar and unexpected, the net effect leaving fans on the edge of their seats almost from the opening bell.
The first fall occurred when Gargano propelled himself through the top and middle ropes in an attempt to hit his signature spinning DDT. The Revival caught him and countered into a gorgeous, high-impact version of Shatter Machine. Gargano fought valiantly through a fantastic try-to-make-the-hot-tag sequence in which The Revival pulled every trick they could to distract the referee and inhibit Chiampa from making his way into the ring.
Chiampa would eventually make the hot tag, leading to several furious minutes of high-octane action. There was a slew of great wrestling and camerawork, with pin breakups flying in from off-screen just when you thought the match was going to be over. The final sequence, when Dash and Dawson were both locked in submission moves, each holding the other’s hands so that they couldn’t tap out was a thing of beauty, as was the flowing emotion that followed DIY’s victory. Mike Johnson of PWInsider referred to this as “a love letter to professional wrestling.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
#2: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada (c) for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship – Wrestle Kingdom 10 – Prior to this main event of Wrestle Kingdom 10, Tanahashi and Okada had wrestled a series of seven instant classics, each earning a record of 3-3-1. Tanahashi was recognized as the “ace” or top guy of New Japan, but the younger Okada clearly desired the mantle. While Okada had defeated Tanahashi before, he had never been able to defeat him on New Japan’s biggest stage – Wrestle Kingdom. Okada’s attempt in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 9 saw him quite memorably come up short. His manager Gedo helped him out of the arena, while Okada sobbed uncontrollably.
The quality of their previous encounters caused the crowd to buzz from before the opening bell. Both men engaged a feeling out process, and then quite gradually built the impacts and intensity for over 36 minutes. The encounter felt epic, and the final ten minutes or so featured a great number of twists and turns, where victory that seemed inevitable was ultimately yanked away with a single slingblade, piledriver, High Fly Flow, or Rainmaker Clothesline. When Okada and Tanahashi couldn’t finish each other off with their own finishers, they tried the other’s. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give is that the match felt “real,” a testament to both men’s ability to work body parts, sell injuries, and make every little thing that they do matter. It stands as close to wrestling perfection as you are likely to encounter.
#1: Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura – NXT TakeOver: Dallas – This. Not since CM Punk faced John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011 have I felt a rush of joy and excitement (dare I say marking out) that was the debut of Shinsuke Nakamura in NXT. The match was incredible, but it all began with Nakamura’s new WWE-style entrance which, put plainly, f’n rocked. As good as New Japan is in terms of wrestling, they leave much to be desired in terms of pageantry. Nakamura bleeds charisma and his new entrance played to that perfectly. Watching him dance out in silhouette, strike a pose, then slink to the ground as the music slid lower in pitch and his name appeared in bold, red block letters behind him made me smile wider than I thought possible. I was transfixed as the strobe lights made his procession feel like the arrival of Michael Jackson, then more so as he emerged into the light, finger guns blazing. Every little detail from him was perfect. In his first steps into the ring, he covered his face with his hand expressing some mixture of awe, respect, anticipation, and then quick as lighting turned back to the ropes and struck his signature pose. With that one entrance it was clear to me that Nakamura was going to be a superstar in the United States.
But then we had a match, and boy what a match. Sami Zayn is so incredibly good at what he does that despite the fact that this was their first meeting ever, they wrestled as if they had faced each other for years. What was so great was that this was a Nakamura-style match. They let him go out and be the King of Strong Style. He executed beautiful kicks and knee strikes. Both men had signature maneuvers countered until they eventually connected later on. The crowd was into this every step of the way. There were the expected “Nakamura” and “Sami Zayn” chants, but two of my favorites were “we want strong style” (after a series of Japanese-style exchange of forearms) and “fight forever,” which as far as I know is unprecedented. Nakamura got a bloody nose and played it off like it couldn’t stop him. Sami’s Blue Thunder Bomb was such a great near fall that the entire audience rose to applaud mid-match.
I cannot recommend this match strongly enough. Nakamura took a step up onto a much bigger stage and just owned it. Or maybe he just bought the whole building. After Nakamura left, Sami was left in the ring to soak in the appreciation of a crowd that had seen him give years of his life to transform NXT from a small developmental brand to one of the best things in professional wrestling today. He may have moved up to the main roster, but he left a legacy of great matches and moments for which he should be exceptionally proud. Wrestling is at its best when it makes the audience feel something genuine, and this accomplished that on multiple levels.
Matches that Deserve Honorable Mention: Makabe & Honma vs. Gallows & Anderson (c) for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship (Wrestle Kingdom 10), The 2016 Royal Rumble (Royal Rumble), Chris Jericho vs. A.J. Styles (Smackdown – February 11), Dean Ambrose vs. Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar (Fastlane), Samoa Joe vs. Finn Bálor (NXT TakeOver: Dallas), Chris Jericho vs. AJ Styles (Wrestlemania 32), Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn (Payback), Michael Elgin, Hiroshi Tanahashi & Yoshi Tatsu vs. The Elite (Invasion Attack), Jay Lethal vs. Donovan Dijak (War of the Worlds), Samoa Joe vs. Finn Bálor (NXT TakeOver: The End), Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns (Money in the Bank), Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Tomohiro Ishii (G1 Climax 26 – Day 1), Michael Elgin vs. Katsuyori Shibata (G1 Climax 26 – Day 6), Jay Lethal vs. Kyle O’Reilly (ROH TV July), Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Chiampa (CWC – Round 1), Michael Elgin vs. Nakajima (G1 Climax 26 – Day 18), The Young Bucks vs. The Motor City Machine Guns (Super J Cup), Hangman Page vs. Jay Briscoe (Death Before Dishonor), Bayley vs. Asuka (NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II), Akira Tozowa vs. Gran Metalik (CWC Quarterfinals), Tommy End and Chris Hero vs. Fenix and Pentagon Jr. (PWG Battle of Los Angeles Night 2), Tomasso Chiampa, Pete Dunne, Sami Calihan, Brian Kendrick & Matt Riddle vs. Jushin Thunder Liger, Cedric Alexander, Jeff Cobb, Chuck Taylor & Tommy End (PWG Battle of Los Angeles Night 3), The Miz vs. Dolph Ziggler (Backlash), The Young Bucks vs. The Addiction vs. The Motor City Machine Guns – Ladder War VI (All Star Extravaganza VIII), Team Raw vs. Team Smackdown (Survivor Series), Bobby Roode vs. Tye Dillinger (NXT TakeOver: Toronto), The New Day vs. Sheamus and Cesaro (Roadblock), Baron Corbin, vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. AJ Styles (Smackdown – December 27)