So many great things happened in the world of professional wrestling last year, it would be kind of foolhardy to try a write a synopsis here. There were so many astonishing matches, this list could have easily scanned fifty entries. (Special shoutout to Chris Hero, whose performances in 2016 were so special it was extremely difficult to make a pick for the final list. Maybe I’ll make a special list just for him.) It was a dark year in virtually every other corner of the world, but in pro wrestling, the chaos of 2016 made for some very inspiring art. If you watched Wrestle Kingdom 11 or WWE’s UK Championship Tournament, I’m sure you’re aware we’re in for another crazy year right from jump street. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves; we have a few matches from 2016 to rave about. —Douglas Martin
HONORABLE MENTION: Big Cass vs. Kevin Owens vs. Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns (WWE Universal Championship Match) (Monday Night Raw, Episode 1213; World Wrestling Entertainment)
It’s no great shakes, booking-wise. The in-ring storytelling is lumpy, the momentum doesn’t build so much as it moves in fits and starts. That’s not to say these four don’t put in great work. But the crowd’s unorganized “this is awesome” chants epitomize the feeling that this match is still less than the sum of its parts: the company told some of their best guys to go put together a good match, and they got the job done. But they clearly didn’t give them much guidance.
So why did I name this my favorite match of 2016? For that I’d direct you to two faces: Kevin Owens’ slack-jawed goggle, and Triple H’s grim nod at Owens as he holds Rollins between his legs. “You’re the guy.” And then Haitch blasts Rollins with a pedigree.
Think about the backstage politics that went into that moment: Finn Balor, your new top guy, has just vacated your brand-new title. I’m sure there was a considerable faction at the company advocating for putting the belt on Rollins. It would have been the safe choice. But for once in their miserable, Trump-supporting lives—fuck you very much, by the way—the WWE opted for the tough path over the easy one, and put the belt not on the former champion with the body of an action figure, but one of the least photogenic and most talented superstars in the company. It was risky, it was brave, it was magnificent. Welcome to the Kevin Owens Show. —Jordan Pedersen
HONORABLE MENTION: John Cena vs. Dean Ambrose vs. AJ Styles (Triple Threat Match for the WWE World Championship) (No Mercy; World Wrestling Entertainment)
For nearly its entire existence, WWE Smackdown has remained the underachieving little brother to the company’s flagship show Monday Night Raw – a place where lesser stars compete in stakes-less rematches and impromptu tag matches in between advertisements for USA Network Original Shows. For the past number of years, you only really watched it when you were bored.
The brand extension and the decision for Smackdown to air live has compelled WWE to start treating Smackdown seriously giving the Blue Show an opportunity to carve out its own identity and in some ways surpass the flagship show as the premier program of WWE television – all without any of the resources, part-time stars or name recognition that Raw enjoys. It’s been a minor revelation for the company the last half-year on television.
Smackdown has enjoyed this renaissance while being led primarily on the work of current WWE Champion AJ Styles, fiery crowd favorite Dean Ambrose and WWE’s 15-time world champion John Cena (in addition to great work from guys like The Miz and Dolph Ziggler). The three of them had a climactic clash at Smackdown-branded PPV No Mercy in October this year that showcased how far these performers have come along leading the brand to heights not seen since Paul Heyman was running the show nearly 15 years ago.
Notably running first on the show as counter-programming against the second Trump-Clinton Presidential debate, the triple threat match was a showcase for all three performers and cemented them as the leaders of the newly revamped Smackdown Live. The match was a raucous brawl that highlighted the strengths of all three stars making them all look important and capable of leading the show as Smackdown continues to gain momentum as it attempts to dethrone Raw in the ratings and the minds of WWE fans next year. —Doc Zeus
HONORABLE MENTION: Will Ospreay vs. Dragon Lee vs. Marty Scurll (Triple Threat Match for the ROH World Television Championship) (Final Battle; Ring of Honor)
Keeping it 100, I did not expect to enjoy Final Battle 2016 all that much. The card was a bit lackluster, the main event featured Adam Cole (who is one of my favorite characters in wrestling, but who is also not the best wrestler by any means), and overall, the Ring of Honor product hasn’t been all too exciting to yours truly in recent times. If there was one match I was hyped to see, it was the Fatal Four-Way for the Television title, featuring Marty Scurll, Will Ospreay, Dragon Lee, and Bobby Fish. Unfortunately, Fish’s mother passed away before the show, turning the four-way into a threesome, which definitely dampened the mood heading into it. But the excitement was turned back around quickly.
The worst-kept secret in independent wrestling for 2016 was the British Revolution, starring a very diverse hydra at the top: Zack Sabre Jr., the human pretzel maker, and the two Brits in this match, Scurll (whose character work and obnoxiousness is off the chart) and Ospreay (who is a goddamn magician in the air). To throw in Dragon Lee, one of Mexico’s most exciting prospects, was just unfair, as Scurll and Ospreay had already put on fun matches all over the world, but we’re all lucky they did.
Despite a brief duration (just over 10 minutes), these three men flew all over the ring and put one a good example of a modern triple threat match. While Dragon Lee was a tad underused, the rivalry between Scurll and Ospreay shone through, and the finish, with Scurll using Ospreay’s OsCutter on Dragon Lee to lock in his own chicken wing finisher was *kiss fingers like a chef* levels of delicious. With Scurll on the rise, Ring of Honor might soon have a World Champion we all love to detest, for all the right reasons. —Luis Paez-Pumar
HONORABLE MENTION: Trevor Lee vs. Roy Wilkins (No Holds Barred, Title vs. Career Match for the CWF Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Championship) (CWF Worldwide, Episode 43; Carolina Wrestling Federation Mid-Atlantic)
On the first installment of this annual list, there was a match where Trevor Lee, a relative newcomer to the promotion the match was held in, gained a surprise victory over basically the promotion’s top star. Though his ascent to top star status in this case is for the relatively unknown CWF Mid-Atlantic, the emotional story of Trevor Lee’s climb is worthy of the mantle he received this night.
The change in the atmosphere, the “big match feel” entering the CWF Sportatorium like a vapor fog, starts with a charmingly low-budget filmic rendition of “Casey at the Bat” — which, for the uninitiated, is a poem about baseball that’s really about having your dream right in your face and coming up short of it. It’s as “big match” as an encounter can get in a Gibsonville, North Carolina strip mall. Look at Lee’s face as his accolades are announced in the introductions, getting more and more amped by the second. He looks like he’s one championship bullet point away from slapping himself for good measure.
To put it in Dirty Shoes terms, this hour-and-forty-five minute epic is like a Wooden Shjips jam spanning the entire running time of a full-length LP. Some people are going to think that’s a little indulgent. So be it. That doesn’t mean Lee vs. Wilkins isn’t the most epic confrontation of this regional promotion, and a classic even to people who didn’t know the promotion even existed.
At times, the match is hilariously overbooked — a ten minute segment of run-ins, an almost excessive array of stipulations, including if Lee did not win by pinfall or submission, he would not only not win the CWF Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Championship, he would have to leave the promotion for good — but can a match even be considered “overbooked” if it covers so much artistic ground, so much time, so much character history and talent? I guess not.
Somewhere toward the end of the match, Lee gets nailed with Wilkins’ (banned) finisher, a flipping piledriver dubbed the Cincinnati Destroyer. He kicks out, inspiring a priceless shocked expression by Wilkins. Lee then kicks out of a vicious chairshot. At one. Well over an hour into the match. The crowd is electric. Not just lively, but out of their seats. Of course everybody has been talking about the heroic performance to Trevor Lee when discussing this match, but a big component to the emotion here is Lee’s late-match frustration from not being able to put his rival away. Wilkins’ taking all of Lee’s best shots and being able to go to distance with one of the best wrestlers in the world — who in CWF Mid-Atlantic is not known for calling it an early night — speaks to Wilkins’ skill and fortitude as a world-class wrestler.
And then the hometown hero, the kid who watched matches in the CWF Sportatorium years ago, won its highest honor in an outstanding, timeless match. That sort of catharsis is what gravitates us to the art form that is professional wrestling. —Douglas Martin
20. Neville vs. Finn Balor (NXT, Episode 323; World Wrestling Entertainment)
I didn’t grow up watching wrestling. I have the fairly atypical distinction of becoming a wrestling fan at age 28. Accordingly, I have little fondness for the Attitude Era aside from the skill of the workers involved. Part of that has to do with the sophomoric misogyny and obvious racism of the era. But from an aesthetic standpoint, my complaint with the era comes down to one thing: clutter. Kidnappings, patricide, superhuman abilities: who cares? I like wrestling.
Why else would a non-title match featuring a guy who no longer wrestles for NXT be so compulsively watchable? There’s no pretext for Adrian Neville’s first match back at NXT after being cruelly robbed of his first name, other than to give a phenomenally talented superstar who hasn’t found his footing on the main roster a chance to work.
Nonetheless, Neville and then-NXT champion Finn Balor take a shopworn wrestling conceit—“these two know each other so well”—and make magic. They build from an early stalemate—it’s logical that two wrestlers so familiar with one another wouldn’t be able to get the upper hand easily—to a spectacular turn when Balor launches Neville over the top rope. Momentum built, the two trade pele kicks, textbook moonsaults, and hurricanranas, until Balor turns a missed red arrow into a sling blade and Coup de Grâces his way into a win. No muss, no fuss, no interdimensional powers: just great wrestling. —Jordan Pedersen
19. Michael Elgin vs. Kenny Omega (Ladder Match for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship) (Dominion; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
That the first ladder match in New Japan Pro Wrestling featured two Westerners isn’t that much of a surprise; after all, the ladder match is a Western wrestling tradition. That the match ended being up as great as it was, however, could have raised some eyebrows. After all, Kenny Omega’s original opponent for the Intercontinental title at NJPW Dominion 2016 was the Ace of Japan, Hiroshi Tanahashi; replacing him with the (still awesome) Michael Elgin was nothing if not a downgrade. And while the match might have been a tad overbooked, it did not take away from an incredible spectacle that took the overused ladder match tropes and gave them a fresh coat of paint.
It’ll become more evident in the rest of this list (and especially in next year’s list when his match against Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 11 becomes eligible): Kenny Omega is the most entertaining wrestler on this 3rd planet. The Cleaner of the Bullet Club leads the mayhem during this demolition derby of a match, from calling his Bullet Club mates over to interfere to hitting Tanahashi’s sling blade (to great boos) and generally bossing the match.
Elgin holds his own here as well, getting the iconic strongman spot of breaking out of handcuffs towards the end (I’m sure John Cena approves) and, more importantly, winning the Intercontinental title. Speaking of the finish, which featured half of the freaking roster interfering and cold spray used liberally, it was a lot of fun because it wasn’t something you see normally in New Japan. This was the best WWE-style gimmick match in the world for 2016; it just happened to take place across the Pacific Ocean. —Luis Paez-Pumar
18. Samoa Joe vs. Sami Zayn (Best Two out of Three Falls Match) (NXT Episode 324; World Wrestling Entertainment)
There was a period of time where the two out of three falls match in WWE just seemed like another stipulation, like how the steel cage match has been stripped of its gravity over the years. That changed when Sami Zayn and Cesaro competed in an incredible two out of three falls match in 2013, absolutely one of the best matches of its calendar year. Though (spoiler alert) not the best two out of three falls match on this list, it subverted the formula in a way that certainly warrants inclusion in the pantheon of matches performed under these guidelines.
WWE likes to streamline these matches to make them more digestible for fans who can’t sit through Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat’s two out of three falls match in 1989. Sami vs. Joe, in style and structure, was very similar to classic NWA two out of three falls matches of the era. And each competitor in this contest are great enough at what they do to make this an unexpectedly compelling epic, spanning virtually the entire course of a one-hour NXT episode.
The point in the match where Joe does his running facewash and Sami, after getting hit, is sort of googly-eyed and fumbling for his nose like he thinks it’s broken. Masterful. Or when Joe slaps him shortly after winning a late first fall. Sami stumbles over. Sami takes a brutal STO on the floor. As it has been said before, Sami’s gift to pro wrestling is the notion that he always makes us believe he’s really hurt when he’s in the ring. Part of that is because he actually has been really hurt in matches, and part of that is because he understands that we should believe what he’s going through is real.
Later, Joe has Sami in the crossface with Sami’s other arm pulled back in an excruciating way. Joe screams to Sami, “Think about your career!” He fosters some sort of mercy after a barrage of strikes late in the match, trying to win by countout, Sami gets back up and, after some vicious Kawada kicks, ends up locking the Coquina Clutch, Joe’s submission move. Joe eventually gets it together for a Coquina Clutch of his own in the center of the ring. Sami fades fast, swiping away at the ropes as if they’re not a number of feet away.
In the shot after Sami passes out, as Samoa Joe’s music is cued up, Sami’s cheeks are in the mat, along with two clusters of almost-dry spit, small clusters, white and slimy. “Phillips, look at Sami Zayn’s lips,” Corey Graves asserts to his broadcast partner with a twinge of both excitement and concern, “his lips are purple.” Graves saw the same thing we all saw, a hell of a fight put up by Sami Zayn, who ultimately ended up face down in the ring gasping for air. It’s funny the degree to which pro wrestling emulates real life sometimes. —Douglas Martin
17. Broken Matt Hardy Vs. Jeff Hardy (The Final Deletion; TNA Impact Wrestling)
The Final Deletion isn’t so much a wrestling match as so much as a hillbilly grain alcohol hallucination trapped in the concussion-addled minds of the Hardy brothers. From a sheer wrestling perspective, you could argue The Final Deletion is an illogical mess – a tangled heap of telenovela production values, bad acting and bizarrely shot wrestling sequences that feels less like a professional wrestling match than the world’s cheesiest rendition of the fight from They Live. It was absolutely brilliant in its dumb fun stupidity.
Airing on the July 5th episode of TNA Impact Wrestling, I cannot tell you exactly what The Final Deletion was supposed to be but I can tell you that despite the clear ridiculousness (or maybe because of it), I loved every moment of it. What other match features hologram drones, Roman candle rockets and a fucking canoe? There’s a real comic surrealism to it that makes it immensely watchable despite how much none of this feels like a real fight.
What ties it all together is the deeply unsettling performance from Matt Hardy. For a wrestler I’ve never personally cared that much about, Broken Matt Hardy completely re-invented himself as an unsettling, mannered cult leader that is honestly scarier and more believable in his madness than anything Bray Wyatt has done on television in years. What it lacks in realism, it makes up in sheer audacity. The most original thing in wrestling all year. I’m sure Jim Cornette hated it.
Five million stars. —Doc Zeus
16. Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa (Cruiserweight Classic First Round Match; World Wrestling Entertainment)
When people ask me, somewhat mystified, why I like professional wrestling so much, my answer usually comes down to one thing: cooperation. You have to have a real bond with a guy to put together a great match.
Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa have that kind of connection: they live together, they travel together, Ciampa stood up in Gargano’s wedding. Instead of making them rivals, WWE chose to pair them up, in a partnership that culminated in the year’s best tag team match. [Editor’s Note: Don’t pretend like you didn’t already know. More on that tag match later.]
But for one night, we got to see what it would have looked like if Johnny Wrestling and the Sicilian Psychopath had been booked as rivals rather than best friends. The in-ring storytelling is tremendously emotional: Ciampa has the edge physically, but he pulls his punches—and knee strikes—because he can’t bear to hurt Gargano. Gargano isn’t having it. Late in the match, as he and Ciampa trade blows, he screams, “COME ON TOMMASO.” He’s rewarded with another open-palmed strike.
When Gargano manages to pull off a surprise crucifix pin for the three-count, Ciampa can’t believe it. For a moment, his competitiveness overwhelms his respect for his friend. He can’t shake Gargano’s hand. But when he finally takes a seat in the middle of the ring, pulls Gargano’s head into his shoulder, and lifts his friend’s left arm into the air, the stage is set for one of the best partnerships in modern wrestling history. And maybe in a year or two, one of the great rivalries. —Jordan Pedersen
15. AJ Styles vs. Roman Reigns (Extreme Rules Match For WWE World Heavyweight Championship) (Extreme Rules; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Given the amount of teeth gnashing about Roman Reigns’ inevitable ascendancy to the WWE throne over the last few years, it is easy to forget that Roman Reigns is quite the professional wrestler while fans still whine incessantly about his position in the card. It is true his main event match against Triple H at WrestleMania was the stinking pits this year. But after capturing the title, he finally found his niche as “The Guy” – a cocky tweener confident in his abilities but uninterested in appeasing people who would never like him in the first place. It was a subtle reset for the character after years of trying to mold him into the next big conquering hero of the company.
Reigns met his match against AJ Styles – largely considered the best American wrestler to have never worked for the WWE until he showed up to a hero’s reception at Royal Rumble – when they crossed paths in a series of title bouts this past spring. Styles was a natural opponent for Reigns because of his indie wrestling pedigree, his athleticism and his smaller stature contrasted well with Reigns’ corporate-approved Superman status. The first fight at Payback was good but ended in shenanigans; their second match at Extreme Rules was a wild, physical brawl in which both opponents beat the hell out of each other.
To the consternation of some, Reigns wound up victorious, but in the process AJ Styles was minted as a brand new main eventer for WWE – a thought that would seem insane as early as January and set the course for the best year from a WWE’s singles performer in a long time. A few months later, things would get even more surreal when Styles finally captured the WWE Title from Dean Ambrose, solidifying the best “rookie” year from a WWE performer since Brock Lesnar. —Doc Zeus
14. Ricochet vs. Will Ospreay (Battle of the Super Juniors Tournament Match; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
A couple minutes into Ricochet/Ospreay, and I was ready to side with the haters: I wanted a wrestling match, not a ballet recital.
Sure, professional wrestling is a performance, but it uses the language of combat sports to tell a story. If the match seems too choreographed, we remember we’re not watching a real fight, and the center falls out. The opening minutes of this match are all mirror image spots and bravura flourishes of technique, and they bear little resemblance to an actual fight.
But then, Will Ospreay executes a stunning dropkick counter to a splash from Ricochet and the mood changes. Suddenly, the two aren’t using their skill to wow the audience—or each other—and instead they’re marshalling their technique to hurt the other guy. Ricochet, in particular, realizes he needs to stop peacocking and beat this little twat from Havering. A jackknife DDT; a fireman’s carry backbreaker onto the apron; a German suplex into a standing suplex into a standing splash: they’re all executed with the utmost care and skill, but importantly, they’re performed to beat the other guy.
One of my favorite elements of this match is the fact that it doesn’t evince the silly NFL Blitz catchup AI of WWE matches: Ricochet is in control for most of the match. Which makes it all the more satisfying when Ospreay pulls off a gorgeous springboard OsCutter and steals the victory. Balletic foreplay is all well and good, as long as it leads to the real thing. —Jordan Pedersen
13. Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens (Battleground; World Wrestling Entertainment)
“You and I are destined to do this forever.”
The rivalry and friendship of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens spans back more than a decade, intertwining kayfabe and real life into perhaps the greatest modern storyline in professional wrestling. From partners to rivals and back again, these two have tangoed all over the world and into WWE. Their match at Battleground was deemed the “last time ever,” suggesting they both know they can’t move on with their careers if they focus all of their ill will toward each other. They would go on to wrestle again throughout the year — because why not — and it truly felt like they were leaving it all out on the mat.
From the opening moments, where the two jaw at each other before Sami unsuccessfully goes for a Helluva Kick at the bell, to the ending, which was one of the most subtly beautiful images in 2016 wrestling, this 18-minute masterpiece of the intersection of story and wrestling was everything fans of the two could have hoped for.
Truly, it is the ending that lives as the perfect encapsulation of the Ballad of Zayn and Owens: after Owens throws his big haymaker at Sami (a pop-up powerbomb that the latter only gets out of by putting his foot on the rope), Sami is able to hit his Helluva Kick finisher… but instead of going for the cover, he holds up Owens, looks at him with the face of someone who has been everywhere with his opponent, and promptly kicks the hell out of his face one more time for the win. That moment where Sami holds Owens up says more than any amount of (excellently-produced) WWE hype videos could: you can’t truly hate someone if you haven’t loved them before. —Luis Paez-Pumar
12. Matt Riddle vs. Timothy Thatcher (No Holds Barred Match for the EVOLVE Championship) (EVOLVE 66; EVOLVE)
Infusing pro wrestling with the catch style and MMA methodology isn’t for all wrestling fans: Some people aren’t really big proponents of the style and others just don’t want Jim Cornette to be right about anything. It’s easy to assume both Matt Riddle and Timothy Thatcher would live for a fight like this. Riddle, the former UFC fighter released during a win streak (even stoners like a good fight sometimes), and Thatcher, the catch wrestling-obsessed grappler with an Old Testament-obsessed Western movie lawman’s sense of justice. Their characters’ ideologies made for the perfect scenario for two wrestlers to be at odds.
The Thatcher/Riddle rivalry spanned most of 2016, rife with conspicuous low blows, arm breaking, a suspension to Thatcher for shoving EVOLVE head Gabe Sapolsky. Thatcher has said in no uncertain terms Riddle lacks respect (case in point: The unsavory gesture he made with the EVOLVE Championship after inviting Thatcher to a fight), Riddle is certain himself Thatcher lacks respect from his actions the last two times the competitors have faced each other. What started out as a rivalry of principles ended up becoming something very personal.
That leads us to Drew Gulak calling Thatcher out and Riddle jumping him from behind to start the match. (For my money, Thatcher’s blood-feud with the members of Catch Point was the greatest storyline in independent wrestling in 2016, even more so than Drew Galloway’s makeshift confederate army to “save EVOLVE from itself,” which received way more press.)
Peppered heavily with brutal submissions and hard strikes, both an essential component of each man’s game, are delivered with a singular panache due to their severe distaste for one another. Thatcher uses the ropes to choke Riddle out to break a triangle choke. Eventually, the contest devolves into a series of blows, a visceral interpretation of the No Holds Barred format without the excessive props which make their way into this sort of match nowadays. In the end, Thatcher catches Riddle with a rope-assisted armbar and refuses to let go, even after Riddle submits. “The Ballad of Trashy Tim” is still playing a strong tune, and it’s safe to say that even as savage as their No Holds Barred contest was, the rivalry between Timothy Thatcher and Matt Riddle will live on, hopefully for a long time. —Douglas Martin
11. Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte Flair (Falls Count Anywhere Match for the WWE Raw Women’s Title) (Monday Night Raw, Episode 1227; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Monday Night Raw has a power vacuum right now.
With John Cena taking his talents over to the Blue brand, WWE’s flagship show has felt largely rudderless the last few months. The men chosen to lead the brand in the new generation have struggled to truly seize the moment – hamstrung by poor storytelling, illogical character alignments and good old fashioned fan apathy – unable to become the superstars to replace Cena when he inevitably leaves the WWE to chase Hollywood success.
The men might be struggling but that hasn’t meant that WWE hasn’t found two new main eventers to lead the flagship going forward. The women’s division is hotter than ever, having been led by the ground-breaking efforts of heated rivals Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks – the two most important, full-time wrestlers on Raw in 2016. No bullshit.
Charlotte and Sasha have enjoyed a rivalry that is easily in the conversation with one of the best in WWE history – elevating the importance of the Raw women’s title and themselves in the process. It’s must-see TV to watch them anytime they clash as they have successfully main evented many episodes of both Raw and pay-per-view in the process. Their best clash took place on the November 28th episode of Raw where they competed in a Falls Count Anywhere Match for the title that saw Sasha challenge Charlotte once again.
The match, like many of their encounters, was the first of its kind for female performers – women traditionally haven’t been let by the company to compete in the more physical gimmick matches before – but what was notable was how both brutal it was and effective in its storytelling. Sasha and Charlotte brawled around the arena like an Attitude Era Raw episode until Sasha trapped Charlotte in the Bank Statement as she was tied between an arena guard rail, squeezing on her back for maximum leverage and seizing her third Raw Women’s title of 2016. If there is one important step on Raw this year, it was that Sasha and Charlotte are ready to take the crown in the near future. Here’s hoping that one day they’ll get to do it at the top of the card at WrestleMania. —Doc Zeus
10. Adam Cole and the Young Bucks vs. Ricochet, Matt Sydal, and Will Ospreay (Six-Man Tag Match) (Battle of Los Angeles; Pro Wrestling Guerrilla)
There are spot fests, and then there are Spot Fests, and boy did the second night of Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s Battle of Los Angeles deliver a prime example of the latter. Despite no build, no storyline, no real heat to the match, the six-man tag team match between Bullet Club’s Young Bucks plus Adam Cole (BAY BAY) and the team of Ricochet, Matt Sydal, and Will Ospreay stole not just the night’s show, but the entire event’s shine.
How does one even begin to talk about a match where everything you could imagine happened in such rapid succession? This match is so balls to the wall that even Adam Cole (BAY BAY) shined, and he’s objectively the least exciting wrestler of the six by miles. Despite being able to generate some of the loudest pops of the night, the Bullet Club delegation truly shined when grounding the high-flying assaults of Team Flippy Shit, and playing the teasing heels to a crowd ready to love them.
But it was the aforementioned Team Flippy Shit that truly shone bright like a diamond on the night. Ospreay wrestled 5 matches in 3 days over the duration of BOLA, and yet he still managed to look like a lunatic mainlining speed here. His counter of the Meltzer Driver into an OsCutter is one of the best looking spots of his young and already storied career, and his sell of the Bucks’ over-exaggerated back rake was the best comedic spot of the night.
Ricochet, on the other hand, took it a bit easier, leaning heavily on his redonkulous athletic prowess to wow, rather than busting out anything particularly new. Of course, Ricochet’s average is everyone else’s best, so he still brought it. But the spot of the night, and one of the best spots of the year, came from Sydal, the former Evan Bourne of WWE fame. Before the triple shooting star press synchronization that won the match for TFS, Sydal hit his own Shooting Star Press… into a Meltzer Driver. That’s a tombstone (performed ably by Ricochet) with a spike Shooting Star Press. Dear god. The “5-star match” chant at the end of the show truly said it all. —Luis Paez-Pumar
9. Dolph Ziggler vs. the Miz (Title vs. Career Match for the WWE Intercontinental Championship) (No Mercy; World Wrestling Entertainment)
At the beginning of 2016, there might not have been two veteran WWE performers in more desperate need of a spark than Dolph Ziggler and The Miz. Despite both being with the company for over a decade, Miz and Ziggler had largely failed at seizing the brass ring to become true main eventers and had largely been surpassed by the next generation of young stars in the company’s pecking order. You might suggest these two were part of a lost generation of superstar post-OVW that never really made it despite being always reliable and notable mid-carders during their entire run with the company.
The brand extension has given both these veterans a real opportunity to make great on their long forgotten promise and Miz and Ziggler responded to the challenge by giving some of the best work of each of their entire careers. Miz and Ziggler’s feud for the Intercontinental Title was easily one of the most memorable parts of Smackdown last year. The Miz had largely retained the title for the last six months by relentlessly cheating, conspiring with his gorgeous and conniving wife Maryse to steal wins against Dolph Ziggler at every opportunity.
Feeling the desperation of man whose career was on its last gasp, Ziggler put his entire livelihood on the line for one final shot at the Intercontinental Title during their match at No Mercy.
Their climatic bout was a classic match of traditional WWE storytelling; Ziggler valiantly fought the Miz’s and Maryse’s many attempts to steal the match away from him, powering through on an injured leg to finally avail the Miz in the end. Ziggler looked like a conquering hero, a classic good guy overcoming the machinations of cowardly but conniving heel, for the biggest win of his career. —Doc Zeus
8. AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match) (Wrestle Kingdom 10; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
I was the singer for a band for about a year after I graduated from college, and we had a drummer who was solid but seemingly unremarkable from a technique perspective. One week, we had a much flashier player fill in when our regular guy was sick. But something about the gig was off. We just never managed to lock into a groove very effectively. The substitute had some neat tricks, but our regular guy could do one thing the sub couldn’t: he could keep time. And more than showy technique, the most important thing a drummer needs to do is keep time.
Shinsuke Nakamura has technique and charisma for days. But here’s the issue: when AJ Styles targets his leg throughout their match at Wrestle Kingdom 11, Nak may yowl in agony in the immediate aftermath. But a few spots later, he’s Bomaye-ing with that very same leg. The commentators are forced to gin up explanations about his Wolverine-esque healing powers to justify his use of the leg. Whereas after Styles’ back suffers strike after strike, AJ sells the injury for the rest of the match. When he attempts to execute a German Suplex, he can’t get Nak up, and you see him flinch and hold his back in pain.
At the end of the day, the lifeblood of wrestling is the in-ring storytelling. And what I take away from Nak and AJ’s match—more than any of the death-defying high spots—is that AJ Styles is the superior in-ring storyteller, at least in this particular encounter. No wonder he’s the guy. —Jordan Pedersen
7. Bayley vs. Asuka (NXT Women’s Championship Match) (NXT Brooklyn II; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Bayley, without question the emotional center of NXT before being called up to the main roster, founded her career on gutsy performances rife with skill, determination, and a heart a size bigger than even the best people you know. Asuka doesn’t give a fuck about your determination or your heart. She’s here to win, she’s here to hurt people, and if she has to kick you in the face until your cheekbone cracks in order to secure that victory, you better either get a little bit more violent or learn some outstanding blocks.
The story goes like this: Bayley lost her NXT Women’s Championship to Asuka earlier in the year at Wrestlemania weekend. Now she is back in Brooklyn, the place she first won the title from Sasha Banks in an emotional masterpiece. Asuka had been undefeated for just short of eleven months, her entire NXT career up to that point.
After losing to Asuka, Bayley knew she had to go to a darker place in order to beat Asuka. But her eyes during Asuka’s entrance told the story of a competitor intimidated by the challenge placed in front of her. But of course, that’s not going to stop her from going after it. Deep in the match, Bayley — an avatar of what having a good heart could do for you — uncharacteristically screams, “Hit me in the face!”
At Takeover: Brooklyn I, she leveled up in grit and toughness, gaining the qualities she needed to defeat Sasha Banks. But it’s safe to say no match showcases Bayley’s courage more than her dynamic encounter with easily one of the most formidable competitors in the world. Here, In the end, she reversed the Asuka Lock into a pinfall attempt, and Asuka caught her with a couple kicks which sounded like shotguns blasting open a door.
Sometimes all your sill and all your determination is not enough. No matter how good you are, every now and again, you find a person who always has your card. —Douglas Martin
6. Cedric Alexander vs. Kota Ibushi (Cruiserweight Classic Second Round; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Sometimes you gotta just say fuck it and go out there and make a name for yourself.
A common talking point on WWE television is that young wrestlers need to go out there and “make an impact” on the show if they want to make a name for themselves. This talking point is usually superficially applied by commentary teams having trouble offering motivation and character to thinly-drawn midcard stories on the show. A babyface illogically attacks an opponent after a match because “they want to make an impact.” A heel turn is justified because “they want to make an impact.”
Rarely, does this actually matter on the show. It’s a talking point used to pave over inconsistencies the audience might notice if they cared enough about the show to try to make sense of WWE-brand storytelling.
However, on occasion, a young wrestler does go out there and make a real impact for themselves on the show, as was the case when young Cedric Alexander challenged Kota Ibushi in the second round of the WWE Network’s Cruiserweight Classic. Cedric Alexander was a talented but not extraordinarily well-known independent wrestler called upon to join in WWE’s inaugural CWC, where he dropped 20 pounds to be able to make the weight limit for the tournament.
After a strong showing in the first round, Cedric faced off against Kota Ibushi, one of Japan’s most accomplished and talented superstars. If you follow independent wrestling or read last year’s Best Matches list, you know who Kota Ibushi is. He’s the rare competitor whose athletic grace is only matched by the stiffness of his strikes – a buzzsaw in Olympic gymnast’s body. People knew Cedric had a unique talent but nobody quite expected that he would not only be able to hang with Ibushi, but compel the crowd to root for his victory.
As the match ticked closer and closer to its 20-minute time limit, you can sense first Cedric’s excitement that he was taking it to Kota and could possibly beat him and then his desperation when he realized that he couldn’t put his opponent away. There was something vivid behind Cedric’s eyes that night. When Kota finally put Cedric down for the three-count, it was disappointing but you knew that Alexander had made a real name for himself. It was only confirmed when the fans passionately chanted, “Please sign Cedric,” and WWE majordomo Triple H came out to raise Cedric’s hand and acquiesce to the demand. Fast-forward a few months later, Cedric Alexander is on Raw and one of the torch bearers of WWE’s new cruiserweight division. His “impact” being undeniably felt. —Doc Zeus
5. Kenny Omega vs. Tetsuya Naito (G1 Climax Tournament Semifinals; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
For wrestling fans who crave the best action possible, the G1 Climax tournament in New Japan Pro Wrestling is truly as good as it gets. Over damn near a month every summer, the best of the best in Japan face off in a round robin tournament for a shot at the IWGP title at that January’s Wrestle Kingdom show, a golden ticket to the main event of the biggest pro wrestling card outside of Wrestlemania.
In 2016, Kenny Omega became the first gaijin (foreigner) to win the tournament, but to even make it to the final, he had to get through the only wrestler that could rival his quality of output in 2016 outside of WWE: Tetsuya bleeping Naito. The leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon, the most popular stable in the company, experienced a career revolution with his life-changing excursion to Mexico (where he embraced his most heelish tendencies) and his blatant disregard for the customs of Japan. There’s a lot to be said for face vs. face matchups, but this heel vs. heel classic proves that heat can go both ways with talented enough performers. To say that Omega and Naito were the best two heels in Japan truly undersells their impact; in their own ways, they reinvented what it means to be a bad guy in wrestling.
As for the match, it was built on a simple but effective storyline: Naito only needed a 30 minute draw to advance to the finals of the tournament, while Omega needed to pick up a clean win to book his ticket. It was clear from the start that Omega would wrestle with more intensity, which works well off of Naito’s incredible apathy towards, well, everything. The sequences these two men put themselves through over half an hour were too numerous to list, but the highlights were clear: the spit-for-spit exchange to start the match proper, the One Winged Angel counter into a kneebar by Naito that I would have bought as the finish if it had happened later, followed by Omega going crazy but falling prey to a Destino. The best spot of the match, however, came from Naito, who did a ridiculous top rope reverse Frankensteiner that had me worried for both guys’ well-being.
In the end, it was Omega that would finally put the other man away just a couple of minutes before the draw time limit, hitting a beautiful combination of German suplex, V-Trigger, and finally the One-Winged Angel for the 3 count. That this wasn’t even the final speaks to the quality of wrestling in Japan at the moment, and if anything, this semifinal was a foreshadowing of Wrestle Kingdom, which saw both men put on incredible matches with the other 2 of Japan’s Big Four (Okada and Tanahashi). While their ascents did not exactly begin at their G1 faceoff, both Omega and Naito went charging into the final quarter of 2016 with an instant classic. —Luis Paez-Pumar
4. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada (IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match) (Wrestle Kingdom 10; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
I’m sometimes struck watching New Japan matches by how much less dynamic the company’s camerawork seems than WWE’s: during entrances, their performers don’t play to the camera. They work for the live audience, and the cameras do their best to cover the action. Their video projections are ho-hum. And their ringside camerawork rarely complements the action. WWE uses their cuts to accentuate big hits, while New Japan just keeps the camera trained on the carnage.
Then again, it depends on what you’re selling: if you’re putting on a performance, you want it to look as cinematic as possible. But if you’re recording a brawl, maybe less is more. Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi’s match at Wrestle Kingdom 10 is not flashy. It is not cinematic. It is punishing, desperate, laborious. For a match like this, New Japan’s unadorned camerawork doesn’t blunt the impact: it accentuates it.
This is not a match of high spots. It’s a series of punishing strikes to the limbs, mostly the legs. If you really want to get your opponent off his feet, you don’t dance around the ring: you blow out the guy’s legs. The conceit here is not outright to put on a great show, as such. Why hold back on using a devastating offensive maneuver just because the audience has just watched ten of them?
Counterintuitively perhaps, the effect becomes hypnotic, the same way an unfunny joke told once becomes a howler after it’s been repeated ten times. We focus not on the spots, but on the battle itself: you don’t remember a particular splash or tombstone, but rather the look of desperation on Tanahashi’s face as he racks his brain trying to figure out a way to take out this pretty boy pissant.
But Okada’s learned a lot in his heartbreaking loss to Tana at Wrestle Kingdom 9. He keeps his cool. He absorbs approximately 900 fucktillion dragon screws. And, because these guys are master in-ring storytellers, he sells every one of them, and their cumulative impact. When, in desperation, Okada hits Tanahashi with a neckbreaker onto his injured knee, the announcers don’t have to pretend like Okada’s knee has made a miraculous recovery—*cough* Nakamura—because the pain is written all over Okada’s face.
Instead of building speed, the match slows down as it gains steam. By the end, as Okada and Tanahashi cop each others’ finishers in increasingly desperate bids to put the other to bed, they’re two glaciers colliding. The battle seems like it will never end. But finally, Tanahashi ducks out of a Rainmaker Clothesline, and Okada’s had enough. He executes a beautiful German suplex, and grabs onto Tanahashi’s wrist. His options exhausted, Tanahashi slaps Okada across the face. But the camera goes in close, and we realize Okada never let go of his wrist. Three Rainmakers, and it’s over. Turns out when the war is this great, you don’t need to dress it up. —Jordan Pedersen
3. #DIY vs the Revival (Best Two out of Three Falls Match for The NXT Tag Team Championship) (NXT Takeover: Toronto; World Wrestling Entertainment)
You wouldn’t think necessarily think much of the Revival if you looked at them. Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder are two squat, stocky brawlers with a few extra pounds around their bones – the type of men you’d half-expect to show up on an old episode of WCW Saturday Night and get squashed by the Steiner Brothers in quick, convincing fashion. Their old-school brawler’s motto “No Flips, Just Fists” reveals them to be a strange fit for modern WWE audiences, trained to think that falling gracefully off the top rope is what makes a great wrestler.
The Revival are wrestling geniuses, though, and I really do mean that. Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder elevate the basics of tag team heel wrestling – timing, teamwork and good ol’ fashion cheating – to artistic innovation, making every one of their matches must-see television. You can’t find a tag team wrestling this endlessly fresh and eminently re-watchable.
There have been a good plenty of great Revival matches this year – the affairs against American Alpha and Enzo and Cass stick out — but the match that stands as their crowning achievement is their two out of three falls instant classic against #DIY at NXT Takeover: Toronto in November. #DIY — a pair of veteran indie journeymen in Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa — had played the role of perennial contenders unable to overcome The Revival’s dastardly tactics this year, having been felled by the old school brawlers a few months earlier in Brooklyn. The Revival don’t so much brutalize their opponent but outwit them staying a step ahead of their competition at all times. The rematch between the teams found #DIY finally solving the Revival’s riddle by learning the lessons that cost them their chance to win the NXT Tag Titles in the first place.
What follows is a symphony of kick outs, near falls and fall finishes. The crowd growing hotter with each two-count until the Gargano and Ciampa trap Dash and Dawson in twin submission holds to secure the victory. This was a match that made wrestling seem like the real thing and secured the Revival as not only the best tag team in the world but the best WWE performers working right now. —Doc Zeus
2. Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (NXT Takeover: Dallas; World Wrestling Entertainment)
At its best, wrestling can make you feel a plethora of emotions in ways that few other forms of entertainment can. There’s the exhilaration from watching expertly executed feats of athleticism. There’s the joy in watching two performers click and raise their game to a new level. And there’s the drama derived from storytelling that at times can rival the best network dramas. Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura at NXT Takeover: Dallas had all of that and more.
Let’s start with the context: as far as “end of an era” matches go, this is near the top. Sami Zayn is the main reason people care about NXT in its current iteration, full stop. Sure, people watched FCW (NXT’s precursor) and the first days of the original NXT, but it wasn’t until Sami became the face of the brand that it was elevated to where it is today. His chase for the NXT title, ending in what is still the best match in NXT’s history [Editor’s Note: Click here and scroll to #1 if you are unsure as to what match Luis is referring to], is everything wrestling can be.
On the other hand, Sami’s success as an indie guy-turned-WWE superstar opened the door for guys like his old frenemy Kevin Steen (now Owens), Prince Devitt (now Finn Balor), and Samoa Joe (now Samoa Joe). THEIR success has turned NXT into a poaching brand of sorts, and its biggest coup bar none occurred in January 2016, when the King of Strong Style Shinsuke Nakamura made the leap from semi-main event New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom 10 to NXT. Takeover: Dallas was the arrival and coronation of the King, so the hype for this match of Present vs. Future in Shinsuke’s debut and Sami’s swan song was through the roof. Luckily, the match itself delivered.
Stiff, brutal, bloody, exhausting. All of these words fit the actual in-ring action from these two demi-gods. Shinsuke controlled most of the bout, wrestling very much as a heel with constant taunts, struts, and hard-as-fuck knees to Sami’s face. Of course, he was getting cheered for all of this because you don’t boo Shinsuke Nakamura, not in his debut, not ever. That being said, on rewatch, Sami Zayn truly comes out looking like the star of this match. His face-in-peril selling is so far and away better than anyone else’s in WWE that it is comical to even rate him on the same scale. One moment that comes to mind is after Shinsuke hits an enziguri, and Sami just drunk walks his way into a corner before belly-flopping. In the hands of a less likeable human, that would be as over the top as the Flair Flop, but in Sami’s capable babyface hands, it was a beautiful moment of “you can do i-oh, no you can’t” storytelling.
The big spot of the match was the minutes-long forearm exchange that busted Shinsuke up — perfectly in sync with the crowd’s “Yes!” chants — had the fans in attendance bellowing at the top of its lungs. Normally not the most exciting of spots made thrilling with careful selling and some really stiff forearms. Sami busted open Shinsuke’s nose with one particularly vicious strike, he responded by wiping some of it off with his finger and tasting it. This exchange turned into a microcosm for the whole match: Sami can’t hit quite as hard, but he sure as hell isn’t giving up.
If there’s one complaint to be had, it’s that the two men eventually no-sold this exchange as we raced towards the finish, but what a finish it was: the freshly-renamed Kinsasha knee (formerly Boma Ye) to the back of Sami’s head was not enough to put him down, so it took a second, vicious looking Kinsasha to seal the deal for the King of Strong Style. To merely call this a great match is to do it a grave injustice, but to ignore the post-match action would be even worse.
Sami Zayn gave everything he had to NXT, and thankfully, the NXT fans in Dallas gave him the goodbye he deserved. After Shinsuke vacated the premises to give the Face of NXT his moment, a clearly exhausted and delirious Sami was serenaded by Dallas with his trademark Ole Ole Ole chant (sung to the tune of “Ole” by the Bouncing Souls).
That Sami had tears in his eyes just drove the moment deeper: this man was the spark plug this particular brand needed at the right time, and there just aren’t enough Oles to thank Sami Zayn for what he did in Orlando and beyond. It’s only fitting that he walked out for the last time after one of the best matches in NXT history, and with the crowd singing along to his theme song. Sami Zayn was NXT, and NXT will never have another quite like him. —Luis Paez-Pumar
1. AJ Styles vs. John Cena (Summerslam; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Maybe now we can stop pretending John Cena isn’t one of the all-time greats. That Big Match John moniker is not just a cute nickname. Sure, his archetype might be a little cheesy compared to the grit of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin or Bruno Sammartino. Sure, he may not have had a reputation as a “super-worker” or whatever quote-unquote “smart fans” used to complain about when he first made marquee star status. But at this point in his career, he’s notched several Match of the Decade contenders and held his own against some of the most critically-acclaimed talent of the 21st Century. He’s made stars. His match at Summerslam 2013 with Daniel Bryan was so epic, Bryan had to debut a new move in order to beat him. The “Cena Sucks” contingent makes fun of his assertion that the future of WWE has to go through him because, for better for worse, it’s a monolithic truth. And it has been far more for better than worse over the past handful of years.
The court of public opinion voted AJ Styles as Wrestler of the Year 2016 pretty much unanimously, but he’s secretly been the best wrestler in the world since summer 2014, running through the New Japan main event scene with dominance and a catchy stable. It’s weird how reminiscent this match, well into his now-historic WWE run, was of Styles’ New Japan main events — not just in quote-unquote “moveset,” but pacing, psychology, and purity of art. But what brings it into its own as a singular match in the genre’s history is the cult of personality that is John Cena and the aura which surrounds him.
Styles gets the early advantage in the match, hits a picture-perfect dropkick. Goes to the middle turnbuckle to gloat a little, gets decked and whipped into the turnbuckles by Cena, who says, “Sometimes it ain’t all smiles, huh? Sometimes we get serious.”
This is by far the best version of John Cena. We talked about the “beating the odds” version of the John Cena character on this list before. This was not that Cena, this was the Cena reaching deep within himself to prove he’s still the dynastic, hallmark WWE superstar. The Guy, if you will. Cena is always at his best when he has something to prove. Deep inside most great artists, no matter how successful, is the memory of what having a chip on your shoulder feels like.
The John Cena who knocks down impossible obstacles set up in front of him is a cute thing for kids to watch, to instill some hope that your favorite superhero can win. That they can triumph over adversity. That John Cena is played out. Give me this John Cena any day, the John Cena who knows he has dominated his field for over a decade, the John Cena who knows as gospel that he is the guy to beat and has been for years. The John Cena who knows this is why an incredibly vocal contingent of fans hate his guts, and delivers a top notch performance just to throw the shit back in their faces.
In contrary to what JBL said early in the match, John Cena is better when he isn’t on his “home turf.” In fact, he’s probably the best “away game” performer anywhere in wrestling. He’s most at home in front of a hostile crowd, when he, as Booker T put it in his 2011 classic against CM Punk, “rides in on a white horse and gets booed out of the building.”
Cena spends the final moments of the match staring at Styles with bewilderment when Styles kicks out of the avalanche Attitude Adjustment, the move he reveals as a failsafe button, his ace in the deck. And to end the match, Styles reverse yet another Attitude Adjustment into another Styles Clash, rolls out to the apron, snatches off his elbow pad — as if to say, “I’m not fucking around anymore,” hits him with the Phenomenal Forearm. One. Two. Three. A legend is made.
After Styles makes his way up the ramp, Cena leaving his “NEVER GIVE UP” armband in the center in the ring was profoundly symbolic: “Maybe I’m losing a step, maybe my time really has passed me by.” It’s a very compelling, refreshing dynamic for a character who has been admittedly stale for a while, and a way for Cena to channel the frustration of always having something to prove creatively. Hollywood be damned, John Cena still has work to do in WWE. For the first time perhaps in his entire career, we all can finally say, “Thank goodness for that.” —Douglas Martin