I don’t really feel the need to offer a long-winded intro or survey of the professional wrestling world this time. We all know by and large, 2017 sucked. A few of us realize it didn’t for professional wrestling. With each passing year, there are more and more places to watch great wrestling matches and more and more great wrestling matches being had in each place. It hard to keep up sometimes, but for the four of us who have been bringing you our perspective on the genre since 2015, it’s a passion, it’s a pleasure, and as 2017 proved with tremendous exhaustive force, there are worse problems to have than having too many good wrestling matches to decide between in order to make a list. On with the show. —DOUGLAS MARTIN
HONORABLE MENTION: Arik Royal vs. Trevor Lee (CWF Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Championship Match) (CWF Worldwide Episode 124; Carolina Wrestling Federation Mid-Atlantic)
I’m getting a little giddy watching Arik Royal’s excitement about his CWF Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Championship match, as he happily stalks the ring, shouting, “It’s coming home tonight!” The glee in his voice, the smile on his face, they’re both as infectious as anything I’ve seen in pro wrestling. Trevor Lee’s entrance music is a version of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” a song used regularly on Justified, probably in my top-ten favorite television shows to ever be broadcasted. Lee’s style fits naturally with the aesthetic modus operandi of the series: A modern update of something too classic to fuck up.
A special component of this match is how it fully encapsulates the importance of the way contenders are announced in a big title match. Look at how both Royal and Lee get super hyped up as their accomplishments are being listed. The introductions of both men as legends in this particular organization: both Johnny Weaver Cup winners (Royal twice), both the longest-reigning Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Champions in history, down to the day. The man who wins tonight will break the tie.
The match—in its very charming, southern rasslin’ way—is vivaciously, deliriously overbooked: chain wrestling, powder breaks, literal powder, a powerbomb into the ring post, Royal cutting a promo at the commentary table (a la vintage Chuck Taylor in PWG) and then accosting a heckler (“You need to watch your mouth in front of kids!”), and Lee mistakenly dislocating a referee’s fingers while blinded.
Unlike the crowd for 2016’s great Trevor Lee vs. Roy Wilkins match, where the sardined crowd was unglued during the entire marathon running time, there is a weirdly hushed reverence for long stretches of this match, which speaks to Lee and Royal’s ability to make their audience hang onto their every move. After a procession of referees, Lee finds himself snapping Royal’s fingers. My brain always suspends the disbelief that comes with watching almost a dozen hours of wrestling every week when I hear that snap.
The match ends with Royal standing right up after a superplex, Lee doing the same after a vicious powerbomb, the image of both men spent and flipping each other off after taking the other man’s best shot, and Royal tapping out from a Regal Stretch, brass knuckles in hand. It’s not only a tour de force of both sports entertainment and wrestling in its purest form, but a testament to the old school of wrestling, where your top star can turn a talented regional wrestler into a total world beater. As much as he is known for having a style very appropriate for his young age, there is something old school about Trevor Lee. —DOUGLAS MARTIN
HONORABLE MENTION: KUSHIDA vs. Will Ospreay (Battle of the Super Juniors Tournament Finals; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
KUSHIDA is one of the best wrestlers in the entire world, and yet, it sure feels like no one holds him in the same esteem as the AJ Styleses, Kenny Omegas, or Kazuchika Okadas of the world. For years, he’s been a mainstay in New Japan’s Junior-Heavyweight division, having insane matches with everyone that the company throws at him. Hell, he has another match in the top 10 of this very list (spoiler alert!). While that match was mainly his opponent’s ingobernable charisma guiding proceedings, the Super Juniors finals against Will Ospreay showed that KUSHIDA deserves your respect, and your attention.
If you paid attention to wrestling internet back in 2016, you’d remember the hubbub around Ospreay’s crazy spot-fest with Ricochet at the BOSJ. However, what that match and the surrounding conversation clouded was the fact that the Juniors put on incredible matches all the dang time. Case in point, the same Ospreay that was derided by old-school fans for his Ricochet match put on a high-flying clinic a year later. Something that is relatively unique to Juniors is how smoothly they pull off insane counters; case in point, Ospreay’s counter of KUSHIDA’s newest finisher, the Back to the Future, into a cutter. To go step by step throughout the match’s many spots of that nature would be to lose the thread of what made it so great, so all you need to know is that this was two of the best light-heavyweights in the world, putting on their respective best matches.
In the end, it would be KUSHIDA who would win, kicking out of Ospreay’s inverted 450 splash before landing a second Back to the Future to win and continue his comeback story; this is the same man that lost to Hiromu Takahashi in two minutes in 2017. To have him come roaring back and win the BOSJ tournament was one of the feel-good highlights of New Japan’s completely batshit year. —LUIS PAEZ-PUMAR
HONORABLE MENTION: Finn Balor vs. Roman Reigns vs. Samoa Joe vs. Seth Rollins vs. Bray Wyatt (Fatal Five-Way Number One Contender’s Match) (Extreme Rules; World Wrestling Entertainment)
The operative question with Brock Lesnar has become not about who the fans want to see him have a match with, but rather who he’ll actually show up for. Lesnar is a notoriously lazy wrestler. If you don’t believe me, pull up his first match with Goldberg back at Wrestlemania XX, and pity the fans in attendance who paid to see it.
But in 2017, the WWE did an admirable job of feeding The Beast™ a series of opponents who he seemed legitimately jazzed about. They may have even made their first Indian champion drop the belt on Smackdown Live because they knew Lesnar would sleepwalk through a match with, as Paul Heyman sneered so eloquently, “Jinder? Mahal?”
So in hindsight, it seems fairly obvious that Joe would emerge the winner. Seth and Roman? Been there, conquered that. Bray Wyatt? Brock Lesnar does not sell ghost sister angles. Balor could give him a great match, but Lesnar could also throw him out of the arena like Leonardo throws a Foot Soldier at the screen in Turtles in Time.
This is the perfect example of what happens when you ask four of your best guys—sorry Bray—to turn a 20-minute match into a 40-minute match. But when Finn Balor reenters the match at the halfway point, and Slingblades the thing back to life, it starts to earn those “this is awesome” chants. It’s not Ishiguro-level storytelling, but the high spots are glorious: Seth proving how great the Superman Punch can look if you sell it right and crumble like a rag doll. Roman’s double spear into Joe and Finn. And then the Architect hitting Bray with a textbook frog splash on the table. It’s all *chef’s kiss.*
Joe ends up stealing the victory because WWE can’t miss a chance to make Roman look like the strongest guy in the ring. But if it got us a Brock Lesnar match we don’t have to check our phones during, it was well worth it. —JORDAN PEDERSEN
HONORABLE MENTION: DIY vs. the Authors of Pain (Ladder Match for the NXT Tag Team Championship) (NXT Takeover: Chicago; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Sometimes the best twist is the thing you saw coming all along. Fans had been anticipating Tommaso Ciampa finally turning on his tag team partner Johnny Gargano for so long that the wrestlers had become self-aware of the anticipation for DIY’s inevitable destruction. The fact that it finally occurred after their war of a ladder match with the Authors of Pain did not make it any less impactful when Ciampa finally pulled the trigger on their breakup.
DIY’s success has always built upon the teamwork and bond the two unlikely WWE wrestlers built together. They make up for their lack of size with their passion and ingenuity to outlast their bigger, brawnier opponents. However, the Authors of Pain’s sheer physicality has always been too much for DIY to handle, no matter how much they’ve tried to outwit the two goliaths.
Nevertheless, Gargano and Ciampa poured their hearts out in their ladder match with the pair. DIY tried everything in their power to prevail but it was not enough as the high spots in this match made you fear for their lives—including an insane dual splash from the top of the ladder onto the Authors of Pain that made me briefly think Gargano had broken his neck.
All of this served to make Ciampa’s inevitable betrayal during the pair’s curtain call even more emotionally brutal. In the annals of great wrestling heel turns, Ciampa’s dead-eyed stare after he obliterates his best friend after the match is one of the most haunting images you’ll find in wrestling. —DOC ZEUS
20. Roderick Strong vs. Bobby Roode (NXT Episode 400; World Wrestling Entertainment)
WWE makes a strong, if depressing, argument for division of labor. You could count on one hand the number of good matches Bobby Roode has had in WWE. And yet, not too long ago, he was crowned United States Champion. It’s guys like Roddy Strong who have the job of making guys like Bobby Roode look good in the ring. The purist in me balks, but the WWE is a business, and Roderick Strong ain’t gonna move much merch with his adenoidal sneer of a voice.
At least until they turn him heel.
Roode flutter-hands gloriously, while default font-era Strong kills himself working through his repertoire of stunning, .gif-ready dropkicks and backbreakers. And Strong’s wife and mother do their darnedest to put over the tired “he’s fighting for his family” angle.
The pinfall victory by Strong is a pump-fake—Roode’s leg was under the ropes, duh—and before you can say “hard times,” the Glorious One has Dusty finished his way to victory.
You knew from the beginning Strong would have to do the job. But one hopes that job takes him further than just the Full Sail Arena. —JORDAN PEDERSEN
19. Toni Storm vs. Kairi Sane (Mae Young Classic Tournament Semifinals; World Wrestling Entertainment)
The semifinal round of the Mae Young Classic—the tournament touted for its history-making—is less about the historical sense of being WWE’s first-ever all-women’s tournament and more about its competitors. Four globally renowned, wildly talented wrestelers putting forth their best performances on the biggest stage each has ever competed on. In addition to being unquestionably two of the very best women’s wrestlers in the world, Kairi Sane and Toni Storm are an absolute joy to present to novice or first-time spectators of the genre. “What’s her deal?” “She’s an eccentric Australian rocker who wears a top hat to the ring and hits people really hard.” “What’s her deal?” “She’s a fucking pirate princess!”
Sometimes semifinal matches feel more urgent than the ultimate installment of a tournament, simply because in wrestling, both competitors who reach the finals of anything have pretty much already won when the bell rings. But if you are one of the two getting knocked out of the final four, you have that ignoble chance of being lost to history.
After the opening run of skillful chain wrestling and coy smiles, the pace picks up when Sane levels Storm with a flying crossbody to the outside, almost nailing her head on the steel entrance ramp in the process. The second act of the match starts when both competitors proceed to throw themselves at each other. Storm goes for Strong Zero, her ace in the hole, and Sane kicks out. Storm works on the elbow of Sane, trying to neutralize her insane (no pun intended) diving elbow.
Storm then goes for a top rope leg drop and connects, but cannot make the pin attempt. After a backfist and a tight modified Cloverleaf, Storm catches an elbow to the back. Wrenching in pain, Sane ascends to the top rope and flies halfway across the ring like an eagle swooping in on its prey, elbow driving right into the back of Storm.
Sane bursts into tears after the three-count, feeling the effects of a physical and emotional match. Before a tearful hug, Storm holds the face of the eventual tournament winner and offers a brief motivational statement, hopefully knowing in her heart neither competitor is going to be forgotten when people revisit the Mae Young Classic in their breathless recollections. —DOUGLAS MARTIN
18. Johnny Gargano vs. Andrade “Cien” Almas (NXT Takeover: Brooklyn III; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Takeover shows in Brooklyn have become NXT’s version of WrestleMania. At the original one, Bayley finally toppled Sasha Banks to win the Women’s Championship. And at the sequel, Shinsuke Nakamura rode a violin-assisted entrance to his first NXT Championship. How do you kick off the third edition? You put the best pure babyface on the roster against a rising star that finally found his niche. Johnny Gargano and Andrade “Cien” Almas, respectively, are a perfect mesh of styles: an undersized hero for the masses against a handsome playboy with a mean streak and a dastardly manager.
The match itself delivered on every level, but that was to be expected; both of these dudes are phenomenal in-ring performers, and Almas especially has finally found his groove as an NXT performer after a series of false starts. A technical match fueled by reversals and the fiery little man knowing as Johnny Wrestling, the pair were able to tell a simple story of overconfidence and “warrior spirit,” as the Mexican Adonis threw everything he could at Gargano only to see it thrown right back at him. The moment of the match, at least before the finish, was pure wrestling bliss: Gargano locked in his Gargano Escape finish, but Almas countered into a deadlift powerbomb onto the turnbuckle, followed by his knees to the face finisher. No one would have been mad if that was the finish, but it was not meant to be just yet.
The main thing people will remember is the finish, as Almas’ manager, Zelina Vega, chucked a #DIY shirt at Gargano to interrupt his taunt-and-finish, giving Johnny Wrestling PTSD to the betrayal by that coward Tommaso Ciampa (more on that later, as if you’re surprised at all) and allowing Almas to hit his hammerlock DDT for the 3.
A simple yet effective ending put an exclamation point on the best match of the biggest show of the year, and it’s safe to say that their already-classic NXT TakeOver Philadelphia main event, an early lock for our 2018 list with absolute certainty, wouldn’t have been quite as significant if not for their epic Brooklyn showdown. —LUIS PAEZ-PUMAR
17. Nikki Cross vs. Asuka (Last Woman Standing Match for the NXT Women’s Championship) (NXT Episode 399)
Nikki Cross is NXT’s wild card in more ways than one. Not only is her character the lunatic fringe that Dean Ambrose wishes he could be, but she’s also someone that can be thrown into a match to crank up both the intensity and quality of proceedings. So, when NXT wanted to do the first-ever Last Woman Standing match (in order to give Asuka yet another ridiculous accomplishment), it turned to SANITY’s Scottish spark plug. And, in a surprise to no one who’s either known her as Nikki Storm or even just someone who paid attention since she was signed, Cross made it a match to remember.
By its very nature, Last (Wo)man Standing is a stipulation that should lead to violence previously unseen. To incapacitate someone so thoroughly that they can’t answer a 10-count usually leads to weapons and beatdowns which jar the viewer from their sleepy states of weekly wrestling programming. That’s why it was a bold and brilliant move to have Cross vs. Asuka during a weekly taping of NXT, at Full Sail; it’s not something you expect to see on a Wednesday night. But the small atmosphere made every suplex onto a pile of chairs, every slam on the floor, and every ladder shot feel vicious and dangerous in a way that maybe wouldn’t have translated at, say, the Barclays Center.
These women are two of the legit scariest characters in all of WWE programming, and some of the bumps they took felt just on the wrong side of unsafe; Nikki’s neckbreaker from the barricade looked metal as fuck. But the big spot that you will see in Asuka’s streak videos for years to come was the finale: both women climb to the top of a ladder in front of the announcer’s table, before Asuka suplexes Nikki from the very top and through. It looks perfect and is the right way to end a grueling 25 minutes.
The highlight, undeniably, is the juxtaposition between champ and challenger in the post-match. Asuka looks like she barely survived, selling the damage and fear from being locked in with Cross, who…just flashes her insane smile from the wreckage. —LUIS PAEZ-PUMAR
Samoa Joe vs. Roman Reigns vs. Brawn Strowman vs. Brock Lesnar (Fatal Four-Way Match for the WWE Universal Championship) (Summerslam, World Wrestling Entertainment)
Upon reexamination, this isn’t much of a match: Samoa Joe tries to enzuigiri and surprise-Coquina Clutch his way to victory. Brock Lesnar cycles between his two moves. Roman Reigns hops onto the ring apron to take a catnap, and Michael Cole has the unenviable task of trying to make us care.
And meanwhile, there’s Braun Strowman. 6 foot 8. 385 pounds. There are monsters, there are unstoppable monsters, and then there’s Braun Strowman. WWE isn’t quite Lucha Underground, with its interdimensional warriors and mutant little brothers, but it is a place where a man can push over a semi-truck and pull down a lighting rig with a grappling hook. Those kinds of stunts are de rigueur at this point. The difference is, with Strowman, you believe it.
Lesnar’s the biggest non-Cena name in the company, and in Vince McMahon’s mind, the surest path to bringing new eyeballs to his product. One could argue that his near-yearlong reign as Universal Champion is a cynical move to attract new fans at the expense of existing ones.
Lesnar is, however, a monster. A genuine UFC champion, albeit one with a big asterisk. He’s one of the few workers in the company who comes across as genuinely scary, so his seemingly never-ending reign as Universal Champion can also be fairly attributed to the fact that there was almost no one who could credibly take him down.
That is, until the Monster Among Men sloughed the placard off the announcer’s table, picked Brock Lesnar up off the ground like you’d pick up your shoes, and Running Powerslammed him onto the table. And then he did it again. They were the Running Powerslams heard ’round the world.
The match lasted for another 20 minutes, but from that point on, another countdown began: the countdown to Braun Strowman going over Brock Lesnar. Not because we want it, not because he’s a better wrestler than Brock; but because when a bigger predator appears, it’s only a matter of time before he comes out on top. —JORDAN PEDERSEN
15. SANITY vs. the Authors of Pain & Roderick Strong vs. the Undisputed Era (War Games Match) (NXT Takeover: War Games; World Wrestling Entertainment)
“Let’s get these kids over.”
While main roster WWE trudges through a quagmire of sloppy “dream card” booking to attract a new audience they’ll likely never get, NXT’s booking has an Occam’s razor—Akam’s Rezar?—simplicity. Of course Triple H and company want to tell great stories—and succeed wildly at it—but as great as NXT is in its own right, at the end of the day it’s still a developmental show: The goal is to get these workers ready for the big time.
The titular War Games match at the last Takeover of 2017 was the culmination of a long-simmering feud between SANITY, the Undisputed Era, two angry rocks given life by a vengeful sorcerer, and also Roderick Strong. But it was, more than anything else, the most brutally efficient way to get a bunch of promising new guys over. The former reDRagon hadn’t done much more in NXT besides merc fools after they were already gassed and Killian Dain had done an impressive job Katamari Damacy-ing folks, but none of the three had truly made an impression yet. As soon as they left that cage, everything changed.
There are two reasons Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish were one of the most popular tag teams in Ring of Honor and well on their way in New Japan: great chemistry and kicks hard enough to make Daniel Bryan go deaf in one ear. They wrestle like they’re playing WWE 2K, strategically and mercilessly targeting their opponents’ limbs to render them work-useless and, if we’re being honest, probably shoot-useless as well. O’Reilly, at least for me, is the standout. He’s a human curve in the ring, his body one giant blade ready to strike. The vampire pale skin and Hills Have Eyes toothy gawk only add to the effect.
But this match undoubtedly belongs to Killian Dain. He shows off his well-catalogued brute strength, sure, but this is one of the first times we see him go: the dropkick/senton combo, bodyslamming Roddy Strong onto Bobby Fish, handing O’Reilly the garbage can so he can go coast-to-coast. They’re all difficult spots, Dain nails all of them, and somehow emerges seemingly ungassed. It’s like when an actor gets all the best lines in a movie. War Games was a great match for everyone involved—it was the first time I actually enjoyed AOP, for the record, but this was Dain’s show, no doubt about it. But he’s not the guy who made the match possible. No, that honor goes to Eric Young.
Young was one-third of a championship tag team, but he likely has no illusions about ever having his Wrestlemania moment. He’s in NXT to do the yeoman’s work that keeps professional wrestling alive: He’s there to make the other guy look good. He sells like Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross, and in the process, eight young wrestlers emerge from the cage looking like stars.
“Let’s get these kids over.” —JORDAN PEDERSEN
14. Donovan Dijak vs. Keith Lee (Battle of Los Angeles Tournament Quarterfinals; Pro Wrestling Guerrilla)
2017 was, in a meta sense, the year that the wrestling internet lost its mind over star ratings. From the (minimum of) six stars given to three different Okada-Omega matches by Dave Meltzer, to the endless bickering about certain matches not receiving the highest marks available, it’s safe to say that you couldn’t spend a day on Wrestling Twitter without seeing someone argue stars like it was Super Mario Odyssey. The five-star bout between Donovan Dijak and Keith Lee was atypical from the rest of the hotly-contested matches of the year, however. Although the pair have a history (previously teaming as The Monsters on the circuit), it wasn’t really necessary to know their history to enjoy the narrative being told. David vs. Goliath was thrown out the window in favor of two Goliaths, hitting each other really fucking hard.
This might be one of those matches that gets talked about for the wrong reasons; it’s the match especially targeted at wrestling’s most passionate fans, packed into the Reseda hothouse that is PWG. That it happened during Battle of Los Angeles, a pilgrimage of sorts for the obsessed, means that it loses meaning the second you put it on tape. That’s fair and all, and normally matches from BOLA are a tad overhyped by the attendees. But not this one.
Dijak (who was signed to NXT just prior to the three night extravaganza) and Lee (currently the champion of Gabe Sapolsky’s World Wrestling Network, which practically means it’s only a matter of time before WWE snaps him up) are two of the most agile big men in wrestling history, which made their showdown more than just BEEF.
For evidence, check out the Spirit Bomb no-sell by Dijak into a perfect moonsault; a 6-foot-7, 270-pound man should not be able to move so gracefully through the air. However, the real star, and one of indy wrestling’s best and brightest, was Lee, a lovable giant clocking in at a generous 332 pounds who can do things like catch Dijak jumping from the turnbuckle and hit him with a Spirit Bomb like it’s no big deal.
The finishing sequence shows exactly what makes BOLA so much fun: after twenty minutes of leapfrogs, hurricanranas, near-falls galore (the crowd screamed bloody murder after Dijak kicked out of Lee’s finish), it was a simple yet effective jackhammer slam that got the job done for Lee. Of course, when “simple” means throwing a near 300 pounder around like a pillow, it truly explains how insane of a match these two had. —LUIS PAEZ-PUMAR
13. AJ Styles vs. Finn Balor (Tables, Ladders, and Chairs; World Wrestling Entertainment)
The fine print of your ticket might always read “card subject to change,” but that doesn’t mean that you are about to be ripped off. Sometimes, it might actually come out in the fan’s favor.
Due to a systematic decrease in the herd immunity of the general population to viral diseases, WWE was forced to sub A.J. Styles in for Bray Wyatt in a pay-per-view battle against Finn Balor at the last minute. An outbreak of the mumps might have spared fans the cartoonish pleasures of both Finn Balor and Bray Wyatt’s career jumping over an entire school of sharks—as Demonface Finn was scheduled to face a (crossdressing?) Bray Wyatt in Sister Abigail cosplay—but I don’t think many complained, as the prospect of a dream match between the two former leaders of the Bullet Club was more than enough to satiate fans.
Balor vs. Styles does not have much of a backstory beyond the spirit of competition, but it didn’t need one. It’s simply incredibly cool to watch Balor and Styles square off in WWE ring for supremacy of New Japan Pro Wrestling. —DOC ZEUS
12. Kota Ibushi vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match) (Power Struggle; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
Kota Ibushi has all the hallmarks of taking the torch from Hiroshi Tanahashi as New Japan Pro Wrestling’s prestige hero. He’s more than obviously a future world champion in the making, his raw passion matches his singular talent in a way that is easy to love. Guys like Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito, for all their gifts, are too cocky and self-absorbed characters to be true New Japan heroes; with a little character retooling, Kenny Omega could be, but he’s also not Japanese.
Tanahashi plays the role of old lion perfectly here. Body beaten down, injured, working with a torn bicep since god-knows-when, but sporting a level of pride nearly unmatched by all the younger lions surrounding him. The story of the match is the grizzled veteran grinding down the gifted high flier, targeting the knees with an almost robotic focus. Ibushi isn’t grounded for long, though; he has a double foot stomp and later a picture-perfect Golden Triangle moonsault. Upon entering the ring, Tanahashi grinds him down again.
After Ibushi throws Tanahashi into the turnbuckle pad like a lawn dart, Tana winces in pain. Then he gets hit with Ibushi’s incredible second-rope German suplex from the outside (the one we raved about in 2015) and the match looks like it’s in the bag but isn’t. The crowd comes alive in a big way when the two competitors start trading slaps and palm strikes. Tanahashi ends the match with a High Fly Flow to Ibushi’s back, followed by one with his opponent in standard position. And then the match ends with the legend getting the hard-fought win over the legend-to-be.
Maybe one day Kota Ibushi will garner as much widespread respect as his opponent on this day, but the legend isn’t ready to give up his lofty mantle just yet. Legends just keep pushing along through the pain and the torn muscles and broken bones until they give out. That’s what makes them legends. —DOUGLAS MARTIN
11. Braun Strowman vs. The Big Show (Monday Night Raw Episode 1239; World Wrestling Entertainment)
If you are an avid pro wrestling fan, you might neglect to appreciate what WWE provides that no other entity in the world does—the sheer, violent spectacle of two truly gigantic humans in simulated combat. Competing promotions might provide faster-paced wrestling or a grittier alternative to WWE’s TV-PG-friendly action but only WWE will bring you a match like Braun Strowman vs. the Big Show: A good ol’ fashioned hoss war.
As the first match in a trilogy between the two monsters, Show and Strowman delivered a classic match that not many people saw coming. The match served as a coming-out-party for Strowman showcasing his freakish athleticism, his demonic speed and his surprising chain wrestling skills you don’t see in a man that size.
Due to WWE’s strategic booking, Strowman’s star had been on the rise over the previous year but this match seemed to signal to fans that he was going to be more than the next Ryback or Rusev—a monster that WWE temporarily gets behind only to feed to a bigger star. Instead, Strowman came out of the match looking like he “belonged” with the top guys in the industry, that he was something truly special.
Moreover, Big Show proved the perfect opponent for ushering Strowman into superstar status. Once upon a time, Show was Braun Strowman—the freakishly athletic leviathan who served as the next link in the evolution of pro wrestling giants. Big Show never quite became the star that he could have been but he wanted to prove that he was still capable of standing toe-to-toe with the young upstart. In the end, Strowman won but barely survived the match. Thus, this match served as a reminder to fans that Big Show is a great professional wrestler. —DOC ZEUS
10. Lio Rush vs. Shane Strickland (DEFY Championship 8x Grand Prix Tournament Qualifying Match) (DEFY 2: Wolves at the Door; DEFY Wrestling)
Watching Shane Strickland saunter to the ring accompanied by Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” is like watching Russell Westbrook of a particular vintage step past the half-court line dribbling a ball: A mercurial talent somewhat lost in the shuffle of the best of his generation about to summon the stuff of warlocks. If he has a chip on his shoulder by the idea of not coming up at the stop of the deck every time, his confidence belies it greatly.
If former New Japan demigod/current WWE superstar Shinsuke Nakamura channels Michael Jackson in “Thriller”—the red leather jacket, the irresistible charisma, the iconic dance routine—Strickland approaches the ring like MJ in the clip for “Beat It.” The charisma is there, the leather jacket too (only black), the moves as well, but his presence is more grounded and the look in his eyes makes it very apparent he’s ready for a fight.
Have you ever played a game of speed chess, where you have ten seconds or less to make a move? Strickland and Rush’s superlatively exciting match was exactly that. It was the match a good number of wrestling contests—not just independent wrestling, but the genre as a whole—aspire to be. Full of skill and strategy, rife with hard strikes and gravity-manipulating flips and dives, and ultimately boiling down to a test of wills, the quandary of which competitor can reach deepest within themselves to win.
The gasps and shouts and “holy shit” chants peppered throughout Washington Hall were only part of the ambiance that signaled a truly special match. There was the sweat flying off each man’s chest after a slap, the true feeling of danger as the men would both hit the guardrail after they dove, Rush repeatedly trying to kick Strickland from the turnbuckle, even though his legs were too short to reach; the crowd laughing as he grunted, “Shit, shit, shit.”
The match was everything a fan attending a wrestling show could hope for, an emotional narrative from start to finish. The immensely talented young athlete taking on the equally-talented veteran to his limit, giving every parcel of physical and emotional effort he could, only to come up short. The emotional response the crowd gave Rush in defeat almost brought him to tears. It almost brought a few of the fans in attendance to tears as well, present company included. —DOUGLAS MARTIN
9. A.J. Styles vs. Brock Lesnar (Survivor Series; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Brock Lesnar is WWE’s biggest attraction, but it’s an open secret that his matches have gotten increasingly truncated and formulaic in recent years. These days, a Brock match is lucky to go a good ten minutes before Brock unceremoniously nerfs his opponent so he can get back to mainlining deer antler spray from the wildlife he murders. 100% natural. Ask Mark Hunt.
Brock’s match against A.J. Styles at Survivor Series could have easily gone the way his recent matches with Samoa Joe, Dean Ambrose, and Braun Strowman have gone—where the build is engaging because the prospect of a dream match between the Beast and a crowd favorite excites the imagination but the match deflates quickly when you realize that WWE isn’t going to pull the trigger on a title change and Brock openly seems like he’s got better things to do with his time.
Here, we received the idealized version of what an A.J. Styles and Brock Lesnar match could be. You can tell that Styles’ peers consider him the best wrestler in the world by the deference that Brock gives him to shine in this match.
The match begins like most Brock matches, in which the confident challenger gets absolutely mauled by the superior Beast. However, A.J. Styles is so good at what he does that when the match turns on Brock’s inevitable mistake, you can credibly believe that the man a quarter of Brock’s size is about to slay the Beast. Brock Lesnar can be an incredible performer when he’s motivated—his legitimacy as a combat athlete combined with size, speed, power, and an underrated selling ability is the reason why he is the attraction that he is. Styles is electric as a performer and is able to capitalize on this to create an intriguing novelty match that is easily Brock’s best performance since his match against C.M. Punk. —DOC ZEUS
8. Himoru Takahashi vs. KUSHIDA (IWGP Junior-Heavyweight Championship Match) (Wrestle Kingdom 11; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
If Hiromu Takahashi isn’t your favorite wrestler, you may not be trying hard enough. Los Ingobernables de Japon’s ticking time bomb returned from his excursion to CMLL, where he wrestled as Kamaitachi, with a new vigor and insanity that made him the most must-see spectacle in New Japan’s Juniors division. And that’s before we even talk about the Saga of Daryl, which will take a far greater word count than I’m allowed here. Takahashi is what would happen if you took Shinsuke Nakamura’s mannerisms and taught them to an actual insane person. In other words, he rules.
At Wrestle Kingdom 11, Takahashi found the perfect dance partner to explode back onto the scene: KUSHIDA. Yes, the same KUSHIDA who was called one of the best wrestlers on the planet earlier in this list. (Side note: New Japan just has so much talent right now.) On a show that featured four instant classic matches, the two smallest men involved put on not just a fantastic match, but a unique one, one that stood out from the three other “main events.” Let’s just say that you won’t see anyone else do a diving senton to the outside like Takahashi did in this match.
KUSHIDA trying to lock in his trademark hoverboard lock, only to find himself countered into Hiromu’s finish might be the spot most people remember for its finality, but for the duration of this pyrotechnic showdown, your eyes would be glued to the low-key champion fighting off his outlandishly charismatic challenger. Giving the win to Takahashi was so obvious that New Japan doesn’t really get credit for it, but who cares if something is predictable when it’s this good. What else could you ask for on Japanese wrestling’s biggest day? —LUIS PAEZ-PUMAR
7. Asuka vs. Ember Moon (NXT Women’s Championshp Match) (NXT Takeover: Brooklyn III; World Wrestling Entertainment)
At first, nobody was ready for Asuka…
Since her Fall 2015 debut in NXT, the Empress of Tomorrow has been the undisputed ruler of the NXT Women’s division—arguably the most competitive and prestigious women’s division in all of professional wrestling. In her 18-month reign, Asuka’s reign existed in a transitory time for NXT. The beloved Four Horsewomen of NXT, who revolutionized women’s wrestling during their stint in developmental, had mostly moved on to the main roster by the time of her debut. The next generation of female stars—Nia Jax, Alexa Bliss and Carmella—were not quite ready for primetime when Asuka ascended to the throne, and were called up to the main roster when they finally were. Meanwhile, Asuka remained unbeaten and unchallenged, retiring multiple generations of NXT female performers. At last, someone came along who indeed was ready for Asuka: Ember Moon.
From her debut, Ember Moon seemed like she was tapped to be the star that finally dethroned Asuka. Ember Moon has always looked the part of the conquering hero—she’s mysterious, athletically gifted, and has had an instantly memorable entrance. However, she has never seemed to connect with fans the way that a champion is supposed to. Still, it was shocking when Ember failed to dethrone Asuka during their first encounter in Orlando, because it wasn’t the script that seemed pre-destined for Ember. The match concluded suddenly and left the crowd puzzled, not because they weren’t expecting Ember to lose, but because Asuka would need to cheat to win the match—a necessity for the inevitable return match.
Their return match at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn III was a classic, continuing the tradition of the NXT Women’s Championship match completely outshining the main event at Brooklyn Takeovers. Shockingly, Asuka triumphed over Ember again. The difference was that in this match that Ember finally got herself over with the crowd after proving herself as an equal to Asuka in defeat. Four months later, Ember finally climbed the hill that she was always destined to by winning the NXT Women’s Champion. [Editor’s Note: She didn’t beat Asuka for the title, but that is an integral part of the hopeful continuation of their rivalry once Ember hits the main roster.]
Meanwhile, no one is ready for Asuka…still. —DOC ZEUS
6. Tetsuya Naito vs. Kenny Omega (G1 Climax Tournament Finals; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
Fans salivate over the finals of the G1 Climax every year for one very obvious reason: “Who’s next up?” We’re all sitting on pins and needles in August in anticipation of who is going to main event the Tokyo Dome on January 4th. Sometimes it’s painfully obvious (Hiroshi Tanahashi will win, Hirooki Goto will lose), but sometimes that’s exactly what it needs to be.
And just like the G1 Climax finals in 2014 when Kazuchika Okada defeated Shinsuke Nakamura in a Match of the Decade contender, Kenny Omega—looking to be the first Westerner to ever win the tournament back-to-back—and Tetsuya Naito were the slam dunk choices to face each other down for the honor of being a two-time winner of this prestigious tournament.
The last time Naito was in the finals, he won. He was a second-tier babyface who would eventually get voted out of the Wrestle Kingdom main event, his IWGP Heavyweight Championship match against Okada getting second banana billing to Nakamura vs. Tanahashi for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. It was, unwittingly at the time, the moment that defined his career, an event he referenced repeatedly after his character change into what I once referred to as “almost inexplicably the most fascinating character in wrestling.”
In 2017, Naito went into the G1 finals as one of the top wrestlers in not only New Japan but the world (though let’s be honest, if you’re good enough to be on top in New Japan you truly are one of the best anywhere), facing a man many people felt was/is the very best wrestler currently lacing up boots. In the match introductions, Naito leaned into Omega’s finger gun taunt, ever the tranquilo motherfucker. And then he walks away from Omega’s attempt at a lockup. Several times. So much of Naito’s character is being too good at what he does to give a shit, like Stephen Malkmus or Joaquin Phoenix circa I’m Still Here.
At one point early in the match, Naito goes for a piledriver on the table and misses his mark completely. Omega hit his head on the floor, and the guard rail (as well as a corner of the table), on the way down. Omega ends up working through pretty severe pain—not just from this match, but the grueling month’s worth of matches from participating in the G1—to dominate many stretches of the bout.
Naito continues to work on Omega’s neck, coursing with pain, even hitting a spectacular jumping neckbreaker from the second rope. As a retaliatory measure for driving the back of his head across his knee, Omega drives Naito head first into the ring post. The match eventually gets to the point where both men are pulling out old tricks, most notably Naito’s Stardust Press, the move which won him the tournament in 2013.
Naito crouches on his knees from taking a couple brutal V-Triggers, blocks one, takes another, and kicks out of a Dr. Wiley bomb. Minutes later, Omega hits yet another V-Trigger, this one with the velocity to take a lesser man’s head clean off. With blood glossing the inside of his mouth, it takes several Destinos for Naito to finally get the job done. And unlike the politely distant reaction he received for winning years prior, the fans euphorically chant Naito’s name. —DOUGLAS MARTIN
5. The New Day vs. the Usos (WWE Smackdown Live Tag Team Championship Match) (Battleground; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Turn off the news alerts on your phone, and 2017 becomes the year that exactly two things happened: The Usos went dark and subsequently went over hard, and The New Day went from the biggest merch sellers in the company to the best wrestlers in the company. Each team has the other to thank for their success. Their four-match program from Money in the Bank to Hell in a Cell was one of the best runs in modern wrestling history.
If you’d told me in 2016 that the “Play Hard in the Paint” guys would be two of the most offensively credible guys in the company by the end of 2017, I wouldn’t have believed you. As high fliers, the Usos were always a disappointment. As bruisers, however, they’re terrifically nimble. The New Day tries to get the match started quickly, but they get overwhelmed by Jimmy and Jey’s cheap offense: They catch Kofi’s trust fall, give Xavier a crushing uppercut, and render the New Day summarily useless. It is a clinical dismemberment.
But if the Usos are forced to resort to cheap tricks, it’s because The New Day would absolutely steal the show otherwise. Kofi and Xavier nail their high spots throughout, and Big E’s eyes bugging out ringside pushes the whole thing over the top. Take your pick: Woods reversing into a facebuster, Kofi’s always-gorgeous Trouble in Paradise, or Xavier’s top-rope elbow across the ring to close out Jimmy. They’re all executed flawlessly.
When Xavier pins Jimmy for the win, the crowd explodes. And why shouldn’t they? They just saw one of the most blah tag teams in the company become one of the best. And they watched their favorite team make their strongest argument for being on Mount Rushmore. It’s a new day, yes it is. —Jordan Pedersen
4. Pete Dunne vs. Tyler Bate (Takeover: Chicago)
Does a great match create a hot crowd? Or does a hot crowd elevate quality to immortality? That’s the question I keep reverting back to when I think about Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne at NXT Takeover: Chicago. There’s no reason that a title match for a belt that’s barely supported by WWE should have been so good AND so over. Well, no reason except that Dunne and Bate are two of the best young wrestlers on the entire planet.
The pair gave WWE fans a crash course to what they could do in the finals of the first-ever WWE UK Championship tournament, a match that probably would have made this list if not for the fact that the rematch was better in every way. That first bout climaxed with Bate kicking out of Dunne’s Bitter End finish, leaving the Bruiserweight’s stunned face looking like the Undertaker at WrestleMania 25. Bate would go on to defeat his British Strong Style stablemate with his own finish, the Tyler Driver ‘97, becoming a 19-year-old WWE titleholder in the process. That was in Birmingham, though; Chicago would tell a much different story.
Starting with a technical counterfest and not letting up until the 3-count, the BSS boys put on a clinic of callbacks, new twists, and frankly astonishing feats of strength from men listed under 5’10”. All the while, the Chi-Town crowd is going bananas; mostly for Dunne at first, but more evenly as Bate shows them what has made him such a massive star in the UK at the now-age of 20. For two wrestlers more used to scrapping in venues that hold under 1,000 butts, it sure seems like they feed off the energy of the 12,000-plus at the Allstate Arena. Once the end run begins in earnest following a Dunne counter of a Bate pin into a triangle hold, the NXT crowd din goes up to 11 and it doesn’t stop. Even fans who had never seen the two wrestle must have picked sides with each near fall and reversal; Bate’s airplane spin gets the crowd on its feet, for god’s sake, and the reaction to Bate’s corkscrew 450 might be the loudest an NXT crowd has ever gotten for a non-main event match.
While Bate might have the babyface charm and fantastic personality quirks on his side, Dunne is just a badass motherfucker. Giving him the belt in Chicago was the right call, because you can’t be Pete bleeping Dunne and lose twice to this scrawny mustache boy. The Bruiserweight did what he does best: not cheating, per se, but rather finding the opportunity to be as ruthless as possible, slamming Bate into the floor as the mustachioed one flew over the ropes. One Bitter End later with no kickout, and the new UK Champion was crowned half a world away in Illinois.
Given the atmosphere and the match, that feels as fitting as a CM Punk chant. —LUIS PAEZ-PUMAR
3. Velveteen Dream vs. Aleister Black (NXT Takeover: War Games; World Wrestling Entertainment)
I hated goth kids when I was in high school. Yeah, we get it, you’re sad. My parents got divorced too, and I didn’t slink around my suburban Chicago high school in midnight cargo pants and a Cure t-shirt.
The reality was, though, I was deeply jealous of them. I wore button-downs from American Eagle and, at best, an AFI wristband I’d bought at Q101 Twisted Christmas (see Chicago, Suburban). It was an outfit ill-suited to the way I actually felt. “I’m just so vitriolically angry all the time,” I recall saying to a friend. My alienation, my anxiety, my rage: they were all compounded by the fact that I pretended I wasn’t feeling any of it. Like so many unhappy kids, I dressed the part of a happy one.
The goths wore black. I felt black on the inside. With just a few tubes of mascara and some torn leggings, they were infinitely more authentic than I ever had the courage to be.
The In-Ring Artist Formerly Known as Patrick Clark has been acting like himself for the better part of a year. And for his trouble, he’s been almost universally raked over the coals. Twitter was rife with condemnations. There was an entire thread called “Velveteen Dream is awful” over at Wrestling Forum.
For all its evolution over the past few years—female and otherwise—the WWE Universe remains a strikingly white, heteronormative world. And here comes a tall, beautiful, androgynous black man who slinks around the ring like he’s about to get off. And he draws nuclear heat? Color me shocked.
The backdrop is important because it thickens what could have been an otherwise contrived angle: Velveteen Dream simply wants Aleister Black to say his name. And who wouldn’t? In the bizarro world of semi-independent wrestling, Aleister Black is the coolest kid in school. His kvlt ring gear, the picture-perfect spinning heel kick, that fucking *intro.* The former Tommy End is almost alarmingly over. Of course he was going to run through this 3rdeyegirl at Takeover: War Games, so much so that I’d bet a lot of people wondered why Black couldn’t draw a worthier opponent for his third major in-ring appearance. And then on November 18th, 2017, Velveteen Dream sashayed into the Toyota Center in Rick Rude airbrushed pants and gave Aleister Black the match of his life.
To Black’s jaw-dropping array of kicks, knee strikes, and springboard moonsaults, Dream answered with credible strikes, a gorgeous cartwheeling Death Valley driver, and the swinging spike DDT heard ’round the world. Sure, Dream imitates Aleister Black’s signature quarter lotus pose, but Black draws gasps halfway through the match when he mimics Dream’s come-hither cobra pose. It’s the first real hint that the Dutchman may be impressed. His doubters had a point: Up until a few years ago, Patrick Clark was by all accounts little more than a Tough Enough also-ran and a midcarder for Maryland Championship Wrestling. Nobody thought he had this kind of match in him.
Aleister has a rocket strapped to his back, so there was little chance that Dream wouldn’t end up doing the job. But as Velveteen Dream lies beaten on the canvas at the end of the match, Black sits down next to him, grabs the mic, and does something that every disaffected teenager wishes the cool guy in school would do: he says his name.
It’s a moment that grows even richer when you consider that for all his popularity in this particular world, Aleister Black knows better than anyone what it’s like to be an outsider. His father grew up in a cult, and he’s been frank about his struggles with anxiety and depression. At the end of the day, Aleister Black said Velveteen Dream’s name because he realized he’d found a kindred spirit.
The match between Aleister Black and Velveteen Dream at Takeover: War Games wasn’t just one of the best wrestling matches of the year. It was a wholly unexpected tribute to the rewards that come from ignoring your doubters, monomaniacally refining your craft, and being yourself.
Open up my closet in 2018, and what do you see? All black everything. —JORDAN PEDERSEN
2. John Cena vs. A.J. Styles (WWE World Championship Match) (Royal Rumble; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Wrestling fans love to ponder the dream matches that got away. Wrestlemania has always been a forum for dream matches but sometimes circumstance, ego, or blind stupidity prevent wrestling fans from seeing the matches we want to see most. WWE never gave us Daniel Bryan vs. Brock Lesnar, Hulk Hogan vs. Bret Hart, Sting vs. Undertaker, or Stone Cold Steve Austin staring down his doppleganger Bill Goldberg. We STILL have not seen John Cena and the Undertaker square up at WrestleMania.
However, A.J. Styles vs. John Cena gave wrestling fans the opportunity to imagine what might it have been like if Ric Flair had properly battled Hulk Hogan in the heart of their primes. Like Flair and Hogan, Styles and Cena’s careers have been on magnetic opposite trajectories. John Cena is the flagship performer for WWE for over a decade—he’s the face that runs the place. A.J. Styles has been the biggest North American wrestler that never signed with WWE, the flagship performer in numerous independent promotions throughout the world—the champ that runs the camp.
Perhaps because the two master craftsmen met at the peak of their primes, A.J. Styles and John Cena enjoy unnaturally good chemistry with each other that makes for dramatic television. The third and climatic match taking place at the Royal Rumble is the culmination of their year-long feud with each other. In their previous match at Summerslam six months before, Cena was humbled in the ring by Styles because he presumed his own superiority over the erstwhile lifetime indie star who was faster, smarter and hungrier than Cena was. We watched Cena dejectedly leave his signature armband in the middle of the ring as thousands of sneering Brooklynites watched on.
Here, Cena drops the pretension and realizes that not only is Styles his equal inside the ring but might be his superior. Instead, Cena wrestles hungrier and smarter than he did in his previous encounter. At one point, he breaks out a Figure Four—a call to Ric Flair, whose world title record he’s chasing in the match—as a way to ground Styles. When his usually bulletproof top rope Attitude Adjustment fails to do the job on Styles yet again, Cena isn’t despondent as he was in their previous encounter. So when Styles catches Cena on his shoulders again, he hits him with rolling AAs to finally finish him off to win his record-tying sixteenth world title.
It’s not a shock that Cena finally won in a match with subtext that asks who the generation’s greatest wrestler is—this is WWE after all—but it’s a match in which both wrestlers come out looking like they belong. A.J. Styles gets to finally prove that he is a talent great enough to stand out on the world’s biggest stage and Cena gets to prove that he’s a performer on par as the best in the world. The best WWE match last year. —DOC ZEUS
1. TIE: Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada (IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match) (Dominion; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
After my lapse in pro wrestling fandom ended and I began to study the wrestling part of pro wrestling, I became obsessed with “the hour,” “going Broadway,” the 60-minute time-limit draw. It started with CM Punk vs. Samoa Joe. Then I went back further, when they were the standard of NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair. Then, back even further to the salad days of Dory Funk Jr. and Jack Brisco.
There are many reasons as to why the 60-minute time limit draw is a lost art, one of which is how difficult it is to stay invested in a wrestling match for an entire hour. It speaks to the artistry of the people who can command the attention of the fans, who are gifted enough storytellers to use every space of an hour-long period to allow their narrative to unfold.
After a 47-minute barnburner on the biggest stage in pro wrestling not named Wrestlemania, a match lauded as one of the best of all-time, two of the most gifted in-ring talents in the world looked at each other and asked, “Now what? How the hell are we gonna top that?”
As you might imagine, Omega and Okada spent the first quarter of the bout matching wits; lots of quick reversals and human chess. Okada tweaks his knee on a tope con hilo and Omega, like any wrestler worth their weight in spandex would, goes after it. The match builds in a slow crescendo from there, with Omega hitting an Asai Moonsault and following it up with a brutal missile dropkick to the back of Okada’s head.
There are great callbacks to the Tokyo Dome match, with Okada being able to avoid Omega’s top rope snapdragon suplex and repeating the shotgun dropkick into the guardrail. Okada, glistening with sweat, brings out a table (one of which damn near killed Omega in the Tokyo Dome). Omega reverses the life-shortening backdrop twice. After two authoritative German suplexes, Okada hits the Rainmaker. Just like their January 4th match, Omega kicks out.
Their rematch doesn’t have the frenzied pace of their first encounter or their later classic during the G1 Climax tournament [Editor’s Note: We couldn’t possibly put all three matches in the #1 spot on this list, but it was most certainly discussed.], and the match is distinctive because of it. Each element is employed more measuredly: Okada’s elbow drop to the table, the doctor lingering around ringside to check on Omega, Cody Rhodes starting the slow burn of their rivalry by attempting to throw in the towel for the Bullet Club leader.
The story of the feature-length movie’s worth of wrestling time these two had spent together up to this point was that if Omega hit his One-Winged Angel finisher, he would win the match. But then Omega hit the move and pinned Okada, only for Okada to get his foot on the bottom rope before three.
At 50 minutes, both men are throwing blows towards each other on spaghetti legs and the crowd is rumbling the building with their cheers, claps, and stomps. Both men are able to hit signature moves, but neither are able to follow up.
At 55 minutes, Omega is starching Okada with knee strikes to the face. Okada reverses the One-Winged Angel attempt with a dropkick to the back of the head and the spinning Tombstone piledriver he used as a prelude to the Rainmaker at the Tokyo Dome.
At 58 minutes, both men are spent, laying on the mat in both exhaustion and frustration. There are a lot of macho tendencies about pro wrestling which are flagrantly unsavory, but the stubbornness that comes with not being willing to lay down in defeat is part and parcel to the excitement of the art form. Okada hits the Rainmaker with thirty seconds to spare and spends the time remaining trying to muster the strength and energy to crawl across the ring and make the cover. He doesn’t make it and time expires.
The crowd stands on their feet in stunned silence. Neither man’s music plays, neither man’s hand is raised. During his traditional post-match speech, draping his championship across his shoulder as he always does, Okada could barely make it to his feet. That’s the sort of thing you see when you think of the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” —DOUGLAS MARTIN
1. TIE: Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada (Wrestle Kingdom 11)
What is there to say about the 2017 that Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega had together? Three legendary matches in less than 365 days, and enough drama to last a lifetime. Picking your favorite Okada-Omega match of 2017 depends on your style. Do you want a blistering sprint to the finish, with huge implications on the line? Then their showdown at the G1 will likely be your choice. Do you, instead, want a marathon of near-falls and drama? Then their 60-minute draw at Dominion will be your poison. But, in my opinion, if you want the best of the trilogy, the most brutal and perfectly-paced match of 2017, and the single best distillation of why these two men are already legends, you have to go no further than the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 11.
As the late night of January 4th in the United States turned into dawn, you would be forgiven for being sleep-deprived and wrestling-exhausted. After all, Wrestle Kingdom is a long show, full of incredible matches that demand your attention. However, if you were able to persevere, you were shown gratitude by Okada and Omega in the form of wrestling perfection. Working a hybrid of New Japan’s traditionally measured main event style and something…more visceral, the pair told a 3-part story in 47 long, brutal minutes.
The first part was all about Omega’s drive to win his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Starting with a dropkick that damn near decapitated Okada, Omega was firing on all cylinders from the word go. Ever since he was the Bullet Club’s Cleaner, Omega has been telling a story of being second-best and trying to overcome it. It’s what made his eventual betrayal of A.J. Styles in early 2016 so good; anyone can relate to being overshadowed and finally snapping. It’s also what made his run at the 2016 G1 crown, topping Tetsuya Naito in a classic final, so perfectly timed. There was just one thing left for him to do at that point, and that was to beat Okada, New Japan’s super boss, in the biggest show of the year. That desire informed the first part of the match, and made you believe that Kenny could actually do the damn thing. But then…he flew onto a table.
The most memorable spot of the match, Okada back-dropping Omega from the ring onto a table at ringside made everyone familiar with Japanese tables cringe. Those things have no give whatsoever, and Omega proved it on the night. That was quickly followed by Omega hitting Okada with a snapdragon suplex off the top, which almost paralyzed Okada; being the pros that they are, this was weaved into the story, with Omega working over the neck and really getting over how much these two dudes wanted this. That was the middle portion of the match, the supposed breather section, and it still featured both dudes almost dying.
The final stretch, however, is what will live in wrestling lore. Let’s call it the Battle for the One-Winged Angel. The story of the entire, endless, exhilarating finishing sequence was that Omega needed to just hit his finisher once to put away Okada, while the champion did everything in his power to not let that happen. Every time Omega got Okada on his shoulders, you could hear the nervous inhales from the Tokyo Dome crowd. And yet, time and time again, Okada got out of it. He even hit three Rainmakers and a jumping Tombstone, typically the signs of a lolokadawins match, but Omega kept fighting out and going for the One-Winged Angel. Every nearfall in the last ten or so minutes was sold like death, with both wrestlers ramping up the drama by showing their clear exhaustion and pain.
In the end, you can’t fight endlessly against the oncoming rush of Kazuchika Okada, and after one last One-Winged Angel attempt, the champ successfully defended his title with a FOURTH Rainmaker. By that point, it almost didn’t matter who won; what these two accomplished goes beyond wins and losses (although, you can be forgiven for being mad at Gedo’s booking in the months after, as Okada still has title over a year later, while Omega recently lost his US title). For 47 minutes on January 4th, and for a combined 90 over the summer, Okada and Omega transcended wrestling and dove headfirst on a table named High Art. Give this 5 stars, give it 6, give it 10. Just give it to us again and again. We’re all greedy for more perfection. —LUIS PAEZ-PUMAR