Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best Wrestling Matches of 2016 (15-1)

Continuing from yesterday's post, read on as I count down my favorite wrestling matches of the year.

15. Kazuchika Okada (c) vs. Naomichi Marufuji
IWGP Heavyweight Championship, NJPW, King of Pro Wrestling, 10/10
****¾


Pro Wrestling NOAH was in bad need of a shake-up when it was sold this fall, but the unfortunate side effect of their transfer of ownership was the sudden termination of a buddying invasion storyline with NJPW that had all the potential to boost both companies. As is, this match, a rematch of the pair’s great outing in the G1 tournament, stands as the final word on the aborted crossover. But if that is the case, at least the match itself is great, with Marufuji absolutely demolishing Okada and forcing New Japan’s ace to work as underdog the entire time. Okada takes wild bumps from his opponent, including a piledriver on the apron and a return to the ring to eat a dropkick, that make Marufuji look better in a single match than he has years in NOAH. The energy of this match never flags, even when Okada takes control and slows it down to recover, and in some respects his willingness to bump wildly for another promotion’s talent is a better show of ace-like qualities than his matches with Tanahashi.

14. Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Will Ospreay
EVOLVE, Evolve 58, 4/1
****¾

Zack Sabre Jr.’s “Best in the World” series was an early highlight this year, proving his versatility against wrestlers of varying styles in a slew of great matches, none better than his work with Will Ospreay. Ospreay wasn’t the only flyer that Sabre worked, but arguably no one benefitted more from being put with the technician. Sabre consistently grounds Ospreay, forcing the younger wrestler to adapt his game to free himself from Sabre’s endless pretzel holds. That makes Ospreay’s aerial offense more thrilling because it can only be used in short bursts, offering an object lesson in how much more one can say with fewer moves. Sabre too looks even better than usual, actually wrestling like the ace that he somewhat unsuccessfully played in several promotions in the latter half of the year.

13. Trevor Lee (c) vs. Andrew Everett
CWF Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Championship, CWF-MA, CWF-MA #60, 7/6
****¾

All respect in the world to Will Ospreay, but for my money the finest 23-year-old wrestling prodigy around is Trevor Lee. Largely wasted in TNA’s half-assed attempt to rejuvenate its X-division, Lee is truly in his element in CWF, where he has defended his championship in a slew of no-time-limit matches that reveal not only his wrestling talent but his bewilderingly mature sense of in-ring storytelling, capable of altering his character to fit each opponent. Set against close friend and frequent partner Andrew Everett, Lee moves away from babyface into heelish territory to offset how likable his opponent is, particularly given Everett’s long stint on the injured roster that preceded this match. Not unlike the Shirai/Iwatani match, Lee is merciless in protecting his belt, and his goaded taunts to Everett to fire up come across as both dickish and, in some way, encouraging. Though they work an intricate series of moves and hit various highspots, neither Lee nor Everett makes a move just to make it or to impress the crowd. Instead, everything flows logically as a reaction to what came before, and the pair work such an old-school mentality that even Everett’s blade job could be called tasteful. Barring the shooting star presses and corkscrewing splashes, this is the kind of match you expect to see on a compilation of great ‘80s or ‘90s main events, not as a legally free-to-watch bout on a promotion’s YouTube page. Lee posted ****+ title defenses with regularity in 2016, but this one alone will make you a believer in this wunderkind.

12. Hirooki Goto vs. Kenny Omega
NJPW, G1 Climax XVI Final, 8/14
****¾

Baffling in its night-by-night progression, this year’s G1 Climax only truly coalesced at the end, when the booking of its final event made it clear how much of the tournament existed to get over the second tier of talent to rebuild the company. The final, strange on paper, was worked to perfection. Sentimental favorite Goto effectively slid into the match on his laurels, there only because Okada and Tanahashi drew with each other, while snot-nosed heel Omega fought such a war to make it in that audiences practically had no choice but to invest in him. The heat only intensified when Goto took every cheap shot he could at the leg that Naito mangled the night before, but Omega’s quick-thinking managed to find ways around his injuries to score offense. Then there’s the almost poetic finale, in which Omega reaches the narrative climax of his years-long gimmick of stealing the finishers of defeated opponents, lobbing power moves from Kota Ibushi, A.J. Styles and more until, at last, he drops the work of others to score a One-Winged Angel. That Kenny Omega, erstwhile the broom-wielding, comically oriented junior heavyweight, should ride out the first gaijin victor of the G1, cut a gracious promo in Japanese and soak in the adoration of a packed house, is proof of the possibilities of wrestling and how, when it’s done well, it is transportive.

11. Meiko Satomura (c) vs. Aja Kong
Sendai Girls’ Pro Wrestling, Sendai Girls, 4/8
****¾

Satomura is possibly the best active women’s wrestler in the world, Kong a legend who is imposing even in the twilight of her career. This match is absolutely vicious; Satomura tends to lead most of her matches, given how much both her own stable and Stardom’s is filled with young, developing talent, but here she is the minuscule underdog against Kong’s immovable force. Kong may not have much mobility left, but she uses her bulk to sell her complete insurmountability as Satomura bumps wildly for every little thing. In one moment, the champion goes for a frog splash, only for Kong to bring up her legs, driving Satomura so hard into her heels that the poor woman literally bounces off the attack before crashing back to the mat. Kong devastates Satomura in and out of the ring, forcing the ace to time her strikes carefully leading into stretches of total power moves. Satomura’s usual Death Valley Bomb finisher has so little effect that Kong can take one and nail a brainbuster without going down, forcing Satomura to break out her rare Scorpio Rising attack for one of the best near-falls of the year, then another when Kong comes back. Women’s wrestling had a watershed year in America and joshi looks to be making a comeback thanks to increased international access, but leave it to these seasoned veterans to put on the women’s match of the year.

10. John Cena vs. A.J. Styles
WWE, SummerSlam, 8/21
****¾

Styles’s match with Reign at Extreme Rules was the better wrestling showcase. It proved that the newcomer would be a loyal company man and reliable seller who was also the best in-ring guy on a stacked roster. But Cena/Styles II is something unique, one of those once-in-a-blue-moon moments where the company tries something completely different. After only a few minutes of standard wrestling, the match turns into a series of finishers and near-falls. Remarkably, though, Styles survives everything that Cena throws at him, with the selling not done through weakened limbs or feigned fatigue but the facial expressions of Styles’s defiance and Cena’s bewilderment. In a way, this structure is the flip-side of Cena’s infamous ragdolling at the hands of Lesnar two years ago, this time with Cena dominating on offense but never wearing down Styles’s resolve. Everything great about Cena’s contributions to WWE can be seen when he nails an Attitude Adjustment from the top rope and proceeds to be frozen in awe when Styles kicks out, replacing the usual selling of despair and frustration with complete disbelief. More so even than the image of Daniel Bryan victorious at WrestleMania XXX, Styles’s clean-as-a-sheet pin here is the definitive announcement of the new era of WWE programming. Ironically, it also confirms Cena, in the latest of a run of stellar SummerSlam events, as the PPV’s best MVP since Bret Hart.

9. Go Shiozaki & Yuji Okabayashi vs. Yuji Hino & Daisuke Sekimoto
Fortune Dream, Fortune Dream 3, 6/19
****¾

Kenta Kobashi’s Fortune Dream supercards always feature a slew of compelling inter-promotional match-ups, and this year’s event was a show of the year contender from nearly top to bottom. The main event was the ultimate tribute to the man behind the annual expo, a tag-team match involving four of the stiffest hitters in Japan that featured too many chops to count, endless slams and lariats. Somehow, they all survived until the 30-minute time limit, at which point Kobashi himself got the most overwhelming pop of the night when he called for five more minutes. To see the legend himself first overjoyed, then brought to proud tears by the display of strong style action only deepened the emotional investment of these four men tearing each other apart.

8. Trauma I vs. Canis Lupus
Mask vs. Mask 2-Out-of-3-Falls Match, IWRG, Máscara vs. Máscara, 9/4
****¾

Things start off hot with a tope suicida out of the gate, but the rest of the first fall settles into a methodical groove as the wrestlers trade strike that opt for the impact of mutual disgust over the usual acrobatics of lucha libre. But the atmosphere never flags, and the crowd explodes when Lupus locks Trauma into his own Lo Negro del Negro leg submission and forces a tap. The momentum slowly increases, only reaching a full frenzy in the final few minutes, but all three falls feature brutal interactions, with both men attacking each other’s masks to the extent that you start to think that both will end up completely exposed before a victor can be crowned. The match’s only negative aspect is that the ref’s counts are so agonizingly slow that it’s obvious this will come down to submissions, but that only calls attention to the passion that both wrestlers put into each hold. The final stretch, in which a tattered and freely bleeding Lupus takes advantage of a ref bump to nail a piledriver, only for Trauma to kick out and work his way up to a figure four, is a thing of beauty. To top it off, a defeated Lupus has his girlfriend come remove what remains of his mask, and he proposes to her on the spot. Wrestling is the best.

7. Chris Hero vs. Zack Sabre Jr.
EVOLVE, Evolve 60, 5/6
****¾

Hero and Sabre are on such a different level with each other that despite working a possible MOYTC only four days earlier, they managed to main event Evolve 60 with a match that called back to their long history together while taking different twists and turns. Hero isn’t just the best striker in the business right now, he’s also the king of counters, and he has a response for every last one of Sabre’s labyrinthine, pretzel-like holds. Hero brings out the best in Sabre by bringing out the worst in Sabre, who rises to the bait of his opponent’s bully tactics by maximizing his own smugness. It should be ridiculous to see someone Sabre’s size take the fight to Hero, but he lays into the man with stiff strikes and holds that look as if he might genuinely snap Hero in half. By this point, each man has a counter for all the other’s moves, and it’s amazing how two guys who have worked each other so much can remain so unpredictable. As he has throughout the year, Hero gets the W in clean, devastating fashion, only to drop his arrogance for a promo in which he expresses genuine gratitude for what his opponent has brought out of him. Far from a breaking of kayfabe, the moment only reinforces the greatness and meaning of the match and puts over both men in the best indie feud since El Generico and Kevin Steen went onto to bigger stages.

6. Kazuchika Okada vs. Tomohiro Ishii
A-Block Match, NJPW, G1 Climax XVI Day 13, 8/6
*****

Ishii always seems to come out of G1 as its MVP, the guy who looks like a monster but can sell for anyone and build even the most throwaway match into something compelling. Ishii walks into this match with the entire crowd on his side, and he gives them what they want by laying into Okada, hitting a lariat and sliding lariat for a near-fall within the first minute that is so believable that the audience completely buys the false finish. Great, hilarious sequence where Okada hits various moves that target the neck, only for Ishii to power through, in part, because he doesn’t have enough of a neck to weaken. Ishii’s unstoppable offense brings out the desperation in the champion, opting for quantity over quality off strikes as Ishii responds to flurries of weak forearms with but one or two smashes that make Okada reel. Even when Okada connects with a wild, flailing DDT, Ishii shrugs off the faceplant as an irritant. But when Okada does nail a strong strike, like a corner dropkick that sends Ishii to the floor with his leg caught in the rope, Ishii sells his ass off to make the ace look good. This is up there with the finest non-final matches of the recent G1 tournaments, and it features a feverishly great spot in which the hard camera zooms out when Okada throws his Rainmaker pose, only for Ishii to pop up as the camera is adjusting to nail the champ right in the throat before he can actually go for the lariat.

5. (TIE) Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn
WWE, NXT Takeover: Dallas, 4/1
*****



Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. A.J. Styles
IWGP Intercontinental Championship, NJPW, Wrestle Kingdom 10, 1/4)
****¾

Nakamura has spent so much of the year having safe matches on NXT that it’s startling to go back to his last major New Japan event and his first WWE match and see just how much he brought to dream matches that had no build other than the hype of their very existence. But watch how each match builds its story in the ring. At Wrestle Kingdom, Nakamura and Styles spend a few minutes feeling each other out, acknowledging their lack on in-ring interaction to that point. But then, Nakamura goes for Styles’s back, then reported to be in legitimately bad shape, dragging Styles from the top turnbuckle right onto his lower vertebrae and later countering an attempted clothesline with a backbreaker that Styles sells like attempted murder. The two put over each other’s adaptability by stressing their own, to the point that even a blown spot or two (most notably an asai DDT attempt from Styles) is covered so quickly that it seems to be planned. The sequence in which Styles goes for a lariat, is caught in a jumping armbar that Nakamura then converts into a triangle, which Styles powers out of to hit a one-armed Styles Clash, is the single best moment at Wrestle Kingdom 10. These two served their notices the morning of the event, but they still went out and made sure to treat the company, the title, and each other with such respect that you’d never guess they’d be gone by February.

Meanwhile, at TakeOver: Dallas, the mere fact of the dream match becomes inspiration for both men. For Nakamura, it is the chance to prove that leaving his wildly successful career in Japan was justified and that he could just as powerfully earn his place in an even bigger company. For Zayn, it was the NXT farewell he never got, a chance to show that he had fully recovered from injury, and an opportunity to serve notice to the main roster to watch their backs. Structured like a Tokyo Dome event, the match put over Nakamura’s strong style, which looked even more vicious in America than it does in Japan given what an aberration it is in WWE, while Zayn poured increasing anger and drive into his performance to make even his most ostentatious moves look purposeful and stiff. This match was a masterclass to the entire company that fundamentals, when applied smartly, can win over a crowd more than a formulaic series of teased and executed finishers and kickouts. Check the power of the final stretch, in which Zayn counters a Kinshasa attempt into a Blue Thunder Powerbomb, Nakamura stops an attempted corner dive DDT with a savage kick to the face, and the Kinshasa becomes the most protected finisher since Taker’s tombstone. The finish completes a narrative that did not even begin until the start of the match, and it ups the ante not only for both the stars involved, but the entire company.

4. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn
WWE, Battleground, July 24, 2016
*****

The greatest wrestling feud of the 21st century reached the latest of its many peaks in July at what should have been a disposable PPV just prior to WWE’s brand split. Both men brought years of history to this match, but just as he did in his earlier bout with Nakamura, Zayn in particular injected his performance with the urgency of a man struggling to make up for lost time. Without calling attention to it, Zayn made his time on the injured list feel like yet another roadblock to resolving his ongoing tensions with Owens, who so memorably demolished his foe at NXT TakeOver: Rival in early 2015. Months of mutual antagonism on Raw finally exploded here in a mid-card match that nonetheless felt like the main event of WrestleMania.

The match itself is structured in the super-King’s Road style that both WWE and New Japan have occasionally tilted into parody, but the sheer familiarity that each man feels with the other kept the rhythm consistent and intense. Zayn is the greatest babyface-in-peril in the business today, but it was obvious that he’d had enough before the bell even rang, quickly taking the fight to Owens as the two spilled out into a brawl by the barricades. Both men amped up the crowd not only with their moves and counters but their body language and interactions, with Zayn persistently fired up and Owens demanding his attention or screaming at him to quit when he locked in even the mildest of holds. The match climaxes in one of WWE’s two most iconic images of the year: Zayn, having definitively gained the upper hand, pausing as he hoists up his limp enemy, staring down at him and silently running through an entire life history of friendship and (kayfabe) hatred as he contemplates mercy. At last, the sheer accumulation of betrayals, beatings and humiliation wins out over his kinder nature, and he puts Owens away with the most vicious Helluva Kick of his career.

3. Kazuchika Okada (c) vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
IWGP Heavyweight Championship, NJPW, Wrestle Kingdom 10, 1/4
*****

If you follow New Japan at all, you’ve probably heard the complaints about this match. It epitomized the stagnation of the promotion’s main event cards. Okada and Tanahashi have worked together so much that we’ve seen it all by now. Okada doesn’t bother to sell the many, many minutes of offense that Tanahashi lays into his leg, rendering large swathes of the match pointless. The first point is hard to argue, what with WK10’s sharp decrease in ticket sales and Nakamura’s likely departure over frustration with stale cards. But the other two complaints don’t hold water. Despite working their seventh main event in four years together, Okada and Tanahashi managed to expand the ever-growing narrative of their war. These two had counters for everything, and Okada’s cockiness at the start of the match compounded his usual dickish persona with a desire to project confidence after leaving the Dome in tears last year. Once again, Tanahashi targeted the leg, to the extent that he spent months getting over a cloverleaf as a viable finisher just to bring to bear in this match.

Which leads into the final and most pertinent criticism of the match: Okada’s selling. Admittedly, on a first watch it can be frustrating to see Okada react to the minutes of strikes, dragon screws and holds with a few minutes of selling followed by a barrage of slams, dropkicks and suplexes that seem to invalidate Tanahashi’s methodical work. On a second viewing, however, it all makes sense. Okada’s selling isn’t inconsistent, it’s rhythmic. Whenever he takes some particularly nasty leg attacks from his opponent, or hits a move on or heavily dependant on said legs, he either slows down or goes down to the mat in agony. To name but one example, Okada attempts a tombstone piledriver half a dozen times before he can actually hit it, and when he does he’s so weakened that his follow-up Rainmaker looks like a desperate flail instead of the devastating, protected finisher it is. But as he makes a comeback, however, he rallies, not forgetting to sell but ignoring the “pain.” In seeking to supplant Tanahashi, he of the Cena-esque powers of fortitude and recuperation, Okada must not merely best him in a match (something he’s already done multiple times) but prove that he can truly take Tanahashi’s place as company ace.

These two chuck in a host of callbacks to prior matches—a High Fly Flow to the outside, Okada hitting a crossbody over the rail—and the closing stretch is one long sequence of reversals, finishers, near-falls and escaped submissions. In one killer sequence, a seemingly endless parade of counters ends with Tanahashi scoring a beautiful German suplex that he bridges into a count of 2.999999 that earns a deafening pop when Okada kicks out. Perhaps nothing in their long, already legendary rivalry can top the finish, in which Okada hits a German of his own but cannot muster the strength in his leg to bridge, so he promptly goes for a Rainmaker and hits two more for good measure to confirm him as New Japan’s ascendant star. Okada and Tanahashi had a great G1 draw a few months later, but one hopes this is the finale of their actual feud. Though one should never say never with them, it’s impossible to see how this can be topped.

2. The Revival (Scott Dawson & Dash Wilder) (c) vs. #DIY (Tommaso Ciampa & Johnny Gargano)
2-Out-Of-3-Falls Match for the NXT Tag-Team Championship, WWE, NXT TakeOver: Toronto, 11/19
*****

The Revival have been arguably the single greatest thing in WWE this year, at worst a not-too-distant second from AJ Styles, and any one of their matches could have made the upper tier of this list (including a house show match I saw between them and American Alpha that was better than any of their TakeOver bouts). But their rematch with #DIY was far and away the finest moment in WWE in 2016, a masterpiece of storytelling in and out of the ring. Going into this match, Ciampa and Gargano were hanging together by a thread; Gargano beat Ciampa in the first round of the Cruiserweight Classic, only for the team to lose to The Revival in Brooklyn and Gargano fall in the second round of the CWC, making Ciampa tacitly feel as if he’d lost for nothing. Practically everyone expected them to not only eat a pinfall here but to finally drive Ciampa to turn his Psycho Killer persona onto his friend and tear apart their bond.

Gargano certainly eats shit for the first fall, masterfully isolated from tagging out by Dawson and Dash and taking a dive on a Shatter Machine only five minutes into the match. From there, he struggles to get to his partner as the Revival played games, from Dash yanking Ciampa to the floor just before Gargano could reach him to the team distracting the ref so Gargano’s actual tag-out was not seen and therefore not counted. The Revival’s matches with Alpha stressed the styles clash between the bully heels and technical wizards, but Ciampa and Gargano’s strike-based offense may mesh even better with the other team’s limb targeting and old-school tactics. Near falls aplenty until #DIY connects with a superkick/knee combo that looks even more brutal than the Shatter Machine, then a finale in which all four men are in the ring as Ciampa cuts off Dash from breaking up Gargano’s submission hold and slaps on an armbar of his own. In a year with such instantly iconic images as Omega’s G1 victory, Okada’s Wrestle Kingdom defense and Sami Zayn’s ambiguous stare at a defeated Kevin Owens, nothing has stuck in my mind more than the last image of Dash and Dawson grasping each other’s hands to prevent the other from tapping out before finally giving in to the pain.

1. Tetsuya Naito vs. Kenny Omega
NJPW, G1 Climax XVI Day 18, August 13, 2016
*****

This match was great before it even started. One on end is Kenny Omega, the comedy junior wrestler who got thrust into the heavyweight upper card after the departure of AJ Styles made him by default the leader of the Bullet Club. On the other, Naito, whose Los Ignobernables de Japón faction only accelerated the Club’s slide into obsolescence and made Omega look like a first mate put hastily in charge of the Titanic. As such, Omega comes into the match without an ounce of his usual shtick, instead bringing the fight immediately to his surprised opponent, who nonetheless has every incentive to just drag out the match to a draw to advance to the finals. But Naito’s initial refusal to engage belies occasional bursts of offense, which cut off Omega’s increasing aggression with finely tuned strikes and precisely targeted work on Omega’s knee.

The rest of the match builds off of those knee attacks, with Omega getting heat every time he goes for a move, only to have his leg buckle beneath him. Early on, Omega slams Naito on the corner of the apron, and Naito rallies he catches a weakened Omega in a modified figure four that his foe sells like agony. About halfway through, Omega sends Naito into a barricade and then musters the strength to powerbomb him through the announce table to a huge pop, then goes for a springboard dive over the barricade to an even bigger reaction. That these moves have to be built up, with Omega visibly overcoming his weakened limb to perform them, only makes them more dramatic. The final stretch of nearfalls and super moves (peep Naito’s outlandish super-reverse-hurricanrana) finally culminates in a One-Winged Angel that gets a crowd that had started fully behind Naito screaming for the gaijin. Naito lost nothing in defeat, but in one fell swoop, Omega cemented his rise to the upper echelon of the NJPW roster, and abruptly made him the crowd favorite to win the tournament. This is how you build new stars.

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