Friday, December 30, 2016

The Best Wrestling Matches of 2016 (30-16)

When I posted a list of my favorite wrestling matches of the year last December, I had only just gotten into wrestling, converted rapidly by the excellence of NXT’s women’s division and my introduction to New Japan Pro Wrestling. That budding interest exploded in 2016, which was a horrible year in nearly every respect save one: the worldwide quality of wrestling seemed to skyrocket. Even those who’d followed it all their lives said 2016 was special, and new avenues of access to smaller promotions made it easier than ever to keep track of wrestlers all over the globe. Even limiting myself to hyped matches from indies and smaller international companies, I still managed to watch more than 350 matches this year, an outlandish number of which were so good that when I thought about my favorite matches of the year I could rattle off about 70.

But since I do have some sort of life, I decided to write only about my 30 favorite matches. In an attempt to prevent any one performer from dominating the list (looking at you, Chris Hero; be on the lookout for a separate list of his jaw-dropping work this year), I’ve limited the amount of times that a wrestler might appear, especially for matches between the same opponents that may have resulting in multiple year-end contenders. Despite this selective editing, though, everything on this list was as thrilling, innovative, and impactful as what was cut, and the result is that in a list of 30 matches, 15 promotions are showcased. Read on for what can only be a brief overview of one of the greatest years for in-ring action ever.



HONORABLE MENTION
Ricochet vs. Will Ospreay
NJPW, Battle of the Super Juniors Day 4, 5/27
****½
I’ve somewhat cooled on the initially great Ricochet/Ospreay match-ups this year; despite their many interactions, they’ve largely wrestled the same match, and Ricochet hasn’t pushed Ospreay out of his comfort zone in the way that, say, Zack Sabre Jr. has. Nonetheless, there’s no denying the intensity of their BOSJ bout, in which Ospreay, still relatively new to the promotion, completely dazzled the audience by keeping up with Ricochet’s dynamic flying. Tossing out any kind of work that would require selling from either man, the wrestlers instead worked a match built around Ospreay proving he could be just as incredible as one of New Japan’s hottest gaijin. Seemingly designed to be made into a series of GIFs, the match featured one wild spot after another, and the setting here brought out a fire that is lacking in their Evolve 59 match, which is effectively the same but lacks the added element of Ospreay getting himself over to a new promotion. Ospreay may have worked better, more complex rounds this year (his stuff with KUSHIDA and Taguchi alone challenged him in a way Ricochet didn’t), but few matches seemed as tailor-made to intrigue a whole new generation of potential fans.


30. Total Nonstop Deletion
TNA, Impact, 12/15
****½



This technically should not count as a favorite match, given it encompassed an entire two-hour episode of Impact. But the sheer, glorious illogic of Matt Hardy’s baffling, brilliant reinvention is totally embodied in this episode, in which no two segments go together and yet everything flows from what preceded it. From the opening, in which Matt’s infant son, through hilarious over-editing, scores a pin over Rockstar Spud, the entire event plays out as a colossal inside joke that nonetheless epitomizes the genuine innovation and spirit behind the Broken Matt Hardy arc. A match involving Jeff Hardy’s latest alter ego, Itchweeed (with three e’s) winks at Jeff’s spot-monkey career with a single table spot that is replayed to Simpsons rake gag levels, while the only true wrestling match of the night (Lashley vs. Edwards) literally does not end, disappearing into the night as the action turns to a tag-team bonanza that mixes the huge cast of a Dragon Gate match with the sheer abandon of DDT. Cranes, fireworks, a volcano, and a Triple H joke for the ages all factor in to the final fight, backyard wrestling elevated to the realm of mad comic opera.


29. Tomohiro Ishii (c) vs. Katsuyori Shibata
NEVER Openweight Championship, NJPW, Wrestle Kingdom 10, 1/4
****½



Shibata’s long road back into his peers’ good graces appeared to finally end in 2016, starting with his Wrestle Kingdom bid for Tomohiro Ishii’s NEVER Openweight title. As much as Ricochet and Ospreay is a mutual showcase of aerial acrobatics, Ishii/Shibata is a chance for two of the toughest SOBs on the New Japan roster to absolutely rattle each other’s skulls for what seems an eternity. The early segment in which each man patiently sits mid-ring and welcomes the other to chop or kick them as hard as possible is simple but brutal, especially when Ishii gets Shibata right in the throat as the man gurgles but does not go down. From there it becomes a war of chops, strikes, knees, suplexes, lariats and headbutts, all of them echoing around Tokyo Dome so intensely that at times this match is hard to stomach despite a lack of weapons or blood. After an absolute war, Shibata takes it home with a PK that put him into the NEVER line for the rest of the year with a series of great defenses and storylines that have carried him all the way to WK11 in little more than a week.


28. MONSTER EXPRESS (Masato Yoshino, Akira Tozawa, T-Hawk, Shachihoko BOY) vs. Dia.HEARTS (Masaaki Mochizuki, Dragon Kid, Kzy, Big R Shimizu) vs. VerserK (Shingo Takagi, YAMATO, Naruki Doi, Kotoka)
Losing Unit Disbands Elimination Match, Dragon Gate, Truth Gate, 2/4
****½

For sheer fun, few matches this year topped this 12-man, three-team elimination bout. It starts as pure chaos, with everyone clearing the ring as soon as they get inside to brawl at ringside and even in the crowd. Slowly, however, spots begin to intersect with shocking intricacy, often involving four or five wrestlers exchanging moves in the span of seconds as mini-alliances form and instantly dissolve to target the heavy hitters. To describe the match is just to list its pleasures: a conga line of chin locks featuring every participant still in the match, Yoshino hitting a sling blade on Doi before countering Shingo into a suplex and teaming with T-Hawk for a double suicide dive; Doi kicking Dragon Kid when he goes to pin YAMATO so his teammate can roll Kid into a pin; BOY getting a bewildering upset pin on Shingo; and Yoshino’s incessant milking of the crowd. It’s a dizzying ballet in which no one has time to sell because the hits and pins come so fast that only the moves matter. I went into this not knowing anyone in the match and having no clue who remained on what team, but cogent planning and interaction made everything clear by the end, as impressive a feat as the actual wrestling.


27. Yuji Okabayashi (c) vs. Hideyoshi Kamitani
Strong Heavyweight Championship, BJW, Ryogokutan, 7/24
****½

Big Japan is filled with men so comically proportioned that they look like Rob Liefeld drawings come to life, but there’s something awe-inspiring in the wall of flesh that is Yuji Okabayashi. Kamitani surprisingly keeps Okabayashi rooted at the start, locking in holds that prevent the veteran’s terrifying charges and clearly surprising the champion, who did not take his opponent seriously. Eventually, they work to an Irish whip spot and a collision from Kamitani that does not make Okabayashi budge an inch. Several more stalemate bumps follow, cut off by a single lariat from the champ that sends the challenger careening outside. As much as Sekimoto, Okabayashi excels at using his size to make even a throwaway punch look like the most devastating blow in the world, and his offense appears at first glance to be nothing but bombs until you notice how basic and carefully paced the moves are. He controls most of the match, though Kamitani stays busy with babyface selling, enhanced by the tooth that Okabayashi himself had knocked out in a tag match the prior month. Just as Okabayashi makes even the mildest strikes look like death, so too does Kamitani get over even the briefest counters and comebacks, and when he pulls even with his foe it’s a sight to behold. I originally had this pegged at ****¾ until Kamitani’s underwhelming reign took some of the shine off his fire here, but the match itself remains a masterclass in an old-school mentality of wrestling, one that understands that if you’re already over, you don’t have to kill yourself with highspots to send a crowd into a frenzy.


26.  Kento Miyahara (c) vs. Jun Akiyama
Triple Crown Championship, AJPW, Summer Action Series, 7/23
****½

Miyahara’s title reign came earlier than planned when injuries forced All Japan’s hand early in the year, but the 27-year-old’s run has played a major role in the company’s rebirth as a meaningful promotion over the course of the year, with defenses against both in-house talent and drifting warriors like Daisuke Sekimoto that range from very good to great. The best of these, though, pit the young champ against mentor and booker Jun Akiyama, who promptly puts his great white hope through the ringer. Miyahara’s knee strikes are a thing of beauty, but much drama in the match comes from how much better, stronger, and smarter Akiyama’s own are. Akiyama never achieved the stardom he was groomed for, but he was apprenticed by the best, and the precision of his offense threatens to completely show up his hand-picked successor. But Miyahara won’t stay down, and Akiyama subtly shifts during the match from detached, technical master to increasingly reckless bomb thrower. This opens a window for Miyahara to outsmart his now-unhinged elder, as when he manages to counter one of Akiyama’s vicious guillotine chokes into a brainbuster. Though they’re playing to a crowd of fewer than 1,000, these two put on a show worthy of one of All Japan’s gigantic ‘90s galas, complete with a closing stretch of too many false finishes to count and so much heat that the few hundred fans in attendance are deafening in their screams. More than any of Miyahara’s other title defenses, this cemented him as the true ace of a revived promotion, and it makes me supremely eager to keep tabs on the company in the new year.


25. The Miz (c) vs. Dolph Ziggler
Intercontinental Championship, WWE, No Mercy, 10/9
****½


The fact that, in 2016, Dolph Ziggler could put his career on the line and people would cheer for him to win a match is a testament to the unrelenting greatness of The Miz’s latest and greatest run as perhaps WWE’s only true heel, the only one who doesn’t get himself over but instead utilizes his nuclear heat to boost any face who challenges him. His feud with Ziggler is unquestionably the highlight of the latter’s WWE career, if not his own as well, and their No Mercy match brought out the most vicious tactics in both. Ziggler dominates the early stretch with a series of moves and cover attempts before Miz takes control with moves and gestures that mock Daniel Bryan (subject of the Miz’s other great, promo-based feud of the year). Miz continues to parade around as asshole of the decade until Ziggler reverses a figure four and makes Miz realize he will actually have to exert effort to put this guy away. Maryse gets a lifetime pass for match interference, and here she hits Ziggler with a blast of hairspray to hoist this ‘80s hair metal wannabe by his own chemical petard in time. Her hubby capitalizes to hit a skull crushing finale but Ziggler gets a foot on the ropes at two-and-a-half. A superkick saves Ziggler’s career in more ways than one, and despite winning the IC belt four times before now, not to mention all the other titles he’s won with the company, this is the first time one of his wins seemed to mean something.


24. KUSHIDA vs. Kyle O’Reilly
NJPW, Best of the Super Juniors Day 1, 5/21
****½

Lost in the hype for Ricochet/Ospreay was the simple fact that a better match involving neither man had already set the standard for this year’s Best of the Super Juniors tournament. In the immediate aftermath of New Japan’s talent drain in January, KUSHIDA made a bid for company MVP with his thrilling junior heavyweight title defenses. His all-rounder style fits with just about anyone, but it was great to see his underrated technical offense get a workout with striker O’Reilly, with whom he had waged a year-long program across the world. Their familiarity going into this match was worked into an excellent sequence of chain wrestling, with O’Reilly managing to work the leg to set up an armbar in a show of genuine fight knowledge over straightforward limb targeting. When the spots come, they are outstanding, climaxing with a sequence in which O’Reilly sits a weakened KUSHIDA on a chair at ringside and goes for an apron dive, only to be caught by KUSHIDA in an armbar. The sheer absurd brilliance of the moment somewhat overwhelms the actual conclusion of the match, which dispels with such theatrics for the passion of O’Reilly kicking his opponent into a daze before slapping on the armbar for the win. Regardless, this match is the highlight of a rough year for New Japan’s junior division, and one hopes that 2017 brings that scene the same revitalization that marked the heavyweight card this year.


23. Chris Hero vs. Matt Riddle
EVOLVE, Evolve 73, 11/13
****½   

Matt Riddle’s super-rookie year saw him, among numerous other accomplishments, face Chris Hero three times in an EVOLVE ring, each time hanging with Hero so easily it looked as if they came up together. With their series tied, Hero kicked Riddle during the intro to take any possible advantage, forcing Riddle to slowly battle back as Hero unloaded his arsenal. Riddle’s matches have skewed shorter to maximize his strengths, but the 15 minutes here never give the impression of covering for any shortcomings of pacing. Instead, the concise running time allows both men to work an aggressive, bomb-filled match that trades jaw-dropping spots for the feel of an out and out fight. Riddle’s jumping tombstone looks spectacular, but he learns the hard way never to start a piledriver fight with Chris Hero as the veteran closes out the series.


22. Adam Cole & The Young Bucks vs. Will Ospreay, Ricochet & Matt Sydal
PWG, BOLA Night 2, 9/3
****½  

PWG arguably held better, or at least better told, matches in 2016, and it’s entirely possible that this wasn’t even the best tag match on the BOLA Night 2 card. But nothing this year epitomized the empty-calorie splendor of PWG like this epic, convoluted trios match. Is there a superkick party? Of course there is. Ricochet puts himself out as an all-rounder with just as many power moves as flying strikes, while the Bucks’ synchronization continues to lend evidence that the Jacksons share some kind of fraternal, twin-like telepathy. It’s Ospreay who steals the show, though, able to minimize his weakest aspects to maximize his mile-a-minute workrate. Crucially, he scored numerous pinfall saves on behalf of his teammates, including a spot of the year contender in catching one of the Bucks in mid-air as they went for the Meltzer driver and delivering the greatest Os-cutter of his career. Like many PWG matches, the lack of an underlying dramatic element docks it somehwat, but in the moment, the onslaught of perfectly intertwined spots really does feel like a five-star classic.


21. The Miz (c) vs. Cesaro vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn
Fatal-4-Way for the Intercontinental Championship, WWE, Extreme Rules, 5/22
****½

It’s remarkable how much storytelling that WWE advanced through multi-(wo)man matches this year, given the company’s usual dismissal of the format. Everyone in this match is not merely warring for the IC strap; they’re also furthering their own characters in exciting ways. No sooner does the bell ring than Zayn runs from his corner to nail Owens with a Helluva kick, immediately furthering their PPV squabbles that had been in play since the Zayn dumped his nemesis at the Rumble. Meanwhile, Cesaro runs wild in typically outstanding fashion, hitting uppercuts, suplexes and everything under the sun on literally anyone who crosses his path. Then there’s the champ, laying down the gauntlet for his incredible year by playing the ultimate chickenshit heel, regularly ducking out of the action only to slip in and nail people with cheap shots before darting back to safety. Matches with Sami Zayn always seem to have perfect finishes, and that’s certainly true here, wherein Zayn lays out Cesaro for the pin, only for Owens to yank him from ringside and start a complete brawl as Miz slips into the ring completely unnoticed to get the three-count on the still-flattened Cesaro. Every single person in this match played his part perfectly, and it’s a testament to their work that they nearly overshadowed the equally magnificent main event.


20. Io Shirai (c) vs. Mayu Iwatani
World of Stardom Championship, World Wonder Ring Stardom, Stardom Gold, 5/15
****½

Stardom ace Io Shirai has one of the best characters in wrestling today, imbuing the face champion with heelish ruthlessness with a spirit all her own. Shirai plays that character to the fullest against friend and tag partner Mayu Iwatani, who herself is so eager to take on her pal for the top belt that she requests a no-time-limit match before the bell. The action hits early, spilling ringside with a wild suicide dive from Shirai before Iwatani whips her into chairs and sets up her deadly dragon suplex that Shirai worms out of to hit a German. Shirai spends the rest of the match doing anything to avoid the dragon suplex, and when Iwatani finally nails one, on the apron, no less, the champ barely rolls back in for the count, and Iwatani wastes no time letting her opponent recover before going for another dragon. Iwatani looked like a million bucks here, completely worthy of challenging her partner, but Shirai always looked that much better, that much more able to do anything. Watch her hit a desperate suplex on Iwatani, lock in a cloverleaf on her prone foe, pick her up from that into a tombstone and then go up for a moonsault attempt, all of it rendered as one continuous motion. Also check out the pair’s year-closing rematch at the 12/22 Year-End Climax to see an equally great match.


19. Chris Hero vs. Trevor Lee
AAW, Epic, 4/9
****½

Dream matches always run the risk of failing to build a genuine story beyond the immediate thrill of their existence, but Hero spent all year having incredible match-ups that he consistently found ways to differentiate from his other dream fights. Take this match; he meets 60-minute man Trevor Lee, he of the wild, no-time-limit CWF Mid-Atlantic title defenses, on neutral ground in AAW. Though Hero directly puts over the young prodigy after the match, the bout itself makes it clear how highly he thinks of the kid. Hero’s entire persona is built on bully tactics and the sheer difficulty of overcoming his endless offense, but his generosity is never more apparent than here, where he dispenses with usual David/Goliath structure and instead takes such a brutal, fast-paced fight to Lee that he sells the man as not merely his equal but someone who must be completely demolished to keep down. Both men strike with force, but it’s when they drift to the furthest reaches of their wide-ranging abilities—Hero launching a moonsault, Lee deadlifting his bigger foe—that the match explodes. Both men excel here, with Hero adding yet another notch to his 2016 belt and Lee coming off like a man that needs to be signed to the biggest promotions in the world the very second his TNA deal expires.


18. Shuji Ishikawa (c) vs. Kazusada Higuchi
KO-D Openweight Championship, DDT, Who’s Gonna Top That?, 9/25
****¾

In a year dominated with excellent BJW strong-style matches, the best example of the style actually came out of DDT. That’s not particularly crazy; KO-D champ Ishikawa is a BJW regular of course (peep the network of deathmatch scars freely visible on his back and arms). But it is surprising that rising star Higuchi puts up a match in which he comes off every bit the equal of his legendary opponent. Though he heads outside with a plancha dive within the first minute, Higuchi spends much of the match on defense, though his counters and general endurance ensure that he never looks mismatched. Headbutt battles, thunderous bombs and lariats galore give this a classic AJPW feel. Higuchi’s heat in the second half is megawatt-level, and the closing stretch of him managing to eat a dozen knee strikes and keep kicking out blows the roof off of Korakuen. Ishikawa retains after wearing down his foe, but both men leave the ring looking like champs, and Higuchi in one go made himself as a main eventer.


17. Roman Reigns (c) vs. A.J. Styles
Extreme Rules Match for the WWE Heavyweight Championship, WWE, Extreme Rules, 5/22
****½

A.J. Styles hit WWE like a bomb, so utterly great a performer that he managed to burst out of a planned fixation in the mid-card to become the company MVP on both TV and PPV. It’s arguable that the best of his matches in the promotion this year came at Extreme Rules, in which he challenged perennial audience whipping boy Roman Reigns for the title. Still dogged by rumors of his abysmal back condition, Styles took seemingly every bump a man could take right on his injured area, including a slam into the pre-show announce table at the edge of the arena floor that should have officially marked Reigns’s heel turn. More viciousness follows with the pair abandoning the usual Extreme Rules overreliance on gimmick weapons in favor of just wrestling as brutally as possible. The match stip makes the interference by both the Club and the Usos logical, and the Club attempt to toss a limp Styles over Reigns to get him the pin was the first and, to date, last time the Club looked good and purposeful in the WWE. Complete with the final image of a rehabbed Seth Rollins sprinting down the lane to pedigree the victorious Reigns, this match injected purpose, however briefly, back into Reigns’s arc and completely reoriented Styles to set up his growth into the face that runs the place.


16. Charlotte (c) vs. Sasha Banks
Falls Count Anywhere Match for the Raw Women’s Championship, WWE, Raw, 11/28
****½

Despite its admitted overbooking, the Charlotte/Banks feud consistently pulled out the best in the two wrestlers, and they managed to bring urgency back to a number of gimmick matches (Hell in a Cell, Ironman) that long ago lost their power. But despite the spectacle of their PPV matchups, it was Banks’s Raw wins that tended to showcase their full potential. The finest of these was their last, a Falls Count Anywhere match that was so brutal that the women even managed to sell the nastiness of the Kendo stick, otherwise the most transparently gimmicked weapon to make frequent use in the promotion. Banks’s meteoras looked as legit and punishing as a classic double stomp, while Charlotte made the most of her athletic advantage to look domineering over her opponent. The finish, in which Bank looped Charlotte through a stairwell guardrail and slapped on her Bank Statement finisher, looked like absolute murder.

3 comments:

  1. YES!!!! I'm so glad you decide to put a match w/ Broken Matt Hardy in the list as I'm hoping for Final Deletion to be in the list. If not, I shall eat your essence you minion!!!!

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