Worldwide, the level of in-ring work in professional wrestling in 2017 was as good as it’s ever been. Even though pro wrestling is built on hyperbole, the greatness of this year’s top matches is no exaggeration. For those that knew where to look, this was arguably the greatest year ever for diverse, fun, and psychologically stimulating athletic feats.
With a stacked talent roster (arguably as deep as it’s ever been), the WWE had a solid year, at least as far as workrate is concerned. What made this year so special, in my opinion, is the level of work around the world. From the independent scene in the United States to the unstoppable force that New Japan Pro Wrestling became, each major event became a chance for wrestlers to one-up each other.
For maybe the first time since the pinnacle of the wrestling business in the late ’90s, it’s a truly exciting time to be a fan of wrestling.
In an attempt to capture and celebrate this awesomeness, I’ve enlisted the help of my fellow Tailgate Society contributors Brad LaFratte and J.T. Nutt. I tasked each with compiling a list of their top three favorite matches of 2017. What you’ll find below is each of our lists, with commentary and reasoning. I think that, regardless of your tastes or favorite promotion, there’s really something for everyone here.
Jason Mitchell (@JMitchellTGS)
1. Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada (IWGP Heavyweight Championship)
New Japan Pro Wrestling, Dominion PPV, June 11th
The top spot for me this year goes to the match that got me back into professional wrestling. As a former hardcore fan (detailed here), I had largely quit watching pro wrestling altogether, but still kept up with some of the news. Soon after Dominion, the wrestling community was buzzing about the match that these two put on. I knew then that I had to check it out to see if the hype was real.
This was actually the second Omega/Okada match of the year, with the first coming at Wrestle Kingdom 11 (Wrestle Kingdom is the New Japan equivalent of WWE’s WrestleMania) in January. That 47 minute match was hailed as a masterpiece and possibly one of the better matches of all time. So how were these guys going to top that? With arguably an even greater match and a (SPOILER ALERT) 60 minute time limit draw.
The storylines for this match were bountiful. Could Omega finally get Okada up for the One-Winged Angel finisher? Is this the match that gives the super-over Omega his first heavyweight championship? How many Okada Rainmakers will it take to put down Omega?
The match started with Omega controlling most of the action, but in actuality, the storyline of the match became mostly this: How much punishment would it take to finally put the other man out of commission? And there was plenty of punishment to go around.
There’s the Omega missile dropkick to the back of Okada’s head:
And an Okada death valley driver on the apron:
There was also some really great technical wrestling sequences:
When Omega did finally hit his One-Winged Angel nearly 45 minutes into the match, it looked like we were going to have a new champion. Okada did what Okada does, though, and found a way to survive:
In the end, the best move of the match wasn’t a move at all. One of the spots of the year, Okada goes for his Rainmaker lariat. An exhausted Omega escapes the move, not by any technical prowess, but by being completely exhausted. It’s beautiful in how simple and unique it plays out:
Even though I knew the finish going in (again, a draw), I had the rare experience of watching this match and being on the edge of my seat for 60 minutes. This was this generation’s Flair/Steamboat, a technical masterpiece that was both brutal and beautiful. I defy you to watch this and not come away entertained and in awe.
2. Kenny Omega vs. Tetsuya Naito
New Japan Pro Wrestling, G1 Climax Tourney Finals, August 13th
As the leader of the Los Ingobernables de Japon, you could easily argue that Tetsuya Naito is the most “over” star in New Japan. For those unaware, The G1 Climax Tournament is a week’s long round-robin tournament, with the winner getting a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at the next Wrestle Kingdom in January. Kenny Omega was the 2016 winner, hence his title shot against Okada referenced above, but it was the enigmatic Naito who stood in Omega’s way of a repeat in 2017.
To put Naito in WWE terms, he’s like the anti-John Cena. He is lackadaisical on the way to the ring, and is, by and large, anti-hustle. He never gets flustered or excited, appearing to not care much for what anyone thinks. And this is a huge hit with fans.
The main storyline of this match, other than the winner getting a shot at the title, was Naito’s work on Omega’s neck and vice versa. Nearly every single move during the match was, in some way, focused on the neck of the opponent. This made for a truly psychologically complex battle.
Early on, Naito hit a nasty neckbreaker from the apron to the floor:
Then, in what would prove to only be the second most brutal looking spot of the match, Naito executes a piledriver from a table to the floor:
These spots added a real (maybe too much so) sense of danger to this match that jacked the intensity up to a ridiculous level.
Eventually, Omega regained control. This sent the match into a flurry with some truly incredible sequences. At one point, Omega delivers the scariest moment of the match, when he DDTs Naito into the ring post, something that I’ve never seen done before:
That is absolutely insanity and not something I’d recommend (although he didn’t actually hit the ring post). Somehow, this is followed by an Omega attempted super powerbomb, which would turn into an absolutely spectacular counter for Naito:
Eventually, this insane flurry of moves culminated in Naito hitting 4(!) versions of his finishing move, Destino. Here’s the final one:
At just over 36 minutes, this match was almost exhausting to watch. It was pure balls to the wall insanity, but every single thing made sense within the context of the match. There was a sense of urgency on the part of both men, and the pace matched that intensity. You truly got the sense that Naito and Omega were throwing everything they had at the other. In terms of pure enjoyment, I liked this match just a bit better than Omega/Okada II, but that probably has something to do with the compacted time of this one. A classic, regardless.
3. Tyler Bate (c)vs. Pete Dunne (WWE United Kingdom Championship)
NXT, NXT TakeOver: Chicago, May 20th
If you want an action packed, old school wrestling match, this is your match of the year. Behind a hot arena sized crowd in Chicago, Bate and Dunne turned in a hard hitting classic.
Dunne started the match by attacking the right wrist and hand of Bate before hitting a sweet suplex from the floor to the apron.
Bate regained control after a suplex of his own and the longest airplane spin I’ve ever seen in a wrestling match.
After some traded stiff shots, Dunne went for his Bitter End finisher. Bate, however, reversed it into a tornado DDT.
Just when it looked like Dunne was finished, Bate missed a dive to the outside, which enabled Dunne to finally hit the Bitter End.
This was, for me, the match of the year in the WWE/NXT. How often do you see two standing ovations during the match? And then another one after? Almost never. It’s a shame this didn’t get more publicity. It’s truly excellent. Go out of your way to watch this.
Brad LaFratte (@BradLaFratte)
Matches in no particular order:
Asuka vs. Ember Moon (NXT Women’s Championship)
WWE, NXT TakeOver Brooklyn III, August 19th
NXT TakeOver Brooklyn has showcased some of the best women’s matches in WWE history…yes history!
Brooklyn III had a lot to live up to. And Ember Moon vs. Asuka more than fulfilled the tradition of female wrestling excellence.
In one corner was a young upstart who had previously pushed The Empress of Tomorrow to the edge of defeat—so close, in fact, that Asuka had to cheat in order to get the win. In the other corner was the undefeated champion who held the NXT women’s title for a record 523 days.
Both women are built like tanks, and they put on a highly physical, brutal match.
Moon brought the high-flying attacks and the power moves.
Asuka brought the stiff strikes and the submission holds.
Asuka worked Moon’s left arm and wrist the entire night, and Moon always sold it well.
My only nitpick of this match was the finish.
It should have been Moon’s crowning moment as the new women’s face of NXT. Had WWE known about the extent of Asuka’s collarbone injury, Moon probably would have won. Regardless, this was just another showcase of how far women’s wrestling has come.
AJ Styles (c) vs. John Cena (WWE Championship)
WWE, Royal Rumble, January 29th
This was the first big WWE match of the year, and it set the tone for 2017.
The Styles and Cena storyline started five months prior at SummerSlam in Brooklyn, and there were some doubts about whether they could outdo themselves at the Rumble. Added to the drama was Cena’s attempt to tie Ric Flair with 16 world championship reigns. Once the opening bell rang, the uncertainty was put to rest.
We witnessed two of the greatest wrestlers of their era go move for move, spot for spot, and make each other look like a million bucks.
The energy never dissipated, and the storytelling throughout the match kept the fans on the edges of their seats. You truly didn’t know who would win. Styles flew all over the ring, and Indy Cena unleashed an armada of moves and counters that amazed the crowd and silenced his devout critics.
What made this bout more compelling was watching it live. The crowd was on fire, and when Cena won, it, in fact, did not riot.
Cena and Styles received a standing ovation. The crowd was emotionally drained but satisfied. Mr. WWE and The Phenomenal One delivered an instant classic.
The New Day (c) vs. The Usos (Smackdown Tag Team Championship)
WWE, Hell in a Cell, October 8th
The Usos and The New Day have set a new standard for tag team wrestling in 2017.
The Usos and The New Day had a series of matches together on SmackDown Live that culminated in the most memorable Hell in a Cell match.
Both teams worked at a high level throughout this feud, starting in late May. They took every opportunity to showcase their ability and creativity. What could have been The New Day’s SmackDown crowning became a war for greatness.
While their show-stealer at SummerSlam was special, capped by an incredible series of near-falls, Hell in a Cell opened up a vault for the teams to explore that changed the game. They had unrelenting steel, sturdy kendo sticks and even handcuffs with which to isolate and brutalize one another.
The match was the best showcase of the full scope of this longstanding feud, with no man in the match afraid to ruin his career or his opponent’s with sickening and imaginative displays of violence.
It was a near-perfect display of tag team wrestling at a main event level, 22 minutes of nonstop emotional action by two veteran teams that looked to cement their legacies.
This was the first time the tag team titles were defended inside Hell in a Cell and the first time either team had been inside the structure, but they looked more at home there than most ever have. This match was a showcase of veteran talent in the midst of a creative master piece, telling an exemplary story of brotherhoods with a great deal of pride.
J.T. Nutt (@jtthenutt)
2017 was a tremendous year for a number of wrestlers. Kevin Owens became the Face Of America and even refused to walk on his face on the entrance ramp. The Miz might have had his best year ever. He and Maryse feuding with Cena and the Bella with bigger boobs was hilarious and well executed. I can still hear Maryse saying “Jjjeeeaaaaaannn”. But this is a list of the best matches.
My list is going to be matches that I watched and remember. Not matches the IWC told me to check out and I did (hey, Kenny Omega, how you doing?) but matches that immediately came to mind when I thought of 2017.
The New Day vs The Usos was unexpectedly great. Not that I didn’t think they couldn’t do it, but the New Day is the humor in the show and I didn’t expect as violent of the match to happen. It was fantastic though. Money in the Bank was great, then again I’m a huge fan of Baron Corbin. I also loved the tease of AJ Styles vs Nakumra when they looked at each other through the ladder. SummerSlam with Samoa Joe, Brock Lesnar, BRAAAAUUUNNNN, and Roman Reigns actually tore the house down. Extreme Rules gave Samoa Joe a nice win as did the Elimination Chamber for Bray Wyatt. Bray Wyatt’s blip of happiness in a so-so year, mostly by terrible booking, not by his fault.
But in the end, one man came to mine: AJ Styles. So here are my top 3 A….J…Styles matches. Let’s call it the Phenomenal 3.
Finn Balor vs AJ Styles
WWE, TLC: Tables, Ladders, & Chairs, October 22nd
This match didn’t have a ton of build up because it was made nearly last minute when the Raw locker room suffered a meningitis outbreak. The Demon King was supposed to face Bray Wyatt. AJ Styles came over to Raw to help out with the PPV and faced Balor in a IWC’s wet dream. Two of the best indy guys getting their chance to have a match that had no real story line to it, just mano a mano. Both guys are tremendous technical wrestlers and the match didn’t disappoint. Tons of string reversals, tons of big moves and kick outs. There were just a lot high spots in the match that had a frantic pace.
AJ hits the Pele kick to Balor on the top rope, then hits a springboard top rope hurricanrana.
Then Styles misses the springboard 450.
Balor hits the Coup de Grace for the 1…2..3.
After the match the show of respect with the handshake and Too Sweet bump had the IWC going full Randy Marsh at home in front of their keyboards.
There was no story line to worry about, no title, nothing. It was just two of the best wrestlers in the world going out and putting on a clinic.
Brock Lesnar vs AJ Styles
WWE, Survivor Series, November 19th
The Beast vs the Phenomenal One. Brock is a tough dude to wrestle because he’s a beast, hence the nickname. Matchups with smaller guys can be hard for the “little guy” to be believable in having a chance against Brock. Styles is good enough to pull that off.
Styles didn’t have a ton of offense, but it was effective. Took out the Beast’s knees then hit a nice DDT.
Lesnar tries to reverse a moonsault but Styles slides behind Lesnar to push him into the turnbuckle. Lesnar reverses a top rope attempt into a GERMAN SUPLEX.
Eventually they go outside where AJ hits a springboard elbow drop and then pushes the Beast into the ring steps then uses the ring steps to launch another springboard elbow. Styles hits a moonsault and springboard 450. Lesnar KICKS OUT AT TWO. Styles clash reversed into a F5 reversed into the calf crusher. Styles hits a phenomenal forearm a few minutes later. Lesnar kicks out. Styles tries it again. Lesnar catches him, F-5. Ball game.
Lesnar escapes. He looked genuinely exhausted after the match. For a guy that doesn’t have to sell that, it was a nice touch.
AJ Styles (c) vs. John Cena (WWE Championship)
WWE, Royal Rumble, January 29th
Cena never gets the credit he deserves for big matches. CM Punk vs Cena was one of the best matches in WWE History. Cena losing clean to Kevin Owens for the US Title was also a tremendous match. In fact, his Open Challenge put a lot of guys over. John Cena, WWE darling, hated by the IWC vs AJ Styles, the demi-god of the IWC.
You know this match was going to be at worst, solid and at best, epic. Styles gets up before Cena does a “You Can’t See Me” and delivers a German Suplex that chains into a sit out face buster halfway through the match for a big spot. AJ reversing being on the top rope into a modified torture rack into a spinout powerbomb was nice as well. And people say Cena doesn’t sell moves. Guys kicking out of AA’s is always fun.
SIDENOTE: For the love of GOD stop cutting to the crowd after every near fall. I know we got the Undertaker guy and it was awesome but stop trying to create something that isn’t THERE, WWE.
Anyway, Cena returns the kick out of your finisher at 2 favor and then hits a giant electric chair drop. Styles reverses a Cena move into a calf crusher that is reversed into a STFU and then Styles eventually reverses it into an STFU of his own. Super Cena tries to turn it into an AA a near reversal from Styles ends up in a Figure 4 for Cena. Styles escapes into a cross-arm breaker. Super Cena turns it into a power bomb…of sorts. Cena tries a top rope leg drop and AJ catches him for a powerbomb.
Styles hits a Styles clash but Cena kicks out at two.
Cena hits a top rope AA and Styles kicks out.
Styles clash leads to an attempted Phenomenal Forearm but Cena grabs him and hits an AA, rolls through and hits a second AA to get the win. Match. Of. The. Year. In WWE. If you think “Cena can’t wrestle” watch this match.
Amazingly, AJ lost every single one of these matches. But…he won our hearts…. awwwww (sigh).
With that, you now have the Tailgate Society’s list of best professional wrestling matches of 2017. If you haven’t seen these matches yet, they are all worth a watch. In what has been one of the best years ever for professional wrestling matches, that is truly saying quite a lot. It’s going to be hard to pull off, but here’s hoping that 2018 can somehow top this year’s thrilling action.