2016 was an amazing year for the WWE and pro wrestling in general. We were treated to new feuds, rising new stars and a couple of phenomenal matches along the way. We witnessed the ascent of AJ Styles in WWE, something only fantasized about until this past year. We saw the emergence of the Women’s Revolution thanks to new stars like Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch. NXT’s The Revival showed us repeatedly that they are indeed the best tag team on the planet. And the room got pretty dusty for all of us when we watched Daniel Bryan walk away from his in-ring career. Outside of the WWE, we were treated to the amazing proficiency of New Japan Pro Wrestling and who can forget the insanity of Broken Matt Hardy?
As part of the TGS Presents: The Count Out podcast, our contributors look back at 2016 and highlight their favorite matches of the year.
3. John Cena vs. AJ Styles (Summerslam)
The (former) Face that Runs the Place vs. The Phenomenal One. I can’t think of two bigger stars in the world at the top of their game. AJ showed that he more than belonged in the WWE. John Cena proved that he could roll with the best of them. This match had a terrific build-up and more than delivered. Has anyone had a better first year the WWE than AJ Styles?
2. Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (NXT Takeover: Dallas)
No story needed. No championship on the line. Just two of the best in-ring talents in the world. As mentioned earlier, this was a true passing of the torch. For years, Zayn had been the heart and soul of NXT and now he was bound for bigger things. Nakamura stood ready to assume the throne. Whatever language or cultural barriers may have stood in the way, he effortlessly knocked them over with his unbound charisma.
A fierce match featuring the unrelenting strikes of Japanese Strong Style – it is endlessly re-watchable. This is the match you show your friends that scoff at your love of pro-wrestling to make them fans. And thanks to the fervor of the Dallas crowd, an already excellent match is carried to even greater heights. Fight forever, indeed.
1. D.I.Y. vs. The Revival (NXT Takeover: Toronto)
Match of the Year? Best Tag Team in the world? Best Tag Team Match of All Time?! Whatever praise you want to heap on this match it’s not enough. To properly analyze the greatness of this match you must examine both teams. D.I.Y. (Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa) are two of the ultimate baby faces and have fantastic chemistry together. Don’t believe me? Just watch their #GloriousBomb videos on social media. For months, they were being built up as the heir apparent to American Alpha. They had the crowd behind them. The only thing that stood in their way was the best tag team on the planet – The Revival. A throwback to classic tag teams from the 70’s and 80’s the Revival were a no-nonsense pair that would rather beat your face in than do a fancy flip off the ring post. The Revival and DIY’s first collision at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II saw the Revival getting the best of DIY. DIY was frustrated following the loss and beginning to question whether their partnership should continue in face of continued adversity.
Everything came to a head at Toronto with the 2 out of 3 falls match. Overcoming the odds and the Revival’s incessant cheating, DIY managed to simultaneously lock their opponents into their submission finishers and defeat them to become the new tag team champions.
This is the match that makes you love pro wrestling. This makes it all worth it. Two teams that are able to go out and tell an amazing story that has you captivated from beginning to end. This is my Match of the Year.
3. Kevin Owens vs. Seth Rollins (Hell in a Cell)
Rollins was “The Man” then he got hurt. That opened the door for guys like Kevin Owens to shine. The match happened not too long after Rollins came back from injury. It was brutal as hell for anyone, let alone a guy coming of as big as injury as Rollins had. Kevin Owens is a perfect heel. He’s vicious, he’s conniving, and he’s always adding a little extra to everything. Taunting his opponent, yelling at the crowd, yelling at the ref, mocking his opponents moves and such. He does subtle so well. He sold the “accidental” setting-off of the fire extinguisher on the ref, perfectly. Owens would get powerbombed over the ropes through two tables. One of many “holy sh-t” moments necessary for a match of the year candidate. The end was brutal with Rollins being powerbombed through 2 tables.
2. AJ Styles vs. John Cena (Summer Slam)
Just like Kevin Owens, AJ Styles is must see TV all of the time. He’s also a dynamic heel. His feud with John Cena was terrific and engaging. Both guys are great on the mic and the back-and-forth was highly entertaining – matched only by their chemistry in the ring. People forget how good Cena can be and how he’ll do moves you don’t expect. From a Canadian destroyer to a tornado DDT, this match had a ton of brutal moves, reversals, and near falls. We all know that Cena kicks out at TWOOOOO, but when Cena hit Styles with a top rope AA you figured it was over. Then Styles kicked out to a stunned John Cena. You actually witness Cena mouth the words “what the f-?” The ending was classic. Styles reverses another AA into the Styles Clash and follows it up with the Phenomenal Forearm to end the match.
1. Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens vs. The Miz vs. Cesaro (Extreme Rules)
When the match starts out with Zayn kicking Owens in the face and out of the ring, you know you’re in for something special. Cesaro and Zayn start the action early. It reminds you how good Cesaro is at well, everything. KO was nonchalant and vicious at the same time with Zayn. Cesaro would later hit a sweet corkscrew upper cut on the Miz and do the swing for 20 seconds. I still don’t get how he doesn’t get dizzy. Other big spots would be the frog splash by Owens on the Miz who was hanging onto the ropes while Cesaro had his feet. Zayn reverses a backbody drop into a Canadian Destroyer. The match ends with Zayn chasing Owens out of the ring and the Miz stealing a victory during the distraction. It was the Match of the Year for me.
3. Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (NXT Takeover: Dallas)
This match was Sami Zayn’s farewell to NXT and a lot of people’s first, real introduction to Shinsuke Nakamura. He had been built up and highlighted in advance on NXT, but this was his WWE debut performance.
It’s interesting to note that this was set up as face vs. face, which isn’t supposed to work but does. Both contenders entered the arena to thunderous ovations. Nakamura was able to capitalize on the hype from his farewell match with AJ Styles at NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 10. For weeks, there had been rumors of him leaving for WWE. And now he had arrived.
It’s also interesting how right now with guys like Zayn and Nakamura – a combined 25-30 years of in-ring experience – both are considered “new” to WWE.
Both performers are defined by intangibles. Both rely on in-ring likeability and charisma rather than big spots. Nakamura maintains that swagger the entire match. When they start trading submission moves, it’s just electric.
By the third act, Sami hits his signature Blue Thunderbomb but Shinsuke gets the upper hand when he kicked Zayn in the head during a dive through the ropes. At this point, Nakamura takes over and the match ends with the torch passed. And it really feels that way. Nakamura and Sami embrace and then Sami gets his farewell in front of a euphoric crowd.
2. Ricochet vs. Will Ospreay (NJPW Best of the Super Juniors)
This is such a divisive match. It may be the ultimate in “flippy sh*t” theatrics. Ricochet (Prince Puma from Lucha Underground) and Ospreay are the two juniors/cruisers conspicuously absent from WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic this past year.
Filled with numerous flips, jumps and spins – a lot of people hate it for being pretty much the antithesis of Strong Style. I think they sell it short because of a bias against that kind of gymnastic wrestling. What I saw in this match was a damn good story. Starting out with a furious pace, the match eventually eschews that for mat-based fighting and submissions. A couple of high-impact spots are sprinkled in to keep the momentum going. The match then transitions into some unbelievable submissions that you typically only see from juniors/cruisers.
They hit the back and forth, trading uppercut strikes that are common to many Japanese matches. That’s when the “flippy sh*t” hits high gear, and manages to main a level of crazy without sacrificing the storytelling. WWE would be wise to feature both performers in their Crusierweight division.
1. Finn Balor vs. Seth Rollins (Summerslam)
The battle to be the first-ever WWE Universal Champion was a brutal, with two guys at the absolute top of their game.
The main roster debut of Balor did not disappoint. A lot of people wondered how his demon entrance would translate; if the body paint would connect with casual fans. For the most part, the crowd at the Barclay Center was completely into it.
Balor went on offense early, pushing Rollins – who matched him with just the right amount of selling. It was the beginning of Rollins comeback, when he bombed Balor into the barricade on the outside that he dislocated his shoulder. You can almost tell that he is hurt. But there isn’t a bump he won’t take and the match never falls short. So many kicks, so many knees. Rollins even pulls out the small package driver he hasn’t used in years.
This was also the last time we saw Seth Rollins in full heel mode, ironically, as it was the injury to Balor that caused WWE to need Rollins to fill the void of top good guy.
I still do not understand how the Coup De Gras, that double foot stomp off the top rope doesn’t cave your chest in.
3. Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch (Wrestlemania 32)
Unlike a lot of other matches featured on your typical Wrestlemania, this didn’t have a significant storyline. Sometimes all you need is talented performers showcasing that they can go. The nature of the triple threat match added an additional dynamic to the contest. All 3 women delivered the goods and proved worthy of the new Women’s Championship title that was unveiled. There was a lot of criticism of this past year’s Wrestlmania but this match delivered on the hype.
2. Dolph Ziggler vs. The Miz (No Mercy)
Sometimes you can put two amazing talents together without a story and have them dazzle you. Other times you can put a couple of decent guys together with a compelling story and get the same results. It’s fair to say that both Ziggler and The Miz seriously stepped up their game in 2016, culminating in their Career vs. Title match at No Mercy.
The build for the match was believable and logical and allowed the viewer to become invested in the outcome. Even the match itself was full of drama. While I don’t think anyone truly believed Ziggler would lose, they had seeded just enough doubt throughout the build-up and the match itself that a loss was conceivable.
Ultimately, two unlikely candidates for Match of the Year sold the show and ended up stealing the show.
1. AJ Styles vs. Dean Ambrose (TLC)
I didn’t go in to TLC with high expectations but TLC pay-per-views are generally enjoyable. The Styles/Ambrose rivalry really helped to establish AJ as a heel and helped to solidify Ambrose’s popularity with the audience. Because of the nature of the TLC format, it allowed for the introduction of a hardcore element that their feud hadn’t included yet. The match also featured an X-factor with James Ellsworth and how he would somehow affect the outcome.
Hardcore, high-flying, and filled with drama – this match had it all. And of course a swerve at the end that put a cherry on top.
Initially, I may have approached this match without much investment, by the end I was blown away. To go from apathy to totally marking out makes this my Match of the Year.