Top 10 Matches of 2016
2016 in professional wrestling was certainly interesting. Top tier wrestlers were poached from New Japan. Roman Reigns finally got his coronation at Wrestlemania. Brock Lesnar had a UFC fight and failed a drug test. John Cena hosted Saturday Night Live. Matt Hardy had a complete rebirth and rejuvenation as a performer. The brand split happened, for better or worse.
There were a lot of positives and a lot of negatives this year. The in-ring performances continue to increase in quality every year while weekly television shows continue to lose viewers.
Choosing ten favorite matches this year was tough. I started with a list of 25 and really struggled to narrow it down. New Japan, PWG and WWE topped out my charts while I found myself disappointed that I couldn’t choose anything from Lucha Underground or Ring of Honor to qualify. On to the list.
The Final Deletion/Delete vs. Decay/Total Nonstop Deletion – TNA
If you know anything about The Hardy Boys, Matt and Jeff, you know that they’re eccentric. From Tripp Pants-wearing cyber goths to steampunk circus clowns they’ve done it all. Matt Hardy completely refreshed himself and TNA this year with a new character, new gimmick and new ideas. The entire thing feels fresh and interesting, much like Lucha Underground when it started. I can’t put justice to how creatively special their output is. It’s part pro-wrestling, part B-movie horror, part so bad it’s good a la The Room. Either way, it deserves some sort of recognition for 2016.
10. TIE: 10 Man Tag (Cedric Alexander, Chuck Taylor, Jeff Cobb, Jushin Thunder Liger & Tommy End vs. Brian Kendrick, Matt Riddle, Sami Callihan, Pete Dunne & Tommaso Ciampa)
6 Man Tag: Ricochet, Will Ospreay and Matt Sydal vs. The Young Bucks and Adam Cole – PWG Battle of Los Angeles 2016 (both matches) – Pro Wrestling Guerilla – September 3rd and 4th
PWG was on fire once again this year. This 10-man tag match could almost be the epitome of what this variety of pro-wrestling can be. Fun and lighthearted. I don’t want to spoil it, but I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder at a wrestling match in my life.
That match tied with another tag team match from that weekend of PWG shows, this time a 6-man tag between the three best high-flyers in the world against one of the best tag teams. Their match was much more serious than the 10-man show but still showed off what PWG does best. This was a showcase of ridiculous acrobatics and choreographed spots. Ric Flair vs. Dusty Rhodes this was not, but I think it belongs under the same umbrella.
Ignore the awful soundtrack and watch this.
9. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada – New Japan Pro Wrestling - Wrestle Kingdom 10 – January 4th
The penultimate conclusion to their epic rivalry culminated at this year’s Wrestle Kingdom. Full of dramatic finishing move kickouts and callbacks to their prior encounters, this was a perfect way to end their saga. Okada finally goes over on the big stage and the torch is officially passed.
8. Kota Ibushi vs. Cedric Alexander – WWE – Cruiserweight Classic – August 10th
The Cruiserweight Classic didn’t even feel real. It was on the WWE Network, full of guys they would never normally sign to contracts and featured cruiserweight wrestling that was more akin to PWG than what was happening on Monday Night Raw. Out of the entire tournament, this match stood out the most. Their styles complimented each other tremendously. I think this helped put Cedric Alexander on the map with the live crowd chanting “Please Sign Cedric” after the match, even though he lost. Triple H came out from the back afterwards and gave him a pat on the back.
7. The Miz vs. Dolph Ziggler – WWE – No Mercy – October 9th
Everybody had seen Miz and Ziggler wrestle each other a million times. Nobody thought they needed another feud together.
The brand split made Smackdown a competent wrestling show. They ended up with a smaller roster after the draft and they continued to make the best of it. After months of feuding, Ziggler put his (storyline) career on the line in a match for the Intercontinental Title with The Miz, who was doing some of his best heel work of his entire career.
They had a main event quality match that could and should have closed the show. This wasn’t a spotfest full of flashy, acrobatic moves, this was melodramatic storytelling that the WWE excels at. Miz tried every dirty trick in the book, Ziggler fought on like a valiant hero. I never would have imagined that these two having a match would make it on to a year end list. Definitely worth a rewatch.
6. Kazuchika Okada vs. Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW – G1 Climax Day 13 – August 8th
The G1 tournament is always one of NJPW’s highlights. All of the performers go balls to the wall and match of the year contenders come out of it annually. This was one of them. Okada is the champion going into the match and Ishii plays it up like Okada is his toughest opponent yet. These two made their match look like two guys having a real physical fight, but with wrestling moves instead of punches. Every suplex and hold looked like it could finish the match and it had the perfect combination of drama and pro-wrestling grandeur. Ishii is a tough son of a bitch. Easily deserving of five stars from Dave Meltzer.
5. TIE: DIY (Tommasso Ciampa & Johnny Gargano) vs. The Revival - NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 2 and NXT Takeover: Toronto – August 20th and November 19th
These two teams are redefining tag team wrestling. The Revival are the ultimate heel team and Team DIY are the ultimate babyfaces. Honestly, a lot of the work is paint-by-numbers, formulaic stuff but they make it work astoundingly. Babyface in peril, heel team getting heat, cutting off the shine, hot tag. Both teams work flawlessly as a unit which really helps. They aren’t just two dudes coming together for a match- they’re teams fighting for a revered championship. DIY came up short in their first match but ultimately won the belts in their second encounter, with their second match building off the first.
4. Kenny Omega vs. Tetsuya Naito – NJPW – G1 Climax Day 18 – August 13th
Kenny Omega had a phenomenal rise in NJPW this year, literally filling the void left by AJ Styles (see what I did there?). Naito has also had an ascension in NJPW, winning the title from Okada soon after Wrestle Kingdom and coming into his own as a sleazy heel character. Omega has always been a great character for me, but his ring work stepped up this year. He’s everything Seth Rollins should be.
Nobody really expected Omega to win this match, or even the entire tournament. Naito seemed poised to head back to the Wrestle Kingdom main event and have a rematch with Okada. Instead, Omega gets an upset in an outstanding match. Highly physical and psychologically based with Naito going after Omega’s leg. Omega wins this match, goes on to have another phenomenal match the next night with Hirooko Goto, wins the tournament and is heading on to main event Wrestle Kingdom 11. I hope he wins it.
3. Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura – NXT Takeover: Dallas – April 1st
Nakamura signed to WWE and this was slated to be his first match as well as Sami’s NXT farewell. The live crowd was absolutely electric for Nakamura and blew the roof off of the place when the opening notes of his new theme song hit. I got goosebumps watching at home on my couch. Much like the Cruiserweight Classic, I could hardly believe that Shinsuke Nakamura was about to come out and have a match on a WWE show. The whole thing felt surreal. Sami Zayn awaits Nakamura to enter the ring and he has a hard time hiding his euphoria as well.
They had a match that did everything to highlight the new guard of Nakamura coming in while still giving a fair send off to Sami Zayn. Everybody knew that Nakamura was winning and it didn’t even matter. Fans were so elated to see these two share a ring together that they could have done anything and it would have gotten over. There’s hardly any memorable spots, and there doesn’t need to be. The live crowd chants “fight forever” and “both these guys.” The energy that this entire match created was enough to land a top five spot. I wish more wrestling matches could feel like this, but I also wouldn’t want to ruin the magic.
2. AJ Styles vs. John Cena – WWE SummerSlam – August 21st
Another dream match came to life this year. The top dog of TNA for a decade vs. the top dog of WWE. This match could have delivered in 2006, and still managed to over-deliver in 2016. They had previous encounters over the summer and they all culminated in this. SummerSlam felt like a blip on the radar, lost in the shuffle of the recent brand split and only highlighted with a bizarre Lesnar/Orton match. Cena vs. Styles makes that entire show worth existing.
Their match felt like parts of Okada/Ishii, parts of Zayn/Nakamura and parts of Miz/Ziggler all rolled into one complete package. Similar to Cena’s matches with Kevin Owens last year but dialed up a bit. Melodramatic in-ring storytelling combined with huge wrestling move bombs thrown back and forth combined with an electric crowd made this something special. These two veterans should be on the Mt. Rushmore of 2000’s professional wrestling. AJ Styles and John Cena are two performers who can carry anyone to a great match, and when they come together they push each other to put on something outstanding. Styles goes over Cena clean, Cena leaves to a standing ovation, leaving his armband in the ring behind him.
Look at this. Just look at this.
1. AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura – NJPW – Wrestle Kingdom 10 – January 4th
Go figure. Two performers who made up most of my top 5 had my favorite match of the year. Styles and Nakamura tore down the Tokyo Dome, only 4 days into 2016. This wasn’t even my favorite in-ring match of the year (I liked No. 2 better at face level), but with the context of everything that happened in 2016 it earned No. 1 in my book.
I don’t want to say that pro-wrestling peaked early in 2016. Styles and Nakamura were two performers who kicked off the year together with a bang and went their own ways to reinvigorate WWE. Styles and Nakamura joining was huge news. AJ Styles was the highlight on every single WWE pay-per-show this year, no matter who he faced. Nakamura gave NXT a boost that it so badly needed. Omega and Naito stepped up and filled their spots in New Japan, while Styles and Nakamura instantly took over in WWE.
During this match nobody had any idea that they were about to shake up the entire pro-wrestling world. Fans were just excited to see two of the world’s best going against each other on a big stage. Their match was stellar and I hope they rematch again soon to make a bookend to their journey. I think we’ll look back on this match as a turning point in history.
by Nate Dimit