It’s a few weeks into 2017, and we’re already being treated to great wrestling matches; with Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega’s stormer at January 4th’s Wrestle Kingdom, and the prospect of AJ Styles vs. John Cena at the Royal Rumble. In the dawn of the new year, now’s the best time for a retrospective of the best WWE matches of 2016. Though 2016 has a sour reputation in the minds of many people, and there was a fair share of negativity exuded by wrestling fans online, it’s undeniable that there was a plethora of quality wrestling produced last year.
This list will look at those matches, but this isn’t a conventional ‘Best of Year’ list where the matches are ranked in an ascending order. Instead this serves as more of a directory of great matches in 2016, as there’s always going to be disagreements about the specifics of which match was better than which. And this list is restricted to WWE only, for the sake of brevity.
Triple H vs. Dean Ambrose (Roadblock, 12th March)
With this match taking place on a WWE Network event that was basically a glorified house show, as well as the result being seen as a formality due to the predictable result, there was little enthusiasm in the lead-up. The match itself proved to be far superior to Triple H’s subsequent mediocre Wrestlemania main event match against Roman Reigns. With the story of the usually frantic Ambrose carrying out a strategy of targeting HHH’s leg, it showcased a mastery of storytelling/psychology that ‘The Game’ has always possessed.
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn (NXT TakeOver: Dallas, 1st April)
One of the big headlines of 2016 was WWE’s acquisition of New Japan’s AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura. Nakamura’s debut match was against internet favourite Sami Zayn, and Nakamura made a strong first impression. Getting over his hard-hitting strong style offence, Nakamura was made to look a big deal as he kicked seven bells out of Zayn; who held his own with fiery underdog offence. With Wrestlemania two days after, this was an example of NXT laying its claim as the top quality brand in WWE.
Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch (Wrestlemania 32, 3rd April)
Three of the key figures of the ‘Women’s Revolution’ asserted their place on the main roster by putting on an engaging match on WWE’s biggest stage. And this match deserves recognition as a major victory in said revolution. Not just because it put an end to the term ‘Diva’ in crowning a new Women’s champion, but also because it was the first case where a women’s match was the best match on a Wrestlemania card. This is something that would’ve been unimaginable a few years ago, and it’s a huge credit to the participants involved.
The Miz vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn vs. Cesaro (Extreme Rules, 22nd May)
2016 saw an encouraging revival in prominence for the Intercontinental championship due to the inclusion of high-profile figures in high-profile matches, and this was a pertinent example of that. The match flowed seamlessly from high-spot to high-spot, it was almost akin to the incredible Styles vs. Joe vs. Daniels TNA match of 2005. Each man was on form in their individual roles: Miz as the corner-cutting heel, Zayn as technical master out for glory and revenge, Owens as the trash-talking world-beater, and Cesaro as the athletic beast.
Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens (Battleground, 24th July)
The ‘Fight Forever’ feud between Owens and Zayn was so called because that’s what the fans would chant when these two wrestled each other, for the simple reason that you could watch them fight forever and not get bored. Their match at Battleground was the conclusion of this feud, and had almost everything you could ask for of a wrestling match. It combined insane indie-rific high-spots with the high-intensity drama of feud leading into it, Zayn’s shoulder injury scare, and the match’s emotional climax that was a fitting end.
The Revival vs. Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano (NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II, 20th August)
The Revival proved themselves to be the premier tag team of 2016 with matches such as this. Mixing 80’s style tag psychology with modern elaborate spots, it seems as though tag wrestling in WWE has been brought back to a level once forgotten. Ciampa and Gargano played the roles of fiery babyfaces to perfection and had the crowd rooting for them to win. Though, they ultimately fell short to Dawson and Wilder; the duo who can be considered a modern day equivalent of the Midnight Express or the Brain Busters.
Samoa Joe vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II, 20th August)
This was considered a dream match by many due to both men’s stiff MMA style and general match quality. But what played a factor into the match was the intensity going into it, as both men had you genuinely convinced that they despised one another, and it showed even in the pre-match announcements. The bout lived up to the promise of being a hard-hitting encounter, with Joe suffering a legit broken jaw in the final moments. Not as lauded as Nakamura’s match with Zayn, it still deserves recognition as a brutal spectacle of an encounter.
John Cena vs. AJ Styles (SummerSlam, 21st August)
This match was Cena and Styles at their individual bests. It was a match that saw crisp chain wrestling and reversals, false finishes that had you believing that the match could be over, and a definitive finish that confirmed Styles as a major player. Cena deserves credit for his technical ability, use of moves outside of his usual repertoire, and for making AJ look like a million bucks. But the man of the hour and the eventual man of the year was AJ Styles.
Dean Ambrose vs. AJ Styles (Backlash, 11th September)
With Styles established as a top guy, it seemed only natural that he’d transition into the world title picture, especially given Dean Ambrose’s lackluster SummerSlam match with Dolph Ziggler. But Ambrose wasn’t going to relinquish his belt without showing everyone what he’s all about. Ambrose’s kinetic offence went up against Styles’ natural ability in a match that was a rapid rollercoaster of excitement.
The Revival vs. #DIY, 2/3 Falls (NXT TakeOver: Toronto, 19th November)
The highly anticipated encounter that surpassed the quality of its Brooklyn predecessor, it is quite simply the best WWE tag team match since the SmackDown 6 days of 2002. There were so many back-and-forth moments that had fans on the edge of their seats. This was down to the likeability of Ciampa and Gargano, as it was their last chance to win the titles, and the fans were emphatically behind them to win. The Revival played their roles of old school heels to perfection as per usual, in what was both a throwback and a positive sign for the future.
Team Raw [Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho, and Braun Strowman] vs. Team SmackDown [AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose, Bray Wyatt, Randy Orton, and Shane McMahon] (Survivor Series, 20th November)
Despite clocking in at 52 minutes long, there was never a dull moment in what may be the best 5 on 5 match of all time. From Strowman’s dominance, to James Ellsworth’s hijinks, to Shane McMahon’s jaw dropping stunts that no 46 year old should be doing, to the Shield reunion, to the new Wyatt family standing tall. It was big, full of personalities, and had moments that fueled me with machismo and adrenaline. It’s the core elements of wrestling in one match.