Friday, January 6, 2017

Top 135 Matches of 2016: #95-86

95. Gift of the Gods Championship: Fenix (c) vs. King Cuerno – Lucha Underground 1/27/16

Lucha Underground season two was a pretty fantastic string of wrestling television. Fittingly, it began with a bang. At Ultima Lucha, the season one finale, Fenix became the first ever Gift of the Gods Champion. The title gives the winner a shot at the Lucha Underground Championship. Mil Muertes, Fenix’s arch rival, was the champion and his manager, Catrina, was running the Temple. She forced Fenix to defend his title right off the bat. With Muertes watching from his throne atop the Temple like a final boss, these two put one hell of a performance. At 7:47, it is the shortest match on the list this year. Due to that, this thing pretty much moves at a frantic pace for the entire duration. Fenix and Cuerno busted out moves I’ve never seen before. Fenix hit an innovative diving double stomp and followed it with a springboard 450 splash. When Fenix was able to kick out of Cuerno’s Thrill of the Hunt, Cuerno had to dig deep into his bag of tricks. He hit a spinning tombstone variation that got him the win and gave us a surprising title change to kick off season two. Their rivalry continued for a Last Lucha Standing and ladder match. Both were damn good but neither reached this level. ****

94. Johnny Gargano vs. TJ Perkins – WWE Cruiserweight Classic 8/24/16

When the Cruiserweight Classic participants were announced, a lot of people felt like the guys signed to WWE contracts, like Rich Swann and Johnny Gargano, would go very far. This was the second round and after beating his tag team partner Tommaso Ciampa, Gargano found himself up against Evolve standout TJ Perkins. Not many people gave Perkins a chance to get past this round. The match started with both guys showing that they’re evenly matched. Though this was taped weeks in advance, commentary discussed Gargano injuring his knee at TakeOver: Brooklyn. They brilliantly worked it into the match and Gargano banged it on the ring bell table on a dive outside. It was done in a way that made sense to those of us watching after seeing TakeOver, while also being something the live fans could buy into. Just brilliant work from both guys throughout the entire 12:19. Gargano sold the hell out of the leg, falling when attempting the lawn dart, though he got it on the second attempt in brutal fashion. Perkins would kick out and go back to attacking the knee. He countered Gargano and finally got the knee bar locked in, which made Gargano tap. The crowd was surprised and Perkins moved on to the quarterfinals on his road to winning the entire thing. ****

93. Naomichi Marufuji vs. Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW G1 Climax 7/28/16

Tomohiro Ishii basically made a career out of excellent G1 Climax matches. This was just another in a long line of those performances. Naomichi Marufuji represented Pro Wrestling NOAH in the G1 and proved to be one of the most consistent guys in the whole tournament. This was one of the stiffest and most brutal matches you’ll see all year long. Ishii is known for going to war but even he couldn’t take some of the chops that Marufuji dished out in this one. In 12:16, I cringed at so many chops. Ishii then started to like them and puffed his chest out for more! Marufuji had Ishii well scouted though, countering his stalling superplex and also getting a knee up when Ishii went for a headbutt, which is a counter I don’t remember ever seeing before. It all boiled down to Ishii’s headbutts against Marufuji’s superkicks and knee strikes. Ishii would win out and get the victory with a brainbuster. This is one of those matches that won’t be remembered by a ton of people but still proved to be an awesome encounter. A manly match from two manly men. ****

92. Chris Hero vs. Tracy Williams – Evolve 72 11/12/16

“Hot Sauce” Tracy Williams is my pick for the most underrated wrestler on the independent scene. Chris Hero makes a strong case for not just the best wrestler on the indies, but is one of the best on the planet. After Hero beat Tracy’s Catch Point teammate Matt Riddle a few shows earlier, Tracy challenged him. This flew under the radar because it was on the same weekend of Hero and Riddle’s rematch. However, Tracy went out and a match that was on par with the Hero/Riddle series. For 12:33, they worked with the intensity that this match needed. Hero and Williams hit each other hard starting with Williams nailing a German suplex before the bell even rang. Both guys had big bursts of offense throughout. Hero just unloaded elbow after elbow followed by a senton at one point. He even hit the arm trap piledriver that has put away many people but Tracy got his shoulder up. Williams had to dig deep and fire up with a massive lariat but Hero kicked out at ONE! Tracy wasn’t deterred and nailed a second lariat that he turned into a crossface to make Hero tap. So not only did Williams upset Hero but he made him submit. That was huge for Williams and Hero lost nothing in the process. Awesome match. ****

91. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. SANADA – NJPW G1 Climax 7/18/16

Outside of his matches at Wrestle Kingdom and the New Beginning in Niigata, Hiroshi Tanahashi took it easy up to this point in the year. He battled injuries and wrestled a lot of multi-man tags. This was the G1 Climax though. This is where Tanahashi steps his game up every year. His first opponent was SANADA, a 28-year-old rising star from the Los Ingobernables de Japon stable. It isn’t a new story but it almost always works. The great babyface veteran against the up and coming heel youngster. Early on, Tanahashi was one step ahead of SANADA at every turn. Once they went outside though, SANADA targeted the recently injured arm of Tanahashi, which was smart. As always, Tanahashi sold this very well and did his own work to SANADA’s leg. I liked the layers of this match, including the story that both men were students of Keiji Muto. SANADA’s finisher, the dragon sleeper, is Tanahashi’s old finisher. SANADA would apply the dragon sleeper but Tanahashi, knowing it well, was able to survive. He fired up and went into his offense, but couldn’t put SANADA away. SANADA then countered High Fly Flow with an RKO OUTTA NOWHERE! Two moonsaults and another dragon sleeper made Tanahashi tap out at 19:28. Easily the biggest win and best singles match of SANADA’s career to that point. He tapped out the company’s ace to start the tournament and showed everyone why he is a future star. ****

90. SMASH Championship: Johnny Gargano (c) vs. Mark Haskins – PROGRESS 5000 to 1 6/26/16

SMASH Wrestling is a Canada based promotion. Their champions in the past have included names like Matt Cross and Alex Shelley. Entering this PROGRESS event, their champion was Johnny Gargano and he had an open challenge scheduled. Gargano got a great pop from the crowd upon his arrival but it was nothing compared to the ovation for Mark Haskins answering the challenge. The fans treated this like a mega match, which added to their interactions. It helped that it was Haskins’ return from injury. This started with great counter wrestling and two guys just looking to see who the better man was. As the match went on though, Gargano began to show more heel tendencies, even spitting in Haskins’ face, which Haskins answered back. It isn’t a side we see often from Gargano, but it worked well. Though Gargano is popular, the love for Haskins was massive here. They willed him to never say die and Gargano couldn’t believe his resiliency. Their battle of strikes transitioned into one of submissions, which saw an armbar from Haskins and the Gargano Escape by the champion. At the 18:53 mark, Haskins got the armbar to fully work, making Gargano submit. It was a huge win for Haskins, made even better by the fact that it was his biggest in PROGRESS from what I can tell. ****

89. IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship: KUSHIDA (c) vs. Jushin Thunder Liger – NJPW Wrestling Dontaku 5/3/16

A record eleven time IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion, Jushin Thunder Liger looked to turn back the clock and reach the top of the mountain again at the age of 51. The pre-match video package showed an eight year old KUSHIDA doing a Liger Bomb to his pillow, which was an awesome touch. KUSHIDA is the current ace of the division, but still had to prove himself one more time against the GOAT. The tag matches leading up to this were great too and saw an aggressive Liger work the knee, while KUSHIDA went after the arm. They wisely continued that here. Liger drove KUSHIDA’s knee into the ring post and then hit a goddamn Brainbuster on the concrete. KUSHIDA limped in to break the count. Once inside, these two continued to go to war in front of a red hot crowd that was more into this than any other juniors match I remember in 2016. Liger nailed a second Brainbuster near the of this 14:37 encounter, which the fans completely bought into. KUSHIDA managed to slap on the Hoverboard Lock and couldn’t force Liger to tap until he locked the knuckles for added leverage. A fantastic effort from both guys as KUSHIDA once again proved why there is nobody in his league in the juniors division, while Liger showed that he’s the best wrestler on the planet over 50. Following the match, they bowed to each other in a show of respect. ****

88. Cedric Alexander vs. Zack Sabre Jr. – Evolve 67 8/20/16

Before and during the Cruiserweight Classic, Evolve ran a lot of CWC Spotlight matches. This was one of them. At this point, Cedric Alexander already had his star making performance against Kota Ibushi and was out of the tournament, while Zack Sabre Jr. remained very much alive. However, Sabre didn’t have a great tournament. In fact, Sabre seemed to be losing popularity, even getting booed in his home promotion of Rev Pro. In the feeling out process, Cedric did his best to stay with Sabre on the mat, while Sabre had to find a way to combat Cedric’s quickness. Alexander got the first sustained upper hand, but Sabre soon turned it around and proceeded to twist and bend Cedric in uncomfortable ways. Sabre talked trash and exuded a ton of arrogance while doing this, drawing boos from the Brooklyn crowd. Sabre ran with that, going more heel as the match went on. Alexander’s fiery comeback was great and his counter of a European uppercut into a backslide was great. He also showed off the best Michinoku Driver in the business. Despite his best efforts, Alexander had to give up to a sick octopus stretch variation at 15:43. Sabre was in top form as a dick heel and Alexander added another great performance to a really strong 2016. ****

87. WWE Tag Team Championship: The New Day (c) vs. AJ Styles and Chris Jericho – WWE Raw 3/7/16

Whenever the WWE goes to Chicago, you can usually expect something memorable. This particular episode of Raw wasn’t, but this match certainly was. The Chris Jericho/AJ Styles rivalry was a strange one. They feuded in matches that were good but not great before teaming up. That led to a short program with New Day and this Tag Team Title match. The poorly named Y2AJ came out of the gate on fire and took out their opponents with stereo splashes to the outside. New Day worked the heat on Jericho in their highly entertaining way. AJ’s hot tag was great. Kofi sold the springboard moonsault reverse DDT better than anyone else in the WWE and the crowd ate it up. There were some tremendous false finishes including one where AJ took the Big Ending and one where Big E saved Kofi from AJ’s springboard 450 splash. Jericho caught Trouble in Paradise into the Walls of Jericho for yet another close call. Even when Big E tagged in, they didn’t go the obvious route of just having him break up the Walls. Jericho caught him but Big E blocked the Walls. In an awesome finish, Big E then countered the Codebreaker into the Big Ending to retain at 11:48. After the match, Jericho attacked Styles to break up their short-lived team and set up a final encounter at WrestleMania. Easily the best main roster tag team match in 2016. ****

86. Ricochet vs. TJ Perkins – Evolve 58 – 4/1/16

I never thought about these two together as a match I’d want to see but once it was announced for Evolve 58, it played a huge role in me ordering that event. This wasn’t the best match involving either guy this year, but it is one of my favorites. Something about this match just worked for me. Both men carry themselves with an aura of swagger and brought it on this night. Ricochet flies so gracefully that it comes off as way easy, while Perkins is the same way when it comes to his mat game. Despite those being their strengths, Ricochet holds his own on the mat at times here, while Perkins takes to the skies and it all comes off so smoothly. Ricochet had fun early by paying homage to the Rock and Steve Austin. Perkins took small offense and turned things a bit more serious. He attacked the leg of the high flyer, a strategy that almost always works well. Ricochet mostly did a good job selling it and it came into play for the finish. Ricochet landed on his feet on a 450 attempt that TJ avoided. His leg buckled, TJ hit a missile dropkick to it and then applied a knee bar to make Ricochet tap out at 14:32. WrestleMania weekend was full of excellent matches and I feel like this gets overlooked because of that, but it’s great. ****