Saturday, January 7, 2017

Top 135 Matches of 2016: #85-76

85. WWE Championship: Triple H (c) vs. Dean Ambrose – WWE Roadblock 3/12/16

With the Royal Rumble in the rearview mirror and WrestleMania’s main event scheduled to be Triple H vs. Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose looked to throw a wrench into that plan. These two were the final two guys in the Rumble a few months earlier and had some history from the Shield/Evolution days. The crowd was split early on in this 24:43 outing. Triple H was out to show that though he hadn’t made a title defense since 2009, he was still “The Game.” I was surprised to see this start with basic wrestling considering the brawling nature of the rivalry. Ambrose gained control, but Triple H turned it around. About halfway through, they managed to turn the split crowd into a pro-Dean one. Once Dean was able to wear down HHH, he applied a figure four to try and make the weakened champion submit. When that failed, he pleased the Canadian crowd with a sharpshooter, which also didn’t work. They gave us the best tease of a title change all year when Dean hit Dirty Deeds and got a three count, only for the referee to see that his foot was under the bottom rope. They spilled outside, where Dean mocked HHH’s DX taunt. Dean made a mistake by missing an elbow and going through the announce table. Dean beat the countout but lost to the Pedigree once inside. The whole match, especially the last few minutes, was a master class of how to work the crowd. ****

84. Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Will Ospreay – NJPW Best of the Super Juniors 6/7/16

With the loaded talent in the A Block of this tournament, Ryusuke Taguchi coming out as the winner of it blew my mind. I get not wanting to do another Will Ospreay/KUSHIDA match, but Kyle O’Reilly or BUSHI would have been far better choices here. Anyway, Will Ospreay, one of Gedo’s favorite new playthings, won out in the B Block and that set up this finals. Taguchi is a former IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion, partner of Finn Balor and winner of this tournament back in 2012. He’s mostly used for comedy at this point and I don’t like his act, so I couldn’t believe he put together something good enough to crack this list. While Taguchi kept the comedy to a minimum, he did get into Will’s head with his trademark ass taunt, only for Ospreay to steal it and do it back to him. Unlike a lot of other overly flippy guys, Ospreay knows how to sell limb damage (when he wants to), which he did here after Taguchi softened up his foot for an ankle lock. Ospreay would do little things, like only springboard off of his good leg or shake it out. For most of the 22:05 runtime, Taguchi came off as a legitimate wrestler instead of curtain jerking comedy act. There were some great close calls in the end, specifically on ankle lock spots by Taguchi and an imploding 450 by Ospreay, before Ospreay won with the Oscutter to become the first British BOTSJ winner. Easily the best work I’ve ever seen from Taguchi. ****

83. IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship: KUSHIDA (c) vs. BUSHI – NJPW New Beginning in Niigata 2/14/16

BUSHI missed nearly a year with a neck injury but returned and joined Los Ingobernables de Japon. The prominence of the group allowed BUSHI to get major opportunities, with this being the first big one. He delivered. It helped that KUSHIDA was involved, since he has been, hands down, the class of the junior division for two years. A few minutes into this, BUSHI’s stablemates Tetsuya Naito and EVIL strolled down to ringside. They got involved when EVIL used a chair on BUSHI and Naito beat up the young lions, but none of their interference ever felt overdone. We got a great MX (Codebreaker) counter into a Hoverboard Lock but LIDJ distracted the official to keep things going. BUSHI spit the green mist at KUSHIDA and it led to some incredibly close near falls for the challenger, including one on a second rope MX that I bit on hard. Each time KUSHIDA looked to have momentum, LIDJ derailed him. Finally, perennial junior good guy Ryusuke Taguchi helped and, along with the young lions, held Naito and EVIL back while BUSHI tapped to the Hoverboard Lock at 16:32. Instead of being about moves, this was based around drama, which was a great change from most junior matches. BUSHI would eventually be the man to end KUSHIDA’s nine-month reign as champion at Destruction in Tokyo. ****

82. IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Kazuchika Okada (c) vs. Tetsuya Naito – NJPW Invasion Attack 4/10/16

Kazuchika Okada was fresh off beating Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom to become the “ace” of NJPW. Tetsuya Naito was (and still is) the hottest act in Japan and won the New Japan Cup tournament to earn this title shot. At 28 years old, Okada entered as a three time IWGP Champion and had the world handed to him after a shit run with TNA. Naito, 33, had never held the title, ran into several setbacks and reinvented his character completely to get to the top. Though the heel, Naito was the heavy favorite. Tons of Los Ingobernables de Japon merchandise dominated the crowd. Following a fair start, Naito’s running buddy BUSHI tripped Okada and Naito took to beating up Okada’s second (and NJPW booker) Gedo. EVIL attacked Okada with a chair and Naito got in the driver’s seat. Okada would take out all three members with a cross body into the first few rows. In trouble, Naito was ready with a low blow to set up a Koji Clutch that nearly ended the match. Okada wouldn’t stay down and rallied. He called for the Rainmaker but Naito threw the referee in the way, opening the door for Los Ingobernables de Japon to jump in and attack Okada. Okada took care of them until a masked man showed up and laid him out. He revealed himself to be the returning SANADA, joining LIDJ. Okada still had fight but Naito countered the Rainmaker into Destino to win the title at 28:22. Naito disrespectfully threw the title in the air as the crowd went nuts. There were better worked matches this year, but not many that I was more invested in. The moment of Naito winning also helped put it above their rematch two months later. For the next 70 days, NJPW felt fresh. For one night, Gedo made the absolute right booking move. ****

81. WWE Intercontinental Championship vs. Career Match: The Miz (c) vs. Dolph Ziggler – WWE No Mercy 10/9/16

Dolph Ziggler came up short time after time following the brand split. It started against Dean Ambrose at SummerSlam and continued into the feud with the Miz. Miz had no reason to give Dolph another title shot but finally agreed when Dolph, out of desperation, put his career on the line. Their match at Backlash a month prior was a pleasant surprise. WWE chose to have Styles/Cena/Ambrose open this show and with that decision they should have put this match on last. It would have done wonders for the title and honestly, it felt like a main event program. The rumor of Dolph wanting to wrap up his career added to the drama as it could have gone either way. This started slower than their Backlash match as Miz worked a methodical pace. He garnered heat by mocking Daniel Bryan at every opportunity. Miz tried to win with his feet on the ropes and by pulling the tights but it was not to be. He also got help from Maryse, her spray can and the Spirit Squad. You felt the desperation in Dolph with each close call. He fought through it all and just as the Spirit Squad and Maryse were ejected, nailed a superkick to win the title at 19:41. The emotion was off the charts here and the fans ate all this up. I think the Backlash match was better from a pure moves standpoint (things came off cleaner there) but the emotion and story in this one put it over the top. ****

80. IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Kenny Omega (c) vs. Michael Elgin – NJPW Road to Wrestling Dontaku – 4/27/16

New Japan’s “Road to…” shows typically serve to hype a bigger upcoming even, like this one did for Wrestling Dontaku. However, with the cancellation of Wrestling Hinokuni due to an earthquake, some of the matches from that event were moved here, giving this show a big feel. Kenny Omega made his first defense of the Intercontinental Championship against Michael Elgin in the main event on this night. First off, I must note the setting. This apparently wasn’t a building NJPW ran often for televised (or streamed I guess) events. It had a darker, intimate feel and something about it just felt different than other shows in New Japan. Usually, I stray from Elgin matches that go over 20 minutes, since his wheel house is about 15 but this goes 23:04 and I dug it. Within the first few minutes, a ladder came into play, which ended up foreshadowing their Dominion match (even if it was originally supposed to be Tanahashi in that one). Throw in the use of a table and this had a hardcore element that is rarely seen in New Japan. I also appreciated how those things weren’t overdone, as the anticipation of the table spot was cool, with the payoff of Elgin powerbombing Omega through it feeling earned. Omega survived that and more before winning with an impressive One Winged Angel. No Bullet Club, no shenanigans. Their best match together and the first time that made me see something in Omega. ****

79. Katsuhiko Nakajima vs. Yuji Nagata – NJPW G1 Climax 7/30/16

Yuji Nagata is obviously a veteran in the business and is an ageless wonder as he nears 50. Katsuhiko Nakajima has future star written all over him and he was arguably the MVP in his first ever G1 Climax run. The NOAH star is a babyface but was actually at his best when playing up the cocky young heel role. He did that here, kicking Nagata during his entrance to get a jump on the legend. Nagata entered this match at 3-0 and a win here would not only give him his first loss, but it would vault Nakajima to the top of the standings, so there was a little extra on the line. Nagata brought the hard strikes throughout this 12:32 match, but Nakajima was more than willing to dish it right back out. The brash Nakajima even tried using Nagata’s own backdrop driver on him, but he only got a near fall with it. When Nagata got his armbar locked in, the crowd responded perfectly. The final exchange of chops and strikes from these two was among the best all year long. Nagata was so pissed that he even shoved the referee away during his assault. When it was all said and done, Nakajima used a penalty kick and Brainbuster to earn one of the biggest wins of his career. That Nakajima guy is really, really good. ****

78. Number One Contender’s Match: AJ Styles vs. Cesaro vs. Chris Jericho vs. Kevin Owens – WWE Raw 4/4/16

The Raw after WrestleMania has become a traditional huge event. This year, the crowd was one day removed from Roman Reigns winning the big one for a third time in just over four months. Reigns showed up and issued an open challenge of sorts. Chris Jericho, AJ Styles, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn all responded, prompting Shane McMahon to book a fatal four-way main event. Owens took out Zayn beforehand and, at the last minute, the returning Cesaro replaced him to a thunderous pop. Not only was this four of the best in the world competing, but it was four guys that the crowd would have loved to see dethrone Reigns. I honestly think that anyone could have won and the fans would have been happy. All four men were given ample opportunity to shine and each had their moments throughout. I appreciated that everyone had their finishers protected for the most part, as instead of guys kicking out of them, the pins were broken up. The best thing about this was the fact that you could buy anyone winning since the champion kind of played a tweener. Heel or face, everyone had a legitimate shot. After 16:47, Styles avenged his WrestleMania loss by hitting the Styles Clash on Jericho. It cemented the belief that the WWE had in AJ Styles and he rewarded them with top notch performances all year long. A great main event in front of a hot crowd featuring awesome workers. ****

77. WWE Cruiserweight Championship: Gran Metalik vs. TJ Perkins – WWE Cruiserweight Classic 9/14/16

When the Cruiserweight Classic participants were announced, I doubt anyone predicted this final. Most people expected the men they beat in the semi-finals, Kota Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr., to be here. Instead, we got Gran Metalik and TJ Perkins. Both guys delivered great matches throughout the tournament and deserved to be here. Before the match, Triple H came out and introduced the Cruiserweight Title for the winner, upping the stakes of these finals. I loved that TJ was a different guy on this final event. There was no dabbing or anything like that. You could tell this was a serious match with important stakes. He wisely tried to ground Metalik but the Mexican star still got free for some of his signature stuff. He made sure to show that he could hang on the mat too, stretching Perkins a few times. The rest of this 17:48 match saw them trade some great moments. A highlight saw Metalik snap off a great rana off the apron and another came when Perkins caught a running shooting star press into the knee bar. TJ kept trying the knee bar, getting closer and close to winning. Metalik hit the Metalik Driver but the knee was too beat up to cover in time. He went for an avalanche version but TJ somehow countered into the knee bar to win the CWC. An excellent capper to a fun tournament. They wrestled an exciting, smart, back and forth match in front of a hot crowd and TJ’s win was an emotional one. ****¼

76. Ricochet vs. Will Ospreay – NJPW Best of the Super Juniors 5/27/16

It is the match that sparked a lot of conversation. It is the match that made Vader relevant again. It is the most controversial and divided match of the year. Ricochet and Will Ospreay are two of the most athletically gifted wrestlers in the entire world and you know what you’re going to get when they face off. Right off the bat, they flip and fly all over the place and come to a standoff that gets a huge ovation. A lot of people loathe this kind of thing. For some, it is the worst part about wrestling in this era and for others, it is the best. I’m not usually too big on it but I felt it made sense here. Yes, they were doing all sorts of flips but I took it as them trying to not just win a match, but prove who the more athletic guy was. Part of what Vader and the detractors of this match say is true. You don’t need the fancy acrobats to tell a great story. However, if you can add them in as part of the story, that’s fine with me. For 16:48, these two did breathtaking things. Some of them worked better than others (a particular 619 into a reverse rana spot by Ospreay came off odd), but seeing them even attempt some of these things was crazy. Ospreay went on to win with the Oscutter in a match that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly is worth a view to see where you stand on it. ****¼