Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Top 135 Matches of 2016: #25-16

25. Katsuhiko Nakajima vs. Katsuyori Shibata – NJPW G1 Climax 7/24/16

When the G1 Climax blocks were announced, this was instantly my most highly anticipated match. Katsuhiko Nakajima is my favorite NOAH guy and, while Katsuyori Shibata is only my second favorite NJPW guy, I knew their styles would make for a great match. It’s two guys that hit and kick hard and they don’t hold anything back. Shibata started with stiff shots, but Nakajima gave them right back, including to Shibata’s taped shoulder. Shibata sold it well, rolling back outside to rest right after Nakajima brought him in. Nakajima began to do some of Shibata’s offense, playing the brash youngster heel role. That was actually when he was at his best in this tournament. They would pop up after offense from the other to show how evenly matched they were. Despite Shibata firing up and kicking ass, Nakajima found himself in control down the stretch. He got too big for his britches though because when he tried to win with Shibata’s Penalty Kick, Shibata caught it. He withstood shots from Nakajima, slapped on the sleeper hold and won with the PK at 14:09. I know people loved a lot of the last few days of the G1, but this was my favorite G1 match this year. Shibata has earned that distinction two straight years now. ****½

24. Open the Dream Gate Championship: Shingo Takagi (c) vs. YAMATO – Dragon Gate Kobe World Pro Wrestling Festival 7/24/16

Admittedly, I don’t watch a ton of Dragon Gate. Even so, one guy that always gets talked about is YAMATO. The champion entering this match, Shingo, is my favorite Dragon Gate guy ever since I saw him live at an ROH show back in 2006. Shingo has been a fixture at the top of the company for a long time. This match came off as something of a passing of the torch. Before we get to that though, I must point out that this match is nuts. For 33:46, YAMATO and Shingo went to war. There are so many twists and turns throughout and I can only imagine how it would have made me feel if I was more invested in the company’s stories. YAMATO went after the arm and the crowd was on the edge of their seat each time he applied the cross armbreaker. The challenger came in with a game plan and had Shingo well scouted. The sheer amount of close calls and near falls down the stretch here was breathtaking. Shingo survived the armbreaker, a rana and several enziguris. YAMATO did the same on last falconry and a pumping bomber. Finally, YAMATO won after a second gallarea. Not only did he win the title, but it cemented him as the new ace of Dragon Gate. The match was special and needs to be seen. ****½

23. WWE Intercontinental Championship: The Miz (c) vs. Cesaro vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn – WWE Extreme Rules 5/22/16

An Intercontinental Title match featuring four of the WWE’s top performers in 2016? Yes, please. There were so many things to love about this. The Kevin Owens/Sami Zayn feud came right into play with a Helluva Kick after the opening bell. Cesaro then laid out Miz and gave us a renewal of the excellent Zayn/Cesaro rivalry from their NXT days. Besides the existing feuds being touched upon, each guy played their role perfectly. Owens was a total asshole, Zayn was the fiery babyface, Cesaro ran wild with his crowd pleasing offense and Miz played the cunning heel. Again, there were some great moments like a massive tower of doom spot to Cesaro German suplexing Zayn who was hitting Miz with an exploder. Owens did a cool cannonball barrage after Cesaro’s trademark uppercut train. These incredible sequences all featured some perfect timing from everyone involved. The fans totally bit on a Skull Crushing Finale near fall down the stretch. Miz tapped to Cesaro’s Sharpshooter but a Maryse distraction saved him. Not only did they expertly tease a Cesaro win, they had Miz nearly steal it several times. So much that it was to the point where you thought it wouldn’t happen. Just when Sami hit the Helluva Kick on Cesaro, Owens pulled him outside and they brawled, allowing Miz to sneak in and retain at 18:18. They nailed everything in this match. I love how they played with the emotions of the fans. The quality of IC Title matches dipped for the next two PPVs, but picked up for the rest of the year. ****½

22. NEVER Openweight Championship: Katsuyori Shibata (c) vs. Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW The New Beginning in Osaka 2/11/16

People can give all their praise to the Tanahashi/Okada rivalry, but for my money, this is the best rivalry I’ve ever witnessed in terms of pure in-ring quality. I’ve watched all their matches since 2013 and have never gone lower than ****¼ on one. Though they had a match I gave the full five to back in 2013 (in this same city no less), their two matches this year were among the best they’ve ever done. After stealing a show a month earlier at Wrestle Kingdom, this was Tomohiro Ishii getting his rematch for the NEVER Title. Ishii and Shibata know what works for them and they deliver it each time. For 18:47, they beat the living hell out of each other for our enjoyment. They follow a similar pattern but each time out feels unique. For example, this time around, there was an emphasis on submissions as they built to the climax. At one point, Shibata hit a spinning back fast that made me gasp loudly. They’re known to trade big strikes so they upped the ante and traded brainbusters. They’re that insane. The closing moments were nuts and Shibata finally hit a shot hard enough to knock Ishii loopy. He used the sleeper hold and penalty kick to retain the title in another fantastic war between two incredible wrestlers. ****½

21. WWE World Championship: Dean Ambrose (c) vs. AJ Styles – WWE Backlash 9/11/16

After beating John Cena cleanly at SummerSlam, the next logical step for AJ Styles was to challenge for the WWE World Championship. Styles and Dean Ambrose had a simple but effective buildup to this match and it worked. This felt like a big fight. Like the matches against Cena, Styles was in control for a good chunk of the 24:56 outing. AJ nailed every cocky mannerism as he just continued to be a step above everyone else in the world. Dean more than held his own though and his wild offensive style made for a great contrast to AJ. There were some scary moments in this, like a super back suplex spot and AJ taking a ridiculous bump into the ring post. I’m honestly surprised he didn’t injure himself on it. AJ worked the leg to set up some great Calf Crusher teases, though Dean’s selling of it could have been slightly better. Both guys busted out the big spots, from AJ’s springboard 450 splash to Ambrose’s diving elbow into the crowd. The final few minutes of this were among the best in WWE all year. Styles hit the Pele and Dean answered with the rebound lariat. Some people didn’t like the finish but I loved it. Sure Styles used a low blow before winning with the Styles Clash, but it wasn’t like he came off as a weak heel who needed it. It felt like he was capable of beating Dean and was a cunning enough competitor to take advantage when he found one. AJ’s win cemented his legacy. Everywhere he goes, he reaches the top. TNA Champion. IWGP Heavyweight Champion. WWE World Champion. Phenomenal is more than just a moniker for him. ****½

20. NXT Tag Team Championship: The Revival (c) vs. Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa – NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn 8/20/16

2014 was the year of great NXT Title matches. 2015 was the year of great NXT Women’s Title matches. 2016 was the year of the tag teams in NXT and The Revival was a large reason why. After regaining the titles from American Alpha, The Revival needed a new challenge. Enter Gargano and Ciampa, fresh off a great match against one another in the CWC. These two teams took what AA and the Revival did so well and managed to best it. Tag team wrestling is simple to get right. It’s about deprivation and hope spots and the Revival have mastered it. As for Ciampa and Gargano, they had the crowd in the palm of their hands. There was an emotional impact to this match (and their rematch) that other tag matches lacked. Ciampa left ROH a while back and his future was uncertain, while Gargano left a comfy spot as WWN’s ace. You felt that the fans badly wanted them to succeed here. #DIY were great sympathetic faces, while the Revival nailed every heel tactic and mannerism. I seriously can’t say enough about them. The false finishes were perfectly done. The reaction when the fans thought it ended but Dawson put Dash’s foot on the bottom rope at the last minute was priceless. Just when it looked like we’d have new champions, Dawson pulled Ciampa out and sent him into the post. An inverted figure four was placed on Gargano who desperately tried but had to give up at 19:10. A fantastic blend of indy style and old school tag work. The emotion of this put it over the top. It was one of those cases where the losers gained a ton. Gargano and Ciampa became stars on this night. ****½

19. CMLL World Lightweight Championship: Dragon Lee (c) vs. Kamaitachi – NJPW/CMLL Fantastica Mania 1/24/16

Towards the end of last year, I kept hearing about this incredible series of matches between Dragon Lee and Kamaitachi in CMLL. I got to see a pretty great one after my 2015 list was finalized and was excited to see they’d do it again at this joint NJPW/CMLL event. This was apparently the tenth match between them and it was nuts. They knew each other so well that the pace throughout was bonkers. Their chemistry is a sight to behold. From Dragon double stomping Kamaitachi outside to Kamaitachi’s insane senton to the floor, the spots were out of this world. Seriously, this was one of the greatest spot fests I’ve ever seen. The crowd at Korakuen Hall ate it all up and added a lot to the atmosphere. There was a great intensity in the things they did and even if you didn’t know about the feud, you could buy into it by watching this. There is something truly special about these two together. Kamaitachi won the title after countering a Phoenix plex into a ridiculous flipping piledriver at 18:33. An absolute must see match. I would have done more play-by-play or talked more about specific moves but it wouldn’t have done it any justice. Kamaitachi would return to Japan for good at the end of the year and jump right into the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title picture. ****½

18. Fenix and Pentagon Jr. vs. Heroes Eventually Die – PWG Battle of Los Angeles 9/3/16

Lucha Underground stars Fenix and Pentagon Jr. are brothers in real life though it isn’t mentioned on the show. It was front and center in this non-tournament tag match during PWG’s annual Battle of Los Angeles weekend. They sported matching masked that fused their normal masks together for a dope visual. Heroes Eventually Die consists of Chris Hero and Tommy End. Almost everything about this match ruled. Pentagon yelling obscenities in Spanish at everyone, Fenix and End going at each other viciously and the insane spots from the brothers. At one point, Pentagon launched Fenix up onto his shoulders and Fenix then moonsaulted off onto Hero and End on the outside. Heroes Eventually Die took over as the brute tag team, while Fenix and Penty got to play the resilient babyface duo. Fenix took a beating like a champ before doing some cool double team moves. In the end, it came down to Fenix and End, who just destroyed each other. Fenix scored on a super rana and then a springboard 450 splash to pick up the win at 18:22. This was the second-best tag team match of the year and the best match of PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles weekend. Pentagon Jr. and Fenix should team up more often around the indies because they are fantastic together. ****½

17. KUSHIDA vs. Kyle O’Reilly – NJPW Best of the Super Juniors 5/21/16

In my opinion, the two best junior heavyweights in New Japan Pro Wrestling were KUSHIDA and Kyle O’Reilly until Kyle moved to heavyweight. In the finals of this tournament last year, these two faced off in the finals. KUSHIDA won and went on to win the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title because of it. In the first main event of this year’s tournament, they had their big rematch. Their finals match went 30 minutes so both guys tried for their signature submissions out of the gate. I loved the way O’Reilly altered his game after losing last year. He didn’t just go after the arm, instead adding in some leg work to hurt KUSHIDA as much as possible. Their work is so smooth together that watching them catch each other in various submissions is a thing of beauty. That even played into possibly my favorite spot of the year, when O’Reilly sat KUSHIDA in a chair and leapt off the apron to attack him, only to get caught in a mid-air armbar. It sounds so difficult to pull off but they nailed it perfectly. After some spectacular counter wrestling and playing off past matches, O’Reilly nailed a Brainbuster and took the kickout right into stomping on KUSHIDA’s face. He turned that into an armbar and made sure to grab at the leg, again playing off earlier work. KUSHIDA fought hard but fell into a tough position and had to tap at 20:08. Unfortunately, O’Reilly didn’t even make the finals, so we never got the NJPW tiebreaker. Still, this is a tremendous must see match. ****½

16. Aztec Warfare II – Lucha Underground 3/23/16

Aztec Warfare is three for three in producing great matches. Season two’s edition was not just the best so far, it was also a top three Lucha Underground match ever. The reigning Lucha Underground Champion Fenix entered at one and the Temple came unglued when Rey Mysterio Jr. debuted at number two. That set the stage for a match filled with awesome moments. This match had a little bit of everything. Famous B at ringside scouting potential clients was hilarious, Joey Ryan being sleazy and handcuffing himself outside to avoid competing was perfect character work, the debut of Mysterio was handled expertly and several feuds were furthered. For example, Drago and Jack Evans continued their beef, while former champion Mil Muertes was taken out almost instantly thanks to interference from his rival Pentagon Jr. Pentagon wasn’t allowed to compete thanks to Mil’s manager Catrina, since she was running the Temple at the time. After all twenty participants entered and Mil (#20) was taken out, Catrina’s night got worse when Dario Cueto returned to take back his Temple. He brought out a 21st entrant, his debuting brother “The Monster” Matanza Cueto. Matanza proceeded to eliminate every remaining competitor in an incredibly dominant display before defeating Mysterio in the end to capture the title. When a match goes 52:49 (with commercials) and has non-stop action, while being an absolute blast, continuing existing stories and setting up future ones, you know you have something special. Even with everything I covered, there are still plenty of things I didn’t mention. This match was that awesome. ****½