Saturday, February 4, 2017

Top 135 Matches of 2016: #15-6

15. IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. AJ Styles – NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 10 1/4/16

Only one dream match remained in NJPW. The top guys (Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, etc.) had all wrestled each other repeatedly, except for one pairing. Nakamura and Styles. AJ finally challenged Nakamura and the match was set for NJPW’s biggest show of the year. On a major event that almost never felt special, this felt like a huge deal. Hell, this match was the main reason I stayed up to watch this show live. They had an awesome interaction where AJ did the Bullet Club gun taunt only for Nakamura to eat the bullet and spit it back up. It was small but really cool. AJ came in with a back injury and played possum after landing on it, giving him an upper hand. Nearly everything they did in this match came off well. The only move I saw them mess up was AJ’s moonsault DDT. They nailed everything else. Styles had Boma Ye well scouted, avoiding it three times before getting hit with it, but Nakamura was too hurt to cover. Though Boma Ye is Nakamura’s move, AJ struck with a knee that seemingly knocked Shinsuke out. AJ hit a variation of the Styles Clash but it wasn’t enough. After some incredible exchanges (including a second rope Michinoku Driver by Shinsuke), Nakamura retained with two more Boma Ye strikes at 24:18. Post-match, the men fist bumped in a show of respect before heading to WWE. Sometimes, you just know you’re witnessing something special. There was a lot of hype coming into this and they more than lived up to it. AJ Styles is the best in the world and when Nakamura wants to step up his game like he did here, he can be right on that level. ****½

14. Kazuchika Okada vs. Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW G1 Climax 8/6/16

In 2013, these two had a damn good G1 Climax match but disappointed against each other in last year’s tournament. Here there broke out with what was easily their best outing together. Coming into this match, the seventh for each guy, Kazuchika Okada had been coasting through the G1. A lot of lackluster matches with minimal effort from Okada but that all changed on this night. Okada looked like he was going to take his CHAOS stablemate lightly but Ishii woke him up with an early lariat. Both men countered each other’s finishers within the first minute, setting the tone for the match. Ishii laid in the chops and Okada tried to man up and take them but he’s no Shibata or Honma, so he couldn’t. In one of my favorite moments all year, Okada’s Rainmaker pose was interrupted by a chop from Ishii. Sometimes you just gotta shut the cocky prick up. The fans and commentators lost their minds several times as Ishii just is a master at getting you emotionally invested. Having the champ well scouted, Ishii countered three more Rainmakers and nailed two headbutts. He followed with the Owen Hart Driver and a lariat for an insane near fall. Ishii nailed a brainbuster to finally score the win at 18:47, defeating the IWGP Heavyweight Champion in arguably the match of the tournament. Instead of giving us a rematch, Gedo chose to book Okada vs. Fale again the following month. Tomohiro Ishii is incredible and a top five wrestler in the world. ****½

13. Will Ospreay vs. Zack Sabre Jr. – Evolve 58 4/1/16

As part of Zack Sabre Jr.’s “Best in the World Challenge”, he took on the “flyer” in Will Ospreay. The two Brits stole the entire WrestleMania weekend with this match. Sabre went to his strength on the mat, but Ospreay had a surprising advantage there at times. Will extended his upper hand by using his athleticism and frustrating Sabre. Not one to be in trouble for long (unless against Chris Hero), Sabre turned it around and twisted Ospreay like a pretzel. He gained confidence with this, even stopping to pose during one submission. Ospreay’s comeback wowed the audience with some sick displays of high flying ability. Sabre survived the Oscutter and a middle rope Phoenix splash, leading to a “both these guys” chant. Ospreay popped up from a tornado DDT but had his standing shooting star press caught into a triangle choke in a ridiculous sequence. After an awesome 16:32, Sabre won when Ospreay kicked out of a Liger Bomb and he turned it into an absurd double armed submission. Not only was my favorite match in Evolve history and the best of Mania weekend, I think it was an important match that helped cement the fact that European wrestling (which was already hot and gaining popularity) is here to stay. ****½

12. Kenny Omega vs. Tetsuya Naito – NJPW G1 Climax 8/13/16

People were pissed at my original rating for this match. Granted, I still don’t believe it’s five stars but I have bumped up the score after watching again. On the final night for the B Block, it all came down to this match. Kenny Omega had to win here to take the block, while a win or tie would put Naito in the finals. Omega can be very goofy at times and it hurts his character. He came into this 100% serious and it made everything better. Early on, Omega tweaked his knee and did a great job of selling it throughout. He’d pull up lame, limp and have trouble hitting key moves. Naito did a great job of targeting the knee while selling Omega’s power advantage. Omega hit a powerbomb into the crowd and then took a big bump by somersaulting into the front row onto Naito. Omega hit a bridging tiger suplex and was wise enough to lift his injured leg off of the bridge, which may have cost him the pin. Naito went into his offense and hit Omega with nearly everything he had. He countered the One Winged Angel into his patented knee bar for a great close call. Just went it seemed like Omega had it won, Naito again counted the One Winged Angel, this time into Destino. Omega’s legs just weren’t strong enough to finish until he finally mustered enough strength to hit the One Winged Angel and win at 26:17. The back half of this match is ridiculously good. It’s the second best heel vs. heel match I can recall (Styles/Suzuki from the G1 24 is first). This was, far and away, the best performance of Kenny’s career. I still say Naito deserved this win way more but that’s not an argument I feel like getting into anymore. ****½

11. Cedric Alexander vs. Kota Ibushi – WWE Cruiserweight Classic 8/10/16

Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa easily had the best match of the first round of the Cruiserweight Classic. It was here, in the second round, where things were taken to the next level. The hype surrounding this after it was taped was enormous. Sometimes that doesn’t translate well since the live atmosphere adds a lot. It was all justified here though. This was two guys putting on incredible performances and creating magic. They put the crowd in the palm of their hands early and only got them more invested at the match went on. At times, Cedric Alexander made you believe he would pull off the upset. He had Kota Ibushi well scouted, avoiding kicks and the triangle moonsault, following up with a tope con hilo. They even made you believe that it could end in a time limit draw for a moment. Cedric’s near fall after a sick brainbuster and then another after a kick to the head were perfectly done. The one on his incredible snap Michinoku Driver was great too. Kota avoided a diving double stomp, snapped off a German suplex, hit another kick and won with the Golden Star powerbomb after 14:59 of grueling action. Not only was this a phenomenal match, it was a coming out party for Cedric. After ROH wasted him, he appeared all over, having damn good matches and this was his crowning moment. The “please sign Cedric” chants afterwards led to him joining the cruiserweight division, though they’ve failed to capitalize on the main roster. Kota may have won but Cedric gained more from this. I’m dying to see a rematch. ****½

10. IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship: KUSHIDA (c) vs. Will Ospreay – NJPW Invasion Attack 4/10/16

Will Ospreay’s first appearance in NJPW was a video of him announcing that he joined the CHAOS stable and challenging KUSHIDA for the Jr. Heavyweight Title. Not a bad way to make your in-ring debut with a company. Ospreay came into this match in the midst of a string of awesome performances in the first half of 2016, while KUSHIDA has been the MVP of the juniors for a long time now. It hasn’t even been close to be honest. Onto the match, KUSHIDA had a game plan and made it work. He viciously attacked the arm, starting by kicking it in the middle of an Ospreay handspring. It worked on two levels because it took away some of Ospreay’s offense while setting up the Hoverboard Lock. Ospreay tried to handspring again but couldn’t due to the limb damage. Because Ospreay is a freak of nature, he did a handspring off the ropes WITH NO HANDS! It was brilliantly bananas. Ospreay went for the Rainmaker but KUSHIDA countered into the Hoverboard Lock and with the arm damage so bad, Ospreay scrambled to the ropes. Sometimes Will’s selling isn’t good but when he wants to, like here, it can be masterful and it makes all the difference. After some incredible exchanges, KUSHIDA won with the Hoverboard Lock at 15:11. Ospreay gave it his all but couldn’t overcome the champion’s great strategy. This had it all. Hard strikes, high spots, intensity, a hot crowd, selling, storytelling and the list goes on and on. ****½

9. IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Tetsuya Naito (c) vs. Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW Wrestling Dontaku 5/3/16

Tetsuya Naito and Tomohiro Ishii are, in my opinion, the two best wrestlers in NJPW since Hiroshi Tanahashi is finally slowing down. They make magic together too. Other than the night Naito won the title about a month earlier, this was the most excited for an IWGP Heavyweight Title match I have probably ever been (I started following at Wrestle Kingdom 9). You had Naito’s first defense and Ishii’s first ever title shot. Naito brought LIDJ to ringside, while Ishii had his CHAOS buddies with him. I love how this played off their New Japan Cup match. Ishii’s hard hitting style wasn’t enough there, so he came into this with a plan to work Naito’s surgically repaired knee. Credit to Naito for selling the damage so well. There were times where he would just leave that leg limp like he couldn’t use it for anything. Seeing Ishii go for submission was such a great change of pace. They’ve had classics in the past, but this was a different match that showcased their versatility. EVIL got involved a few times until he and BUSHI were finally driven to the back by Okada and Gedo, leaving the final stretch of this match to be a one on one encounter. Those closing moments were the best. Coming into this, Ishii didn’t seem to have a chance at winning but they sucked you in and made you believe it would happen. He came close so many times, especially on an incredibly reverse brainbuster. Finally, after having it countered all match long, Naito hit Destino and retained at 30:33. Incredible sequences, heart pounding drama, a hot crowd and even the interference worked. Ishii may never get another shot that the title and if so, he made it count, putting on the kind of match that fits his character perfectly. This was the freshness I wanted from the title picture. It was the best IWGP Heavyweight Title match all year. ****½

8. Kota Ibushi vs. TJ Perkins – WWE Cruiserweight Classic Finals 9/14/16

My two favorite competitors in the Cruiserweight Classic were Kota Ibushi and TJ Perkins. I knew there was a chance they could meet in the semi-finals but didn’t believe it until it became official. Perkins was a cocky son of a gun throughout the tournament, but with so much at stake, he was serious here. No dabbing, no nonsense. He was the first person to check Kota’s kicks, bringing a game plan to this big match. He had an answer for everything and targeted the knee to eliminate Kota’s brutal kicks and set up the knee bar. This got better as it progressed. Their exchanges were tremendous, strikes and near falls all delivered. The reaction to TJ kicking out of the Golden Star Bomb was one of my favorite things in 2016. Perkins would counter a second powerbomb attempt into the knee bar. When that wasn’t enough, he trapped Kota’s other leg and then added torque to Kota’s surgically repaired neck. Kota had to tap at 14:50, putting TJ in the finals and cementing a major upset. Originally, I gave this match the full five star treatment but I was just on a high from my guys killing it. It isn’t quite that great but is still a phenomenal match between two of the best. Incredible stuff. ****¾

7. Lucha Underground Championship: Mil Muertes (c) vs. Fenix – Lucha Underground 3/16/16

The highest rated Lucha Underground match on my list last year was between Fenix and Mil Muertes. They did it again in 2016. This wasn’t a stipulation match like last year, but it had the added high stakes of being for the Lucha Underground Championship. Despite being at a size disadvantage, Fenix traded blows with Muertes. These two are tailor made for one another. The “Man of 1,000 Deaths” against the Fenix that never stops rising from the ashes. In a callback to season one, Mil ripped away at Fenix’s mask. He brought a chair into play and busted Fenix open before again calling back to their past and powerbombing him on the announce table. Fenix rallied and, in a great twist of fate, ripped Mil’s mask. Catrina, Mil’s manager, was excellent at ringside, nailing every facial expression and emotion throughout. Fenix used Mil’s power against him, using the chair to block a punch and then used the chair himself. He found a way to chop the monster down to size. Fenix busted out a sweet German suplex and a 450 splash but Mil wouldn’t stay down. The champion got back in control and went for his trademark Flatliner only for Fenix to counter into a clutch rollup for the three at 13:38. As a standalone it may not be on the level of some other matches here. But it had the perfect amount of violence and storytelling and when adding in their history and the emotion of Fenix winning the big one, this was Lucha Underground at its finest. ****¾

6. NEVER Openweight Championship: Tomohiro Ishii (c) vs. Katsuyori Shibata – NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 10 1/4/16

Most of the Wrestle Kingdom 10 card lacked in a way that Wrestle Kingdom 9 didn’t. It wasn’t until this match, the seventh of nine on the card, that the show picked up. As I mentioned earlier in the list, I love the rivalry between Tomohiro Ishii and Katsuyori Shibata. It’s a manly feud featuring two guys beating the hell out of each other. Just like their G1 Climax 23 match (which I gave five stars), they came out and went to war from the opening bell. This was a prideful tight fight. There was a point where they literally asked for harder strikes from their opponent. The things they normally do seemed like it wouldn’t be enough so we had moments like Ishii busting out a missile dropkick. Both men collapsed to the mat in exhaustion a few times because they were giving everything for the title. I saw so many stiff strikes and headbutts here that I can’t believe they went so hard for the entire 17:19. It felt like two guys willing to kill each other and that’s a great quality in a title match. After tons of great moments, Shibata won with the Penalty Kick to capture his first singles title in NJPW. He got his moment on the biggest stage possible and it was awesome. NEVER Title matches feel so different from IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Title matches in the best way. Shibata and Ishii embody what that title has become and I could watch them beat the shit out of each other until the end of time. ****¾