Saturday, January 13, 2018

Kevin's Top 130 Matches of 2017: #130-121

For the third straight year, I return with my top matches list. In 2015, I ranked 100 and in 2016, that climbed to 135 due to the sheer volume of great matches. This year gets 130, as I watched over fifteen different wrestling promotions and around 2500 matches. I gave 133 matches at least ****, but wanted a rounder number than 130. I’ll put the other three as honorable mentions. As always, some will enjoy this, some will hate where I put certain matches and some will ignore it and not care. Whatever you want to do is fine by me.

Honorable Mention #1: WWN Championship Last Man Standing Match: Keith Lee vs. Matt Riddle – Evolve 94 10/14/17

Honorable Mention #2: Takehiro Yamamura vs. T-Hawk – Dragon Gate The Gate of Passion 4/7/17

Honorable Mention #3: Super Strong Style 16 Quarterfinals: Flamita vs. Travis Banks – PROGRESS Chapter 49: Super Strong Style 16 5/28/17

130. AJ Styles vs. Dean Ambrose – WWE Smackdown 1/31/17

For the second straight year, the list officially begins with an AJ Styles Smackdown match. The AJ Styles/Dean Ambrose feud produced some stellar matches in 2016. After losing the WWE Championship in a classic at the Royal Rumble, Styles and Ambrose reignited their rivalry for one night. With both men scheduled for the Elimination Chamber, this served as a preview, with other Chamber participants, Miz and Baron Corbin, on commentary. They opened things with some mat based work, with Ambrose showing he could more than hang there when he wants to. As it progressed, Dean brought out his brawling style, keeping AJ on his toes. After a commercial, things evened out, with plenty of counters due to their knowledge of one another. The finishing stretch reminded me of AJ’s NJPW run. Dean’s counter of AJ’s moonsault DDT was tremendous, as was the Pele Kick into Nigel clothesline spot. Just when things hit the great level, Corbin and Miz came to blows, causing the official to miss Dean’s pin. Dean took them out, only to eat a Styles Clash inside for the finish at 18:44. I’d say their three best matches were Backlash, TLC and this, but the last two are close. Great finish and they managed to work the always lame Corpus Christi crowd into a frenzy. Also, it was the first Smackdown match to get ****+ from Big Dave in several years. [****]

129. Super Jr. Tag Team Tournament Semi-Finals: BUSHI and Hiromu Takahashi vs. Roppongi 3K – NJPW Road to Power Struggle 10/30/17

Had this match been saved for Wrestle Kingdom 12, it would’ve been the best Jr. Tag Title match in the Tokyo Dome in YEARS. Instead wasn’t even the finals of the Super Jr. Tag Tournament. Hiromu is battling KUSHIDA for best junior, while BUSHI is top five (behind those two and probably Scurll and Ricochet only) and Roppongi 3K are hella talented. SHO and YOH had just won the Jr. Tag Titles, but were still looked at by some as the young boys they were before they went on excursion. Hiromu and BUSHI certainly treated them that way. YOH’s chest was a deep red in the opening minutes from a string of brutal chops. YOH and SHO had a “never say die” attitude and won over the crowd with it. YOH was busting out fresh, impressive offense, while SHO was kicking and suplexing everything moving. I love that BUSHI and Hiromu didn’t play this like two stablemates thrown together for the sake of an extra team in the tournament. There was thought and effort put into their team and it showed. They had great chemistry and dope tandem offense. After an action-packed 20:34, SHO and YOH won via their 3K finisher, which is a flapjack/complete shot combo. This division is one of the worst in all of wrestling, but every once in a while, they deliver something like this and kill it. [****]

128. Evolve Championship: Zack Sabre Jr. [c] vs. Ethan Page – Evolve 84 5/20/17

In the record books, Ethan Page held victories over Zack Sabre Jr. at Evolve 72 and 76. His turn (again) on Johnny Gargano near the end of 2016 set Page on a course for success and I bought him as the guy to end Timothy Thatcher’s reign. Sabre wound up doing that and his rivalry with Page spilled over to the Evolve Title on this night. They played this like an animosity filled title match, fighting outside and bringing big strikes. Both were aggressive, which fit the feud, Page’s personality and is the best kind of Sabre. Both men picked up near falls and had some great counters. When Page delivered the Package Piledriver, I legitimately bought it as the finish. Sabre escaped a second and went into a flurry. After two PKs, Page refused to go down, instead defiantly flipping Sabre off. Two more PKs sealed it after 13:52 of action. This worked as a great grudge match, with lots of intensity. The in-ring stuff ruled and the character work from both delivered. [****]

127. Tetsuya Naito vs. Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW G1 Climax 7/29/17

I’ve spoken, at length, about the chemistry between these two. Less than a month after Tomohiro Ishii beat Tetsuya Naito to advance in the IWGP United States Title Tournament, they were paired up again in the G1 Climax. Entering this match, they’d met six times in the past (never in a G1) and were tied at three wins apiece. The fans were pro-Naito for this. He treated them to his usual antics as he got under Ishii’s skin by spitting at him. Ishii had enough of his shit and proceeded to kick his ass for a few minutes. When Naito got in his offense, he focused on the neck. Ishii’s a bad man, though, and he was game to trade suplexes, regardless of what happened to his neck. Down the stretch, they traded strikes several times, with each one sounding brutal. Whatever Naito threw at Ishii, he had an answer for and won via Brainbuster after a great 20:40. It started slow, but really picked up and was helped by the hot crowd. It was a hard-fought match that had the feel of high stakes. Even with this being great, it was still possibly the worst match I’ve seen them have. [****]

126. NXT Tag Team Championship: #DIY [c] vs. The Authors of Pain – NXT TakeOver: San Antonio 1/28/17

At TakeOver: Toronto in November 2016, #DIY won the NXT Tag Team Titles in my personal pick for, not just match of the year, but best tag team match I’ve ever seen. On that same show, the Authors of Pain won the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. That set these teams on a course for this title match. Known for their heart, #DIY didn’t back down from their large challenge. It started hot and stayed that way. Even when Gargano took the heat segment, the fans were engaged. Ciampa’s hot tag ruled, as he busted out Germans on both challengers. There was a great callback when the stereo submissions #DIY won the titles with were locked in. It wasn’t enough, though, signaling that something was changing. #DIY’s finisher was countered into the Super Collider in a great spot. A Last Chapter later and new champs were crowned at 14:26. #DIY just “got” tag team wrestling. They played to the Authors’ strengths and it made for an awesome start to a series of matches that only got better. Like Sami Zayn as NXT Champion, #DIY losing the titles in just two months was fine. Their story was more about the journey, while AOP got to play dominant champions and have a great 2017. [****]

125. Cueto Cup Semi-Finals: Fenix vs. Prince Puma – Lucha Underground 8/16/17

A lot of the Cueto Cup didn’t deliver on the high expectations I had, but it got better as we reached the later rounds. The Semi-Finals saw Lucha Underground’s “Mount Rushmore” (at least in my mind) compete. Pentagon Dark, Mil Muertes, Fenix and Prince Puma. Though it came down to the four biggest stars, the Puma/Fenix matchup felt fresh. It had only happened once before, way back in season one. They played this match evenly, like you’d expect the two top babyfaces to be. However, Puma was no longer the straight face he was during his title run. He was more aggressive and it showed. Despite that, Fenix came the closest to winning after a brutal kick to the back of the head. Marty Martinez, Fenix’s rival, arrived to stalk Fenix’s love interest, Melissa Santos. Ever the good guy, Fenix took Marty out. Puma, no longer the straight face, took advantage and hit a Michinoku Driver. Fenix was resilient enough to survive that, but fell after a 630 splash at 10:27. This was as awesome as you’d expect from guys the caliber of Puma and Fenix, with story advancements to add to the action. [****]

124. Kazuchika Okada vs. Tiger Mask W – NJPW 45th Anniversary 3/6/17

Before a fun run in the G1 Climax, Kota Ibushi spent some of 2017 playing the real life version of the anime character Tiger Mask W. To main event one of NJPW’s 45th Anniversary events, he went toe to toe with the IWGP Heavyweight Champion. While watching the G1 Climax, I truly noticed how similar most Okada matches are. This followed that formula early, with some back and forth in the ring, before Okada’s cross body over the guardrail spot on the outside. Luckily, it went away from that typical formula for the most part. Tiger Mask W escaped Red Ink, which should be a finish sometimes if they want to make fans believe Okada could win with it. In tags or some G1 bouts. Like everyone else, Tiger Mask W countered the first Rainmaker attempt, but with a sweet snap German. This was mostly a friendly match with no animosity or backstory, but that changed late. They traded angry strikes, the referee was tossed aside and Tiger Mask W delivered some rather disrespectful stomps. That added fuel to a great finishing stretch that included a SUPER TIGER DRIVER near fall. In the end, we got the Rainmaker, wrist hold, Rainmaker, counter, Okada move, Rainmaker segment to give Okada the win at 27:03. Some parts were lame, but I liked how things got heated and they built drama in what was a wacky match on paper. Ibushi is so good. [****]

123. Mae Young Classic Semi-Finals: Kairi Sane vs. Toni Storm – WWE Mae Young Classic 9/4/17

Throughout the Mae Young Classic, Kairi Sane felt like a huge star. Toni Storm didn’t showcase a ton early, but delivered in the Quarterfinals and was set for this huge clash. A staple of the tournament was battles of size against speed, which came into play here. Storm had the power upper hand and used it to her advantage and wore down Sane’s arm. It was a solid strategy to take Sane’s biggest weapon, the elbow drop, away from her. Sane rallied and hit a huge cross body to the outside, smacking her face on the ramp and concussing herself. Still, she competed at a high level for the rest of the 12:23 and sold everything Storm did very well. Storm’s offense looked great, especially a vicious armbar and bridging Muscle Buster. Sane busted out a desperation spinning back fist and went to the top for the elbow. She clutched at it, but risked it all to win and it worked. It was the best match of the tournament, featuring a hot crowd, smart work and a real sense of urgency. It truly felt I was watching something important. [****]

122. Evolve Championship: Zack Sabre Jr. [c] vs. Jaka – Evolve 87 6/25/17

A few months after winning the Evolve Title in Queens, Zack Sabre Jr. returned to defend it against one half of the Evolve Tag Team Champions. The night before this, Jaka wrestled Fred Yehi. Yehi attacked Jaka’s bare feet and Sabre used that strategy here. It allowed Sabre’s submissions to look even better, as he could show us all the added torque on the feet. Each time Jaka got something going, Sabre found a way to trap him in a submission. Despite being at a size disadvantage, Sabre managed to battle Jaka in strike exchanges. There was a great spot where Sabre opened his chest to give Jaka a free shot. Getting in Jaka’s head didn’t work, because the challenger responded with a headbutt. Midway through the match, the fans were split. It was rare to see the bigger guy as the underdog, but it worked here. Jaka survived two PKs and nearly upset Sabre right after. However, the champ used his European Clutch pin to escape with the win in 14:46. It was Jaka’s coming out party, as he had his best match and went toe to toe with the champion. [****]

121. The London Riots vs. War Machine – PROGRESS Chapter 51: Screaming for PROGRESS 7/9/17

Big. Lads. Wrestling. This is what happens when four big, bad dudes just go at it. War Machine had lost to the London Riots in the past, but times had changed. War Machine entered as the IWGP Tag Team Champions and wanted their win back. Knowing what the crowd wanted and what their strengths were, the teams agreed to throw the rulebook out the window. That allowed them to have one of the craziest matches of the year. For 16:02, these two teams beat the hell out of each other in and out of the ring. They did big lad things, like Hanson nailing a powerbomb/world’s strongest slam combo on Lynch or everyone participating in a massive German suplex/powerbomb tower of doom spot. They also showed off their athleticism, with insane dives and even some springboard spots that got a standing ovation. Some of the near falls down the stretch blew my mind. If you like watching big dudes hammer each other, this is the match for you. Unbelievable. [****]