Saturday, February 3, 2018

Top Matches of 2017: #90-81

90. GHC Heavyweight Championship: Katsuhiko Nakajima [c] vs. Brian Cage – NOAH Summer Navigation 7/27/17
Cage always looks massive, but in NOAH, he was basically Godzilla. Nakajima had turned back every challenge as GHC Heavyweight Champion and had to slay the biggest monster yet to retain here. NOAH’s known for slow paced main events (Japan in general tends to be), but Cage was having none of that. He came out the blocks firing and powerbombed the champ into the ring post in the opening minutes. Japanese crowds love monster gaijins, so Korakuen was way into Cage. He has the added bonus of impressive athletic offense mixed in with the power spots. Nakajima had to stick and move, connecting with desperation kicks to slow Cage down. He kicked out at the last possible moment so many times and the fans bought into each near fall. Cage survived the Vertical Spike, leading many to believe the title would switch here. It’d certainly make Cage a big deal in NOAH. Cage busted out a SCARY looking Steiner Screwdriver for a wild near fall. HOW WAS THAT NOT THE FINISH? Not to be outdone, he then no sold a top rope brainbuster, before eating another Vertical Spike to lose in 22:13. Great showing for Cage in his biggest NOAH match. They worked as opponents because Nakajima was a good underdog, while still doing enough to keep the physicality battle going. A bit too much of the fighting spirit stuff and it went too long (I think around 15 minutes would have been ideal) to be upper echelon, but it remains one of the better NOAH matches of 2017. [****]
89. PROGRESS Atlas Championship: WALTER [c] vs. Matt Riddle – PROGRESS: New York City 8/12/17
In their first match at Chapter 46, Riddle retained over WALTER. WALTER dethroned him at Chapter 51 in an even better match (more on that later) and this was the rubber match. They began this with mat work that was fairly even. WALTER took to brutally laying in the chops. Never afraid to give back as much as he takes, Riddle responded with chops of his own. It’s a staple of their matches. In their second outing, WALTER had Riddle well scouted and it led him to victory. This time, Riddle was ready, doing just enough to alter his game and avoid a repeat loss. He started deadlifting WALTER and throwing him around, which is never not impressive. Both guys picked up near falls down the stretch that the fans totally bought into. Riddle’s first senton attempt caught knees, but his second worked. He went into the Bromission, adding a series of chops, to make WALTER submit and become a two-time Atlas Champion after 15:58 of action. Not quite on the level of their second match, but better than the first. They played off their previous outings and the sheer viciousness of their strikes was jaw-dropping. [****]
88. NXT Women’s Championship: Asuka [c] vs. Ember Moon – NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III 8/19/17
Over three months prior, Ember Moon came closer to dethroning Asuka than anyone else. Watching this live, I gave it ***¼, and people weren’t pleased. Looking back, I don’t know why I couldn’t get into it, because I thought it was great on the second viewing. Asuka’s special. I’ll come into a match thinking I’m okay with her losing and then I see her entrance and am like, “KILL ASUKA KILL!” Onto the match, Ember felt she had Asuka’s number and dropkicked her instantly, not letting the champ get out of the gate. Even when Asuka managed to take control, Ember fought valiantly and it felt like her life depended on winning this match. Asuka wisely targeted Ember’s shoulder, which she injured in between the two matches. In their first meeting, Asuka shoved the referee to the ropes to avoid the Eclipse. This time, Ember hit it and the crowd bought it as the end of Asuka’s run. The reaction to Asuka kicking out was insane. At a loss, Ember went for it again and Asuka used a slight referee distraction to get an opening. She survived a superkick, frustrating Ember more, and then retained via Asuka Lock at 14:46. Way better than I remembered. [****]
87. Hiromu Takahashi vs. Jushin Thunder Liger – NJPW Best of the Super Juniors 5/18/17
Jushin Thunder Liger declared that the 2017 would be his final Best of the Super Juniors. The now 53-yeard old legend came in tied for the most tourney wins with 3. On this, the second night, he met the new ace of the juniors division and IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion, Hiromu Takahashi. After a night one loss, Liger didn’t want to lose his final Korakuen BOTSJ match, so he came out firing and hit a brainbuster in the aisle in the opening minutes, leading to a countout tease. That set the tone for a wild sprint that was 8:05 of pure action. Liger threw everything in his arsenal at the champion. Unfortunately, it was never quite enough. The beauty of this lied in the pin at the end. After Hiromu hit Time Bomb, he got the three count, but you could see Liger kicking his feet and desperately trying to kick out. He wanted nothing more than to continue, he just didn’t have it in him to do so. Depending on how much longer he wrestles, this very well could be the final great match of Liger’s career. [****]
86. EVIL vs. Kazuchika Okada – NJPW G1 Climax 8/5/17
362 days. Coming into this match, that’s how long it had been since Kazuchika Okada was last pinned in singles competition. This was the fourteenth night of the G1 Climax and Okada was 5-0, while EVIL was 4-2. With Okada seemingly running away with the block, EVIL needed to win to stay alive. For the first time in a long time, it felt like Okada wasn’t in control of a match. Instead of his usual cross body over the guardrail spot, EVIL beat on him with chairs. He wasn’t allowing Okada to get going. Okada was forced to fight from behind because EVIL always had an answer for him. There was quite the big spot where Okada took Darkness Falls onto a pile of chairs in the crowd. It had to suck for him. When he beat the countout, it set up the traditional Okada closing stretch. High energy, great action and the usual Rainmaker stuff. After hitting one from out of nowhere, he subtlety positioned himself to land on his back so he could do his wrist hold stuff that everyone goes nuts for. I usually hate it, but liked it here because he was in serious trouble and because it finally backfired. EVIL ducked a third Rainmaker (like everyone else after eating two), but won the exchange by avoiding it again and hitting the STO to win at 22:47. Biggest win of EVIL’s career. Though the rematch for the Heavyweight Title disappointed, this was awesome and cemented EVIL as the MVP for the B Block of the G1. [****]
85. Open The Twin Gate Championship: CIMA and Dragon Kid (c) vs. Masato Yoshino and Naruki Doi – Dragon Gate Kobe Pro Wrestling Festival 7/23/17
Naruki Doi and Masato Yoshino were formerly known as DoiYoshi or Speed Muscle. They were one of the most exciting tag teams I’ve ever seen, but they hadn’t teamed regularly in a few years, at least from what I could gather. For Dragon Gate’s biggest show of the year, they got a shot at the Twin Gate Titles against two other company mainstays, CIMA and Dragon Kid. When I was first introduced to Dragon Gate eleven years ago, these were four men who stood out. This was a beautiful match. They moved at an absurd pace, yet everything was precise and expertly executed. It takes true brilliance to do what these guys did and make it look as easy as they did. Not everyone loves the Dragon Gate style of tag matches, and that’s understandable, but this was something I think everyone could enjoy. After 21:37 of wild action, Dragon Kid busted out the Dragonrana, which we don’t see often anymore, to retain the titles. I disagree with the decision, since CIMA and Dragon Kid have had a lackluster reign. Lackluster outside of this match though, which was tremendous. [****¼]
84. Evolve Championship: Timothy Thatcher [c] vs. Zack Sabre Jr. – Evolve 79 2/25/17
Timothy Thatcher’s Evolve Title reign was kind of a train wreck. His rise to the top and early title matches were great. In 2015, he killed it against the likes of Johnny Gargano and Zack Sabre Jr. However, his 2016 was atrocious, with his style hampering him and leading to far too many shit matches. Due to that, the crowd turned on him and were very pro Sabre on this night. They came out with stiff strikes and submissions attempts, playing to their strengths. Thatcher got his leg trapped in a brutal looking submission on the ropes, so Sabre went right after that leg with his usual vigor. The heat from the crowd added so much. They hated everything Thatcher did. Down the stretch of this 18:47 bout, there were tons of counters and exchanges of submissions. Sabre applied a sick octopus hold, complete with elbow strikes, extra wrench on the arms and stomps to Thatcher’s head, to finally end his reign of terror. The pop for the Sabre win was incredible. This was easily the best Thatcher match since 2015. He nailed the mannerisms and everything he had to in order to play to the crowd. Great stuff. [****¼]
83. IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship Tournament Quarterfinals: Tetsuya Naito vs. Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW G1 Special in USA 7/1/17
AJ Styles is my pick for the best wrestler in the world, but these guys are #2 and #3. Their chemistry together is killer. I’ve never given them less than ****, which is rare. They came into this with totally different mindsets. Ishii always leaves everything out there and gives his all, while Naito said if he won the US Title, he’d throw it in the trash. Naito was his disrespectful self, slapping Ishii around, stopping to taunt and laughing while getting hit. Though Naito didn’t care about the title, you could tell he still wanted to win, maybe even just to throw it in NJPW’s face. There were several moments where we got a glimpse at how well they know each other. Ishii countering Naito’s signature rebound attack with a headbutt was a highlight. There was a spot I hated, though. Naito failed on his tornado DDT twice and instead of changing it up, Ishii had to stand there while Naito went for it a third time. As it neared the 15:51 finish, they had some great exchanges. Ishii’s neck was worked on throughout, and he sold it expertly, as always. Ishii had Destino well scouted, before winning with the Brainbuster to advance. I liked this more on a second viewing. On NJPW’s first show in the States, it was the first match to stand out and fit the NJPW style. [****¼]
82. AJ Styles vs. Finn Balor – WWE TLC 10/22/17
Throughout the summer and fall, Finn Balor was mired in a completely garbage feud with Bray Wyatt. With the “Demon vs. Sister Abigail” billed for TLC, we were probably in for the worst of it. Then, viral meningitis happened and Bray couldn’t compete. To replace him, Raw borrowed AJ Styles to set up a battle of the first two Bullet Club leaders. They worked this first-time ever match like an NJPW main event. It was deliberately slow in the early stages, before building to the bigger spots. The atmosphere was tremendous. The crowd was into every little thing these guys did. Often, Finn doesn’t do enough to make the “Demon” different from his regular self. Here, he added small mannerisms and showed a more aggressive side at times, which was appreciated. For example, to break the Calf Crusher, he brutally smashed AJ’s head into the mat. We got to see them both do Pele kicks, which was cool, though I wish they both did Bloody Sundays. In the end, AJ missed the springboard 450, setting up Finn to use a flurry of offense to win. He capped it with the best Coup de Grace I can remember at 18:16. It was mostly two guys getting their signature stuff in, but that’s fine. They did this on short notice and delivered a high-quality match in front of a raucous crowd. I love that they didn’t go into a finisher kickout fest either. As good as this was, it felt like they had better in them, maybe with a story and AJ not being jetlagged. [****¼]
81. Bobby Fish vs. Jay Lethal – ROH 15th Anniversary Show 3/10/17
What do you do when you have two top of the card guys without much to do at a PPV? You book them in a “top contender’s match,” which is what this was. These two met in a very good TV Title match in 2015, but this had World Title implications. Lethal wanted to get back to the top, while Fish wanted to reach there at least once. This opened with mat exchanges, but quickly got aggressive when Fish kicked the shit out of Lethal, sending him outside. Lethal then sent Fish outside to hammer home how evenly matched they were. When Fish sidestepped a tope suicida, Lethal crashed chest first, and that chest became Fish’s target. Lethal fought back and only tried another tope suicida when Fish was by the aisle and not a guardrail. Simple, yet smart. The intensity picked up down the stretch. The strikes got harder and Fish dropped Lethal on his head at one point. Fish had the Lethal Injection well scouted before countering it into the Fish Hook. The fans went nuts for that spot. Jay survived and finally hit the Lethal Injection to win in 15:07. Awesome stuff. They worked a smart, layered match where everything felt like it mattered. They had each other scouted, upped the intensity late, had great selling and a clean finish. [****¼]