wrestling / Columns

Hawke’s Top 19 Matches from 2016

January 5, 2017 | Posted by TJ Hawke

WHAT A GREAT FUCKING YEAR FOR THE GRAPS! GREAT MATCHES ALL OVER THE WORLD! THE NINETEEN BELOW WERE MY FAVORITES!

 

Honorable Mentions: Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte, Jushin Liger vs. Eita, Trauma I vs. Canis Lupus, Mike Quackenbush vs. Drew Gulak, Meiko Satomura vs. Chihiro Hashimoto, Volador Jr. vs. Barbaro Cavernario, Kento Miyahara vs. Kengo Mashimo II, Kento Miyahara vs. Kengo Mashimo I, Dragon Lee vs. Kamaitachi, Kota Ibushi vs. Spanky, Roderick Strong vs. Timothy Thatcher, Donovan Dijak vs. Keith Lee, Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn, Jay Lethal vs. Lio Rush, Zeus & The Bodyguard vs. Kento Miyahara & Jake Lee, AJ Styles vs. Baron Corbin vs Dolph Ziggler, Katsuyori Shibata vs. Kyle O’Reilly

 

19. Mayu Iwatani vs. Momo Watanabe – Stardom – 3/12/2016

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You can watch this match here.

This was for Mayu’s NEO High Speed Championship.

This was Momo’s first shot at the title, and she came in guns blazing. She jumped Mayu with a dropkick mid-streamers in a moment that perfectly established a tone for a the match and an understanding of the importance of the contest for Momo.

That moment also really captured what was so special about this whole deal. Yes, this match was a great title bout worked well within its own bubble. The match also though managed to make someone like Momo come across like a huge deal despite it being her very first title title match.

You may have expected this match to go a certain way. It would be easy for Mayu to mostly dominate Momo after that first moment. That also could have been a great match. They were thinking long-term though. This match became about Momo ALWAYS fighting back every time Mayu threatened to get firm control for good.

Mayu could not rest. She could not let up. Momo became a genuine threat to her. It may have been Momo’s first title match, but it could have also been Momo’s first title win if Mayu did not match her intensity.

Mayu then needed what seemed like an overkill finish to finally keep Momo down. It was one of those times though that the sequence of multiple big movez at the end felt appropriate. The match itself was not even that long so it was perfectly believable that Momo had enough in the tank to kick out of some big stuff. This match.

The post-match promo with Momo and Mayu had what appeared to be genuine emotion and appreciation passing from both of them really was the cherry on top of this whole presentation. This felt like a genuine moment and solidified this as one of the best pre-match through post-match deals of the whole year. (****1/4)

 

18. Mike Quackenbush vs. Johnny Kidd – Chikara – 5/28/2016

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The hype and promotion of this match was a bit of a confused mess. Some goober websites said it was Kidd’s retirement match, but Kidd wrestled his actual retirement match the next week. It was also billed as Quack’s first match since 2013 which is true for the Mike Quackenbush character if not the person behind the metaphorical Quack mask.  That of corse is less annoying but more relevant to some than to others. That was all a shame because Johnny Kidd’s last singles match being against Mike Quackenbush is a big deal in it of itself. Chikara should have done a cleaner job of promoting it quite frankly.

That shall not distract from the match itself though which was unsurprisingly quite fun. They told a familiar story for this kind of match. It starts off all fun and games. Gradually though, it gets more and more competitive until the wrestlers work with more and more edge to them. Johnny Kidd got to look great in his final singles battle, and Quack reminded us why he can absolutely be one of the more fun performers in the world. If you like these two guys and the kind of match you know they were going to have, you will not leave it disappointed. It was extremely compelling stuff and executed as well as you could hope. The match progressively built and built until you could cut the tension with a knife by the end. This was one of my favorite matches of the year. It ended in a draw, 1-1. (****1/4)

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17. Rush vs. L.A. Park – Elite – 7/14/2016

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This was one of the craziest and most heated brawls of 2016. They were out to murder each other, and it got completely out of control. It was to the point that that there was so much blood that Park got disqualified about seven to ten minutes in. After that, Rush and Park continued to just destroy each other for a period of time nearly as long as the official match. This was one of the compelling sequence of events in all of pro wrestling in 2016. It also had that old school feel where a disqualification actually felt like a satisfying finish that only made you want to watch more battles between the two. GREAT FUCKING STUFF. (****1/4)

 

16. Kazuchika Okada vs. Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW – 8/6/2016

15. Matt Riddle vs. TJ Perkins – WWE – 9/11/2016

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This was GREAT as it basically had all things that make pro wrestling wonderful. First off, it had a great story. TJP was a step ahead of Riddle virtually the entire way and had the ex-UFC fighter fighting from behind on his heels. TJP and Riddle were working a furious pace that allowed for moments to stick out but without the sense of dead air between those moments. Both men were working with urgency and the feeling that they were actually trying to win. Both men came out of the match looking phenomenal. TJP got to leave the indies on a major high note. Riddle got to look strong in victory but without it coming at the expense of his opponent. On top of all that, the momentum and energy built to a fever pitch that perfectly reached climax at the finish. Beautiful. Riddle won cleanly via Bro-mission. (****1/4)

 

14. Chris Hero vs. Mat Fitchett – AAW – 10/8/2016

13. Johnny Gargano & Tommaso Ciampa vs. The Revival – WWE – 11/19/2016

12. Chris Hero vs. Matt Riddle – Evolve – 10/16/2016

11. Chris Hero vs. Matt Riddle – Evolve – 11/13/2016

10. Chris Hero vs. Trevor Lee – AAW – 4/9/2016

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Hero calling himself the greatest of all time until he accidentally became the greatest of all time is the most positive example of someone working themselves into a shoot.

What else needs to be said about Chris Hero’s work right now? He is a master of the ring at the moment. He makes everyone he faces look like they’re far greater than they actually are.  He has every crowd in the palm of his hand. He has managed to legitimately present himself as someone bigger (joke not intended) than independent wrestling. That kind of presentation allows him to come off like a special guest in companies that he regularly works for. His in-ring run is something special, and it needs to be appreciated.

The structure of the match should not be surprising. Hero was being a dick. Lee was the underdog. Hero dominated him. Lee kept fighting back and fighting back until it seemed like there was a legit chance he could win. The crowd was into it from the beginning and only got hotter as the match went on. The fact that they even went a bit overkill with the nearfalls kind of worked, and it led to a great overkill finishing sequence from Hero to make sure that Lee stayed down for the three finally. I loved this match. Seek it out. (****1/4)

 

9. Chris Hero vs. Fred Yehi – Evolve – 4/2/2016

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Chris Hero is just on a higher level right now as a performer compared to the rest of the world. This was yet another match where he turned in a world-class performance and made his (already very well-respected) opponent look like one of the very best wrestlers in the world.

The story was flawless and right up my alley. Hero came into the match full of his swagger. The fans treated him in a manner that only fed his ego. Yehi was completely out-matched due to the size differential. Hero dominated a large portion of the match, but Yehi would have a million small comebacks where he just pick away at Hero. He got in shots where he could to find the chinks in the armor. He eventually connected on some bigger offense as well.

He picked away at Hero slowly but surely and progressively made the match more competitive. Hero’s advantage never fully went away though, and he eventually finished off Yehi cleanly with the ripcord elbow.

I loved every moment of this match. Fantastic work by both men, and it was an excellent way to put a heel over cleanly while making both men look better after the match. (****1/4)

 

8. Io Shirai vs. Mayu Iwatani – Stardom – 12/22/2016

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This was for Shirai’s World of Stardom Championship.

There’s being asleep at the wheel with certain things in wrestling, and then there is me with Stardom and Shirai more specifically. My lord. MY LORD.

Shirai here came across like the best wrestler in the world. She masterfully combines star presence and being a brutal/dominant champion. She carries herself like the baddest motherfucker in the room all while she actually is the baddest motherfucker in the world. (Where the fuck have I been?)

Shirai’s work backs up her character every step of the way. She just DOMINATED Mayu and was brutal in her work. It was startling at times and something wrestlers all over the world should be studying.

Naturally, Mayu fought back. This was not your typical comeback though. Mayu was busting out huge and dangerous maneuvers to give herself a chance. (The bridging dragon suplex on the floor in particular got me to jump out of my seat.)

This was classic pro wrestling storytelling at its best.  One wrestler seemed like an unstoppable force of nature, and the underdog had to really get crazy to give themselves a chance.

They *possibly* got a little excessive in the final stretch of the match with the nearfalls. It was a big main event on a big show though so it did at least seem a little earned.

Regardless, this was a fantastic match that everyone should seek out. If you are like me and not paying enough attention to what Stardom has got going on, you need to fix that immediately. (****1/4)

 

7. Chris Hero & Tommy End vs. Zack Sabre Jr. & Sami Callihan – Evolve – 1/22/2016

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This was a first round match in the Evolve Tag Team Championship Tournament.

This was one of the best tag team matches that the US indie scene has produced in quite a long time.

Hero and End, despite being a first-time team to the best of my knowledge, came into this match as if they had been working together for years. Sami and Zack felt like two individuals who did not prepare to work together at all.

Naturally, Hero and End controlled the majority of the match, and they did so in compelling fashion. The latter was accomplished by just destroying Zack over and over again.  My gawd, this was an excellent beating. Zack did of course escape eventually for the Sami hot tag. Sami actually made a decent comeback despite his strength as a performer usually being taking a beating.

Obviously, that Sami hot tag turned into an extended back-and-forth sequence to close out the match. What was surprising though was how excellent the selling and the pacing was during that closing stretch. After finally tagging out, Zack disappeared for a LONG time. That is so crucial to making a big beatdown seem meaningful and not like a waste of time.

Everything was just done so well after this point. There was great action with some genuinely surprising twists and turns in the battle for control. Zack and Hero in particular were just phenomenal when they were in the ring together. They might have the best chemistry of anyone in wrestling at the moment, and it was a delight to see them go at it again here.

Finally, the last thing I loved about this was that Zack eventually was the one to take the fall. He survived a ton throughout the match, but his kickouts always seemed to be losing more and more stream throughout the contest. It looked like he was going to be able to withstand a one-on-one battle with Hero, but End then jumped in out of nowhere with a (sloppy) double stomp to set Zack up for defeat. Just great stuff.

In all honesty, this was one of the best matches in Evolve history. Seek it out. (****1/2)

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6. Chris Hero vs. Tomohiro Ishii – RPW – 11/10/2016

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This was bloody fantastic. They worked the exact match that they needed to work in order for them to reach their full potential together.

Hero went into this match knowing he had the throw the kitchen sink at Ishii. He did just that. Ishii was clearly not really prepared for the onslaught and took more continuous damage without fighting back than he normally does. He did eventually start to fight back and then things got serious.

They timed every mini-comeback from Ishii perfectly after that and created an incredibly dramatic match where it seemed like either guy could win. They even managed to work in some no-sell spots in ways that were not obnoxious. (Always impressive.) This was one of the best matches of the year. (****1/2)

 

5. Chris Hero vs. Tracy Williams – Evolve – 11/12/2016

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This match was fantastic. It started with a bang, as Hot Sauce jumped Hero from behind with a German. That set an urgent pace for the match and forced Hero to not really relax at any point in the match.

The match progressively and organically settled into the story of the bigger Hero battling the fiery Hot Sauce. This was performed as well as you would expect, and the crowd was absolutely rabid for it.

They also managed to allow Hot Sauce to win cleanly and decisively by submission in a way that felt earned. While Hero has been dominant for large portions of 2016, they told a story about he is still susceptible to smaller guys who can stay a step ahead of him and who are not afraid to punch him in the nose. This was brilliant. (****1/2)

 

4. AJ Styles vs. Roman Reigns – WWE – 5/22/2016

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This was for Roman’s WWE World Championship.

WWE really accidentally stumbled upon something brilliant with the chemistry between AJ Styles and Roman Reigns. When these two wrestle each other, everything about it feels like a big deal. That is one of those undefinable qualities that enhances everything about a match but is so hard to organically create.

They worked a big-time main event, and they got to bust out all sorts of tricks for the occasion. Everything came off red hot, and both guys looked like main event stars in process. While I was not a fan of the overbooking, the run-ins from the lackeys actually got the crowd more invested and were done without overwhelming the match. Everything helped the match build to a hot finish that ended with Roman cleanly pinning AJ after catching him with a spear during a springboard attempt.

This was essentially just a fantastic remake of their already strong match a month earlier on PPV. The issue was mostly just that the story did not feel continued so much as redone in order to buy the WWE another month before moving on to something else. In the end though, I do not really care and just am grateful that this fantastic match was produced. It will likely be the WWE MOTY. (****1/2)

 

3. Chris Hero vs. Timothy Thatcher – Evolve – 6/10/2016

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This was for Thatcher’s Evolve Championship.

As someone who is fairly in the middle when it comes to Thatcher (he’s had some great matches and some real bores in the last couple of years), it has been entertaining to see factions form in regards to him. Some people seem to think he is one of (if not) the best in the world. Others find him to be horrible almost all the time. Both sides are wrong of course, and I am right (as always).

This seems like one of those matches that both sides could get into though (similar to how I felt about the Thatcher/Gargano match from last year). Thatcher did a lot of the stuff that he tends to do but organically blended it into a more crowd-pleasing kind of match.

Hero tried to get control early. Thatcher went after the leg. Hero avoided him doing too much damage though and then went to town on Thatcher. Thatcher then did something surprising: he changed up his strategy. Instead of going after the arm to set up the Fujiwara, he started throwing BOMBS at Hero. This weakened Hero enough to give my fellow Brit a chance to win.

They did some spots that played off their trademark offense before Thatcher managed to apply the Fujiwara to win the match. This was a beautifully worked, compelling from beginning to end, and continued one of the best in-ring rivalries going today. Check it out. (****1/2)

 

2. Lio Rush vs. Jonathan Gresham – ROH – 9/24/2016

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This match. Holy fuck. THIS fucking match. This was some goddamn fucking fantastic professional wrestling. It had just about everything you would want from professional wrestling in 2016.

The first couple of minutes featured the best feeling-out-process in what seems like a century. Instead of jerking off in the ring, they used it to start their story.

Gresham is normally quicker than his opponents. He moves so crisply that he can get a step ahead of just about anyone he faces in the squared circle. Gresham couldn’t do that here on the mat so he tested the waters on seeing if he had a strength advantage and also began to target Rush’s left arm.

Rush, knowing that his injured arm could not withstand too much damage, then went right back to speed advantage, and he got a step or two ahead of Gresham.  Gresham decisively and with precision went right back after the taped-up arm because he knew he would lose a speed battle with Rush.

From there, Gresham continuously went after the arm. He did it all in this brilliant manner where he did a bunch of basic stuff like an ARM DRAG, but you knew it meant more here. Gresham got a little cocky after each shot at the arm, and Rush sold every move targeting his arm well.

Gresham did all of this with a calm confidence that was incredibly compelling. His calmness did not turn into laziness (like a certain lad named Zack) or without taking away the sense of urgency. Instead, he just moved about the ring like it was HIS ring. It’s a near-undefinable quality that only a few wrestlers can convey convincingly.

Rush knew he could not get too far behind so he used an opening to exploit his quickness advantage. That allowed him to hit an insane tope suicida to come close to evening things up.

Gresham went right back after the arm in the ring and tried to put Rush away. It led to amazing sequence (pictured above) where Gresham put the injured arm in an arm-trap crossface. Rush tried to use the other arm to grab the ropes. Gresham tried to pull back on that arm simultaneously. They went back and forth. It was incredibly dramatic, and Rush’s ability to finally get to the ropes felt so earned as a result.

From there, Gresham tried to put Rush away in a more traditional manner. It seemed like they were going to suddenly rely on a series of cliches like fighting spirit, fluke roll-up finishes, finisher kickouts, etc. However, Gresham stayed a step ahead of Rush the whole time though to make none of the moments seem trite. (It’s hard to explain properly, but you’ll understand when you see it.)

Gresham’s calmness throughout finally got the better of him though. He took his eye off the ball for a second, and he ran right into Rush Hour from Lio. Lio then stood them up and performed one more Rush Hour for the deathblow. (While the match would have been slightly more satisfying if Gresham won, ROH putting the roster member over is sound in theory.)

This was one of the most satisfying, substantive, exciting, and just genuinely fun matches in ROH in quite some time. It felt state-of-the-art in a way that ROH absolutely never conveys these days.

Jonathan Gresham IS what Ring of Honor should be. Lio Rush IS what Ring of Honor should be. Alex Shelley doing everything in his power on commentary to get them over IS what Ring of Honor should be. EVERYTHING about this match IS what Ring of Honor should be.

When in the fuck is Ring of Honor going to get it the fuck together and actually push guys like these two (and Dijak) to the fucking moon? Stop pushing stale acts like Adam Cole. Stop serving as a social security fund for TNA has-beens. Become the future today, or you’ll become just a memory. (****1/2)

 

1. Matt Riddle vs. Will Ospreay – PROGRESS – 11/27/2016

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See, professional wrestling is not that complicated. Take these two guys. They don’t really work the same “style,” but they prove in eight minutes how little that actually matters when you integrate some basic fundamentals of great professional wrestling.

You have Riddle just jump Ospreay to start the match. Riddle looked like he wanted to break Ospreay for no other reason than that he just wanted to win the match. It was delightful.

Ospreay was obviously deeply behind after that. This actually allowed Ospreay to spotlight his strengths and hide his weaknesses. He didn’t have a sell a specific body part. He didn’t have to slow down. He just had to be fiery and throw out a bunch of ridiculous shit.  Ospreay, if nothing else, does both of those things very well.

Everything about this match was SO great that even the big botch actually made the match better! Ospreay went for a poison ‘rana but didn’t get all of it. Riddle then hit a German immediately. It was clear that Riddle planned on no-selling the ‘rana so all the better that it did not connect all the way. This match was so great that even the botch worked out for the best.

What more could you want from professional wrestling? Literally nothing. (*****)

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TJ Hawke
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