wrestling / Columns

Matches Don’t Matter – Who is the Best Wrestler of 2016? Goldberg vs. Ellsworth vs. Muertes

December 16, 2016 | Posted by Jake Chambers

In the history of the WWE there were plenty of times when personality trumped work-rate, such as the Bruno, Hogan and the Attitude Era-s. But compared to those days, this so-called “reality-era” is so saturated in excellent professional wrestling matches that having a plethora of 5-star matches on your resume in 2016 makes a wrestler pretty average.

One could argue that it’s almost unfair to judge the best wrestlers of this past year based primarily on match quality by using objective aspects like moves used, body parts targeted, and appropriate selling, or subjective concepts like “psychology” and work-rate, because it doesn’t take into account one of the most difficult and impressive quality of wrestler today: being the biggest star by doing the least amount of wrestling.

This is NOT a competitive sport, right – we all acknowledge this – and therefore actually being a good athlete or wrestling technician really means NOTHING in a world where The Crusher, The Great Khali and The Boogeyman can be just as important to a pro-wrestling show as Ric Flair, John Cena and Edge.

Should Micheal Sheen and Patti LuPone be bigger Hollywood stars than Brad Pitt or Melissa McCarthy just because they’re highly trained, skilled ac-tors? I think wrestling critics should stop putting all the emphasis on work-rate style matches and instead focus on the performance of a personality because, as we’ve seen this year in particular, you can get to the top of your brand without needing to even wrestle one actual “match”.

In my opinion, the three best wrestlers of 2016 don’t rely on innovative moves, choreographed sequences, feats of strength, or epic matches, but instead capture the imagination of the fans with presence, non-verbal communication, visual presentation, and nostalgic intensity.

The 411mania Wrestling 3-Way Dance matches up three opponents in an intellectual battle every week. The biggest advantages and disadvantages of each contender will be highlighted before a final ranking will declare the ultimate winner. This week’s 3-Way Dance:

Who is the Best Wrestler of 2016?

James Ellsworth vs. Bill Goldberg vs. Mil Muertes

Reasons for…

Goldberg = 12 years, 2 moves, 1 match.

He wrestled one match and used two moves, a spear and his patented jackhammer. In the main event of an international, big-four PPV event. And won. Against the quote/unquote biggest star in the WWE. After being out of the WWE, and most of professional wrestling, for 12 years. The live audience loved it. The reaction across the wrestling universe was intense and divisive. Goldberg did in 30 seconds, and with 2 moves, what most full-time wrestlers couldn’t do all year.

And actually, theoretically, this use of 2 moves – the heavy power moves – does have some logical, pro-wrestling strategical precedent. In the 80s and 90s, death match pioneer Atsuhi Onita would have some crazy epic matches basically just using punches and his power-bomb finisher repeatedly (of course with the help of some land-mine gimmicks). A late career Kenta Kobashi started a chop duel phenomena after his legendary match with Kensuke Sasaki that infiltrated this back-and-forth strike battles in Japan and the US indy for about a decade, a strategy that was developed to make up for Kobashi’s lack of mobility. Even Stone Cold had to basically switch up from a move-based offense into one that focused more on punches and stomps following his “broken neck”. Hell, this was the entire strategy used in the sixth Rocky movie to make an older man challenge a younger foe.

So Goldberg’s in-storyline fight strategy for his “one more match” makes sense for someone his age and ability: surprise ’em and hit ’em hard. But this headline stealing, mainstream appearance for a fighter in the WWE also accomplished a level of excitement that few (if any) of Lesnar’s opponents in his own late career MMA-style run has generated. Considering how boring Lesnar has become, it’s an incredible feat for Goldberg, a guy with such a poor in-ring track record himself, to be able to energize the fans after being out of sight and action for over a decade.

James Ellsworth = Jobber TO the stars.

Never have we seen an unknown jobber raise to such heights so quickly and without having to do basically anything. In the past there was the “Lightning Kid” who was obviously a planted jobber for a more long-term storyline, Barry Horowitz accessended from pure jobber status with his win over Skip of the Bodydonnas but this took place after years of grindstone jobber work, and then there was Gillberg, perennial jobber Duane Gill doing more of a satire bit that caught on rather than being a serious wrestler.

James Ellsworth on the other hand has basically no history with the WWE short of a quick job to Braun Strowman earlier this year, never competed in the mainstream extensively like Horowitz and Gill, and certainly wasn’t an indy sensation planted as a jobber as part of a storyline like the 1-2-3 Kid. And yet this guy ended up with multiple WWE Title matches, was part of months of Smackdown and PPV storylines, and did so without technically wrestling in a match, being a good actor or looking cool in any way.

We’ve heard of a jobber-to-the-stars before, but this is a jobber who has gone TO the stars!

Mil Muertes = The guy sat on a Skull Throne.

While champion of Lucha Underground, Mil Muertes wasn’t just a guy who wore a belt and defended it in matches, nah, this dude sat above the ring on a medieval throne like Conan or Dr. Doom, and watched the other wrestling matches even when he wasn’t involved.

That’s gotta be one of the greatest things in the history of wrestling, I don’t care how many one-hour matches Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat had at NWA house shows, this guy lorded over the fucking ring like a king on a throne made of skulls!

Add in the fact that Mil Muertes just looks so damn badass at all times. He’s got the perfect lucha libre mask for his face that makes him look menacing and classic. His body is thick and pounchy like like an old stepdad putting a beating on his kids. He walks around with a scary cloak, a hot chick holding a magic rock, and is sometimes is followed around by a Day of the Dead zombie parade procession. He’s the ultimate cartoon image of what a pro-wrestler should look like, a super-villain come to life and just looking at him should make any wrestling fan excited.

Reasons against…

Ellsworth = The Eugene Factor.

This whole Ellsworth phenomenon smells a lot like the Eugene fiasco that derailed the Chris Benoit title run of 2004.

A doofusy man-child comes out of nowhere and charms the crowd instantly with his stupid “accidental” run-in behaviour. Eugene burned bright like a flare with the audience and was snuffed out just as quick. It was hard to take all of his moronic accidents seriously. We can suspend our disbelief when a heel runs in and ruins matches, but it’s only so cute when an idiot keeps doing it because we end up feeling just as stupid in return for buying into this nonsense.

Mil Muertes = Too good.

Putting aside the stand alone visual appeal of Mil Muertes, the Lucha Underground champion and overlord of the Temple, Muertes has been very good in the ring this year, almost too good to be in consideration for best wrestler of 2016. His title defenses against Ivelisse, Fenix & Pentagon, and Matanza, were all pretty awesome, he the stole the show at Ultimo Lucha 2 with his Death Match against King Cuerno, and his Grave Consequences matches are always special spectacles of the LU style.

As well, these are pre-taped matches on the El Rey network, which most likely doesn’t get a fraction of the viewers of the WWE shows, so all that good work is going to waste on a small number of super fans, when he could just be looking damn cool in the WWE and rising straight to the top without all that extra effort.

Odd as it is to be a determinant, with the state of pro-wrestling in 2016, by putting on 5-star level matches you’re actually going to ironically end up in a pretty large pool of wrestling work, while the list of wrestlers who’ve gotten to the top by doing very little is a short and exclusive one. Muertes is on that list, but is he at the top?

Goldberg = I mean, he sucks right?

Even Goldberg in his prime sucked.

It was just an annoying act, in my opinion, that whole contrived entrance gimmick and wonky streak. Acting like he was better than everybody before he really talked, and then being even more cocky when he did. Technically being a power guy who no-sold like the Ultimate Warrior, and then frustratingly having good matches every once in a while too, so that made it hard to outright hate him like you could with a lot of those horrible nWo wrestlers. And that’s just his WCW career.

The WWE, despite a flawed general opinion to the contrary, actually handled Goldberg in a much better way for the year they had him, and that Wrestlemania XX match should have been a true epic dream match if it wasn’t for the outside factors that ruined it. But still, of all the legends out there you’d want to see back in the WWE, Goldberg had to have been at the bottom of the list, no? There’s pretty much no current star I’d want to see Goldberg ply his weak trade against, even if the logic is to imagine that matches don’t matter.

For him to be the best wrestler of the year I’d have to be giving up a lot of the likability I find in Ellsworth and Muertes in order to honour a guy who just did in a few short months what annoyed the fuck out of me for years when he was headlining in that notorious shit show WCW.

The Final Ranking

Okay, these are all reasonable options, but who officially is the best professional wrestler of 2016?

#3 = Mil Muertes

I want to separate myself from the matches as much as possible, but Muertes is putting in too much work to actually be the best wrestler of the year in 2016. If he just sat on that throne and looked totally evil and badass without ever really wrestling in good matches, well, then he’d be the #1 for sure, but compared to Ellsworth and Goldberg, Muertes is just working too hard for too few gains.

#2 = James Ellsworth

Were we one AJ Styles ankle injury away from Ellsworth winning the coveted WWE Title as the capper to his 2016 storyline? Perhaps we’ll never know, but all signs would indicate that it was somewhat likely. Ratings grabbing shock value for a new live show looking for attention, a litany of Mikey Whipwreck-like matches with Ambrose, Styles, Cena or Bray Wyatt could have made for a slew of wacky main events to fill that odd dead zone between the holidays and the Royal Rumble. If that had happened, Ellsworth’s elevator ride to the top would have easily snagged him the top spot, but unfortunately, he is only the #2 wrestlers of the year when matches don’t matter.

#1 = Goldberg

Goldberg once conquered a wrestling landscape with just a smoke-filled grunt and a power-move, no-selling, slash-and-burn booking strategy behind him. And god bless him, the dude did almost as much with so little as even Hulk Hogan in his prime. But you’d never think that 20 years later the guy could basically come in and do the exact same thing and be just as big, if not bigger, a star? Nostalgia is a beautiful thing.

You can’t really compare what, like say, a Dean Ambrose or AJ Styles did in 2016 to the work of Bill Goldberg. It’s almost unfair. Dean and AJ worked their asses off and were at best able to maintain the status quo of the WWE. They didn’t penetrate into the mainstream and they didn’t create any new buzz for the WWE. They held the ship steady, wrestling great house show main events every weekend, leading storylines and acting their asses off in backstage segments on TV, gratuitous in-ring promos, meandering feuds, whatever it took to live up to the WWE standard. They were basically pulling that old CM Punk role for the year, while Goldberg comes in for one night and does in seconds what they couldn’t do with a year off yeomen’s effort (and probably got paid exponentially more as well).

The guy popped the crowd out of their minds with one, off-the-cuff promo, trends worldwide and pulls in old viewers to watch the show once again, and then goes and wrestles one match that takes a few seconds, and basically destroys the WWE’s hottest commodity, making himself instantly a threat to not only win the Royal Rumble, but main event Wrestlemania and possibly walk away with the WWE title. No one is saying that about AJ or Dean, and we all know that they’re not even in the conversation for any of that come Wresltemania 33, and it’s probably unlikely for Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins or Kevin Owens too. 2016 was not a year about hard work, but a further confirmation that the World Wrestling Entertainment always cherishes the “entertainment” over the “wrestling.”

So congratulations Goldberg, you are 411mania Wrestling’s 3-Way Dance winner for 2016 Wrestler of the Year, in a year when most definitely matches didn’t matter!