wrestling / Columns

The Magnificent Seven: The Top 7 WWE Matches of 2016

January 2, 2017 | Posted by Mike Chin
WWE Cena vs Styles

There are all sorts of metrics by which to look back at a year in wrestling, many of which will get covered in the 411 End-of-the-Year Awards. One of my favorite categories to take stock of has always been the best matches of the year. Matches are easier to define than angles or feuds, shows, or even individual wrestlers. They are as close wrestling has to stand-alone, individual pieces of art.

This countdown only includes WWE (main roster and NXT) matches. I don’t deny there’s great wrestling going on abroad and in the indies, but WWE and NXT are the only products I followed regularly enough in 2016 to feel qualified to rank them appropriately. The countdown focuses on matches as isolated pieces of work. While it’s inevitable that broader storylines play into the narrative of an individual match and have some influence on how fans take it in, the focus here is much more on the matches in a vacuum. As always, my personal opinion weighs heavily, and per usual I’ll spell out what I was thinking in the write-ups below.

A final caveat: I wrote this countdown in mid-December, before Roadblock, so no matches from that show or afterward were in consideration.

#7. The Revival vs. Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa, NXT Takeover: Back to Brooklyn

I know I’ll get some flak for not ranking this match higher. I won’t deny it was an outstanding match with sound psychology and a great build, and I’m a huge fan of The Revival. When I look back on 2016, though, this one just doesn’t quite reach the level of personal memorability for me that the bouts in the upper echelon of the countdown do.

I am calling this one of the seven best WWE matches, of the year, though, so enough with the qualifiers. This match represented The Revival at their best, working a hard hitting but smooth style of isolating a face and cutting off a tag by any means necessary. Gargano and Ciampa’s faster pace, and particularly Ciampa’s stellar selling, were an ideal complement. All of this built to a brutal dissection of Gargano’s knee to set up the heartbreaking submission victory.

I’m almost grateful The Revival hasn’t gotten a call up, because they’re doing so well working against the diverse, hungry talent on NXT and I worry they’d get lost in the shuffle on the main roster. This was someo f Dash and Dawson’s best work in a great year.

#6. Asuka vs. Bayley at NXT Takeover: Back to Brooklyn

One last, ongoing qualifier. I recognize that Revival vs. Gargano and Ciampa marks will have a tough time swallowing this match going one higher on the countdown when these matches were not only on the same show, but actually appeared back-to-back on that show. However unpopular my opinion may be, this was the match that shone a little brighter for me (though let’s also take a moment to recognize how sweet this was as a one-two combo on this show, not to mention that they followed the glorious debut of Bobby Roode and preceded the Shinsuke Nakamura’s coronation as the man in NXT).

Asuka and Bayley had had a very good match at NXT Takeover: Dallas that saw Asuka render Bayley unconscious with the Asuka Lock. In this match, Bayley started out tentative and intimidated only to woman-up as the match proceeded, trading bombs with the Japanese star. Technically, this was a face vs. face match, but Asuka largely worked the heel role as more powerful and generally dominant over the plucky face. The quality of the match was key, however, in keeping both women likeable in the long-run, because Asuka was not just bruising, but something like Brock Lesnar-lite in working like a destructive force.

The finish to this bout was near perfect with Bayley completely no-selling a stiff kick to the head and daring Asuka to do it again, only for Asuka to finally finish her off. The match functioned beautifully for Bayley to graduate from NXT while conclusively putting over the new face of the women’s division, and come across like she had truly graduated from feel-good star to grizzled performer who could take a hellacious beating, and was ready to ply her trade on the main roster.

#5. Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns, Money in the Bank

Of the matches ranked in this countdown, this one may have had the least buzz about it on the IWC. Some of that has to do with Reigns, quickly followed by Rollins, representing the establishment at this point, and thus not turning heads or meaningfully advancing their careers as much as this match would have a couple years earlier when they were less established stars. Additionally, it’s easy for this match to have been lost in the shuffle given that Dean Ambrose cashed in his Money in the Bank opportunity in the immediate aftermath, so neither of these two would lay a hand on a world title for the half-year to follow. On top of all that, besides performing in a triple threat together at Battleground, the Rollins and Reigns rivalry would stop cold here, and Rollins would turn face a few months later.

So what is this match doing on the countdown and in the number four spot? First of all, it was excellently worked, with Rollins showing no signs of ring rust, and, if anything, a chip on his shoulder to prove he still belonged in the main event. Meanwhile, Reigns turned in another in a series of strong performances that have continued to prove in 2016 that he may not be the best professional wrestler in WWE, but he is able to elevate his game to complement top workers nicely.

In addition to the quality in-ring work, this was a deceptively complex match. Yes, you had two established main eventers with an established history fighting for the WWE Championship. But you also had the bizarre dynamic of Rollins being freshly returned from injury and over like rover with the crowd, while Reigns had his John-Cena-style heat. Add to that Reigns being the much larger athlete and the face-heel dynamics were all over the place in this match. I know some folks thought that detracted from the effort and made it feel incoherent; I can understand that opinion, but to me it felt like a post-modern masterpiece for that very dynamic of the fans and reality informing the match.

Finally, there’s the finish. While there wasn’t a consensus opinion, the general vibe I got going into this match was that Reigns was the favorite to win, while some thought Rollins could take it via all sorts of heel shenanigans. Of course, there was also the minority opinion that grew stronger throughout the night, that Dean Ambrose might insert himself in the proceedings for an off-the-wall finish. While the Ambrose MITB hijinx may have played out as such after the match, for the match itself, WWE turned heads with Rollins winning clean. That meant Reigns suffered an unheard of, clean, pin fall loss. That meant Rollins was put truly on the level of, if not above Reigns in WWE’s kayfabe standings. On top of all of that, the finish itself was tremendous with Rollins managing a swank counter of the spear into a Pedigree, before nailing another Pedigree to pick up the decisive fall.

In short this was a great, unpredictable match, that included an excellent finish, that implied something of a paradigm shift. Good enough for #5.

#4. AJ Styles vs. John Cena, SummerSlam

For all of the flack he gets, John Cena is both a guy who can produce great matches when paired with great opponents, and a big enough star that he can truly elevate his dance partners.

Be it coincidence or by design, all of this has been particularly true at SummerSlam, where Cena put over CM Punk in 2011 and Daniel Bryan in 2013 (and arguably Punk again in 2012 and Seth Rollins in 2015, but those examples are a lot less clean). In 2016, Cena squared off with AJ Styles in a bout that would be telling. Most of us expected this match to be good-to-great, mind you, but the outcome would be more revealing to WWE’s long-term plans. Would Cena get his win back and usher Styles back to the mid-card? Would Styles cheat to win, and so remain staunchly in the upper-mid-card, but with an asterisk. Or might Styles actually go over clean?

While there were no titles on the line, I’d argue that this match, more than Styles’s actual world title win a month later, was his WWE coronation. They assembled and executed Cena’s best one-on-one match since he put over Bryan three years earlier. Styles looked like a bona fide star after going blow-for-blow with the face of the company and finally pinning him clean with a Styles Clash into one last Phenomenal Forearm.

It’s unfortunate that many will remember SummerSlam for being way too long, for Brock Lesnar bloodying Randy Orton, or for Finn Balor’s world title reign that was over as soon as it began. We’ll always have this golden tidbit to hang onto—a star-making performance in the truest sense of the word, as Styles vanquished The Champ, and laid claim to being The Face that Runs the Place.

#3. DIY vs. The Revival, NXT Takeover: Toronto

After assembling a MOTY contender in Brooklyn, these two teams converged for a rematch under two-out-of-three falls rules. Given the time and stipulation to go all out, I was among the many who thought they might well exceed the original match. I was also convinced that the match was a placeholder—there for the sake of putting on a great match, but unimportant to larger storylines as The Revival confirmed their dominance and went on to other feuds; as Ciampa and Gargano made good on the longstanding potential for their own feud, likely with Ciampa turning after Gargano came up short again.

Therein lies some of the brilliance of this match. That there were a number of directions in which it could have gone, and the one certainty was that we were seeing a truly outstanding traditional team (The Revival) against a more makeshift, more new school pairing that had nonetheless proven themselves capable of great in-ring performance.

The Revival picked up the first fall cleanly, decisively, and relatively quickly with the Shatter Matchine. DIY had to work harder through near falls and a prolonged heat segment to score with their signature superkick-running knee combo. As tends to be the case in great multi-fall matches, the final fall would have been, in and of itself, a great stand-alone match, that culminated in DIY locking in stereo submissions to pick up the fall.

Thus Gargano and Ciampa stayed together, at least for the time being, with questions remaining about The Revival’s future—if they might attain a third NXT tag title run, or if they might get thrust into one of the crowded tag scenes on the main roster to sink or swim. Regardless, for as good as The Revival had been against American Alpha and Enzo and Cass before, this run against DIY has turned out to be their signature rivalry and pinnacle (to date) as bona fide NXT legends.

#2. Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens, Battleground

Make no mistake about it: in the larger lore of WWE programming, this match is super weird. It was unofficially billed as the blow off match in the Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens rivalry that had transcended NXT to become one of the hottest issues on the main roster for months. And while Zayn won cleanly and decisively, that finish belied both Owens’s dominance over Zayn back in NXT, and that Owens would be the one to move on from this program to become a main eventer, even beating Zayn in throwaway Raw matches to follow.

Putting all of the narrative oddities, this match, both treated as the climax of the Zayn-Owens program and consumed in a vacuum, was f’n great.

Zayn and Owens are both great workers on their own, and they’ve worked together since their indy days and developed all sorts of chemistry. Add onto that their characters and in-ring style. For all of their similarities and overlapping history, Zayn and Owens are perfect complements for one another because they’re so opposite. While Zayn is a high-flying face who can sell his ass off and make a comeback with crazy fire—one of the best pure faces in the tradition of Ricy Steamboat—Owens is masterful shit-talking, power-based, bully of a heel. Thus, these two were all but built to make magic together.

While Zayn and Owens had assembled high-three-star and four-star matches together in NXT and on Raw, this match marked the pinnacle of their WWE work, in a legit borderline-five-star match. Zayn-Owens was intense, starting with a brawl from the opening bell, and the guys went on to cut a blistering pace while incorporating the sound psychology of Zayn kayfabe injuring his shoulder. To their credit, WWE gave these two close to twenty minutes to work with, and they delivered in spades.

#1. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn, NXT Takeover: Dallas

While Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens at Battleground was great, in no small part, due to the long-established history between the characters and the way in which the bout capped a year of shared storylines, Zayn-Nakamura represented the opposite dynamic. For this was a match in isolation—no real feud to speak of, no history between the characters or performers themselves. And yet it was a match that proved two great performers, placed in front of a great crowd and in the right circumstances, can produce a legit classic.

The circumstances? This was Zayn’s farewell match in NXT—two days later he’d open WrestleMania in the Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match and remain a main roster fixture from that point forward. On the flip side, Nakamura was a super established star in Japan, but was making his NXT debut.

The crowd? A WrestleMania weekend NXT crowd, which meant the hardest of the hardcore fans, and thus the kind of crowd that’s default setting was to mark out like crazy for anything Zayn or Nakamura did.

The performers? Sami Zayn, the modern day platonic ideal of a face, ready to sell like a dead man and then make a comeback with all the fire of hell. And there was Nakamura—not the prototypical heel Zayn is known to work well against but rather a face, but a face who worked opposite Zayn for his King of Strong Style gimmick that saw him positively wail on Zayn with stiff kicks.

The two assembled an awesome match that blended brawling (including a tremendous standoff late in the match) with brilliant counter wrestling, only to arrive at the inevitable conclusion of Nakamura winning, giving Zayn one last chance to work as NXT’s lovable loser and guy who puts top guys over, while Nakamura immediately established himself as one of the best in the promotion, and began the well-justified push that would see him end up NXT Champion in Brooklyn.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is my pick for the WWE match of the year.

What would you add to the list? Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte at Hell in a Cell, TJ Perkins vs. Gran Metalik in the Cruiserweight Classic final, the Shield triple threat from Battleground, Cena vs. Styles at Money in the Bank, and the Money in the Bank Ladder Match itself were among my top runners up. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Read more from Mike Chin at his website and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.

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The Magnificent Seven, WWE, Mike Chin