As we head into one of the biggest and most loaded weekend of pro wrestling we’re likely to see this year, I’m left thinking back on the year we’ve had so far (2016!). Most of the time, pro wrestling starts to quiet down a bit after August, but 2016 thus far has bucked a ton of trends and delivered some quality matches from seemingly all corners of the earth, so who knows! Before we get overloaded by great matches this weekend, I thought I’d list and describe a few of the matches that I’ve really enjoyed this year, and explain why I think they’re unique.
This is not my top 5 favourite matches of 2016, most of the matches on this list are not in contention for my own personal MOTY, but they’re matches that stand out to me as really interesting and embodiments of the spirit this year in pro wrestling has represented to me. So without further ado, and in no particular order, here we go!
(1) Trevor Lee vs Roy Wilkins (Mid-Atlantic Worldwide Ep. #43)
You may have heard of this one due to its rather extraordinary length, when it first came about, a lot of people were sceptical that it’d be any good, considering some 30-60 minute matches don’t have enough substance to keep them interesting for the whole time. I’ll warn you if you decide to check this one out, it’s definitely a long haul, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it, and it sucks you in enough that you will want to finish it. Trevor Lee puts on an amazing performance for the first half of this match, and never have I seen a babyface on offence for so long keep it compelling. Truly it’s a fine accomplishment to keep your offense looking so painful, and enjoyable to indulge in for as long as Lee does here.
As the match progresses, they change up the style multiple times, it almost feels like a miniature history of professional wrestling. This variety in style keeps you on your toes, and feels like multiple matches contained within the same bell-to-bell period. A few of the false finishes in the middle feel like they could be endings to really fun sprints, but the match continues and they launch into a new style and a new feel. I’m someone who tends to scoff at overbooked nonsense, but when it happened here I was fine with it, because it was just another of the themes of pro wrestling they were covering.
It’s also a really solid pro wrestling match fundamentally. They do some groundwork early on to establish Trevor as the fiery babyface perhaps wrestling his last match in a territory he feels very connected with. When he finally isn’t on offence, they get you invested in his plight and do the work to get you interested in the finish of the match. Then, they hit some really awesome emotional notes in the back end with some fast paced sequences that work because you’re on the edge of your seat rooting for a certain outcome.
This is a really well told pro wrestling story, where both guys did their bit to sell it to you. Beyond that, it really is special, it’s length, it’s feel, Trevor Lee’s performance; this was one of the most enjoyable matches I’ve seen this year, and it truly is unique; you’re not likely to see a match like it.
(2) Matt Hardy vs Jeff Hardy "The Final Deletion" (Impact Wrestling 05/07/2016)
In a similar vein to Lee/Wilkins, this was a pro wrestling match very solid at its core that was made even better by the fact that it was a unique experience. Both performers play they’re part in an experience that tells a story and keeps me compelled for the whole time I was watching it. It may have been a little silly and over the top at times, but both performers sufficiently conveyed the story they were telling, and made that story incredibly compelling without once taking me out of this universe they had created, and at the end of the day, that’s what I’m looking for out of a pro wrestling match. Matt Hardy in particular is a delight to experience here with his mannerisms and constant dedication to the character.
I’m generally against editing in pro wrestling in general, in other places I’ve seen excessive editing it really hurts the flow of a match. Heck, even just in your traditional US TV product when you go to a commercial and come back after missing a chunk of the match, a ton of the flow is lost. I’m a guy who really appreciates pacing, I like to get gradually more invested into something before it builds to a climax, or sometimes multiple big moments. So it was incredibly refreshing here to see heavy editing add to a match tremendously, rather than taking anything away from it. The editing served to set the pace just the way they were intending, and the backing score that accompanied the match also aided that.
Matt Hardy’s brainchild also succeeded in inspiring a variety of emotions, I genuinely felt this conveyed traditional pro wrestling emotions of investment, and eventually the correct emotion was brought out of me in the finish. But beyond even that, The Final Deletion does have a ton of comedic moments, and I don’t feel that hurt the storytelling of the match, I feel like it aided it. It was a legitimately complete performance, where I could experience an intense amount of enjoyment from one simply concept. I can’t imagine I would have enjoyed this match nearly as much sitting through an episode of Impact to watch it, but as one collected piece, it’s a ton of fun.
(3) John Cena vs AJ Styles (Money in the Bank)
I’m pretty convinced this is my favourite John Cena performance of all time, and I like John Cena a lot. One of the things that makes Cena such a great performer, is that if you look at his best matches, pretty much all of those performances are very different. This performance took a shape that really jived with me, and it helped the match that the other guy in it is probably the best active wrestler on the planet (top five at worst). This was all about John Cena having a really bad day at the office, and having to fight… so… damn… hard to stay in the fight. He had to scratch, claw and fight for absolutely every single inch he was given, and nothing was going right for him.
To set the context, this was Cena’s first singles match after a length time injured, there was a huge question mark as to whether he was at 100%, a huge question marks as to whether he could still hang. This match was against a very strong competitor, a guy who took the world champion to his limits months early, so probably not the easiest opponent for your first match back. John Cena’s come back really strong before, like in 2008 when he won the Royal Rumble after recovering at an ungodly speed from an injury he sustained the previous October. Could he come back and be as good as when he left? Go toe to toe on the night with one of the best in the company right now?
No chance in hell. John Cena was simple one step behind AJ Styles at every corner in this match, it was one of the most one sided matches I’ve seen in a very long time involving the ace of a company. It wasn’t a physical dominance like the match with Brock Lesnar in August 2014, it was a mental dominance. What really hammered this home is every single one of John Cena’s "five moves of doom" being stopped dead by a counter. But John Cena wouldn’t give up, every setback just fired him up further and further, but at every step of the way something went wrong: AJ counters a big move, Cena stumbles due to AJ’s excellent leg work and the ref gets knocked out. Through it all though, John Cena kept fighting, and he got him, with his last shot, he got AJ Styles. But because they’re assholes, the Club arrived, and were the last nail in John Cena’s coffin on this night.
This match was excellent, and is an actual contender for my MOTY, if you haven’t, please go watch it.
(4) Jonathan Gresham vs Chris Hero (BEYOND State of the Art)
Grappler vs Striker is one of the easiest in ring stories to tell in pro wrestling, and if you get it right, it’s absolutely one of the most compelling. Not to say Chris Hero is a pure striker, because he can pretty much do whatever he wants in the wrestling ring, as he showed here hanging with one of the most promising grapplers in the US right now. However, when he wants to be, Chris Hero is one of the most amazing asshole brawlers in pro wrestling. This match really made me think about both these performers on a new level, and I was already pretty high on Chris Hero.
Some of the sequences are excessive for sure, and it probably goes on a little longer than it needed to, but in the same way as the first match on this list, when you take the time to get the audience invested in two performers, and you hit important emotional notes in the back end, what you end up with is a very satisfying match. It’s core story is extremely solid, and the performances from both guys are bloody Steller, it’s just a flat out fun match to get wrapped up in the ride with.
What I really love about this match is how amazing both these guy’s offense looks throughout the whole thing. Chris Heroes strikes are amplified heavily by the selling of Gresham here, and his entire arsenal looks excellent here. Gresham’s grappling is also super fun, and everything he shows me in this match makes me hope EVOLVE start booking him in singles stuff more regularly, because he seems like he’d fit right in with the main event scene over there.
Really awesome match from a company that has been super fun this year, and a good introduction to both guys if you’ve never seen them.
(5) Katsuyori Shibata vs Yuji Nagata (Dominion 6.19)
This is a really interesting match for me, because it’s what I see as the conclusion to one of the more entertaining story arcs I’ve seen in NJPW in recent years. Katsuyori Shibata has been butting heads with the NJPW Old Lions for the majority of the year; part of the tension between the two parties no doubt arises from the decision Shibata took to leave NJPW at a key time in order to try his hand in MMA, an event that also spurred an amazing feud with Hiroshi Tanahashi. They also took exception to his style, with his tendency to keep his head down and rush into all situations without thinking. Finally they felt he wasn’t showing enough respect to those who paved the road for he and others like him to reach the successes that he’s had in NJPW.
This led to Shibata taking on pretty much everybody’s grandfather and putting his NEVER Openweight championship on the line every time. He had pretty good success, picking up victories against legends such as Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Satoshi Kojimi. He was on a roll and was probably having one of the best 2016’s in the company when you add in his Tokyo Dome and New Beginning victories over Tomohiro Ishii, until he ran into Yuji Nagata, probably the most successful of the Old Lions Shibata has faced this year. Nagata took the NEVER title off of Shibata, and forced him to take a look at his methods.
Shibata came out for this second match with Nagata showing a little more respect, but determined to atone for his earlier loss. He showed development, and growth, and changed his style to make sure that he put on a much better performance this time. This is honestly one of my favourite matches of the year because it was incredibly entertaining to see true character development and consistency, as well as legitimate growth from a character and performer, and the subsequent stuff with Shibata now teaming with the legends he once butted heads with, Nagata calling him the future of "strong style," and the group now battling NOAH invaders in one of the hottest angles of 2016 NJPW, has been equally as great.
So there it is! Five really interesting matches you may not have seen before a stacked weekend of pro graps hits us with at least five more really interesting matches! Check them out on youtube, youtube, WWE Network, youtube (paid) or NJPW World.