The Armpit’s Top 10 Matches of 2016

The Armpit’s Top 10 Matches of 2016

Several months ago we decided to chronicle the best matches in pro wrestling history, including all matches rated **** or higher by the highly respected Wrestling Observer Newsletter put out by Dave Meltzer.

We started with 2016, going quarter by quarter in three-month increments. When possible, we included links to where you could watch these matches in their entirety, or at least clips of the matches. In case you missed them, you can catch up here:

Our Greatest Matches Ever series quickly became a big hit, linked and re-tweeted by Meltzer and debated in various online wrestling forums. The series will continue in 2017 and beyond, and soon we’ll also be posting the greatest matches ever dating back to 1980.

2016: A Banner Year for Pro Wrestling

Many people bemoaned 2016 as a terrible year in general, but personally I thought it was fantastic, for lots of reasons. Especially when it came to wrestling match quality. With the rise of independent wrestling worldwide, along with the continued dominance of the major promotions, there were more great matches in 2016 than possibly any other year in history.

Selecting the top 10 wrestling matches of 2016 proved to be a very difficult task, as there were several top contenders vying for the list in what was a banner in-ring year for the wrestling industry.

For me, the only lock was #1, as I felt it was the clear match of the year about halfway into it. After that, the succeeding nine matches were almost interchangeable. This list is simply my own opinion, and yours will differ, of course. But I don’t think any intelligent wrestling fan would argue that any of these matches don’t deserve to be in the top 10.

Unfortunately no matches from WWE made the list, which isn’t a knock on them, as they had a tremendous year for pure match quality. AJ Styles did make the list, but not for a match he had in WWE. It’s not that WWE had no worthy contenders, it’s that New Japan had yet another strong year and they had a higher caliber of wrestling talent all facing each other. They also put on a ton of major shows, and the result was total domination of the list.

Only one US match made the list, and that was from PWG. Also, no match from the UK made the list, likely because most of their great matches didn’t receive as much attention and exposure. I expect that to change in 2017 with the rise of FloSlam and WWE’s UK tournament.

CMLL and NXT had a lot of great matches as well, but nothing that cracked the top 10.

Unfortunately a ton of phenomenal matches didn’t make the list, but luckily we captured them all in our Greatest Matches Ever series if you want to check them all out.

But for now, this was the cream of the crop:

Honorable Mention

Will Ospreay vs Ricochet
****3/4

May 27, 2016
Korakuen Hall in Tokyo, Japan
New Japan Pro Wrestling
Best of the Super Juniors XXIII – Day 6

This probably received the most worldwide attention of any match not affiliated with WWE this year, for a few reasons.

The reviews were across the board, with the majority of fans loving the groundbreaking athleticism that many compared to Dynamite Kid vs Tiger Mask in terms of how it will change the business. However, a very vocal contingent hated the match, feeling it was overly choreographed, silly, and focused more on performance and match quality as the goal instead of winning and hurting your opponent.

The match took on a new life on Twitter, where veterans like Vader, who has wrestled all over the world, picked it apart. The internet rivalry even led to Vader facing Ospreay in an indie match, well before Vader delivered his horrible medical news later in the year.

The match became the subject of fierce debate online and on numerous podcasts, but without question it catapulted the two men to greater fame and led to a few rematches in other promotions like PWG and Over the Top. The two had a match in Evolve over WrestleMania weekend that preceded this, and some say it was even better than their Tokyo match.

Whatever your feelings are (mine were somewhere in between), the impact of this match was undeniable and it definitely deserves honorable mention on this list. We also voted it as the best match of Q2, but it didn’t crack the top 10 because there were so many other fantastic matches this year. In any other year, it would have been top 5 for sure, and possibly even #1. That’s what kind of year it was.

10. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada
****3/4

August 12, 2016
Sumo Hall in Tokyo, Japan
New Japan Pro Wrestling
G1 Climax 26 – Day 17

These two have the honorable distinction of being on the list twice with the same match. And if you made a list of the top matches of the past ten years, they’d be on there a lot more times than that.

As often as these two have faced each other, they managed to keep it fresh. Much of that was due to booker Gedo, who booked the G1 in such a way that Okada needed the win here in order to advance in the tournament. A draw would’ve hurt him as well, so of course they teased it and almost went 30 minutes, which really added to the emotion and gave the match a dramatic storyline.

The last third of the match was simply phenomenal, with all the usual big moves and near falls. They really bring out the best in each other, and the fans ended up the winners. These two never disappoint.

9. Kenny Omega vs Hirooki Goto
****3/4

August 14, 2016
Sumo Hall in Tokyo, Japan
New Japan Pro Wrestling
G1 Climax 26 – Day 19

This was the biggest night of Omega’s career up to that point, winning the G1 tournament and solidifying his breakout year as the top worker in the entire business.

The most amazing thing about this match is that the night before, he had an even better match, a ***** classic with Naito. He somehow almost did it again, in two back-to-back performances that rank with anything any wrestler has ever done over such a short period of time. There’s a reason wrestlers say the G1 tournament is the most taxing of all tours of the year, and matches like this are why.

This was more than a great match, but also a star making performance that he really needed to elevate him as the successor to AJ Styles in Japan. New Japan has big plans for him in 2017, and matches like this will demonstrate to fans that he earned the top spot through hard work and unparalleled effort.

8. Kenny Omega vs Hirooki Goto
****3/4

October 10, 2016
Sumo Hall in Tokyo, Japan
New Japan Pro Wrestling
King of Pro Wrestling
January 4 Tokyo Dome IWGP Heavyweight Title Shot

No, you are not seeing double. Yes, the same match made the list twice again, and one right after the other.

While their G1 match is more famous because of the historical aspect, it was this match that was slightly better in the ring. Why? Because the two went out there and damn near killed themselves.

I wrote at the time that this match angered me, because they took unnecessary risks that could’ve very easily backfired and badly injured either man. Things like a Canadian Destroyer from the top rope, and double stomp onto a table outside the ring that almost caused an ankle break. And those are just two examples out of many.

Angry or not, I’d be a fool to not put this opus into the top 10. These guys might be nuts, but they deserve the accolades they got for it.

7. Kazuchika Okada vs Naomichi Marufuji
****3/4

October 10, 2016
Sumo Hall in Tokyo, Japan
New Japan Pro Wrestling
King of Pro Wrestling
IWGP Heavyweight Championship

Marufuji, from NOAH, showed he could hang with the best New Japan has to offer and looked absolutely tremendous here. The two worked a classic that could’ve easily been rated ***** and nobody would’ve complained. Best of all, it was a relatively safe match, worked to look brutal and devastating, but was nowhere near as risky and dangerous as the Omega-Goto match that preceded it.

Okada has four matches in the top 10, but it’s well deserved. His big show matches always come through, but this was really a spotlight for Marufuji and he couldn’t have come across any better. With so many promotions in Japan struggling financially, it almost makes sense to consolidate some of them. If that happens, he should be a top guy in New Japan because he really proved himself on this night.

The heat and action in the final minutes were as good as anything this year. Do not miss this match.

6. Kenny Omega vs Hiroshi Tanahashi
****3/4

February 14, 2016
Niigata, Japan
New Japan Pro Wrestling
The New Beginning in Niigata
IWGP Intercontinental Championship (vacated by Shinsuke Nakamura)

Kenny Omega was undoubtedly the rising star of 2016, everyone knows that. And this is the match that began his ascent.

When Shinsuke Nakamura signed with WWE, he vacated the IWGP Intercontinental title. Omega and Tanahashi battled it out, and most everyone figured Tanahashi would win because he was New Japan’s top star and had just lost the IWGP Heavyweight title to Okada.

Instead, booker Gedo wisely saw this as his chance to make a new foreign star in Omega, to replace the void left by AJ Styles. And it worked to perfection. When the Bullet Club tried to interfere, Omega sent them back and audibly said the “smart marks” wouldn’t buy his push unless he won the match cleanly.

The Bullet Club ended up interfering again, but Michael Elgin laid them out. In a nice twist, Omega used AJ’s finished for a great near fall, but ended up winning on his own merits and setting the stage for his breakout year.

Aside from the interference aspect, this was a perfect pro wrestling match in every sense of the word. At least the interference told a story, and overall the match more than accomplished its goal.

5. Shinsuke Nakamura vs AJ Styles
****3/4

January 4, 2016
Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan
New Japan Pro Wrestling
Wrestle Kingdom 10
IWGP Intercontinental Championship

Today in WWE, this would be considered a dream match. And in fact, even in New Japan it was a dream match, as it was the first time the two had ever faced each other in a singles match.

Historically, this gem took place after both had signed with WWE. They could’ve easily phoned it in, especially with AJ having a legit shoulder injury. Instead, they pulled out all the stops and delivered a truly memorable, epic back and forth battle for the ages.

This was everything you’d expect, and then some. We can only hope the two lock horns in WWE some day, but of course that would require Nakamura move to the main roster, and as of this writing he’s still languishing inexplicably in NXT.

4. Ricochet & Matt Sydal & Will Ospreay vs Young Bucks & Adam Cole
*****

September 2, 2016
American Legion in Reseda, CA
Pro Wrestling Guerilla
Battle of Los Angeles – Day 2

This was the only match from the US to crack the top 10, which is ridiculous because there were so many great matches in America this year.

These six guys set unreal expectations, knowing Dave Meltzer would be in the front row. They had a goal of hitting five stars, and they achieved it. I planned on being disappointed when watching it because I knew ahead of time what the rating was, but it indeed lived up to the hype in my opinion.

The action was endless and the spots were as plentiful as you’d expect. What made the match for me was the final few sequences, which were so awesome that everyone needs to see them.

If you’re into storytelling and selling, don’t bother. This wasn’t that kind of match. I’m one of the traditionalists who believes less is more, more for the sake of these guys’ safety than anything. But it’s hard to argue the unbelievable athleticism here, and it’s not like it didn’t get over with the crowd (quite the contrary).

It’s a shame so few people will see this match, as it’ll never air on TV or be on YouTube. But to those who watch PWG, we know how good it was and that it belongs in the top 10.

The full match doesn’t exist online, so you’ll need to order it from PWG.  But here are clips:

3. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada
*****

January 4, 2016
Location: Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan
Promotion: New Japan Pro Wrestling
Event: WrestleKingdom 10
Stipulations: IWGP Heavyweight Championship

This was the monumental passing of the torch, as Tanahashi handed the keys to the car to Okada in light of his age and broken body. And it had even greater importance because everyone knew AJ and Nakamura were on their way out.

These two have had one of the greatest in-ring rivalries of all-time, producing several classics and elevating New Japan’s business to heights it hadn’t seen in years. The pressure was on them to not only have a great match, but also pass the torch effectively AND do so while keeping the match fresh.

And they did. They used lots of reversals and counters, with the storyline that they all knew each other’s best moves. It won best match honors of Q1, and ranks third here. And in case you haven’t noticed, they had a match later in the year that’s also on this list.

Everything you’d expect from a Tokyo Dome main event, and then some. An instant classic.

2. Tomohiro Ishii vs Kazuchika Okada
*****

August 6, 2016
Eidon Arena in Osaka, Japan
New Japan Pro Wrestling
G1 Climax 26 – Day 13

Ishii has a distinct style that makes his matches different than all the others, and working with the big match king in Okada, they brought out the best in each other. This was nineteen minutes of sheer brutality, hard physicality, and deafening crowd heat.

Some of the spots were so stiff and dangerous that the crowd was almost stunned into silence with that “Why on Earth would they try something like that” feeling. It also contained one of the best superplexes you’ll ever see (although Neville of late seems on a mission to top it).

This is a must-see war, and it’s a safe bet that these two warriors are still feeling the aches and pains from surviving this battle.

1. Kenny Omega vs Testuya Naito
*****

August 13, 2016
Sumo Hall in Tokyo, Japan
New Japan Pro Wrestling
G1 Climax 26 – Day 18

When I first saw this match, I knew halfway through that it was the match of the year. And I wasn’t the only one.

Omega and Naito were the two breakout stars of 2016, overshadowed only by AJ Styles, and only because AJ had the advantage of the worldwide promotional machine that is WWE. AJ was the clear cut wrestler of the year, but Omega was right there behind him, and Naito was right behind Omega.

So it was only fitting that when these two stars on the rise were pitted against one another, fireworks exploded. The precision, pacing, execution, and brutality displayed here were on a higher level than even the best matches this year. It has already won match of the year honors in Japan, and probably a few here as well.

I wrote in the original description that Omega’s performance here reminded me of Shawn Michaels in his infamous ladder match with Razor Ramon, except it was more modern, there was no ladder, and Naito is a better worker than Scott Hall. That’s the best way to put it.

Naito could’ve gone to the G1 finals with a draw, so they teased going 30 minutes. But alas, it ended up a couple minutes shy of that. And Omega built upon his other brilliant performances prior to this and really drove the point home that he was the best in the world. If there was ever any doubt before this match, those skeptics were quickly silenced.

As for Naito, he’s only a hair behind Omega. He’s actually far more important to New Japan’s business than Omega is, but Omega is being booked to be the top foreigner in the company. He too was outstanding here, just as he has been all year.

Truly deserving winner of the match of the year, and I feel good about voting for it as #1 without any second thoughts.

Conclusion

Nobody will ever agree universally on any top 10 list, but I think we can all agree that most or all of the matches listed here are worthy of consideration. Feel free to send us any feedback you have, and we may post some of the letters.

It’s important these great matches and great wrestlers get as much recognition as possible, so please spread the word by sharing this post on Facebook, Twitter, and any online message boards you visit. Please also email it to friends of yours who may be interested or who may not be aware or familiar with wrestling promotions in foreign countries.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for following along in our Greatest Matches Ever series. Putting those articles together took a tremendous amount of time and work, but it was very enjoyable and educational. Please sign up for our email list below to guarantee you never miss out on great matches for the coming year and beyond.

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