Welcome to The Armpit’s Top 10 Wrestlers of 2016 list. Here we will examine the best in-ring workers in the world for last year, judged strictly on bell-to-bell performance. Elements such as title reigns, promos, and storylines are not taken into consideration. This list is based purely on in-ring ability and who had the best matches of the year.
We used a very mathematical approach to this list, using match star ratings from our Greatest Matches Ever series for 2016. Three criteria were used:
1) The TOTAL SUM of stars each wrestler had for matches rated **** or higher
2) The AVERAGE star rating each wrestler had for matches rated **** or higher
3) The NUMBER of matches each wrestler had that were rated **** or higher
This gave us three different lists of rankings. Each list ranked wrestlers from #1 to #10, although there were a lot more than 12 wrestlers included because there were lots of ties for most ranks.
We then assigned values to each ranking, with 10 points assigned to the #1 spot, 20 points assigned to #2, and so on. We added up the points for each wrestler, and ranked the totals from LOWEST to HIGHEST. With this method, getting the least amount of points worked in a wrestler’s favor.
Once we had a master list, we then used personal judgment to account for mathematical errors and discrepancies. For example, Hirooki Goto was ranked better on the master list than AJ Styles. But using personal judgment, we know Styles is a much better worker than Goto. Goto had more big show matches because New Japan runs more big shows, and he also had a higher caliber of opponents. Styles had disadvantages that he should not be penalized for, and that’s where our own personal judgment came in.
“But Professor, if you’re using personal judgment to override the math, then why do the math at all?”
Good question. The truth is that you can make a case for anyone in the top 5 as the best worker in the business. The margin is razor thin and there are so many factors, variables, and personal opinions. But we absolutely took the mathematical rankings into consideration. There are a few cases where guys I wouldn’t even consider for the top 10 list are IN the list simply because the numbers don’t lie. So yes, the mathematical rankings heavily influenced our personal judgment.
Second, math is just math. It’s not a fool-proof way to rank anyone with so many unfair variables. But it’s the best way we know of to get a good idea of who’s really having great matches.
Third, these are just matches for which we have star ratings for. This means most house show matches get overlooked, and promotions with no or limited television, like Revolution Pro, are under represented. Promotions with big shows and wide exposure, like WWE and New Japan, have the clear advantage. It also heavily favors wrestlers such as the Young Bucks, who have the ability to work for multiple promotions like New Japan, PWG, and ROH. They had more of an opportunity to have great matches, and nobody telling them to tone down their style.
Based on adding up all the star ratings for all matches rated **** or higher during the year, the top 12 spots were: 1) Kazuchika Okada 2) Young Bucks 3) Ricochet 4) Will Ospreay 5) Tetsuya Naito 6) Tomohiro Ishii 7) Kenny Omega 8) Kyle O’Reilly 9) Kushida 10) Hirooki Goto. As you can see, AJ Styles did not even make the list, although he was #12 (#11 was Hiroshi Tanahashi).
Based on the average star rating for matches rated **** or higher, the top 10 spots were: 1) Kazuchika Okada, Young Bucks 2) Ricochet, Will Ospreay, Tetsuya Naito 3) Tomohiro Ishii 4) Kenny Omega, Kyle O’Reilly 5) Kushida, Hirooki Goto 6) Hiroshi Tanahashi, AJ Styles, Matt Sydal 7) Kevin Owens, Adam Cole, Dean Ambrose, Katsuyori Shibata 8) Michael Elgin, Sami Zayn, Volador Jr, Tommaso Ciampa, Johnny Gargano, Marty Scrull, Dragon Lee, Zack Sabre Jr, Baretta, Seiya Sanada 10) Fenix, Naomichi Marufuji, Shinsuka Nakamura, Roman Reigns, Miz, Scott Dawson, Dash Wilder, Cesaro, Chris Jericho, Togi Makabe, Katsuhiko Nakajima, Gran Metalik, Yuju Nagata, Seth Rollins, Yoshi-Hashi, Rocky Romero, Hiroyoshi Tenzan
Based on the total number of matches each wrestler had that was rated **** or higher, the top 10 spots were: 1) Kazuchika Okada, Young Bucks 2) Will Ospreay, Ricochet, Tetsuya Naito 3) Tomohiro Ishii 4) Kenny Omega, Kyle O’Reilly 5) Hirooki Goto, Kushida 6) AJ Styles, Matt Sydal, Hiroshi Tanahashi 7) Kevin Owens, Adam Cole, Katsuyori Shibata, Dean Ambrose 8) Michael Elgin, Volador Jr, Sami Zayn, Baretta, Dragon Lee, Tommaso Ciampa, Johnny Gargano, Zack Sabre Jr, Seiya Sanada, Marty Scurll 10) Cesaro, Scott Dawson, Fenix, Chris Jericho, Togi Makabe, Naomichi Marufuji, Gran Metalik, Miz, Yuji Nagata, Katsuhiko Nakajima, Shinsuke Nakamura, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Rocky Romero, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Dash Wilder, Yoshi-Hashi, Tommy End, Jay Lethal, Roderick Strong, Taguchi, Mark Haskins, Honma
Master Mathematical List
Weighing all three factors equally, we’re left with this master mathematical list:
1) Kazuchika Okada (30 points)
2) Young Bucks (40 points each)
3) Ricochet (70 points)
4) Will Ospreay (80 points)
5) Tetsuya Naito (90 points)
6) Tomohiro Ishii (120 points)
7) Kenny Omega (150 points)
8) Kyle O’Reilly (160 points)
9) Kushida (190 points)
10) Hirooki Goto (200 points)
11) Hiroshi Tanahashi (230 points)
12) AJ Styles (240 points)
The Final Top 10 Wrestlers List
Weighing the Master Mathematical List against our own personal judgment, we came up with the Final Top 10 List. For each ranking, we give our reasoning and also a list of the top matches we believe fueled those rankings.
Honorable Mention: Kyle O’Reilly
O’Reilly, who had the luxury of working in New Japan, ROH, and PWG, is the one guy who surprised me with how he ranked in the Master Mathematical List. While everyone knows he’s great, he’s not the first name that comes to mind when we think of top 10 workers. But the numbers do not lie.
O’Reilly’s technical style, along with his stiff striking, can produce excellent matches with the right opponent. He’s in incredible shape and had good matches with a variety of different opponents. He’s got a small frame and is lacking in charisma, but that hasn’t stopped WWE from having interest in him. The only thing that hurt him this year was that as good as his matches were, most of them hovered at the **** level and he never had that one (or two, or three) blow-away match the others here did.
As this is being written, he lost the ROH title to Adam Cole at the Tokyo Dome and begins 2017 as a free agent most likely headed to WWE or NXT. The future for O’Reilly looks bright. Even if he doesn’t succeed to the top of WWE, he’ll likely make enough of a name for himself to where he can continue earning a decent income on the indie and international scene for several years to come.
Kyle O’Reilly’s Best Matches of 2016:
10. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Tanahashi has been a top 5 worker, or perhaps even a top 3 worker, for years. This year he was knocked down a peg by New Japan, as he should’ve been, to groom his replacement. That choice was always Okada, although he traded the title back and forth with Naito. As good as Okada is, it’s likely he’ll never be able to carry or grow the company as effectively as Tanahashi did.
Despite having the focus removed from him in 2016, Tanahashi still delivered an impressive set of excellent matches that were second to none. You could argue his Tokyo Dome match was the best of the year, and it was hardly his only contender. While he did have great opponents, Tanahashi still delivered the goods despite his body and age starting to show wear and tear from years and years of great matches.
If Kenny Omega doesn’t re-sign with New Japan, Tanahashi’s value to the company will go way up. Even if Omega stays, Tanahashi is likely to play a key role in New Japan’s expansion into the United States. Jim Ross has called several of his classics and he has a solid fan base waiting for him. And while he can’t perform at this top level for much longer, he’s still got it, and he showed it plenty of times last year.
Hiroshi Tanahashi’s Best Matches of 2016:
vs Kazuchika Okada (NJPW WrestleKingdom 10) January 4 *****
vs Kenny Omega (NJPW New Beginning in Niigata) February 14 ****3/4
vs Tomohiro Ishii (NJPW G1 Climax 26 – Day 11) August 3 ****3/4
vs Naomichi Marufuji (NJPW G1 Climax 26 – Day 13) August 6 ****1/2
vs Kazuchika Okada (NJPW G1 Climax 26 – Day 17) August 12 ****3/4
9. Tomohiro Ishii
Ishii had an incredible year. What makes his rank most impressive is that he’s primary a brawler, although in a more modern sense and not in the mold of a Bruiser Brody or Stan Hansen. He doesn’t do any flashy high spots, he’s rather short, and he’s as grounded as a wrestler could possibly be. Yet he still had all these crazy great matches.
Ishii instead uses his stiff style and strong psychology to electrify the crowd and build heat. The lack of high spots preserves his body, but he still abuses himself with a stiff style that also does no favors for his opponents.
Ishii does a lot of no-sell spots, but unlike the spot monkey indie workers, his no-selling makes sense and plays into the storyline of his hard head. He’ll do spots where he no-sells a series of moves, but then sells them big in a cumulative sell spot after delivering his own offense to his opponent. It’s a relatively new tactic, also done in Mexico, that is being used more and more in Japan. It doesn’t make much sense, but it at least builds to something whereas the indie guys rarely build to anything.
We again expect Ishii to have another strong year, especially with the tough guys in Suzuki-gun to work with like Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr. He also had what many felt was the best match of the year, with Okada.
Tomohiro Ishii’s Best Matches of 2016:
vs Katsuyori Shibata (NJPW WrestleKingdom 10) January 4 ****1/2
vs Katsuyori Shibata (NJPW New Beginning in Osaka) February 11 ****1/2
vs Tetsuya Naito (NJPW Wrestling Dontaku 2016) May 3 ****1/2
vs Hiroshi Tanahashi (NJPW G1 Climax 26 – Day 11) August 3 ****3/4
vs Kazuchika Okada (G1 Climax 26 – Day 13) August 6 *****
vs Chris Hero (Revolution Pro/NJPW Global Wars UK) November 10 ****1/2
8. Will Ospreay
Ospreay is the youngest wrestler to make the list, and had undoubtedly a breakout year that saw him go from an indie guy some people had read about to being one of the key stars in several promotions. He had perhaps the most talked about match of the year, a spot fest with Ricochet that went viral and lit up the internet with controversy and debate over how much is too much, and what constitutes a great match in 2016.
Ospreay made his name on a dynamic set of aerial maneuvers that defy gravity and logic. His timing and precision are world class, and the stuff he comes up with is unlike anything most of us have ever seen. If his style ends up being the future of pro wrestling, then his series of matches with Ricochet this year will be looked back upon as the Dynamite Kid vs Tiger Mask feud of his era.
Ospreay’s matches with Ricochet were spectacular, but he also worked some great ones with others. He’s signed with New Japan and ROH, but also works PWG and other indies in the UK. His match with Ricochet from Dublin was not included in the Greatest Matches Ever list (Meltzer never rated it), but it would not have affected his rankings any (we did the math both ways).
The question on Ospreay isn’t if his body will break down, but when. That’s the cloud that hangs over his head and will shorten his career just as he’ll be ready for the big leagues. He’s already hurting, and he’s not even 25 yet. And he can’t take time off because he’s riding a wave of momentum and is booked all over the world.
2016 was Ospreay’s year, and whether it will be short-lived or not, his work merits a spot in the top 10.
Will Ospreay’s Best Matches of 2016:
vs Ricochet (Evolve 59) April 2 ****1/2
vs Kushida (NJPW Invasion Attack) April 10 ****1/2
vs Ricochet (NJPW Best of the Super Juniors XXIII – Day 6) May 27 ****3/4
vs Fenix (PWG Battle of Los Angeles – Day 1) September 2 ****1/2
w/ Ricochet & Matt Sydal vs Young Bucks & Adam Cole (PWG Battle of Los Angeles – Day 2) *****
vs Ricochet (Over the Top Dream Before Christmas) December 17 (no rating given)
6. The Young Bucks (Matt & Nick Jackson)
The Bucks of Youth, as Matt Hardy calls them, continue to raise their stock year after year. I can’t recall indie wrestlers since the days of Bruiser Brody ever creating such a buzz and the ability to make such a good living without having ever gone to WWE. They’ve got a cult following that continues to grow worldwide.
While they’re rightly accused of often being “spot monkeys,” they’ve turned in so many great matches this year that we lost count. Whether it was in New Japan, PWG, or ROH, they superkicked and Meltzer Drove their way to the top and have gotten over everywhere they’ve gone (we don’t count TNA, and neither should you). They’re funny, flamboyant, athletic, smart, and charismatic all at once.
The two brothers had the opportunity to go to WWE this year, and they wisely chose to remain in ROH for two more years. They apparently signed a great deal, and they’ll also be allowed to work New Japan and PWG, plus have full control of their lucrative merchandise business and creative control over their characters. It’s a plum position to be in, but they’ve earned it.
We ranked them tied, which means there’s no 7th place because they took up two spots. I honestly cannot rank Matt over Nick, or Nick over Matt. They’re as equal as two partners could be, and neither is the Robert Gibson or Marty Jannetty of the team. Nick is probably more athletic, but he’s also younger, and it’s not like Matt doesn’t do his share of impressive spots.
I’d expect more of the same from these two, for as long as their bodies hold up.
The Young Bucks’ Best Matches of 2016:
w/ Kenny Omega vs ACH & Kushida & Matt Sydal (ROH 14th Anniversary) February 26 ****1/2
vs Ricochet & Matt Sydal (PWG All Star Weekend XII – Night 1) March 4 ****3/4
w/ Adam Cole vs Ricochet & Matt Sydal & Will Ospreay (PWG Battle of Los Angeles – Day 2) September 3 *****
vs Fenix & Pentagon (PWG Battle of Los Angeles – Day 3) September 4 ****1/2
vs Christopher Daniels & Frankie Kazarian vs Alex Shelley & Chris Sabin (ROH All Star Extravaganza) September 30 ****3/4
5. Tetsuya Naito
Many consider Naito the wrestler of the year in Japan, and it’s a solid argument because only Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada had better matches. But it was Naito who carried the company and became a breakout star after the departure of AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, and his merchandise sales led New Japan to gross more money than it did in 2015.
Naito remains one of my favorite wrestlers, with a superstar look, calculated ring style with the slow build before turning it on as the match progresses, and an evil stable of hooligans that all reek of cool. LIJ became the hot group in NJ, and they always delivered in the ring.
As a worker, if Naito isn’t the best, he’s at least in the mix. He had several classics this year, and is young and healthy enough to where he will likely repeat that success in 2017. He can do anything in the ring, and he had the best match of the year with Omega. He also held the IWGP title for a short while.
To sum it up, Naito couldn’t have possibly had a better year given how he was booked.
Tetsuya Naito’s Best Matches of 2016:
vs Tomohiro Ishii (NJPW Wrestling Dontaku) May 3 ****1/2
vs Kazuchika Okada (NJPW Dominion 6.19) June 19 ****1/2
vs Kenny Omega (NJPW G1 Climax 26 – Day 19) August 13 *****
vs Michael Elgin (NJPW Destruction) September 25 ****1/2
I’m not sure what else there is to say about Ricochet. He remains the most graceful wrestler on the planet, showing such aerial control over his body that it boggles the mind.
When people say he flies around the ring, he really does fly. Like in PWG when he leapt over the turnbuckles with an amazing somersault dive, or in Over the Top when he dove outside the ring into the stands. And everything was as precise.
Richochet produced a ton of great matches this year, all over the world. Like his dance partner Will Ospreay, he’s able to wow audiences from Japan to the UK to Mexico, with all indies in between. Just an amazing performer with unlimited potential, a great body, appeal to women, easy to work with behind the scenes, and a low injury rate considering his high risk style.
Ricochet chose to stay with New Japan this year, and he’s expecting big things for himself. I’m in the minority as I like him as Prince Puma better, and his match with Rey Mysterio was the best thing Lucha Underground produced all year and is a must-see classic. I also think he’s the one guy WWE wouldn’t screw up, because it’d be impossible not to. But at least for now, that will have to wait.
Ricochet’s Best Matches of 2016:
w/ Matt Sydal vs Young Bucks (PWG All Star Weekend – Night 1) March 4 ****3/4
vs Will Ospreay (Evolve 59) April 2 ****1/2
4-Way Tag Team Match (Lucha Underground S02E14: Cage in a Cage Part 2) April 27 ****1/2
vs Will Ospreay (NJPW Best of the Super Juniors XXIII – Day 6) May 27 ****3/4
vs Rey Mysterio (Lucha Underground S02E26: Ultima Lucha Dos Part 3) July 20 ****1/2
w/ Matt Sydal & Will Ospreay vs Young Bucks & Adam Cole (PWG Battle of Los Angeles – Day 2) September 3 *****
vs Will Ospreay (Over the Top Dream Before Christmas) December 17 (not rated)
3. Kazuchika Okada
Okada is a strange bird. When I think of what the best worker in the world should be, I imagine this dynamic, spectacular human highlight reel who can be dropped anywhere in the world and immediately get over and have great matches with anyone.
That’s not Okada. Yet, here he was, topping every single mathematical list we used to determine who the best wrestlers in the world were. How does he do it? Results do not lie. This man had more great matches than anyone, had them more often, and made them greater than anyone else did.
In other words, he eliminated any possible doubts as to how good he really is. And this doesn’t even include the match he had a couple weeks ago (in 2017) that was the greatest match of all-time.
So yeah, we had to rank him in the top 3. Maybe he should be #2. Or #1 for that matter. Who cares? He’s f*cking awesome, that’s what matters.
Okada had the torch passed to him this year (from Tanahashi). While he wasn’t an overwhelming box office success, it’s pretty hard to argue that he couldn’t have possibly done a better job. He overdelivered at every turn, and in 2017 it looks like more of the same in his new program with Suzuki-gun.
Okada was aided by having the best wrestlers in the world as his opponents, but it takes two to tango at this level. Show me a match where he didn’t deliver, and then let’s talk. But you can’t.
Kazuchika Okada’s Best Matches of 2016:
vs Hiroshi Tanahashi (NJPW WrestleKingdom 10) January 4 *****
vs Tetsuya Naito (NJPW Dominion 6.19) June 19 ****1/2
vs Naomichi Marufuji (NJPW G1 Climax 26 – Day 1) July 18 ****1/2
vs Tomohiro Ishii (NJPW G1 Climax 26 – Day 13) August 6 *****
vs Hiroshi Tanahashi (NJPW G1 Climax 26 – Day17) August 12 ****3/4
vs Naomichi Marufuji (NJPW King of Pro Wrestling) October 10 ****3/4
2. AJ Styles
The wrestler of the year was AJ Styles. After all these years bouncing around the indies, TNA, and New Japan, he finally got everything he had worked his whole adult life for.
Literally from the first week of 2016 until the last, AJ was on fire. He had a classic with Nakamura at the Tokyo Dome, and weeks later made a huge splash debuting in the WWE Royal Rumble. To the surprise of nobody except the WWE brass with their heads stuck up their asses, AJ got a huge reaction. Imagine if Vince actually had his finger on the pulse of the business, he’d have signed AJ back in 2005 when everyone knew he was one of the best around.
Truthfully, AJ is much better now than he was then (and he was great then). His look and personality are finely honed and perfected now, and his ring work and psychology are second to none (except on this list, I guess). He still does amazing high spots, but he’s finally mastered them with a Shawn Michaels-like sense of timing, purpose, and delivery. Rather than cram in tons of spots like, say, the Young Bucks, he chooses a core few in each match so that they each mean so much more. And it preserves his body in the process.
AJ’s mathematical ranks weren’t in the top tier. However, he didn’t exactly have Okada and Omega to work with on big shows. He did have Ambrose and Cena, both of whom are good, but not elite level like the top Japanese stars. Still, AJ brought out the best in all of them, producing WWE’s best matches of the year.
WWE has screwed up many promising talents, but AJ wasn’t one of them. They gave him the opportunity to shine in main events, and then again as the anchor of SmackDown after the brand split, and he hit home runs. The only lowlight was his feud with James Ellsworth, which was really a comedy backdrop for his feud with Ambrose.
Most people who only watch American wrestling will say AJ is the best in the world. Yet some people who watch wrestling from all over the world will also say that, so his high rating here is no fluke.
I question if AJ will have a strong 2017, only because I expect Cena to get the title back before WrestleMania. And AJ vs Cena seems stale at this point after all the matches they had last year. Still, with Cena slowing down his schedule and SmackDown badly needing big name stars, he’s assured a top position for as long as he’s healthy. Couldn’t be more proud of the guy.
AJ Styles’ Best Matches of 2016:
vs Shinsuke Nakamura (NJPW WrestleKingdom 10) January 4 ****3/4
vs Roman Reigns (WWE Extreme Rules) May 22 ****1/2
vs John Cena (WWE SummerSlam) August 21 ****1/2
w/ Team SmackDown vs Team Raw (WWE Survivor Series) November 20 ****1/2
vs Dean Ambrose (WWE TLC) December 4 ****1/2
1. Kenny Omega
You saw this coming. The best wrestler in the world in 2016 was… Kenny Omega.
If you hadn’t heard of Omega before, you certainly did by the end of the year. And even if you still hadn’t heard of him, you absolutely did at the start of 2017 when he had the greatest match of all-time. But that’s a story for next year’s list.
New Japan booker Gedo chose Omega to be his top foreign star to replace AJ Styles, and it was the right pick. Omega seized the opportunity, stepping up his game to a ridiculous degree and becoming the Canadian Shawn Michaels. And with opponents like Naito, he was able to have the best matches of the year. He did, in fact, have the best match of the year (and will again in 2017, but again let’s save that for next year).
Omega’s workrate and effort were never less than exemplary in the ring. He made it his goal to be the best in the world, and his determination was the kind that separates the men from the boys, or rather, the Flairs and Benoits and Michaels’s from the boys. He had a lot of stiff competition this year, most notably from the man he replaced, AJ Styles. They became the best two wrestlers in the world, with one having the opportunity to be the bigger star, and the other having the opportunity to have the better matches.
At 33, Omega still has the chance to become the wrestler of the decade if he makes these next three years count. In 2017 he has the chance, if he stays with New Japan, to be the face of the company as they expand into the US. He will also almost surely get the IWGP title at some point, and if he doesn’t, New Japan is nuts.
If he winds up in WWE, well, it’s hard to say what will happen. They did a Hell of a job with AJ Styles, but they’re still squandering Nakamura, Samoa Joe, Bobby Roode, Cesaro, Ziggler, and the list goes on and on. It’d be a huge gamble for him. And like most huge gambles, the payoff has potential to be bigger than anything he could do in New Japan. Still, if the gamble fails, he’d lose momentum after being the most talked about wrestler in years.
The storyline of 2016 was Omega working his way up from mid carder to main eventer, and he blew away everyone’s expectations with a lot of great matches we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. Thank you, Omega, and congratulations. You earned it.
Kenny Omega’s Best Matches of 2016:
vs Hiroshi Tanahashi (NJPW New Beginning in Niigata) February 14 ****3/4
w/ Young Bucks vs ACH & Kushida & Matt Sydal (ROH 14th Anniversary) February 26 ****1/2
vs Michael Elgin (NJPW Dominion 6.19) June 19 ****3/4
vs Tetsuya Naito (NJPW G1 Climax 26 – Day 18) August 13 *****
vs Hirooki Goto (NJPW G1 Climax 26 – Day 19) August 14 ****3/4
vs Hirooki Goto (NJPW King of Pro Wrestling) October 10 ****3/4