Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Kliq Bait: Top Ten WWE Matches of 2017

Overall, 2017 wasn't a particularly good year for WWE. Not a lot of memorable stories or exciting moments. But what there was was a whole lot of great wrestling. As bad as the booking and storylines have been, that's how good the wrestling has been in the last few years and especially this year. Let's take a look back at the top ten WWE matches of 2017...


Honorable Mentions:

Samoa Joe vs. Finn Balor vs. Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins vs. Bray Wyatt (Extreme Rules #1 Contender Match) -- Extreme Rules

A really fun match that had some great match-ups within the match. I love the opening where a feuding Rollins and Joe renew their hostilities and an also feuding Finn and Bray go after each other leaving Roman in the ring to stretch and mug. WWE has been so great about those little coy moments of stoking people's hate for Roman and this was so perfectly in line with his character. The idea of having Joe join forces with Bray was great, too, because, if you think about it, Joe is basically just a mercenary (especially at this point in his run where Triple H brought him in specifically to take out Rollins before WrestleMania) and Bray is a master manipulator and very adept at gaining followers. And, of course, it's a fatal five-way involving five of the most dynamic in-ring talents in WWE so the whirlwind of moves and counters and pin break-ups and finishers is great. It does get to be a little bit of a spotfest with some awkward pacing but that's a mild complaint for an otherwise very good, fun match.

Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman vs. Samoa Joe (WWE Universal Championship Match) -- SummerSlam

I really wasn't as high on this one as other people and I think the main reason was that I really didn't like the pacing. The first five minutes or so of this match were AMAZING and then it settles in and never really comes close to matching that initial intensity. It would have been one thing if it ended with a bang but it really didn't. It just kind of ended with one F-5. I'm glad they're protecting that move so well but it still feels kinda flat every time a match ends with just one F-5. Also, I'm just really tired of the belt wasting away on Brock all year so Roman can take it from him at WrestleMania in a rematch that's a year or two too late at this point. Still, an incredibly fun match. Even as a weirdly paced spotfest, it had some phenomenal spots and some great storytelling. 

Pete Dunne vs. Johnny Gargano (UK Championship Match) -- NXT TV

This is one of those matches that I really wish I could put higher on the list but there are just too many excellent matches. I think if it was on the main show of TakeOver: War Games instead of being a pre-show pre-tape for the next episode of NXT, that might have helped. Or if there was any kind of story leading up to it. It's still a phenomenal piece of work with some great in-ring storytelling. Particularly that delightful moment where Pete Dunne takes out his mouth guard to bite Gargano, forcing him to release the submission hold, followed by Gargano realizing the mouth guard is out, picking it up (gross), tossing it aside and kicking the Bruiserweight dead in the face. He also continues to focus his blows on the face for the duration of the match before eventually getting caught in the Bitter End. Great stuff.

Top 10:



10. The Miz vs. Finn Balor vs. Seth Rollins -- Raw

This match is such a pitch perfect example of all the reasons that all three of these guys deserve to be megastars. Particularly The Miz, who is such an underrated wrestler at this point in his career it makes me angry that smarky jackasses still see fit to loathe him just because he's The Miz. Not only is he a perfectly fine technical wrestler--great timing, great selling, perfectly decent move set and execution, more than capable of holding his own against competition like this--but he's one of the best in WWE at wrestling as his actual character.

The opening of this match is a perfect example of that. He starts the match by rolling outside and letting Finn and Seth go at it, tries to sneak in and get the jump on them, fails, causing them to decide to just team up on him, tries to reason with both of them to form an alliance as if THAT'S going to work at this point, and gets his ass beat. Plus, of course, Rollins and Balor are dope as hell (especially Balor, who gets a really nice stretch of relentless full speed ass-kicking that really show you how great this guy can be) and the flow and pace of this match is excellent.

It's not full of crazy moves or spots or any of that sexy stuff that is so often associated with "good wrestling" but it's ridiculously exciting and engaging based almost entirely on flow and pacing and timing. That, to me, is much more interesting and impressive in a lot of ways.




9. Brock Lesnar vs. AJ Styles -- Survivor Series

If there was the least bit of story leading up to this match, it probably would have been a hell of a lot higher. As it was, this match was dope as all hell. I love that they started it out by making it look like all of our worst fears would be realized with AJ getting squashed to hell for like the first five minutes. But, of course, AJ is the best damn wrestler on the planet, so he reassesses his strategy and finds any opening he possibly can, any chink in the armor that shows itself, and is actually able to really take the fight to Brock in a way that no other guy his size ever really has (at least in Brock's current monster heel run) or probably ever could.

Maybe my favorite moment of this match is the aftermath, where Brock is writhing on the mat in pain after pinning AJ, looking like he's about to start bleeding from his nose, mouth, and ears, and then limping to the back (a lot of people think he was legit hurt here but no injury was ever reported so I'd like to think it was just great selling), even pausing to look back at AJ in a bit of disbelief. That may well have done more for AJ than the entire rest of the match.




8. Bobby Roode vs. Roderick Strong (NXT Title Match) -- NXT House Show 7/15

I may honestly be slightly overrating this match just because I was there and I've only gotten to watch it that one time but it was a barnburner. So many cool moments and the energy was so high. Roddy is a hell of a worker and Roode can absolutely go as well and they worked the crowd into a frenzy. Roddy hit so many knee strikes that looked absolutely devastating--especially with Roode spitting high up in the air to maximize the effect. There were SO many great nearfalls (Roode is magnificent at last millisecond kickouts) that were really believable. There was one moment in particular where I'm pretty sure the entire arena bit down HARD on a nearfall by Roddy, myself included. It was such a fun match to get lost in. I wish I could see a video of it but that's house shows for you.




7. Dolph Ziggler vs. Baron Corbin vs. Bobby Roode (US Championship Match) -- Clash of Champions

This match is just absolutely textbook flow, pacing, and timing. It never lets up, every man is putting his full effort into trying to win the match in every moment. Not letting up, no leaps in logic, minimal suspension of disbelief necessary. Just a fantastic piece of workrate and a fantastic understanding of the dynamics of a triple threat match. And JESUS H. CHRISTMAS that finish. It wasn't until it popped up in my Facebook memories a few days later that I realized Dolph and Baron had done that exact finish almost exactly a year earlier with AJ (who, frankly, landed it a lot cleaner than Roode--although there was something compelling and believable about seeing it done a little more imperfectly, to be honest) on SmackDown and I feel like, in some important way, it's a credit to Dolph and Baron that they were able to pick their spot well enough that no one really remembered that they'd already done it.

That's what wrestlers mean when they talk about how important it is to think about not only what you're doing but why you're doing it. If you just do all the coolest stuff you can think of all of the time, it's going to mean less each time. If Sami Zayn did the through-the-ropes DDT in every match, would you care about it anymore? Dean Ambrose does the rebound clothesline at least eight times per match and I pray for his face to get caved in every time he does. You gotta pick your spots and these guys picked a perfect spot and the move landed beautifully because of it. This whole match was just so textbook and it made a major impact as a result.




6. Bray Wyatt vs. John Cena vs. AJ Styles (WWE Championship Match) -- Smackdown 2/14

This match, for me, completely overshadowed the Elimination Chamber match (hell, the entire PPV) from the night before. It was all the best parts of the Chamber match re-purposed in much better, sleeker packaging, with better flow and pacing and some seriously awesome wrinkles thrown in. AJ trying and failing to splash Bray through the table and then trying again but adjusting with a move that puts more direct, narrowly-focused force on the weak point of the table (a leg drop) is just another on a long list of reasons why he is easily the best wrestler on the planet and well on his way to staking a claim to greatest of all time. The whole match is just so well-orchestrated and -executed. Amazing.




5. Bobby Roode vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (NXT Title Match) -- NXT TakeOver: San Antonio

I absolutely love this match because it did something so rare that I love so much: it took me completely by surprise by taking a story/feud I had very little interest in and telling a story in the ring that made me buy in completely. It's the same reason I love Roman and Brock's match from WrestleMania XXXI. I was a full-on Roman Reigns hater until that match but the story they told in that ring on that night was so compelling and so well-defined that I got lost in it and by the end of the match, I was all in on Roman winning.

This match had zero suspense as far as I was concerned. Not really knowing whether Shinsuke was going to be called up anytime soon, I assumed Bobby Roode was just one of those "next in line" guys that wasn't really championship-caliber yet but there wasn't really anyone else left. In no way did I believe he had any chance whatsoever of winning this match. But the story they told made me buy him winning 100% which I couldn't believe.

The story is that Nakamura is better and stronger than Roode but Roode is smarter--or at least more cunning. He knows that Nakamura is a force of nature, a rabid animal striking out violently at his target with no regard for anything else. So Roode, both leading up to and in the match, does everything he can to psyche Nakamura out and get under his skin. And that's not confined to just slapping him or mocking him or any of that usual stuff. The most brilliant mind games Roode plays are the moments where he gives Nak some major Kinshasa blue-balls by using every trick he can think of to prevent him from going for it (or the strikes that can lead to it).

This climaxes when Nak goes up to the second rope for the flying knee that is often the prelude to the Kinshasa and Roode rolls out onto the apron. Nak is so goddamn frustrated about not being able to knee Roode in his stupid face that he turns and goes for it anyway, landing hard on his knee on the apron. This hurts Nak badly. A trainer comes out and checks on him and begs him not to continue the match but a wounded animal doesn't back down, he lashes out. The SECOND he gets back in the ring Roode takes advantage and almost pins him but hey, yet again, Nak is still a goddamn rabid animal, so he keeps fighting. He FINALLY hits the Kinshasa but now it hurts him almost as much as Roode so he can't capitalize. Then Roode goes after the knee relentlessly, opening him up to hit two Glorious DDTs for the win. It loses a spot or two because the story and pace start to stall and get a little muddled in the middle but otherwise, THAT is how you show your damn work in a wrestling match. Brilliant.




4. Aleister Black vs. Velveteen Dream -- NXT TakeOver: War Games

This might have been the best storyline on WWE television in 2017. It's such a simple but unique story. Velveteen Dream wants validation and attention. He doesn't want to be ignored. So he seeks out the guy who is basically the most popular guy in NXT right now and demands that he give him the satisfaction of noticing him, of knowing who he is, of saying his name. Black flatly refuses and goes out of his way to ignore Dream, even as Dream perpetually redoubles his efforts to be noticed and to make Black say his name. The match is an absolute gem and a phenomenal piece of in-ring storytelling--to the point where you have the crowd, who adores Aleister Black, loudly chanting "SAY HIS NAME"--which came as a surprise to everyone except those of us who saw these two work together at house shows earlier in the year. At the end of it, Black FINALLY gives Dream the recognition he desires, saying: "Enjoy infamy...Velveteen Dream."




3. John Cena vs. AJ Styles (WWE Championship Match) -- Royal Rumble

I had very high hopes for this match and I honestly was just a little bit disappointed in it from a story standpoint, especially as a continuation of the brilliant story they told with their match at SummerSlam 2016 of AJ being the future and Cena being the past and AJ always being a step ahead of Cena, who (after MONTHS of teasing this) has finally truly lost a step. I was disappointed that they went back on that premise and had Cena get his win back like he always, always does, especially because the promos AJ was cutting prior to the match were ALL about how Cena's time has passed and WWE doesn't need him anymore--not to mention his points about how Cena just gets HANDED a WWE title match at the Royal Rumble immediately upon returning from his hiatus without having to do a single goddamn thing to earn it.

I realize that's a lot of complaining for my #3 match of the year so you can imagine how highly I thought of the match itself. They definitely put in the work as far as telling the story they're trying to tell where Cena realizes he wasn't quite prepared enough for their first encounter and overprepares for this one so that now he's the one who's ready for most of what AJ throws at him--and, even then, it's still a very even match. In the end, he uses his veteran wiles to find an opening and emphatically, unequivocally finish AJ off with two consecutive AAs. That's really fucking good. And, I mean, as for the match itself, these two guys are always absolute magic together.




2. Authors of Pain vs. The Revival vs. DIY (Tag Team Title Match) -- NXT TakeOver: Orlando

I have very weird and confusing feelings about this match that I had a hard time parsing in order to fully form an opinion of it. This match, up until the point that DIY gets eliminated, is probably the greatest tag team wrestling match I've ever seen in my life. It's just a goddamn masterpiece of tag team wrestling in every way possible. Even after watching it three, four, five times I still pop for all the big spots. It's almost hypnotic, in a way, how good it is and how indefatigably it pulls you in and engages you in all the excitement and emotion of everything that's going on.

At the time, I didn't have a problem with DIY being eliminated first because I thought it was unique and clever. I had a big problem with the crowd completely rejecting the match once DIY were gone because it was so impossibly good up until that point. I still can't fault whoever made that creative decision too much because they took a risk and it was different. Looking back on it now I have to wonder if it was a risk worth taking in this particular instance; if there are good times and bad times to be clever and maybe this was the worst possible time.

I definitely feel like WWE booking sometimes tries too hard (and, frankly, sometimes doesn't try nearly hard enough, which is actually worse, and I'll take the former over the latter any day) to outsmart itself instead of just doing the thing everyone expects them to do because it's the thing that makes the most sense and/or will be the most satisfying. I think this may have been one of those cases where the excitement of eliminating the Revival and having the match come down to a showdown between DIY and AoP trumps the virtue of trying to do something different. I think if they do that, this match is in the conversation for greatest tag team wrestling match of all time. As it is, it's one of the best I've ever seen and I can't recommend it highly enough, despite it's flaws.




1. Pete Dunne vs. Tyler Bate (UK Championship Match) -- NXT TakeOver: Chicago

This match is just on a whole other level. The story is a little sparse but I think the story they tell in the ring more than makes up for it. It's the most simple yet effective story you can tell in a wrestling ring: two guys going all out and doing everything in their power to prove that they are the best. It feels weird to name this my WWE match of the year when I put so much emphasis on story but this match is so beautifully executed and innately engaging, it gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. The pacing and timing are brilliant as well, leading to some epic climaxes that pop the crowd off hard as hell. And these guys are only in their early 20s. The future is very, very bright.

(all images courtesy of WWE)

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