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Just Art – The Highs and Lows of Another Year in the Ring with WWE: The Matches of the Year Part I
By Samuel 'Plan
Jan 2, 2017 - 7:11:34 PM

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Just Art – The Highs and Lows of Another Year in the Ring with WWE: The Matches of the Year Part I

From the Author

It was originally my intention to spend the entirety of the month looking back on the best matches of 2016; but that was before I realised the British wrestling scene was set to explode. So, instead, I have decided to combine all five categories into a pair of playlist style columns to be posted at either end of this week.

Unlike others, I choose not to judge all matches in a single pot. After all, different matches have different responsibilities. As a result, as I did last year with my venerable colleague Maverick, I have separated 2016’s matches into five separate categories: Network; Tag Team; Television; Mid Card; and Main Event. The criteria for the first three categories to be featured today will be explained as I go, and is vitally important – some matches that might have made the shortlist in one category will be absent because they meet the criteria of a different category, which may have had tougher competition.

So, without further adieu, as ever my name is Samuel ‘Plan and I am here to take you through what I thought was the best ring action in WWE in 2016!

From the Canvas – Reviews

Network Match of the Year

Network Match of the Year is a category encompassing all non-tag team matches to have taken place on Network-exclusive programming. We’re looking at shows like the Cruiserweight Classic, Roadblock and NXT and its Takeover specials.

It was thanks to the CWC that competition in this category was particularly strong in 2016; a sign of how increasingly important the Network is becoming when it comes to WWE’s annual output of content. It took quite some time to begin whittling away the sheer multitude of front-runners from the CWC alone; then, throw on top another very solid year of action from NXT and the result was the most crowded long list of all five categories for sure.

Whittle it down to three I did, though, and here is that shortlist:

TJ Perkins vs. Kota Ibushi in Cruiserweight Classic Semi-Final, Cruiserweight Classic Live Finale

To my mind, this was the very best of a very good bunch. While I would be remiss not to give an honourable mention to Brian Kendrick’s preceding effort opposite the Golden Star, and the wildly popular Cedric Alexander clash before that, what Perkins and Ibushi compiled was something delightfully cerebral, completed by a shocking upset of a win. There is no doubt it benefitted from being a Semi-Final, thereby capably utilising what had come before to perpetuate drama (such as Perkins targeting Ibushi’s previously injured neck), but this doesn’t take away from the explosive counter-wrestling that ceaselessly drove their narrative forward towards its breathless conclusion. Characterful performances from both competitors only serve to add depth to the action, eventuating in one of the best cruiserweight matches I can remember seeing in WWE ever, let alone in 2016. Keep your content-laden Alexander match; this one is exactly what I think of pro wrestling as being.

Finn Bálor vs. Samoa Joe for the NXT Championship, NXT Takeover: Dallas

I am very much in the minority with this one, I know, but this accidentally bloody clash between Demon and Monster was right up my alley; an interpretive performance art dream. The visuals of the Demon’s paint, Joe’s blood-stained expression and the stiff aesthetic combined to create an affecting piece of work that feels to me, even now, rabidly infectious. Some find the referee stoppage a stumbling block that removes them from the action; I find it to be a compelling addition that catapults the match to new heights, as Joe ingeniously works the real-world event into the fiction by utilising it as fuel for his monstrous fire. Urgent, brutal and unforgiving, this wrestling horror movie will stay at the forefront of my mind for a very long time to come. I’d even call it Bálor’s best NXT bout, frankly.

But the Network Match of the Year for me had to be:

Triple H vs. Dean Ambrose for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, Roadblock

Once you get past the awful commentary track that is, even by WWE’s woeful standard, utterly brutal to sit through, what you uncover is an all-time classic piece of work. Both performers put in some of the best character-driven work of their careers, each wrestling with palpable contempt towards the other, and using that to define the action itself as true experts of the art form do. In particular, this proves a career-best for Ambrose thus far, as the Lunatic Fringe strikes the perfect balance between whimsy and animalism. Every sequence is flawlessly logical, every exchange entirely in character, and all the while it never feels choreographed. Content on both sides of the dance is utterly exhaustive, and the concluding act that sees Ambrose fall upon a failed effort at a table spot is sublimely handled and performed; an advantageous win, truly, for the Cerebral Assassin. And as if the quality wasn’t enough, there can be no doubt this would be a pick of mine were I writing my book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, today, considering it stands as an expert example of just how much one wisely placed, creatively compiled false finish can lift a match from one star to the next - watch for the fake three count off the back of a Dirty Deeds and you’ll come to know such high praise is fully warranted.

Take note, John Cena.

Tag Team Match of the Year

Tag Team Match of the Year is fairly self-explanatory: any tag team match qualifies, regardless of what WWE programme it occurred on. And the long list here consisted mainly of one name that I am sure you can guess: The Revival. There can be no doubt they have come to dominate the tag wrestling scene in WWE this year and for good reason. Even the very best of the main roster have been unable to match them for consistency of quality.

Here is the shortlist:

Y2AJ vs. The New Day for the WWE Tag Team Championships, Monday Night Raw 07/03/2016

The only main roster match to make it onto my shortlist is a worthy contender, and were it to have happened later in the year would, I think, still be on the minds of many. It is easy to forget how masterfully performed this urgent piece of work really was, and its spot here is fully justified. The psychology is on point, with Y2AJ setting out their stall as a threat early with some tandem offence capable of matching the best the champs could return, and the pace gets rabid – and stays that way – from the moment Styles makes the first hot tag of the match. From there on, a story of veteran dogma vs. experienced teamwork unfurls, with some fun red herrings resulting in a creative and accomplished conclusion. Brilliant stuff, one of the best TV bouts of 2016 and certainly it was New Day’s last truly great match.

The Revival vs. American Alpha for the NXT Tag Team Championships, NXT Takeover: Dallas

I honestly didn’t believe for a moment any tag match could possibly come close to touching this hybrid masterpiece at the time it occurred. What little I knew back in March! Nonetheless, this remains, even now, a phenomenal piece of work. Fast paced, furious and impossibly frenetic, Revival make bending the rules look like an art form; and American Alpha do the same for bending bodies. The action is tag team action throughout, thanks to an unflinching emphasis on multiplicity, where every big set piece expresses symmetry within teams, between teams and sometimes both at once. Combining an old school mentality with contemporary hyperactivity, its inspired and emotive finish, that sees Alpha “pull a Revival” to capture championship gold, ensures this is one for the ages.

But not the one for 2016; it was always going to take something very special to top Takeover: Dallas’s curtain jerking master class, and lo behold, that’s exactly what we got with my pick for Tag Team Match of the Year:

The Revival vs. DIY in a Best Two Out of Three Falls Match for the NXT Tag Team Championships, NXT Takeover: Toronto

Named as WWE’s own choice for overall Match of the Year, the second encounter between Revival and DIY plays multiple parts, as it caps off not only a career year for the champions, but also concludes their second title run with a veritable classic, all while providing the exclamation point at the end of DIY’s genesis story. And not only does this composition have a lot to say about the characters involved, it has a lot to say for its genres too – tag wrestling and multiple fall bouts. You see, in the course of its run time, just why Gargano may be the very best face in peril going in WWE today, and just how good The Revival has become at sucking you into the fiction of their work. There is an eclectic mix of content; inspired minimalism; gleeful subversion of Revival’s now famous ringside antics; and there is perennial urgency from the get-go. It would be impossible for me to do this one justice in the few words I have to spare here. It is an experience of a match, so all I can do is encourage you to go and experience it once again; right now!

Television Match of the Year

The final category for today was the one I was most dreading researching; it includes any non-tag match to take place on televised WWE programming. WWE’s television in 2016 has hardly been inspiring, after all. However, I came to thankfully rediscover that there have been some stunningly good matches on television this year. So despite my initial trepidation, oddly enough this was the one category where I could not decide on a single winner; instead, there is a tie. Here is the shortlist, starting with the third wheel:

Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns vs. Kevin Owens vs. Big Cass in a Four Corners Elimination Match for the Universal Championship, Monday Night Raw 29/08/16

I can understand if many of you reading really disagree with this one, but the truth is I still think of this improvised bout resulting from Bálor’s injury to be a supreme example of its sub-genre, that successfully avoids many (though not all) of the tired clichés we often see from similar set-ups. I would venture, considering this wasn’t something planned for ahead of time, the general presentation is actually quite an accomplishment too, and with a shocking cliff-hanger ending what more could you want from a televised main event? Every character involved is true to form, with Reigns adding a particularly electric intangible thanks to the constant background threat of what still felt to be a likely victory at the time. Cass is made to look like a main event superstar, and speedy, physical exchanges are peppered throughout between just about everyone involved. If you’re cynical about this choice, go check it out one more time; the final act especially has the live crowd on tenterhooks.

But it is a distant third, in truth. As noted, I couldn’t settle on a single bout because the two tied for my Television Match of the Year are really one extended piece of work, with the sequel merely extending the well-worked controversy of the original. Those matches are:

Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, Monday Night Raw 18/07/16 and Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, Smackdown Live 19/07/16

The initial encounter on Monday Night Raw is, to my mind, one of the best technically wrestled matches in WWE for all of 2016. The story is ingeniously subtle, as Ambrose manages to outwrestle Rollins early on, forcing the Architect to take a break, twice – an indicator that the complex and deeply felt relationship between these two characters had seen the balance of power within it shift entirely. As Rollins then finds his groove more and more, Ambrose becomes scrappier in his comebacks, clawing to desperately hold onto his championship: the symbol of his long awaited revenge on the brother who betrayed him. It’s Shakespearean language these two men wrestle with, and on that night they were in poetic physical form. The action is exhaustive and exhausting and eternally smooth, expressing their familiarity with one another through counters to counters to counters of tit for tat for tit for tat sequences. Perhaps it’s only downfall is its tie of a finish; though that tie is vitally important in the wider mythology of the Rollins / Ambrose feud, and the follow-up to the bout’s muddied conclusion should be watched on the Network as an extension of the match itself.

As should the follow-up on Smackdown Live; a brisker, shorter, more one-sided affair with greater ill temper and the sense of a ticking clock adding urgency to the ferocity of the opening clash. It is, however, no less characterful; more so, if anything, as Rollins attacks Ambrose prior to the bell, not only immediately adding a different inflection to this second act but ensuring we pick up right where we left off – an exhausted, half disrobed Ambrose seemingly at a disadvantage. In their second go-round, the set pieces are no less balletic, the villain Rollins is even more vicious – ensuring the hero Ambrose is even more heroic – and, because of the Architect having an answer for every single question the Lunatic poses him, the title feels in greater jeopardy still. As a stand-alone, like its Monday Night Raw counterpart, the finish lets it down, feeling rather too sudden; but thanks to its direct reference to the MNR bout’s conclusion, and the metaphoric microcosm of justice it represents when considered in the context of the wider Rollins / Ambrose mythos, what you find is a perfect companion piece.

They are, to my mind, utterly inseparable and, together, the joint best television match of 2016.

So there you have it folks; my shortlists and picks for Network, Tag Team and Television Matches of the Year. But tell me, do you feel the same way? Out of my shortlists, did I make the right picks? And what matches have I omitted from these ranks that you personally would give a nod to?

Leave a comment below, drop me an email at [email protected], follow me on Twitter by clicking the button at either end of this column or find me on Facebook by clicking the link at either end of this column to join in on the debate!

In the concluding part on Wednesday, I will be looking at Mid Card and Main Event PPV Matches of the Year, but until then, thanks for reading!

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