By Will Pruett
2016 is a year that forever changed how I watched wrestling. It was a breaking point (no, not the all submission main event pay-per-view from 2009) of sorts. The amount of content in the wrestling world finally overwhelmed my desire to be a completist. For the first time since 1997, I skipped episodes of Raw. For the first time in my life as a wrestling fan, I didn’t find a way to watch some WWE pay-per-views. It was impossible.
Because of this tsunami of content, I developed a simple question for myself: Is this match/show/moment essential? Broken down further: Do I need to see this in order to understand the wrestling world in 2016? These are the questions I asked myself as I looked back on the year and I came up with this (likely not as concise as one would hope) list:
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles – Wrestle Kingdom 10: Given the path these two would take beginning the next evening at NJPW’s New Years Dash, this match sticks out as super important. As most of us watched on January 4, we had no idea what was about to shake up the wrestling world. We just knew these two wrestlers were having one of the best matches we’d see all year.
Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi – NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 10: I was a little tired of seeing these two together by the time this event rolled around, but they never fail to deliver. Okada had the tough task of carrying NJPW this year without half of the previously established top four. It began here with him finally finding a way to beat Tanahashi in the Tokyo Dome main event.
2016’s WWE Royal Rumble Match: Please do not take this as an endorsement or a qualitative judgement of the dumpster fire that the last few Rumbles have been. Instead, take a look at the performance AJ Styles was able to deliver. He was the bright spot of a bad match. We saw how WWE planned to use Styles from the beginning here.
Shane McMahon Returns to Raw – February 22: Few things in wrestling this year gave me the rush of excitement Shane McMahon’s music hitting on that February day did. Shane is a divisive topic for some wrestling pundits, but I was delighted. Some sick part of me has always and will always love Shane McMahon.
The Revival vs. American Alpha – NXT Takeover Dallas: When Dash and Dawson say they had the best year of any tag team, it’s hard to argue with them. Their series with American Alpha sticks out as truly fantastic. The opening match of NXT’s Dallas show was exciting, dynamic, and truly delightful. Hopefully these two teams can do this again in 2017.
Shinsuke Nakamure vs. Sami Zayn – NXT Takeover Dallas: I’m not one to call a match a religious experience, but it’s hard to think of another way for me to describe Zayn vs. Nakamura. Sitting in the sold out arena in Dallas and seeing these two come face-to-face was amazing. The match they proceeded to have met my expectations. I still remember the echoes of “fight forever” ringing through my head and know I’ll never chant it again.
Chris Hero vs. Zack Sabre Jr – WWN Supershow Mercury Rising 2016: I didn’t watch every Evolve/WWN show in 2016 (again, only so many hours in the day), but if I’m in a city with an Evolve event happening, I try to go. This was the opening match on this show and it more than delivered. Hero and Sabre Jr were easily two of the best in the world this year. This was a fantastic example of what they’re capable of.
Charlotte vs. Becky Lynch vs. Sasha Banks – WWE WrestleMania 32: WrestleMania 32 was a garbage show, save for one match. Charlotte, Becky, and Sasha were given a spotlight WWE had never given women before. Fighting for a new Women’s Championship in front of WWE’s biggest crowd ever, these three were treated like main event stars. From the entrances, the the intensity of the match, to the pyro at the end, WWE told us this was a main event. It was about damn time and it was the only saving grace of WrestleMania 32.
AJ Styles vs. Roman Reigns – Extreme Rules: Roman Reigns can more than hold up his end in big main events and he proved ready and able to do this against AJ Styles. These two had one of my favorite matches of the year and a match that solidified what WWE thought of Styles.
Will Ospreay vs. Ricochet – NJPW BOSJ, May 27: This was one of the more controversial matches in 2016, but when I think of great wrestling this year, I have to mention this one. Ricochet and Ospreay put on a state-of-the-art battle in an intense manner. They also did a massive amount of flips. I saw three iterations of this match in 2016 and this was by far the best. At Evolve 59, they were too cute. In Japan, they upped the intensity and it worked.
”Broken” Matt Hardy vs. Jeff Hardy – TNA Impact, July 5: Dubbed “The Final Deletion,” this adventure stretching the medium of professional wrestling into different genres is absolutely essential. If you want to understand how wrestling as an art form evolved in 2016, you must watch The Final Deletion. It’s one of the few pieces of niche wrestling I’d be willing to show non-wrestling loving friends. It’s that delightful.
Sasha Banks and Bayley vs. Charlotte and Dana Brooke – WWE Battleground: Watch this for the reaction Bayley receives from this crowd. I couldn’t help but cry.
Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn – WWE Battleground: The last match in their series, until their next one. This had all the intensity this feud needed as it concluded. Zayn won and WWE forgot about him for months, but both performed exceptionally well.
Roman Reigns vs. Finn Bálor – WWE Raw, July 25: This was the beginning of WWE’s relaunch post-draft. This was the best episode of Raw in 2016 and it featured a main event to crown a new top protagonist on Raw. WWE went all the way with Bálor instantly. It’s a shame Bálor’s run was cut depressingly short due to injury.
Kota Ibushi vs. Cedric Alexander – WWE Cruiserweight Classic, August 10: Not just the best match on a particular show, but the best match of a tournament full of great matches. This match shows how good storytelling in wrestling isn’t an overused authority figure trope, but is two people fighting to win. All this match had was two men who desperately wanted to win, one was a favorite, one was an underdog. Good stories don’t have to be complicated.
Asuka vs. Bayley – NXT Takeover Brooklyn II: Sometimes the hero doesn’t win. Sometimes the happy ending doesn’t come. Sometimes the odds are too great to overcome. Despite the decrease in quality/specialness in NXT in 2016, this delivered.
John Cena vs. AJ Styles – WWE SummerSlam: Two all time great talents putting on a great show. Styles and Cena meeting in 2016 was a gift to all of us. They became perfect foils for each other. In Brooklyn, they had their best effort (well, unless they pull out even more stops at the 2017 Royal Rumble). This was some of the best wrestling WWE could offer this year.
The Miz and Daniel Bryan’s confrontation – WWE Talking Smack, August 23: Want to find the best promo of the year, look no further than the true intensity Miz and Bryan summon here.
The Young Bucks vs. Fenix and Pentagon Jr – PWG BOLA Night 3: The Bucks will always be something special and seeing them in Reseda is like nothing else. This was an amazing tag team effort well worth the standing ovation fans gave it at the end.
The Miz vs. Dolph Ziggler – WWE No Mercy: 2016 was a year of revival for The Miz. Moving to the Smackdown brand helped him out with this a ton. He became a serious character and a feud between Ziggler and Miz, two acts I cared nothing about in 2015, was suddenly compelling. This was Ziggler putting his career on the line against Miz’s Intercontinental Championship and it must be seen. Both men did great work, but I have to highlight how particularly good Miz is.
The Revival vs. DIY – NXT Takeover Toronto: Again, The Revival had an amazing year and might have had the best wrestling match in WWE this year against Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa. This two-out-of-three falls match was transcendent and ended with a really touching moment for Gargano and Ciampa.
Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar – WWE Survivor Series: I hated the idea of this match going in, but when it only lasted 90 seconds, I loved it. I don’t care about the story between these two, but this is a defining wrestling moment of 2016.
Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks – WWE Raw, November 28: There were a ton of matches between these two to pick from, but I feel like they peaked with the Falls Count Anywhere Raw main event. These two broke a lot of new ground with their never-ending feud and, although the storytelling was uneven, the matches were usually great. To me, this was the best of their great series. Hopefully they aren’t allowed to wrestle each other in 2017.
Adam Cole vs. Kyle O’Reilly – ROH Final Battle: ROH had an up and down year, but it closed with one of their best pay-per-view efforts I can remember. Cole and O’Reilly’s feud was explored and called back to throughout this match. Seeing the year end with O’Reilly finally getting his hands on the ROH title delighted me.
The Entire December 27 Episode of WWE Smackdown: This was one of WWE’s best shows of the year. Go watch it and enjoy all the greatness.
And now, since you’ve read all the way through this, I’ll give you my essential pop culture of 2016:
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Black Panther comic series from Marvel: While Coates’ book didn’t come out this year, I read it this year. It was a part of my effort to listen to/read voices and perspectives different than my own. I’m very thankful that I did so. Coates’ run writing Black Panther this year has awakened a new love of the comic book medium inside me. I didn’t expect that to happen.
Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson: Remember that thing I just said about a new love of comic books? Ms. Marvel is a major reason this love exists. She’s the complicated hero we all need in troubled times.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North: I promise this isn’t just a list of comic books, but I do have to list comic books. Squirrel Girl is an unlikely hero, but the humor in this book never failed to connect with me. I see comic books and wrestling as very similar, especially in terms of what a genre can can. This was great comedy storytelling.
The Vision by Tom King: Okay, this is the last comic I’m listing. This was a completely different experience from reading Squirrel Girl of anything else on this list. The Vision is a dark, foreboding 12 issue series about Vision, one of the least explored Avengers. I cannot recommend this comic enough, even if you’ve never read comics before.
Arrival: As far of film goes, nothing excited my imagination as much as Arrival did. I was honestly stunned as this film drew to a close. If you think of it as standard “alien meets human” fare, know you’re very wrong. Arrival is must-see.
Rogue One – A Star Wars Story: I love Star Wars. I love strong female protagonists. I love diverse casts. I love most everything about the third act of Rogue One. It’s a little bumpy at first, but the last hour of Rogue One is basically perfect.
Merrily We Roll Along at The Wallis in Beverly Hills: Remember when I said this was a list of my particular favorite cultural things? That means I’m putting theatre I loved this year on it. Merrily has long been a favorite soundtrack of mine (I’m a Stephen Sondheim enthusiast). I’ve never had the chance to see a production of it until this year. This production was virtually perfect. I ended up crying almost all the way through it, both because of the impact of the story and because I was finally getting to see this show performed.
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West: Again, with reading voices that are not like my own. Lindy West brings humor to serious topics, but doesn’t shy away from being heard. It was a treat to read this book.
A View From the Bridge at The Ahmanson in Los Angeles: Another piece of breathtaking theatre. I sat onstage for this show and was blown away by the direction of Ivo van Hove. If this tours around you or you ever get a change to experience a show like this, run to the theatre. You’ll be a better person because of it.
The Hamilton Mixtape: While not every song/remix on this album is transcendent, quite a few are. It takes the cultural treasure that is Hamilton and allows others to experiment with it. That artistic development alone is pretty cool.
Got thoughts on this year or my review of it? Hit me up with them! Check the Twitter @wilpruett, leave a comment, or email me at email@example.com.