It’s the end of the year, thank God, and as a Guy Who Writes About Wrestling On The Internet, it’s my duty to compile a list of my 10 favorite matches of the year and share them with you. This year we decided to keep the list WWE-centric, because a hell of a lot happened between the main roster, NXT and the supplementary shows.
Up first, here’s a quick rundown of our honorable mentions:
Kota Ibushi vs. Cedric Alexander, Cruiserweight Classic – The match so good it made Triple H leave his approval cave and pretty much sign a guy in front of everybody. The first real eye-opening match of the tournament, and the best one until Ibushi’s next. Very narrowly missed the list.
The Miz vs. Dolph Ziggler, No Mercy – Honestly, the only problem with this one is that it wasn’t the main event. And I guess that Daniel Bryan can’t actually wrestle the Miz at the end of the feud, sorta like that teased Daniel Bryan/Shawn Michaels bit we got a couple of years ago. Great work from both men, a great story, and at least 1,000 times better than Randy Orton vs. Bray Wyatt in the actual main.
The Revival vs. Enzo Amore and Big Cass, Roadblock – The first one! A random NXT Tag Team Championship match on a main roster pay-per-view … er, live special … this ended up being the best match on the show, the best match Enzo and Cass have ever had (still) (easily), and a match that almost gave me five Revival tags in the top 10. Hey, let’s go for six!
The Revival vs. Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa, NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II – The first DIY tag titles shot is great, but doesn’t come close to the majesty of the 2-out-of-3 falls rematch. Still, it’s great on its own, and yeah, six Revival matches in my top 10 and honorable mentions. I could probably throw in three or four more.
Most Of AJ Styles’ Main Events, Various – The guy does good work. The Jericho tag against New Day, the Roman Reigns matches, the Cena matches, and dragging competent work out of Dean Ambrose. The guy had a great year, the best year, and he did it all. But yeah, he feels better than his matches to me. More on that in a sec.
And now, my personal top 10 favorite WWE matches of the year.
10. Kota Ibushi vs. TJ Perkins, Cruiserweight Classic
The only match in the top 10 I didn’t originally write about, this semi-finals clash between everybody’s favorite guy in the Cruiserweight Classic vs. a guy we’d all like if he’d stayed in the damn Cruiserweight Classic is still my favorite of the tourney, narrowly edging out Ibushi/Alexander.
Most of the Classic co-opted — read: utilized — an indie main-event style full of increasingly absurd finisher kickouts and cringe-worthy strikes, mostly to the face, and this was the best of them. And yeah, Kota Ibushi could have a 3-star match with a blowup doll, and yeah, Perkins winning robbed us of the Ibushi vs. Gran Metalik finals that would’ve lit the world and its Internet on fire, but in this moment it truly felt like TJP belonged, and that the Cruiserweight Classic in all its anomaly glory was truly special.
Just once I want TJP’s Raw entrance graphic to accidentally select Ibushi.
9. Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte vs. Becky Lynch, WrestleMania 32
All four Horsewomen made a name for themselves this year, with Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair in particular having at least half a dozen memorably great matches. The triple threat at WrestleMania 32 still stands out for me and makes the list for two reasons:
1. It made history by ridding the world of the Icing by Claire’s butterfly Divas Championship, and
2. Ladder match aside, it was probably the only great match at WWE’s biggest show in history.
From the Best and Worst of WrestleMania 32:
First of all, infinity +1s to Sasha Banks for wearing Eddie Guerrero-themed gear while having Snoop Dogg rap about her at a WrestleMania. That’s a hell of a WrestleMania debut. Also, I love (x 100) Charlotte finally achieving her final form and wearing a Flair robe made from the remnants of her dad’s WrestleMania 24 piece. That’s the Flair WrestleMania legacy rising from the ashes. Becky had lots of steam, and that was also okay!
I was a little worried at the beginning of the match, because it looked like everyone was going too fast. They were missing some spots and everyone seemed a little frantic, but the crowd stayed with it and showed them love and it all came together. Once it started firing, it started really firing, and I think everyone came out of the match looking like a star. That’s a very important statement on a match that had MAKING HISTORY shirts for sale at the shop. It wasn’t just a slogan. They did it.
To say this was the best women’s match in the history of WrestleMania is obvious, as women’s wrestling hasn’t had a great run there. Still, this was the moment the Divas Revolution needed from the onset, and I’m glad it finally got to happen. Sasha looked like a million dollars, Becky’s passion held everything together, Charlotte got to continue looking like an entitled, underhanded champion, and we get to launch into (hopefully) a spring, summer and fall that follows it up. Like I said earlier, I’m sad that Sasha Banks didn’t get her moment here, but we have a lot of time to tell her story.
Now next year let’s do it again, but get Bayley in there and do the WrestleMania version of NXT TakeOver: Rival.
8. AJ Styles vs. John Cena, SummerSlam
If you read most people’s top 10 WWE matches of the year, there’s a LOT of AJ Styles on it. He deserves those spots. He’s been one of the best performers in the company all year, continuing his years-long run as probably the best singles wrestler on the damn Earth. That said, WWE’s main roster generally has one match they do that’s a “good match” and they slot people in and out of it, so while he might’ve wrestled a gaggle of classics, they start to run together in my brain. This one is the best, I think. I wrote a lot about it, and I could probably write more. Hey look, I did!
From the Best and Worst of SummerSlam:
I’ve been going back and forth on this since I watched it. If you want to leave a comment on this column, I’d love to hear what you think.
When I initially watched it, I thought it was good in the way that every “Big Match John” and WWE main-event style match is good, but I didn’t think it was special. It felt like it went on too long. The card placement was ridiculous — how you gonna put a 25 minute match full of kickouts in this spot and kill the crowd? — and the kickouts. My God, the kickouts. There weren’t actually any more than usual for this kind of match, but the way Styles and Cena paced the thing, it made most of them seem like believable finishes, which made the kickouts stand out more, which made them seem more ubiquitous. I think that’s how it works. Anyway, what I’m getting at is that WWE has a style they love, and it’s “go for a big move, counter, hit your own big move, repeat, counter a counter INTO your big move, repeat, and then someone finally hits a slightly bigger move and wins.” They’ve been doing it for years, it works for the WWE Universe, and John Cena is the Rembrandt of it.
Also, Cena’s in there completely no-selling late match submission holds because it’s time for him to do his reversals. That’s the most infuriating thing to watch. He does it when he suddenly pops up to hit an Attitude Adjustment, too. “Oh, I’m hurt. I’m hurt. BOOM I’M PERFECTLY FINE TO HIT MY MOVES YEAH F*CK YOU.” Sometimes that’s followed by, “aw jeez actually I’m still hurt, heh, sorry guys let’s get back to believing me.”
I spent part of the morning talking to Bill Hanstock about it, and I think he gave me a better perspective on what went down. Sometimes we get a little jaded with John Cena stuff and need to take a step back to appreciate the story they’re trying to tell, whether all the pieces of the story make sense or not.
Cena has done this before. He preaches about how the future has to go through him, and how he’s the face that runs the place. In the past, guys like Rusev or Ryback or Kevin Owens have shown up and gotten one up on him, but he’s goaded them into series of rematches where he can readjust the sliders and prove his everlasting dominance. It’s the tired joke we make every time we analyze a Cena feud, because it’s not even really a joke, it’s just an observation. Cena loses once, then wins a bunch in a row when it matters. He’s coming into this match with Styles having lost one, but having picked up a win in the 6-man tag at Battleground. The end of the story here is, “Cena wins again, then probably wins again.”
Only this time, after a decade of overcoming everything in the world, Cena has finally met the guy who’s not only his equal, but his superior. Not that Styles is a spring chicken or really “the future” in any way, but he’s fresh, and he’s good as sh*t, and that’s something.
One thing I like about this Cena run is how he’s finally starting to feel like he’s approaching the end. Dude was superhumanly unstoppable forever, and now the grimaces and the sweat and the struggle seem more legitimate. He’s not getting up like he used to. He’s still occasionally no-selling everything, but he’s moving a little slower. And here’s AJ Styles, fresh from a decade of desperately deserving a shot like this, finally GETTING that shot and making the most of it. He’s not a guy with “a future” like Rusev or Kevin Owens. His future has to happen right now, or it’s never going to. If he doesn’t make it RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW, it’s over.
So on top of Styles being Cena’s superior in the ring, Styles might be the first guy Cena’s met who sincerely outdoes him in passion. Styles is trying harder. He’s moving faster and hitting harder. Cena’s been going through these motions so long he doesn’t even remember how he does it most times. His brain and his body just do this. And now he’s starting to notice, and AJ Styles is springboarding into the ring with his elbowpad off and blasting him in the face before he can figure it out.
So yeah, all in all, looking at this as its own thing detached from my expectations for what everything means and where everything should go, I think it was great. Cena leaving his sweatbands in the ring felt like a moment, and I can’t help but wonder how unforgettable this would’ve been if it’d been, say, a retirement match for him at a WrestleMania. Styles kicking out of the Super AA, the world’s most devastating wrestling move, would’ve meant even more. It was still a pretty solid holy sh*t moment.
7. Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks, Falls Count Anywhere, WWE Raw
The best of the Flair vs. Banks matches in 2016, the best WWE women’s match of the year (even if it perpetuated the Sasha wins on Raw/Charlotte wins on pay-per-view hot potato), and worth making the list just for that image of Charlotte in a Banks Statement in a stairway railing while the fan behind Banks loses his goddamn mind.
From the Best and Worst of Raw 11/28:
The thing about Sasha vs. Charlotte matches is that they’re tired as hell on paper, but almost always good-to-great in the ring. These two have a wonderful chemistry, which you haven’t needed me to point out for like two years, and they manage to get something memorable and watchable out of even the most obvious and predictable booking. Like, the finish here is Sasha winning the championship on Raw again, and they probably will do her and Charlotte on pay-per-view. And then if Charlotte wins, Sasha gets a rematch. And if Sasha wins, Charlotte gets a rematch. I don’t know what it does for the prestige of the championship or our patience as viewers who want to see a little variety, but it’s always good.
They really kicked this match’s ass, in case you were wondering. So many memorable moments, from Charlotte’s moonsault off the announce table to the floor — y’all gotta start catching people with more than our outstretched arm — to the probably iconic finish, with Sasha tying Charlotte up in a stair railing and bending her backwards while an amazing guy stands behind her making hilarious O-Face.
There’s a nice moment after the match, too, with Sasha dedicating her victory to Charlotte’s estranged father Ric, and Ric showing up to raise Sasha’s hand in victory. And yeah, it loses a little impact when you think of how many times Ric Flair screwed Sasha over in the past and yeah, it would’ve been funnier to just have Ric turn on her, but in a vacuum, it’s nice. They should’ve had Hector Guerrero cameo as the ghost of Eddie to hug and congratulate her.
6. The Revival vs. American Alpha, NXT TakeOver: Dallas
The one that would’ve been perfect without the super awkward blown spot in the middle. Still, it’s the match that officially set the tone for the kind of match the Revival would perfect in 2016, and a match so good it’ll make you miss American Alpha even though they’ve been on Smackdown for months. Because man, I miss American Alpha.
From the Best and Worst of NXT TakeOver: Dallas:
Look at Jason Jordan’s face when he realizes he just won the NXT Tag Team Championship. He looks like Frank Dux when he gets powder thrown in his eyes at the end of Bloodsport. That’s one of the most realistic and honest emotional reactions I’ve ever seen on a wrestling show. It’s somewhere between existential shock and SCREAMING.
So yeah, NXT TakeOver: Dallas begins in the best way: with American Alpha taking the straps from The Revival. One of the best compliments I can give the show is that this wasn’t the best thing on it. That’s remarkable. Aside from a few rough patches and an iffy false finish that the crowd temporarily completely turned on, this was a brilliantly laid-out tag team masterpiece. It was everything you want from tag team wrestling. It was the Steiners and the Brainbusters on an NXT show in 2016.
The dynamic that makes American Alpha so easy to love is that it’s the perfect tag team formula. You’ve got Chad Gable, the Ricky Morton, a guy with wrestling ability to spare who can turn feeling-out processes into exhibitions and can turn heat into a masterclass in watching a smart guy who’s great at wrestling get out of jams. On the apron you’ve got Jason Jordan, a deeply emotional, intensely connective future superstar who we’re learning might secretly be the most dynamic guy on the show. Tagging in Jordan is like tagging in a thunderbolt. He’s huge and strong and can suplex you without falling down, but he can also throw Okada dropkicks and crush you with shoulderblocks. Like, actually crush you. The best moment of the entire match is the finish, in which Jordan makes a blind tag and SPRINTS offscreen. A few seconds later he comes darting in from the other side of the ring with the most massive corner shoulder to the stomach you’ve ever seen, setting up the Grand Amplitude. It’s a perfect moment because not only does it show what a cohesive unit American Alpha is, it shows what an unstoppable force Jason Jordan is. He’s everywhere at once. He spends that time on the apron thinking about how he can dropkick 10,000 people at once if necessary.
I don’t think anyone doubted the finish here, but it’s still exciting and wonderful to see. These guys deserve the belts more than anyone in the history of NXT, with apologies to Enzo and Cass, and I’m glad NXT didn’t jerk them around for another year before pulling the trigger. Sometimes the right call is the right call, and the time to make it is right now.
5. Cesaro vs. The Miz vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn, Extreme Rules
It’s so weird and happy that my top 5 WWE workers of the year list has the damn Miz on it. Back when that guy was doing bad figure-fours and disappearing into a Hallmark Channel version of Hollywood, I thought he was done. When he was the least exciting part of a partnership with a comedy Damien Sandow, I thought he was a good utility, but couldn’t be the point again. And now here he is doing the best character work in the company, cutting red hot promos and backing it up with good to great matches. What the hell, Mike? Good job.
From the Best and Worst of Extreme Rules:
And now, HOT FIRE EMOJI.
You probably assumed it was going to be good going in, but the fatal four-way for the Intercontinental Championship was outstanding. Really great. WWE’s got a solid formula for matches like this, so if you fill it out with four guys who can go — okay, three guys who can go and one guy who’s a better character than wrestler but can hold his own when he needs to — you get magic.
There’s a ton to love here, and if you haven’t seen it, seek out the show and just watch the Rusev/Kalisto to IC title block. The opening shot of Sami hustling across the ring to kill Kevin Owens with a massive Helluva Kick because ETERNAL FOREVER HATRED is perfect. I also liked how much effort went into making the convoluted double-team spots at least look like they were happening organically. Cesaro tries to swing Miz, Miz scoots back and grabs the ropes with both hands. Cesaro’s trying to pull himself in one direction and Miz is trying to pull himself in the other, so he’s in a perfect natural position for Owens to come off the top with a bullfrog splash. Moments like that. It’s not a guy holding himself in position for a tree of woe double-stomp and having to do it forever because taunts are happening.
The Miz winning is an interesting call, but I like the way they did it. The way the match was laid out it could’ve gone in any direction, so everyone crashing into everyone else and someone being in the right place at the right time makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure I would’ve kept it on Miz, and I’m definitely not sure I would’ve had him pin Cesaro to keep it — Sami is the Michael Jordan of taking pinfalls … the Crying Jordan of taking pinfalls — but the match was too good to stress about it.
It’s not Zayn/Nak, but as far as main roster WWE matches in 2016 goes, it’s near the top of my list.
4. The Revival vs. American Alpha, NXT TakeOver: The End
The one that’s slightly better than the other. I’d type “Scott Dawson for wrestler of the year 2016,” but it’d feel like I was being too obvious.
From the Best and Worst of TakeOver: The End:
I can’t say enough about this tag match. I’m not sure I can put it over Zayn vs. Nakamura as my NXT match of the year, but it’s really fucking close, and is the best straight-up tag team match I’ve seen in a long, long time.
In our predictions for The End, I wrote that this felt like a sort of “make-up” for the great-but-not-perfect Dallas match. “Their last TakeOver match was on its way to being an all-time NXT classic before a few badly timed botches, so I’m guessing this is their attempt to get all the way through it.” Quick version: They got all the way through it, and god damn was it good.
It was everything right about tag team wrestling. The strategy, the timing, the blind tags, the interference, the distractions, the tandem offense. You have The Revival — a team that is finally as good as everyone was supposed to think they were when they first started teaming up — working this wonderful, old school but fast paced rudo style against American Alpha, two guys who are so lovable and great at what they do they can barely keep it from spilling out of their bodies.
If you haven’t watched this match, watch it. Watch it twice. It’s so good I don’t even care that American Alpha lost the titles clean after only holding them for two months. I don’t care that they immediately got distracted by a different feud, which means Gargano and Ciampa are taking their spot.
Turns out that was a good thing. I know, right?
3. Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens, WWE Battleground
Just narrowly topping the Extreme Rules fatal four-way for my WWE main roster match of the year, featuring the usual suspects. The story would’ve propelled it to number two on the list if it hadn’t been more or less ignored and/or negated by the several months of WWE TV after it. WHY DIDN’T YOU SEND SAMI ZAYN TO SMACKDOWN, GUYS.
From the Best and Worst of Battleground:
Wrestling is about the moments.
Even during his NXT run, the love I had for Sami Zayn was built around the moments. The debut, where he shocks Cesaro. The 2-out-of-3 falls match, where he gets caught on the tornado DDT, almost gets dropped and gets launched so impossibly high in the air before being murdered with a European uppercut. The championship match close calls. The referee getting pulled out of the ring by Neville in the fatal four-way. Choosing to not cheat to beat Neville. Owens turning on him on night one, and powerbombing him into the apron. The knockout. The injury. The return. All of those things have great matches attached to them, because Sami Zayn’s a superb f*cking pro wrestler, but there are few if any who can match him in creating and expressing moments.
I don’t think anyone honestly thinks this is the last Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens match. I don’t think it’s the last Zayn and Owens match this year. They might have a rematch on Monday night. But what it did is create a true moment of closure for Sami that paid off the two years of struggle he’s faced trying to exist in the same universe as this cat, and Sami’s ability to express that moment is what makes it so powerful.
During the finishing spring, Sami hits an exploder in the corner, pulls Owens back toward the middle of the ring and half-nelson suplexes him. That set up a Helluva Kick, and Owens is OUT. He collapses into Sami’s arms, and any other time Sami would just push him down and cover. He’s got the match won. Instead, the moment hits him. Watch him close his eyes before he starts running. It’s all connected. Owens collapses, and Zayn is overtaken with a moment that says so much about who these characters are and how they interact. It’s not anger, it’s remembrance. It’s not compassion as much as it is pity, not for who Owens has become, but for everything they’ve shared. It’s the look you give when you remember what your best friend used to be, and then remember how they can never be that to you again. The announcers call it a bunch of things, but they were close when they said compassion. Sami’s not going to lose the match over it and he’s going to be happy to win — he’s got a f*cking point to prove — but in that moment, he shows that sometimes the road to happiness is paved with a tonne of regret, sadness, and choices made. It’s brilliant. And then, you know, he kicks him in the face again.
It’s not just that one moment, though.
There’s a gross one in the middle of the match where Sami goes for an Arabian Press and pulls a Kidman. You know how like, 20% of Kidman’s shooting star presses wouldn’t go outward, and he’d just spin in place and land on the ropes or the turnbuckle? Yeah, Sami doesn’t time the rebound correctly, sorta spins upside down in place and comes crashing down on his shoulder. That caused big red Metal Gear Solid style exclamation points to appear over our heads. That could’ve been it.
Instead, the match’s tone shifts. If you’ve ever seen the first big important Dynamite Kid vs. Tiger Mask match, there’s a pretty blatant botch near the beginning. Tiger Mask goes up for something and just kinda falls off of Dynamite, touching his arm on the way down. Maybe it was supposed to be an arm drag? Anyway, instead of just ignoring it and moving on with the match, Dynamite shakes out his arm. In that instant, Dynamite creates a mystique about his opponent, and you’re like, “wait, what just happened? What did Tiger Mask do?” Because he’s Tiger Mask, and he can do anything. The botch becomes an irreplaceable cog in the story of the match. For modern fans, think about when Seth Rollins broke John Cena’s nose on Raw. Cena had to wrestle the rest of the match with a crushed face, and his real pain and intestinal fortitude not only changed the story of the match, but improved it. He was suddenly in real danger.
When Zayn lands on his shoulder, the match becomes about Owens targeting it, and what Zayn can do about it. He might’ve been really hurt and dealing with real pain, but that became irrelevant … they took something that could’ve been a mistake and made it the next step in the story. Zayn became an even bigger underdog. When he hit big moves, they were weakened by the arm. When he punched with that arm, he showed that it hurt. He never forgot it, and visibly displayed the kind of grit you need to move beyond an unexpected injury when it’s time to hit your big moves. It was all about adrenaline, and Zayn used his face and his body to tell that story. It’s not just something we typed in here to make ourselves feel better about the art of wrestling, or something the announcers said to cover. It was the story they chose to tell, and they told it. Because they’re good at this.
This is one of the best WWE matches of the year, and the botch made it better.
2. Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, NXT TakeOver: Dallas
I reference it a lot in NXT match reviews, so here it is. “Fight for-ever” clap clap clapclapclap.
From the Best and Worst of NXT TakeOver: Dallas, which really was the best show of the year:
That might be the best chant ever.
There’s a lot of hyperbole I could throw at Zayn vs. Nakamura, but just watch it. Watch it and understand. This is what we’ve always wanted pro wrestling to be … the battle between two people with something to prove, and hearts so big they’ll do anything to prove it. Sami Zayn’s always been a lovable loser type, and here he is throwing straight-up punches to Nakamura’s face. It’s not even heelish, it’s a fight for survival. Nakamura’s entering a foreign land in nearly every definition of that, a land where people change and names disappear and everything’s micromanaged, and he’s blowing up the entire operation by being himself. “Himself” is the only thing Nakamura can be. The knees are still there, even if they have a different name. The swag is still there. The look, the weirdness, the stiffness. He’s Shinsuke Nakamura independent of all the worries and bullsh*t.
This might be the best one-on-one NXT match of all time. Saying that when Sami Zayn’s in the ring, the guy responsible for pretty much every other “greatest one-on-one NXT match of all time,” is saying something. It simultaneously works as an introduction to Nakamura — both for WWE and American fans who might not have seen his work in New Japan — and a goodbye for Zayn, who is destined for a bigger stage. Hell, he’s destined for it by Sunday. The guy’s in an Intercontinental Championship ladder match at WrestleMania, and he’s giving this match everything he’s got. Look at his face when it’s over. He looks like someone put him through a meat grinder.
All I can say is to watch this match. Really watch it, absorb it, and consider the brutal beauty of the nicest (okay, maybe second nicest) character on the NXT roster busting open a guy’s nose with forearms and just throwing and taking them and refusing to fall. Consider the change that Nakamura brings. Consider the work Sami’s put in to carving out a reputation and a system of expectations for NXT that didn’t necessarily exist before he showed up. Consider that maybe Nakamura’s the guy to build on that work. Consider that we for real just watched Sami Zayn and Shinsuke Nakamura tear it up on a Wrestle Kingdom level on a WWE-produced live special.
Consider that pro wrestling is sometimes the best damn thing in the world.
1. The Revival vs. DIY, 2 out of 3 falls, NXT TakeOver: Toronto
The WWE match of the year in a walk. I didn’t expect anything to top Zayn vs. Nakamura for me, and this blew it out of the water. It might be my favorite WWE match since at least Sami Zayn finding the courage to be a true babyface and winning the NXT Championship against Adrian Neville, and maybe since Zayn vs. Cesaro 2-out-of-3 falls.
From the Best and Worst of NXT TakeOver: Toronto:
Not “match of the year candidate,” match of the year. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a tag team match this good. And that’s after a couple of days to really sit on it, and not just hyperbolically fawn over it while it’s happening. DIY vs. The Revival 2-out-of-3 Falls for the NXT Tag Team Championship succeeded in cementing the Revival as the very best tag team in the world and the best tag team in the history of NXT by a mile — sorry, Alpha, you didn’t get much time — and gave them a farewell they absolutely deserved for low key changing the game. Roger Ebert used to travel to colleges and go through movies frame by frame to analyze them. This match is so good I might have to launch a college tour just to explain it.
Like, where do I even start?
Like any truly great wrestling match, this one has a complex, detailed history that built a damn tapestry before either team stepped in the ring. DIY was born in the first Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, and now they’re here a year later competing for the Tag Team Championship. They’ve faced struggles in both tournaments. This year’s struggle came from a longstanding beef where DIY upset the Revival a week before Dash and Dawson’s title match with American Alpha at NXT TakeOver: The End. GargaChamp had their number, and the Revival straight-up ducked them until they managed to injure Johnny’s leg and defeat them at TakeOver: Brooklyn II. That injury caused Gargano to lose his match in the Cruiserweight Classic … a tournament he’d advanced in by giving everything he had to defeat his own partner. So he gave his all to defend and defeat his partner all at once. Because he gives a shit about pro wrestling, and himself, and his friend. DIY and the Revival were supposed to face off in round two of this year’s Dusty Classic, but Scott Dawson suddenly had a mysterious leg injury and they had to forfeit. But a week later that leg was good enough for him to hide under the ring and pop out just in time to make sure DIY didn’t advance to the finals. Again, all of this before either team steps into the ring.
So that gives us this match. Two out of three falls. NXT’s signature match, and the one that makes sure we know who the better man (or woman, or team) is. Unlike some of even the best of these matches, all three falls get time. All three falls feel like independent matches, building on each other and getting better as they go. No quick rollup, followed by a quick rollup on the other side. Two teams busting their fucking asses to see who’s the best.
So in the first fall, The Revival is able to “do their homework” and anticipate one of Gargano’s most obvious moves — his springboard spear — and counter it into a Shatter Machine. A nasty one, too. That puts them up 1-0, and puts DIY in a hole. They have to fight from underneath. Which is perfect, because over the past year, DIY has turned into one of the most bulletproof and believable babyface teams in YEARS. Their work in the Cruiserweight Classic gave them a perspective we could see. It’s WWE showing their work, which doesn’t happen a lot.
Fall two is built around timing. That’s my favorite part of any Revival match. They don’t cheat a lot, they play chess. They stay two or three moves ahead, and to hang with them, you’ve got to play their game. One of my favorite wrestling moments of the entire year is when Gargano’s fighting off both members of the Revival and goes to make a hot tag, so Scott Dawson just kinda powerslides between Gargano and Ciampa to prevent it. He’s not really doing anything, he’s just putting his body between his opponents to maintain an advantage. I could say “it’s the little things,” but the better point is that Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder (and especially Scott Dawson) not only understand and utilize the little things, they paint with them. They make the little things the big things by being the only team in the world that appears to understand them. Almost every pinfall attempt here is one team managing to isolate a single member of the opposition and hoping they can get a three count before it gets broken up. Tag team wrestling is about cooperation and friendship. That’s the entire point. And 99% of the tag team wrestling that happens ever is oblivious to that fact.
Timing becomes important when the Revival starts getting Ciampa to stomp into the ring at all the worst times. He’ll make tags the referee doesn’t see, and when the ref is distracted trying to get him back onto the apron, Dawson and Wilder push Gargano back into the corner and double-team him. It’s classic and easy, and great. The payoff comes when the referee gets distracted trying to get WILDER out of the ring, and DIY’s able to use the momentary advantage to hit their strike combination on Dawson and tie the match up one fall a piece. Every single moment of the match makes sense, and is there for a reason.
Fall three brings together everything the match has said so far with everything that came before it. The Revival starts getting desperate, trying to get away with tights-pulling and belt shots. Gargano accidentally kicks the belt, aggravating the same injury that cost DIY their first title shot against the Revival AND got him eliminated from the CWC. See how this all keeps tying together?
It builds and builds until both teams are giving everything they’ve got left, even going for the other’s finishes. The best nearfall of the entire show is when the Revival tries the strike combination, Wilder accidentally superkicks Dawson because they don’t know how to do it, and then Wilder turns around into a Shatter Machine from DIY. It’s such a delicately timed thing, and they execute it perfectly.
Ultimately the match comes down to Gargano being able to gut through the injury and trap Wilder in the Gargano Escape. Dawson tries to break it up, and Ciampa grounds him and locks him in his bridging armbar. Dawson and Wilder can touch each other but they’re both on their stomachs and don’t have any leverage, and end up holding hands. And it’s a great moment of teamwork and friendship, but also a great illustration of these guys who have an answer for everything simultaneously trying to save the other, and failing. They’re just like, I’M GOING TO GRAB YOU, COME ON. It’s a total Thelma & Louise moment. And then they tap out at the same time, going out on their backs by going out on their stomachs. DIY are the new Tag Team Champions, the Authors of Pain have already beaten them once and just won the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, TM-61’s nipping at their heels and the Revival leaves for browner but richer pastures, having redefined an entire division, put on the year’s best wrestling and absolutely cemented themselves as the greatest and most influential tag team in NXT history. Everything that comes after them should exist because of them. The culmination of an impossible rise to pro wrestling brilliance from a team that’s supposed to be in tribute to the past, but fucked around and created the future.
Five stars. More than five stars. Give it a sixth star, and let’s see if anything touches it. Tag team wrestling is the best.
Top that, 2017.