Deadshirt’s Top 10 Wrestling Acts of 2016

2016 may be remembered as the year that we arrived at Peak Wrestling, when there were so many great performances that we couldn’t even bear to cut our list down to only ten individual teams or wrestlers. For this reason, we felt the need to group some of our favorites into single acts—angles, rivalries, and alliances that were more than the sum of their parts. Let’s get right to it; appropriate to the Year of the Five-Hour Pay-Per-View, this is a stacked card…

#10. Pentagón Jr. Has Zero Fear (Lucha Underground)

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Lucha Underground is an interesting beast because it’s not only a pre-taped wrestling show with spoilers available on the Internet long before the matches are aired but also a multi-episode narrative based show on a premium cable channel engineered for Spanish speaking audiences. Lucha Underground doubles down a lot on its commitment to the more supernatural sides of kayfabe, including dragons, monsters, and the undead. Pentagón, Jr is one such creation. This is a luchador who dresses like a skeleton and goes around saying “Cero Mierdo,” translated as “Zero Fear.” Pentagón Jr’s background is pretty mysterious (he has a deep connection to unhinged commentator and manager Vampiro), but his ring persona is flawless. He can be thought of as Lucha Underground’s own Stone Cold Steve Austin, often motivated by his own ambitions but willing to turn on both rudos and technicos at the ring of the bell. Pentagón Jr.’s match against Prince Puma in the early part of Lucha Underground’s second season sold me on the wrestler entirely in terms of his technical prowess and his ability to tell in-ring stories. His proficiency in the Aztec Warfare event (sort of like a low-key Royal Rumble), and his later rivalry with the monstrous Matanza are also some of this year’s big highlights. Pentagón Jr. encapsulates a lot of facets of wrestling I dig, from his high flying, death-defying jumps off the ropes to his solid match-ups against muscular brutes. His no-fear approach to the ring makes him one of the best indie wrestlers currently out there.

– Andrew Niemann

#9. The Broken Hardys (TNA)

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Matt Hardy has always been a good wrestler, but until 2016 he was primarily known for two things: 1) that whole Edge/Lita thing, and 2) being Jeff Hardy’s not-quite-as-fun brother. That all changed when Matt became #BROKEN, wearing a white streak in his hair and speaking like a hillbilly Shakespearean villain. His debut—the infamous contract signing—was dubbed The Room of Wrestling and was mocked far and wide, but instead of shying away, Matt doubled down to create one of the most compelling storylines of the year and some of the most creative portrayals of wrestling by a mainstream company in years, if not decades. In the process, he’s managed to rope his whole family into it, and made a drone, the word “DELETE,” and an actual child the most over things in wrestling. When WWE fans start chanting DELETE at pay per views, it can’t be ignored anymore—the Broken Hardys are some of the most compelling characters in the wrestling world. Always amusing, usually funny, and often creative, the Hardy segments have made TNA worth watching again.

Even by TNA standards, it has been a Bad Year for TNA. Between their talent bolting for Full Sail and the ineffably bad financial situation, it’s a miracle they continue to exist. Maybe the only reason fans care about their survival anymore is to see more of Matt’s #BROKEN Brilliance.

– David Lebovitz

# 8. The Miz vs. Daniel Bryan (WWE SmackDown Live)

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As the year comes to a close, I still find myself completely stunned that The Miz of all people is one of the wrestlers that I look forward to seeing every week. Hot on the heels of his move to SmackDown, the universally hated Miz shocked the world with a fiery tirade where he called General Manager Daniel Bryan a coward for lying to his fans, causing Bryan to walk off set. Both men ssemed so sincere that no one seemed entirely sure whether this moment was real or scripted.

This led to his feud with Dolph Ziggler, acting as a proxy for Bryan in series of escalating matches, each better than the last. Even with a lot of interference by the magnificent Maryse, Miz has never looked stronger or conveyed a better understanding of his character. In what should have been the main event of No Mercy, a strained Ziggler fought Miz for his very career and won the title, but the post-match reactions made it feel like Miz actually took the loss harder than Ziggler would have. He and Maryse mourned his loss of the title like the death of a loved one, until he managed to take the title back shortly after.

This all culminated in a genuine Match of the Year contender in Miz’s final title defense at TLC, where he left Ziggler in a broken heap at ringside and cut a perfect promo dedicating the match to Bryan, which was all the more fitting after Miz co-opted several of Bryan’s own moves and catchphrases. In less than a year, The Miz has gone from a punchline to the best talker and one of the most improved workers in the entire WWE. If he can ride this momentum into the Rumble, he’ll be poised to set Wrestlemania on fire next year.

– Kyle Herr

#7. Asuka’s Undefeated Year (WWE NXT)

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WWE has a bad habit of letting their champions lose non-title matches a little too frequently, and score clean title defenses a little too rarely. Kevin Owens has nearly no decisive wins since becoming Universal Champion. The New Day got wrecked pretty much any time their title wasn’t on the line, and they held the belt as long as they did largely due to cheating—and they’re babyfaces. World Champion AJ Styles is 1-3 against James Ellsworth. There are precious few truly dominant characters on the full-time WWE roster.

And then there’s Asuka. Since her NXT debut last October, Asuka is undefeated in singles competition, and even in her handful of tag team losses at house shows, Asuka has never been pinned or submitted. Asuka’s presence is so formidable that she is the rare WWE character to totally soar above heel/face alignment. Audiences delight equally in seeing her crush weasel heels and push heroic babyfaces to their limits. While NXT’s women’s division is undoubtedly less competitive since it was strip-mined during the WWE Draft, Asuka’s title reign has become a spectacle in itself, leading to WWE resurrecting former Women’s Champion Mickie James like John Spartan to try (and fail) to take her down. So when the time finally comes for someone to step up and take Asuka’s title from her, it’s going to be an event that will rocket her successor to stardom, and hopefully give Asuka herself a worthy send-off to (fingers crossed) SmackDown.

– Dylan Roth

#6. Naito & Los Ingobernables de Japón (NJPW)

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Dominic Griffin: In a year where New Japan’s biggest stable, the Bullet Club, continued its depressing descent into irrelevance, the NJPW annex of the CMLL-borne crew Los Ingobernables have become hotter than ever.

Cameron DeOrdio: As a relative newcomer to following New Japan I couldn’t be more pleased with my timing.

Dom: So much of what makes LIJ special is based around the preternatural charisma of its leader, Tetsuya Naito. Only a couple of years ago, Naito was something of a failed babyface in the mold of Tanahashi. But his greatest skill has always been a gift for reinvention. The commentary team likes to mythologize how every time Naito returns from a trip to wrestle in Mexico, he comes back a little changed. With this most recent change, Naito came home with new facial hair, along with an affinity for baseball caps and Not Giving A Fuck Ever.

Cam: If John Cena’s all about hustle, loyalty, and respect, Naito’s 100% pure sloth, selfishness, and disrespect. And it rules. He takes his sweet time getting to the ring and stripping down to ring gear, poses on the mat out of range of his opponents, and leaves title belts on the ground for someone else to pick up, if they want to or whatever. And it’s all undercut with this fantastic bitterness, best symbolized by his signature taunt, using two fingers to pull his eye wide open. While in Mexico, Naito was far from over, and fans would taunt him, calling him “chino” and harping on racist remarks about Asian people’s eyes. He turned their taunts into one of his own, and that’s so remarkably badass.

Dom: Now that he’s built an entire squad around his new image, we have a truly unique and exciting stable populated by wrestlers who’ve undergone similar transformations. His first recruit was EVIL, formerly Takaaki Watanabe, who returned from a lengthy ROH excursion as a goth who strolls to the ring with an oversized scythe. To corner the junior heavyweight market, Bushi also went #dark, spewing green mist in opponents’ faces and adding a new level of ferocity to his repertoire. Most tellingly, the crew also brought in SANADA, a Keiji Mutoh pupil who’d spent years languishing stateside in TNA. Like Naito, he’s shed his skin as a handsome babyface, wearing a skull mask like a Purger and always seeming like the soulless husk of a skilled wrestler.

Cam: But he still gets a huge pop when he takes his shirt off, to be fair.

Dom: Sanada is still a hunk, definitely. Only now he’s a hunk who behaves like he died years ago and wrestles from muscle memory. Outside of featuring a colorful cast of likable characters, LIJ differs from their chief stable competition in the Bullet Club by smartly tapping into something at the heart of NJPW. The Bullet Club is basically a post-modern bastardization of DX and the NWO, but LIJ, with their too-cool-for-school bad kids hanging out after class vibe, exemplify the iconoclast rebelliousness that made CM Punk such a phenomenon stateside. Naito and his friends don’t break the rules because they’re juvenile contrarians like the Too Sweet-ers. They are disaffected and smart enough to see the hypocrisy in a company pushing Okada to the moon instead of pulling the trigger on the hottest act in the promotion.

Naito winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and heaving it into the sky was iconic because he wasn’t disrespecting the title, but the bullshit he sees surrounding it. Now, he’s poised to usurp Shinsuke Nakamura’s vacated spot as the most over guy on the roster who is still perpetually second fiddle.

Cam: And this feeds so excellently into Naito-Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 11, January 4. Tanahashi is basically the avatar of NJPW, and you can see him react with physical pain every time Naito disrespects a belt in front of him. This was perfectly encapsulated at December 17’s Road to Tokyo Dome show, when Naito won a match and dragged the Intercontinental Title on the ground in front of a defeated Tanahashi, who was left to kneel before the belt like Kirk watching Spock die in The Wrath of Khan. I’m so excited for what LIJ and Naito—and their newest member, the punk-looking Hiromu Takahashi, who joined earlier this month—have in store for 2017, starting with Wrestle Kingdom.

#5. Kevin Owens & Chris Jericho are Best Friends (WWE Raw)

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Dylan Roth: There’s no debating that Chris Jericho is one of the greatest entertainers in pro wrestling. This is a guy who made a clipboard the most over character in the WWE for months.

David Lebovitz: Kevin Owens, the guy who bullied you in middle school who you still wanted the respect of, going from King of the Indies to WWE Universal Champion in less than two years, is his best friend in the whole world.

Dylan: That’s right, Danny. And while they’re both great wrestlers on their own, this year they joined together to inject improv comedy back into the wrestling promo. They deliver their scripted in-ring bits with aplomb, but they’re at their best tag-team bullying Tom Phillips in off-the-cuff interview segments.

David: That’s DAVID, you stupid idiot! But you’re not wrong about that. In an era when seemingly everyone and everything is so heavily scripted that it’s hard to tell the writers from the wrestlers, Owens and Jericho are clearly given free reign and they never a miss a beat. Earlier this year, friend of the site @Rusty_Shackles compared them to Wario and Waluigi, and I think about that at least once a week, because it’s perfect.

Dylan: It hasn’t all been sunshine and roses—this mean kids’ alliance has cost the newborn Universal Championship much of its credibility. But wrestling friendships are made to be broken, so when JeriKO meet their inevitable demise, both superstars can walk away stronger, and with the momentum built up from his alliance with the legendary Y2J, Owens can live up to his potential as a true fighting champion. And that’s why we can agree…

David & Dylan: THEY JUST MADE THE LIST!

#4. Kenny Omega (NJPW)

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Kyle Herr: Kenny Omega is a villain through and through, a cartoon character come to life, ready to smash you over the head with a trash can. Throughout his time in the Bullet Club, he’s been working tirelessly to let everyone know that he’s no longer the respectful Otaku from Canada that he once was, because that just doesn’t get results. Having backup under the ring gets results, spraying your opponent in the face with first aid supplies gets results, but most of all, just being that damn good GETS RESULTS. In the span of a year, Kenny has declared himself a heavyweight, taken control of the Bullet Club, and won the G1 Climax, becoming only the third foreigner to do so and the first Canadian. Kenny is a delight in every match that he’s in, combining a wealth of moves both emphasizing athletic prowess and pure power with a flair for theatrics and comedic antics. He can have the audience in stitches in a match of low blows with Toru Yano just as easily as he can burn the house down in a hard hitting grudge match with powerhouses like Hirooki Goto. Kenny is the complete package, because, like he says, “I can wrestle. I can talk. I. Can. Sing.” (Insert the chorus from “Teenage Dream” here.)

Cameron DeOrdio: Kenny Omega is kind of like that kid who was a total nerd in high school and decides he’s going to reinvent himself to be cool at college. Except Kenny actually frickin’ pulled it off. To me, the development of Kenny Omega’s character this year can be demonstrated in two major moments: the first was when, as Kyle mentioned, he just straight-up declared himself a heavyweight (and therefore in contention for New Japan’s top title), and the second was his promo after a major victory in the G1 Climax tournament. When he declared himself a heavyweight, he made a clear statement: I don’t care what you think of me, I’m going to run this place. Then, after wrestling one of the best matches of the year against (my personal favorite wrestler) Tetsuya Naito, he gave the perfect you-never-gave-me-the-respect-I-deserve heel promo. It was a brutal match, and he called out the crowd for rooting for his opponent as he got his ass handed to him, and then only chanting his name once it looked like he was going to win. He plays with the language barrier a lot here, counting on the predominantly Japanese-speaking crowd to recognize the English words (but not Kenny’s sarcastic tone/context) for phrases like “Japan is my home” and “Kenny, Kenny, Kenny,” ironically eliciting cheers and chants. It syncs so perfectly with a better-than-all-you-idiots gimmick like his. Kenny Omega’s even better on the mic than he is in the ring, and that’s extremely high praise.

#3. Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte Flair (WWE Raw)

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The biggest surprise of the year in WWE came at the start of Wrestlemania 32, when it was announced that the former Divas Division would now be called the Women’s Division, symbolic of the WWE beginning to treat its female talent more like their male peers. This transition was in part due to Charlotte, the daughter of WWE Legend and Hall-of-Famer Ric Flair, and her frequent rival in NXT, Sasha Banks. Their rivalry has lasted a good part of the year and has been practically the entire story built around the WWE Women’s Championship (called the Raw Women’s Championship since the brand split). Throughout the year, the championship has flip-flopped between Charlotte and Sasha a record number of SIX times, giving Charlotte four wins and Sasha three.

While many have seen this as too much back-and-forth, I personally think the game of “hot potato” with the title has led to an engaging series of matches, two of them being my favorite matches this year. Sasha’s first victory came on a summer Raw in the lead-up to SummerSlam that left me in complete tears. The pair starred in first ever Women’s Hell in a Cell match, which might go down in history as one of the greatest cage matches ever. Charlotte has proven herself to be a great heel in the ring, simultaneously honoring the legacy of her father and also creating a brand new persona for herself. Her flexibility is always amazing to watch, and her submission finisher, the Figure Eight, is one of the most brutal things to witness in the ring. Sasha Banks continues the legacy of her idol, Eddie Guerrero, by sacrificing naïve babyface ambition for that of confidence in her skills and willingness to compete for glory.

It’s fitting that Charlotte’s won the title matches on all the PPVs this year as she represents the legacy of Ric Flair’s record number of championships, whereas Sasha’s winning title matches only on Raw emphasizes her connection to the audience, being a former WWE fan herself. The rivalry wrapped up this month at Roadblock: End of the Line with Charlotte winning their first 30 Minute Iron Man match in a brutal, chaotic overtime. Fans might be burnt out, but based on the quality of the matches between these two, I’d say they’re both ready to main event something as huge as Wrestlemania. It’s about damn time.

– Andrew Niemann

#2. The Revival & the NXT Tag Division (WWE NXT)

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Just as The Shield helped bring about a mini-revolution of six-man tag matches during the height of their popularity, the team of Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder, with their “no flips, just fists” throwback act, have been the centerpiece of a new golden age in tag wrestling. Dash & Dawson might be two of the only wrestlers left in the mainstream actually capable of getting real heat and getting booed on purpose, so their NXT Tag Title run was crucial for building up two of the most beloved teams in the WWE: American Alpha and DIY. Both teams had once-in-a-lifetime chemistry with The Revival, performing modern classics with every outing.

The Revival, with their Arn Anderson tribute attitudes, make perfect foils for upbeat underdogs. Both American Alpha and DIY are teams made up of two singles wrestlers bonded by friendship and a dedication to optimism, whereas Dash & Dawson seem like two halves of the same whole. They’re friendly with one another, but they embody the kind of single-minded mercenary mentality that was so prevalent before Vince destroyed the territories. You can imagine them eating steak together or taking turns on long drives, but you can’t see them talking too much. Whereas Jason Jordan and Chad Gable’s chemistry suggests long Netflix marathons together, double dates, and late night text threads swapping memes back and forth, Dash & Dawson seem like they just quietly respect one another’s presence. Then with DIY, Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa represent two hard-traveling indie workhorses finding a second life in their newfound friendship and working relationship. The omnipresent feeling that one will inevitably turn on the other only serves to make their time together more special.

But there’s a reason even an old school stalwart like Jim Cornette verbally fellates these matches on his many podcasts. Each team is incredible, but when they clash, they turn the locks back to the basics of tag team psychology. Little to no wasted movement, elongated heat segments where the most sympathetic babyface (Gable or Gargano) ably play the role of Rock N’ Roll Express’ Ricky Morton. The matches speak for themselves and prove that no matter how much the business itself has changed, the narrative underpinning that makes it function is still just as relevant.

– Dominic Griffin

#1. AJ Styles (NJPW & WWE)

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Kyle Herr: Let’s summarize AJ’s accomplishments in 2016. He was in the year’s first Match of the Year candidate (with Shinsuke Nakamura), he had an incredible debut in the Royal Rumble to a crowd that knew exactly who he was; he had two amazing title matches with the (at the time, at least) future top guy in WWE (Roman Reigns): he learned how to cut a promo (one of the only things he’s never been great at) against one of the best in the business on a mic (John Cena), then he BEAT him and stole his smile; and finally became the WWE World Champion. All in a year, at age 39. 2016 may have universally sucked for us all, but not for The Phenomenal One.

Cameron DeOrdio: I’m sure everyone else has a lot to say with a broad view of all of the amazing—nay, phenomenal—stuff AJ Styles has pulled off this year. But I want to talk about the moment that sticks out in my mind: When Styles made Spider-Man put his mask in the garbage John Cena leave his “NEVER GIVE UP” wristband in the ring after losing to Styles at SummerSlam. Styles’s feud with Cena really allowed him to cut his promo-giving teeth in the States, and it was a great way to get a new heel over. Having Styles get a clean win over The Face That Smarks Love to Hate Runs the Place instantly puts people on his side and gives him legitimacy as a top guy. Him utterly crushing Cena’s spirit was just great TV.

David Lebovitz: It’s almost inconceivable now, but for a period of time at the start of the year, AJ looked like another new talent WWE was going to waste. His Rumble debut was fantastic, but then he entered into a program with a pre-List Chris Jericho. It made sense early on, but went on for far too long and somehow ended with Boring Heel Jericho pinning Styles clean in the ring during Wrestlemania. It sounded idiotic then and it still sounds idiotic now, and it’s barely mitigated by the fact that Styles won the number one contendership match the next night. WWE was dangerously close to punishing new talent at the expense of their old guys YET AGAIN, but through sheer force of work rate, Styles went on to become arguably the top star in the company. Getting Vince McMahon to change his mind? That’s Phenomenal™.

Dominic Griffin: Above all else, AJ Styles is a reassuring narrative about hard work paying off. This is a dude who did amazing work in TNA for years and then had to beg for the money he knew he deserved. He dipped, toured the indies and NJPW to remind everyone just how good he was, and got to debut Number 2 in the fucking Royal Rumble. He pinned John Cena clean. He’s the WWE World Champion. He’s the goddamn face that runs the place. Not an easy thing to have imagined a few years ago. Better than ever on the mic, killing it in the ring and having the most consistent match quality of any wrestler this year. What a time to be alive.

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