If nothing else, you can always count on WWE to provide some of the best wrestling matches in the world, thanks to their incredibly deep roster of the very best of the best wrestlers from around the globe. In 2016, WWE once again stepped up to the plate and hit their share of home runs from an in-ring perspective, some from the Superstars you’ve come to expect, as well as some from incredibly unlikely sources. In the very best matches of the year, all levels of WWE managed to be well-represented, from the World Title scene all the way down to NXT, including the burgeoning Women’s Division, the revived Cruiserweight Division, and even some important contributions from some very impressive tag teams. It was difficult, but after watching every single televised match to take place in WWE in the past year (yes, we really did, because we’re just that nuts) we managed to narrow this final list down to 15 of the company’s very best matches, all of which you definitely should make time to see if you haven’t already. Without any further ado, we present the cream of the crop, the absolute best matches of WWE in 2016.
15. Samoa Joe vs Shinsuke Nakamura, NXT TakeOver: Toronto
While it does seem likely that 2017 will see Joe’s rise to the main roster, we need to recognize the incredible work he did rebuilding himself in NXT after seemingly losing much of his motivation in recent years, which even bled into his early work for WWE’s developmental system. Joe’s feud with Balor began the process of reigniting the killer instinct in the Samoan Submission Machine, but it was against Shinsuke Nakamura where Joe truly got to shine, finding in Nakamura an opponent willing to take as much punishment as Joe wanted to dish out, and return it in kind. After their first match in Brooklyn was good, but slightly underwhelming, Joe and Nakamura upped the brutality in Toronto, resulting in a hard-hitting affair that saw Joe break out moves like the dangerous Chimeraplex, and ultimately captialize on a weakened Nakamura to become the first two-time NXT Champion in history. Joe’s second reign wouldn’t last long, and it’s all but certain that Toronto was his last TakeOver and final appearance in NXT outside of two re-matches with Nakamura at overseas live events that were televised in order to show him losing the championship back to the King of Strong Style, but his NXT swan song was an incredible one.
14. Brian Kendrick vs Kota Ibushi, Cruiserweight Classic
The Cruiserweight Classic was actually full of great matches, many of which told their own self-contained storylines, and we fully encourage you to watch as much of the tournament as you can on the WWE Network. But one of the best stories of the tournament was Brian Kendick’s belief that this was his final shot at getting another chance at a WWE contract after a career full of ups and downs, many self-inflicted, and the lengths he was willing to go to in order to try and make his last chance a successful one. Facing a clear tournament favorite in Kota Ibushi, Kendrick went as far as he could trying to make his dream a reality, cutting corners, working every advantage, and even busting out a Burning Hammer, a move so dangerous is has only been performed a handful of times in wrestling history, and never in a major North American wrestling promotion. In the process, Kendrick and Ibushi wrestled a fantastic match, showing that even at a relatively advanced age, Kendrick still had all that talent that had once made him one of the hottest young prospects in wrestling. Adding to the emotional weight of this match was the work being done on commentary by Daniel Bryan, Kendrick’s best friend, who had trained with him when they both broke into the business and was openly rooting for his buddy to overcome the odds. When Kendrick ultimately came up short, Bryan rushed to the ring to embrace his friend as the audience cheered, creating one of the most memorable moments in a tournament full of them. For an even happier ending, it’s almost certain that Kendrick’s work in the CWC actually did give him that last chance he sought, as he is now a featured part of the revived WWE Cruiserweight Division.
13. Sheamus vs Cesaro, Best Of Seven Final Match, Clash of Champions
As much as the Best of Seven series between Sheamus and Cesaro was a mess of bad booking, the matches themselves were actually fine, because Sheamus and Cesaro are two very good wrestlers who work incredibly well together, which is obviously why WWE decided to have them wrestle nobody but each other for roughly three months. And the final blow-off to the entire thing, despite its ridiculous no-decision finish, was undoubtedly the peak of the entire affair. The first six matches, while good, were largely the same match with minor variations, but for the final one, it looked like both men decided to actually break out the moves they hadn’t been using at all up to that point, in order to make sure the series at least ended with a memorable match. Sheamus and Cesaro both sold the desperation of two men who will do anything to win this one, winner-take-all match for what they (and many people) assumed was a shot at the top title on the Raw brand. Again, the booking failed and we ended up with wacky tag team partners who hated each other, but that can’t take away from the match they put on when they assumed there was actually something even bigger on the line.
12. Bayley vs Asuka, NXT TakeOver: Dallas
After defeating Sasha Banks to become NXT Women’s Champion, Bayley found herself basically alone on top of the mountain. Her Horsewomen companions had graduated to the main roster, and she was left with an array of relatively inexperienced opponents for much of her reign. Bayley spent her time as champion dragging miraculously good matches out wrestlers like Nia Jax and Eva Marie, biding her time until the division was rebuilt enough to provide her with someone who could match her high level of ability. Enter Asuka, who was not just undefeated since debuting with the brand, but winning matches effortlessly. At TakeOver, Bayley faced her greatest challenge since Sasha Banks, and her first match with Asuka continued to show that she deserves consideration for one of the best active women’s wrestlers in the world, with a hard-hitting, emotional match that saw her fight an opponent who was clearly her superior. Despite the overwhelming odds, Bayley never gave up, but passed out when her body couldn’t take the physical punishment anymore, passing the torch to a new leader for the NXT Women’s Division and preparing her own path towards a much-deserved spot on the main roster.
11. The Miz vs Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens vs Cesaro, Extreme Rules
This seems laughably simple in retrospect: put four of your best mid-card wrestlers in a ring (yes, we’re including The Miz), and tell them to cut loose, with the Intercontinental Title going to the winner. You don’t even need to give Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens a reason to fight each other, in the first place, Cesaro wrestles like he’s a modern-day Mozart, surrounded by Salieris, and Miz has evolved into a perfect heel wrestler, who takes his beatings, looks like there’s absolutely no way he can win, and still manages to eke out that victory at the last second in the most infuriating fashion (but in a good way). Together, these four Superstars created what could best be described as “an organized car crash”, remaining true to the chaos of the Fatal Four-Way Match (which is why it’s so hard to actually turn one into a great match), while still putting on an impressively co-ordinated display of wrestling that told different stories throughout the match. Three out of the four men in this match would end the year holding titles, all entirely deserved, and this match was a peek at why they should all be significant parts of WWE’s future.
10. The Miz vs Dolph Ziggler, Title vs Career, No Mercy
The No Mercy PPV had an interesting structure, as WWE decided to put their actual main event, a Triple Threat match for the WWE World Title between AJ Styles, John Cena, and Dean Ambrose on first, so it wouldn’t take place during the Presidential Debate occuring the same evening. This led to speculation as to what would be the actual last match of the evening. WWE settled on Randy Orton vs Bray Wyatt, and we’re here to say that they made the absolute wrong decision. Over the course of several months, The Miz and Dolph Ziggler had what we have to believe was the most underrated feud of 2016, full of incredible matches between two wrestlers which had a special sort of chemistry together. This was supposed to be the culmination of that feud (although in fact, it persisted for another month and saw Miz eventually come out on top), and it earned a place among the best Intercontinental Title matches we’ve ever seen. Both men, clearly knowing that it would take extra effort to get anything out of a crowd that has already seen the main event of the PPV, left it all in the ring with a match that highlighted just how good both of them are at pure wrestling, that also told a story which built on the matches they’d had before, where Miz repeatedly cheated to escape with his title. In the end, all the shortcuts Miz had used in previous matches were thwarted by Ziggler, showing he’d learned what to expect, and Dolph came away with a big emotional win.
9. Sasha Banks vs Charlotte
– Raw, July 25th
– Raw, October 3rd
– Hell In A Cell Match, Hell In A Cell
– Falls Count Anywhere, Raw, November 28th
– Iron Woman Match, Roadblock: End of the Line
We’re cheating here, outrageously, but it’s necessary in this case because when we got right down to it, we knew that we had to include all of these matches somehow, and we didn’t want to take up half of the list with Sasha Banks vs Charlotte. So let’s call the whole thing an unofficial “Best of Six”, so we can recognize just how good all these matches were. Individually, perhaps a couple of these matches fall off the list altogether, but collectively, they tell an incredible story of great wrestling between the two best female Superstars on the WWE roster, who had clearly decided to push each other to try and top their previous encounter each time they met. Building up from regular matches that were generally incredible on their own, to setting the bar even higher with the first female Hell in a Cell match, an incredible Falls Count Anywhere affair, and an emotional Iron Woman Match to close out the feud, Charlotte and Sasha carried the entire WWE Women’s Division in 2016, setting a standard for women’s wrestling that we’re eager to see if anyone can match or even surpass it in 2017. The funny thing is, we’ve got a feeling that it might happen!
8. American Alpha vs The Revival, NXT TakeOver: Dallas
In 2016, The Revival basically established themselves as the best tag team on the WWE roster, even though they’re still on NXT. This won’t be the last time you see them on this list, if you were wondering, but we’re going to start with their early-year feud with American Alpha, the amateur-style team of Jason Jordan and Chad Gable, who had become beloved crowd favorites through a combination of goofy promos where Jordan slowly became friends with the cocky, towel-obsessed Gable, and being absolute wrestling beasts in the ring. With Jordan and Gable matched up against the hard-hitting and intelligent Revival, the result was a masterful display of chain wrestling that showcased exactly why Jordan and Gable had come from literally nowhere to become two of NXT’s hottest prospects. In fact, this match likely accelerated their graduation to the main roster, as they would hold the titles for only two months before dropping them back to Revival, then getting drafted to the Smackdown brand almost immediately. This match takes a hit from a lot of people for an obvious and fairly critical botch during a climactic moment, but it almost makes up for it with the emotional post-match celebration in which Jason Jordan, who was literally nearly fired before falling into this tag team, wins the first title of his wrestling career and breaks down in tears.
7. Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens, Battleground
Billed as their final confrontation (which absolutely nobody believed, and actually, it wasn’t even their last match of 2016), Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens engaged in hockey-fighting one more time, and showed that when two good wrestlers who have fought each other their entire career get together, the minimum standard for the match with ensues will be “awesome”. Some will prefer their previous effort at Payback, where they were faced with the Herculean task of getting a crowd back into a PPV that had just seen Enzo Amore suffer a brutal injury moments earlier and did so almost effortlessly, and admittedly, that was also a great match. But this one built off of that, plus both men went into it with an air of belief that this truly might be their last match together for a while (even though they’d been inexplicably drafted to the same brand only days earlier). To WWE’s credit, they allowed Zayn and Owens to use all the time they needed to tell their story, and they responded by letting it all hang out. And for the cherry on top, Sami actually got to win, finally getting the upper hand on Owens after over a year of Owens dominating him in various aspects of his life.
6. AJ Styles vs Dean Ambrose, TLC Match, TLC
We deliberately waited as long as possible before doing our list for Match of the Year, because we had a sneaking suspicion this one would be quite good. Even though Ambrose and Styles had faced off before during the year in decent but unspectacular contests, our feeling was that adding the hardcore environment of a TLC Match would play right into Ambrose’s wheelhouse, and allow Styles to show off in the first real gimmick match of his WWE career. If we had to purely rate this match on the number of times it made us scream “No, no, nononono!” at the television, it would undoubtedly finish #1 overall, because Styles and Ambrose clearly came into this match determined to make at least one person believe they were trying to commit assisted suicide together. The combination of Styles’ penchant for high-flying and Ambrose’s hardcore roots meshed absolutely perfectly in this ballet of destruction, ensuring a ballet of reckless violence the likes of which we’ve not seen in a one-on-one match in some time. Ellsworth’s expected interference doesn’t horribly detract from the finish, because the Smackdown writers actually went through the effort of explaining his seemingly nonsensical turn on Ambrose, but it might be the only thing keeping this match out of the overall Top 5.
5. Cedric Alexander vs Kota Ibushi, Cruiserweight Classic
When you earn yourself your dream job in the space of a single match, you’ve had a good day, and in this round of the Cruiserweight Classic, Cedric Alexander had a very good day. Sure, a lot of credit goes to Kota Ibushi, who could get a good match out of a blow-up doll (and has), but facing someone as talented as Ibushi allowed Alexander to showcase the extent of his abilities, which seemed to have improved even more as a result of cutting weight to get under the 205-pound limit for the tournament. Alexander showed up to the CWC absolutely ripped, and it gave his moves an extra energy, showing off a high-flying, high-impact moveset that seamlessly blended a heavyweight style with the frenetic pace that sets Cruiserweights apart. leading to an incredibly fast-paced affair that turned Alexander into one of the stars of the show, even in inevitable defeat. Maybe he would have signed with WWE anyway, but having a match that ended with the entire crowd chanting “Hire Cedric” to the point that Triple H actually came out from backstage and visually guaranteed it would be so was an incredible moment where WWE actually gave the audience exactly what it wanted.
4. Sami Zayn vs Shinsuke Nakamura, NXT TakeOver: Dallas
For the first two years of its existence as a televised brand, Sami Zayn was the emotional core of NXT. His long journey to the top of the mountain, becoming NXT Champion, was one of the cornerstones of the brand’s infancy, and his ensuing feud with best friend Kevin Owens helped underline both Owens’ ruthlessness and Zayn’s dogged resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. When Shinsuke Nakamura signed with NXT, Zayn was the obvious choice to face the King of Strong Style in his debut match, especially when it was revealed that it was also going to be Zayn’s final NXT match before earning his well-deserved and long-overdue graduation to the main roster. Nakamura’s dynamic entrance for this match grabbed everyone’s attention, but it was the absolute classic in the ring which followed that made him an instant star in the eyes of fans who might not all have been familiar with his work in Japan. Nakamura brought his hard-hitting offense, and Zayn sold for him like only he could, and also gave almost as good as he got in the process. It was almost certainly the stiffest wrestling match in WWE in 2016, as both men absolutely brutalized each other and refused to stay down, showing a level of determination that had the crowd on its feet for most of the match. Inevitably, the debuting Nakamura won the day, as expected, and Zayn said an emotional goodbye to the brand that had been his home for two years, turning him from indie legend into beloved underdog Superstar.
3. Sasha Banks vs Charlotte vs Becky Lynch, WrestleMania 32
Okay, one more Sasha/Charlotte match, but this one is different, and not just because it was the match that removed the term “Divas” from WWE, buried that stupid butterfly belt six feet under, and resurrected the Women’s Champion. It’s also not solely because Sasha went full Eddie Guerrero, wearing a version of his old gear, and got rapped to the ring by her cousin Snoop Dogg, but admittedly, that didn’t hurt. This was, for our money, the best match of WrestleMania 32, and it’s not even close. We’ve already talked at length about how much Sasha and Charlotte stepped up in 2016, but Becky Lynch deserves credit as well, because she more than held up her end of a feud with Charlotte in early 2016, then carried the wrestling side of the Smackdown Women’s Division post-Brand Split, surrounded by a combination of lesser lights and fresh faces from NXT. With three of the Four Horsewomen thrown into a match together, the result was going to be pretty good no matter what, but facing the largest live audience in WrestleMania history, representing a completely new direction for women’s wrestling, they took things to another level, putting on one of the best Triple Threat matches we’ve seen in a long time, and even if the finish didn’t actually see the title change and involved just a little too much Ric Flair involvement for our taste, everything leading up to that point was exactly what needed to happen to give the true evolution of the Women’s Division the best start possible.
2. AJ Styles vs John Cena, SummerSlam
For now, AJ Styles seems to have escaped the curse of other wrestlers who have won their first one-on-one encounter with John Cena. In the past, that opening win has just led to Cena ruthlessly crushing his opponent in every match which followed, but while Styles did take a loss in a six-man tag match against a team lead by Cena at Battleground, he actually did what nobody had expected and beat Cena again at SummerSlam, clean as a sheet, in a match that both established Styles as truly one of the best wrestlers in the world right now, and reminded everyone that Cena can also reach those heights when he wants to. What makes this match even better is that their previous effort a couple months earlier had actually been somewhat of a disappointment, given the talent involved, leading some to wonder if Styles really was that good, or maybe if Cena was slowing down as a worker. This match showed that perhaps their first one-on-one encounter was simply just a bad night, as they blew everyone out of the water by delivering the stellar performance everyone knew both men were capable of.
1. #DIY vs The Revival, 2/3 Falls, NXT TakeOver: Toronto
Would you like to see tag team wrestling the way it’s meant to be done? That would be this match. Johnny Gargano, Tommaso Ciampa, Scott Dawson, and Dash Wilder took 30 minutes and 3 falls to showcase every trick in the book when it comes to the art of tag team wrestling. There are many ways to say it, but matches simply do not get any better than this. You’ve got the incredible emotion of a hyper-sympathetic underdog team of babyfaces, who have to come from behind against the most intelligent, ruthless, and tough-as-nails heel team that exists in wrestling today. This wasn’t just pro wrestling, it was a chess match with four players, all trying to think three moves ahead of their opponents, and it played out perfectly in the ring. False tags, hope spots, partners getting isolated, stolen finishers, long two-counts, and an incredible climax where The Revival tries to pull one more dirty trick out of the bag and finds out they don’t have any left. Throw in an incredibly hot crowd that was hanging onto every moment and were literally standing on their feet for the finish (and yes, we were there live, and that just made it even better), and you will be hard-pressed to convince us that there was a better match on WWE programming this year. Watch this match. Period.