From Wrestle Kingdom to Clash of Champions, from Final Battle to Battle of Los Angeles, and from Triplemania to Wrestlemania, 2017 was a great year to be a fan of pro wrestling. New stars making an impact. Established veterans proving they still have it. Old faces making an impact in new places. And a trilogy of all-time classics in Japan. Was it the best year for pro wrestling? Ken and Don can definitely make the case for it.
Ken Lucas: Is it possible that Chris Jericho had one of the best years of his career? From an awesome series with AJ Styles to the Festival of Friendship to Alpha vs Omega, Chris Jericho made history this year every other week. He made clipboards cool with the List of Jericho and he put scarves back on the map. He told a great story of friendship and backstabbing with Kevin Owens to finish up his run with WWE but that did not stop him. In between recording and touring with his band Fozzy and setting up his rock and wrestling cruise, Jericho ignites possibly the biggest cross promotion angle since Broken Matt Hardy’s Expedition of Gold. After a brief exchange on twitter, a video challenge appeared at an NJPW event where Chris Jericho, the Alpha, challenges Bullet Club leader, Kenny Omega at New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest event, Wrestle Kingdom 12. Jericho proves time and time again that he is the Best in the World, The G.O.A.T. and the Alpha of professional wrestling. Drink it in, maaaaan.
Don Becker: One thing that we tend to forget given pro wrestling’s predetermined nature is that, at times, it can be dangerous. Case in point: Katsuyori Shibata. Shibata returned to New Japan fulltime in 2014 after spending time in Pro Wrestling NOAH and in MMA, but his initial departure was seen as a bit of a betrayal of NJPW. So despite coming up in the New Japan Dojo with the likes of Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura, Shibata pretty much had to start all over again. Three years later, Shibata finally got his opportunity at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship after winning the New Japan Cup. He came up short against Kazuchika Okada in what might’ve been Match of the Year in any other year, but suffered a subdural hematoma triggered in part by a series of unprotected headbutts. The expectation is that Shibata would never be seen in the ring again, but at the G1 Climax final Shibata made an unannounced appearance, took a back bump in the center of the ring, and smiled. He grabbed the mic and kept it simple: “I am alive. That is all.” Returning to full health, even if it means trading an in-ring career for a role at the New Japan Dojo, is the best end for 2017 Shibata could’ve had after a rough spring.
KL: Don, can we just talk about Dalton Castle for a moment. I was lucky enough to witness Dalton at Ring of Honor’s Field of Honor event in Coney Island, NY a few years ago and it was a spectacle to behold. Castle is bold and flamboyant in attire and ring entrance but tough as an ox in the ring. 2 years ago, this guy was at the top of his game and had full crowd support regardless of being in the mid-card, so it’s no surprise to me that he would eventually be the heavyweight champ. Lucky for me, Don grabbed us tickets to ROH’s Final Battle at the Hammerstein Ballroom a few weeks ago and we got to witness one hell of a match between Cody Rhodes and Dalton Castle and as I said to Mr. Castle earlier at a meet & greet, “I know you’re walking home with the gold tonight.” He gave me a wink in return. If you’re not a fan of him and his Boys, then maybe you should take a ride to Peacock City.
DB: Perhaps my favorite in-ring redemption story of the year involves an underappreciated heel, NXT Champion Andrade “Cien” Almas. Anyone that followed lucha or New Japan Pro Wrestling was already familiar with him as La Sombra, founder of Los Ingobernables and former IWGP Intercontinental Champion. Super talented and super charismatic in Mexico and Japan, he just never found his footing in NXT as “dude who wears suspenders and is Mexican”. And, unsurprisingly, all it took was for Almas to get over as a heel was a tried-and-true trope of pro wrestling: the manager who can act as a mouthpiece. Zelina Vega does the work for Almas outside the ring, and inside the ring he is able to shine. He had a quality match against Johnny Gargano at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn III this summer that started his rise to the top, and while his success at NXT Takeover: WarGames cut the legs out from under Drew McIntyre (himself a great redemption story), we’re just now getting to see what everyone else sees in “El Ídolo.”
KL: I have to agree with Don here. Almas has turned himself around and I have been rooting for him since he debuted. So glad to see him rise to the occasion. I also have to shout out Drew Galloway (McIntyre). He was let go from WWE and reinvented himself in the UK and in TNA. I’m curious to see where he goes post NXT. I also want to shout out Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. Owens has been relentless no matter what angle he is thrust into and he embraces his heel personna whether he’s in the ring or on Twitter. Sami also takes the ball and runs with it every single time so I’m somewhat confused as to why these two aren’t in the top spot consistently. There is an adage in the wrestling world about the “curse of the worker”. In the wrestling world, if you are a good worker, if you are great in the ring and make people look good, if you are able to work in any role, you essentially become a highly paid enhancement talent. That is a role I’d hate to see Owens and Zayn fall into. So I’m glad to see these guys unite as a heel team. I just hope WWE doesn’t waste these two top talents on bogus storylines.
DB: So let’s talk breakout stars. I know I talked up Almas as a great comeback story, but he’d already been a star in Mexico before coming to the States. Castle had a breakout year, but the build has been there for him since at least 2015. AJ Styles finally cemented his spot as a top guy in WWE, but after 20 years in the business he’s already a known quantity. For me, in Japan there’s one guy who was given a number of chances and has run with it – Juice Robinson. From the second he yelled “I’M IN THE FUCKING TOKYO DOME!” during his match with Cody at Wrestle Kingdom 11 in January, it was hard not to be won over by his enthusiasm. He ended up with several high-profile wins in tag matches this year over then-IWGP Intercontinental Champion Tetsuya Naito and then-NEVER Openweight Champion Hirooki Goto, but Juice came up short in subsequent title matches. He scored the upset of the G1 Climax tournament by rolling out of the One-Winged Angel to pin IWGP US Champion Kenny Omega, then had a ****¼ match with Omega when he got his championship opportunity. He ends the year without any gold, but crowds in Japan love him (especially the ladies), and he’s coming off strong performances in the G1 (4 wins in his debut) and the World Tag League (finishing second in his block with Sami Callihan). 2018 could be the year that the Juice gets loose.
KL: I almost think Cody Rhodes is the breakout star of the year. He left WWE on his own terms and took the industry by storm with his infamous “list” of wrestlers who he’d like to face. I also have to give Cody credit who, alongside the Young Bucks, have re-invented the business acumen of independent wrestlers and are providing wrestlers with more opportunities outside of the big companies.
DB: Hey, can I take a second to talk about Southpaw Regional Wrestling? The WWE-produced commercials for KFC Georgia Gold and Old Spice didn’t feature a second of in-ring action, but gave a number of underappreciated superstars opportunities to shine on the mic (Luke Gallows, Karl Anderson, Heath Slater, Fandango, Tyler Breeze, The Ascension). Southpaw Regional Wrestling both lampoons and pays tribute to the dying days of territorial wrestling in the 1980’s, with its broadly drawn gimmicks and poor production quality, but you can tell that everyone involved is having fun, from John Cena as the intrepid lead announcer Lance Catamaran to Tex Ferguson and Chad 2 Badd (Gallows and Anderson) to the evil banker Mr. Mackelroy (Breeze) who can’t seem to keep his mustache on. Here’s hoping there’s more to come.
KL: Southpaw Regional Wrestling is absolutely one of the best things I’ve seen in years regardless of the fact that it’s a glorified commercial. My absolute favorite has to be Johnny Curtis a.k.a. Fandango as troubled announcer Chet Chetterfield. I had no idea it was Curtis until I saw a special about Southpaw during Wrestlemania season. Talk about an amazing talent. Sadly, Curtis has floundered as Fandango up until Southpaw which I believe has lead to the amazing episodes of the Fashion Files.
DB: Finally, we come to the hardest part of this discussion: what was the match of the year? To be honest, it’s not hard for me to pick the participants, but it’s hard to pick the match. Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega had a trilogy of matches this year that ranks up there with Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat in 1989, and it’s tough for me to pick a winner. Their match at Wrestle Kingdom 11 was an unexpected triumph. I knew that Okada could bring the goods, but Omega had never had a match at that level in his career and I was worried that he might crack under the pressure. I was wrong. While old-school purists may disagree, the athleticism on display and the story told through the match lived up to the hype, but what we didn’t realize is that the story wasn’t over, even with Okada retaining the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. At Dominion in June, Omega got his rematch, and somehow it was even better. It had been a long time since I saw a match go a full 60 minutes, and it lead to what was probably my favorite spot of the year: Omega avoiding Okada’s Rainmaker by simply passing out before Okada could connect. And as soon as it was announced that Okada and Omega were in the same block of the G1 Climax guaranteeing a third match in August, I was ready. And to me, I think that third match might be the best of the three. Compressed down to 30 minutes due to the constraints of the tournament, the desperation on both sides was amped up, and when Omega finally got the win, it seemed like a pyrrhic victory for him. Omega won the match and his block, but he clearly didn’t have much left in the tank the following night when he lost the final to Tetsuya Naito. Omega gets a higher profile match (at least on this side of the Pacific) at Wrestle Kingdom 12 despite losing the G1, but he didn’t end up as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. If he sticks around for 2018 (his contract with NJPW apparently expires in a month), that could be the story of Kenny Omega leading to Wrestle Kingdom 13. As for Okada, despite two losses at the G1 he goes into Wrestle Kingdom 12 holding the longest single reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion, which is an incredible achievement given the number of big, tough matches he’s had in 2017: three with Omega, two with Minoru Suzuki, one with Katsuyori Shibata, and two with EVIL, all in the ****+ category.
KL: I don’t know if I can pick any one match but I will say that Kenny Omega will probably take it for the fact that he has more match of the year candidates than any other wrestler, outside of AJ Styles. AJ has made everyone he’s faced this year look like a diamond. His match with Roman Reigns was superb and actually forced me to respect Reigns a little but I believe his match with John Cena at Royal Rumble was his best of the year. And let’s not forget Samoa Joe’s rise up the ranks and incredible series of matches that built up to him versus Brock Lesnar. I want to state for the record that I am not a fan of Lesnar, Cena or Reigns, but man did AJ and Joe make these guys look good this year. I also want to mention Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne at NXT Takeover: Chicago. Dunne is a beast in his own right and everyone should keep an eye on him.
DB: Don’s Honorable Mentions: Drew Gulak made 205 Live great again, one Powerpoint slide at a time. Pushing 50, Minoru Suzuki may be the toughest man in Japan. Punishment Martinez is poised to take the next step in his development in ROH in 2018. The Mae Young Classic. My fellow LIer Trent Beretta made the most of his move to heavyweight in Japan, and he and Chuck Taylor taught us all about the power of friendship in NJPW and ROH. Being The Elite may be one of the best wrestling-related programs available, making stars out of Cody Rhodes, Marty Scurll and Flip Gordon. The business getting behind banning Sexy Star for unprofessionally shooting on Rosemary in Mexico. And we all hope that Don Callis and Scott D’Amore can bring Impact Wrestling back from near death
KL: Ken’s mentions of honor include the re-invention of the Uso’s (Day One Ish), The Young Bucks for being the Young Bucks and Being The Elite, Pro Wrestling Tees for reinvigorating the wrestling t-shirt game and expanding that game to Hot Topic, Eli Drake for addressing the Dummies, Corey Graves for his consistent chopping of the tree that is Enzo Amore and the ladies of wrestling across all the feds that are keeping the eyes on them and showing the world that they can stand alongside the men in this industry.