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Posted in: Doctor's Orders
Doctor's Orders: The Comprehensive 2017 Match of the Year Discussion
By The Doc
Dec 21, 2017 - 12:51:18 PM

”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE's top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.

QUESTION OF THE DAY: What, in your opinion, was the greatest WWE match of 2017? Please explain...

Match of the Year is always my favorite column to write. There is just something about comparing matches that has sort of been the hallmark of my association with LOP, the first internet wrestling site that I ever visited. Talking about the quality of matches, looking at match ratings, and studying every little detail in analyzing the in-ring performance to this day fuels my fandom as much as anything that actually goes on in the business currently.

As time has progressed through these past 15 years, I have certainly reached a point where the way that I rank and file the yearly best-of list – a comprehensive process that takes into account setting, crowd response, event prestige, the feud leading in, and intangibles like commentary, special entrances, historical perspective, rewatchability, and innovation in addition to the pure elements (selling, psychology, execution, and climax) – yields results that often differ from my peers (Rock-Cena in 2012, Banks-Bayley in 2015, Rollins-Reigns in 2016), but I feel it's as thorough as anything else you will see on any other site, making me quite apt to stand tall in my convictions. It has made for some of my favorite debates, a trend I hope continues this year!

Let's begin the 2017 discussion with NXT, which may not have offered anything groundbreaking this year, but that still put forth a few matches – one in particular – that must be talked about in the latter stages of the Match of the Year determination. Most recently, Alestair Black vs. The Velveteen Dream told a brilliant story of a young man desperate for the respect that in his mind he deserved and actually earning it despite losing a battle of highly intriguing future main roster prospects. There was no individual character display of that sort better than Dream's this year; he completely owned the night that War Games made its long-awaited return; and that was a special feat. Earlier in the year, Shinsuke Nakamura and Bobby Roode effortlessly created a vibe that their NXT Title matches in San Antonio and Orlando, respectively, were the two biggest matches in the yellow brand's history. The manner in which they commanded the spotlight in January and April makes their stunning reversals of fortune on Smackdown dumbfounding, but their bouts were reminders that there is nothing in professional wrestling simpler than a good guy doing elite good guy things against a bad guy doing elite bad guy things.

Of course, then there was the Pete Dunne victory to capture the UK Title from Tyler Bate in Chicago, a match that many are calling the outright best of 2017. Personally, I think it was quite clearly the mid-card Match of the Year, a Top 5 bout surely, but incapable of taking the award over its main roster peers without having broken any new ground that might influence the mother ship. In its execution, it was amazing and would not rate below anything under the WWE umbrella, but factor in the key pieces of the over-arching storytelling puzzle and the narrative shifts. I'm picking against it at my own peril, here, but I state definitively that it will be on NXT lore Top 10 lists for as long as NXT is relevant.

In WWE proper, this was the year of the multi-person match – there had to be close to three dozen four-or-more-wrestler bouts (it was borderline ridiculous) – so it seems appropriate to pick the best representation for inclusion in the Match of the Year race, and that in my opinion is the Summerslam main-event. It lacks the historical boost that it would have gotten from it being Braun Strowman's segue into defeating Brock Lesnar to become Universal Champion, but it was a wildly entertaining, emotionally compelling if not ultimately predictable Big 4 headliner – despite solid efforts to cast doubt on Lesnar conquering in the end – that really felt lazy in the booking department.

If “compelling” best describes what you want from a match, then Brock Lesnar vs. AJ Styles likely sits near the top of your list; there was not a more riveting bell-to-bell time this year than the Champion vs. Champion clash at Survivor Series. It had been a long time since Lesnar had sold like that for someone and it was his longest outing in two years. Therein lies one of the keys to it not being a realistic Top 5 match for this year, though, much less the #1 match: none of that will hold up on future replays. What will hold up is that a community called Botch Village opened on the south side of Suplex City. Nevertheless, good Lord was that compelling on the night of...

Rewatchability will not be an issue for The Usos vs. New Day series, the best matches of which swing this discussion firmly into the realm of the truest contenders for Match of the Year. Take your pick from their quartet of four-star efforts between July and October on television and pay-per-view; you cannot go wrong. The Revival set the bar incredibly high in 2016 for the highest echelon of standard tag team wrestling under the WWE umbrella and I just do not believe that The Usos vs. New Day bouts ever quite were able to reach that level; as such, I struggle to buy any of their normal tag matches as elite to the point of usurping the strongest singles contenders, but their very unique take on the Hell in a Cell gimmick offers the arguable Feud of the Year a legitimate representative in the MOTY conversation.

What The Usos, Woods, and Big E were able to accomplish in HIAC was extremely impressive, not just because the action was so typically crisp, but also because the characters rose their intensity to the occasion, which in New Day’s case had been something missing from their arsenal. It never deviated from the core aspects of what has endeared the audience to New Day (see multi-colored kendo sticks and the use of trombones), but it appropriately felt like a fight that both teams had to win.

More than anything, I thought that the rivalry between The New Day and The Usos showcased better than anything on the main roster since 2002 the upper-end value in tag team wrestling as a pace-upping platform for creativity in the ring; I have believed for many years that such a style best utilizes the division in WWE proper and, as proven by NXT in 2016, allows the teams a chance to organically grow their feuds toward main-event status on rare occasions, when a gimmick like the Cell can be used in a manner that nobody else could or would.

As good as their matches with The Usos truly were, The New Day’s six-man faction clash with The Shield was my favorite tag team match of the year. I think many have tended to overemphasize the small negatives in this match at the expense of the incredible (and overwhelming) positives. Sure, there were some awkward moments during the climax that seemed to bring the overall presentation down a peg in the eyes of some critics, but amongst the benefits of replay is the further establishment of context; the questions regarding the legal men and the miscommunication in setting up the two biggest spots leading into the finish did not stand out as much on rewatch and could quite frankly be explained away logically on both sides, what with The Shield tagging together for the first time on pay-per-view in 3 ½ years and The New Day never really being in that high profile a six-man tag team match before despite their three years together as a unit.

Let’s focus on the positives for a moment. Bell-to-bell, there may not have been a better example of a character-driven performance all year. The Shield vs. The New Day was bursting at the seams with character. Woods, E, and Kofi, much as they did inside the Cell, rose to an occasion that called for them to be more physically aggressive, but never did they do so in a way that made you feel like they were going too far beyond their established personas. The Shield, meanwhile, stood defiant in the face of its unique antagonists, above the histrionics and as dead-set on victory as they ever were at their peak; plus, Rollins, Reigns, and Ambrose – in a nice moment of storytelling awareness – exhibited just enough individuality to serve as a reminder that they were no longer the same Hounds of Justice that they were before becoming cornerstone singles competitors in the time since their mid-2014 break-up.

While it may not have been quite on the level of The Shield’s all-time level work against The Wyatts in 2014, Survivor Series 2017 will go down in the years to come as both the night that The Shield definitively added a vs. Evolution-type quality bout to the upper lines of their six-man tag CV and the night that The New Day exhibited their full potential in the ring as a trio.

Ranked right alongside those team-oriented classics was AJ Styles vs. Shane McMahon from WrestleMania 33. Strip all of the emotion about Shane O’s over-usage these past two years in major storylines, plus toss aside the vitriol toward Styles losing the WWE Title so that the Shane match could happen while you’re at it, and simply focus on what The Phenomenal One achieved from early March up to and through the Mania bout and I think you would find the following hard to dispute: AJ Styles, as a character, made something out of nothing with how he handled his end of the build-up and AJ Styles, as an in-ring performer, put together perhaps the most impressive example ever of his ability to craft a match, given the inherent limitations of his opponent. Folks, that match was amazing; no Doc-specific exaggeration there either…it was amazing.

The best thing about Styles – what sets him apart from his peers through his first two years in WWE – is the flow of his matches. Being in the ring with a non-wrestler whose claim to fame is jumping off of things, the best part of AJ’s game met its greatest test to date. To his credit, Shane was asked to do more than many thought him capable of and he exceeded expectations, but much more credit to Styles for taking the very few things that Shane does exceptionally well and placing them within the framework of the run-time at the perfect moments. It was novel in the sense that most of Shane’s opponents over the years have to acquiesce to an environment that allowed McMahon to work in his stunts; Shane challenged himself to let the best worker in the world instead fit his signature stunts into a standard wrestling match, and the end result was phenomenal.

So, yes, it was ridiculous to watch Shane go toe-to-toe, move-for-move, and hold-for-hold with Styles, but suspension of disbelief is, in large part, a personal choice. Anyone who was able to turn the part of their mind off that said, “No, Styles should be in the WWE Title bout” or “Shane should not be booked to look like AJ’s equal” were rewarded for it with a match that was five times as good as it had any right to be.

Runner-up for 2017 is likely to be a controversial choice, but I persist in my stance that, one day, people will remember it as an excellent match that went underappreciated in its era precisely because of its era. Triple H vs. Seth Rollins, much like Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins in 2016, was not wrestled in what has become the popular style, which is to throw content at the viewer in lengthy waves and bombard the climax with tons of near falls. Granted, I enjoy that style as much as anyone, but I think it’s important to remember that there are other styles and that those other styles are really engaging too, just wrestled differently; and, in a time when the near fall-heavy approach is so predominant, something smarter that works your mind is quite refreshing.

HHH vs. Rollins was very story-driven, for instance, and therefore created its drama less from false finishes and more on what can perhaps best be described as plot twists – and, when executed correctly, something like Rollins fighting through pain and structural instability to hit a Buckle Bomb or Phoenix Splash, especially after teasing such signature moves numerous times before successfully connecting with them, can be just as if not more psychologically-stimulating as a long two count out of an F5 or Styles Clash. So too was the introduction of the sledgehammer into the match not by HHH, but by Rollins while desperately trying to find a weapon to break free of a submission hold; it was a subtler approach, but it was just as mentally-affecting in its own way as the hammer being used to create another near fall.

It reminded me of Hunter’s work with Chris Jericho in their famous Last Man Standing match at Fully Loaded 2000, specifically due to The Game’s dominance via heavy focus on the injury that was established pre-match; absent was the back-and-forth, tit-for-tat that we have become so conditioned to expect from big matches in this era, replaced by what has become the old school approach of working over a body part to set the stage for a gut-wrenching comeback made all the more impressive by the face-in-peril having to overcome the compensations of the attack.

Match of the Year 2017, in the end, goes to AJ Styles vs. John Cena at The Royal Rumble, which benefited greatly from the intangible boost of Cena winning his record-tying 16th World Championship and the raucous environment generated by an uncharacteristic stadium crowd for the January Classic. It was wrestled in what has become the popular style and was the most compelling version of that style with the highest stakes all year. That it was the culmination of a popular rivalry dating back to the previous year boosted by the WWE Title being on the line certainly did not hinder its cause either.

There have been some critics of it and I can appreciate their positions to the point that I feel it is worth discussing here before stamping it with MOTY-approval. Bear in mind that I have replayed it nearly a dozen times in a year-long attempt to verify the position I am anointing it with today. The most notable criticism is that it lacked story, that it was just another Cena match where he and his opponent rather haphazardly throw everything and the kitchen sink at each other until one over-used finisher finally out-duels the other; I would counter that it lacked flow, which is why I felt compelled to watch it again so many times – I wanted to fully appreciate all aspects of the primary argument against it. What I found in those numerous replays was that its lack of Phenomenal-flow worked well for it in a strange way that admittedly goes against my stylistic preference for matches more like Rollins vs. HHH and New Day vs. Shield; I thought that it stylistically felt more like sport than sports entertainment.

The WWE style often flows like a movie and, in that style, AJ is a brilliant director, but Cena vs. AJ struck me as something out of the old NWA, as if they called it on the fly and let the audience dictate more of its flow. Once I had a handle on that aspect of it, I was able to fully appreciate what it did very well, which was build on their prior two one-on-one PPV encounters with counters and sequencing born of experience against each other, while also amplifying the rabid desire to achieve victory that defined their first-straight-to-fifth gear effort at Summerslam 2016. Styles, as a character, came across to me throughout their feud that he relished the chance to showcase his skills against Cena but, in their final match, I thought Cena tapped deeper into his character too, exhibiting the appropriate amount of added aggression needed to sell that, up to point, Styles had owned him; it was like he realized that he was not more cunning and not more physically gifted, so he had to rely on his considerable strength advantage and just knock the daylights out of him and pounce on him when the opportunities knocked.

Cena vs. Styles, in totality, is one of the legendary series of the decade and, though its 2017-topping effort in January had numerous contenders emerge in attempt to remove it from the top of the hierarchy, it was able to maintain the #1 spot virtually from wire-to-wire, something that has happened very infrequently during the WrestleMania Era.

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