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Just Art – The Highs and Lows of Another Year in the Ring with WWE: The Matches of the Year Part II
By Samuel 'Plan
Jan 4, 2017 - 6:05:17 PM

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Just Art – The Highs and Lows of Another Year in the Ring with WWE: The Matches of the Year Part II

From the Author

It was originally my intention to spend the entirety of the month looking back on the best matches of 2016; but that was before I realised the British wrestling scene was set to explode. So, instead, I have decided to combine all five categories into a pair of playlist style columns, the first of which was posted earlier this week.

Unlike others, I choose not to judge all matches in a single pot. After all, different matches have different responsibilities. As a result, as I did last year with my venerable colleague Maverick, I have separated 2016’s matches into five separate categories: Network; Tag Team; Television; Mid Card; and Main Event. The criteria for each remaining category will be explained as I go, and is vitally important – some matches that might have made the shortlist in one category will be absent because the category they meet instead may have had tougher competition, for instance.

So, without further adieu, as ever my name is Samuel ‘Plan and I am here to take you through what I thought was the best ring action in WWE in 2016!

From the Canvas – Reviews

Mid Card Match of the Year

The first of my final two categories is simple enough: mid card matches on pay-per-view. While most would define this as anything wrestled between two talents considered mid carders, I take a more nuanced approach. I consider a PPV match to be of the mid card when it is not one of the top two matches used to sell the show. It’s important to understand this as it explains the absence of, for instance, Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn at Battleground; a phenomenal effort but one that, alongside The Shield three-way, sold Battleground to most thereby including it, instead, in the Main Event category. So too does it explain one particular shortlist entry many may think of more as a Main Event.

So then, here is my shortlist for the best three mid card matches of the year, according to my above definition:

The Miz vs. Dolph Ziggler for the Intercontinental Championship, Backlash

I know many preferred the No Mercy rematch when Ziggler’s career was on the line, in part because of the higher stakes, but I am always attracted more to the subtle approach and it is that approach that I believe was best exhibited in Miz and Ziggler’s initial Backlash encounter. Eschewing style for substance is rare for a talent like Ziggler, who so often expresses preoccupation for, dare I say, showing off, but such a shift proves a welcome one as together two of the more experienced mid card main stays on the roster compile a cerebral piece of work opposite one another. Miz is on wonderful heat seeking form as he mocks Daniel Bryan, yet still wrestles as if seeking to prove a point: that he is not a coward. Meanwhile, Ziggler inflects his own work with a simmering intensity – animosity, even. False finish isn’t over-egged as so often can be the case, and the variety of content is conducive to a big match scenario. This is an early example of matches upon which Smackdown Live has forged its early reputation; consider it a vanguard effort of its age.

AJ Styles vs. John Cena, Money in the Bank

If there is one match I would consider better wrestled that my pick for Television Match of the Year, this would be it. While many would consider it a main event, it is moved into mid card territory by virtue of Money in the Bank always being sold on its titular concept. Nonetheless, its appearance here is not a knock; indeed, it is a compliment in some manner, considering the unassuming nature it possesses, both in card positioning and the understated performances from the two biggest pro wrestling names of the late 2000s. I will save a full analysis for a future instalment of Match of the Week, but needless to say this is an infinitely nuanced piece of work capable of being analysed over and over and still providing fresh interpretive potential. An all-time great pay-per-view bout, it supersedes its heavier handed Summerslam sequel by far and proves Styles and, yes, Cena too, are still two of the very best in the world today. It is an utterly stunning dream match weaving a tale of one upmanship in a proving ground like no other. One syllable alone describes it: wow.

The only factor that prevented me giving the final nod to Styles and Cena this year was that, elsewhere in the year, there was one mid card match that was not only wrestled superbly but achieved something historic to boot, and on a bigger stage. My Mid Card Match of the Year is:

Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch in a Triple Threat Match for the WWE Women’s Championship, WrestleMania 32

It is the only WrestleMania match to make it onto any of my shortlists this year, and that tells you something vitally important: the women took home the Show of Shows in 2016. Yes, other matches have been, perhaps, better wrestled, but none have been wrestled with the same passionate zeal in the face of proving a point, upon which an entire division’s future rested. Charlotte, Banks and Lynch put on a show-closing worthy effort, with entrances imbued with family ties, legacy and an eye on tomorrow for a prize that marked the final exclamation point on a long and arduous journey that had begun as early as two years prior. As a piece of genre work, it is capable of making an argument among some of the best. As a piece of women’s work, it is historic and could yet become near-mythical, depending on how the future plays out. It was both a destination piece and a platform to a new dimension. It was an incredible achievement at a time when the pressure couldn’t be greater, between three world class talents who single-handed etched their names into history. Its scope, innovation, achievement, lack of gender identity, creativity and overall quality of performance together combine to make it the Mid Card Match of the Year, and maybe even Match of the Year full stop; if only for its remarkable place in WWE history. Go re-watch it; you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Main Event Match of the Year

So we come to the big one at last: Main Event Match of the Year. It is a category defined quite simply: as one of the top two matches used to sell a pay-per-view. It was one of the most difficult categories to chop down, not least of all because of a sudden influx of qualified efforts post-Brand Extension, some of which really did argue a strong case. Yet, in what may be an indicator that, unexpectedly, my favourite part of the year this year was the summer, all three of my shortlist contenders came in consecutive months. That surprised me.

It is worth noting, despite that fact, main events have, for the most part, lived up to their status throughout the year. The long list featured a main event match from pretty much every single show throughout 2016, and if nothing else that gives me a positive feeling about where the future of the company is going. Here is my shortlist:

Roman Reigns vs. AJ Styles in an Extreme Rules Match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, Extreme Rules

It is easy to forget just how excellent a piece of work this first contender really was. It functioned both as a brilliant World title bout, and as a brilliant genre match too; in some ways, it may have even come to subvert, or in the best case scenario totally reinvent, the Extreme Rules Match altogether. Unlike so many others in the same sub-genre, Reigns vs. Styles never appeared obligated toward the stipulation, operating in awkwardly self-conscious ways, but instead watched as appropriately exacerbated by it. The chains were off in a naturalistic, free form piece of work that made use of the stip to maximise, simply, the brutality of their environment. The aesthetic is nasty, the animosity felt between both is palpable and the action throughout is measured, cumulative and escalatory. There is innovative spot work, plentiful red herrings and a sense of character and story carrying over that is very rarely seen in WWE pay-per-view wrestling today. Even the finish, which to some may qualify as overly melodramatic, is tinged with easily missed nuance. It is a match that can only be wrestled by masters of the craft, and it is marvellous to behold. I hope it comes to influence others of its kind in the future; it has earned such status.

Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, Money in the Bank

It was said by many this year that Money in the Bank felt like a WrestleMania, and that it was a show headlined by a match we came close to seeing twice before, only for it to be denied by injury, and a match that, as its absolutely outstanding pre-match hype package documents, was founded upon destiny and fate, says much about the roster position now rightfully enjoyed by Shield alumni. Upon watching it back, it proves spell-binding. Reigns wrestles large portions as a villain, seeking to punk out an upstart smaller brother, while Rollins almost transforms fully into an outright underdog. The lingering ill will between the two is in no way over-acted, yet feels so intensely immersive it, at times, borders on legitimately upsetting; especially as Reigns seems to visibly enjoy his domination of Rollins. Where Reigns watches as a monster unchained, though, Rollins watches as the true Architect in a performance closer to his nickname than perhaps any other; he’s done his research, and his weathering of Reigns’ storm proves to be the perfect game play as it facilitates increasing opportunities and, ultimately, a perhaps unexpected but certainly ingenious final victory. Styles and Cena’s bout earlier that night could only be topped by something timeless; Reigns and Rollins delivered in spades with their long-awaited inaugural encounter. Theirs is the newest entry in a long line of poster-feuds throughout the Eras, sitting alongside Hogan and Warrior; Hart and Michaels; Austin and Rock; and Cena and Batista.

So how was it not my Main Event of the Year? Well, because as good as it was, and as laced with destiny and fate as it might have been, there was one other that enjoyed just as much subtext and made better use of it; only, many obsessed over all the wrong things. My Main Event of the Year is:

Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns in a Triple Threat Match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, Battleground

Like with Styles and Cena, here is a match in possession of infinite depth to explore and analyse, and now is not the time for me to do that. While some couldn’t get past the immediate upset of WWE presenting this much-anticipated confrontation at a smaller show like Battleground, and others felt WWE’s focus was inappropriately set on the Brand Extension rather than the history among them, all you need to do is give the legitimately tear-jerking pre-match hype package a watch to be immediately sucked into the priority of the three performers themselves: The Shield’s story. This is the climactic chapter of that story’s second act, finalising the dissolution of the greatest group to ever step foot in a WWE ring; in, perhaps, a pro wrestling ring. Not only is it a magnetic Triple Threat with sequences so well performed they’re beautiful to watch unfold, so too is it an emotive rollercoaster that plumbs the depths of The Shield’s history with ironic turns, knowing references and an over-arching, stinging sensation of sorrow. Each performer’s character is presented perfectly (and I mean that word literally this time), and theirs is a conflict that sits, again literally, in the very centre of the product as the rest of the roster watches on; a fitting stage for the game-changing Shield’s ultimate battle. Though the post-match commentary track, in inevitable fashion, focuses on entirely the wrong emotional tangent, make no mistake that this bout’s focus is exactly where it needs to be, ensuring yours will be too. Please don’t be fooled by the show it headlines, or the mitigating events surrounding the match because that’s all they do – surround; never inform. The Main Event of the Year was a supremely wrestled match with back-story, character development and subtext completely unrivalled anywhere else in WWE, and all of which is maximised for best effect. This was not the final end for The Shield’s story; only the very first.

And, to top it all off, it may just have closed the curtain on the Reality Era too.

That wraps up my EOY Awards for 2016 but tell me, do you feel the same way? Out of my shortlists, did I make the right picks? And what matches have I omitted from these ranks that you personally would give a nod to? I’d also be interested in knowing whether you agree or disagree with my criteria for each category, and to hear any suggestions as to how or if these criteria should be altered!

Leave a comment below, drop me an email at samuel.plan101@gmail.com, follow me on Twitter by clicking the button at either end of this column or find me on Facebook by clicking the link at either end of this column to join in on the debate!

Next week, I return to my British theme for the month as I review the debut show of a new British Indy promotion: NORTH Wrestling’s NCL 1: Brace Yourself.

Until then, thanks for reading!

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