Well, 2017 was a wild year in the world of professional wrestling, but it's finally drawing to a close.
Over the course of 12 months, the WWE on ESPN staff has watched hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of wrestling programming, and we've seen the best (and worst) of it all. In recognition of the greatest achievements inside of the squared circle in 2017, we've gotten together to make our picks in 10 different categories, covering individual performances, teams, rivalries and shows.
Our "Best of 2017" has reached the end of its first week, and with it one of the key recognitions we'll hit in this retrospective -- match of the year. Between personal taste and numerous other variables, our staff's picks in this category spread throughout the year in WWE and well beyond that company's boundaries. Without further ado, let's dig in.
Brock Lesnar vs. Braun Strowman vs. Roman Reigns vs. Samoa Joe for the Universal championship (SummerSlam)
The setup for this match was nearly perfect. You have four of the biggest stars of the WWE set for the main event SummerSlam and, up until that point, there had barely been a physical confrontation between the group. Add in the callout of Brock Lesnar by Jon Jones and the incorporation of an "if he doesn't win, he'll leave the WWE" stipulation and all of a sudden the stakes were higher than ever.
The entire crowd at Barclays rose to its feet as each of the four men made their entrances -- and nobody sat down for the rest of the match. From Strowman lifting tables and putting Lesnar through a couple of them, to multiple spears by Roman, to a Coquina Clutch that looked like it could end it all, the match took on an entirely different energy after Lesnar got carted away. After several minutes of triple threat action, Lesnar returned to the ring and took care of business to retain his title. This match had it all.
The storytelling was great, the action was huge and regardless of the assumed outcome (come on, Brock couldn't go back to the UFC without dealing with his suspension), this was one of the most memorable matches of the year. (Andrew Feldman)
Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada trilogy (New Japan Pro Wrestling)
Tie between I, II, and III
You really can't go wrong with any one of these matches. The trilogy between Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada -- in January at Wrestle Kingdom 11, in June at Dominion, and in August in the G1 Climax tournament -- brought fans back to the days of Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat. They were just two guys with an almost telepathic chemistry putting on jaw-dropping match after jaw-dropping match. Picking only one of these matches for match of the year is a pointless exercise because each matchup was amazing in its own way.
The Wrestle Kingdom 11 match had the biggest stage and the benefit of being Omega and Okada's first singles match. The Dominion match was a 60-minute draw, which is almost never seen in today's wrestling, especially one so entertaining throughout. Their third encounter in Block B of the G1 Climax was the most fast-paced of the three, and saw Omega finally come out on top, though the title wasn't on the line. It's up for debate which of their matches was the best, but there's no denying any one of them is deserving of match of the year in 2017. (Michael Wonsover)
Omega vs. Okada II (NJPW Dominion)
Even though I contend Michael cheated to a certain degree, I'm willing to allow it because all three of the matches between Omega and Okada in 2017 were drastically different pieces to the same puzzle. I'm choosing to single out the second of the three matches, Omega's second challenge for the IWGP heavyweight championship at Dominion in June, as my favorite because it had one of the boldest finishes in recent memory, and certainly the boldest of 2017.
Each and every moment in this match built upon their previous match of the year candidate at Wrestle Kingdom 11. Okada had emerged victorious, yes, but only because he had dodged each and every attempt Omega made to hit the One-Winged Angel -- a move that has been as well-protected in wrestling as any finisher there is. In this second match, Okada and Omega battered each other once again, hitting every move in each of their arsenals -- and telling one hell of a story in the process. Would Okada hit enough Rainmakers on Omega to put the challenger away? Or would Omega be able to hit enough of his wildly varied offensive attacks to set Okada up for that One-Winged Angel.
Okada and Omega traded the upper hand back and forth in a war that stretched for 30, then 35, and then 40 minutes. Just past the 45-minute mark, Omega finally held Okada up long enough to hit the One-Winged Angel for the very first time on the champion -- only it happened just close enough to the ropes for the champion to get a rope break. Over the next 15 minutes, each man took what seemed to be their last big shot, time and time again, as they started to show signs of exhaustion. They left all of themselves in the ring, and when it got down to the last five minutes of the 60-minute time limit, it took all of their respective energies to even peel themselves off of the mat.
"Every time Omega creates an opportunity, Okada shuts the door," cried NJPW English commentator Kevin Kelly, as the match stretched forward. At the 53-minute mark, in what will stand as the most iconic moment from their series to date, Okada wound Omega up for a particularly potent edition of the Rainmaker clothesline and Omega dodged the move by collapsing to his knees in exhaustion. There would be close calls both ways until the final seconds, but Okada's crawl toward Omega in the closing seconds wouldn't get there in time. In 2017, many decades past the era in which that kind of match was commonplace for legends like Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat or Dusty Rhodes, Omega and Okada wrestled to a 60-minute time limit draw. It was, in a word, perfection. (Tim Fiorvanti)
It's hard to find any pair of rivals who have the magnetic chemistry that IWGP heavyweight champion Kazuchicka Okada does with the leader of Bullet Club (and The ELITE), Kenny Omega. I was worried that this rematch could not stand up to the high expectations created by their first, except that this one somehow set the bar even higher. Okada's title defenses were getting narrower and narrower, with opponents kicking out of the Rainmaker over and over again, and this match was getting dangerously close for Okada. Omega just wouldn't stay down for the three-count. Some Bullet Club drama at ringside gave Omega the chance to come back from the brink to hit an electrifying One-Winged Angel, the one move he couldn't hit at Wrestle Kingdom and the most protected finisher in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Okada barely got to the ropes, and from there they battled to the very end until time ran out on Okada's pin attempt. Neither man was better than the other, as this match ended in a draw. Each of their three matches could have been a Match of the Year, but this one was so, so good. (Sachin Dave Chandan)
Brock Lesnar vs. AJ Styles (Survivor Series)
If you take everything into consideration -- the high-profile event, the megastars on display, the electric atmosphere -- that alone is enough to make this one of the best battles of 2017.
But when Styles and Lesnar can put on the kind of performance they did in a match that had little time to percolate before their showdown, that's saying something. From the moment the bell rang, this was utter excitement. The crowd roared for both men. Lesnar was irrepressible for the first few minutes. It was a spanking. Somehow, Styles turned the momentum around by attacking Lesnar's legs and then landing a Pele Kick, followed by a Phenomenal Forearm from the top rope to the outside of the ring, which left Lesnar laying motionless.
We'll spare you all the play-by-play, but know this: The action didn't slow down for one wasted second until Lesnar suddenly ended things with a final F-5. If anyone in creative has any semblance of common sense, they'll make a rematch -- and quickly. (Matt Wilansky)
Pete Dunne vs. Tyler Bate (NXT TakeOver: Chicago)
The first ever United Kingdom championship match to take place at a TakeOver event was unforgettable. In a rematch of the WWE U.K. Championship tournament finals, Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate not only stole the show, but they delivered the best match of the year, at least in my estimation. The in-ring chemistry between the two in general is remarkable, and it shined its brightest on this night. From the pristine mat wrestling display early on, which is a trademark in bouts featuring U.K. superstars, to the perfectly designed back and forth sequences, the "Fight Forever" chants from the Chicago crowd were justified in every way.
"Make a name for yourself," were the words spoken to Dunne by Triple H during the U.K. tournament earlier in the year; he and Bate did that and then some at TakeOver: Chicago. This was the only WWE match all year to earn a perfect 5.0 score using my ESPN.com pay-per-view match rating system -- and it was the second match in a trilogy that told three separate, interlocking stories.
Dunne and Bate followed up that brilliant performance with one final showdown to close out 2017 on a special edition of NXT. For the first time ever, the episode on the WWE Network stretched almost 15 minutes beyond the normal format to accommodate another masterpiece. There aren't two superstars in all of professional wrestling that I'd want to watch perform more than Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate, and hopefully we get even more from them in 2018. (Sean Coyle)
Velveteen Dream vs. Aleister Black (NXT TakeOver: War Games)
If you're looking for a match that had it all -- great build, fantastic in-ring action, and next-level ring psychology -- look no further than Velveteen Dream and Aleister Black's instant classic at NXT TakeOver: War Games. This was Dream's coming out party to a wide audience; in his biggest match to date, he put on a performance few expected from him, as he and Black tore the house down on what was one of the best match cards of the year.
I immediately bought in on Dream's character after Patrick Clark was repackaged earlier this year, largely because he poured 100 percent of himself into the role, much like Goldust and other bizarre characters before him. It was his ability to keep up with Black in the ring, however, that left me and the rest of the WWE Universe shocked. In his previous matches, he was solid, yet unspectacular in the ring, and usually on one end or the other of a squash match. Once it was obvious that the match was no squash and Dream was keeping up with Black, the crowd was seemingly rooting for the heel Dream over the very popular face Black, largely because his performance was just so unexpected. The timing of everything was perfect, and gave me a feeling that I don't get all that often while watching wrestling -- genuine surprise. (Nick Irving)
#DIY vs. The Revival vs. Authors of Pain (NXT Takeover: Orlando)
The final match for The Revival before their move to Raw did not disappoint, as the three best tag teams in NXT gave a performance worthy of match of the year in Orlando over WrestleMania weekend. This match had everything a wrestling fan could want: big spots, power displays, unique pairings, false finishes, incredible chemistry, and more.
The first half of this match saw an unlikely alliance between #DIY and The Revival, who combined their forces in the common goal of dispatching the power of AOP, as shown by the quadruple power bomb that sent Rezar through a table on the outside and criss-crossed versions of each team's finishers. AOP would gain control as the match continued, though, eliminating #DIY with the Last Chapter before flexing their muscles on The Revival, hitting the Super Collider for the victory. NXT Takeover: Orlando could go down as the best show of the year, with this match as the focal point to an incredible weekend of wrestling. (Pete Ferlazo)
The Usos vs. The New Day (Hell in a Cell)
I loved the #DIY-Authors of Pain matches (including the triple threat with The Revival), as well as Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate U.K. title match at TakeOver, and the AJ Styles-Brock Lesnar match from Survivor Series, but if you're forcing me to pick just one match, my favorite would have to be the Hell in a Cell match that was the culmination of a terrific Usos vs. New Day rivalry. It was entertaining, innovative, physical, gritty and real. It kept me on the edge of my seat, and took a format that sometimes can hinder matches and used it to take this rivalry to the next level. The feud entering this event, based on the verbal sparring and past matches, was worthy of the main event spot, and these teams proved that their next meeting should be a headliner. (Matt Willis)
Killshot vs. Dante Fox (Ultima Lucha Tres)
This one is a little out there, and chances are good that there are many people in the wrestling community who haven't even seen this match from Lucha Underground. But if you pine for the days of ECW, this "Hell of War" match is right up your alley. The storyline leading to this match is that Dante Fox and Killshot were in the same military group during wartime, where Fox was supposedly killed in combat only to return to feud with Killshot throughout Season 3.
The first fall was first blood and after 12 excruciating minutes, Dante Fox put Killshot through a plate glass window held up by chairs, resulting in blood trickling from Killshot's back. The second fall was no disqualifications, and although this was the shortest of the three stages at six minutes, there was no shortage of action. Ladders, chairs and finally a barbed wire board contributed to the chaos of Stage 2. Killshot evened up the match by powerbombing Fox into the barbed wire board followed by a cradle driver onto the broken glass from the opening stage.
The final fall was an medical evac match where the objective was to put your opponent away in the vehicle for good (aka, an ambulance match). While both competitors fought tooth and nail, a wooden structure holding another plate glass window near the vehicle was unveiled. The competitors eventually made their way to the second floor, where Killshot hit Fox with a beer bottle, sending him crashing through the glass. Killshot then placed Fox in the medical evac to win the Hell of War match. It was not a technical wrestling classic by any means, but the storyline and the violence of the match made it a worthwhile edge of your seat watch and my match of the year. (Andrew Davis)