The WWE featured some excellent wrestling in 2016, making it hard to narrow the best matches of the year down to 10. Still, there’s work to do here at Wrestling News, and really – what would the internet even be without another top 10 list? I don’t have a strict grading system for wrestling matches. It’s a very subjective, “feel” sort of process for me. Matches have to be fun and enjoyable, they need to be technically sound or creatively booked, and meaningful circumstance on a big stage doesn’t hurt either. There’s a lot that goes into making a classic wrestling match. Period.
Or, in other words, I don’t have a set criteria for this list. But, here it is anyway!
10. WWE World Heavyweight Championship: Dean Ambrose vs. Triple H, Roadblock (Beginning of the Line, maybe?) – This was a toss up with the Ambrose-Owens match from the Royal Rumble, but ultimately, I had to go with my gut. Ambrose-Owens was undoubtedly an internet favorite, and I enjoyed it, too, but the inaugural Roadblock main event came out of nowhere. Did anyone think Ambrose was going to win? No – that probably hurt the match in the eyes of many, but I have to give credit where credit is due. These two guys put on a classic that felt like something that would’ve main evented a small stadium in the 80s. It was two wrestlers, a dimly lit arena, and plenty of heart and soul. That small show feel made this match memorable. Though it may not have been more than a tune-up match for Triple H’s Wrestlemania title defense, it was pure wrestling 101.
9. WWE World Heavyweight Championship: Roman Reigns vs. AJ Styles, Extreme Rules Match, Extreme Rules – The Club vs. The Bloodline was one of the most refreshing rivalries of the year. It provided a huge boost for Reigns as he was trying to find his footing as WWE World Heavyweight Championship. It added credibility to The Club, who came to WWE as highly-touted free agents from Japan. All in all, it was a program that made everyone involved shine. The main event between Reigns and Styles at Payback was solid, but the Extreme Rules match added a dynamic to the rivalry that set it apart from the rest of WWE’s championship programs – two of WWE’s greatest workhorses putting on a clinic in brawling.
8. Team Raw vs. Team Smackdown, Survivor Series – Well, if you’re going to add an hour to Survivor Series, might as well add more matches, right? Nope – the WWE decided to run with the six matches originally planned, which meant this epic clash between main eventers went for an astonishing 52 minutes and 48 seconds. It was a master class in storytelling, as Smackdown teammates Dean Ambrose and AJ Styles simply could not coexist for the greater good. Tension rose between Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho. James Ellsworth had a fun spot with Braun Strowman (though he was rag-dolled by The Monster Among Men), and The Wyatt Family got a much-needed “stand tall” moment in victory. Even though Shane McMahon nearly got his head knocked off, the match was fun all around and reinvigorated the once-classic Survivor Series event.
7. Intercontinental Championship: Cesaro vs. The Miz vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn, Extreme Rules – The Intercontinental Championship underwent a major resurgence in 2016, and perhaps this match was the catalyst for it. It was fast-paced, fun, and unpredictable. This may have been The Miz’s finest title defense of 2016, and undoubtedly launched him back to prominence. Of course, having three thoroughbreds like Cesaro, Owens, and Zayn to work with doesn’t hurt.
6. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn, Battleground – Owens and Zayn really could fight forever and they’d still put out ‘Match of the Year’ contenders. Battleground was no different. The two had the longest match of the night, and though they’ve met since the match, it was billed as the final battle between them. Both men wrestled like their livelihood depended on it, each selling a story of deeply-rooted jealousy, resentment, and betrayal. Nothing felt as personal as this bout felt.
5. Intercontinental Championship: The Miz vs. Dolph Ziggler, Title vs. Career Match, No Mercy – Okay, who else groaned upon realizing The Miz and Ziggler were entering into a program for what felt like the 10,000th time? Guilty. But, these two veterans proved us all wrong, somehow making this feud feel like it had never happened before. They’ve had excellent showings in standard singles matches, cage matches, and ladder matches, but nothing felt quite as big as the Title vs. Career Match at No Mercy. The match went for nearly 20 minutes before Ziggler won the Intercontinental Championship and staved off retirement. It also kept the surprisingly refreshing program alive for a couple more months. The fact that it didn’t get the main event slot (after WWE elected to start the show with the WWE World Heavyweight Championship match) is an absolute travesty.
4. NXT Tag Team Championship: DIY vs. The Revival, 2 out of 3 Falls Match, NXT TakeOver: Toronto – This match is the pinnacle of tag team wrestling. The Revival is simply on another planet right now. DIY isn’t too shabby either, but when the two teams got together for a 2 out of 3 falls match in Toronto, they captured lightning in a bottle. This match was loaded with heart-stopping near falls, seamless tag team wrestling, and a finish that was WWE’s most creative and unique of the year. DIY winning the titles made for a strong feel-good moment to cap off another solid year of NXT’s tag team division.
3. Raw Women’s Championship: Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte Flair, Raw, July 25 – My vote for WWE’s greatest rivalry of the year goes to Banks and Flair. It was incredibly difficult to choose one of their matches to slot here. Realistically, the women had three matches that could’ve landed on this list, but no one wants to read analysis of essentially the same match over and over so here we are. The Hell in a Cell match made history. The Falls Count Anywhere match on Raw late in the year was a classic. But, nothing was as magical as the July 25 match between these two that saw Banks get her first Women’s Championship. Flair saying Banks would never beat her before falling victim to the Banks Statement was an iconic moment.
2. John Cena vs. AJ Styles, Summerslam – This match was an instant classic from the moment it concluded. Really, the showing these two had earlier in the summer at Money in the Bank could be considered a top 10 caliber match as well. The program, as a whole, was one of WWE’s finest offerings of 2016, but the culmination at Summerslam really catapulted Styles to ‘Superstar of the Year’ status. The two battled for over 23 minutes before Styles won. It was the way he won that made the match so special, though – persevering through everything Cena threw at him. After the match, Cena left his trademark arm band in the middle of the ring, leading many to believe Cena was done with a full-time WWE schedule. Regardless, the match was one for the ages.
1. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn, NXT TakeOver: Dallas – The night was ripe with opportunity, but Nakamura and Zayn far exceeded expectations. Wrestlemania fever was in full effect (before Wrestlemania disappointed), and the Dallas crowd was white hot for Nakamura’s debut. The match also served as a curtain call for Zayn’s NXT career. While the emotional buzz surrounding the contest was staggering, the action inside the ring was epic. These two threw the kitchen sink at each other. It was hard-hitting, dramatic, clean, and flawless – the perfect example of the “sport” element of sports entertainment. After Nakamura picked up the win, he quickly exited the ring, leaving Zayn alone to soak in the NXT crowd chanting his name one last time. No match was able to catch this one the rest of the year.
Stoney Keeley covers the WWE for WrestlingNews.co, covers the NFL’s Tennessee Titans for Pro Football Spot, and is the Editor of The SoBros Network. You can follow him on Twitter at@StoneyKeeley and the SPOT’s Tennessee Titans Twitter feed at @spot_titans.