For as long as I can remember, I’ve submitted ballots for the Wrestling Observer end-of-year awards. Since today’s the last day of 2016, here’s a selection of our picks, with reasons why behind some of them… It’s our end-of-year awards!
MOST OUTSTANDING WRESTLER: Chris Hero, AJ Styles, Matt Riddle
A weird choice for 1/2/3, admittedly, but there are reasonings for this. Chris Hero’s 2016 has arguably been one of, if not the best year of his career. Wherever he’s worked, he’s had one of the best matches on the card, and that’s been against a variety of wrestlers: Matt Riddle and Dick Togo in EVOLVE, Tomohiro Ishii and Katsuyori Shibata in Rev Pro, Marty Scurll, Tommy End and WALTER in PROGRESS, Ryan Smile and Jordan Devlin in OTT… the list goes on and on. And all of those matches have been different, and all of them I’ve seen, have been great.
If you’d told me on Christmas Day 2015 that AJ Styles would a) be in WWE, b) be the WWE World Heavyweight Champion and c) be a prominent part of the company, I’d have laughed at your face. But, wrestling in 2016 has been a weird thing, and so a man who was prominently framed as the face of the closest thing WWE had to competition is now one of their standard bearers. Like Hero, AJ’s faced a variety of competition – but under the WWE banner, it’s been a rather more restricted line-up. Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, Chris Jericho – all provided a different test, but still provided great results. The nature of the beast dictates that AJ probably won’t be in the same place on the card in 12 months time, but his success in WWE shows: never say never.
Finally, Matt Riddle’s year has also been spectacular – even more so when you consider his lack of experience in the business. The former UFC fighter only made his in-ring debut in February 2015 whilst training at the Monster Factory – since then, he’s become as highly rated for his experience as Kurt Angle was when he made his debut. Making his name with EVOLVE, Riddle’s 2016 has seen him unsuccessfully challenge Timothy Thatcher for the title there, whilst also racking up stellar outings against the likes of Chris Hero, Will Ospreay, Zack Sabre Jr and Tommy End in matches on both sides of the Pond. With Katsuyori Shibata on the docket for Riddle in January 2017 alone, it’s fair to say that Riddle will only go from strength to strength in the new year.
Note: for the Observer’s Flair/Thesz award, we swapped our top three around, and replaced Riddle with Tetsuya Naito. Our reasoning? Naito (and Los Ingobernables de Japon) have had a great year and have become a major part of New Japan, especially in terms of merchandise sales. However, Naito’s in-ring has been a little inconsistent, especially in those multi-man tags.
FEUD OF THE YEAR: The Miz vs. Dolph Ziggler; Jinny vs. Laura Di Matteo/Elizabeth; Tetsuya Naito vs. New Japan
MOST IMPROVED: Braun Strowman, Juice Robinson, The Miz
It’s worth noting that “most improved” doesn’t mean “you’re now the complete package”… and by that, Braun Strowman should be a sleeper pick for this category. At the start of the year, Braun was a peripheral member of the Wyatt Family, stuck in multi-man tags and directionless Superstars and Main Event matches. Since the brand split, Strowman’s actually been given a direction and something of a gimmick – even if it is an archetypal monster heel.
Juice Robinson’s 2016 has seen a similar trajectory – albeit on a more niche scale. After leaving WWE the prior year, the former CJ Parker pottered around the indy scene and finally signed with New Japan, where he was initially treated like a Young Boy before gradually working his way up through the cards with increasingly-good performances. Juice’s year culminated with a win over the tag team champions at Korakuen Hall’s build-up to WrestleKingdom… which may be where things derail, given that he’s facing Cody on January 4th.
The Miz is another sleeper pick – and is perhaps one that I’m perhaps underrating here. Granted, a lot of his year seems to have had him tied to Dolph Ziggler, and his stock has only risen with the return of Maryse. That being said, the Miz having something of a spotlight on him has also helped – and for the majority of wrestlers, it’s hard to shine when there’s no light to reflect back!
MOST OVERRATED – Cody, Timothy Thatcher, Adam Cole
We’ve already gone over our thoughts on Cody (Rhodes) – in our mind, his being over-rated is of his own doing. Most other WWE releases tend to appear on the indy scene at around the same level, then work up/down based on their talent (Bull Dempsey springs to mind here). When Cody vowed to redefine the indy scene, people expected him to be the second coming of Chris Hero… and for someone who hadn’t never wrestled outside of WWE, that was always going to be a tall order. Cody’s eventually going to find his feet, but had he not built himself up so high, then perhaps he wouldn’t have this perception.
Timothy Thatcher is one of those who wouldn’t be so high up, were it not for one company refusing to change tack on him. Thatcher has been EVOLVE champion since July 2015, to an ever-increasing disapproval of the fans, with the knock on him being that “he has his match, and refuses to change it”. The few times I’ve seen him this year, Thatcher’s been a virtual turn-off – with matches in EVOLVE having been met with indifference from otherwise passionate crowds. A level of indifference that has damn near killed the show. Eventually, Thatcher will lose the title, but until then, there’ll be a section of fans that’ll believe that Timothy Thatcher and Roman Reigns “on top” will survive long after cockroaches have taken over.
Adam Cole is a bit of an iffy pick, but this is another one that is all about perception. As one of the main members of the Bullet Club – in ROH at least – Cole has a fervent following… but largely speaking, when the bell rings, that charisma goes. I’ve only seen a few of his matches this year, and save for his outing with Will Ospreay at PROGRESS, they’ve largely been forgettable. Yes, those New Japan matches with Jay Lethal were doomed to failure, but these are my choices, right?
MOST UNDERRATED – Travis Banks, Mark Haskins, Neville
In 2016, Travis Banks has been something of a break-out star in the UK – but in spite of his El Ligero-esque schedule, Banks hasn’t quite hit the heights of main events. In ATTACK! Pro, Banks has found himself a solid niche as part of the Anti-Fun Police heel stable; in Fight Club: PRO, Banks endured a lengthy losing streak where he came so close but ended up so far in search of a victory… before finally securing his monumental first wins as part of the promotion’s Infinity tournament. Meanwhile, in PROGRESS, Banks has largely found himself a part of an undefeated team with TK Cooper – not bad considering that he didn’t debut in the company until June! I can’t see any way – injury notwithstanding – that Banks’ 2017 isn’t going to see him go from strength to strength… and pick up some gold as well!
It’s a bit odd to list Mark Haskins as “under-rated”, especially considering that he was holding four promotion’s title belts when he had to take time off for injury (PROGRESS, SMASH, FIGHT! Nation, and 4 Front Wrestling). However, it’s also odd that until this year’s Battle of Los Angeles, Haskins was only known by those in America who watched European stuff… or remembered his run in TNA. Hopefully, if/when Haskins is able to return, he’ll be able to join the likes of Marty Scurll and Will Ospreay in being able to count on the US scene for bookings…
As for Neville… well, until recently, his year had been highlighted with injury and ignominy. Since the Meltzer awards cut-out at December, we’ve got to put him here, but had we used a standard, Gregorian calendar, then we’d be looking for a new number three.
PROMOTION OF THE YEAR – New Japan, PROGRESS, EVOLVE
The key is in the title here… Whilst New Japan’s booking has been by the numbers and suspect at times, they have succeeded in getting people through the doors – something which some quarters were fearing would be an issue when the company lost AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows in January. Since then, they’ve not exactly created new stars from scratch, but they have excelled in filling those gaps with guys who perhaps weren’t previously considered as headliners. Behind-the-scenes issues have meant that New Japan will have to either reintegrate or release guys who have previously been “on loan” with Pro Wrestling NOAH – which could lead to roster as swollen as WWE’s was in the post-WCW buy-out days. How that’s handled remains to be seen!
PROGRESS’ 2016 has been consistent, and with their expansion into one new city (by mistake, as Sheffield was never on the books!) and into Birmingham next year, it goes to show you can put on a good, critically acclaimed product whilst working WITH people and not needing any form of TV. The promotion has had to deal with issues similar to many indy promotions this year – namely, the loss of talent to the WWE – and the shock sabbatical from Mark Haskins. Yet all of that seems to have been taken in their stride, and 2017 looks to see the group achieve bigger and better things as they expand into one new British city and TWO new countries, with shows in Florida and Germany.
To say that EVOLVE have been the proverbial hare in the tortoise and the hare race would be unfair, but they’ve kept going with their direction – for better and for worse – and since they’re the head of the biggest indy streaming group right now, you’d have to say that they’re there because FloSlam (and co) recognise their position as a steady ship. WWE would have been third here based solely on the WrestleMania gate, and their ongoing promotion that’s seeing them promote four shows a day at times (Raw, SmackDown and NXT)… but we’ve also had a lot of “promotion that we’ve not wanted” a la EVOLVE/Timothy Thatcher, and so WWE lost that proverbial coin toss.
Very honourable mentions go to ATTACK!, Fight Club: PRO and OTT – three groups that are doing remarkably well despite not having the same budgets as any of the “top four” previously mentioned…
BEST WEEKLY TV SHOW – SmackDown, Talking Smack, New Japan Weekly Pro Wrestling
(since Dave Meltzer lists the Cruiserweight Classic as ineligible… in my book that was the best TV show of the year)
PRO WRESTLING MATCH OF THE YEAR – Tetsuya Naito vs. Kenny Omega (G1 Day 18; Tokyo; August 13, 2016); DIY vs. Revival (Toronto; November 19, 2016); Chris Hero & JT Dunn vs. Zack Sabre Jr & Marty Scurll (wXw World Tag Team League; Oberhausen, October 1, 2016)
These aren’t the best matches of the year according to our ratings, but these have been the matches we’ve enjoyed the most in hindsight.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR – Matt Riddle, Fred Yehi, Lio Rush
BEST NON-WRESTLER PERFORMER – Maryse, Stokeley Hathaway, Daniel Bryan
BEST TELEVISION ANNOUNCER – Corey Graves, Glen Joseph (PROGRESS), Oliver Bennett (Rev Pro)
This is another trio that could have fallen any way, with Mauro Ranallo falling into 4th place, largely because I’ve not been watching too much SmackDown. Corey Graves has been one of the hardest workers behind the mic in WWE this year, doing Raw, NXT, pre-shows, the Cruiserweight Classic spots and now 205 Live. Yet he’s not worn thin… Glen Joseph’s role on commentary for PROGRESS evokes plenty of memories of Vince McMahon back in the 80s and 90s – but on a more excitable scale. What else do you expect from a fan who really loves wrestling and has a major hand in the product he’s calling? Oliver Bennett’s commentary for Rev Pro has felt “too professional” at times, dare I say it. Then again, he is “proper” commentator for Eurosport, so that’ll explain it!
WORST TELEVISION ANNOUNCER – David Otunga, Andy Simmonz (Rev Pro), Alex Shane
This is a call that you could have shook up any way. Since entering the WWE commentary table, David Otunga hasn’t blazed any trails, and the fact that Tom Phillips has been thrown into the picture as a fourth announcer perhaps indicates that the company has had a change of heart, but doesn’t want to be seen to pulling him from the booth.
Elsewhere, much like with the best announcer, we’ve got a pair of Brits: Andy Simmonz’ work has been limited to just a few Rev Pro shows, but they’ve certainly been polarizing, bottoming out at a throwaway comment that served to offend a lot of fans after a match between Rhia O’Reilly and Addy Starr at a Cockpit show “good effort love, go home and get on the fish fingers, okay”. That alone gets Simmonz here… whilst Alex Shane. What needs to be said? Sure, he provided commentary across multiple different styles, but none of them were particularly good, with his WCPW efforts being the most offensive to anybody’s intelligence. For whatever it’s worth, Bored Josh Mathews was a close fourth in my picks…
BEST MAJOR SHOW – PROGRESS Chapter 38: When Men Throw Men At Men (London, October 30, 2016); New Japan G1 Finals (Tokyo, August 14, 2016); Cruiserweight Classic Final (Winter Park, Florida; September 14, 2016)
WORST MAJOR SHOW OF THE YEAR – WWE Clash of Champions (Indianapolis, September 25, 2016)
Just, no. The start of the never-ending series of brand-exclusive PPVs, but the show just dragged and grew thin by the end. It wasn’t out and out bad, but certainly the worst of the WWE PPVs in my mind.
MOST DISGUSTING PROMOTIONAL TACTIC – “Women’s Revolution” on Raw, despite pushing same two characters
Since the brand split, it’s been a running joke that Raw’s women’s division has been “Charlotte and Sasha Banks” – until the last few weeks where Bayley’s found herself thrown in the mix. Sure, they’ve recovered things somewhat with a more varied division on SmackDown, but that’s not the show they’ve been shoving the women’s division down our necks on!
WORST TELEVISION SHOW – Impact
“Worst” is a bit strong – of the weekly TV shows, this was bland, nothing-happening programming, with only the Hardy specials bringing any interest. Unfortunately, that’s only exacerbated things, as the audiences largely didn’t stick around for “regular” programming, so we got more of them. Final Deletion. Delete or Decay. Total Nonstop Deletion. Enough! As good as these specials have been, we’re already seeing the law of diminishing returns, and sadly, I can’t see TNA holding back on these. With TNA off of UK TV next year, their presence internationally is going to weaken, so perhaps there’ll be a new boy in town here. ROH? Time to step it up…
WORST MATCH OF THE YEAR – Will Ospreay vs. Vader (London, August 12, 2016)
This isn’t an indictment of either man’s abilities, but rather the match itself. This didn’t need to happen. It was a stupid feud based off of a Tweet that was blown out of proportion… and sadly, it led to a match that was never going to amount to anything. Hopefully, lessons have been learned, so we don’t end up with any more matches stemming from throwaway comments on Twitter or podcasts. Jim Smallman vs. Jim Cornette, anyone?
WORST PROMOTION – WhatCulture Pro Wrestling
This is going to get me some heat, but I have my reasons other than blind rage/“argh, WCPW, dislike, smash”.
From the start, the promotion has made mis-steps – like pretty much any group. Low-rent production (ah, those early episodes of Loaded with green screens being turned off too early; or those shows which were filmed in front of nobody thanks to the crack decision to shoot TV on a weekday morning before England vs. Wales played in the European football championships).
Step forward to the “rebirth”, where the promotion threw good money after bad at imports. Aron Stevens, Minoru Suzuki, Moose… those guys are just a few who have been brought in for a show or two, but outside of the iPPVs and specials barely figured. That kind of spotlight booking led to a two-tier promotion: those where you have the “local stars” working Loaded shows, who then get pushed down the card when bigger stars arrive.
On top of that, the booking has been iffy at times too: how many times have they tried to build up Primate, only for blow it by having the killer monster having to sell against the latest flavour of the month. Throw in other quality snafus (“Albero el Patron”, nameplates showing guys who aren’t there) and booking other promotions’ top guys as opening match fodder for the hell of it… and we have a group here that’s trying to appeal to everyone, and is doing their best to be a love or loathe promotion. Hopefully the WWE-enforced restructuring (with WWE-UK contracted talent seemingly no longer able to work for this group) will mean they’ll be able to forge an identity that isn’t based on YouTube stars and whatever big-money former WWE guy is handy at the time.
BEST GIMMICK – Los Ingobernables de Japon
In spite of iffy booking for the majority of the group, you’ve got a sub-main event faction trumping merchandise sales. Aside from SANADA (and new recruit Hiromu Takahashi), everyone in the group has held gold in New Japan this year… but not for long: Naito held the IWGP title for 70 days (and is the current Intercontinental champion…); BUSHI held the Junior Heavyweight title for under two months… EVIL was the NEVER champion for under a fortnight…
WORST FEUD OF THE YEAR – Yoshitatsu vs. Captain New Japan/BONE SOLDIER
WORST GIMMICK – BONE SOLDIER
Captain New Japan was a comedy joke at best… so what happens when you flip him to the dark side? You get a guy wearing gear that some indy wrestlers would laugh at, taking part in matches that have been pitiful. Remember those early matches where the bone mask would flip up, revealing a black sock over his head? And all of those hideous outings that ended cheaply with low blows and belt chokes… We can only hope that the new year sees this gimmick jettisoned, but given how rare the Bullet Club eject talent, I won’t be holding out much hope!
Well, that’s 2016 in the books. Here’s to a cracking 2017, and all of the joy of the graps! See you all there!