2017 was a hell of a year for pro wrestling, with some of the best matches in the sport's history taking place seemingly every month. Sadly, WWE didn't quite live up to the same global standard that New Japan and smaller independent promotions established, but they did have a rollercoaster year that was amazing, frustrating, heartbreaking and hilarious at various turns. There were times I had to take a step away from WWE programming and couldn't find a thing to write about, whereas other shows and matches gave me more to think about than anything in the past. There were things I never expected to see: Bray Wyatt winning the WWE championship, a women's Money in the Bank ladder match (more on that one later), a pre-filmed, horror-themed match between Wyatt and Randy Orton, Kevin Owens bloodily headbutting Vince McMahon, and two flat-out great matches featuring a 50-year-old Shane McMahon. Coupled with all of that, however, were some of the absolute worst lows you could expect to see, with several PPVs only a single match from being total throwaways. Also, there's the whole Jinder Mahal debacle, a failed championship run that exemplified the company’s cynical agenda. I wasn't as harsh on that particular development as some, and the whole thing was a few steps off from being a total disaster, but it was still far from encouraging.
NXT continued its tradition of absolutely obliterating the big four main roster PPVs with world-class Takeover specials every quarter, and also displayed legitimate forward-thinking in signing major independent talents and booking them expertly. The women's revolution is still in swing, with the company hosting the Mae Young Classic, an all-female tournament in the mold of the Cruiserweight Classic. While the MYC fell somewhat short of its predecessor in terms of match quality, it did lead to the signings of several world-class female talents, who are already providing some much-needed depth to the company's women's divisions. As a result, we also have the company's very first women's Royal Rumble match around the corner, something I'm looking forward to even more than the men's match that same night. Also bringing some diversity to the company's talent pool are the English signees who made an impact with the UK Championship Tournament last January. Wrestlers like Pete Dunne, Mark Andrews and Tyler Bate are younger than I am, and capable of outwrestling nearly every other performer in the company. Here's hoping 2018 provides them with greater exposure.
All of these things, if not fully realized in terms of their full potential, point to an encouraging future for the company and its product. Even the accepted creative blunders such as Jinder's stint as champion had ultimately favorable outcomes, such as restoring AJ Styles' rightful place at the top of the SmackDown brand. As much as the first part of his year was a mess, Kevin Owens put on some fantastic matches, and was rightfully kept near the top of the card for much of the year. On top of that all, I got a photo with Abdullah the Butcher. Here are my picks for the best and worst moments of the year in WWE.
The first major PPV of the year may have been WWE's best all-around show. Although the titular match was full of some pretty awful decisions, two of the matches on the card were among the year’s best, and the rest of the card was solid top-to-bottom. Charlotte and Bayley delivered a decent, if underwhelming Women's Championship match, and Rich Swann dropped the Cruiserweight title to Neville in a very strong match. The real attractions were Kevin Owens versus Roman Reigns for the Universal Title, and AJ Styles against John Cena for the WWE Championship. The former match was stuffed-to-the-gills with innovative brutality and hard-hitting action that almost single-handedly made me a Roman Reigns fan. Over the course of twenty-three minutes, both men beat the absolute hell out of each other, with Reigns eating a frog splash through a table, and Owens falling through a pyramid he himself had constructed from seven ringside chairs. That one in particular was horrifying to watch, and it's still incredible that KO managed to leave the match uninjured. Throughout the whole thing, Chris Jericho was suspended in a shark cage above the ring, preventing him from interfering on Owens' behalf as he had in every other title defense. Even with the resultant shenanigans (Jericho tossed his best friend some brass knuckles), there seemed a legitimate threat that Reigns would walk away with the title given the company's constant efforts to push him as the top guy. Braun Strowman came out and destroyed Reigns, starting their long feud, and allowing Owens to escape with a win. It was a great booking decision, and a hell of a match to start the year off.
On the other hand, Styles vs. Cena was pretty much a sure match of the night bet before the show even started. The two had other great matches in the past, particularly their showdown at SummerSlam 2016, and there was all the pressure in the world to top that encounter here. Also a big deal going in, and unfortunately foreshadowing the matches disagreeable conclusion, was the commentators' insistence that Cena would tie Ric Flair's record sixteen world title reigns were he to win. Well, he did, but only after twenty-five minutes of every trick in either wrestler's playbook. They traded power moves, finishers, and in the most gripping part of the match, submissions for a few minutes, something that shockingly worked given how terrible Cena's holds typically look. Throughout it all, Cena looked deranged in his determination, not believing AJ was able to kick out of his attacks, and seeming to want to put him away at any cost. Cena looked like he was losing his grip just because AJ was so good, and not that Styles needs to be put over by John Cena, but that certainly happened in his defeat. The story was tremendous and the match itself was world-class.
Nikki Cross/Asuka--NXT 399
One of the company's very best women's matches was almost buried on an episode of NXT. This was the first Last Woman Standing match I can think of, and it offered up the sort of hard-brawling action and insane spots you would expect from that stipulation, easily holding its own against similar men's matches such as Kevin Owens vs. Dean Ambrose at the 2016 Rumble. Asuka's pedigree as the single best female performer in the company (thankfully now on the main roster) is unquestionable, and nearly every one of her NXT title defenses were excellent. Nikki Cross is hugely underrated in the division, and she perfectly fits the Sanity stable's bizarre unpredictability. For their match, they were given twenty full minutes to close out an episode of NXT, and not a second was wasted as the two women shared hard strikes, brutal weapon shots, and even some painful submissions. Foreign objects from under the ring, like chairs, kendo sticks, tables, and ladders all came into play. There were some nasty bumps on the entrance ramp, as well as the ring apron. Asuka winning to retain seemed like a foregone conclusion, but the fact that she suplexed Cross off a tall ladder and through the main announce table was a major surprise, and one of the most shocking spots on WWE television last year. An incredible, underrated match.
People were fairly skeptical when WWE unveiled their plans to bring back the beloved War Games match at the NXT Takeover prior to Survivor Series, and there was great reason to be. First of all, it smacked of the same sort of watered-down nostalgia that the company always tries to promise yet fails to deliver. Moreover, War Games was intended as the blow-off to major, heated feuds, somewhere you couldn't escape and were forced to fight it out with your worst enemies. And that meant blood, something that is a total no-go in today's PG WWE. To cap it all off (or not), Triple H announced that the cage surrounding the two rings would not have a roof above it, but to escape over the top meant an entire team's disqualification. All of those things seemed to ensure that the match would just be a little screwy, but then encouraging signs started to emerge: the three teams would be The Authors of Pain with Roderick Strong, the male members of Sanity, and the Undisputed Era. The latter team is one of the best things currently about NXT, with Bobby Fish and Kyle O'Reilly standing out as top-notch technicians, and Adam Cole not too far behind, but with some of the best mic and character work of any former Ring of Honor star. Sanity, then Tag Team champs, are a great stable, and Eric Young, Killian Dain, and Alexander Wolfe are all very strong in-ring competitors. Authors of Pain are credible powerhouses, and pairing them with Strong not only tied the story back to Undisputed Era's ROH days, but also put a credible technician on their side.
The match itself was pure bedlam, absolute carnage mixing the high-speed workrate of today's wrestling with the sort of old-school brutality the War Games stipulation necessitates. This was not a glorified cage match as many expected it to be, nor was it the blood-soaked War Games match of old. Instead, it was a modern update on a classic format, realized to its fullest potential as a savage, collaborative car crash that thrilled me more than any other WWE match this year. There was hard-hitting brawling, frenzied and desperate submission work, some surprise high flying, and more weaponry scattered about the ring than any other match I've seen in the last few years. A few things in particular stood out. First, and least consequential, was just how vicious this match was, with numerous instances of hardway blood, the most startling example coming after Wolfe suplexed the Authors through two tables and caught his head on the way down. There were puddles of blood all over the ring, and yet he kept going. Second, was the fact that Adam Cole is clearly and rightfully being set up for great success in NXT. He perfectly played the role of cocksure, weaselly heel here, with the knowing understanding that he could back himself up if it truly came to that. Put in the face of danger several times, he narrowly escaped with his skin, and even scored the winning pinfall on Young. Finally, Killian Dain is one of the most underrated big men on any roster today. The last man into the match, he introduced a boatload of weapons, swallowed the key to the cage, and absolutely decimated the competition once he hit the ring. He's shocking agile for a 300-plus pound man, and he works like a monster heel waiting to be made. Unquestionably the MVP in a match full of break-out stars.
House of Horrors Match
I seriously may be the only wrestling fan in the world to include this on their best-of list. That aside, there was far too much weird stuff going on with the booking of this match, as well as its content for me to pass it up in this space. I don't think anyone in the world would have guessed that Bray Wyatt would spend the early part of 2017 as WWE Champion, and his win at Elimination Chamber (in a great match) was a huge surprise early in the year. His queasy alliance with Randy Orton was bound to fail, especially once Orton won the Royal Rumble guaranteeing him a title shot in the "main event" of WrestleMania (their match was the seventh of ten on the card). There was also a strange little period where it seemed possible that Bray Wyatt versus Luke Harper would headline 'Mania. That didn't happen, and Wyatt-Orton was kind of a mess, with the big standout being the projections of worms and maggots Bray "conjured" to mess with Randy's head. He still lost.
So at Payback, there was to be a House of Horrors match, further taking Orton into his former leader's world, and it was kind of incredible. Instead of some backwater swamp shack like you would expect, Bray's house was a rundown rural house that looked like a crank den on the inside. It was full of cobwebs and mildewed furniture, with weird statues and dolls hanging from the ceilings. The best part was the kitchen, which had dirty dishes and grease-smeared appliances. There was just something so great about that disgusting, believable attention to detail, and the over-the-top hokiness at their attempt to be creepy that I loved. The match was nothing special, just a pre-taped brawl around the house, but the environment itself made it seem like a desperate, drug-addled fight to the death. Most people thought it was the worst thing WWE did all year (at least until Jinder won the title), but I still think it was a pretty wild, ridiculous way to take this feud, and at least it was something totally different.
There’s so many more things I could list here: Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens’ Festival of Friendship segment on RAW, which was the best television segment all year; the build to KO and Shane McMahon’s Hell in a Cell match, where Owens headbutted and beat down Vince McMahon, drawing legit blood from the boss; Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate’s incredible technical display for the UK Title at NXT TakeOver: Chicago; Finn Balor vs. AJ Styles at TLC; AJ Styles vs. Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series. There are a ton more, and I wish I had the space and time to get into them all here.
Goldberg vs. Kevin Owens—Fastlane
The outcome of this one was hardly a surprise given the monster push Goldberg was guaranteed upon returning to the company. There was also no chance in hell that then-Universal champion Kevin Owens was going to beat the man who destroyed Brock Lesnar at the 2016 Survivor Series. That Owens would have to be squashed in their title match was a sure thing, especially to keep Lesnar looking strong for his final match with Goldberg at WrestleMania. The problem was, that match didn’t need the Universal Title on the line to generate interest; it was already a huge rematch fifteen years in the making, and the way Goldberg returned in 2016 to take down Lesnar was already booked perfectly. This match should never have happened, and say what you will about KO’s Universal Title reign, but there was no reason it needed to end with Jericho distracting him and Goldberg taking him down in twenty seconds. Pure discouragement all around, and the total predictability of the situation made it a classic WWE move.
Women’s Money in the Bank Match
I was really excited for the first-ever women’s MITB match when it was first announced. This was the exact sort of stride the division needed to level the playing field, and also acted as an opportunity for more of the women on SmackDown to get PPV exposure. It also allowed the wrestlers involved to show that they are capable of putting on the same sort of high-risk, dangerous and thrilling stunt shows that only the men on the roster have been permitted to take part in. Plus, the match featured Charlotte, Becky Lynch, and Natalya, three of the surest hands in the women’s division. Also present were Tamina, who filled out the role of powerhouse nicely, and Carmella, who has still yet to put on anything close to a captivating match as far as I’m concerned. Some of the problems here were fairly typical of the company’s handling of the division: the action itself was fine, with the former three really shining in the ring together, but the whole match was given thirteen minutes before being shut down. The men’s MITB match got thirty minutes. Come on, WWE. But the biggest issue, and one of the most bullshit decisions of the entire year, was James Ellsworth assisting Carmella in winning the match. Yes, despite the fact that there were five capable women in the match out to prove their talents and get much-deserved time in the big match spotlight, a man with no place on the roster save acting as Carmella’s boyfriend/flunky interfered for the win. A man won the first women’s MITB match by knocking Becky Lynch off the ladder and climbing it on Carmella’s behalf to retrieve the briefcase. In WWE’s world, it takes a man to win a high stakes match, and cut that thing short to the approval of nobody at all. It wasn’t even good heel heat, it was just a stupid, insulting move that ruined a major PPV’s historic moment. And the fact that they re-contested the match on SmackDown to the same effect (that time Carmella won cleanly) was just as big of a slap in the face to the division.
Big Cass vs. The Big Show—SummerSlam
Get it? Both Big Cass and the Big Show are seven-foot-tall. They also are equally limited in the ring, with twenty years separating them in age. Basically, nobody at all asked for this match, and the fact that it made it to the main card of SummerSlam as opposed to the pre-show is pretty much a crime. It’s possible this wasn’t the worst match of the year, it’s just the one I hated the most. I was never a fan of Enzo & Cass, and the storyline that saw them fracturing was one of my least favorite this past year. This match had the twist of putting Enzo in a shark cage above the ring, but at one point he greased himself up and slipped between the bars, only to have Big Show knock him out. I made none of that up. A pointless mess.
Jinder Mahal: WWE Champion
I’ve made it clear multiple times that I don’t hate Jinder Mahal, and I don’t feel he’s even close to the worst wrestler on the main roster. But in no way did he deserve his six-month reign with the company’s main title, and that decision reflected WWE’s cynical cash-grabbing attitude almost as well as Stephanie McMahon’s tweet stating that philanthropy was the future of marketing. Speaking of Steph, in the midst of Jinder’s reign she actually had the gall to declare in an interview that “We’re taking feedback in real time…Our audience tells us what they love, what they don’t like, and—worst—what they don’t care about.” Part of that is true, but she fails to acknowledge the fact that every audience he performed before expressed their total disapproval of Jinder. That didn’t matter at the time, however, as the company were set to tour India shortly, and unquestionably felt that this Canadian man of Indian descent was the ticket to drive up business in that major market.
At the time, I wrote a piece discussing the way WWE handled race problematically in the past, and just how sparse the representation of people of color in positive, prominent positions was. All of that rings true, but I guess some of what I was arguing was naïve optimism in the face of the company’s Jinder campaign. He was never booked respectably, always occupying the role of the outdated foreign heel and playing up the stereotypes WWE associated with his ethnicity. Also, one of the biggest sour notes in his run was his feud with Shinsuke Nakamura, somebody ten times the wrestler that Jinder is. Not only did Shinsuke get sacrificed to his opponent’s push, but a decent portion of their feud involved Mahal using flagrant Asian stereotypes to demean Nakamura on national television. Yes, in 2017, a man of Indian descent used racist remarks, almost certainly written by a room full of white male writers, against a Japanese man. There are almost no words for this shit.
Also unforgiveable is WWE bringing back not only the Punjabi Prison match, but also the Great Khali himself in order to aid Jinder in his umpteenth match against Randy Orton. Again, I don’t hate Jinder Mahal, but this was just insulting to my intelligence as a wrestling fan.
Bobby Heenan’s Passing
There were a lot of tragic pro wrestling deaths this year, but none hit me quite like this one. I loved Bobby Heenan. As a manager, as a host, as an announcer, he was a world class talent who made me crack up every time he was onscreen. His years-long battle with cancer was no secret, but despite it all he managed to stick it out and fight for so long. Even for fans such as myself born years after the company’s mid-80s golden era, it was impossible not to be aware of Heenan’s legacy and his contributions to so many major moments during that period. He was so amazing at what he did, that even minor interview segments and commentary opposite Gorilla Monsoon on Saturday Night’s Main Event stand as perfect moments of wrestling mic work. Nobody in the business has ever been wittier, nor better suited to the role of heel manager. Take, for example, the fact that back in the kayfabe days of the 1970s, audience members were so enraged by Heenan’s actions that he was attacked with hammers, knives, and once was even shot at. That’s the sort of edge of your seat, outlaw environment that wrestling once catered to, and the fact that he not only survived those attempts, but also thrived in one of the biggest boom periods in wrestling history speaks to his multifaceted talents and understanding of the business. It still seems strange that he’s gone, even without his having appeared on television for so long. It isn’t quite the same without Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, and his passing stands as the sort of truly tragic low point that none of my petty takes on bad matches and moments can truly stand up against. RIP, Brain.
NXT TakeOver: Chicago
Money in the Bank