Top 5 Pro Wrestlers of 20171. Kenny Omega
After the year Kenny Omega has had, there’s simply no way that he could land anywhere on this list but the number one spot. The leader of Bullet Club is quite simply the best active pro wrestler on the planet, bringing a level of athleticism to the ring that’s off the charts and putting on stellar matches all throughout 2017 with heavy hitters like Kazuchika Okada, Tomohiro Ishii and Tetsuya Naito, as well as helping to elevate up-and-coming talent such as Juice Robinson. There simply isn’t another wrestler in the game that’s as consistently awesome as The Cleaner, and with what is sure to be an epic battle against the legendary Chris Jericho on the horizon, he shows no signs of slowing down.
2. Kazuchika Okada
At just thirty years old, Kazuchika Okada is the longest reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champion in history. Just let that sink in for a minute; we’re talking about a title that’s been held by the likes of Tatsumi Fujinami, The Great Muta and Big Van Vader. Make no mistake, New Japan has made The Rainmaker their top guy for a reason; much like Omega, Okada is one of those rare talents that seems to be able to put on an incredible match with just about anyone. In 2017 he took on everyone from Evil to Minoru Suzuki to Katsuyori Shibata, proving that he deserves the spot he’s in as one of the most dominant champions in all of professional wrestling.
3. Matt Hardy
Can you name another wrestler that has been as successful through the years as Matt Hardy when it comes to the continual evolution of their character? I didn’t think so. 2017 might be his most successful year yet, as he elevated the floundering Impact Wrestling by introducing the world to his Broken Universe, captured the Ring of Honor tag team titles alongside his brother Jeff and then triumphantly returned to the WWE in what was one of the greatest “Wrestlemania moments” of the past ten years. Now that Hardy once again has control of his Broken/Woken gimmick, the sky’s the limit for this endlessly creative veteran.
4. Tetsuya Naito
You’re probably thinking, how is Naito all the way down at the number four spot after the year he’s had, right? Here’s the thing, as amazing as 2017 was for El Ingobernable, I believe that he is poised to absolutely dominate 2018 and this year was merely a stepping stone. Make no mistake, Naito was one of pro wrestling’s hottest tickets in 2017, successfully defending the IWGP Intercontinental Championship against Hiroshi Tanahashi, Michael Elgin and Juice Robinson, becoming a two-time G1 Climax Tournament winner and winning MVP honors for the second year in a row from Tokyo Sports, but with his match against Okada for all the marbles just days away, the best is still yet to come.
5. The Young Bucks
The greatest active tag team in professional wrestling. YouTube stars. Marketing geniuses. What more can be said about Matt and Nick Jackson at this point? More than anyone else in 2017, The Young Bucks have blazed a trail to success outside the confines of the mainstream, finding innovative ways to bring their brand to the masses that previously would’ve been absolutely unheard of for independent pro wrestlers. These guys have not only shown us what the future of the business looks like, they’ve presented us with a fresh new alternative to the often out-of-touch WWE. But even more than any of that, they’ve made pro wrestling fun again in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Monday Night Wars.
Top 5 Breakout Stars of 2017Velveteen Dream – The biggest bummer of 2017 might just be the fact that Velveteen Dream was apparently injured during his beyond stellar match against Aleister Black at NXT TakeOver: WarGames and no information has been given as to the nature of his injury or the timetable for his return. At just 22 years old, this kid is a megastar in the making if WWE can use him correctly.
Pete Dunne – Dunne was the undisputed highlight of WWE’s UK Championship Tournament and has continued to impress every single time he shows up on television. The company had better get their shit together and make good on their promise to get a weekly UK wrestling series off the ground soon, or else this kid is gonna get snapped up by Ring of Honor or New Japan or both when his contract is up.
Andrade Cien Almas – Almas has improved by leaps and bounds since turning heel and taking on Zelina Vega as his manager, but it’s still safe to say that pretty much no one expected his shocking NXT title win over Drew McIntyre at TakeOver: WarGames. It’ll be interesting to see where his title reign leads and with a fatal four-way to determine the next number one contender happening soon, it won’t be long before we see just how well El Idolo does as a fighting champion. Expect great things.
Hangman Page – Page just might be the most underrated member of Bullet Club. He’s comfortable executing high-flying moves, showing off his technical prowess, or just straight-up brawling; indeed Page displays a degree of versatility that’s become increasingly rare in pro wrestling. Look for 2018 to be the year the twenty-six-year-old Virginian finally captures a major singles title in either Ring of Honor or New Japan.
Katsuya Kitamura – With muscles coming out of seemingly every place a muscle can come out of on a human body and a mouth-guard that makes him look like a pissed-off kaiju, Kitamura has “future monster heel” written all over him. He’s a bit old for a young lion at thirty-two, but he’s got the look and the charisma to move up through the ranks quickly, as evidenced by his recent Young Lion Cup win. Look for him to be sent out on excursion in 2018.
Top 5 Matches of 2017
1. Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada Trilogy (NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 11, Dominion, G1 Climax)
It should come as no surprise that the two best wrestlers in the world put on the best series of matches of 2017. The fact that all three matches were very, very different from each other speaks volumes about each man’s talent and versatility, and the fact that all three matches had me up out of my chair screaming at the television speaks volumes about the chemistry they have together and the in-ring storytelling mastery they’re both capable of. Omega and Okada are legends in the making and this series went a long way towards cementing both their legacies.
2. Velveteen Dream vs. Aleister Black (NXT TakeOver: WarGames)
Storytelling and psychology off the goddamn charts. I’ll be the first to admit that I was skeptical of Velveteen Dream going into the match, but he built up a compelling feud with Black beforehand that made me hope that it would deliver. The match more than delivered, Dream made me a believer, and Black benefited from some much-needed character development. This match was a perfect storm of two wrestlers with an unreal level of chemistry, next-level talent and a white hot crowd. Quite possibly the best singles bout in NXT history.
3. Pete Dunne vs. Tyler Bate (NXT TakeOver: Chicago)
The UK Championship Tournament was one of the highlights of 2017 for WWE, but this standalone title match at TakeOver: Chicago kicked things up several notches. At just twenty and twenty-four years old respectively, Bate and Dunne are already technical wizards to a degree that has rarely been seen in a WWE ring in the last decade. Dunne’s lethal combination of technicality and a mean streak a mile long make him a standout talent that could go far in WWE if they’d either put him in NXT full-time or deliver the long-promised UK weekly series.
4. Hiromu Takahashi vs. Dragon Lee (NJPW New Beginning in Osaka)
Other junior heavyweight matches grabbed more attention this year, but for my money Takahashi’s title bout with Dragon Lee at New Beginning was by far the best of the bunch. The tandem of Takahashi’s unpredictability and Lee’s high flying mastery made for a contest full of dangerous-looking spots and technical prowess in equal measure. But what really made this match stand out amongst so many great super junior bouts in 2017 was the fact that Takahashi and Lee took the time beforehand to build up a very believable, very bitter rivalry.
5. WarGames Match (NXT TakeOver: WarGames)
I was both excited for and skeptical of WWE’s decision to bring back an altered version of WarGames, but this match met and then surpassed the hell out of my expectations. All nine competitors left everything they had in the ring, and even though The Undisputed Era walked away with the victory, everyone involved came out of this thing looking like a goddamn superstar. Athletic, entertaining and violent as all get out, the match more than lived up to the WarGames legacy and will hopefully be the beginning of a new yearly tradition for NXT.
5 Honorable Mentions
1. Asuka vs. Ember Moon (NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III) – Hands down, Asuka and Moon put on the best women’s match of 2017; this one damn near cracked the top five and is a testament to how far mainstream women’s wrestling has come in the last five years. I’m so happy for these fantastic talents that the era of pillow fights and bra and panties matches is dead and buried and Asuka and Moon are leading the way forward.
2. Kenny Omega vs. Tetsuya Naito (NJPW G1 Climax Tournament final) – Everything these two touch turns to gold and NJPW booked them in finals for a reason; Omega and Naito absolutely tore it up here and served to make us all pine for the inevitable Bullet Club vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon feud that is surely on the horizon.
3. Kairi Sane vs. Tessa Blanchard (WWE Mae Young Classic) – The Mae Young Classic was an enjoyable watch, but it was also wildly uneven in terms of match quality. Sane and Blanchard stole the show early and quite frankly this match should have been the final, as it was easily the best of the tournament. How WWE hasn’t signed Blanchard remains a mystery.
4. Kushida vs. Will Ospreay (NJPW Best of the Super Juniors final) – Kushida’s comeback from being utterly annihilated in less than two minutes by Hiromu Takahashi at Sakura Genesis was one of my favorite storylines of 2017. I’m a sucker for a good redemption story and Kushida’s victory over the high-flying Ospreay after a grueling tournament was the ultimate redemption.
5. Guerrillas of Destiny vs. Evil and Sanada (NJPW World Tag League final)
Four of the best all-around athletes in NJPW mixing it up was bound to make for a killer match, but this tournament final surpassed my lofty expectations. The way in which G.O.D. and Evil and Sanada structured this bout, with tons devasting double team moves, unique counters and false finishes gave this one a legit “big fight feel”that had me on the edge of my seat.