Professional wrestling is still a thing in 2016, believe it or not, and the year did not disappoint in terms of quality match-ups and shows. Around the globe, from backyard rings to the Tokyo Dome, “Match of the Year” contenders began clogging the Twitter feeds almost immediately. This year, I wanted to do something a little different for the “The Top 10” list of best matches. Not only was the focus of the list on Japanese promotions outside of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, but I wanted each promotion to be recognized, as a way to showcase what’s out there and available for wrestling fans hungry for more.
With the help of a few VOW contributors, we go from AJPW to ZERO1 in a top ten list of our favorites matches from 2016. This isn’t a rank of order in superiority — the only order is alphabetical.
All Japan Pro-Wrestling
Triple Crown: Kento Miyahara (c) vs. Jun Akiyama (July 23)
Miyahara has had to overcome a number of obstacles as champion, whether it be Kengo Mashimo, Daisuke Sekimoto, Zeus, Ryouji Sai, Takao Omori or most recently Suwama, he’s overcome every one of them. Arguably his biggest challenge of them all however, came in the form of one Jun Akiyama on July 23rd. Akiyama is not the biggest guy on the roster, he’s not the strongest, he’s not the fastest, but he does have the most experience. The biggest dog in the yard isn’t always the strongest or the fastest or physically the biggest, but the one who’s been through it all and has never stepped down. This was more of a test for Miyahara than anything. To be the ace, you have to overcome all-comers, you have to overcome the strongest dog in the yard, the fastest dog in the yard, and the one who’s been through it all and has never stepped down.
Miyahara, the one with the potential to be the next Akiyama, went head up with the man himself, and he did everything he could possibly do to prove himself, everything he could do to earn his approval as champion, he showed such desperation and such eagerness, such heart in this match, something he’s so good at conveying. Akiyama, despite not being the biggest or the toughest or the fastest, may have been the smartest of Miyahara’s challengers, he played it smarter than everyone else did and as a result almost got the better of Miyahara. Miyahara never gave up though, he had too much heart and too much fight and too much on the line to let it slip away from him. This was his chance to prove himself as champion, and that’s exactly what he did. – Dylan Justin
Big Japan Pro Wrestling
BJW Strong World Heavyweight Title: Yuji Okabayashi (c) vs. Hideyoshi Kamitani (July 24)
This is the biggest moment of Kamitani’s career and while the uphill battle to get to this very moment was awesome to follow, including his compelling baby-faced underdog fight against Shuji Ishikawa in the the Strong Climb final, the aftermath of his title win left much to be desired. Big boss hoss, Yuji Okabayashi, looked like an absolute beast of a champ up until the very end of the match, kicking out of Kamitani’s backdrop at one and hulking out momentarily in one last act of defiance as champion before Kamitani finishes him off with the second. The slow-burning build to the hot finish was well-paced and both of these guys sold phenomenally throughout, especially Kamitani, who once again summoned that underdog spirit. Okabayashi makes Kamitani fight for every bit of offense and he doesn’t let up on him, always on the attack, always squashing his comeback efforts. I liked Kamitani going back to the sleeper hold to try and wear Okabayashi down, only for Okabayashi to ragdoll him off and punish him in the corner with vicious chops. Rough-edged, hard-hitting, emotional sweat-flying hoss warfare – the best match of Kamitani’s career thus far and the best match of Big Japan in 2016. – Brennan Patrick
KO-D Openweight Title: Konosuke Takeshita (c) vs. Shuji Ishikawa (August 28)
There’s been a ton of awesome KO-D Openweight Title matches this year between the reigns of Isami Kodaka, Konosuke Takeshita, Shuji Ishikawa and the old ace, HARASHIMA. In most cases, you can’t go wrong, but this was probably my favorite of the bunch, as it showcased how much Takeshita was matured over the course of the year and he goes down swinging like a true champion. The last time these two met in singles action, it was a sub-five minute match, in which Takeshita defeated Ishikawa in a short spurt of bomb-tastic offense. This match, in a lot of ways, is similar to that shorty but goody – an epic-style bombfest that was red hot right out the gate. After Ishikawa powerbombs Takeshita onto the apron early on, it becomes painfully obvious that Takeshita will have to empty the tank and tap into his reserves in order to keep the title. They go back and forth, trading strikes and throwing bombs. Takeshita gets a good chain of offense, including a dragon suplex and Blue Thunder Bomb, but when he tries for the deadlift German, an exhausted Ishikawa elbows his way out and hits a cool backdrop-style backbreaker onto the knees before locking in a cloverleaf hold.
Ishikawa, more or less, targets the back throughout, trying to deplete Takeshita’s fiery energy. Fatigued, Takeshita tries to fight back but can’t and Ishikawa sees the weakness and looks to finish the job with a sleeper hold, transitioning into a sleeper-style slam and a running knee for a two count. There’s a couple nice call backs to their tag match from Judgement Day, with Takeshita trying to prove that he isn’t just some paper champion. His desperation to hold onto the belt is bleeding into the final stretch with his strikes, to a point where he just starts punching Ishikawa in the face! In the end, the champion’s will to survive is strong, as he takes just about everything in the big dog’s arsenal, but ultimately, Ishikawa is able to hit the Giant Slam to become the new KO-D Openweight Champion. Great finish, with both guys dog-tired but still slugging away, having poured out everything into this match, physically et cetera. – Brennan Patrick
Losing Unit Must Disband 3-Way Elimination Match: Dia.HEARTS (Masaaki Mochizuki, Dragon Kid, Kzy, Big R Shimizu) vs. VerserK (Shingo Takagi, Naruki Doi, YAMATO, Kotoka) vs. Monster Express (Masato Yoshino, Akira Tozawa, T-Hawk, Shachihoko BOY), (February 4)
Units matter more in Dragon Gate than they do in nearly any other professional wrestling promotion in the world, and as such the matches where the very existence of the units involved is on the line are some of the most heated ones produced by DG every year. In this case, three units did battle under elimination rules. There would be no winners, only survivors; the first unit to have all of its members eliminated would lose and be forced to disband, while the other two units would be allowed to continue on. Regular DG fans almost all have their own favorite unit, so this would be akin to watching your favorite sports team play a game with a hated rival where the loser would cease to exist. Imagine the Yankees vs. the Red Sox playing one final game, with the winner claiming absolute victory over the loser and ending the very existence of their hated rivals. Now you might understand why the crowd was so heated for this!
The ring work on its own is pretty great, with the exact type of match many people probably close their eyes and think of when they hear “Dragon Gate” (for better or worse, I guess): super fast-paced, with wrestlers running in and out of the screen and continuously doing spots. When you add that to some of the emotion and the long-term storylines at play here- the Dia members trying to defend the existence of their unit until their leader BxB Hulk can return from long-term injury, Shingo Takagi continuously bullying his own former unit mate Shachihoko BOY for being a tiny weakling, and Kzy trying to prove to both the world and himself that he’s finally reached a competitive level after years spent as a back line player- you get a seriously fantastic match, one of my favorites of the year from any promotion. It’s 28 minutes of non-stop excitement that you really shouldn’t miss. – John Carroll
Strongest-K Title: Kaji Tomato (c) vs. Kengo Mashimo (August 20)
Kengo Mashimo has had a sneakily great 2016 and when he’s able to wrestle his kind of match, despite the dance partner, the result is something well-worth checking out. He’s so good at being present in the ring, waiting for the smallest mistake from his opponent to capitalize on it big time. Mashimo is so awesomely relentless in this, masterfully dictated, and to give credit where credit’s due, Kaji Tomato does a good job of selling the damage to the leg, especially on the irish whips. At times, the match felt a bit too choreographed but that may just be Tomato’s offensive style, which is hard for me to get excited for. I like when Tomato works more of an antagonistic “KUSHIDA Arm Killer Mode” but hey, this was fun in that twee Kaji Tomato sort of way, counteracting Kengo’s more brutal style. I like the opening, where we get some cutesy back and forths until Kengo outwrestles Kaji and sets him on the top rope, giving him that double cheek slap like he’s a little tomato baby up in his high chair. Tomato doesn’t take kindly to that and fires off a slap of his own to Kengo.
But the real meat and potatoes of this match is Kengo’s dedicated leg work. Everything about his performance was great. The way he watches Kaji hurt himself on the springboard dropkick attempt, smelling the blood and sinking his teeth back into the leg. Or Kengo’s shitty little kicks to the grounded Kaji. Zero respect. Even when Tomato sacrifices the leg to get in some of his silly movez, Kengo is quick to seize on any misfire and go right back to destroying the leg. Tomato forgets about the injured leg during his last gasp of speedy offense but Kengo’s always there to remind us, even if it’s a kick to the leg to escape a predicament. When Tomato tries for the Red Eye a final time, Kengo traps the leg, then the arm, forcing Tomato into submission. – Brennan Patrick
Pro Wrestling NOAH
GHC Heavyweight Title: Katsuhiko Nakajima (c) vs. Minoru Suzuki (December 2)
Katsuhiko Nakajima had an excellent 2016. His strong performance in New Japan’s G1 Climax was probably his most widely viewed work, but my favorite Katsuhiko match of 2016 was his December 2nd GHC Heavyweight title defense against Minoru Suzuki. Nakajima’s victory put an end to the New Japan influenced Suzuki-gun era in NOAH. Interestingly, the match itself was influenced by a NJPW style of a previous era. The match was based on Minoru’s defense of Nakajima’s arsenal of kicks. The more experienced Minoru turned his defense into his offense; aggressively attacking Katsuhiko’s leg throughout the match. Katsuhiko’s great selling added to the story and set up his fiery comeback. As Katsuhiko gained momentum, Minoru’s strikes became weaker. Nakajima’s fire overwhelmed the villainous Suzuki-gun boss; Suzuki panicked as his empire burned. The match 37-minute epic flew by, the match functioning as a self-aware commentary on NOAH’s struggle to rid itself of outside influence. From here, NOAH sails onward with Nakajima at the helm, into what the press is calling a “rebirth.” – JoJo Remy
Sendai Girls’ Pro Wrestling
Sendai Girls’ Title: Aja Kong (c) vs. Meiko Satomura (April 8)
I think we all, myself included, use the phrase ‘this match was a war!’ too much, but if that phrase ever fit a match it is this one. This was just a hard-hitting and brutal match. There were so many cringe-worthy moves as neither were holding back. The suplexes were killer, the strikes were on point, and they kept the pace up even more than I was expecting. Kong’s way of blocking the frog splash took the breath out of me and I wasn’t even in the same continent, and how Satomura was still moving at the end of this, I have no idea. I loved Satomura reaching into her bag of tricks and winning with the Scorpion Rising, since the Death Valley Bomb was clearly not working at all. A must-see match if you are into wrestlers trying to kill each other, a great main event and more than worthy of being a championship match. One of the most entertaining matches I have seen in 2016. – Kevin Wilson
World of Stardom Title: Io Shirai (c) vs. Mayu Iwatani (December 22)
Picking the best wrestler in Stardom is easy (Io Shirai), but picking the best match is a bit harder since her big matches tend to follow a similar structure. It may partially be because it is fresh in my mind, but her match on 12/22 against Mayu Iwatani is my pick for best match of the year for the promotion. The two also battled back in May, but the difference is that their December match had a different emotional element since Io turned heel on Mayu in November. This added a new layer to the match, as they were throwing bombs and trying to kill each other, but it wasn’t just for the title, there was also an undercurrent of hatred there as well. Io and Mayu take a ton of brutal offense but Mayu still not being able to figure out how to keep Io down for three not only told a good story during the match, but set them up down the road for the feud to continue into 2017.
If you are new to Stardom, it is important to note that Io Shirai is notoriously difficult to pin. You have to kill her to get her to stay down, and while Mayu hit her with many different dragon suplexes, she never hit her with the version that gets her wins in her bigger matches. The amount of brutality in this match was off the charts, ranging from the dragon suplex on the apron, or on the floor, or even just a simple headscissors where Io lands on her head. The early limb work by Io didn’t go anywhere but I thought Mayu sold it the right amount. She limped for a bit but shook it off when Io wasn’t really able to capitalize on it due to being tossed around the ring like a ragdoll. Perhaps most importantly, the match felt epic and important, which to me is a requirement for a quality championship match. Non-stop offensive and the definition of an Io Main Event Match, and perhaps one of the best Stardom matches of the year just based off emotion and how far both were willing to go to pick up the win against their former best friend. – Kevin Wilson
Jiro “Ikemen” Kuroshio vs. Kota Ibushi (August 11)
Picking a recommended match for Wrestle-1 was more difficult than you might expect, and there’s definitely some other matches I can highly recommend too (Yuji Hino vs. Shuji Kondo during Hino’s excellent title run was a very close second, for instance). But ultimately, I think for someone who just straight up hasn’t watched W-1 this year, I would settle on Ikemen vs. Ibushi, from W-1’s biggest show of the year in Yokohama. Obviously many people know all about Kota Ibushi and what he brings to the table, and he brings pretty much all of it here: the in-ring charisma, some amazing spots and dives (I won’t spoil the big one for you other than saying Matt Sydal probably wonders why Kota was allowed to get that high in Japan, ba dum tiss), and some beautiful German suplexes.
If you aren’t yet familiar with Ikemen, on the other hand, this is a great introduction to one of Japan’s fantastic young talents. Jiro is only 24-years old, practically a baby by puroresu standards. Trained by Tajiri and originally debuting for his Smash promotion, Jiro followed his trainer to Wrestle-1 in 2014 and quickly became one of their most popular wrestlers. His elaborate entrance and tradition of never taking off his jacket are part of what makes him so much fun, but then he can more than back it up in the ring as well, where he’s one of the best at being a fiery underdog babyface in the entire country. You just can’t help but root for Jiro, and here in a match with one of the most popular Japanese wrestlers alive right now, the fact that you’ll probably still end up rooting for him is a testament to his abilities. Godspeed, Jackets! Lead Wrestle-1 into 2017! – John Carroll
Pro Wrestling ZERO1
ZERO1 Heavyweight Title: Hideki Suzuki (c) vs. Masato Tanaka (January 1)
Masato Tanaka shows that he can still go, despite all the damage his body has sustained over the years. Hideki Suzuki is the cool shooter, controlling the flow of the match with his seamless transitions, cutting Tanaka off almost effortlessly to wear him down on the mat or toss him with a suplex. When Tanaka realizes he can’t hang with Suzuki on the ground, he turns to striking, which Suzuki doesn’t hold back from answering. Tanaka even touches on his hardcore roots, using a chair and splashing Suzuki through a table, but Suzuki doesn’t let up. He continues to show his dominance as champ, chaining together his offense quickly and effectively. He seems one step ahead of Tanaka throughout the entire match, responding before Tanaka has a chance to answer. He nearly finishes off Tanaka with a double arm suplex from the top rope but the old dog kicks out, firing back up with a Sliding D. But when he tries for the second, Suzuki has his number, the theme of the match, and slickly counters through into a German suplex>dragon suplex hold combo. Suzuki retains the title in the end, proving that while Tanaka can bring the fighting veteran experience, technique wins out. – Brennan Patrick
GWC Single Title: Daisuke (c) vs. Mr. Gannosuke (May 8)
There was a ton of other hidden gems this year from smaller promotions like Heat-Up (and to a much, much, much lesser extent, Dove Pro [I kid]) but of all the deep indies, I enjoyed GUTS World most. In this match, the 48-year old Gannosuke brings a ton of great energy and hustle, awesome old man armwork, and a hot finish. Daisuke was good here, too, with decent selling throughout and a fun callback to his earlier work in the match, but the narrative here was Gannosuke showing off some of that hard-earned wrestling wisdom and experience. Once he took control of Daisuke’s arm after banging it around the ringpost, the match really fell into place. He wrecks it old school with some grinding elbows and stiff, ole-fashioned wrenching. The way he manipulates Daisuke’s fingers while he has him in the armbar, pulling Daisuke’s elbow pad off, tossing it into the crowd and kicking the arm. I loved the running armbreakers. Just relentless work from the veteran.
Daisuke fires back with some elbows using his good arm and gets in some offense, including a cool slingshot corkscrew splash, but Gannosuke turns the lights off on the party, attacking the bad arm to escape a top rope move and superplexing Daisuke. He hits a gutwrench suplex and a tribute Falcon Arrow but Daisuke avoids the Fire Thunder and goes back to the leg he worked in the beginning, hitting a dragon screw legwhip and locking in the figure-four. When he tries for a sliding elbow, Gannosuke counters and hits another pair of running armbreakers before forcing him down with the wakigatame, really putting his weight into it. Daisuke blows through some of his big offense to try and finish off the old man but Gannosuke hits him with back-to-back Fire Thunder Drivers for a very well-earned title win. – Brennan Patrick