B/R Experts Break Down the Best WWE Matches of 2017
A banner year for WWE saw match after match sizzle on the screen.
AJ Styles kicked off a stellar 2017 with a barn-burner of a WWE Championship bout. He later flourished opposite Finn Balor and brought out the best in Brock Lesnar.
The Phenomenal One wasn't alone in tearing it up. Johnny Gargano, Roman Reigns and The New Day were among the Superstars who made quality contributions to WWE's output.
As great bouts filled the calendar at both TakeOver specials and pay-per-views, it grew increasingly clear the future is in good hands. Much of the most engaging action and in-ring theater came from the NXT brand. Rising stars had their coming-out clashes. Fresh faces entered the Match of the Year discussion.
From ladder matches to technical clinics, there was no shortage of greatness between the ropes in 2017. Read on for a look at the year's biggest and best bouts from the B/R WWE team:
AJ Styles vs. John Cena (Royal Rumble)
This was the first big WWE match of the year, and it set the tone for an exceptional 12 months of wrestling.
Styles and Cena engaged in a classic just five months prior at SummerSlam in Brooklyn, New York, and there were some doubts about whether they could outdo themselves at the Rumble. Added to the drama was Cena's attempt to tie Ric Flair with 16 world championship reigns. Once the opening bell rang, the uncertainty was put to rest.
We witnessed two of the greatest wrestlers of their era go move for move, spot for spot, and make each other look like a million bucks.
The energy never dissipated, and the storytelling throughout the match kept the fans on the edges of their seats. You truly didn't know who would win. Styles flew all over the ring, and Indy Cena unleashed an armada of moves and counters that amazed the crowd and silenced his devout critics.
What made this bout more compelling was watching it live. The crowd was ablaze with excitement, and when Cena won, it, in fact, did not riot. Cena and Styles received a standing ovation. The crowd was emotionally drained but satisfied. The Franchise and The Phenomenal One superseded any adjective worthy of describing that classic.
Cena. Styles. Fight forever!
The Authors of Pain vs. DIY vs. The Revival (TakeOver: Orlando)
It has been an up-and-down year for WWE, but one thing nobody can deny is the dominance of tag team wrestling during the past 12 months.
NXT has been especially great at providing tag team bouts every fan can enjoy, and the best of those matches happened at NXT TakeOver: Orlando, when The Authors of Pain defended the NXT tag titles against The Revival and DIY.
Everything about this contest was executed to perfection. It had incredible technical wrestling, power moves to shake the ring and plenty of high-flying spots. It was one chapter in a longer story while also being its own epic adventure.
The moment after the bell, when longtime rivals DIY and The Revival stood side by side against AOP, let everyone know this wouldn't be your average Triple Threat tag team match. A table came into play early, but weapons never dominated the action.
Typical WWE tag team contests tend to ebb and flow in a predictable way. They start out hot, slow down in the middle and pick back up in the final few minutes. However, this bout had almost no break in the action. It was 24 minutes of nonstop excitement.
When Scott Dawson and Johnny Gargano teamed up to perform DIY's finisher on Rezar while Tommaso Ciampa and Dash Wilder hit The Revival's finisher on Akam, the crowd lost its collective mind. Seeing rivals unite against a greater enemy is always fun. Wilder even threw caution to the wind and performed a suicide dive alongside Gargano.
Despite having the odds stacked against them, The Authors of Pain emerged victorious. This match happened the same weekend as WrestleMania 33, but it's hard to think of anything from the biggest show of the year on the same level as the NXT Tag Team Championships contest from TakeOver: Orlando.
Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne (TakeOver: Chicago)
Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne at NXT TakeOver: Chicago set a standard that no other match in the company—WWE or NXT—could come close to in 2017.
As Michael Sidgwick of WhatCulture.com noted in naming this match among the outlet's 10 best of 2017 (and the only WWE/NXT match to rank on its list): "Strength vs. viciousness, showmanship vs. sociopathy, the pure of heart vs. the cold of blood: this was a match of meshing contrasts wrestled by two men with stunning chemistry."
Bate's technical proficiency was on full display with a mat game that is among the best in WWE. It was this skill that led him to capture the UK title in May and a style that is commonplace among British wrestlers. Dunne, who was made a star on this night, was masterful in his role as brooding heel, a psychological killer if there ever were one.
Strike for strike, near-fall for near-fall, spot for spot, Bate and Dunne delivered a symphony that was applauded by wrestling fans watching on TV and in attendance—a group that gave these Superstars not one but two standing ovations during their 15-minute masterpiece.
In his review of NXT TakeOver: Chicago, Bleacher Report's Erik Beaston wrote: "There is not a fan who came away from that match thinking that title was the most important thing in the entire world to both men, and that is the feeling every fan tuning into a championship match should experience."
Men's SmackDown Money in the Bank Ladder Match (Money in the Bank)
The Money in the Bank PPV usually features some of the best bouts of the year, and the 2017 installment was no exception. In addition to the inaugural women's Money in the Bank ladder match and a better-than-expected bout between Jinder Mahal and Randy Orton, the men's MitB Ladder match delivered in the main event slot.
The star-studded matchup featured the illustrious likes of Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Baron Corbin and Dolph Ziggler, and every athlete had his time to shine. Although Nakamura was taken out early on by Corbin, he resurfaced halfway through to give us an epic encounter with Styles.
In addition to their unforgettable face-off, we witnessed Styles virtually attempt to kill Owens by sending him crashing on top of a ladder. Zayn sold like a madman, Ziggler was more vicious than usual and Corbin also brought his A-game. Everyone involved contributed something special to make this an unbelievable main event.
It wasn't a total spotfest either; feuds were furthered from the Backlash event the month prior, and several stories kicked off. The action was exceptional from start to finish, but before Nakamura could claim the contract, Corbin blindsided him and took the briefcase for himself.
The Lone Wolf failed to win the title after he cashed in the contract, but the match itself was a real treat that isn't getting the attention and recognition it deserves.
Asuka vs. Ember Moon (TakeOver: Brooklyn III)
The NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn PPVs showcase the best in WWE women's wrestling.
The first Brooklyn show, in 2015, featured a title match between Bayley and Sasha Banks. It's been rightly called the greatest WWE women's match of all time. Brooklyn II featured Billie Kay vs. Ember Moon (her debut!) on the undercard and Bayley vs. Asuka in the title match. The second win over Bayley reinforced Asuka's dominance. It was an ideal NXT farewell for Bayley, who would debut on Raw shortly afterward.
Brooklyn III had a lot to live up to. And Moon vs. Asuka more than fulfilled the tradition of female wrestling excellence.
In one corner was a young upstart who had previously pushed The Empress of Tomorrow to the edge of defeat—so close, in fact, that Asuka had to cheat in order to get the win. In the other corner was the undefeated champion who held the NXT women's title for a record 523 days.
Both women were built like tanks, and they put on a highly physical, brutal match.
Moon brought the high-flying attacks and the power moves. Asuka brought the stiff strikes and the submission holds; she worked Moon's left arm and wrist the entire night, and Moon always sold it well.
The single possible criticism of this match was the finish.
It should have been Moon's coronation as the new women's face of NXT. Had WWE known about the extent of Asuka's collarbone injury, Moon probably would have won. Devoid of context, however, the match is unimpeachable.
Whatever WWE has planned for the inevitable NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV will struggle to top this.
Johnny Gargano vs. Andrade 'Cien' Almas (TakeOver: Brooklyn III)
Both Gargano and Andrade "Cien" Almas were in unfamiliar positions entering their match at TakeOver: Brooklyn III in August.
Gargano was a singles star under the NXT umbrella for the first time, as his partnership with Tommaso Ciampa was imploding in the manifestation of frustration and professional disappointment. Heartbroken and at a loss, the Superstar known affectionately to millions as Johnny Wrestling was looking to move onward and upward.
Almas was a talented, though misguided, Superstar whose penchant for partying and beautiful women had led him down a path of professional mediocrity. His arrogance and nonchalance led to a rapid descent, including a televised loss to glorified jobber Cezar Bononi.
Then the mysterious Zelina Vega arrived on the scene and set out to refocus the once-promising luchador.
It was against that background that two of the most talented, though emotionally flawed, competitors took to the squared circle for the opening match of an event that has become the brand's signature extravaganza.
A red-hot crowd in Brooklyn greeted Gargano with an enormous ovation, while they were still unsure of how to respond to Almas amid what looked to be a reinvigorated push. Any hesitancy would be erased early, as the Superstars presented a fast-paced, high-intensity matchup that featured superb counter-wrestling and dramatic near-falls that left the fans on their feet.
Despite a valiant effort from Gargano and a breakout performance from the undervalued Almas, it was Vega who played the biggest role in the outcome.
Sensing Almas was in danger of another high-profile defeat, she threw a DIY T-shirt at Gargano, distracting him and reminding him of the emotional distress he had been under since his team with Ciampa came crashing down in Chicago a few months earlier. Almas seized the momentary opening and scored the victory with the El Idolo.
The character work and storytelling injected into the match, coupled with the stellar work of the Superstars, came together to create a masterpiece of emotion.
In a year that featured returns of beloved gimmick matches, a 16th world title reign and dominance by both The Beast Incarnate and The Monster Among Men, it was the rawness and emotion of Gargano and Almas' individual stories, and their determination to shake off outside factors to secure a single victory, that helped them achieve the best match of 2017.
Brock Lesnar vs. Braun Strowman vs. Samoa Joe vs. Roman Reigns (SummerSlam)
A meeting of monsters. A battle of hoss on hoss on hoss on hoss. The SummerSlam main event was a big, electric slugfest.
Strowman, Joe and Reigns all looked to dethrone Lesnar and claim the Universal Championship for themselves. Their efforts to do so proved to be a display of brutes at war.
The chaos began early and didn't die down until the final bell. Fists flew. Flesh beat on flesh. This felt like we were seeing superbeings smash into each other, leaving the skyscrapers and streetlights in ruin around them.
Within the Fatal 4-Way lay mini matches, showdowns between two predators once the ring cleared for a moment: Joe vs. Reigns, Strowman vs. Lesnar, Reigns vs. The Monster Among Men.
This was a showcase match for Strowman, who thrived as a wrecking ball among wrecking balls. His demolition of Lesnar was a star-making moment. Human beings aren't supposed to overwhelm The Beast Incarnate like that.
There were better technical exhibitions in 2017. There were powerful subtle stories. But for pure adrenaline and animals-tearing-into-each-other action, nothing beat Lesnar's survival at SummerSlam.
The New Day vs. The Usos (Hell in a Cell)
2017 was quietly the year of tag team wrestling led by three teams: The New Day, The Usos and The Bar.
While Sheamus and Cesaro held down the fort on Monday Night Raw, The Usos and The New Day had a series of classics together on SmackDown Live that culminated in the best Hell in a Cell match in recent memory.
While this year was not the first time these two teams had clashed, The New Day and The Usos worked on a higher level throughout this feud, starting in late May. They took every opportunity to showcase their ability and creativity. What could have been The New Day's SmackDown crowning became a war for greatness.
While their show-stealer at SummerSlam was special, capped by an incredible series of near-falls, Hell in a Cell opened up a vault for the teams to explore that changed the game. They had unrelenting steel, sturdy kendo sticks and even handcuffs with which to isolate and brutalize one another.
Moreover, this match was the best showcase of the full scope of this longstanding feud, with no man in the match afraid to ruin his career or his opponent's with sickening and imaginative displays of violence. It was a near-perfect display of tag team wrestling at a main event level, 22 minutes of nonstop emotional action by two veteran teams that looked to cement their legacies.
This was the first time the tag team titles were defended inside Hell in a Cell and the first time either team had been inside the structure, but they looked more at home there than most ever have. This match was a showcase of veteran talent in the midst of a creative renaissance, telling an exemplary story of brotherhoods at war for pride and glory.
Finn Balor vs. AJ Styles (TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs)
Finn Balor and AJ Styles were bound to collide eventually. WWE fans believed it would come as the result of a storyline that linked the two Superstars back to The Bullet Club. While that angle may still happen at some point, the dream match between them at TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs was one to remember.
Styles' overnight journey from South America to Minneapolis for TLC made the impromptu bout even more memorable. The pieces of the puzzle came together Oct. 22, and magic was made when The Demon King faced The Phenomenal One.
Interestingly enough, the crowd in Minnesota, while loud in the beginning, was relatively quiet during much of the match. Like the Japanese audiences that marveled at Balor and Styles, the fans were more concerned with watching the action.
It wasn't about taking over the program; it was about enjoying the talent of both Superstars.
Balor and Styles did not disappoint. They worked this match as if they were trying to establish a foothold, as if one wrong move would mean a loss. This was a physical chess match, and each guy moved deliberately and respectfully.
Their Bullet Club history may be back in New Japan Pro-Wrestling, but their understanding of each other's ability was alive and well in WWE. This match was treated importantly, and they showed mutual respect at the end.
This was also a clash of two ring generals, each man staking his claim to the title of best in the world. It was just a taste of what could lie ahead. It was also one of the best bouts WWE fans saw in 2017.
Aleister Black vs. Velveteen Dream (TakeOver: WarGames)
When the crowd goes wild in a moment when both competitors simply sit in the ring and stare into each other's eyes, you know you are watching something pretty special unfold.
Aleister Black vs. Velveteen Dream wasn't even on most people's radars going into NXT TakeOver: WarGames. It was all about the main event, yet by the time the final bell had rung, all the buzz surrounded Black vs. Dream.
It was storytelling at its finest. The match was built around Black's refusal to acknowledge Dream and say his name, a theme both guys managed to intertwine in and around their in-ring performances on the night to perfection.
Most people knew Black could work like a star, but Dream's emergence on this particular night made for encouraging viewing. Both competitors appeared to have instant chemistry, and some spectacular moves left the TakeOver crowd in awe.
When Black and Dream imitated each other's gimmicks midway through the bout, as Dream copied Black's signature pose before Aleister got up in Dream's face, the crowd rightly went berserk. Black's victory felt like the right decision too, and there was still time for one more standout moment when Black finally gave in and said Velveteen Dream's name.
In a year when Shinsuke Nakamura, Bobby Roode and Tye Dillinger have all graduated to the main roster from NXT, this was a firm reminder that the production line at Full Sail University remains as strong as ever.
Brock Lesnar vs. AJ Styles (Survivor Series)
The champion vs. champion contest at Survivor Series 2017 had nothing to do with two wrestlers and everything to do with one match.
This masterclass of an outing was by no means perfect, but that only added to the Lesnar-esque realism that somehow managed to make the bout better.
WWE lined up its two world champions—Lesnar and Styles—and dazzled with one match. Emotional investment followed.
There was uneasiness early when The Beast seemed well on his way to devouring his next meal. Hope arrived midway through when the scrappy underdog used his blue-collar-yet-high-flying approach to fight his way back into the match.
We had uncertainty during the climactic moments, even when the storyline suggested a Lesnar victory because that would help Raw tie up the best-of-seven Survivor Series.
In the end, there was elation, even among WWE's pesky online contingent, which is known to freak out whenever Styles is in peril.
In a back-and-forth war that was uncharacteristic for a Lesnar match in 2017, both Lesnar and Styles messed around and put on a clinic.
This was so much more than a Match of the Year candidate. Technically, it may not have even been the match of the month. But as a whole, this was more than just wrestling. It was a grand spectacle.