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A year end look at the 2016 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards (Part two)

Hey everybody, back with part 2 of the Observer Awards breakdowns (click HERE to catch on part 1, with wrestler of the year and more).

Today we'll be looking at Most Outstanding, Match of the Year and more!


1. Chris Hero
2. Matt Riddle
3. AJ Styles

Honorable Mentions: Zack Sabre Jr., Johnny Gargano, Drew Gulak, Scott Dawson, and Dash Wilder

Chris Hero: Hero and Riddle had been going back and forth all year for the number one slot on my ballot, but Hero decided to have one of the best weeks in the history of professional wrestling this November when he went back to back to back to back against Tomohiro Ishii, Katsuyori Shibata, Tracy Williams and Matthew Riddle all in 4.25+ matches in a span of four days in two different continents. An unbelievably great, all-time level year, capped off in style.

Matt Riddle: Simply put, the best rookie year in the history of professional wrestling. Better than Akiyama. Better than Angle. Better than anyone you want to name. To have a guy in his first full year going four stars plus with almost a dozen guys is ridiculous. The series with Hero is an instant classic series of matches, and his peak of the year, but he delivers every single time out. Aside from a couple matches caught up in booking woes, I’ve never once this year seen a Matt Riddle match that disappointed me, and in fact he exceeded my expectations basically every time out. And I haven’t even seen the Ospreay match yet!

AJ Styles: I already talked plenty about AJ in the Wrestler of the Year discussion, but he deserves a bit more discussion about his superlative ringwork. The thing that makes AJ so special is versatility. The guy can do everything, work with everybody, work every style, and produce greatness with anyone he wrestles. You look at things like his incredible series with Roman Reigns and contrast them with his dynamic heel performances in these absurd matches with James Ellsworth and it really shows how obscenely talented he is as a wrestler. One was so heavily timing and execution and chemistry based and the other was almost all character worker and personality, and he thrived in both.

The ladder match in particular was a genuinely great short match… with James freaking Ellsworth. He’s made Dean Ambrose look better than he’s ever looked during their feud, he’s got the great and very distinct pair of matches with John Cena, he’s killed it on TV in matches against guys like Xavier Woods (a match sadly lost to lame duck era Smackdown that few people watched), Dolph Ziggler, and his early matches against The Miz, he’s done it all this year.

Not in contention:

Any New Japan heavyweight: In 2013-2015, hiding in tag matches most of the year and having a hot G1 tournament was enough to get you into contention for this type of award, but in 2016, that’s just not good enough. Between AJ Styles in WWE putting out 3.75-4 star TV matches on the regular and classics on PPV, and indy stars like Riddle and Hero (not to mention Gulak, Sabre, and Gargano) tearing it up all over the place every weekend, I’m not going to be impressed that Kenny Omega had a classic match with Naito in the G1 semifinal and a great match with the Goto in the final after spending most of the year screwing around with a broom and working substandard trios matches not even close to the level of AJ and the Bucks’ exceptional Bullet Club Wolfpac trios matches in 2015.

Looking at my sheet of matches, the only NJ heavyweight who even has a case is Katsuyori Shibata, who had great matches with the likes of Ishii, Hero, Nagata, Nakajima, and EVIL, and never really dragged ass for months at a time. Not to mention that when he was in tags, they were some of the hottest tags of the year teaming with the 3rd Generation against Pro Wrestling NOAH in a feud that sadly got cut short by NOAH being bought up and no longer being a satellite of New Japan. I say heavyweight because I think you could probably squint and make a case for KUSHIDA, but he’s the only NJ guy I’d strongly consider.


1. The Miz
2. Alexa Bliss
3. AJ Styles

Honorable Mention: Jay Briscoe, Samoa Joe, Tetsuya Naito

The Miz: I’m not sure how you could even make a case for anyone else this year. His speech when he lost his mind on Daniel Bryan on Talking Smack isn’t just the best promo of the year, it’s one of the best promos ever, and he’s been consistently great both on Talking Smack and on Smackdown ever since the brand split, and even before the split he was good in the Styles mini-feud and the feud with Cesaro, Zayn, and Owens. He managed to have the feud of the year in a year that actually had quite a few good feuds largely on the back of his tremendous micwork in so many different segments. The Participation Award segment last week was yet another highlight, albeit slightly outside the voting period for this year, but that would just be a cherry on top anyway.

Alexa Bliss: I talked about Alexa plenty in the midyear in this category, and nothing has changed. If anything, she just continued to get better. When she has a microphone in her hand, no matter what the situation, no matter live or backstage, she commands the screen like virtually no one else in wrestling today. She came up as a late pick in the draft to Smackdown during the brand split, and since then has become an over act and the new champion, primarily on the back of the way she consistently excels in promo segments. From a delivery standpoint, she’s one of the best on the roster with the way she’s so good at changing tone throughout her promos based on whether she’s being arrogant or dismissive or contemptuous or furious and matching tone to what she’s saying, which lots of people do not do.

AJ Styles: Where in the world did this guy come from? He was a mute that they wouldn’t let talk like eight months ago! Since turning heel, he’s been a complete revelation and I really had no idea he had this in him. His work in Japan convinced me his promos wouldn’t be a complete net negative, but I could have never in a million years have expected what we’ve gotten from AJ this year on the mic.

Honorable Mentions:

Jay Briscoe: Him falling out of the top three is more on Ring of Honor than him. He’s still great in the few promos I’ve seen, but I haven’t seen as much of him this year because I gave up on ROH and the Smackdown Trio stepped up so much.

Samoa Joe: Even though Joe got a top three most overrated slot for me, it doesn’t mean that he’s not an excellent promo, that award is just focused on in-ring and drawing. His feud with William Regal has been much more interesting than either his feud with Finn Balor or Shinsuke Nakamura because that’s an area where he still excels.


1. Chris Hero
2. Katsuyori Shibata
3. Su Yung

Honorable Mentions: Sami Callihan, Tommy End, Tomohiro Ishii

Chris Hero: I struggled a bit with this category this year, but there was never a single doubt about who was getting the number one spot, and it’s That Young Knockout Kid aka the The Greatest Of All Time himself. No one can touch Chris Hero when it comes to brawling most years, and he’s been better than ever this year. His brawls with Tracy Williams were absolutely outstanding, awesome stuff against Shibata and Ishii in Rev Pro, the Evolve 53 tag match, and countless others. No doubt for me about this one.

Katsuyori Shibata: Shibata doesn’t quite have the case he usually does in this category, but he still has the two extremely hard-hitting matches with Tomohiro Ishii, the Dominion match against Yuji Nagata, his matches with EVIL, and the absolute wars with Pro Wrestling NOAH in the fall.

Su Yung: I don’t think there’s an easy third choice here so decided to go a little off the beaten path with this one. Shine is often a pretty mediocre promotion at the best of times, but the one person who never let me down this year when I tuned in was Su Yung, who continually had super fun out of control brawls that spilled all over the Orpheum, most notably against Kay Lee Ray and Saraya Knight. What I really like about Su is that her brawls have a real authentic feel to them, they actually feel genuinely wild and out of control, which you can’t say for many brawlers these days. The battles on the top of the bar, the fights on top of balconies, thumbtacks, topes from the ring apron through chairs, dives off support beams, it’s always incredibly fun if you know you’re going to get a Su Brawl on a show, and should really be a staple as long as Shine has her.

Honorable Mentions:

Sami Callihan: If I could get the Sami I get half the time, all of the time, he’d easily make the top three and maybe even pushing Chris Hero for number one. But instead, half the time he’s wearing a cat mask and doing schtick, which is much, much less good. When Sami gives you a compact sprint brawl, it’s always awesome. He had the best Ethan Page match I’ve ever seen in my life by a mile in Evolve this year when he worked that formula. But then you have things like the X-16 semifinal and he’s switching gear with his opponent because they have a somewhat similar look and doing schtick and I’m wondering why he’s not throwing haymakers for 8 minutes and getting out of dodge.


1. Donovan Dijak
2. Neville
3. Lio Rush

Honorable Mentions: Dalton Castle, Kalisto

Donovan Dijak: After splitting off from the House of Truth, it felt like he had the potential to be challenging for the ROH World Title by Final Battle with the big reception his face turn got, his look, and his strong in-ring work, but instead, Adam Cole joined Bullet Club, Lethal had to turn face, and Dijak’s hot face turn was totally forgotten, and instead of challenging for the World Championship at Final Battle in the main event, he was jobbing to The Cabinet or whatever they’re called now in the opening match. Most underrated this year by a mile, and his booking has been a travesty. Hopefully in WWE’s signing spree, they give Dijak a call, because like Ciampa, he needs to get out of this dead-end promotion.

Neville: It is so unbelievably ridiculous that Neville isn’t in the cruiserweight division right now rather than sitting in catering every week. At least Kalisto is in a story, and stuck on the other show so it’s harder to contrive to get him in there, but Neville is on Raw and doing nothing. The fact that Ariya Daivari is in a feud on 205 Live and Neville isn’t is patently absurd. If you need someone to actually get the crowd into these matches, Neville is one of the best options they have, and there are so many people like Cedric, Perkins, Swann, Mustafa, and Tozawa that all sound like a blast against Neville.

Lio Rush: Like many recent ROH stories, Lio’s is pretty much the same. Wins the Top Prospect Tournament, gets an ROH contract, challenges Lethal for the title in a highly acclaimed match… and then does nothing much of relevance for the rest of the year until just being shoved into ACH’s spot in the KUSHIDA and Jay White Trios team because ACH left the company. Not sure he’d have even made the Final Battle card otherwise. I’m hoping that like Dijak he makes his way to greener pastures in the future because it seems clear that Ring of Honor has no real plan for him.

Others in contention:

Cesaro: I know Cesaro wins this every year, and will likely win it again, but I really don’t think it fits him this year. Is his ceiling really that much higher than what he’s been doing? He’s in a pushed tag team right now that won the Survivor Series match for Raw and will at least likely win the tag straps off New Day at some point, and earlier in the year was in a featured feud over the Intercontinental Championship. He’s not a perennial main event type guy, so I don’t know how underpushed he actually is, especially given the way he thrives in tag teams, such as his duo with Tyson Kidd.

Luke Harper: I completely get voting for Luke Harper, as he’s incredibly talented and spends much of his time as the fall guy for the Wyatt Family, but he missed so much of the voting period. He was basically out for three quarters of the year, and who knows whether this Wyatt Family story with Bray and Randy is leading to something bigger for Harper, because it’s clear that they’re focused on telling a real story with those three.


1. The Revival v. #DIY (Takeover: Toronto 11/19)
2. AJ Styles v. Roman Reigns (Extreme Rules 5/22)
3. Drew Gulak v. Zack Sabre Jr. (Evolve 73 11/13)

Honorable Mentions: Tetsuya Naito v. Kenny Omega (G1 Climax – Day 18 8/13), Shinsuke Nakamura v. Sami Zayn (NXT Takeover: Dallas 4/1), Zack Sabre Jr. & Sami Callihan v. Chris Hero & Tommy End (Evolve 53 1/22)

The Revival v. DIY: With it being very late in the calendar at that point, I thought this would be the first year since 2010 where I didn’t think a single match merited the full five stars, but I should have never doubted, because The Top Guys had one more PPV match left this year. I don’t like to say these things with confidence this soon after the match, but at this moment, I think it’s the best United States tag team match I’ve ever seen. I really can’t say enough about how much I loved this match, it just had everything. First and foremost, it had something that so much of modern wrestling lacks, which is clear alignments. The Revival are heels that are desperately trying to get heel heat. None of what they do is winking at the audience, they’re just assholes. And similarly, DIY are tremendous babyfaces. These clearly defined alignments lead to their matches having such amazing heat that you don’t usually see in modern wrestling. The timing and execution on everything was also off the charts here, and the nearfalls were so well done that I was losing my mind in my livingroom watching the match, biting on every big sequence as the finish. And finally, the Revival are just such brilliant workers. There are so many little creative tactical heel things they do that you just don’t see from anyone else, and it makes their matches so consistently amazing. As you can probably guess, they’re my runaway pick for Tag Team of the Year in the post tomorrow.

Reigns v. Styles: Just running back what I said in the midyear on this one, "This match was really tremendous. It had brilliant storytelling with both intra-match callbacks and payoffs to inter match callbacks to the Payback match, as well as crucial storyline callbacks such as the Styles Clash on the chair. It had absolutely batshit insane bumps by both guys (no one since Foley in the match with Hunter has tried harder to make a guy than AJ did for Roman Reigns in that feud, and Reigns repaid in kind plenty), amazing natural precision and timing on so many different sequences without them feeling over-rehearsed, explosive athleticism from both guys, super hot nearfalls (if you didn't at least think for a second the Styles Clash on the chair was going to end it after the segment the Monday before the match, you have no soul), the interference spots were handled elegantly, and it had an incredible finish. Unbelievably great match and felt like the most violent extreme rules match WWE has done in a while without very many weapon spots or any blood."

Gulak v. Sabre: This match really blew me away. Gulak and Sabre had had a couple really great matches this year, the first at Evolve and the second during the Cruiserweight Classic, but this one was on another level. It was a genuine mat clinic, I’m not sure they even took a bump for the first fifteen minutes, instead working some of the best hold for hold counter wrestling I’ve ever seen. A truly unique match, and uniqueness is so valuable in this day and age when we get to see so much wrestling every week.


1. Corey Graves
2. Tom Phillips
3. Brad Stutts

Honorable Mention: Lenny Leonard

Corey Graves: I feel like he’s not quite as good on Raw, becoming more of a traditionally trope heavy heel commentator, but even there he’s still good, and he remains absolutely exceptional on NXT, without a doubt the best heel commentator of the modern era, probably since the 80s peak of guys like Heenan and Ventura. The Eva Marie (and now Mandy Rose) commentary always has me in stitches, but he’s consistently great in NXT with pretty much everyone. I still miss the days of Becky being in NXT because of Corey. He adds so much to the product, and has fantastic chemistry with my second choice.

Tom Phillips: The aforementioned second choice. He primarily finishes so high because of his excellent chemistry with Graves, but on his own merits, he’s a really strong play by play guy, and it’s a shame on SmackDown he’s basically just there as a mute. I’d much prefer to see a JBL/Tom booth and shuffle the other two out of there.

Brad Stutts: With more and more easily accessible indy wrestling this year, good indy commentary has become worth its weight in gold to me, because bad indy commentary is so, so bad, and makes WWE’s worst people look like Lance Russell and Bobby Heenan. Honestly, I’m at the point where if your promotion has actively bad commentary, I’m not watching it. But when Stutts is calling a show, it feels like Christmas morning and you got an extra gift. Plus, he gets bonus points for his star turn as The Scribe on Impact Wrestling!

Honorable Mentions:

Lenny Leonard: I could easily have put Lenny Leonard in the number three slot as well, as he’s been doing great work with Evolve and Shine this year, giving the show a professional feel that is very fitting for the new FloSlam platform, but having Stutts on the less ‘name’ indies than Evolve feels like such a huge upgrade vis-à-vis the other options.


1. ROH Best in the World 6/22

Honorable Mention: WWE Clash of Champions 9/25

Best in the World: This one was really a mess, and managed to hold off any competition from the back half of the year. The best match on the show was an old school bloody brawl between Steve Corino and BJ Whitmer, but rather than give the match a satisfying conclusion, instead they chose to have it close with a mid-1995 WCW-esque Kevin Sullivan angle in the year 2016. And that really summed up this disaster of a show. Beyond that, you had the terrible Cabinet segment that took up fifteen minutes of a PPV, the Briscoe vs. Lethal "biggest rematch in Ring of Honor history" being a thirteen minute house show level match, and yet again, Dalton Castle lost a big match. Terrible show.

Honorable Mentions:

Clash of Champions: Like Best in the World, the stupid ending to the best match on the show really set the tone for this one, with Cesaro and Sheamus absolutely killing each other in an awesome match and fitting closer to their best of seven series and ending with a totally unsatisfying draw finish. Nothing else on the show stood out at all in a positive way, and the women’s title match had a mess of a layout that managed to make both Sasha and Bayley look terrible as Charlotte was booked to no-sell their finishers and at times dominate both of them two on one doing spots that are normally reserved for a hot tag sequence with a babyface doing them to an incompetent pair of heels. The moonsault on to both of them was also pretty special as well. And it closed with a very lifeless Owens v. Rollins main event. Poor show, but not quite as bad as Best in the World, an ironic moniker if I’ve ever heard one!


1. Chris Jericho v. Dean Ambrose (Asylum Match) Extreme Rules 5/22

Ambrose v. Jericho: I imagine that this award will likely be won by that Shelly Martinez vs. Rebel match from a TNA One Night Only special. There’s no question that in a vacuum it’s definitely a worse wrestling match, but I think context has to matter for something like this.

I’m sure there are 20 worse matches featuring trainees and green rookies than that Rebel/Martinez match every weekend on the real low level indies. And a TNA One Night Only match, in normal circumstances, would be seen by virtually the same number of people. On the other hand, there are zero matches on a major PPV on a network with over a million subscribers that are even close to as bad as the Asylum Match was. Not to mention that bad matches are always made worse the longer they go, and this went almost 27 minutes, five minutes longer than the instant classic Styles/Reigns main event on the same show.


1. Vince McMahon/Ryan Ward

McMahon/Ward: It doesn’t get much more ‘2016!’ than voting Vincent Kennedy McMahon booker of the year, but here we are. If there was a worst booker category, Vince might also have an argument, because of Monday Night Raw, but Smackdown is the best-written and put together wrestling programming I’ve seen in a very long time, and Vince is at the helm of that. I certainly think a lot of what makes Smackdown great is Ryan Ward’s excellent writing, focusing on attention to detail with storytelling, characters, and making things make sense in enacting Vince McMahon’s macro vision for the show, but Ward isn’t going rogue, so Vince told him to write the show like this, or at the very least wisely has liked what Ward has been giving him, and either way, that’s still to Vince’s credit as a booker. Not only that, but the big macro stuff is always going to be Vince’s responsibility, and he made the decision to build an entire brand of his company around AJ Styles, and it has worked exceptionally well with AJ getting reactions like a real top star and performing extremely well in carrying the brand in John Cena’s absence.

I remember back in April or whenever it was first announced, I had little enthusiasm for the brand split because I figured we would just get two 2015 Monday Night Raws, aka the all-time dregs of wrestling programming, but instead, they made a concerted effort to put both shows together differently to try to appeal to different groups of fans, and for this fan, it’s most definitely worked. Smackdown feels like an 80s studio wrestling show, which is basically the best possible form of wrestling there is, and something I still missed… until now.

Not to mention that even the much-maligned Raw has seen major benefits from making the decision to push Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair harder and harder. The choice to promote those two as history-making stars has at this point convinced fans that they actually are history-making stars, judging by their stellar ratings for the Falls Count Anywhere match, which is not the first time they’ve done well in the ratings in a big spot (They actually peaked the entire episode in the minute by minute on the beloved first post-brand split episode of Raw per PWTorch). It’s incredibly impressive that after all the years of mistreatment for women in WWE, within 14 months they’ve taken two women from NXT and turned them into legitimate superstars that fans are actively tuning in to see (also slightly undercuts the NXT doesn’t produce stars narratives, for the record). Obviously Triple H deserves a lot of credit for the success of Charlotte and Sasha, and women’s wrestling in general, given all that he did at NXT and through his role as EVP of Talent Relations signing all these talented women, but the decision to push Charlotte and Sasha this hard on Raw is still up to Vince.

Others in contention:

Gabe Sapolsky: Everything was clicking on all cylinders for Evolve when I did the midyear ballot, but it really fell off since then. The in-ring product is still excellent most of the time, with Evolve 73 being one more very good match away from the Show of the Year shortlist, but the booking has left much to be desired. Shoehorning Cody Rhodes into the Drew Galloway angle and Johnny Wrestling’s farewell pretty much killed it dead when it was so hot circa Evolve 60-63 with EC 3’s short Evolve stint and greatly undercut what should have been the most important farewell in company history for Gargano.

Not to mention the unending title reign for Thatcher long after the crowd had completely turned on him. Trying to rehabilitate him with the incredibly gifted Stokely Hathaway is a step in the right direction, but a better step would have simply been putting the championship on Matt Riddle months ago because he’s the hottest property in independent wrestling and an absolute superstar.

And finally the match booking lately has been very haphazard and few performers really feel like they have meaningful momentum, such as Ethan Page being pushed as the top heel, but taking a clean loss after every show where they push that idea. Sometimes it feels like Evolve wins and losses are picked at random.

Not in contention:

Gedo: If you like people winning titles and then losing them back to the previous champion in their first defense, then you will love Gedo’s booking of 2016 New Japan. And beyond the stale booking approach, even if you want to make the argument for Okada’s ticket sales being positive in his spot vis-à-vis Naito, that’s absolutely no excuse for the ridiculous booking of the white hot Los Ingobernables de Japon because they’re insisting on doing Bullet Club/CHAOS whether people want that or not.

I think to really put Gedo into perspective, you have to think about about how some of the stuff he does would be received in WWE. If two acts had the top five best-selling items in WWE’s shop and Vince decided to put two different people in the main event of Wrestlemania, and have those two top stars fight over the Intercontinental title, I can’t even imagine the outrage. And WWE has not pushed an act as bad and as anti-over as Guerrillas of Destiny, who made the finals of the tag league while already being tag champions just days ago in a long time. WWE would get absolutely killed for that.


1. The Cabinet

The Cabinet: Just atrocious on absolutely every level. There are so many things wrong with The Cabinet that I’m having trouble even figuring out where to start. So, on the most basic level, the gimmick is incredibly offensive, especially once the gimmick started mocking the Colin Kaepernick protests by copying his protests about police violence with a protest of their own about their treatment in Ring of Honor… and proceeding to be beaten down by a group of babyfaces for protesting. But even beyond the offensiveness of the gimmick, it was just so inherently pointless. It was the most hacky political commentary imaginable, it was saying nothing new or interesting, it had no point for existing, no purpose, it was just dreadful. Their segment on Best in the World was one of the worst of the entire year, and that was before the Kaepernick stuff. It’s one thing to be offensive, but at least if you’re going to do it, also be provocative, rather than just lazy and pointless. That makes the offensiveness somehow even worse. What happened to this promotion?


Thoughts, Cagesiders? Chime in below, and stay tuned for Part 3, where we finish off the remaining categories!

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