Candidates For WWE's Top Five Matches of 2017By Joseph Currier | @josephcurrier | Dec 31, 2017 10:28 am
This column originally ran in the December 4th Figure Four Weekly.
The insane output of high-end matches New Japan Pro Wrestling had during the voting period will rightfully lead to a strong showing in the Observer awards Match of the Year category, but WWE's in-ring year shouldn't be forgotten. Though a full year of brand-exclusive pay-per-views and not having the Cruiserweight Classic may have led to a decline from 2016, WWE produced their fair share of matches that deserve to be in contention for best of the year.
Here's a look at my top five WWE matches of the year:
1) Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne for the WWE United Kingdom Championship | NXT TakeOver: Chicago, May 20th
Despite not being regularly featured on WWE programming, Dunne and Bate produced two of the company's best matches of the voting period. They started 2017 strong in the finals of the United Kingdom Championship tournament and managed to top themselves at NXT TakeOver: Chicago.
Their bout at the UK tournament finals was about establishing Bate as the top babyface and Dunne as the top heel for whatever is to come of WWE's plans in the country. While Bate became the inaugural champion then, Dunne won the title from him in Chicago and may be champion when things get up and going. It felt like he and Bate were going all out on the biggest stage they've ever wrestled on, producing a highlight of their young careers.
The 24-year-old Dunne and 20-year-old Bate should both be future superstars in WWE. They're good enough to lead WWE's UK brand, to be top stars in NXT, or contribute on the main roster immediately if WWE needs them.
2) Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman vs. Samoa Joe for the Universal Championship | SummerSlam, August 20th
Being there live in the building, this had the potential to be an all-time classic after only a few minutes. And while it didn't quite reach that level, it still ended up being pretty great. The crowd went crazy for everything and reacted huge for every big move -- even at the end of a really long show. Taking Lesnar out for a portion probably hurt things, but the story worked and helped to set up the eventual Lesnar vs. Reigns meeting.
If there was a match that embodied WWE's 2017, this was it. Lesnar being champion for so much of the year kept him at the center of the storylines on Raw despite him not always being there. Reigns, Strowman, and Joe all vying to take the title from him produced stronger-than-usual episodes of Raw, leading to the show improving over its 2016 episodes.
3) Brock Lesnar vs. AJ Styles | Survivor Series, November 19th
Though the SummerSlam match is a spot higher, this was Lesnar's best performance of the year and his best singles match in some time. His results were mixed prior to facing Styles, having had a great sprint with Goldberg at WrestleMania, a good match against Samoa Joe at Great Balls of Fire, and a disappointing showing against Braun Strowman at No Mercy.
Styles was a perfect opponent for Lesnar. He wrestled like he was trying to prove he's the best in the world, and Lesnar made Styles' offense look great. It's impossible to put into words how much of an improvement this was over the planned Lesnar vs. Jinder Mahal matchup. And with it being something of a non-title exhibition, WWE could always come back to Lesnar vs. Styles down the line.
4) AJ Styles vs. John Cena for the WWE Championship | Royal Rumble, January 29th
January was a strong month for WWE. Both the Royal Rumble PPV and night two of the UK tournament were strong contenders for their best show of the year, and Styles vs. Cena and Kevin Owens vs. Reigns at the Rumble were two of WWE's strongest title matches of 2017.
Styles and Cena probably topped their match from SummerSlam the year prior, but it was close and not remarkably different. Cena matches are too patterned to be anything groundbreaking, though they built on their previous meetings to produce something that will still be remembered. With his time in the ring getting more and more limited, hopefully Cena is able to be on these types of lists for years to come despite not wrestling as much.
5) Asuka vs. Ember Moon for the NXT Women's Championship | NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III, August 19th
Asuka's last match in NXT may have been her best since signing with WWE. The result of this may ultimately be what's most remembered about it, but this was a joy to watch live. Asuka kicking out of The Eclipse was an incredible moment, and Moon earning the crowd's respect as the match went on after being somewhat rejected by them at the start was great to see.
The decision to have Asuka leave NXT undefeated and without losing the title made plenty of sense. If the NXT women's division had to take a momentary hit to get her more over on the main roster, it was a small price to pay. Asuka came off as above the division even when she was there, but Moon still has a lot to prove after winning the vacant title.