I love professional wrestling because it combines elements of sport and theater. It’s a live-action comic book with feats of remarkable athleticism underscoring the drama. Wrestling is a movie with a story arc that never ends but continuously evolves.
Films, books and TV best hold an audiences interest when they introduce the unknown. The same is true for wrestling. Many of wrestling’s most cherished moments were those fans never saw coming, and in 2017, die-hards of the squared circle were treated to plenty of suspense.
The following were my five favorite surprises of the year in wrestling 2017.
5. HIROMU TAKAHASHI SQUASHES KUSHIDA at SAKURA GENESIS
Wrestling matches tend to follow a formula. The higher up on the card a wrestler and his opponent are, the longer their matches go — especially if a title is at stake.
Hiromu Takahashi — who had just returned from an excursion in Mexico — went more than 16 minutes en route to winning the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship from the division’s ace, KUSHIDA, at last January’s Wrestle Kingdom 11.
That’s pretty standard for that particular belt. The bouts usually aren’t as long as the main-event epics involving the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, but that’s due to the high-speed, intense nature of the division. But no one could have anticipated the speed of Hiromu and KUSHIDA’s rematch three months later at Sakura Genesis.
Angered by the unpredictable style and outlandish behavior of his opponent, the top star of the division attacked Hiromu at a blistering pace, but the tables were turned on him almost instantly. So fast was Hiromu in taking control of the bout, it took me longer to write than this sentence than it did for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion to retain.
To see an ace be so thoroughly dominated was jaw-dropping. In retrospect, it was also a brilliant story-telling decision, as I explained in my review of June’s Dominion show.
4. YUJI NAGATA’S G1 CLIMAX RUN
New Japan Pro Wrestling’s signature summer tournament — the G1 Climax — produced a heaping serving of 4-star or greater matches, almost every night from July 18 through Aug. 13. The event added new chapters to the Kazuchika Okada-Kenny Omega feud, the talk of wrestling in 2017, as well as the less heralded but equally entertaining Hiroshi Tanahashi-Tetsuya Naito series.
The 27th G1 Climax kicked off with lofty expectations as a result of these and other feuds integrated as part of it, but the tournament reached legendary status thanks in part to Yuji Nagata.
NJPW has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years and approached unprecedented levels of global popularity thanks to Okada, Omega, Tanahashi and Naito; Yuji Nagata is a holdover from a bygone era. Nagata’s a name perhaps familiar to American wrestling fans from the Monday Night Wars era: He had a tour in WCW that included an excellent Halloween Havoc ’97 match vs. his countryman, Ultimo Dragon, and a throwaway bout with fellow Top Surprise of 2017 honoree Goldberg that produced at a much higher level than one might anticipate.
Nagata was poised for stardom at the turn of the millennium, positioned to carry the torch from NJPW legends Keiji Mutoh, Masahiro Chono and Shinya Hashimoto. However, the rise of Inokism (explained here) stunted Nagata’s potential. Blowout losses to Mirko Cro Cop and Fedor Emelianeko in shoot fights damaged his credibility.
Yuji Nagata was a star of New Japan, sure, but during the federation’s dark ages. I followed NJPW sparingly in the 2000s, and by the time I started to gain real interest around 2014, Nagata was descending down the card. At 49 years of age, and with new generations of stars emerging, Yuji Nagata declaring the 27th G1 Climax his final made sense. I did not expect much from Nagata in his final G1 — and in terms of matches won and lost, he made little impact — but as for providing excellent bouts, Blue Justice found the time machine.
His matches against CHAOS members Tomohiro Ishii, YOSHI-HASHI and Hirooki Goto were all outstanding. He hung with up-and-coming stars Tetsuya Naito and Kota Ibushi. Nagata vs. Tanahashi was a clash of two generations — Nagata representing the era of Inokism, and Tanahashi the harbinger of NJPW’s resurgence — that showcased both wrestlers at their best.
But Yuji Nagata’s G1 finale against his former trainee, Bad Luck Fale, provided one of the most emotional moments in sports in the last calendar year.
3. THE NEW DAY-USOS FEUD
A year ago at this time, I had grown tired of the New Day. The three-man tag team debuted in 2015 with a hokey, borderline problematic gospel gimmick that was dead-on-arrival — or at least would have been, had the trio of Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston and Big E. not all oozed charisma.
They turned the negative of a stereotypical gimmick into a positive, playing the part of pious face wrestlers who don’t know they’re heels better than anyone since Kurt Angle in his initial run at the turn of the millennium. And, since the three are so charismatic, it was only a matter of time before audiences got behind them.
The New Day were great for much of 2016, en route to breaking Demolition’s record as the longest reigning Tag Team Champions in WWE history. But by the start of a new year, the luster began to wear off. Without many teams left to wrestle, New Day grew stale. They also ran into the typical WWE problem of the writers struggling to book likable faces, kicking off 2017 in an angle with Titus O’Neal that consisted mainly of the three bullying the former Florida Gator defensive lineman.
New Day was floundering, and there was no greater indication than the team having no match at WrestleMania 33. The inevitable end of New Day had seemingly arrived — that is, until another tag team in need of a reboot intervened.
The Usos began to break out in late 2013 into early 2014, at a time when WWE was undergoing a resurgence in its tag-team division. The arrival of The Shield and Wyatt Family, the combination of talented but directionless singles wrestlers Cesaro and Jack Swagger, as well as the merging of brothers Cody Rhodes and Goldust, produced some exciting wrestling. The talented Usos also began to emerge out of the limitations of a stock gimmick.
Athleticism and intensity could only do so much for establishing the Usos’ characters, however. To get to another level as a tag team, they needed to show more edge — and needed the right counterparts against which to do so.
The heel versions of the Usos were already established once the feud with the New Day began, but those interactions shaped Jimmy and Jey as true tough guys out for respect, willing to beat it into their opponents. The Usos’ violence and aggression took the New Day in a more serious direction. By the summer, New Day was about a whole lot more than hocking ice cream or breakfast cereal.
Usos-New Day was the best feud in WWE in 2017, producing some of my favorite matches of the year at three different events: Battleground, Summerslam and Hell In A Cell.
The two teams elevated each other to new and unprecedented heights.
2. BROCK LESNAR vs. GOLDBERG at WRESTLEMANIA 33
Much like the vast majority of young wrestling fans in the 1990s, I was a huge fan of Goldberg. His in-ring ability may have been limited, but as a youngster, that didn’t matter to me. Goldberg’s intensity and aura of genuine toughness gave him a level of credibility few wrestlers could match.
Goldberg’s stardom coincided with the peak of Stone Cold Steve Austin’s popularity in the World Wrestling Federation. As such, a favorite topic among my overly enthusiastic wrestling fan friends and me was who might win a hypothetical match between the two.
When Vince McMahon purchased World Championship Wrestling in 2001, the possibility of a Stone Cold-Goldberg match at WrestleMania 18 the following year to cap a lengthy WWF vs. WCW storyline danced through my head. The resulting Invasion was instead a flop — foreshadowing a future Wrestle Review Wednesday — and Goldberg did not arrive until two years later, the day after Austin returned from in-ring competition.
Goldberg’s one year in the renamed WWE was disappointing, even if it did end in a match featuring Austin — albeit as special guest referee for a notoriously atrocious bout with Brock Lesnar. Lesnar supplanted Austin as the face of the company by the time of Goldberg’s arrival in 2003, so it only made sense he fill the dream match vacancy.
What ensued is the stuff of legend among wrestling fans, and not in a good way. Lesnar tired of the company by 2004, Goldberg was wildly unsatisfied with his stint and his contract was coming up, and both were heading out the door following WrestleMania XX. The Madison Square Garden let the two have it, and the duo responded with a purposefully stinker match.
Lesnar’s return eight years later was a favorite surprise moment of mine in recent years, and his run over the subsequent five has been mostly entertaining. He’s had some great matches, most notably multi-mans at Royal Rumble 2015 (Triple Threat vs. Seth Rollins & John Cena) and Summerslam 2017 (Fatal Four-Way vs. Samoa Joe, Braun Strowman & Roman Reigns), and a WrestleMania main event against Roman Reigns. Lesnar’s also been at the center of several of the most surprising moments of the past half-decade, including the end of Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak and the Summerslam 2014 destruction of John Cena.
However, the biggest surprise of Brock Lesnar’s run to date is his WrestleMania 33 match against Goldberg.
Goldberg returned in 2016 to hype his appearance in the WWE 2K17 video game, with the added storyline of challenging Brock Lesnar to atone for his lackluster run more than a decade earlier. Now, the last time WWE brought in a beloved character from WCW — Sting in 2014 & 2015 — it resulted in some disappointment booking decisions and the career-ending injury of the legendary wrestler in his 50s.
Goldberg came back to WWE 13 years removed from a bad stint, one month shy of 50 years old. The bar for his redux was low, but reintroducing him with a squash match against Goldberg at Survivor Series was a stroke of genius. It reestablished Goldberg as the killer who was so popular in 1990s WCW, stunned an audience that’s been conditioned to predict the federation’s moves, and compensated for the aging wrestler’s limitations.
But a rematch was going to have to happen at some point, and it couldn’t be another 30-second affair. I dreaded the Universal Championship match slated for WrestleMania 33 for this reason. If these two couldn’t deliver a worthwhile, lengthy match 13 years prior with Lesnar at his physical peak and Goldberg in his 30s, what hope did they have in 2017?
As it turns out, they put together one of my favorite bouts of 2017.
Lesnar-Goldberg III didn’t go long by any stretch — 4:45, to be exact — but the two packed a half-hour of excitement into that time with more than enough smoke-and-mirrors. Wrestling at its best works like cinema, and this was the kaiju battle of a Godzilla or Pacific Rim film. Tremendous fun, bouncing Owen Hart vs. 1-2-3 Kid as my all-time favorite sub-five-minute match and garnering Match of the Night for this year’s WrestleMania by my judgement.
1. CHRIS JERICHO IN NEW JAPAN
As the four preceding entries demonstrate, what constitutes a surprise in wrestling today differs dramatically from the 1990s. WCW and WWF being at odds, with ECW thriving as an underground, niche produce, fostered an environment of one-upsmanship that has never really returned.
Chris Jericho’s August 1999 debut on Monday Night Raw was perhaps the most shocking and thrilling of all the ’90s surprises. For him to recreate that moment almost two decades later on the other side of the globe in NJPW was the shock of shocks not only in 2017, but the biggest single wrestling surprise for me as a fan since Vince McMahon opening WCW Monday Nitro in March 2001.
Remarkably, Jericho shocked the wrestling world not just once in 2017, but twice in just over a month. A few weeks after his message calling out Kenny Omega for Wrestle Kingdom 12, Jericho appeared live at the World Tag League Final to decimate Omega in a manner that was a throwback to those late 1990s wars.