Sometimes WWE has to call an audible and they end up booking a better match than the original. That’s exactly what happened at TLC when AJ Styles fought Finn Balor.
AJ Styles vs. Finn Balor – TLC
The original match for TLC was Finn Balor vs. Bray Wyatt. After Wyatt came down with an illness, WWE had to make a last minute substitution. Their pick set up a dream match, as 2017 MVP AJ Styles flew in from the Smackdown South America tour to face Balor. Styles and Balor were both former Bullet Club leaders in NJPW, and fans have been clamoring for a match between the two for awhile. We finally got it at TLC, and they did not disappoint.
When I went back and watched this match, I can’t believe this didn’t thrust Balor into the main event. The fact that he’s answering open challenges from Curt Hawkins and not fighting Lesnar at the Rumble is mind boggling. Guys like Balor and Styles should be fighting each other, as the quality of matches and fan reactions improve immensely. As I stated in the AJ Styles/Cena write up, Styles could have made up the entire top five list with his performances this year. I thought Styles/Balor at TLC was his best performance for a few reasons.
This match was booked only two days before the pay per view so neither guy had time to prepare for the match. Also, in a year filled with Cena and Jinder Mahal matches, Styles finally got to wrestle someone with talent who could keep up with him in the ring. This match had a frenetic pace from bell to bell, with both guys working and selling their ass off. The crowd ate up everything they did (rightfully so) AND they didn’t have to rely on finisher musical chairs to keep the crowd interested. One coup de grace from Balor and it was over. Two world class athletes at the top of their game having a match of the year candidate. What’s not to love?
In the tag team division, what WWE lacks in depth, they made up for in quality in 2017. Most that credit goes to two teams: The Usos & New Day. These two teams have been fighting since New Day arrived on Smackdown, and almost all of their matches have been great. My favorite one happened at WWE Battleground in July.
New Day vs. The Usos – Battleground
This was the show opener at Battleground, and nothing that followed came close to it. Heading into 2017 my favorite New Day tag combo was Kofi & Big E, but this was the year of Xavier Woods. He shined during this feud, and easily had the best performance of the night at Battleground. With The Usos switching to their ‘day one’ characters, New Day finally had a heel team to play off of, and it was wonderful. Woods looked natural as the baby face in peril, and Kofi was equally as good with the high octane hot tags.
As great as Kofi and Xavier were, The Usos matched them beat for beat. The Usos adapted a more aggressive style that completely changed their matches. The crowd ate up everything these two teams did, and the title change at the end earned the pop of the night.
Looking back at the best matches of the year, one name keeps popping up AJ Styles. He’s been in the WWE less than two years, but he’s already made a tremendous impact. He’s been WWE’s MVP since his debut, and he stole the show at this year’s Royal Rumble. While Cena and Styles fought a few times, their match at the Rumble was their finest one.
#4 WWE Championship Match: AJ Styles vs. John Cena (Royal Rumble)
In my write up for match #5 on this list, I mentioned I don’t like when matches rely on finisher kick outs. I stand by that point, but there are times when it works, and this match was one of them. Velveteen Dream and Aleister Black don’t have the name value of a Cena or Styles, and their finishers are too new not to be protected. On the other hand, Cena and Styles have been around forever. Everyone kicks out of the AA, and the first time Styles hit the Styles Clash in WWE, Jericho kicked out of it.
While false finishes were one part of this match, both guys worked their ass off and gave us a match of the year candidate in January. The match went over 24 minutes but kept a brisk pace, mostly thanks to Styles insane cardio conditioning. Styles can keep you invested in the beginning/middle parts of matches then kick it into high gear for the ending. Cena kept up to, and even though ‘big match John’ is an annoying nickname, it’s true. Cena almost always rises to the occasion in big time matches, and he had the perfect foil in AJ Styles. The historical significance of the match was huge too, as Cena’s win tied him with Ric Flair for the most world title wins in history.
2017 was a great year for wrestling. Whether you enjoy WWE, NXT, NJPW, ROH or any other promotion, there were many excellent matches to choose from. I’d like to watch every match from every promotion, but that’s impossible. WWE puts out 8 hours of TV every week (11 or more if there’s a PPV) so they occupy most of my wrestling time. While WWE put out their own list of the top 25 matches of 2017, I decided to whittle it down to five. Starting today through next Friday (skipping Christmas) I’ll post one match a day and explain why it made the list (not THAT list). Enjoy!
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#5 Aleister Black vs. Velveteen Dream – NXT TakeOver: WarGames
Aleister Black vs. Velveteen Dream had the best build on the War Games card and told one of the best stories of the year in WWE. Velveteen Dream wanted Black’s respect, and he was going to do anything to earn it. Dream tried getting inside Black’s head, attacking him and costing him matches. Nothing worked. With no more options to choose, Dream only had one left thing to do. He laced up his boots, put on his airbrushed tights and had a match of the year candidate.
Most guys in WWE can put on a good match but too often those matches don’t have a story behind it. One of my favorite things about NXT is that they focus on storytelling, which makes the pay-off match that much better. In a lesser man’s hands, Velveteen Dream would be a caricature. In 22 year old Patrick Clark’s hands, it’s a work of art. While Dream is a flamboyant, over the top character, Aleister Black is the polar opposite. He’s reserved, quiet and let’s his in ring work do the talking. When you put those two characters together, there’s a chance for magic, and that’s what we got at TakeOver: WarGames.
The psychology of the match was great and the actual wrestling was even better. I also loved how these two didn’t rely on kicking out of finishers to keep the match going. While that can be effective, if it happens too often it takes your mind out of the match. Dream gave it everything he had, but just like everyone else, he fell to the Black Mass. Black giving Dream the satisfaction of saying his name after the match was the perfect ending.