Best matches of the year in professional wrestling

John Cena rests on the middle rope exhausted, after AJ Styles kicked out from one of several Attitude Adjustments during their SummerSlam classic. Nick Laham for ESPN

It was a great year to be a fan in 2016 no matter how much wrestling you watched. The WWE had several stretches where they produced some of their best matches in years, and the world of wrestling outside of the WWE is as strong as it's been in a long time -- it was hard to go wrong.

A few matches in particular stick out in the minds and hearts of fans, and for those who watch wrestling year-round, trying to determine the very best is like splitting hairs. With that in mind, we polled the WWE on ESPN staff to give their picks for match of the year, along with an explanation for why they qualify -- and the results spanned the spectrum from undeniable classics to shocking selections.

The most popular of the bunch certainly leans towards the former in that conversation.

AJ Styles versus John Cena

SummerSlam 2016

Styles had a year for the ages, and there are very few performers who have taken the company by storm the way he has during his first 12 months in the WWE. At the top of the many incredible matches he's been a part of in 2016 sits his match with Cena at SummerSlam. The story both men told in the ring was superb as they illustrated a changing of the guard. The back-and-forth affair featured believable nearfall after believable nearfall in between the perfect execution of every intense sequence. As each segment of the match became more dramatic, the crowd reaction intensified. When the final phenomenal forearm was hit and the three-count was made, it was evident that we witnessed not only the match of the year, but an all-time classic that elevated Styles into a league of his own. (Sean Coyle)

This feud was a culmination months of build that saw each get the upper hand on the other at various points. Styles won their first match at Money in the Bank with outside interference from The Club, so SummerSlam was going to be the real test of Styles' prowess as the two went at it one-on-one. The match hit its peak when Styles kicked out of an Attitude Adjustment from the top rope -- a move that had stopped Cena's opponents in the past every time the 15-time world champion pulled it out of his bag of tricks. After Styles came back to get the clean victory, the Toronto crowd was applauding the match, not only because he won, but because of the overall effort the two men put forth that night. The match cemented Styles as one of the top stars in WWE and catapulted him into the WWE World Championship picture. (Andy Smith)

Charlotte Flair versus Sasha Banks

Falls count anywhere, Monday Night Raw, Nov. 28

Obviously the rivalry of the year has to include the match of the year, or close to it. Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks didn't nail it on the head the first time, or even the second time they threw down -- but when they finally got it right, the WWE Universe stood up and took notice.

It started off like any of a handful of other Raws, with the pair set to main event with the Raw women's championship on the line. At this point we were conditioned to think it'd be yet another title change -- and while the championship did ultimately change hands again, this one was different. It was action-packed and very stiff, from pillar to post, and it had a certain grit to it that flashier matches like Hell-in-a-Cell somehow lacked. This was the match that took these two to a different level, and even featured a long-awaited alliance between Banks and Ric Flair that I'd been hoping for. (Peter Rosenberg)

Sami Zayn versus Shinsuke Nakamura

NXT TakeOver: Dallas

Few matches these days will warrant an immediate repeat viewing for me, but I simply had to sit down and watch this instant classic from NXT TakeOver: Dallas again. It had all the perfect ingredients. It was Nakamura's WWE debut, and he made a fittingly epic entrance that's quickly become one of the best in the wrestling business. The match itself played out in front of a red hot crowd who summed things up when they burst into chants of "fight forever" before a handshake of respect and an emotional goodbye for Zayn, following what proved to be his NXT swansong. It showcased everything that is fun about NXT -- talented wrestlers being allowed to work and tell stories in the ring. "I don't think you can write down what Sami Zayn and Nakamura delivered," said Bret Hart, who had been ringside for the event. "I just stood with a full salute to both of them." (Nic Atkin)

Prior to March 16, 2016, Shinsuke Nakamura was a relative unknown to the WWE Universe. That all changed when he appeared on- screen at Full Sail Arena during an episode of NXT's weekly TV show to utter the words "NXT, Sami Zayn, I will see you in Dallas." The crowd erupted, and at NXT TakeOver: Dallas, Zayn and Nakamura wrestled a match that exceeded all expectations. Nakamura's explosive style was on full display, and his physicality was matched by Zayn's as the fight went from a simple game of one-upsmanship to an impassioned battle for survival. By the time the two men shook hands and embraced after Nakamura's hard-fought victory, it was clear that we had witnessed something truly special. ("Stat Guy" Greg Hyde)

The Revival versus #DIY

NXT tag team championship match, NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II

For the second consecutive year, NXT TakeOver Brooklyn produced a match-of-the-year candidate -- and for the second straight year, it wasn't the match everybody expected to do it. The build-up to this showdown is as classic as it gets in wrestling -- the well-entrenched, overconfident heel champions (Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson) against the scrappy underdog challengers (Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano). The energy inside the Barclays Center was palpable and present at the start of that match, but a slower-paced start caused the audience to let their guard down a bit -- and that only served to further accentuate how intense things would ultimately get.

The pacing of the match was perfect, and these four guys proved to be perfect adversaries; each near fall from the 10-minute mark on (and there were a lot of them) felt like it could be the end of the match. Each move and spot flowed seamlessly into the next, and the entire crowd was on its feet each time #DIY seemingly had it won. By the end of the match it felt like a Gargano and Ciampa victory would have blown the roof off in Brooklyn, and the dramatic change in atmosphere when The Revival used every heel tactic in the book to force Gargano to tap out was palpable. The energy was immediately sucked out of the building, but Dash and Dawson seemingly absorbed it all and proved why they deserve their self-appointed label as "top guys". There was disappointment, to be sure, but this result got fans champing at the bit for #DIY to get their revenge -- and the rematch in Toronto made it all worth it. (Tim Fiorvanti)

Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg

Survivor Series

This was all about the payoff exceeding the hype -- and man, was there some hype coming in. The scuttlebutt was all over the place for weeks, but the sentiment was there was no way Lesnar could lose cleanly to Goldberg -- certainly not at this stage of their respective careers. Not with Lesnar, the bone-crushing beast, whose sole gig is to wreck foes and suplex his way to supremacy every time he steps in the ring, in need of a boost to restore his invincibility. It had been a poor run of form for Lesnar up until that point. He tested positive (twice) for a banned substance in late August, and shortly afterward, his highly anticipated battle with Randy Orton at SummerSlam was a bust -- literally -- when a misplaced elbow KO'd a bloody Orton before a conclusion.

Then there was Goldberg, 49 and long removed from "The Streak" that made him an instant icon in the late '90s. A feel-good, people-pleasing story, for sure. But a win? And a squash? Indeed. In less than a minute-and-a-half, Goldberg pummeled Lesnar -- a result so stunning that it felt as though we the audience had just been speared (twice) and jackhammered just by watching the chaos. The decision to end Goldberg and Lesnar's showdown quickly before fans became frustrated and bored like they were when they fought at Wrestlemania XX was brilliant. (Matt Wilansky)

Kenny Omega vs. Tetsuya Naito

NJPW G-1 Climax, Block B Final

You could've just as easy picked the G-1 Climax finals match between Kenny Omega and Hirooki Goto, but the penultimate match between Omega and the leader of Los Ingobernables, Tetsuya Naito, gets my vote for match of the year. With Omega heading up the Bullet Club since his ouster of AJ Styles, the Canadian gaijin known as "The Cleaner" had the chance to make history in the G-1 Climax -- and did he ever, in putting on a 35-minute classic with Naito. Right off the bat, the Japanese crowd was behind their countryman and Omega, in true heel fashion, spit at Naito. Naito's work on Omega's leg and his selling of the pain throughout the match was a key focal point for the story they told.

During the middle of the match, Naito had Omega in kneebars, kneebreakers and dropkicks to the knee while Omega tried to fight through the pain and fell a number of times trying to perform his own offensive maneuvers. Ironically , it was Omega who hit a couple of knee strikes at the end followed by his One-Winged Angel finisher to seal the win and a trip to the final. What makes this even better is Omega's post-match promo as he got the fans in the palm of his hand by talking in Japanese -- only to tell them to support his opponent Goto as he signed off with his signature Bullet Club pose. (Andrew Davis)

Team SmackDown Live vs. Team Raw

Survivor Series

It's worth at least debating whether a match like this, which involved 10 of the top WWE superstars and took nearly 53 minutes to complete, should be eligible for match of the year consideration. But this one was so expertly booked from start to finish, featuring an endless run of big spots and exciting turns, that it's impossible to deny. It was a match so well constructed, with attention to detail within multiple storylines at once, that it felt more like a Royal Rumble than anything else. SmackDown teammates Orton and Bray Wyatt finished as "sole survivors," forging their new bond as Orton saved Wyatt from a Roman Reigns spear moments before the finish. But the match also saw a reunion from The Shield (combining to power bomb Styles through a table), a scary concussion suffered by Shane McMahon and a memorable appearance by James Ellsworth, who wound up paying severely for eliminating Braun Strowman. There was a lingering feeling entering this pay-per-view that traditional Survivor Series matches no longer had any merit because there wasn't anything at stake. This match removed any such a notion. (Brian Campbell)

Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens


Give me these two guys on every single pay-per-view for the rest of time and I'm a happy guy. They obviously had multiple run-ins throughout the year and I almost put the Intercontinental championship ladder match at WM as my choice here, specifically because of their spots in the match. But their match at Battleground is so re-watchable. The spots were incredible. The finish was just simple and great at the same time, as Zayn finally picked up a victory and a measure of revenge against his long-time friend. You could make an argument every match on this list should be a Sami Zayn match (or at least I could). (Steve Braband)

Will Ospreay vs. Ricochet

NJPW Best of the Super Juniors XXIII (Tag 6)

It takes a lot for any pro wrestling match to be discussed in mainstream circles based on its actual content, never mind one outside of the WWE and, even more so, one in Japan. But the Ospreay-Ricochet showdown from Best of the Super Juniors tournament in late May did just that, with an array of highlight-reel moves and an overall display of ridiculous athleticism. It was incredibly polarizing within the wrestling community, with Stone Cold Steve Austin singing its praises, while Vader tweeted out his displeasure about the emphasis on flips and crazy spots over ring psychology and storytelling (which even sparked a brief Ospreay-Vader feud over the summer). A big question remains -- is this match really a look at what wrestling may be in the future? Or is this a phenomenon that just happened to feature two young bright talents that might not ever again be duplicated? Either way, it was something special. (James Quintong)