The 10 Best Wrestlers of 2017 (So Far)

Wrestling Lists Best Wrestlers
The 10 Best Wrestlers of 2017 (So Far)

We’re not even a third of the way into 2017 yet, but it’s still a good time to stop and reflect on the year it’s been for wrestling so far. With WrestleMania weekend and Wrestle Kingdom XI having come and gone, the year’s biggest events are already in the past, and we’re well into the long, slow yawn of the spring and early summer. It’s been an eventful year, though, with Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada proving they’re all time greats with their unforgettable Wrestle Kingdom XI main event, Keith Lee establishing himself with an unbelievable WrestleMania weekend, and Asuka continuing her unparalleled run in NXT. The ten wrestlers on this list are far from the only highlights from 2017, but they’ve been simply the best over the last four months.

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10. AJ Styles

In terms of big matches, 2017 has started a little slowly for WWE’s 2016 MVP. His Royal Rumble match with John Cena was tremendous, but not quite at the level of their classic from last year’s SummerSlam. He basically wrestled himself to a better than average match while squaring off against Shane McMahon at WrestleMania 33, but it was very hard to not be upset at how ridiculous and unnecessary that match was. The true value of Styles this year has been in creating compelling television every week. Even when SmackDown focused too heavily on the nonsensical Randy Orton / Bray Wyatt mess or clearly spun its wheels with Styles, he still remained worth watching, both in the ring, during what is apparently an endless series of above average television matches featuring the man, and on the microphone, where he has proven himself as one of the more natural and unforced of WWE’s actors.—Garrett Martin

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9. Kenny Omega

Some of you might be crying foul right now. Yes, Omega was one half of what’s probably the best match of the year so far, against Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom XI. New Japan then basically benched him for two months while heating up Suzuki-Gun. His return during the New Japan Cup featured a fantastic match with Tomohiro Ishii (who barely missed the cut for this list), but other than that Omega’s spent most of the year in perfectly entertaining but unremarkable tag team matches. Expect big things from him over the rest of 2017, especially with New Japan’s entry into America in July.—GM

8. Asuka

Asuka continues to prove she is the most believably dominant champion on WWE television. Such is Asuka’s credibility that, for a while, it looked like the NXT women’s division was ruined. But the brand rebuilt, and offered new opponents for the “Empress of Tomorrow” to dominate: A story with Nikki Cross, Peyton Royce and Billie Kay led to the first match where it actually looked like Asuka might lose the belt. The introduction of Ember Moon injected a little more drama, and their match at NXT Takeover: Orlando was one of the best of Asuka’s WWE career, a great back-and-forth that ended with an uncharacteristically heelish move. Whether you agree or disagree with that direction, it was the end of a subtle, months-long story that seems to be pushing her reign into a new direction, as well as showcasing a little more personality from the already engaging star. We’re almost certain to see a rematch with Moon this year, and the prospect of seeing Asuka wrestle Ruby Riot, Kimber Lee and Nikki Cross one-on-one is enticing. And before long, Asuka will end up on the main roster. But right now Asuka remains one of the brightest spots on any NXT card.—Paul DeBenedetto

7. Zack Sabre Jr.

It’s been quite a year so far for “Zacky Three Belts.” The Pro Wrestling Guerilla World Champion won the Evolve Championship in February, ending the seemingly infinite reign of Timothy Thatcher and delivering a widely beloved speech calling for inclusiveness in pro wrestling, a fairly radical statement in a company that just had to fire Joey Styles for making a joke about sexual assault. (Sabre, a generally positive and left-leaning person, also donated all profits from his “This Wrestler Armbars Fascists” tee to the ACLU.) He later reclaimed the British Heavyweight Championship he lost in November from Katsuyori Shibata in a great match that ended with a shocking twist: The UK standout joined the evil invading faction Suzuki-gun in their quest to defeat Kazuchika Okada’s CHAOS in New Japan Pro Wrestling. That included wrestling another great title match, this time against Hirooki Goto in a losing effort for the NEVER Openweight Championships. That Sabre has become so widely regarded for his in-ring skills is no surprise. That he is continuing a standout 2016—in which he won the PWG belt and wrestled in the Cruiserweight Classic—with an even more impressive 2017 is just remarkable.—PD


6. Tetsuya Naito

The most over performer in New Japan Pro Wrestling just keeps getting better. Japanese wrestling’s top anti-hero made more great strides at the start of 2017 against once and future ace Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 11. The two put on a clinic perhaps overshadowed only by the unreal performance of Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega in the main event. He followed that up with an instant classic and match of the year contender against Michael Elgin, successfully defending his IWGP Intercontinental Championship for the second time. So great is Naito’s star power that even his losses carry weight: Being pinned cleanly in an eight-man tag match by Juice Robinson was as clear a sign as any that Robinson had finally earned his stripes. It’s a foregone conclusion that Naito will be higher on this list at the end of the year. The only question is whether or not he’ll be at the top.—PD

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5. Kairi Hojo

Kairi Hojo is constantly mentioned in the same breath as her World Wonder Ring Stardom colleague Io Shirai. Fitting, then, that in one of her final Stardom matches, Hojo lost to her rival in a match on par with anything the two have ever put together. That is to say: A great match from two of the best workers on the planet. And while most people focus on Shirai as arguably the world’s greatest woman wrestler, it’s Hojo who has had the better year so far, with a Stardom farewell tour that includes her great match with Shirai, a strong one-on-one with Jungle Kyona, and an impressive defense of the tag team titles with partner Yoko Bito against Kay Lee Ray and Nixon Newell. (The team would later drop the belts to Kyona and Hiroyu Matsumoto.) The Wrestling Observer reported last month that Hojo signed a three-year deal with WWE, meaning she’s getting ready to bring the best elbow drop in the world to the Performance Center. Whether Shirai follows suit is anyone’s guess, but Hojo’s arrival will make her arguably the best worker in NXT the minute she walks in the door.—PD

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4. Hiromu Takahashi

We hate to say it but the Ticking Time Bomb is the kind of wrestler you better enjoy while you can. His absurdly risky daredevil antics make a career the length of, say, Chris Jericho’s or Yuji Nagata’s seem very unlikely. This is a guy who’s made a regular habit of doing hurricanranas over the top rope, out of the ring and onto the floor outside. (We’ll talk more about how much guilt wrestling fans should feel over wrestlers who work unhealthy styles later on.) As New Japan’s IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, the former Kamaitachi has had maybe more great matches in 2017 than anyone other than Kazuchika Okada and Katsuyori Shibata. His fantastic Wrestle Kingdom XI match with Kushida was followed by his latest battle with career archrival Dragon Lee in February, and then he had another match almost as great with Ryusuke Taguchi in March. His rematch with Kushida in April should be watched if you love shocking finishes. Takahashi might explode at any minute, but until that happens he might be the most thrilling wrestler in the business.—GM

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3. Keith Lee

The biggest and best surprise of 2017 has been the emergence of Keith Lee as a top star on the independents. When Lee left Ring of Honor at the start of the year, he was still a little-known quantity outside of a handful of smaller Texas promotions. Just four months later, he’s a major player, whose presence on any card is reason alone to buy a ticket. Lee was perhaps the top star of WrestleMania weekend not signed to a WWE contract, lighting up the weekend against the likes of Ricochet, Jeff Cobb, Lio Rush, and Donovan Dijak, the last of which was arguably the best match of the weekend from any brand. While Keith Lee’s first few months have been extraordinary by any metric, it seems to be just the beginning: After signing with Evolve in January, he’s been positioned as one of the company’s top stars, and the next eight months have the potential to be even bigger.—PD

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2. Katsuyori Shibata

How much are fans like us to blame for Shibata’s career-ending, life-threatening injury in his match with Kazuchika Okada? He’s performed unnecessarily dangerous head butts for years, and fans have rewarded that behavior with star ratings and spots high on lists like this one. Before the extent of his injuries were even known, his match with Okada was hailed as one of the two best of the year so far, with the image of blood slowly trickling down his face after that fateful head butt instantly summarizing the realistic brutality of their battle. Now that we know what that head butt meant for Shibata and his health, that image is even more unforgettable, but for horrible and depressing reasons. Shibata has been a world class wrestler for years, with the full support of the fans, and by the time New Japan was finally ready to push him to the top he ended his own career and gravely impacted his long-term health with a real head butt that no wrestling fan ever should’ve asked for or wanted to see.-GM


1. Kazuchika Okada

And to think there were people who still doubted Okada as New Japan’s ace as recently as last year. Okada’s in the midst of one of the best runs of any wrestler in history, reeling off almost perfect matches every month this year. And unlike, say, Ric Flair, the American gold standard who tended to have a recognizable template to his matches, Okada’s pulled it off while telling different stories with opponents with widely varying styles. It’s become a running joke to claim that every big Okada match is actually better than the instantly iconic Wrestle Kingdom XI bout with Kenny Omega, but it’s hard to argue with anybody who prefers the more grounded brutality of April’s Okada/Shibata match, the almost videogame-style speed and athleticism of Okada’s March match with Tiger Mask W (aka Kota Ibushi), or the unbelievable half-hour sell job of Okada’s shoot-styled fight with Minoru Suzuki in February. Of course it’s also hard to argue against that masterpiece with Omega, a 45 minute plus clinic on how to unite classic wrestling psychology with modern high-flying and showmanship. Not to denigrate his opponents, who were all just as crucial to every match, but the common ingredient is Okada, who is simply the best professional wrestler in the world. Fans often talk about wrestling as an art (or, as we like to call it, the one true art), and there’s no better artist in wrestling today than Kazuchika Okada.—GM

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