Is there such a thing as too much pro wrestling? I assumed there was, but I sat through about 13 hours of wrestling over two days this past weekend and never really got tired of it. WWE took over Brooklyn for the second year in a row with SummerSlam and its related festivities, including an NXT Takeover special, a fan festival and a press event for the upcoming WWE 2K17 videogame. On top of that a couple of indie promotions held major shows in the New York area, including EVOLVE on Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t able to make it to everything, but I was at EVOLVE 67, NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II, and SummerSlam itself, and would’ve been totally ready to go to Raw on Monday night if I hadn’t had to fly home to Atlanta.
Of course the quality of the wrestling played a huge role in my never losing interest. EVOLVE was a great mix of in-ring proficiency and solid storyline advancement, with a great, wild brawl through the crowd between Cody Rhodes and Chris Hero. NXT was easily the show of the weekend, with three fantastic matches, an unforgettable entrance from Bobby Roode, and solid work from practically everybody on the card. And SummerSlam might have dragged a bit over its six hours, but it featured perhaps the best WWE match of the year so far, and fans got to see almost everybody currently on the roster.
It was such a packed weekend that there were even two other major wrestling shows outside of Brooklyn. Sadly I missed Ring of Honor’s Death Before Dishonor XIV pay-per-view on Friday night, and the finals of New Japan’s Super J-Cup on Sunday. None of those matches will be considered for this list, although the Adam Page vs. Jay Briscoe and Adam Cole vs. Jay Lethal matches from the ROH show are apparently worth tracking down. (No, not everybody in Ring of Honor is named either Adam or Jay.)
This list only factors in shows that I saw live. That means EVOLVE 67, NXT and SummerSlam. If you missed any of those shows and don’t have time to watch ‘em all, here are the five matches to target. And if five just isn’t enough, I’ve even included a few honorable mentions.
Honorable Mentions: Tommy End vs. Matt Riddle, EVOLVE 67; Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks, SummerSlam; Finn Balor vs. Seth Rollins, SummerSlam.
Asuka and Bayley barely edged out Charlotte and Sasha Banks for the best women’s match of the weekend and the fifth slot on this list. Both matches were set up with great wrestling stories—Bayley had to prove her loss to Asuka was a fluke and reclaim the title she lost over Wrestlemania weekend, and Sasha had to stave off one final last-ditch effort by Charlotte to take the WWE Women’s Championship back. Charlotte and Sasha might’ve had the hotter (and far more surprising) finish, but Asuka and Bayley worked a cleaner and more consistent match. And although Asuka’s victory was expected, there was still genuine emotion in Bayley’s failure, mixed with hope for the main roster career everybody knew she was about to embark on.
This “Cruiserweight Classic Showcase” match pitted two of the stand-outs from WWE’s tournament against each other in the best match on EVOLVE’s Saturday afternoon show. Sabre, the world class British technician who will be facing Noam Dar in the CWC quarter finals, might have won, but both wrestlers came off looking like superstars in this hard fought, highly athletic encounter. Cedric Alexander has been on a tear since leaving Ring of Honor, with a series of amazing matches in various indie promotions and in the Cruiserweight Classic (his second round loss to Kota Ibushi is the match of the tournament so far), and this bout with Sabre might’ve been his best work yet.
Samoa Joe was so good at selling his jaw injury that almost every jaded smark I talked to after the show was sure it was real. It’s just what happens when you put two of the very best in the world in a ring together: they make it look real, and they make you believe, even when you know deep down that it’s not. Shinsuke Nakamura’s outsized body language and cult of personality could easily overwhelm his body of work, but he remains so uncannily skilled at the basics of wrestling, and so innately charismatic, that he more than deserves every accolade that’s tossed his way. He and Joe worked a brutal match that made a believer out of everybody watching, culminating in a Nakamura title win that blew the roof off the building. Nakamura was the most over person on any show all weekend, and all you need to do to understand why is watch this fantastic match.
As great as Joe and Nakamura were in their match, they didn’t even put on the best display of the night. Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa took on the team of the Revival, Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder, in a beautiful callback to the classic southern tag team wrestling of the 1980s and early ‘90s. Dawson and Wilder have explicitly patterned their act on Arn Anderson’s teams with Ole Anderson and Tully Blanchard, and they pull off the double-teaming and old-school beatings so well that the old guys should be proud. And in Gargano and Ciampa they have an almost perfect counterpoint, with Gargano especially putting in a five-star performance during his extended beat-down. The false finish would’ve frustrated the crowd if they didn’t love the dastardly Revival so much. A rematch has to be coming down the pike, but it’ll be tough for them to top this almost perfect gem. Perhaps it’s time to go for two out of three falls, like a real title match?
Some critics knock this match by equating it to a videogame, just a constant stream of major moves, reversals and near-falls. Yeah, they kicked out of more finishers than the entire WWF did throughout all of the 1980s, but it fit the storyline, which was both the best one heading into SummerSlam and the one that had the most sensible solution at the show itself. As is typical with his big matches, Cena framed the entire bout as a referendum on Styles and his career: If he could beat the 15-time WWE champion cleanly in a one-on-one match, than Cena would admit he was worthy of respect. What’s unusual is that this time Cena actually lost the rubber match (we’re using the term a little liberally, as the second match in the series was a tag match where Cena pinned Styles, and not a singles.) They quickly rushed to the big moves and near-falls not to force drama, but because it made sense with the prideful war of one-upmanship that they were waging. Both men were predictably crisp, with near-perfect timing on every move, and the crowd was entirely in their hands from the second Styles walked down the aisle before the match. It was such an impressive match, both physically and narratively, that everything after it struggled to spark the live crowd’s interest. Styles and Cena burnt all of us out with a half-hour epic that ended with a well-deserved coronation of Styles as a legitimate top guy within the company. It’s probably the best WWE match of the year so far, and one of the very best of Cena’s career. It’s also another highlight in what has been an incredible year for Styles.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s wrestling, comedy and games sections. As great as last weekend was, he’ll probably never be as excited to see a wrestling match live as he was when “Dr. Death” Steve Williams and Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy beat the Steiner Brothers for the WCW World Tag Team Championship at the Omni in 1992. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.