If you got into wrestling in the last 15 years, and never explored past WWE, you might not think much of tag team wrestling. It was deemphasized in the world’s largest promotion for so long that it might be hard for newer fans to realize how important tag team wrestling has been throughout the art’s history. When handled properly, tag team wrestling can be as crucial to a promotion as singles matches, and the best teams can be as over as any individual act. It’s always thrived outside WWE’s purview, on the indies and in other countries, and has even been making a comeback within WWE over the last few years. As it stands now, the hottest act on the indies is a tag team, The New Day just wrapped up the most dominant WWE title reign in years, and NXT has practically elevated its top teams past its singles stars, with the Revival, American Alpha and DIY responsible for some of the best matches and storytelling of the year. 2016 was the best year for tag teams in America in a long time, and when one factors in the always-exciting junior heavyweight tag division in New Japan, the argument could easily be made that tag team wrestling surpassed the one-on-one variety all year long. Whether that’s true or not, these ten teams are more responsible than anybody else for an amazing year of tag team wrestling.
Fans were entirely justified when they were pissed off by the end of the Cesaro vs. Sheamus “best of 7” series in 2016. The entire series of matches had already felt like a way of simply keeping the two underutilized wrestlers busy while WWE creative struggled to come up with any kind of role for them, but to end the seventh match with a draw/double countout seemed like a waste for absolutely everyone involved. However, at least it led to the formation of this tag team. Forced to team up by GM Mick Foley, their initial “we can’t work together” storyline was interminable, but a funny thing happened when the two bonded over a “bar room brawl” on RAW—the pairing began to coalesce into something legitimately fun to watch. Sheamus still exists in an odd quasi-limbo between heel and face, receiving the occasional boos next to Cesaro’s universal cheers, but the key was a simple one: He just stopped opposing his partner. Now holding the Raw tag team straps, the duo seems to be invigorated, and the pairing has led to some of their best work in the last few years. Cesaro in particular is riding high once again, getting to perform the ridiculous feats of strength that have long made him one of the best pure performers in the business. He may never get a true chance at the top of the card, but it’s time to acknowledge that Cesaro has already had a pretty impressive run through the midcard of the WWE. One hopes that in a best case scenario, this tag team will somehow eventually lead to him being presented with the sort of opportunities that Sheamus once was, earlier in his own career.—Jim Vorel
Few wrestlers are as synonymous with any promotion as Jay and Mark Briscoe are with Ring of Honor. They’ve held the ROH World Tag Team Titles more than any other team, and are easily on the short list of the best tag teams of the 21st century so far. They weren’t able to reclaim Ring of Honor’s tag belts in 2016, but they wrestled in the tag division for most of the year, having great matches with Hiroshi Tanahashi and Michael Elgin, War Machine and the Young Bucks on pay-per-view. Their biggest success came in New Japan, where, along with Toru Yano, they became the first NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag champs in their very first New Japan match. Later in the year they won the IWGP Tag Team Championship from the Guerillas of Destiny, holding them for four months and two successful defenses before eventually losing them back to the Guerillas. Through sheer talent and smart booking the Briscoes have been able to stay fresh despite teaming together for most of the last 16 years, and in 2016 had one of their best in-ring years in a while. In a wrestling world where teams rarely stay together for more than a year or two, the Briscoes, much like the Young Bucks, are a throwback to the long-lived teams of old, and a soothing source of consistency in an unsteady world.—Garrett Martin
We knew 2016 would be a huge year for Ricochet and Matt Sydal, who ended 2015 by winning New Japan’s Super Junior Tag Tournament, beating two other teams on this list in the process. It would take something unusual to prevent these two world-class high flyers from having a historic run in New Japan’s junior heavyweight tag team division—they are both two of the best wrestlers today at combining crisply performed daredevil high spots with solid mat wrestling and psychology. They did not disappoint as the year kicked off, taking part in a great four-way with the Young Bucks, ReDRagon and Roppongi Vice at Wrestle Kingdom 10. A month later they won the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles from the Bucks in a three-way match, swapping them back and forth with Roppongi Vice before losing them for good back to the Bucks in June. Along the way they had consistently fantastic matches, both in New Japan and in PWG and RevPro, and even got to team with Rey Misterio Jr. in a six-man match at the WrestleCon Supershow during Wrestlemania weekend. Only two weeks after losing the IWGP Junior Tag Titles, they gained some measure of revenge over the Bucks by teaming with Satoshi Kojima to win the NEVER Openweight Six Man Tag Team Titles from the Jacksons and Kenny Omega, in what turned out to be their last match for New Japan. Unfortunately their New Japan run ended abruptly and mysteriously, as Sydal suddenly disappeared from New Japan’s roster. Later it was revealed that he was arrested in Japan in September after bringing 2.12 grams of liquid cannabis into the country. It brought an ignominious end to one of the most exciting tag teams in New Japan. While they were together they were the closest the Young Bucks have had to an equal when it comes to non-stop barrages of high risk maneuvers. Now that Sydal is back in the States, it should be only a matter of time before an enterprising promoter tries to reunite these two somewhere.—Garrett Martin
Roppongi Vice has far more going for them than just an amazing theme song, even if they had some personal issues to work through this year. Rocky Romero and Baretta seemed on the verge of collapse for much of 2016. Despite winning the IWGP Junior Heavyweight titles from Ricochet and Sydal in April, the two partners were often not on the same page throughout the year, with Romero regularly appearing as a weak link. As the tension grew, they were still able to win the Super Junior Tag Tournament in October, which put them in position to challenge the Young Bucks for the Junior titles at Wrestle Kingdom 11 last week. Romero has long been a tag specialist in New Japan, and although it’s hard to say if his current partnership with Baretta (who should be familiar to wrestling fans from his WWE days, when he still had the first name Trent) is more talented or capable than his last team Forever Hooligans, with the now-retired Alex Koslov, it’s undeniable that they’re one of the more exciting teams today.—Garrett Martin
Somewhere along the way, fans seemed to forget that Christopher Daniels was a bona fide legend, and so 2016 served as a good reminder that the 46-year-old ring general could still go. Daniels and his Addiction partner Frankie Kazarian stood atop the Ring of Honor tag team division for 144 days as the two-time ROH Tag Team Champions. When it came time for them to drop the titles, Daniels cut one of the most fire promos of the year, summed up by one line: “How tight do you think your grip becomes when you believe that, if you let something go, you’ll never hold it again?” That video alone made ROH All-Star Extravaganza one of the must-watch shows of the year, and Daniels and Kazarian helped deliver in the main event, Ladder War 6, where the two men put their bodies on the line in one of the best matches of 2016 and literally bled for what they loved. Sure, Kazarian is approaching 40 and Daniels may be nearing the end of his career. But so what? In 2016, the Addiction proved that they’re one of the best tag teams in the Bus-i-ness. Worship them.—Paul DeBenedetto
A ranking of American Alpha at the end of 2016 has to take into account the team in both its iterations—as the intense, high-energy duo that drove new life into the NXT tag team division, and as the slightly lesser version of itself that the team has been so far on the main roster. It’s safe to say that they began the year with incredible momentum, harnessing the natural physical abilities of both men in NXT. Chad Gable is the straw that stirs the drink in this pair, a natural babyface whose small-ish stature belies freakish natural strength and mat wrestling ability. Jason Jordan, meanwhile, has always had the LOOK of a WWE superstar with his good looks, big smile, height and showroom physique, and his speed and athleticism fit perfectly into the role of “hot tag guy,” much in the same way as Big Cass. But American Alpha have an energy and an animalistic hunger and intensity to them that Enzo & Cass never have, which helps make them one of the most exciting tag teams in wrestling today when they have a hot crowd and a full head of steam behind them. It’s hard to say whether the gimmick and even their energy can ever make a 100% transfer over to the main roster, even as they enjoy their first Smackdown Tag Team Title run, but just about any wrestling fan would agree that the potential and physical tools are certainly there. Here’s hoping that 2017 brings some more characterization to American Alpha, which would give fans even more reason to invest.—Jim Vorel
2016 was an up-and-down year for The New Day, who cemented themselves as one of the biggest and most lucrative attractions in the WWE while also reaching the record for the longest tag team title reign ever in December. The popularity brought to the trio by their 2015 heel turn and subsequently bombastic personalities had the (perhaps unintended) side effect of organically changing the group back into de facto babyfaces by the spring of 2016, but they hit the ground running in that role and thrived among lesser competition in the often stagnant WWE tag team division. (League of Nations, anyone? Remember that?) At their best, The New Day represent not just the “power of positivity” but the power of letting the individual personalities of wrestlers like Big E, Kofi Kingston and especially Xavier Woods shine through without artificial scripting. It’s an aesthetic formed by three unabashedly geeky minds, who celebrate with toots of the Final Fantasy victory theme on their trombone or stroll down to the ring at Wrestlemania in the guise of Dragonball Z characters. The trio certainly had some low points as well in mid-2016, when it seemed as if the shtick had finally exhausted itself—the infamous “Sonny Boy” segment, and “The Old Day” while they feuded with The Club—but in the last couple of months it appears as if the ship has been righted once again. In their post-tag team championship era, and after such a long reign, it’s hard to say where The New Day will go in 2017. One might say that the personalities of the group have grown beyond the tag team division, and perhaps it’s time for something fresh. But even if that’s the case, it was a remarkable, positive ride while it lasted.—Jim Vorel
One of the most exciting moments in DIY’s year had both nothing and everything to do with them being a tag team. Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa were two of the last men to wrestle in the first round of the Cruiserweight Classic tapings, a surprise for an audience who’d been sitting for hours with no idea of the brackets. It was a magical match for the two men, a culmination of their very real friendship story that NXT had been pushing for weeks since their debut. When it was finished—after a rollup pin from the underdog Gargano—a challenge for the NXT tag team championship was on everyone’s minds. And challenge they did, in two of the best tag team matches of 2016. After a show-stealer at Takeover: Brooklyn II on Summerslam weekend, they managed to top themselves in Toronto, where they finally won the titles and entered the “Match of the Year” discussion alongside Dash and Dawson. It was a satisfying moment to watch, the culmination of a well-told story by two of the most talented men on the NXT roster. —Paul DeBenedetto
Courtesy of Ring of Honor
What can we say about the Young Bucks that hasn’t already been said countless times before? The team had to sit through another year of people calling them overrated, people telling them they had no ring psychology, people calling them a walking spotfest. They responded the way they always do: Being the most exciting tag team on the planet, and arguably the biggest draw of any tag team in- or outside the WWE. Matt and Nick Jackson continue to blaze their own lucrative trail outside the biggest company in the pro wrestling world, signing new contracts with Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling and holding titles in ROH, NJPW and Pro Wrestling Guerilla. They won those ROH belts in one of the most brutal matches of 2016, Ladder War 6 at ROH’s All-Star Extravaganza. Yes, it was a car crash. So were the TLC matches between the Hardys, the Dudley Boys, and Edge and Christian—and this match was better. Even when they’re not in the best match of the night, the team can’t help but captivate every audience it wrestles in front of. Don’t like their pacing? Crowds sure do. Wish they’d cool it with the superkick parties? Too bad: It works. The Young Bucks aren’t here for your definition of a good match. They’re here to change that definition. Whether you love them or hate them, chances are you’ve already made up your mind about Matt and Nick. Luckily for them, the Young Bucks don’t care what you think.—Paul DeBenedetto
A common knock against NXT today is that it’s not really a developmental system. Its biggest stars, including Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe and Bobby Roode, arrive fully-formed after long careers working for other promotions. When NXT talent is promoted to WWE’s main roster, they often wind up as opening match cannon fodder, like Tyler Breeze, the Ascension and former NXT champions Bo Dallas and Neville. (Thankfully the cruiserweight division is giving Neville a renewed opportunity.) The biggest new name to hit WWE in 2016, AJ Styles, never worked a day in NXT. NXT has legitimately been a huge success with the women’s division (although most of the women have wrestled elsewhere before coming to NXT), but its track record for the men’s division has been lackluster at best. It’s easy to think that it exists more to undercut WWE’s potential competitors, stealing away their top stars and touring against them on their home turf, than to train the next crop of WWE superstars.
Of course there are a number of wrestling neophytes who actually are learning how to work in NXT right now, and just as importantly there are wrestlers like Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder, who had years of experience before coming to NXT but hadn’t put it all together into a package that truly resonated with the audience. Working in the lower pressure environment of NXT the last few years has allowed Dawson and Wilder to click into one of the best tag teams in decades. Calling them “The Revival” and dressing them in satin jackets might be trying too hard to evoke classic 1980s teams like the Midnight Express and Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, but Dawson and Wilder are more than capable of justifying such comparisons. They’ve come closer to perfecting the classic heel tag team routine than any team in recent memory, and the result has been a raft of match of the year candidates with American Alpha and DIY. Dawson and Wilder do all the little things right, from their psychology to their selling to their mannerisms, to the way their cocksure Southern attitude breaks down the second the faces seize the momentum. In a WWE Universe that seems averse to letting heels actually cheat like heels, and that has always been utterly dismissive of Southern-style wrestling, their throwback act stands out even more than it otherwise would. If given a chance on the main roster, they could seal their reputation as one of the greatest tag teams in WWE history. If not, they’ll go down as perhaps the biggest main roster waste of NXT talent ever.—Garrett Martin