What does it mean to be “Wrestler of the Year”?
For this top 10 list, the format was based on a combination of work rate, drawing ability, and overall impact on the business in 2017.
A wrestler’s skill at consistently elevating his opponent was also emphasized. Shawn Michaels is one of the greatest of all-time, and an integral part of his brilliance was his ability to make you believe in the man standing across from him in the ring.
Here are Sports Illustrated’s Top 10 Wrestlers of 2017, beginning with the notable omissions.
Notable omissions: Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura, Tetsuya Naito, Christopher Daniels, Trevor Lee, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar can still draw a crowd, but his success in 2017 was due primarily to his opponent.
Lesnar shined in his Survivor Series encounter with AJ Styles, but that was courtesy of Styles. The major blemish on Lesnar’s 2017 was his inability to raise the stock of Braun Strowman in their match at September’s No Mercy pay per view.
Strowman exited his match with Lesnar looking like less of a monster than he had beforehand. The match went nine minutes, which is a marathon for the 40-year-old Lesnar in 2017, and served only to help one man: himself.
Top 10 Wrestlers of 2017
10.) KEITH LEE
Top three matches of 2017: vs. Ricochet (EVOLVE 80), vs. Tomohiro Ishii (Rev Pro Global Wars UK), vs. Matt Riddle (EVOLVE 94)
Keith Lee is a modern day mix of Samoa Joe and Bam Bam Bigelow. He transitioned in 2017 from an afterthought in Ring of Honor to a workhorse across the independent scene, delivering moves that most super heavyweights only dream of hitting.
A closer look at Lee’s work from this year showed a focus on his timing. He is a student of the game, moves exceptionally well, but also redefined his body from the beginning of the year to the end.
Lee’s most compelling matches of 2017 included two encounters with Zack Sabre Jr., particularly the second battle, which took place this past September at EVOLVE 93. His work with WALTER also confirmed all of his recent hype, and he put together a memorable WrestleMania weekend for EVOLVE with must-see matches against Ricochet and Donovan Dijak. Lee was one of the finalists for the prestigious PWG Battle of Los Angeles indie wrestling tournament, and his tourney matches with Dijak and Rey Fenix were highlights of the weekend.
9.) CODY RHODES
Top three matches of 2017: vs. Christopher Daniels (Best in the World), vs. Kazuchika Okada (G1 Special in the USA), vs. Minoru Suzuki (Death Before Dishonor)
Cody Rhodes wrestled as Stardust at WrestleMania 32 in 2016, then finished out his WWE tenure by dropping consecutive falls to Apollo Crews and even doing a job for Zack Ryder.
Rhodes then cashed in all of his goodwill chips by touring independents, before finally turning heel and joining the Bullet Club in December of ‘16. He used that momentum to create his most compelling year in wrestling, beginning with a victory over Juice Robinson in the Tokyo Dome at Wrestle Kingdom 11 in January.
Rhodes took a considerable risk, but he has successfully parlayed his family name and WWE credentials into far greater star magnitude than he ever achieved with the “WWE machine” behind him. He had memorable encounters with Christopher Daniels in Ring of Honor and even Kazuchika Okada in the main event of the AXS TV G1 Climax Special in July. The sky is the limit for Cody in 2018, starting with his date at Wrestle Kingdom 12 with Kota Ibushi.
8.) MATT RIDDLE
Top three matches of 2017: vs. WALTER (Progress August show in New York), vs. Zack Sabre Jr. (Rev Pro Uprising), Keith Lee (EVOLVE 94)
Riddle was the star of the indies in 2017, which is quite an honor.
There is a rare intangible with Riddle. He commands attention in the ring, and his charisma organically connects with crowds. Riddle’s work also brings with it another level of authenticity. He ended his UFC tenure on a four-fight win streak, but two of those wins were overturned due to his proclivity for marijuana, though that has made him more popular in pro wrestling.
Riddle also starred in EVOLVE, his home base to craft his art of pro wrestling. It is especially important on the independent wrestling level to make your opponent come off strong, which Daniel Bryan mastered better than most, and Riddle shined in matches during 2017 with a variety of talent, helping elevate Fred Yehi during WrestleMania weekend in Orlando, Keith Lee in their EVOLVE battles, and Tracy Williams, who Riddle fought in Chicago in an “Anything Goes” match, highlighting his ability to adapt to a hardcore-style match.
Riddle is not selfish and does not eat people up in the ring, but he is also able to protect himself and his own aura. He is a phenomenal ambassador for independent wrestling, and there is a reason his merchandise lines were so long at shows in 2017.
7.) KEVIN OWENS
Top three matches of 2017: vs. Roman Reigns (Royal Rumble), vs. AJ Styles (SummerSlam), vs. AJ Styles and Chris Jericho (SmackDown Live)
Kevin Owens began 2017 as WWE Universal champion and delivered a phenomenal match with Roman Reigns at the Royal Rumble. That encounter was largely forgotten due to the fact that, just two matches later, AJ Styles and John Cena combined to put together arguably the match of the year.
Owens was consistently overshadowed by various other storylines that WWE chose to highlight throughout the year, but he constantly delivered compelling work in the ring. That feat is nearly impossible to achieve in WWE, as the weekly television grind overexposes talent to the point where the extraordinary becomes ordinary.
Owens made everything he did meaningful, cementing himself as a top heel in the business during 2017.
6.) KAZUCHIKA OKADA
Top three matches of 2017: vs. Kenny Omega (Wrestle Kingdom 11), vs. Tiger Mask W (45th Anniversary), vs. Katsuyori Shibata (Sakura Genesis)
Kazuchika Okada remains a mystery to a large part of the North American audience, but that began to change in 2017.
Okada steered the ship during New Japan’s maiden voyage into the United States for its G1 Special in the USA on AXS TV in July, where he worked with Cody Rhodes. Okada’s work is so finely-tuned and compelling that the match was Rhodes’ best match of the year, where it fell somewhere closer to the tenth best match of Okada’s year.
Can Okada’s star grow in 2018, particularly in North America? New Japan returns to California in March, likely with Tetsuya Naito as IWGP heavyweight champion. Okada is so closely connected with the IWGP championship, and he is set to break the all-time record for combined days as champion in the next week, so it will be telling to see how Okada responds if he is no longer holding the title.
5.) BRAUN STROWMAN
Top three matches of 2017: vs. Roman Reigns (Payback), vs. Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns and Samoa Joe (SummerSlam), vs. Big Show (Raw cage match)
Braun Strowman redefined the role of the giant in 2017.
WWE hit the right notes in the way it booked Strowman throughout the year, but it was not without faults. His undefeated streak by pinfall or submission was snapped with no anticipation or build, at the hands of Roman Reigns at Fastlane in March, and there was the unfathomable sight of Strowman backing away from The Undertaker in their face-to-face encounter on Raw.
Strowman compensated for the periods of bad booking with a devastating style in the ring. The beauty of Strowman is that his ability to dismantle opponents does not mean he crushes their credibility. Strowman’s dumpster match in April was the highlight of Kalisto’s year.
Outside of his No Mercy match with Brock Lesnar, which was a complete and utter failure, Strowman added intrigue with an ambulance match with Reigns, which took place after the spot on Raw where he flipped an ambulance, and even withstood a trip inside a garbage truck. WWE’s booking philosophy is built around delivering memorable moments to its fans, and Strowman created more than anyone else in 2017.
4.) JOHN CENA
Top three matches in 2017: AJ Styles (Royal Rumble), vs. AJ Styles and. Bray Wyatt (SmackDown Live), vs. Roman Reigns (No Mercy)
Can WWE draw a house without John Cena?
Cena remains the biggest draw in the entire industry, which is particularly apparent when he is off the road and WWE draws some dismal attendance numbers at Raw and SmackDown.
Despite looking past-his-prime at the Survivor Series-which was largely the result of being surrounded by the likes of Finn Balor, Bobby Roode, and Braun Strowman-Cena has played a role in the most memorable matches of 2017, including his Royal Rumble win over AJ Styles, as well as a SmackDown loss to Shinsuke Nakamura and a compelling feud with Roman Reigns.
Cena is finally as comfortable with the WWE audience as they are with him, which is bereft of irony. Cena has found his greatest connection with the fan base as a part-time talent, the kind he used to mock.
3.) ROMAN REIGNS
Top three matches in 2017: vs. The Undertaker (WrestleMania 33), vs. Braun Strowman (Fast Lane), vs. John Cena (No Mercy)
I was asked this yesterday: if Roman Reigns did not speak, similar to The Undertaker near the beginning of his WWE tenure, how much more popular would he be?
Reigns’ work on the mic undoubtedly hurts his overall product, as he sometimes comes off so mellow that he is a minnow in an ocean full of sharks.
Reigns made the most of his talented bevy of opponents throughout the year, kicking off the year with a classic against Kevin Owens and ending 2017 with a six-man tag that was the best match at the Survivor Series. His match with ‘Taker at WrestleMania, which was by no means a classic, was far more about the story it told than the actual match.
Reigns also succeeded in a variety of matches. The Fatal 5-Way at Extreme Rules, Fatal 4-Way at SummerSlam, and ambulance match are all part of his 2017 resume, and he even closed out the year with compelling television bouts with Cesaro and even Jason Jordan. To add to all of that, Reigns and Braun Strowman combined to deliver the feud of the year.
2.) AJ STYLES
Top three matches of 2017: vs. John Cena (Royal Rumble), vs. Finn Balor (TLC), vs. Brock Lesnar (Survivor Series)
AJ Styles made chicken salad of his WrestleMania 33 match with Shane McMahon. That alone qualifies him for a top five spot in 2017.
In what would have been seen as unrealistic just two years ago, Styles effectively replaced Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose in the main event during 2017.
Styles made every match entertaining, whether it was the Money in the Bank ladder match, a two-on-one affair against the Singh Brothers in November, or a match on SmackDown against The Miz in January. Styles started and ended 2017 as WWE champion, but was placed in lackluster feuds throughout the year with McMahon, Baron Corbin, and most recently Jinder Mahal.
For those who believe pro wrestling matches should be presented like a sporting contest, Styles is a savior. In a world where some wrestlers’ punches look like they wouldn’t break an egg, Styles delivers an extremely realistic style, adds an entertaining bump to every match, but also sells for his opponents so the viewer can suspend disbelief. He brought out the best in John Cena, Braun Strowman, and Finn Balor during 2017, and just missed finishing first on this list.
1.) KENNY OMEGA
Top three matches of 2017: vs. Kazuchika Okada (Wrestle Kingdom 11), vs. Juice Robinson (G1 Climax), vs. Tomohiro Ishii (New Japan Cup)
Kenny Omega is better than AJ Styles.
And Omega was certainly better than Styles in 2017. The Cleaner is the alpha and the omega when it came to pro wrestling this past year. Omega is otherworldly in the ring, delivering memorable affairs with Minoru Suzuki, Kazuchika Okada, Michael Elgin, and helped Juice Robinson to the finest match of his career.
Like Styles, Omega does not need great opponents to produce great matches; he can deliver that feat with nearly anyone.
Yes, New Japan books six-man tags throughout the year, far more than WWE, to allow the wrestlers to rest and recover. Omega also works far more comedy matches with the Young Bucks in 2017 than AJ Styles ever has in his career, partially because WWE would not allow it and because of different personalities. But Omega’s year resonates most because of his ability to connect with a crowd. Omega was able to do this in 2017 while touring towns in Japan during the grueling G1 Climax round robin, which saw him go the distance for a second straight year, as well as in Toronto, Chicago, and Reseda, California.
Omega is not working WWE tours that generate 10,000 ticket sales upon their first advertisement. He is grinding in PWG, helping Ring of Honor set new standards of excellence for their Global Wars show in Chicago, while also building anticipation for Wrestle Kingdom 12 all the way in a different continent. Despite the difference in time and travel, wrestling fans in America still care about Omega.
Unlike Styles and Reigns, who have the WWE wagon entrenched firmly behind them, Omega has created his own buzz in America. Along with some of the best bouts of the year, an ability to enhance his opponent, and a must-see intangible, Kenny Omega is Sports Illustrated’s Wrestler of the Year for 2017.