With the brand split a matter of weeks away and the WWE pay-per-view calendar about to flip on its head, it’s the perfect time to review the top 20 WWE live special matches of the year so far. There have been 56 pay-per-view matches so far and even though a top 20 is a large percentage of those 56, 2016 has been one of the strongest years in a long time in terms of match quality and you’ll probably raise your eyebrows at a few matches that aren’t on this list.
20th: Divas Championship Match: Charlotte versus Becky Lynch (Royal Rumble)
The culmination of one of the best storylines in the women’s division in a long time saw Charlotte and Becky Lynch square off in a great match that was given all the time it was needed to be something special. Both delivered a stellar performance and with Lynch seeming like a realistic chance of leaving with the title, the crowd was right into every near fall. If it wasn’t for the screwy finish involving Ric Flair and his jacket, this would be higher up the list.
19th: Intercontinental Championship Match: The Miz versus Cesaro (Payback)
The Miz falls into the category of wrestler who may not be anything special by himself, but put him in the ring with someone who is, and you’ll get magic. This was another match that contained an interference finish, but it was a quality match from start to finish that really showed what Cesaro can do as a babyface when given some spotlight. As part of a grander storyline, this was all it needed to be.
18th: NXT Championship Steel Cage Match: Samoa Joe versus Finn Balor (NXT Takeover: The End)
Joe and Balor had three Takeover matches and none of them were particularly outstanding. Considering the hype they all had, the story behind them, the calibre of both men and the fact that it’s NXT, the matches never quite reached the lofty heights expected of them. Steel cage matches are one of the hardest stipulations to build tension with considering there’s a door you can literally walk out of, but Finn and Joe did a good job in making the most of it. One of the few annoyances was the fact that there was no camera on the inside of the cage, which meant the whole match had to be watched through steel grating.
17th: Shinsuke Nakamura versus Austin Aries (NXT Takeover: The End)
This was another quality match that took place at The End, which has four bouts in the top 25 pay-per-view matches of 2016 so far. Nakamura and Aries was an exhibition match more than anything and with nothing really at stake and no real purpose to the match, this never could get much higher on the list, but it was the quality wrestling you’d expect from these two. Nakamura and Aries are still adjusting to the WWE style and the lack of selling at certain points pushed this a little further down the list.
16th: Money in the Bank Ladder Match (Money in the Bank)
This year’s Money in the Bank Ladder Match wasn’t the crazy spot-fest it has been in previous years. It featured an all-star cast of guys everyone wanted to see victorious which meant the crowd was right into it almost anytime somebody climbed a ladder. It was a slower and more meticulous pace than ladder matches of the past which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it could have used a few more high spots.
15th: WWE Championship Match: Roman Reigns versus Seth Rollins (Money in the Bank)
This match was three years in the making and many would’ve hoped it’d rank higher than 15th, but considering it was Seth’s first match back, we’ll let it slide. It was a slower pace than many were expecting and had a strange dynamic with Roman dominating the first 10 minutes of the match. While the finish was outstanding and every near fall was white-hot, the slow start restricts it to 15th. Surprise endings always count for bonus points and Seth winning clean was certainly that.
14th: Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match (WrestleMania)
A lot of people have this in their top 10’s, but outside of the surprise of Zack Ryder winning, this was a pretty standard multi-man ladder match. It featured fantastic spots and with the subplots of Owens and Zayn going at it, Ziggler and Miz trying to show they weren’t passed their prime and Ryder trying to pull off the fairy-tale, it was some fantastic storytelling.
13th: NXT Tag Team Championship Match: The Revival versus American Alpha (NXT Takeover: Dallas)
Rarely will you find a tag team championship match with more hype than this one. American Alpha may just be the best in-ring tag team the WWE has had in a very long time and The Revival are simply veterans of their craft. This was tag team wrestling at its best and American Alpha’s crowning was a fantastic story.
12th: Intercontinental Championship Last Man Standing Match: Dean Ambrose versus Kevin Owens (Royal Rumble)
The fact that this can’t crack the top 10 shows just how good the wrestling has been this year. This was as good as last man standing matches get with simple storytelling that concluded their three month feud. It was entertaining from start to finish and the kind of spectacle that even non-wrestling fans could sit and enjoy. Owens going through two tables to finish the match was a great way to end it.
11th: Roman Reigns versus Dean Ambrose versus Brock Lesnar (Fast Lane)
While the build up to this match was confusing and the way the match was thrown together was incredibly random, it didn’t matter, because once that bell rung, we knew we’d get something good. The psychology was strong with Lesnar dominating, Ambrose and Reigns then taking the Beast out and squaring off between each other. The only detractor to the match was the fact that Roman winning seemed like a forgone conclusion and so it was hard to buy into Ambrose and Brock’s near falls.
10th: NXT Women’s Championship Match: Bayley versus Asuka (NXT Takeover: Dallas)
This match was hurt by the fact that it had to follow Zayn and Nakamura. However, if you watch it in isolation, this is just as good as anything else that happened that night. Asuka is one of the best female wrestlers on the planet and Bayley’s evolution since the middle of 2013 has been phenomenal. The finish was sensational with Bayley passing out in the Asuka Lock, while the crowd sit stunned, not because the ending was unexpected, but because nobody wants to see Bayley lose.
9th: WWE Championship Match: Roman Reigns versus AJ Styles (Payback)
This was another match hampered slightly by the fact that we knew Roman would be retaining. Other than that, this was just some superb wrestling by both men. There are few men better at creating an in-ring storyline than AJ Styles and that was on display here as he took on the much larger Reigns. Roman has been in some amazing matches since The Shield split and yet crowds still chant ‘you can’t wrestle’ at him. News-flash, he can wrestle.
8th: NXT Tag Team Championship Match: American Alpha versus The Revival (NXT Takeover: The End)
This was everything they did in Dallas taken up a notch as every follow-up match should be. The spots and sequences were all nailed and had the crowd on their feet. Alpha applying double ankle locks at one stage was a nice little nod to Kurt Angle too. As already mentioned, surprise endings always take matches to the next level and The Revival winning clean was an unexpected swerve.
7th: Royal Rumble Match for the WWE Championship (Royal Rumble)
After three successive years of butchering one of the most anticipated matches of the year, the WWE delivered in spades this year with one of the best of all time. It started white-hot with AJ Styles coming out at three, began the Owens/Zayn feud, built to Lesnar cleaning house and The Wyatt Family’s dominance and remaining a fun and entertaining much all the way through. The ending with Triple H coming out at 30 and eliminating Roman was fantastic. The WWE did the little things in this match right and having Ambrose in the final two had the entire crowd on their feet.
6th: Kevin Owens versus Sami Zayn (Payback)
Honestly, the two matches these guys had in NXT weren’t anywhere near as good as this one. This was a fast paced brawl and they sold their hatred for each other perfectly. The ending was perfect with Owens getting a clean victory that sets up the remainder of the feud. These two had to follow the injury to Enzo Amore and yet they still had the crowd on their feet by the end of it.
5th: WWE Championship Extreme Rules Match: Roman Reigns versus AJ Styles (Extreme Rules)
This surpassed their first match mainly because the storyline allowed it to. The first match was a battle between two guys who respected each other, while this was an all-out war. The near falls were executed perfectly and made it seem like Styles was going to leave with the championship. The use of The Club and The Usos was smart too as they played a minor part in the match, but didn’t take the focus away from Reigns and Styles.
4th: WWE Women’s Championship Triple Threat Match: Charlotte versus Sasha Banks versus Becky Lynch (WrestleMania)
What started as a highly anticipated Divas Championship Match was transformed into a match that felt like a WrestleMania co-main-event. The entrances gave it a big fight feel and then all three women delivered the best performances of their careers. They had a lot of time to plan the match and the detail in every little spot showed that it was time well spent as this was the clear WrestleMania show stealer.
3rd: Intercontinental Championship Fatal 4-Way Match: The Miz versus Sami Zayn versus Kevin Owens versus Cesaro (Extreme Rules)
This match was almost exhausting to watch, it was that good. All four men kept the pace up for the entire bout and delivered roughly five minutes of near falls at the end of the match. Zayn starting the match by hitting his finisher on Owens set the tone for how good this match would become. The crowd was red-hot at the start, hoping anyone but Miz would leave with the title, and by the end of the match everyone was on their feet. Having Miz retain, capitalizing on Zayn’s finisher, was the perfect way to end the match too.
2nd: AJ Styles versus John Cena (Money in the Bank)
This was never going to be anything other than gold from the moment the bell rung. The crowd was electric and with two men of this calibre in the same ring, it was bound for greatness. The match was paced perfectly and Styles shined as the villain who controlled the match. The sequence before the finish was one of the best in recent memories and while there was interference, it made sense storyline wise and so it doesn’t really hurt the overall quality.
1st: Shinsuke Nakamura versus Sami Zayn (NXT Takeover: Dallas)
Was it ever going to be anything other than this? This was probably the most anticipated match in NXT history and there are really no words that can do it justice. Pay your $9.99 and go watch it, now.