Well, 2017 was a wild year in the world of professional wrestling, but it's finally drawing to a close.
Over the course of 12 months, the WWE on ESPN staff has watched hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of wrestling programming, and we've seen the best (and worst) of it all. In recognition of the greatest achievements inside of the squared circle in 2017, we've gotten together to make our picks in 10 different categories, covering individual performances, teams, rivalries and shows.
Our "Best of 2017" continues Thursday, and it's time to dig into some of the heavy hitters. Raw and SmackDown each went through hot and cold periods in 2017, but their best rivalries helped keep the shows afloat when they were otherwise subpar, and further elevated them when the momentum really started to roll. There are two major standouts in the opinion of our panelists, as well as several candidates that appear in multiple rivalries. Let's dig in.
"I'm not finished with you yet!"
For months and months, Braun and Roman went at it -- and it was amazing. Every week was a new twist on their confrontation. From ambulances to tables to street fights to chairs being thrown at Roman's head, it was a constant thrillride watching these two work and try to improve on their previous performances. I'm sure the creative team was happy to move past them simply because there were so very few stipulation matches left to hit (not to mention the ambulance budget). But that's what made it so good.
Their conflict also came at a time when boos filled the arena for Roman, but no matter what they were doing during the entrances, by the time the match hit its climax, "this is awesome" chants were inevitable.
I really do love the rest of the entries on this list, but man, if you think about what made Braun a complete superstar this year, it was his battle with Roman. (Andrew Feldman)
You could argue that this was Braun Strowman's first big feud as a singles competitor on the main roster, and what better superstar to compete with than the "big dog" himself, Roman Reigns? The physicality was through the roof as both men showed impressive displays of power, including Braun overturning an ambulance that Roman was lifted into after Strowman pushed him off of a loading dock, while he was strapped to a gurney. Roman would, of course, get his revenge at the Great Balls of Fire pay per view, backing an ambulance into a trailer with Braun inside. This rivalry brought back memories of the Attitude Era, and will likely be the first of many battles between two of the company's top superstars in the years to come. (Pete Ferlazo)
The Usos vs. The New Day
The New Day had run out of gas. They were still lovable and entertaining, but for some reason things had just run their course. It was a matter of time until they would have had to break up and make solo runs. Then The Usos, who were in the midst of rewriting their entire WWE story, came along. From the moment the moment New Day joined SmackDown, both teams took it to the next level. No feud this year was more evenly matched on the mic and in the ring. No other feud had better matches either.
If the goal was to elevate the players while entertaining the people -- this was a PERFECT feud. (Peter Rosenberg)
For the better part of the year after they were sent to Smackdown Live in the Superstar Shakeup, New Day and the Usos were the talk of the tag team division. Multiple matchups covered the spectrum, from a humble start at Money in the Bank and a solid effort at Battleground, through a match at SummerSlam that proved they had no business being relegated to the Kickoff Show (WWE.com rated it as the company's fourth-best match of the year), to street fights and a Hell in the Cell matchup -- they all brought new elements to the table for these five men. Neither team could gain a significant advantage over the other and the titles changed four times from July to October. Most times, a game of hot potato with a title can hurt both competitors, but in this case it only helped to make this feud even more personal, as evidenced by their rap battle on one particular episode of Smackdown Live. The tag team division has been on an upswing in the past couple of years, and it reached even higher levels because of this great rivalry to determine the best team in WWE. (Andrew Davis)
Last year, when Daniel Bryan introduced the SmackDown tag team championships, his entire tag division was presented with a challenge: make these titles feel prestigious. The Usos did their best to complete the mission, but they couldn't do it alone. The fact that their SmackDown tag championships were the only titles not defended at WrestleMania proved that they needed a worthy dance partner. Enter The New Day, who spent the better part of two years as tag team champions on Raw. When they arrived on SmackDown after the Superstar Shakeup, it was only right that they set their sights on the other set of tag team titles. This set the stage for a months-long rivalry, during which they traded wins, and the titles. Usually when a storyline progresses this way the result is apathy. In this case, they brought the best out of each other. Whether they were competing in a traditional tag team match or a rap battle or calling a truce, they produced must-see television. In doing so, they elevated Smackdown's tag titles and gave the viewers a rivalry we will all be buzzing about for years to come. (Greg Hyde)
These two teams were the highlight of every SmackDown and PPV during their feud, through a street fight, a Hell in a Cell match, and even a rap battle. This rivalry worked because these two teams work so well off each other, and always looked to bring something new to the table. "Fight Forever" gets overused, but these two teams deserve it. (Sachin Dave Chandan)
When I think about what makes a great feud, I want a series of matches where the teams one-up themselves every time and leave you wondering what could be next. I want verbal sparring that borders on, "Did they go too far?" And I want both participants to come out ahead of where they started. The Usos and New Day gave us that, and then some, this year. Upon the New Day's arrival on SmackDown, the Usos were already in the midst of a heel run that was really starting to click. Both teams fed off what the other was doing, breathing new life into the New Day's personas, and pushing the Usos to their absolute best. Please tell me this feud's not over yet? (Matt Willis)
No friendship in wrestling is built to last, but for the blissfully ignorant masses, it felt for months as though Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho would be best friends forever. After showing a little bit of unexpected chemistry in a pair of tag team matches in April 2016, a seemingly directionless Owens and Jericho were paired back up just prior to SummerSlam 2016 and the rest, as they say, is history. They beat Enzo Amore and Big Cass that day, but the real partnership would form in the weeks that followed, as Owens won the Universal championship and Jericho became his most trusted confidant. In a time where a lot of Raw's three weekly hours were inconsistent, these two became the core of entertainment that held the show together in the second half of 2016. Their bond was over the top and cheesy, and yet perfectly believable.
It all started to go downhill when Triple H, who had essentially handed Owens the Universal championship by interjecting himself in a match, returned to TV just after the Royal Rumble in 2017 and got in Owens' ear. Owens and Jericho had weathered bumps in the road and potential splits several times over the course of their relationship, but the good ship Chris and Kevin had seemingly been righted heading into the Festival of Friendship on Monday Night Raw in Las Vegas on Feb. 13. Jericho pulled out all the stops with Vegas showgirls, a phallic sculpture, a custom "Creation of Kevin" painting, Friendship the magician and Gilberg as a proxy for Owens' opponent-to-be, Goldberg. But Owens' present was far more sinister; from the moment Jericho asked, "Why is my name on this list?" their best friendship became a rivalry for the ages.
Jericho came back to haunt Owens, costing him the Universal championship against Goldberg, and then the two went to war for months over the United States championship, at WrestleMania 33 and beyond. The promos and attacks channeled the hatred formed on that fateful Vegas night, and that speaks further to just how powerful a single moment like the Festival of Friendship can be. (Tim Fiorvanti)
Roman Reigns vs. John Cena
Hear me out. I know this feud was put together quickly and only lasted a month, but boy did these two put on a show building the rivalry in that short time.
John Cena and Roman Reigns' promo battles were as real as scripted promos get. Cena ripped into Reigns for being a protected star and not earning his 'top dog' status. Reigns responded by calling out Cena for being a part-timer more focused on Hollywood than the WWE. The highlight of their verbal spat was when Reigns forgot his lines and Cena said, "go ahead, I'll wait. It's called a promo kid, You want to be the big dog, you're gonna have to learn how to do it." The burn drew a reaction from the crowd that rarely, if ever, happens in promos these days. Reigns looked bad in the moment, but week after week he grew more comfortable on the mic and became an equal adversary opposite of Cena. Reigns' promos against Cena ended up being some of the strongest of his career and it's probably because of the elements of reality behind this feud.
Their match at No Mercy was considered a disappointment by many, but the build-up should be studied by anyone trying to get fans invested in a match before the opponents ever touch. (Michael Wonsover)
Kevin Owens vs. Shane McMahon
Few rivalries this year got as personal as Kevin Owens vs. Shane McMahon; few were as entertaining, either. The conflict really started to gain steam at SummerSlam when McMahon served as the guest referee as Owens defended his United States championship against AJ Styles -- a match that Owens lost. From there, Owens turned into a crazed lunatic out for revenge on McMahon and the entire McMahon family. It was arguably the best multi-month stretch in Owens' WWE career. He went face-to-face with Vince McMahon on an episode of SmackDown Live and took his frustrations out on the boss by busting him open with a stiff head-butt; he followed up the most intense physicality Vince had been involved in in years by delivering a picture-perfect frog splash. It was one of the best segments of the year. The feud reached its climax at the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view when Shane and Owens put on a memorable near 40-minute Hell in a Cell match that saw McMahon, just as he did at WrestleMania 32, leap off the top of the cell and crash about 20 feet through a commentary table. The rivalry was too good to be contained by a single year, and has now also enveloped Daniel Bryan and Sami Zayn as well -- and the next chapter's still being written. (Sean Coyle)
Let's be clear here: This was hardly the most exciting and well-executed rivalry of the year, but it was arguably the most important one of 2017. Sure, at first it was baffling. How in the world did Mahal rise to a level in which he could compete with Orton -- never mind beat him to win the WWE title.
But that's what Mahal did. It began at Backlash in May, when Mahal stunned the 13-time champ to win the title. Mahal had risen to levels no one ever would have thought, and he did so against a legend. That was just the start.
Mahal then beat Orton on two more occasions, at Money in the Bank, and then in a Punjabi Prison at Battleground. Certainly the latter was underwhelming, despite the steel-structured stipulation and an appearance by the Great Khali. But the bottom line is that Mahal had formed a big-time rival in Orton -- one that established himself as a bona fide star and a WWE champion. (Matt Wilansky)