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 the squared circle in 2017, we got together to make our picks in 10 categories, covering individual performances, teams, rivalries and shows.
We've hit the final stage of our year-end superlatives, and we wrap up our "Best of 2017" coverage with our picks for best male wrestler of the year
Let's dig in.
Let's take a look at AJ Styles' pay-per-view résumé for 2017. He started the year at the Royal Rumble with an instant match of the year candidate against John Cena, in which Cena beat Styles for his record-tying 16th world championship. The following month in the Elimination Chamber match for the WWE championship, he started the match with Cena and went over 30 minutes as the glue that held everything together until he was the last one eliminated at the hands of Bray Wyatt. He floated around the title picture on TV over the next few months, and then fans lamented that he was put into a program with Shane McMahon leading up to WrestleMania. So what does he do in Orlando? He opens the main card, goes more than 20 minutes with Shane-O-Mac and has what could easily be deemed the best match on the whole damn card.
His rivalry with Kevin Owens had its ups and downs, to be sure, but everything leading up to the finishes of their Backlash and Battleground title matches was strong -- and the blowoff at SummerSlam with Shane McMahon as special guest referee was a strong finish to the series. He carried the United States championship for a couple of months and helped elevate Tye Dillinger and Baron Corbin, with Corbin ultimately beating him for that title in a triple threat at Hell in a Cell. Styles then left a SmackDown tour in South America to serve as an emergency fill-in to face Finn Balor in the best match at the TLC pay-per-view. In the lead-up to Survivor Series, WWE called an audible and Styles won the WWE championship less than two weeks before the pay-per-view in arguably the best televised match of Jinder Mahal's career.
That all led up to what might have been Styles' greatest achievement of all -- an incredible champion vs. champion match vs. Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series that went longer than anyone could've expected. Simply put, it exceeded any one-on-one effort Lesnar has had since his return to the company in 2012. He still had one more match with Mahal at Clash of Champions, which went off without a hitch, and we've barely scratched the surface of what Styles managed to do as the centerpiece of SmackDown for multiple stretches in 2017. Every time he steps into the ring, he makes someone better, and it's increasingly clear that applies to superstars of any size or style, from Lesnar all the way to James Ellsworth on the opposite end of the spectrum.
There's a perfectly valid argument for Kenny Omega as performer of the year for similar reasons, and I'm sure you'll read them in this column, but I'll close with one overarching statement: If Styles and Omega don't have at least one match in the next three years while they're both at or near their absolute peaks, it would be one of the greatest disappointments ever to befall the world of professional wrestling. (Tim Fiorvanti)
It's hard to argue that AJ Styles isn't the best in-ring performer in the WWE. It's impossible to argue that he's not in the top three. In addition to his obvious abilities, Styles has accomplished quite a bit this year, following up one of the best debut years in WWE history last year to boot. He kicked 2017 off with a match of the year candidate at the Royal Rumble with John Cena and continued to put on fantastic performances with each passing month -- all the way through Survivor Series, when he tore the house down with Brock Lesnar. Even more impressive, Styles became the sixth superstar in WWE history to become a multiple-time WWE champion within his first two years with the company when he defeated Jinder Mahal to become the champ in November. Styles hasn't even reached his two-year anniversary in the WWE and he's already accomplished so much. Look for that to continue all the way through 2018. (Sean Coyle)
"AJ Styles is the best in-ring performer of this generation, or any other." Paul Heyman shoved that quote down the throats of the WWE Universe throughout the build to, and fallout from, the Survivor Series showdown between Styles and Brock Lesnar. While Heyman is indeed paid to hype up Lesnar's opponents, Heyman isn't wrong in this case. Styles is a rare breed that became a star before coming to WWE yet still lived up to the hype upon arrival.
Styles' 2017 campaign started with a bang, putting on a match of the year candidate with John Cena at the Royal Rumble. He then pulled a show-stealing match out of a 47-year-old Shane McMahon at WrestleMania. Finally, Styles won the WWE championship for a second time in November, becoming the sixth superstar in WWE history to become a two-time WWE champion within his first two years in the company. The others: Ric Flair, Yokozuna, Brock Lesnar, Sheamus and Alberto Del Rio. Put all of that together and the "champ that runs the camp" is your male performer of the year. (Joey Koontz)
It's a toss-up between Styles and Kenny Omega, but in the end I went with The Phenomenal One for the second year in a row. Here's the thing about Styles that makes him so great: Even when the fans were supposed to hate his character, you were cheering for him when he fought John Cena at the Royal Rumble and when he battled Shane McMahon at WrestleMania. It's what led to his turn in the spring, when he began a great monthslong feud with Kevin Owens before ascending back to the top of the WWE mountain when he won the WWE title for the second time. And where did that lead him? To one of the best matches of the year with Brock Lesnar.
Styles has a style (pardon the pun) that supersedes anyone in sports entertainment. He can work on the ground with the calf crusher, fly through the air with the phenomenal forearm or perform a devastating Styles Clash. The ring work has always been Styles' strong point, but he's improved his storytelling both through promos and his mannerisms. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned that, on two days notice, he went up against Finn Balor for the first time in a matchup of former Bullet Club leaders. Any opponent or any style, as a face or as a heel, AJ Styles is the best performer in the business today. (Andrew Davis)
Kenny Omega's body of work in the ring over the past year can arguably go head-to-head with any wrestler ever. He's been that good. Omega's IWGP United States championship finals match against Tomohiro Ishii in Long Beach, California, in July was exhilarating. His G1 Climax finals match against Tetsuya Naito was the stuff of legends. Oh yeah, and he also competed in three of the greatest in-ring matches in pro wrestling history against Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 11 in January, Dominion in June and the G1 Climax Block B matchup in August (where he was finally able to pull off the win over Okada).
He's also kept up a steady North American presence by selling out shows for Ring of Honor in the States and regularly appearing on Being the Elite. Kenny Omega was without a doubt the best male performer in the world of wrestling in 2017. His highly anticipated matchup against Chris Jericho at Wrestle Kingdom 12 means Omega will be in the running for this award in 2018 as well. (Michael Wonsover)
Don't get me wrong, this one was tight between Kenny Omega, Kazuchika Okada and AJ Styles in my mind. But if there was ever any doubt about Omega's place in the main event, it was shattered this year. He kicked off 2017 with an electric bout against Okada in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom and continued with a list of match of the year nominees against Tomohiro Ishii, Tetsuya Naito, and Okada twice more over. I don't wake up in the middle of the night for just anyone, but I did it on several occasions for Omega. (Sachin Dave Chandan)
No, it's not The Miz. No, not Braun Strowman, AJ Styles or Kevin Owens. No, it's definitely not James Ellsworth. The male performer of the year is Roman Reigns.
Listen, around Bristol I've been singing the praises of The Miz and Braun Strowman all year. The Miz has driven every single significant storyline this year., whether he's been on SmackDown or Raw He's the catalyst that the shows have needed and he's the perfect foil for everything. Miz's in-ring work is excellent and he's surrounded by the right cast night in and night out. Let's face it, if he wasn't going to film another movie, he'd still have the Intercontinental championship that he's made so great over the last few years.
Braun is Braun. He's the reason why you watch Raw every week, because you simply never know what he's going to throw or break or rampage. He's the entertainment and a superstar in every scenario.
But the truth of the matter is that Reigns is the glue holding everything together. The argument will always be that Roman is forced upon WWE fans, but he's earned it. He's always in the main event because he can always deliver. He's always the one to get the biggest matches because he comes through when he's put in those spots. Try to figure out the last time when Roman was in a bad match or when fans didn't come around and cheer his performance after booing his entrance.
Roman's moment of the year was his entrance on Raw the night after his victory over The Undertaker at WrestleMania 33. He stood in the ring as 13 minutes of boos reigned down on him, said five words and left. He had the crowd in the palm of his hands which is pretty much everything you can want from sports entertainment.
So yeah, it really is his yard, and I'm perfectly cool with that. (Andrew Feldman)
How can someone who has not held a title during all of 2017 be considered the top male performer of the year? All the evidence you need is the reaction he gets from the WWE Universe every time his music (BRAAAAAAAAAUN) hits. He's OVER. He doesn't need to say a whole lot because his actions speak louder, harder, faster and stronger than words ever could. Every feud he's been in this year, whether it was against Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar or every single mid-carder on the Raw roster, to say nothing of his mesmerizing big-man battle against the Big Show, Braun has been the focal point.
Heck, it can be argued that the recent push of Kane to challenge Braun at the end of 2017 only works because Braun is so good at what he does. His combination of speed and power is untouched by anyone else. Crowds anxiously await his arrival and marvel at the strength he possesses. So sure, he doesn't have any titles, but does he need one? (Pete Ferlazo)
Over the past year, there has been no performer more important to the WWE product than The Miz. Since adding his wife Maryse to his side, The Miz has elevated his character to a whole other level. After a compelling and high-profile WrestleMania program against John Cena and Nikki Bella, the duo moved over to Raw from SmackDown during the Superstar Shake-up. Since then, he has been the glue holding Monday nights together with his various feuds over the Intercontinental championship and his MizTV segments, which help move programs along even if The Miz isn't directly involved in them.
The Miz used his superior mic skills and the unique ability to make everyone around him better (think of what Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas were doing before forming the Miztourage). He elevated any feud he was involved in, despite not being one of the best in-ring wrestlers around, and in that sense he's the modern-day Ric Flair. Heck, he's ultimately the one who caused The Shield to reunite. His absence from Raw during the filming of the newest Marine sequel has been felt hard over the last few weeks of 2017, and his return will be a welcome sight. He's The Miz, and he's AWESOME. (Nick Irving)
Everything that Owens did in 2017 felt major. His turn on Chris Jericho may have been the plot twist of the year, and given how much that crowd was getting behind the List of Jericho, it only served to make him a bigger heel. Despite his year starting with being the sacrificial lamb to give Goldberg the Universal championship heading into WrestleMania, Owens quickly shrugged it off and made Owens-Jericho one of the top feuds going into Mania.
After moving on from the U.S. title, Owens' feud with Shane McMahon gave us another two of the most shocking moments of 2017 -- the head-butt on the Chairman, Vincent Kennedy McMahon, and Sami Zayn's turn to align with Owens. 2017 will come to an end with Owens again in one of the most interesting storylines, against Shane-O-Mac, who seeks the termination of both Owens and Zayn despite Owens positioning himself as the top contender to AJ Styles' WWE championship. Everything Owens did turned to gold this year. (Matt Willis)
There was a time when Jinder Mahal would sludge through 90 minutes of inclement weather near Calgary, Alberta, just so he could get to an obscure training facility and take a small step in pursuing his dream. For years, he toiled in relative obscurity -- whether it was being part of a smaller organization or jobbing out to his opponents on the WWE stage as part of a desperately conceived trio called 3MB.
And that's all before he was handed a pink slip. Miraculously, Mahal not only made a comeback, but he won the WWE championship in May and held on to it for 170 days. Pretty good zero-to-hero stuff. And unlike the current Raw champ, Mahal showed up on a weekly basis. That has to mean something. (Matt Wilansky)