The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
Every year, the wrestling community anxiously awaits the wrestling award spectacular that is The Viewies®. With half the year in the books, I offer a little taste of the action with my traditional mid-year awards, The Pre-Viewies®.
Wrestler of the Year: Kazuchika Okada
Kenny Omega has been the most talked-about star in wrestling circles this past year, and while it is likely that he can win this award by the end of the year, right now there is no other viable answer then Kazuchika Okada. In addition to his watershed matches with Omega, Okada has been on a roll in 2017, having notable conquests over Kota Ibushi, Katsuyori Shibata and Cody Rhodes. No wrestler has quite delivered in high-profile matches like Okada. In addition, New Japan Pro Wrestling has experienced an uptick in popularity, both domestically where they are selling out arenas faster than they have in decades, and internationally where they are touring and increasing their notoriety across the globe.
Honorable Mention: Kenny Omega, AJ Styles, Kento Miyahara, Christopher Daniels, Katushiko Nakajima, Volador Jr., Ultimo Guerrero
Best Babyface: Kazuchika Okada
Okada wins again for the simple reason that he is the most popular babyface for a company that is beginning to peak in popularity. WWE, from a business standpoint, has a commanding lead over NJPW and any other wrestling company, but find a babyface that is more integral to the weekly product than Okada. The top babyfaces from a popularity standpoint are John Cena and Brock Lesnar, both part time wrestlers that are frequently non-factors on PPV-level shows. Roman Reigns is the biggest full-time babyface due to his massive push, but he is closer to being the biggest heel than the most popular babyface. There really isn't a stand-out babyface in that ace role that their historically has been. Okada is the most important wrestler on nearly every show he wrestles on and is the biggest non-WWE drawing card in wrestling right now.
Honorable Mention: Kento Miyahara, Katsuhiko Nakajima, Volador Jr., Ultimo Guerrero, AJ Styles, John Cena, Christopher Daniels
Best Heel: Kevin Owens
While Owens has taken a step-back since losing the Universal Championship to Bill Goldberg in February, he still has been consistently great. His turn against Chris Jericho took a heel that was still trying to find his footing and really cranked things up to 11, and his follow-up feud with AJ Styles has been nearly as good. Owens is adept both on the microphone as well as coming across as a bully in the ring, and he can be called upon to be the top heel in the company whenever WWE deems it necessary.
Honorable Mention: Braun Strowman, RUSH, Adam Cole, Samoa Joe, Bobby Roode, Pete Dunne
Best Womens Wrestler: Asuka
Asuka has become the first women's wrestler in WWE to really capture the aura of being a superstar the way the top male stars are able to do. For a while, the women's wrestling in WWE has been very equal-opportunity in the sense that pretty much anyone could be the champion. Nearly every women on the main roster has been the champion at some point or another. Asuka has kind of shattered that because she comes across as so dominating and so much more advanced than anybody else that it is implausible that anyone other than a very special performer could ever dethrone her. Great booking has been a part of that, but most of it is just how great Asuka is at delivering her offense and working her matches.
Honorable Mention: Io Shirai, Kairi Hojo, Toni Storm, Alexa Bliss, Kay Lee Ray
Best Tag Team: The Young Bucks
The Young Bucks are the pinnacle of tag team wrestling and have become the most popular tag team in wrestling outside of WWE, maybe even if you include WWE. I personally find their matches spectacular, but understand that it is a certain taste and there are reasons why some fans can't stand them. What anyone should be able to appreciate is their success within the business. They are the top stars in Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and are maybe the most popular NJPW wrestlers to western audiences as well. They have managed to get their merchandise in mainstream stores in the United States, which is nearly impossible for someone outside of WWE. They probably sell more merchandise than any other wrestlers except for a handful of top WWE stars. During a time when many fans feel that tag team wrestling is in decline, it is remarkable just how wildly succesfull two-undersized brothers from Rancho Cucamonga have been.
Honorable Mention: War Machine, Tomaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano, Roppongi Vice, Strong BJ
Best Technical Wrestler: Zack Sabre Jr.
This is the closest race so far; Zack Sabre Jr. has that really pretty British style that makes the crowd oohh and ahhh without doing a whole lot and it doesn't really matter who is opponent is. It is hard to deny that KUSHIDA has been having an A+ year though as far as match-quality and for a junior heavyweight that doesn't rely greatly on his athleticism but rather on ground-based holds and grappling, that is pretty impressive. KUSHIDA has had better matches this year, but Sabre Jr.'s flexibility and knowledge of holds gives him the slight edge right now, but as IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion KUSHIDA has a good chance of blowing him away during the second half of the year. Marty Scurll is also in the running.
Honorable Mention: KUSHIDA, Marty Scurll, Pete Dunne, Timothy Thatcher, Minoru Suzuki
Best High-Flyer: Will Ospreay
How long can Will Ospreay last? The 24 year old Ospreay has been wrestling at a breakneck pace for several years now and has mentioned in interviews how much his body is bothering him right now. Due to his obligations not only for NJPW, but for PWG, EVOLVE and various British Independents, it is hard for Ospreay to really get some time off from having to wrestle at his current pace, and unfortunately it is only a matter of time when he will have to make some adjustments; similar to the way Ricochet has made adjustments over the last couple years. For now though, Ospreay is one of the most spectacular wrestlers in the world mixing great athleticism with a couple disregard for his own long-term future. It is fantastic to watch, but when you ride like lightning you are going to crash like thunder.
Honorable Mention: Ricochet, The Young Bucks, Neville, Mark Andrews, Lio Rush, Mistico, Volador Jr., Dragon Lee, Flamita
Best Brawler: Tomhiro Ishii
Ishii and NJPW collegue Katsuyori Shibata have traded this award back and forth, but with Shibata suffering a likely career-ending injury earlier this year, Ishii has lost his greatest competitor. What separates Ishii from a lot of guys is his selling and his timing, both of which are fantastic and have allowed him to be recognized as one of the best wrestlers in the world despite being over 40, short, fat, and possessing almost no natural athleticism.
Honorable Mention: Kevin Owens, Bobby Lashley, Katsuhiko Nakajima, Shingo Takagi, Hirooki Goto, Roderick Strong, Aleister Black
Most Charismatic: Shinsuke Nakamura
The case for Nakamura remains the same each year; he remains tremendously popular despite wrestling big matches rather infrequently and barely speaking the language. Nakamura just has so many quirks and mannerisms that something as simple as walking to the ring can be an adventure. Those little aspects of his charachter are the same kind of things that helped make guys like Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Randy Savage, The Rock, etc. the charisma powerhouses that they were.
Honorable Mention: John Cena, The Miz, Kenny Omega, Kento Miyahara, Penta el Zero M, Volador Jr., Marty Scurll
Best on Interviews: The Miz
Talking Smack (R.I.P.) gave The Miz the format to rehabilitate his career. Between the time he was WWE Championa and main-eventing WrestleMania and the start of Talking Smack, I don't think The Miz got any worse, but he had fallen into a hole where he was no longer getting a good opportunity to showcase his true talents. Talking Smack gave The Miz a new outlet where he could cut loose, and the promos he did with first Daniel Bryan and then later John Cena re-established him as a force in WWE. WWE is constantly searching for talent that has that unteachable instinct that translates into star power, and Cena and The Miz are really the standards for what a face and a heel should be like on interviews. Couple that with The Miz's commitment to WWE and his ability to work with anybody from Triple H to LaVar Ball, and you have someone that is really irreplaceable.
Honorable Mention: John Cena, Enzo A'More, Christopher Daniels, Kenny Omega, Chris Jericho
Match of the Year: Kazuchika Okada vs Kenny Omega- NJPW WrestleKingdom
Really only a contest between this match and their rematch at Dominion. I prefer the WrestleKingdom match; it is a bigger stage and since it wasn't a 60-minute draw it has a higher replay value and the outcome was slightly more doubtful. The match at WrestleKingdom is on the very shortlist of best matches that I have ever seen, it is a flawless combination of what makes pro wrestling so enchanting: Storytelling, emotion, athleticism, danger and overall drama.
Honorable Mention: Okada vs Omega II- NJPW Dominion, Pete Dunne vs Tyler Bate- NXT TakeOver Chicago, Will Ospreay vs KUSHIDA- NJPW Best of the Super Juniors Final, Kota Ibushi vs Tetsuya Naito- NJPW G1 Climax Day 1
Lurching into the final PPV before SummerSlam, WWE has rolled out a card that doesn't necessarily have the wrestling world abuzz with anticipation. Ticket sales have been slow which is troubling since they are in Philadelphia which is one of their largest markets and John Cena is back on the show. I think for the first time since the brand-split RAW feels like a better show than SmackDown, for a multiple of factors.
The main event is the vaunted Punjabi Prison match between Jinder Mahal and Randy Orton. This will be the third match in their series and considering the stipulation this looks like it will be the last meeting. The feud hasn't really excited the fans although both guys are working hard. Mahal works hard in the ring and WWE has put a lot into his character; but his promos are very predictable at this point where he basically just says that Americans don't like him and then reminds us of the population of India. In the ring he is very mediocre; he hasn't been awful, but nothing he has done has really blown away the fanbase. Orton just doesn't excite the fanbase enough to really overcome the fact that Mahal is seen as a weak champion.
The Punjabi Prison match is interesting; the structure is very impressive and looks cool, but is also hard to see through which might hurt the live audience's reaction to the match. I guess they can do a lot of tricks inside the cage and maybe do some wacky stuff to build towards the finish; although wacky matches have not been kind to Orton recently. I think Mahal wins the match and will start a new feud for SummerSlam.
Who will that feud be against? I imagine it will be with Cena, who returns to PPV with a Flag match against Rusev. This is a LAME feud. Not only have we seen Cena vs Rusev before, the storyline of Cena "defending" America against foreigners has been beaten to death and has there ever been an exciting Flag match in history? It doesn't help that simultaneously Orton vs Mahal is using basically the same formula of having a foreigner talk about how much he hates America and an America comes out to shut him up. The good news is following this match Cena will likely be put into the exact same feud with Mahal for SummerSlam. Giddy up.
The best match on the card is almost assuredly going to be the United States Championship match between AJ Styles and Kevin Owens. Their feud has been going on for a while, but since they didn't have a one-on-one match at Money in the Bank it feels like the freshest thing on the card. Obviously both guys are a really great workers and should be given enough time to have a superb match. Styles taking the title from Owens at a house shows means that if Styles wins at Battleground, the feud may be over. If I was booking WWE I would actually be very interested in putting Styles against Mahal for the WWE Championship; that would be fresher than Mahal vs Cena, although naturally WWE is always going to view Cena as a bigger star, and rightfully so. From a hardcore fan perspective Styles vs Mahal excites me a lot more, though.
The Tag Team Championships will be on the line in a match between The Usos and The New Day. Considering WWE broke up American Alpha when The New Day was tagged to be the new top babyface team on SmackDown, it seems likely The New Day is going to win this match. These two teams were on their way to having an excellent match at Money in the Bank before a lame count-out finish, so there is potential here. WWE is really lacking in babyface tag teams; really only The Hardys and The New Day are the only non-jobber face teams on the main roster; which is another reason to strengthen The New Day by making them the champions.
The Women's Championship will not be defended at Battleground, instead a Five-Way Elimination match will take place with the winner challenging Naomi for the title at SummerSlam. I would like to see the title defended at every PPV, but the flip side is that by having a (presumably) lengthy number-one contenders match instead, it does make the title look more prestigious because women are killing themselves just for a shot at the title. Charlotte and Becky Lynch are the favorites; Charlotte they have been pushing as a face and they have been cautious with her on SmackDown as opposed to just booking her to win the title in her first few weeks. I think it might be part of the story, with Charlotte going heel again at SummerSlam and beating Naomi. With both her ability in the ring and her poise as a heel on the microphone, she really is the person to build around.
A match that is flying a bit under the radar is Baron Corbin vs Shinsuke Nakamura. WWE has handled Nakamura's time on the main roster really well so far, by avoiding losses and making him look stupid. Corbin is someone they are clearly very high on and with the Money in the Bank contract obviously WWE is looking to push him into the main event. I think the best way to do things would be to have Corbin win the match, but have him cheat a lot and make a real dirty finish. You don't necessarily want to do a feud because at the end of it someone is going to come out the loser and you want both of these guys to have their stock trending upwards.
The last match on the card is Sami Zayn vs Mike Kanellis. Mike and Maria are pretty good in their roles, but their characters are just so goofy I don't know what the long-term money-making ability is. Could you ever see Mike challenging for the world title at a PPV? In the Mahal-era anything is possible, but even Mahal really changed his character so he could be taken more seriously. I think Kanellis almost has to win this match because otherwise he is just going to sink deeper. The one way I think you can build the Kanelli up is if Mike goes on a huge winning streak and you sell the idea that there really is something to the power of love.
Must Watch Matches:
Kota Ibushi vs Tetsuya Naito: ***** - NJPW G1 Climax Day 1
Just a phenomenal match with expert pacing and utilization of high-impact moves. Ibushi is such a fascinating wrestler to me because he very clearly is one of the best wrestlers in the world, yet he refuses to wrestle full-time for NJPW, WWE or any other company. His neck injury from a couple years ago basically forced him to choose between changing the style he worked or wrestling less frequently, and Ibushi chose the latter which is pretty rare.
I have four five star matches so far this year, all of which have been in NJPW, which tells you the kind of year that they are having. Some fans may complain that I'm too easy on NJPW and that I'm biased, particularly with so many of the awards going to NJPW wrestlers. I tend to find that those people are not people who watch NJPW on a regular basis. Almost anyone who watches international wrestling on a frequent basis agrees that NJPW is having a hell of a year. People have a right to their opinion, but if you are going to complain about the praise NJPW gets without actually watching the product, you should know you look foolish.
Kenny Omega vs Minoru Suzuki: **** - NJPW G1 Climax Day 2
Lio Rush vs Mark Haskins: **** - PWG Head Like A Cole