2017 was a HUGE year in the history of professional wrestling, on many different levels. In the ring there was the INSANE years of Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada, whose matches occasionally even broke Dave Meltzer's scale under the sheer weight of their snowflakes. And despite this, people were still making valid arguments that guys like Pete Dunne, Tetsuya Naito, and Zack Sabre Jr. deserved consideration for Wrestler of the Year or Most Outstanding Wrestler (best in-ring). The debate about safety was reignited when Katsuyori Shibata delivered a SICKENING headbutt to Kazuchika Okada en route to having one of the best matches I've ever seen but which would ultimately be the blow that ended his own career... and then Vince McMahon, age 72, insisting on receiving a similar headbutt from Kevin Owens during a beat-down angle to set up a Hell in a Cell match between Owens and Shane in which Shane, age 47, took yet another monstrous bump off of the cell... and the whole while, in the background, the chatter of Daniel Bryan wanting to wrestle again and being upset that everyone but WWE's doctors would clear him have led to the most intense rumors we're seen so far about him returning to the ring on the indies or in New Japan when his WWE contract expires this fall.
From a promotional standpoint there were major stories of Ring of Honor breaking their own gate records (and making it clear that they were shooting to do so again for this year's Supercard of Honor XII) and the major story of WWE's ratings declining on Raw and yet increasing on Smackdown as we go into a year in which they are renegotiating their rights fees. Upstart promotions like DEFY, Glory Pro, and WrestleCircus have received much attention and praise from critics, while CHIKARA used their trademark creativity to find new and innovative ways to disappoint their dwindling fanbase. Court Bauer's MLW managed to turn a one-off reunion show into a rebirth, longtime Florida indy stalwart FIP went on a long hiatus (although they have since announced a return in 2018), and even longer-time Puerto Rican stalwart WWC has been put on hiatus ever since Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Lucha Underground managed to survive for another year despite much backstage uncertainty that it would do so, a whirlwind of politics descended on the world of Lucha Libre (more than usual, I mean), resulting in shifts of loyalty between AAA, The Crash, and the new Nashville-based Aro Lucha promotion, and TNA has managed to survive despite a year where power changed hands so rapidly it would make WCW blush. And that's just the companies based in North America.
Over in Europe we saw promotions like RevPro, PROGRESS, and wXw have banner years, increasing their footprints around the globe as a whole and in the US in particular. WCPW did the same with their ambitious "World Cup of Pro Wrestling" tournament, and then got more attention with their (pardon the pun) defiant response to YouTube announcing that it would no longer allow wrestling companies to monetize themselves on its platform. In Asia WWE tried to make major strides, both by promoting their first women's match in Abu Dhabi, and with their seemingly-failed attempt to make Jinder Mahal from a jobber into a major star in India overnight.
And then, of course, there was New Japan, running two instant sell-outs in the US and announcing plans for more in 2018.
There were major news stories, both those picked up in the mainstream media, like the issues with bullying in WWE (and particularly with JBL), and those that, while, major, were confined to the wrestling sphere, such as ROH trying to keep guys away from WWE by alleging that WWE tampered with their contracts, WWE creating an entire UK Division just to f*ck with ITV's attempt to revive World of Sport, and Anthem giving in to not just the Hardys but allowing all performers control of their gimmicks when they leave. Others, like the announcement of the women's Royal Rumble, were picked up by the mainstream press but sparked much different debate within the wrestling world, with many fans angered by both the content of Stephanie's announcement speech (full of PR and branding buzzwords, sh*t that just plain didn't make sense, and most damningly, not a single recognition of the role of the fans in calling for the women to be pushed as serious athletes) and its execution, which broke kayfabe by taking all of the wrestlers who it was supposed to be celebrating and instantly turning them from athletes engaged in a physical confrontation, into human props to be in the background of the newsreel clippings of Stephanie's speech that WWE can sent out via their PR machine. They took their combat athletes and made them, in the most objectifying sense of the word, cheerleaders.
2017 was the year we were shocked when WWE actually cleared Kurt Angle to wrestle, shocked when Dr. Wagner Jr. lost his mask, and shocked when Chris Jericho showed up in New Japan. It was the year we were shocked when Dixie Carter showed up in a WWE production, shocked when Ilja Dragunov didn't win the wXw Unified Word Wresting Title, and shocked when Sexy Star shot on Rosemary during the Reina de Reinas match at TripleMania. It was the year we were shocked that WWE actually went through with trying to take Jinder Mahal from jobber to world champion overnight, and the year we somehow still managed to be shocked by the lengths WWE was willing to go to to try to get Roman Reigns over as a babyface.
2017 was the year we lost Lance Russell, Bobby Heenan, and Ivan Koloff. The year we lost Mr. Pogo, George "The Animal Steele" and Otto Wanz. The year Jimmy Snuka's death allowed him to escape going to trial. And the year we almost lost Ric Flair.
2017 was the year where Christopher Daniels finally won the ROH World Title, the year Samoa Joe finally debuted on the WWE main roster, and the year Cena and Nikki finally got engaged. It was the year the Hardys finally returned to WWE, the year Ciampa finally turned on Gargano, and the year Dean and Renee finally got married. The year Chuck Taylor finally left CHIKARA, the year Chuck Taylor finally debuted in ROH, and the year Chuck Taylor finally won the PWG World Title. It was the year Manami Toyota finally retired (unfortunately), the year The Undertaker finally retired (maybe), the year Bubba Ray Dudley finally retired (hopefully), and the year Atsushi Onita finally retired (for real this time!). The year Onita finally came to the USA, and the year Minoru Suzuki finally returned to the USA. The year we finally got another War Games.
It was the year Bayley was ruined, the year a serious illness saved Bray Wyatt from dressing in drag, the year Braun Strowman survived being crushed to death in a garbage truck, and the year of the Mae Young Classic. The year Suzuki-Gun returned to New Japan with a vengeance and the year Vince Russo took out a restraining order on Jim Cornette because Corny cut a promo on him. The year the TNA/NOAH/AAA relationship started, the year the ROH/NJPW/CMLL/RevPro relationship strengthened, and the year the WWN/Flo-Slam relationship fell apart. The year Aries and Neville walked out of WWE, the year Alberto Del Rio walked into TNA, and the year Bully Ray was allowed to walk all over ROH. The year Don Callis started as a guy who hadn't watched wresting in years who had just gotten himself a podcast and somehow ended with Don Callis as the top color commentator in the business working for New Japan and also the Executive Vice President of TNA. The year of Cody, the year of Jinder, the year of Alexa Bliss!, and the year of Keith Lee. The year of Omega and Okada.
And yet, in the long run, none of these are going to be the most significant story of 2017. The most significant story of 2017 in pro wrestling will be the existential dispute that has really solidified in 2017 around the question of exactly what pro wrestling is supposed to be.
The obvious starting points to start the discussion of this are the two moments during which the debate really came to the forefront this year, with two debates in the spring. The first, between Dave Meltzer and Jim Cornette on Cornette's podcast, mostly focused on the tone of things, with Cornette decrying the amount of comedy in wrestling (and also, of course, complaining about the dives) while Dave pointed out that the fans are eating it up and buying tickets in large numbers for it. The second was focused more around psychology, and primarily took the form of a Twitter back-and-forth between Will Ospreay and Rip Rogers which was more based around psychology in individual matches, and spawned the infamous "... dive" wrestling meme.
As usual, the smartest take came from Lance Storm and Don Callis on their podcast, Killing The Town (which, while I'm doing a year in review column, I'll praise as hands down the best podcast of 2017). Lanec and Cyrus sort of reframed the debate in slightly more general terms, referring to them as wrestling based on the fans' emotions (Rip) vs. wrestling based on the fans' appreciation in an athleticism/workrate/star ratings kind of way (Ospreay).
While I think Lance and Cyrus have hit on a more accurate way to describe the ongoing divide in the wrestling fandom, I think they are still missing a key element because it doesn't account for two key groups of fans. The first is fans like myself who want to factor the emotional aspect into our appreciation of the product (did they did they do the right things to make me like the babyface, hate the heel, want to see the desired outcome, etc.). The other group they left out- and probably the fan group whose emergence is the main driver in the existence of this debate) is the fans who come to wrestling shows with the objective of being made to experience one particular emotion: FUN! That fun can take many forms. It will often be guys doing clearly-choreographed stuff, doing endless flips and superkicks, doing comedy spots that make no sense in the middle of an otherwise serious match, and having dance-offs. And it will also be Keith Lee and WALTER beating the sh*t out of each other, Zack Sabre Jr. and Matt Riddle having a technical classic, Jay Lethal and Silas Young having an old-school street fight, or watching an emotional favorite chase the world title. For some of them, having fun is cheering for Jinder Mahal just to be contrarian (or, as they might tell you, "ironic"). If you give them something they like, they'll go gaga for it, no matter how much sense it makes within the situation or how it fits into the character dynamics of the story being told.
Dave Meltzer made some observations on this phenomenon over the course of the year. During ROH's Global Wars: Chicago show (in conjunction with New Japan) Dave noted that "merchandise lines for the Bullet Club members have been such that it only seems like the tickets are being sold more for meet and greets, since people wait in line for hours for photos, as the matches themselves are secondary. What that means is uncharted because it's really never been like that in wrestling. Indeed, for Global Wars, while most of the matches were good, it was clearly not the lure of the matches themselves, but the idea of the event that was the draw... The wrestling was good, but there was a lot of shtick, really more than any ROH major show I've seen. It's clear that the talent is more over as stars, meaning they can get away with doing less, and they have go-to- spots that aren't going to break down their bodies like a break-neck attempt to do the best pro wrestling match possible will do."
While discussing the six-man tag title match at ROH Final Battle, Dave said that (paraphrasing this time) "stuff that used to be called 'overkill' is getting bigger pops rather than a diminishing return on the pop, so we're going to be seeing a lot more of it." Another fine example of this is the example of Marty Scurll, who, over the course of this year, has gone from feeling like a dangerous wrestler whose biggest pops came from locking in his dreaded Crossface Chickenwing to a human cartoon whose biggest pops come from doing the goofy dance he does before locking in said Crossface Chickenwing, without regard for whether or not he actually manages to lock in his finishing submission hold. Lance Storm has occasionally referred thins live over-flippage or use of weapons or other spots designed specifically to get a pop that has not been created by the overall story of the match (and I think comedy falls into this category as well) as "shortcuts." But what does it mean for wrestling when you have people showing up and wanting to see the "shortcuts" first and foremost over the "true" art?
While talking about the ten-man tag on the WrestleCon WrestleMania Weekend show, Dave said "The ten man tag was a unique match, very much a match that is likely to be a template for a style of wrestling going forward into the future. Ricochet and Will Ospreay were captains, and as a shoot, each picked four partners.
This match was worked for pure entertainment and it was great for the crowd they were playing for. It would have worked with any crowd but with it being a one-off, the finish or building something didn't matter. It was a bevy of super moves, including a spot where Ricochet, Fox, Xavier and Cade all did shooting stars from all four corners and Callihan did a tombstone piledriver in the middle of the ring ending with a five-way kick out by Ospreay's team... At one point in the match, all of a sudden music started blaring out and everyone stopped wrestling and both teams basically did a dancing routine with one guy dancing while all the other cheered them on, building to Galloway dancing. Then they went back to high spots. The dance contest spot got over big with the crowd, but at the same time, it removed any semblance of the idea these guys were trying to win a wrestling match... Callihan also did the spot where he put on a cat mask and put on a tail. Cade pinned Ospreay, so the local guy pinned arguably the best guy in the match and it really didn't matter. It's something that a lot of people wouldn't like but this audience loved it. With so many guys, all out there with their working shoes on, you probably had as many crazy spots by talented people as you'd ever see. I'd go ****1/2 with it and a lot of people went ***** saying it was the perfect match for that crowd. To me, going ***** means unreal heat, and this had huge reactions to the big spots but it wasn't heat for the match itself...This match was pretty much a collection of your cool moves match times ten.
Some compared it to the PWG match with Ricochet & Matt Sydal & Ospreay vs. Young Bucks & Adam Cole, but that match had far more sustained heat and a much better build to the finish, and it felt like people were trying to win a match while this match felt like people were trying to entertain you in the best way possible.
You could argue it was the best match of the weekend. The Hardys vs. Young Bucks match was more of a series of brutal car crash spots with ladders and tables where it did feel like a ladder match for a championship. The three-way tag title match at NXT was more of a solid straight wrestling match that was also exceptional. To me, Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Bobby Roode was your long championship match with lots of selling and psychology. What match you thought was best is probably more based on what you're looking for. The idea of two guys doing a grueling title match, Nakamura vs. Roode was it, but the three-way tag title at NXT and Young Bucks vs. Hardys were far more spectacular and with memorable spots... This match was such that when it was over, you knew everyone in the match put on a great performance but the big pop for winning wasn't there. All ten men celebrated together in the ring doing a curtain call and the crowd chanted "All these guys," a chant that's often annoying because it's robotic and overdone. Since this was after the match was over, and it was an incredible spectacle, that chant was apropos."
While Lance and Cyrus' "appreciation vs. emotion" is an important component to look at, I don't think they are the entire spectrum anymore (they might have been in the 2002-2011 period). For today's wrestling fans, I think those are two separate axes. While these categories are by no means perfect, I think the "appreciation" axis runs from "free expression" to "traditional structure" while the "emotion" aspect runs from "I am watching to have fun" to "I am watching because I am/am hoping to be emotionally invested in the outcomes." Once again, these are not perfect, but I think the metaphor helps illustrate that promotions and fans are both going to have to discover where they are on the plane. We saw EVOLVE and New Japan both try someth9ing a little more on the "fun spectrum" than they normally would this year, with the Darryl Takahashi stuff and Ospreay pretending to be a cat in New Japan, and EVOLVE's Troll Boyz basically having a kayfabe semi-worked match against each other and taking some semi-shoot potshots at the promotion, the wrestlers, and even other promotions. Both seem to have decided that they didn't like how that fit in with their vision for the promotion and it stopped. WWE tried to push the boundaries of what they normally do with Bray Wyatt several times in 2017 and it was universally crapped on. CHIKARA keeps on doing their CHIKARA stuff, finding themselves at odd places on the plane, as does Lucha Underground.
While a lot of this has been building up for years (I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Broken Hardys stuff that started in 2016), 2017 feels like the year that it build to a head and became the major overreaching issue of the wrestling world. When we look back in history on professional wrestling in 2017, I think this will be the thing that 2017 is most remembered for.