With the G1 having already started, and the Mae Young Classic and BOLA taking place in August, it looks like we’re in for a damn good summer of tournament wrestling, so to celebrate, I’m taking a look at the greatest wrestling matches to ever take place within a bracket: here are my Top 10 Wrestling Tournament Matches.
For this list, I’m only including one match per tournament per year. And of course, this is simply my own opinion, and I may have missed out a few gems that I’m not aware of, so please let me know about any tournament matches you love in a comment below or over on Twitter @HairyWrestling. With that being said, let’s get on with the list.
- Ultimo Dragon vs. Shinjiro Otani – G1 Climax 1996
Ultimo Dragon was an amazing wrestler that sadly never got the opportunities he deserved here in the west. He had a decent run in WCW’s cruiserweight division without any memorable feuds, and WWE barely used him in his short tenure there from the day he was signed, but during his time in his homeland of Japan, he won a ridiculous number of championships (making him the most decorated professional wrestler of all time), won NJPW’s J-Crown, and bagged himself a five-star match during the 1996 G1 Climax tournament. In this match, two of the best junior-heavyweight competitors in New Japan at the time clashed in an instant classic, showing off both their technical and high-flying abilities. Although a lot shorter than most matches on this list, especially the other G1 entries, it’s still well worth your time.
- Chris Benoit and Kurt Angle vs. Edge and Rey Mysterio – No Mercy 2002
This match is often cited as one of the best non-gimmick tag team matches in WWE history. In 2002, not long after the first WWE brand split, a tournament was held to crown the first ever WWE Tag Team Champions exclusively on Smackdown, which culminated at No Mercy that year. You only have to take a look at who’s involved in this match to know it will be a masterpiece – two of the greatest technicians of all time teaming up against an iconic luchadore and one of WWE’s most proficient tag team wrestlers during the Attitude Era.
Everything about this match is superb – from Mysterio proving his technical ability and surprising strength against an overconfident Angle, to the perfect use tag team wrestling dynamics, to the way Edge just launches his own tag team partner around with no care for his safety. All four men would become world champion at some point within the company (Angle already had achieved that honour by this point), and judging by the performances they each put on in this one match, it’s easy to see why. This is honestly about as good as tag team wrestling can get.
- Wild Pegasus vs. The Great Sasuke – Super J Cup 1994
Here we have the match that blew many tape traders’ minds back in the 90s. It’s been referenced multiple times as the inspiration for starting many ‘undersized’ wrestlers’ desire to get into this business. With plenty of fast-paced trading reversals that would be welcome at any PWG or ROH show these days, this match truly blew everyone away when it first happened. Filled with ridiculous high spots that are jaw-dropping even by today’s standards, without a single-break in the constant, high-octane action, it’s a joy to witness from start to finish, and a match that every wrestling fan needs to watch at least once.
- Chris Hero vs. Akira Tozawa – PWG BOLA 2010
Chris Hero is pretty much the king of tournament wrestling. The amount of good quality bouts he’s had in the midst of tournaments is astounding – in fact, he will be making another appearance later on in this list. Hero and Tozawa, both now a part of WWE, trade stiff, painful strikes, amateur wrestling holds, and beautiful sequences. Tozawa displays impressive feats of strength against his much larger opponent, whilst Hero shows off his surprising quickness and takes full advantage of his size. If you’ve never seen either of these men’s work before they signed their WWE contracts, well here’s a good place to start watching.
- KUSHIDA vs. Will Ospreay – BOSJ 2017
Now for the most recent match on our list. The two previous winners of the prestigious Best of the Super Juniors tournament faced off to decide who would be the one lifting the trophy in 2017, and they created magic. The bout was an instant, five-star classic, and if it wasn’t for a certain one hour, time limit draw match that took place not long after this one, it would certainly be talked about a lot more than it already is.
- Johnny Gargano vs. Kevin Steen – PWG BOLA 2013
Johnny Gargano is a damn good wrestler. Kevin Steen (AKA Kevin Owens) is a damn good wrestler. Surprise, surprise – this is a damn good match. What may possibly be the greatest bout in Battle of Los Angeles tournament history, these two future NXT stars put on a clinic in fantastic, exciting indie wrestling. With him being a part of DIY for over a year and a half, it’s about time we were all reminded of how incredible Gargano is in singles action, and if this match is anything to go by, we should all be excited for his run alone in NXT.
- Chris Hero vs. Tommy End – Progress Super Strong Style 2016
Do you want to see two big guys beat the shit out of each other? Then boy do I have the match for you! I know for many the highlight of Progress’ Super Strong Style tournament in 2016 was the brawl between Chris Hero and Mark Andrews, and the superb underdog story that match told, but for me and my personal tastes, seeing these two future NXT stars and close, personal friends destroying each other is just so much fun to watch. After witnessing all of Tommy’s professionally-trained martial arts kicks, and multiple dangerous piledrivers by Hero, you’ll come away from this one entertained and wondering how either man was able to walk afterwards.
3. Kenny Omega vs. Tetsuya Naito – G1 Climax 2016
Even though his final, winning match in the 2016 G1 Climax tournament was spectacular, Kenny Omega’s semi-final match was somehow even better (not quite 6.25 stars good, but still, really really good).
Let’s face it, this match deserves a ranking based on Naito’s all-white suit alone, but luckily for us, it was an outstanding bout on its own merit, regardless of the items of clothing involved. Both stars were oozing charisma throughout, displaying their villainous characters at all times, by posing and even spitting at each other. But don’t let their showmanship fool you, their brutally hard-hitting ways were fully on display, trading stiff shots and environmental attacks all throughout the match. Possibly the most memorable highlight of the match was when Omega powerbombed Naito over the barricades and onto an announce table with authority, and then hit one of the most insane springboard moves of the year. This match must be seen to witness how high and how far The Cleaner manages to soar through the air during this breath-taking sequence of moves.
After a hard-fought war from both men, Omega managed to come out on top after a beautiful One-Winged Angel, and would go on to win the whole tournament, which would in turn lead to Omega’s unbelievable matches against Kazuchika Okada, and solidified him as one of the greatest in the world today.
- Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Shinsuke Nakamura – G1 Climax 2015 Finals
What do you get when you take two of New Japan’s biggest stars of all time, and place them in the finals of their most prestigious tournament? Pure magic, that’s what. In this 50-minute, five-star epic, Tanahashi and Nakamura bring the big fight feel throughout, starting slow, and building throughout until they unleash every weapon in their arsenal in an exhilarating final 10 minutes. It really is an example of two of the best in the world at their very pique, and since New Japan recently released the entire match for free on YouTube, you have no excuse not to watch it.
Mark Andrews vs. Pete Dunne – BOLA 2016/WWE UK Championship Tournament 2017
KUSHIDA vs. Kyle O’Reily – BOSJ 2015
Chris Hero vs. Mark Andrews – Progress Super Strong Style 2016
Kenny Omega vs. Hiroki Goto – G1 Climax 2016 Finals
Kota Ibushi vs. Cedric Alexander – Cruiserweight Classic 2016
Keiji Mutoh vs. Big Van Vader – G1 Climax 1991
Tomohiro Ishii vs. Katsuyori Shibata – G1 Climax 2013
El Samurai vs. Koji Kanemoto – BOSJ 1997
- Tommaso Ciampa vs. Johnny Gargano – Cruiserweight Classic
Now although this match may be significantly shorter than the last few entries, and possibly not as grand and historic compared to a G1 finals match, especially considering it only took place in the first round of WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic, but this bout has a special place in my heart. To this day, it is still one of the best pieces of storytelling I have ever seen, wrestling or otherwise.
The match was built around the friendship between the two competitors: Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano. Prior to this match, Gargano and Ciampa had teamed on a few occasions on NXT, but rarely resulting in winning efforts. They didn’t even have a team name at the time, they were seemingly both just thrown together for the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic (another great tournament), but WWE still played on their friendship when they faced each other in the first round of the CWC. An extremely personal vignette aired prior to the match that showed how close the two had become since they came to WWE, mentioning how they lived together and Ciampa was set to be a part of Gargano’s upcoming wedding, and although both seemed willing to fight, they were still filled with respect for their opponent. Keeping that in mind, what came next was certainly a big surprise.
In his indie days as the Psycho Killer, Ciampa was known for his vicious streak; he would unleash a constant assault of strong knees, elbows, and dangerous throws on his opponents to the delight of fans. Yet when he came to NXT, the intensity was certainly turned down. Ciampa adapted more to the WWE style, trading holds and wrestling more like a generic indie star. And that’s exactly how this match started off: the tag team partners traded standard holds and reversals, that is until out of nowhere, a switch seemed to turn in Ciampa’s head. Tomasso threw his elbow back ferociously into the face of Gargano, creating a sound so loud it silenced the crowd. Suddenly, Ciampa unchained his Psycho Killer persona, and released a cannonade of pain onto Gargano. Various full force running knees to the head, savage chops to the chest, and a barrage of elbows reigned down upon Johnny Wrestling, but he continued to fight.
After a barbaric Air Raid Siren onto the ring apron by Ciampa (that’s the hardest part of the ring you know), it seemed that a victory was certainly in his future. He shoved his dazed opponent back into the ring, and pulled down his pad, exposing his kneecap in order to cause maximum damage. Just as he was about to hit the killer blow, Ciampa hesitated. His friendship with Gargano overshadowed his determination to win the match, so he pulled his kneepad up, allowing Gargano to hit a superkick to Ciampa. This attack after his momentary lapse of violence forced Ciampa back into his psychotic ways, and he continued to destroy Gargano, but he refused to die. After countering Ciampa’s signature Bridging Fujiwara Armbar, Johnny Wrestling managed to pick up the win, and ultimately, survive. But the gripping action wasn’t over just because the bell had rung. Ciampa was clearly frustrated; when his tag team partner, too weak to even stand, offered out his hand, Ciampa walked away. He made it as far as the ring ropes, turned back, joined Gargano on the floor, and put his arm around him. The two instantly became stars, and within months were NXT Tag Team Champions. Less than a year later, we would see Ciampa psychotic side once again when he turned on Gargano in one of the most brutal, heart-breaking betrayals ever seen in WWE.
This match shows the beauty of tournament wrestling – two tag team partners that would normally never be on opposite sides of the ring against each other are forced to clash in order to advance through their bracket, and the results are unpredictable. Two men that team with each other, and in this case live with each other, are bound to have chemistry, so when they are thrown together like in this case, it can create magic. It may not be a fifty minute epic, or ended in a major victory, but it told an incredible story, and if it wasn’t for that tournament, it would never have happened.
Think I’ve missed off a terrific tournament match? Let me know in a comment below or on Twitter @HairyWrestling.