Ladies and gentlemen, it is that time of year again... Pro Wrestling Illustrated's annual "PWI 500" was just released, and as usual, it has already sparked plenty of debate and conversation on social media and message boards across the internet. This year's edition was the 27th time PWI has created their list, and even though the "golden days" of wrestling magazines has long come and gone, the 500 remains hot.
This year's edition has already created controversy as Kazuchika Okada has claimed the top spot, the first time a wrestler from Japan has done so. Okada took the #2 spot last year, and the late Mitsuharu Misawa was #2 back in 1997, but it's major news to see a Japanese star at #1.
Before we look any further into things, let's get a few things clear about what PWI uses to create their rankings. The voting period is from July 1st of the previous year to the June 30th of the current year. The categories they look at are a wrestler's win/loss record, his quality of competition, his championships won, his major feuds, his prominence within his promotion(s), and his overall wrestling ability.
With that said, why is Okada getting the top spot?
As a singles competitor, Okada's record was 12-3-3 during the evaluation period, for a total of 18 matches, which tells you how much time he spent working tag, six-man, and eight-man matches. In the last two months alone (admittedly, outside of the evaluation period), he has competed in 19 non-singles matches.
If you're looking at his quality of competition, you know what you're going to get. Two matches against Kenny Omega, who many feel is the best in-ring worker alive today. He also defeated Katsuyori Shibata, who is someone else that topped in-ring worker rankings for a lot of people before he was injured. Another opponent he had was Kota Ibushi (wrestling as Tiger Mask W), who is one of the top high-fliers in wrestling today. Minoru Suzuki might be one of the toughest men alive, not just in wrestling, but Suzuki also lost to Okada during the evaluation period. Hiroshi Tanahashi and Naomichi Marufuji have both, in the past, had claim to being the best wrestler in Japan, and they were both able to take Okada to the limit during the evaluation period, earning draws, but the difference is that Marufuji actually defeated Okada in a non-title match during the year. Remember what I said about Suzuki? The same can be said about Tomohiro Ishii. He was able to beat the best of the best in New Japan, and that promotion's best might be some of the best in the world.
One thing Okada didn't do this year was win a championship. The reason for that is simple... he has been the IWGP Heavyweight Champion for the entire period, coming up on 450 days with the title. This is his fourth reign as champion, and his longest. At the time of this writing, he is a week away from passing Keiji Mutoh (aka The Great Muta) for most combined days as IWGP Heavyweight Champion, and is only 126 days from passing Tanahashi on that list, which would give him more combined days than anyone in the great history of the title.
As far as major feuds are concerned, his battles with Omega are going to go down in history as some of the highest-rated wrestling matches to ever happen. Their in-ring chemistry was off the charts, and the buzz their matches had brought a bunch of new eyeballs to the New Japan product, even on a temporary basis. There aren't many feuds that can make that kind of claim, really.
In case you missed it when I mentioned it two paragraphs ago, Okada has held the top title in New Japan for nearly 450 days now, with no end to his reign in sight. Does that tell you what you need to know about his prominence within the promotion?
Yes, "overall wrestling ability" is all subjective, but I'll say this for the millionth time... I think Kazuchika Okada is the best in-ring worker in wrestling today. I have yet to see him in anything resembling a bad match, and have seen him square off with much "lesser" opponents and bring entertaining matches out of them. Sure, people like Omega and AJ Styles are fantastic in the ring, but right now, they're just not quite on Okada's level, in my opinion.
When you add all of that up, I have absolutely zero issue with Okada being ranked #1 this year.
In keeping with Fightful's tremendous ethics and values, I'm not going to post the entire PWI 500 here, out of respect for PWI. You can grab the 500 issue now, pretty much anywhere magazines are sold, or you can go to pwi-online.com and purchase a digital copy. I will, however, mention some interesting numbers and factoids I came across while reading the list, just for fun.
- Out of every WWE main roster performer that wrestled for the company more than once during the evaluation period, the only person who didn't make this year's 500 is Darren Young. Every other main roster found a spot, from AJ Styles (#2) to James Ellsworth (#410).
- The person who made the biggest jump from 2016 to 2017 (that was listed both years) is Pete Dunne, who climbed 367 spots, from #396 last year to #29 this year. If you're looking for the biggest jump of anyone who wasn't even listed last year, look no further than Jinder Mahal, who came in at #30 this year. Other big jumpers who weren't ranked last year include Tyler Bate (#50), Pro Wrestling NOAH's Katsuhiko Nakajima (#66), CMLL's Marco Corleone (#98), and independent star Keith Lee (#100).
- The person who made the biggest drop from 2016 to 2017 (that was listed both years) is Lance Archer of Pro Wrestling NOAH and New Japan, who was ranked #101 last year but fell 253 spots to #354 this year. Some of you may remember Archer as Lance Hoyt or Dallas during his time with TNA, or as Vance Archer during his stint with WWE in 2009-2010. Archer's fall is nothing to that of Texano, though. Last year, Texano came in at #57, but he wasn't even ranked this year, which is an incredible fall. Other notable names to take big tumbles this year are Rockstar Spud (down 212 spots, from #100 to #312), Oney Lorcan (down 169 spots, from #162 to #331), Robbie E (down 136 spots, from #139 to #275), Curtis Axel (down 118 spots, from #182 to #300), and Mike Kanellis (down 103 spots, from #51 to #154).
- Japanese legend Jushin Thunder Liger is ranked #263 on this year's list. That's a pretty pedestrian number, right? Well, what if I told you that not only is Liger going to be 53 years old before 2017 is over, but that he has been ranked on all 27 editions of the PWI 500? He is the only wrestler to have that honor. That's incredible, if you ask me.
- John Cena was ranked at #19 this year, which is the first time since 2003 that he has been outside the top ten. It's nothing major, but it's another thing that showcases just how long his run at the top of WWE has truly been, especially when compared to WWE's other all-time greats like Shawn Michaels, Hulk Hogan, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Rock, etc.
- If you're looking ahead to next year's list, a name to look out for is New Japan's Tetsuya Naito. He held the #12 spot this year, but as the winner of this year's G1 Climax tournament (the entirety of which was held after the evaluation period), he has an IWGP Heavyweight Title shot coming up in January at Wrestle Kingdom, New Japan's version of WrestleMania. If he were to end Okada's lengthy reign as champion, should Okada remain champion that long, he could very well be at the top. That would mean he ended a 565-day title reign, which would be the longest in the belt's history. Of course, someone could dethrone Okada before then, but even if that happens, Naito would have a good argument for the #1 spot in 2018 if he wins at Wrestle Kingdom.
What say you, folks? Who do you think should be #1 on the PWI 500 this year? Don't forget the judging criteria if you're going to come up with someone other than Okada for your top spot. Either hit me up in the comments section below, or on Twitter (@HustleTheSavage), and let me know what's on your mind.