Pro wrestling is a weird bastard art, and if you’re unfamiliar with its intricacies, the hordes of people in your social media circles obsessively pontificating about it every Monday night must be a truly confounding experience. Let our very own Dominic Griffin, lifelong wrestling enthusiast, teach you a little something right here, In This Very Ring…
It’s been some time since our last installment of this column, but we plan on being much more regular in 2015. For now, since it’s the end of the year and every corner of the internet (including our own) is littered with top ten lists, it seemed fitting to take a look at some of the best in-ring action of the year. 2014 may have been characterized by a severe lack of storytelling consistency (at least in the WWE), but the matches themselves were some of the best work in recent decades. There’s a serious wealth of incredible wrestling going around all over the globe, but you will notice that this list seems a little homogenous.
Even I have my blind spots. I watched fewer American indies this year than I usually try to, a lot less Joshi, nearly no TNA, and I have several weeks worth of Lucha Underground my eyes have yet to touch. As with any year-end list, this is just my personal opinion, not quite the lord’s gospel. Usually, I comb through MOTYC (Match of The Year Candidate) threads and seek out matches other people dig, but I just couldn’t find the time for Adam Cole and Jay Briscoe’s Fight Without Honor from ROH’s Final Battle, and a lot of similar bouts. Feel free to comment with matches I missed from the list. If there’s killer wrestling out there I WANT TO WATCH IT.
First, some honorable mentions:
Every TV match between Dolph Ziggler and Cesaro. Most of the matches from PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles tournament, specifically Kyle O’Reilly vs Zack Sabre Jr. Anything Tomoaki Honma did during the G1 Climax. Also, Ziggler and Luke Harper’s Ladder Match from TLC this month. All stellar but not quite top ten ready.
On with the list…
10. Seth Rollins vs Dean Ambrose (Raw 8/18/14)
These two best friends-turned hated rivals had a number of insanely watchable matches since the dissolution of The Shield this summer, but for my money, none were as perfect as their Raw main event, designed to write Dean Ambrose off of the show so he could go film a movie. These two have worked a number of “gimmick” matches, each with dumber stipulations than the last, but this “Falls Count Anywhere” match had a purity to it that rung through. It was just two dudes who can’t fucking stand each other trying to murder one another, and you could feel it. You have Seth, with his Crossfit Jesus acrobatics and Dean with his “just shotgunned a sixer of Lone Star behind a Roy Rogers” bare knuckle vibe, each man trying to prove he’s winning the break-up. Of course, the real winners are all the fans that get to see these two prove why they’re the future of the WWE.
9. John Cena vs Cesaro (Raw 2/17/14)
I wrote a little about this match all the way back in the first installment of ITVR, and it’s stuck with me here at year’s end. Raw, as a three-hour variety show, tends to have a lot of useless filler and overlong promos, but in the last two or so years, they’ve really upped the ante on having incredible matches in between all of that fluff. This bout, with John Cena wrestling as a pissed off, grizzled vet against a clearly superior human being in Cesaro, is something special. People characterize Cena as a guy who is frightened of the next generation, but in reality, he’s probably tired of sitting alone at the top of the mountain and just wants someone to adequately spar with. That’s why his rivalry with CM Punk was so strong. Here, Cesaro more than proves himself capable of hanging with the big boys, showing off Kryptonian feats of strength with ease. Cena, for his part, steps up to the plate, asserting his dominance in a way that feels real and not like his usual Hulk Hogan cosplay. Vince McMahon may not have much confidence in Cesaro, but one look at this match shows just how out of touch he is. Maybe one day we’ll get to see this match-up head Wrestlemania.
7 & 8. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Katsuyori Shibata (G1 Climax Day 4 & NJPW Destruction in Kobe, respectively)
I’m cheating a little bit by putting these two matches together, but to me, they paint one big picture. Hiroshi Tanahashi had spilled some tea in his new book on his genuine dislike of Katsuyori Shibata, leading to a war of words between the two in the press that left fans salivating for a match between them. During this year’s G1 Climax tournament, the bracketing treated us to a salvo of such a match, but it wasn’t until the Destruction in Kobe show that we saw it really go down. There are strong arguments for which match is better, each side with some truly valid points, but for me, they work best in tandem. Tanahashi’s issue with Shibata is that they both came up around the same time in the 2000s, but Shibata left when things got tough in the wrestling business to do MMA, and Tana stayed around to become NJPW’s biggest star. Now that Shibata is back and the company is having a huge resurgence, he’s disgusted that Shibata is getting to enjoy the fruits of his labor. I’m paraphrasing the beef a little, but there’s a strong divide between Tanahashi, a Pro Wrestler in the mold of Shawn Michaels, who does everything with a bit of flair and dramatic power, and Shibata, a Fighter who just wants to kick dudes until they stop moving. One works very stiff, very brutal with little interest shown for storytelling, and the other IS storytelling.
Their G1 bout seems like Tana trying to work Shibata’s style and at every turn, and nearly being killed for it. Watching the biggest star in the company putting himself through that level of pain is so strange, as he has literally no one to prove himself to. That first match is all near-strikes and moments that make the crowd audibly gasp, particularly a set of missed leg strikes from Shibata that look like they could have murdered Tana if they connected. The Kobe match, however, is a little less of a dance. The foreplay is over and it’s all consummation. The story being told is two men leaving it all on the mat and finding a begrudging sense of respect. The match’s closing moments, as well as its heartwarming prologue, are a huge reminder of why wrestling is so powerful.
6. Daniel Bryan vs Triple H (Wrestlemania XXX)
Maybe I’m weird, but the actual main event of Wrestlemania this year, the triple threat between Bryan, Randy Orton and
Drax The Destroyer Batista, didn’t do much for me. Ten years ago, Triple H and Shawn Michaels wrestled a far more electric triple threat against Chris Benoit, and this match, clearly trying to emulate that tragically redacted moment of wrestling history, just doesn’t quite measure up. The match earlier in the night that made it possible, however, Bryan besting The God King Triple H, was beautiful. Watching Triple H, a guy I’ve spent much of my life being bored by, evolving into his final form as a Kenta Kobashi tape-viewing deity putting over the little guy, much the way he did for Benoit at Wrestlemania XX, was the real spectacle. Knowing that the match was probably really good out of spite made it even better. This was Triple H praying CM Punk was watching somewhere, seeing his nemesis put on the smarkiest match of his career, just to show him what he was missing by walking out on the company (and a ‘Mania match with Trips).
5. Sami Zayn vs Adrian Neville (NXT Takeover: R-Evolution)
Zayn/Cesaro IV from the first NXT special this year may be conspicuous in its absence from this list, but that’s largely because it’s my personal least favorite match from their rivalry, and because this match with Adrian Neville was just so much better. After a year of watching NXT’s favorite babyface underdog lose and lose and lose, watching him struggle to remain Lawful Good in the most important match of his career was nerve-wracking. Neville had been NXT champ all year long and proved that he was willing to stretch the rules a little to keep being champion. This match was all about whether or not Perpetual Nice Guy Zayn could compromise his beliefs to get what he really wanted. Luckily for us, he learned he didn’t have to, proving he could win the big one without having to betray his values. It’s like Miracle Monday, except the Devil is a little hoppy guy from Newcastle and Superman is a Canadian ginger who speaks Arabic. What I’m saying is that it’s fucking magical and you must see it, ESPECIALLY to stick around for the post-match angle that sets up a new rivalry for NXT’s new top dog.
4. AJ Styles vs Minoru Suzuki (G1 Climax Day 7)
Ever since leaving the barren wasteland of Total Nonstop Action, AJ Styles has been touring the world reminding people why they call him The Phenomenal One. His strange tenure as IWGP Champion in New Japan was fun as a left field twist, but weird in how little he seemed to defend the belt during the top half of the year. This G1 match with frighteningly serious badass Minoru Suzuki was like his coming out party. Just one high-flying, technically gifted heel proving himself against a much stronger, much more vicious heel. It’s the kind of back and forth match you watch and KNOW it’s going to be a classic. You can feel it in every exchange, every stiff chop, every move reversal. Grappling with Suzuki put Styles back on the map, in terms of legitimate credibility, and put to rest the doubters who didn’t feel he was of a high enough caliber to be considered one of today’s best wrestlers.
3. World’s Cutest Tag Team vs The Young Bucks (PWG Eleven)
The Young Bucks are easily the best tag team in the entire world right now, and have been for quite some time, but there’s something endearing about the new team of Joey Ryan and Candice LeRae. They used to regularly put on these kinda gross exhibition intergender matches against one another where Candice would try to prove herself and Joey would essentially sexually harass her. When Joey turned face and they joined forces, the tonal shift was odd at first, but ultimately a blast. They compliment each other as a team and not once do they imply that they’re a couple. They’re a tag team, not just a wrestler and his girlfriend, as the WWE might frame them. Having the most hated team on your roster face off against the most beloved is simple mathematics, so having PWG throw this on their 11th anniversary show and making it a Guerilla Warfare match was a real treat.
The Young Bucks have proven themselves masters of the No Holds Barred hardcore match. They paint lurid portraits in blood, thumbtacks and broken tables and they do it with a grace that is kind of sickening. This match is them throwing everything they have at Joey and Candice, and the duo taking it in stride. The moment Matt Jackson of the Bucks superkicks Candice in the face wearing sneakers with thumbtacks super glued to the sole is frightening, but it makes her winning the match via a suplex to the testicles all the more sweet.
2. Kazuchika Okada vs Shinsuke Nakamura (G1 Climax Final)
When it became clear that Okada, NJPW’s hottest young prospect, was going to end up facing Nakamura, the leader of their stable CHAOS, we all knew the shit was about to hit the fan. No other two competitors have been on quite the collision course as these two have, teammates forced to decimate one another to win a tournament and get a chance to headline Wrestle Kingdom in the Tokyo Dome. Unlike Okada’s six-match series with Hiroshi Tanahashi, his bout with Nakamura had a kind of hard won ferocity that few other wrestlers could replicate this year. You really feel that this is two guys who have been wrestling non-stop for like ten days and are going to give whatever they have left to win. Okada looks as spectacular as always, but watching Nakamura’s crafty veteran tactics and the brilliant reversals force Okada to rethink his strategy is exhilarating. When you make it to that final, finishing stretch, and Okada hitting his finisher three fucking times, it’s not desperation anymore. It’s a statement. It’s one very talented up and comer officially asserting his dominance over the old guard. Okada isn’t just the hot new thing. He’s here to stay. He’s telling Nakamura and anyone else watching that he’s going to be the new Ace, and there’s fuck all anyone else can do about it.
1. The Shield vs The Wyatt Family (Elimination Chamber)
I wrote pretty extensively about this match in the past. With ten months gone past and both of the teams having broken up, either tragically or quietly, this still represents the high water mark of professional wrestling in 2014. Getting the WWE Network for JUST THIS MATCH is more than worth the $9.99 price tag. It is absolutely everything that makes wrestling worth watching. I promise you, if you can sit through this match and not be at least a little interested in exploring the genre further, you have my permission to ignore this column forever. It’s six of the best and brightest new stars the biggest wrestling company on Earth has to offer, finally consummating a rivalry perfectly built up and hyped. The match is a Swiss watch of technical precision, with each performer fitting into place like so many interlocking gears, but there’s a looseness to it that keeps it feeling real. Sometimes, wrestling can be too choreographed, and this match is definitely well planned, but it doesn’t seem rehearsed and pristine. It’s a fucking war, the likes of which mainstream wrestling hasn’t been able to adequately present since the days of The Four Horsemen. Each wrestler’s greatest strengths are on display and their real life weaknesses as performers are well hidden, while the shortcomings of their characters are tactically exploited for maximum dramatic impact.
It’s a lawless SWAT team of vigilantes fighting three backwater voodoo practitioners. It’s vital, engrossing entertainment.
Please watch this match.
(Note: Almost every one of the WWE matches can be found on the WWE Network. The NJPW matches are available on New Japan World, a streaming service similar to the network, but a little cheaper and also awesome, despite still being geared directly to their Japanese audience. PWG’s product is available on DVD from their website and for digital download on Highspots.tv.)
Tune in this time next week where we take a look at the best wrestlers of the year!