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…
In a world where trophies, title belts, and crowns are handed out as the result of scripted contests, what does it really mean to be the best? How do you quantify that?
Typically, wrestling offers a pretty clear picture of whose year it was. There’s generally one individual who just demonstrably had a better twelve months than any of his peers, whether it be from consistent match quality, box office drawing power, zeitgeist-y popularity, or sheer ubiquity. The business has changed a lot over the years, making some of the relied upon metrics used to measure undisputed excellence less foolproof. Various publications have their own methodology for choosing the best candidate.
Pro Wrestling Illustrated, sort of a Wizard Magazine for pro graps, has both the PWI 500 and their end of the year awards, both offering plaudits in a weird middle ground between real life and actual kayfabe. The Wrestling Blog, curated and run by the wonderful Tom Holzerman, has the TWB 100, which largely uses in-ring performance as a gauge, and I look forward to seeing who comes out on top this year. Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter has arguably the most gravitas, with the annual WON awards, probably the closest thing wrestling has to the Oscars. I imagine Wreddit (the subreddits dedicated to wrestling) and other forums have their own unique way of deciding who they felt came out on top, probably involving a lot of name calling and hyperbolic dissemination of humorous reaction .gifs.
For my money, this year was so strange and all over the place that it’s near impossible for me to pick a wrestler of 2014 using any of the accepted criteria I might in another year. I’ve decided instead to try to figure out who the best in the world is at this very moment, using, of course, the calendar year as supporting or excluding data. First, a little background on what I mean by that particular moniker.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the “best in the world” moniker became such a big thing in wrestling. I imagine grapplers dating back to Frank Gotch considered themselves to be “the best” and probably said so, but I don’t know if anyone was as good at being vocal about it until Ric Flair came to prominence. Professional wrestling, not unlike hip hop, requires a level of self confidence few other endeavors even begin to espouse. It isn’t enough to just be really good all the time. You have to believe you’re the best there is, and it’ll carry into your persona and your performance. Growing up, Bret Hart called himself “The Excellence of Execution,” as well as “The Best There Is, The Best There Was, And The Best There Ever Will Be.” That shit was boastful as fuck. He was smaller than the other top guys of his time, but that depth of braggodocio acted as verbal lifts, propping him up to be larger than life. Shawn Michaels was the same, calling himself “Mr. Showstopper” and “The Main Event” or “Mr. Wrestlemania.”
I think the modern concept of “Best In The World” begins with Bryan Danielson, now known in the WWE, of course, as Daniel Bryan. When he began his tenure as Ring of Honor World Champion, he had metamorphosed into a uniquely exciting heel character who declared himself “The Best In The World.” Equal parts Bob Backlund and a self-centered Wario facsimile of his former self. Bryan’s claims at the time were bolstered by an objective fact about a subjective opinion. It was easy for him to call himself that, because the majority of fans who cared about such things already agreed with him. He was nearly impossible to actually boo, because everything about him just screamed The Fucking Best. Because ROH was still treated as the best wrestling on Earth and it’s title still held prestige, any performer in its lineage had claim to being The Best In The World, so much so they ended up naming one of their recurring pay-per-view events after the namesake.
ROH fell off, though. Hard. Somewhere around 2011 with Davey Richards, Eddie Edwards, and Roderick Strong’s technically proficient but bland ass love triangle for the top prize, heads just stopped considering that corner of the wrestling universe home of the great ones. Luckily, by this point Hiroshi Tanahashi was in his legendary fifth reign as New Japan’s IWGP Heavyweight Champion, and both CM Punk and Chris Jericho had both already ripped off Bryan’s BITW claim. From there, a number of indie guys became enamored with the idea of calling themselves The Best In The World, but as scenes grew more splintered, it became harder to find one singular entity to slap that label on.
Which brings us to now. In the first half of 2014, you had a lot of strong contenders. Daniel Bryan, obviously, had one of the best Side A’s of any wrestler ever in his run up to Wrestlemania XXX, but we can’t just ignore the fact that he barely set foot through the ropes for the rest of the year due to injuries. On the flip side, Dolph Ziggler had a pretty strong series of moments on the latter half of the year, but he remains on the precipice of breaking through that glass ceiling. All three members of The Shield had a banner fucking year, but individually, none achieved quite on the level where I’d put them in the top spot.
NXT’s Sami Zayn is a serious contender, as his entire year was essentially the Daniel Bryan story but told in a more satisfying and linear fashion. Zayn is easily one of my top five wrestlers on Earth right now, but not quite Best In The World.
Both Chris Hero and AJ Styles made big returns to the indie scene this year, leaving the stages of NXT and TNA respectively. While Styles became the latest in a line of gaijin to hold the big belt in New Japan, his year didn’t really kick into overdrive until the G1 Climax late in the summer. Hero had the opposite problem, as the novelty of his return to his old stomping grounds began to fizzle, despite some strong showings in both PWG and Pro Wrestling NOAH.
A case could be made for any of the top guys in New Japan, but none of them explicitly had an insane year. I don’t want to take them all for granted, but it just doesn’t feel right crowning Tanahashi, Okada or Nakamura.
There are two runner-ups that I had to talk myself out of. The first is The Young Bucks. I get that I can’t collectively name a tag team the wrestler of the year, but between the two of them, they’re the best wrestler on Earth. Fluid, cocky, endlessly impressive in every match. They’re perfect in every way that matters, whether or not they ever make it to the WWE. The other runner-up might be the actual best wrestler in the world, but only when he really gives a shit. Yes, I’m alluding to the WWE’s own Prince Vegeta, #DAGAWDRANDYORTON, easily the most well put together, all around performer on the planet. Orton, again, didn’t have the best year, but he was more alert and engaged than he had been in forever, working a very interesting slow build arc as The Authority’s prized heel who they manipulated and used. The blow off of him being unable to coexist with Seth Rollins was one of the best Raw moments of the year, and if it led to Randy doing anything meaningful other than leaving to film a movie, he might have taken the top spot.
That belongs to Ricochet.
I know this seems like a weirder choice than when Dean Malenko topped the PWI 500 that one time, but I cannot think of someone who had a better year than The Future of Flight himself. In 2014, Ricochet was the wrestling equivalent of Drake’s “0-100.” He was an undeniable, prolonged moment of dominance, at once a beacon of still to come potential, but also displaying presently palpable greatness. He isn’t just a rookie we see great things in. He’s a great performer whose future we know will be populated by even greater things. In the ring, Ricochet possesses a level of grace few other performers are capable of, save for maybe Mistico (the former Sin Cara), and even in that corollary, the latter’s “leaf on the wind” agility is no match for the tactile impact of the former’s offense. A sort of second generation product of Ultimo Dragon’s Toryumon school, by way of the legendary CIMA, he blends the effortless acrobatics of lucha libre with a harder hitting style straight from Japan. Really, you have to applaud any man who can do a double rotation moonsault.
This year, Ricochet won both the DGUSA Open The Freedom Gate Championship (ending Johnny Gargano’s 873-day reign) and Dragon Gate’s Open The Dream Gate Championship (becoming the first foreigner to hold the title). He won New Japan’s illustrious Best of Super Juniors tournament, earning him a spot at Kota Ibushi’s IWGP Jr Heavyweight Championship. He lost that match, but that bout gave us this .gif.
How boss is that spot? He went on to win PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles tournament and earn a title shot against Kyle O’Reilly. In the middle of all that, he kept working various promotions AND appeared on Lucha Underground as the scene-stealing masked wrestler Prince Puma. He’s one of the finest high flyers in the world right now, after spending years honing his craft developing from a pretty good flippy guy to a genuine wrestler. He just exudes excellence in a way no other performer this year did. When I want to show friends how cool wrestling can look, one of the first things I share is this amazing video of Ricochet and Rich Swann doing wild shit set to Migos’ “Jumpin’ Like Jordan.”
More than any other wrestler this year, he had a consistent amount of forward momentum and seemed to be pushing himself and the entire medium forward in a way few others were capable of. The only way his year could have been better is if he was officially on his way to NXT, but seeing as how he’s already lapped their big high flyer, former rival Adrian Neville, a contract with the big leagues can’t be that far off. For now, though, I feel confident calling him The Best In The World.
(Please don’t call me mean names on the internet over this. I’m very fragile.)
Ricochet – Required Viewing
5/5/2014 Dragon Gate – Ricochet vs. YAMATO
5/23/2014 Pro Wrestling Guerilla – Ricochet vs. ACH
6/8/2014 New Japan Pro Wrestling – KUSHIDA vs. Ricochet
7/20/2014 Dragon Gate – CIMA & Matt Sydal vs. Masato Yoshino & Ricochet
9/6/2014 Lucha Underground – Johnny Mundo vs. Prince Puma