Thursday 29 December 2011

Year End Awards 2011

Wrestling attracts lists. Most fans, at one time or another, will make a list of favourite wrestlers, matches or cards. Wrestling lends itself to their creation. The end of a year is a particularly strong time for such an activity, and I thought I’d get in on the action. Below are top five lists for Character of the Year, Match of the Year, Show of the Year, Tag Team of the Year and Feud of the Year. I’ve pushed the boat out a little when it comes to the best wrestlers of the year and gone for twenty. Five seemed too slight when you consider how many wrestlers there are in the world.

I should mention my criteria before you begin reading. There was, broadly speaking, a criteria but there was nothing hard and fast set out. The way I’ve attempted to rank people in each of the six fields is by taking into consideration what the promotion they work for requires of them in their position on the card. Very different things are required from someone headlining a Ring of Honor show to someone working in a mid-card spot for WWE. I’ve tried to look at how well people are using their spots and how successful they are within the parameters of the company they work for.

I’ve also made my decisions based on the matches, personalities and shows that I’ve watched throughout the year. I enjoy what little Japanese wrestling I watch but I know nowhere near enough about it to try ranking any of it. Similarly I don’t watch much TNA so their shows and performers may seem underrepresented. I rationalise by saying that if TNA put on a better product I’d watch more regularly and would be likelier to look on them favourably when I did things like this.

I’ll kick off with the top five characters of the year. These are the most entertaining and consistent wrestling personae of the year. Wrestling ability does not play a factor here (which has helped at least one man get onto the list) as it’s all about how well the men in question have done establishing their character. All the other categories should be very self-explanatory.

Top Five Characters of the Year

5. Zack Ryder
‘Long Island Iced Z’ was given very little to do for the majority of the year but got himself over using YouTube and by fleshing out the basic gimmick WWE’s writing team had furnished him with. He went from being a nobody tagging with Primo on Superstars to United States champion on the power of his charisma and savvy use of YouTube.

4. Austin Aries
Aries is easily the most entertaining thing about TNA and a large part of the reason for that is his believable and relatable gimmick. ‘The Greatest Man That Ever Lived’ has carried charisma vacuums such as Brian Kendrick and Kid Kash to enjoyable in-ring promos and displayed so much charisma that fans have taken to cheering him. TNA are incredibly lucky to have secured the services of ‘A Double’.

3. CM Punk
Despite turning face halfway through the year Punk has been a consistent character for WWE. He joined the Nexus to try and bring change to WWE, which was later his reasoning behind his famous worked shoot promo on the June 27th RAW. That’s the sort of approach that makes wrestling believable. Punk’s naturally kept the straight edge gimmick going too, another reason he deserves to be thought of as one of 2011’s best wrestling characters.

2. Mark Henry
Yes, flabby old Mark Henry has made it into a top five for something. His wrestling has been as awful as ever but when it comes to his character Henry has done a surprisingly good job. He is very easy to accept as a guy with a chip on his shoulder and the whole ‘Hall of Pain’ thing is inspired. There’s no way anybody would have predicted Mark Henry would be as over as he currently is as the year began. The booking team deserves a lot of the credit but it couldn’t have worked without Henry’s intense promos and threatening demeanour. Who’d have thought it?

It took fifteen years but Mark Henry is finally over as a monster heel.

1. R-Truth
C’mon... can anybody else be considered as good a character as R-Truth? He’s been a revelation as a heel and made a name for himself as a paranoid schizophrenic convinced that WWE management are conspiring against him. His vast array of phrases (“Us’ta is a rooster from Brewster”, “You gonna get got”, and, of course, “Little Jimmy”) are memorable, quotable and ought to be available on T-shirts for people to buy. That they’re not could mean Truth was right about the conspiracy after all...

Top Five Feuds of the Year

5. R-Truth v John Cena
When you consider Cena's limitations (namely that he doesn't know how to make mid-card guys look like his equals or provide interviews that engage older fans) it's astonishing to think that R-Truth, a man who'd never been given a genuine chance to excel at the top, managed to engage him in a feud that interested people. But he did. Truth's schizophrenic gimmick proved a good match for Cena's valiant superhero routine and the two did a good job of preparing for their Capitol Punishment showdown. The rivalry was the launching pad for a popular character and got Cena to do some work. Very few feuds can make those boasts.
4. Randy Orton v Cody Rhodes
What I liked about this feud is that it was booked to capitalise on a real life occurrence: namely Randy Orton busting 'The Dashing One' open during a match on SmackDown. Rhodes cut believable promos against 'The Apex Predator', was granted victories over him and was generally permitted to look like a main event star. The two had a worthwhile clash at Hell in a Cell and tangled on various episodes of RAW and SmackDown, never producing anything less than entertaining.
3. Kevin Steen v Ring of Honor
ROH's lead storyline of the year was Kevin Steen's hatred of the promotion. He returned for "one night only" at Best in the World and teased a face turn, only to swerve turn on Steve Corino and get carted out of the building by security. From there he waged a one man war to get himself reinstated to the promotion, which he achieved at Final Battle.
It was an interesting, well planned feud that gave several people on the regular roster something to do and created a match people wanted to see in Corino v Steen. Steen's powerful mic work and convincing madman character were what made this feud succeed. The program has also allowed work to begin on a Steen v Richards feud, which ought to be a highlight of 2012.
2. Rey Mysterio v Cody Rhodes
Rhodes' second entry in the top five feuds of 2011. A logically booked, well-paced feud that saw a talented, established star do everything he could to get over his opponent. The promos and character development this feud gave us were superb and it provided us with several solid matches, most notably at WrestleMania and Extreme Rules.
1. Randy Orton v Christian
It's rare for WWE to allow two performers to go to the ring and tell a story through their match these days. It's rarer still for an entire feud to be based around competition. But that's exactly what WWE did with the Randy Orton v Christian feud. They were given the chance to produce classic wrestling matches and they did so many times. The feud eventually progressed to become more personal and took in various gimmick matches, all of which were equally as thrilling as the technical encounters between the two.
It was a believable and engaging feud that brought out the best in both men, portrayed them as equals and gave fans great matches and a reason to tune in. That's exactly what a headline feud should do. Orton v Christian may end being classed as a highlight of both men's careers.

Top Five Shows of the Year

5. WWE Elimination Chamber
This year's Chamber show was probably one of the most underrated cards of the year. It featured a cracking opener between Alberto Del Rio and Kofi Kingston (in which Kingston was allowed to look competitive before his inevitable loss), Edge's last great performance in the SmackDown Elimination Chamber, and an impressive RAW Chamber bout too. Even Miz v Jerry 'The King' Lawler exceeded expectations and provided something worthwhile.
4. ROH Best in the World
Best in the World is a boast that's thrown around a lot in wrestling these days. CM Punk, Davey Richards and Roderick Strong have all laid claim to the moniker this year while Ring of Honor went as far as to promote a show using the name.
It may not have been the best show of the year (it didn't rank number one did it?) but it was a solid card that didn't feature any matches that were less than enjoyable. Rhino v Homicide was a particular favourite for me, and it was great to see the promotion's top four tag teams (WGTT, KoW, the Briscoes and ANX) finally get to show what they could do in a four-way collision. Davey Richards' world title win over partner Eddie Edwards in the main event was not only the best match of the night but one of the best matches of the year, and showed why Ring of Honor has the reputation for great action that it does.
3. ROH Final Battle
Ring of Honor always gives its fans great action on its shows but is sometimes lacking when it comes to worthwhile storylines. When they get it right they get it very right, and Final Battle was a perfect example if that. Kevin Steen v Steve Corino and the return of both Chris Hero and Jimmy Rave gave fans something to get excited about in addition to the tremendous action provided in the ring. The highlights were the tag team gauntlet match, Strong v Hero, Elgin v Perkins and, predictably, Davey Richards v Eddie Edwards. A great show from top to bottom and definitely one worth checking out if you're unaware of ROH.
Any show that sees Daniel Bryan win a WWE world championship is always going to be seen in a positive light. The cash-in took everbody by surprise and became one of those memorable moments that WWE does so well. Other highlights of the show included Dolph Ziggler v Zack Ryder, Cody Rhodes v Booker T, and the CM Punk v Miz v Alberto Del Rio TLC match. The undercard matches such as Sheamus v Swagger and Orton v Barrett were kept short and sweet while the show's one dud (Big Show v Mark Henry) was more of an angle than a match. A great end to the year for WWE's PPV output.
1. WWE Money in the Bank
Mark Henry v Big Show took place on the best two wrestling shows of the year. How on Earth did that happen?! 

This show will always be remembered for its Punk v Cena WWE title main event but it had a solid undercard too. Two impactful multi-man ladder matches, both of which set up title wins for new stars later in the year and another excellent entry into the Orton v Christian Feud of the Year ensured this wasn't a one match show. On July 17th everything cane together for WWE and they put on their most entertaining show of 2011.

Top Five Matches of the Year
(There’s no analysis here. If you want to know why these matches are in the top five just go and watch them...)

5. Christian v Randy Orton – WWE Over the Limit (22.05.11)

4. Undertaker v Triple H – WWE WrestleMania (03.04.11)

3. Davey Richards v Eddie Edwards – ROH Final Battle (23.12.11)

2. CM Punk v John Cena – WWE Money in the Bank (17.07.11)

1. Davey Richards v Eddie Edwards – ROH Best in the World (26.06.11)

Top Five Tag Teams of the Year

5. Awesome Truth
They may not have won many matches but they won enough and were massively entertaining doing it. The pairing of Miz and R-Truth showed that acts can gain fresh life by being used as part of a team. Were WWE to take this approach with more of their established (and un-established, for that matter) stars they could get a good doubles division going and get more people over.
4. Air Boom
Air Boom have made it onto this list for achieving the Herculean task of making WWE's tag team scene relevant after years of downtrodden obscurity. Evan Bourne's Wellness suspension meant that it didn't last long but while it did 'The Legion of Boom' had solid matches against Dolph Ziggler and Jack Swagger, Awesome Truth, and (surprisingly) the Usos. If WWE were smart they'd renew the push Kingston and Bourne were getting back in the autumn and build a new tag division around them.
3. The Briscoe Brothers
Mark and Jay had a year of ups and downs. At times it didn't seem as though ROH knew what to do with them and they were left treading water. Things picked up for them in a grizzly feud with the All-Night Express, which took in a multitude of bloody gimmick matches, and with a win over WGTT at Final Battle, providing 'Dem Boys' with their seventh run as ROH tag champs.
Character-wise they have been one of the most enjoyable acts in ROH. Hopefully that won't change as we move into 2012 because ROH needs all the characters it can get.
2. Kings of Wrestling
Chris Hero and Claudio Castagnoli started 2011 as the reigning ROH world tag team champions and brought their epic, year-long run at the top to a close in April when they dropped the gold to Wrestling's Greatest Tag Team. Haas and Benjamin proved to be the only tandem the Kings didn't enjoy success against as they beat everyone else in their path, taking in awesome matches against the American Wolves at Revolution: USA and Future Shock at Honor Takes Center Stage Chapter 2.
With Castagnoli having joined WWE and Hero recently having returned to Ring of Honor at Final Battle we're unlikely to see the Kings together in 2012. It's a real shame because over the last couple of years they've been one of the most consistent teams in the business.
1. Wrestling's Greatest Tag Team
Ring of Honor was easily the best promotion for fans of tag team wrestling in 2011 and Haas and Benjamin were the standout team there. They enjoyed wins over many impressive duos, including the Kings of Wrestling, the American Wolves, the Briscoes, the House of Truth and the All-Night Express. They gave the young teams of Future Shock and the Bravado Brothers some of the best matches of their young careers. They held the ROH tag team titles for eight months, one of the longest reigns in the near ten year history of the belts, before dropping them to 'Dem Boy's in a great match at Final Battle. 

Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin have finally found the success they deserve thanks to Ring of Honor.

Haas and Benjamin have slotted into Ring of Honor incredibly well. They've finally found the success in wrestling that they've deserved for many years and I hope it continues throughout 2012.

Top Twenty Wrestlers of the Year

20. Jay Lethal
After wasting the first half of the year in TNA Lethal returned to ROH and received a healthy push that saw him capture the TV title from El Generico and drag Mike Bennett to his most enjoyable outings of the year. If he keeps hold of the gold for a while he could make it a meaningful championship. Expect to see him at the top of the card throughout 2012, but don't look for a world title win from 'Black Machismo' any time soon.

19. Kenny Omega
He worked brilliant matches against a nine-year-old girl and a sex doll. What more do you need?!

18. Tommasso Ciampa
The Embassy's new 'Crown Jewel' is undefeated in Ring of Honor. That's a streak (there's a somewhat overused wrestling term) that includes victories over Colt Cabana, former world champion Homicide and former Embassy centrepiece Jimmy Rave. Pairing Ciampa with heat magnet Prince Nana is a great move by ROH: it allows him to become a prominent heel in the organisation without exposing his inexperience.

17. Michael Elgin
The House of Truth’s resident monster has had an impressive first year on the Ring of Honor main roster. He’s been a part of impressive matches against the likes of Chris Daniels, El Generico, Andy Ridge and ROH world champion Davey Richards. He’s been particularly impressive in tag bouts alongside stablemate Roderick Strong, facing the likes of WGTT and the American Wolves. As the winner of the 2011 Survival of the Fittest tournament Elgin will challenge Richards for the world championship at some point during 2012. He’s not likely to win but it’ll be another chance to elevate Elgin towards the top of the card.

16. Austin Aries
‘A Double’ spent the first half of the year working for a handful of independent promotions and contemplating his future in the wrestling business. In June he resurfaced in TNA as part of their short-lived attempt to reenergise the X Division. While Bischoff and company quickly lost interest in that venture Aries secured himself a job with impressive showings on IMPACT Wrestling and at Destination X. He’s been the X Division champ for the past four months and would be the ideal candidate to spearhead a resurgence of the Division should TNA decide to give it another shot.

15. Claudio Castagnoli
The man now wrestling as Antonio Cesaro in Florida Championship Wrestling was one half of the longest ROH tag team title reign ever. That came to an end on April 1st, 364 days after the Kings had beaten the Briscoes to become two time champions. In addition to that prestigious accolade Claudio worked multiple matches against Wrestling’s Greatest Tag Team and the American Wolves, and had memorable singles clashes with Davey Richards (at Defy or Deny) and Shelton Benjamin (at Supercard of Honor VI).

Claudio Castagnoli, currently uppercutting his way through the FCW roster as Antonio Cesaro.

It would be great to see him on WWE television in 2012 but the treatment of Tyler Black makes that look unlikely.

14. Chris Hero
In addition to the Kings of Wrestling’s accomplishments listed for above the duo also beat Homicide and Hernandez in an action packed battle at Manhattan Mayhem IV and successfully retained their gold against the All-Night Express at the 9th Anniversary Show. As a singles wrestler Hero’s biggest matches were both losses: he was the first man to challenge Eddie Edwards for the world title at Revolution: Canada and he came up short in his return bout opposite Roderick Strong at Final Battle.

The rumoured move to WWE appears to be off the cards for now, but that’s not all bad. At least we still get to see ‘That Young Knockout Kid’ in ROH.

13. Kofi Kingston
Kofi accomplished a deceptive amount this year. Not only did he capture the tag team titles alongside Air Boom partner Evan Bourne but he also beat Dolph Ziggler for the Intercontinental strap, Sheamus for the United States gold and had a memorable clash with Alberto Del Rio at Elimination Chamber.

12. Roderick Strong
‘The Messiah of the Backbreaker’ begun 2011 as the ROH world champion, embroiled in a forgettable feud with Homicide. He held the belt until dropping it to Eddie Edwards in an amazing match on March 19th, having defended it against Jay Briscoe and El Generico during the spring. He was involved in very good matches with Edwards and Davey Richards throughout the rest of the year, sometimes alongside Michael Elgin in tag matches. After a few unfocused months Strong ended the year on a high by picking up a win over the returning Chris Hero at Final Battle.

11. El Generico
'The Generic Luchador' was one of Ring of Honor's most reliable stars throughout 2011. He was called on to put over Roderick Strong in energetic clashes early in the year, which ultimately led to a feud with the House of Truth. He toppled Christopher Daniels at Best in the World to become the Television champion and dropped the belt in a great match to Jay Lethal a few months later. With 'Mr Wrestling' Kevin Steen back in ROH 2012 should provide Generico with a renewed focus and perhaps a renewed rivalry.

10. Kurt Angle
Angle’s professionalism and ability shone through during 2011 despite TNA’s utterly inept booking. He did a solid job of elevating both members of Beer Money Inc. into the main event scene, worked entertaining matches with fellow veterans Sting and Jeff Jarrett and was generally TNA’s most dependable worker.

9. Eddie Edwards
In my opinion the title reign of ‘Die Hard’ Eddie Edwards should have lasted far longer than it did. He has far more personality than Davey Richards and fans seemed genuinely happy to see him as champion, whereas I think some feel that they should support the Richards title run because ROH did such a good job preparing for it. ROH wants to build around Richards though. I can understand that, I just don’t agree with it.

Edwards wrestled superior singles matches against the likes of Chris Daniels, Roderick Strong and Chris Hero, as well as excellent tag matches against the Kings of Wrestling, House of Truth and Future Shock as the American Wolves. His best matches of the year were against Davey Richards at Best in the World and Final Battle. If there were any justice in ROH Edwards would be a two time world champion right now. But there’s not.

8. Daniel Bryan
The originator of the ‘Best in the World’ moniker started the year with a top notch showing in the Royal Rumble match and then... disappeared. Between January and July Bryan didn’t do much worthy of note besides drop the US title to Sheamus and get bumped from the WrestleMania card into a pre-show battle royal.

When July rolled around Bryan made a triumphant return to pay-per-view by snatching the dangling briefcase in the SmackDown Money in the Bank match. He wrestled a good but ultimately pointless match against Wade Barrett at SummerSlam and then disappeared again, resurfacing a couple of months later to become a part of the Big Show v Mark Henry feud. At TLC he cashed in his title shot and beat Big Show for the World Heavyweight title under a minute after the ‘World’s Largest Athlete’ had won it.

Did anyone ever think we’d see a year ending with both Bryan Danielson and CM Punk wearing WWE world titles?

7. Cody Rhodes
This was 'The Dashing One's' breakout year. He started with a memorable feud against Rey Mysterio, which provided him with a more serious gimmick and a chance to show what he could do with the spotlight. Later in the year he captured the IC title from charisma vacuum Ezekiel Jackson in a surprisingly good encounter. As 2011 draws to a close WWE management clearly see a bright future for Rhodes. He was booked strongly in his program with Randy Orton (see Feuds of the Year) and has recently wrestled great matches with the semi-retired Booker T. Still the reigning Intercontinental champ 2012 is expected to be a huge year for Rhodes.

6. Alberto Del Rio
ADR had one of the strongest years of any WWE wrestler ever. He was consistently good all year and wrestled in the main event of multiple pay-per-views. He won the Royal Rumble (the biggest ever, if such things mean anything to you) and RAW's Money in the Bank. He wrestled for the World Heavyweight championship at WrestleMania XXVII. He won the WWE title. Twice. Imagine how good his year would have been if WWE hadn't taken the stop-start approach with his push.

5. Davey Richards
The current Ring of Honor world champion is lucky he isn't relied upon to produce sterling promos. His intense diatribes about prestige and the importance of training fit right in in ROH but would be out of place in either of North America's other major promotions. Davey Richards is good at one thing: wrestling. 

The man Ring of Honor will be built around throughout 2012.

 ‘The American Wolf’ has enjoyed cracking matches all year long. From his bouts against Colt Cabana, Claudio Castagnoli, Roderick Strong, Christopher Daniels and the Kings of Wrestling (alongside American Wolves partner Eddie Edwards) in the spring to his matches later in the year against Michael Elgin, Future Shock (again alongside Eddie Edwards) and the House of Truth. That's without mentioning his two amazing outings opposing Edwards for the ROH world championship. Each match was phenomenal and has cemented Richards as the most dominant ROH champ since Nigel McGuinness.

4. CM Punk
2011 was a year of two very distinct halves for 'The Second City Saint'.
Up until the end of June Punk was killing time as a mid-card heel and leading the forgettable New Nexus faction. Aside from a memorable performance in the Royal Rumble match and above average pay-per-view showings against Randy Orton he did little of note.
Then he cut his famous worked shoot promo on the June 26th RAW and quickly morphed into a babyface. From there he won the WWE championship from John Cena in an electrifying match at Money in the Bank, briefly left the company (supposedly), returned to beat Cena in a slightly-less-impressive SummerSlam outing and bombarded us with promos about how he wanted change for the better while behaving like every other WWE headliner of the past decade. He got it done where it matters though: in the ring. He wrestled enjoyable bouts against Triple H, Alberto Del Rio, Miz, Dolph Ziggler and R-Truth and established himself as one of the company's most reliable main event stars.

3. Christian
Christian returned from an injury in February and became World Heavyweight champion in May. Would that have happened if his childhood friend Edge hadn’t retired? We’ll never know but I have my doubts. I suspect the original plan was to have ‘The Rated R Superstar’ drop the title to Alberto Del Rio at Extreme Rules or Over the Limit after interference from ‘Captain Charisma’, which would have set up an Edge v Christian feud. That feud never got the run it deserved.

Instead Christian was chosen as the lead heel of SmackDown for the summer and enjoyed an epic run against mega-face Randy Orton. ‘The Viper’ and ‘The Instant Classic’ provided WWE fans with some of the best matches of the year during their rivalry and told a great tale during their four months working with one another. Christian’s follow-up program with Sheamus was never going to top the title feud but it was enjoyable enough for what it was.

Sadly the year will end with Christian benched due to another injury but he should be back in early 2012. Maybe he’ll get “one more match” then.

2. Randy Orton
2011 has probably been the best year of 'The Viper's' in ring career. He's had enjoyable feuds with CM Punk, Cody Rhodes and Wade Barrett as well as a scorching Feud of the Year with Christian. He even dragged two passable matches out of Mark 'The Shark' Henry. You know someone's good if they can do that.
'The Apex Predator' has also displayed the ability to beat wrestlers lower down the card without making them look weak. It's a rare skill in WWE and something Orton deserves much praise for. It could be said that his promos aren't what they could be. It's a fair point: for a main event talent in WWE Orton doesn't talk much. But that's part of his gimmick and when he is required to cut a promo he can handle himself well enough.

1. Dolph Ziggler
Ziggler started the year strong with a World Heavyweight championship victory over Edge and improved as the year progressed. He captured the US title from Kofi Kingston in one of the highlights of the otherwise dull Capitol Punishment in June and held it for an impressive (by modern WWE standards) six months before dropping it to Zack Ryder in the red hot opener of TLC. 

Best in the World. Ziggler is the best wrestler of 2011.
Over the last several months Ziggler has become one of the company's premier workers, making a success of every opportunity sent his way. His verbal skills are fine for his spot on the roster, he takes the best bumps in the promotion and he can work an enjoyable match just as easily against super workers Randy Orton and CM Punk as he can against lumps like Mason Ryan. Having become number one contender to CM Punk’s WWE title on the final RAW of the year it looks as though Ziggler could to start off 2012 in the same way he did 2011. That would be no bad thing.

Forget Davey Richards, Eddie Edwards, CM Punk, and Daniel Bryan, right now it's Dolph Ziggler who's 'Best in the World'.

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