Sunday 28 December 2014

Year End Awards 2014

For the fourth year in a row I’ll kick this bad boy off by saying that wrestling attracts lists. Also for the fourth year in a row I’m presenting lists of my favourite wrestling-related things of 2014. Previous years' awards can be found here (2011), here (2012), and here (2013).

But this year there are a few changes. In previous years I’ve kicked off with the five best characters in wrestling. That won’t be happening this year. There are two reasons for that. First, I didn’t think it was a particularly interesting topic anymore. Second, it’s a slog to write this thing and I felt that if I wasn’t especially interested in the topic it wasn’t worth writing about. For anyone interested Batista and Damien Sandow definitely would have made it onto that list. Tyler Breeze probably would have as well.

That leaves us five categories: top cards, top feuds, top matches, top tag teams, and top individual wrestlers. People with too much time on their hands may notice when reading what follows that the number of ranked cards has expanded from five to ten. I’ve no idea why I’ve only previously done five. It seems a pretty slim amount. Ten’s far more natural so that’s what I’ve done here. On this subject the number of feuds would have been expanded if there were enough interesting feuds on offer. Maybe next year.

As with previous years there are no non-North America based grapplers on any of these lists (except one, but that’s for a match that took place in the States). This isn’t a reflection on the quality of wrestling outside of the United States, it’s simply a case of me not following anything outside of North America enough to feel I can fairly judge and compare it. If English language commentary becomes a regular thing for New Japan, or if I end up signing up to their streaming service, that could very well change by this time next year.

The way I’ve ranked wrestlers takes into account the company they work for, their spot on the card, what is required of them by their employer and how well they’ve performed within their parameters. Different things are expected of Daniel Bryan and Jay Briscoe for example, despite both men being world champions. Even within WWE there are different expectations of wrestlers: more is expected of Seth Rollins than of, say, Jack Swagger.

Last year I noted that TNA had had to make some cutbacks which had resulted in “their product become more unfocused and counterproductive than I think it’s ever been before.” Little did I know that things would become worse this year. As such TNA barely features on these lists at all. What positives the company has aren’t used well enough to make me interested in watching, and if they’re not making me watch they don’t get ranked. EVOLVE fans may be pleased to see them getting a few mentions.

We’ll start, for the first time ever, with the top shows category (because the traditional opener of the top characters has gone). It should be a fairly self-explanatory subject. If you can’t figure it out probably give this post a miss, eh?

Top Ten Shows of the Year

10. ROH Best in the World (22.06.14)
(Full review here.)
This is the show where Michael Elgin finally captured the ROH world championship. Yep, a mere twenty-seven months after he became the hottest star in the company in an unsuccessful challenge against Davey Richards. Was it worth waiting for? Well… it was a good match with the right result but it came over a year too late, and I think the crowd reaction and following reign reflected that. But it’s worth watching, as are the tag title match, Strong v Alexander, Steen v Young, and the no DQ tag bout.

9. ROH 12th Anniversary Show (21.02.14)
(Full review here.)
At the time it felt like it was existing between bigger events, which is something that often happens with ROH’s anniversary offerings. But reDRagon v Adrenalin RUSH, Hero v Cole, and the show-closing brawl between Kevin Steen and Cliff Compton all have something to offer and make this a show worth revisiting.

8. ROH All Star Extravaganza VI (06.09.14)
(Full review here.)
This show is probably most notable for Elgin’s unceremonial loss of the ROH title to Jay Briscoe, apparently necessitated by Visa issues that were sorted out fairly promptly. While good that match was not the best thing on offer. That accolade went to reDRagon v The Young Bucks. Cole v Styles was a strong effort too, as was Jay Lethal’s TV title defence against Cedric Alexander. It was a show that featured a number of matches we don’t usually see, and benefitted accordingly.

Best ROH TV champion ever? Your call...

7. WWE WrestleMania XXX (06.04.14)
(Full review here.)
Despite being incorrectly referred to as WrestleMania’s thirtieth anniversary (it was the thirtieth edition, there’s a difference) WWE got the important things right with their biggest card of the year. Daniel Bryan got two of the most popular victories of his career and Triple H, Randy Orton, and Batista all did their best to make him look good getting them. Cesaro also got the most noteworthy win of his WWE career so far when he won the Andre The Giant Battle Royal (hey, it’s not his fault nothing’s been done with him since). Those matches and performances were strong enough to make the show memorable in spite of a shoddy Undertaker v Lesnar match and a rushed Shield six man.

6. WWE Elimination Chamber (23.02.14)
(Full review here.)
This show is here because of three matches: Titus O’Neil v Darren Young, Cameron v AJ Lee, and Alberto Del Rio v Batista. I’m joking, of course. It’s the Chamber match and the Shield v Wyatts six man collision that are most memorable about this show and they’re two of the reasons I’m ranking it here. The third is the Big E v Jack Swagger opener, which was far better than anyone could have reasonably expected. That nothing was done with Swags and E off the back of that performance is exactly what was wrong with WWE this year.

5. NXT ArRIVAL (27.02.14)
(Full review here.)
Looking back I think this was the show where people realised that NXT was more than just an enjoyable developmental programme. In these two hours the NXT crew put on a show better than the vast majority of RAWs (possibly all RAWs) this year and became “the new ECW” or “the new ROH in its prime” or whatever else you want to label it. Basically, it became better than WWE’s main product with this show. We all just took a while to realise.

4. WWE SummerSlam (17.08.14)
(Full review here.)
Brock Lesnar’s fifteen minute demolition of John Cena is the obvious thing to mention here. It was something different to the average WWE match made all the more powerful because it was the usually untouchable Cena who took the one-sided beating. Supported by Ambrose and Rollins’ wild lumberjack fight, a surprisingly entertaining Stephanie McMahon match, a great Rusev v Swagger match, and what was probably Miz’s best match of the year opposite Dolph Ziggler, this was the best main roster effort from WWE all year.

Sixteen of these bad boys. Sixteen!

3. ROH/NJPW War of the Worlds (17.05.14)
(Full review here.)
ROH and New Japan collaborating to put on some never before seen matches was practically guaranteed to produce a great card so it wasn’t a surprise when it did. In spite of some odd choices (The Decade v Gedo and Jado and Hiroshi Tanahashi being tasked with carrying Michael Bennett) the event was a classic. The three-way main event was very good, an achievement in itself considering how unfamiliar the three were with one another, Jay Lethal and Kushida had a wonderful tussle over the ROH TV strap, and the Bucks and reDRagon had one of their many great matches. The news that the two groups will offer a similar collaboration in 2015 was most welcome.

2. NXT Takeover: R Evolution (11.12.14)
(Full review here.)
It’s probably a bad sign that WWE’s best show of the year was one put on by developmental talent. Because the main roster is clogged up with guys like Big Show, Mark Henry and R-Truth, none of whom are capable of contributing anything constructive, names like Sami Zayn, Adrian Neville, Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Finn Bálor and Hideo Itami have to make do with wrestling on Network specials. It’s not how the world’s biggest wrestling promotion should be run.

What’s good is that the stupidity of the company doesn’t seem to get any of the performers down. All of them do amazing work week after week, participating in a well-written, logical show that doesn’t rush anything and gives its characters time to development. The result of that approach is R Evolution. If that’s not a reason to apply that approach to the main roster I don’t know what is.

1. ROH Final Battle (07.12.14)
(Full review here.)
Ring of Honor takes the best show spot with, well, the best show of the year. It was easy to overlook how good Final Battle was as it came just days before NXT’s acclaimed R Evolution event. As much as I enjoyed the NXT spesh Ring of Honor’s year-ender was better. Every match did what it needed to. The majority did far more. The three title matches, the six man bout, and Strong v Page were all cracking efforts, and there was even an amusing swerve turn from Veda Scott. The show could not have done more. If this were the benchmark for ROH they could expand in no time.

Top Five Feuds of the Year

5. reDRagon v The Young Bucks
It wasn’t the most heavily emphasised rivalry in wrestling but the two teams clashed several times during the year: Raising the Bar Part 2, War of the Worlds, All Star Extravaganza VI, and the Super Junior tourney finals show. Every single time they did they produced something very enjoyable, and usually superior to their previous clash.

4. The Shield v Evolution
The two teams only met twice. But both of those matches were excellent and there was a compelling story to the feud: The Shield were tired of being used as mere enforcers by ‘The Game’ and The Authority so they turned babyface. It sounds simple and it was, but there were layers and nuances to it that really made it stand out, such as Triple H becoming obsessed with ending The Shield at any cost and the way the programme was presented as having tinges of the young guys wanting to take the older guys’ spots. Plus, of course, there was the ending. Which we’ll get to in a moment…

Note Batista's stylish red boots.

3. Sami Zayn v Adrian Neville
Friendly rivalries are not something we see all too often in WWE which is a shame as they can be very effective when done right. As was the case with Neville and Zayn’s rivalry. What’s particularly good about it, looking back, is that it actually had the seeds sown for it (intentionally or not) in late 2013 when the pair clashed in a number one contenders match (won by Neville).

They started interacting more frequently in the lead-up to Takeover II, being presented as pals that shared a healthy competitive streak. As things escalated, Neville becoming increasingly antagonistic and Zayn played the troubled babyface, doubting himself as he continued to fail in his quest to capture the NXT gold, the pair participated in a number of exciting matches against one another and shared opponents (such as that young prospect Titus O’Neil), and even had a couple of memorable verbal exchanges. They made everything they did matter.

2. Daniel Bryan v The Authority
It was the rivalry that drove the 2014 WrestleMania Season. And one of the reasons I like that fact is that it wasn’t the original plan. Things had to be rejigged after the CM Punk walkout and the fans’ unwaveringly positive reactions to Daniel Bryan week after week.

It worked because it stuck to probably the most successful formula WWE has ever had: the downtrodden babyface who keeps going no matter what’s thrown at him. Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, Batista, Randy Orton ad Kane were all deployed against D-Bry in a wide variety of skits and segments and he kept going, determined to win the WWE championship. His opening match battle with Tripper at WrestleMania XXX was a joy to watch and cleverly saw Bryan gain the retribution he needed to before he went on to have his moment of victory later in the night when he made ‘The Animal’ tap out to the Yes Lock for the title.

1. Dean Ambrose v Seth Rollins
When The Shield were split and went their separate ways I was disappointed. Not only did it feel like the lads had plenty left to accomplish together but I wanted to see a member of a faction win the WWE championship without his teammates turning on him. It came across as an act of desperation designed to distract viewers from the absence of Daniel Bryan rather than a well-considered move that would improve WWE programming.

But improve WWE programming it did. Rollins became a bratty, entitled egotist who was handed opportunity after opportunity and cheated to come out on top every time. Ambrose was cast as the deranged vigilante, the one man determined to give Rollins what he deserved. After making us wait nearly three months for a proper match the pair didn’t disappoint: they had a great battle at SummerSlam and followed up with memorable performances on the August 18 RAW and at Hell in a Cell. It was exactly the rivalry WWE needed to make it through the year without their hottest star.

Greatest rivalry of 2014. Fact.

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

10. Big E v Jack Swagger – WWE Elimination Chamber (23.02.14)

9. Sami Zayn v Adrian Neville – NXT R Evolution (11.12.14)

8. Dean Ambrose v Seth Rollins – Falls Count Anywhere match, WWE RAW 18.08.14

7. Kushida v Jay Lethal – ROH/NJPW War of the Worlds (17.05.14)

6. reDRagon v Time Splitters – ROH Final Battle (07.12.14)

5. Dean Ambrose v Seth Rollins – Lumberjack match, WWE SummerSlam (17.08.14)

4. The Shield v Evolution – No holds barred elimination match, WWE Payback (01.06.14)

3. reDRagon v Young Bucks – ROH/NJPW War of the Worlds (17.05.14)

2. The Shield v The Wyatt Family – WWE Elimination Chamber (23.02.14)

1. Cesaro v Sami Zayn – NXT ArRIVAL (27.02.14)

Top Ten Tag Teams of the Year

10. New Age Outlaws
Because the Outlaws were in the first wrestling match I ever really paid attention to and they're the reason I became a fan. There's no way I'm passing up an opportunity to rank them somewhere in a Year End Awards in what will probably be my only chance. Plus they won the tag belts and had more than competent matches with the Usos and the Rhodes brothers. That’s enough to justify their inclusion.

9. The Vaudevillains
A vaudeville act that enters the arena as part of a silent movie. One is a strong man incapable of working a particularly strong man style. The other is a skinny, pale fella originally introduced as a singer. Written down it sounds a mess. But the pair have done everything possible to set themselves apart on a lively, interesting roster. For that they deserve a tonne of credit.

8. The Usos
Jimmy and Jey had the underwhelming honour of being WWE’s most reliable team, guys who’d always put on a good match and occasionally push themselves to great ones. Their most notable offerings this year were a pair of tag matches against Bray Wyatt and Daniel Bryan, their tag team title win over the New Age Outlaws in early March, and a six man tag match against The Wyatt Family alongside John Cena, towards the beginning of their lengthy series with Harper and Rowan. The trouble the Usos have is that they’re in WWE, where tag wrestling takes a back seat. That and the fact that they’re not especially interesting characters.

7. The Wolves
TNA’s premier tag team. It’s not much, but it’s something. They did put in good performances against Team 3D and the Hardy Boys in the three-way series, getting the overall victory when they won a Full Metal Mayhem match (on Impact because TNA can’t afford pay-per-view). Outside of that series Eddie and Davey rarely shone, but they did have a handful of decent outings against The BroMans and MVP’s heel unit.

They'd have been better off in ROH.

6. Adrenaline RUSH
ROH were stupid to split ACH and TaDarius Thomas back in April. There was so much more that could have been done with them and a disservice was done to the tag division by not pitting them against The Young Bucks. Imagine how good a Bucks v reDRagon v Adrenaline RUSH match could have been! In less than three months they had numerous exciting matches with reDRagon and even dragged enjoyable showings from various Decade pairings. They were exactly the sort of team that makes ROH worthwhile.

5. The Dust Brothers
The Rhodes boys had competent matches against the New Age Outlaws at the start of the year before doing a whole lot of not much for months on end. They were reinvigorated when Cody became Stardust: he threw himself into the new persona and Goldust subtly reconfigured himself to become the intimidating enforcer of the team. It’s tough for tag teams to stand out in WWE but the Dusts have come about as close as can be reasonably expected.

4. The Bravado Brothers
After sending The Young Bucks packing from EVOLVE (in storyline because of a suspension, in reality because the Bucks cost top dollar) the Bravados went on to become the longest reigning Open the United Gate champions ever. They became the focal point of a thin but talented doubles scene in the company, working a series of matches with The Colony before progressing to The Premier Athlete Brand. Not the flashiest wrestlers but a pair of guys who know their gimmick and make the most of what they do well. Not bad for a pair of guys Ring of Honor (stupidly) cut a year or two back.

3. The Premier Athlete Brand
Technically this entry should about the pairing of Caleb Konley and Anthony Nese, but Trent Barreta tagged with both men on different occasions and all three wrestled some very good trios matches throughout the year. The Brand’s highlights of 2014 were a win in the six man tournament final at Mercury Rising, a loss in a spot-heavy TLC match against Uhaa Nation, AR Fox and Rich Swann, their tag title victory at EVOLVE 35, and their three-way collision with The Colony and the Bravados on the final night of the WWN China tour. Not bad for a group who hadn’t really teamed at the end of 2013.

2. The Young Bucks
They had great but psychology lite matches with everyone. Most notably they tangled several times with reDRagon and always put on a great show. In addition to that they had enjoyable bouts against Daniels and Kazarian, the Briscoes, and the dashed together pairing of ACH and Matt Sydal. This is, of course, without mentioning their stellar New Japan work (for reasons discussed above), although I say that their three-way IWGP junior tag defence against Forever Hooligans and Time Splitters at Global Wars was top notch.

1. reDRagon
Another really strong year for Bobby Fish and Kyle O'Reilly, the undisputed team to beat in ROH as well as two of its most well-defined and popular characters. With two ROH tag title reigns to their name, one of which started in 2013 and the other of which started in May and is still going at well over two hundred days, and cracking bouts against The Young Bucks, The Addiction, Adrenalin RUSH and Time Splitters, amongst others, there was no other choice for the number one spot. Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly continue to be the benchmark for tag team wrestling.

Two time tag team of the year winners. Prestigious, no?

Top Twenty Wrestlers of the Year

20. Jack Swagger
Even 2010, the year he won the World Heavyweight championship, wasn’t as good a year for Swagger as 2014 was. He was part of an underutilised tag team with Cesaro until they split had some enjoyable matches after WrestleMania. His summer series of matches with Rusev were surprisingly gripping and he made a surprise appearance in the Matches of the Year list alongside Big E.  

19. John Cena
Cena had a pretty unspectacular year all told. He failed to elevate Bray Wyatt in their feud and had numerous unspectacular high profiles matches on RAW and pay-per-view, many of which co-starred 'Mr Charisma' Randy Orton. But he did have two very enjoyable main events against Brock Lesnar and did a good job of making 'The Beast' look unstoppable in both (though particularly the first). He ended the year on a strong note with a decent tables match victory over Seth Rollins at TLC.

18. Rusev
‘The Super Athlete’ has been very good as an emotionless, unstoppable killer. He sells far more than he needs to and he’s had above average matches with everyone from Big E to Jack Swagger to Sheamus. He’s gotten his character over (with an assist from Lana) and been sensibly protected. One of WWE’s few successes.

17. Bad News Barrett
Took a bit part on a YouTube show produced by obnoxious commentators and turned it into one of the most over characters in wrestling. His post-'Mania RAW match opposite Rey Mysterio was a fun demolition and his IC title winning outing against Big E at Extreme Rules exceeded expectations. Had he not had some, ahem, bad news in the form of a separated shoulder Barrett would likely be much higher on this list. I hope his push gets back on track in 2015. The dude deserves it.

And yes, Barrett's half year in WWE was better than anyone's full year in TNA.

16. Luke Harper
Got a borderline-stunning win (via interference, natch) over Dolph Ziggler for the Intercontinental title late in the year. The rematches they had were amongst the few highlights of the TV shows they were on. This is in addition to the six man matches he worked as part of The Wyatt Family, most notably the ones against Ambrose, Rollins and Reigns, all of which were never less than fun.

He'd have been number one in a Greying Beard category.

15. ACH
ACH retained his status as both ROH’s premier flyer and wrestler least effected by ring psychology. He didn’t get any major wins over any established company names but he did have some electric outings against everyone from Adam Cole to Jay Briscoe to his favoured sparring partner Cedric Alexander. Before Adrenaline RUSH were (prematurely) split they had been a highlight of ROH’s tag division. That they didn’t get more opportunities to steal the show with reDRagon and The Young Bucks is a real shame. But now that he’s been selected for a prominent singles role ACH deserves to be one of ROH’s most heavily pushed guys in 2015.

14. Cesaro
Cesaro seemed poised for big things back in April. After winning the Andre The Giant Battle Royal, to a huge pop, he broke away from Real Americans tag partner Jack Swagger and took on Paul Heyman as his manager. But after winning a three-way match against Swagger and Rob Van Dam at Extreme Rules nothing much was done with the Cesaro and Heyman pairing. After they split a few months later Cesaro was mostly used as a guy who’d produce good matches, most notably against Sheamus and Dolph Ziggler on pay-per-view. It’s nice that he’s seen as reliable but so much more could be done with him.

13. Bray Wyatt
Character-wise it was a great year for 'The Eater of Worlds'. He managed to turn every sketchy bit of material sent his way into something worth watching. Unfortunately he was lumbered with a string of less-than-ideal opponents and gimmick matches. John Cena in the spring and early summer for example. His programme with Dean Ambrose has yet to pick up. It might end without doing so. The pointless autumn sabbatical didn't help either. But when he was good (v Daniel Bryan at Royal Rumble, v The Shield at Elimination Chamber, the ladder match at Money in the Bank) he was really good.

12. Roman Reigns
Yeah, Roman Reigns. Surprising, right? He rose to the occasion in the Royal Rumble, making sure he looked like the machine he was booked to be. He participated in great six man tags before The Shield were split, most notably against the Wyatts and Evolution. He again looked like a beast in the WWE championship ladder match at Money in the Bank and did what he could at Battleground a month later. Sadly, things fell apart for him after that, with a drab SummerSlam outing opposite an unmotivated Randy Orton preceding a three month layoff. He's going to struggle as the leading man WWE seem keen to cast him as but he has at least proven he'll give every chance he's given his all, and that he’s trying to improve. 

11. Johnny Gargano
‘The Whole Shebang’s’ epic run as Open the Freedom Gate champ was ended at the hands of Ricochet in a great match at Open the Ultimate Gate in April. Seven months later Gargano regained the title during the WWN tour of China in another belter opposite Ricochet. In between he produced compelling work with Anthony Nese, Matt Sydal, Drew Gulak and Rich Swann and turned babyface again. His burgeoning rivalry with The Premier Athlete Brand should be a highlight of EVOLVE in 2015.

10. Daniel Bryan
This should have been Daniel Bryan's year. The WWE creative hive mind okayed a pushed for him when it became obvious that audiences weren’t willing to accept a Batista v Orton singles main event at WrestleMania. That saw him beat Triple H in the ‘Mania opener before capturing the WWE title in the main event. Had he not needed an extended amount of time off the likelihood is that he’d have held the title until SummerSlam before dropping it to Brock Lesnar. Instead he made a single defence against Kane before vacating the strap and getting surgery. Appearances he’s made since indicate he’s as popular as he was at the start of 2014 so hopefully he can return and get back on track next year.

9. Jay Briscoe
He got a surprise second reign as ROH champion when visa issues necessitated a quick change from Michael Elgin. He then got a surprise extension of that reign when Adam Cole's Final Battle win was scrapped because of injury concerns. It wasn't just luck that got him placed here though. Briscoe had enjoyable matches at the ROH 12th Anniversary Show, Glory by Honor XIII, and Final Battle, and tag outings alongside his brother at War of the Worlds, Survival of the Fittest Night Two, and Champions Versus All-Stars. At this point he is out doubtlessly ROH's 'Mr Reliable'.

Headliners of the show of the year.

8. Tyler Breeze
'The Gorgeous One' arguably has the most rounded act in all of NXT. He has a unique look. He can talk. And he can wrestle a very good match. Obviously his performances at the NXT specials were all particularly good, but his less noteworthy matches, such as the three-way against Zayn and Kidd, his match with Kalisto, his unsuccessful challenge for Neville’s title on episode 111, and his tag match alongside Tyson Kidd against Hideo Itami and Finn Bálor, were worth a look too. If Neville and Zayn make the leap to the main roster next year then ‘The Gorgeous One’ could finally get his hands on the NXT championship.

7. Adam Cole
For the first half of the year he was the ROH world champion and during that time he produced great defences against Chris Hero, Kevin Steen, Jushin Liger, ACH, and Jay Briscoe in a hard-hitting Ladder War at the Anniversary Show. He dropped the strap to the not-as-hot-as-he-was-in-2013 Michael Elgin in a solid headliner at Best in the World and then focused on establishing his Kingdom faction with Michael Bennett and Maria Kanellis (and later Matt Taven). The second half of the year saw him work some “dream matches” against the likes of Matt Sydal and AJ Styles before failing to regain the title from Briscoe in a wild Fight Without Honor. With or without the world title Cole was ROH's top in-ring performer.

6. Dean Ambrose
Seemingly surpassed Roman Reigns in popularity after the split of The Shield thanks to his Feud of the Year opposite Seth Rollins. Their matches never failed to disappoint. They even managed to do something interesting with the usually tedious lumberjack gimmick. While they were doomed to fail their attempts to match Mick Foley’s death-defying bumps inside Hell in a Cell were appreciated. Before that split the Shield lads showed themselves to be the best three man unit WWE's ever had with their performance opposite the Wyatt Family at Elimination Chamber and Evolution at both Extreme Rules and Payback. It’s just a shame that he ended the year on low note in a dreary programme with Bray Wyatt.

5. Adrian Neville
'The Man That Gravity Forgot' was one of the many consistent highlights of NXT. His ladder match with Bo Dallas at the inaugural NXT special was ace, as were his defences against Tyler Breeze and Tyson Kidd, as well as the four-way match at Takeover II. Neville is a reliably crisp hand who can do incredible things in and around a wrestling ring. And his verbal work has been good too. Considering how wooden he's been in the past I think that deserves particular credit.

4. Dolph Ziggler
Floated about for the first half of the year before finally being given something meaningful to do in the second. With his three Intercontinental title reigns he desperately tried to make the championship mean something again. He didn't manage it trading the belt with The Miz but he fared better opposite Luke Harper. The handful of matches he had with Seth Rollins were excellent and I wish there’d been more. Survivor Series saw ‘The Show Off’ presented as a top guy, outlasting three heels to come back and win, sending The Authority packing.

He ended the PPV by having the match of the night at TLC. I hope the renewed interest in him carries over into 2015. Ziggler is a guy that fans want to see. WWE should be embracing that.

Solid back half. Not like that...

3. Ricochet
‘The Future of Flight’ became EVOLVE’s top star this year after defeating Johnny Gargano for the Open the Freedom Gate title and getting first dibs on choice opponents. His performances against Chris Hero, Trent Barreta, Matt Sydal, and Uhaa Nation were all first rate, as were his two title exchanges with Gargano. Outside of WWN Ricochet won a great Battle of Los Angeles tournament in PWG, became the first non-Japanese wrestler to win the Open the Dream gate championship, and defeated Kushida to win New Japan’s Best of the Super Junior tourney.

Surely he should be ‘The Present of Flight’ by now?

2. Sami Zayn
The former El Generico (I’m smashing kayfabe there, right?) stood out as the most naturally likeable man in all of wrestling this year. His ongoing quest for the NXT title was one of the plots that made NXT such an enjoyable watch during the year, punctuated with charismatic promos and attention-grabbing matches. Highlights of his year in the ring were matches against Corey Graves, Tyler Breeze (Takeover), Adrian Neville (R Evolution), Tyson Kidd, and, of course, his match of the year showing opposite Cesaro at the original NXT special. His upcoming programme with old rival Kevin Owens should be a highlight of NXT next year.

1. Seth Rollins
For the first half of the year Rollins was part of the incredibly popular Shield trio. That saw him participant in lively six man tag matches against The Wyatt Family at Elimination Chamber and Evolution at Extreme Rules and Payback, in addition to entertaining singles outings against Batista and Dolph Ziggler and a memorable performance from the number two spot in the Royal Rumble.

His heel turn on June 2 provided him the opportunity to change his act up for a prominent singles role, which he seized. It also provided the launching pad for his Feud of the Year opposite Dean Ambrose. The second half of the year saw Rollins enter a dynamic, and winning, performance in the Money in the Bank ladder match, wrestle the most enjoyable WWE lumberjack match in years, headline a pay-per-view in prime gimmick bout Hell in a Cell, and rub shoulders with top lad John Cena on TV and PPV.

Rollins made 2014 a breakout year for himself by seizing every opportunity WWE sent his way. If only everyone in WWE were given things to work with.
The best wrestler of 2014.

Friday 26 December 2014

Who Can Win the 2015 Rumble?

It's time, once again, for everyone to get on board the... Oh, wait a second. It's not that time. No. No, no, no. It's never that time anymore. No, right now it's time for us to look a month into the future at the Royal Rumble and ask ourselves who might win it. Which is something that, in theory, shouldn't take long because there aren't that many people on the WWE roster right now who look like potential winners.

Before going ahead and asking who could win it's probably a good idea to look at what the winner will be doing. By knowing that we can better understand the situation and who may be placed into it.

Obviously the winner of the Rumble will go on to face the WWE champion for the WWE championship at WrestleMania, it’s the traditional prize. That match will be billed as the main event even if it doesn't go on last, not that that's important for our purposes here. Right now the champ is Brock Lesnar. At the Royal Rumble he will defend his title against John Cena. This means that it will almost certainly be one of those two defending the strap come 'Mania. If Lesnar retains against Cena he's unlikely to make an appearance (at least not a wrestling appearance) at new February pay-per-view Fast Lane. Should Cena defeat Lesnar he probably will wrestle at Fast Lane, potentially in a title match. But it's unlikely WWE would have Cena win the championship only to drop it a month later so it's safe enough to assume if he beats Lesnar he'll be the champ at WrestleMania.

Lesnar's got to be the favourite to head into WrestleMania 31 as champ, right?
Which tells us we can expect the winner of the Royal Rumble to face Lesnar or Cena at WrestleMania. The number of guys who'd get to challenge for the WWE title at WWE's premier show is small already. That they'd be facing Lesnar, the company's highest paid guy on a per appearance basis, or Cena, the man the company has revolved around for the last decade, narrows things further. With Lesnar or Cena in the title match it's pretty much a guarantee the defence will go on last. Basically, having a second tier name win the Rumble and challenge the WWE champion on the WrestleMania undercard, something that was pretty standard for a while, doesn't seem like an option.

Which brings me back around to the slender number of prospective Rumble victors. Top of my list (and probably most other people's right now) is Roman Reigns. I mean, he's just the obvious choice, right? He looks the part and WWE have positioned him for a strong run. What better way to show that someone’s a big deal than by having him win the Royal Rumble and go on to topple a former UFC champion, a legitimate beast, in the main event of the biggest wrestling show of the year? I can only think of one thing bigger: having them defeat Cena at 'Mania.

Cena may have been handily dispatched by 'The Pain' at SummerSlam but he could gain retribution by blasting through Lesnar at the Rumble. Although WWE have done well making Lesnar into an unstoppable force of nature over the last year Cena is still the undisputed top star, no matter how many times Lesnar destroys him. Reigns versus Cena would also encourage fans to cheer Reigns, something that may not be quite so easy against a character like Lesnar. The boisterous ‘Mania crowd’s dislike of Cena would out weight their dislike of Reigns.

All of this is just as true for Dean Ambrose as it is for Big Roman. The reason Reigns edges ahead of Ambrose is that his face is a better fit. But Ambrose has the people on his side and that's not something that should be underestimated. Last year's WrestleMania is most remembered for WWE altering their planned Batista versus Orton main event to incorporate people's choice Daniel Bryan. Ambrose doesn't have such a fervent following as D-Bry but it's not impossible decision makers could learn from last year and go with the more genuinely popular choice rather than trying to force an embrace of their chosen one.

Randy wins lol.
There’s Randy Orton to consider too. Orton and Cena have never squared off at a WrestleMania. As uninspiring as it sounds it's the sort of match that WWE seems to love promoting. More appealing is the prospect of an Orton versus Lesnar match. They haven't clashed since both became made men in the promotion over a decade ago. It's one of the few fresh matches between headliners WWE have at their disposal. It may not be the greatest thing ever but it would certainly be a credible WrestleMania main event in terms of star power. So a ‘Viper’ win can’t be ruled out.

Daniel Bryan's name needs mentioning. There's clearly scope to do a big story with him returning to win the Rumble and topple the champ at 'Mania. This is dependent on his medical status, which is unknown to the general public, but a late January return has to be at least feasible. What's particularly interesting about the prospect of D-Bry winning is that matches with Cena and Lesnar are equally interesting. Cena and Bryan haven't touched since SummerSlam 2013, whilst Lesnar and Bryan have never interacted in any capacity. Both are matches that would attract an audience, and just as importantly either match could help to bolster Bry's rep in the long run.

This isn't likely though. Pushing Daniel Bryan has never seemed especially high on the company’s priorities list and Cena versus Bryan doesn't feel like a direction WWE would take for WM31. They seem to currently prefer to use Cena to elevate mid-card guys if the last year's anything to go by. Meanwhile if Bryan has healed in time for a lengthy match in March the last person he should be facing from a safety standpoint is Brock Lesnar. That said I'd enjoy either match.

It's possible WWE will decide to go with a dark horse as the Rumble winner. If they do I think Rusev could be in with a chance. He’s been pushed stronger than any non-indy standout newcomer in years and that’s almost certainly going to continue into the Royal Rumble, whether he wins or not. If he did win Rusev v Lesnar wouldn’t really feel right. Both have been presented as near enough unstoppable and one would have to crumble. It's a match that could work but I don’t think it would work now with the way both men are used. Because who would people cheer for? The dominating monster who robbed us of Saint Undertaker's holy Streak or the man proud of not being American?

Rusev v Cena, on the other hand, strikes me as very plausible. American super patriot Cena is the obvious choice to deal Rusev his first proper loss. Making it a world title defence would make the match that bit more of a spectacle, especially if in the time between Rumble and 'Mania 'The Bulgarian Brute' was made to look even stronger, pushing his unbeatable tough guy act into overdrive. The United States championship could pose a minor problem (a mid-card champ challenging the world champ is not the sort of thing WWE goes for these days. But they could simply have Rusev retire that title in a heat-grabbing, pro-Russia ceremony.

Could Ziggler do it? My guess: no.
It's possible a dark horse who’s been stuck in the mid-card for years will get the nod. Dolph Ziggler for example. It's not very likely though. They seem happy enough with 'The Show Off' in his current upper mid-card spot. And while Seth Rollins is just as well placed (if not better) he doesn't need the Rumble. The Money in the Bank briefcase is his ticket to 2015 main events.

Beyond this short list there's no one else who seems worth considering currently working for WWE. Bray Wyatt has floated around towards the top of the card but as 2014 draws to a close he’s in a dreary feud with Dean Ambrose, and before that a near two month layoff. Rey Mysterio is a big enough star but he never appears. Sting has yet to make his second appearance and it’s hard to see a part-timer in his late fifties being presented as the Rumble winner (especially with WWE’s attitude to incoming stars). And anyone who mentions Cesaro is doing some wishful thinking.

All of which illustrates just how badly WWE needs to get on with establishing their new batch of superstars. Hopefully WWE will make it a priority to try and elevate three or four guys this 'Mania season so that this time next year they have a thriving product that doesn’t seem as stagnant and formulaic. Not that I’m expecting that to happen.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

The Certified Gs

Enzo Amore is a certified G and a bona fide stud. This, apparently, cannot be taught. Big Cass is seven feet tall. This definitely cannot be taught. Carmella is hot as hell. This is yet another thing that cannot be taught.

Despite their questionable grasp of subjects that can and cannot be taught Enzo, Big Cass and Carmella are one of NXT’s most popular acts. Considering the number of wrestlers on that show that can claim genuine popularity that’s quite the achievement. And what’s nice about their popularity is that the show’s writers seem in no hurry to rush them into something they’re not ready for, instead letting them refine what they do. Instead of being rushed into a split, as happens on the main roster, the three are simply being allowed to be a unit and perfect their team work and (hashtag) banter.

Nothing in this picture can be taught.
What’s interesting (to me at least) to note about them is how much they have in common with the New Age Outlaws. There’s the obvious fact that Enzo runs through some Road Dogg-esque spiel before every match, beginning with something people can shout along with before breaking off into something more specific to their situation. There’s also the fact that Cass, the larger member of the team, wears trunks while Enzo, the smaller man, wears… well, not traditional wrestling gear. Enzo has a peculiar hairstyle. Cass has one line that he uses repeatedly.

Those are visual things, but the analogy carries over to the pair’s matches. Generally Enzo gets worked over before tagging out to Cass. That’s the formula of many tag teams, but the Outlaws used it more the most. In fact they used it pretty much all the time, which is not necessarily a strength.

Carmella is not a natural fit in the Outlaws comparison. The closest the Outlaws ever came to having a manager was Chyna and (thankfully) Carmella is not in the Chyna mould. What we have in Carmella is a character who seems to have been introduced to give Enzo and Cass a long term story. It’s been made very clear that Enzo has a soft spot for the former hairdresser. His attempts to impress her have failed. She seems to tolerate him as a pal, seemingly getting along better with the more laid back Cass.

Right now it looks like Enzo is going to continue to try to impress Carmella and continue to fail. The likelihood is that his behaviour will keep costing he and Cass wins. My assumption is that Carmella will eventually reveal she’s more interested in the more relaxed, confident and friendly Cass than the overly-enthusiastic Enzo, perhaps leading to a break-up of the team. Although this being NXT, the place where WWE doesn’t just plough blindly through the obvious options, it’s possible Enzo will accept Carmella and Cass and continue the tag team.

It’s even possible the three will simply remain a group of pals and I hope this is what happens. I like them as they are and feel they’d be of more benefit to the main roster as a group than as unaffiliated acts. There are plenty of singles wrestlers in WWE. It’s tag teams that are needed. A split and a promotion to the main roster would likely see Enzo drifting aimlessly within months and Cass pushed too quickly, ending up a misfire in need of something to do before another headline push was sent his way (because size).

As a unit they complement one another and can contribute to making WWE’s doubles scene interesting. If they can get a team name sorted (I’d like to suggest The Certified Gs, because why not?) then they’d be pretty much ready to hit Monday nights. Not that that seems likely to happen any time soon.

Monday 22 December 2014

Reigns Versus Ambrose

It’s getting to the point where WWE are going to have to commit to a new main event push for someone. The belief is that this new main eventer will win the Royal Rumble and go on to dethrone ‘The One’ Brock Lesnar (as opposed to ‘The One’ Billy Gunn) for the WWE world championship at WrestleMania. While a Rumble win doesn’t mean WWE are obligated to stick with pushing this new guy for years on end but it does pretty much mean they’ll have to stay behind them through at least ‘Mania 31. Otherwise the Rumble, one of the few legitimate star-making tools the promotions has left, will have been wasted.

The belief is also that Roman Reigns is the current frontrunner to get this push. I mean, ho oculd he not be? He has basic wrestling ability, looks good, and has a charisma to him that many other wrestlers lack. He is the embodiment of looks over substance that typically motivates WWE when they select their uber-stars.

Should we believe in this guy...
The trouble with Reigns as a main event guy right now is that he has some very clear limitations. Most importantly, as far as decision-makers are concerned, is his inability to cut a decent promo. He apparently had acting lessons over the last few months while he was off recovering from his hernia surgery. If true it doesn’t show. He somehow got worse while he was away from TV, something I wouldn’t have thought possible in the autumn. Not that it’s entirely Reigns’s fault. The writing team should recognise his limitations in this area and present him as a brooding, monosyllabic thug who dishes out justice rather than a guy who cracks jokes and spikes The Authority’s coffee.

The second issue Reigns has is that he has yet to demonstrate that he can wrestle a compelling singles match of more than ten minutes. Any time he’s shone in the ring he’s been in tag match, a six man match, or some sort of meticulously laid out multi-person effort, such as the ladder match at Money in the Bank. His sole singles outing of substance so far has been against Randy Orton at SummerSlam, which was technically sound but painfully unengaging.

This doesn’t sound like the description of somebody WWE are going to spend a lot of time and effort turning into a star… but he is good looking. You can see the dilemma. Making it even trickier for those in charge is the existence of Dean Ambrose, a man who can do the things Reigns can’t but fails in areas where Reigns is strong. Put simply Ambrose is a not-conventionally good-looking man (certainly not by WWE’s specific standards) and doesn’t have Reigns’s impressive physique, but he knows his wrestlespeak and can produce enjoyable matches that last longer than ten minutes with ease.

The thing that really sets Ambrose apart is how invested in him the fans have already become. The rivalry he and Rollins shared over the summer and early autumn was one of the most heated WWE plots in years, stemming from an angle that was simple and entirely relatable. His series with Bray Wyatt has not come anywhere close to being as great as it could (and probably should) have been, which has seen his momentum cool, but he remains incredibly popular.

... or will continuing to support Ambrose force WWE's hand?
The comparisons to ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin are not justified at this point, but ‘The Lunatic Fringe’ is popular enough to justify WWE taking a chance on him as the man to tangle with and defeat Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania. The likelihood is that that match would work and be received better than a Reigns v Lesnar bout. But Reigns is the more traditional main eventer and has strengths that Ambrose lacks. It is, basically, a bit of a conundrum for WWE. Do they go with the guy who fits their tried and tested approach or the man the public have chosen?

I think they’ll end up going with Reigns. They went with the public’s choice last year with Daniel Bryan and he ended up sitting out the majority of the year with some severe neck problems. That was nobody’s fault but it could be taken by WWE as a sign that “indy guys” like Ambrose and D-Bry are not cut out for the rigours of the very top of the sports entertainment world. Reigns, by contrast, will be seen as a typical WWE lad and therefore a safer choice.

If they do decide to commit to Reigns then I hope they do the smart thing and have the Rumble come down to he and Ambrose as the final two. Ambrose would be given a credibility boost lasting to such a position and it would cast doubt on the outcome. They probably won’t go with it though: it would risk the crowd turning on Reigns. And they couldn’t have that, could they?

Sunday 21 December 2014

Death by Bunny

When Adam Rose first rocked up in NXT he seemed destined to be a mid-carder for life. A fun-lovin' party animal with a love of lollipops and wackily-attired entourages is not the sort of man who wins world championships in a promotion like WWE (or, really, anywhere outside of CHIKARA, and even there it would be a stretch). Even a gig main eventing NXT seemed unlikely.

Note Simon Gotch wearing a fez.
As it turned out Rose didn't get much time in NXT to get to the top. He debuted on the March 6 episode, recorded five weeks earlier on January 30. A month later a vignette aired on the April 7 RAW trumpeting Rose’s impending main roster debut. For the record that was the night after WrestleMania XXX.

Despite being called up at such an integral time of year Rose still seemed destined for the mid-card. It was the same man doing the same gimmick in the same promotion. But that was okay. Not everyone can be in the main event. Nor can everyone be presented as having the potential to main event. If they were everyone would seem the same, and wrestling operates by making people seem extraordinary and out of this world.

I liked the idea of Rose being a mid-card guy who lost more often than not. He had the sort of character that could pull the role off long-term, and that's actually pretty rare. Logically, why would somebody stay a happy, smiley good guy if they lost all the time? Most wouldn't. But the Rose character would.

Rose could have gone out every week on Main Event or Superstars and lost without his gimmick being harmed. Of course the character would want to win, wrestlers should always want to win, but he'd have the Exotic Express to buoy him up and take him out for a night on the tiles after every loss he suffered. It wouldn't have been the best thing ever but it would have been reasonable enough for what's basically a featured jobber.

That was the theory anyway. His heel turn kind of ruined it. Turning Rose into a jealous egotist was a deft bit of character development that fit with what had gone before. But WWE is already full of mid-card heels who are going nowhere. It’s a short sighted move that’s seen WWE deprive themselves of someone who could have been a featured undercard guy for years.

WWE's policy of equal opportunities for rabbits is where it went wrong for Rose.
What makes it seem that bit worse is that Rose was turned heel for such a pointless reason. The Bunny (a man in a bunny suit, obviously) from his entourage had become a surprise hit with fans and someone in WWE decided they should start booking the Bunny in matches to capitalise on that. It was overkill and it was obvious it would be overkill. Left a member of the entourage the Bunny could have stayed popular before the inevitable wane (which has already been and gone) and Rose could have bolstered his babyface cred by being accepting of someone more popular than himself.

The changes made to Rose can be undone. People will probably be as accepting of him as they were before. But the heel turn thing has been a pointless diversion. One of the company’s many.

Saturday 20 December 2014

NXTweet 18.12.14

Just one week after the excellent Takeover: R Evolution show could the NXT crew put on another top notch night? Of course they could! They’re the best crew in wrestling.


Tweet 1: So you want me to tweet about NXT, do you...?
Tweet 2: Straight into the credits. Bit weird. I assumed we'd be reminded of Sami Zayn's #epicwin
Tweet 3: Ahhhhhh... Rich Brennan's talking about it. Maybe they think that's enough.

Adrian Neville promo featuring Kevin Owens

Tweet 4: Subdued, understated even, standing ovation for Adrian Neville. Crowd people expected Zayn.
Tweet 5: Still, it does give us a chance to look at Nev's lovely little Orc ears.
Tweet 6: I say lovely…
Tweet 7: Kevin Owens is going to have to work hard to make people boo him in NXT.

Dramatic camera angle.

Tweet 8: Little recap. Nev wanted to introduce new champ Sami Zayn but can't because Owens injured him.
Tweet 9: Owens wants to get to the top and he'll fight anyone on his way there. Including Nev. Good segment. Simple, clear, logical.

Devin Taylor speaks to Becky Lynch backstage

Tweet 10: Becky Lynch is giving an Oirish promo. Expecting a "fella" an second...
Tweet 11: "... she can see the person that will end her career. Permanently." Because careers can be ended temporarily.
Tweet 12: Regal has apparently confirmed Neville v Owens for the main event. Corey Graves says it's a combustible situation. Must try harder, Corey.

Becky Lynch v Bayley

Tweet 13: "I have a question: I hope that knee is okay" - Lord A-Train, misunderstanding questions
Tweet 14: First Becky was doing an Irish jig and now she's awkwardly acting like a clichéd rocker chick.
Tweet 15: Just noticed we've got Charles Robinson refereeing this match. #littleNaitch
Tweet 16: Not commented on Bayley yet. She's being great, obvs.
Tweet 17: Kind of hoping Robinson busts out a cartwheel when he goes for a count.

New gear. New submission. New day. Just not The New Day...

Tweet 18: Becky has new gear. It's way better than that plaid stuff she had.
Tweet 19: Becky wins with her four-leg clover hold. It's called that because she's Irish!

The Vaudevillains speak to William Regal about getting a tag title rematch

Tweet 20: #Vaudevillainspop
Tweet 21: #Gotchvoicepop
Tweet 22: Legal man storyline in the tag division. You're not getting THAT on the main roster.

Bull Dempsey v Unnamed Jobber

Tweet 23: Bull Dempsey versus a guy in some rather fetching tights. They're green with what I think is a dragon on them.
Tweet 24: Bull finishing matches with the flying headbutt is so lol.
Tweet 25: Because, y'know, Benoit was a thing.

Baron Corbin v Another Unnamed Jobber

Tweet 26: Baron Corbin walking through spotlights on the stage and them flickering off? I'm a massive fan of that.
Tweet 27: Corbin versus Vanilla Ice here.

Natural position for the victim's legs isn't it?

Tweet 28: He should be called Baron Von Corbin. I'd find it funny.
Tweet 29: Laughing so hard at Dempsey giving Corbin a playground push and running off smirking.

Enzo Amore and Big Cass v The Ascension

Tweet 30: You may not be able to teach being "hot as hell" but you can buy it. As Carmella demonstrates.
Tweet 31: Not a natural look, is what I’m saying.
Tweet 32: Big Cass can hold a note. Sing-off with Aiden English. #bookit
Tweet 33: Anyone else spend long winter evenings reminiscing about The Ascension's Game of Thrones phase?
Tweet 34: Konor no-selling has cracked me up.
Tweet 35: Oh noes!! Enzo got pinned while he was trying to impress Carmella.
Tweet 36: Viktor and Konor want another match with Itami and Bálor? Maaaaaan, let the new lads face other people.
Tweet 37: In fairness that rematch will probably be Itami and Bálor beating The Ascension nice and quick before The Ascension go all main roster.

Adrian Neville v Kevin Owens

Tweet 38: You'll be pleased to know the crowd are back into Neville.
Tweet 39: Corey Graves just called Jason Bloom "Albert". Obviously an Attitude Era fan.
Tweet 40: Loving Owens mouthing off mid-match. I was worried that would be stopped in NXT.
Tweet 41: Really enjoying this Kevin Steen v PAC match.
Tweet 42: "I don't know if he's trying to win or beat 'im!" - Lord Bernard
Tweet 43: Neville does his top rope drop kick in a similar way to Finn Bálor. I'm beginning to think it's a British and Irish thing.
Tweet 44: Hammerlock UK thing, bruv.

Jake would be proud.

Tweet 45: Nasty fall off the top rope by Neville. Nastier DDT afterwards.
Tweet 46: I don't know about you but I'm satisfied by that double count out finish. #sarcasm
Tweet 47: Owens sending us home happy with a post-match apron bomb and a roar-screech. Excellent stuff. Good show.