Since 2015 has been the year of John Cena memes and RKO Outta Nowhere Vines, it may surprise some of you to know that actual pro-wrestling matches also happened this year.
But, since WWE have basically been in the doldrums since WrestleMania season ended, picking a list of the ‘best’ matches from only the top promotion in the world, almost seems unfair.
You see, outside of Vince McMahon’s world, wrestling has been absolutely tremendous this year, with the likes of New Japan, NXT and Lucha Underground producing quality matches on a near weekly basis.
So, as UNILAD’s resident pro-wrestling nerd, I thought we’d change things up and take a look at the eight best matches of the year, in eight different wrestling promotions.
WWE – Brock Lesnar vs John Cena vs Seth Rollins (Royal Rumble, January 25)
It’s safe to say it’s been something of an up-and-down year for WWE and no show quite encapsulated that more perfectly than the Royal Rumble in January. While the Rumble match itself, and Roman Reigns’ win in Philadelphia (who thought that was a good decision?), was an unmitigated disaster, the WWE World Heavyweight Championship match which preceded it was an absolute classic.
Lesnar and Cena had already faced each other multiple times on big shows in 2014, so the WWE freshened things up by adding the breakout star of 2014 Seth Rollins into the mix. Although he was probably only there to take the pinfall loss so all-conquering John Cena didn’t have to, it also essentially acted as Rollins’ audition for a world title run. And, boy, did he grab the ‘brass ring’ with gusto.
Basically, this was three performers throwing everything into a match which rolled by at a furious pace, featured more wild moves than you could shake a stick at, and had the crowd going nuts with multiple false finishes. Lesnar was at his destroying best, throwing Cena and Rollins around the ring, leading to the two challengers teaming up to take the champ out so they could settle this thing one-on-one.
Rollins, meanwhile, was wrestling like a man possessed – as if a top rope elbow to Lesnar on the Spanish announce table wasn’t wild enough, he then cracked out the Phoenix Splash for the first ever time in WWE. Throw in Cena, who’s really had his working boots on in 2015, and you got one of the all-time great triple threats. Nothing in WWE has really come close since.
Also worth a look: Roman Reigns vs Daniel Bryan (Fast Lane), Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns (WrestleMania 31), John Cena vs Kevin Owens (Elimination Chamber), Kevin Owens vs Finn Balor (WWE Beast in the East)
NXT – Sasha Banks vs Bayley (NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, August 22)
2015 has seen a real resurgence in women’s wrestling in the United States, with NXT being at the forefront of the revolution, and Sasha Banks and Bayley’s women’s championship clash in Brooklyn was the absolute zenith. It’s probably the most important match in NXT history – yes, it was that good.
This one had everything – epic entrances, workrate, incredible moves, a clearly defined good guy and bad guy, and emotion. While this one featured the big spots you’d hope for from a match of this magnitude – big dives, finisher kickouts, and that insane reverse ‘rana spot – it was the storytelling that pushed this one over the edge.
While the main roster seems to have forgotten how to do a classic heel vs babyface match, these two gave a first class example in NXT, the so-called developmental company, of the arrogant bad guy against the loveable underdog, with the work from Sasha on Bayley’s injured hand adding another layer to the tale. It all meant that when Bayley finally hit the Bayley-to-Belly for the win, the crowd absolutely erupted in celebration. When Charlotte and Becky Lynch joined Sasha and Bayley in the ring for a ‘curtain call’ for the modern generation, the emotional moment was more than earned for four women who’ve changed some very outdated opinions about women in the business.
The match was so good it moved WWE champion Seth Rollins to tears as he watched on at ringside. Hell, it was so good, seasoned veterans Finn Balor and Kevin Owens facing one another in a freakin’ ladder match couldn’t follow it. The women stole the show (not for the first time) and the announcement weeks later that Bayley and Sasha would face each other again in a rematch, in the main event and an Iron Man match, was greeted by one of the loudest reactions of the year, and deservedly so.
Also worth a look: Finn Balor vs Adrian Neville (NXT TakeOver: Rival), Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens (NXT TakeOver: Rival), Sasha Banks vs Becky Lynch (NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable), Iron Man: Bayley vs Sasha Banks (NXT TakeOver: Respect)
NJPW – Shinsuke Nakamura vs Kota Ibushi (Wrestle Kingdom 9, January 4)
Once again, if you want to watch great wrestling, New Japan has been the company to watch this year. Honestly, their output in 2015 has been so strong that any one of about 20 matches could have been selected as the promotion’s Match of the Year and nobody would have batted an eyelid. The standout for me, however, came on the company’s first show of the year.
The hype around Wrestle Kingdom 9 was pretty palpable. With Jim Ross and Matt Striker on commentary and the show being broadcast in the U.S., it got brand new eyes on the product and new fans were treated to one hell of a show, probably the best of the entire year. And, perhaps no wrestler captured viewers’ imagination more than Shinsuke Nakamura, the most charismatic man in wrestling, if not the world. As if his crown wearing, Michael Jackson-style dancing entrance wasn’t amazing enough, the ‘King of Strong Style’ then put on an absolute classic with Kota Ibushi as they clashed over the IWGP Inter-Continental title.
Ibushi completed his step up to the heavyweight division in this match, shedding his clean cut and high flying image to go toe-to-toe with one of the best strikers in the game. Things only got more and more brutal as this went on with a frustrated Nakamura stomping on his opponent’s head repeatedly for having the sheer audacity to strike him back, only for Ibushi to fire back and throw some brutal stomps of his own.
Ibushi still cracked out his crazy moves too though, don’t worry – with a Phoenix Splash attempt and a crazy springboard German suplex made even better by Nakamura’s facial expression as he realised what was about to happen. Put simply, this was absolutely epic, made Ibushi a star and made a whole new set of people fall in love with Shinsuke Nakamura. When you outdo a main event featuring Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi, you know you’ve done something special.
Also worth a look: Kazuchika Okada vs Hiroshi Tanahashi (Wrestle Kingdom 9), Tomohiro Ishii vs Tomoaki Honma (New Beginning: Sendai), AJ Styles vs Kazuchika Okada (Dominion), Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Shinsuke Nakamura (G1 Climax 25 Final)
Lucha Underground – Grave Consequences: Mil Muertes vs Fenix (Episode 19)
One of the most talked about wrestling promotions this year was Lucha Underground – a brand new company which basically came out of nowhere at the end of 2014 and proceeded to shake up the entire industry. With its completely fresh take on the genre, the show blended the classic Lucha Libre Mexican wrestling style with American flash, and the show’s artistic style completely embraced the weird and wonderful side of pro-wrestling to create a superhero, crime, horror drama unlike anything we’d ever seen before.
Stars like Prince Puma, Drago, Aerostar, Pentagon Jr, Son of Havok and many more captured imaginations, while established stars like Johnny Mundo (the man formerly known as John Morrison/Johnny Nitro) and Alberto El Patron (Del Rio – now back in WWE, unfortunately) added more weight to the show’s heft. There was no doubt, however, that the undisputed Match of the Year in LU’s incredible first season was Mil Muertes vs Fenix in a ‘Grave Consequences’ match. Taking the outdated concept of the casket match and freshening it up for a modern audience, the two wrestlers took their blood feud to another level in this one.
Taking the ‘Man Of A Thousand Deaths’, a character from beyond the grave who epitomises death itself, and putting him up against, essentially, the man of 1,000 lives who refuses to die is pretty inspired booking in and of itself. Then, add in the ‘Day of the Dead’ pageantry and working the match more like a Death Match than a casket match, and you’ve got something special.
Muertes looked like a monster, beating the crap out of the smaller Fenix, using the casket as a weapon, ripping his mask half off and beating him bloody. Fenix just tried to survive, pulling out incredible desperation spots and flips, as the two battled all over the arena until Fenix got the briefest of openings and managed to land a double stomp and shut Muertes inside the casket, with the help of Catrina. Incredible work from everyone involved.
Also worth a look: Aztec Warfare match (Episode 9), Trios Final: Angélico, Ivelisse & Son of Havoc vs Big Ryck, Killshot & The Mack / The Crew (Episode 24), All Night Long Match: Prince Puma vs Johnny Mundo (Episode 32), Mil Muertes vs Prince Puma (Episode 39)
TNA – Hair vs Hair: EC3 vs Rockstar Spud
Oh TNA. Remember when we thought this could be the promotion to truly give WWE a legitimate challenge and threat? How long ago that seems now. No, 2015 has not been a good year for Dixie Carter and her crew, with a number of talent jumping ship to NXT and ROH, among others, and yet another failed TV deal. Having your legitimate, home grown world champion EC3 lose to another WWE cast-off didn’t do the company any favours either. Another year for TNA, yet more of the same mistakes.
Despite this, the company has cracked out a few good matches this year. The best of the bunch was the brutal ‘Hair vs Hair’ clash between EC3 and British hero Rockstar Spud, who threw down the challenge to face his former friend and mentor in the main event of TNA’s show in London in January (airing on TV in March). In front of a raucous UK crowd who wanted to see the underdog Spud pull off the unlikely win against the entitled, dastardly nephew of the boss, this match was very much the classic undersized underdog vs monster heel.
What made this one stand out from so much else in TNA this year was the emotion. With the crowd firmly behind him, Spud was fired up and went on the offensive against the larger wrestler. However, thanks to a bit of interference, Ethan Carter III was able to take control and busted Spud open when he hit him with his arm brace. From there, it was all about the bloodied Brit trying to survive while EC3 battered him and acted like a complete dick.
Spud kept kicking out of big moves to show his desire and heart, much to EC3’s shock and dismay, before Carter was finally able to get the win. A great match which solidified both men as perhaps the top babyface and heel in the company.
Also worth a look: Lashley vs Kurt Angle (Impact, April 3), Bram vs Magnus (Impact, April 3), Career vs Name: Austin Aries vs Rockstar Spud (Impact, August 5)
ROH – AJ Styles, Nick Jackson & Matt Jackson vs Kazuchika Okada, Rocky Romero & Beretta (ROH/NJPW Global Wars ’15 – Night 2, May 16)
Ring of Honor has had another impressive year, continuing to churn out great matches on the Indie circuit, and securing a short-lived TV deal before getting their product on another channel in the U.S. They’ve also maintained their inter-promotional relationship with New Japan, which has seen the likes of Michael Elgin tour Japan as an ROH guy and the Ring of Honor world title will even be on the line in a featured match at NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 10 next month.
It was their cross promotional shows with New Japan in America which also produced the finest matches in ROH this year. Team ROH vs Bullet Club from the first night of the ROH/NJPW shows was phenomenal, but the six-man the next night was the best of the best.
Bringing together two of New Japan’s hottest feuds, in Okada vs Styles and The Young Bucks vs Roppongi Vice, the three vs three contest was a relentless back-and-forth epic. These six guys are some of the smoothest workers in the game right now and that was on full display here, as this match moved from cool spot to cool spot, never slowing down for a second.
Bullet Club got the heat on Beretta early as the Bucks got the superkick party started, but once Okada and AJ tagged in, it broke down into a glorious spotfest, and the last five minutes of counters and false finishes were something special.
Also worth a look: Mark Briscoe, Jay Briscoe, Raymond Rowe, Hanson & Roderick Strong vs Nick Jackson, Matt Jackson, Karl Anderson, Doc Gallows & AJ Styles (ROH/NJPW Global Wars ’15 – Night 1), Roderick Strong vs Jay Lethal (Death Before Dishonor XIII), Jay Lethal vs AJ Styles (Final Battle)
PWG – Roderick Strong vs Zack Sabre Jr (Don’t Sweat The Technique, April 3)
It’s been quite the year for Pro Wrestling Guerilla, which continues to be one of the most fun places for Independent wrestlers around the world to work. Their Battle of Los Angeles, All Star Weekend and King of Trios events all attracted major stars from across the globe, with AAA, NJPW and ROH contracted stars all making appearances to work with up-and-coming PWG guys, as well as established stars to give us some real Indie dream matches in 2015.
The match quality put out by the wrestlers in PWG this year has been insane, with epic matches all over the place. Any number of them could’ve earned the top spot as the promotion’s MOTY, but I’ve plumped for the bout between workhorses Roderick Strong and British star Zack Sabre Jr over the PWG world championship as the best of the lot.
In front of a very hot crowd, this one started out technical, with creative counters and mat wrestling aplenty. The duelling chants between the UK contingent in the crowd and the U.S. majority made for an incredible atmosphere, as Strong attempted to go toe-to-toe with Sabre Jr and his unique grappling style.
Naturally, as Zack continued to get the better in the pure wrestling stakes, Strong grew frustrated and this thing soon turned into a strong style brawl. The two traded big strikes and moves, as Sabre Jr attempted to go toe-to-toe with the master of the chop himself. It all reached a brutal crescendo, in a perfect example of how to effectively build the drama of a match so that it peaks at the end. Both these guys are destined for even bigger and better things in 2016, surely?
Also worth a look: Young Bucks vs Monster Mafia (From Outta Nowhere), Mike Bailey vs Roderick Strong (Mystery Vortex III), Matt Sydal vs Fenix (Battle Of Los Angeles 2015 – Night 1), Chris Hero vs Timothy Thatcher (Battle Of Los Angeles 2015 – Night 2)
Stardom – Kairi Hojo vs Meiko Satomura (Stardom Galaxy Stars: Day 1, June 14)
Both Chikara and NOAH have had great years, with the former touring the UK and continuing to be one of the most entertaining companies on the U.S. Independent scene, and the latter reinvigorated by the awesome Suzuki-Gun NJPW invasion angle this year. However, since this has largely been considered as a revolutionary year for women’s wrestling in North America, I thought we should show some love to a promotion which has been killing it for women’s wrestling in Japan for the last couple of years.
A number of joshi companies have popped up in recent years and fans of NXT have recently seen the jewel in the Japanese women’s wrestling crown make the jump into the mainstream with Asuka (formerly Kana). Leading the pack, however, has been Stardom and, if you fancy checking out something a little bit different from the last twelve months, you can’t go wrong with the Kairi Hojo vs Meiko Satomura feud.
Telling the tried-and-tested story of the young babyface champion (Hojo) taking on the grizzled heel veteran (Satomura) their feud featured them, quite frankly, kicking the absolute shit out of one another. Besides being in possession of the best elbow drop in the business, Hojo is also one of the best sympathetic babyfaces in the game right now, while Satomura is a legend of the business who is still as good as ever.
The two went back-and-forth throwing stiff strikes, until the veteran began to take control as the match progressed. The final moments saw Satomura throwing everything bar the kitchen sink at the champ, as Hojo desperately tried to survive. The time limit expired just as Satomura hit her Death Valley Bomb finisher. The 30-minute draw set the stage perfectly for a rematch between the two the next month. That one was tremendous too, by the way.
Also worth a look: Kairi Hojo vs Meiko Satomura (Stardom X Stardom), Nikki Storm vs Io Shirai (Stardom Galaxy Stars: Day 6), Meiko Satomura vs Mayu Iwatani (Goddesses of Stardom)