Wrestling somehow got even stupider in 2019, and it was amazing.
I know it’s extremely cliche to talk about how ‘there’s never been a better time to be a fan!’ — and also somewhat gag-inducing with how overly cutesy and positive that is — but seriously; wrestling is anything but boring right now.
There’s a ratings war, and it’s getting competitive. There are bidding competitions for top talent, as companies try and compile as compelling a roster as possible. There’s been tonnes, and tonnes, and tonnes of controversies. There’s been returns, there’s been departures. New entities have sprung into existence, and established names have struggled to reinvigorate themselves. There’s been niche wrestling, and there’s been new faces in major league wrestling. Numerous companies have carved themselves out a unique sense of style, and pushed the boundaries of what the genre can be.
And then there’s the actual wrestling. It’s been amazing, and it’s been dreadful; both in quantities you would never have enough time to actually get through.
But ultimately, irony and cynicism aside; there has been an insane amount of great matches this year.
While not perfect promotions in their entirety, places like OTT, Riptide, and AEW presented styles of wrestling that truly made WWE near-unwatchable for me; as the industry leader’s deeply entrenched tropes and production ticks are as noticeable as ever, and other groups prove that theirs is not the only way to skin a cat. But even with that said; WWE themselves made a handful of moments this year that I would rank among my favourites they’ve produced in my 20 years as a fan.
I can also comfortably say this was the most wrestling I’ve ever watched in a calendar year. I watched every tournament match in the Best of the Super Juniors AND the G1 Climax — genuinely something I have never even come close to previously. While there are people out there whose watchlists dwarf mine; it felt good to seek out as much good wrestling as my free time would allow.
Hell, I even kept a SPREADSHEET (!) of my favourite matches this year! Over 150 matches in the four stars or over range! Across 16 promotions!
And that segues nicely to the actual list. The aforementioned ‘sheet was a wonderful tool to help me actually keep track of all the great matches I watched this year; although I won’t be copy-and-pasting my top ranked bouts from there to here, directly.
Some stuff withstood the test of time better than others. Some five star classics on a first viewing (or even a live viewing) didn’t quite hold up under scrutiny once the (figurative) ecstasy and (literal) cider wore off. Some matches that were ‘merely‘ granted a 4.5 rating upon initial viewing, actually ended up burning themselves into my subconscious to the degree that it would almost feel unjust to not include them on a list that should encapsulate all that was great in 2019 wrestling. Such as… Number 10!
10: Jon Moxley vs. Tomohiro Ishii (NJPW, July 19th)
Jon Moxley is so fuckin’ cool. Don’t even bother replying to me disagreeing, I won’t read it.
He swaggers out of WWE with his leather jacket (cool guy shit) and a chip on his shoulder, determined to prove he can hang. He comes into matches like this, goes nose-to-nose with one of the best bruisers of the last decade without flinching, and they proceed to throw bombs at each other relentlessly. Snarling, spitting, smacking, chopping, elbowing, biting. Just an outright fight between two guys who ooze a natural, physical charisma; although in totally different ways. Moxley; the wildman with a point to prove. Ishii; the stoic, battle-hardened pitbull. To me, this was truly the arrival of the new Jon Moxley.
And Ishii did a big boy splash out of the ring, because he’s also really fuckin’ cool.
9: Minoru Suzuki vs. Josh Barnett (GCW, April 4th)
Similar to Moxley vs. Ishii, albeit in an entirely different genre of match; this was just a wonderful, no-nonsense fight. For all their wackiness and envelope pushing, GCW helping to bring the faux-shoot style of indie wrestling to the fore in the last few years (along with things like wXw’s Ambition shows) has been fascinating to watch. Doing away with all the weapons and irony and fourth-wall bending, these shows put an emphasis on realism (well, relatively speaking) and grappling. In such a setting, a guy like Suzuki is exceptional. Someone who can milk every second, every elbow smash, every twisted joint, for all its worth.
8: PAC vs. Cara Noir (RIPTIDE, July 5th)
What a wonderful year PAC has had.
Excellent matches that meshed great action with really, really stellar character work. He had a great spread of match styles, including some epic title defenses in Japan, but his battles with up and coming stars like Cara Noir in the UK were a joy to watch. Pitch perfect examples of how you can elevate someone, even while beating them.
7: Bobby Gunns vs. Timothy Thatcher (WXW, October 5th)
Germany’s wXw is a heel territory. More often than not, the bad guys triumph in the company’s tent-pole tournament weekends, and enjoy lengthy runs sporting the promotion’s titles. A number of travelling fans for said weekends have joked with management about their ‘you can’t have rice pudding* every night’ booking philosophy. Two of their leading heroes, Tim Thatcher and David Starr, have even made something of a character out of never winning the big one; occupying perennial lovable loser roles for some time.
In this title bout from October’s ‘World Tag Team Festival’ event, the newly re-turned heel Bobby Gunns swaggered into Oberhausen as champion. His time as a babyface on top was, of course, short lived – but it doesn’t matter. He’s a better heel anyway. He’s young, charismatic, hateable, and vicious in the ring. Thatcher, as mentioned, is beloved but not because of his win-loss record. He has often played second fiddle to other stars, including some he shared a stable with, while the German fanbase gradually rallied around him as a modern day workhorse, who represented everything that was legitimately pure and REAL about pro wrestling, were it to be viewed as a sport. In a way, we all knew how this match would go, and were excited nonetheless. Thatcher would smirk his confident but menacing smirk (he did), Bobby would be the smarmy heel until it came time to fight, at which point he would turn it up and get nasty (he did). Maybe Tim would get busted open somehow (he did) – he’d fire up while the standing crowd erupted in support of the cult hero (he did and they did) – but when it was all said and done, Tim would end the night with no title belt, and another L on his record (he… did not). A great, nasty, intense battle was elevated by a truly surprising and gratifying finish.
While wXw did not have the strongest year, specifically when it came to booking, this match proved they are still capable of giving you those genuinely special moments – they do have a cast of heroes people are willing to believe in, and an audience who will weather the storm of the lengthy heel reigns to see those heroes get their moment in the sun.
*See, to me, the metaphor has always been about having STEAK every night… and how you can’t do that. That makes more sense, right? Do German’s love RICE PUDDING as much as we love steak? I do not have these answers. Only pro wrestling match rankings.
6: David Starr vs. Walter (OTT, June 23rd)
The chemistry these two share really is special. To be this far into a rivalry (20+ meetings) and still keeping people hooked, on the edge of their seat, and pushing their story forward is pretty remarkable. This is the stage of the story where the hero/anti-hero Starr is getting vicious, and desperate. It grew beyond simply wanting to beat Walter, and wanting to attain anything resembling a win over him.
This match is also a little special to me because I will always be a sucker for seeing a ‘touring match’ of the indies live, especially one of this repute. Plus, this happened on my birthday! And honestly; it was the best birthday I can ever recall having!
I wrote more in detail about this match, and the surrounding feud, earlier this year.
5: Shayna Baszler, Io Shirai, Kay Lee Ray, Bianca Bel Air vs. Dakota Kai, Tegan Nox, Rhea Ripley, Candice LeRae (WWE, November 23rd)
The rebirth of WAR GAMES under the WWE banner hasn’t really impressed me so far. The men’s offerings, including the one on this same show, have just felt like a weird mesh of ‘nothing is happening… until suddenly too much is happening.’ Almost like an allegory for the over-indulgent trappings of NXT in general.
But the debut women’s offering for this match type was such a perfect storm of immense star power (seriously, this Takeover/Survivor Series weekend was an incredible flex by WWE in terms of just how many hyper-talented people they have signed), a heated feud, plenty of twists to make the long running time feel eventful, and the violence and spectacle fans have come to expect from the infamous double-cage.
It was engaging from the first bell, it felt violent and not overly contrived in how the big spots were played off, it was a breakout night for Ripley in her victory, but still gave plenty of shine to the heel side — most notably the spectacular Io Shirai.
This wasn’t just the best War Games in WWE, but also one of the few cage/gimmick matches of the last few years that felt earned and worthy of happening.
4: Kofi Kingston vs. Daniel Bryan (WWE, April 7th)
Every now and then, WWE will have the right guys, in the right place, at the right time, telling the right story.
And not to sound too, well, too much like WWE wrote this themselves; but the results can be magic.
Kofi Kingston has been a mainstay of WWE for a while now – and if you started watching any time in the last decade, he has probably come to define your time as a fan. He’s been toiling away on the undercard for so long; sometimes feeling like he was running in place, sometimes feeling like he had the potential to breakout. He’s a talented, likable guy who, particularly through his work with the New Day, has proven he can be a star and an asset to the company. And for Wrestlemania season this year, WWE teased fans with a question; what if, maybe, he was more than just that? It’s all well and good being a part of New Day, and hosting Wrestlemania, and being featured prominently in the company’s marketing – but what if after all this time Kofi could finally breakout and grab the elusive brass ring. Through tremendous in-ring performances on TV in the months prior, people rallied behind Kofi the wrestler, not just the likable guy, and it all built to the biggest show of the year.
The match started slow but from around the halfway point, it became a nail-biter. Every nearfall, every submission – it was edge of your seat stuff, and the huge stadium crowd were living and dying with the challenger. And his opponent? Well, his opponent was the greatest wrestler of his generation, Daniel Bryan. A man who has wrestled for 20 years, with the majority of his work making tape and being pored over extensively; yet still manages to surprise you with just how outstanding he is.
When Kofi twisted through the air to hit his Trouble in Paradise kick to Bryan, it seemed like he was about to win – but it wasn’t really real, until the referee counted three. The outpouring of emotion from all involved, including Kofi’s New Day compatriots, is what wrestling is all about, cliche as it is. The first African American WWE Champion in history was crowned, a legitimately historic and special moment, and at least for a night – the entire wrestling world was unified in its elation.
3: David Starr vs. Jordan Devlin (OTT, October 26th)
The Starr vs. Devlin vs. Walter feud had a lot of twists, but I honestly can’t say I imagined it would boil down to Starr vs. Devlin in a battle for indie wrestling’s soul.
The culmination of this feud revolving around Starr’s status as the independent hero and Devlin’s status as the signed ‘sell out’ galvanized fans in a way I did not see coming. As the ‘ace’ of OTT, Devlin has weathered many storms and never lost fan support; no matter who he faced, no matter how much he won (which is usually a quick way to lose favour among the hardcores) – he was our national hero, and nothing would change that.
Such is David Starr’s incredible story-telling ability. He and Jordan had already clashed in an excellent MOTY-contender in February, where Starr was the clear cut villain. But the way these two (along with OTT and videographer Shaun Ryan) elaborated on these characters, incorporating their real life positioning in the wrestling landscape, to keep fans invested for one more battle, was really quite unique.
For all the epics in this series (Jordan’s initial title loss to Walter, his reclaiming of that title in March, the Walter vs. Starr battle discussed earlier) — this match had the most fervent and passionate fan response. The tide had turned against Jordan; but not completely. It wasn’t the usual indie wrestling sing-along; it was an impassioned, combative yelling match, where everyone wanted their guy to win, and to shout down the opposition.
This was the perfect backdrop for the match. It wasn’t as wild a brawl as their February battle, feeling a bit more like a traditional ‘main event epic’ pro wrestling match, but with the audience very much being the third man. At one point, while in control of the match, Jordan let ‘you sold out’ chants get to him, and turned to the crowd to proclaim “I’M HERE, AREN’T I?”
They grappled, they punched, they cheated — they threw everything at each other, arguably to the point of excess. While this was a wonderful conclusion to one of the best stories I’ve ever followed as a fan, and a live experience I will feel very lucky to have gotten first hand, the fourth quarter of this match is the only reason I don’t have this match in my number one slot. I didn’t really mind the chicanery of both guys cheating, as it was character-appropriate, but the theatrics of it all was just a bit too much, and the amount of time it gobbled up was also a momentum killer. I feel it’s important to clarify that, as I will undoubtedly be gushing about this match for years to come, as a seminal part of European indie wrestling history — but strictly within the context of this list, I just wanted to be clear on why it didn’t climb to the very tip-top.
2: Kenny Omega vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (NJPW, January 4th)
I watched this match in January and adored it.
The year ticked on, and as I saw more and more great wrestling, live and on VOD, I assumed this would slide down the list when I re-visited it.
Then came the rewatch.
I know people have their reservations about the main event New Japan style; I share a lot of them. But when it works, it works. And when you have two guys like this, who are just so good at this style, I don’t care if they wrestle for twice as long as they did and do ten times as much stuff. That aura of two TITANS of the sport just throwing everything at each other on the biggest night of the year just gets me insanely hyped.
And, for better or worse, THIS is what you want from Kenny Omega. If anything, I think rewatching this at the tail end of the year actually made it better. Because, unfortunately, it really doesn’t feel like Kenny Omega is a television wrestler. And he’s certainly not a television character, by the accepted standards of what that is in US wrestling.
Even if it annoyed me at times, Kenny needs to be in this environment, being THE BEST BOUT MACHINE — a thoroughly annoying nickname though it is.
1: Shingo Takagi vs. Will Ospreay (NJPW, June 5th)
The style typically associated with Will Ospreay is very much the style that got me into non-WWE wrestling. The first indie group I closely followed was PWG, and that spectacular style of high-flying, innovation focused action shaped my tastes for years to come. I have a pretty high threshold for what’s “too much” in wrestling.
But even with that said; lately I have found myself a bit worn down. Dare I say; I’ve started to feel a bit old.
There are a lot of boundary-pushing, innovative wrestlers or matches that do feel excessive, that do feel like an emphasis is being put on innovation for its own sake, and any desire to weave it into the internal logic of a match has gone out the window.
This match encapsulates everything I want out of wrestling in 2019 and beyond. It was loaded with spectacular action, and innovative offence, but never at the expense of an aggressive desire to win. As much as I love Ospreay (who has evolved past the spot monkey label people incorrectly give him) – think the X factor is Shingo. Everything Shingo does is just loaded with purpose and meaning. He did his rare tope-con-hilo in this match, but not in the name of spectacle — he flung himself over the top rope with such ferociousness in Ospreay’s direction, he nearly broke his own leg on the guard rail.
There was a feeling throughout the match that Shingo’s rationale was “When I catch this bouncey little fucker… I will murder him.” If a single spot were to encapsulate that, it’s probably Takagi blocking an Ospreay kick, sending him spinning through the air in spectacular fashion, and immediately slamming into the Brit with a vicious sliding elbow.
I could go on listing spots, but I’m sure you get the jist. Innovation, execution, and an internal logic and story for the match to follow. All delivered flawlessly. I realise this was the Best of the Super Juniors finale — so I don’t mean to say I want all matches to be on this level; but I hope to see more of matches in this spirit in 2020.