It’s the holidays, a time for reflection and, coincidentally, a pretty slow week for pro wrestling. With that in mind, I figured I’d take some time this week to run down my list of the five best wrestlers this year. As a note, this list comes not just from who put on the best matches this year, but also who provided the most overall entertainment throughout. Consistency in both of those areas is key to making it on the list. Still, there were a ton of great wrestlers this year so, here are the ones who just missed the cut.
Honorable Mentions: Daniel Bryan, Kota Ibushi, Charlotte Flair
5. Becky Lynch
If there is a single wrestler on this list who is primed to skyrocket next year, it is The Man. Truthfully, the only reason she is down this low is how non-existent she felt for the first half of the year. Turning on Charlotte and debuting her new, originally heel, personality was the best thing that could ever happen to Lynch. She had an absolutely killer feud with Charlotte in the fall that led to one of the best women’s matches I’ve ever seen at TLC. Ronda Rousey played her part in making this the biggest year ever for women’s wrestling, but The Man is the bonafide star. I’ll be shocked if she isn’t at the top of this list in 2019.
4. Hiroshi Tanahashi
The eternal Ace of New Japan, Hiroshi Tanahashi, had a rough start to his year, losing his IC title in a brutal match with Minoru Suzuki. A string of major losses followed, including to his rival, Okada, in a match that broke Tana’s own record for most successful defenses of the IWGP Heavyweight title. From the first half of the year, it looked as if Tanahashi was winding down. Then, suddenly, the Ace showed why he is still one of the best around. Successfully winning the G1 Climax with an amazing 7-1-1 record and heading to the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 13. Whatever happens at the Tokyo Dome, it is clear that Tanahashi still has a lot to offer.
3. Kazuchika Okada
The Rainmaker, my personal pick for best wrestler of 2017, came into this year as the longest-reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champion ever and spent the first half of the year having a string of excellent defenses before losing the title to Kenny Omega. While Okada has still been consistently great since that loss, it has become clear that something is…not right with the former champ. His entrance music has been remixed, his hair is no longer the platinum blonde that he is known for and, sometimes, he shouts “Scooby-Dooby-Doo” before hitting spots in the ring. In other words, he may have lost the one thing that meant the world to him, but Okada hasn’t stopped being wildly entertaining.
2. Johnny Gargano
Johnny Wrestling is one of the most consistent performers I’ve seen in a long time. Every match he had in 2018 was entertaining and while his win percentage, especially at Takeover events, is laughably low he never seems like a complete loser. He’s the perfect underdog, which is why his recent heel turn inspired such volatile reactions from the audience. Personally, I think it has been one of the best surprises of the year and Johnny still seeing himself as the triumphant hero has been one of my favorite character choices. Like Becky, I wouldn’t be shocked if Johnny stays on this list for years to come.
1. Kenny Omega
Was there ever any doubt? Love him or hate him, Omega had an undeniably amazing 2018. Starting the year off with a dream match against Chris Jericho and following it up by entering into the hottest angle of the year with the Bullet Club civil war. Omega proved that he is as adept a storyteller out of the ring as he is inside it. A reunion with his Golden Lovers partner, Kota Ibushi, and finally claiming the top prize in NJPW were just icing on the cake. Omega was a shoo-in for the best wrestler and I only hope that we get to see more of his best in the years to come.
The holiday episodes of Raw and Smackdown are traditionally the most skip-able of the year. With the understanding that a large percentage of their viewership will be preoccupied with family to watch live, WWE tends to phone it in even harder than usual. This isn’t to say the episodes aren’t occasionally fun, every now and again we’ll get something like Alberto Del Rio running over Santa Claus, but more often than not, the episodes feel like they have nothing happening other than weird Christmas gags.
While this latest batch of holiday episodes had plenty of those gags they both felt like episodes where stuff was actually happening, Raw especially. Raw and Smackdown were both wrestling heavy, but that ended up being for the best as we got some great matches in Rousey/Natalya and Nakamura/Rusev. In addition, Miz and Shane McMahon finally announced their love for each other and agreed to become a tag team and we got three different version of Santa Claus across both shows.
Of course, part of the reason these episodes feel so different is part of WWE’s new initiative which, to hear Shane talk about it on Smackdown, is apparently to start listening to what their fanbase wants. A bold tactic that some would say is common sense, especially when you perform in front of a live audience, but that WWE is trying out for the first time ever, the way. It would feel wrong for them to make a point about the shows going in a new direction and then putting out some filler episodes. I’m still not sold on this “bold new direction” staying for longer than post-Wrestlemania, but I also wasn’t expecting to enjoy a holiday episode of Raw that also featured Paul Heyman being forced to wear antlers. The wrestling world is truly full of surprises.
Straight to the Dome
Wrestle Kingdom is under a week away, the Wrestlemania of Japan is the official start of the pro wrestling year and the culmination of a year of New Japan stories. Truthfully, this card feels like the weakest since Wrestle Kingdom 10, the first I watched, which means it will probably surprise me by being just as good as all the others. To properly hype up those who will be watching, probably not live if you live in America, it is time for some predictions. Feel free to post your own in the comments!
Gauntlet Match: Togi Makabe, Toru Yano & Rysuke Taguichi vs Yuji Nagata, Jeff Cobb & David Finlay vs Chaos (Hirooki Goto, Beretta & Chuckie T) vs Suzuki-Gun ‘(Minoru Suzuki, Davey Boy Smith Jr. & Lance Archer) vs The Elite (Hangman Page, Yujiro Takahashi & Marty Scurll)
Boy, that is a long list of names, huh? Replacing the New Japan Rumble this year is a gauntlet match to determine the #1 contenders for the NEVER 6-Man Tag Team titles. The 6-Man titles are the most meaningless in all of New Japan, so much so that they aren’t even being defended because their current holders have better things to do. This will probably be a fun and chaotic match that I could see coming down to The Elite, in their possible last Wrestle Kingdom, and Makabe’s team. Winners: Togi Makabe, Toru Yano & Rysuke Taguichi
NEVER Openweight Champion Kota Ibushi vs Will Ospreay
This is the first certified banger on the match listing and it might end up being match of the night. Ibushi and Ospreay are two of the best high-flyers in the world and the prospect of them getting time to build a killer match up is a dream come true. The match itself is hard to predict, on one hand, this could be a test of how Ospreay does facing off against more of the heavyweights and a NEVER title run could help with that. On the other, Kota just won the belt weeks ago and the title could use a champion with some solid defenses. I’ll go with my heart on this one. Winner: Will Ospreay
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champions Suzuki-Gun (Yoshinobu Kanemaru & El Desperado) vs Roppongi 3K (Sho & Yoh) vs Los Ingobernables de Japon (Bushi & Shingo Takagi)
This is a rematch from the Junior Tag League finals, which makes it feel a little less exciting, but any chance to see Shingo wreck shit is worth it. Still, this is 3K’s match to win. The story all year has been them learning to adapt to Suzuki-Gun’s tactics and it makes sense that they would overcome them here and solidify their position as the premier Junior tag team going forward. Winners: Roppongi 3K
British Heavyweight Champion Tomohiro Ishii vs Zach Sabre Jr
Another certified banger here, ZSJ has had a hell of a 2018 and I’d be shocked if he ends up losing. Ishii took the belt from Sabre’s mentor, Minoru Suzuki, and Sabre is looking to take the belt home to the UK. Ishii is one of the most surprisingly versatile performers on the NJPW roster and seeing him try to overcome the slick submission style of Sabre will be a treat. Winner: Zach Sabre Jr.
IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champions Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa) vs Los Ingobernables de Japon (EVIL & Sanada) vs The Young Bucks (Matt & Nick Jackson)
This is looking more and more likely to be the Buck’s last hurrah in New Japan, so I would expect a very good match-up from them here. They have some great chemistry with Evil and Sanada and while I’m not a fan of the Guerrillas they can play the shitty heels here and break-up the competitive match. If the Buck are truly done than them winning makes no sense and there is really only one team here who deserves to be holding the belts at the end of the night. Winners: EVIL and Sanada
IWGP United States Champion Cody vs Juice Robinson
This is a callback to Cody’s very first match for New Japan at Wrestle Kingdom 11. Both he and Juice have come a long way from there and while I’m not expecting much from this match I do expect Juice to finally overcome Cody and get the win and regain his US title here. Winner: Juice Robinson
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Kushida vs Taiji Ishimori
Another certified banger, Ishimori and Kushida are two of the best Juniors on the roster and this match should deliver on all fronts. Kushida has been the Junior Ace for a few years now and, much like Tanahashi in the main event, his time in the Junior scene might be drawing to a close. Winner: Taiji Ishimori
Kazuchika Okada vs Jay White
For the first time since I’ve been following New Japan, Okada is not in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom. After being betrayed by Jay White a few months back, Okada has been on the war path and I would watch out for this match. It doesn’t seem like much on paper, but I could see it being a sleeper match of the night if they book it right. Okada has been in something of a slump, only showing occasional glimpses of the Rainmaker of yore and White is the hot new star of New Japan. There was a time where Okada was in White’s position and he made the most of it, here’s hoping White can do that as well. Winner: Jay White
IWGP Intercontinental Champion Chris Jericho vs Tetsuya Naito
What a difference a year makes, Naito has taken a backseat this year after losing to Okada in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 12 and now looks to reclaim some of that old magic against Jericho. Jericho, meanwhile, has started to enter into the “embarrassing mid-life crisis” era of his career and this match just doesn’t seem as big as the one with Omega. Still, it should be a fun encounter and there is almost no chance Naito doesn’t walk out with the win. Winner: Tetsuya Naito
IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kenny Omega vs Hiroshi Tanahashi
Here it is, the main event. The Ace of New Japan has finally climbed his way back to the main event and he is taking on a man who he feels is taking the company in the wrong direction. It is the pinnacle of old school vs new school. Omega has been wise to play up his cockier side for this feud, as few in the Dome are going to cheer him over Tanahashi. There is potential that this is Omega’s final match for the company, but I don’t think he is finished with New Japan yet. As much as I’d like to see Tana pull off the win here, the Heavyweight title hasn’t changed hands at Wrestle Kingdom in 8 years. I don’t see that happening here. Winner: Kenny Omega
Performer of the Week: Rusev
This year, Christmas happened to fall on Rusev Day. It is only appropriate then, that I award our patron saint as the performer of the week. Sure, it was also because he gave Shinsuke Nakamura the best match of his US title reign and took the belt from him in the process, but it would be foolish to not recognize the greatness of Rusev on his own day. A happy Machka to all and to all a good Machka!
Programming Note: That does it for Wrestling Wrecap this year. I’ll be taking the next week off as I’ll be out of town. That said, if anyone else here is wild enough to watch Wrestle Kingdom live I might drop in to discuss it with you. We’ll be back on the 12th with the first half of my Top 10 Matches list, all my Wrestle Kingdom and WWE takes, and probably something about the Elite’s New Year’s announcement. Until then, have a wonderful New Year and I’ll see you all on the other side.
If you made it down here, thanks for reading! Tell me what you thought about this week’s events in wrestling in the comments and, as always, any feedback is appreciated. Cheers!