Welcome to Wrestling Wrecap, a column focused on discussing and dissecting the week in pro wrestling.
It’s a new year and already a lot has happened in the world of pro wrestling, but before we discuss the events of 2019 so far, let us take a moment and reflect back on 2018. Specifically, the best matches from that year. While, outside of the women’s division, main roster WWE didn’t set the world on fire this year, NXT, New Japan and others more than delivered and made this one of my favorite years as a wrestling fan. We’re gonna be unveiling my picks for #10 through #6 this week, but first, here are a few that just missed the cut.
Honorable Mentions: Kenny Omega vs Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW G1 Climax 28, Johnny Gargano vs Aleister Black – NXT Takeover: War Games, WALTER vs Tyler Bate – Progress Chapter 76: Hello Wembley, Golden Lovers vs Hiroshi Tanahashi & Will Ospreay – NJPW Road to the Tokyo Dome
10. WWE Smackdown Women’s Championship Tables, Ladders, & Chairs Match: Becky Lynch [c] vs Asuka vs Charlotte Flair – WWE TLC
With the debut of Ronda Rousey and the rise of The Man, Becky Lynch, the women’s division in WWE proved to be the most enjoyable part of their product throughout much of 2018. It all culminated here, at the final WWE event of 2018, in not just one of the best women’s match I’ve seen but also one of the best TLC matches. Becky and Charlotte continued their hot feud and Asuka came in as the wrecking machine she was always destined to be. Even Rousey’s interference at the end worked well and didn’t diminish any of the three ladies’ efforts.
9. IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Kazuchika Okada [c] vs Hiroshi Tanahashi – NJPW Wrestling Dontaku
After three Wrestle Kingdom main events, three G1 Climax matches and various other encounters, it would be totally acceptable to find Okada/Tanahashi played out. I, however, still find their rivalry incredibly engaging and it only got more exciting here. Okada was in the middle of his historic 720-day reign as champion and only had one last record left to crush: Tanahashi’s number of successful defenses. It only made sense then, that Tanahashi himself would be the one to try and stop Okada. The drama was at an all-time high and the crowd was so fully behind Tana that to see him fail made his eventual rise later in the year all worth it.
8. Kenny Omega vs Kota Ibushi – NJPW G1 Climax 28
In a way, the entire G1 was building to this match-up. The Golden Lovers reunited earlier in the year and while the love affair was alluring and exciting, it was only a matter of time before the two had to face off. Kenny was looking to be the first IWGP Champion to win the G1 in over a decade while Kota wished to prove himself. Both men did a fantastic job on the emotional side of this conflict and it only helped fuel this great bout. Plus, Ibushi remains the only person to ever kick out of the One-Winged Angel, the most protected finishing move in all of wrestling.
7. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada – NJPW Destruction in Kobe
Deja vu, right? This post-G1 rematch managed to top their Dontaku encounter not only by calling back to their previous matches, but by reversing the roles the two played. Okada was now the desperate one, attempting to find a way back to the IWGP Championship through any means. The desperation led to a very different Tanahashi as well. One who was confident and assured, one who knew that the former Rainmaker was not going to get one over on him this time. Tana’s win solidified his return to the main event scene and his rise back to being The Ace.
6. Chicago Street Fight: Johnny Gargano vs Tommaso Ciampa – NXT Takeover: Chicago II
Gargano/Ciampa is, for my money, the feud of the year and this match solidified the hatred and animosity that has brewed between the duo. Taking the callbacks of their previous match and adding a layer of brutality on it, this one delivered an excellent follow-up that showcased what had become the running theme of this feud. Ciampa is in Johnny’s head and he knows it. While you can argue the finish is bit dumb, it only seems to make more sense to me with how the story has unfolded from here. It was the first step to Gargano’s slide to villainy and the beginning of Ciampa’s rise to NXT Champion.
The Ace Rides High
Wrestle Kingdom 13 ushered in the New Year with an event that delivered way beyond my expectations. Great matches from the hard-hitting, spectacle of Ospreay/Ibushi, the fast-paced Sabre/Ishii and the surprisingly fantastic Naito/Jericho made it the best Wrestle Kingdom I’ve had the pleasure of watching and one of New Japan’s best events since I began following them.
Leading up to the event, it was clear that most of The Elite, particularly Cody and the Bucks, would be leaving for their new company (more on that later), but there was still one question mark that remained. What was Omega going to do? Unlike the others, Kenny Omega has firmly planted himself in the culture of Japan and finally ascended to the top of New Japan, walking into the company’s biggest event as their champion. Was he really going to leave? As we found out in the days after the event, yes, actually, he was. While his actual exit isn’t set in stone and it is always possible that he ends up with the company on a part-time basis, this still feels like the end of this current era of NJPW.
That brings me to our current champion, the man who ended the show holding the title high, having once again made it to the top of Japanese wrestling, Hiroshi Tanahashi. Tanahashi and Kenny put on a terrific bout and a, extremely early, contender for 2019’s Match of the Year. With the company losing Omega, The Bucks, Cody and Ace of the Junior division, Kushida, it makes sense to put the belt on a man who has always been reliable and hasn’t shown signs of slowing down with age. New Japan may be facing a changing of the guard but the Ace still remains.
All Elite Doubles Down
Perhaps the biggest news in all of wrestling recently has been the announcement of All Elite Wrestling. While the promotion itself was a forgone conclusion long before The Elite revealed it on New Year’s, the announcement, along with the promise of a rally to hype up the promotion sent fans into a fever pitch, yours truly included.
As any of my former partners will tell you, I’m a cautiously optimistic person by nature, but even I found myself buying into the hype. After all, these were the guys who managed to sell over 10,000 seats in September and they were now teaming up with a billionaire to try and “change the industry.” How could this not be great?
That level of hype carried itself into Tuesday’s rally, an event held in Jacksonville, the home base of the promotion. Going in anticipation seemed to suggest that the event would give us info on a TV deal, huge signings like Goldberg or Batista and everybody in attendance would receive their own Porsche with the AEW logo on it. Naturally, none of that info was found at the rally, but that didn’t ruin my enthusiasm at all.
This is a company that had officially been in existence for 8 days at the time, it only makes sense that this would be a promotional event for the company. Announcing signings like PAC, Joey Janela and, yes, Chris Jericho were a big enough deal to show how serious they were about being both a big company and finding some of the best on the indies. We’ve got over four months until Double Or Nothin’, the first big AEW event, there’s plenty of time for even better news.
Mean Gene a Mania
Hulk Hogan came out on Monday to honor the legacy of “Mean” Gene Okerlund. That’s really all I’ll be saying about Hogan as it doesn’t feel right to turn Okerlund’s passing into a debate about whether or not he should be allowed to return to the company. No, instead I want to talk about Okerlund and his legacy.
I started watching wrestling in 2004, long after Gene had mostly retired. As I got more and more into this wild sport and watched the older shows (particularly the Wrestlemania Anthology DVD set that I was lucky enough to get one Christmas), Okerlund always stood out. The consummate straight man, Mean Gene never failed to help sell even the stupidest of gimmicks (hello, Gobbledy Gooker), and made the wacky world of WWF seem a little more plausible. Okerlund could be relied upon to sell the big matches as well. He gave an air of gravitas and real sport feel when discussing matches that always made them feel just a little bigger.
Depending on what promotion you watched more of either Hogan or Flair are who you think of when you think of the classic Mean Gene interview, but for me it will always be Randy Savage. As with a lot of the performers he interviewed, Gene would let Randy go on one of his wild rambles, but always sold them. Think of the classic “Cream of the Crop” promo, Savage goes on and on blaming everyone but himself for his loss to Ricky Steamboat, continuously pulling cups of creamer out to prove his point that he is the “Cream of the Crop.” Gene lets Macho talk but glances to the camera now and again to assure the audience that this is not someone whose words we should trust. He also isn’t afraid to call Savage out either. It is part of what made Mean Gene such a lasting part of the wrestling landscape. He spoke for us just as much as he spoke to us. So, one more time, let’s give it up for Mean WOOOO BY GOD Gene.
Performer of the Week: Hiroshi Tanahashi
Go Ace! Hiroshi Tanahashi capped off his return to the top of New Japan by winning a, record-breaking, 8th reign with the IWGP Heavyweight Title. The match was billed as a “battle of ideologies” and it would appear that Tana’s beliefs won out. A new era for both Japan and NJPW awaits us and it is reassuring to know that the Ace will be there to usher us into both.
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!