Welcome to Wrestling Wrecap, a column focused on discussing and dissecting the week in pro wrestling.
Last week, I listed #10 through #6 on my list of the best matches of the previous year. Before we enter the top five, here is a quick recap (wrecap, if you’re nasty), of the other picks.
10. WWE Smackdown Women’s Championship Tables, Ladders, & Chairs Match: Becky Lynch [c] vs Asuka vs Charlotte Flair – WWE TLC
9. IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Kazuchika Okada [c] vs Hiroshi Tanahashi – NJPW Wrestling Dontaku
8. Kenny Omega vs Kota Ibushi – NJPW G1 Climax 28
7. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada – NJPW Destruction in Kobe
6. Chicago Street Fight: Johnny Gargano vs Tommaso Ciampa – NXT Takeover: Chicago II
And now, on to the main event!
5. Golden Lovers vs The Young Bucks – NJPW Strong Style Evolved
The reunion of the Golden Lovers and the subsequent Bullet Club Civil War was one of the most compelling stories of the year and it gave us this gem of a match. The Bucks are not typically regarded as adept storytellers in the ring, but this match proved they can reach that level with the right story. Torn between wanting to prove that they are the best team and their friendship with Kenny, Matt and Nick gave it there all and reached an emotional peak that I’m not sure they’ll ever be able to reach again.
4. NXT Championship: Andrade Cien Almas [c] vs Johnny Gargano – NXT Takeover: Philadelphia
The match that truly put Johnny Wrestling on the map. Gargano was a fixture throughout NXT post-DIY, but had struggled to make much headway before earning a shot at Almas’ newly won NXT Championship. The specter of Tommaso Ciampa wasn’t the only thing nagging at Gargano. He needed to prove that he belonged at this level and he did so by putting on a wrestling clinic. For over 30 minutes, Almas and Gargano ripped into each other, each added move coming with an increased desperation. By the end, Almas may have been holding the belt high, but Johnny had proven that he would no longer be ignored.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kota Ibushi – NJPW G1 Climax Final
It would be hard for any match to top the instant classic G1 Finals bout between Kenny Omega and Tetsuya Naito but these two certainly came close. To understand what makes this match rank so high is to understand the story of Tanahashi and Ibushi. Hiroshi has long seen Kota as a worthy successor, attempting numerous times to spur Ibushi forward and mentor him. Tana had also made it clear that he felt Omega was holding Kota back. It all culminated here with an exciting and hard hitting match that took both men to the limit. In the end, The Ace’s comeback could not be stopped.
2. Unsanctioned Match: Johnny Gargano vs Tommaso Ciampa – NXT Takeover: New Orleans
Few long-term wrestling storylines, especially in WWE, have had the nuance and grace of Ciampa/Gargano. To be fair, up until the lead-up to this match, the duo had not interacted at all, but the story was in every action Gargano made. He was shook by Ciampa’s betrayal and it had cost him everything, including his job. He had one shot to win it all back and it just happened to be one of the most perfect matches I’ve witnessed. If this list hasn’t made clear, storytelling in the ring is one of the most compelling aspects of wrestling to me and this match had that in spades. The finishing sequence in particular is the type of rewarding story payoff that makes me proud to be a fan.
1. IWGP Heavyweight Championship 2 out of 3 Fall: Kazuchika Okada [c] vs Kenny Omega
Okada and Omega have the type of chemistry that wrestlers dream of finding with one another. Every match these two put on feels a little different and this was no exception. Having beaten every other conceivable challenger, Okada wanted to prove that he was the undisputed champion by defeating the man he went to a draw with. To ensure that a definitive winner would be crowned the match was made 2 out of 3 falls. This completely changed the match dynamic compared to their previous bouts and added an extra layer of tension. In hindsight, it makes sense that Omega would be the one to dethrone Okada, but watching it live made it feel like Okada might just beat Omega and prove he really was the best in the world. Not just the best match of 2018, this is possibly the best wrestling match I’ve ever seen. The emotion, the drama, the two year reign of Okada that made this match have the ultimate stakes. Everything combined into this spectacle of professional wrestling.
There you have it. 2018 was a stellar year for wrestling and if my, already sizable, list of 2019 matches is any indication, we’re in for another great year. Feel free to share your favorites from the year in the comments!
Under Blackpool Lights
NXT UK held their first Takeover event this past Saturday and it felt like a true throwback to the early days of NXT itself. Much like those early Takeovers, everything on the show was quality with one truly standout match-up between Mustache Mountain and Zach Gibson & James Drake. (The Grizzled Young Vets name does not appear to have survived the jump to NXT UK.) As far as first events go, Takeover: Blackpool was as solid as they come and showcased the talent that will be carrying the brand for the future.
The biggest moment came at the conclusion of Pete Dunne’s latest defense of the NXT UK Championship. The familiar opening strings of Symphony No. 9 played to herald the arrival of WALTER, the big boy from Austria. He stared down with Pete Dunne and kicked Dunne’s defeated challenger, Joe Coffey, back down to the midcard for good measure.
For those not in the know, WALTER has made a name for himself in recent years as one of the hardest hitting big men in wrestling, having stellar matches with the likes of WIll Ospreay, Zach Sabre Jr, Tyler Bate, Matt Riddle and many, many more. His arrival in NXT UK signifies that we may already be leaving the “early days of NXT” period and moving right into the current day feel of that brand. Either way, there’s no denying that business has picked up in NXT UK.
The One Where Braun Lifts a Limo
Raw put on a solid show for the first time in months this past week. Buoyed by the, truly odd, opening segment that saw Braun lose his Universal title shot because he broke a millionaire’s limo. The show had a story to build it’s three hours around, who was going to face Lesnar at the Royal Rumble?
The answer was Finn Balor and his win in the fatal four-way main event and subsequent verbal pat of the back from John Cena really sold how underused Balor has been since returning from injury. The win is also a nice bit of weird trivia as Braun gest replaced by the man who was originally suppose to wrestle Lesnar at last year’s Rumble. an event where Braun and, inexplicably, Kane battled Lesnar for the title in a match that was allowed to happen. Balor vs Lesnar certainly can’t get more pointless than that.
To circle back around to that opening segment, there was a weird energy throughout the whole thing. This week’s Raw, and Smackdown for that matter, spent a lot of time backstage which was, partially, used to get more people, including the new NXT call-ups, time on TV, but it felt like a weird compromise. Comedy has never been WWE’s strong suit, it is usually an individual performer that elevates the material with their skill and while Braun certainly does that with the opening segment the entire thing feels like a sudden shift. I half expected the big man to shout, “Did I do that,” after lifting Vince’s limo. (An impressive stunt, if you have forgotten that we already saw him lift an ambulance.)
Still, beggars can’t be choosers and if weird, but mostly tolerable, skits are what is needed to get wrestler time on a three hour show, I won’t complain too much. Just please, for the love of the gods, don’t give me any more random interns walking in on Alexa Bliss changing.
Turning Back the Clock
Smackdown also had a good week, the highlight of which was an excellent match between Rey Mysterio and Andrade (LAST NAME REDACTED), that made me think about how good Mysterio still is in his 40s. To be fair, it isn’t uncommon for skilled competitors to still be able to go well into their 40s, but there is an expected slowing down that comes with age and while Rey isn’t as quick as he was in the 90s he is just as agile as he was in the mid-00s. It helps that he was in the ring with a world class wrestler like Andrade.
Still, Rey isn’t the only one turning back the sands of time. For all his current mid-life crisis style, Jericho is still capable of delivering in big matches as he nears 50. Christopher Daniels is the same way. AJ Styles is hitting the peak of his career and Hiroshi Tanahashi just regained the IWGP Heavyweight championship. More than in the past, it feels like the old guard is still able to go toe to toe with the new batch of talent.
This is great for a number of reasons, but the primary one is displayed in that Mysterio/Andrade match. It is a great way for the younger talents to grow in both their own eyes and the eyes of the fans. Old generation vs new generation will always be a wrestling staple, but there is an extra layer of legitimacy when the old generation can still hold their own. Just make sure you get out before you go Full Undertaker. You never go Full Undertaker.
Performer(s) of the Week: Zack Gibson & James Drake
This was a tough contest between these two and Andrade, but the former Grizzled Young Vets won out not just because their match was better. They stood out because they are the most hated men in NXT UK. Something about Zack Gibson inspired so much hatred in the Blackpool crowd that the only way they could properly show it was to take off their shoes. While Drake doesn’t demand the same level of hatred it is death by association for him. Plus, just look at him, that dude was built to be a shit heel. Congrats on the win boys, I really hope that shoe bit becomes a recurring thing.
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!