As a lapsed wrestling fan whose obsession returned to him in full-force two years ago, I’ve noticed 2014 has seen a surge in interest in the art form. While it remains to be derided by many as “a fake sport” or “carny bullshit,” there have been a good number of very thoughtful people who either publicly or privately explored the artistic value of professional wrestling, some of whom have told me personally they wished they knew of more places to find intelligent discourse about it.
Inspired by that and 2014 being an exceptional year for wrestling in a number of different ways (WWE being forced to shake up their status quo, New Japan going from a diehard concern in North America to a full-fledged media darling, independent promotions gaining a foothold in popularity due to the internet and social media, and of course, there being great product in a number of places), we at Passion of the Weiss have decided to run a semi-regular column dedicated to this fake-ass sport that makes adults cry and sometimes flail our arms around like Muppets. If you still don’t understand the fascination with the art form that is professional wrestling, think of this column as a different form of poptimism or whatever will make you feel better about yourself. If I’ve piqued your curiosity, allow me to present my favorite wrestling matches of 2014. — Douglas Martin
HONORABLE MENTION: Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins (Lumberjack Match) (Summerslam; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Before the summer of 2014, Ambrose and Rollins (along with Roman Reigns) ran afoul of the entire WWE roster as the Shield, the most ruthlessly efficient clique of wrestling bruts since — okay, I’ll say it — the famed Four Horsemen. Then, Rollins turned on Reigns and Ambrose to join WWE’s lead stable of power-hungry executives and the sycophants who follow them. Naturally, Ambrose saw this as a personal affront and stuck it to Rollins in a variety of ways, including but not limited to preventing him from cashing in his newly-won Money in the Bank briefcase, popping out of gift boxes to attack him, and random hot dog cart tomfoolery. The feud at its hottest was bolstered by the most ineffectual lumberjack match of all-time, where a good portion of the action was happening outside of the ring a dozen men were supposed to keep Ambrose and Rollins inside of. It was a match that completely went against its core concept, and it was made the most purely entertaining match in the Rollins/Ambrose feud (and pretty much all of WWE in 2014) because of it.
HONORABLE MENTION: Cedric Alexander vs. ACH (Eleven; Pro Wrestling Guerrilla)
It’s unnecessary for wrestling to have a coinciding feud for every match, and PWG understands this intimately, usually saving the feuds and storylines as special additives for their exhibition-style format. Some of the best talent in North America (and sometimes beyond) come to the American Legion Hall in Reseda, California to ply their trade, and ply their trade is what they do. What matters most in PWG is what happens between the bells. Sometimes what happens is completely unexpected.
ACH moves like a ballerina (I mean that as an esteemed compliment) and has more charisma in his left foot than many performers have in their whole body. Cedric Alexander is like Arn Anderson rebuilt with a 350 engine. Their matchup here is fast-paced, hard-hitting, and because ACH has a comedic energy similar to Kevin Hart, often hilarious. There are Ric Flair homages (Alexander is from Charlotte, North Carolina, home base of Flair Country), a great “sportsmanship” chant, and ACH making a home run gesture upon delivering a vicious kick to the back of Alexander’s head — after being heckled by a fan who told him he kicked like a girl. But the most memorable moment of the match (and this list could very well have been a “Best PWG Moments of 2014” list) was when Alexander went for a suicide dive through the ropes and almost knocked a fan out of her shoes. She fell out of the way — PWG fans have great instincts, obviously — and he checked on her, she said, “I’m okay!”, they high-fived, and everybody cheered for not having witnessed first-degree manslaughter. When you have a format that implies you can make your show special without intricate storylines and feuds booked months in advance, there is a certain entertainment value in just winging it.
#10: Ricochet vs. KUSHIDA (Best of the Super Juniors Tournament Finals; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
If you asked me to vote an MVP of indie wrestling in 2014, I think Ricochet would be my pick. He’s had the independent circuit on fire over the past year, winning PWG’s vaunted Battle of Los Angeles tournament, having a run in Lucha Underground (the best weekly wrestling show on television, bar none) under a mask as Prince Puma, pretty much the top star of the promotion, and dazzling fans everywhere with his supreme aerial mastery and beautiful kicks. His 630-degree senton is one of the most eye-catching moves in wrestling right now. (I’m not a geometry whiz or anything, but that’s nearly two complete rotations. In mid-air.)
In this showdown for the vaunted Best of the Super Juniors trophy, KUSHIDA spends a good portion of the match keeping Ricochet grounded, which is a solid game plan considering his opponent. Early on, however, Ricochet hits a handspring backflip to the outside with the greatest of ease and takes control. Later on, KUSHIDA hits a stunning array of kicks and a Dragon Suplex fails to get the three before going for some aerial mastery of his own and missing his mark. After a series of thrilling exchanges, Ricochet knocks KUSHIDA’s lights out with a Benadryller (a fireman’s carry followed by a knockout kick to the face) and wins the tournament.
An amazing showing by a wrestler who had the best year of his career in 2014, and by 2015 might be regarded by many as the best in the world.
#9: Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena (Summerslam; World Wrestling Entertainment)
An essential component of having a top babyface (or “good guy” if this article is your introduction to wrestling) is for the fans to feel compassion for them. John Cena has been the marquee name of the biggest wrestling company in the world for over a decade. As it’s been well-noted on recent WWE programming, his run on top has been longer than every other top star: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, even Hulk Hogan himself. But part of the problem — and the reason why fans over the age of eleven give him so much grief by chanting against him — is that he’s made to seem unstoppable most of the time. He’s on top of the world. He has a great job and makes a lot of money and is always in the limelight. He’s handsome, can speak Mandarin and play piano, and Amy Poehler and Tina Fey love the guy. If that’s not living the life, I don’t know what is. He always wins in life, he always wins on the show. It’s the reason why people turned on Hogan before he turned heel (ahem, into a bad guy). People were getting bored.
Part of the fun in rooting for somebody is when they come up short. It establishes sympathy for the character. (I’ll elaborate as we get deeper into the list.) It shouldn’t have been shocking to see Cena lose the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Summerslam to Brock Lesnar. Lesnar is a fucking monster. He has a legitimate pedigree (with championships in the amateur ranks and UFC, as well as WWE titles and is one of seven gaijin — or foreign wrestlers — to hold Japan’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship), is strong as a bull, and has a reputation of not liking people very much. But he also was going up against John Cena, The Guy Who Never Loses. So it was genuinely surprising when he defeated Cena.
What was more surprising was that he routed Cena. He threw Cena around like a pit bull would throw around a discarded teddy bear. Lesnar ripped the stuffing out of Cena, hit him with SIXTEEN German Suplexes, hit his finisher, and pinned him like he was nothing. It was the most lopsided championship match in WWE pay-per-view history, and it was made all the better for it. I liked Cena more in this grotesque defeat than I had in any of his victories.
When you’re a good guy, when your character is supposed to stand up for what is right, your main objective should be to make the fans feel for you. I don’t know how much money you could pay me to stand on the other side of the ring as Brock Lesnar, so I watched almost in horror as Cena was decimated. It humanized the man who is routinely described as a superhero. Spider-Man gets beaten up; his life has been in peril numerous times. Unless there is a brick of Kryptonite somewhere, Superman is Superman. Which superhero is cooler to you?
#8: Katsuyori Shibata vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (Destruction in Kobe; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
A natural competitive rivalry between two dudes who have known each other since high school. A legit badass with a MMA background facing off against New Japan’s longtime ace. Tanahashi’s High Fly Flow (a flashy sometime-frog-splash, sometime-cross-body-press, delivered with 100% accuracy) against Shibata’s Penalty Kick (a vicious kick to the chest while his opponent is seated). The perpetual Top Guy versus the supremely talented athlete a few rungs down on the career ladder. One of those matches where I could tell you the story of the match, but it’s better if you seek out the match and watch it, because the story tells itself, which is one of my favorite things about New Japan; the language barrier of the commentary has no impediment for understanding what’s going on in the ring, because wrestling is in and of itself a universal language.
#7: Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H (Wrestlemania XXX; World Wrestling Entertainment)
After a full-scale revolt of the WWE product for keeping Daniel Bryan, a full-fledged fan favorite, out of that elusive Top Spot, Bryan’s win in the main event of Wrestlemania for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship was either the powers-that-be having their hands forced or the slowest of slow-burn booking, depending on who you ask. But while that title match was a great moment for wrestling fans (one which will likely be repeated at this year’s Wrestlemania, but we’ll save that for another article), it wasn’t even the best match Daniel Bryan had that night.
Bryan had a perfect foil in Triple H. Kayfabe-wise, it was the perrenial underdog versus the diabolical, powerful uber-villain. Real-life-wise, it was the quintessential indie guy, the guy who started from the bottom (no Drake) and clawed his way up, inch by inch, for fifteen years, versus the guy who held his foot on the neck of young stars not hand-selected by him during his lengthy run as one of WWE’s top stars and burgeoning executives. But H made Bryan look like a million bucks in their classic opening match at Wrestlemania while making himself look like smart, strategic, and barbarous. He targeted Bryan’s kayfabe-injured shoulder with things we’d never thought he would use in a match: crossfaces and counters throwing his arm into the announcers table and FUCKIN’ TIGER SUPLEXES. But he made Bryan look like a potential champion (which was obviously an important thing to do on this particular night), and together, they not only constructed Bryan’s best match in WWE so far, one that matched the quality of his stellar output on the indies years ago, but also the greatest singles match of Triple H’s then-twenty-two-year career.
#6: Charlotte vs. Bailey (NXT Takeover: Fatal 4 Way; World Wrestling Entertainment)
In one corner, you have a second-generation star, daughter of easily one of the five greatest wrestlers in the history of the medium, who went from passable in the ring to one of the best in-ring performers currently employed by WWE in less than a year (notice there was no gender qualifier there). In the other corner, you have the most likable wrestler you’re likely to ever meet, one whose ring entrance includes Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Tube Men and a bunch of bright colors, who goes in the ring and busts her ass as hard as even the most seasoned competitors on this list. It’s an amazing test of wills, an incredible combination of athleticism and ring savvy, and a heartwarming display of sportsmanship after all is said and done. A classic tale of the uber-talented underdog taking on the supremely talented champion, one of how respect is earned through beating the hell out of one another. It’s truly a sight to behold, between two competitors who are poised to revolutionize women’s wrestling and rectify WWE’s previously abhorrent history with the genre.
#5: Trevor Lee vs. Kevin Steen (Eleven; Pro Wrestling Guerrilla)
Remember what I just wrote about PWG not concerning themselves too much with story and letting the wrestling do the talking? Well, their biggest story of 2014 has been the rise of Trevor Lee. For those unfamiliar with the name, he’s basically indie-era Daniel Bryan with a stringent focus on unbelievable acrobatics rather than technical mastery. He does a double foot stomp from the standing position that’s as majestic as any version of the move you’ve seen. He does a move that is as spellbinding as it is unexplainable. (A mid-air spinning powerslam? A reverse-cross-body press?) He came into his second Pro Wrestling Guerilla match under his belt, his debut a loss in a three-way match against Cedric Alexander and fellow PWG newcomer Andrew Everett. His opponent? Kevin Steen, wrestling his farewell match for the promotion he had a big hand in bringing to prominence before moving onto the big stage of WWE.
If there’s any indication of the massive home-court advantage Steen had coming into this match, the opening image is it, with Steen being bathed in streamers to the point where sometime-guest-commentator Chris Hero quipped with WCW broadcaster Tony Schiavone’s pronunciation of the Yeti (a longstanding inside joke among wrestling super-nerds, pronounced Yet-TAY). Naturally, Steen dominated throughout the match, offering his signature apron powerbomb for each side of the ring, going for a boot choke in the corner and facetiously shaking Lee’s hand (a gesture Steen firmly rejected at the match’s start), and laying Lee out in order to have digressive chit-chat with Hero from the ring.
It’s not a totally lopsided match, as Lee goes for an array of high-flying assault tactics, including a tope con hilo that completely clears the ring post. Then, Lee does the unthinkable: He kicks out of Steen’s patented Package Piledriver. After that, Steen reverses a suplex into a small package, and Lee carries the momentum over into a small package of his own. 1.. 2.. 3. The fans are aghast. A vociferously confused Chris Hero calls it “the biggest upset in the history of PWG.” Lee slips out of the ring like he just escaped literal certain death. Steen is noticeably and understandably irrate. But it’s made official when Lee gets his hand raised. One storied run ends as another begins.
As Steen said in his farewell speech to quell the fans’ distaste for the outcome of the match, “That’s not bullshit, that’s the future.” It’s not only a testament to PWG’s formidable eye for talent, not only a testament to Lee’s talent, but also a testament to Steen’s character that he would leave the promotion in a way that benefits them down the line.
#4: The Shield vs. the Wyatt Family (Elimination Chamber; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Coming into this match, there wasn’t a great deal of thought put into the storyline, but that didn’t stop it from being one of the most highly anticipated matches WWE had had in a very long time. There was some simmering dissension between the members of the Shield, one based out of intense competition which was bubbling over into legitimate rivalry. As that was going on, the Wyatts had attacked John Cena in a Raw six-man tag match that subsequently disqualified the Shield, who, due to the match’s stipulation, had lost their opportunity to compete in the Elimination Chamber (basically an elimination cage match, only with pods to restrict entry until the competitor’s name is called) for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. A pretty simple basis for a feud, but when you’re dealing with the two baddest heel factions in WWE at the time, a vastly intriguing matchup which scaled to a fever pitch without one punch thrown before the bout.
The crowd chanted “this is awesome” before the match even started. The match itself was unbelievably great. Seth Rollins was flipping around the ring like an unholy cross of Jeff Hardy and Ricky Morton, Dean Ambrose got very far on his very singular band of crazy-ass charisma, and Roman Reigns came in when he needed to look like an unstoppable cyborg. It was clear then the latter had benefited the most by being a member of the Shield, and the mild die-hard fan backlash against him nowadays proves this handily. If you have to put Roman Reigns as a solo act, as our own Doc Zeus has pointed out on Twitter, just make him Goldberg (WCW’s unstoppable juggernaut), someone who wrestles short matches, whose shortcomings are not revealed because there’s not enough time for them to be. If not, put Reigns back in the Shield. The Shield is the greatest and everybody loves them anyway.
As for the Wyatts, of course they won, because Wyatt was embroiled in a feud with the Mighty John Cena. But they performed amazingly here as well, with Luke Harper and Erick Rowan being, as JBL noted, “[Bruiser] Brody and [Stan] Hansen revisited.” Bray was his typical self, an uncommon combination of speed and power (and when I say speed, that guy is fucking fast). In the final minutes, Ambrose had been mysteriously taken out in the crowd, and Rollins had been effectively dispatched. Roman broke out of Bray’s finisher, speared Harper, and left himself open for Bray to catch him and pick up the victory. It was a smartly wrestled match on all fronts, had an insane amount of tension from having six guys who wanted to prove their team were the big dogs in WWE, and fans who were hot for every second of it.
#3: Sami Zayn vs. Cesaro (NXT Arrival; World Wrestling Entertainment)
The best traditional rivalry in WWE started during Sami Zayn’s debut, where he pinned Cesaro on his debut night (in his second match of the evening). Their next encounter featured Cesaro dominating Zayn. Their third was the 2013 Match of the Year, a best-of-three-falls match that showed both wrestlers — who had been competing against each other for years — at the height of their powers. Sami gained a surprise fall early, Cesaro gained the second in assertive fashion, and the final fall was decided when each men gave it their all, Cesaro caught a mistake (because he’s as smart a wrestler as he his powerful, traits which should never be overlooked, especially in tandem) and obliterated Sami as a result.
But Zayn couldn’t leave well enough alone. He wanted Cesaro’s respect, he was obsessed with earning it. Cesaro didn’t care either way, but was eventually goaded into a fourth match.
For my money, Zayn and Cesaro might be the best competitors WWE currently has in their employ. They both have an innate understanding of not only what they’re doing in the ring, but what they have already done. Sami tried his beautiful through-the-corner-ropes tornado DDT onto the floor — something people who only watch WWE had never seen before their best-of-three classic — with Cesaro seeing it coming and OBLITERATING him with an uppercut. Cesaro throws him into the air and uppercuts the shit out of him, and Zayn kicks out at one. One. People who know wrestling psychology will tell you: Kicking out at one is a statement. Sami makes another statement by standing on his feet and screaming in Cesaro’s face to take him out if he’s going to. So Cesaro absolutely trucks him with a spinning uppercut and his finisher (delivered with extra oomph).
After the match, Cesaro leaves the ring, but comes back, and in an unexpected moment, gives Sami the respect he had been seeking for the past year. The two embrace, and it’s a beautiful feeling. It’s a feud totally based on competitive fire, two of the best wrestlers in the world proving to themselves and each other that they’re exceptional at this. No convoluted storylines, no phony assertions of hate. Just two dudes that wanted to win. And even in losing, Sami Zayn came out the hero.
#2: Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kazuchika Okada (G1 Climax 24 Tournament Finals; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
Kazuchika Okada is a cocky-ass babyface (he’s supposed to be a heel, but the fans LOVE him) with bleached blonde hair, who wrestles in gaudy-looking trunks, saunters to the ring wearing a fur-ish coat and enough gold chains to make Migos sick with jealousy, and calls himself “the Rainmaker.” (Occasionally, fake $10,000 bills fall from the rafters during his entrance.) Shinsuke Nakamura has a type of charisma which can only be described as Bowie-esque. They are arguably the two greatest wrestlers in the world, and unquestionably the two coolest. (There is a reason why they were both featured in the Japanese version of Pharrell’s “Happy” video.) They have a history that dates back years, and have met in the ring numerous times. But it’s safe to say all of their previous meetings were just dress rehearsals for this epic matchup.
A problem I’ve encountered since committing to writing this feature is that words don’t do some of these matches justice. I could write about Nakamura reversing Okada’s famed Rainmaker Lariat into a cross-armbreaker, but it’s something you have to see. I could write about Okada’s signature clean break (which is the most condescending clean break in the history of sports), but it’s not going to make you giggle the same way as if you just watched it for yourself. What you need to know about this match is that both competitors used their past encounters to create a strategic and brutally-fought encounter that benefits both those who have seen this matchup before and those who haven’t. If you’re in the former category, you’re in for the best match you’ve ever seen these two compete in. If you’re in the latter, you’ll see something it’s doubtful you’ll ever forget.
#1: Sami Zayn vs. Adrian Neville (NXT R-Evolution; World Wrestling Entertainment)
I’m going to offer some personal context for this one: Crying after wrestling matches is a rare occurrence for me; I usually save that nonsense for my friends getting married and songs that remind me of my mother dying. But I have cried after wrestling matches, which kind of negates any sort of stoicism on my part. It happened three times: When Shawn Michaels won the erstwhile-named World Wrestling Federation Championship at Wrestlemania XII (I was 12 years old, by the way), when Daniel Bryan won the WWE title at Wrestlemania XXX (I don’t have a good excuse for this one, it was just an emotional moment for me), and I’ve shed tears each of the four times I’ve watched this match all the way through.
That’s a testament to the emotional power of art, where stupid fake fighting can make a grown man cry like he’s watching Andy Dwyer and April Ludgate’s surprise wedding.
No wrestling angle (in any promotion) this year was as perfectly executed as the story of Sami Zayn’s 2014. He started it striving for the respect of Cesaro, and earned it in defeat with a showing great enough to be my Match of the Year frontrunner for almost half the dates on my calendar. Zayn has such a likable, sympathetic character (I can’t stress enough how important a trait sympathy is in wrestling), he repeatedly inched his way toward the title and came up short, and it only afforded him a greater amount of momentum.
Soon enough, Zayn was in the thick of a “road to redemption” story where he ran through guys he couldn’t beat before losing to Neville again. Sure, Sami “not being able to win the big one” became a cliched buzz-phrase by the time his big final showdown with Adrian Neville came around, but through a string of emotional losses and stirring promos — and the assertion that he would leave WWE if he couldn’t defeat Neville for the championship — the angle still had us on the edge of our seats.
Of course, Neville made the perfect foil for Zayn here. He didn’t play the heel here, he didn’t pull the slow-burn heel turn like most of us thought. His level of respect and admiration for Sami (his real-life friend dating back to their days in the indies) stayed at the same level throughout their battles, it’s just that he developed a self-described “killer instinct” which he felt his compatriot lacked. Was it really killer instinct, though, or was it an increasing level of desperation to hold onto the NXT title after coming so close to having it slip away and awarded to a world-class competitor it was becoming more and more difficult for Neville to beat?
The “shades of grey” trope isn’t easy to pull off in WWE; most of those guys end up looking like jerks who the fans like anyway. For all intents and purposes, Neville was a stand-up guy who loved his friend, but loved his championship more and would do anything to keep it, even at the expense of his friend’s pride and livelihood.
Well, what about the match? It was the ideal length (thirty minutes) and the ideal ending (Zayn mock-wiping his eyes, almost in disbelief that his moment finally came), and contained ideal pacing and an insane amount of drama and spectacle for a match we all kinda knew would end the way it did. An essential component of wrestling matches is the narrative; I mean, if you’re going to have a simulated physical competition with somebody, you might as well make it look as real as it can, right? Every move was put in the right place here and each one elicited the appropriate response. The crowd stood up when Zayn had Neville in the Electric Chair position and turned it into a Blue Thunder Bomb. They gasped when Neville hit a superkick followed by a reverse hurricanrana (the latter of which, to my knowledge, had never even been attempted in WWE before, let alone pulled off) after Zayn checked on a fallen referee.
The commentators tried to sell it as a deep-rooted animosity between Neville and Zayn, but that wasn’t necessary. I understand that’s a pretty essential trope in wrestling — two dudes that hate each other — but it was obvious by just watching the match that this was a competitive rivalry over the richest prize available between two good friends, a contest to prove once and for all which friend is better at this.
When the referee took another hit, Neville — taking his recently-found desperation to new heights — brought in the NXT championship to use it as a weapon, Zayn hit Neville with a boot and gave a long look at the title. First with disdain that his friend would outright cheat to win, and then contemplating whether or not that was the way he should go. The fans desperately shouted for him not to do it (which is the big difference between NXT and the main shows; the former exists in a moral universe, whereas cheating in the latter is praised as “being opportunistic”) as he held the belt and gestured toward Neville with the referee still down.
Zayn looks out at the crowd, still shouting “NO!” at their highest volume, says, “Fuck that” (I’m sure the people in the production truck didn’t expect to have to pay attention to seven-second delay during a Sami Zayn match), and throws down the belt. In the final seconds of the match, Zayn hits his signature Exploder Suplex on Neville, and while his opponent is regaining his bearings, hits the other corner, physically wipes off any trace of doubt from his face, goes for his Helluva Kick and the pin, and literally everybody watching the match erupts with happy tears.
Sami Zayn had been chasing glory in NXT for over eighteen months and had come close so many different times, only to come up short. On December 11th, 2014, he didn’t. He got lifted on the shoulders of his peers, he got a whole bunch of nerds freaking out on Twitter, he got gold confetti and a big belt made of leather and gold which he helped turn into something important by treating it with importance.
This moment, this match, is the ultimate payoff of being a wrestling fan. You watch someone’s journey to the top and you develop an emotional attachment to that character. You are witness to their triumphs and failures and how they affect a person. And, if you’re lucky, that moment where that person reaches the pinnacle is embedded in your memory instantaneously, and you’re just as misty-eyed as they are. When they win, we all win.