In the year since we published our inaugural Greatest Wrestling Matches list, the genre of professional wrestling has both widened the boundaries of its creativity immensely and stripped it down to its essentials. 2015 brought a number of changes. The progression of Lucha Underground from promising new show to not only the best weekly wrestling program on TV, but one of television’s best series full stop; New Japan solidifying its status in North America and making a serious bid for the #2 promotion in the world, steadily creeping up on the years-uncontested monopoly of WWE; NXT being the DCG to WWE’s Geffen as the “alternative” subsidiary better than the main brand by an increasingly distant margin; and PWG becoming the new ECW in terms of cult following, TNA and Ring of Honor becoming the new ECW in terms of fluctuating television deals.
Between the four of us who contributed to this list, there were upwards of forty matches considered. So with all due respect to July’s back-and-forth world championship classic between AJ Styles and Kazuchika Okada, February’s unsettling blowout between Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, September’s emotional and literal bloodletting of Angelus Layne vs. Delilah Doom, and all the other showdowns that narrowly missed the cut, here are our favorite matches of 2015. 25 examples of the point I’ve been trying to make for years: When pro wrestling is great, it’s the best form of art we have. —Douglas Martin
HONORABLE MENTION: – Ricochet vs. KUSHIDA (IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship Match) (G1 Climax 25; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
On a night where Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi put on a legit 5-star classic, Ricochet and KUSHIDA might have stolen the show with their IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match. This will come up again later in this list, but Ricochet is basically the platonic ideal of a “small” wrestler. He’s so good, he makes you rethink what can be possible inside of a wrestling ring, and it usually takes all of an opponent’s talent to even keep up. Most fail, but luckily for us, KUSHIDA is not most.
For such a small dude, the Time Splitter serves as a perfect base for Ricochet’s flippy shit, grounding the match when he wasn’t flying over the top himself. The highlight spots for each man were similar: flips over the top rope onto the floor. Here’s where their gap in aerial talent showed, however: Ricochet’s insane leap over the post was smooth as butter with one lump in it (he hit his wrist on the guard rail), while KUSHIDA’s attempt missed slightly and looked like he gave himself a powerbomb. In a way, though, the botches made the simulated combat feel more real, which is a problem some Ricochet matches have (the dreaded “spot monkey” moniker).
The finish was also a thing of beauty, with smart storytelling by KUSHIDA: Ricochet went for his patented 630 senton for the win, but he missed, which allowed KUSHIDA to cinch in the Hoverboard Lock. Ricochet tried hard to fight out of it, but the American was overpowered as KUSHIDA rolled over to the middle of the mat and forced the submission. At a brisk 17 minutes, this was a cruiserweight match of yore, pumped with steroids and speed, on a night when they had to know they would be overshadowed by the main event. To both men’s credit, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking this deserved its own showcase. —Luis Paez-Pumar
HONORABLE MENTION – Seth Rollins vs. John Cena (United States Championship Match) (Monday Night Raw, Episode 1157; World Wrestling Entertainment)
If you could describe WWE history over the last decade to a new fan of the show in one formulaic meme, “LOL Cena Winz” is the catchphrase most apt to capture the often-futile irony of watching an episodic television show where the status quo seems to never change much. The triumph of John Cena over younger, fresher talent is such a constant on the show that it could be neatly described as the fundamental mathematical formula that the entire WWE Universe is built upon.
Of course, popular narrative formulas are usually built on something that successfully works and Cena winning big matches in the face of “insurmountable odds” is a formula that has brought WWE great success over the last decade.
If you are looking for a match this year that could be used as an acquittal in the case against John Cena, you can look no further than his match against Seth Rollins on the July 27th edition of Raw.
In what can only be described as one of the most gutsy displays of showmanship this year, Cena triumphs over Rollins in a match that features a shocking bit of unexpected blood and gore. Nearly 15 minutes into a strong if not terribly exciting main event on Raw for Cena’s U.S. Title, Rollins legitimately shatters Cena’s nose on a relatively routine knee to the face that leaves Cena looking horrifyingly disfigured for the rest of the match.
Sensing the unexpected gore has dramatically elevated the stakes of a rather routine Raw main event, Cena and Rollins go into overdrive for the last eight minutes of the match, throwing bombs at each other with increasing desperation as Cena’s broken nose gushes a nauseating amount of blood around the ring. When Cena ultimately forces Rollins to submit to a perfectly stiff STF, it doesn’t feel like WWE was merely celebrating the status quo of Cena’s endless reign, but a genuine triumph of a real-life superhero over the dastardly villain who tried to hurt him. Formula doesn’t always make for the most exciting television, but when applied to the appropriate circumstances, it can provide the proper catharsis. —Doc Zeus
HONORABLE MENTION – Pentagon Jr. vs. Zack Sabre Jr. (Battle of Los Angeles Tournament Quarterfinals; Pro Wrestling Guerrilla)
In the increasingly less cloistered world of independent wrestling, legitimate dream matches are more and more difficult to come by. Due to the blind bracketing system of PWG’s annual Battle of Los Angeles, nobody could foretell the meeting of two of the most widely celebrated indie wrestlers in the world. On paper, the matchup of Pentagon Jr., a sadistic, skeleton-face-painted arm sacrificer and arguably MVP of Lucha Underground—a show that also includes Ricochet in a mask, an honest-to-god dragon, and the literal personification of a thousand deaths—squaring off against the most celebrated ring technician since Bryan Danielson (you might have heard of him), an Englishman so charmingly arrogant it makes me use the word swag unironically, is straight money.
And the rabid PWG faithful, a crowd that sold out all three nights of this year’s BOLA in minutes, agreed in kind, chanting “this is awesome” before the opening bell even rang. (Shortly thereafter, they bestowed a hallmark sign of fan respect, a “both these guys” chant.) Of course, once the match got underway, it was the Battle of the Super Juniors (shoutout to KUSHIDA) nobody had expected.
Early in the match, they feel each other out with a plethora of obscure submission holds and strikes, an exchange where Pentagon said “fuck your mother” and Sabre Jr. offered a clean break (if Okada is any other indication, only the cocky babyfaces break clean anymore) after gesturing to stomp his forearm right off of his elbow. Pentagon responded with a “so-so” hand gesture to taunt him. There were severe chops, Sabre Jr. telling Pentagon Jr. “tranquilo” (if you needed me to drive my assertion regarding his coolness into the ground any more), and then going for a submission with a no-handed bridge (he balanced on his head, which is markedly impressive). Pentagon at one point uses referee Rick Knox as a springboard to missile dropkick Sabre in the corner, and clears the ring ropes to hit a seated Sabre in the crowd. Then, Sabre catches Pentagon in a Kimura lock, tapping him out immediately.
Sometimes, dream matches are sculpted to be hard-hitting confrontations, and sometimes they’re fashioned as two wrestlers who are unaware of each other’s styles playing a game of chess. This BOLA match was the latter before becoming the former, and it was made more intriguing for it.
As for Sabre shouting “LUCHA FUCKING LIBRE, MATE” mid-stride before hitting Pentagon with a running uppercut? That’s what swag is. —Douglas Martin
HONORABLE MENTION – Kenny Omega vs. Ryusuke Taguchi (IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship Match) (Wrestle Kingdom 9; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
It seems like a throwaway detail. “Kenny likes to shave his arms three or four days before the match,” commentator Matt Striker mentions midway through Kenny Omega’s match with Ryusuke Taguchi for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title. “He told me, ‘The stubble starts to grow, and I can start to use it like a razor or saw.’” Weird, but I guess it might make for a pretty painful lariat.
And then suddenly, Omega pulls the ripcord on his right arm, starts making chainsaw noises with his mouth, and plunges to the mat. As he rakes his stubbly forearm over Taguchi’s eyes, Taguchi writhes in agony like it’s the most painful thing in the world, and not, you know, a guy rubbing his arm on your head.
But despite the fact that Omega dresses like a 90s action movie villain and tosses up “too sweet’s” like he’s not in unfriendly territory, this isn’t a gimmick match: Omega can work. As Jim Ross points out somewhat redundantly during the match, the guy is in unbelievable shape. Watching him gut wrench Taguchi off the mat, and then powerbomb him right back down is the stuff a million Tumblr reblogs are made of.
Taguchi’s no slouch, either: the Funky Weapon manages a diving somersault senton worthy of Finn Balor, and elsewhere counters an attempted hurricanrana by Omega with aplomb.
Throughout, Omega’s fellow Bullet Club mooks do their best to help him catch Taguchi in a distraction rollup, and they eventually prevail. But Omega’s estimable conditioning and his chemistry with his opponent double as a valuable lesson from NJPW to WWE: it’s absolutely possible to book a dirty-ass match that’s still deeply satisfying to fans of the sport. —Jordan Pedersen
#20 – Chad Gable and Jason Jordan vs. Baron Corbin and Rhyno (Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic Tournament Semifinals) (NXT Takeover: Respect; World Wrestling Entertainment
Jordan! Jordan Jordan! Gable! Gable Gable! If the newly-dubbed American Alpha team wants to look back at the moment when they became bonafide stars of the wrestling underground, they need only look at their brawl with Baron Corbin and Rhyno. Tag team wrestling has always been the weakest part of NXT, a hodgepodge of poor gimmicks and mismatched superstars developing at different paces in an otherwise utopian wrestling brand, but not on this night. On the occasion of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, these two duos synched up perfectly, throwing everything at each other and taking the action to another level with each move.
And what action it was; at this point, there is nothing more exciting than a Jason Jordan hot tag, and once the straps came down, he cleaned house, throwing both the Man Beast Rhyno and The Lone Wolf all over the place. Jordan’s transformation from milquetoast amateur wrestler into super-charismatic human wrecking ball has been a joy to watch, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he gets the rocket strapped to his back at some point in the very near future. Rhyno, bless his heart, was also able to keep up, working the vicious veteran routine and drawing the first real heat since he was shipped to NXT.
What really worked about this match, however, was the interaction between Corbin and secretly-the-best-wrestler-in-WWE Gable. From the Black Hole Slam, to Gable beating the shit out of this monster heel with goddamn suplexes, to the finish which … well, we’ll get to it. Props have to be given in this space for Baron Corbin, who started his transformation into a legitimate workhorse at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn before finalizing it here; dude can GO when they give him more than 30 seconds to squash Random Jobber #17. Any doubts you may have had about him should have been put to rest with the finishing sequence, which ranks among the best of the year, regardless of promotion: Corbin goes throw a tilt-a-whirl backbreaker on Gable, who then reverses it smoothly as butter into a Tornado DDT attempt…before THAT gets reversed into an End of the Days for the pin. This is the best tag team match in NXT history, in a walk. —Luis Paez-Pumar
#19 – Tyler Breeze vs. Samoa Joe (NXT, Episode 304; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Poor Tyler. He’s prettier than most brides, but he always ends up the bridesmaid.
“You’re golden, kid, just gotta push this Zayn guy.” “Whoops Zayn’s injured, but we’re gonna go with the hot Irish dude.” “Well Balor’s turning heel soon, so let’s push the NXT equivalent of Apollo Creed, but we swear you’re the next Heartbreak Kid, kid.” And as the months turn into years, Tyler Breeze’s magnum curls into a defeated frown. His debut on the main roster was auspicious: he lost narrowly to Dean Ambrose and beat Dolph Ziggler—the Bruce Willis to his Joseph Gordon-Levitt—but I’m not convinced Vince McMahon won’t botch his push.
Oh well. Even if Breeze is destined to end up buried on the Smackdown undercard, we’ll always have the work.
In the words of inimitable wrestling writer Brandon Stroud: “And now, we (assumedly) say goodbye to Tyler Breeze in the only way that fits him: an amazing match that he loses.”
It’s a textbook Breeze match: he starts the bout with a series of Diva-esque rollouts—as commentator Rich Brennan puts it, so “he can fight the match on his terms”—thereby pissing off NXT’s most improved superstar enough to catch him in a few jabs and a judicious lariat.
Pride, of course, comes before a fall, and soon enough Joe catches Breeze in a flurry of his E Honda punches, and he ends one of Breeze’s haughty ring escapes with a punishing outside dive. Breeze manages to pull of a few excellent high spots—that beautiful double-knee backbreaker I could watch on repeat for hours, an mmmgorgeous counter to an attempted Muscle Buster by Joe—but his fate is sealed when Joe catches him in the actually-painful-looking Coquina Clutch.
In his loss, Breeze demonstrates his excellence as an in-ring storyteller: he oversells like a petulant footballer, screams childishly at the ref, all to tell the same Icarian story of flying too high.
But that story doesn’t work nearly so well when Breeze is stuck fighting jabronis on USA on Thursday nights. So don’t fuck this up, Vince: let the guy fly high. It’ll be so much better to watch him fall. —Jordan Pedersen
#18 – Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Chris Hero (Mystery Vortex III; Pro Wrestling Guerrilla)
I don’t know if it’s an unpopular opinion or not, because nobody really talks about it, but in my humble opinion, Chris Hero has never been better than in the two years since he was given his walking papers from WWE. He’s been great since that epic match with CM Punk put them both on the map thirteen years ago, but his, ahem, hero’s return to the independent scene has reinvigorated him; Hero turns in quality, compelling matches rife with smart storytelling (see also: his BOLA match with Jack Evans) and brutal-looking strikes (see also: pretty much any match he’s had since December 2013). In his match with Sabre Jr., he adds a willingness to lend a real-life injury to a match to heighten its intrigue.
I use the word “injury” pretty loosely here, as Excalibur spills the beans and reveals Hero cut his finger in the trunk of his rental car earlier that afternoon. But blood is blood, so when Hero popped off the bandage from his middle finger (right before a brutal Sabre Jr. arm stomp), his appendage leaked all over the place. This not only exposed Hero’s willingness to fight through pain, but Sabre Jr.’s mean streak, reacting to the blood like a shark would.
In turn, Hero gets fucking irate. He 86’s the technical back-and-forth and goes head-on into psycho killer mode, blasting Sabre repeatedly, flicking blood on the fans, and draining the blood out of his hand onto Sabre’s prone body. Sabre returns in kind by viciously and repeatedly attacking Hero’s arm. Which is to say this match got really personal, really fast. After catching the ire of Hero and getting knocked loopy several times, Sabre Jr. almost snags a win with a perfectly executed bridge, but gets knocked loopy again for his trouble. Finally, Sabre Jr. escapes Hero’s Gotch-style piledriver, brings him down into a double-arm-lock while viciously kicking Hero in the back of the head (if you are of the opinion that wrestling is “fake,” watch this and try not to cringe; I’ll give you a prize if you succeed), knocking him out and securing the win.
It’s a marvel to see an occasion where the story of the match between two vastly talented technical wrestlers is to eventually get pissed and devolve into a contest of blows and coming dangerously close to breaking each other’s limbs. It’s one of those uncomfortable (and in turn unforgettable) encounters, all told in the span of one wrestling match. —Douglas Martin
#17 – Johnny Mundo vs. Prince Puma (“All Night Long” Match for the Lucha Underground Championship) (Lucha Underground Episode 32; Lucha Underground)
Let’s just break kayfabe right away: Prince Puma is Ricochet, and Ricochet (as explored above) is the most fun wrestler in the world. Ok, now that the band-aid has been ripped off, let’s get to what stands as the best pure wrestling match in Lucha Underground’s bonkers first season. An Iron Man match at heart (except instead of a time limit, it’s just “until the night ends,” which is perfect), “All Night Long” accomplishes pretty much everything that Lucha Underground strives for: insane wrestling, storytelling that might drift a few miles above reality before crashing down with brutal violence, and justice-as-plot-point for the ne’er do wells of the Temple.
In this case, the previously-uber-tecnico Johnny Mundo goes full rudo (that’s face and heel, respectively), shedding the confines of a wrestling match and ring for the comforts of the Temple’s nooks and crannies. Poor Prince Puma gets thrown around like a ragdoll for the better part of the first half of the match, before Mundo whacks him on the head with a crowbar to knock his ass out and score three quick pins (because this is a smart man’s Iron Man match).
The big spot of this match, and really of the whole season (non-Angelico division, anyway), comes shortly afterwards, when Mundo decides to dick around with the in-house band in order to run down the clock. That, uh, backfires, and Prince Puma is able to regain control and brutally spear Mundo from the band’s platform down onto a castle of chairs and tables, some 15 feet below. It’s violence for a purpose, not just for a “HO-LY-SHIT” chant, and Puma uses it to get back into the match. One Alberto El Patron run-in later (there’s the aforementioned justice), and Puma is able to ride the wave of momentum from the spear of death to retain his Lucha Underground Championship. If one were to show a singular episode of this insane show to a friend in order to convince them to tune in, this is the one. —Luis Paez-Pumar.
#16 – Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker (Hell in a Cell Match) (Hell in a Cell; World Wrestling Entertainment)
One of the more immediate and prominent casualties of WWE’s family-friendly direction over the last decade is the ban on blood in their matches. While the hyper-violence that permeated even the most meaningless match in the Attitude Era was often far too excessive for the health and common good of their own performers, one of the most more indisputable consequences of a formal ban on blading is the absence of blood, which often neuters the abilities of the performers to provide the proper stakes to a big match.
This can be no more evident than in the modern Hell in a Cell match—a bout that earned its reputation in the Attitude Era as a spectacle of ultra-violence. In the modern context, the lack of blood has had the unfortunate consequence of robbing Hell in A Cell matches of their realism, opting to replace the literal death-defying stunts and bloody pageantry with an over-reliance on cartoonish weaponry and cheesy melodrama. Whether intentional or not, Brock Lesnar and the Undertaker decided to ignore WWE regulations this year in their dramatic Hell in a Cell match in October when they provided fans with a violent, blood-laden spectacle that paid proper honor to the match’s tradition.
After a legendary feud that featured the formal end to Undertaker’s celebrated two-decade long undefeated streak at WrestleMania, the dramatic stakes of the match simply required a certain level of gory malevolence for the match to shine. As two of the medium’s most accomplished wrestlers, Brock and ‘Taker delivered that in spades with both competitors shedding a healthy level of the red stuff to truly make the match memorable. This was the type of match that simply does not happen in modern WWE anymore, bringing a proper conclusion to one of WWE’s most heated feuds in its history. —Doc Zeus
#15 – The Usos vs. the Lucha Dragons vs. the New Day (Ladder Match for the WWE Tag Team Championships) (Tables, Ladders, and Chairs; World Wrestling Entertainment)
WWE has a reputation, not unfairly, as an aggressively white company. Most recently, I spotted mentions of the company in a video from a Ted Cruz rally and an episode of Making a Murderer. This is a company that allowed X-Pac to appear in blackface and whose CEO once referred to John Cena as “my n***a.”
But by giving three unbelievably talented, charismatic young black men the opportunity to go out and be themselves—rather than play gross stereotypes—WWE has shown that they’re committed to moving away from its racist antics of the past.
From their use of some of the best black Twitter jokes to their contention at this year’s SummerSlam in Brooklyn that “no good hip-hop ever came out of New York,” the New Day injected a vital strain of black culture into the WWE’s oftentimes lilywhite product.
But as great as their promos are, the New Day’s actual matches often play second fiddle to their trash talk.
What a surprise, then, that their opening match at TLC turned out to be one of the most genuinely thrilling matches of the year. Pick your favorite moment: Big E bench-pressing a ladder with both members of the Lucha Dragons on it; the Usos tossing the ladder out of the ring and following it up with a double outside dive; Kalisto’s Salida Del Sol from the top of the ladder onto another ladder. (Hint: Your favorite moment is the latter.)
And as if anybody needed further convincing, Xavier Woods’ spot as a guest commentator confirmed that after his time in the ring has come to an end, he’s going to be one of the greatest commentators the company’s ever seen.
Opening tag matches at WWE PPVs tend to be fun, diverting bouts. But rarely do they reach the level of New Japan’s stunning opening four-way junior heavyweight tag matches. This match got the quote-unquote “smart marks” salivating in a way we don’t do for WWE unless it’s followed by “NXT.” And they did it while elevating the racial discourse in the company. —Jordan Pedersen
#14 – Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match) (Wrestle Kingdom 9; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
Kazuchika Okada can’t win the big one.
Of course, “winning the big one” in professional wrestling is an extremely relative term. Sometimes, it’s your first championship in a big organization (a la Sami Zayn’s immortal quest last year). Other times, it’s capturing your sixteenth world championship in a bid for immortality (a la John Cena, who is still en route to tying Ric Flair’s record for most [#canonical] world championship reigns). “The Rainmaker” Kazuchika Okada is very quickly becoming one of the most celebrated IWGP Heavyweight Champions in history (at press time in his third reign, at the time of his match his second, which includes one 13-month reign) and a legacy player for New Japan for years and years to come (he’s only 28 years old, which is scary for how good he is already). He’s even beaten his most storied rival, seven-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion and ace of New Japan, Hiroshi Tanahashi, for the title. He’s just never done it on New Japan’s biggest stage, Wrestle Kingdom.
In an historic effort against Shinsuke Nakamura in the G1 Climax 24 Finals (the runner-up of our Greatest Matches list last year and on my shortlist for Match of the Decade), Okada earned the right to face the IWGP Heavyweight Champion at Wrestle Kingdom 9. Who happened to be Hiroshi Tanahashi.
The match starts with the longtime rivals feeling each other out; as many times as they’ve faced each other, they know their opponent is one of the most skilled competitors in the game. After that dissipates a little, Okada knows he’s gotta step up his game to beat Tanahashi. He undercuts The Most Condescending Clean Break in the History of Sports to sneak in a stiff forearm on the break. Okada realizes he’s got to give Tanahashi a little extra than what he came for. Okada later hits a running uppercut, knocking Tanahashi from the top turnbuckle to the floor, and later hits him with Heavy Rain (a vertical suplex delivered from the Fireman’s Carry position.
After that, Okada delivers a picture-perfect move, inspiring the most breathless writing I’ve ever read about a dropkick. Then, after reversing a Tombstone into his own, Tanahashi hits two High Fly Flows (one on Okada’s back, one with him facing the ceiling). Okada kicked out, showing it was going to take a little more than Tanahashi’s best to put away his rival, a man who clawed and clawed his way to usurp his spot as the ace of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Then, the tides turn. Okada hits his famed Rainmaker Lariat. Tanahashi kicks out. Then, in a moment of stepping past your natural ability and giving something extra to put away such a monumental talent, Tanahashi hits Okada with a High Fly Flow (with Okada in a seated position, which involves a great deal more accuracy than you might expect from such a fundamental move), hits him with the move again, and finally scores the three-count. Okada leaves the ring in tears.
We’ve all seen the swelling of pride when a competitor achieves one of the biggest wins of his life, but rarely, especially in wrestling, do we see an athlete break down in tears in defeat. Okada really felt in his heart he was going to finally beat his most celebrated rival on his promotion’s biggest stage, cementing himself as the #1 guy in New Japan, and by proxy, the best wrestler in the world. But it was not to be. He came up short. And all the emotion from giving everything he had and still losing showed as his tears fell upon the ringside area. Everybody tells you it’s one hell of an effort, that you have nothing to be ashamed of, but you still lost. That leads to a lot of sleepless nights. —Douglas Martin
#13 – Sasha Banks vs. Bayley vs. Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte (NXT Women’s Championship Match) (NXT Takeover: Rival; World Wrestling Entertainment)
From the strict point-of-view of social importance, the most fascinating story of 2015 was the rise of women’s wrestling in the WWE. Female competitors—especially on the WWE’s NXT brand—have enjoyed a spectacular rise in both popularity and status in the company; growing from a marginalized and quasi-insulting sideshow to regularly stealing the show from their male counterparts on the undercard to becoming the deserving and passionate main event on a WWE live special.
While the nascent “Diva Revolution” has struggled to find its creative footing on the main roster—often becoming too bogged down by confusing faction alignments or inanely feuding over bragging rights over who really started the Divas Revolution™—the first match that truly realized the potential for a serious and respected women’s division in WWE wrestling was the Fatal 4-Way Match for the NXT Women’s Championship Takeover: Rival last February.
The match itself was a spectacular, action-packed affair that helped launch the reputations of its four competitors, Charlotte, Bayley, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch, who were quickly nicknamed the “Four Horsewomen of NXT” after the instant success of the match. [Editor’s Note: If you have no idea who the Four Horsemen are or what they mean to the artistic enterprise of professional wrestling, this probably sounds a little insulting. We assure you it’s the highest compliment any tandem could possibly be given.] Each wrestler manages to come across like a star in the match with Charlotte looking like a dominant, lineal champion in defeat, Bayley as the fiery underdog robbed of victory, Becky as a pump-handle suplex-throwing firecracker, and Sasha cementing her status as as growing cult hero for hardcore wrestling fans.
The finish of the match remains one of the more instantly memorable climaxes to this year, with Sasha Banks finally claiming alpha dog status in the division. After denying long-suffering Bayley her moment in the sun by pulling her out of the ring before she got the chance to pin Charlotte, The Boss catches Charlotte in her brutal Bank Statement submission hold wrenching back on Charlotte’s neck and back with impressive torque before transitioning into a crucifix pin and pinning Charlotte to finally dethrone her and become the new champion. —Doc Zeus
#12 – Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (G1 Climax 25 Tournament Finals; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
2015 was a truly ground-breaking year for New Japan Pro Wrestling in the North American market. Despite a 44-year old existence and an impressive status as the second biggest wrestling company in the world, NJPW has only ever truly enjoyed a niche popularity in North America as an alternative to mainstream American wrestling. That started to significantly change in 2015, with a wide availability of online streaming services in North America, bringing their charismatic stars and a quicker, action-packed style wrestling to a larger audience in the market.
The increased awareness of New Japan stars almost assuredly meant an increased interest in obtaining their talents by the WWE. Thus, it is not entirely shocking that one of the biggest stories in pro wrestling of this early year is the rumored talent raid of top NJPW stars by the WWE looking to freshen up its stale product and capitalize on the growing profile of the Japanese company within their own audience.
The future is right around the corner.
If you are looking to familiarize yourself with why a growing number of North American fans are so excited by Japanese puroesu, you could do much worse than the epic battle between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura in the G1 Climax finals in August. The G1 Climax, a prestigious tournament akin to WWE’s King of The Ring (during that brief-but-fruitful period where the winner of the tournament was offered a championship match at that year’s Summerslam), featured two of NJPW’s hottest wrestlers: Tanahashi (a Japanese quasi-John Cena) and Nakamura (one of the WWE’s alleged signings and arguably the most charismatic wrestler in the world) battled for over 32 minutes in an absolute war of a match that was taut with drama and suspense to the final bell. A match this good will be guaranteed to make you want to YouTube the best matches that New Japan has to offer before Nakamura and the gang show up on Raw. —Doc Zeus
#11 – Finn Balor vs. Kevin Owens (NXT Championship Match) (Beast in the East: Live in Tokyo; World Wrestling Entertainment)
It was a few months into his meteoric six-month rise from debuting at the as-good-as-its-name-is-bad NXT Takeover: R Evolution to beating Cena clean at Elimination Chamber. I took to Twitter: “And feel better, @iLikeSamiZayn! You’ve got a @FightOwensFight to embarrass at NXT Takeover.” And just like that, Kevin Owens pulled the ultimate bad-guy move: he blocked me.
Par for the course for the magnificently puerile heel born Kevin Steen. Case in point: “The custom here in Japan for a championship match,” Michael Cole tells us, as geishas present Balor and Owens with bouquets of flowers. The ever-respectful Balor bows. Owens flings the flowers as far as he can up the entrance ramp. Leave it to Owens to dismiss puroesu culture in order to make himself look even more like a jerk.
What makes Owen’s a heel for the ages is that he can feud with anyone. Anybody can feud with a walking cartoon like John Cena—more on that later—but seriously, what’s not to like about Finn Balor? He’s a former NJPW superstar whose moveset makes “smart marks” everywhere drool. His body paint is so fiendishly inventive he deserves his own comic. He plays with Legos.
“Throwing on some body paint and crawling around.” That’s all Balor is to Owens.
Like the great heavyweight heels before him, Owens moves far more nimbly than the pool shirt kid many body-obsessed wrestling fans take him for. Owens pummels Balor with running sentons, German suplexes worthy of the guy who gave the show its name, and, my personal favorite, the Go-Home Driver.
But despite Owens’ best efforts, the fairytale had to come true, and they had to put the strap on Balor at the Sumo Arena, in the country where the man formerly known as Prince Devitt became a star. Owens had been uppercarding on main event PPVs for months. There was no way he was going to walk out NXT Champion.
Not that Balor’s undeserving: he’s one of the most genuinely thrilling stars the company has, even if he’s currently twiddling his thumbs before he turns heel. But this was Owens’ farewell show for NXT. What a way to say goodbye to NXT’s preeminent asshole. —Jordan Pedersen
#10 – Becky Lynch vs. Sasha Banks (NXT Women’s Championship Match) (NXT Takeover: Unstoppable; World Wrestling Entertainment)
One can only hope this match has not been overshadowed by what came after. In May of 2015, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks laid the groundwork for what an NXT women’s title match could be, and it’s only because of Sasha’s work with Bayley later in the year that we forgot how breathtaking this one actually was.
Let’s start with the champion, Sasha Banks. Her game plan entering this match was simple: take away Becky’s arms so that the fiery challenger couldn’t do the same back to her. The Boss executed her plan to a brutal perfection, climaxing with a cringeworthy submission where she bent Becky’s arms backwards with her feet. At every step, she focused on weakening her challenger to the point of no escape, and the finish played on the match’s story flawlessly: a super armbreaker from the top rope transitioning smoothly into the Bank Statement for the win.
However, if we’re being real, this match was Becky Lynch’s coming out party. From the moment she came out in her Steampunk Wednesday’s best, all the way until the heartwarming finish which saw her break down in tears while the Full Sail crowd serenaded her with her own theme song, it was impossible to not come away thinking that the Lass Kicker would be a star. A realization, by the way, that seems well on its way to being fulfilled on the main roster, although that is a story for another day. Regardless of where her path takes her, Becky Lynch’s ascent begins with this match. Throwing more of the most violent-looking suplexes in the women’s division than she ever had before (who knew that the “female Brock Lesnar” moniker would fit a compact-by-comparison redhead from Ireland so well?), Lynch kept up with The Boss blow for blow, even making us believe that she could do it. At the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about? —Luis Paez-Pumar
#9 – Cesaro vs. John Cena, June 29th/Cesaro vs. John Cena, July 6th (United States Championship Match) (Monday Night Raw, Episodes 1153 and 1154; World Wrestling Entertainment)
WWE has a particularly infuriating habit of going into narrative autopilot in the months between the company’s biggest shows. For years, instead of laying the storytelling groundwork to build to a proper emotional catharsis at a climatic WrestleMania or a Summerslam event, WWE often just gets lazy—substituting flat retreads of boring feuds for new ideas that could entice the viewer to remain loyal to the show in the slower months.
The unlikely exception this year to the post-WrestleMania malaise was—ironically enough—John Cena, quixotic poster boy for WWE’s endless circular narratives. Cena’s wonderful U.S. Open Challenge was a consistent bright spot on Raw last summer. Big Match John had won the U.S. Title from dastardly pro-Putin sympathizer Rusev at WrestleMania and spent a large amount of the next seven months defending the title in a weekly open challenge that would find Cena delivering a series of classic matches against a diverse array of opponents he would never otherwise get a chance to wrestle. In the process, Cena would help elevate the U.S. Title from a lowly secondary title to arguably the most prestigious title in the entire company.
The peak of these U.S. Open Challenges was a doubleheader against criminally underutilized Swiss über-mensch Cesaro on subsequent Raw episodes last summer. Cesaro, a supremely gifted athlete whose physique, freak strength, and ungodly wrestling ability makes him something of a Bizzaro World Cena, proved to be more than a challenge for Big John, delivering two classic matches that built and improved on each other. Cesaro was on the verge of besting Cena in the first encounter until a jealous Kevin Owens interfered, while Cena prevailed cleanly in the longer, grittier sequel. In the end, Cesaro proved the faith that hardcore fans had long held for him and Cena proved indisputably that he is one of the best living wrestlers of our time. —Doc Zeus
#8 – Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar (vs. Seth Rollins) (WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match) (WrestleMania 31; World Wrestling Entertainment)
“Thank you so much.” With those four words, Seth Rollins rode into the Santa Clara night on a pleather stallion, championship gold swinging like Petey Pablo’s shirt over his head. The main event of a shockingly good WrestleMania was many things, but above all, it was a reminder that even the most predictable of scenarios can still shock the hell out of us. After a brutal match between Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that Rollins would cash in and leave with the belt; a cowardly heel champion taking advantage of a situation isn’t exactly new, after all. What was shocking is how WWE took that scenario and turned it 90 degrees towards awesome. By cashing in DURING the match, Rollins played upon our expectations and Curb Stomped a giant exclamation mark on the evening. Run, Architect, Run.
Of course, even before Rollins’ perfectly-timed interruption, Lesnar and Reigns had been absolved of their sins. For the former, his disappearing act in the months leading up to WrestleMania was redeemed by reminding us that there’s no force more brutal than a suplexing Brock Lesnar (shout out to the birth of “Suplex City, bitch”).
Maybe more importantly, however, was what getting the shit kicked out of him did for the latter; Reigns needed all the credit he could get from crowds who had just booed him out of the building a couple of months before, and by god, he earned it. Not only did he let Lesnar demolish him, but he timed his offensive comebacks just right, with enough force and respect for the moment to make everyone believe that the Golden Boy would become literally that. In the end, however, the brawl could not compete with the chaos, and as the sun set over Levi’s Stadium, Rollins was all anyone wanted to talk about. —Luis Paez-Pumar
#7 – Sami Zayn vs. John Cena (United States Championship Match) (Monday Night Raw, Episode 1145; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Those Sami Zayn Returns packages hide it, but it wasn’t during his match with John Cena on the May 4th edition of Raw that Zayn suffered the shoulder injury that would sideline him for the rest of the year. Rather, it was during a particularly enthusiastic pre-match taunt that Zayn threw his shoulder out [Editor’s Note: In some on-air interviews, Zayn talks about the injury explicitly, so it’s not exactly #notcanon]. It’s a fact that’s either endearing or incredibly sad depending on how the light hits it.
What isn’t debatable is that Zayn then went on to wrestle the whole match with that blown shoulder. The company had given Zayn a shot at the world’s biggest non-geological wrestler in his hometown, in primetime. There’s no way Zayn was going to miss a match against Big Match John.
All due respect to the man of a thousand t-shirt designs, though: with the quality of the product cratering over the course of the year, John Cena put himself through some of the toughest matches in the whole company in 2015. And for what? This is a guy who’s got a Dwayne Johnson-quality post-wrestling career all but pre-baked. Three million people watch the WWE’s usually interminable three-hour bore: more people probably saw his episode of “7 Minutes in Heaven” than a run-in-the-mill Cena match on Raw.
Yet week after week, Cena allowed the likes of Neville and Cesaro to wail on him out of love for the sport. He may be a sloppy in-ring storyteller on occasion, and he’ll probably never “get all” of one of his anemic Springboard Stunners, but John Cena is the Michael Jordan of making the other guy look good when he is appropriately inspired.
And look good he did. The diving crossbody, the Blue Thunder Bomb, that epic suicide dive into tornado DDT: it’s all there. It’s a testament to Zayn’s skills that you can’t tell whether he’s got a real injury or he’s just selling like Ron Popeil.
Of course Cena wins the match. But Zayn puts on the performance of a lifetime, busted shoulder and all. John Cena may be the next Rock in terms of star power, but it’s the weird, redhaired, bearded dude from Montreal who’s the real People’s Champ. —Jordan Pedersen
#6 – Daniel Bryan vs. Roman Reigns (#1 Contender’s Match) (Fastlane; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Roman Reigns has come a long way in his still-relatively-short time in WWE. He went from being the Terry Gordy of the Shield (only way handsomer) to being earmarked IRL as WWE’s prestige babyface (which turned sour because some fans felt he was being pushed down our throats instead of gaining our favor organically) to getting knocked down the ladder of success to steadily climbing back to the top and, at worst, having the fans who gave him grief begrudgingly accept him as a pretty good wrestler but a wrestling character that still needs some work.
This match was from the backlash phase of Reigns’ 2015, after he broke the record for most eliminations in the Royal Rumble and earned the right to face Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 31. The reception for Reigns was so frosty, not even his cousin, eternally beloved Hollywood superstar (and one of the most magnetic WWE performers in history) Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson could believe how bad it was.
Add that to the fact pretty much everybody (at least everybody in Philadelphia that night, and me at the Royal Rumble party I attended) expected Daniel Bryan to win and face Lesnar at Wrestlemania, giving us the projected Summerslam main event his 2014 injury deprived us of. Instead, Bryan was eliminated rather unceremoniously in a match to earn an opportunity for a shot at the title he was never defeated for. In a way to quell the fan backlash, Bryan was placed in a match against Reigns where the winner would get the Golden Ticket to Wrestlemania’s main event, creating the type of “nerds vs. jocks” metatextual narrative WWE will pretend they did on purpose in ten years.
The undersized-by-WWE-standards Rembrandt of modern pro wrestling, sporting the Bruiser Brody Memorial Kickpads he debuted during his iconic double-shot at Wrestlemania XXX, stood across the ring from the gorgeous prince of a Samoan wrestling dynasty with fans practically frothing at the mouth to pick a side. The bell rang. Both competitors knew in the pit of their stomachs it was crunch time.
The match starts out a little heated, with Reigns having some unheard, seemingly unkind words (at least, by the expression on his face) for Bryan. It’s hard to tell if it’s a creative conceit (a la the brief tiff during the Shawn Michaels/Mankind match at WWF Mind Games 1996, something Michaels credits to Mick Foley’s ingenuity) or if Reigns really got a little pissed about Bryan fucking with him.
Featured prominently in the crowd was a “Punch That Hippy” sign, and punch is what Reigns did, countering most of Bryan’s famed submission moves with a brutish punch to the face or otherwise brutish strength (i.e. that top-turnbuckle-hurricanrana counter into a powerbomb later in the match). WWE did a tremendous job of highlighting Reigns as a guy who knew he wasn’t on the level of Bryan technically, but was smart enough to use his power to escape Bryan’s cornucopia of holds.
Capitalizing creatively on Roman Reigns’ then-recent hernia surgery, Bryan goes for a liver kick that incapacitates Reigns for a bit. The most intriguing thing about Bryan’s in-ring work is how he continually incorporates mixed martial arts strategy and technique into his matches; it brings a new, heretofore unused element (except for Brock Lesnar, a pro wrestler who was also once UFC Heavyweight Champion, and CM Punk, who is currently transitioning into the world’s biggest MMA brand) into the world of wrestling.
But Reigns wrestles the match as smartly as Bryan—which is surprising for a guy who fans routinely refer to as “green”—and it works for him. He catches Bryan on the suicide dive through the ropes, hitting him with a belly-to-belly suplex afterward, and you wonder why Reigns isn’t given the opportunity to wrestle powerfully and smartly during his matches. I’m of the opinion that “strong” shouldn’t be enough when you are a world champion; strength is what gets you to the dance, smarts is what keeps you there.
The last leg of this match is one of those indelible sequences that makes you realize WWE could actually deliver this sort of smart interplay all the time if they wanted to: Reigns goes for the spear, and Bryan counters it into a small package a facial hair away from getting the three count. The fans go nuts for the nearfall. Reigns kicks out of the Knee-Plus (the best name for the not-really-named move, credit to Brandon Stroud)—a game-ender since he debuted the move against John Cena in 2013—followed by Bryan desperately eyeing the Wrestlemania sign in the rafters, his dream in danger of slipping away.
Bryan then goes for his patented, expertly executed kicks. Reigns grabs the last one and roars, in a moment where you wish he was always like this instead of the falsely sarcastic smart-alec he’s portrayed as now in WWE promos (sufferin’ succotash indeed). Then, he goes for Bryan’s throat (which is equally as awesome), only for Bryan to counter it into a cross-armbreaker and transitioning into the Yes Lock, because he’s really as good as we say he is.
A last ditch attempt finds Bryan going for the Knee-Plus again, only to get caught in a vicious Spear, (quite predictably) giving Roman Reigns the win. Bryan and Reigns settle their differences at the end, with Bryan commanding Roman to finally cut the nigh-unstoppable monster’s reign short (scroll back up to find out how that went for him).
Whether or not this #1 Contender’s Match was the brainchild of one of the few true artists left on WWE’s main roster, or if Reigns had a hand in sculpting this masterpiece, both men should be duly commended for the effort and execution put into this match. It was the sort of encounter Reigns needed to look like a truly great WWE main event performer, and the sort of match that made Bryan look like a hero in defeat, just narrowly missing the chance to become the world-conquering master wrestler he was last year. Imagine if every wrestling match we saw made both competitors look like world-beaters in the end; it’s the sort of scenario WWE is more often than not afraid of, which makes this epic encounter even more special. —Douglas Martin
#5 – Fenix vs. Mil Muertes (Grave Consequences Match) (Lucha Underground, Episode 19; Lucha Underground)
NXT might have justifiably captured the imagination of WWE fans this year for its unprecedented popularity, but the shocking success of Lucha Underground made it undoubtedly the cult wrestling phenomenon of 2015. A promotion that was literally invented overnight for the fucking El Rey Network (I’m sorry. What now?), featuring cast-off WWE midcarders and a string of near unknowns to anybody not familiar with the Mexican wrestling scene, was the most inventive and dramatically compelling promotion in all of wrestling.
The crown jewel of the Lucha Underground’s landmark first season was easily Grave Consequences, a bloody and action-packed casket match between luchadors Fenix and Mil Muertes. Nearly everything is perfect in this match. From the spooky, atmospheric environment featuring a Dia de los Muertes-inspired funeral procession to the violent, blood-spattered brawling through the crowd, this is one of the most inspired bouts of the year.
Both competitors prove themselves to be true stars in the match, with Mil Muertes particularly coming across as the scariest fucking guy in all of professional wrestling even in defeat. If WWE continues to raid talent from across the world, you could do a hell of lot worse than the death-obsessed Mil Muertes—the alter ego of Mexican wrestling star Ricky Banderas—whose imposing physicality and vicious brawling style would make him far more worthy of inheriting the Undertaker’s supernatural throne than the brutally misused Bray Wyatt. Regardless, Grave Consequences is Lucha Underground’s first instantly iconic moment in the promotion’s young history. Hopefully, signifying to wrestling fans a long and fruitful history for the show in the coming years.
Season 2 starts January 27. Get your DVRs ready. —Doc Zeuser
#4 – Kevin Owens vs. John Cena (Elimination Chamber; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Sure, Owens mostly got the push because Rusev busted his leg at a Smackdown taping. But while Rusev/Cena at WrestleMania was a fun Rocky IV throwback, the truth is that Owens is arguably Cena’s perfect foil: Cena’s got a million-dollar jawline and a body like an action figure. Owens looks like Ms. Piggy’s perpetually unemployed cousin. Cena gets sex scenes in big summer movies. Owens has a face for radio. Kids love John Cena, including Kevin Owens’ kid. Owens’ kid is probably the only kid he doesn’t scare.
The company man side of me has massive respect for the hard work Cena puts in, the cynic in me stood up and cheered when Owens beat the living crap out of the neon blue goon: Hustle. Loyalty. Respect. Never Give Up. The little blue fucking towels. This jabroni deserved every pop-up powerbomb he got.
And Owens put him through the ringer. Early in the match, The King opines that “Kevin Owens isn’t gonna be flashy,” he’s just gonna kick your ass, but that’s really not giving Owens enough credit. In addition to his proven stable of powerbombs, sentons, and that great Go-Home Driver, Kevin Owens pulls off a surprisingly graceful double-jump moonsault. Credit where it’s due: Lawler recognizes his mistake.
2015 was a pretty shitty year for humanity, and maybe you could argue that a superheroic victory is exactly the thing we needed. But wrestling—and art more generally—does better when it reflects rather than uplifts: 2015 was the year of ISIS and earthquakes and Donald Trump. And one night in May, Kevin Owens pop-up powerbombed every kid’s hero and rolled him up for three. Sometimes the bad guys win.
Most of all, though, Cena is the dream, and Owens is the dream killer: “For the last decade, John Cena has been portrayed as a living, breathing, real life superhero,” Owens said on the June 1st episode of Raw, the night after his win at Elimination Chamber. “I am going to expose the lie that is John Cena.”
And while we often think of Kevin Owens as a manifestation of pure malice, here Owens is movingly vulnerable. “While I traveled the world for over ten years honing my craft, in hopes of one day making it to WWE, my son was being influenced by John Cena,” Owens said on the June 1st episode of Raw. “That’s when John Cena became the hero to my son that I never got the chance to be.” Something tells me the real Owens is a great dad, but when you spend your life slugging it out in VFWs and American Legion Posts around the country, you’re gonna miss a lot of your son’s childhood. Owens’ words are raw and real, an important reminder that humanizing your villains doesn’t make them any less intimidating. —Jordan Pedersen
#3 – Kota Ibushi vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match) (Wrestle Kingdom 9; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
This is what happens when wrestling transcends the mere definition of sport and climbs into the world of art. That we live in a world where Kota Ibushi and Shinsuke Nakamura not only found each other among billions of people, but were actively pushed toward one another by the hands of fate is nothing short of divine, in the same way that Galileo saw God in the stars.
Of course, in this scenario, fate is played by New Japan booker Gedo, but the feeling remains: what Ibushi and Nakamura accomplished on January 4th, 2015 is the answer to every question wrestling has ever received about its own inherent purpose. To say this was a 5-star match is to ignore that certain things do not fall into the realm of mere ratings.
Or, to be a little more direct, this match kicked all sorts of ass. I mean, did you see Shinsuke Goddamn Nakamura enter like some kind of royal Vincent Valentine? Did you see the way he sauntered around, taking every hit Ibushi threw at him with a deranged smile? Did you see how hard some of Nakamura’s kicks hit? If anyone questions why Nakamura is considered one of the best wrestlers in the world (he’s the best, full stop), this 20-minute exhibition should quell any doubts.
There’s a reason that so many are excited about his impending move to WWE: more audiences should be able to see the King of Strong Style hold court over his squared circle dominion. If he can do in WWE what he did for the IWGP Intercontinental Title, the company is in good hands, and those hands are covered in red velvet finger gloves.
In other words, Nakamura is, at this point, the closest any wrestler has ever gotten to being an actual god, and yet, somehow, inside of the Tokyo Dome, he was arguably overshadowed by the fresh-faced Ibushi, who went full insane for 20 minutes. Phoenix Splashes, moonsaults all over the place, and one deadlight German suplex while ON TOP OF THE ROPES that had me double-taking to make sure Cesaro hadn’t put on a wig and flown to Japan for this match.
To say that Ibushi wanted the title on that night is to say that Michael Jordan wanted to win some basketball games. Ibushi showed an aggression previously unseen, as well as a modicum of disrespect, stealing some of Nakamura’s moves including his Boma Ye knee (which saw Nakamura kick out at an angry 1-count to thunderous applause). It was exhilarating to watch Ibushi hit corkscrew after roundhouse after powerbomb, coming so close to winning that even Shinsuke’s biggest fans would have to be rooting for the kid to do it.
The Golden Star earned his name on that day, and his current injury puts a damper on any celebrations for the foreseeable future. Come back soon, Kota. —Luis Paez-Pumar
#2 – Bayley vs. Sasha Banks (NXT Women’s Championship Match) (NXT Takeover: Brooklyn; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Professional sports fans can go their entire lives without experiencing the joy of their favorites finally winning the Big One. (Trust me, I know. God, do I know.) [Editor’s Note: Zeus is from Cleveland, which kind of makes me feel sorry for him in regard to his hometown sports teams.] The chaotic reality of a genuine sporting competition that is not “fixed” means that there is no guarantee that your favorites will ever win thus fulfilling the ultimate hopes and dreams of the fan. Possibly ever. Your closer can blow a one-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 7 in the World Series. Your starting point guard and power forward can succumb to tragic injuries in the NBA Playoffs. Your favorites can and will lose the big game forever if the universe deems it so and you’re just gonna have to suck it up and live with that hurt. A pox of Jordan Cry faces on your life.
Pro wrestling doesn’t have to work that way. The allure of a “fixed” competition is that you get to see your heroes win in the end. Not always (especially if you are devoted to the likes of Heath Slater) but usually, the beloved babyface is rewarded for all their pluck with that perfect moment when they are allowed to stand tall in front of their adoring fans and hoist that championship belt over their head. Those are the moments that make wrestling so addictive to its fans and make you willing to sit through all the repetitive three-hour shows, insulting gimmicks and “LOL Cena Winz” moments that often makes wrestling fans so embarrassed for their fandom.
The most rewarding moment for me as a fan last year came while watching cherished underdog Bayley lift the NXT Women’s Championship over her head in front of an emotional and appreciative crowd in fucking Brooklyn of all places. While WWE isn’t always the most adept at telling complex stories with the proper emotional climax, Bayley’s three-year journey from lowly, bullied fan girl to a respected and loved champion seems as if it was specifically written for this particular moment.
As a personal witness in the building that night, I cannot describe the emotional electricity that surged through the entire crowd as they waited for Bayley and Sasha Banks to finally square off for the NXT Women’s Title. Both women were in their own way conquering heroes; the two most important wrestlers in the building squaring off in a contest that meant everything to everybody. There were more technically impressive matches in 2015, but the pure theater of Bayley vs. Sasha Banks in a sold-out Barclays Center could not be touched by anything else.
From the moment that Sasha, the defending champion, confidently entered the arena in a goddamn Escalade, you could instantly tell you were about to witness something truly iconic. There were more than a few memorable moments in the match but there were two that were immediately visceral: The first was Sasha catching Bayley in a submission hold and brutally stomping on Bayley’s broken hand as the challenger desperately reached for the ropes—the perfect babyface in peril beat. The second was Bayley wrenching up her ponytail after hitting a top-turnbuckle reverse hurricanrana before finishing off Sasha for good with her signature Belly-to-Bayley suplex. The crowd exploded.
The ending was nothing but tears. Upon having her hand raised, Bayley was an immediate bawling mess as if she was caught up in the instant history of it all. Soon, she was joined in the ring by her friends, Charlotte and Becky Lynch, as tears liberally streamed from both of their faces, too. Finally, Sasha Banks, who had just been defeated, joined the rest of her fellow Four Horsewomen of NXT to soak in another teary curtain call in New York City. You could hardly blame any of them for breaking character because there was not a dry eye in the house, either. Top that, Sports. —Doc Zeus
#1 – Seth Rollins vs. John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar (WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match) (Royal Rumble; World Wrestling Entertainment)
“To do big things you better to take big risks!”
“No, no, no; you’ve gotta be kidding me!”
“Nah, hell no, do it! Championship is at stake!”
Seth Rollins looked up at the top turnbuckle and there was a dull roar which steadily grew by the millisecond. The fans knew exactly what he was thinking, as Brock Lesnar lay prone on the Spanish announcer’s table. As he climbed the turnbuckles, Jerry “the King” Lawler and JBL sat at the adjacent table and had the above exchange. By then, Seth Rollins was already soaring through the air. It felt as though his flight slowed down time. And then he crashed through the table (and one of Brock Lesnar’s ribs) with a loud crack. The fans went apeshit. The trainer rushed over. Eventually EMTs carried an emergency backboard to the ring. It was the star-making moment crouched in a star-making performance. Seth Rollins was made, a certified main event star in the “big leagues” of professional wrestling.
But let’s backtrack, because every moving part of this match is what makes it the most undeniable of 2015’s undeniably classic matches.
Ever since his heretofore unfathomable conquering of the Undertaker’s Wrestlemania undefeated streak at the event’s thirtieth installment, Brock Lesnar has been the most dominant force in WWE by a South Dakota mile. He handily outclassed the almighty Big Match John at Summerslam 2014, embarrassed almost every wrestler he’d faced off in the ring with since (sometimes two, three, four at a time), and established himself as WWE’s preeminent Hopeless Boss Fight.
John Cena, on the steady crawl to being the most decorated world champion in professional wrestling history, was determined to finally beat him and was given his opportunity. But where there is opportunity, there are opportunists, and Seth Rollins—Money in the Bank briefcase winner by crook and handpicked in storyline by the people who run WWE as the future of the company—was gerrymandered into the WWE World Heavyweight Championship match at Royal Rumble.
Each competitor entered the ringside area as if it were a billion-dollar title fight, as if it were a championship game in any other sport. The fans fill the air with anticipation appropriately.
When the bell rings, Rollins perfectly plays the cowardly heel, getting his ironically-undersized “security team” to interject at various points in the match. (J&J Security is a criminally undervalued component in this match and probably in general; a surefire heat-catcher for macho wrestling fans, much like the original conception of Chyna.) For their patronage, they are German suplexed—simultaneously—by Lesnar. Later, they are—again simultaneously—hit with Cena’s Attitude Adjustment.
Cena, despite being booed lustily by the notoriously “smart marked” Philly crowd, takes a heroic amount of punishment, being suplexed repeatedly by Lesnar and kicked in the face by Rollins.
At intervals during the match, Cena and Rollins team up to take on Lesnar, but are routinely divided by their desire to win. Early on, Cena hits Lesnar with an AA. Rollins quickly throws Cena out of the ring. Lesnar kicks out at one.
“At one! At one! John Cena has won fifteen world championships, a lot of them with that move, and Brock kicked out at one. AT ONE! [chuckles] What are you gonna do to Brock?”
Brock proves to be the sort of monster you only read about in fantasy novels written in European languages. At one point, he took three AA’s, a Curb Stomp from Rollins, and was driven through the barricade by Cena. This was before Rollins’ suicidal elbow drop.
After regaining their bearings and surveying the wreckage around them, Rollins and Cena attempt to settle this championship match between themselves. After a nail-biting series of nearfalls, Rollins goes up top, desperate to put this match away, and nails Kota Ibushi’s Phoenix Splash—a move most WWE fans have probably never seen before—and Brock immediately slides in the ring and hits Rollins with a German suplex. The swift undercutting of Rollins’ acrobatic grace here is absolutely delicious.
Cena gets ejected from the ring with a German from Brock. Rollins flips out of one and hits Lesnar with the Money in the Bank briefcase (WWE’s Chekov’s Gun from both a physical and logistical perspective). Brock staggers. Rollins takes another shot. Brock goes down. He sets the briefcase in position, looking to Curb Stomp Lesnar onto it. Lesnar picks him out of the fucking air and hits and F5. Match over.
What does it mean to be a world champion in a fictional sport? Traditionally, it still means you are the best in the world. That you are the most talented athlete around, that when your name is on the top of the card, people are paying to see you. Whether they’re paying to see you win or paying to see you lose, they’re still paying to see you. World championships are not supposed to be just fancy props, as the WWE World Heavyweight Championship is sometimes positioned as; they are—to crib a term from Big Match John—a symbol of excellence. All three men looked worthy of holding a Legit World Championship in this Odyssean encounter.
It wasn’t the emotional masterwork last year’s top entry was, or even some of the matches on this list. But what this match—arguably the best and most exciting triple threat match in WWE’s storied history—achieved was the concept of pro-wrestling-as-action movie: A badass confrontation almost exhausting in its stimulation and executed perfectly enough to never get old, even when you’ve watched it dozens of times, where the term “clash of immortals” doesn’t seem like a cliche. At their best, world championship matches make the prize being competed for look like the most important in the world, and the people fighting for it the most important in their field by proxy.
Maybe it’s for the best. If wrestling were always this outstanding, we’d never get anything done. —Douglas Martin