Each year, our workhorses steal the show, offering arguably the best pro wrestling writing of every calendar 365 for a hot dog and a handshake. Please support the work they put in every year by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss’ Patreon.
It’s funny, I feel like I say the same thing every year: there are more places to find great wrestling than ever. Your favorite indie or regional brand probably has a YouTube channel or a streaming service, your favorite subgenre probably has a sub-subgenre at this point. Your favorite wrestler is probably working everywhere, or they work for a company that goes everywhere. Your favorite wrestler’s favorite wrestler is either on the verge of stardom or passing the torch to another star. WWE hasn’t been the only show in town in a long time, and with the proliferation of All Elite Wrestling in the early weeks of 2019, the game of mainstream wrestling just got a lot more competitive in the realm of talent acquisition — while independents are scrambling to find new top stars.
Pro wrestling in 2019 already looks way different than it did at the start of 2018, and 2020 is more than likely going to look like a whole new world. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the year that was. — Douglas Martin
HONORABLE MENTION: Kota Ibushi vs. Kenny Omega (G1 Climax Tournament Block Finals; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
The Golden Lovers exploded, and it was glorious. There’s so much history between Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi that the best way to summarize it is a long, must-read Twitter thread. Seriously, go ahead. I’ll wait.
Okay, so now that you’re caught up on the best friends/partners/enemies/probable lovers, this G1 B Block final did not disappoint. G1 is the best wrestling in the world condensed into one grueling month, with a handful of New Japan stars fighting for a spot in the main event of the biggest show of the year, Wrestle Kingdom. Ibushi and Omega put aside their affection for each other to fight for a spot in the G1 finals, but that same affection meant they were able to match each other’s moves perfectly.
There’s so much to love here from a purely technical standpoint, but really, this match could have been ass in the ring (it wasn’t) and still would have captivated the audience because of the story.
The ending is perfect pro wrestling melodrama: Omega knows Ibushi so well that he’s able to counter a reverse hurricanrana into a two-count, followed by a V-Trigger knee strike that set up a potential second-rope One Winged Angel. Second-rope finishers are match-enders, something Ibushi recognizes as he counters into a double foot stomp to the back of the head (ow) before hitting a top rope Tiger Driver into the Kamigoye, his own knee strike finisher, with the pain of 24 minutes of wrestling and practically a lifetime of friendship behind the knee strike. 1-2-3, and Ibushi would move on to the final of the G1, another classic match that might have topped this one on pure wrestling skill. — Luis Paez Pumar
HONORABLE MENTION: Keith Lee vs. Tomohiro Ishii (Undisputed Heavyweight Championship Match) (Epic Encounter II: Revolution Pro Wrestling)
Tomohiro Ishii typically is the thickest and most-unmovable man in the ring, which is what makes this match feel like it came straight off the pages of WHAT IF? Because while the likes of Minoru Suzuki, Zack Sabre Jr. and Kenny Omega have tested Ishii before, Keith Lee is a monster of a different nature, combining the strikes and agility of those three, into a frame as large as two of those three men combined.
Of course, that size discrepancy is the main story of this match, as the Stone Pitbull repeatedly tries to get the massive Keith Lee up for the brainbuster. It’s a modern day version of the Andre the Giant problem: How do you hoist a man this huge? At first, of course, Ishii goes with chops, which slow Keith a bit, enough for a fall-away slam, but before he can even attempt a pinfall, Keith’s slingshotting himself from the apron into the ring, as if he were Johnny Gargano, but doing a cross-body over the top rope.
And then Keith brings out the big guns: the Grizzly Magnum double-chop and a Bale Toss so big that the ground might have moved. Still, Ishii’s fighting spirit remains, and he manages to superplex Keith Lee, looking like “The Thing” Ben Grimm, hoisting Juggernaut into the sky. On and on this goes, with moves getting increasingly crazy, calling back to Lee vs Dijak at BOLA 2017, with Lee nailing Ishii with his signature pounce and his pop-up power bomb. He even uses momentum to fling Ishii into the air, to let gravity do the work. And while some men throw chest chops, these uber-hosses are landing their hardest blows on the upper torso, practically in the neck.
Ishii, still standing on his wobbly legs, has become a frustration to Lee, who finally breaks his friendly facade. Yelling, “WHY WON’T YOU GO DOWN?” after a pair of forearms to the jaw — which lead Lee to flinch, showing he’s smarting from his own attacks — Lee can’t believe his hardest hits don’t stop his (comparatively) smaller opponent. Operating on autopilot, kicking out at 1, Ishii draws the resistance out of Lee by following a dropkick with a sliding lariat, so that Keith can’t fight off the deadly brainbuster, which puts him down for 3. — Henry T. Casey
HONORABLE MENTION: Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins vs. John Cena vs. Elias vs. Finn Balor vs. the Miz vs. Braun Strowman (Gauntlet Match) (Monday Night Raw Episode 1291; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Fans’ biggest complaint about Monday Night Raw for most of its twenty-six-year run is how formulaic it can be most of the time. The show has a small handful of narrative ingredients which they mostly just rearrange the order of; most episodes are average-at-best attempts to further the same stories they’ve been telling forever, adjusted for whatever character is on their screen at any given time. But that’s the thing about a gauntlet match which eats up nearly 2/3 of your weekly show’s running time: it’s a pretty brilliant diversion of formula. Especially when its first half is carried by a talent dying to give star-making performances when his name is up on the call sheet.
Let’s dispense with the pleasantries and get to the point here: This gauntlet match is totally designed as a platform for Seth Rollins to do what he does best, a rapprochement of his status as the guy on Raw who is relied upon to offer great matches. He has been on a campaign of revitalization as of late; a desire burns inside of him to be the dude holding up WWE’s main championship, swinging it around while pyro goes off and the title card fades from the right hand corner of the screen.
There’s a part early in the match where Rollins turns to get the proverbial head of steam and Roman Reigns bows up and steps right in his face. An incredible character moment.
Rollins gets a surprise win over Reigns, who is masterful at evoking the emotion of, “Okay, you got me this time, bro.” That sense of friendly competition which drives both Rollins and Reigns depending on what part of the character spectrum they’re on. Rollins subsequently gets the win over John Cena in one of Cena’s increasingly common great matches. In the encounter, Cena carried himself as one of the all-time greats. Rollins, in turn, jacks Cena’s moves, put his whole soul into the match he wrestled, and won. Against John Cena at his best. (His STF is still soft as fuck, though.)
Don’t get me wrong, there’s some interesting stuff going on in the final half of this gauntlet match; Elias coming out wearing rib tape from Braun Strowman breaking an upright bass off his back is a particular joy. Not long after Elias enters the match, Rollins’ body finally gives out after 65 minutes of ring time, and that’s kind of a beautiful end to his story here. His body runs out of gas before his heart does. So he takes a hero’s exit. — Douglas Martin
HONORABLE MENTION: Adam Cole vs. EC3, vs. Killian Dain vs. Lars Sullivan vs. Ricochet vs. Velveteen Dream (Ladder Match for the NXT North American Championship) (NXT Takeover: New Orleans; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Some of NXT’s best-ever matches happen because the storylines align and a match gains added importance. Others are just amazing in-ring performances, the kind that you just can’t deny. And still others happen because six dudes are willing to die for real to get to the fireworks factory. That’s the type of match that these six had in a multi-man ladder match for the prestige of becoming the inaugural NXT North American Champion.
The star of the show here is … well, pretty much everyone. Dain and Sullivan get to be the terrifyingly large beasts that ground everything by just whomping motherfuckers. EC3 probably comes the closest to dying of anyone in the match, so, ya know, shout out to him. Velveteen Dream’s rise to being the low key best part of NXT probably started for real here; his top-of-the-ladder elbow drop on Lars Sullivan looked like straight-up murder. And Adam Cole wins the whole thing, because he’s as smart as he is a scumbag dumpster baby.
Yet, for the uninitiated, this is all about Ricochet. The former indie star gets his first WWE spotlight in this match, and the spotlight shines extremely bright. He’s flying all over the ring, doing his signature (some would say excessive) leaping and flipping and bouncing. A ladder match is supposed to be brutal, but it also allows for some bonkers feats of athleticism, such as Ricochet’s shooting star press on to EC3’s ladder-prone body.
This match isn’t a technical masterpiece. It’s not the culmination of months-long storytelling. It’s elemental, it’s primal. If you can’t enjoy six dudes going above and beyond to ruin each other for your entertainment, maybe pro wrestling just isn’t for you. — Luis Paez-Pumar
HONORABLE MENTION: Meiko Satomura vs. Kyle Fletcher (Fight Club Pro Championship Match) (Project Mayhem 7, Night Two; Fight Club Pro)
Meiko Satomura, a quiet badass just waiting to wreck shop, should have defeated the feckless Kyle Fletcher in a matter of moments. Fletcher’s a rookie in comparison, and doesn’t have the history or pedigree to his name, but he does have shenanigans. See, Fletcher’s champ in title only, having been given the title as a thank you for joining the heel faction SCHADENFREUDE (a European nWo of sorts, always ruining everything), and to protect leader Chris Brookes from those with title aspirations.
So Kyle survives on both interference and a height advantage, which allows him to keep his distance, hitting superkicks that keep him away from Meiko’s stronger, shorter, limbs. Kyle also uses his lanky legs to reach for rope breaks, as he keeps getting caught in her myriad submissions. Increasingly, as she gets harder and harder to avoid, the cringing panic sets in on his face, like a spoiled child who’s been told he’s only getting an economy sedan, not a convertible, for his 16th birthday.
And here the baddies come to save the day, turning the match into the best kind of schmozz. This starts with Meiko dealing with Lykos, who paws at her legs as she tries to get in the ring, setting Fletcher up for sickening kicks, including a flying John Woo double dropkick. Then, after Kyle blinds her Meiko with a rake of the eyes, she accidentally hits the ref with a death valley driver, bringing us to hijinks town, as there’s no ref to count after Meiko actually lands that DVD on Fletcher.
As Meiko gets closer to a win, out come more Schaden-fuckers, including Brookes, Tim Thatcher and Mark Davis, who are fought off by Tyler Bate and Trent Seven. When executed poorly, it’s the kind of thing that makes fans draw comparisons to the Vince Russo era of WCW, but this went the other way. Eventually the hijinks concluded, and Fletcher Lawn Darts Satomura into one of those big, tall corner pads. The audience gasped as if the good fight had been lost, and then applauds when she kicks out at two. This, is how you overbook an ending properly.
In the end, Fletcher’s lack of respect for the belt was his undoing, as he swings it as a weapon, and whiffs hard, opening up a sequence of Meiko’s strongest kicks. The match and crowd climax with a Satomura win via submission, with Kyle tapping a hand that’s too weak to hold the FCP championship he never earned. — Henry T. Casey
HONORABLE MENTION: Johnny Gargano vs. Aleister Black (NXT Takeover: War Games II; World Wrestling Entertainment)
“I absolve you of all your sins.”
Johnny Gargano’s slow descent into madness — jump-started by the moment he was revealed as the culprit in the summer mystery Who Attacked Aleister Black? — has arguably been even more interesting than his yearlong rivalry with former best friend and tag team championship partner Tommaso Ciampa; a tapestry filled with such depth, history, and complexity, it’s practically a psychologist’s wet dream. Johnny shows a new side of himself as the disingenuous hero.
Who Attacked Aleister Black? as a story through-line on NXT TV was sublimely entertaining, containing a few cool twists and diversions and a lot of borderline riotous humor (anything involving William Regal having to play a straight face while Nikki Cross spins around in an office chair is bound to be a highlight). The best touch being Cross actually holding the secret which kept the entire WWE Performance Center on pins and needles the whole time and screaming, “HE’S COMING! HE’S COMING!” upon Black’s return like the fire and brimstone it was.
Johnny, in his deluded plight of a hero, showed no fear ahead of their inevitable in-ring clash, showing exactly how deluded he was.
When the bell rings, Gargano starts out with a slap, and the expression on Black’s face proves him as someone not to be fucked with under any circumstances. But the erstwhile Johnny Wrestling indeed keeps fucking with him, which of course doesn’t end up working out well for him. In the meantime, Gargano serves as a gifted technical wrestler, which shines much brighter under the dim light of his convoluted good guy status.
Of course, he’s stealing Candice LeRae’s suicide dive/DDT combination, but he’s still claiming he’s the hero. Such great, emotionally complex work from Gargano.
Black gets off crescendo-like combinations, like the one that ended with that gorgeous German suplex with the bridge. Black is given a lot of weight to carry from a storytelling perspective, screaming at Johnny to give him his best shot, along with everything that happens in the final minute of the match; from Johnny leading Black into the Gargano Escape to the brutality-as-benevolence of the final strikes of the contest.
Aleister Black’s character serves no greater thematic purpose than as instrument of vengeance, and offering Johnny Gargano mercy and forgiveness by roundhouse kicking his tarnished soul and convoluted perspective into the 200 section of the Staples Center provides just that. For himself, for the months he spent on the shelf, and for forsaken fans of the pure-hearted NXT hero Johnny Wrestling we lost to his mania and obsession with his enemy(?) Tommaso Ciampa. — Douglas Martin
15. Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka (Smackdown Women’s Championship Match) (Wrestlemania; World Wrestling Entertainment)
No one was ready for Asuka. Until she ran into the second-generation pedigree (and privilege) of Charlotte Flair. So it goes.
On paper, this was the match with the highest stakes on WWE’s biggest annual show: The challenger, undefeated for nearly three years (the longest winning streak of any full-time WWE competitor ever) versus arguably the most dominant and certainly the most decorated women’s wrestler in decades.
The match starts off at a sprinter’s pace; counters upon counters, a drop toe hold transition into a Figure Eight leg lock attempt into yet another counter by Asuka. After attacking Asuka’s neck, Charlotte goes for a moonsault and is picked out of the air. Countered into a Boston Crab, countered again into a pinning combination. The match is a testament to supreme skill and indomitable will. The suplex from the apron to the floor was a particular highlight, as was the Spanish Fly from the top rope by Flair and Asuka’s torso-stretching submission hold.
Asuka finally tapping out to the Figure Eight, Flair bridging with one arm, signified Asuka’s life’s work fizzling out on the world’s stage, a chance to start anew as incredibly formidable and dangerous, but human after all. — Douglas Martin
14. Kimber Lee vs. Nicole Matthews (DEFY Requiem; DEFY Wrestling)
One fan’s regional independent is another’s holy grail. Case in point: the incredible matchup of Kimber Lee — former CHIKARA Grand Champion, so beloved some fans vocally railed against her being “marginalized” in the 2017 Mae Young Classic — and Nicole Matthews — rightful holder of the moniker the SHIMMERtaker and the closest thing Stan Hansen has to a stylistic successor in wrestling today.
Lee enters the lion’s den of Washington Hall (to the strains of Audioslave) as a returning hero, wrestling in her hometown for the very first time. Matthews doesn’t give a fuck about Lee’s highly anticipated return; she’s been a stalwart of DEFY and in 2017 and a goodly portion of the following year, the company’s women’s division had been dutifully built around her immense talents.
Matthews offers a quick handshake to Lee, a rare show of respect to another veteran of the independent wrestling scene. They spend the opening minutes of the match chain wrestling to get a feel for each other. Matthews, underscoring her surly attitude and aim to wrestle this match on her terms, rolls out of the ring repeatedly. She also goes for brutal back elbows and yells “fuck you!” to the crowd while wrenching in submissions.
Matthews’ facility with being a heel most certainly is part and parcel to her again being a top talent in the Pacific Northwest wrestling scene. Lee, however, takes a swig of Rainier and spits it in her face to demonstrate the lengths she is willing to go to in order to win. (Also, you can’t truly consider yourself a veteran of Pacific Northwest anything until you have either spat Rainier in someone’s face or have been spat upon and doused with it.)
Matthews draws Lee to the Washington Hall stage, but Lee powerbombs her there. She’s clearly trying to beat Matthews at her own game; so far so good.
After trading blows in the center of the ring, the two competitors trade German suplexes, then Lee hits a hat trick of them. Matthews hits a short-arm lariat and a Northern Lights suplex to stave off Lee’s encroaching onslaught. Matthews is imposing and wholly unafraid to tape into her more brutal side, but Lee kicks out of a brainbuster, showing her fortitude and determination.
Ultimately, Lee wins with a Senton Atomico, digging deep — deeper than one of the most formidable (and underrated) wrestlers of her generation to pull off a gutsy win in the city she was born. — Douglas Martin
13. Shingo Takagi vs. Bandito vs. Jeff Cobb (Battle of Los Angeles Tournament Finals; Pro Wrestling Guerrilla)
Under the bright lights of the Globe Theater and the many eyes focused on this all-star tournament of independent wrestling, three of the year’s biggest stars attempted to live up to legend. As it was last year (with Cobb, Keith Lee and Ricochet) these three wrestled as if they knew their futures were on the line.
Takagi — not-quite-fresh, having just survived WALTER — spends his time mostly assisting and taking damage. This isn’t a bad thing; especially when he’s the middle man in a tower plex, the hybrid combination of a powerbomb and a suplex. And right after he hits a Pumping Bomber lariat on Cobb, he falls to Bandido’s top-rope somersault fall-away slam, which is just a thing of beauty.
Now, down to just two, for the trophy, it’s time for all of the spots, all of the spots. While Bandido’s effortless reversal of a side slam, turning it into a DDT is neat, it’s barely a bite. The real meat comes when Cobb using the ropes to stop Bandido’s top-rope-assisted german suplex, before he catches a mid-air kick, flips Bandido in the air, catches him in the Styles Clash position, and finishes off the sequence with a Gonzo Bomb.
Only getting a two-count from that, Cobb follows that bit of utter lunacy with a standing shooting moonsault press, which still doesn’t do the trick. Neither does Bandido’s reversal of Cobb’s Tour of the Islands powerslam into a crucifix bomb.
The ultimate moment in this match, for me, came when Bandido caught Jeff Cobb in mid-air, and hitting Jeffrey with his own finisher. Yes, you’ve seen Cobb (as himself or Matanza) catch dudes for that spinning powerslam, but did you ever expect it would happen to Cobb? I did not. When Keith Lee caught Donovan Dijak at BOLA 2017, only to hit him with a Spirit Bomb, it made slightly more sense, considering their comparable size. Cobb’s absolute density, though, is in stark contrast with Bandido’s more-lithe physique, creating a mind-blowing moment. — Henry T. Casey
12. Daniel Bryan vs. Brock Lesnar (Champion vs. Champion Non-Title Match) (Survivor Series; World Wrestling Entertainment)
A surprise heel turn spearheading a truly brilliant character reinvention, Daniel Bryan’s current iteration is basically what would happen if a moody Grist editor happened to also be the greatest professional wrestler of their generation. Nobody who has been waiting for this match since it was earmarked as the main event of Summerslam 2014 could have possibly expected this Daniel Bryan — after one of the most iconic babyface runs of the decade, it was easy to forget how deliciously antagonistic Bryan can be — would get this dream match slot.
This is a guy who in his previous heel run swiped a taunt from Diego Sanchez, deployed with masterful sarcasm, and ultimately turned it into the definitive rallying cry for underdogs everywhere; from college basketball courts to major league baseball stadiums and pretty much everywhere in between where people gather together to watch a good competition.
He swindled his way into the WWE Championship in a manner which legitimately surprised everyone; he swindled his way into a dream match with Brock Lesnar, which is like swindling your way into the tiger enclosure at the zoo with a backpack full of raw sirloin. With the world of wrestling having so many options, the term “dream match” is almost as cliche as the term “smart mark.” But only almost. This was one of the last true dream matches; they really only come around once in a huge handful of years.
Bryan’s strategic approach in the ring has evolved along with the current version of the Daniel Bryan persona: Annoy the fuck out of his competitor, withstand an emotional barrage of an ass-kicking, and draw them into deep water.
Brock dominated the match with singular brutality for the lion’s share of the match that night. (Corey Graves famously called it “a lesson in humility.”) Most of the first ⅔ of the match’s near-nineteen minutes was a merciless trip to the Lesnar family woodshed, lined with the heads of seven-point bucks on the wall and the copper taste of blood and stench of wet fur in the air.
The deep water splashes around both competitors when Bryan starts rapping Lesnar with on the top of the head with kicks after basically playing possum, right after Brock yanked Bryan’s shoulders off the mat after a two-count in a moment of sadistic hubris. In the ensuing moments, Bryan tried what worked for him in his aforementioned great swindle to acquire the WWE Championship; pulling the referee between the two wrestlers and catching Brock with a low blow in the moment of confusion, followed by a running knee. Brock kicks out at two. Bryan kicks Brock and tries to stomp his face in.
Bryan continues to withstand Brock’s onslaught and throws knees and chop blocks and dropkicks. Brock’s knee (which Bryan, a smart wrestler, was targeting) gives out while going for an F5, and Bryan turns it into a Yes Lock.
Brock transitions into an F5. Lesnar wins. No big surprise there.
The story was told like a wild gambit; Daniel Bryan frequently appeared to be literally gambling his life to have a chance to win a match against Brock Lesnar. As a competitor, that’s quite the notch to have under your belt, to the point where you’d do anything to have it. Bryan did anything — the floor was mopped with his bushy beard and long hair and he withstood the pain, he used his unrivaled skill, he tried to pull a fast one — and still lost.
The match was grounded in a brutalist’s reality. Sometimes a miracle win comes out of nowhere, sometimes a cunning wrestler willing to do anything — within traditional moral code or completely independent of it — cheats and wins against the unstoppable monster. But in the real world, miracles and swindles far too often get snuffed out by living beasts.
As he and advocate Paul Heyman walked up the ramp, Brock turned to the ring for one last glimpse at his defeated opponent. He flashed a smile; a smile both incredulous and impressed, like he just found out Daniel Bryan is as good as everybody says he is. — Douglas Martin
11. Kota Ibushi vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (G1 Climax Tournament Finals; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
So, about that G1 Final. We already experience the magic of Kota Ibushi in his B Block final against Kenny Omega, but in its own way, the meta storyline of his tournament final against Hiroshi Tanahashi might be even better on its own. Ibushi was long the outcast of New Japan, an incredibly talented wrestler who was too weird to ever lock down with Japan’s biggest promotion. Tanahashi is what WWE wants John Cena to be: A true ace, someone who has put on some of the best matches in wrestling history and single-handedly carried the company through some of its worst times ever. Earning the respect of Tanahashi would finally cement Ibushi as New Japan royalty. In the G1 final, he does that and more.
Ibushi gets a lot of props for his high-flying lunacy, but Tanahashi was able to ground him and turn this into a technical kaleidoscope. The two mixed in traditional grappling with high-stakes counters and false finishes, hyping a crowd already in love with both to max levels. Tanahashi is the best wrestler in the world at knowing when to go for big sequences, and the double near-fall that had Ibushi hit a suplex for a two-count before getting countered into a roll-up and two count of its own, ending with Ibushi missing his Last Ride powerbomb and getting clocked in the face by the Ace was sublime.
And the finish…well, New Japan matches have the best finishing sequences in wrestling, and I think this one is an all-timer: Ibushi’s last ride connects for the loudest two-count pop of the tournament, followed by Tanahashi taking control, hitting a multitude of moves before landing three High Fly Flow splashes: one to Ibushi’s back, one from a standing position, and the tournament-winning version to finally close out Ibushi. Respect earned, Kota, but Tanahashi won his third G1 tournament, and looked damn good doing it at the age of 41. The Ace is ageless. — Luis Paez-Pumar
10. Zack Sabre Jr. vs. WALTER (PROGRESS World Championship Match) (Chapter 77: Pumpkin Spice PROGRESS; PROGRESS Wrestling)
When pro wrestling promotions look for big fight feel, they aim for everything that PROGRESS nailed in this match. From the little touch of Timothy Thatcher as WALTER’s supportive-but-hands-off corner man to a raucous crowd split down the middle and two of the best wrestlers in the world, this has all the hallmarks of a huge match in the intimate confines of a small venue.
WALTER is the new breed, the super sized champ who’s far more technically savvy than many peers of his size. Sabre Jr., on the other hand, is a PROGRESS Chapter 1 Original who has been making a huge name for himself in Japan. When they tie up, WALTER’s immovable size is not outmatched by Zack’s technical ingenuity and vice versa. Both are frustrated but not surprised; this is the fourth time these men have squared up in PROGRESS.
Dead set on demonstrating proficiencies in each other’s style, Zack starts the duel trying to kick and elbow his way through the all-caps Austrian, who’s wrenching Sabre’s neck with his boots in one moment and bending Zack’s arms back like bow strings while he jams his boot in the Brit’s back at another.
Once Zack defies WALTER with an upside down double-bird salute, the Ring General drops big boot stomps into Sabre’s upper body, with each landing like a truck tire over a passing skunk. Showing remarkable restraint, these two don’t deploy their chops until a little over 13 minutes in, with Zack’s first knocking the sweat off the giant and WALTER with a belter that pushes Zack off the top buckle onto the floor. Realizing he can’t meet WALTER blow for blow, Zack moves to WALTER’s legs, tangling them in the ropes before throwing kick after kick, taking the big man’s stems out from under him.
You’ll watch this match with mouth agape, witnessing the endlessly natural-looking reversals, including the sequence that ends with Zack’s bend-over-backwards European Clutch that WALTER counters by palming Zack’s incoming head, applying torque and sending Sabre Jr. down with his mighty thunderclap chops, one of which prompts commentary to simply say, “Fuck off!” The final sequences, though, see the two landing some of the most sickening chops you’ve ever seen, with Zack falling over like a crash test dummy, though it takes WALTER’s ace in the hole, that silencing piledriver, to end this match.
It’s the kind of match that declares “WHO CAN BEAT WALTER?,” and it almost happened on a much bigger stage. In May, ZSJ won the Super Strong Style 16 tournament, which grants him a title shot, and closes the show by saying “Wembley, innit?” referring to PROGRESS Chapter 76: Hello Wembley, at the giant S.E. Arena at Wembley. Then, PROGRESS announces Zack’s contractual commitments to New Japan Pro Wrestling, and that Zack would take his shot later. And, so, at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, WALTER and Zack gave a sold out crowd of the PROGRESS faithful a gem that cannot be missed. — Henry T. Casey
9. Hiromu Takahashi vs. Taiji Ishimori (Battle of the Super Juniors Tournament Finals; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
The latest incarnation of Bullet Club — later christened the “Cutthroat Era” — is the closet the group has come to their original ethos in years. There was a militancy which drove the group under the leadership of the erstwhile Prince Devitt before it wound down roads more emotional (the “good friends in a lovers’ spat” led by Kenny Omega) and more brainlessly fun (the “road buddies having a good time wrestling their asses off and performing 90’s cosplay” led by AJ Styles). This Bullet Club is nothing more and nothing less than an alliance of mercenaries.
Such a notion hit its apex upon the arrival of Taiji Ishimori, once a shining star of Pro Wrestling NOAH. Appropriating the Bone Soldier nickname, all that was done to change it up from the unintentional joke it was (sorry, Captain New Japan, but in your heart you know it’s true) simply required Ishimori to wear a skull mask and approach the ring like he’s about to perform a ritual sacrifice or squaring up for a showdown with Omar Little.
Hiromu Takahashi is the literal wildcard in a deck full of wildcards, the chaotic good of the controlled anarchy and diffidence of Los Ingobernables de Japon. (SANADA is true neutral; EVIL is neutral, uh, evil; and Tetsuya Naito is probably the best example of chaotic neutral there has ever been in wrestling.) Hiromu’s stuffed emotional support cat Daryl and various members of the Daryl family can provide calm and cuddly solace for a man known as the “Ticking Time Bomb,” a wrestler with as much tremendous ring savvy as utter disregard for his own safety.
His punk rock spirit not only presents itself in his ring jacket — laden with Black Flag, Bad Brains, Circle Jerks, and Misfits in airbrushed homage — it’s in his balls-to-the-wall style, throwing himself at every opponent like being forcibly ejected from a moving car in a high speed crash.
Hiromu drags Ishimori upstairs into the crowd; not the first time he’s done such a thing in this very tournament. And then he gets a head of steam about 20 yards long and dropkicks Ishimori. Ishimori counters a powerbomb into a hurricanrana; Hiromu’s body flies and stumbles down the stairs of the upper deck.
Later in the match, Hiromu hits his signature Sunset Bomb to the floor; Ishimori’s head bounces off the floor like a discarded football.
At the 25 minute mark, both men are on their knees, trading blows again. Not as a measure to put their opponent down, but as a way to say, “I’m still here, motherfucker.” Until Ishimori gives Hiromu a shot which makes him collapse to his knees. (Such displays are pretty commonplace in New Japan matches, and they are worthy of a slight cringe every time.) The will of Hiromu Takahashi calls when Ishimori hits him with a lariat that flips him around and folds him. Hiromu kicks out at one. Deep into the match, Ishimori is still sprinting into clotheslines.
One of the greatest things about watching Japanese wrestling is the moment in a big match where one competitor knuckles the fuck up and finally puts their opponent away, shown in spectacular display here when Himoru ends the match with a Time Bomb. It was most certainly a battle, to be sure; one that could have honestly gone either way. Hiromu represents having all this tumult inside and being able to channel it against his one of his most brutally talented peers. — Douglas Martin
8. Will Ospreay vs. Matt Riddle (No Rope Breaks Match for the EVOLVE Championship) (Mercury Rising; World Wrestling Network)
Will Ospreay shouldn’t have shown up for this match. Beating Matt Riddle would grant him the EVOLVE championship, but Ospreay is clutching both the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship at his side, as well as his neck. The latter is the big story, as it’s somehow still attached to his body after getting famously smashed into the ring apron not seven days ago.
Yet, a mere two minutes after the opening bell, Riddle German suplexes Ospreay’s neck into that same cursed spot on the ring apron, shocking the crowd — who pretty much expected the match would work around the neck. The dopey Ospreay, of course, earned this punishment, as he brought Riddle up to the apron, and took whole moments to gawk at that spot of the ring.
A small smile forms on Riddle’s face, as he looks at the wrecked Ospreay with a morbid sense of pride and acceptance. As the crowd chants “BRO!” in support, the malice continues, with Riddle picking up Ospreay by the neck — which sends Will into a screaming fit — to bring him into the ring. Ospreay eventually carries Riddle, locked on piggy-back style trying to lock in the Bromission, to the top rope. Their fall, though, sucks the air out of the room, Riddle turns their falling bodies mid-air, sending Ospreay’s head and neck into the mat. Still stubborn, Ospreay pushes off the four referees tending to him, just so that Riddle could have the space to land a thudding knee into the back of the head and neck. Next? Why not shock the room with a jumping tombstone piledriver. Who cares that the local athletic commission banned vanilla piledrivers?
Ospreay won’t stay down, though, so Riddle just throws out all sportsmanship. Ripping off Ospreay’s kinesio tape, stomping on his head, and landing a running senton on Will’s back, Riddle’s finally got the crowd — chanting “YOU SICK BRO!” — against him. And the crowd finally chants “OSPREAY!” once the defiant Sword of Essex kicks out at one after yet another of Riddle’s spammed knees.
The two trade blows until Ospreay floats through a lariat into a jumping powerbomb, planting Riddle onto his neck at the worst angle. But Riddle kicks out and finally locks in the Bromission for good, earning a submission pinfall, granting Ospreay a release in defeat. Exhaustive to watch, much less wrestle, Ospreay and Riddle managed to stand out in a jam-packed Wrestlemania week. — Henry T. Casey
7. Velveteen Dream vs. Tommaso Ciampa (NXT Championship Match) (NXT Takeover: War Games II; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Velveteen Dream is 23 years old. That’s something easy to forget when you watch him, but it’s always astounding when you remember. Everything he does — from his character work, to his entrances, to the way he carries himself around the ring — pegs him as that old cliche: “wise beyond his years.” That he’s 23 also means he doesn’t have a career full of callouses on his body from taking bumps, although not for lack of trying; the man loves getting destroyed in his matches.
His first-ever challenge for the NXT Championship is also his best match ever, thanks to that bald piece of shit Tommaso Ciampa, the best heel in WWE’s men’s divisions at the moment. Their back and forth at War Games II managed to be the best match in a night full of amazing matches; Ciampa lets Dream hang around before the pivotal moment when he tries to finish him on the concrete floor after rolling the mats off. However, because Ciampa is both an amazing wrestler and a horrible person in character, he takes time to taunt the announce team, allowing for Dream’s best sequence of the match and one of the best of the year. He hits his secondary finisher, the Dream Valley Driver, on the rolled up mats, rolls Ciampa in, and hits a gorgeous Purple Rainmaker (his primary finisher; an elbow drop so superhuman it rivals that of “Macho Man” Randy Savage). 1…2…kick out!
Instead of Dream doing the tired WWE trope of “I can’t believe my opponent kicked out, let me stare in shock while he recovers,” he immediately goes to hit another elbow drop with Ciampa prone on the apron. Alas, it’s not the Dream’s time just yet (it will be, soon enough), so Ciampa rolls out of the way, Dream elbows concrete and receives a DDT on the steel partition (connecting two rings for the evening’s War Games match) for his troubles.
The real winner here, though, is the purple one; not only did he shine in his first career highlight match (the first of many, I’m sure), but he made the entire crowd believe he could do it. When he does eventually do it, it won’t be because he’s being gifted anything or pushed to the top; it’ll be because he’s a preternatural genius in the body of an Adonis. — Luis Paez-Pumar
6. Johnny Gargano vs. Andrade “Cien” Almas (NXT Championship Match) (NXT Takeover: Philadelphia; World Wrestling Entertainment)
To say Johnny Gargano carried NXT in 2018 is to say Andrade “Cien” Almas is a beautiful man: it’s just the objective truth. Of all the matches Johnny Wrestling had this past year, his first Takeover bout might have just been the best one. There’s none of the gimmickry of his (also excellent, see, uh, the rest of this list) matches with forever BFFenemy Tommaso Ciampa; it’s just a straight banger of a match from bell to bell between Gargano and Almas, and maybe more importantly, it’s one that played off of their history together.
See, Almas’ business associate and possible soulmate Zelina Vega had been torturing Gargano for months with the dissolution of DIY, his tag team with Ciampa. She had cost Gargano a win at Takeover: Brooklyn in 2017 by throwing the iconic blue DIY shirt at him, distracting him long enough to lose to Almas in a firestarter of a match. Fast forward a few months, and Almas is the NXT Champion, with Gargano thirsting after the title he’s never won. What ensued wasn’t just the best match in NXT history to date, but also a storytelling masterclass from two of the best to do it in the promotion’s history.
Special shout-out to Almas’ entrance, which paid homage to both his homeland of Mexico and his roots as the masked La Sombra, the innovator of the Los Ingobernables stable that would climb to new heights once he passed it on to Tetsuya Naito in Japan.
The finish works as well, as Gargano’s real-life wife Candice LaRae jumps the barricade and destroys Vega, who was attempting to interfere yet again. That allowed Almas and Gargano to finish their classic with a clean finish, giving both men a boost to launch them to the next level: Gargano would go on to have the feud of the year with Ciampa — who assaulted him post-match with a crutch, because he’s a bald piece of shit — while Almas would lose the title but get a strong main roster call-up later in the year. — Luis Paez-Pumar
5. AJ Styles vs. Daniel Bryan (WWE Championship Match) (Tables, Ladders, and Chairs; World Wrestling Entertainment)
AJ Styles is great. Daniel Bryan is better. That’s the story of their wonderful match at Tables, Ladders, and Chairs — both in-ring and in the larger scheme of WWE as 2018 came to end. Since his shocking return from retirement, Bryan had been getting his sea legs, but a surprise heel turn and championship win — courtesy of a kick to the balls of Styles — brought us back to the best possible version of Daniel Bryan: the American Dragon of his indie days. In that era, he was simply the best possible version of a wrestler, out-working pretty much everyone he stepped into the ring with.
That’s also the story he and Styles tell during their TLC bout: Styles is amazing (might I even say… phenomenal), but he doesn’t have enough to out-wrestle Daniel Bryan. He tries, though, and because Styles is a truly great talent in his own right, it looks amazing. It’s not a complicated match to follow, but the fact that it’s technically perfect on its surface works in its favor. This is the match you show to someone who’s interested in wrestling but doesn’t really understand what differentiates a good match from a classic, particularly from a technical standpoint.
The counters in this match are legitimately breathtaking, none more so than the finish, which is simple in theory but perfect in execution: Styles dodges Bryan’s running knee finisher [Editor’s Note: I’m still calling it the Knee-Plus], rolling up the champ into a small package … only for Bryan to roll him back over for the pin. The small package has been a key weapon in Bryan’s arsenal since his American Dragon days, and as a heel, it’s almost insulting. He doesn’t need to hit his power moves to beat you, he’ll just counter you into submission before pinning you with cunning. Just wonderful stuff from the two best wrestlers in WWE, and perhaps of their generation. — Luis Paez-Pumar
4. Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa (Unsanctioned Match) (NXT Takeover: New Orleans; World Wrestling Entertainment)
As Tommaso Ciampa walked to the ring, drenched in the boos of the crowd, we felt something massive on the way. Marching towards what appeared to be the culmination of his rivalry with Johnny Gargano, you see a villain truly believe his place is on the right side of history.
The lack of music accompanying Ciampa amplifies his self-promoting scream of “THIS IS MY MOMENT,” and the crowd’s serenade of “FUCK YOU CIAMPA” stands out even more. So much of this match’s brutality takes place at the announce table and around the ring that there needed to be a reason, and the unsanctioned stipulation also allows (and excuses) the use of the cursed items of this feud: crutches and braces, the icons of the injury that created the fissure between these erstwhile friends.
As Ciampa swings away with a crutch he snatched away from a fan, with Gargano narrowly avoiding contact each time, you see Johnny find his focus as Tommaso loses his. This match plays a subtle role in sparking Gargano’s character journey for 2018, unlocking his most grotesque and violent side to save his NXT contract. To slam Ciampa onto the exposed concrete — which pushed the crowd to the best “YOU DESERVE IT” chant ever — requires one to check their humanity under the ring apron.
Of course, Ciampa, pushed to be more heinous, willingly obliges, digging fingers into Gargano’s eyes like a child ripping open an orange. So desperate, Ciampa goes for a powerbomb-backstabber off the middle rope, even though it drops all of Gargano on his own injured knee. Ciampa, practically crying from the pain in the middle of the ring, removes the brace to relieve his pain, accidentally leaves it right next to Gargano, who slams the brace into the exposed knee, which Ciampa intended to lodge into his former friend’s face.
All of this pushes Gargano to his emotional limits, which he can’t break at first, holding a bent crutch in the air, over Ciampa, out of mercy. For less than a moment, we get a callback to their 2016 Cruiserweight Classic match, as Gargano almost sits down next to Ciampa, as he was instead suckering him in, knowing how little to trust his former compatriot. And, then, in an ultimate moment of dehumanization, Gargano gets the W by brutally fish-hooking Ciampa with his own brace, like a dog being muzzled without care.
Screaming, punching the mat, reinstated to NXT, Gargano is breathing into his hands, having saved his career. But at what cost? As the year carries over, the answer is still being revealed to us. — Henry T. Casey
3. Charlotte Flair vs. Becky Lynch (Last Woman Standing Match for the Smackdown Women’s Championship) (Evolution; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Bear witness to the true genesis of The Man. Becky Lynch’s heel turn solidified her new persona, but her Last Woman Standing match against Charlotte Flair was what pushed her to the summit of the mountaintop. This is pro wrestling at its finest: two gladiators with months (or, in this case, years) of history, alternating as friends and foes, are thrown into a ridiculous situation (in a Last Woman Standing match, the first person to knock her opponent down and out for a 10 count wins), and magic happens. Brutal, violent, dramatic magic.
First, some backstory: Becky and Charlotte are both part of the not-exactly-official Four Horsewomen stable, which features fellow NXT graduates Sasha Banks and Bayley. The four, in various permutations, including all at the same time, have had some of the best women’s matches in WWE history, dating back to 2014. Of the four, Charlotte was always going to be the star; she shares a name with the GOAT Ric Flair (she is his youngest daughter), she’s hyper-athletic (a multi-sport athlete in high school and college), and she just looks like a wrestling machine. On the other hand, Becky has a great and unique look of her own, and a personality that got over with fans immediately, between her earnest fighting spirit and her predilection for puns on social media.
Upon being called up, Charlotte was pushed to the moon, while Becky had been stuck in limbo since losing the SmackDown Women’s Championship in late 2016. Fast forward to Summerslam 2018, in a match between Charlotte, Becky, and then-champion Carmella; Becky had the match won when Charlotte “stole” the victory away, a move that finally made the Irish Lass Kicker snap and beat the shit out of her post-match.
Goodbye, Pun Queen. Hello, The Man.
Lynch actually walked into the Evolution match as champion; she had defeated Charlotte in a match at Hell in a Cell cleanly, countering a spear into a flash pin to win the title. The Last Woman Standing match was supposed to be a feud decider; there’s no cheating in a match with no rules, bar one simple, violent guideline. The two rose to the occasion in the first-ever all-women’s PPV, stealing the show on a night when the show was better than ever. There are so many brutal spots to run down, but Becky leg-dropping Charlotte through a table might have them all beat.
It’s not about the violence, though; it’s more about the story that has driven these women to bloodlust. Constantly overlooked for her taller, blonder, better-connected friend, Becky was willing to prove that she could be the one to stand tall. Charlotte, on the other hand, wanted to show she still had what it takes. It’s a perfect clash of styles and motivations, and when Charlotte finally stays down for the count, it’s not just a successful title defense for Becky; it’s the beginning of a new era, an era that might culminate with the first-ever women’s WrestleMania main event, if rumors are to be believed. — Luis Paez-Pumar
2. Golden Lovers vs. the Young Bucks (Strong Style Evolved; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
The emotional centerpiece match of the first hundred or so episodes of runaway hit YouTube series Being the Elite, Golden Lovers vs. the Young Bucks is the would-be culmination of decades-old relationships which go much, much deeper than friendship. Bonds made, broken apart, and fused together again.
Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi squaring off against Matt and Nick Jackson is a confrontation at the center of so many moving parts. The pride and hubris of wanting to stake claim as the objective best tag team on Earth. Ibushi getting dragged into his best friend’s ego-driven feuds and unwittingly coming between a very well-established (and wildly lucrative) friendship. Matt and Nick Jackson’s frustration with Kenny big-brothering them and skepticism over Cody Rhodes trying to drive a wedge through their friendship with Omega by politicking and playing puppetmaster.
“Go handle that!,” Rhodes urges the Bucks backstage on Episode 94 of Being the Elite as Omega claims the mantle of “best tag team in the world” for Golden Lovers after their grand in-ring reunion at Ring of Honor’s Honor Rising event. “From this day forward,” announces Matt after the Bucks storm the ring, “my brother and I have decided to move on up and compete in the heavyweight tag team division.”
The climax of the episode is the dressing room blowout where Matt airs his grievances: They’ve sacrificed their own career advancement for the good of Bullet Club; they served as corner men for Omega for every big match he’s had for the past four years while Ibushi was nowhere to be found; Omega has never seconded any of their matches; Kenny’s ego stands in the way of the Bucks making a decision which benefits themselves; “Why can’t you just be happy for us?”
Prior to the start of the match, it’s clear Nick and Omega don’t want to fight each other; the fissure of Kenny and Cody’s bond — which was pretty tenuous to begin with — has the allegiance of the Young Bucks split in half. Matt eases his younger brother to their corner, rocking a weightlifting belt (a gift from Cody) to support a lingering (and fictional) back injury sustained from their January 4th clash with junior heavyweight tag dynamos Roppongi 3k.
When the bell rings, Matt — eager for an outlet toward which he can levy his frustration and resentment upon — almost immediately calls out Kenny, waiting for the “Best Bout Machine” to start the match. Matt then takes a cheap shot at Ibushi on the apron — a flash reminiscent of their dynamite run as the most hated, and then the most polarizing, stars of Pro Wrestling Guerrilla.
Finally the match begins in earnest, with Nick and Ibushi exhibiting some profound skill in evasion. Matt tags in and Ibushi almost instinctively fires a hard kick to the back, to which Kenny tries to stop the continuation of; the chivalry of which Matt passionately rejects. As if to say, “Fuck chivalry. You said you were the best tag team in the world at our expense. Time to put your money where your mouth is.”
Because Kenny and the Young Bucks have such an extensive, storied relationship, the counters and side steps and left turns are thrilling. Early in the match, Kenny goes for a dive and Nick superkicks him so hard, feathers fly off Omega’s tights.
When Matt brings out a table, he and his brother exchange a disagreement as to whether it’s a bridge too far, signaling the admiration Nick still has for Kenny and his reluctance to really hurt his friend. As expected, the condition of Matt’s back gets progressively worse over the course of the match. Nick shouts, “Come on, Kenny!” in disapproval of Omega hitting a running backbreaker on his older brother.
In a moment of either blind rage or “enough is enough,” Nick sets up the table he urged Matt not to use. After some minutes of precariously avoiding breaking the table with their bodies and some inspired in-ring exchanges, Nick helps Matt hoist Ibushi on his shoulders for More Bang for Your Buck. Nick hits the first part of the move; a textbook perfect 450 splash. Instead of executing the second part (a moonsault), Matt ascends to the top turnbuckle and crashes through Omega and the table underneath him with a flying elbow drop.
The crowd goes insane.
In the closing minutes of the match, Golden Lovers go for an Indytaker (a signature Bucks move) and Matt kicks out to thunderous applause. Kenny later goes for the One Winged Angel and hesitates; on his shoulders, Matt takes Kenny’s hand and demands him to go through with it. The elder Jackson brother is finally finished off with a Golden Trigger. Cody eventually comes down to confront the Bucks for their loss and “accidentally” pushes Nick down.
Kenny chases Cody off and goes for a handshake. A pregnant pause lingers. Clutching his back, Matt storms away and Nick somewhat reluctantly follows. No resolution, no reconciliation. The bitterness of losing such a hotly contested match, the disappointment of not quite proving the Young Bucks were legitimately the greatest tag team in the world, the smoldering resentment this match was supposed to ameliorate, are all too much for Matt Jackson to bear. — Douglas Martin
1. Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada (Best of Three Falls Match for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship) (Dominion; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
No offense to Adam Cole’s crew, but the greatness of Omega/Okada 4 is undisputed. While none of us ranked it as the top match of the year outright [Editor’s Note: Was it out of contrarianism? Fear of overkill due to our first-ever first place tie last year? The world will never know.], no other match ranked as highly on each of our lists.
A dizzying series of reversals and reversals of reversals, this match is the top-tier performance we expect from two of the best wrestlers in the world, with emotions set to overdrive. The earnest emotion of Omega’s bond with Kota Ibushi helped Kenny become a challenger the fans would love more than ever before, and one who was as much of an underdog as ever, especially after both a loss and a time limit draw in championship scenarios against Okada. Even those fans who walked in thinking Omega had to win (“Why these two again?”) couldn’t see this idealized version of the Rainmaker, and see a man ready to surrender his throne.
This Okada wasn’t tired from a G1 tournament, he was a man at the pinnacle of an historic title reign. You’d have to plant your tongue firmly against your cheek to find a weakness, as some fans did in questioning the aesthetic decision to switch from shorts to pants (or “long boys” as Trent Beretta called them).
Around 7 minutes in, though, Omega finally catches the champ coasting, nailing him with a V-Trigger knee as Okada’s attempting a flying crossbody over the ringside railing, a maneuver that’s as predictable as it is athletic. And that’s our par for the next hour. Fighters at the top of their game, who are as familiar with each other as possible.
He just, you know, sat on him.
But for as strong as Kenny is, he loses the first pinfall, which makes any potential victory doubly impossible. He’s yet to pin Okada once when the title was on the line, how can he do it twice? Oh, and Okada pinned him without using the Rainmaker lariat — just by reversing Kenny’s reversal of the Rainmaker lariat, into … basically sitting on Kenny’s upper body for the pin. That means Okada’s still got his ace in the sleeve for that second, decisive pinfall.
Don Callis even spells it out on commentary: “You have to pin Okada — who’s barely been pinned in two years — not once, but twice.” It’s a testament to Callis’s frantic delivery that this statement doesn’t come across as giving away the next steps, but as a man concerned over the situation his friend Omega is in.
Oh, and then the danger spikes again when Callis reminds us that Kenny can’t stay knocked out of the ring for long, because that counts as a fall, which Omega must know, so who knows what mistakes he will make on his way back in. So, for all of Omega keeping pace during the first 29 minutes of this match, Okada lowering himself down gave the valiant challenger an even steeper hill to climb. Okada, who takes a chop from Omega like the Canadian was tapping him on the shoulder, is not going down easily.
And this continues, working the tropes of the valiant babyface and unstoppable heel so much so that Okada becomes the enemy by default. So much so that even when Omega is struggling to German suplex Okada off the apron and through a hard wooden table (and the metal rail next to it) that the crowd vocally recoils in amazement, without booing. Even though this move seems like it could kill Kazuchika Okada, the crowd knows that Omega is only pulling out all of the stops out of necessity.
Of course, everything hinges on that familiar trope: can Omega hit the One-Winged Angel? But when Kenny nails his trump card — and he does — he’s only half way home, having tied the match at one fall a piece. And then it gets wild, with Omega taking such a mid-air rotation from a Rainmaker that he winds up kicking Okada in the head. Again, both men are seemingly tied, even though Omega has dished out most of the attacks.
Exhaustion sits in hard about an hour in, with Okada taking a V-trigger to the back of his head, as he’s trying to lean against the pads for support, and Kenny’s unable to support his rival’s weight on his shoulders, and falters before he can hit his finisher. And then somehow they kept wrestling. Rainmakers and V-Triggers and all of the German suplexes, all with maintained wrist control, until one of those primo lariats was reversed into a One Winged Angel, which is for naught, without pinfall. But that sets it up for the end: a flying knee followed by one last One Winged Angel.
And we see the joy. Matt and Nick Jackson, return to Omega’s side, ending their separation, and a hug unites this fractured house, a joy that even the threat of Cody can’t snap. — Henry T. Casey