I say the same thing every year. The wrestling landscape continues to shift. A major splash punctuated by a major move. A double-underhook DDT on a stack of poker chips. A paradigm shift. Wrestling comes from everywhere, all of it good. NXT made its move to network television to counter-program a fledgling company with a lot of buzz and an alternative approach to the evil empire. The wrestling shows on Wednesday are neck and neck as the best weekly graps on television. But there’s so much good wrestling right now.
Studio wrestling, regional super-indie, the company an hour and a half away running shows in a VFW hall. Good wrestling everywhere. Osaka, Oberhausen, Orlando. Camden Town, CDMX, Cleveland, Chicago. Vegas, Vancouver. Madison Square Garden, Korakuen Hall, a combat sports gym on Seattle’s South Lake Union lovingly referred to as “the Battle Palace.” Football stadiums, rock clubs that don’t even use rings. Good wrestling everywhere.
There’s so much good wrestling right now. There’s only one degree of separation between Master P and The Amazing Red. Westside Gunn now works in the wrestling industry, which feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s so much good wrestling I still have yet to watch Stardom and wXw regularly, I haven’t watched AAW in a couple years. This list isn’t emblematic of every place you can find great wrestling. But it is a pretty great representation of the most impactful, historic, artistically dazzling wrestling of 2019. The end of a decade which started with only getting great outside-the-mainstream wrestling from your tape trader friend you met on some message board who uploaded shit to YouTube.
Going out on a Friday night. Staying home on a Saturday night. Watching a round robin tournamet almost every night for a month. There’s so much good wrestling right now. — Douglas Martin
HONORABLE MENTION: Invisible Man vs. Invisible Stan (Joey Janela’s Spring Break 3; Game Changer Wrestling)
Wrestlers are only a part of the spectacle of pro wrestling. The production team, the bookers, the writers, the referees, and especially the crowd elevate matches almost as much (if not more, sometimes) than the actual performers in the ring. So what happens when you just … remove the wrestlers? With the right setting and execution, you get a perfect distillation of everything that turns wrestling from an athletic contest in something nearing if not achieving art. The Invisible Man’s blood feud against his brother, Invisible Stan, is that distillation.
Sure, it’s silly having two invisible wrestlers fight each other, but that this happened at Joey Janela’s Spring Break—the most deliriously silly show of the year for the last three years running—makes sense. The crowd is completely willing to not only buy in to the silliness but also elevate it. Listen as they buy every near fall, boo and cheer a chop exchange, and chant “holy shit” at all the right times. It’s wonderful, because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Of course, the real MVP here is referee Bryce Remsburg, one of the best officials going right now. Aside from a bit of over-embellishing in some of the moves to really drive home what’s happening, he plays his role perfectly, just as he would in any other type of match.
More importantly, he allows the crowd to understand what’s going on, from the initial stand-off all the way to big balcony dive spot that wouldn’t have worked if the match hadn’t been so easy to follow.
By the time Kikutaro comes out to further sell the action in the ring, you are fully in, entranced by something that on paper sounds like the stupidest way to spend 10 minutes of your life. That’s because the beats of pro wrestling are so well-established that you can pretend they’re happening even when your eyes aren’t actually seeing them. With a less hot crowd, or less perfect planning, or a referee who wasn’t willing to commit fully to the bit, this would fall flat. Instead, it’s a communal experience of the kind that only wrestling provides, one that plays off of its own art form to create something wholly unique. — Luis Paez-Pumar
HONORABLE MENTION: Daniel Makabe vs. Jonathan Gresham (Battlemania 2019; 3-2-1 Battle)
Save Fred Yehi, the men competing in this match are the two most underrated technical wrestlers in North America. Jonathan Gresham is finally catching some widespread acclaim despite being one of the low-key best wrestlers in the game for two or three years now. If I had the talent to cultivate a wrestling style, it would probably be close to that of Daniel Makabe, the only wrestler on Earth who knows as much about indie-rock as me. If the term “dream match” weren’t so overused in the current landscape of pro wrestling, this would be it. If you know, you know.
Daniel Makabe is also the only wrestler on Earth to reference Yo La Tengo to promote a fight with one of the most violent and insane wrestlers to lace up a pair of boots. I like to call him the ace of 3-2-1 Battle, the eccentric wrestling promotion enormously popular in Seattle (think: if the comedy, theater, and punk rock geeks you knew in high school all came together to form a wrestling league and it was actually really good). Naturally, for Battle’s biggest show of the year — reverently/irreverently titled Battlemania — Makabe would get yet another coveted matchup to add to his collection of excellent contests with Shotzi Blackheart, and Negro Navarro, not to mention his absolutely incredible series of matches with Timothy Thatcher (which started to cross over into wXw before Thatcher signed with WWE).
(The only reason Makabe vs. Thatcher III, also a 2019 match, isn’t on this list is because you should watch their entire Battle trilogy in immediate succession; it’s about an hour and ten minutes of the very best technical wrestling the latter half of this decade has to offer.)
The proverbial exhibition of human chess starts with a tentative handshake and Gresham going for the single-leg takedown. Escapes and blocks punctuate the early seconds of the match, each competitor eluding the other’s formidable graps game. Gresham finally gets the upper hand by taking control of Makabe’s arm by way of hard butt slap. The man known as “The Octopus” then bends the wrestling genius into a half-eaten pretzel.
A sense of beauty enters the middle stretch — a bridging pinfall escape by Makabe, a very nice arm drag by Gresham — are emblematic of the artistry of both these wrestlers and the subgenre of technical wrestling. And then Makabe takes a cheap shot after pointing out the untucked laces of Gresham’s boot which he slyly untied himself. Masterful. It’s a study of hold and counter-hold peppered by hard strikes to covered up heads. Gresham throws some blows to the arms of Makabe, highlighting the shoulder and arm work, a crescendo from the match’s start.
The last five minutes of the match are a sprint of high-impact moves and quick reversals; Makabe’s tilt-a-whirl backbreaker, the springboard moonsault where it feels Gresham slows time down. A thunderous corner dropkick. The fight to finally lock in the Cattle Mutilation. Gresham finally taps. Godspeed You! Black Emperor floats through the air of The Showbox and the cheers of the crowd. — Douglas Martin
HONORABLE MENTION: Dr. Wagner Jr. vs. Blue Demon Jr. (Hair vs. Hair Match) (Triplemania XXVII; Lucha Libre AAA)
If you’d like to know exactly how vicious the brawl gets between Blue Demon Jr. and Dr. Wagner Jr. in their mask versus hair match, don’t mind the amount of blood left all over the mat or the fact that the match ends when Blue Demon forcibly explodes a block of concrete over Wagner’s excessively bloodied skull. Look to the moment when Blue Demon Jr. exits the ring, grabs a fucking hammer, and then starts repeatedly pelting Wagner in the back and the hands. A hammer. Like, this is a match where two veteran luchador beefcakes rip into each other until blood is pouring out of their heads at a faucet-like pace, and then somebody brought a hammer to the blood fight.
The story of Wagner versus Blue Demon is told in a video montage that plays on the Titantron before the match. The two men hover in midair on construction-grade cranes, pointing at each other angrily while a backstory that prominently features a pre-WWE return Jeff Jarrett plays in the background. Here’s the gist: they were bros, and then Jeff Jarrett convinced Demon to El Kabong the handsome slapnut doctor. A feud this confusing and vicious could only be resolved by putting Wagner’s luscious braid on the line against Demon’s identity.
It’s a match where the flow is primarily dictated by the use of weapons, the tearing of masks, and again, excessive bleeding. While AAA has its share of unbelievable high flyers and hosts matches from some of the best wrestlers in the world, this match doesn’t feature high spot spectacles or massive power moves. When it’s not a baking sheet to the head, it’s an armbar or a quick slam to the mat. They don’t need much else. The suspense is in the premise. It’s a match about how the outcome will affect your level of handsomeness, sure. Mostly it’s about pride. It’s also about hitting your opponent with a weapon way too many times.
When Wagner finally gets put down, the two blood men stand around looking completely emptied. But of course, it’s not over until the clippers come out, so Wagner gets his lush pony lopped off to the tune of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Around the World” and has his bloody head shaved by his bloody opponent.
If you didn’t know already, AAA fucking rules. — Evan Minsker
HONORABLE MENTION: Priscilla Kelly vs. Jake Atlas (RISE Regional Stars Tournament; RISE Wrestling)
Maybe best known for courting controversy for infamously using a (kayfabe) bloody tampon in a Suburban Fight match against Tuna in the last days of 2018, Priscilla Kelly finally got her chance to focus on her in-ring work with a series of matches at RISE. This bout spun out of a 6-person elimination-style doors match at the previous show, where rising star Jake Atlas (who since signed with WWE, reporting to the Performance center) and Kelly were the final two.
But for anyone who says that PK is only about gross-puts, show them her dexterity and submission work here. Atlas is definitely one of the top wrestlers that I’ve seen Kelly tussle with, and this match definitely helped her career. Not only does her offense — especially a STO onto the ring apron — look strong, but Atlas’ generous selling only enhanced it. In that aspect, though, Kelly gave as good as she received: falling to a flying pump kick to the face like it was a rocket hitting her down to earth. — Henry T. Casey
20. Matt Riddle vs. Velveteen Dream (NXT North American Championship Match) (NXT Takeover: New York; World Wrestling Entertainment)
There are a lot of fantastic wrestlers in NXT, but there’s only one Matt Riddle and certainly only one Velveteen Dream. So when the show threw them against each other at NXT TakeOver: New York, it was bound to be a banger from the word go. It also didn’t hurt that they have two of the best character gimmicks in NXT.
Riddle is a chill bro who will also murder you senseless in the ring, and in so many different ways, thanks to his MMA training. Dream, on the other hand, is an 80’s gimmick come to life, with 2010’s cool to boot. He does everything you’d expect from a wrestler and nothing more in the ring, but his skill and charisma carry him further than elbow drops and back rakes ever could. It doesn’t hurt that he’s built like a Greek God.
Their characters clash in fascinating ways here, with Riddle trying harder to have a brutal wrestling match, while Dream dictates things on his terms, thanks to his superior athleticism and sheer force of will. Riddle especially comes off as a star here, throwing some submissions that you don’t really expect, such as trying for a Russian-style inverted armbar early on, or a Kurt Angle-style ankle lock out of nowhere. Dream does his part well, selling for the Original Bro and landing his own orthodox moves with his unorthodox style.
Eventually, Riddle’s attempts to tap Dream out get the best of him, as his attempt at the Bromission backfires when the Purple One rolls back and gets the three-count. Just a whole lot of fun between two of the most unique guys on the roster, and the post-match fist bump shows that they are both in awe of each other. So are we, for that matter. — Luis Paez-Pumar
19. Dezmond Xavier vs. Artemis Spencer (DEFY World Championship Match) (DEFY Never Dies: 2nd Anniversary; DEFY Wrestling)
Artemis Spencer’s DEFY World Championship run was a magical ride which took the British Columbia native from the Pacific Northwest wrestling scene’s best kept secret to competing in such prestigious tournaments such as Super Strong Style 16 and the Battle of Los Angeles. Dezmond Xavier is low key the would-be star of kayfabe(?) stoner trio the Rascalz, a magnanimous talent in the skies in standing toe-to-toe with whoever stands in the opposite corner. (And he’s even better when his toe is flying toward an adversary’s midsection; his kicks are punishing.)
If the man Spencer defeated for the DEFY Championship (the erstwhile Shane “Swerve” Strickland) was the monarch defeating all potential kingslayers and swaggering around with the crown and the man who later defeated Spencer for the belt (“the baddest motherfucker in professional wrestling,” Schaff) is a beast who recently became fed up with the pressure of appeasing a good number of ungrateful fans who feel he’s maybe the third- or fourth-best DEFY Champion, Spencer himself is DEFY’s folk hero. Not a king, not a superhuman, but a humble man given immense gifts like an archer’s sense of aim, a daredevil’s lack of fear, and a craftsman’s sense of artistic ingenuity. This match was just the beginning of that wild ride.
The champion walks out to defend his title for the first time with a determined focus, eventually cracking a smile from the hero’s reception from the Washington Hall crowd. The match begins with sportsmanlike clean breaks and lighthearted pose-down challenges. Arty gets the early advantage with fantastically flexible counters and his gorgeous arm drag; there’s a lucha libre flair blended in with his technical mastery.
Xavier fakes a dive and ends up nailing it like a literal spear. The two competitors brawl around ringside, almost make their way to the staircase leading upstairs, and Dez somersaults off of the stage onto Spencer, “holy shit” chants abound. The brawl outside continued with blistering kicks and Arty taking a jog around the ring to kick Dez seated in a chair while trying to regain his bearings.
When the match returns to the ring, it’s a game of high-impact (no pun intended on the part of Dez) one-upmanship, kicks and uppercuts and a pristine backflip kick from Xavier. He untapes his fists and clobbers Arty with a few hard shots before Spencer hits a roundhouse. The champ misses his Spiral Tap (a corkscrew moonsault, poetry in motion) and hits him with his ridiculous piledriver, his ace in the hole, to put Xavier away. Arty celebrates his victory with little fanfare and reacts to the crowd showering him with cheers with trademark humility. — Douglas Martin
18. Kylie Rae vs. Orange Cassidy (IWTV Independent Wrestling Championship Match) (Beyond Uncharted Territory #1.03; Beyond Wrestling)
Orange Cassidy has gotten over with one of the most endearing pro wrestling gimmicks, a laconic, largely indifferent guy who puts in the least amount of effort possible at all times. And yet, that gimmick sometimes tends to overshadow the fact that he’s an incredibly good wrestler in his own right, and thanks to Beyond Wrestling’s weekly Uncharted Territory show, he got to show that off against Kylie Rae, the ever-smiling one.
The first part of the match is straight up comedy wrestling, with a handshake-off, dueling kip-ups, and an honest-to-goodness thumb war that turns into a more traditional wrestling test of strength (the crowd, which completely buys into this whole thing, even does the “I declare a thumb war” chant). It’s precious, in ways that pro wrestling often is not, and made all the better by the dueling gimmicks (Kylie’s is that she’s just, like, super happy to be here).
After the thumb war, something flips and we get a more traditional wrestling, performed by two talented individuals, that never manages to lose the charm from its initial segment. That’s because it tells a simple story: Kylie’s relentless positivity and also tenacity pushes Cassidy out of his comfort zone and makes him actually wrestle a match. But there’s also a tug-of-war over a bottle of orange juice, so it never gets too serious, even when Kylie busts out two sit-out powerbombs and a Canadian Destroyer for the best near-fall of the match.
In the end, a sequence of fantastic roll-ups and counter leads to an Orange Cassidy three-count, helping him retain the Independent Wrestling Television Title. It’s not the most athletic or spot-heavy match you’ll ever see, but it’s a fun match between two of the most fun wrestlers in the world, in front of a crowd really to love every second of it. What could be better than that? — Luis Paez-Pumar
17. The Amazing Red vs. Will Ospreay (Super J Cup Opening Round Match) (Super J Cup; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
I suppose I should begin this evaluation by noting I’ve never been a huge Will Ospreay fan. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before. I don’t know if maybe I’ve just had my fill of excessively flippy white dudes or if it’s his character — as far as I can determine, White Savior of Japanese Wrestling — is a little aggrandizing for someone who is supposed to be a prestige babyface.
The Amazing Red, on the other hand, is patient zero for an entire generation of flippy white guys. A true innovator in the genre of pro wrestling, overlooked by corporate wrestling overlord for being too small but always shining in emotional matches with the greats toiling away in high school gyms and rock and roll bars and armories. You know you’re one of the realest when John Cena busts out your move at a Wrestlemania.
So when it was announced The Amazing Red would be coming out of retirement (again) for one more run and he’d be competing in the Super J Cup against Ospreay, fans all over the West Coast (and probably farther reaches) converged on Tacoma’s historic Temple Theater to see it. Before the match even starts, the crowd is hot. That set the tone for the breathless energy of the hall that night, and the insane journey we all went on.
Ospreay gets pumped up by the crowd chanting his name. They loved him in Temple Theater; there was a preteen boy with long hair standing next to his dad in front of me screaming for him dutifully. And then the match begins.
There has been a lot said about the pacing of New Japan Pro Wrestling main events, but there’s always a clever trick to it only the performers themselves, and their specific personalities, can pull off. This match gets suddenly fast out of nowhere and slows back down two or three separate times. Sometimes Ospreay does moves which prove whether you like him or not, he probably should have moved up to heavyweight after he won 2019’s Best of the Super Juniors tournament. Shingo Takagi beat him to the punch.
Ospreay also wrestles a little like a heel, which I think would be a very interesting journey for his character, this somewhat arrogant but phenomenally talented dragonslayer prince thing he’s got going on.
“But Douglas, wouldn’t you be kind of arrogant if you were THAT good at wrestling?” Yes, reader. I probably would.
Ospreay does a clean Sasuke Special that looks like it was animated. Ospreay catches Red out of the air and right into position for a suplex. Red hits an amazing tornado DDT which got every person at Temple off their feet (if they were sitting down to begin with). Both men exchange hard chops. And then kicks. And finally, Ospreay hits Red with an OsCutter on the apron.
After each volley, the crowd gets louder and louder. The boy screamed for Ospreay while I went hoarse cheering for Red. We occasionally glanced at each other in awe of the match we were seeing.
At the end, it takes a Hidden Blade, a top-rope OsCutter, and a Stormbreaker to end this match Temple Theater came unglued for. Afterward, Ospreay chats with the crowd and offers some effusive words for Amazing Red and they embrace in the ring, the dream of a fourteen-year-old boy getting to wrestle one of his heroes. It’s bigger than whether you’re wild or mild about Ospreay; the man just lived his dream in front of all of us. — Douglas Martin
16. Jon Moxley vs. Kenny Omega (Lights Out Unsanctioned Match) (Full Gear; All Elite Wrestling)
As an art form, pro wrestling is all about making you believe its lies — often, by utter surprise. So while it was no surprise that Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley are on this list when it’s the latter’s first American PPV main event performance since leaving the WWE, and departing with a need to prove himself, it stuck (practically literally) with audiences via broken glass and barbed wire. For the former, the sight of Moxley crawling through broken glass was as unsettling as it was metaphorical.
This man, as he described in countless interviews, did not like his past work, and did not want it to define him, and at Full Gear, he put himself through the ringer to prove that Dean Ambrose was dead. Or, if some people thought he was still the “lunatic fringe” of the Shield, that that man was going to die that night. This was a man who was beset by setbacks, including the injury that took him out of All Out.
Mox can’t get all the credit, though. Omega revealed a bit of his old manic, nearly-goofy intensity, when he pulled out the barbed wire-wrapped bed frame that would catch both men’s skin, and drag and pull it up and out. It’s unknown as to if this sort of gruesome pro wrestling is the favorite of any of AEW’s senior leadership (though Cody’s had a running theme of blood that’s impossible to escape), but to see flesh mistreated in this over the top manner, was the kind of thing that definitely defined AEW as doing something different than WWE. That it wouldn’t be WCW 2K20.
So, two of the companies biggest names met our expectations with a wild brawl, but they also completely dismantled expectations and did things that just looked real. The last chapter of the match involved a trope only seen nationally in NXT, with the exposure of the wooden planks under the ring. When Moxley drove Omega’s head into those planks, the match met its name: Lights Out. And it worked. — Henry T. Casey
15. Hana Kimura vs. Bea Priestley (World of Stardom Championship Match) (Stardom World Champion Wars; World Wonder Ring Stardom)
Kenny Omega has made it clear that he wants to highlight joshi wrestling in AEW the same way WCW gave a spotlight to cruiserweights in the ’90s. But in its first months, the talented women of AEW have been given few opportunities to put on standout matches or take time to develop their characters. We’re told by AEW commentary that Bea Priestley is a top star in Japan, but the only real story she’s gotten is “she gave Britt Baker a concussion.” Her biggest spot in the company so far was on a pay-per-view pre-show with Baker. It was a pretty good match, but we don’t learn as much about Priestley as we would if we just watched her work in Stardom.
Look at her through the lens of her late-2019 championship feud with Hana Kimura. Hana is the charismatic leader of a cyberpunk faction called Tokyo Cyber Squad, which means she walks to the ring with a neon gun and a pretty sick gas mask. (Incidentally, Hana is arguably best known in the U.S. as a member of Terrace House.) When Kimura won the 5Star Grand Prix tournament, she called out Priestley, who walked to the ring with a scowl and the swagger of a fucking champion.
It’s here where we see Priestley, an undeniable goth badass, tell a story. There’s a moment in the match where Kimura smiles and stretches her hands out, but Priestley throws up a bird and shouts “fuck you” before the two women spit in each other’s faces. Throughout the match, she’s all brutal knees (i.e. the Bea-Trigger) and Regal-style suplexes. Kimura does her best to slow her down with yakuza kicks and her octopus stretch finisher, but Priestley is a force. There’s this spot where she walks the ropes while holding Kimura’s arm and then dives to the floor, yanking all of Hana’s weight down with her. It’s vicious as hell, and over a 20-minute match, she’s established as both a threat and a star.
Obviously, this match only begins to scratch the surface of what’s happening in the vast world of joshi wrestling. And while AEW’s still developing and it’s fair that they get time to establish a more vibrant women’s division, maybe consider a pivot to Stardom if you want more significant storytelling from women’s wrestling. — Evan Minsker
14. Tetsuya Naito vs. Chris Jericho (IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match) (Wrestle Kingdom 13; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
Personally, I think Chris Jericho’s Wrestle Kingdom match with Tetsuya Naito was the apotheosis of the crafty veteran reinventing himself into abusive goth dad brawler, something people had been saying about him for over a year. It wouldn’t be long until his style was switched again (and again), ending up proving to be a good time to remind the world of his savvy and finesse.
As far as finesse goes, they don’t come much better than Naito. That’s why is his often diffident character works, because he’s so smooth in the ring. He makes it look too easy, why would he or should he care when he can make it look too easy? These men have antagonized each other, in the press and by Jericho beating holy piss out of Naito from behind since over a year prior.
Of course these two legends don’t waste their time getting their hands on each other. They’re outside crashing each other into the guardrails before the bell even rings. Naito hits Jericho with a piledriver on the entrance ramp within seconds. Naito beats Jericho with the turnbuckle cover like he owes him money. There’s play with kendo sticks and Jericho flipping off Naito while holding the camera. There is a lot of brawling outside, including a DDT which dents the English commentary table. After the move almost paralyzes Naito, Jericho hits the ring bell himself and declares himself the victor while referee Red Shoes shakes his head in bemusement.
Jericho has the clear advantage for the lion’s share of the match. His signature turnbuckle dropkick, slamming Naito into things, taunting kicks to the forehead. Naito drums up a comeback, spits in Jericho’s face. Tetsuya Naito certainly does not don the white cowboy hat. Most of the second half of the match is wrestled in the ring, both competitors clearly reversing moves and taking each other’s best shot. Naito breaks the Walls of Jericho with a kendo stick, and then wears his rival of the past year out with it.
The nearfalls in the latter half of the match prove themselves to be nearly magical. The Codebreaker after Naito tries to hit a home run in the Tokyo Dome and misses was expertly played. Then, Jericho piles over a half-dozen chairs in the ring and gets DDT’ed onto them. Naito hits a Codebreaker himself, but it’s not quite enough. Jericho’s cheating is savvy (par for the course), Naito plays the beloved antihero as well as anyone in wrestling today, genuinely likable and all too willing to play dirty.
This epic encounter ends when Naito hits Jericho with the IWGP Intercontinental Championship and pitches it out of the ring — calling back to Naito’s complicated relationship with the title — and nails Jericho with Destino. Once again, he is married to the title he never really wanted. Until he comes up with a goal of double gold and spends the next year chasing it. Even then, this championship other men have bled over is just a means to an end. — Douglas Martin
13. The Young Bucks vs. The Lucha Bros (Escalera de la Muerte [Ladder] Match for the AAA World Tag Team Championships) (All Out; All Elite Wrestling)
If you’ve seen one Young Bucks/Lucha Bros match, you can confidently say you’ve seen them all. After all, the teams know each other inside and out and their styles mesh perfectly. So, how do you differentiate from each of their many great matches for the sequel to the most important indie show ever? You give them some ladders and tell them to kill themselves over it. Seemingly, they could not have been more ready to say hell yes to that.
This is a spot-fest in the truest sense of the phrase. Every bit of the match is bonkers, so it’s just a matter of how bonkers you can get. The Bucks appeared to decide that they were the ones who should die in this match, taking the two most brutal spots on the night. First, Matt Jackson ate a full-on Canadian Destroyer from Pentagon Jr. off a ladder and through a table (ow), before his brother Nick ate complete shit after Pentagon pushed him off a ladder, making the younger Buck clip the ropes with his foot and face plant onto the outside through a table.
Also great here was the fact that, for the first time in AEW, the Lucha Bros came out on top, handing the Bucks a loss that they needed to take to further the storylines. Pentagon Jr. and Rey Fenix have sort of been sidelined as the tag team division fills out in the burgeoning company, but for this one night, for the allied AAA tag team titles, the two brothers beat the other two brothers in the most violent fashion possible. It’s not for everyone, particularly anyone who wants a coherent storyline instead of just having four dudes one-upping each other in terms of bonkers spots and effectively shortening their careers and maybe their lives, but there’s room for that in a wrestling show, particularly a showcase like All Out. — Luis Paez-Pumar
12. Cody vs. Dustin Rhodes (Double or Nothing; All Elite Wrestling)
Vince McMahon was never going to green light a match like the one Cody and Dustin Rhodes put on at Double or Nothing. While Goldust and Stardust were relegated to comedy spots and throwaway feuds, Dusty’s sons could’ve been putting on 20-minute classics at every pay-per-view. Instead, their talent was an afterthought—an offhand remark on commentary during the Royal Rumble about how Goldust can still go, but no substantial follow-through on actually letting him do that.
After he left in 2016, Cody established himself as one of the best workers in the world of professional wrestling. In 2019, it was Dustin’s turn. He walked away from WWE, said goodbye to Goldust, donned red-and-black paint, went back to calling himself “the Natural,” and debuted in AEW against his brother. The match is cathartic because it’s a slow burn—time they never would’ve had on a Vince-run show.
The feeling-out process between these two brothers who know each other so well eventually transitions into full-on bloodbath: Dustin’s head hits an exposed turnbuckle, Brandi strikes him with the end of Cody’s cane, and for the rest of the match, everything is covered in blood. There’s pools of it on the mat as Dustin’s red face paint and eyes become engulfed. Cody sees his family’s blood on his hand and smears it across his chest like war paint. Dustin sells as delirious from blood loss, but then he powers up and hits Cody with some powerslams and a couple Cross Rhodes and a Canadian Destroyer for good measure. There’s an urgency as the brothers fight until they both look like they could collapse at any moment. Then Cody ekes out a win, grabs a mic, and cuts an emotional promo asking his brother to join him as a tag team partner. They embrace.
Cody and Dustin proved that AEW could bring the gritty, blood-soaked spirit of Dusty Rhodes back to wrestling. While NXT uses Dusty as a smiling beatific mascot (and in many ways that’s merited given his history with the brand), Cody and Dustin invoked the Dusty who engaged in blood feuds with Terry Funk and the Four Horsemen. Dustin bled in the ring like his dad in the iconic ECW bullrope match with Steve Corino. And best of all, the blood wasn’t just there to shock people or stick it to WWE. It helped these two wrestling virtuosos tell an incredible story. — Evan Minsker
11. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch (Hell in a Cell Match for the Raw Women’s Championship) (Hell in a Cell; World Wrestling Entertainment)
The wig-off got a lot of attention, but this Hell in a Cell match against Becky Lynch is the true moment where Sasha Banks — one of the best in the ring in the company — truly came back. While we had seen a glimpse of the great Banks when she Rumbled with Rousey, this show-stealing match put The Boss in the position she belongs in: against the most beloved wrestler on your roster. Banks made it work against Bayley at the Barclays, and this match helped breathe some ferocity back into Becky, whose year included headlining WrestleMania and being Becky Two Belts.
The brutality began early, with Sasha’s outside the ring shenanigans leading to Becky taking the steel chain meant to lock the cage from a ref. This match brought the brutality that demands equal treatment, as a massive meteora from Banks smushed Becky into a ladder, which Sasha then slammed back into Becky. Later on, Becky just threw Sasha into the cell wall, bouncing her off the structure like a rag doll. She seemingly enjoyed that, and then BexPloder’d her into it.
Highly risky-looking spots, jamming Sasha’s face into the underside of an open steel chair, upped the ante. Sasha later laid into Becky with kendo sticks, knocking her down long enough to set up the first peg in a massive spot: sticks in a cell wall for face to be slammed into. The inventiveness that followed, with Becky attaching more kendo sticks and a chair into that cage, created the most inventive HIAC spot this side of The New Day vs Usos, so Becky could do a flying dropkick that slammed Sasha into the chair and cell corner. Soon thereafter, Sasha would nail another amazing meteora, slamming Becky through a table. Becky’s resilience became the story, surviving a Kendo crossface, before Sasha threw her face-first into a steel chair. Becky would soon make Sasha tap, but in this one match, we were served a reminder about the excellence of Sasha Banks. — Henry T. Casey
10. Timothy Thatcher vs. Davey Boy Smith Jr. (MLW Fusion Episode 69; Major League Wrestling)
When I learned MLW was setting the insanely underrated (except by Thirsty Wrestling Twitter) Tim Thatcher against Davey Boy Smith Jr. for a TV taping, I was a bit confused. I didn’t realize this was going to be the match that helped reset the career of Davey Boy Smith Jr.. For about 15 minutes, the son of the British Bulldog kept up with the tactician, in what became a main event for the Fusion show. Davey Jr.’s slight flair for the flashy looks even more pronounced in comparison with the no-nonsense Thatcher.
Thatcher’s fury, displayed in some of the angrier facial expressions — snarling grimaces, everywhere — in pro wrestling, animates this match giving it some life for those who don’t already know him as the truth that Progress and wXw fans have already seen. The guy’s lean as hell, and when he butts heads with Smith Jr., his animality just jumps out.
While you might remember DBS Jr. as a bruiser from his time with Lance Archer in NJPW’s Killer Elite Squadron this match, available for free on YouTube, reveals him to be a highly-skilled technician. After this DBS Jr. to move onto winning MLW’s prestigious Opera Cup (at the same venue). If you’re a fan of Zack Sabre Jr., but aren’t familiar with either of these men, get familiar. I could try and get a little more detailed, but the magic of their intricate reversals and float-overs is that it’s hard to really say in words. Just enjoy their fury. — Henry T. Casey
9. Jon Moxley vs. Tomohiro Ishii (G1 Climax Tournament Match) (G1 Climax, Night 6; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
As Jon Moxley entered Korakuen Hall for his third G1 Climax tournament match — to the strains of his banger of an entrance theme, which sounds like Black Mountain covering the Melvins — the idea of the WWE ex-pat in the middle of a thrilling career renaissance winning his block on the first try was a real possibility.
When the self-described “international purveyor of violence, gentleman, and all-around sick son of a bitch” declared himself eligible for New Japan Pro Wrestling’s grueling month-long tourney, fans shouted and salivated at the idea of Mox going up against the most hard-hitting of New Japan mainstays. There are no dream matches anymore, because anyone could essentially wind up anywhere. But the thought of the erstwhile Dean Ambrose standing nose-to-nose with Tomohiro Ishii, NJPW’s resident clubbering, stoic badass, was too exciting to call their matchup anything but.
Mox’s G1 clash with Ishii could very well be his best match so far since leaving the microwave-and-serve creativity of World Wrestling Entertainment’s main roster. Ishii always delivers Match of the Year contenders in August, and 2019 was no different (spoiler alert: there is another Ishii match from the G1 Climax on this list). Mox and Ishii get in each other’s faces before the match even starts, and when it does, it’s balls to the wall, forearms and spit flying.
The pace of the match becomes more measured in the middle parts, punctuated by heavy strikes. It’s the kind of encounter that makes a fan giddy, because there is a spiritual connection here; just two tough dudes looking to slug it out. In a particular strike exchange, Ishii takes shot after shot from Mox and puts him down hard with one blow. At some point, they sword fight with chairs.
Chekov’s Table last longer than in Mox’s match against Taichi a few days prior, but it is eviscerated in exclamatory fashion. Ishii, not exactly (or at all) known for his aerial mastery, hits a picture-perfect splash from the top turnbuckle through Moxley and the table on the floor. They trade headbutts for twenty excruciating seconds, Mox tries to mow over a proverbial tree and fails, and Ishii counters a Death Rider DDT with a lariat which sends the sweat on Moxley’s chest misting the air. Mox no-sells a stiff forearm from Ishii and the Korakuen Hall crowd gasps in astonishment.
After a Death Rider and a three-count, Mox offers a grateful speech, to Ishii for being a sick bastard (game recognizes game) and the fans for allowing him a canvas on which to create his ugly, gruesome works. If Mox departing WWE was about playing his music his own way, his match with one of the toughest motherfuckers New Japan has to offer is his “Endless, Nameless.” — Douglas Martin
8. Kris Statlander vs. Mercedes Martinez (Beyond Uncharted Territory #2.03; Beyond Wrestling)
Kris Statlander, the indie wrestling favorite from the Andromeda galaxy who recently escaped Area 51, kicked off 2020 by establishing herself as our leader with some impressive performances in AEW’s women’s division. It was a well-deserved glow up. Look at her matches in Beyond with Joey Janela and Orange Cassidy, or her Evolve clinic with Shotzi Blackheart, or her sick Shine match against Natalia Markova. Kris Stat is a star, and it’s amazing that she gets to wrestle people like Riho and Hikaru Shida on TNT.
You know who else is a star? Indie wrestling legend Mercedes fucking Martinez, who somehow only just got an NXT contract in the past month and is starting to appear Wednesdays on USA. Even if you’re unfamiliar with her deep and essential legacy as one of the greatest wrestlers on the indies, her Mae Young Classic match against Meiko Satomura in 2018 is a classic and was easily one of the best matches of that year. It doesn’t matter how many shirts you can sell or catchphrases you can get over. If you can’t hang in the ring with Mercedes, you ain’t shit.
So it serves to reason that Kris Statlander versus Mercedes Martinez in Beyond last November is a match that you should absolutely make time to watch. The two met in a 19th century hall connected to a bar in Worcester, MA. The environment is indie wrestling heaven, with fans leaning against the ring and respecting the match as the main event it is. The early goings are all fan service, with Statlander trying to throw up the E.T. index finger for Martinez as a sign of respect. The gesture is rejected, and quickly, the story of the match becomes Statlander having to prove that she can live up to the hype of all the fan adulation while Martinez fills the room with the sound of several brutally stiff chops.
Statlander gets punished in this match because Martinez is not a fucking joke. She’s throwing these intense palm strikes and just raining fists down on her alien opponent with full force. It’s this ebb and flow between Martinez exhibiting an absurd amount of power and brutality in her strikes, Statlander getting flattened, and then Statlander somehow finding a way to power back up and throw leg lariats, shotgun dropkicks, and running sentons. It goes back and forth like this for a while before, eventually, Statlander gets Martinez in a submission that involves her repeatedly bashing a leg into a skull.
As the match ends, Statlander offers a handshake to Martinez, but once again, she’s rejected. Martinez holds a single finger up and gives her a boop instead.
It’s the kind of match you wish you could see on television every Wednesday night or even on a pay-per-view with any regularity—two of the best wrestlers on the planet (or I guess one of the best wrestlers on the planet and one of the best wrestlers currently visiting the planet) throwing absolutely everything they’ve got at each other for over 15 minutes. Maybe now that they’re on feuding sides of the “Wednesday Night War,” those companies will set aside a reasonable chunk of air time for these women who should probably be carrying the companies they work for. — Evan Minsker
7. Rhea Ripley vs. Shayna Baszler (NXT Women’s Championship Match) (NXT Episode 383; World Wrestling Entertainment)
With some minor exceptions, you can’t really say that NXT has ever dropped the ball on pulling the trigger on a new star at the right time. But the December 18, 2019 main event of WWE’s Wednesday program might be the first time they’ve pulled the trigger on someone before the perfect time and, in turn, turned it into a better time than anyone could have imagined. It was only a matter of time before Rhea Ripley beat Shayna Baszler for the NXT Women’s Championship; that’s the story the show had been building towards, and it seemed like they would give Ripley a strong loss here before setting her up to win later on, perhaps at the Takeover over WrestleMania weekend.
It sure seemed like that was the plan early on, with Ripley dominating until Baszler’s UFC cronies came out to interfere and especially after she hit her Riptide finisher for a visual pin after the ref got knocked down. This had all the makings of a disappointing finish with Baszler winning, but with Ripley claiming that she got screwed. It’s a basic wrestling trope, but one that works well to heighten anticipation for an eventual babyface victory. Only, it didn’t quite play out that way, starting with the ref kicking Marina Shafir and Jessamyn Duke out of ringside and towards the back.
Instead of doing the obvious finish—allow Baszler to win after a DDT on a steel chair—Ripley kicked out and kicked the crowd into a rabid frenzy, a state that only increased once she didn’t lose to a Kirifuda Clutch spot immediately after (another logical spot to end the match, if that’s how it was going to go). By playing on the expectations of anyone who has watched enough wrestling to understand how a match can possibly go, Ripley and Baszler turned the last main event of 2019 from a fun set-up into a classic and one of the best NXT matches of the year. Ripley powering out of Baszler’s finisher, stomping the crap out of her, and then applying her own submission finisher, the Prism, was incredible, as was the finish. With Ripley on the top turnbuckle, Baszler climbs up to deliver some form of power move, but stops to taunt, as is her style. Ripley head-butts and then does the Riptide from the second rope, a brutal ending for the brutal legend, and scoops up the win, becoming the ninth NXT women’s champion in the process.
This was a well-put together match that preyed upon what we think we know about booking and timing to deliver an in-ring storyline about the next big thing seizing the opportunity as was presented to her, delivering a shocking result that still feels earned and appropriate. Given that Ripley might be facing off against Charlotte at WrestleMania this year, the time was right for this decision. We just didn’t know that heading into the match, and that made it all the better. — Luis Paez-Pumar
6. Kofi Kingston vs. Daniel Bryan (WWE World Championship Match) (Wrestlemania 35; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Kofi Kingston chased the WWE World Heavyweight Championship on the steepest hill: fighting WWE’s history of not giving black men and women their due, and against an opponent that was once the most beloved hero. Kofi wasn’t the only one who had to win gauntlet matches to get this shot, his New Day compatriots Big E and Woods had to seal the deal.
This actual match, though was a much more traditional story. Bryan worked slowly, trying to drain the enthusiasm out of the crowd, and and while he squeezed the oxygen out of Kofi’s stomach, we heard Byron Saxton’s voice crack as he noted this was Kingston’s first singles match at WrestleMania, and anyone with access to Wikipedia could see he’d been appearing on WWE TV since 2007 and had been contracted to the company since 2006. The match continued mostly at Bryan’s pacing, with the champ putting a knee into Kofi’s lower back, and transitioning that into a Boston Crab. Kofi did not tap, because he had not quit during these last 13 years.
Later, Bryan with that corrupted smile on his face, doing his YES chant gesture into the air, and waiting to pounce on Kofi, set up a series of near falls and submissions, culminating in Kofi displaying a fiery comeback thumping his own chest and yelling “COME ON!” reaching his “enough is enough” moment. As they traded kicks, the crowd rose and fell in ecstasy. Going into this match, fans were not certain if WWE would do the right thing, as the ghosts of Booker T and Triple H at Wrestlemania XIX echoed in our ears. Then, after E and Woods hit The Midnight Hour to take out the massive Rowan, it set Kofi up to … tragically miss a Trouble in Paradise kick. When Bryan’s running knee, which felled no less than John freaking Cena, we all fell down a bit, thinking they’d actually done Kofi dirty. But Kofi kicked out.
Soon enough, we saw wrist control maintained for strategic value, and this simple match has brought a catch-wrestling hallmark to a WWE title match. And when Kofi actually lands the Trouble in Paradise — which sent Kofi, E and Woods into a beautiful moment of crying celebration — it happened out of the blue. It was a shock finish, that turned the deserved ending into a surprise.
The names MVP and Shad Gaspard don’t make it into the pro wrestling conversation that often, but it was their reactions to Kofi’s victory, near silence, with tears and pride, that said it all. Even though WWE gives us every reason to doubt it’s ever going to truly change, with Kofi jobbing to Lesnar on Fox and Saudi blood money prioritized over all else, Kofi’s win gave a spark of hope to many, so that when a Keith Lee arrives to the main roster, it’s not shocking they’re letting Roman Reigns give him respect, or that Brock Lesnar sold for him. Kofi vs. Bryan was as big as pro wrestling itself. — Henry T. Casey
5. Minoru Suzuki vs. Jushin Thunder Liger (King of Pro Wrestling; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
When Jushin Thunder Liger wrapped up his legendary career, his final matches at Wrestle Kingdom weren’t exactly five-star, must-watch classics. That’s how it is—the retirement match usually serves to make the opponent look good while the veteran gets pinned. A couple months before all the tearful goodbyes and salutes from fellow legends, though, Liger delivered a classic when he went to war with his longtime rival Minoru Suzuki.
Suzuki and Liger were perfect enemies. One man is this vibrant living anime superhero who was among the all-time great innovators of the sport. The other is a supremely talented asshole with a vicious streak. In a professional wrestling and mixed martial arts crossover from 2002, Suzuki (a former King of Pancrase) took out Liger (a wrestler with no shoot fighting experience) with a rear naked choke in under two minutes. They would stand across from each other in the ring multiple times over the years—mostly in tag team settings—and regardless of their present circumstances, the foundation of their story was that of an ultimate babyface legend not being able to hack it in a shoot fight with the villainous king of pro wrestling.
When Liger announced plans to retire, Suzuki reminded the outgoing legend of their first fight. Suzuki—who is only four years younger than his retiring rival—repeatedly attacked and challenged Liger. His tone and approach was nasty, but listen to the content of his promos. He’s angry that Liger is giving up. What made it such a gripping story is that Suzuki is a total dickhead in every single one of his actions, but if you peel back the paper-thin facade, there’s something beautifully vulnerable about this maniac. Liger’s leaving, and after years of apathy about Liger, Suzuki’s suddenly extremely mad at him. It doesn’t take a genius to see that he’s feeling insecure about seeing a contemporary bow out while he sizes up the final years of his own career.
“He’s quitting from this war of survival,” Suzuki said about Liger in April. “He couldn’t make it. He’s actually lost his will to survive. That’s why he’s leaving. But I won’t let you go grinning and having fun. I’ll finish you.” And for months, their rivalry festered. In September, Suzuki decided to repeatedly fuck with Liger until he got his match. He’d intentionally end their tag matches in disqualification, hitting Liger with chairs. And then he ripped his mask off after a match, proudly holding it in his teeth by the horn.
And then, in one of the most incredible final acts in anyone’s wrestling career fucking ever, Jushin Thunder Liger showed up to a tag match with Suzuki, kicked his rival in the balls, and unmasked himself to reveal Kishin Liger, the bald silver demon beneath the kid-friendly facade. He sprayed Suzuki in the eyes with black mist, raised a giant spike above his head, and ran at Suzuki, narrowly missing as it drove through a table instead. Suzuki, satisfied that he drove his opponent to madness, cackled proudly while being hunted backstage by the demon.
But the unhinged demon wasn’t Suzuki’s target. He wanted the fighter, so before they met at King of Pro Wrestling, he got in Liger’s face and screamed “YAMADA”—Liger’s real name. Liger responded to this by promising what fans could expect at their upcoming match: “We’re not going to wrestle. We’re going to kill each other.”
The final fight with Suzuki is Liger’s final masterpiece. He comes to the ring as Battle Liger, which means he’s got no shirt and a streamlined mask that reveals a lot more of his face. His opponent is formidable, but he brings the fight, throwing big power moves and whipping him into the barricades and tying him up with submissions. And then, finally, Suzuki powers up to an unbeatable point. They scream each other’s names into each other’s faces. Suzuki demands that Liger give him his best shot, and when the elder statesman throws all of his remaining energy behind an attempted finishing blow, it’s not enough. Suzuki hesitates for a moment, but finally knocks him out, hoists him up, and plants him on his head with a Gotch-style piledriver. One, two, three.
The young lions rush the ring with bags of ice, but Suzuki doesn’t stand for it. He grabs one of those steel chairs that actually looks pretty sturdy—not one of those standard New Japan breakaway chairs where the seat falls out immediately and you wonder if it’s actually dealing significant damage at all. He clears the ring, looks at Liger, and hoists it above his head. And then he throws it aside. And then he kneels and takes a deep breath. He bows his head to Liger, and when he resurfaces, his face is uncharacteristically stricken with emotion. He walks up the ramp as fast as he can to avoid making eye contact with anybody on the way out.
Liger gets up on his own power, grabs a mic, thanks Suzuki, and walks away while the crowd claps along to his music. An absolutely perfect way to go. — Evan Minsker
4. Pete Dunne vs. WALTER (WWE United Kingdom Championship Match) (NXT Takeover: New York; World Wrestling Entertainment)
Wrestling’s inherent nature—a choreographed dance between two (or more) hyper-athletes—means that, sometimes, you have to suspend your disbelief to get into a match. Usually, this comes in the form of a noticeable size differential between competitors. Think any Brock Lesnar match against a small dude; of course, real life fighting machine and large human Lesnar should destroy, say, Daniel Bryan. But the magic of wrestling is that you can tell stories that wouldn’t play out in a real fight in order to hook an audience.
With that mind, here comes tiny pit bull Pete Dunne, defending his NXT UK Championship against a veritable tower in WALTER. On paper, WALTER should just chop Dunne until his chest explodes, and the match smartly leans into that, forcing Dunne to bust out more creativity than he ever has to avoid just that fate. And he manages it! Somewhat, that is. The start of this match features the Bruiserweight trying his hardest to avoid the Ring General’s signature moves, all while getting in his own offense aimed at chopping down the tree.
Of course, because NXT is not stupid, WALTER does eventually take control, turning the middle portion of the match into an uncomfortable BDSM session, with the main victim being Dunne’s rapidly reddening chest. WALTER’s best value is that he does not shy away from whomping his opponents; the match that put him on many people’s radars was likely his match against PCO at Joey Janela’s Spring Break 2. Imagine what PCO’s chest looked like afterwards. Ouch. So when he wails on a much smaller Dunne, and with an assistance from his opponent’s impeccable selling, it heightens both the drama and the violence.
But Dunne was NXT UK Champion for nearly two years, and this match does not punk him out. Instead, he shifts his strategy to his old standby: fucking up people’s fingers until they can’t move them. It’s a smart move to try to take out the hands of a guy whose best attack is a strike with said hands, and combined with Dunne’s disproportionate strength (that powerbomb off the top rope is brutal), it starts to make you feel that he can actually win. Trust me; I was in attendance for this match and was convinced WALTER would win…but they still made me think something else was possible.
Alas, the right booking decision was right in front of them, and after a few more minutes of brutal strikes and Dunne counters, the Bruiserweight gets a bit cocky, going for a finger-locked armbar on the top turnbuckle. WALTER, being strong and smart, picks him up, chucks him three-quarters of the ring, and then does his large lad splash to pick up the three-count. This won’t be the most unique match on this list, but it’s likely the one that best utilized a wrestling archetype—big man vs little man—to tell a unique story that made both dudes look incredible. Special shout-out to Dunne again here, who not only sold like his life depended on it, but did it in such a way that people not familiar with WALTER on the NXT stage immediately understood why he’s so dangerous and why, at the time of this article, he’s still as dominant as ever with the belt he won nearly a year ago. — Luis Paez-Pumar
3. Johnny Gargano vs. Adam Cole (Best 2 out of 3 Falls Match for the NXT Championship) (NXT Takeover: New York; World Wrestling Entertainment)
This wasn’t supposed to happen, and we knew it. Injury removed Tommaso Ciampa from the ultimate blowoff, where he and Johnny Gargano would try and top their epic bout from New Orleans, with the psycho killer’s Goldie on the line. Instead, Johnny had a different enemy with an even more powerful weapon: Adam Cole with the voices of the NXT audience.
When my buddy Dave and I walked into the Barclays, we could hear it in the air, with each and every “Adam Cole [pregnant pause] BAY BAY!” giving uncertainty about where the wind was blowing. Dave’s a Gargano diehard, so I saw the pain in his face each and every time the chant rang out. It seemed like fate could possibly move the NXT championship to someone new with the evening. Without his main nemesis to conquer, it seemed like Gargano didn’t have anything left for NXT. It simply just felt like Cole’s time.
Johnny G came out in the light-up Iron Man gear, and an OK pop. Adam Cole entered with his boys, who were back in town at the arena where they debuted as a faction. Then the “BOOM!” and “ADAM! COLE! BAY BAY!” that was louder than ever, followed by a surprisingly sustained “ADAM COLE! ADAM COLE!” chant. Maybe the luster had worn off for the man who called himself Johnny TakeOver, because he had been given one too many TakeOver main events. But, slowly, you could make out “JOHNNY WRESTLING!” chants fighting their way out.
They started with basics: headlocks and reversals — all the while the bloodlust continued from the crowd, and the chants got more even. All the while the two paced themselves for this 2-out-of-3 falls match with armbars and various holds, until they found their openings to throw bombs with their elbows.
And before you know it, one of Cole’s Last Shot flying knees laid Gargano out, and put him in a 1-0 hole: he now had to beat Adam Cole twice in a row. The good news? This enabled some desperation-level ability to always kick out. So when Cole broke out a second Last Shot, Gargano became the first to ever kick out after it. Even one of Cole’s fatal-looking ushigoroshi neckbreakers couldn’t stop Johnny.
As Cole rolled out of the ring, Gargano went full morality play, avoiding an arguably-cheap count-out pinfall by rolling out after him — and getting met by Cole, who slung him into the barricade. How bad of a price would Johnny pay for this white knight behavior? Shockingly little, as a pause from Cole, removing his kneepad, led to the Gargano Escape that earned a quick tapout, and somehow Johnny emerged bloodied from the eyebrow.
The two were tied, but Cole soon found the advantage, which he seized on with a super-kick to the back of the neck & head, followed by a straight-jacket german — but Gargano kicked out. Gargano managed to avoid the sight of the Panama Sunrise, and nailed a reverse spike-rana, but that just allowed Cole to roll away again. Gargano, again faced with a decision to stay or go, was pulled out and thrown, with a german suplex against the ring apron. Again, Cole paused too long, and Gargano managed to do both of his draped and slingshot DDTs on his way back in.
Cole cowardly slunk out of the ring again, but this was one time too many, as Gargano seemingly saw it coming, and ran away quickly, to rebound and out of the ring with a tope suicida.
But in a single reversal — Cole landing one of his perfect superkicks into Gargano’s incoming face — everything sped up. It all appeared to be over, as Cole was moving at a speed slightly too fast, which always signals “OK, this is it.” Gargano’s crumpled, tumbling body was flipped through and he watched the Panama Sunrise for a 1, 2 – nope. The disbelief from the live audience was beyond palpable, it was relatable.
Cole, fed up with the delays in his victory, talked shit to Gargano until Johnny woke up. And then the ghost of Ciampa emerged, with Cole landing the fairy tale ending onto the commentary table that Johnny bounces right off of, the ultimate insult from the furniture: “Fuck you, I’ll break you for trying me.” And countouts return to the foreground, as Cole looks to take the cheap way out, and then superkicks Johnny who made it in right before the 10. Superkick, 1, 2, nope.
In the end, Roddy made sure the ref didn’t see Cole tap to the Gargano escape while Kyle raked the eyes, and then a ref bump. High low from reDDragon, 1-2-NO. It almost felt overbooked, as if it was too much, but the crowd ate it up like yours truly on wing night, which is the ultimate decider of the quality. Johnny spent time dispatching the ERA, and then Cole’s superkick and another last shot still didn’t put Gargano down, and the intensity somehow got even louder in the arena. Cole might have been the guy they loved to pop for, but the Barclays was firmly in Gargano’s corner, as he reversed his way into a pair of Gargano Escapes, the second actually getting the third and decisive pinfall — finally giving him the NXT world championship, the title that had escaped him so many times.
Dave and I were in full ecstasy by this point, having seen a match that was more than worth the exorbitant price we spent to get these seats on the secondary-market. And the crowd chanted “Johnny Wrestling!” on the way out the building. — Henry T. Casey
2. Shingo Takagi vs. Tomohiro Ishii (G1 Climax Tournament Match) (G1 Climax, Night 16; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
In times of upheaval, it’s easy for me to cling to professional wrestling as a form of escapist self-care. Not to get into all the details, but suffice to say the spring and summer of 2019 were transitional and overwhelming to the point of an anti-anxiety prescription. Thankfully, my toughest months came during an exciting and prolific period in the career of New Japan’s junior heavyweight hoss, Shingo Takagi. Shingo’s reliably brutal, explosive, and wild-eyed work became a steadying force and my north star through a torrent of uncertainty.
After years as a decorated top star in Dragon Gate, Shingo arrived in New Japan at the end of 2018 as the new member of the company’s best stable, Los Ingobernables de Japon. In short order, the company hinged some of its best storytelling on Takagi’s undefeated streak. They built him up as this unstoppable powerhouse, and in May, he was the boss fight star attraction of the annual Best of Super Juniors tournament. It’s awe-inspiring, watching this screaming man’s mohawk flop around wildly while he throws elbows and stiff lariats and snap suplexes. With standout matches against Dragon Lee, SHO, Marty Scurll, and Taiji Ishimori, Shingo was the MVP of Short Kings Appreciation Month (copyright Emily Pratt).
The tournament final was an absolute barn burner where Will Ospreay handed Shingo his first loss in New Japan. It was an unbelievable fight, but while Ospreay’s a once-in-a-generation performer, it was a bummer to see Shingo’s momentum hamstrung by this flippy British dude who walked to the ring with a sword. Thankfully, Shingo got himself into the G1 Climax tournament in an attempt to prove that he could compete in every weight class. And holy shit, could he ever.
Jon Moxley’s promo after his G1 match with Shingo said it best: “He’s a rhinoceros. If he’s a cruiserweight, I’m one of the Doobie Brothers.” Shingo didn’t make it to the G1 finals, but it didn’t take a winning streak or a ticket to main event Wrestle Kingdom to establish him, once again, as one of the biggest stars in a New Japan tournament. There’s not a skippable Shingo match in his entire G1. (No, not even his six-minute victory over comedy wrestling demigod Toru Yano.) But the climax (yes, pun fucking intended) for Shingo came deep into the tournament. In both men’s second-to-last G1 match, the dragon stepped into the ring for a hoss fight with the stone pitbull, Tomohiro Ishii.
Shingo was the hoss of the cruiserweight division, but Ishii is the hoss of any division. He’s the immovable object and the unstoppable force. There’s always this reliable point in an Ishii match where somebody hits him in the chest extremely hard and he just stands still, nothing but coldness behind his eyes, and he leans in to absorb more abuse before throwing a knockout headbutt or something equally intense. Anytime the G1 is announced, it’s tempting to just go down the schedule and see who Ishii’s going to fight. His G1 match with Kota Ibushi in 2018, for example, is legendary.
At this point in his G1, Shingo had already thrown around some big boys. He lost his match with Jeff Cobb, but not before literally suplexing dude, getting up, and roaring repeatedly with an unhinged look in his eye. But it was his win against Ishii that established him as a powerhouse in every division. It’s a stiff match where both men hit each other with everything they’ve got, sometimes in the fucking throat, as sweat flies into the front rows of the Yokohama crowd. There’s one of those suplex exchanges where each dude gets chucked, pops up, and throws the other dude like they’re the Terminator. It’s the Big E-defined platonic ideal of a hoss fight—“two big men with big chests and big muscles bumpin’ meat.”
The morning the Ishii/Shingo match aired, I woke up early specifically to witness the boiling point of a months-long practice in storytelling. I’d reached the end of my emotional rough patch, and yet watching the final Shingo matches made me realize that he’d given me something to look forward to through the tumult. I wasn’t ready for it to be over, but then again, Ishii and Shingo overdelivered. With his win, Shingo’s place as a force of explosivity and persistence was solidified. And yes, it sucks that after a breakout year, Shingo didn’t get a singles spot at Wrestle Kingdom. But it’s only the beginning. — Evan Minsker
1. Tetsuya Naito vs. Kota Ibushi (IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match) (Dominion; New Japan Pro Wrestling)
Some rivals simply bring out the worst in each other.
You know it when you see it, two pro wrestling greats facing off against someone in hopes to be greater but ends up perpetuating their most violent impulses. I remember being a teenager, skipping parties and basketball games and whatever teenagers in high school do to hang out at my best friend’s house and watch in half-horror and half-perverse-glee while Masato Tanaka and Mike Awesome tried to murder each other. Those matches (and the matches throughout history like them, such as any of the Misawa/Kobashi matches in All Japan) exist both within and well outside of the context of the fake sport outsiders describe wrestling as. You can tell when two “performers” are laying their shit in.
Kota Ibushi and Tetsuya Naito — chaotic twin energies representing the golden-winged-and-hearted hero and the devil-may-care antihero, respectively — weren’t facing each other for the first time at Dominion, New Japan’s June supershow. In fact, this wasn’t even the first time in 2019 these two stars went head to head. The only thing I can say about their New Japan Cup first round match and their clash in the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden is that neither of them were quite as dangerous.
Prior to their match at Dominion, they agreed there would be no more rematches for the championship. After a career shortening series of encounters in 2019, this treaty might have saved their fucking lives.
Naito, who has seen the IWGP Intercontinental Championship as an albatross since that fateful moment which changed his career (getting voted out of the main event of Wrestle Kingdom, at that point, the biggest match of his life, in favor of an Intercontinental Title match between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura), once again finds his path intertwined with the the white and gold belt. The bad penny comes back to taunt him and he fights for it again. While Naito has spent the past number of years openly disrespecting the championship, Ibushi sees it as an honor which elevates its holder to the god-like status of his personal deities, the aforementioned Nakamura and Tanahashi.
Two sides of the same coin, heads and tails. One so reverent he borders on religious, the other practically defined by his irreverence, carefully and cleverly weaponized against everyone who doubted him when he was merely a second-tier good guy.
Instead of angrily urging Naito to hurry up and take off the tearaway suit he wears to the ring — unbuttoning shirt and pants slowly, adjusting his knee pads — so they can get down to business, Ibushi patiently waits. The bell rings, they stalk around the ring, and engage in a hard collar and elbow lockup. A quick volley is followed by the Osaka crowd booing Naito, which he relishes in despite the fact he is practically beloved damn near everywhere else he goes. He locks Ibushi in a full nelson with the legs and when Ibushi reaches the ropes, Naito pretends he’s unable to release the hold when he is told to break. The crowd boos again.
Naito and Ibushi engage in their own personal game of human chess, a lot more running and diving and dodging than, say, Tim Thatcher vs. Matt Riddle. About twelve or thirteen minutes into the match, after fighting on the ring apron, Naito flashes a sadistic, wide-eyed grin. He then German suplexes his opponent off the apron; Ibushi’s head smacks against the corner of the ring apron on the way to the floor. It was like he hit a tree after getting ejected from a motorcycle. The announcers, the crowd, the Young Lions at ringside, even the photographers are mortified and extremely concerned. The violence only continues from there.
Head and neck drops. Vicious strike exchanges. A very real headbutt. Ibushi’s eyes look glazed over after he throws his entire body into a lariat. There are glimpses of the man known as the Golden Star blacking out headlong into a much darker headspace (a defining characteristic in his big matches by year’s end). Naito hits a surprise Destino. Ibushi kicks out. Ibushi goes for a Kamigoye (the English translation being “chasing god,” another tribute to his heroes), Naito snaps upward and turns it into a DDT. After a thrilling series of moves, each higher in impact than the last, Naito goes for the death blow. Destino.
Once again, for the fourth time, Naito becomes the IWGP Intercontinental Champion. The bad penny turns up again. Destino calls. — Douglas Martin