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2015 has been quite the year for pro wrestling and it is time for my annual award show, The Viewies®. Take a look at what was the best (and the worst) of 2015.
Wrestler of the Year: Hiroshi Tanahashi
Tanahashi started 2015 by retaining his IWGP World Heavyweight Championship in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 9, in a five star match over Kazuchika Okada. After dropping the title in another great match to AJ Styles, Tanahashi went on a dynamic babyface run, winning the G1 Climax, defeating Shinsuke Nakamura in the final in a match that Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer gave a perfect five star rating. Since then he has been building up to face Okada again at Wrestle Kingdom 10, this time as the challenger.
Tanahashi has had a terrific run over the last several years as the ace of New Japan. While there are a lot of talented performers on the roster, Tanahashi is the star among stars. In a lot of ways he is like John Cena, only if Cena's dynamic star power was mixed in with world-class in-ring skills. It is unclear how much longer Tanahashi can hold onto his top spot with Okada chomping at the bit to replace him as the ace of the company, but if he has a 2016 like the 2015 he just had, he isn't going anywhere.
Honorable Mention: Jay Lethal, Seth Rollins, Minoru Suzuki, AJ Styles
Best Babyface: Hiroshi Tanahashi
In American wrestling, it is really hard for a true babyface to get over. Fans are jaded repetitive good-guy stories, and they naturally love the heels. The last guy to really capture universal love from the audience was Daniel Bryan. In Japan, where wrestling isn't seen as being cartoonish like American wrestling, it is easier for a babyface to get over as a universal hero, and nobody is more over than Tanahashi. Take a look back at the end of G1 Climax, where Tanahashi defeated Nakamura in the finals. After the match Tanahashi celebrated with the crowd and there were girls everywhere, crying tears of joy for Tanahashi. That isn't an exaggeration, people were really crying. Nobody else is even close to getting that kind of a reaction from an audience.
Honorable Mention: John Cena, Kazuchika Okada, Jay Brisco, Finn Balor, Naomichi Marufuji, BxB Hulk
Best Heel: Jay Lethal
2015 was a great year for heels. Jay Lethal, Seth Rollins, Minoru Suzuki and Ethan Carter III all held their respective promotions version of the World Heavyweight Championship. Rollins was great all year long when you consider how much he was on WWE programming over the course of 2015, although Rollins being a non-factor over the last two months of the year hurts his case. Lethal on the other hand, captured the ROH World Heavyweight Championship from Jay Brisco and since then has established himself as one of the most well-rounded wrestlers in the world. He has been a great heel champion, along with the despicable Truth Martini and the lovely Taeler Hendrix, and cuts great promos. He rolled through 2015, picking up wins over Roderick Strong and AJ Styles and will look to keep rolling, defending the title against Michael Elgin in Japan at Wrestle Kingdom 10.
Honorable Mention: Seth Rollins, Minoru Suzuki, Ethan Carter III, Roderick Strong
Most Charismatic: Hiroshi Tanahashi
This is rapidly turning into a love fest for Tanahashi, so I will keep this short. Remember what I said earlier about how great of a babyface Tanahashi was? That wasn't the case when he started feuding with DDT ace HARASHIMA and wrestled at a DDT show after insulting the promotion, calling it second rate. During their eventual match, Tanahashi was a giant heel, and he was great at it! Only a truly gifted performer could go from being such a classic babyface into the biggest heel in wrestling at the drop of a hat. After the match, Tanahashi gave about a 15 minute power point presentation where he was a babyface again and got the crowd to cheer for him.
Honorable Mention: Shinsuke Nakamura, BxB Hulk, John Cena, Dalton Castle, Kenny Omega
Best Technical Wrestler: Zack Sabre Jr.
Sabre Jr. broke out in 2015 and told the world what British wrestling fans had already known for quite a while now, he is the best technical wrestler in the world. Sabre Jr. is a master of the classic British wrestling style, sliding around the ring and slipping around his opponent, applying a wide variety of submission holds. Sabre Jr. is a slim guy and undersized even by independent wrestling standards, yet he has the fans sold on the idea that he is one of the most feared competitors in wrestling, solely based on his technical ability. If there is one complaint I have with Sabre Jr. is that he wrestles a little bit too confidently, he doesn't always show the same intensity in his matches that contemporaries like Kyle O'Reilly and Timothy Thatcher.
Honorable Mention: Davey Richards, Timothy Thatcher, Chris Hero, Kyle O'Reilly, Hiroshi Tanahashi
Best Brawler: Roderick Strong
Strong isn't the biggest guy on any roster, but nobody is a bigger bully. The bully heel role is usually served for the resident goliath of the promotion, but Strong has been able to build that character regardless of physical size. Strong's punishing style has allowed him to bash his way into one of the premiere spots in independent wrestling, mixing in heavy forearm bashes with stiff kicks and nasty clotheslines. Strong had a great 2015 as a heel in both Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and he looks primed to continue that strong performance into 2016.
Honorable Mention: Katsuyori Shibata, Togi Makabe, Tomohiro Ishii, Dean Ambrose, Biff Busick
Best Powerhouse: Cesaro
I don't know if Cesaro can be classified as a true power wrestle, if only because he is so wonderfully diverse in the ring that tabbing him with one specific style seems wrong. Anyways, few are better at stringing together consecutive power moves and Cesaro had a series of very good matches. Even more impressive is the fact that Cesaro has had very little assistance from booking to help him get over. Joe Doering probably should have won the award, but he has been banged up and left All-Japan and hasn't been that big of a factor in 2015.
Honorable Mention: Michael Elgin, Joe Doering, Brian Cage, Apollo Crews, Daisuke Sekimoto
Best High-Flyer: Ricochet
After breaking out in 2014, Ricochet continued his success with a strong 2015. Ricochet has changed his wrestling style over the last few years and seems sharper at pacing his matches, instead of throwing everything at the wall in every match. He has pretty much retired the awesome Double Rotation Moonsault, but he is still probably the most athletic wrestler in the industry and will continue to amaze fans the world over.
Honorable Mention: Neville, ACH, AR Fox, Andrew Everett, Will Ospreay
Tag Team of the Year: The New Day
The New Day started as a bad gimmick that relied on racial stereotypes. To their credit, the men in The New Day have revamped the gimmick to be often the most entertaining parts of WWE television. Other tag teams have had better matches, but no team has been relied on for more entertainment than The New Day. Week after week they are counted on to fill time on TV, and more often than not they deliver in a creative fashion. Kofi Kingston and Big E were colorless midcard wrestlers that turned out to be full of charisma and creative on the microphone. Xavier Woods has unmatched energy on the apron and is holding the torch for the classic 80s heel manager.
Honorable Mention: The Kingdom, The Addiction, The Young Bucks, Killer Elite Squad, The American Wolves, The Throwbacks, reDRagon
Women Wrestler of the Year: Sasha Banks
Banks had a really interesting year. The first eight months of her year were about as good as any American female wrestler has had since the days of Mildred Burke. The last four months, after getting called up to the main roster, have been disappointed as she has taken a backseat to other wrestlers on the roster and has been a non-factor on the main roster since arriving from NXT. That being said, she had some really good, if highly overrated, matches with Bayley and Becky Lynch and has helped gotten hardcore wrestling fans into the Diva's division, which is extremely impressive. Princess Kimber Lee winning the CHIKARA Grand Championship is a legit big deal for women in wrestling, and if she holds it for a while in 2016 she is going to run away with this award.
Honorable Mention: Arisa Nakajima, Paige, Gail Kim, Bayley, Kana/Asuka, Kimber Lee
Best on Interviews: Jay Lethal
Since Lethal turned heel, he has been awesome as a villain in front of the vocal Ring of Honor crowd. Few performers "get" their characters the way Lethal does, and he is great vocalizing himself in front of a live audience or in vignettes. I was blown away by his promo before his match against AJ Styles at Final Battle. In a lot of ways he is like a classic promo guy from the territory days. He isn't funny, he doesn't take anything that is said to him lightly, and he is very intense and always reminds people that he is best. Paul Heyman is unmatched on the microphone, but he is only around for what, 30 percent of Raws?
Honorable Mention: John Cena, Kevin Owens, Robert Roode, Adam Cole
Best Finisher: One Winged Angel-Kenny Omega
The electric chair driver has been done by several different performers, but I love Omega's version on it, where he hooks one of his opponents legs behind his shoulder and drives them face-first into the mat. When he first debuted it in NJPW at Wrestle Kingdom 9, it was unexpected and it totally looked like he killed Ryusuke Taguchi. I want to see it in every match.
Honorable Mention: Dave Meltzer Driver-The Young Bucks, Styles Clash-AJ Styles, Panama Sunrise-Adam Cole, Saka Otoshi-Minoru Suzuki
Event of the Year: Wrestle Kingdom 9
I think Wrestle Kingdom 9 is the best dome show ever and maybe the best wrestling show in the history of the industry. As I mentioned last week, the top two matches in my Top Ten Matches of 2015 were both from WK9, Tanahashi vs Okada and Ibushi vs Nakamura. In addition there was the already previously mentioned Omega vs Taguchi match, a brutal brawl between Togi Makabe and Tomohiro Ishii and the sleeper on the card, a match between Minoru Suzuki and Kazushi Sakuraba in a worked shoot under the old UWFI rules. I doubt we will see a better show in 2016.
Honorable Mention: PWG-Battle of Los Angeles Night 2, WWN-Mercury Rising, WWE-WrestleMania 31, Dragon Gate-Dead or Alive
Best Announcer: Steve Corino
Corino has been great as a heel announcer for Ring of Honor since retiring from in-ring action, and in 2015 he made a solid face turn, engaging in a feud with BJ Whitmer, getting suspended from the company and is currently calling matches under a mask as Mr. Wrestling III. Corino and his partner, Kevin Kelly, do a great job selling the product and never get off-topic while calling the matches. Corino knows independent wrestling as well as anyone, and he gives ROH the voice it needs to represent itself to the national TV audience.
Honorable Mention: Excalibur, Leonard Chikarsson, Kevin Kelly, Matt Striker
Worst Announcer: JBL and Michael Cole
A combined victory for the two goofs that have ruined many a Monday night for fans. JBL was once a very competent heel announcer, but now seems relegated to only gushing about John Cena and making obscure references about wrestlers from 50+ years ago. Cole sucks at selling big moments and doesn't even seem to be trying very hard anymore. I understand that they get their marching orders from others, but that doesn't completely excuse their poor performance. They also do a terrific job bullying Byron Saxton for no apparent reason, forcing him to barely ever say anything. Special shout out to Vampiro, who manages to make every storyline and match in Lucha Underground about himself.
Honorable Mention: Vampiro, Josh Mathews
Best Gimmick: The New Day
The New Day's gimmick is hard to describe, I guess the best way to label it is to imagine if World Star Hip Hop was its own wrestling stable. The New Day represent pretty much everything that is good about the light side of professional wrestling. They are charismatic, funny and creative both on the microphone and with their stunts. WWE has struggled to come up with solid gimmicks for a lot of their main roster talent, but they have done an outstanding job with The New Day.
Honorable Mention: The Bullet Club, Dalton Castle, Freshly Squeezed Orange Cassidy
Most Overrated: Sheamus
Sheamus came back to WWE after recovering from an injury with a new look and a heel attitude. Unfortunately, it has been downhill for him since then, despite winning the world title. Anyone who thought he could rekindle the dominant heel personality that he had when he first debuted in WWE is now shaking their heads, as WWE has pushed Sheamus to the delight (or hatred, or disgust, or any form of emotional reaction at all) of nobody. He is currently the top heel wrestler in the company, if you can believe it, but I have never seen a top heel get such a nonchalant reaction from the crowd.
Honorable Mention: The Hardy Boys, Akebono, Sting, Triple H, Lashley
Most Underrated: Matt Sydal
Sydal left WWE and has since been a working man's AJ Styles, hoping around the world and having really good matches with a variety of different opponents. After working for ROH, PWG and EVOLVE, he got into NJPW and worked a solid feud with Kenny Omega. A tremendous high-flyer, Sydal has gotten into the best shape of his career and has been a standout talent everywhere he has gone in 2015.
Honorable Mention: Luke Harper, Rich Swann, Timothy Thatcher, Johnny Gargano
Best Rivalry: DDT vs Hiroshi Tanahashi
I covered this last week in my Top Ten Matches of 2015 article last week, and I mentioned it above, so I won't rehash anything. Just remember it was the storyline that got Tanahashi to be an uber-heel.
Worst Rivalry: Rusev vs John Cena
As soon as Rusev debuted in WWE as an anti-American super heel, he was destined to be buried by John Cena. While Cena's run as the United States Champion was refreshing from a match standpoint, if you were tired of seeing Cena talk about how great America is and how awesome all the fans are (which we all are) this feud was miserable. Cena beat Rusev, then he beat him again, then he beat him one final time for good measure. There were worse moments in 2015, such as Paige bringing up Reid Flair for cheap heat and James Storm apparently murdering Mickie James, but no storyline was as redundant and took such a prime spot on the card as Rusev vs Cena.
Best Wrestling Promotion: New Japan Pro Wrestling
NJPW had a great start to 2015 with WK9 and continued to build solid feuds with big matches and unparalleled in-ring action. The booking for NJPW is fairly simple, but every time fans tune into a show they know that they are going to get the maximum effort from everyone involved. My only real complaint with NJPW is that they stack their PPVs with too many unnecessary multi-man matches to start the show in an effort to get everyone on the card. However, when you consider the average quality of the main event matches, that is an easy price to pay.
Honorable Mention: Ring of Honor, Pro-Wrestling Guerrilla, Dragon Gate, Pro Wrestling NOAH, Lucha Underground
Worst Wrestling Promotion: WWE
WWE had a miserable 2015, which is sad because during the first three months it was looking pretty good, after a solid Royal Rumble and a good WrestleMania. Unfortunately, they were hammered by injuries which put on a spotlight on their lack of roster depth. In addition WWE lacked solid storylines to engage the fans, fell into a hole of repetitive booking and struggled to create new stars, even though they had a bunch of roster spots open thanks to the injuries. Other promotions may have had lower quality shows, but none of those promotions had even close to the same amount of resources WWE did.
Honorable Mention: TNA, All-Japan Pro Wrestling