2015 was an interesting year in wrestling. We saw WWE hit what many fans are calling a new all-time low from a quality standpoint; TNA had their normal tumultuous year, ROH signed contracts to appear on two different networks, NJPW experienced a boom in business, AJPW is on the verge of collapsing and many other companies put out all sorts of matches, some of them classics some of them unwatchable. So if you didn't get what you wanted this Christmas or your relatives are bothering you, hole yourself up with your laptop and check out my Top Ten Matches of 2015.
Eurotrash vs Roderick Strong and The Young Bucks-PWG Battle of Los Angeles Night 1
Takashi Sugiura vs Minoru Suzuki- NOAH Great Voyage in Osaka
The Beaver Boys vs Trevor Lee and Andrew Everett-PWG DDT4
John Cena vs Seth Rollins-WWE Summerslam
AJ Styles and The Young Bucks vs The Kingdom- ROH Best in the World
Roderick Strong vs Jay Lethal- ROH Death Before Dishonor
Genki Horiguchi HAGeeMee, Jimmy Kagetora and Jimmy Susumu vs Don Fuji, Gamma and Naruki Doi vs Flamita, Kotoka and U-T- Dragon Gate Dead or Alive
Shinsuke Nakamura vs Hiroshi Tanahashi- NJPW G1 Climax Final
Drew Galloway vs Johnny Gargano- WWN Mercury Rising
Kevin Owens vs Zami Zayn-NXT Arrival
Johnny Mundo vs Prince Puma- Lucha Underground All Night Long
Tomohiro Ishii vs Tomoaki Honma- NJPW New Beginning in Sendai
Joe Doering vs Go Shiozaki-AJPW New Year's War
Angelico, Ivelisse and Son of Havoc vs The Crew- Lucha Underground Shoots and Ladders
Brock Lesnar's return to WWE a couple years ago has worked out in the best way possible for WWE. When Lesnar came back to the company he hadn't wrestled for several years and it was unclear how the crowd would react to a guy that essentially quit the business and was booed out of Madison Square Garden last time he was in a WWE ring. None of that mattered, Lesnar has been the most over WWE star since his music hit the day after Wrestlemania 28 and has brought in a lot of different aspects to the often stale WWE product.
The match Seth Rollins, John Cena and Lesnar had at the Royal Rumble was the quintessential Lesnar match, even if he spent a large portion of it on the outside of the ring and was actually stretchered out at one point. The match lacked any form of traditional pace or style, it was just a wild brawl between three of the company's top performers. Lesnar matches are typically like that, in my original review of the match I wrote "if normal wrestling matches are like the Indy 500, Brock Lesnar matches are like a demolition derby." Almost a year later that still rings true, Lesnar's matches, particularly against Roman Reigns and The Undertaker have been wild brawls with no real pace or style to them except that the wrestlers were beating the hell out of each other and it made for good television.
Rollins was terrific in this match, and Cena and Rollins have really good chemistry together. With Lesnar out for a big chunk of the match, Rollins and Cena carried the match on their own, without the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, and put together an excellent show, wrestling Lesnar's style without Lesnar in the ring. This was probably a turning point in WWE management's faith in Rollins, as he displayed he could hang with the biggest stars in the company and hold his own.
9. Hiroshi Tanahashi and Yohei Komatsu vs HARASHIMA and Ken Ohka- DDT Muscle Mates
This match needs to go down in the history books as probably the greatest testament to how great of a performer Hiroshi Tanahashi is. He is the best in the world, and frankly right now it isn't even close. This match probably flew under the radar of a lot of fans, so here is some background information.
Every year, New Japan Pro Wrestling loans out some of its biggest stars to work a match at an event for a Japanese independent wrestling promotion DDT. After working for DDT at their annual event "Peter Pan" Tanahashi had some negative things to say about the promotion. In Japan, they have very real press conferences after big events, similar to how athletes in America talk to the press after games. Tanahashi basically questioned by a star of his caliber had to waste his time wrestling for a rinky dink promotion like DDT. DDT ace HARASHIMA took offense to Tanahashi's comments and the heat was on.
The return match, which had HARASHIMA teaming up with DDT stalwart Ken Ohka to take on Tanahashi and NJPW underneath wrestler Yohei Komatsu, took place at a DDT show with DDT fans, and needless to say they were hot for Tanahashi. Now match in 2015 had a better crowd and more emotion going into it. If independent wrestling fans can collectively agree on anything, it is that they don't like stars from bigger promotions insulting their promotion, and thus they wanted Tanahashi's blood.
For anyone that has watched NJPW, they know that Tanahashi is the top babyface in the company, like John Cena in WWE, but if half the crowd didn't boo him. Everyone loves Tanahashi, he is the most universally beloved wrestler in the world. However, for one night only he was the biggest heel in wrestling, antagonizing the crowd and heeling it up with the best of them. It was sensational to watch as a fan who knows how big of a hero Tanahashi is. To see him turn so quickly into a villain was outstanding work. Of course, at the end of the show Tanahashi shook hands with HARASHIMA and then gave a legit power point presentation to the fans in the arena about his goals for 2016, which included winning the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship on January 4, and main eventing Peter Pan 2016.
8. Jay Lethal vs AJ Styles- ROH Final Battle
This match just took place last week at Ring of Honor's annual end-of-the-year show, Final Battle. Rumors had been circling around for the weeks leading up to the show that AJ had a back injury and that he was going to be unable to perform for his big match at Final Battle. AJ put those rumors to rest during the week before and he put any doubts that he was too injured to work a good match when he and Lethal had the best ROH match of 2015.
Ring of Honor has had pretty strong booking throughout 2015, and it has really benefited from a deep roster of talented challengers for the world title. Jay Lethal had the best 2015 out of any American wrestler, and you could easily build the case that he had the best year period, out of any wrestler in the world. Styles was his most legitimate challenger for the ROH World Championship, and he doesn't lose that much, specifically stateside. The fact that Lethal went over Styles clean, speaks very highly of how he is perceived in the wrestling universe. He get another chance to show his stuff on January 4 when he wrestles Michael Elgin in the Tokyo Dome.
The match at Final Battle was the height of what makes Ring of Honor in 2015 fun to watch. They built heat the old-fashioned way, working Styles' back, until AJ made his comeback. But they also did a great job utilizing the free style that independent wrestling has been built upon, including one of the best table spots of 2015. The finish was strong and Lethal continues to expand his character very well.
7. Kazuchika Okada vs AJ Styles-NJPW King of Pro Wrestling
Since AJ Styles arrived in New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2014, NJPW has shuffled the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship between three wrestlers, Styles, Okada and Tanahashi. AJ beat Okada in his very first match back with the company in 2014, ending Okada's nearly 400 day title reign and since then it has bounced around. Okada exacted his revenge in July of this year at the Dominion show when he took the title off of Styles, and then defended it in their best match yet at King of Pro Wrestling.
I mentioned earlier that Tanahashi is a great entertainer, and rightfully deserves his spot on NJPW. But he also isn't the natural athlete that either Okada or Styles is, and their matches take place at such a great pace that requires so much ability and experience to do well without botching frequently, it is something entirely different from anything else in wrestling when you consider how big the match is. No promotion in the world is putting two guys wrestling like that, for a major title in the main event of a PPV in front of 10,000+ people.
With the exception of Tetsuya Naito's recent heel antics, there are not really any heels in NJPW outside of the Bullet Club. The Bullet Club was everywhere in this match, they interfered all over the place and Okada eventually beat them down and overcame the odds. In WWE, this happens way too frequently but in NJPW it is used so rarely that when it happens it really matters, and the fans eat it up. When Styles locked Okada in the calf-killer and it looked like Okada was going to tap, the Ry?goku Kokugikan came unglued and popped huge for Okada and his comeback. Really unique stuff for NJPW and it worked really well for the match.
6. Speedball Mike Bailey vs Roderick Strong-PWG Mystery Vortex III
Mike Bailey was arguably the top breakout star on the independent scene in 2015, which is very interesting. Bailey does not look like a wrestler, as Chris Hero once called him on commentary "Mike Bailey looks like a sack of flour." He doesn't have a lot of muscle tone, he is naturally undersized; he looks like someone who should be doing your taxes.
When PWG World Heavyweight Champion Roderick Strong came out to issue his open challenge and Bailey answered the call, Strong didn't take Bailey seriously. This led to my favorite start to a match in 2015, Strong laughing at Bailey as Bailey did a dramatic salute to the fans; and then he absolutely crushed Strong with a kick to the head and nearly upset him for the championship. It was perfect, and it set the tone for the rest of the match.
Strong himself is a great foil for Bailey. Strong is over big time as a heel in Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and his brash persona combined with his natural strength and rough style clashes well with an underdog like Bailey. The match involved a lot of hard kicks from Bailey and Strong really bullied Bailey during the match, tossing him around LIKE a sack of flour. The PWG audience has been trained to expect upsets, so they really bought every near-fall in this match. It was an unannounced match, but it ended up being one of the best of the year.
5. Kevin Owens vs John Cena-WWE Elimination Chamber
My favorite WWE match of 2015, this was also one of the most surprising matches of 2015. Owens not only got to feud with John Cena during his debut on the main roster, he actually got a clean pinfall over Cena in his first match ever on the main roster. This was a really incredible match with a good story behind it.
Considering the fact that this was the first time Owens and Cena wrestled each other for an extended period of time, their chemistry was great and that is a testament to how good of a ring general both guys are. Owens hasn't had any problems adjusting to the WWE style, and WWE has allowed him to have a lot of freedom in the ring, and he has been able to really explore with some innovative moves. Cena to his credit, had a great 2015 in the ring and had several matches that were under consideration for the Top Ten.
The sad thing about re-watching this match was that it was bittersweet seeing what could have been for Owens. It was like watching Len Bias basketball highlights at the University of Maryland, where you thought this was going to be the start of something huge but unfortunately it wasn't. After the match, Owens gets on the microphone and says "Get out of here John, your time is up!" It was a perfect ending to the match, but unfortunately it was pretty much downhill for Owens from there.
4. Roderick Strong vs Zack Sabre Jr.- PWG Don't Sweat the Technique
Currently a free agent, Zack Sabre Jr. really made a big jump this year, making the jump to the forefront of the American independent wrestling scene. Sabre Jr. has made his calling card as the best technical wrestler in the world, and when it comes to locking in holds and working on the mat, nobody right now has proven to be better. Nobody knows right now where Sabre Jr. is going to end up, but rumors have been circulating that he will be the latest edition to NXT.
Compared to the other PWG match on the Top Ten, this was a totally different match. While Bailey vs Strong was a wild brawl filled with stiff shots and high-flying, this was a classic technical battle, which speaks to the caliber of Strong. Sabre Jr. ran through most of the PWG roster, picking up wins over veterans such as Chris Hero and he also won the Battle of Los Angeles this year, but Strong managed to hold on when a lot of the momentum, both from booking and from the crowd, where behind Sabre Jr.
It's unfair that Strong has never gotten a good look from one of the more formidable promotions out there. Sure he has a bland personality and he has never had the most charisma outside of the ring, but how damn good is he in the ring? Each year he manages to keep improving in the ring, he can wrestle any style and he has great matches everywhere he goes. Maybe he will never be a world champion, but every promotion on planet earth could use a guy like Roderick Strong.
3. KUSHIDA vs Kyle O'Reilly- Best of the Super Jr.s XXII Final
The junior heavyweight division in Japan, which was once the leader in cutting edge wrestling, has kind of fallen by the wayside in the big promotions. Part of that is the aging of a lot of the top stars, particularly Jushin Thunder Liger and the other part is because of junior heavyweight based promotions such as Dragon Gate have really taken off. New Japan's division is currently okay, but they lack a lot of truly transcendent stars because Dragon Gate has gobbled a lot of them up.
KUSHIDA has been the ace of the division, and has had a decent feud with Kenny Omega, who has been the focus of the division since coming over from DDT. He is very good in the ring, but he doesn't blow me away. What really gets him over his is charisma and his selling, which was on full display against a master technician like O'Reilly. O'Reilly is one of the most underrated elite wrestlers out there, and since he is normally a tag team wrestler, it is great to see him get to work a long singles match.
2. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada-NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 9
As good as Okada has been as a top guy for NJPW, he has always been stuck in the shadow of Tanahashi as the top babyface for NJPW. Okada has had his victories over Tanahashi, but he lacks the defining win over Okada. Hence the chain of events that surrounds the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship; Tanahashi retains over Okada, Tanahashi drops the title to AJ Styles, Styles loses the title to Okada.
Tanahashi vs Okada isn't just your normal wrestling match, it is a generational battle. Tanahashi is almost 11 years older than Okada, and there is going to be a time where Tanahashi will need to be surpassed by Okada. As good as matches between Okada and Styles can be, in the grand scheme of things they are childs play when compared to Okada and Tanhashi. The gaijins come and go, but the winner of Okada and Tanahashi? That will mark the future of the company and in turn the direction of wrestling in Japan.
Tanahashi and Okada obviously have great chemistry together, they have two matches that have been rated a perfect five stars by Dave Meltzer and three more that have been rated four and three quarters. Tanahashi is very reminiscent of a late career Shawn Michaels. He gets by on charisma and his ability to work a crowd. Okada isn't quite as suave as Tanahashi, but he is maybe the best Japanese athlete in wrestling and is improving a lot when it comes to working a crowd. They will try and repeat their performance from a year ago on January 4 at Wrestle Kingdom 10, and maybe this time Okada can finally get his big victory.
1. Kota Ibushi vs Shinsuke Nakamura-Wrestle Kingdom 9
Yes, the only match that was better in my opinion than Tanahashi vs Okada was the match that preceded it, Ibushi vs Nakamura. In a lot of ways, the chemistry is similar to Okada and Tanahashi, although not quite as monumental. Ibushi is the career junior heavyweight trying to make the jump to the real main event, and Nakamura being the multiple-time world champion and one of the most popular wrestlers in the world standing in his way.
Nakamura has really owned the IWGP Intercontinental Championship and made it his own, similar to the way John Cena really upped the value of the United States Championship when he held it. Ibushi wasn't just trying to pass through Nakamura and into the main event, he was trying to take his championship as well.
I think Ibushi is the consistently most entertaining wrestler to watch when it comes down to pure in-ring ability. His combination of pace, high-flying, stiff kicks and selling never ceases to be unimpressive. Nakamura is probably the Japanese wrestler that best translates to American fans, and he was a great opponent for Ibushi, constantly slowing him down with strikes to the head and mid-section. Ibushi has maybe the best move in wrestling, the second-rope dragon suplex from the apron into the ring, and he really brought it to Nakamura. Maybe he didn't win the match but he did prove to NJPW officials and the fans that he is ready to rival the Tanahashi/Okada/Nakamura trio. He's on the shelf right now with a nasty cervical disc injury and his future is up in the air. I know I'm not alone in wishing him a speedy recovery.