I've been doing this for a long, long time.
This coming February will mark the 12th anniversary of when I started writing columns online. If you've been following me on this journey since before Fightful was born, you might remember a certain column that I did to close out 2011 where I decided to look back at the year that was and hand out some awards.
I wanted to do things in a different fashion than anyone else. It would be easy to just say a certain match was my Match Of The Year, but then how would I stand out from the crowd when everyone else who had a column was doing it? At the time, Twitter was really starting to blow up in popularity, and a lot of that popularity was due to the "Black Twitter" subset. They had their own style of tweeting, their own conversations that thousands of people participated in, their own hashtags, and everything else under the sun. Black Twitter really got ahead of the curve as far as understanding the potential that Twitter had to be a worldwide chat room, of sorts, and for "audience participation" to pull people in. I wanted to incorporate Black Twitter in my column, and the easiest way to do it was to use some popular BT hashtags as the names of the awards I gave out.
I had all kinds of awards. I gave out awards like #TheThirst (given to the wrestler or personality that craved attention to the point that they were thirsty for it), #Swag (given to the wrestler that made the biggest improvement on their situation/position from the previous year), #TheStruggle (given to the wrestler that made the biggest decline on their situation/position from the previous year), #Cryin (given to the year's best promo/moment/segment), #NobodyCaresB (given to the storyline that was so bad people just wanted it to end without a proper conclusion), and many others.
It's time to do it all over again.
Seven awards, all looking back at my own personal thoughts of the year that was in professional wrestling. You may not agree with some of my choices, but guess what? I have this space, and you don't, so suck it up, buttercup.
Ladies and gentlemen, our first award of the evening is #TheThirst. There have been a lot of people in the wrestling world that were craving attention this year. It's natural to want the spotlight on you, but some people take those cravings too far. Maybe they mean no harm. Maybe they're just assholes. That's up to you to decide. Let's take a look at the nominees...
- Enzo & Cass, lumped together for the rest of time. Whether it's Enzo trying to get television time by making an ass out of himself in the crowd, or Cass looking to start fights wherever he goes as he seemingly weaves in and out of sobriety, these two have been an absolute mess since they screwed up their golden tickets with WWE.
- ACH. It doesn't matter if you think his NXT shirt was racist or not. What we can all agree on is that the man handled the situation poorly from the jump, screaming from atop his Twitter pedestal, getting himself removed from his contract, getting what he said he wanted in freedom, then quitting the business, then walking the quitting comments back, and whatever else he's been doing, as I have decided I simply don't care anymore.
- Jim Cornette. Again, it doesn't matter if you think Corny is racist, sexist, or any other ugly "ist" word. What we know is that people don't proudly say the things he says, either on Twitter or his podcast, without expecting and wanting a certain type of reaction from the masses that will keep your name relevant. I get that he's "old school" and all, coming from an era where you could make certain jokes and nobody would care, but whether you like it or not, you have to join the rest of us in 2020 at some point.
- NXT & AEW fans. You know the ones I'm talking about. The ones that think this is some dumb ass turf war, taking shots at the other "side" for no reason. Their show can do no wrong, while the other show can do no right. The people that can't just sit back and enjoy Wednesday nights for what they are... an excellent night of entertainment for fans of the sport, in general. If you think hard enough, you can probably think of a fan on both sides of that fence right now. You might even follow them on social media, although I have no idea why you'd want to.
- Brad Shepard. Never in the history of ever has one man been dunked on so many times, by so many people, for being as absolutely, positively full of his own shit than what we're seeing with this guy. He has been proven wrong on his "news" so many times that we've all lost count. Also, he's not as tall as Sean Ross Sapp, no matter how much he wishes he was.
And the winner is...
The artist formerly known as Jordan Myles, ACH!
Pro wrestling's version of Antonio Brown has gone through what seems like multiple mental breakdowns on social media, only to outright backtrack on his previous comments, or show up in a much better mood soon thereafter. People that were strongly on his side in the wake of the NXT t-shirt incident have turned their backs on him because of the seemingly constant temper tantrums. He went from, arguably, the most talked-about man in the business (for better or worse) to largely forgotten about again in a matter of days, all because he couldn't stop tweeting. You hate to see it. No matter what he does moving forward, there will be a cloud hanging over his head because of what he did and how he did it.
As much as I wanted to give Shepard the award, he would only end up reporting the story incorrectly, anyway, so what's the point? Did I mention that Sean Ross Sapp is taller than Brad?
The next award we'll be giving out is #TheStruggle. It's a simple concept. We'll be taking a look at the wrestlers that fell off a bit in 2019. Maybe they were title holders in 2018 and completely forgotten about in 2019. Maybe they were on the verge of being a breakout star in 2018 and then looked like everybody else in 2019. Whatever way we slice it, the nominees for this award are looking to try and get back to their previous ways as soon as possible. The nominees are...
- Elias. At one point, he looked to be the next big main event star for WWE, with live crowds all over the country giving him loud reactions in an era where Raw and Smackdown are getting dead crowds far more often than not. Those crowds were dying to cheer for the guy, but Vince McMahon doesn't give a rat's ass about what we want or don't want. He wanted Elias to be a heel, and we got a poor heel turn that stunted his momentum. Even now that he's a face again, his character is being written as an insufferable douche with no redeeming qualities, so... a heel? I don't know what they're doing.
- Matt Hardy. Not that anyone expected Matt's return would lead to Universal Title reigns and main event spots, but things have been falling apart for a while after a very hot start to his latest WWE stint. He went from having The Ultimate Deletion, an Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal victory at WrestleMania, and a hot tag team with Bray Wyatt to looking like he'd have a good 2019, winning the Smackdown Tag Team Titles with his brother, only to fade away once Jeff was injured. We've seen failed attempts at new characters, lengthy periods of time between televised appearances, and quick losses ever since. Now we might be in the countdown of his final days with WWE.
- Ring Of Honor. At one point, you could say that there wasn't a promotion on the planet that was putting on a better in-ring product than RoH, and you wouldn't have received an argument by many people. Hell, at one point, not only were they delivering the best in-ring product, but they had some of the best storylines and character development, as well. Now, poor attendance has hit RoH around like a plague, and it's due to poor decisions on who to push (and when to push them), questionable story choices, and watching other promotions on that "level" flourish with new ideas.
- Carmella. She was one of 2018's most improved performers, if you ask me, and since you're reading this for my opinions, you technically did. She has had some good moments in the ring in 2019, but I dare any of you to name them off the top of your head. Even her fans will, more than likely, only remember her 2019 featuring her standing next to R-Truth in countless 24/7 "matches" (more on that soon) and segments.
- 24/7 Division. Before any of you time nerds get all up in my business, I am fully aware that this category is about who fell off from 2018 to 2019, and that the 24/7 Title didn't even exist in 2018. I had to make an executive decision to include it, though, because it has fallen, and fallen hard, in a short amount of time. There was a lot of promise when the whole thing was first announced, but then Vince McMahon thought "24/7" meant "only during the hours that WWE programming is on the air", and it all fell apart. Nothing but the same roll-up victories over and over and over and over again did nothing to help.
And the winner is...
Ring Of Honor!
For several years, I was proud to say that RoH was my favorite promotion. Samoa Joe, Bryan Danielson, Nigel McGuinness, CM Punk, Homicide, Colt Cabana, Austin Aries, Tyler Black, Roderick Strong, KENTA, The Briscoes... the list goes on and on of the talent that made RoH so special during their biggest and best stretch. Everything they touched turned to gold. It was an incredible run. Once Gabe Sapolsky left the company in late-2008, the cracks began to show, and we saw that Adam Pearce and Hunter Johnston aren't on the same level creatively as Sapolsky.
Everything was run into the ground. Timing was off. Moves weren't made at the right times. Matt Taven isn't terrible, but he has absolutely no business being the company's World Champion in 2019, let alone being the champ for six months. Rush is an exciting talent, but again, he has no business being the World Champion. PCO became one of the hottest names on the independent scene, but RoH waited an entire year to give him the World Title, making him the company's top guy long after his flame died down. It's sad to watch.
I still like Ring Of Honor. I'd love to see them rise again, as it would mean yet another consistently entertaining product for fans to watch. They just have a long road ahead of them if they want to reach that level again. They're reportedly putting their "book" in the hands of Marty Scurll, as a part of sweetening his contract to get him not to leave for WWE or AEW. It's not like wrestling history has ever seen anything bad come from an active wrestler being in charge of booking and writing for a promotion before. Nope.
As we keep this train going, the next award to be given out is #Cryin. This one goes out to the best promo, segment, or outright moment of the year. You'll see moments from matches included, but not the matches themselves as a whole, because there's a different category for "Best Match" that we'll see later, so keep that in mind. The nominees for #Cryin are...
- Jon Moxley's AEW Debut. Everybody knew the former Dean Ambrose would show up in AEW, but when he did, it was still an electric moment with a molten hot crowd adding to it. It helped to put a stamp on AEW's inaugural show, Double Or Nothing, showing that the company was going to have star power and wasn't going to back down from the upcoming competition.
- Dakota Kai's Heel Turn. It was another moment that everybody saw coming, but in wrestling, that isn't exactly a bad thing when it's executed correctly. Ultimate babyface Kai absolutely mollywhopped Tegan Nox at NXT Takeover: WarGames, turning to the dark side for the first time since signing with WWE. It was done perfectly, with all of Nox's team already inside the cage, unable to help her, leaving her vulnerable to a lengthy beatdown.
- Roman Reigns Returns. It's one thing when a wrestler returns to the ring after a torn ACL or even a broken neck. It's another thing altogether when a wrestler returns to the ring after fighting leukemia. We didn't know if we'd ever see Reigns wrestle again, especially as we weren't given any updates on his condition, the severity of his leukemia, or anything along those lines. Seeing him return brought all WWE fans together, no matter how they felt about Roman's character before his hiatus.
- A Little Bit Of The Bubbly. Sometimes in wrestling, a catchphrase is carefully crafted, and almost overproduced in an attempt to make money on merchandising and things of that nature. Other times, a catchphrase is born on accident. This is one of those accidents. After becoming the first AEW Champion, Chris Jericho cut a backstage promo that was clearly improvised, stumbled upon some champagne, and the line that launched a million memes was born. There was merch created for the line, and Jericho even got his own champagne using the name. Just pure insanity from what should've been nothing more than a throwaway line.
- Kofi Kingston Wins The WWE Championship. What a magical journey it was to see Kofi Kingston reach main event status in WWE. We will never forget that it wasn't supposed to happen, though. Injuries and happenstance led to Kofi being placed in the story, and it was the WWE Universe that took things the rest of the way. To see that same WWE Universe explode with joy at WrestleMania was fun, but in my opinion, seeing Kofi's New Day stablemates, Big E and Xavier Woods, feel that same joy was the perfect icing on the cake (or syrup on the pancake, if you wheeeeel). For that moment, they were fans just like us, watching someone they've loved and supported for years finally get his rightful place in the business, no matter what it took to get him there.
- Batista Returns. WWE was very slick with this one. We saw the reports that Batista wanted to come back for one last match, and that he wanted it to be against Triple H at WrestleMania, but everything we saw about that said it wasn't going to happen. Then Batista showed up on Raw for Ric Flair's 70th birthday celebration, laying Flair out and setting up the match with Trips. It was one of those moments that we didn't see coming, which is more and more rare with WWE these days.
- Cody's "Un-goddamn-deniable" Promo. Cody has helped to deliver a lot of emotional moments with an old school vibe during his brief time with AEW, but this promo, delivered on the November 6th episode of Dynamite, might top that list. It was the company's first "go-home" show, having a pay-per-view to sell, and Cody was in the main event of said pay-per-view. He knew how important this promo was. It had to do what promos of his father, "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, used to do all the time... put butts in seats, put eyeballs on the product, and create interest. The promo wasn't super lengthy, but he poured his heart and soul in it, going from talking up AEW as a true alternative in the wrestling world to adding higher stakes for his upcoming title match to giving an impassioned speech about his journey to this point in his career. Just a beautifully done promo from top to bottom.
- Montez Ford Dances With A Baby. Even typing that out made me smile. It was the October 21st episode of Monday Night Raw, and the Street Profits were facing off against Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson in the show's main event. After a lengthy period of being involved in nothing but backstage segments, it was the main roster debut match for the Profits. It was an entertaining episode, ended by an entertaining tag match. It seemed like that would be the end of it, until the Profits went into the crowd to celebrate, and... Montez Ford grabs an adorable baby from a woman's arms and begins to dance and wave at the baby. This wouldn't be listed if the baby was nonplussed, or if the baby began crying in sheer terror, but the baby looked like it was having a blast, and that made the entire thing better. This is one of those moments that probably won't make many year-end lists, but damn it all, it made mine. I loved it.
- Rhea Ripley Wins The NXT Women's Title. It was the perfect storm, really. Shayna Baszler held the title for 416 days, vanquishing any and every challenger that got in her way. The Full Sail crowd was as hot as it has ever been, dying to see this highly anticipated match. Rhea Ripley had been booked like an absolute monster in the month prior to the match, pinning Charlotte Flair on Smackdown (in a Triple Threat involving Sasha Banks), getting the win for her team at NXT Takeover: WarGames, and pinning Sasha Banks at Survivor Series. It was the right time to pull the trigger on a title change, and the right person to give the belt to. The aforementioned Full Sail crowd exploded at the end of the match, giving us a moment that will live on in NXT video packages for years to come.
- CM Punk "Returns" To WWE. I know, I know... he's employed by Fox, not WWE. I get that. It was still a shock to hear "Cult Of Personality" play and to watch CM Punk walk out on a WWE television program, promising to change the culture. We're always told to "never say never" in this sport we love so much, but seeing CM Punk and WWE involved with each other is something I never thought I'd see again. Time will tell if he returns to the ring, but for now, this is still something insane to witness.
And the winner is...
I want to say this without having it come across as nothing but hyperbole, but that promo was a game changer. The Jericho vs Cody match needed a little boost, and that's exactly what the promo delivered. I will fully admit to not being the biggest Cody fan alive. For years, he had the nickname of "Three-Star Cody" from me because he was always going to be involved in three-star matches. Nothing more, nothing less. That's better than most wrestlers, sure, but I wasn't finding myself eagerly anticipating his matches.
This promo changed all that. I couldn't wait to watch this one. His emotion and his words did exactly what they were supposed to do. It was, perhaps, the best work of Cody's career. Dusty must've been very proud.
Is everyone good? Thirsty? Help yourself to some drinks in the fridge. We're going to keep on keeping on here, moving on to our next award, #NobodyCaresB. This award is given to the year's storyline that... well... nobody cares about, b. Maybe it doesn't make any sense. Maybe it went on way too long. Maybe it tied up a valuable talent for way too long. Maybe it's a combination of all the above. Whatever the case may be, we didn't even want to wait for closure. We would've been perfectly fine with it just ending and never being mentioned again. The nominees are...
- WWE's Saudi Arabia Blood Money. Not a storyline, technically, but it's something that makes fans shake their heads at whenever WWE tries to announce, with excitement, that is continuing. They can try to be slick all they want by not saying the words "Saudi Arabia" on the air anymore, but we all know what the deal is. Making the whole thing even worse is that the shows are nothing more than glorified Universe Mode shows from video games, with random matches and big names making their only appearances of the year because some of the rich bigwigs over there wanted to see them perform. Let's not forget the reports that the Saudis requested to see Yokozuna and Ultimate Warrior wrestle on the first show. Good luck with that.
- Mike Kanellis Is A Cuck. Talk about random. Hey, Mike, congratulations on getting your wife pregnant... oh, wait... it wasn't you. No, it was you. No, it wasn't you. It was this other guy. No, not really. It was actually this guy. No, just kidding. It was this guy. Hahahaha, you suck, because you lose matches. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. I'm not sure how anyone thought it would be something worth watching, and I'd be willing to bet that there wasn't even an end game in mind when it all began.
- A Roman Reigns Attempted Murder Whodunnit. In theory, this type of story can be very entertaining when put together properly. This wasn't one of those times. The "attacks" were incredibly lame. The suspension of disbelief that WWE required of us was astronomical, with their inability to film things without putting cameras in places that they shouldn't be. The Erick Rowan lookalike. The fact that WWE continues to think Erick Rowan is even worth putting in spots like this. It was all flat to begin with, but to be used as a vehicle to put Rowan and Luke Harper back together for the 173rd time made it even worse. The fact that Rowan and Harper were split up again in the Draft a month later? Priceless? I guess.
- WWE 2K20. I'm not what you would call a hardcore gamer or anything, but I dabble here and there. I've been around the gaming world for a long time, at least. With that said, I can't think of a game of this stature that was released with so many bugs and glitches, to the point where it was completely unplayable. I know that a lot of these companies push games out just to make a buck, especially ones that are yearly like the 2K series, but this was ridiculous. This was the first WWE game on home consoles that I didn't purchase since WrestleMania 19 in 2003, and that was only because I didn't have a GameCube anymore when the game was released. I had 2K20 pre-ordered, but canceled that quickly once I started seeing the screenshots and videos in the pre-release phase. Once all the glitch videos came out, I knew I made the right decision, and based on everything I read, I wasn't the only one who felt this way.
- Roman Reigns & Baron Corbin. There isn't even a clever title for this one. Basically, if you see Reigns and Corbin on your screen at the same time, know that you're about to see something stupid. This story has had it all... people dressed in dog costumes, urinal cakes, Dan Cortese, pouring dog food on other people, that super cool "S" that everyone drew in the 90's, candelabras, bad acting, screaming babies in Mozart wigs, that thing where you stumble in public and pretend it was part of a dance routine, and Dan Cortese. Corbin gets so much television time, but it's mostly for the dumbest things. I'm not sure if Vince McMahon loves him or hates him.
- AEW's Librarians. You know, if Leva Bates spent even a fraction of the time working on her in-ring skills as she does trying to think of her next cosplay idea, she might be passable in the ring. As it stands, she has no business being this bad and this unathletic looking for someone who has been a pro wrestler for 13-plus years now. If you're looking at the worst matches of the big time promotions this year, she might have participated in the top (bottom?) two. The gimmick that she and Peter Avalon are trying to run with just isn't something that is making anyone care.
- Shane McMahon Is "Best In The World". Remember back in the beginning of 2016 when Shane made his shocking return to the company and everyone was super excited to see him? As soon as WWE turned him heel and he became "Super Shane" all over again, they flushed all that down the toilet. It still doesn't make sense to have Shane, almost at the age of 50, winning matches the way he does. It's one thing when a 54-year-old Undertaker wins matches, as he's a near-seven-foot-tall badass that is one of the sport's toughest of all-time. It's one thing when a 53-year-old Goldberg wins matches, as he still looks like he stepped right out of a bodybuilding competition. It's even one thing when a 49-year-old Chris Jericho wins matches, as he's one of the best in-ring performers ever and is at least a full-time wrestler still. Shane is none of those things. He steps into the ring, looking like a stepdad that wears cool shoes to try and make his kids love him, is a sweaty looks-like-he's-about-to-die mess before his matches even begin, and yet... he wins. Time and time again... he wins. Nothing about it is "believable" in any way.
- Matt Taven Is The Ring Of Honor Champion. As I said earlier, Taven is a perfectly acceptable performer, but there's no logical reason to make him the top guy in a promotion that is supposed to be at the level RoH is. His crowning was the "last straw" for a lot of fans in their RoH fandom, and these are people that have been diehard supporters of the company for years. I'm not going to sit here and say Taven "killed" Ring Of Honor, as obviously, the company is still going three-plus months after he dropped the title, but he certainly didn't do anything to help revive a promotion that was already in a downward spiral because of poor non-Taven decisions they've made.
- Lana & Rusev & Lashley, Oh My. One of the biggest compliments you can pay Rusev is that he has been able to get, and stay, over in his WWE tenure, even when he's been given steaming piles of turds to work with. Hey, just like this storyline! I'm not sure what section of the internet Vince McMahon stumbled upon that made him want to put 17 "cuck" angles on his programming at the same time, but maybe somebody should put up some parental controls on his computer right away. Lana is either the worst actress on the planet, because she has screwed something up in every promo or segment she's been in, or she's the best actress on the planet, because she's making us believe that she's the worst actress on the planet. Lashley, for his part, continues to deliver his lines with the natural charisma of a prune fart. It's a mess, and yet, live crowds all across the United States continue rooting for Rusev. It's almost as if he deserves a big push or something. I like Liv Morgan, but not enough that I'll care about any of this now that she's involved in the convoluted shenanigans.
- Erick Rowan's "Pet". Erick Rowan is a large, large man. He's listed as being 6'8" tall and weighing 315 pounds. That size is... it. Rowan hasn't been able to show much else, despite being pushed multiple times, and despite being given a few chances to do something. The WWE Universe continues to shrug their shoulders at the guy, but they keep being served heaping helpings of him anyway. This latest story, even though it's clearly a minor one, is another instance of people not caring. It's also another instance of WWE putting cameras in places where they don't belong. Why is there a camera in the cage Rowan carries around? Is his pet wearing a GoPro on its head? Is his pet a camera? Why am I even wasting my time thinking about this garbage?
And the winner is...
Roman Reigns & Baron Corbin!
It's been quite the year for Roman Reigns, who came back from the fight of his life, only to deal with some of the year's dumbest writing, all while waiting in the wings for the inevitable mega push that is coming in 2020.
Corbin, on the other hand, has seen his stock rise and fall in such weird ways. He has actually improved a lot in the ring, but time and time again, WWE puts him in positions that do not benefit him at all. Remember that lengthy stretch of time where it seemed like Corbin was wrestling in 15-20 minute matches on television every week, all while he was also making several other appearances in those episodes? Baron Corbin doesn't even want to see Baron Corbin that often. WWE is doing him such a disservice, pushing him to the point that fans are just plain sick of seeing him. Putting him in a team with Dolph "Stuck On Repeat Since 2013" Ziggler isn't helping anything, either.
It's all dumb. I would rather give myself a colonoscopy than watch Reigns and Corbin have anything to do with each other anymore.
Let's get back on some positive vibes with our next award, which is #Swag. It's the opposite of #TheStruggle that was handed out earlier, so we'll be looking at the people who have seen the biggest improvements on their positions or situations from the end of 2018 until now. It doesn't necessarily mean their in-ring work or their promo skills have improved from the end of the previous calendar year. It just means their stock is on the rise for one reason or another. The nominees are...
- Shingo Takagi. I went back and forth on whether or not to include Shingo here. If you look at where he was at the end of 2018, you'd see an undefeated member of the Los Ingobernables de Japon stable in New Japan Pro Wrestling, so it's not like he went from the outhouse to the penthouse in a year. However, even his biggest fans didn't expect him to have such a phenomenal year in the ring in 2019. He carried his undefeated streak several months into 2019, and has participated in multiple Match Of The Year candidates, all while winning the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles (with Bushi) and then making the jump to New Japan's heavyweight division. Because this is my column, and I'll cry if I want to, I decided he fit in just fine with this category.
- Tessa Blanchard. When you're the daughter of a pro wrestling legend, and you're coming up in the era of the sport's "Women's Revolution", there is a lot of expectations of you. Before 2019, Tessa had success everywhere she went (except for NXT, strangely enough), but her 2019 was incredible. She became one of the biggest and best performers on the Impact Wrestling roster, taking intergender wrestling to another level in the process. As the current top contender to the Impact World Title, many are expecting her to break through the "glass ceiling" and make history by winning the belt at Impact's Hard To Kill event airing a mere couple weeks after I type these words. She's getting more and more attention all the time, and deservedly so. (Writer's Note: This section was written before the controversy, but keeping her here was the right call.)
- Lio Rush. The end of 2018 saw Rush as Bobby Lashley's hype man, doing all the talking for Lashley, and basically being there to annoy faces until they beat the hell out of him. Then, it looked like he wouldn't be able to get nominated for this type of award, because that pairing with Lashley was abruptly ended as Rush would take time away from the company to work on his mental health and focus on musical side projects. Then, he returned as suddenly as he disappeared, showing up as a face in NXT, winning the Cruiserweight Title. His reign only lasted two months, but it was two months of matches that showed the world why WWE signed him in the first place. He's in the perfect situation to showcase his talents.
- Jay White. "Switchblade" went from being the IWGP United States Champion and viewed as a "midcard for life" type of performer to knocking off some of New Japan's all-time greatest talents on his way to becoming the new leader of the Bullet Club stable and shocking the world by winning the IWGP Heavyweight Title. Alright, yes, his title reign didn't quite hit the two-month mark, but the fact that he became a main event guy can't be taken away from him. He ended 2019 as the IWGP Intercontinental Champion, but was still competing in main events and being involved in "top guy" spots.
- Rhea Ripley. You knew from the beginning that Ripley had the potential to be a big star. It was just tough to predict how big she would become, and how fast she would get there. 2018 saw her win the NXT: UK Women's Title as part of a dominant stretch where she defeated any and everybody that got in her way. 2019 saw her make her return to the flagship NXT brand and make plenty of noise from the beginning. In the build to Survivor Series, she was involved in multiple stories at the same time, putting her in the ring against some of the biggest names in wrestling... and she kept emerging victorious. She defeated Charlotte and Sasha Banks in a match on Smackdown, got the win for her team in War Games, got the win for her team at Survivor Series, and then ended Shayna Baszler's 416-day reign as NXT Women's Champion. She did all of that in the span of 26 days, giving her as hot an end to a year as you're ever going to find.
And the winner is...
I cannot properly put into words just how big 2019 was for Rhea Ripley. She just turned 23, but you could now argue that she is the best in the world at what she does, with no end to her meteoric rise in sight. If I told you that Rhea would be promoted to the main roster in 2020, would you doubt it? If I told you she would be promoted to the main roster in 2020 and would be feuding with either the Raw or Smackdown Women's Champion, would you doubt it? If I told you she would be promoted to the main roster in 2020 and would become the Raw or Smackdown Women's Champion pretty much right away, would you doubt it? You wouldn't. She has the potential to be the greatest of all-time, and it all started with a huge 2019.
There are only two more awards to give out, but they're the two biggest awards to give, so these are exciting times. Let's keep the ball rolling with #Craftmaster, given out to the Wrestler Of The Year. This isn't necessarily for the wrestler who won the most matches during the year, and it isn't necessarily for the wrestler who was involved in the best matches during the year. You've gotta have a nice mix of everything to be featured here. The nominees are...
- Chris Jericho. When AEW needed some star power at the top of their card, they turned to Jericho, and the man hasn't let them down. He became the very first AEW World Champion, and has now had the title for about four-and-a-half months as of the time I type these very words out. He has been front and center for everything AEW has been doing, and has been successful all along the way.
- Brock Lesnar. Look, I don't really care to hear about the part-time stuff. He came into 2019 as the Universal Champion, won Money In The Bank, won the Universal Title back, and then won the WWE Title after dropping the Universal. Full-time, part-time, Morris Day & The Time... if you do all that in one year, you'll get people to take notice.
- Shingo Takagi. Joining the promotion at 36 years old, many fans wondered if he had enough left in the tank to make a mark in New Japan. Shingo has responded by putting in, perhaps, the best work of his career. As I mentioned earlier, he has participated in a few matches that are making year-end Match Of The Year lists, was pushed as an unstoppable force for a large part of the year, and showed that he could hang with anyone on the roster. He's a surprise for lists like this, but I'm happy to see it, as I've been a fan of his since I first saw him wrestle for Ring Of Honor in 2005.
- Shayna Baszler. When you look at the list of women to hold the NXT Women's Title through the years, it's a list of some of the best this era has seen. Paige, Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Bayley, Asuka... and none of them have held the title for as many days as Baszler has had it. Shayna used her MMA background to add an extra layer of "legitimacy" to NXT, looking like a monster that could not be defeated. That type of heel is incredibly valuable in pro wrestling, as it builds everything up, all the way to the point where the face that finally conquers said heel is "made" immediately. That's what we got with Rhea Ripley, but none of it would be possible without the effort of Baszler.
- Timothy Thatcher. When you talk about Timothy Thatcher's work with people, you'll get a lot of differing opinions. As is the case with any "style" of wrestling, you have people who are fans of it, and you also have people who feel it isn't for them. In my experience, the British style of wrestling that guys like Thatcher and Zack Sabre Jr. use is the most divisive of them all. Some find it exciting, while it bores others. All the while, though, Thatcher continues to find success with it all over the globe. A lot of his biggest successes during the year happened for Germany's Westside Xtreme Wrestling, where he would win the wXw Unified World Wrestling Championship for the first time. His style still isn't for everybody, and he isn't always the flashiest to watch, but I couldn't even tell you the last bad match I've seen from him. He just gets the job done.
- Kento Miyahara. If you've been reading my articles, you'd already know my fondness for Miyahara and his work in All Japan Pro Wrestling. He's been their young stud for a few years now, and his rise is similar to that of Kazuchika Okada in New Japan. Miyahara entered 2019 as AJPW's Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion, and he also entered 2020 as the champion, because nobody has defeated him. He has held the title for 451 consecutive days as of this very moment, with nine successful title defenses in that span. In the history of the title, only Toshiaki Kawada has had more successful title defenses during a single reign, and he only had one more in a reign that lasted for 529 days. Miyahara has been a machine for All Japan. In the last 1,433 days, he has been the Triple Crown Champion for 1,084 of them, which is a whopping 76% of the last four years. Just insane numbers.
- Kazuchika Okada. If you ask me, Okada is the best wrestler on the planet, and has been for years now. I think it's physically impossible for him to have even a decent match. He is a walking, talking, breathing four-star machine, capable of having a classic with seemingly anyone on the New Japan roster. He held the IWGP Heavyweight Title for most of 2019, having great match after great match along the way. There's almost nothing to be said about him, as it has all been said already.
- Kofi Kingston. When you think of the great things WWE has accidentally stumbled upon over the last few years, it really boggles your mind. Kofi Kingston's rise to winning the WWE Title is one of the greatest stories we've had the pleasure of seeing, and it wasn't even supposed to happen. He was on fire leading up to WrestleMania 35, putting on some of the best performances of his career to earn his title shot, and then participated in one of the year's best matches to win the WWE Title, followed by a six-month title reign where he was a fighting champion. It was validation for his fans that felt he was overdue for a singles main event run. We won't even talk about how he lost the title, or how pointless it was, as it will just make me upset all over again. It doesn't take away from just how entertaining he was in 2019, and just how much his title reign meant to future generations of little boys who see that they look like Kofi and know that they, too, can achieve their dreams if they work hard.
- Adam Cole. Bay-Bay. I've written about him before, saying that he's about as successful a wrestler as the decade has seen, winning titles in every place he's been. That success continued in 2019, where he won the NXT Title, and has been the focal point of the NXT brand at a time when the brand is bigger than ever and entering a weekly competition with upstart AEW. He's in the middle of one of the longest NXT Title reigns ever, has wrestled in multiple Match Of The Year contenders, and has looked like he belonged on the main stage during NXT's Raw and Smackdown appearances leading up to Survivor Series, including a pinfall victory over Daniel Bryan. It's only a matter of time before he takes his Wednesday night talents to Monday or Friday nights.
- Will Ospreay. Remember when the internet was in a rage over Ospreay being nothing more than a "spot monkey" with highly choreographed stretches of his matches that more resembled dance theater than professional wrestling? Can it be that it was all so simple then? He has really grown into an all-around performer since then. He might still be the best aerial performer in the business today, but when you're climbing the ranks of New Japan, you're going to cross paths with workers of different styles, and you're able to pick up bits and pieces of everything to use for yourself, which is what he's doing. I've seen people have Match Of The Year lists that have four or five Ospreay matches on them, which is almost unheard of. He was on fire throughout the year, winning multiple titles in New Japan, as well as their Best Of The Super Juniors tournament. He has accomplished just about all there is for a Junior Heavyweight to accomplish in New Japan, and seems primed and ready to make a splash as a Heavyweight, which could very well place him on a list like this next year.
And the winner is...
I went back and forth between Ospreay and Shingo Takagi here, and really wanted to give the nod to Shingo, but in the end, Ospreay's higher profile gave him the nod. Shingo wasn't expected to shine, so there wasn't a lot of pressure on him for a large portion of the year, while Ospreay is expected to deliver on something magical whenever he steps between those ropes. Those types of expectations cannot be ignored, especially when they're met almost every single time.
At some point, I'm expecting Ospreay to become the IWGP Heavyweight Champion and really solidify his place among the greats of this era, but for now, I'll just enjoy his work and watch him do things that no human being should be able to do.
We have finally arrived at our final award. The name of the award is #!!!, which is pretty easy to figure out. When you're watching the Match Of The Year, and you've run out of word superlatives to dish out, you simply have to bust out the exclamation marks. People will know what you're trying to say. These are the best pieces of work I saw all year long. The nominees are...
- Seth Rollins vs AJ Styles (WWE Money In The Bank, May 19th). Expectations were high with two of WWE's best performers squaring off, and they didn't disappoint. It seems like WWE's main roster matches get less and less time to work with these days, but if you give competitors like Rollins and Styles 20 minutes to work with, you're going to get something fun. Lots and lots of counter wrestling here, with some very good pacing, all the way to a good finish. You got quite the treat if you decided to watch this instead of the Game Of Thrones series finale that night.
- Kazuchika Okada vs Will Ospreay (NJPW G1 Climax Day 7, July 20th). As I said before, Ospreay had a coming out party of sorts in 2019, showing that he could hang with the heavyweights of the New Japan roster, and who better to showcase that against than the best in the world? The story going in was that Ospreay was looking for his first victory over Okada, and was getting closer and closer to doing so. They gave us the type of storytelling and building drama that New Japan excels at, making you wonder if this would finally be the night Ospreay reached the top tier, or if he would come up short yet again.
- Johnny Gargano vs Adam Cole (NXT Takeover: New York, April 5th). A Two-Out-Of-Three Falls Match is often handicapped by some weird booking decisions. You'll see a match feature three falls in less than 20 minutes, when you'd normally see those wrestlers take that long to get a single fall. This one didn't see that problem, as Gargano and Cole were given about 40 minutes of in-ring time to work with. A molten hot crowd only enhanced the drama as we watched to see if Gargano could finally win the NXT Title after chasing it for two years. WrestleMania weekend is where wrestlers from every promotion digs deep to put on their best work, as they know the eyes of the world are watching, and this was no different. Cole and Gargano wrestled a highly motivated match with some of the highest drama you're going to see.
- WALTER vs Tyler Bate (NXT UK Takeover: Cardiff, August 31st). The monster bully heel and the scrappy babyface. It's a tale as old as time. In this case, we might have wrestling's ultimate monster bully heel facing off against the ultimate scrappy babyface. With plenty of time to work with in front of a super hot crowd, both men were at their absolute best here. I liked the little nods to Pete Dunne and Trent Seven, Bate's British Strong Style stablemates, after WALTER had defeated both of them previously. Short attention spans need not apply here, as the match went over 42 minutes, but what a ride it was.
- Shingo Takagi vs Tomohiro Ishii (NJPW G1 Climax Day 16, August 8th). I know that the "strong style" matches New Japan delivers aren't everyone's cup of tea, but if that's something you do like, this is a match that will not disappoint. More than just about anyone in the business, Ishii isn't interested in looking flashy, and instead, would rather beat you into a pulp if he can. Shingo isn't the biggest man in the world, but his strength and toughness allow him to work matches like this with ease. Just a hard hitting, no nonsense war, with two men trying to outdo one another and prove who the baddest man really is.
- Lucha Brothers vs Young Bucks (AEW All Out, August 31st). Two teams of siblings. Two teams that truly believe they are the best tag team in the world. A big stage. A Ladder Match. A hot crowd. It was like a beautiful stew, with all of these great ingredients coming together to make something special. In typical Ladder Match fashion, the match is wrestled at an insane pace, with spots happening on top of spots. It's yet another match style that isn't for everybody, but for those who are into the "car crash" style of wrestling, this is an epic encounter.
- Will Ospreay vs Shingo Takagi (NJPW Best Of The Super Juniors 26 Day 15, June 5th). Even though Shingo isn't a big man (listed as 5'10" tall and weighing 210 pounds), but his power allowed him to stand out in comparison to other wrestlers of his size. That style was a perfect "opposites attract" match for Will Ospreay and his high-flying antics. These two went out and told a good story. Ospreay, as always, is bordering on cocky, while Shingo has something to prove. Shingo had been mowing through the competition in the BOSJ tournament, and Ospreay showed that he was studying his opponent, countering all of Shingo's signature moves on his way to trying to end the match. The build to the end was a lot of fun.
- Cody vs Dustin Rhodes (AEW Double Or Nothing, May 25th). If you love the emotional aspect of pro wrestling, this match checked off just about every box you had. It would be very difficult to find many matches in recent years with the overall emotion this one had, from the lengthy history and occasionally rocky relationship of these two brothers to Dustin trying to show the world that he could "hang" with his younger opponent, as well as Cody trying to prove that he was better than his more successful sibling. When you throw in one of the highest amounts of blood a mainstream wrestling match has seen in years, you have something epic. This is Cody's best work, and this is Dustin's best work. They were destined for this.
- Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kenny Omega (NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 13, January 4th). When you're the main event of New Japan's Wrestle Kingdom show, you have to be special. The story of Omega feeling like Tanahashi was too old and needed to be put down was fun. Omega worked like a prick, and it helped get the crowd more invested, as they cheered on one of their all-time heroes against the arrogant "young" champion. I'm starting to feel like a broken record here, but... this style of match definitely has its share of detractors. There are a lot of false finishes. There are a lot of times when a move should have killed a man, but it couldn't even defeat said man in a wrestling match. There is a lot of "strong style" and stretches of no-selling. When you can put any bias aside and just focus on the story Tanahashi and Omega are trying to tell, you find yourself getting more and more into the match as it goes on.
- Kazuchika Okada vs Kota Ibushi (NJPW G1 Climax Day 17, August 10th). Again, I'm a broken record here... I know that the New Japan style isn't for everyone, but for my money, the world class athletes the promotion has, and their ability to tell stories in the ring, draws me in every single time. I once heard someone say that big match Okada is like a final boss in a super tough video game. You can't see any weaknesses, and you have no idea how he can be defeated. Well, in recent years, Ibushi has really "bossed up" on his own, and that's what made this such a master class. With a spot in the G1 Finals on the line, both men upped their games and looked like they were trying to kill each other. Brutal stuff.
And the winner is...
Will Ospreay vs Shingo Takagi!
I love, love, love this match. In a year full of outstanding matches, this one stands out to me as something we could be looking back on a few years from now. When Ospreay makes a surprise Royal Rumble debut or shows up to challenge the NXT Champion after a Takeover main event, I'll remember a performance like this where people started taking notice of him and saw that he was more than just a "spot" guy.
That's not to take anything away from Shingo, mind you. As I said, I've been a fan of his for a long time, and I'm very happy that he was able to shine on perhaps the biggest stage he's had. He showed that he belonged in New Japan. Belonged in the main event scene, not just on the card.
I went in not knowing what to really expect, and I think that helped my viewing out a ton. I was able to just sit back and watch both of them tear the house down, delivering what I think will be my favorite match, period, since the infamous Okada vs Omega quadrilogy.
At long last, we are done. This was such a long article that most year-end award pieces were posted on the internet weeks ago. If you're still with me after 9000+ words, please know that I truly and humbly appreciate you. Now that you've seen my picks for the year, let me know what you thought of them, but also, let me know what your picks for 2019 are. As always, hit me up in the comments section below, or on Twitter (@HustleTheSavage), and let me know what's on your mind.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go write about 30 particular wrestlers under the age of 30.