What a year we have had wrestling fans! From the depths of wrestle-crap (Hell in a Cell) to the exhilaration of the premier of AEW Dynamite, its an embarrassment of riches for those of us that prefer our sporting events pre-determined.
For this very special column at your favourite pop-culture website and mine, I’m going to lean into my five favourite matches from this year. With apologies to “uncle” Dave Meltzer, none of them take place at the Tokyo Dome and none of them feature Kenny Omega. I don’t have a star system or chart, these are just the 5 matches I saw this year that hit me in the wrestle feels.
I should note that this is a WWE-centric list as I don’t really follow other promotions save AEW, and none of the matches they offered up this year got me out of my seat like these ones did. This isn’t to say that there weren’t fantastic matches happening in stadiums and gymnasiums all over the world this year, but these are the ones that I would show to someone and say: this is wrestling and this is why I like it.
With those qualifiers in place, let us get started!
5. Charlotte Flair vs Trish Stratus @ SummerSlam: Toronto
Nostalgia matches have a habit of letting us down, especially ones that take place in Saudi Arabia and feature the one night only return of Shawn Michaels… or Goldberg… or the Undertaker… but I digress. What I am driving at is that it is a rare thing where a veteran not named Ric Flair can return to the ring and pull off a decent match with younger talent, entertain fans, and do the right thing and put them over.
Toronto’s own Trish Stratus did all three this summer when she squared off with the Queen herself in a match that I thoroughly enjoyed from top to bottom.
Being a male person that came of age during the Attitude Era it is impossible not to have a special place set aside for Trish Stratus and her friend slash rival Lita. Both were unbelievably gorgeous and both worked really, really hard to make bra and panties matches mean more than a need to buy more kleenex. They worked at their craft, they took bumps and they elevated women’s wrestling to a starting point that led to its current place at the top of the card.
Trish had made a return at the Women’s Evolution PPV event (which WWE should really, really do again btw) but her work was hidden in a tag match. Lots of spots, crowd-pleasing pops, nothing but fan service. Could she pull off one more match with perhaps the best women’s wrestler in the world?
Hell yeah, she could. But, not without the support and efforts of her opponent, who showed just how amazing she is throughout the course of this entertaining bout.
The beauty of wrestling often lost on folks that don’t get it, is that it is a physical performance unlike any other in the world. “It ain’t ballet” as Jim Ross would say, but it is work of athletic art that at its best is two or more people giving their bodies to one another in an act of competitive trust with next to no margin for error. The best wrestlers can get a weaker, slower, injured opponent through a match and make them look like a star in the process. While Trish is certainly none of those things, she is a solid head and shoulders smaller than Charlotte and is not in her working prime.
It didn’t matter, Charlotte sold her stuff like it was the shopping channel. She bumped, rolled and gave us hope spots that made us think maybe, just maybe Trish was going to win one for the home crowd. However, when the final three got counted, Trish did was veterans of the industry have done from the beginning: She put over the younger talent for the good of the business.
Absolute wrestling magic.
4. The Graveyard Dogs vs Drew McIntyre and Shane McMahon @ Extreme Rules
If I am perfectly honest, I don’t remember much about this match other than that I freakin loved it. This was WWE popcorn wrestling at its absolute best and it was a much-needed redemption match for The Undertaker after the debacle he had with Goldberg at Crown Jewel.
Wrestling doesn’t have to be all work rate and high spots. Sometimes, all I want is to see a fool get chokeslammed out of his goddamn boots by a scary man in black pants next to another guy getting clobbered with a spear. I want to see an insufferable prick like Shane O’ Mac get exactly what he deserves. I want big, athletic-looking humans that look like they can kick ass playing all their biggest hits.
I also want that shot of Drew rising up behind the Taker forever.
Nothing else to say here except “OOOOO-AHHHH” in my best Roman Reigns grunt.
3. Tyler Bate vs WALTER for the UK championship @ NXT UK Takeover Cardiff
If wrestling is art, this match was a Picasso. Elegant, classical, stylish and yet brutal. This David versus Goliath story was so goddamn good that at no point did I feel like it had been going on for forty minutes.
There aren’t enough words for awesome in my vocabulary to describe the work of Tyler Bate. If the guy was a foot taller he would already have main-evented Wrestlemania before his 25th birthday. He’s fast, strong and plays the sympathetic babyface like nobodies business.
WALTER, on the other hand, looks and works like a strong man of yesterday. He’s not cut or chiselled, he’s bulky with range. His arms are long and his hands look like a pair of canned hams with sausages attached to them. From his look to his presentation, WALTER is a classical wrestler right down to his entry music.
The match itself had a fantastic build, with WALTER and his Imperium cohorts taking down the British Strong Style crew one by one, leaving a returning Bate standing alone to avenge his friends in a one on one match with the title on the line. Again, classic stuff, but it works for a reason.
There was no outside interference. No cheating. Just 40 minutes of wrestling Shakespeare. Funny how you would get that in a UK match, eh?
2. Johnny Gargano vs Adam Cole for the vacant NXT title at Takeover: New York
Full disclosure; I get a tear in my eye every single time I hear the opening chords of Johnny Gargano’s entry music. It’s the song I played before my last audition (nailed it btw) and its looping riff and simple chorus do exactly what wrestling music should do, unlock my imagination and lets me believe.
So, what I’m saying is, I’m a Johnny Wrestling mark of the highest order.
At the moment that I read the news of Tomasso Ciampa having to surrender the NXT title due to injury just weeks before Takeover: New York and his match with long-time friend and rival Gargano, I felt awful. Not as much for me as a fan missing out, but for the two guys that had worked one of the best-executed programs in the entire business over the past years seeing their big payoff fall apart.
Enter: Adam Cole. (Bay! Bay!)
Cole is a guy that has “it”. That thing that makes a guy a star in wrestling. Hogan had it. Austin had it. And Cole has it in the way the Shawn Michaels had it. He’s handsome, arrogant, is backed up by his dickhead friends and can deliver a standout performance every day of the week. If anyone was going to stand in for Ciampa in this match, it had to be Adam Cole.
The match itself, a 2/3 falls banger, was a showcase of modern, cardio-centric, high impact wrestling. As these matches do, it came down to the final fall where Johnny Gargano in his Iron Man-themed gear, had to fend off the entire Undisputed Era in an absolutely sensational sequence that led to a submission victory.
It wasn’t the soul-satisfying finale we had been building to of Gargano finally getting revenge on Ciampa by taking his title, but it was a modern epic highlighting the new breed of wrestlers. I was also a match, at least for me, completely stole the show on Wrestlemania weekend.
1. Gallus vs Mark Andrews and “Flash” Morgan Webster vs Grizzled Young Veterans for the NXT UK Tag Team Championships @ Takeover: Cardiff
What was I saying again about wrestling being fun? Hands down, for pure wrestling joy, no other match popped me out of my seat this year as this one did.
Performed in front of an absolutely fantastic crowd, NXT Takeover: Cardiff was probably my favourite show of the year top to bottom. There is something about the UK fans, whether it be the chanting, the singing or something else, they are a difference-maker when it comes to enjoying a wrestling show. In the case of this match, two of the participants in Webster and Andrews were home town boys, and underdog hometown boys at that, facing an uphill climb against bigger, badder teams.
The defending champions, Grizzled Young Veterans, a heel combination of best promo in the game Zack Gibson and James Drake enter every setting with nuclear heat. People hate Gibson enough that they have a song about how much they hate him. Drake is kind of along for the ride as his silent sidekick, but Gibson is so good at what he does its better that way. Mic work aside, they are also a great team that won the belts in an upset against UK heroes Mustache Mountain.
Also in the ring were the big, burly manly duo of Mark Coffey and Wolfgang representing the Scottish faction Gallus. These guys look and act like they want to beat the shit out of someone. Wolfgang has an unhinged quality and deceptively agile move set, while Coffey is just a big, barrel-chested dude that likes to throw hands. The also worked heel in this match, making the diminutive duo of Andrews and Webster (combined weight 380 lbs) go from underdogs to subterranean dogs just by walking the ramp.
And yet, they good guys won.
Andrews and Webster worked from underneath, overcame the odds and created a picture-perfect finish with Andrew hitting a shooting star press to break up a pin on his partner and gain one on his opponent at the same time causing an already hot crowd to melt right through my screen and onto my floor.
I jumped in the air and pumped my fist despite being all alone watching the show. My cat was not as impressed as I was.
To me, great wrestling isn’t 60 minutes of false finishes and watching guys get dropped on their heads. It’s not blood or broken glass. It’s this match. It’s forgetting for a few minutes that the world is a mess or that the laundry needs folding. It’s ignoring the fact that doing an inverted flip onto another human is a silly way to win a fight. It’s watching two grown men that knew they were going to win still launching themselves into a crowd to savour the biggest moment of their careers. You can keep the super bowl and world series, this match is what’s real to me.
I freakin love pro-wrestling and I freakin loved this match.
So those are my top 5 for 2019, let’s all look forward to more bumps and bodyslams in 2020!