Friday, April 11, 2014

The 2013 Match Countdown: Beyond Unification

Sandow's not in a playful mood here
Photo Credit:
The final 20 matches in the top 100 for 2013. Enjoy.

Santino Marella vs. Damien Sandow, Main Event, 10/2 (airdate) - Watch highlights here!
People who hate on Santino grate on my nerves. I understand not liking him; pleasure taken from watching a wrestler is your prerogative. But when people try and say he has no place on the show because he’s too cartoony, I start to get antsy. Do these fucking people know how absurd taking men pretending to fight in their underwear too seriously is? Comic relief fits in the picture, and Marella is the undisputed king of it in WWE at present time.

His prowess doesn’t just lay in absurdities. Granted, when he rammed his head into the turnbuckle to fire himself up, only to fall down to the mat in punch-drunken stupor, I grinned from ear to ear. What can I say, I’m a huge fan of Chris Farley’s far-too-short filmography. He’s a master of timing, grasping the moment, knowing when to flail, when to strike, and how to work in different strains of his character into his fighting style. The last time I saw Marella in a prolonged match, he spent a good chunk of the 2011 Royal Rumble flopping around the outside of the ring, waiting for one big finish with Alberto del Rio, so I was a bit concerned at how being in the “main event” spot of Main Event would play out. However, he and Sandow were able to flesh out an entire match comprised mostly around the Cobra.

To Sandow’s immense credit, he was adept at handling Santino’s unique brand of offense. The dichotomy of looking on with the words “what the fuck” in your brain at some of his more out-there spots while at the same time needing to sell being afraid of the Cobra is jarring, especially when instances such as Sandow giving no fucks about power-walking preceding him hiding in the ropes from a Cobra tease. But in the grand scheme of things, their interplay worked. More than his intelligence, Sandow’s viciousness got him to the game, which played into how well the end of the match worked for me. If you want to beat the Cobra, you’re going to have to skin it while stepping on its throat. Sandow had the right idea all along.

Emma and Santino Marella vs. Summer Rae and Fandango, NXT, 10/2 (airdate)
Can a match be cute? This tag match, mostly due to the lovable synchronicity between Emma and Marella, was totally cute. Emma got him into doing her dance, and they tagged in and out while trying to tag together, and as the grand finale, they ran through Marella’s spots together. Fandango, the comedic character that takes itself way too seriously, and A+ scowl game Summer Rae were great foils for them in this match, working in classic heel tag team tropes and allowing themselves to get into sticky situations. Most notably, the first real spot of the match had both Marella and Fandango catching each other’s kicks going into a face-off. That sequence set the tone for a grand opener and one of the best comedic matches of the year.

Cody Rhodes and Goldust vs. Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins, Battleground, 10/6
This write-up originally appeared in my review for Battleground.
Dusty Rhodes should know a thing or two about tag team wrestling. He had the Rock 'n Roll Express battle the Midnights across the South using a tried-and-true formula built to get the most out of a crowd even without the benefit of a Ric Flair or a Magnum TA. His two sons and their black-clad foes may not have had Express attached to the back of their team names, but by God, they imported the formula straight out of the Jim Crockett Promotions B-circuit and played that Buffalo crowd like a fiddle.

From the point when the two triads stood off on the outside, teasing what could have been my dream King of Trios match in another life, until Papa Dust laid that Bionic Elbow on Dean Ambrose into son Cody delivering his best Cross Rhodes ever, this match delivered everything I could have wanted in a high stakes tag match without any gold on the line. Goldust brought his savvy. Cody Rhodes had the fire. Reigns had muscle, and Rollins? Every time he took a big move, whether it was the springboard dropkick or the Alabama Slam, he did what he does best.

On top of the big heat segments and hot tags and the shenanigans from Big Dust and Ambrose, each team didn't disappoint with furthering their own agendas. Most notably, Rollins kept the Shield-as-a-well-oiled-unit story trope alive by dragging Reigns out of the ring on a rope-run, saving him from some Rhodes-dealt damage. But no matter what, the Cross Rhodes and the ensuing celebration was what solidified this match for me. They had a specific story to tell, and they nailed every beat. Sometimes, wrestling can be so simple and yet so satisfying in said simplicity.
Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins (c) vs. Cody Rhodes and Goldust, No Disqualification WWE Tag Team Championship Match, RAW, 10/14 - Watch highlights here!
During the Attitude Era, WWE tried to book matches with interference stacked upon interference with the most absurd things happening consecutively but being erased by even more ludicrous action following it sequentially. Because Vince Russo was the mastermind behind the era, and because everyone seemed to follow his lead, most matches were truncated, the swerves didn’t make sense, and the bombs dropped a bit too early. Combined with the solid in-ring philosophy WWE has adopted over the last decade and a half, the Attitude Era-levels of absurdist schlock now work in limited doses in big-time feud matches. WWE rolled out this philosophy with Lesnar/Punk at SummerSlam, and on the October 14 episode of RAW, with the Tag Team Championships at stake with five of the best performers in the company given time to chew scenery (with a sixth coming in at the end), they delivered perfection again.

The match didn’t start out like a crazed, mescaline-fueled car crash, and in fact resembled the Battleground match the two teams had, only with some changes in the formula and cosmetic nods to the no-DQ stipulation. At one point, Jerry Lawler, in a rare fit of brilliant announcing, remarked that the Shield was so cocky that they were eschewing their true NUMBERS GAME, MAICHAL. The first half of the match relied solely on traditional tag team match swells and all the beats that came with the Southern formula perfected by the Rock ‘n Roll Express. In fact, Goldust was a lanky, paint-sweating avatar channeling the spirit of Ricky Morton during the match. Since Morton is still very much alive, I wonder if he sat in his recliner, catatonic for the duration of the match.

Once Dean Ambrose interjected himself into fray, all bets were cancelled, and the insanity skipped up a few notches. I’d say the Rhodeses were more adept at playing The Shield’s game - gaining a numbers advantage without ever having numbers - which fueled their babyface fire just as much as their Big Dust-given genetics did. The two-on-three flustering led to Roman Reigns clearing out with a chair, which led to Goldust countering a chairshot with a cross body. I thought that would have finished the match, but then Rollins dished out a big bump for once instead of taking one, buckle bombing Rhodes into the fucking barricade. Reigns and Goldust didn’t want to be upstaged, so they re-created the Kane-through-the-barricade spear from last year’s TLC. Madness indeed spread into all directions.

But then Big Show came out, and everything felt… perfect. Even though he was only gone a week, he had to show up, right? John Cena set the precedent, and he had beef with every one of the rudos, whether in the ring or behind the scenes pulling the puppet strings. Not only were his punches catharsis for an outgunned Rhodes Family, but he gained a bit of revenge for himself as well. The theater of wrestling never just is confined to the people working the fall. WWE tried to get that across fifteen years ago, but they never got it right until today. Boy though, have they ever gotten that ideal down pat, even if two matches so far is a small sample size.

Goldust vs. Seth Rollins, Main Event, 10/23 (airdate) - Watch highlights here!
When WWE brought Main Event into the national consciousness, they brought back the perfect vehicle to have Goldust chew up TV time. They just didn’t know it yet until they re-signed the Bizarre One to go as an accompaniment to Cody Rhodes’ rise to the main event. He went up against Seth Rollins in the October 23rd episode, a match for which I had high hopes because of how well the two seemed to go together. The result may have been Rollins’ best match to date, or at the very least one of the three or four best (remember, Daniel Bryan is a wizard).

Rollins propensity to attempt suicide for our enjoyment is enthralling because he feels like on every bump, he’s storing the kinetic energy absorbed by his impact to deal back to his opponents. Wrestling is totally analogous to comic books in regards to storytelling, but I feel if the spirits were more similar, Rollins would have a hell of a superpower. The first example saw him going over the top rope and straight to the floor on his face/belly. Roman Reigns came over to jaw at Goldust, which allowed Rollins to obey the Conservation of Mass/Energy and launch Goldie into the barricade.

Second came on a beautifully executed bulldog from an in-ring Goldust to Rollins on the apron. Goldust followed it up with a barricade throw, which elicited Reigns again. Rollins used the energy to get optimal leverage on the roll up for a pin. Obviously, Goldust was on point here too, but he’s always on point. His veteran savvy was made for a show like Main Event, and Rollins again is a great opponent for him.

Oh, the fleeting moments of relevance... but the match was good
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John Cena (c) vs. Damien Sandow, World Heavyweight Championship Match, RAW, 10/28 - Watch highlights here!
Before anything else is described about this match, the finish is the finish, and booking implications aside, I thought that the ending of the match fit the micronarrative. This list is not for a booking decisions, as curious as they may be. This list is for match quality, and from the opening bell up to the final piledriver counter, where Sandow’s hubris befell him, Cena and Sandow put on a clinic, par for the course for how great free television matches have been in 2013 in WWE.

The cat and mouse beginning was brilliant, but I’m also a huge fan of those kinds of keep away sequences. Cena showed vulnerability, maybe even more than he’s shown in any match in recent memory. The entire story of the match was told around the pre-match attack and Sandow continuing to work the shoulder throughout the duration. Cena’s comebacks were sharp, Sandow’s attacks were vicious, and the drama was tangible enough to fit a pay-per-view main event, let alone a hot RAW opener.

But for as much as Sandow seemed to “lose” from the booking decision, he made himself during the match through cerebral counters and viciousness. When he countered the Five Knuckle Shuffle taunt by yanking Cena’s arm, I audibly popped. He went after the shoulder like a shark, but he left himself just open enough so that he could his hubris could be his downfall. Whatever the outside implications of this match ended up, the story within was amazing.

Ice Cream Jr. and El Hijo del Ice Cream vs. Dasher Hatfield and Mark Angelosetti, WIF! Between Green and Yellow, 11/3
The Chikaraverse is a wonderful place where comedic wrestling isn’t marginalized and instead is given loads of time to unfold as if it were serious, feud-based combat. Los Ice Creams, who exist in the aether as spirits called upon to fill time on a given show for the sole purpose of entertainment and have for nearly a decade, are among the best. Their opener against the Throwbacks at the Wrestling Is Fun! Norristown show was basically 10 minutes of two teams chewing scenery, alternating comedic spots with some nifty double team maneuvers. The match was basically everything good and right about Chikara distilled down into one contest, punctuated by El Hijo del Ice Cream selling a shot to the cone beard on his mask like he’d just been gouged in the eyes.

Blaster McMassive, Jaka, and Oleg the Usurper vs. Frightmare, Hallowicked, and UltraMantis Black, WIF! Between Green and Yellow, 11/3
This write-up originally appeared in my review for Between Green and Yellow.
This trios match was a page right out of the '80s WWF in skeletal structure. Imagine Smash, Barbarian, and Kamala on a heel team, only all three of them were instead supremely athletic and dipped in the flair of the modern independent ethos. The Wrecking Crew's melding of old school veneers with modern sensibilities made them the perfect villains in any promotion. As an example, Oleg, callous brut at his best, broke out a running, rolling senton atomico which is not something I would have expected from one of Vince McMahon's monsters of the month from the late '80s and early '90s.

On the other side of the ring stood the Spectral Envoy, containing two of the most able babyfaces on the combined Wrestling Is... roster in Hallowicked and Frightmare. While Mantis has made a career out of being a loud-and-proud rudo, his bona fides as an underdog were forged in the fires of the Easton Funplex at King of Trios '12. The Spectral Envoy spent so much of the match on their heels, but they were so good at generating pathos so that when they did make their comebacks, both individual and the group-flourish at the end, they had the crowd at every single checkpoint.

Hallowicked deserves special plaudits for his individual comeback. He took a beating after Frightmare took his own, getting it from each of the Wrecking Crew. But when he came up for air, his fire was impeccable. Bonus points should go to the entire team for their bouquet of topes con giro as the match descended further into insanity, as Mantis and Wicked criss-crossed targets while Frightmare and McMassive timed their movements so perfectly that they collided with perfection that rarely is attained with a dive to the outside.
Samoa Joe vs. Willie Mack, Championship Wrestling from Hollywood House Show, 11/3 - Watch it here!
One of my most desired dream matches actually came true in 2013, a veritable hoss fight between the venerable forefather of indie big guys, Samoa Joe, and his spiritual successor, Willie Mack. While TNA’s policy on its wrestlers being allowed to be seen on video is restrictive and one-sided, entrepreneurial fans with handheld cameras made sure this match would be brought to the light of day, and thank God for that. Everything I expected was on full display here. Joe was back to his inspired, indie self and Mack proved he was up for the challenge.

While both men got chants early in the match, Mack made sure that his opponent would be the one getting cheered by subtly working heel through showing off during mat exchanges and not allowing Joe to get back into the ring before attacking him. The first act of the match was all about establishing Mack as Joe’s equal, and the former absolutely looked the part. While I assume no one in attendance was in doubt that Mack could hold his own, the best storytelling is dictated through showing that in the ring, not through assumption.

Joe ran through his indie spots crisply, but where he shone best was in the finishing part of the match, about where Mack teased going for the Muscle Buster, causing Joe to lose his ever-loving shit. Joe works so well as an unstable big guy, and he needed that one spark to get him to believably fly into a frenzy. Chocolate Thunder had to go on the defensive, and he was an able throw pillow for Joe as well as a noble fighting warrior. The “kick out on one” of a finisher usually feels overdone, but Mack sold that adrenaline shot like he was Mia Wallace kicking out of an overdose death. The final bump, Joe turning Mack inside out on a lariat, was the perfect exclamation point on this masterful stanza of physical poetry.

John Cena, Goldust, and Cody Rhodes vs. Damien Sandow, Jack Swagger, and Antonio Cesaro, RAW, 11/4 - Watch highlights here!
The biggest criticism of John Cena is that he’s always hogging spotlight in matches where he’s against competition not on his level. He goes SuperCena too easily. No one has the chance to look good because Cena’s vulnerability is fleeting. The dichotomy with that criticism is WWE seems to want Cena portrayed as the world beater, because that ideal of a top face has been their MO for years. Cena has done well in his matches, even with that cheat code embedded in the DNA of his character, so I feel weird calling him toning back his ubermensch tendencies as an enhancement in the match.

But seeing Cena do his best Ricky Morton impersonation, tagging into a hot Goldust, and playing a supporting role for the act that had accrued so much goodwill with the fans in his absence was not only endearing, but it looked almost natural. Cena showing vulnerability worked, especially under the lording hammer blows from the Real Americans and Damien Sandow. Even his comebacks felt different in tenor, mainly because he was using exotic new moves for him at least, including a swanky half-nelson neckbreaker.

Where the match was sold for me was the ending sequence where everyone hit the ring and nailed finishers on each other. What can I say? I’m a sucker for pandemonium, and the more wrestlers in the match, the better it comes off. Cena tossing Cesaro into Zeb Colter like he was yesterday’s garbage was a nice touch as well.

Not a good way there, Bry
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Daniel Bryan and CM Punk vs. Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, and Dean Ambrose, RAW, 11/11 - Watch highlights here!
Daniel Bryan has wrestled The Shield so many times in 2013, but like Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat or Steve Austin and The Rock, each match has taken on such a different character that no matter what the circumstances, they produce stellar content. This English RAW main event saw Bryan in a handicap match teaming with CM Punk, a seemingly natural pairing, but one that had not been tested at all since the two came to WWE. They ended up having good chemistry, punctuated by them going all “WABBIT SEASON!” “DUCK SEASON!” with alternating kicks on Reigns.

But Reigns may have been the all-star in this match. He took the kicks, and then when they followed it up with a double whip, he leveled both of them with clotheslines. Before that spot, when Punk tossed Rollins into the corner for the tag, the way he stared down his former ally by mercenary means dripped with the desire to flatten. He grabbed an otherwise insignificant moment and directed intent across the ring like he was a veteran.

OF course, Rollins bumped like a goddamn lunatic as he’s wont to do. Punk showed he actually could be Robert Gibson effectively. Ambrose played the torture-master like a boss. And even the finish, which was a non-finish for the most part, was perfect, because it teased a Shield/Wyatt Family brawl that I had tantalized myself with ever since both trios occupied the same space. All in all, the five performers took a tired WWE trope, the handicap match, and freshened it up for a wholly enjoyable RAW main event.

Shynron vs. AR Fox, Beyond Wrestling Tournament for Tomorrow Secret Show #1, 11/15 - Watch it here!
The first match of the three-day Tournament for Tomorrow tapings turned out to be one of the best. In the same vein as ACH debuted in Beyond against the steady-handed AR Fox, the wrestler who seems most like him on the East Coast did the same. The results were almost as sublime, and they proved Shynron has a bright future despite his relative lack of experience.

What struck me most about this match more than anything was how much of a heel Fox played during the match. It not only helped get Shynron over, which I thought was the biggest reason this match was scheduled, but Fox looked like a natural heeling it up. He didn’t overtly come out and rake eyes or bust out a foreign object, but he did the little things. He hid behind the building support, took liberties with five-counts, talked his shit, and when he bumped, he bumped hard. At one point, Shynron threw an elbow at him, and Fox flopped to the canvas like a Barclay’s Premier League striker.

Shynron showed great offensive prowess and had some good fire as well. He played his role well, and he capped off his rookie year with his first real signature match. He still looks as if he has some kinks to work out, but he’s got a good handle on his big moves, especially his second rope 630 senton (!!!). Even if he missed it to set up Fox getting the cheap rollup for the win, the fact that he executed on it clean shows he’s going to have a bright future.

Kimber Lee vs. JT Dunn, Beyond Wrestling Tournament for Tomorrow Secret Show #1, 11/15
I wonder if the foreshadowing was intentional. Lee and Dunn closed both secret shows for different reasons, but even though their match on the second night would be for a spot in the tournament final, I got a more intense, competitive vibe from this first exhibition. The bombs felt like they landed harder, the exchanges crisper, and the tension a bit more palpable.

Despite the size difference and perceived gender disparities that exist in current wrestling fandom, Lee came out and acted as if she was the one who had the power advantage. She was fearless and fierce at the same time, attacking with fury and fire. She worked on top like a wrestler twice her size, pulling off stuff like a ground ‘n pound, all the while taking her ass-whipping from Dunn like a true competitor.

Dunn acquitted himself well here too. He both took his lumps without making it seem like Lee was just a fly he could’ve flicked off at any time, and he looked in control when it was his turn to be on offense. Overall, this match closed a fine first day in action, and it helped set the tone for the first stages of the tournament.

Damien Sandow vs. Dolph Ziggler, Broadway Brawl, RAW, 11/18 - Watch highlights here!
The best seller in the company against the best guy at vicious heel offense in a plunder match? I didn’t think this match could be anything less than good, but Sandow and Ziggler delivered an ECW-quality hardcore match using a vast array of musical instruments that campily fit the theme of the RAW Country episode. I happen to enjoy camp in wrestling, so this match was right up my alley.

Of course, the use of musical instruments was sublime. A lot of attention will be paid to the ending spots with the two drums and the El Kabong from Ziggler, and yeah, they were entertaining given the caliber of wrestlers in the match. But my favorite use of the instruments in the match may have been when Sandow threw Ziggler off the top rope into the Casio keyboard, causing the keys to scatter all around the ring. I don’t know what took me about that visual, but of all the times wrestlers have used plunder in a match, I’m not sure I’ve seen them use a keyboard. The component pieces scattering around the ring like shards of glass from a broken vase hammer home the devastation.

The announcing sucked, and the circumstances were dubious at best, but Sandow and Ziggler went down, took the tools they were given, and resuscitated a crowd that had been iffy for a couple of segments. I think that performance is the definition how wrestling can work in its purest form, and I think it would have worked even without the weapons. However, something about an acoustic guitar loaded with talcum powder makes the best garbage brawls pop even a little more loudly.

Cody Rhodes and Goldust (c) vs. Curtis Axel and Ryback vs. Antonio Cesaro and Jack Swagger vs. The Big Show and Rey Mysterio, WWE Tag Team Championship Match, TLC, 12/15
Multi-team matches are almost as good as multi-man tag matches. The chaos factor is there, the teams always seem to dwindle. Thankfully, all four teams, even the hastily slapped together Big Show/Rey Mysterio team, were able to bring the thunder, so even as each team was shed, the match quality didn’t decrease. The proceedings didn’t really kick into a higher gear until Ryback and Axel got eliminated.

I watched the heat segment with The Real Americans putting on a clinic of double team offense with a wide smile across my face. They did everything right, and looked like they were the best team in the entire WWE, let alone that match. Even the delaying of the hot tag where they dragged Rhodes off the apron was pitch perfect, and it set up a unique hot tag of Goldust to the Big Show. After the Real Americans were eliminated, the match kicked into overdrive since Rhodes and Mysterio dominated the action. Rhodes has improved so much since their Mania encounter that the finishing run of this match was just scorching.

Daniel Bryan vs. Bray Wyatt, Erick Rowan, and Luke Harper, TLC, 12/15
If a company was going to book a handicap match between an intact trio and a lone underdog, this match would have to be the archetype. Bryan got his ass whipped during most of the match. His comebacks were crisp and believable. He had fire. The minions had conviction, but the real star of the match on my end was Bray Wyatt. He took a page out of the Mark Henry playbook and shit talked Bryan. His headbutts were just a delight, and his “I don’t give a flying fuck” suplex toss may be my new favorite move. However, the absolute highlight of the match was when he went all reverse crab and walked up to Bryan like he was going to eat his soul. Give me that sort of psychological creep in every match, and you will make a star out of Bray Wyatt.

John Cena (WHC c) vs. Randy Orton (WWE c), WWE and World Heavyweight Championship Unification TLC Match, TLC, 12/15
This write-up originally appeared in my review for TLC.
Cena and Orton wore each other out in 2009 so much that I wouldn't have minded if they never had wrestled each other for fifty years afterwards. Four years later, they were once again across a ring from each other with all kinds of plunder in play, and they produced one of the best main events in a WWE year where the bar was considerably raised for what a main event match had to be, both on pay-per-view and free television.

The match started out like a classic, ECW-style brawl with plunder coming into play early and often, but it quickly took on some of the different strains that one might have seen in a WWF ring during the Attitude Era with how ridiculous some of the exchanges and comebacks went. Strange that fifteen years after the fact, WWE has finally perfected the schmozzy, ridiculously overbooked main event they wanted to in said Attitude Era. I guess all they needed was a savvy roster, and it was the two guys who came of age and even got overexposed in the last decade who got them there for the third time this year.

Orton did his part by bumping huge, which in the past was not an attribute one could hang on his mantel. In fact, he took nearly every big bump until the very end, when Cena took two risky bumps. First, he hung from the double belts after Orton knocked the ladder from underneath him and then played him like a giant, hustle-loyalty-and-respect-filled pinata. Second, the final bump of the match, Orton knocked Cena from off the ladder, and Cena landed FACE FIRST on a table set up in the corner. Brutal.

But where this match was won for me was when Orton called back to a prior match and handcuffed Cena to the bottom rope. Instead, Cena, drawing back to his UPW ring crew days (h/t to Dylan Hales for that reference), undid the bottom turnbuckle and dragged the ropes with him to climb the ladder. That kind of ring savvy is worth more than most anything a wrestler could do in a match, and it set apart the main event from any other match on what turned out to be a loaded event.
Happy birthday to me!
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Daniel Bryan vs. Randy Orton, RAW, 12/16 - Watch highlights here!
These two guys, man. Put them together in a ring, give them time, and they will go balls out, even if the finish is supposed to be deflating and transitional in nature, they deliver. In 25 minutes and three acts, the two created more art in what may have been their finest match of the calendar year. The beginning of the match featured a lot of technical pizzazz with Bryan showing off and Orton trying to keep up. Bryan rolling through the Thesz press into a single leg crab was a beautiful callback to when he’d do that against Ryback earlier in the year, and the lack of film prep on Orton’s behalf worked because it fits into his bratty, entitled character. Orton showed a bit of a flair for the dramatic by reversing an Indian deathlock into a unique pin combination.

Once Orton started getting testy, the match segued into its second act, a beautiful heat segment that saw Orton mix in some of his best dominating offense with the cocky preening one would come to expect from a bonus baby Champion, hand-picked by management because he was “pretty.” His offense started by roundly taking Bryan’s head off with a lariat after Bryan did one of those show-offy X-Pac leg flip overs, a lariat that was strong and forceful unlike most of Orton’s flaccid clotheslines. The Viper also took his gimmick to a whole other level by biting Bryan’s knee to get out of a hold. From there, he alternated between punishing stall offense and posing for the crowd. He even managed to pull a few counters and evades out, again adding to his whole “I’m talented but lazy” shtick. Oleing the plancha felt like one of those “OH SHIT” moments of genius from a lazy college kid coasting on brainpower actually recognizing the one question on a final he was overmatched for and breezing through it to work towards his passing “D-.”

The final act was when the bombs started dropping from the heavens. Bryan pulled out all the stops, orchestrating the crowd, hitting every beat, and finding ways to lasso Orton into his grasp. To his credit, The Champ made Bryan look like a million bucks, bugging his eyes out of his head during a LeBell Lock attempt and bumping hard on the barricade. Again, even though this act was so hot it would’ve demanded a conclusive pinfall victory either way in another circumstance, I totally dug the intentional ball-shot ending. The story was that Orton couldn’t beat Bryan, and he saw the writing on the wall. He took the easy way out, which for a RAW after a pay-per-view, made absolute sense. The finish may have been controversial, but for me, it was a great way to end a nearly perfect match.

Antonio Cesaro vs. William Regal, NXT, 12/25 (airdate)
Before NXT would cross over into the New Year, they had one final salvo, a rewind show with a first run main event. The words “Antonio Cesaro vs. William Regal” are enough to send chills down my spine as a wrestling fan, especially when the feud was based on Cesaro proving himself as Regal’s diabolical equal. What Regal has done for these NXT rookies like Dean Ambrose and Kassius Ohno has been nothing short of enriching for them and entertaining for is, and this match was no exception to that rule.

Cesaro’s pre-match declaration saw him proclaiming respect for Regal but also that he was better than his mentor. In that light, their World-of-Sport style exchanges to start made perfect sense. Of course, their exchanges were only choppy looking if they wanted them to be. What I liked most about the first act, and the whole match, really, was that both guys, Regal especially, played up the idea that neither one wanted a clean exchange with the other. They played up the element of struggle, which both added an element of realism to the match and laid the groundwork for one of the most incredible spots of the entire year, Cesaro pulling off an Everest snapmare from his knees.

Then, Cesaro broke things wide open with a chop block to Regal’s leg, kicking the main story of the match off with a bang. Cesaro worked the leg with relentless force, but Regal answered in kind by landing dead-nerve shots to Cesaro’s arms. The two went back and forth working each other’s weak spots, almost in a can-you-top-this style that fit in with the stated theme. Even with Regal answering devilry with even more of it, he was able to assume the role of underdog babyface, one that he had only assumed starting with these NXT showcase matches.

But even as Regal swaddled himself in pathos, Cesaro’s mammoth theatrics made everything possible. His hulking strength, with the lifting, the Everest snapmare, the standing stretch muffler, was able to make the old villain look like an old man hero. His facial expressions, especially at the end when Regal was dead-weighting him in his first Neutralizer attempt, were major league. If any match was ever an exclamation point on a wrestler’s year, Antonio Cesaro’s final NXT match for 2013 was perhaps the boldest and most necessary.

Daniel Bryan vs. Luke Harper, RAW, 12/30 - Watch highlights here!
When Harper was announced for the first rung on the Bryan gauntlet to end the last televised WWE show of 2013, my spidey sense started tingling. Harper has had a bunch of really cool singles matches under his belt in the indies, but throwing his first real showcase match against Daniel Bryan in the marathon portion the triplet was a stroke of genius. Harper is the ace of the group in terms of actual wrestling matches, while Bryan is the ace of the entire world.

My biggest complaint may have been that Bryan took too many big bumps to come out on top, but maybe card position gives you superpowers? I don’t know how WWE distributes its abilities to wrestlers, but the transitions were great, which is the important part. Bryan bumped his ass off, Harper was all the big bully he needed to be, and when Bryan flipped out of the German suplex near the end, I was agog. This match was an appropriate punctuation mark for the year in the ring in WWE.

Well, this entry concludes my top 100 matches of 2013. I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts on them as much as I did watching the source material for writing these entries. Wrestling in 2013 was tremendous, and it made me happier than it has in any other year I've watched it. I hope this trend continues into this year.