Friday, March 13, 2015

The 2014 Top 100 Matches Countdown: Fin

The highlight of Night of Champions
Photo Credit:
The final 20 have been revealed. ENJOY.

Sheamus (c) vs. Cesaro, WWE United States Championship Match, Night of Champions, 9/21
This write-up originally appeared in my review for Night of Champions.
As soon as this match was announced, I predicted that it would be worth the monthly sub for The Network by itself, and even in a month when the monstrously critically acclaimed Takeover: Fatal Fourway happened, I feel vindicated in my projection. The consensus on Cesaro has been pretty resounding for two years now, and Sheamus has been a critical favorite of mine since he came up in WWECW. They've had several tremendous matches in the past, and both are in the midst of banner years. This match not only met their lofty expectations, but it may have been the best of their meetings to date.

The early portions of the match mixed together some classic European grappling with the stiff brawling that Sheamus has become known for during his career. They wove between brawling and grappling sequences so fluidly like it was a true clash of styles. Cesaro wanted to pull the match towards his wheelhouse, Sheamus kept resisting violently with his wailing fists, but both guys were also adept enough at the other guy's game to give the impression that their aim was to hybridize the match. They almost felt like they were showing off, but when the action came off looking as good as it did, I can forgive it.

But then they started trading bombs, and the match became fully actualized. They careened to the outside, threw each other onto tables, and countered moves like whoa. The chains came off, and they were free to create finery in the field of HOSS artistry. Even if Cesaro coming into the match hadn't been booked the best, the way it was laid out made him look like he was a threat to win that title at any point. He cut off Sheamus' five moves of doom with a huge lariat. He Swiss Death'd Sheamus out of the ring and then flashed the sliest smirk this side of the Atlantic. He countered the Brogue Kick four times. But then the final attempt at the kick may have been Sheamus' best ever, uncorking one at the exact right moment when Cesaro was seemingly in the middle of a protracted heat segment in the corner. Matches like these may not totally absolve WWE's horrendous midcard booking, but they go a long way in easing the pain of the week-to-week doldrums with payoffs that these writers don't deserve.
Byron Wilcott vs. Moonshine Mantell vs. Jake Dirden vs. James Claxton, Inspire Pro BATTLEWARS, 10/5
The inaugural HOSS BOWL promised big dudes clubberin’ and clubberin’ some more, and it delivered on that promise, but it had all that sexy elephant seal action with a cruiserweight scramble pace. These guys weren’t lumbering around like they were Vince McMahon steroid specials, but instead they landed their bombs with a spring in their steps. After the match, Wilcott said he aimed to bring the heavyweights back, and if his goal included working with this kind of urgency, then he’ll have a lot of success early on. The action didn’t stop because the wrestlers totally played with the four-way dance concept and kept the action cycling through, especially towards the end. Dirden would hit Mantell with a Polish hammer, but then Claxton took him and choke bombed him, but then Big Daddy Yum Yum was right there with an Attitude Adjustment type move, but Mantell would come right back in and break the pin up. The action could be described as snappy, and the finish was smart and brutal at the same time, with Wilcott taking out Claxton and Dirden with a dive before getting into the finishing sequence with Mantell that led to a slick ripcord shortarm clothesline. Hosses can move and excite nowadays, and the inaugural HOSS BOWL showed that in a big way.

Andy Dalton vs. Icarus, Inspire Pro BATTLEWARS, 10/5
This write-up originally appeared in my review for BATTLEWARS.
Right from the beginning, when Dalton scurried to the ring to pick the bones of the Chikara Grand Champion after Lance Hoyt booted his face halfway to Lubbock, this bout was worthy of its lofty Champion vs. Champion heading. Dalton used every trick in the book, and for the first time I can recall in a singles match, Icarus actually looked comfortable as the gutty, noble hero. On a night full of new and innovative wrestling, the classic match stole the show.

Then again, one could say that Dalton took sleaze to a new level. He really embraced the lowlife cheating scumbag from the minute he hit the ring until the end when he and JT LaMotta orchestrated the interference that drew out Matthew Palmer. He was a heel avatar, plumbing depths that I didn't even think were possible. He licked his own boot before shoving it in Icarus' face at one point, which I'm not sure adds to realistic efficacy as much as it drives the point home. But good wrestling is visual on all levels, and sometimes, you just have to drive a point home.

But whether it was Dalton bringing it out of him or if it was an inspired (heh, get it) performance, Icarus finally broke out a full top babyface performance. His comebacks had fire, his work underneath evoked pathos, and he got the most out of his environment. The combination of opponents and all the trappings worked together to make one of the highlight, marquee matches more than live up to its billing.
Conga line!
Photo Credit: Kelly Kyle
ACH and Jojo Bravo vs. Silver Ant and Fire Ant, Inspire Pro BATTLEWARS, 10/5
The main event tag match for BATTLEWARS started off slowly and a bit awkwardly, especially on Bravo’s end, but once they got into and through the requisite Chikara tag comedy, the match picked up and became the kind of insane firefight that folks like The Colony and ACH were known for producing. Some of the sequences needed to be seen to be believed, especially towards the end when ACH caught Fire Ant in a standard, corner flip out, slammed him to the ground, and double stomped him in the back of the head before missing on the 450 splash and Silver Ant taking his head off with a clothesline. All four wrestlers are such polished athletes that at times, the action got hard to transcribe. These wrestlers were made for sitting down and watching with mouths agape and attention spans rapt.

But for as hard and fast as they went, they always had room for levity and self-parody. Of course, the biggest example came when Bravo would trade calf sweeps and lateral presses with everyone in the ring, including ACH and referee Bryce Remsburg, which led into the big, overarching multiman spot which here was a giant, human centipede-looking rear waistlock chain. But the Dudley Boyz impersonation towards the end with ACH delivering the business end of the WAZZUP and Bravo shouting to get the tables under threat of disqualification was a great oasis in the middle of a breakneck-paced main event. Of course, Bravo found no tables, but instead ate Fire Ant’s boots.

Whether engaging in indie spot fu or taking the piss out of each other and themselves, the Colony and the Inspire Pro originals showed main event worthiness in what was the promotion’s biggest card to date. And in the fray, Bravo may have found himself a new, snazzy looking submission hold, a play on the Chikara Special that he called the Inspire Pro Special (duh). When you can create a moment like that in a match and build on a promotion’s lore, especially in the still-formative years of Inspire Pro, you’ve done well for yourself.

Matt and Nick Jackson vs. Matt and Jeff Hardy, NEW Autumn Assault, 10/18
It’s easy to take the Young Bucks for granted at times since they’ve been at a level of sustained excellence for over five years, but the way they do everything well in a wrestling match to put over not only themselves but the other team is always excellent. The Hardy Boyz may have had the years take a toll on their bodies, but they were able to do their share of the lifting as well. In fact, after their stints getting clean and refocusing their lives, the Hardys actually rebounded to about three-quarters speed from their prime. Matt still hit all his big transitional spots and absorbed an asskicking with the all the requisite “SUCK IT” taunts like he was still at the dawn of the millennium. Jeff actually spent a HUGE chunk of the match outside the ring, but it was so he could dress up as WILLOW THE WISP and pull off one of the most mindbending mid-match comeback catalysts I’ve ever seen. No, the Bucks weren’t given reDRagon or the Forever Hooligans or even the Kings of Sexual Intercourse as rivals here, but the old guys held up well and created a memorable main event with the best tag team going today.

Fluffy the Killer Bunny vs. Lloyd Cthulowitz, ISW Slamtasia V, 10/25
Inter Species Wrestling is a promotion that defines the term “Never judge a book by its cover.” A match between a murder-bunny and an Ancient Old Attorney might seem like comedic filler, but a bona fide HOSS FIGHT broke out, because these guys ain’t just here for laughs. Sure, the theatrical elements were present and well-appreciated, and no one is going to confuse this match for, say, Tanahashi vs. Okada. However, fat birds don’t fly, and fat wrestlers often can. Fluffy revealed himself to be an able TRUE HOSS, throwing his considerable weight around, especially on the SICK lariat towards the end of the match. Cthulowitz seemed a little unsure in his mask and get-up for that particular contest, but he still rebounded nicely on his flubs, whether accidentally or on purpose. All in all, it was a fun match that broke open the Slamtasia card.

Mathieu St. Jacques and Thomas Dubois vs. Jaka and Pinkie Sanchez, ISW Slamtasia V, 10/25
If you ever wanted to see a match with four guys taking turns beating the absolute shit out of each other for no other reason than because it looks good on video, this is the match for you. Tabarnak de Team’s gimmick is entirely based on liking to hurt people, and they look the part of angry roughnecks with resting bitch-face. Jaka and Sanchez have reps that precede them for their craziness, which often times leads to insane acts of violence that come with less malice and more mischief, which is probably worse. Either way, these two teams took crack after crack at each other for my and everyone’s who watched amusement, and the results were outstanding.

TDT set the tone early mainly by whipping Sanchez like he owed them money. At one point, Sanchez took no fewer than three consecutive moves on the apron, a feat which I haven’t even seen in the biggest hub for such maneuvers, PWG. St. Jacques hit him with an eye poke that was so deep that he may have touched Sanchez’s insanity-riddled brain. They even used his pigtails as handles for whipping him to the canvas. I was legitimately surprised that Sanchez was not only not broken in half, but that he came roaring back and started hitting some of his patented sexual spider monkey offense during his comeback and the closing stretch of the match. I’ve seen a few Sanchez matches in my life, but he might have been at his best here.

But the other three guys held up their ends of the bargain and filled in the gaps with some tenacious brawling and big, bone-rattling moves that dotted their paragraph-length match with enough earned exclamation points to fill up a used-car dealer’s press release. They explored the entire venue as well, at one point with Jaka throwing St. Jacques on the in-arena bar. It was the sprawling, violent brawl that would fit in on any card carried out by two teams that know a thing or two about kickin’ ass and takin’ names.

Pasquale the Chef and Bastian Snow (c) vs. Dan Barry and Bill Carr, ISW Tag Team Championship Match, ISW Slamtasia, 10/25
Look, I don’t care what any of you punks think SHOULD constitute a wrestling match or what belongs in one or doesn’t. When a moustachioed dude in a Hawaiian shirt and an Italian chef in a lucha mask re-enact the knife fight scene from the “Beat It” video with moustache combs with the song playing in the background, it probably is going to be mentioned on my match of the year list. How can it not? That scene happened in the first five minutes, and it only was the tip of the iceberg on all the crazy shit that took place in this match. Carr tried to eat Snow (who is a giant snow crab, to be fair). Bags of potato chips were used as weapons. A Barry Flair chop was thwarted because it hit one of the spikes on Snow’s outer shell. Pasquale used flour as illegal blinding powder and then laid out dry pasta like it was an array of thumbtacks. If one wanted to see four men, well, okay, three men and a giant crab embrace the absolute ridiculousness of the environment and immerse themselves in the absurdity, then this match would be for you.

But at the same time, if one were to take away all the gimmickry and the comedic tropes, well first I’d ask why they’d want to strip the match of its soul, but secondly, that person would still get a well-worked, passionate, intense match with highly personal stakes. These two teams had beef, and they wrestled like something was on the line besides the Tag Team Championships. Carr hossed it up. Barry continued to show why he’s one of the best high-flyers on the scene. The Food Fighters were on point both with their nuts and bolts and with the expressive body language. The progression of spots made sense, and the escalation all the way up to the finish, a Book ‘Em, Dan-O on the dry pasta was pitch-perfect. It was a classic tag team match and a wholly representative piece of Inter Species Wrestling, and it’s a must watch for anyone who loves professional wrestling for everything it embodies.

Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins, Hell in a Cell Match, Hell in a Cell, 10/26
This write-up originally appeared in my review for Hell in a Cell.
The difference between and good Hell in a Cell match and a great one has everything to do with how the cage is utilized. Two (or more) wrestlers can use the cage as a weapon, but not totally explore what it has to offer. Because the competitors have to be away from where the finish of the match has to happen, it can be difficult to fully explore the studio space. To wit, the Cena/Orton match from the middle of the show was a good representation of what Hell in a Cell could be. But Rollins and Ambrose went to the boundaries of whatever the structure had to offer. Not that it should have been surprising - Dean Ambrose has spent the calendar year of 2014 making the worst straw of what WWE has given him and spinning it into gold like a veritable Rumpelstiltskin.

Ambrose set the tone early on by climbing to the top of the cage and daring Rollins and his goon squad of Joey Mercury and Jamie Noble to follow him up. Even though it technically wasn't part of the match, Ambrose having to fight off all three of the Authority's minions served as a powerful first act, culminating in both announce tables being wrecked after tense jousting on the side of the cage. Even though the stretcher tease had been used on the biggest pay-per-view of them all in the same year, Ambrose and Rollins made it work in their own way, and then they upped the violence to levels past their original stereo table destruction. Tables were broken, chairs dented, kendo sticks frayed. Even inside after the match officially began, the two made use of the cage, not only directly (best example being Ambrose raking Rollins' face across it like cheddar on a grater), but as a fulcrum for other props, the tables most especially.

Of course, the overbooking is what most people will end up talking about, and it's fair to point out that maybe having four people interfering on Rollins' behalf might not have been the best way to end a pay-per-view or conclude a match that had been as visceral as this one was up until the end. However, it worked to me. The story between Rollins and Ambrose is one that didn't require a blowoff at a piddling "B" event like Hell in a Cell. Commentary on WWE's self-proclaimed signature match from the last 20 years becoming a signpost rest stop rather than an ultimate blowoff aside, these two deserve to end their feud at Mania. But whether it was Kane's fire extinguisher (note, I am an unabashed mark for that used as a wrestling weapon) or Bray Wyatt's devil magic, the fuck finish worked in this match's favor.
A Network exclusive, and it delivered!
Photo Credit:
Sheamus (c) vs. Rusev, WWE US Championship Match, WWE Network Exclusive, 11/3 - Watch Highlights Here!
WWE experimented a bit with its Monday night formula, and even though in theory, it was good business, it was a risky venture. Asking people to stick around for 20 more minutes after three hours of RAW was over to see actual canonical material in the form of a wrestling match bordered on overkill. However, WWE at least sent out two wrestlers whom it knew could carry the load. Rusev had never worked that long a match or one with as much of a spotlight. Sheamus had been to the top of the mountain before, though, and it showed. This match was paced like a pay-per-view main event, had the bigtime spots that one might expect from a headliner match, and brought tense false finishes that made for an iconic final image to go along with the bell. Sheamus took big bumps, which coming from Rusev looked even more impressive. The powerslam counter of the apron dive from the first part of the match was a killer visual, was were Sheamus’ comebacks later on in the match. Rusev’s hybrid HOSS high spot offense looked supreme when landing on Sheamus as well. All in all, it was yet another feather in Sheamus’ cap, and it served as a coming out party for Rusev, as he showed that he could take the last match of the night and create art with it.

Sami Zayn vs. Tyler Breeze, NXT, 11/6 (airdate) - Watch Highlights Here!
Two matches may not be enough to say that the two have the fabled chemistry, but Zayn and Breeze, on the former’s redemption rampage, made magic in the ring. Instead of a showcase bout on a two-hour live special, they were given the opening slot on the weekly show. However, their match still wasn’t lacking for time, and they explored the studio space. Zayn seems to bring out the best in Breeze, which manifested itself both in the standard stuff and in special moments, like getting mad air countering a Zayn cross-body with a perfectly-timed dropkick or weaseling out of the Yehi Special before Zayn could get in the Koji Clutch part. Zayn just has the perfect knack for combining his El Generico electricity and elasticity and a WWE mega-face superstar, but for whatever reason, Breeze is his constant.

Jay and Mark Briscoe vs. Christopher Daniels and Frankie Kazarian, ROH Survival of the Fittest Night 2, 11/8
The Briscoes and Bad Influence, like the Hardy match #DemBoys had back in the spring, was another dream match I didn’t know I needed to see. While this match didn’t have the same visceral blood-feud hook that the other one had, putting two charismatic, athletic indie stalwart tag teams in the same ring, especially Bad Influence against a team that contained the lovably eccentric Mark Briscoe, was a good call from jump. This match had the big air highspots, hard hits, and of course, a healthy dose of Redneck Kung Fu to make it pop. The big flurry of signature moves at the end into the Doomsday Device from the Briscoes had a ton of energy and put the cap on one of the more entertaining tag team matches from the last part of the year.

Adrian Neville (c) vs. Sami Zayn, NXT Championship Match, NXT, 11/13 (airdate) - Watch Highlights Here!
Sometimes, a stellar match ending with a pro wrestling deus ex machina story-advancing finish is deflating and totally ruins the match. In this case, the win-at-all-costs fuckery of Neville abusing the sacred “throwin’ up the X” to get the drop on Zayn was a brilliant masterstroke to cap a match that clearly wasn’t going to be the end of their road. This match was all about flipping a narrative on its head to build towards a full climax, and the journey to get to that turning point in the story could have stood as a blowoff match in and of itself. Fans who’ve followed the careers of these two men know, however, that they can shift into an entirely different gear, which is a testament to how good both of them, especially Zayn, are at crafting a story.

Zayn set the mood early building on his newfound confidence and his winning streak. Of course, the biggest difference between NXT and the main roster is in the announcing. On the main show, Cole, JBL, and Lawler would have missed Zayn’s feint on the dive to the floor, but Albert and Riley turned it into an exchange of hot takes. Regardless, it accentuated Zayn’s newfound confidence. He was no longer a plucky, happy-to-be-there underdog. He had swagger. It served as a jumping point for Neville to kick his counter game into high gear. The first two thirds of the match were prestige wrestling exhibition at a high level approaching the best levels.

But then the finishing sequence came out, and they not only kicked the spots into overdrive, they were smartly layered. These guys not only staggered around on spaghetti legs, trading shots to pop the crowd and build towards a crescendo, but they hearkened back to a match they wrestled earlier on in the year that put Neville on the path to the belt he possessed at that point. The most jarring spot saw Zayn countering an electric chair spot that Zayn countered into a rana in the last match into a forceful powerbomb. He even found himself in position to hit the Helluva Kick after hitting the corner exploder, but then Neville’s gambit came into focus. Zayn had the match in hand, and he still couldn’t win the big one. With a match that everyone knew was on the horizon in the crosshairs, it was the best possible finish.

Goldust and Stardust (c) vs. Jimmy and Jey Uso vs. Damien Sandow and The Miz vs. Diego and Fernando, WWE Tag Team Championship Match, Survivor Series, 11/23
This write-up originally appeared in my review for Survivor Series.
Much like any normal episode of RAW, a midcard clusterfuck match was set to follow the awkward, mostly superfluous opening promo segment featuring Triple H and other various members of WWE's upper crust. But since the name on the marquee read "Survivor Series," the participants in the match almost innately raised their game past the usual "RAW shove everyone in the same match to advance one or more stories" clusterfuck. The game was raised early on when one of Los Matadores broke out a sweet low leg sweep to counter to Stardust running the ropes and then breaking out the Rob van Dam leg scissor rollup.

This match was the first one where the Puerto Ricans playing Mexicans playing a Spanish game really broke out of their jokey shells and elevated their in-ring work to a level theoretically befitting the title pedigree. Sandow not only worked his usual shtick of imitating everything The Miz did, but he even deployed it as successful strategery by using it as distraction at one point. The Usos were the Usos, which is not a bad thing, while the then-Champs even showed a bit of evolution. Stardust came out dressed in a red-schemed unitard, and he showed a flair for anger during the match, almost as if he was playing to nerdy tendencies and showing that he had gained a Red Power Ring from the Green Lantern universe. Goldust kept moving backwards in time like a gold-encrusted Benjamin Button.

But the real genius in the match centered around using Sandow as bait to keep the crowd invested in the match. Clearly, he was the one feature attraction that people wanted to see, and the way the narrative centered around teasing him and delaying his payoff until the very end was pro wrestling architecture at its finest. The match build a skeleton around one idea, a literal stunt double who thinks he's an understudy, fleshed it out for misdirection, and then when the time was just right, had him jump in the fire and ignite the crowd's burning desire for him to succeed. It was brilliance all around.
Ashley Remington vs. Juan Francisco de Coronado, German Suplex Must Finish, Chikara Tomorrow Never Dies, 12/6
If you want to see two guys really embrace the gimmick of a match, you need to see Remington and Coronado duel in the German suplex match. It was set up as a comic opener on a card steeped in a war for Chikara’s soul, but they were able to keep the whimsy going while going all in on the gimmick and elevating it. They teased it early, varied the execution on it late, and they put the move’s brutality over by bumping for it. Remington took a nasty German on the apron, but Coronado would get style points for holding his bump through getting pinned. In a way, it was a perfect encapsulation of the Chikara ethos, or as perfect as an encapsulation as a singles match between two wrestlers not wearing masks could be.

Dasher Hatfield and Mark Angelosetti (c) vs. Blaster McMassive and Max Smashmaster, Chikara Campeonatos de Parejas Two out of Three Falls Match, Chikara Tomorrow Never Dies, 12/6
This write-up originally appeared in my review for Tomorrow Never Dies.
When I first saw Blaster McMassive and Max Smashmaster at King of Trios '12, I almost cringed at how stiff and awkward they moved around in the ring, especially McMassive. They were aimed to be homages to the old, face-painted HOSSES of the '80s WWF, but unfortunately, that homage included them moving around like the average Barbarian, Warlord, or Kona Crush. Over the two years they have been an active tag team (and trio with Flex Rumblecrunch), they've improved so much to the point where they bring quality to the match. Smashmaster is perhaps the finest HOSS worker on the indies, and McMassive has evolved so well. Their match with the Throwbacks, one of the best, if not under the radar, tag teams showed that progress.

The match started a little slowly in the first fall, as each team had some miscues on timing and spots, but by the end of the first fall, they'd calmed down. Then the second fall was a masterful display in heat-mongering, right from the start when the Corp tossed out the fresh Hatfield out of the ring and dragged the just-Death-Blown Angelosetti for the most epic heat segment ever. Each time Hatfield teased a hot tag or Angelosetti a comeback, the Corp squelched it with great timing, which set up the eventual comeback, then "oh poop" moment with Hatfield taking the Death Blow, and then finally, Angelosetti swooping in with the Oklahoma roll for the second fall was masterful.

But then, the third fall was straight fire. It had finish teases and big moves and hope spots, and Blaster McMassive even took to the air with a tope con hilo worthy of Best of the Super Juniors. When the Throwbacks hit the super 3D, the arena was ready to explode, but then when Bakabella interrupted the three count, it was a gut punch, a good, artistically forceful gut punch, but one no less. Hatfield kicking out of the Death Blow offered one final gasp of hope before the Corp won the match, but even though the match didn't end with the fan favorites winning, it was eminently satisfying.
The Boss had her sights on the gold
Photo Credit:
Charlotte (c) vs. Sasha Banks, NXT Women’s Championship Match, Takeover: (R)Evolution, 12/11 - Watch Highlights Here!
The evolution of Charlotte (no pun intended) has been a sight to behold, and ending her year for all intents and purposes against her former BFF was capstone. Banks is perhaps the best worker in NXT not named Sami Zayn, and her tilts with Bayley showed she could hold up her end of a tension-filled blood feud match. Charlotte had the genes; her father was one of the greatest feud wrestlers ever. In this match, she showed that trait did not skip a generation. The only thing missing was blood, and that’s self-explanatory at this point. It was about as brutal and hate-filled a match as one would see anywhere on WWE’s roster all year.

The atmosphere was helped by each wrestler retreating fully into her character and embracing it as an avatar shell. Charlotte’s gimmick is that her genetics got her there, not so much her superior body (although she does have the superior body), but the wrestling pedigree. But for all the tools that got daddy Ric to the dance, Charlotte’s manifestation of those genes wasn’t so much in styling and profiling and being the dirtiest player in the game. She powered over Banks and every time she hit a beat, EVERY TIME, she let Banks know it. Preening after strikes, roaring into pose after a spear. Her taunting was confidence manifested. Conversely, Banks’ story is of starting with nothing and coming up big both in wrestling success and her wardrobe. She wants everyone to know that she’s made it, and she’ll flaunt with an ear for trolling. So she came in looking to one-up Charlotte at every turn. She chopped the daughter of Ric Flair. She broke out the figure four headlock.

The character clash was a perfect template, and they made it fit into a big fight atmosphere that was set up for them. Banks was just a little more vicious than normal and it popped off the screen like she was Bruiser Brody. Charlotte’s acrobatics fit into place, even the seemingly ridiculous suplex neckbreaker thing she did that she preened afterwards for. Everything they did escalated the action to the point where Charlotte felt the need to finish the match with the doomsday-variant of her finish before going for the normal version. The action was seamless. The story was taut. It was a near-perfect match that enhanced one of the best cards of the year.

Adrian Neville (c) vs. Sami Zayn, NXT Championship Match, (R)Evolution, 12/11 - Watch Highlights Here!
Storytelling is the root of pro wrestling. Vince McMahon derisively said that wrestling for wrestling’s sake is worthless on his infamous Steve Austin show appearance. He’s not incorrect, even if he probably missed the spirit of why his statement is correct. Any wrestling match has to evoke some kind of emotional response. A match doesn’t need to have stunning technical value in order to do this. If the punches land in a way that they conduct a symphony on the heartstrings, then that’s all the match needs. Similarly, Sami Zayn standing over a fallen Adrian Neville and a groggy referee did not peg the workrate chart. It wasn’t going to be giffed by Twitterati, nor would it have dropped the jaw as much as even the simple little suicide dive dosey-do earlier in the match did. However, it drove the narrative at 80 mph around Dead Man’s Curve, and when Zayn dropped the belt, kicked out of the school boy, and then went right into the Exploder/Helluva Kick combo for the finish, the brakes screeched and the audience arrived at home alive and exhilarated.

But Zayn and Neville built to that resolving moment masterfully, from the cat-and-mouse in the first act all the way through the seminal moment where Zayn decided that his ability to win the big one didn’t necessarily get roadblocked from his inability to cheat. But the choke vs. clutch story wasn’t the only one at play. For example, the story on both wrestlers going in was that they were besties around the world and traveled together, so when they kept foiling each other on their attempts at the second rope dives midway through the match, it hit another strong cord.

And sure, the standard ooh-aah tropes were present. Finishes were teased, kickouts were dramatic, and even the ref bumps made sense. To say this match could have headlined a WWE pay-per-view is a low bar to clear, because even in the face of such standout bouts like Bryan/Trips and Shield/Wyatts, the storytelling is just not on the same level. Sami Zayn and Adrian Neville could only compete against themselves and their outputs on NXT specials from earlier in the year. It’s weird to have to use such recursive criteria, but the state of wrestling in 2014 is such that new worlds are being breached. If anything, Neville and Zayn proved themselves pioneers, and the brave new world they helped illuminate looks damn good.

Fred Yehi vs. Slim J, Anarchy Television, 12/13 - Watch It Here!
It feels so weird saying that a dude who’s only been in my consciousness for two years had a “throwback” match, but Yehi has done so much work cultivating an outlandish, bratty heel character in several feds across Georgia, especially Southern Fried, that when he wrestles a straightforward match with more subtle heeling, it’s like a time capsule back to 2012. Yehi’s opponent here was Anarchy vet and local legend Slim J, and it was easy to see how they segued this match into becoming a Best of Five series in 2015. The duo showed amazing chemistry, especially on grapples and exchanges, and it made for one of the last great matches of the year.

The beginning segment of the match was what brought back the memories. Yehi and J worked the mat hard, going from hold to hold with the roughness and intensity of an Olympic wrestling bout. Limbs flailed and whipped back with each wild exchange, and neither wrestler was able to show a solid upper hand without telegraphing a protracted mat war like in the various Thatcher/Gulak/Busick matches along the year. Instead, it foreshadowed a more fast-paced, modern indie-style affair, which they segued into flawlessly. Yehi’s ability to drop to the canvas and trip up J not once but twice was able to throw a different wrinkle into some familiar beats, and although J almost lost footing at a few points, he was able to orchestrate his comebacks with grace while leading the crowd into his runs. All in all, it was one of the strongest matches from Anarchy all year, and it set the table for bigger things for the two wrestlers in the new year.

Luke Harper (c) vs. Dolph Ziggler, WWE Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match, TLC, 12/14
This write-up originally appeared in my review for TLC.
At first, this match seemed to fall in the same traps that Triple H and Undertaker did at WrestleMania XXVII. They started out from jump throwing bombs and then having layabout spots, but for whatever reason, the dynamic of the match made sense. When they started out by using the ladders for upped violence, the increased recovery time and selling made sense. This match truly felt like some of the hardcore-style matches of old. The shots were stiff and the bumps were hard. I'm not sure how much of an extra toll it put on their bodies, but at least the visual came off looking spot on.

Of course, anyone can take a huge bump, and lord knows Ziggler didn't have a scale named after him because of his lack of recklessness, but timing is a huge part of these things. Anyone can topple off a ladder, but knowing when and how to time toppling said ladder speaks volumes. Of course, this match wasn't perfectly timed all the way through, but this show was imperfect. Still, the times when Harper or Ziggler came bounding into the scene to cut a belt-grab off at the pass that did work were timed just right. Hell, even as the match started to unwind towards the end, Ziggler kicking Harper from one ladder off another was a stunning way to finish the contest.

But something does have to be said for an inherently brutal match that actually shows brutality. Both Ziggler and Harper got busted open hardway, Harper on his friggin' arm after getting it caught in between the legs of a ladder. Normally, the unintentional spilling of blood shouldn't be lauded, especially in today's WWE, but in this instance, it worked. WWE has been lacking on delivering steak behind the weak sizzle its announcers put behind promoting shows. Guys like Ziggler and Harper going out there and working a little bit loose maybe shouldn't be condemned completely, huh?
That's it! Hope you enjoyed the list. Leave any comments you may have below.