When considering what year-end lists I could contribute to The Take, my first thought was naturally pro wrestling. My second thought was “man, you haven’t even listened to enough new music to put together a list, what the fuck?” My third was a list of my favorite photos of our new puppy, which would probably be popular, but this isn’t tumblr (find my Instagram for those: td2kool).
As with most of our lists here, this isn’t so much a critical list as much as it’s a compilation of my favorite WWE/NXT matches of the year (no indies or NJPW, unfortunately, I just don’t have time to consume that much – but if there’s someone who wants to monetize our little blog here I would gladly watch 40 hours of wrestling a week. Also no Lucha Underground because this season was just not good).
Anyway, here are my favorite matches of 2018, a supremely fun year for pro wrestling.
It’s pretty awesome that I can think of a list of matches and have to trim it down, it really speaks volumes about the quality of in-ring wrestling we’re seeing these days.
Cedric Alexander vs. Mustafa Ali, WWE Cruiserweight Championship, Wrestlemania 34: It’s a damn crime this ended up on the pre-show, because these two put on a show for the early birds in the Superdome.
Toni Storm vs. Io Shirai, Mae Young Classic Final, Evolution: Despite not getting a lengthy time slot, these two showed why the MYC should be appointment viewing for anyone who loves pro graps.
Women’s Royal Rumble match, Royal Rumble: As far as first times go, this one probably couldn’t have gone any better. They weaved together multiple stories, had some great surprise entrants, a few solid callbacks, and made the right decision with the winner (Asuka). I’m stoked to see what the 2019 version has in store, particularly now that they don’t have to shoehorn in so many legends and former stars to hype up the “first time ever” aspect.
Undisputed Era (Kyle O’Reilly and Roderick Strong) vs. Oney Lorcan & Danny Burch, NXT Tag Team Championship, Takeover: Chicago 2: I’ve always been a big fan of tag team wrestling, and although overall this was kind of a down year for the NXT tag division, this match provided the excellence that we’ve come to expect from the brand.
10. Seth Rollins & Dean Ambrose vs. Dolph Ziggler & Drew McIntyre, Raw Tag Team Championship, Monday Night Raw Oct. 22nd
Sometimes the story that surrounds the match is more important than the story the match itself tells. Raw started that evening with the shocking revelation that Roman Reigns would be relinquishing his Universal Championship and stepping away from the ring to fight leukemia for the second time in his life. No one knew how to react, really. Later that night, in the main event, Rollins and Ambrose took on Drew McIntyre and Dolph Ziggler for their tag titles. The match was good, but not great. It didn’t have a clean finish and it probably should’ve gotten more time. In the end, the Shield brethren won the titles. It was a cathartic release for the audience. A happy ending to a night that began so tragically. Then it happened. Ambrose turned on Rollins. The crowd watched in horror. The internet blew up with cries of “why tonight?” and “how could they?” Of course they used that night to turn Ambrose. The seeds had been planted weeks ahead. The turn had been teased. If you’re gonna pull the trigger, why not do it when it’d mean the most? Without the match before, though, it wouldn’t have worked. The roller coaster the audience rode that night was phenomenal – it took us from shock to elation to devastation. It was perfect. It’s just a damn shame they’ve fucked it up royally since that night.
9. Pete Dunne vs. Ricochet, WWE UK Champion vs. NXT North American Champion match, NXT Sept. 19th
When this matched was announced, everyone knew what would happen: two of the best in NXT would put on a damn show, and it wouldn’t end cleanly (there was no way they’d take the belt off of either guy). But hey, a sure thing is a sure thing. Dunne and Ricochet tore the house down, and in the end the obvious thing to do happened when the Undisputed Era interfered and got the easy heel heat for ruining a great match. One of my favorite things about NXT is the intricate stories they tell. But, sometimes, the simplest approach is the best approach in pro wrestling: just put two of your best guys in the ring and let them do their damn thing.
8. Johnny Gargano vs. Aleister Black, Takeover: WarGames 2
Brutal. That’s the only word you really need to describe this match. One of the biggest complaints I have about main roster storytelling is when two wrestlers are in a blood feud, and when it comes time to have their blow off match they come out and lockup and have a basic-ass match. Fuck off with that noise. Not here, though. Gargano cost Black his NXT title, then attacked him from behind in the parking lot and cost him a couple months of action. Black, the wronged-man out for blood versus the broken and delusional Gargano. When the time came for the two men to face off, there was no holding back. These two beat the ever-loving shit out of each other here, and I loved every single second. And that finish, oh my lord that finish: “I absolve you of your sins.” Just wonderful.
7. Kairi Sane vs. Shayna Baszler, NXT Women’s Championship, Takeover: Brooklyn 4
Anytime these two go it’s fantastic, but what separates this from their Takeover: War Games 2 bout for me is the emotion of Sane going from knowing she can beat Baszler to realizing she needed to match her intensity to take the NXT Women’s title from her. She digs down, gets dirty with the champ, and then outsmarts her to win the match and the belt. Here’s hoping these two continue their rivalry for years to come.
6. Velveteen Dream vs. Ricochet, Takeover: Chicago 2
If this match never headlines a major WWE PPV, it will be modern wrestling’s greatest travesty. Ricochet is a video game character come to life, and the things he does in the ring are simply astounding. Dream is a star already, and at 23 is only going to get better. His in-ring work is superb, and his character work is on another planet. Here, Dream tries to outdo Ricochet at his own game and ultimately fails, but looks like a million bucks in doing so.
5. Johnny Gargano vs. Andrade “Cien” Almas, NXT Championship, Takeover: Philadelphia
This was one of those matches where you instantly know you’ve just seen one of the best matches of the year. The fact that it took place in January only adds to its luster. Prior to his title run, Almas was a bit misused in NXT, but once they paired him with Zelina Vega and turned him heel he really took off. Gargano was a white hot babyface at this point, on a quest for the NXT title. And as if the match wasn’t great enough, the post-match sees Tommaso Ciampa attack Johnny Wrestling and thus begin his slow descent into madness (and kick off the year’s best storyline).
4. Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka, Smackdown Women’s Championship Triple Threat TLC, TLC
It took a while, but after this match finished we finally had the best versions of each of these three superstars: Queen Charlotte, the genetically superior female who actually lived up to the reputation of her last name; Lasskicker Becky Lynch, who’s slowly turning into a Stone Cold style no-fucks-given tweener and the most over star in the company; and the return of unstoppable kick-your-face-off Asuka (you know, the one who went undefeated in NXT and won the Royal Rumble match). WWE had a hard-on for “first time ever!” women’s matches this year, and they picked the right trio for this one. The Man, The Queen and The Empress didn’t hold back, and for 20+ minutes they tore the house down and earned the main event spot. How Charlotte kept going after that table spot I will never know. And the ending was pitch perfect: Ronda Rousey came down, pushed Charlotte and Becky off the ladder (getting a measure of revenge for beatings received from both) and paved the way for Asuka to grab the title. Not to fantasy book too much, but the best route from here should see Becky/Ronda and Charlotte/Asuka at WrestleMania.
3. Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa, Unsanctioned Match, Takeover: New Orleans
I really wanted to cheat here and put the whole trilogy in this spot (the other two being their street fight at Takeover: Chicago 2 and their Last Man Standing NXT Championship match at Takeover: Brooklyn 4), but if I picked only one Baszler/Sane bout I have to be consistent here. In terms of sheer enjoyment and excitement, it’s nigh impossible to differentiate one from the other two, but since I saw this in person, I’ll go with Johnny Wrestlng finally getting his payback on Ciampa. This match played out like the blood feud it was, and held the crowd in the palm of its hands even after a night of matches that could’ve all easily made this list. Gargano and Ciampa threw everything at each other, and the finish was bittersweet: Gargano taking a seat next to his former best friend, giving him one last shot at redemption, but not letting his guard down and catching Ciampa when he predictably tried to take him out. Of course, while Gargano won this battle, we’ve seen Ciampa slowly win the war as Johnny Wrestling has descended into madness in the year’s best story.
2. Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair, Smackdown Women’s Championship Last Women Standing match, Evolution
If SummerSlam was the impetus for change for Becky Lynch, this was her coming out party as The Man. These two beat the holy hell out of each other to the delight of the audience, using kendo sticks, chairs and tables to get the job done. What made it better was that WWE finally dropped the idea of Lynch being the heel and Charlotte the face and let the crowd alignments fall naturally. Becky was well on her way to becoming scorching hot, culminating with her beating of Ronda Rousey on the Raw before Survivor Series. In the spotlight of the first ever all-women’s PPV, these two delivered a classic.
1. Adam Cole vs. Ricochet vs. Killian Dane vs. Lars Sullivan vs. EC3 vs. Velveteen Dream, NXT North American Championship ladder match, Takeover: New Orleans
I could, in all honesty, put every match from Takeover: New Orleans on this list. Aside from the fact I was there for my first live NXT experience, this particular Takeover is arguably the best ever. The powers that be decided to start the show with this match, meaning an already eager crowd was that much hotter. The action never stopped with big spot after spot soliciting reactions of amazement and awe. Chants of “holy shit” and “this is awesome” seemed like they never stopped. They somehow even managed to setup the ridiculous ladder spots without slowing the pace of the match. Each man had their spotlight moment, with Ricochet, Velveteen Dream and Adam Cole shining brightest. The only blemish on this match was that is sucked a bit of wind out of the crowd’s sails for the Shayna Baszler/Ember Moon match (which was still great).