Another year is coming to an end.
2023 was wild, wacky, and newsworthy. 2024 is now staring us in the face, ready to throw all kinds of things at us.
Before we officially cross over to a new year, it’s time for me to continue my annual tradition of looking back at the year that was in pro wrestling. Like many other columnists, podcasters, and other internet names, I like to hand out a bunch of awards, but I try to do things differently.
First and foremost, my award columns are sponsored by #BlackTwitter, as has been the case for well over a decade now.
A lot of you of a certain age and younger have no idea what #BlackTwitter is, so allow me to explain.
In the early days of Twitter, the app’s rise in popularity was partly due to the #BlackTwitter subset taking off. #BlackTwitter was like its own separate planet, complete with its own conversations, hashtags, and various “tools” that could be used to “trend” on Twitter. The people posting on #BlackTwitter were well ahead of the curve when it came to treating Twitter like a worldwide chat room, and you would often see things there that required audience participation that would help its numbers grow exponentially.
I wanted to pay tribute to #BlackTwitter, so I took a handful of hashtags made popular there and decided I would use them as the names of the awards I gave out. Way back when, I was a member of the Lords Of Podcast Roundtable, the official podcast of this site, back when it was known as LordsOfPain.net and not the current WrestlingHeadlines.com address. I called on a bunch of friends to help me hand out awards on a podcast episode, and John Laurinaitis himself caught wind of what was happening, making an appearance of his own.
Here we are, all these years later, and I still think the format is a lot of fun, so I’m still doing it. Technically, there might not be an actual factual #BlackTwitter anymore, but #BlackTwitter will always remain in my heart.
I will be handing out a total of seven awards here, so let me go ahead and use this time to introduce the categories and explain what they mean.
#TheStruggle is given out to the wrestler who saw the biggest decline in their position/situation from the year before.
#Swag is given out to the wrestler who saw the biggest improvement in their position/situation from the year before.
#TheThirst is given out to the wrestling personality that craved attention so much that it seemed like they were thirsty for it.
#NobodyCaresB is given out to the storyline or idea that was so bad, people just wanted it to go away, even if that means there would be no proper conclusion.
#Cryin is given out to the promo, segment, or moment of the year.
#Craftmaster is given out to the wrestler of the year.
#!!! is given out to the match of the year.
It seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Let’s not waste any more time, and go on with giving out the very first award.
#TheStruggle features a bunch of names that are thrilled to see their calendars turn from 2023 to 2024. These people all saw varying amounts of success last year, only to see any momentum built up in 2022 get completely derailed this year. The struggles may be of their own doing, and they may not be, but they are struggles nonetheless. Here are this year’s nominees, in no particular order…
Matt Riddle: His RK-Bro pairing with Randy Orton was all over WWE programming, and was one of the most popular acts in the company. Once Orton was forced out of action with a back injury, Riddle was never quite the same again before being released back in September after several personal issues and out-of-the-ring problems.
Britt Baker: For most of her tenure with AEW, she has been the “face” of the company’s women’s division. While it seems like the entire division has been trending in the wrong direction this year, it is no more evident than with Britt. It seems like she has been pushed down the card, behind several others, and her recent tweet about the complete lack of promo time she has received this year indicates she might be feeling a bit frustrated about it all.
Mark Briscoe: 2022 was another banner year for The Briscoe’s, seeing them win Tag Team Titles in House Of Glory, Game Changer Wrestling (multiple times), Impact Wrestling, and Ring Of Honor. Tragically, Mark’s brother, Jay, would pass away on January 17th, and Mark’s professional year wasn’t great, either. He has received some good television time in AEW, but often in losing efforts, and he also battled a knee injury that kept him on the shelf for a few months.
Vince McMahon: This one is strictly involving his role with WWE, what he did backstage, and so on. He had a bit of a roller coaster side with the second-half of 2022 and the first few months of 2023, but now, it seems like we really may have reached the end of Vince’s creative role with the company. When it comes to his job titles with the TKO Group, and what that means, people are torn on the subject, but his fingerprints on WWE programming seem to be almost completely gone these days.
Austin Theory: With Vince McMahon in charge, Theory was in the middle of a clear push, with plenty of speculation that a World Title run could be in his not-too-distant future. Without Vince McMahon in charge, Theory was lost for a while, floating around aimlessly, before being placed in a tag team with Grayson Waller. While the team seems like they could have a bright future, Waller seems to be the clear “star” of the duo.
Ring Of Honor: There was a lot of hype, hope, and hullabaloo when Tony Khan announced that he has purchased Ring Of Honor. Through a steady stream of poor decisions, both when it comes to the booking as well as the business side of things, all of that has disappeared. Many people feel RoH is in a worse spot now than they were before TK came along, and this was a company that ended 2021 with rumors that they would be closing their doors for good.
Roman Reigns: Is he still the Undisputed WWE Universal Champion? Yes. 2023 was the year that saw a lot of the public opinion on Roman and his title reigns change for the worse, though. He went from part-timer to almost never-timer in 2023, and when he did wrestle, his matches became slower, plodding, and often lacked the life and the overall level of action that his work in years past had.
Pac: He had a strong 2022, becoming AEW’s first All-Atlantic Champion and also winning the AEW Trios Titles with his Death Triangle brothers, Penta El Zero Miedo and Rey Fenix. Injuries robbed him of most of his 2023, starting with a nose injury that kept him away from the company for five months. Then, after two weeks back and a total of three matches wrestled, he suffered an undisclosed injury that was listed as being “serious” and has kept him out of action for five more months, and counting.
Braun Strowman: He made his return to WWE in September 2022 after being released 15 months earlier, and he came back on a mission, in tremendous shape and looking like he was ready to reach the top of the mountain again. At the start of the year, he was in a tag team with Ricochet, and Braun’s most memorable moment was a comical set of back-to-back “botches” in a Smackdown match against The Viking Raiders. First, he went to toss Ricochet at Ivar, attempting to use his partner as a weapon, but he misjudged how much air he needed. This led to Ricochet crashing to the mat, making it look like Braun chokeslammed his own partner. Immediately after this, Braun tried to leave the ring, only to trip and fall on the apron. Braun only wrestled two more matches after that before going on hiatus due to needing neck surgery, and he has yet to return to the ring, eight months later.
Liv Morgan: The first several months of her 2022 saw her regularly involved in title pictures, but not being successful in winning any. Then came Money In The Bank in July, where she won the titular ladder match and cashed her contract in later that night to take the Smackdown Women’s Title from Ronda Rousey. 2023 saw her moved to the women’s tag division, and it seemed like it would go well, as she won the WWE Women’s Tag Team Titles (with Raquel Rodriguez) in April. That reign would last a little over a month before the belts would need to be vacated due to a shoulder injury that Liv suffered. She returned a little more than a month later, and again, she and Raquel would become the Women’s Tag Team Champions, defeating Ronda Rousey and Shayna Baszler after Shayna turned her back on her partner. This reign would last a grand total of 16 days, as Liv would be injured again, and it has now been five-plus months since she was in the ring.
The winner of the very first award given out this year is… Pac! He might not be someone who went from World Champion one year to released the following year, but there’s simply no denying how much injuries have screwed him over in 2023. One match in 2023, then a five-month injury absence, followed by three matches in a single week, and then another five-month (at minimum) injury absence.
Let’s switch things up. Our first award looked at the biggest fall from 2022 to 2023. Next up, let’s give out the #Swag award, looking at the biggest rise from 2022 to 2023. In previous years, this award has featured nominees that have gone from afterthought to World Champion, not on a major stage to being used regularly on television, or even people who have been taken more seriously after a character change or a vast improvement in their in-ring or promo abilities. Here are the nominees, in no particular order…
Christian Cage: At the age of 50, and with over 28 years in the wrestling business, you could make the argument that Christian is doing the best work of his entire career right now. His entire “Father Of The Year” thing has been great, and it has helped him to grab a much bigger chunk of television time now, as well as his first championship victory in AEW. The arrival of Adam Copeland allows Christian to have even more to do, and that doesn’t even count a potential turn for either man that would have them reunite as a tag team in the future.
Julia Hart: In 2022, she couldn’t get a win on television. Literally. She had zero televised victories in the entire calendar year, although she was one of the most dominant wrestlers on AEW’s YouTube shows, earning a 20-1 record. With the death of the aforementioned YouTube shows, she was able to appear on television regularly in 2023, and she has become one of the most improved names in the business this year. Her character work with the House Of Black has been captivating, and her in-ring work improved so much that she won the TBS Championship at Full Gear last month.
Trick Williams: At one point, it seemed like Trick’s ticket to success was going to be as a manager, of sorts, for Carmelo Hayes. After both men turned face, Trick’s popularity began to skyrocket, and perhaps not coincidentally, he began to wrestle more and more, too. Suddenly, Trick would go from being a popular act in NXT to being the most popular act in NXT, and now, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before he becomes the NXT Champion.
Dominik Mysterio: We’ve seen a few different versions of Dominik Mysterio since he made his WWE debut at SummerSlam 2020. The current version has been doing some of the best character work in all of wrestling, not just WWE. He has shown a masterful ability to stand out in the background, so to speak. If you watch a Judgment Day promo or segment, Dom usually isn’t in the foreground, but he always captures your attention with the little things… body language, facial expressions, and so on. His in-ring work was already coming along nicely, but that character work is what will help take him to the next level.
Tiffany Stratton: I’ve called her the “next Bianca Belair” in approximately 39 of my columns since she made her NXT debut, and we’re getting closer and closer to that becoming true. She went from being a bit of a one-dimensional character that showed some tremendous athletic ability, to becoming more and more well-rounded, seemingly with each passing week. An impressive, but brief, reign as the NXT Women’s Champion came her way this year, and even though she doesn’t have the title anymore, the confidence that she has gained continued to shine through, keeping her on a strong path.
Randy Orton: This is about as simple as it gets. In 2022, Orton was put on the shelf with a serious back injury, and there was intense buzz that the injury would lead to the end of his career. He was 42 at the time of his injury, after all, and had 22 years of experience in his bag. There wasn’t anything left for him to achieve in the ring, so it really seemed like he would hang his boots up for good. After most of 2023 came and went without his return, it seemed like we had finally seen the last of one of wrestling’s all-time greats. Then, just like that, he was back, and now, it seems like he hasn’t missed a beat. He appears to be having a blast out there, seeming truly thankful for the ability to perform in front of the WWE Universe again.
LA Knight: Hey, do you remember the Max Dupri days? I’m pretty sure Shaun Ricker, the man behind the LA Knight character, is trying to forget all about them. The Knight Model Management/Maximum Male Models thing looked like it had comedic potential for a week or two, but that died a painful death almost immediately. Even after he officially became LA Knight on the main roster, it didn’t look great, as he was involved in a terribly received feud with Bray Wyatt, including the Mountain Dew Pitch Black Match at the Royal Rumble to start 2023 off. Even though he was a heel, and even though he was losing far more often than he was winning, Knight’s popularity began to grow in an organic fashion. It seemed like he went from an afterthought to being one of the most popular acts in the company overnight, making those Max Dupri days a distant memory.
Big Bill: As a member of the Impact Wrestling roster for the first half of 2022, he had a relatively decent run. He was never able to make it to the top of the card, but he was involved in a handful of title matches. After moving to AEW, he had a bit of a rougher start, losing and becoming a member of The Firm, the forgettable stable led by Stokely Hathaway that saw a bunch of backstage drama lead to storyline changes and then even more storyline changes that never allowed them to get out of first gear. When it looked like all might be lost for the former Big Cass, he would eventually join up with the Mogul Embassy stable, moving up in the ranks, leading to a pairing with Ricky Starks. The duo would go on to shock the AEW fan base by becoming the company’s Tag Team Champions, and they remain the champs to this day, coming up on three months with the titles.
The Gunns: Even though they were never quite taken seriously, The Gunns were generally very successful in AEW, winning matches at a healthy clip. Those victories never really went anywhere, but they would move up the ladder a bit by getting involved in their father’s storyline with The Acclaimed. Being placed in the AEW Tag Team Title scene was major, but I don’t think anyone expected them to win. However, they did just that, becoming the champions back in February. It wasn’t a long reign (56 days, the second-shortest reign in the history of the titles), but it placed them squarely on the map. Joining Bullet Club Gold has also guaranteed them more time on television, which makes their futures look even brighter.
Trinity: When Sasha Banks and Naomi walked out of WWE in 2022, it was clear that both women could have opportunities elsewhere, but also clear that Banks was the bigger star, and therefore, would probably do more. While Banks would go on to become Mercedes Moné and make a big mark in Japan, with rumors of a potential AEW run floating around, Naomi stayed away. She went almost a full year between her final match with WWE and her next match, which was in Impact Wrestling. Two months after her Impact debut, she would go on to become the Knockouts Champion, a title which she still owns today, five-and-a-half months later. Make whatever arguments you want about going from being one-half of the WWE Women’s Tag Team Champions to being the Impact Knockouts Champion. My take is that she went from nobody knowing if and when she would wrestle again to creeping up on the top ten longest Knockouts Title reigns of all-time.
This year’s winner is… Randy Orton! This was a tough call, to be honest. LA Knight and Trick Williams have both made great cases, but there are a bunch of questions that remain about their stories. With Orton, he really and truly came back from the verge of retirement, looks to be in amazing physical condition, and the WWE Universe is thrilled to see him.
Let’s keep it moving and get right to the next award. #TheThirst has people who simply can’t stop their mouths and/or social media fingers from getting themselves into, at best, a bunch of controversy, and at worst, a lot of trouble. In no particular order, here are the nominees…
Billy Corgan: No matter what news comes out about the NWA, Corgan tries to find a way to spin it in a positive light. Yes, he’s the Owner and President of the NWA, so it’s not like he’s supposed to talk about how poor the company is, but he takes things to ridiculous levels. The NWA has become a bit of a running joke on social media, for multiple reasons, but Corgan continues to work overtime in trying to direct your attention elsewhere.
People Who Still Refer To Wrestling As “Fake”: 2024 is upon us, and we’re still having to deal with this garbage? Go ahead and talk about wrestling in your everyday real life… school, work, wherever… and it’s almost guaranteed that you’re going to encounter someone who asks you why you watch that “fake” stuff, blah blah blah. If you’re that ignorant at this point in time, it’s on purpose.
Lacey Evans: After being released, she went on podcasts, talking about how she requested the release because she’s an “alpha” that needed to be treated like a “top guy” in the company. She would go on to talk about how much more she deserved in WWE, how she took a big pay cut to even sign with the company to begin with, and how she “almost” got into numerous fights backstage because of the way she felt people viewed her and talked to her due to their journeys being different. A lot of word salad and bluster that nobody asked for.
Tribalist Fans: WWE IS THE BEST! AEW IS THE BEST! NXT IS THE BEST! JAPANESE WRESTLING IS THE BEST! LUCHA LIBRE IS THE BEST! INDEPENDENT WRESTLING IS THE BEST! Everybody has their opinions, and that’s fine. It’s the dorks that take things way too far, though, that make everyone look bad. If you don’t work for a wrestling promotion, and yet you have “WWE” or “AEW” and so on in your Twitter handle, and all you do is bash the “other guys” to the tune of tens of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of tweets, you need psychological help.
Eric Bischoff: To be fair, his inclusion here has a lot to do with Conrad Thompson as the co-host of Bischoff’s 83 Weeks podcast. If you’ve listened to one episode of the show, you know how Bischoff feels about Dave Meltzer, wrestling “dirtsheets,” and Tony Khan. Those subjects will come up, and Eric will go on a several-minute rant about them. Conrad, whether he’s doing it as a troll on purpose or not, will go out of his way to continuously bring up that Dave Meltzer said this, Tony Khan did that, the “rumor and innuendo” online was this, and so on. This, of course, further infuriates Bischoff, leading to even more ranting. He never misses an opportunity to tell the world how worthless he thinks Meltzer is, or how poor a job he thinks Tony Khan is doing, even if it means completely derailing his own podcast to do so.
Ric Flair: This is a man who will say and do anything if it means he gets a few dollars for it. He has never met a bit of attention that he didn’t love. The man continues to find a way to get people talking, although it usually seems to be in a negative fashion these days. Maybe it’s his over-the-top hyperbole about everything that Charlotte Flair does, as well as his talks about Reid Flair, completely forgetting that he also has two other children. Perhaps it’s his constant teasing that he wants to wrestle again, even though he famously had his “Last Match” several times now, and the fact that he’s going to be 75 years old in February. There’s also the fact that he’s getting into the cryptocurrency scene in 2024, years late to the party, and has already seen numerous complaints about security issues when people try to access links he’s posting. Then, of course, there’s everything that has been covered on episodes of Dark Side Of The Ring, which has people upset that AEW is even using him in the first place. It’s all a big mess.
Vince Russo: Bro, Vince keeps moving further and further down the list of importance, bro. Bro, he finds himself on smaller sites, reaching less of an audience, bro. Bro, when you combine that, bro, with the fact that he hasn’t been involved, bro, with an actual wrestling promotion, bro, in a long time, bro, and bro bro bro bro bro bro bro clown shit bro bro bro bro bro bro bro bro bro bro irrelevant bro bro bro bro bro bro bro bro bro nobody takes him seriously bro bro bro bro bro bro bro bro bro bro bro bro.
Tony Khan: Honestly, he should be included in the nominees for this award simply based on his penchant for delivering those HUGE MEGA SUPER ANNOUNCEMENTS all the time. It’s damn near the perfect example of thirsting for attention, because there’s no reason for him to do it, but he does it, anyway… over and over and over again.
Steve Carrier: If you’re unlucky enough to know who Steve Carrier is, then you understand exactly why he’s listed here. You can always tell when he’s had too much to drink. Well, for one, because he ends up finding himself in legal trouble because of it, but two, it will always lead to him going on Twitter rants about how much he hates Sean Ross Sapp, how “successful” his life is, how much “better” he is than everyone else, how he has a pool, how he owns guns and isn’t afraid to use them on trolls, how he’s bad enough to beat you up without having to use a gun, etc. The most hilarious things are when he’ll cross the line against someone or some website, and they’ll turn around by threatening him with legal action, which leads to him doubling down with his rants, cussing people out left and right… only for him to then stop tweeting for multiple weeks, and then having a much nicer demeanor when he returns because he was, in fact, contacted by lawyers… until he starts drinking again, when it starts all over again.
Val Venis: I don’t care what is going on in the world of wrestling… who is feuding with who, what titles are changing hands, what show is taking place, what free agents are set to sign somewhere… Val will find a way to turn it into some political bullshit. It’ll lead to some lengthy rant about COVID restrictions, abortion rights, Joe Biden, child trafficking, pedophiles, transgender people, and whatever else his side of the political debate has chosen as their complaint du jour today.
The winner is… Tony Khan! Easily. Most of the nominees are on the “fringe” of the wrestling world, in one way or another, but Khan is the President and CEO of one of the biggest companies in the wrestling business. As someone who isn’t an on-screen character, we shouldn’t hear from him or about him, and yet, we do. All the time. Even when we aren’t hearing from him directly, we’re hearing his name on AEW commentary 20 times per episode, or his name will be brought up in every media interview that his employees are involved in. That looks bad, even if it isn’t a direct edict on his part. I can’t help but roll my eyes whenever I see or hear his name now.
Are you ready to give out another award? I am. #NobodyCaresB looks at the worst of the worst when it comes to the storylines and ideas that we’ve seen during the year. Some were terrible from the start, and others became terrible over enough time. Either way, fans were clamoring for these things to go away, posthaste, without any question. Here are the nominees, in no particular order…
NWA: When you look at the names that have been on the NWA roster over the last few years, they had a pretty good amount of talent. Then, one-by-one, those names left for bigger and better opportunities. Putting the NWA World Heavyweight Title on Tyrus, who is literally barely able to move, simply because Tyrus appears on Fox News and can make his appearances with the title belt, was laughable. It became even more laughable because it didn’t do anything to help the company. It’s not like his Fox News appearances led to a giant wave of new fans, viewers, pay-per-view buyers, and money flowing in. The NWA has been dead for a while now. It’s only a matter of time before the NWA realizes it.
Dana Brooke: She spent a little over ten full years under WWE contract. The only title she won in that time was the 24/7 Title, but that doesn’t count, because even I’m a two-time champion in that title history. Every so often, we would see Dana receive the smallest of pushes on television, usually revolving around how it was finally going to be her time after being a joke for so long. Fans wouldn’t buy it, and it would fizzle out in a couple weeks, sending her back to not being used again. She got that type of run in NXT this year, where she would often find herself in matches with some of the younger women on the roster, and they would outshine her almost without fail. It was quite the waste of valuable television time.
Ronda Rousey: The woman had her critics during her first run with WWE, but for the most part, it was incredibly successful for everyone involved. She showed the ability to pick the sport up and look good in doing so, even if her lack of natural charisma and promo skills would pop up and hold her back a bit. Her second run with the company was a disaster on almost every level. She showed zero improvement in the ring or on the mic, and seemed to show very little fire in anything, as if she was merely there for the money. Even a lot of her biggest supporters began to notice how things weren’t the same, and they stopped caring.
QTV: When QT Marshall announced that he was leaving AEW, a lot of people within the company and within the business talked about how much of a blow it would be for AEW because of everything Marshall did for them behind-the-scenes. He wore many hats during his time there, and was an important part of what the company did in almost all of those hats. Except, of course, for his “on-screen talent” hat. No matter what was tried in regards to him being a character on-screen, it wasn’t well-received. The whole QTV thing was stupid, helped nobody, and took up valuable television time for a company that has a bloated roster full of very talented wrestlers who can’t get a break.
Ring Of Honor: Booking decisions? Inconsistent, at best, and terrible, at worst. Business decisions? Nonsensical in almost every way. Promotional decisions? Awful. There are very few names on the RoH roster who are actively benefitting from being there in any way, and those names all deserve better, but are stuck behind many of those aforementioned terrible, nonsensical, and awful decisions.
Sabu In AEW: When it was announced that Sabu would be in Adam Cole’s corner for Cole’s match against Chris Jericho at Double Or Nothing, the collective reaction on social media was either “What?” or “Why?” Sabu had very little connection to Jericho, and absolutely no connection to Cole whatsoever. It didn’t make any sense. Then he showed up to do one small spot and wasn’t seen again, making the entire thing even more pointless than anybody realized.
Joe Gacy: When Bray Wyatt was on the roster, having someone whose character was immediately compared to Bray Wyatt was an interesting choice. Nothing Gacy did could compare to Wyatt, and it was doomed from the start. Gacy became a black hole of heat, taking any chances that people like The Dyad and Ava had of getting over. Now, we’re getting a different version of the Gacy character, where he makes funny faces and hangs out underneath the NXT ring because he’s SUPER KOOKY, but it’s too little, too late for him.
The Outcasts: Saraya, on her own, can draw a strong reaction, even if she might not be the same in the ring after dealing with all of her injuries. Ruby Soho, on her own, is one of the most consistent in-ring performers in AEW’s women’s division. Toni Storm, on her own, is one of the best overall performers in AEW’s women’s division, and she has been proving that with her shift to the “Timeless” character. Together, you would think their powers would combine smoothly like Captain Planet, but you would be wrong. They were never “outcasts” in the company, even in the world of kayfabe. Their use of spray paint was silly. Things just didn’t “click” for them.
The Bloodline, Post-SummerSlam: One day, books will be written about the decision to have Jimmy Uso turn on his brother, Jey, at SummerSlam and cost Jey his match against Roman Reigns. In one night, WWE took the single best storyline the company (the business?) has ever had, and went into full “jumped the shark” mode. It was a lazy decision that nobody was asking for, and it has yet to benefit a single person, nearly five full months later.
The WWE Draft: When I say that nobody cares, I mean those involved in the decision making for WWE, too. The Draft gets hyped up, but the rules and stipulations don’t get followed enough, and too often, those rules and regulations are outright ignored for little-to-no reason.
The winner is… Ring Of Honor! I’ve already dedicated a bunch of time in my columns to the egregious levels of mismanagement that we’re seeing in RoH, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even if you’re an AEW mega fan, it’s hard to argue that Ring Of Honor isn’t being treated and handled the way it should be. If Tony Khan isn’t going to cut his losses and sell RoH to someone else (which he won’t), I think we’re well beyond the point where the brand can be saved.
Let’s switch from a negative award to a positive award this time. #Cryin looks at the promos, segments, and overall moments that we’ve seen. The “moment” is what’s key to focus on here. You might see nominees that were very memorable, even if they took place during a match that, by itself, was not. Here are the nominees, in no particular order…
Randy Orton’s Return At Survivor Series: It was something that many of us never thought we would see again. Even with the months of rumors and reports that Orton was training for a return, a lot of it just seemed like pure speculation. Finally, one of the sport’s all-time greats was able to return to the ring, and it made for a tremendous moment. He was truly missed.
Bad Bunny’s Backlash Entrance: Take the loud, passionate Puerto Rican wrestling fans. Add the fact that they were hosting a WWE pay-per-view event for the first time in over 18 years. Mix in the fact that proud Puerto Rican Damian Priest was involved in the match. Sprinkle in the involvement of Bad Bunny, a Puerto Rico native who has gone on to become one of the biggest celebrities on the planet today. Throw in new production elements including camera angles and drone shots. Top it off with an earworm of a song in Bad Bunny’s “Chambea.” When you combine all of those elements, you have one of the best entrances in pro wrestling history. It combined pro wrestling with a concert, a night club, and a street party. If Backlash took place in front of more people, it was something that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the main event of WrestleMania.
Ricochet & Logan Paul Agree To Meet In The Middle: It was just one spot in a Royal Rumble match that went nearly 72 minutes, but what a spot it was. Ricochet and Logan Paul find themselves on opposite ends of the ring, standing on the apron. They lock eyes and talk trash for a few seconds before simultaneously hopping up and performing a springboard off the top rope, colliding against each other in mid-air over the center of the ring. It was loud. Violent. A pure spectacle. It was the type of spot you’re going to see on highlight reels and YouTube compilations for decades to come.
The Crowd At All In(nit): Debate your mothers on just how many people were in attendance for All In(nit), how many of them paid for their tickets, what records were and weren’t broken, and so on. I don’t care about any of that right now. What matters to me was that there was a sea of humanity inside Wembley Stadium that night, and it was amazing to witness. To make it even better, they were loud and boisterous from beginning to end, making for one of the best pro wrestling crowds in recent memory. Perhaps even one of the best ever.
Sami Zayn Betrays The Bloodline At The Royal Rumble: There’s something to be said about drawing something out and making the antici… pation build and build before finally pulling the trigger and giving the fans what they want. That’s what happened at the Royal Rumble. Fans had been waiting for Sami Zayn to finally leave The Bloodline and reunite with Kevin Owens. When Sami finally had enough and hit Roman Reigns across the back with a steel chair, it gave way to one of the loudest pops you’re ever going to hear. The fans inside the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas lost their minds. A heartbroken Jey Uso, who had been against the idea of Sami in the group from the beginning before finally coming around and saying he loved Sami like a brother mere days before this happened, was the icing on the cake here.
CM Punk’s Return At Survivor Series: Punk’s AEW debut in 2021 or Punk’s WWE return at Survivor Series 2023? People are going to argue about which event was “bigger” or “better” for years to come. Sounds like a future column idea, but for now, I just want to talk about how cool this was. There was no reason to ever expect Punk back in the WWE mix, but when “Cult Of Personality” hit after the main event at Survivor Series, minds were blown.
Jimmy Uso Is Out Of The Bloodline, And Jey Uso Is, Too: For this moment, we have to go back to Night Of Champions on May 27th. The main event that night saw Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn defending their Undisputed WWE Tag Team Titles against Roman Reigns and Solo Sikoa. During the match, interference from The Usos would backfire, and Roman would not be happy about it. He stood in the ring, mushing Jey’s face while verbally berating him. Finally, Jimmy had enough and dropped Roman with a Superkick, standing up for his twin brother and eventually dropping Roman with a second Superkick. Fast forward three weeks, and we get to this. Jey cuts an impassioned promo about how he had to try to keep with Jimmy his entire life, as Jimmy was always the “Most Likely To Succeed” everywhere they went. The promo talks about how Jimmy went out with an injury, but that’s when Jey was able to step up and become “Main Event” Jey Uso and be the “Right Hand Man” to Roman. Jey says that Jimmy is out of The Bloodline, and just when you think Jimmy is about to get a beatdown, Jey says that he’s out, too, and he nails Roman with a Superkick. After taking Solo Sikoa out, both Usos hit the best double Superkick you’ll ever see, with the perfect sell from Roman on top of it. It was cinema before WWE pissed all over it less than two months later.
Sami Zayn Returns To Montreal Before Elimination Chamber: Fresh off of leaving The Bloodline, Sami would not only get a shot at Roman Reigns and the Undisputed WWE Universal Title, but he would get it in his hometown of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Smackdown before Elimination Chamber, also being held in Montreal, saw Sami greeted by a true hero’s welcome. As he brought his old entrance music back, the crowd “sang” along to it and chanted for him. You could see the emotion on his face as clear as day, as he soaked in the response with tears welling up in his eyes for several minutes before he even said a word. It was a special moment to see.
Paul Heyman Says Roman Reigns Is The Son Dusty Rhodes Always Wanted: More real emotion. After winning the Royal Rumble, Cody Rhodes had his sights set on Roman Reigns. On an early-February night, Cody would share the ring with Paul Heyman instead. Cody told everyone the story about the year 2000, when the Rhodes family had gone broke, and how it was Heyman who stepped in and offered Dusty Rhodes a gig in ECW, promising to pay him very well. Heyman would keep his promise, and Cody says it was also the event that gave Dusty his confidence back, before saying that he (Cody) would never be able to pay Heyman back for that. If this is where the promo ended, it would probably deserve a spot here. Heyman was crying as he listened to Cody’s words, and Cody was choking back tears as he said them. When it was Heyman’s turn to speak, he started by continuing the emotional ride, talking about Dusty’s time working with the young men and women at the WWE Performance Center. Heyman would close his promo by talking about the final time he spoke with Dusty before Big Dust passed away. According to Heyman, Dusty said that Cody was his favorite son, but that Roman Reigns was the son he always wanted. In the blink of an eye, we got a different type of emotion, and the build to WrestleMania was truly on.
Bryan Danielson’s Final Countdown At Forbidden Door: For years, I had been calling for Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson to have Europe’s “The Final Countdown” as his entrance music again, even if it was for a one-time deal. That was the song he used as his music before he got to WWE, and his entrances were made extra special because of it. Just when I was about ready to give up hope, Danielson got to use the song for his entrance at Forbidden Door. I lost my ever-loving mind when I heard it. To make it even more special for me, personally, it took place before Danielson’s match against Kazuchika Okada, which was at the top of my “Dream Match” list for nearly a decade.
The winner is… Sami Zayn Betrays The Bloodline At The Royal Rumble! Nothing against Randy Orton or CM Punk, who shared a very special night at Survivor Series, but this award had to go to something related to The Bloodline. When it was “on,” it was unlike any wrestling storyline we’ve ever seen before, and chances are, it will be unlike any wrestling storyline we’ll ever see again. There were plenty of twists and turns before the 2023 Royal Rumble, but the magic of Sami Zayn finally standing up to Roman Reigns knocked down the dominoes that would alter the calendar year for both men, as well as both Usos, Kevin Owens, Cody Rhodes, and many others.
Now, we get to the final two categories. The main and semi-main events, if you wheeeeel. Next on the list, the #Craftmaster award, given to the overall wrestler of the year. For this, and for the final award, there’s simply too much good wrestling to trim the list of nominees down too much, so you’re going to see more nominations than you’ve seen for the other awards. It’s my way of giving out flowers to those who are deserving, even if they don’t end up winning. Here are the nominees, in no particular order…
“Speedball” Mike Bailey: In 2016, he received a five-year ban from the United States after being arrested for essentially trying to sneak into the country without a work visa. Once the ban ended, he has hit the ground running, seemingly working for every promotion you can think of. His 2023 has been hectic, with 126 matches wrestled as of the moment I type these words, competing for a total of 24 promotions, as well as several one-off independent shows, in six different countries. He even found time to put on some of his own shows, competing on them, as well. Think about that type of schedule for a minute. No matter where he was, though, you knew you were getting high quality from a Mike Bailey match. With all those numbers I gave earlier, his most amazing stat of 2023 is his record of 0-13 in title matches across the globe. He was the guy you brought in to compete for a title in your promotion, and his job was to have the best match of the night, make the champion look like a million bucks, and then he’d travel to his next gig.
Cody Rhodes: The winner of the 2023 men’s Royal Rumble. He was a participant in the main event of WrestleMania’s second night. A reign, with Jey Uso, as one-half of the Undisputed WWE Tag Team Champions. He hasn’t lost a singles match since being defeated by Brock Lesnar at Night Of Champions, which was seven months ago. If you’re looking for a WWE MVP for 2023, Cody is going to be right at the beginning of that discussion. He has been working a busy schedule, and continuously putting on some great performances all along the way.
Zack Sabre Jr: He started his year off by becoming the inaugural NJPW Television Champion at Wrestle Kingdom, and he continues to hold the title 356 days (as of the day this column goes live) later. The man many feel is the best technical wrestler in the business today has made it a mission to prove he is just that, traveling the world and putting on some of the best pure wrestling matches you’re going to witness.
Bryan Danielson: If ZSJ isn’t your pick for the best technical wrestler in the business, Bryan Danielson probably is. The only thing missing from Danielson’s list of accomplishments for the year are titles won, but by all accounts, he is the one that has turned down multiple opportunities to be a champion in AEW. When you watch AEW programming and see that Danielson is on the card, you know exactly what you’re going to get… 15+ minutes (20+ if it’s on Collision) of action, where he adapts his style to his opponent and is still able to excel, no matter what. Consistency can be a beautiful thing in this sport.
MJF: There was a time, not that long ago, when many viewed MJF as a bit of a one-dimensional performer. He could cut a promo and tell a story in that fashion like few in the business could, but those people felt that his matches never came close to matching up to what he could do on the microphone. At some point, it’s like MJF read the complaints and took it upon himself to prove everyone wrong. As the longest-reigning AEW World Champion in history (402 days and counting as of the time this column goes live), and as one-half of the RoH Tag Team Champions (with Adam Cole and now, Samoa Joe) he has a huge spotlight on him, and he continues to make those doubters eat their words.
Carmelo Hayes: When the man says that he “can’t miss,” believe him. After making a quick rise up the ranks in NXT, Melo reached the main event this year, winning the NXT Championship at Stand & Deliver, holding the title for six months. He has grown to become a human highlight reel, capable of having great matches with anyone he steps into a ring with. Along with Bron Breakker, he has been helping to carry the NXT brand with youthful enthusiasm.
Seth Rollins: To counter Roman Reigns and his ever-decreasing schedule, WWE needed a “workhorse” to represent Monday Night Raw as their champion. Rollins was the perfect choice for that role, and he has closed the year out as the World Heavyweight Champion for the last seven months. His schedule has seen him work against any and all comers, and his schedule has even become fodder for storylines that see his body becoming more and more beaten up by the week. As long as he is physically capable of wrestling, he is pretty much a guarantee to be in contention for the best match of the night whenever he’s on the card.
Tam Nakano: Her year started with an IWGP Women’s Championship match at New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom event, where she was unsuccessful in taking the title from KAIRI. Unfortunately, the match itself is an afterthought, as all that will be remembered is Mercedes Moné making her debut after the match and setting the internet on fire. Thankfully, Tam was able to rebound, going on to win the World Of Stardom Title for the Stardom promotion. It’s the company’s top title, and she held it for 211 days, with her reign only coming to an end because she suffered an injury that forced her to vacate the title. A month after winning the World Of Stardom Championship, she added to her collection by also winning the Wonder Of Stardom Championship, which is the company’s second-level title, making her only the second woman in Stardom history (behind Mayu Iwatani) to be a double-crown champion at the same time. It was a historic year for her, and if not for an injury, it could’ve been even better.
Becky Lynch: Becky has accomplished so much in her career that it became part of an on-screen story that the only thing she had yet to do was win the NXT Women’s Title. So what did she do? She went to NXT and won the NXT Women’s Title. Earlier in the year, she also got to team with Lita and win the WWE Women’s Tag Team Titles, checking that item off of her list, as well. If you made a list of the top five women’s matches of the year across WWE and NXT, Becky is probably a participant in three or four of them. She has reached the point in her career where she has been tasked with making the future of the business look great, and she has been doing that, working with a lot of younger talent and making them all look great.
Konosuke Takeshita: From the moment Takeshita first stepped foot inside of an AEW ring, he has been turning heads and looking like someone who has at least one AEW World Title reign in his future. His 2023 has done nothing to change that. In fact, it has only strengthened his case, as his heel turn and alignment with Don Callis means he has someone who can handle the talking for him while he continues to put on world class performances in the ring.
El Hijo Del Vikingo: I wouldn’t ever call myself a religious viewer of Lucha Libre, but I’ve seen my fair share of it through the years. With that said, I continue to find myself in awe when I watch this man wrestle. He’s always doing something that shouldn’t be physically possible, and he makes it look so easy. He has been the AAA Mega Champion for over two full calendar years now, winning the title on December 4th, 2021. Throw in a reign as the Warrior Wrestling Lucha Champion, as well as his new working relationship with AEW, and he has been representing Lucha Libre very well, bringing new eyes to the product and winning fans over across the globe.
Jon Moxley: If you’re looking strictly as titles won, 2023 certainly wasn’t Jon Moxley’s best year in AEW. All he has in that category is a single reign as the International Champion, which lasted all of 17 days and was cut short because of an injury he suffered. However, even though he wasn’t draped in title belts all year, he continued to be as relevant as ever to the overall AEW product. Whether as a singles competitor or teaming up with his Blackpool Combat Club brethren, he has been a part of some wild, memorable matches this year, rating as one of the most consistent performers on the AEW roster.
Gunther: 564 days, and counting, as the WWE Intercontinental Champion. Week in and week out, he is having great matches against a wide variety of opponents. He lasted nearly 72 minutes in the men’s Royal Rumble match, shattering the all-time record by a whopping 9:25. It has truly been one of the best in-ring years in recent WWE history, moving him up to the point where he is clearly set to become a main event player whenever he finally moves on from the Intercontinental Title.
Orange Cassidy: The first eight months of the year were spent with him defending his AEW All-Atlantic and then International Title. He was defending the title every week, being pushed to the brink by challenger after challenger, but he was able to hold on until he ran into Jon Moxley at All Out in September. It seemed like he would be destined to move up the card after his performance, but he would win the International Title again a month after losing it. He has been the champion for all but 37 days in 2023, elevating the prestige of the title and putting in the best work of his career.
Will Ospreay: Here’s another name that has kept themselves quite busy throughout the year. Ospreay has wrestled 70 times in 2023, working for 11 different promotions across seven different countries. No matter where he is, though, he has been successful. He started off the year by dropping the IWGP United States Title to Kenny Omega in an instant classic, but would win the title back from Omega in another instant classic at Forbidden Door. Before 1PW in England closed its doors, Ospreay was their champion, as well. Even when titles aren’t involved, he commands so much attention because of his in-ring ability and he continues to deliver, time after time after time.
Athena: It wasn’t the best year for Ring Of Honor, but even with all of the nonsense, Athena is a name that has continued to shine. She has been the RoH Women’s Champion for the entire 2023 calendar year, successfully defending the title 17 times, looking as dominant in a division as anyone has. It’s a shame that almost all of her reign has been on AEW YouTube shows or on the RoH Honor Club streaming service, because she deserves to have a larger audience see her work.
Ilja Dragunov: He has been a great in-ring worker for as long as we’ve known him, but it seems like he has taken things to another level this year. Getting to play the veteran role, he has been able to work with a lot of NXT’s younger talent and has had some absolute classics along the way. We’re about three months into his reign as the NXT Champion, but he has already brought so much added prestige to that title in such a short amount of time.
Giulia: Another one of Stardom’s top performers, Giulia has built her profile up so much that WWE is reportedly tripping all over themselves trying to sign her. She has the look and the presence of a superstar, but her in-ring work and the success it has brought her shouldn’t be overlooked. She came into 2023 as the World Of Stardom Champion, eventually losing it to Tam Nakano in April. She is also approaching the six-month mark as the NJPW Strong Women’s Champion. To top it off, she is also one-third of the Artist Of Stardom Champions with her Baribari Bombers group mates Mai Sakurai and Thekla. Whether or not she is WWE bound remains to be seen, but what is clear is that she has grown to become one of the top women in the entire sport.
Hiromu Takahashi: His 2023 began at Wrestle Kingdom, where he won the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title for the fifth time. That tied him with Koji Kanemoto for the third-most reigns in that title’s history. He remains the champion today, and his current reign has helped him move into fifth place on the all-time list of most combined days as the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion. Of the current generation, he is one of the best and most dominant junior heavyweights in the sport. This reign alone has seen him defend his title more times than any IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion has in over a dozen years.
Rhea Ripley: She won the Smackdown Women’s Title at WrestleMania, saw it get renamed to the Women’s World Title in June, and continues to hold it today. It is the second-longest reign in that title’s history, and she has looked dominant every step of the way. Her role within The Judgment Day has helped her become one of the biggest stars, male or female, in all of wrestling.
The winner is… Will Ospreay! While he might not have won as many titles as some of the other nominees did in 2023, he has more than made up for it in match quality. He has no less than a dozen matches this year that I would consider for any Match Of The Year lists, and you’re about to read how many of those matches made my final list. It is to the point where a Will Ospreay match is pretty much set at the four-star mark when the opening bell rings, and it’s just a question of how far up the scale it will go before the match is over. Just a ridiculous level of workrate this year.
Here we go… the final award of the column, and the final award of 2023. The #!!! award goes out to the Match Of The Year, a contest so good that words can’t express your true feelings, so exclamations will have to do. Here are the nominees, once again in no particular order…
Giulia vs Tam Nakano (Stardom All Star Grand Queendom – April 23rd): When it comes to matches from, say, New Japan, a lot of the things people like are the combination of a hard-hitting style, flashy offense, an emotional story, and an appreciative crowd. To people that aren’t fully up on game when it comes to Stardom, you can get all of that good stuff and more with the women on their roster. This was so much fun. Nakano’s journey to the top of the Stardom mountain was a good ride, but Giulia was more than ready to try and keep her World Of Stardom Championship at all costs. All Star Grand Queendom was an incredible show, and this was an incredible way to cap the night off.
FTR vs “Switchblade” Jay White & Juice Robinson (AEW Collision – July 15th): One of my favorite things about televised wrestling is when a match comes out of nowhere to be pay-per-view main event quality, usually with a runtime that is much longer than expected. One of the more famous examples of that was the match between John Cena and Shawn Michaels that took place three weeks after their match at WrestleMania 23. The match quality wasn’t really a surprise, I suppose, but the fact that it went 56 minutes? That blew people away. Another example is the “go-home” episode of Raw before Elimination Chamber 2018, when the participants in the men’s Chamber match wrestled in a Gauntlet Match, and the match ended up going nearly two full hours. The week before this match, the same two teams faced off in a match that lasted a little over 28 minutes. In the early days of Collision, that was definitely the show’s “thing,” where one match in each episode would top the 20 minute mark and be a ton of fun. When this was announced as a Two-Out-Of-Three Falls Match for the AEW Tag Team Titles… in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, which is the home of FTR’s idol Bret “The Hitman” Hart, no less… maybe more of us should’ve seen a lengthy match coming. Not only did the rematch go 58 minutes, but it also opened the show, which is insane. Both teams went after each other with everything including the kitchen sink, and they did so in front of a very receptive Calgary crowd. Many feel that this is the best tag match in AEW history, and it would be difficult to argue that point.
Will Ospreay vs Kenny Omega (New Japan Wrestle Kingdom – January 4th): Before this match, it had been seven years since Omega and Ospreay wrestled a singles match against each other, going all the way back to a Pro Wrestling Guerrilla show in 2015. It would also be Omega’s first match back in Japan since he left New Japan in 2019. The pace that these two worked here seemed to border on completely reckless at times, but they just kept hitting each other with move after move after move after move. Things seemed to kick into an entirely new gear once Ospreay came up bleeding (the hard way) at one point, as he realized it was going to take a lot more to put away the “old man” for good. A complete blast, and one helluva way to start the year in the ring.
Kazuchika Okada vs Zack Sabre Jr. (New Japan G1 Climax Day 17 – August 10th): In no way, shape, or form does it surprise me that these two have a lot of in-ring chemistry together. This was one of the more methodically paced matches on this list, but that isn’t a complaint whatsoever. Lots of great submission work from ZSJ here. Both men were extra motivated, trying to reach the semifinals of the tournament. Sabre, specifically, seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. He always has good showings in the G1 Climax tourneys, but he will always seem to fall short before the finish line. That helped to carry this match from “very good” to “great” in clear fashion.
Roman Reigns vs Cody Rhodes (WWE WrestleMania 39 – April 2nd): The ideal WrestleMania main event would be one where the outcome isn’t obvious, and an argument could be made for everyone involved getting the win. As we went into WrestleMania 39, that’s not what we thought we had. We were SURE that Cody was going to win, and obviously, that’s not what happened. That didn’t change the drama that we saw unfold that night, though. From bell-to-bell, it was as dramatic as it gets. Most of the credit for that goes to Roman Reigns and the way he had been built up for the last three years. Fans were chomping at the bit to see someone finally take him down, and that helped him and Cody take us on the emotional roller coaster that they did.
Will Ospreay vs “Speedball” Mike Bailey (Impact Wrestling Bound For Glory – October 21st): This was Ospreay’s first match with the company in seven-and-a-half years, going back to working for TNA during the company’s tour of England in January 2016. If you want non-stop action, look no further than this match. From the opening bell, both men were on a mission to destroy each other. Ospreay wanted to continue showing why people were saying he’s the best wrestler alive. Bailey wanted to prove to the world that he belonged in a high-profile spot like this. Mission accomplished on both parts. A sprint-style match in front of a small, but very appreciative, crowd in Chicago.
“Hangman” Adam Page vs Swerve Strickland (AEW Full Gear – November 18th): I’ve seen other people have this match mentioned in their year-end awards, and it almost always comes with a “I know this type of match isn’t for everyone” line somewhere. Technically, that’s true, but it’s also true for everyone and everything else. Lucha Libre matches aren’t for everyone. Roman Reigns matches aren’t for everyone. Will Ospreay matches aren’t for everyone. Ric Flair matches aren’t for everyone. Ladder Matches aren’t for everyone. This sport is wonderfully subjective. I’m not normally a big fan of matches like we got from Swerve and Hangman, but they were able to grab my attention. Not just because of what they put themselves, and each other, through in the match, but because of the story that was told. Swerve points out that Hangman doesn’t have that fire inside anymore, so he goes to great lengths to see if he can draw that fire out again, and Hangman gives him everything he could ever want and more. Yes, this was bloody and violent. No, I don’t want to see AEW go to this well very often. For one night, though, this was the type of match that had your eyeballs glued to your screen as you waited to see what they would pull off next.
Kenny Omega vs Will Ospreay (AEW & New Japan Forbidden Door – June 25th): There was a ton to love about this match, but my favorite thing was that they were able to make sure there were plenty of callbacks to their match at Wrestle Kingdom in January, but also making sure this was an entirely different match on its own two legs. While Wrestle Kingdom saw a breakneck pace, this match was much slower when it comes to pace, allowing Omega and Ospreay to go with heavier shots and stiffer action. A true showcase match for arguably the best wrestler alive today and the man who previously had that distinction.
Bad Bunny vs Damian Priest (WWE Backlash – May 6th): From a strictly workrate level, this match doesn’t “belong” here. If all you’re grading is the in-ring action and the technical ability of a match, this isn’t going to be a Match Of The Year type of deal. If you want to watch this match on mute, that’s your prerogative (duh nuh nuh), but you would be missing out on so much. The crowd in Puerto Rico was electric for this. Bad Bunny continued to perform better inside of a wrestling ring than he had any right to. Damian Priest proved that he was someone WWE could count on with one of the most important jobs they have. The match itself was an ode to Puerto Rico, both as a country and a people, but as a wrestling scene, as well.
Roman Reigns vs Sami Zayn (WWE Elimination Chamber – February 18th): Even after Cody Rhodes won the Royal Rumble, the story being told with Sami Zayn and The Bloodline had the WWE Universe screaming at the top of their lungs that Sami should be the one to dethrone Roman Reigns. On one hand, the level of drama here, with Sami competing in front of his friends, family, and countrymen in Montreal, helped to take this match ten levels higher. All the stars were aligned for a title change here, and a feel-good story that would live forever. On the other hand, the fact that the title change didn’t happen here helped to fuel the drama behind Roman vs Cody, and the aforementioned opinion that Cody was SURELY going to win the match. This was an absolute masterclass of storytelling, with Sami riding the emotional high from the crowd, giving us something extra memorable.
Kazuchika Okada vs Will Ospreay (New Japan G1 Climax Day 9 – July 27th): These two squared off in some epic matches at Wrestle Kingdom in 2021 and 2022, with both matches going over the 30-minute mark. When they face off in the G1 Climax tournament, and they have a 20-minute time limit, that changes the mindset of both men. Instead of a slower, “feeling out” process, they were both looking to end things as quickly as possible. While I loved their Wrestle Kingdom matches, stuff like this is a fun alternative. It’s little, common sense storytelling.
Bryan Danielson vs Zack Sabre Jr. (AEW WrestleDream – October 1st): This ended up being everything that I was expecting it to be. If you can think of a counter, reversal, hold, or transition, it probably happened during the match. One of the best pure technical bouts you’re ever going to see. If that’s all it was, it would still be an absolute highlight of the year. When Danielson and ZSJ got tired of the technical wizardry, they took it upon themselves to try and knock each other the fuck out with some brutally stiff strikes. This wasn’t what you would call “flashy,” but there was never reason to expect that it would be. It was simply two of the best in the world trying to one up each other. Simple. Easy. Effective.
Kenny Omega vs Konosuke Takeshita (AEW All Out – September 3rd): I wouldn’t quite call this a “passing the torch” type of moment, but I also wouldn’t argue with you if you said that it was. After saying that Takeshita looked like a future AEW World Champion, I viewed this as his biggest and best opportunity to prove me right. I feel that he passed that test with flying colors. For years, Kenny Omega has been called the “Best Bout Machine,” but on this night, it was Takeshita that was able to match him every step of the way. The import from DDT Pro in Japan truly seemed to reach that upper echelon here.
The Usos vs Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn (WWE WrestleMania 39 – April 1st): A lot of people don’t feel that the main event of WrestleMania’s first night is a true main event. I don’t subscribe to that line of thinking. Sure, WWE had to get creative to create a “double main event” for WrestleMania, but night one isn’t featuring some random midcard nonsense in the final match. Sami, KO, and The Usos were heavily involved in the company’s top story. Last year, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s return to the ring went last on night one. The year before, Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair made history, on multiple levels, closing out the first night. In 2020, The Undertaker’s return to the ring was the night one main event. WWE is choosing some really big deals to fill those spots. These four men deserved a WrestleMania main event, and they proved it by giving us one of the best “regular” tag team matches in recent WWE memory. Call it a “consolation prize” for Sami if you want, but I don’t think he was complaining much. He was part of one of the best matches of the year… in the main event of WrestleMania… teaming up with his best friend… winning the Undisputed WWE Tag Team Titles… in front of a rabid crowd. Who wouldn’t welcome that with open arms?
Kenny Omega vs El Hijo Del Vikingo (AEW Dynamite – March 22nd): This was Vikingo’s debut in AEW, and it was crystal clear to me that Omega made it his goal to make Vikingo look like as big of a star as he possibly could. I don’t know what I was expecting going in, but it seemed like this was largely featuring Vikingo on offense, with Omega trying to figure out what the hell he could do to stop the attack. With Vikingo on offense, you know what type of match you’re getting. It was every bit of the insanely fast match that you would expect, and it put Vikingo on the map in AEW.
Carmelo Hayes vs Ilja Dragunov (NXT No Mercy – September 30th): Their first match (at Great American Bash) was really, really good. Easily one of my favorite matches of the year from under the WWE umbrella. I like this one better, though, simply because of the story being told. In the first match, Melo was able to sneak away with the victory. Dragunov, as a heavy hitter, gave Melo all he had, but the NXT Champion was able to shift the tempo of the match and win by using his speed and athletic ability. Here, things started the same, with Dragunov trying to drop bombs, only for Melo to weather the storm and change the pace because he knew that’s what it took to beat the challenger. Dragunov showed that he did his homework, though, and he was also able to weather the storm, digging deeper into his bag. That, of course, led Melo to show that he did his homework, too, because he dug deeper into his own bag with the counters, reversals, and using his overall speed to gain the upper hand. Back and forth. Forth and back. Such good stuff.
MJF vs Bryan Danielson (AEW Revolution – March 5th): There were a lot of questions before this match. This was back when MJF still had plenty of doubters, wondering if he could step his in-ring game up to come anywhere close to matching up with his character work and promo ability. Those doubters were curious as to how MJF would handle a 60-minute Ironman Match, even if Bryan Danielson was his “dance partner” for it. Not only did MJF handle a 60-minute match, he excelled. He showed up in the best physical condition of his entire career, and he was on a mission here. The champion was able to match the pace of the challenger at every turn, and this ended up being one of those rare Ironman Match situations that was more than just ten minutes of action and 50 minutes of rest holds, stalling, and walking around between spots. For all intents and purposes, the only real “slow” parts of the match were when MJF was playing to the crowd, and that only served to get more heat. The Ironman Match format is something that needs to be done at the right time, with the right people involved. MJF and Danielson knocked it out of the park here.
Will Ospreay vs Zack Sabre Jr. (New Japan’s Royal Quest 3 – October 14th): When it comes to simple storytelling, this one was great. Ospreay loves to use his amazing Hidden Blade move to finish opponents off, or at least to set them up for the end, and that requires his arm. ZSJ, knowing that, decided to use all of his skills and ability to counter Ospreay’s offense with submissions that… focused on the arm. It sounds easy enough, but if that’s the case, you’d think you would see it all the time, across the board, in every company. ZSJ is such an intelligent performer, and this was yet another instance of that being true.
Kento Miyahara vs Katsuhiko Nakajima (Pro Wrestling NOAH’s One Night Dream – July 15th): Hey, do you like wrestling matches that feature tons of stiff strikes? I mean, really stiff strikes. Cringe inducing strikes. Strikes that make you feel it in your bones as you watch from what you thought was the safety of your couch. If you do, then holy shit, this match is for you. Both men seemed like they were trying to put each other in the hospital from the start. When it comes to matches that are heavy on strikes, you could make an argument about the pacing, and this is no different. It was slow. Then again, it was supposed to be. Slow means a bunch of different things in wrestling, though. There’s “slow” like watching The Great Khali wrestle, but then there’s “slow” like watching two men with pure hatred in their hearts trying to batter and bruise one another.
MJF vs Kenny Omega (AEW Collision – October 28th): I’ve seen some complaints about how this match was set up, with people saying it was thrown together and rushed at the last minute, or that it could’ve and should’ve been saved for a pay-per-view with a longer build. While it was thrown together pretty quickly and placed on television, a lot of folks are forgetting that there was still a major story being told. MJF was on his way to becoming the longest-reigning AEW World Champion in company history, and was only days away from passing Kenny Omega for that crown. This was Omega trying one last-ditch effort to keep his name in the history book by taking the title. That’s a brilliant piece of storytelling. It carried over into the match itself, with Omega seeming like he was extra desperate to win, while MJF was more than ready for Omega to give it everything he had.
The winner is… Kenny Omega vs Will Ospreay from Forbidden Door! They had a match at Wrestle Kingdom that many felt was one of the best they’ve ever seen, in any year, and they turned around and created an even better match in the rematch a little less than six months later. I don’t know how that’s even possible, but they did it.
2023 has been quite the year, for better or for worse. Now that it’s pretty much over, and now that you’ve seen my picks, I turn things over to you. If you take the awards that I handed out here, who would you choose as the winners? I don’t care if you’re WWE-heavy, AEW-heavy, Puro-heavy, or anything else in between. I’m looking forward to seeing some of your choices, and the best part is that there’s no incorrect choices. It’s your opinion. If you think Will Ospreay was the best wrestler alive in 2023, cool, and if you think it was someone else, that’s also cool. As always, hit me up in the comments section below, or on Twitter (@HustleTheSavage), and let me know what’s on your mind.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a busier writing month than December 2023. When I finish my review column for AEW Worlds End, I believe I will have posted over 75,000 words of content during the month. Unfortunately, my real life month has been just as hectic, so I’m exhausted. So much so that I’m not even going to bother with my Weekly Power Rankings or my playlist to close things out this week. They’ll return next week, but I need to get out of here, and I’m already 24 hours behind schedule as it is. I’m sorry if there are spelling or grammatical errors that are uncommon for my work.
Thank you to everyone who read anything I said this year. I hope your 2023 went well, and I hope that your holiday season has been everything you wanted and needed it to be.
Be good to each other.