This coming Wednesday on Lords of Pain Radio, I’ll be bringing you a special two hour edition of Sports Entertainment is Dead in which I reveal my final picks for Match(es) of 2018, at least in WWE.
Today, I reveal the shortlists I’ve arrived at heading into that show. Though there are no final ‘winners’ in this column – they’ll be announced on my podcast on Wednesday – the matches that follow are nevertheless, to my mind, the cream of WWE’s crop from over the course of the last 12 months.
For those unfamiliar with my process from last year or the year before, because different matches are designed and expected to accomplish different things, I always separate my Match(es) of the Year into five categories. Those are:
Network Match of the Year, consisting of any non-tag team match having taken place on Network-exclusive programming such as NXT, 205 Live and the Mae Young Classic etc.
Television Match of the Year, consisting of any non-tag team match having taken place on either of WWE’s two major televised brands: Monday Night Raw (MNR) or Smackdown Live (SDL).
Tag Team Match of the Year, consisting of any tag team match, or any variant of a tag team match, to have taken place on any WWE programming of any kind in 2018.
Undercard Match of the Year, consisting of any non-tag team pay-per-view match that was not one of the top two matches promoted by WWE to sell that particular pay-per-view. It could, therefore, feature matches between jobbers, mid carders or main event talent alike.
Main Event Match of the Year consisting of any non-tag team pay-per-view match that was one of the top two matches promoted by WWE to sell that particular pay-per-view.
This year has seen my favourite wrestler, Seth Rollins, go on a tear and rack up Match of the Year (MOTY) contender after contender. So as to avoid any semblance of bias in my selections and to ensure recognition of the raft of incredible matches wrestled across the roster throughout 2018, I’ve therefore decided to deal with Rollins’ work in a separate Special Consideration category instead – matches featuring him were therefore excluded from the preceding five categories. (I came perilously close to doing the same for Mustafa Ali as well!)
My name is Samuel ‘Plan and these are my shortlists for WWE’s Match(es) of the Year 2018!
Consider the depth of in-ring quality to have come out of 205 Live this year. Then add in the arguably greater depth of in-ring quality to have come out of NXT US as well – not just on their weekly show, but from Takeovers too. On top of all that, considering the hot start NXT UK has gotten off to and a host of quality encounters coming out of the somewhat forgotten second annual United Kingdom Championship Tournament and what you end up with is, by quite some distance, the most hotly contested category of the lot this year.
When you’re leaving such contests as any of the Ali / Itami trilogy, any of the pre-WrestleMania Cruiserweight Championship Tournament bouts, every single Cedric Alexander title defence, the best matches of NXT UK’s formative months, every Network-exclusive women’s match and NXT US matches many consider ‘five star classics’ all on the cutting room floor, you know you have an embarrassment of riches to hand. 2019 has a tough standard to meet, for sure!
Noticeable by their absence here are Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa. On that front, I ask that you humour me – I recognise the acclaim the matches of both, together and apart, have achieved; they’re simply not for my tastes, and I’ll be going into more depth about that on Sports Entertainment is Dead this coming Wednesday.
With that in mind, here is my shortlist for Network Match of the Year:
Nominee #1: Mustafa Ali vs. Buddy Murphy in a No Disqualifications Match, 205 Live 03/07/18
Nominee #2: Zack Gibson vs. Travis Banks in the Final of the United Kingdom Championship Tournament, United Kingdom Championship Tournament Night 1
Nominee #3: Pete Dunne vs. Ricochet in a Champion vs. Champion Match for the NXT United Kingdom and North American Championships, NXT 19/09/18
There aren’t many more words that can be written saying something that hasn’t already been said about the quality, or perceivable lack thereof, across both WWE’s main televised brands in 2018; MNR, in particular, has been spectacularly poor for the most part. This has sadly extended to a lot of the ring work we’ve seen too, meaning that competition in this category this year wasn’t all that strong outside of a few recurrent key players – remove Rollins from the mix as I have done and the pool grows increasingly shallow.
That was until the summer. With the Universal Championship switching hands at Summerslam and a resurgent Daniel Bryan operating with increasing freedom from time-wasting undercard feuds nobody had any interest in seeing, the TV product felt, for a brief time, revitalised prior to its dismal December ratings. No surprise, then, that, in my mind, the best three televised matches outside of the work of Seth Rollins this year came in the last six months, and are all of such quality it’s going to be particularly difficult to select an outright winner.
With that in mind, here is my shortlist for Television Match of the Year:
Nominee #1: Roman Reigns vs. Finn Balor for the Universal Championship, Monday Night Raw 20/08/18
Nominee #2: AJ Styles vs. Daniel Bryan for the WWE Championship, Smackdown Live 30/10/18
Nominee #3: AJ Styles vs. Daniel Bryan for the WWE Championship, Smackdown Live 13/11/18
On first consideration, I felt like tag team wrestling had a rough year this year, thanks to experiments on both brands failing to pan out. Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt, the B Team, the Bludgeon Brothers, they all proved regressive choices for the two tag divisions on WWE’s main programming. Though there are glimmers of hope as the year closes, with the SDL belts back on reliable shoulders and the Revival coming back into focus on MNR (opposite a surprisingly effective Bobby Roode / Chad Gable combination), generally main roster tag wrestling has flopped this year, perhaps with one notable, non-championship exception.
Typically though, NXT’s tag division has shined thanks largely to the Undisputed Era truly hitting their stride – on last week’s The Right Side of the Pond podcast on LOP Radio, my co-host Mazza and I came to the conclusion they stand primed and ready to dominate the black and gold brand in 2019, and deservedly so. Their tag work opposite underdogs, fan favourites and cult Indy factions has all been tremendous, and their best matches are borderline all-time greats.
With that in mind, here is my shortlist for Tag Team Match of the Year:
Nominee #1: Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle vs. Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley and Triple H, WrestleMania 34
Nominee #2: The Undisputed Era vs. Danny Burch and Oney Lorcan for the NXT Tag Team Championships, Takeover: Chicago
Nominee #3: Moustache Mountain vs. The Undisputed Era for the NXT Tag Team Championships, NXT 11/07/18
Haphazard might be the best word to describe 2018’s pay-per-view quality in WWE. There have been instant hits, many compiled by WWE’s women’s divisions. There have been inexplicable part-timer appearances, primarily overseas. There have been hidden gems succeeding while swimming against the tide of disastrous television builds and there’s been a whole heap of wrestlecrap too.
The trick was to wade through the flotsam and jetsam of incidents like Bobby Lashley vs. Sami Zayn and Braun Strowman vs. Kevin Owens to pick out the best of the rest, like Jeff Hardy and Randy Orton’s oddly successful Hell in a Cell Match or Toni Storm and Io Shirai’s head-turning Mae Young Classic Final. And to be fair to 2018’s pay-per-view record, while it may be a little less consistent than in previous years, once again that aforementioned best of the rest more than stacked up against shortlisted matches from previous years. So much so, in fact, that I would argue, as I argued at the time they happened, two matches of the three on my shortlist really shouldn’t have been undercard matches at all. They should have absolutely closed out their respective shows and that they didn’t will remain a small crime against history.
With that in mind, here is my shortlist for Undercard Match of the Year:
Nominee #1: Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka for the SDL Women’s Championship, WrestleMania 34
Nominee #2: Daniel Bryan vs. The Miz, Summerslam
Nominee #3: Charlotte Flair vs. Becky Lynch for the SDL Women’s Championship, Hell in a Cell
The question here is whether or not pay-per-view main events have continued to be severe let downs, as they largely were last year when World titles were on absentee champions and ill-advised experimental pushes. Compared to last year, I would say the state of affairs has improved somewhat for sure, though at their worst this year’s pay-per-view main events were far worse than anything we saw last year. Undertaker vs. Triple H at Super-Show Down and their tag team follow-up at Crown Jewel both spring to mind as embarrassing disasters in the ring.
Unsurprisingly, when the full time contemporary talent were afforded the spotlight they’ve earned ten times over instead , they seemed to more often than not step up and meet, if not outright exceed expectations – every Rumble Match, Chamber Match and Money in the Bank Match were excellently pieced together this year, for instance.
With that in mind, here is my shortlist for Main Event Match of the Year:
Nominee #1: Men’s Royal Rumble Match, Royal Rumble
Nominee #2: Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair for the SDL Women’s Championship in a Last Man Standing Match, Evolution
Nominee #3: Charlotte Flair vs. Ronda Rousey, Survivor Series
Rollins has had an incredible year, with great matches coming in such a number some have already been pushed out of conversations by their own successors. His four-way Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match title defence in Saudia Arabia is a personal favourite of mine, alongside his title win at WrestleMania. The same can be said for any of the three matches he had with Finn Balor in the first four months of the year (starting on New Year’s Day with the Kingslayer’s reclamation of his Curb Stomp) or either of the two he had with Kevin Owens across the spring and summer months. His performance in February’s Gauntlet Match deservedly already lives in infamy (and was followed by a standout wire-to-wire performance in the Elimination Chamber the following Sunday!), his work with Ziggler and McIntyre offered up outstanding efforts like clockwork on both television and pay-per-view and I even harbour a soft spot for the character-infused Champion vs. Champion Match opposite Shinsuke Nakamura at Survivor Series.
Ultimately, all of this has meant that Rollins can now boast his career-year thus far was not the year he left WrestleMania WWE World Heavyweight Champion at the heart of an iconic ‘Mania moment; was not the year he headlined a pay-per-view twice, wrestling John Cena and Sting back to back and defeating the latter; was not the year he carried the World title for over six months; and was not the year he became the only joint WWE World Heavyweight and United States Champion in history. That’s a pretty cool thing to be able to boast.
With that in mind, here is my shortlist for my Favourite Seth Rollins Match of the Year:
Nominee #1: Seth Rollins vs. The Miz for the Intercontinental Championship, Backlash
Nominee #2: Dolph Ziggler vs. Seth Rollins for the Intercontinental Championship, Summerslam
Nominee #3: Dolph Ziggler and Drew McIntyre vs. Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose for the MNR Tag Team Championships, Hell in a Cell
Which matches would YOU pick in each of the above categories, appreciating their definitions are open to interpretation? Let me know in the comments below or over on social media!
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