Best Professional Wrestling of 2018
Last year we suggested that 2017 was one of the best years in professional wrestling in terms of match quality, strong storytelling and the ease of access to so many different promotions. In a lot of ways, 2018 may have been a step backward from that lofty perch, but there was still so much good to talk about! Here’s where Unwinnable distills an entire year in the life of several wrestling promotions down to one easily digestible article:
Wrestler of the Year: Kazuchika Okada
Match of the Year: Adam Cole vs. EC3 vs. Killian Dain vs. Lars Sullivan vs. Ricochet vs. Velveteen Dream, ladder match, NXT Takeover: New Orleans
Story of the Year: tie: WWE’s business booms in the face of a down year creatively; The Women’s Revolution
For all the bad things that have happened to WWE in 2018 – Roman Reigns and his unfortunate leukemia diagnosis, the controversy surrounding the Crown Jewel event in Riyadh and the lowest TV ratings in the 25 year history of Monday Night Raw – you have to believe that Vince McMahon is ending the year happier than he started it. One billion dollars from Fox to move Smackdown Live from USA Network for the next five years will do that. Another estimated billion dollars from NBC Universal to keep Monday Night Raw on USA Network will do that. Hundreds of millions of dollars from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to host multiple events there each year for the next decade will do that. Skyrocketing stock prices on the back of this influx of cash will do that, too – WWE stock sits at more than double the price it started the year at as of this writing.
As David Lee Roth said, “money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up alongside it.” So while all that money may not have been enough buy happiness in the form of the Young Bucks, Hangman Page or Cody, it’s not like they’re short of new talent. 2018 saw the full-time WWE debuts of Ronda Rousey, Ricochet, War Raiders, EC3 (technically a return, but humor me), Matt Riddle, Keith Lee, Io Shirai, Punishment Martinez, Mia Yim, Toni Storm and almost the entire roster of NXT UK. If WWE can sort out the entertainment part of their business they may find themselves well positioned to keep the growth going. If they don’t, Fox may yet see Smackdown Live as another victim of TV’s Friday Night Death Slot.
WWE now finds itself in the unlikely position as a champion of women’s empowerment.
On the back of all that, though, WWE now finds itself in the unlikely position as a champion of women’s empowerment. The company found itself with plenty of opportunity to puff out its chests over two gigantic firsts the company was able to produce in 2018 – the first women’s Royal Rumble in January and the first all-women’s WWE PPV with October’s Evolution. Signing Rousey and putting her in a high-profile match at WrestleMania for her in-ring debut did a lot to increase the profile of the women’s division, but in transitioning from full-time MMA fighter to full-time sports entertainer Rousey has shown an incredible aptitude for professional wrestling. While she’s been a lifelong fan, appearing at events from WWE to PWG over the years, watching her in the ring it’s hard to believe that Rousey’s only been training as a pro wrestler for little over a year, and come this spring’s WrestleMania, the current Raw Women’s Champion could be part of the first ever women’s match to main event “the Showcase of the Immortals.”
It’s expected that Rousey’s WrestleMania opponent will be current Smackdown Women’s Champion Becky Lynch, and for Lynch this would be the culmination of a four year journey to the top of WWE. A 2014 callup, Lynch was always wildly popular, but seemingly overshadowed by Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and Bayley. Flair, of course, is the daughter of wrestling royalty, and Banks and Bayley had what still stands as the greatest women’s match in WWE history at NXT’s TakeOver: Brooklyn. But Lynch enjoyed strong fan support regardless, to the point where her attempted heel turn at this year’s Summerslam was abandoned a week later because the fans cheered her so strongly. Lynch found her profile raised even more due to injury: an errant punch from Nia Jax gave Lynch a legitimate concussion and a broken nose, but the sight of Lynch, her face a crimson mask, standing triumphant over a beaten Raw women’s roster, including champion Rousey, will stand as an iconic image in WWE history. And while the concussion ruined plans for a match with Rousey at Survivor Series, being able to parlay that into a WrestleMania main event is an improvement for Lynch, arguably the most popular star, male or female, on WWE television right now.
WWE also continues to showcase a very talented women’s roster in their developmental NXT and NXT UK brands, including the likes of Rousey’s fellow Four Horsewomen Shayna Baszler (current NXT women’s champion), Marina Shafir and Jessamyn Duke, STARDOM standouts Io Shirai and Kairi Sane, NXT UK’s champion Rhea Ripley, and 2018 Mae Young Classic winner Toni Storm. WWE still has a ways to go, however. Vince McMahon is still in charge of the main brand, and has seen to it that less fully-formed wrestlers get called up from NXT because they fit his type (Mandy Rose, an admittedly much improved Liv Morgan, and Lacey Evans all provide examples). But much like the callups of Banks, Bayley, Lynch and Flair from NXT transformed the former WWE Divas division into its more serious Women’s division in 2015, when this crop of NXT women gets their inevitable call to the main roster, it could see another step forward for women’s wrestling.
Wrestler of the Year: Becky Lynch
Match of the Year: Tommaso Ciampa vs. Johnny Gargano, NXT TakeOver: New Orleans
Story of the Year: All In
Let me start by saying, I goddamn love professional wrestling. Full stop. The spirit of it makes my heart sing and the men and women who participate in it consistently make me want to do better, achieve more and strive for greatness on a daily basis. That said, up until 2015 when I went to Ring of Honor’s Field of Honor in Brooklyn, I was a lapsed fan at best, only watching RAW and Smackdown every week to keep myself out of bars and out of trouble on Monday and Tuesday nights.
Field of Honor was a game changer for me. It opened my world up to life outside of the WWE and that life was good; it was more aligned with the punk rock aesthetic that I’d grown up with and was exciting and expressive. I’d quickly found myself falling down a deep rabbit hole of RoH, PWG and literally any other promotion I could find on the internet. It was at that point, I discovered Being the Elite.
Being the Elite was everything I felt was missing from wrestling. What literally started as a tour diary eventually morphed into some of the most compelling storylines in professional wrestling today. The trials and tribulations of Cody, Hangman Page, Kenny Omega, Marty Scurll and the Young Bucks quickly rose to prominence as my absolute favorite TV show. I loved their D.I.Y spirit, I loved the stories, I loved that they actually seemed like friends, six against the world, having fun, making towns and above all else, doing it their way.
I admired them. All of them. It reminded me of why I got into rock n’ roll in the first place. I didn’t want to be alone. I saw that picture of the Ramones with their guitars in shopping bags riding the subway on the way to the gig and I wanted a gang just like that. It’s why I fell in love with the Replacements, the Clash and Patti Smith I wanted to be a part of an uncompromising wild vision of what the future could be. Endless possibilities if you’d only believe in yourself. At that point, I didn’t believe in myself. For all intents and purposes I was once again floundering as an artist and there was no end in sight. Then came the ads for All In; and in a moment everything changed. It didn’t just change for me, it changed the entire wrestling world, and both for the better.
From the first promo, Cody and the Bucks created a buzz that spread like wildfire. They were going to buck the system and do the unthinkable and sell out a 10,000 seat area, the likes of which had not been done by and independent promotion since the early 90’s. They invested their own money and called it All In which wasn’t just a cheeky name, it was literally what they had done, they invested in themselves and a dream they believed in and decided to take something that was considered undesirable and make it undeniable. And they did. They sold out the event in less than 30 minutes which forced some, like myself to buy tickets aftermarket. (I will tell you that I have never felt so satisfied to spend $500 on a ticket as I did for this).
Many flew from around the world to the Sears Center in Chicago, I only had to fly from New Jersey and I spent the few days leading up to it at Starrcast, a wrestling fan convention that brought me ever closer to my heroes. For what it was, Starrcast kept fueling my fire to break out of the funk I had been in all year. At the time, it was the most fun I had in a long while. It still stands as one of the best experiences, I’ve had walking on the right side of the grass and I will cherish it, always.
All In was great for the wrestling business. It was a stark reminder that the little guy still has a big voice and can make huge impact.
The main event of the weekend was of course All In which still stands as the greatest pro wrestling event that I have ever attended. It wasn’t just the card that was stacked; it was, and with even more surprises as the night unfolded. It wasn’t the yearlong storyline payoffs that occurred or the reverence for wrestling history or even me getting to see DDP drop a Diamond Cutter (EVERYBODY popped) there was genuine once in a lifetime spirit in the air that night. It under-promised and over-delivered, and many have referred to it is as the Woodstock of professional wrestling, because from the opening battle royale to the main event, every moment was special even if you were home watching it on TV. That said, if you weren’t there in person I don’t know if you could fathom the magnitude of the moments that transpired that night. You really had to be there, man.
Several competing wrestling promotions let their talent appear at the event, bucking contractual norms and providing the opportunity for dream matches to occur. I saw Jordynne Grace at the exact moment she became a bona fide star. I experienced the air getting sucked out of the room when we all though Cody got injured and then went on to win the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship and then watched many a grown man crying tears of joy over it, myself included. I witnessed the resurrection of Joey Ryan and Hangman Page getting carried off by penis druids. I saw a future where no matter how toxic a fandom can get there are still moments when we can all come back together and really celebrate the thing we love most.
All In was great for the wrestling business. It was a stark reminder that the little guy still has a big voice and can make huge impact. It was great for every wrestler on that show, every fan in attendance and everybody watching at home. It was a moment that I will always be able to proudly proclaim that I was there for and although I shared it with strangers, I never once felt alone.
On a personal level, All In got me to finally say screw it and start my own business. I will always be grateful to Cody and the Young Bucks for convincing me to go All In on myself.
Thank you Scott D’Amore and Don Callis; Impact Wrestling became watchable again! Jeff Cobb is positioning himself to be ROH’s breakout star of 2019. Daniel Bryan’s emotional return made his heel turn all the more shocking. Matt Hardy bringing his woken brilliance to WWE has been DELIGHTFUL! Nobodies Watching Wrestling, filtering sports entertainment analysis through the lens of the New York drag scene, is the most consistently entertaining (and often catty) wrestling web series of the year. MLW on beIN Sports adds another wrestling company and another cable network to the weekly rotation. Even with Billy Corgan behind the scenes, Nick Aldis may be the one to do what no one has done in nearly 30 years: make the NWA relevant. WWE Cruiserweight champ Buddy Murphy may be the best wrestler you didn’t realize was actually good. Juice Robinson winning the IWGP US Championship is the feel-good moment we’ve wanted for a long time out of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Get well soon Roman Reigns, Joey Janela, Joey Ryan, Tegan Nox, Dakota Kai.