Sunday, January 3, 2016

Kevin's Top 100 Matches of 2015: #40-31

40. Aztec Warfare – Lucha Underground 1/7/15

To crown the first ever Lucha Underground Champion, we were treated to an Aztec Warfare match. It was similar to a Royal Rumble with a new entrant entering the fray every 90 seconds. However, unlike the Royal Rumble, eliminations could only occur via pinfall or submission. That little tidbit allowed for this to be better than any Rumble match in a long time. Also, the match was contested under “Anything Goes” rules. The luchadores were given the freedom to compete in and out of the ring. Talent wise, this was stacked, including the likes of Johnny Mundo, Prince Puma, Pentagon Jr, Ivelisse, Mil Muertes and many others. The action was non-stop for the most part, making the 53:24 move along quickly. They were also wise enough to build this around the storytelling from the first few episodes, making sure that rivalries were touched upon. Storytelling was such an important aspect of LU so it was nice to see it was a big deal even early on. Mundo and Puma, the two men who main evented the first ever Lucha Underground show, were the final two competitors, even though Mundo entered at number two. Their exchange was a blast and ended when Puma won with a 630 to become the first champion. ****¼

39. Chris Hero vs. Timothy Thatcher – PWG Battle of Los Angeles 8/29/15

Of the entire Battle of Los Angeles, this was the best match to me. That includes the non-tournament matches that took place that weekend. Chris Hero has been on fire since the WWE let him go and Timothy Thatcher has become one of my favorite indy guys. In fact, this was the first match of his that I got to see. This started light enough, with Hero stepping outside to bask in the crowd’s cheers because they love him. Thatcher was all business though. When things actually get going, Hero is more serious, delivering some stiff shots. That’s kind of the theme of this match. For the entire 18:03, both guys just beat the shit out of each other with some of the stiffest blows of the entire tournament. Thatcher brought something different as well, trying to tie Hero into crazy knots at some points. At one point, Thatcher blocks a roaring elbow with a headbutt to the shoulder for a very close near fall that I totally bit on, despite knowing the outcome beforehand. Hero would win with the Hero’s Welcome, in a fantastic match that really felt like it featured two guys giving their all to win a tournament. ****¼

38. KUSHIDA vs. Roderick Strong – ROH War of the Worlds 5/12/15

Two guys that had tremendous 2015s met around the midway point of the year. It was pretty clear, just by looking at the two men involved, that this would be interesting. They have different styles and that doesn’t always equal something good. This turned out to be better than I expected, and I had some high hopes. While they started by adhering to the Code of Honor, KUSHIDA gained an early upper hand with his quickness advantage. He kind of got showy, which irked Roderick Strong, who shoved him before moving into his style. He slowed things a bit, while really working over KUSHIDA’s back. There were just so many things about this that really clicked. Moments like Strong missing a chop and hitting the ring post to a loud thud, KUSHIDA’s dive to the outside and Strong applying the Stronghold on the ropes, which was similar to Tajiri’s Tarantula and Tajiri was KUSHIDA’s trainer. The red hot crowd only added to this as two of the MVPs of 2015 just went out, put their strengths to good use and had a great match. The finishing stretch saw a great exchange of strikes before Strong won with the Strong Breaker after 16:06 of action. Definitely worth a look. ****¼

37. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kota Ibushi – NJPW G1 Climax 7/20/15

A buddy of mine made an interesting comparison heading into this match. As part of a preview to this G1 show, he was asked to compare these guys to two current WWE Superstars. He used John Cena and Cesaro. I’ve heard the Hiroshi Tanahashi/Cena comparisons a million times but the Kota Ibushi/Cesaro one surprisingly made a bunch of sense. They’re both freak athletes that are deceptively strong. Before the G1 Climax, Tanahashi was in a feud with Toru Yano, leading many to think he was near the end of his run. It turns out that he was just resting up for a great G1 Climax run and it all started here on night one. Tanahashi went after the leg with dragon screws and submissions, trying to ground the incredible aerial ability of Ibushi. Unfortunately, Ibushi’s selling of the leg left a little to be desired, which was my only major gripe. He did do some of his incredible offense, including the deadlift German. This main evented the first night of the tournament and it felt like a big fight. The crowd was red hot and these two went at it, full throttle, for the entire 20:53. Tanahashi won with the High Fly Flow, earning his first two points en route to winning the whole tournament. ****¼

36. NXT Women’s Championship: Charlotte (c) vs. Bayley vs. Becky Lynch vs. Sasha Banks – NXT TakeOver: Rival 2/11/15

Women’s matches on NXT TakeOver specials are just that. Something special. At previous TakeOver events, both Bayley and Sasha Banks fell short in dethroning Charlotte but got another shot here. Becky Lynch made her TakeOver debut and was in an alliance with Sasha. That quickly dissolved with the belt on the line as Becky suplexed her nearly out of her boots early on. Four of the best female wrestlers on the planet just went all out in 12:28 of nonstop action. Some of what they do here had never been attempted by the Divas. The work here is so smooth and crisp, never missing a beat despite all of the moving parts. The underlying story of the Sasha/Becky partnership, the crowd being behind Bayley as the underdog, the dominant fighting champion and the history between former BFFs Charlotte and Sasha all came into play here. After seeing this, I knew that it was the best women’s match I had seen up to this point, though they would best themselves later in the year. My favorite thing is that they didn’t use the Fatal Four Way stipulation to have Charlotte not eat a pin or go with a fluke finish. Sasha pinned Charlotte to become champion, starting the best women’s title reign in WWE history. ****¼

35. Adam Cole vs. AJ Styles – ROH War of the Worlds 5/12/15

On the shelf for five months, Adam Cole made his return here and did so in a huge match. Cole faced the reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champion and instantly showed that ring rust wasn’t going to be a problem. Outside of a Bloody Sunday on the apron, which was sick, there weren’t many points of this match that made you jump out of seat and say “wow”. However, it was smartly worked. Cole picked up a few near falls that made you actually believe he would beat the IWGP Champion, even though you knew in your heart that it wouldn’t happen.  Cole’s shoulder injury came into play, sold more by commentary pointing out that he returned about four months earlier than expected. Cole was unable to lift Styles at a few points, including on a Styles Clash attempt. He was able to hit it with help from the ropes, but outside of a few superkicks, he couldn’t hit any of his own finishers. Styles went into a bit of a piledriver barrage, nailing two or three painful looking ones before using the Styles Clash to pick up the win at 17:34. Cole had a solid 2015 but I expect him to be on this list a lot more next year, hopefully including a rematch between these two. ****¼

34. Adrian Neville vs. Finn Balor – NXT TakeOver: Rival 2/11/15

With Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn in a heated rivalry involving the NXT Title, a tournament was held to determine the next number one contender. Adrian Neville and Finn Balor were the final two men remaining, meeting at TakeOver; Rival. I’m not 100% sure but I believe it was a match against each other in Japan that got both men on WWE’s radar. There was a special feel to this that wasn’t simply because of the high stakes. This was the longest reigning NXT Champion in history against the guy that many, correctly, pegged as the next face of NXT. Finn brought out the “Demon” for the first time two months earlier and it rattled his opponents. Neville refused to be intimidated, looking at Finn as a man in paint rather than a “Demon.” There were little moments during the 13:45 of this match where Finn showed that he’s a different entity in the paint, like crawling/stalking Neville around the ring. I’d love to see more of that from him to differentiate the “Demon” from normal Finn. There were well placed near falls that weren’t overdone before Finn won with the Coup de Grace. This would be Neville’s last high profile NXT match before heading to the main roster and it worked as a passing of the torch in some ways. ****¼

33. AJ Styles vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi – NJPW G1 Climax 8/14/15

As noted earlier in the list, the later days of the G1 Climax this year saw the “A” Block match quality fall while the “B” Block rose. On this, the final “A” Block show, we were treated to a main event that more than delivered. AJ Styles and Hiroshi Tanahashi are possibly the two best wrestlers on the planet and are no strangers to each other. Heading into this, they were tied with 12 points and the winner would win the block, heading to the finals. With the stakes high, neither man took an early risk. They fought hard for every hold, with each and every single thing they did meaning something. There wasn’t just points where they did stuff for the sake of filling time. It all had a purpose. While that start was a bit slow, they worked the crowd into a frenzy when things started to pay off. During the tournament, Styles’ Calf Killer submission was established as a secondary finisher. When he applied it here, the fans totally bough it as a potential finish. AJ would hit a low blow, only for Tanahashi to do one back because that’s how much this win meant. Tanahashi used the Styles Clash, so AJ hit High Fly Flow (or a regular frog splash but still). The back and forth here was top notch. Tanahashi had to finally use multiple High Fly Flows to win the block after 27:56. Just a well done big time match. ****¼

32. NXT Championship: Kevin Owens (c) vs. Finn Balor – WWE Beast in the East 7/4/15

Beast in the East was unlike any other show in the WWE this year. Besides the fact that it was broadcast live from Japan, this just felt so different. The production, presentation and even commentary was all so refreshing. Finn Balor and Kevin Owens met for the NXT Title earlier in the year, though it was rather disappointing. This time, Finn had home field advantage due to his history in Japan, and he also brought out the “Demon.” There was a big fight feel to this one and the streamers thrown into the ring by the crowd just added to that. Using the emotional upper hand, Finn attacked from the bell, trying to overwhelm the champion and maybe even score a quick win. Owens weathered the storm, slowing the match to a pace that he liked. Owens was phenomenal here, doing all of the little things that he needed to do as a hated heel. From smack talk to purposely doing rest holds to stealing John Cena’s signature moves and more, Owens was on point. They didn’t overdo the false finishes, with Balor not even taking a popup powerbomb, protecting that move. It did take him two Coup de Graces, but it earned him the NXT Title in 19:25. A great, feel good moment capping a great match. ****¼

31. Lucha Underground Championship: Prince Puma (c) vs. Mil Muertes – Ultima Lucha 8/5/15

The Lucha Underground Championship was on the line in the final match of the first season. Since day one, Prince Puma was pretty much the poster boy for the company, while Mil Muertes spent the entire season being built up as the ultimate monster. It all came to a head when the two collided to close the book on season one. It’s a simple, tried and true formula, but it almost always works and especially does when the two guys play their roles as well as these two did. Early on, they went with the brawling and busted out some cool spots. Puma used Catrina, who by the way, has come very far since her days as Maxine, as a weapon at one point. There was a powerbomb onto steps, spear off the apron through a table and Muertes nailed Puma with a steel chair on a suicide dive. It reminded me of the classic Benoit/Jericho spot from their ladder match. When things got back in the ring, both Muertes and Puma kicked out of each other’s finishers and it meant something here because both moves had been very well protected throughout the season. They built up the drama so very well, with Puma fighting tooth and nail out of desperation to overcome the force that is Mil Muertes. Puma went for another 630 but Catrina powered up Muertes, who nailed a top rope Flatliner to end season one as the new Lucha Underground champion after 17:41. A very fitting finish to an excellent year of television from the promotion. ****¼