Saturday, January 9, 2016

Kevin's Top 100 Matches of 2015: #30-21

30. AJ Styles vs. Katsuyori Shibata – NJPW G1 Climax 7/20/15

Coming into 2015, I had never seen Katsuyori Shibata, but had heard great things. After seeing him have a fantastic match at Dominion, I started to like him. Seeing him matched up against my personal favorite, AJ Styles, to kick off the G1 Climax, had me pretty stoked. When I first saw this, I thought it was good, but not great. Upon further review, I grew to love it. Shibata came in with a legit hand injury and I expected AJ to target it. I assume it was too hurt to really work, so they wisely found a way around it. Shibata kicked the shit out of AJ, forcing AJ to go after the leg, which also help establish his Calf Killer submission. Shibata took it to AJ with some stiff shots throughout, doing what he does best. In the most infamous moment of the match, AJ was close to breaking Shibata’s sleeper. With only one good hand, Shibata chose to bite down on his good hand to keep the hold. He would miss the PK and fall victim to the Styles Clash after 13:36. I can’t believe I left this off of my top ten G1 Climax 25 matches earlier this year. Brilliantly worked match. ****¼

29. WWE United States Championship: John Cena (c) vs. Cesaro – WWE Raw 7/6/15

The pinnacle of the John Cena US Open Challenge took place in Chicago on a fateful night in July. One week earlier, Cesaro answered the challenge but Kevin Owens interfered and cost him the match. This time around, Cesaro chased off Owens before the match began, leaving him and Cena to have a classic over the next 23:13. There was almost no slow down as these two just put on a great match. The match was fast and furious, with tons of counters, near falls and fantastic exchanges. Cena showed off some of his newer offense, even though some of it looks bad, particularly the springboard stunner. Cesaro kept going back to the crossface submission, which I liked since he found something that was working to wear down Cena and kept going to it. He threw out a Sharpshooter in honor of Tyson Kidd too. As usual with the US Open Challenge, one Attitude Adjustment wasn’t enough, but a second off the middle rope was finally enough to keep the Swiss Superman down. This kind of performance, in front of this kind of crowd, to close a Raw against Cena, was the perfect situation of really getting a guy over in a loss. Cesaro looked like a major player. Sadly, the booking team completely mishandled him after this. This will be remembered as a classic, but the lack of follow-up impacted the significance of it. ****¼

28. Lucha Underground Championship All Night Long: Prince Puma (c) vs. Johnny Mundo – LU 6/17/15

On the first ever episode of Lucha Underground, Prince Puma and Johnny Mundo were the main event. Then, to crown the first ever Lucha Underground Champion, the Aztec Warfare match came down to Mundo and Puma, with Puma coming out on top. There was respect between the two rivals, which changed after Mundo turned heel. Dario Cueto, the best authority figure in wrestling since Vince McMahon, liked this new attitude and put them in the first ever All Night Long match. I wouldn’t really consider this an Ironman match since there was no set time, but they were basically given Ironman match rules. For the entire duration of an episode of Lucha Underground, Mundo and Puma would compete and the winner would be the man to win the most falls in that time. The entire thing ran for 38:35 and almost never stopped. It was one of, if not the smartest worked match in Lucha Underground history. Mundo used a lot of tricks to take a commanding 4-1 lead. While he was cunning enough to take the lead, his ego was too big to be wise the rest of the way. He wanted to hurt Puma and set up some tables. This would cost him as both men went through it and Puma cut the lead to 4-3. Mundo realized he made a mistake and started to be smart, running away to let the clock expire. Alberto El Patron returned and attacked Mundo, leading to the tie score. With three minutes remaining, both guys tried many pin attempts until finally, Puma was able to score on the 630 and retain. Keeping viewers completely enthralled throughout is a testament to both men and how the match was laid out. ****¼

27. NXT Championship: Sami Zayn (c) vs. Kevin Owens – NXT TakeOver: Rival 2/11/15

The story of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens is one of my favorites ever, dating back to Kevin Steen vs. El Generico. After finally winning the NXT Title at R-Evolution, Owens turned on his best friend, setting the stage for this match. Despite only being in NXT for a short time, Owens goaded Sami into putting the belt on the line here. An angry Sami came out firing but made some mistakes and fell victim to just how vicious and brutal Kevin Owens can be. He beat Sami from pillar to post, prompting Corey Graves to compare it to the Brock Lesnar/John Cena beating from SummerSlam 2014. Sami is the best at playing the face in peril though and made some spirited rallies to the crowd’s delight. He blocked the apron bomb that took him out in the past and hit a moonsault, but his head snapped back onto the steel ramp. That made him too dizzy to do some things and he ran into a popup powerbomb. Sami would kick out, so Owens relentlessly pummeled him and hit four more powerbombs causing the referee to stop the match at 23:27. A fantastically told story that solidified Owens as a dominant heel, while keeping Sami as the resilient babyface. ****¼

26. NEVER Openweight Championship: Tomoaki Honma vs. Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW New Beginnings in Sendai 2/14/15

Shortly after I had to cancel my New Japan World account early in the year, this show was held. I heard nothing but incredible things about the NEVER Openweight Title match between Tomoaki Honma and Tomohiro Ishii. I was finally able to check it out and didn’t really enjoy it the first time around, though I blame that on me being preoccupied when I saw it. I’ve see it twice more now and think it’s great, but I’ve never gotten the full five star vibe from it that a lot of people had. So, Togi Makabe was the NEVER Champion but was out injured and these two wrestled for the vacant belt. It was a brutal affair, with both guys just going to war with each other. The crowd absolutely loves Honma, meaning they are not only completely into everything he does, but they bite on every near fall, despite his terrible win/loss record. That red hot crowd reaction added to this. The match goes 24:46 which is not the usual case for my favorite matches these guys have. They both, especially Honma, excel in the G1 style shorter matches, but this was pretty great. Ishii won back the title with a Brainbuster after they beat the hell out of each other for the whole match. ****½

25. Evolve Championship: Timothy Thatcher (c) vs. Zack Sabre Jr. – Evolve 47 8/15/15

What we have here is two of the very best technical wrestlers in the world. Wisely, this match was booked to be a technical masterpiece. Zack Sabre Jr. has been making waves for a while now and had just racked up big wins on previous Evolve shows against Roderick Strong and TJ Perkins. Timothy Thatcher had just become a double champion by beating Drew Galloway to become Evolve and Dragon Gate Open the Freedom Gate Champion. This was his first title defense and it was against someone that beat him in Evolve previously. As for the match itself, it was stalemate after stalemate. For the most part, neither guy grabbed a clear advantage. It was Sabre who first ventured to something else, delivering some big slaps and even going up top, just looking to try something different. Both men are known for their armbar finishers and tried to one up each other with it. Sabre went to the armbar well one too many times though. While Thatcher looked for the armbar, he also targeted Sabre’s ankle throughout. After countering Sabre’s armbar once again, he applied an ankle lock and Sabre tapped out at 23:54. Just a tremendous match that showed Thatcher was the man who could even beat Sabre at his own game. ****½

24. Tomoaki Honma vs. Tomohiro Ishii – NJPW G1 Climax 8/12/15

After their match at New Beginnings in February, people were clamoring for the rematch. Many gave that match five stars and consider it a legit Match of the Year contender. On a show featuring two of the top three guys in New Japan, Shinsuke Nakamura and Kazuchika Okada, these two guys were given the main event slot. As noted before, the G1 style fits the style of a guy like Tomoaki Honma, who works best in short, hot bursts. They had a great match in the G1 Climax the year before as well but of all of their matches, this was my favorite. As you’d expect from these two, this was the hard hitting contest they’ve become well known for. The chops they dish out to each other are just absolutely brutal. To give some added intrigue here, Honma went winless in the G1 in 2014 and was winless coming into this match. The crowd is always red hot for him but this was on another level. One of the main reasons Honma loses so often is his over reliance on the Kokeshi headbutt. He misses it so often, especially in big moments. Finally, after 16:13, nearly twenty G1 losses in two years and multiple Kokeshi headbutts, HONMANAIA RAN WILD and he scored his first ever G1 win. Having it happen in the main event in Korakuen Hall was such an added bonus making this one of my favorite moments all year long. ****½

23. NXT Women’s Championship Ironman Match: Bayley (c) vs. Sasha Banks – NXT TakeOver: Respect 10/7/15

Coming off their classic in Brooklyn, fans were eager for a rematch between Sasha Banks and Bayley. We got what we wanted and more because not only was it going to be the first ever women’s Ironman match, but the first time ever that two women got to main event a TakeOver special. Naturally going thirty minutes is one thing, but executing an Ironman match can be tricky. These matches have been hit or miss throughout history. They did well working with the time. Things started slowly, before building to bigger and better things. Sasha scored the first fall with an eye poke and rollup and then Bayley tied it with the Bayley to Belly. It was here that the match moved into a “phase two” of sorts. It got physical, with the steel steps coming into play and Sasha going full on heel. She talked trash to Bayley superfan, Izzy, in the front row. After throwing Bayley into the stage, another rather brutal spot, Sasha stole Izzy’s headband and got a countout fall, making the little girl cry. That is just fantastic heel work that isn’t seen often enough now. Bayley tied it with a rollup, and time began to trickle down. The fight went outside again for more big spots like a steel step assisted clothesline and Bayley to Belly on the floor. Finally, Bayley survived the Bank Statement and pulled out a submission we’d never seen her do before. It took stomping on Sasha’s head before the former champion quit with three seconds left. To give it an even bigger feel, the locker room emptied to give them a standing ovation. Sasha’s sendoff from NXT was well done and well deserved, ending with a great match and tears. ****½

22. Evolve Championship: Timothy Thatcher (c) vs. Johnny Gargano – Evolve 51 11/6/15

Sami Zayn made a special appearance at Evolve 50 and called Johnny Gargano the “face of WWNLive”. The reigning Evolve Champion, Timothy Thatcher, took offense to that, which led to this main event. This wasn’t just about the Evolve Title, it was basically a fight to be the ace of Evolve. It went on for 28:26 and for a good 95% of the match, it was wrestled in Thatcher’s style. Gargano adapted to it and credit to him for it because he didn’t seem out of place in that style. He looked comfortable taking it to the mat with a guy that specializes in it. Gargano went after Thatcher’s knee and Thatcher pretty much destroyed Gargano’s arm. They sold those body parts expertly, with it affecting their offense. Gargano couldn’t do anything with his arm and Thatcher ran into trouble with knees. It’s simple, but so effective. Gargano tried to wrestle the style of the new top guy in the company and, while the effort was tremendous, it wasn’t enough. Thatcher made him tap to an armbar, cementing his spot as THE man in Evolve right now. A great old school wrasslin’ match that told a damn good story and featured fantastic selling. ****½

21. PWG Championship: Roderick Strong (c) vs. Zack Sabre Jr. – PWG Don’t Sweat the Technique 4/3/15

My first look at PWG in 2015 was this match. I had heard some rave reviews and made sure to find a way to give it a look. Despite the hype, it managed to deliver. Both Roderick Strong and Zack Sabre Jr. had tremendous 2015s and they saved their best work for each other. The PWG audience is almost always boisterous but they were on another level for this. The atmosphere really added to this, giving it a big fight feel. The setup was simple as Sabre, with his Kimura finisher, attacked the arm and Roderick, with his backbreakers and Stronghold, went after the back. The work done on both body parts combined with the selling was enough to take that basic concept and really make it work. It’s kind of a master class in pro wrestling for the most part that kicks into high gear near the end. For the final ten or so minutes of the 24:25, the fans are completely on their feet and buying into every close call. Heel Roderick proved to be too vicious, stomping on Sabre and going into a badass flurry before making him tap out to the Stronghold to retain. The best thing I saw in PWG all year long. ****½