2015, like 2014, was a weird year for WWE. Roman Reigns struggled to get over for months on end, Daniel Bryan made a dramatic return and was immediately shelved with concussion issues, John Cena returned to the midcard, the Diva’s Revolution launched, stuttered and launched again and Seth Rollins tore his ACL while at the top of his game. Right now this is a company in the midst of a generational transition. There’s plenty to be excited about (Kevin Owens is a legit star!) and plenty to be disappointed by (Lesnar, Cena and Undertaker are the only three wrestlers that really matter!)
However, WWE also put on a ton of great wrestling matches over the last year, and I went ahead and highlighted 10 that stand as my personal favorites. That’s honestly the most reassuring thing right? The booking can get muddled and silly, but this roster is still the best in the world.
Tyler Breeze vs. Jushin Thunder Liger - NXT Takeover: Brooklyn
If you want the ultimate proof that Triple H is treating NXT like his very own indie promotion, consider that he brought over my man Jushin Liger, who’s 51 years old and still a total king, to beat one of his own guys, the permanently underrated Tyler Breeze, in eight minutes. Yes, it was far from the most substantial match on the card, but oh my god am I happy to live in an era where this company can occasionally bring in random, nerd-fantasy talent whenever they feel like it. Man WWE can sure be great when they’re not on autopilot!
Cesaro and Tyson Kidd vs. The Usos - Fastlane
Let’s take a brief moment to remember the brilliance of Cesaro and Tyson Kidd. They burned twice as bright, but for only half as long, and were legitimately putting on some of the best tag-team wrestling WWE had seen in years. Tyson’s been out with a potentially life-threatening neck injury for several months, and we wish him well and hope he’s back soon because man.
Go back and watch this. The Usos are some of the most underrated guys in the company and obviously Kidd and Cesaro can work well with anybody, so it’s just silky smooth all the way through. There’s a chance that Tyson will make his way back from injury and will immediately enter jobber status again, but I hope Vince remembers the magic they captured here.
Seth Rollins vs. John Cena - SummerSlam
This seems weird to include simply because we’ve seen Cena and Rollins wrestle so much over the last two years. For a while there it felt like they headlined every other Raw (remember John’s broken nose?), and it’s always been either good or great.
SummerSlam was great, because they got a couple extra minutes and the title was on the line. In a vacuum? Maybe this is the second or third best match of 2015. The only reason it’s not is because I’ve seen Rollins miss that splash too many times.
Oh, also the Jon Stewart heel turn. That alone guarantees a spot on this list.
Triple H vs. Sting - WrestleMania 31
This is probably an unpopular choice.
Look, I get it. A 56-year old legend working his first (and only?) WrestleMania match against a semi-retired permaheel with a troubling reputation as a brutal, uncompromising burier should be easy to book. But somehow they let Sting lose to a guy who frankly, had nothing to gain in victory. Honestly you could say the exact same things about Triple H’s matches with Brock, CM Punk, etcetera, etcetera.
I still loved this though. We’re allowed one big wanking nostalgia fest every Mania, and while it didn’t make any logistical sense, I still popped so hard for the nWo music, even if Scott Hall currently looks like the least threatening man in the universe. You got to watch Sting get superkicked by Shawn Michaels man. Come on, how great is that? Yes it exists completely outside of canon, yes it cuts to WWE’s troubling tendency to rely on old talent, but occasionally that’s totally, totally worth it.
Roman Reigns vs. Daniel Bryan - Fastlane
Man remember this thing? Remember that there was a pay-per-view called Fastlane this year? This match has soured a lot of people because it served as the final, callous nail in the coffin that we weren’t going to see Daniel Bryan and Brock Lesnar at Mania (and God, I’m pretty sure that imaginary scenario would be #1 on this list,) but these two absolutely rocked the house. Bryan countered the spear into a roll-up! That’s perfect muscle-bound brute vs. scrappy indie-kid storytelling.
Seriously, you can talk all you want about people carrying Reigns, but I’ve seen that guy work good-to-great matches against everyone from Bryan and Bray Wyatt to the freaking Big Show.He clearly has something. Honestly I think I could watch a Reigns/Bryan package for months on end and be pretty happy.
Becky Lynch vs. Sasha Banks - NXT Takeover: Unstoppable
Becky Lynch has been the odd one out ever since she arrived in NXT. Plenty talented, charismatic, even a little goofy behind the scenes, but she’s never been able to capture Full Sail quite as well as, say, Paige or Bayley or, of course, Sasha Banks. Honestly it was a bit surprising that she was tapped to be Sasha’s first major challenger post-Charlotte, but then she showed up, tore the house down, and put the whole world on notice.
Is it as good as Sasha’s classic with Bayley a few months later? No, nothing could have the same emotional oomph, but this is an absolute gem of submission wrestling. You’re not real if you weren’t muttering “wow, Becky can go” five minutes into this. And honestly? That moment after she tapped and the NXT crowd started singing her theme song back to her might be my favorite moment of the year. Let’s hope she’s never forgotten ever again.
Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker - Hell in a Cell
It’s funny to think the most important plot development in recent WWE memory came out of a pretty boring match. Lesnar/Undertaker at WrestleMania 30 will always be remembered by the “WAIT WHAT? OH MY GOD DID THAT JUST HAPPEN?” You know, because that’s what happens when you shatter the most immortal legacy in kayfabe all at once. However, the Breaking of the Streak was born from a plodding, directionless mess which has more than a little bit to do with Taker suffering a concussion early on. You had a feeling they could do something better if given the chance.
So, fast forward about a year and a half, and here’s Taker and Lesnar having a total knock-down, drag-out deathmatch in Hell in a Cell, the same gimmick they made look really good back at No Mercy 2002.
It speaks to the backstage cache of both these men that they happily, and openly bled to up the ante, something I don’t think anyone else on the roster could’ve gotten away with. I was at this live, so naturally I’m a little biased, but the ridiculous tombstone-to-the-plywood kickout into F5-to-the-plywood finish was the most mythological thing I’ve ever seen. A fitting end to a feud that started off on the wrong foot.
Kevin Owens vs. John Cena - Elimination Chamber
Sometimes WWE can be very, very smart.
Calling up Kevin Owens, the rotund, everyman indie-hero to confront John freakin’ Cena, you know, the face of the company and public enemy number one for every kid with a blog across North America, was the perfect clash of personalities. It sparked a super interesting subtext about ideology and the makeup of a McMahon-approved superstar, and kept us all on pins and needles wondering, pleading that the man we’ve all watched wrestle in ratty gymnasiums could step up and pin the most unbeatable guy in the world.
And man, what a great match! Unknown properties like an NXT champion getting his main roster debut against John Cena make every single nearfall feel like the end of the world. They bust out everything; top-rope moonsaults, flying leg-drops, a fantastic package piledriver tease and eventually Owens wraps things up with a pop-up powerbomb, clean as a whistle. These days Owens is clocking time as the Intercontinental Champ and seems poised for a big push at any moment, but man, after Elimination Chamber it truly felt like anything was possible. Honestly? Moments like that are all I really want out of WWE.
Bayley vs. Sasha Banks - NXT Takeover: Brooklyn
It’s been a frustrating year for women in WWE, but that’s not for lack of trying. For the first time in the company’s history they’ve cultivated a generation of talent that’s gotten over on pure technical ability. Sasha Banks might actually be the best all-around character in the world right now, and it’s been disappointing to see her talent get squandered in a series of well-meaning, but ultimately empty storylines on the main roster.
However, we will always have NXT Takeover: Brooklyn, where Bayley and Sasha tore the house down with easily the greatest women’s wrestling match in the history of Vince’s empire. It had everything you need; a journey, a devilish heel, an unwavering babyface, empathy, cruelty and some legit scary high-spots. It’s the best story WWE told all year, and it stands as proof that no matter what, these women are undeniable and they will have their day in the sun.
John Cena vs. Seth Rollins vs. Brock Lesnar - Royal Rumble
It’s funny to think a year before this match Brock Lesnar was coming off a bad program with Triple H and a great, if sorta meaningless SummerSlam match with CM Punk. But then, in 2014 the destroyed the Undertaker’s streak, murdered John Cena, ran off to Saskatchewan with the WWE championship, and returned-fresh as a daisy-in the beginning of 2015 with the definitive barnburner of the year. The three most important wrestlers in the company throwing haymaker after haymaker after haymaker.
Honestly this match kinda served as a preview for everything we saw from WWE this year. It marked Cena’s final moment in the main event scene, and he’d spend the next several months having great match after great match with the entire undercard. Rollins (who of course took the pinfall) would reach his final form at Mania where he’d cash in his briefcase, solidifying himself as perhaps the greatest coward champions in modern history. And Lesnar? Lesnar is the most unbeatable guy in the world. This match started with him walking around in circles, suplexing either Rollins and Cena whenever he wanted. He’s a god of war who happens to be a professional wrestler, and here, in December, WWE has yet to come up with someone who can believably beat him.
WWE kinda wrote themselves in a corner with how they book these Lesnar matches. Right now they sorta feel the only thing in the company that truly matters. But man, when they pay off his dominance like this? I’m all for it. The Phoenix Splash, the table spot, that supremely underrated Rollins/Cena chemistry—I love it all. Maybe Vince will someday come up with a personality that can capably, and believably pin the Beast Incarnate, but if not? And Brock is just an unbeatable psychopath until the day his contract times out? Well, I think I’d be okay with that too.