Photo Courtesy of Kim McLoughlin
Photo Courtesy of Kim McLoughlin

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  • From Jordynne Grace to Ronda Rousey to Becky Lynch, we count down the best women's wrestlers in 2018.
By Justin Barrasso
December 28, 2018

SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

The title of “Wrestler of the Year” is far more subjective than objective.

This list was based on a combination of the wrestler’s work in the ring, the attention that work garnered, and their overall impact on the business over the past year.

Relevance in the wrestling world (ie; if Ronda Rousey is ranked ahead of Sasha Banks, it means she had the better year, not necessarily that she is the better wrestler) played a critical role in the creation of this top ten.

Naturally, the immediate question is why were some ranked higher than others?

Stage and magnitude are important, but match quality matters more, as the wrestlers dictate that far more directly than their spot on the card. Credence was given to those who worked more (Charlotte Flair, for example, works a much more demanding schedule than Rousey), and there is an admitted bias toward those performing in America (but if you have the time, please check out this match between Meiko Satomura and Kay Lee Ray, which begins at the 1:35:00 mark).

Ultimately, who makes you believe? The answer to that question is inherently subjective, but it is not open to argument that the year 2018 was monumental for women in wrestling. Although it has not always been this way, industry leader WWE helped lead the way for women in wrestling.

The first-ever women’s Royal Rumble took place in January, and it is no longer out of the ordinary if a women’s match closes Raw or SmackDown. The movement was nearly industry-wide. Ring of Honor crowned their first women’s champion in April, Impact Wrestling continued to add depth to the weekly programming through their women’s roster, and the women’s four-way match at All In was an important part of the historic event in September.

A wrestler’s skill at consistently elevating her opponent was also emphasized, as well as the ability to generate interest through her work on the microphone. Less of an emphasis was placed on wins and losses. While a promotion’s creative team does decide whose hand is raised at the end of a match, it cannot predetermine how a wrestler will make a crowd feel or respond.

Here are my top 10 wrestlers of 2018, beginning with the notable omissions:

HONORABLE MENTION: Penelope Ford, Sasha Banks, Meiko Satomura, Bayley, Chelsea Green, Io Shirai, Taya Valkyrie, Britt Baker, Ruby Riot, Natalya Neidhart

10. Jordynne Grace

Top three matches of 2018: Over The Top Wrestling’s “Defiant” show vs. Dash Chisako; All In’s “Over The Budget Battle Royale”; Beyond Wrestling’s “Somebody’s Farewell… Probably” intergender match vs. Brian Cage

Jordynne Grace created a genuine buzz on the indies in 2018 with no single promotion behind her. Her standout moment occurred at All In’s Over The Budget Battle Royale, capturing the attention of the wrestling world with her incredible combination of athleticism and strength.

Impact Wrestling immediately recognized Grace’s value and signed her to a deal this past October. Looking ahead, Grace would be a perfect fit for 2019’s Mae Young Classic. And looking back on 2018, Grace stood out for her ability to create interest in her character and matches without a weekly television platform.

9. Bianca Belair

Top three matches of 2018: NXT vs. Deonna Purrazzo from August 22 airing; NXT vs. Nikki Cross from September 12 airing; NXT Number One Contender Fatal Four Way vs. Io Shirai, Lacey Evans, and Mia Yim from December 26 airing

This was a breakout year for Belair.

The NXT talent has athleticism that is off the charts, but what separates Belair is her intelligence. She is extremely cerebral in how she applies her athleticism to her matches, and this past year saw her become a true force in the ring.

Belair has a seemingly unlimited amount of charisma, and she has just started to blossom into her spot as a top talent.

8. Tie: Shayna Baszler and Kairi Sane

Top three matches of 2018 for Baszler: NXT TakeOver: New Orleans vs. Ember Moon; Evolution vs. Kairi Sane;

Top three matches of 2018 for Sane: NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn vs. Shayna Baszler, Evolution vs. Baszler; NXT TakeOver: War Games vs. Baszler in two-out-of-three falls match

While neither has raised the women’s title to the prominence that Asuka did in 2017, both Shayna Baszler and Kairi Sane ensured that the NXT women’s division remained relevant in 2018.

Baszler brings legitimacy to every match with her MMA background, and there are few better pure babyfaces in the business than Sane, who works a style much bigger than her 5’1”, 115-pound stature. The two excelled in their match at Evolution, which was WWE’s first all-women pay per view, and both instantly make you believe in their style.

There is a Ricky Steamboat/Ric Flair parallel at play with Baszler and Sane in the sense that an attraction and an opponent are necessary in making a story work. In wrestling, there are attractions and there are opponents, similar to the way in which Joe Frazier was never the attraction in boxing, as he was the opponent for Muhammed Ali. In the Flair-Steamboat story, Flair was the attraction and the one whom the story was centered around, while Steamboat was the opponent, a role necessary in order to tell a compelling story.

We are still figuring out who the attraction is between Baszler and Sane, but my money is on Sane. While that may be debatable to some, we can agree upon the fact that both were necessary to make the women’s division so relevant in 2018.

7. Toni Storm

Top three matches of 2018: PROGRESS women’s championship match at GWF Women’s Revolution 8 vs. Wesna; Mae Young Classic vs. Jinny; Evolution vs. Io Shirai

John Cena was nicknamed “The Protype” during his time in WWE developmental. Shouldn’t the same be said of Toni Storm?

Storm has the look, the innate ability to cut dynamic promos, and realistic work in the ring.

Her work in 2018 was worldwide. In addition to winning WWE’s Mae Young Classic, Storm starred for promotions that included U.K.-based PROGRESS Wrestling, wXw in Germany, and Japan’s Stardom.

Storm is incredibly focused in the ring, and the dedication to her craft has been so important to her evolution as a wrestler, particularly over the past year. She is also a natural performer, always at ease with a crowd, and her demeanor and personality add to her draw. When Storm is wrestling, it is difficult to take your eyes off the match. Her addition to the main roster will be a huge gain for WWE, and her past year was especially noteworthy.

6. Alexa Bliss

Top three matches of 2018: Elimination Chamber vs. Sasha Banks, Mickie James, Bayley, Sonya Deville, and Mandy Rose; Fatal 4-Way match on June 11 Raw vs. Natalya Neidhart, Sasha Banks, and Ember Moon; Money in the Bank cash-in vs. Nia Jax

Alexa Bliss’ biggest weekly opponent in 2018 was overexposure, yet she remained relevant every time she appeared on Raw.

Bliss helped carry the women’s division on Raw, making her segments with Ronda Rousey and Nia Jax an integral part of the show. It can be argued that the same could have been said of Sasha Banks or Bayley had they been placed in Bliss’ position, and that is a valid argument. But Bliss made the most of her ability in the ring, stood out as one of WWE’s best talents on the microphone, and delivered in an unrelenting, high-profile role.

She has been out of action since late October with what is widely-regarded (yet never confirmed by WWE) as multiple concussions, but Bliss still had a monumental year, including great buildups to her matches at WrestleMania and SummerSlam.

5. Asuka

Top three matches of 2018: January 29 Raw match vs. Sasha Banks; WrestleMania 34 vs. Charlotte Flair; TLC triple threat match against Flair and Becky Lynch

Asuka closed out the first and last pay per view of the year for WWE, winning the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble as well as one of the year’s most compelling matches in the main event at TLC against Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch.

She muddled through a bad program with Carmella, then later disappeared due to questionable booking, but Asuka is a unique talent that has an easy-to-define character and extremely realistic work in the ring.

Despite the inadequacies in booking that lingered on for months, Asuka was still as believable at TLC in December as she was at the Royal Rumble in January.

4. Ronda Rousey

Top three matches of 2018: WrestleMania 34 tag match with Kurt Angle against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon; SummerSlam vs. Alexa Bliss; Evolution vs. Nikki Bella

Has the Ronda Rousey investment paid off for WWE?

In a word, yes.

Although television ratings haven’t spiked, Rousey brought a sizeable following that includes a newer fan base of younger females to WWE, and she is an already established star best known for her work in the UFC, which opens up channels to coverage on ESPN and Fox Sports.

Rousey’s match quality has been weak, especially at SummerSlam against Alexa Bliss, which was memorable solely due to Rousey winning her first title in WWE. But Rousey’s impact extends beyond the ring, and she certainly made waves throughout the year and brought even more attention to the women’s division in WWE.

3. Tessa Blanchard

Top three matches of 2018: Impact ReDefined triple threat match vs. Allie and Su Yung; Four corner survival match at All In; 75-minute Rise Wrestling Iron Woman match vs. Mercedes Martinez

The future of women’s wrestling has a face, and it is Tessa Blanchard.

Blanchard had an outstanding 2018, shining in the only women’s match at All In and adding an entirely new edge to the women’s division in Impact.

This owner of a unique pedigree–her father is Tully Blanchard and her stepfather is Magnum T.A.–is somehow only 23. Blanchard works hard in the ring, she is versatile and confident, and her toughness is on display in every match.

Blanchard is an athlete and can back it up in the ring, performing compelling matches against both male and female opponents. Her success in 2018 now leads her to headlining on the Women of Wrestling show on AXS TV starting in January.

2. Charlotte Flair

Top three matches of 2018: WrestleMania 34 vs. Asuka; Last Woman Standing match vs. Becky Lynch at Evolution; TLC main event against Lynch and Asuka

Charlotte Flair is one of the best pure athletes in all of wrestling. Her work this past year hit incredible peaks, starting with her WrestleMania match against Asuka and ending with an industry-changing TLC main event with Asuka and Becky Lynch. In between those two seminal events was her “Last Woman Standing” match against Lynch that closed out WWE’s Evolution pay per view, as well as the Survivor Series match against Ronda Rousey.

Flair can close a show, which is likely to happen in 2019 at WrestleMania. She also gives reason to watch SmackDown every week. In a climate where there is no one male in WWE who is on fire with the audience, Flair kept the crowd wanting more all throughout the year.

1. Becky Lynch

Top three matches of 2018: SummerSlam triple threat against Charlotte Flair and Carmella; Last Woman Standing match vs. Flair at Evolution; TLC triple threat against Flair and Asuka

Hard to believe, but “The Man” was not even a featured part of this past year’s WrestleMania, instead one of many in the women’s battle royal.

Only a few months later, we now live in a wrestling world where a pay per view without Becky Lynch is a significant problem for WWE.

On pace to headline WrestleMania 35 in what looks to be the first fan-driven call for a headliner since Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 30, Lynch elevated herself to another level following her title win and the unveiling of a new edge and attitude at SummerSlam. She carried herself like a star in 2018, and none of her peers in the business made a more substantial jump in value than Lynch.

Lynch’s unpredictability, which is illustrated through her chaos and violence in the ring, was captured perfectly after her face was broken and she suffered a concussion from a reckless punch from Nia Jax on the November 12 edition of Raw. It is also telling that fans are not only clamoring for Lynch to avenge Jax, but they want it well before WrestleMania–where Lynch can move on from Jax and fulfill her destiny, becoming one of the first women to ever headline WWE’s signature event.


Nick Gage Ringing in the New Year With Beyond Wrestling

Nick Gage is a death match specialist.

Infamous for his violent style of wrestling and time in prison, Gage is also known for nearly killing movie star David Arquette in the ring this past November.

But, as Gage explained, there is meaning behind his violence.

“Deep down, it’s an art form and a different style of wrestling,” said the 38-year-old Gage. “And it’s underground. There’s barely no rules. It’s just one man vs. another. Whoever wins, wins.”

Gage is a featured part of Beyond Wrestling’s “Heavy Lies the Crown” show on New Year’s Eve in Worcester, Massachusetts, broadcast on Powerbomb.tv at 5pm ET, squaring off against Josh Briggs in a “fans bring the weapons” match.

This will not be a chess match of technical wrestling, nor will it be a high-flying exhibition. Instead, fans will be treated to a gory affair.

“There will definitely be blood,” said Gage. “And I’m going to drink it.

“Josh Briggs is close to 6’7” and close to 300 pounds, so that’s a challenge for me. That’s what fuels me. I look at Briggs, and he’s young, fast, and strong, so that’s a challenge for me to go out there and let everyone know that I can still beat f------- guys like that and tear sh-- up.”

Gage is cerebral about his craft, which allows him to flourish in a death match forum that others fear.

“I consider myself a death match wrestler, it’s my job and my passion,” said Gage. “I take pride in being the top guy doing it in the U.S. I fell in love with it watching Cactus Jack and Terry Funk, I thought that was f------- badass.

“…I always wanted to do this. Me and my brother grew up wrestling. We did shows in the backyard when we were 13. We sold tapes when we were in high school. I can’t remember when I didn’t want to do this. I got in a wrestling ring on my 14th birthday, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Starting in 2011, Gage served a five-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to second degree bank robbery. This certainly fits in the “only in pro wrestling” category, but Gage’s time behind bars adds a unique air of authenticity to his death match persona.

“That will be stuck with me for the rest of my life,” said Gage. “But I did what a lot of people don’t do; I embraced it. I was in there running it. I took the good out of a bad situation and turned it into a positive.”

Gage sparked controversy this past November during his Game Changer Wrestling death match against David Arquette. A broken light tube swung by Gage cut Arquette’s neck only inches away from the jugular, which caused the match to end in a fashion differently than originally planned.

“It did get people talking, and that led to more people watching the match, so it goes both ways,” said Gage. “But as a professional and a performer, I didn’t like the way the ending went down.”

Game Changer Wrestling is Gage’s home, and he even helps run his own wrestling school, The Compound, in West Berlin, New Jersey.

“Our company, GCW, blew up in the past year, and the love and support we got from the fans is unbelievable,” said Gage. “The support I get from the fans is overwhelming. I have a cult following called the MDK Gang, and the reason I started it was because of all the letters and support I received from fans when I was in prison. Those were the people telling me to keep my head up. When I got out, I wanted to let people know how much I appreciate them. They’re the ones who make me thrive.”

Gage now wrestles nearly every weekend as his aura grows, and he is looking forward to adding to his legacy this New Year’s Eve.

“Beyond is such a great company,” said Gage. “They’re blowing up, and they’re good people over there, so I’m planning on taking that place over. I’m going to make it my house. I’m taking on a guy in Briggs, who is on a winning streak, and I’m going to smack him around, hit him with weapons, and end that streak.”

In other news...

• WWE’s decision to bring back the women’s tag team titles after a 29-year hiatus is a positive, but does not fix the main issue often casting a shadow over the division.

The women need better storylines. The tag titles will help, since the chase for gold is a built-in storyline, but there are still too many wrestlers without a concrete narrative.

The past year was a throwaway for Sasha Banks and Bayley. Their feud started and stalled before going absolutely nowhere. Both are elite talents, yet neither is currently booked anywhere near the level at which WWE has elevated Ronda Rousey, Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, or even Nia Jax.

Wrestling needs a strong mid-card in order for a show to work. The argument can be made that Banks and Bayley should not always be on the top of the card, which is completely understandable. But their aimless booking from the past year needs to be remedied in 2019. Otherwise, even a run with the new tag titles would serve no real purpose.

• Tuesday’s SmackDown saw AJ Styles throw hands at Vince McMahon (does anyone else feel that McMahon’s character doesn’t fit in with today’s product?), but the highlight of the show occurred during the wrestling match between Rusev and Shinsuke Nakamura.

Rusev won a 22-minute match to finally reclaim the United States championship, and he looked like a beast in the victory. Nakamura has the ability to bump–ie; take someone’s moves–and make it look incredibly realistic. A babyface Rusev wearing gold is well deserved, but the question of what comes next for Nakamura is also intriguing.

Nakamura won this past January’s Royal Rumble and challenged AJ Styles for the WWE championship at WrestleMania. It is safe to say that Nakamura will not be put in a similar spot on the card in 2019.

Speaking with multiple sources close to WWE, Nakamura remains extremely happy at WWE, with multiple goals he has yet to achieve, so any rumors of unhappiness or leaving the company are lacking merit. But the former three-time IWGP heavyweight champion is also far too talented to open the card.

So where does that leave him?

The next step for Nakamura needs to be a move to Raw. He can work as a babyface or a heel, challenging Dean Ambrose for the Intercontinental title or even working a program with Braun Strowman. If Vince McMahon ever wants to spike the third-hour ratings of Raw, a Universal championship match between Nakamura and Brock Lesnar would draw a considerable audience and create a lot of excitement for a show that is often stale.

• CWF Mid-Atlantic delivers Battlecade XIX this Saturday from the Sportatorium in Gibsonville, North Carolina.

The main event is Arik Royal cashing in his “golden ticket” for a heavyweight title match against Trevor Lee on the 1,029th day of his record-setting title reign.

“This match is five years in the making,” said the 6’2”, 260-pound Royal. “And the first time I won the title was at Battlecade, and this is a chance to do it again.”

The show will stream live on Twitch at 7:30pm ET, and presents an opportunity for Royal–who is 33-year-old Arik Dumas–to prove he is in the same league as Lee, who has established himself as a star in the California-based Pro Wrestling Guerrilla promotion.

“Trevor was born to wrestle, and it comes to him naturally,” said Royal. “I’m amazed at what he has accomplished, especially with the obstacles he’s overcome, and his hunger has never wavered. He can wrestle any way you want–he can brawl with you, throw strikes or get on the mat, or fly in the air with you.

“He’s got all the notoriety, and it’s well-deserved, but I know that I should be there, too. That’s what this match means to me at Battlecade.”

Royal is known as the “Ace Gawd”, and his arsenal includes versatility. The trash-talking big man brings swagger to every one of his matches, and he is capable of entering the air or using his power, but his greatest strength is in connecting with the crowd–albeit in an adversarial manner.

The two longest-reigning champions in CFW history meet this Saturday at Battlecade,

“If you tune in on Twitch this Saturday night, you’re going to know who I am,” promised Royal. “The ‘Ace Gawd’ will be the next Mid-Atlantic heavyweight champion.”

• The Top 10 for men’s wrestling in 2018 will post on Monday.

Tweet of the Week

WWE’s Madison Square Garden show on Dec. 26 had a plethora of highlights, but this video of John Cena watching as the stars from NXT made their way to the ring really resonated with me. Cena also had a seminal moment nearly 15 years ago at MSG against the Big Show at WrestleMania XX.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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