Last year was a great one for some old favorites, and also saw some new faces make a mark. 

By Justin Barrasso
January 03, 2019

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

Determining the men’s wrestler of the year for 2018 presented a unique challenge. Ultimately, although wrestling played an important factor, the answer had just as much to do with what took place outside the ring. This top ten 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.

A wrestler’s skill at consistently elevating his opponent was also emphasized. Shawn Michaels is one of the greatest of all-time, and an integral part of his brilliance was his ability to make you believe in the man standing across from him in the ring.

Relevance to the wrestling world (i.e., if Seth Rollins is ranked ahead of Tomohiro Ishii, it means he had the better year, not necessarily that he is the better wrestler) also factored into the decision. Stage and magnitude were important but not as critical as match quality.

BARRASSO: The Top 10 Women’s Wrestlers of 2018

Match quality also mattered, as the wrestlers dictate what happens inside the ring far more directly than their spot on the card (AJ Styles, for example, should not be penalized because WWE’s creative team never places him in the main event of pay per views).

Men’s wrestling often took a backseat to the women in 2018, but that is not to suggest that there were not some sublime moments over the past 12 months.

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

Notable Omissions: The Miz; Tama Tonga; Roman Reigns; Braun Strowman; Aleister Black; Tomohiro Ishii; Tetsuya Naito; WALTER (one of my favorite matches of the year was WALTER vs. Ilja Dragunov at wXw’s Superstars of Wrestling); Pete Dunne; PCO

10.) DANIEL BRYAN

Top three matches of 2018: SmackDown Live from October 30 vs. AJ Styles; Survivor Series vs. Brock Lesnar; TLC vs. Styles

Daniel Bryan’s work over the past three months secured his place on this list.

Bryan had a seminal moment with his return match at WrestleMania 34. Most in the business believed WWE would never again allow Bryan to compete, which made his comeback match in New Orleans—the site where he won the WWE title four years prior at WrestleMania 30—that much sweeter.

The ensuing months saw Bryan play his greatest hits, with “Yes!” chants filling the air and a reunion with Kane in Team Hell No. But the most fascinating part of Bryan’s journey since his return took place in his storyline with AJ Styles this fall, with Bryan tapping out to Styles’ calf crusher in October before unseating “The Phenomenal One” as WWE champion in November.

Bryan’s current run as WWE champion, which included the outrageously entertaining match with Brock Lesnar at the Survivor Series, gives reason to watch WWE’s product every week. He also delivered another outstanding match with Styles to end the year at TLC, reminding the wrestling world that Bryan is on his way back to his spot as one of the most elite wrestlers in the world.

9.) TIE: TOMMASO CIAMPA & JOHNNY GARGANO

Tommaso Ciampa’s top three matches of 2018: NXT TakeOver: New Orleans vs. Johnny Gargano; NXT TakeOver: Chicago vs. Gargano; NXT TakeOver: War Games vs. Velveteen Dream

Johnny Gargano’s top three matches of 2018: NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia vs. Andrade Cien Almas; NXT TakeOver: New Orleans vs. Tommaso Ciampa; NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn vs. Ciampa

Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano headlined TakeOver shows without the NXT title in 2018, and Ciampa has served as champion during one of NXT’s best stretches.

The two characters play so well off one another, both as partners and heated rivals, or, as we are now witnessing, a combination of the two. There is perhaps no better wrestler in the world than Gargano. While Ciampa is also extremely talented in-ring, his character is one of the best in all of wrestling.

Gargano and Ciampa, whether it is during interviews or in matches, make NXT wildly entertaining. Although many fans are skeptical of the main roster booking in WWE, the duo would instantly add a flavor and feel of excitement to Raw that it does not currently give off.

8.) HIROSHI TANAHASHI

Top three matches of 2018: Wrestling Dontaku vs. Kazuchika Okada; Destruction in Kobe vs. Okada; G1 Climax 28 final vs. Kota Ibushi

Hiroshi Tanahashi stayed healthy long enough in 2018 to remind fans why he remains the “Ace” of New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Tanahashi kicked off the year by defending his Intercontinental title in a Wrestle Kingdom match against Jay White, then kicked it into an altogether different gear later that month in a 30-plus minute match against Minoru Suzuki on the first night of the New Beginning in Sapporo.

The storyline between Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada also took major strides in 2018. Okada extended his title reign and defeated Tanahashi in May at Wrestling Dontaku, then the two wrestled to a 30-minute draw in the G1 Climax in August. Tanahashi avenged his loss to Okada in September at the Destruction in Kobe card in a match that elevated this legendary feud to even greater heights.

Tanahashi also excelled in the G1 Climax, capturing the toughest tournament in pro wrestling with a phenomenal victory that included his trademark match structure, exciting spots, psychology, and pace in the finals against Kota Ibushi. Tanahashi now looks to bring his momentum from 2018 into the new year with a world title match against IWGP heavyweight champion Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 13, building off one of his best years at age 42.

7.) KAZUCHIKA OKADA

Top three matches of 2018: Wrestle Kingdom 12 vs. Tetsuya Naito; New Japan Pro Wrestling 46th Anniversary vs. Will Ospreay; Dominion vs. Kenny Omega

Examining the work this past year from Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi is as complex as it is exciting. Both men enjoyed tremendous years, with Tanahashi reclaiming his place atop the company hierarchy and Okada delivering more incredible work.

Okada’s IWGP heavyweight title reign extended into May, when he lost the championship to Kenny Omega in one of the most exciting matches of the past decade. Prior to that, Okada delivered memorable moments in title matches against Tetsuya Naito at Wrestle Kingdom 12, in a victory in February over Sanada at The New Beginning in Osaka, and in an extraordinary performance with Zack Sabre Jr. at the Sakura Genesis show in April.

Okada’s accomplishments are punctuated by the fact that he was asked to carry the company well into 2018, then abruptly change roles after dropping the title, which he is why he placed one spot above Tanahashi.

6.) WILL OSPREAY

Top three matches of 2018: Mercury Rising 2018 vs. Matt Riddle; New Japan Pro Wrestling 46th Anniversary vs. Kazuchika Okada; Sakura Genesis vs. Marty Scurll

Wrestling’s next breakout star elevated himself to a new level in 2018.

There is no one in wrestling quite like Will Ospreay, which only amplifies the interest in his upcoming Wrestle Kingdom 13 match against the freakishly athletic Kota Ibushi.

Ospreay highlighted everything that is right with pro wrestling action and psychology in a match against Matt Riddle at OTT’s Scrappermania in May, then again against big man WALTER at the OTT anniversary show in October, showing that he can highlight his opponent regardless of their size.

Another important factor in Ospreay’s work was his presentation. Ospreay was proud to be highlighted in the junior heavyweight division, but his hunger to become a heavyweight, which is no easy transition in pro wrestling, was fulfilled as he wrestled in matches that continually reminded viewers that he is one of the best in the world.

5.) MATT RIDDLE

Top three matches of 2018: PWG vs. Keith Lee in February; PWG vs. Zack Sabre Jr. in March; Mercury Rising 2018 vs. Will Ospreay in April

Matt Riddle carried the indie scene for the vast majority of 2018.

Right up until his appearance at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn in August, Riddle brought energy to the independent wrestling scene. His matches, whether against Keith Lee, Darby Allin, JD Drake, or Austin Theory, were simply magnificent. Riddle brought a legitimacy to his work from his time in the UFC, and he was so authentic—never shying away from topics that mattered to him, ultimately endearing himself to a very passionate audience.

Riddle’s departure from the indie scene is significant, as he exits along with WALTER and Keith Lee. But no one else in wrestling brought the big fight feel, or the sterling graciousness he shared with crowds following those affairs, quite like Riddle. As another piece that can hopefully play a role in WWE’s 2019 wrestling renaissance, his role in NXT will be watched closely.

4.) AJ STYLES

Top three matches of 2018: Money in the Bank vs. Shinsuke Nakamura; SmackDown Live on October 30 vs. Daniel Bryan; TLC vs. Bryan

AJ Styles helped carry the WWE again in 2018, serving as the company’s best wrestler on the SmackDown Live brand.

The company also showed more faith in Styles outside of the ring, dedicating the cover spot of the highly lucrative 2K video game to him. But when looking back on the past year, Styles is best acknowledged for his wrestling.

He had his long-awaited WWE feud with Shinsuke Nakamura, installing a new chapter into their rivalry, delivering an entertaining WrestleMania match against one another, complete with the memorable moment of Nakamura turning against him.

Styles’ finest moment in-ring came against Nakamura at the Money in the Bank pay per view in June, which saw the two captivate the crowd for over 30 minutes. Styles worked with Samoa Joe over the summer in a feud that was very good but just short of great, and he has delivered some epic moments in his matches with Daniel Bryan.

3.) SETH ROLLINS

Top three matches of 2018: WrestleMania 34 triple threat vs. Finn Balor and The Miz; Payback vs. The Miz; Money in the Bank vs. Elias

WWE stars have the unenviable task of delivering top-tier matches every week, which is impossible over a 52-week stretch with no off-season. Seth Rollins excelled in his week-to-week brilliance, filling the role of a modern-day Bret Hart and continually bringing out the best in his opponents.

Ascertaining Rollins’ top three matches from 2018 was no easy task. He delivered brilliance on Raw in matches against Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Dolph Ziggler, and Drew McIntyre. But one major drawback to being a star in WWE is that you are constantly battling overexposure, and Rollins’ brilliance became slightly less extraordinary when viewed week after week.

The only other drawback to Rollins’ otherwise pristine year was the lack of a seminal moment. He never had a match like the one Daniel Bryan and Brock Lesnar achieved at Survivor Series (Rollins and Shinsuke Nakamura were very good together that night, but just shy of greatness), and his feud with Dean Ambrose is still waiting to go to the next level.

Nevertheless, on the demanding, nonstop week-to-week schedule of Raw, Rollins was WWE’s leading figure in the ring.

2.) TIE: KENNY OMEGA & KOTA IBUSHI

Kenny Omega’s top three matches of 2018: Wrestle Kingdom vs. Chris Jericho; Dominion vs. Kazuchika Okada; G1 Climax vs. Tomohiro Ishii; All In vs. Pentagon

Kota Ibushi’s three matches of 2018: G1 Climax 28 match vs. Tomohiro Ishii; G1 final vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi; NJPW King of Pro Wrestling triple threat vs. Kenny Omega and Cody Rhodes

It is nearly impossible to think of Kenny Omega without thinking of Kota Ibushi.

Whether as singles stars or together in a tag team, the story of Omega and Ibushi is extremely intertwined. This was especially on display last August at the G1 Climax, when Ibushi defeated Omega to advance to the G1 finals. The loss made Omega winless in three tries against Ibushi. In an era where wins and losses continue to mean less, Omega and Ibushi combine to inject a mix of physicality and emotion in their matches that is rarely on display in today’s wrestling storytelling.

Omega is the rare talent who could leave New Japan and, with only minimal time needed, headline the ensuing WrestleMania for WWE. His sublime world title victory over Kazuchika Okada and ensuing—and ongoing—feud with Hiroshi Tanahashi carried the top of the card for New Japan throughout the year, and he also had significant moments with a Wrestle Kingdom victory over Chris Jericho and a memorable battle with Pentagon at All In.

The future for both Omega and Ibushi remains undefined—will they enhance their legacies in New Japan, or make history with All Elite Wrestling?—but their past 12 months helped make the wrestling world that much more captivating.

1.) CODY RHODES

Top three matches of 2018: G1 Special in San Francisco vs. Kenny Omega; All In vs. Nick Aldis; NJPW King of Pro Wrestling triple threat vs. Omega and Kota Ibushi

Unfathomable is an appropriate manner to describe a former WWE midcarder deciding he is talented enough to spawn industry-wide change in wrestling without working for Vince McMahon.

But that is exactly what Cody Rhodes did in 2018.

Rhodes played the villain, perfecting the role with the surreptitious dissention he brought into Bullet Club of 2018, yet also shined as the babyface at All In during his victory over Nick Aldis. He also starred for multiple companies, including Ring of Honor, New Japan, and the NWA.

The ability to take an idea and transform it into action is Rhodes’ greatest success in 2018. He saw opportunity with All In, then capitalized on a desire to provide an alternative to those tired of WWE’s stronghold on pro wrestling. He tapped into social media, played an integral role on the business-altering “Being The Elite” show on YouTube, in addition to his work in the ring. Rhodes helped sell Final Battle with his match against Jay Lethal, but he also had compelling feuds throughout the year with Kenny Omega, Kota Ibushi, Juice Robinson, and of the most entertaining with Flip Gordon.

Rhodes’ future with All Elite Wrestling contains more questions than answers, but the grandson of a plumber showed this past year that it would be a wise bet to double down on his efforts.

All Elite Wrestling Ready to Debut in 2019

The Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, and Hangman Page set the wrestling world aflame early in the morning on New Year’s Day with a “Being The Elite” scene that unveiled the new All Elite Wrestling promotion.

The next step in the development of All Elite is a 5 p.m. ET rally on Tuesday, January 8 at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, home of the Jaguars. The event will be livestreamed on the Being The Elite YouTube channel, and there will be a special announcement from The Elite.

Interestingly, WWE’s SmackDown Live also takes place that very same night in Jacksonville at the Veterans Memorial Arena. The two venues are nearly side-by-side, separated by just a five-minute walk.

In other news...

• One WWE superstar who will pay close attention to New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 13 on January 4 is Shinsuke Nakamura.

Nakamura is a three-time IWGP heavyweight champion and also gave meaning to the IWGP Intercontinental championship, a title currently worn by Chris Jericho that will be defended at Wrestle Kingdom against Tetsuya Naito. After the title’s inception in 2011, Nakamura delivered incredible matches and storyline over five different title reigns from 2012 to 2015.

Nakamura also had one run with the IWGP tag team titles with Hiroshi Tanahashi, who is challenging Kenny Omega for the IWGP heavyweight championship at Wrestle Kingdom.

The love affair between Nakamura and pro wrestling was helped largely by the time he spent as a child with his grandmother, which is where he came across the man he still looks up to in this business.

“In the late nights, my grandma watched a wrestling show,” said Nakamura. “I watched Jushin Thunder Liger wrestle at the Tokyo Dome, and I decided I wanted to wrestle just like him. I learned a lot of things from him. Once, we went on tour to Italy for New Japan Pro Wrestling. No one there knew Shinsuke Nakamura, but they knew Jushin Liger. He’s still my idol.”

Nakamura just finished up a run as WWE’s United States champion. Instead of wrestling at the Tokyo Dome for Wrestle Kingdom, he will look to re-establish himself in the WWE world title picture in 2019.

Although New Japan is known as “The King of Pro Wrestling”, Nakamura was quick to point out that a number of his colleagues in WWE do not receive the respect they deserve for their ability in the ring.

“Honestly, most people in WWE are underrated,” said Nakamura. “I can choose so many people. They have so much ability but can’t show everything on TV. Everybody has a great ability to wrestle, and you can see that at the house shows. Tye Dillinger, Shelton Benjamin, Primo and Epico, the Bludgeon Brothers, the New Day, they’re all underrated.”

• The passing of “Mean” Gene Okerlund on Wednesday left a gaping hole in the hearts of wrestling fans.

One of my favorite stories to ever write at Sports Illustrated is the feature we did on Okerlund in our 2017 interview.

Okerlund shared how he received the “Mean Gene” nickname, bestowed upon him by Jesse “The Body” Ventura.

“Jesse and I were talking on the air in Minneapolis,” said Okerlund told me. “Jesse said something about serving as the bodyguard for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and I said, ‘That’s great. Tom Petty, that’s a big name.’ And Jesse responded, ‘You don’t even know who Tom Petty is!’ I corrected him and said, ‘I certainly do, Jesse, he is the famous race car driver.’ And that’s when Jesse said, ‘That’s mean, Gene.’ That is how it all started.”

• Andrew Simon, the CEO for AXS TV FIGHTS, helped secure a deal that will see Wrestle Kingdom 13 air on AXS TV only hours after its live broadcast on the New Japan World streaming service.

From 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET this Friday, AXS will air nearly two hours of the Wrestle Kingdom 13 card.

“We are looking to reward the loyal fans that have made NJPW a success on AXS TV,” said Simon. “AXS TV has been working with NJPW to shorten the window for events to air in the US. There is no bigger event on the NJPW calendar than Wrestle Kingdom 13–so this is the ideal way to kick off 2019 bringing same day coverage to NJPW fans.”

AXS TV also went the extra mile for its viewers with a 10-hour “Kenny Omega-thon” on December 28. Simon has a fine grasp on what makes personalities succeed in entertainment, and in his opinion, sees specific attributes in Omega that allow him to be one of the central figures in all of pro wrestling.

“Omega is the IWGP heavyweight champion,” said Simon. “By definition, he is one, if not the, best wrestler in the world. He is an incredible storyteller and connects with fans on TV and via social media on ‘Being The Elite’ and then backs up his talk with five-star matches on a weekly basis.”

Broadcast legend Jim Ross proudly represented AXS TV during his time calling the action for New Japan Pro Wrestling, but the team of Kevin Kelly and Don Callis will call the action for this year’s viewing on AXS. For those who are Ross fans, Simon noted that the possibility of a return to AXS in 2019 still exists.

“Yes, it is possible,” said Simon. “He is currently unavailable.”

WWE remains the worldwide leader in sports and entertainment, but New Japan is the number one promotion for wrestling. Simon confirmed that AXS will be working with New Japan in 2019, and is also adding additional wrestling content.

“WOW [Women of Wrestling] launches on January 18,” said Simon, confirming that there will be plans to magnify the wrestling coverage on AXS in the new year. “And we are increasing the amount of NJPW events in 2019.”

• In addition to Wrestle Kingdom 13, the weekend in wrestling features a highly anticipated Revolution Pro Wrestling match between Zack Sabre Jr. and PAC, who was known as Neville in WWE.

The match, set for RevPro’s Sunday show in London, is full of expectations, as it has the chance to set the bar for in-ring performances for the entire year.

Tweet of the Week

WWE Hall of Famer Booker T and the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson—who have combined for nine world championships—had a fun exchange this past week on Twitter.

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

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