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SI’s Top 10 & Wrestler of the Year
Even though business is down for WWE and a lot of its top stars are suffering from a damaged creative ecosystem, putting together the Top 10 men’s wrestlers of 2019 was no easy task.
Some of my favorite singles matches of the year (Tyler Bate-WALTER from “TakeOver: Cardiff,” Johnny Gargano-Ricochet from “TakeOver: Phoenix” and Matt Riddle-Drew Gulak from the EVOLVE 10th Anniversary show in July) are not part of the list because the participants did not crack the Top 10. But that only highlights the competitive nature on display, as WWE’s top stars were challenged by top-rate performances all year from New Japan and from AEW since its debut.
Specific guidelines were attached to the Top 10. Since the indies are such a critical part of pro wrestling’s heartbeat, the tenth spot was presented to a wrestler performing on the independent scene. The other nine spots are made up of talent, regardless of company, who shined in 2019. Factors involved in selecting the Top 10 included a combination of the wrestler’s work in the ring, the attention their work garnered and the overall impact on the business over the past year.
A wrestler’s skill at consistently elevating his opponent was also emphasized, as well as stage and magnitude. And, of course, in-ring work and promos were two major factors. Also, just because a wrestler is ranked higher does not mean he is necessarily the better wrestler, just that he made more impact across the business over the past year. (The women’s Top 10 list will run next week.)
Here are my Top 10 wrestlers of 2019, beginning with the notable omissions.
Notable Omissions: Daniel Bryan; AJ Styles; Jay White; Johnny Gargano; Nick Aldis; “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt; Roman Reigns; Keith Lee; Tetsuya Naito; Pete Dunne; Tomohiro Ishii; WALTER; Lance Archer
10. Nick Gage
Top three matches of 2019: Lights Out vs. Marko Stunt; Uncharted Territory vs. Mance Warner; Uncharted Territory vs. Kris Statlander
Nick Gage was one of wrestling’s top draws on the independent scene in 2019, elevating both his own status and that of GCW, one of the top indie promotions in the country.
Gage’s peers praise his ability as a locker room leader, but he is an entirely different beast when the music hits. His style is authentic. Gage literally induces fear from his audiences, and he has put together a litany of tremendous matches over the course of the year, from the deathmatch genre to intergender, against a variety of opponents.
Opponents also look even better after a Gage match, which was evident this past summer following his match against Marko Stunt, who was defeated but looked good simply by hanging with the top dog in GCW.
Gage worked an ambitious schedule in 2019, and as evident through GCW’s growth, it paid off. He remains one of the most underrated talents in the business.
9. Kofi Kingston
Top three matches of 2019: Elimination Chamber match; WrestleMania 35 vs. Daniel Bryan; SummerSlam vs. Randy Orton
Kofi Kingston had the most meaningful year of his career in 2019.
Wrestling-wise, Kingston produced one of the top matches of the year in his WrestleMania 35 title victory against Daniel Bryan. He went on to hold the title for 180 days, and his reign meant more than the actual matches.
Representation is an overused word in pro wrestling, but Kingston took pride in representing a part of the wrestling audience whose voice is not often heard. He brought the WWE title to his native Ghana, working with UNICEF to promote education and safety to pregnant mothers. This is not the typical role of a WWE champion, but Kingston’s title reign thrived through his willingness to share his story and encourage people to follow their dreams.
An underrated part of Kingston’s title run was his work on the microphone, and he had entertaining programs with Randy Orton, Kevin Owens, and Samoa Joe before unceremoniously dropping the title to Brock Lesnar in October.
8. Will Ospreay
Top three matches of 2019: Wrestle Kingdom 13 vs. Kota Ibushi; G1 Climax vs. Kazuchika Okada; Best of the Super Juniors vs. Shingo Takagi
In terms of 2019 wrestling, there was no one better in-ring than Will Ospreay.
Ospreay created magic in matches throughout the year with Kota Ibushi, Shingo Takagi, Rocky Romero, and Dragon Lee, as well as throughout the G1 with Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Zack Sabre Jr., just to name a few. He is innovative, incredibly athletic, and also puts a tremendous amount of thought into his work.
The next goal for Ospreay in 2020 is to become a top heavyweight singles champion for New Japan and help carry the company as either Intercontinental or IWGP Heavyweight champ. Showcasing his talent in main events at high-profile shows will elevate Ospreay into the next realm of stardom in wrestling.
7. Kota Ibushi
Top three matches of 2019: Wrestle Kingdom 13 vs. Will Ospreay; G1 Final vs. Jay White; Sengoku Lord vs. Zack Sabre Jr.
Kota Ibushi shined this past year for New Japan Pro Wrestling. The top highlight of his year, of which there were many, was winning the G1 Climax in the summer, defeating Jay White in a phenomenal final.
Ibushi and Kenny Omega created magic together in the ring throughout 2018, and this past year was an opportunity for Ibushi to show that he is capable of leading the company as its champion. Ibushi also remained with New Japan instead of going with Omega to AEW, and he proved all year why he is such an elite talent through the combination of athleticism, intelligence, and pure strength on display in his matches.
On the precipice of the biggest weekend of his career, Ibushi enters 2020 with a title shot against IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada on January 4, the first night of Wrestle Kingdom 14. If he wins, he’ll then wrestle the Intercontinental champ the following night for the chance to hold the company’s two top titles.
6. Kenny Omega
Top three matches of 2019: Wrestle Kingdom 13 vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi; Double or Nothing vs. Chris Jericho; Full Gear vs. Jon Moxley
Kenny Omega started the year with an emotional loss to Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 14. The 39-minute match, which turned out to be Omega’s farewell to New Japan, told an incredible story seeped in reality. Omega worked a heel style, desperately attempting to take the match and his rightful spot atop the company, while New Japan “Ace” Tanahashi continually answered back with strikes of his own, finally winning the match and restoring order by reclaiming his top spot.
Omega was also at the forefront of AEW’s launch, wrestling Chris Jericho in the main event at the promotion’s debut Double or Nothing pay-per-view premiere in May. If there is any criticism of Omega in 2019, it was his willingness as an AEW executive to put others in front of himself. He dropped pay-per-view matches to Jericho, PAC, and Jon Moxley, which was far different from the manner in which he was presented in 2018 while with New Japan. Omega ended his year on pay-per-view with the Full Gear match against Moxley, bringing the deathmatch genre of wrestling to the AEW main event.
Omega brought constant attention to AEW, particularly through his pay-per-view matches, and brought a new spotlight to AAA after winning the Mega Championship in a match against Fenix in October. In 2019, Omega remained must-see.
5. Chris Jericho
Top three matches of 2019: Dominion vs. Kazuchika Okada; Double or Nothing vs. Kenny Omega; Full Gear vs. Cody Rhodes
When discussing wrestlers who have been able to reinvent themselves, the top name is normally The Undertaker. But the ’Taker character is currently entrenched in nostalgia and no longer contemporary, while Chris Jericho continues to reinvent himself.
The 49-year-old Jericho achieved an incredible amount of notoriety in 2019, winning the AEW world title and helping elevate the company through his promos. Jericho showed off his uncanny ability to reinvent himself in AEW and New Japan Pro Wrestling, proving throughout the year that he can still deliver top-tier matches and promo segments, and that he has few peers as one of the most creative minds in all of wrestling.
Bringing an “Attitude Era” flair with his different catchphrases and ability to react to the crowd, Jericho has proven again this year that he is an all-time performer.
4. Tie: Kazuchika Okada and Seth Rollins
Kazuchika Okada’s top three matches of 2019: Madison Square Garden vs. Jay White; G1 vs. Will Ospreay; G1 vs. SANADA
Seth Rollins’s top three matches of 2019: Royal Rumble match winner; Money in the Bank vs. AJ Styles; SummerSlam vs. Brock Lesnar
Kazuchika Okada and Seth Rollins were both tasked with carrying their respective companies in 2019, with each producing very different results.
Both men were integral parts of WrestleMania weekend. Okada regained the IWGP Heavyweight title at Madison Square Garden in a show New Japan co-promoted with Ring of Honor, defeating Jay White in the main event. The victory was especially significant in New Japan’s worldwide expansion, as that match marked the first time that the title changed hands outside of Japan—for New Japan, there was absolutely no one better than Okada to achieve that honor. Rollins also played a big role that weekend, opening up WrestleMania 35 by defeating Brock Lesnar for the WWE Universal title.
Okada consistently showcased his variety of talents throughout the year, especially in a series of matches with SANADA. He captured the wrestling world’s attention with his title defense against Chris Jericho in June, delivered breathtaking performances in the G1 this summer and also produced a phenomenal match with Tomohiro Ishii in March at the New Japan Cup.
Rollins had an uneven run as champ. He delivered a match-of-the-year candidate against Lesnar in August at SummerSlam, but his work with Baron Corbin was largely forgettable, and the finishes to his matches with “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt were so frustrating that they overshadowed his talent in the ring. WWE stalled and waited too long on his heel turn, making the move when they were ready instead of listening to their fan base.
Rollins’ failures as champion were more of a reflection of WWE’s creative system, and it is all too easy to be overexposed on a weekly three-hour Raw, but he still helped carry the company in 2019.
3. Cody Rhodes
Top three matches of 2019: Double or Nothing vs. Dustin Rhodes; Dynamite premiere vs. Sammy Guevara; Full Gear vs. Chris Jericho
Last year’s pick as this writer’s Wrestler of the Year, Cody Rhodes enjoyed the most complete year of his career in 2019.
Rhodes has been instrumental behind-the-scenes in the build of All Elite Wrestling, and his on-screen work has built tremendous interest and appeal. He defeated Sammy Guevara in the first-ever match on TNT for Dynamite, reintroducing fans to a WWE alternative that offers fast-paced action and legitimate competition.
Rhodes’s match against his brother Dustin is more than just the match of the year, it is one of the best matches of this past decade. He put together a wildly entertaining title match with Chris Jericho, but also shined on the microphone. Rhodes delivered some of the most compelling promos of 2019, a key reason this was the best year of his career.
2. Adam Cole
Top three matches of 2019: NXT TakeOver: New York vs. Johnny Gargano; SmackDown vs. Daniel Bryan; Survivor Series vs. Pete Dunne
For those who watched Adam Cole shine in Ring of Honor, this past year only served to reinforce the fact that he is an incredibly skilled, rare talent that is equally dynamic on both the microphone and in the ring.
Cole helped carry NXT onto live television, which is no easy task, and he somehow continued to step up and out-do himself with every achievement. His series of TakeOver matches against Johnny Gargano were spectacular, he looked every bit Daniel Bryan’s equal in their match on SmackDown and also created another memorable match against Finn Balor earlier this month on NXT television.
As a cocky and talented champion leading a heel faction, Cole is everything NXT has needed to build its own unique audience and compete against AEW.
1. Wrestler of the Year: Jon Moxley
Top three matches of 2019: Fastlane six-man tag with Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins vs. Baron Corbin, Bobby Lashley, and Drew McIntyre; G1 Climax vs. Tomohiro Ishii; Full Gear vs. Kenny Omega
Wrestling is a business of commodities. In 2019, there was no hotter commodity than Jon Moxley—and he changed the entire industry with his AEW debut in May.
Moxley started off the year as Dean Ambrose, feuding with Seth Rollins and Nia Jax. In very surprising fashion, WWE went public with the news that Ambrose was leaving the company. Vince McMahon’s company then reunited The Shield, putting Ambrose in the main event of the Fastlane pay-per-view, the final pay-per-view before WrestleMania, with Rollins and Roman Reigns. Moxley was also the inspiration for the WWE Network’s “The Shield’s Final Chapter” event in April, which was his last live appearance until he debuted in the closing moments of AEW’s premiere pay-per-view in May.
Moxley instantly generated a buzz in AEW. He was appointment viewing every time a microphone was in his hands, and he also placed an even brighter spotlight on New Japan Pro Wrestling with his debut and subsequent defeat of Juice Robinson for the IWGP United States title. Moxley wrestled all summer in the vaunted G1 Climax, showing he could work a different style than he was known for in WWE, and also delivered an outstanding match with Pentagon in August for indie promotion Northeast Wrestling. Moxley dealt with a staph infection, causing him to miss the All Out pay-per-view, but he did not lose his momentum—he completely redefined himself in 2019.
Finally, at AEW’s Full Gear, Moxley had his hand raised in the most ambitious main event match in the history of American mainstream wrestling. The number of violent spots and sequences was remarkable, and it was highlighted by the match’s variety and creativity. And Moxley gave that match legitimacy and authenticity, completing one of the most memorable years in pro wrestling history.
A reason to watch every time he is on television and to listen to every interview, Moxley made the biggest impact across wrestling in 2019, and he is Sports Illustrated’s Wrestler of the Year.
Beyond Wrestling’s “Heavy Lies The Crown” Show Will Close Out 2019 and Open 2020
Beyond Wrestling’s “Heavy Lies The Crown” show will close out the year of 2019, as well as kick off 2020 with an interactive “fans bring the weapons” tag match pitting Bear Country against Team Tremendous.
The New Year’s Eve show is one of the integral shows for Beyond, and owner Drew Cordeiro sees “Heavy Lies The Crown” as a chance to resolve some of the past year’s most pressing stories while also creating new ones for the upcoming year.
“It’s become an annual tradition that we host the first match of the year,” said Cordeiro. “The last two years it was a ‘fans bring the weapons’ match, and that is something we want to turn into a tradition. There is a big tag team rivalry between Bear Country and Team Tremendous, which started this summer at Americanrana, which was the biggest event we’d ever run up until that point.
“On top of that, there is a new wrinkle with the introduction of the Independent Wrestling Championship. The title is currently held by Warhorse, who has elevated the title, and himself, through some memorable performances in 2019, and he will be challenged by Manders, who served as an unsung hero for independent wrestling over the year.”
AEW stars Kris Statlander and John Silver are also on the card in a rematch from the 2018 “Please Come Back” show, where the concept of the show was that the regulars on the Beyond roster could pick their opponent, permitting they had never before worked for the promotion. Statlander was the only outside wrestler to win her match on the card, kickstarting a meteoric rise over the past 15 months that led to her eventual signing with AEW.
“Seeing that match again in a Beyond ring, especially on New Year’s Eve, is super important to us,” said Cordeiro. “Statlander and Silver are both great talents, and it’s perfect timing since our first show in 2020 is the return of ‘Please Come Back’ on January 25.”
The card also includes David Starr vs. Erick Stevens, Wheeler Yuta vs. Fred Yehi, and two emerging EVOLVE talents facing off in Josh Briggs and Anthony Greene.
“It took our fans a while to see what Josh Briggs was capable of, and I think taller wrestlers are sometimes at a disadvantage because the perception is that they’re made for WWE,” said Cordeiro. “But Briggs has really shown his range as a performer, and it will be interesting to see him against his former best friend.”
Cordeiro is constantly challenging himself and his promotion to break new ground. He is in the process of launching a mini-series on IWTV, and he takes pride in knowing that Beyond has served as a launchpad for NXT stars like Keith Lee and Dominik Dijakovic, as well as for AEW’s Orange Cassidy, Santana and Ortiz, and now Statlander. Most of the talent from this year’s “Heavy Lies The Crown” show will reappear on Beyond’s weekly online Uncharted Territory show when it returns for its third season, but many will have signed with major companies by this time next year.
“Beyond Wrestling’s legacy is going to be that we are the place that gives wrestlers their first big breaks,” said Cordeiro. “They’ve always had the tools to be players within the industry, but it was Beyond Wrestling where they had that breakout performance to move onto a national television platform.”
The (Online) Week in Wrestling
- Seth Rollins, the AOP, and Samoa Joe combined for the best content Monday on Raw.
- The Young Bucks’ Matt Jackson explained their decision to permanently exit Twitter.
- The Bucks and Kenny Omega went into fascinating detail about their departure from New Japan Pro Wrestling in this week’s episode of Wrestlers on the Road Ordering Room Service, including the potential of working with New Japan and Ring of Honor after the birth of AEW.
- AEW made it official: wins and losses will start anew each year.
- In an article with Tokyo Sports, Hiroshi Tanahashi said that if he defeats Chris Jericho at Wrestle Kingdom, then “the forbidden door” will open and he will challenge Jericho for the AEW title—which reinforces my belief that Jericho is winning the match.
- This year’s Wrestle Kingdom will also feature a match from Japanese women’s promotion Stardom, which is noteworthy as NJPW does not have a women’s division.
- Kurt Angle, brilliantly taking “always living the gimmick” to a new level on Twitter.
- Somehow, Ric Flair comes off as the biggest underdog while trying to ice skate.
- The Dark Order segment that ended last week’s Dynamite featured a spot that went viral—one of the creepers missing wildly on his punches to Dustin Rhodes.
- Headlocked creator Michael Kingston shared a brilliant twist to AEW’s Dark Order segment.
Andrade had the biggest night of his WWE career on Thursday night, as he defeated Rey Mysterio for the United States championship at Madison Square Garden.
SI’s Top 10 in women’s wrestling for 2019 will run this Monday, and next week’s column will run on Friday, January 3.
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