With the WWE pay-per-view calendar officially closed for 2019, and all of the major shows worldwide outside of WWE wrapped up for the year as well, it's time to look back on the last 12 months and recognize the performers and performances that captured our imaginations. Marc Raimondi and Tim Fiorvanti examine five key categories -- breakout performer, show of the year, male and female performers of the year and, finally, match of the year.
Fiorvanti: It felt like 2019 flew by in record time, but here we are -- another year in wrestling in the books. It was a time of great change in the industry, including the launch of All Elite Wrestling, NXT moving to USA Network, and the addition of so many great options for wrestling on easily available platforms around the world. Frankly, it's a little bit overwhelming with all of the choices, and I feel like it was the hardest year for me, to date, to keep up with everything I'm interested in.
It's a good problem to have.
Raimondi: There is almost too much good wrestling right now. What a year it was. Women headlined WrestleMania. Wrestling is back on TNT. WWE is on FOX. Dean Ambrose became Jon Moxley again and took New Japan and AEW by storm. Cain Velasquez did lucha libre for AAA and is now signed to WWE. Tyson Fury beat Braun Strowman. Chris Jericho reinvented himself, again. CM Punk is back in the fold on WWE Backstage. The list goes on and on.
Fiorvanti: Like any good match, we'll build up to the big finish. Let's start with the breakout star of 2018. For me, it's been a bit of a mixed bag in terms of talent exposure in WWE this year. So many super-talented folks have signed WWE contracts and reported to Orlando over the past few years, and even with a two-hour window on USA, it feels like WWE is leaning on their more polished stars and taking their time with exposing new talent. The NXT Breakout Tournament was a great showcase, but it hasn't worked out in the long-term for a couple of key reasons we're not going to get into right now.
I think there are two key candidates for this award, and both of them made the most of tremendous opportunities during Survivor Series weekend. Rhea Ripley and Keith Lee both stepped up when the spotlight was at its brightest, and I've backed myself into a corner because this feels like having to pick a favorite child. I'll go with Lee as my breakout star of 2019, if only for the fact that I've been on his bandwagon a little bit longer.
Lee first appeared on WWE TV in July 2018, but he didn't really have a chance to flash what he could do until early 2019, when he caught some eyes in January in matches against Kassius Ohno and Adam Cole. Then, in less than seven minutes in January against Dominik Dijakovic, the pair essentially melted fans' brains with some of the dizzying stuff that athletes their size shouldn't be able to pull off. Injury issues slowed Lee in the spring, but three more Lee-Dijakovic clashes and a triple threat with Roderick Strong continued to put Lee's name on a lot of tongues.
He was one of the stars of the NXT invasion leading into Survivor Series, with his middle rope moonsault and running dive over the top rope introducing him to the Raw and SmackDown audiences with panache. Then Lee went out and defeated Strong one-on-one, put on a standout performance in the War Games cage and then starred in the men's 5-on-5-on-5 elimination match at Survivor Series. He hit a jackhammer on Seth Rollins that was so powerful it sent Rollins back five years and turned him evil, and then felt every bit of Roman Reigns' equal, even hitting his signature spirit bomb on Reigns before becoming the final elimination of the match.
He may have lost a triple threat NXT championship No. 1 contender's match, but he's no worse for it. Even bigger things lie ahead in 2020 for the limitless one.
Raimondi: Lee is definitely not the wrong answer. Neither is Ripley, who I expect to really soar in 2020. But my choice comes from across the pond: WALTER. Tim, you mentioned Lee's performance at Survivor Series, and it was fantastic. But how about at the start of the match? With all those great talents in the ring -- many of them guys who have headlined WrestleMania -- the fans in Chicago were chanting for WALTER. His early elimination seems poorly thought out, in retrospect. The Austrian big man started with WWE in January after an amazing 2018 on the indies in the U.S. and Europe. And he has had nothing short of an über terrific year in NXT U.K. and beyond.
WALTER won the WWE United Kingdom title from Pete Dunne at NXT TakeOver: New York in April and has yet to relinquish it. The match against Dunne was excellent, and his title defense against Tyler Bate at TakeOver: Cardiff in August was one of the best matches of the year, anywhere. WALTER has also had tremendous matches against the likes of KUSHIDA in NXT, Jordan Devlin and David Starr in Ireland's OTT, as well as bangers in WALTER's own home promotion wXw in Germany. He held titles in Progress this year, too.
Fiorvanti: Giants took the independent wrestling world by storm a couple of years ago, and many of those same performers are starting to gain real traction inside the belly of the WWE beast now. I saw WALTER and Bate tear it down in 2018 at Wembley for Progress Wrestling, and their return bout for the U.K. title also lived up to the hype (and was one of my favorites of 2019 as well). The possibilities for NXT vs. NXT U.K. clashes at Worlds Collide are virtually endless, but sign me up for a match like Lee vs. WALTER right now.
Raimondi: Coming up with a show of the year might even be tougher. You could make a case for just about every NXT TakeOver and NJPW Wrestle Kingdom every year is always in the running. This year, though, I have to give a nod to AEW's first pay-per-view card, Double or Nothing back in May. From a pure historical standpoint, this one was significant. It sold out MGM Grand in Las Vegas and produced a ton of buzz. It's not often a new promotion comes onto the scene, puts more than 10,000 butts in the seat and finds success on pay-per-view. But that's what AEW did, establishing what's set to become an annual Memorial Day Weekend event.
The card itself was awesome, from top to bottom. Cody vs. Dustin Rhodes was one of the most emotional, bloody wars of 2019 in any promotion. Young Bucks vs. Lucha Brothers was a spectacle. And Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega, while not as good as their 2018 match in NJPW, was very good, too. The ending of the show with Moxley's debut attacking Omega and throwing him off the giant poker chips made AEW seem like a big deal. The upstart promotion went into the summer with a ton of momentum, and that carried over into All Out and the new Dynamite TV show on TNT.
Fiorvanti: It's a solid choice, no doubt. While I think All In was the better show from front to back, there's no denying the significance of Double or Nothing. WrestleMania was a satisfying night, if still unbearably long, and Wrestle Kingdom was a great show, as always, But from my perspective, there's something incredibly special about what the NXT show during WrestleMania weekend has become over the last few years.
I would never have believed that any NXT TakeOver show could come close to New Orleans in 2018, which featured two of my favorite matches of all time in that North American championship ladder match and Johnny Gargano-Tommaso Ciampa. But NXT TakeOver: New York delivered in a way no one could have expected.
A hastily constructed team of Ricochet & Aleister Black gelled in record time and gave the then-War Raiders the best match of their NXT run to kick off the show. Velveteen Dream and Matt Riddle had fans invested in every second of a match few could predict the outcome of. WALTER ended the longest singles title reign in WWE in three decades in an intensely physical 25-minute war against Pete Dunne, winning the WWE United Kingfom championship. A Fatal 4-Way NXT women's championship match gave Shayna Baszler one of her best showcases to date.
And then there's the main event. With Ciampa falling out of a match that was to serve as the culmination of a years-long odyssey, the NXT championship match between Gargano and Cole had no right to be as compelling as it was with just a few weeks of true build-up. But each of them proved why they are this generation's Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, incapable of having anything less than a great match against one another. It was an emotional roller coaster, and watching Gargano reach the top of NXT was as good as it gets in wrestling.
Raimondi: Call me crazy, but I actually enjoyed the Gargano vs. Cole program this year more than Gargano vs. Ciampa from 2018. Not necessarily the story, but the in-ring product. Those matches were stellar, no doubt. This is a heavy NXT year-in-review piece already -- and I don't think that's going to be changing as we move into the bigger honors, is it?
Fiorvanti: Your instincts are strong, Marc. Adam Cole is my male performer of the year. He made an instant impact the moment he stepped into NXT in 2017, but it felt like every time he was ready to reach the top of the mountain and the NXT championship, he'd fall just short. All along the way, with the Undisputed Era in tow, Cole put on a show every time out and kept crowds hanging on his every word (and one word in particular).
Name an opponent who had a bad match with Cole in NXT in 2019. I'll wait. Being thrust into the main event of WrestleMania weekend's NXT show would have shaken lesser performers. With Cole, it was a monumental leap forward, and he never looked back. He beat Gargano for the NXT title in June, and then Undisputed Era fulfilled Cole's prophecy of grabbing "all the gold" (minus the cruiserweight and women's belts).
There were two more Gargano classics, including a 32-minute one-on-one bout at NXT TakeOver: XXV and a second 2-out-of-3 falls match that was fourth best among the bunch but still thrilling to its conclusion. Add in Cole's matches with Riddle, Dunne, Bate and Lee, and you have quite a resume. Oh, and then, on top of all that, Cole went to SmackDown and saved the day with most of the roster stuck overseas by defending his title for 20 minutes in the main event against Daniel Bryan.
His match to come against Finn Balor will be a fitting end to a year for the record books (bay bay).
Raimondi: I'm a big Cole fan, and have been since his days in Ring of Honor and PWG. To me, there's no doubt that he is the male performer of the year. At least in the United States. Overall, though? No one has been better this year than Will Ospreay. No one has come close to accumulating the quality of matches the Brit has in New Japan and other places.
Superhuman. pic.twitter.com/2p6Y1w47xt— ᵂⁱˡˡ ᴼˢᵖʳᵉᵃʸ • ウィル・オスプレイ (@WillOspreay) November 30, 2019
Ospreay started the year with a banger against Kota Ibushi at Tokyo Dome, performed very well at Madison Square Garden against Jeff Cobb, tore the house down during the Best of the Super Juniors, went right into the G1 Climax in July and August while injured, starred in the Super J Cup and also took part in the Super Junior Tag League, teaming with Robbie Eagles.
Ospreay is just 26 years old. Part of me hopes he calms down a bit in 2020 and beyond. But his 2019 was just wild. His match against Shingo Takagi in the Best of the Super Juniors final was absolutely ridiculous. A clip from that one went viral six months later. It looked like something out of a John Wick movie, except in one take in front of a sold-out crowd at Sumo Hall. While some might have that as their match of the year, there's an argument to be made that Ospreay's G1 match with Kazuchika Okada in July was even better. The final moments of that match were nothing less than gripping.
At Dominion in June, Ospreay reclaimed the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title from Dragon Lee in another all-action classic. He continues to hold that leading into his defense against the returning Hiromu Takahashi at WrestleKingdom in January. Here are some other opponents Ospreay tore the house down with in 2019: Hiroshi Tanahashi, Jay White, Bandido (twice), El Phantasmo (twice), SHO, Amazing Red, A-Kid, Zack Sabre Jr. and Eagles.
There might be some people reading this who watch WWE exclusively and have only heard of Ospreay in Seth Rollins' tweets or rants from wrestling "purists" who call him out for over-choreographed sequences. Do yourself a favor. If you have time over the holidays, open up NJPW World and check out the most amazing performer the wrestling world saw in 2019.
Fiorvanti: Ospreay (and Shingo for that matter) deserve all the praise in the world for their back-to-back Best of Super Juniors and G1 performances. Shingo-Jeff Cobb, which gets a little lost in the mix with such a staggering run, is one of my favorite matches of the year.
Let's keep this rolling forward. Who's your female performer of the year?
Raimondi: Earlier, I mentioned women headlining WrestleMania. It seems like so long ago, because this year has been chock full of interesting developments in the wrestling world. But this is a good time to circle back to it to explain my female performer of the year. Yeah, it's Becky Lynch. Of course. Who else could it be? Were there better in-ring athletes in 2019? Sure there were. No one was as influential as Lynch, though, who emerged early in the year as one of the faces of WWE. She won the Raw and SmackDown women's titles at WrestleMania by beating Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair in a triple threat match. Lynch has held the Raw title ever since.
This current run by "The Man" started in 2018 very organically, mostly from Lynch's excellent use of social media. It blew up in early 2019, though, leading to WWE having no choice but to make the women's title match the headliner of the "Grandaddy of Them All." Check that -- this year it was the "Grandmama of Them All."
Lynch transcended the art. She crossed over into the mainstream better than WWE athletes have in years, being a guest on numerous talk shows and starring in several SportsCenter commercials. (Yes, I did you see lurking in the background in a couple of those, Tim.)
There are a few other women I'd like to mention there who have had phenomenal campaigns. Tessa Blanchard has been Impact's MVP all year. She's really, really good, and the future is very bright for her. In Japan, Arisa Hoshiki and Sareee had exceptional years in ring for Stardom and Sendai Girls (among other joshi indies), respectively.
This is Lynch's time, though. She was the first woman to ever headline two straight WWE PPV events, ending the year with main event spots at Survivor Series and TLC. None of it was forced, either. Lynch willed it into existence by being so damn good, from her character work, to her ring generalship, to her social media. She's "The Man" in 2019 -- no doubt.
Fiorvanti: "Guy waiting to order coffee, staring down at his phone" is the role I waited my whole life for. Thanks for noticing, Marc.
You make a strong case for Lynch, and I'm not sure if I can top it, but let me try to talk myself into a few other contenders.
Shayna Baszler is in the midst of her second run with the NXT women's championship, with a reign that eclipsed 400 days at the start of December. Baszler is the rock upon which another wave of tremendous women wrestlers has been built in NXT, and 2019 was a banner year for her. There's unfinished business with Lynch as well, which might finally lead us to the long awaited battle of the Four Horsewomen. Baszler's biggest highlights of 2019 include her rivalry with Io Shirai (and the cage match that ended it) and her title defense against Candice LeRae.
Between IMPACT and Women of Wrestling, Blanchard has been doing stellar work throughout the year, and she doesn't feel a hair out of place being in position to become the first woman ever to hold the IMPACT heavyweight championship this coming January. Mayu Iwatani held the ROH Women of Honor belt and defended it in Madison Square Garden, and she'll enter 2020 in the midst of her second World of Stardom championship reign.
But no, no one deserves this more than Becky Lynch. There were some down stretches in terms of creative direction for the Raw and SmackDown women's divisions toward the end of the year, but the kind of history that Lynch enjoyed in 2019 doesn't come around often.
Raimondi: Good call on all those. Baszler had a great year. She's one of the best, most consistent characters in WWE. But I feel like her direction got a bit stale. It's about time she moves to the main roster. Maybe that will come sooner rather than later.
Blanchard might have had the best in-ring year out of any woman in the U.S. Iwatani is definitely a perennial entrant on this list. And I'm really interested to see what happens with Stardom as it moves into 2020 now owned by New Japan parent company Bushiroad. I imagine it'll mean only more exposure for the promotion, which for my money is the best in the world in women's wrestling.
Fiorvanti: And thus, we've reached our finale. Match of the year. We've both mentioned some absolutely incredible performances, from all of the Cole and Gargano matches, to WALTER-Dunne and WALTER-Bate, the Lucha Bros-Young Bucks six-man tag. Ospreay and Shingo put on nightly classics throughout the G1 Climax. I absolutely loved LeRae-Shirai from NXT TakeOver: Toronto.
But there's one match that stands out in my mind, because of the combination of narrative, in-ring performance and the sheer unlikeliness of it all.
Kingston's groundswell of success began when he was the unlikely last-minute replacement for Mustafa Ali inside the Elimination Chamber. Between his performance in that match and an intense hour-long run in a gauntlet match on SmackDown, Kingston channeled a career's worth of emotion, and the crowd latched on. KofiMania was a moment in time that may never be replicated. After years of mid-card titles and a tremendous run as part of The New Day, Kingston stepped up in the moment and fans embraced him in every way.
Then you add in Bryan at the absolute peak of a villainous reign as champion that most WWE fans could never have imagined at the peak of the "Yes!" movement. The fact that Bryan was even wrestling, let alone as WWE champion at WrestleMania. The full circle narrative of Bryan, the poster boy for unlikely champions, telling Kingston that he was unworthy of such elevation.
From the moment the bell rang, tensions and expectations were sky high, and they were met and then exceeded at every stage. By the time Kingston lined up Trouble in Paradise, nailed it and pinned Bryan 1-2-3, it seemed everyone in the arena was on their feet. Xavier Woods and Big E slid in the ring, and then Kingston's children joined the festivities, and the joy was as pure as anything WWE is capable of.
For only the second time in my life, wrestling brought an unabashed tear of joy to my eye. It was a match and a moment I will never forget.
Raimondi: Bryan vs. Kingston was a gem, I'll give you that. I enjoyed the story leading in -- though it was sometimes a bit heavy-handed -- and Kingston finally winning on the biggest possible stage. It was the best match at WrestleMania and probably the best match on the WWE main roster all year. Personally, I miss Bryan's eco-troll villain character, too.
I just feel when these match-of-the-year conversations come up in December, it's very easy to forget what happened 11 months earlier. Jan. 4 to be more specific. NJPW WrestleKingdom is typically one of the best events of the year, but its results often get lost due to recency bias. Not that I'm accusing you of that, Tim. April was pretty long ago, too. While Bryan vs. Kingston was great, Kenny Omega vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP heavyweight title at Wrestle Kingdom 13 was on another level.
The story coming in was simple and well told. Omega was the young hot shot, trying to impose his high-flying, risk-taking, heavy-hitting style onto New Japan Pro-Wrestling as champion. Tanahashi was the 40-something, old-school technician -- the legendary former ace -- who didn't believe all of that stuff was necessary to win a wrestling match. It was a battle of ideologies and in the end both had to diverge from what they believed was true wrestling in order to take out the other. Tanahashi missing a High Fly Flow with Omega on a table on the outside was a great example of him attempting something risky -- something Omega would do -- and failing at it.
Eventually, Tanahashi did prevail after a nearly 40-minute, epic war to win back the IWGP Heavyweight title for an eighth time. It was the end of a year-long redemption arc for him and very likely the final time he'll hold the prestigious belt. It had significance for Omega, too -- it was his final NJPW match, at least for now, as he signed with AEW after a brief flirtation with WWE.
There were so many great matches this year all over the wrestling world. I thought Ospreay vs. Takagi in the BOSJ final was the best match in ring and Cody vs. Dustin Rhodes and WALTER vs. Bate told the best stories. But, in my opinion, Omega vs. Tanahashi had the best combination of both.