Breaking Down the Top Matches of 2014 Pt. 5: #5-1

As I explained in Part 1 (and again in Part 2! And Part 3! And 4!), I recently stumbled upon Voices of Wrestling rankings of the “Top Matches of 2014”, featuring votes and commentary from such Place to be Nation luminaries as Steven Graham, Pete Schirmacher, and Chad Campbell. One of my biggest challenges as a wrestling fan who is trying to expand his wrestling horizons outside of the familiar confines of the WWE Network is figuring out just where to start when watching other promotions. With the vast majority of the matches on the list coming from non-WWE promotions, a list like this is exactly what I needed to bring some focus to my wrestling viewing.

Voices of Wrestling really put a serious effort into this, ranking 121 matches of 2014. I don’t have the time nor energy to watch all 121 matches, but I decided I could muster just enough of both to watch the Top 25. Most of these matches I have never seen before and feature wrestlers I have never seen wrestle before, so it should be a fun experiment.  And GOOD NEWS Place to be Nation – I’m taking you along for the ride!

Over the next few weeks I will watch the Top 25 Matches of 2014 from the Voices of Wrestling list, provide my thoughts on why it was a great match, what could have been improved, and if you’re determined enough to make the whole journey with me, you’ll be rewarded with my re-rankings at the end.

And now, after weeks and weeks of waiting, I present to you the finale (almost): my breakdown of matches #5-1, starting with….

#5. Cesaro vs. Sami Zayn

NXT ArRival, WWE, February 27,2014

cesarozaynarrival

What It’s All About: This was the first live match on the WWE Network, and the first exposure many would have to the current NXT product. It was a wise move to put the ring general Cesaro with super-over babyface underdog Sami Zayn, both veterans of the indies and masters of their craft. While this was the capper to the pair’s trio of matches in NXT, it was essentially the beginning of Sami Zayn’s near year-long storyline of overcoming the odds on his way to the NXT championship. These two delivered an all-time classic that would set the tone for the type of in-ring action fans can come to expect from NXT.

Spot of the Match: I could watch Cesaro uppercut people all day long, especially when it’s to counter a Sami Zayn dive through the corner ropes on the outside. Zayn sells it like he got hit head on by a semi. Just a killer move.

What Could Have Been Better: Some might argue that Zayn should have won this match and the feud, but Sami is one of those great babyfaces who actually gets more over from a tough loss than he does a victory. Zayn may have lost the match, but he “won” Cesaro’s respect, and that’s the greater victory when you understand Sami’s character. Wait, isn’t this the spot where I criticize the match?

Why It’s Great: I’ll spoil / tease the re-rankings column right now…this match will finish even higher than the #5 spot on my final rankings. Cesaro played the role of bully so well throughout, slapping Zayn around and openly mocking him, while Zayn sold so well and timed all of his hope spots just right.  Just as it appeared Sami could overcome the odds with a completely believable near-fall off the Helluva kick, Cesaro takes back control and hits the most ferocious winding uppercut you will ever see, followed by the decisive Neutralizer for the win. This was not only a great match on it’s own, but it played off their two previous NXT matches to deliver a perfect story which not only delivered an amazing in-match story, but a perfect ending to the mini-feud between the two work-rate darlings. And if there are any two wrestlers who deserve the “work-rate darling” title more than Cesaro and Sami well, you sure aren’t going to find them on the WWE roster. Cesaro returning to the ring afterwards for the post-match handshake and hug of respect was just icing on the cake for this masterpiece.

#4: Adrian Neville vs. Sami Zayn

NXT Takeover: [R] Evolution (WWE), December 11, 2014

samizaynREVolution

What It’s All About: The story of Sami Zayn’s quest for the NXT title in many ways began with the aforementioned Cesaro match, and culminated here with this highly-anticipated match against Neville. Neville had been teasing heelish tactics throughout their feud while never quite turning, and the ongoing storyline of whether Sami had what it took to win the title “at any cost” was a perfect underlying theme to this match. The added stipulation that Sami would leave NXT if he didn’t win only added to the drama, as you could legitimately believe he might lose and just show up on RAW in a month.

Spot of the Match: For a match between two high-flyers, this certainly didn’t feel like much of a “spot fest”, favoring a carefully crafted story over wowing the crowd with high spots. I’ll give this award to the move Sami didn’t get to hit in the Cesaro match; his tope through the corner ropes into the spinning DDT on the outside was perfectly executed in this match, in what perhaps was a foreshadowing of Sami’s victory to come.

What Could Have Been Better: Did this match really need two ref bumps? I think not. The 2nd is the only one that seemed really necessary to advance the story, to give Sami that brief moment where he had to consider whether to hit Neville with the belt to win the match. Speaking of which, I also thought that moment went on a bit too long. It seemed like Sami literally stood there for 5 minutes as the crowd begged him not to turn heel.  While a necessary element of the match, I thought that it was a little too drawn out, and pulled me out of the match. For. Just. A. Moment. But yes, that is my only gripe!

Why It’s Great: This finished the nearly year-long story arc of Sami Zayn’s quest for respect and, ultimately, NXT Championship glory. Sami faced so much adversity on his way to this match  – first losing to and then later defeating the likes of Tyler Breeze and Titus O’Neil on his way to earning his final chance against Adrian Neville. And these two delivered a back and forth match worthy of the culmination of such an amazing storyline. Even with Zayn’s victory the obvious conclusion of this sage, you’d have to literally have no soul to not be on the edge of your seat for the near falls towards the end of the match.  Even with the Helluva kick sealing the deal, it never seemed a fait accompli until the ref’s hand hit the mat for the third time. If that weren’t enough, this match gets major bonus points for a perfectly executed post match angle. Between Neville not turning heel on Sami and embracing him for the hug and Kevin Owen’s hug, which led to him turning heel in a total swerve, it was like it’s own mini match emotionally. Just all around fantastic television.

#3. The Shield vs. the Wyatt Family

Elimination Chamber (WWE), February 23, 2014
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What It’s All About: The WWE’s two super heel groups of 2013-2014 face off in an unexpected and unlikely heel vs. heel six man. It can be argued that both of these groups were at their absolute peak in terms of how over they were with the crowd, and these six incredible athletes went out and delivered quite possibly one of the greatest six man tag matches in WWE history.

Spot of the Match: This may be a copout, but if you’ve been following this series you’ll know that I’m no stranger to copouts, so why shy away now? It may be a stretch to call a pre-match stare down a “spot”, but how often do you get a “This is Awesome!” chant for a stare down? And while the phrase is way, waaaaay too overused by the modern wrestling fan, it was completely justified here. These two teams looked poised to launch into an epic affair, and so they did.

What Could Have Been Better: You know, it’s hard to criticize this match too much. In some ways it was similar in formula to the Shield vs. Evolution from Extreme Rules: start off wild, settle down into a more straightforward but well-worked tag match, then descend into a wild brawl and finish off with a flurry.  But comparing it to the Evolution match made me realize that match had more of what this didn’t have quite enough of for me, and that was a wild brawl through the crowd. I’m normally not a huge fan of this stuff, but it worked so well vs. Evolution, and I think the fact this match largely stayed around ringside made it feel just a tick less epic than it might have otherwise. I would have loved to have actually seen what happened to Dean Ambrose when he disappeared into the crowd while fighting Bray, for example.

Why It’s Great:  Who am I kidding? This is not only one of the greatest six mans in WWE history, it’s one of the greatest heel vs. heel matches in wrestling history, and one of the best matches of 2014. Anything that this match lacked in ring work (and it didn’t lack much) it made up for with the epic feel, atmosphere, and storyline. To watch it out of context doesn’t do it the justice it deserves, as it also capped off a year + of the Shield dividing and conquering their enemies, only to finally have those same very tactics turned against them. They even give Reigns a glimmer of babyface comeback shine as he almost has you believing he can beat the Wyatts singlehandedly, before finally succumbing to the numbers, and Sister Abigail. The only real downfall to this match is that it makes me sad about what could have been, had these teams stayed together and feuded over the course of the year. It’s also a shame that this wasn’t the WrestleMania match, as the Shield did nothing of significance, and Bray could have waited a month to job to John Cena without missing a beat. But since that’s not the world we live in, I’ll have to settle with watching this match on the WWE Network whenever I darn well please!

#2. Shinsuke Namamura vs. Kazuchika Okada

G1 Climax Finals (NJPW), August 10, 2014

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x238b82_shinsuke-nakamura-vs-kazuchika-okada-njpw-g1-climax-24-day-12-finals-2014_sport
What It’s All About: This is the finals of New Japan’s annual “G1 Climax” tournament, featuring two of NJPW’s biggest stars: the eccentric Nakamura and the fiery  Okada. I’ve become familiar with both guys from my foray into this list and from Wrestle Kingdom 9. Nakamura has quickly become one of my favorite guys to watch in the ring and one of the most unique wrestlers I’ve ever seen. While I’m not as keen on Okada – I think his matches largely depend on the quality of his opponent’s offense – you can’t argue with how over he is and he’s at the very least a very good seller who can tell a solid story in the ring.

Spot of the Match: I’m going to skip right to the finish with this one. After a hard-fought battle, Okada goes for a pinning attempt on a backslide right into his rainmaker lariat finisher. But he doesn’t stop there or go for a pin attempt; instead he hits another one, and then after making his little gesture towards the crowd picks up Nakamura for a third and final RAINMAKER OF DEATH to put an end to him. I loved that Okada saw his opportunity and just hit his finisher three times instead of bothering with the chance of near-falls. Nothing like a decisive finish that actually makes sense to cap off an epic match. Runner-up goes to Nakamura’s awesome counter of the Rainmaker into an armbar.

What Could Have Been Better: Um….hmmm…it could have been longer? Nope, it was the perfect length. Maybe Nakamura should have gone over? Nope, it was the perfect ending…Ok, can I just move on now?

Why It’s Great: Nakamura’s facial expressions alone make this whole match for me. The guy is just so compelling to watch in the ring, and every match of his feels like an epic, because he makes it feel epic with his tone and mannerisms. Okada was the perfect foil for him here, and they truly felt like equals throughout the match. An emotional story and an amazing match, all effectively conveyed to a guy who doesn’t know the backstory and doesn’t speak a lick of Japanese. Just watch it.

#1. AJ Styles vs. Minoru Suzuki

G1 Climax – Night 7 (NJPW), August 1, 2014

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x22mx6e_english-commentary-njpw-aj-styles-vs-suzuki-g1-climax-2014_sport

What It’s All About: Before (and even after) Nakamura and Okada’s epic finals match, this was the match that had everyone abuzz in the G1 Climax. I was a little worried that after all of the hype I’d heard about this match, and all of the praise I’d read in the comments at Voices of Wrestling, that I might be a little disappointed. Well disappointed I was not, and this is one of the rare times when no matter how much a match is hyped, it does live up to the hype, every single time.

Spot of the Match: Can I vote for the whole match? I’m tempted to pick the popular spot of Suzuki grabbing AJ’s finger gun and turning into a vicious armbar complete with Suzuki trying to break AJ’s fingers. This was indeed awesome, but one thing I love about New Japan are the intense slapping sequences, and there is one sequence where these two are just slapping the shit out of each other, when Styles nails Suzuki with a nasty enziguri, which STILL doesn’t send Suzuki down until the two slap each other one more time and both fall to the mat. Just epic.

What Could Have Been Better: I’m sorry, I’m not even gonna pretend this time.

Why It’s Great:  Can I possibly put into words the greatness of this match? Suzuki has quickly become one of my favorites to watch, and the match starts off with AJ on offense as Suzuki does this crazy sell/no sell job where his body sells the pain and his face just displays increasing anger with each move Styles delivers. Then Suzuki turns it around by locking in his awesome armbar on the ropes, which begins the destruction of AJ’s arm. The violence only escalates as Suzuki visually attacks AJ’s fingers and works it into the armbar submissions. There is even a run-in which is done in a way that pops the crowd effectively but doesn’t detract from the match at all, and doesn’t lead to the finish as these things so often do. AJ hitting the half-assed Styles’ clash out of desperation was great and perfectly logical with the arm damage inflicted by Suzuki, and even with the 2nd clash it seemed like he struggled to get Suzuki in position. But once it was hit, the finish was set in stone. Fantastic match, one that is eminently rewatchable. Is it the best match of 2014? Well you’ll just have to wait and see for my thoughts on that…

I hope you enjoyed the start of my little journey and that it will expose some people to some exciting new wrestling to watch – it certainly has for me! But we’re not…quite…done…yet. Now I am faced with the task of re-ranking these matches based on my own preference. Stay tuned for that in the coming weeks.