2014 has been an inconsistent year for professional wrestling to say the least.
WWE seemed on the verge of a new golden age going into and coming out of WrestleMania, but the departure of CM Punk, failure of Batista to regain past glories, and most crucially, injuries to the likes of Roman Reigns, Bad News Barrett, and especially Daniel Bryan have led to multiple changes in direction and possibly some panic-induced booking that has dulled the buzz.
TNA spent the better part of the year on life support, with quality in-ring performances being eclipsed by the looming question of whether or not the company would have a home — and a pulse — come 2015.
Ring of Honor and international powerhouse New Japan Pro Wrestling, along with the upstart Lucha Underground, began to make inroads, but only time will tell where those will lead.
Nonetheless, despite some uncertainty over the industry’s big picture and the health of the major promotions, the day-to-day, week-to-week product remains captivating, thanks in extremely large part of the men and women who continue to bring their A-games to the ring. In this special edition of the Five Count, we honor the performers who stood out the most in 2014.
5. DANIEL BRYAN
I considered bumping Daniel Bryan to honorable mention status due to how much of 2014 he missed with a neck injury, but looking back, his accomplishments over a mere four months and change still seem momentous enough to me that he deserves a spot on this list. Bryan engendered so much love from fans that he changed the course of WrestleMania XXX; his talent, guts, and will propelled him to a World title victory on the grandest stage of all. Had fate not intervened, this topic would not even be up for debate; Daniel Bryan would be the clear MVP of 2014.
4. DEAN AMBROSE
It’s been a curious year for Dean Ambrose. Riding the momentum of a Shield face turn in the spring, it seemed he would be the breakup heel when the group split up, yet when Seth Rollins took that role instead, it led the “Lunatic Fringe” as a wildcard. As it turned out, this proved very much the right move for Ambrose, who quickly leapfrogged his other stable mate, Roman Reigns, in the hearts of the WWE audience.
Despite being hindered by a lack of decisive victories and an absence to film a movie when he may have been at his hottest, Dean Ambrose has retained his connection with the fans and has the potential to be the next Daniel Bryan or Mick Foley in terms of being made a bonafide main eventer on crowd reaction. Will the restrictions of his quirky character not seeming to care about wins or titles hold him back? Doubtful; he’s just too good.
3. JOHN CENA
Love him or hate him, John Cena continued to be one of the top draws in wrestling in 2014, and WWE may have needed him more than ever.
After one last challenge for the WWE World title at the Royal Rumble in January, Cena seemed poised to fade into the background—to a degree—for a bit, wrestling Bray Wyatt in the middle of the WrestleMania XXX card and continuing to focus on that feud throughout the spring. Had Daniel Bryan not suffered his injury, in all likelihood we would have seen Cena continue to work with younger stars like Seth Rollins and Rusev, but circumstances forced WWE’s hand, and they went back to their most familiar face on top.
Cena’s championship reign would not last long, as he dropped the strap to Brock Lesnar in spectacular fashion at SummerSlam. While he has stayed in the main event mix for the fall, Dean Ambrose took what could have been his spot in the final match of Hell in a Cell, and it can be argued he’s helped elevate the likes of Rollins as well as Dolph Ziggler.
Again, say what you will about Cena, but he stepped up when WWE needed him, whether that meant winning another championship or getting demolished by Brock Lesnar; he does what needs to be done.
2. AJ STYLES
For over a decade, AJ Styles plied his trade as the face of TNA—whether they wanted him to be or not; the thought of “The Phenomenal One” leaving the company seemed implausible, but at the start of 2014, he did indeed leave the nest, and over the next 12 months would flourish.
Returning to his old haunts of Ring of Honor, Styles received a hero’s welcome and proved to his former employers and any doubters than a change in scenery had only served to invigorate him. In addition, AJ took on an ambitious schedule of American independent dates, working against a variety of opponents and building buzz as a renewed draw. In both ROH and on the indies, Styles shone with new star quality, bringing to the table the skills anybody who has seen him over the past 12 years has come to expect, but also translating any chip on his shoulder into an intense focus and newfound energy.
An ocean away, AJ Styles began competing regularly for New Japan Pro Wrestling, winning their heavyweight title and becoming a figurehead for the popular Bullet Club stable. NJPW has surged beyond the shores of Japan and has begun making international inroads, thanks in large part to the success of Styles as their ambassador.
On two continents, AJ Styles has made himself more relevant than ever in 2014 and proven he doesn’t need TNA; if anything, they may have held him back.
1. SETH ROLLINS
While many top stars went down with injuries over the course of 2014 or failed to capture the imagination of the wrestling audience as they may have in the past, one man performed at a consistently high level, served as a catalyst of major programming, and broke out as the headliner many thought he could never be, and that’s Seth Rollins.
For the first half of the year, Rollins remained the “architect” of the Shield; it may have been a nickname Michael Cole hammered into the ground for many, but if you really paid attention, it fit. Rollins used his technical skill to hold together the trio’s tremendous six-man wars with the Wyatt Family and Evolution, utilizing fundamentals and exciting offense to glue together Roman Reigns’ explosiveness and Dean Ambrose’s manic persona. In addition, if Rollins got booked in a singles match against one of the Shield’s many rivals, you could count on it being among the best matches of the card.
Following the Shield’s babyface turn, Rollins shined with his daredevil high-flying and crowd pleasing move set, but he shocked us all by abruptly turning back heel and joining the Authority in the early summer. Most had Ambrose tagged as the burgeoning bad guy and Reigns as the babyface star with Rollins as an afterthought; this still could have happened post-chair shot to Roman, but Seth didn’t let it. Whether winning Money in the Bank, feuding with Ambrose, antagonizing John Cena or serving as the Authority’s golden boy to the displeasure of Randy Orton, Rollins has carried himself with fitting swagger, improving his mic skills and even raising his in-ring game another level.
I love watching Seth Rollins work no matter who he’s matched up against; he’s the highlight of most WWE programming for me. He got the ball handed to him in a major way this year and carried it right over the goal line for my money; he’s the antagonist the company needs and can make anybody working with him look good. For his hard work and unexpected success, Seth Rollins gets my vote as MVP of 2014.
5. JERVIS COTTONBELLY
Snicker all you want, but there’s a reason why this masked gentleman has become a favorite of PTBN’s Main Event crew. Jervis is everything that’s fun about professional wrestling, a light-hearted character that delights adults and kids alike. He clearly served as the inspiration for another popular group, the Vaudevillians, and even raised his own position, fighting alongside the Chikara faithful after losing his dear friend, the Estonian ThunderFrog earlier in the year.
4. AJ STYLES
During the last year of AJ Styles’ long run in Impact Wrestling, he floundered under a poor storyline that never really had a payoff. During this time, Styles turned back and forth between face and heel, admirably changing his entire repertoire. After a drawn out contract battle, Styles decided to head out on his own, and he found remarkable success this year, becoming the first American IWGP champion since 2006, having dream matches with performers around the world and working with the next generation of talent in Ring of Honor.
Though many matches stand out this year, perhaps the most critically acclaimed is his G1 Climax bout with Minoru Suzuki.
3. SAMI ZAYN
Sami Zayn is probably my favorite individual performer in wrestling right now. I was concerned how Sami would fare in the WWE system and, at least as it pertains to NXT, those fears were unfounded. Zayn has become the face of the developmental system, now acting as both its champion and the person on every advertisement for the product. He has few peers in his role as an underdog face, displaying a wide range of emotion while performing at a high athletic level.
Zayn’s matches with Cesaro earlier this year were a hybrid of the independent and WWE style; the two-out-of-three falls bout will likely head up many best of WWE match lists this year. In terms of storytelling, Zayn’s recent climb towards the NXT title, after losing multiple high-level matches, also deserves a second look. I still have my doubts on whether his skill sets will work on the main roster, but I’ll be backing him the entire way.
1 & 2. THE YOUNG BUCKS
In my mind, the most innovative wrestlers in the country; whether in Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla or New Japan Pro Wrestling, they steal the show on every card they’re on. Some people get caught up on their antics and over-focus on spots, but that’s part of their charm to me. They can superkick streamers out of the sky, and then they follow it up with a great story in the ring focused on Matt’s legitimately broken hand.
For a prime example of their worthiness for this position, check out their series with ReDRagon that spilled over two continents or their New Japan match with the Forever Hooligans from May (thanks, Brett Carlson!).
In a year that many openly criticized the mainstream wrestling product, becoming jaded and negative, I’ve instead looked to find those wrestlers and promotions that bring a smile to my face, either from their athletic ability, their creativity, or both. Thankfully, there are so many examples to choose from, the preceding five being my favorites for 2014.
So right off the bat, let me preface this by saying I thought 2014 was a year of wasted opportunities and, on the whole, a year I’d like to forget as a fan. Sure, there were a lot of great matches, but the lack of cohesive storytelling (in and out of ring) coupled with the WWE not giving a shit about what anyone wants (except them) really left me put off as a long time fan. It’s strange that at a time where the in-ring talent of the guys has never been better, they can continuously disappoint and get further and further away from who they are. Well, that’s depressing. On to the good stuff.
Horrible booking aside, he gave me my two favorite moments of the year (the streak ending and destroying Cena). He gave me hope they would go in a new direction. I was wrong.
Every time they give him time he excels. Zayn in NXT, the WrestleMania Battle Royal, the matches with Sheamus, and the two out of three falls match against Ziggler were all amazing teases of this sure fire main eventer. Too bad they hate him.
Gave us biggest feel good moment since…Jesus, I can’t even remember. Had he been there the whole year, he would have waltzed out with number one.
Without them we never would have gotten said feel good moment.
5. SETH ROLLINS
Started the year with a tremendous showing at the Royal Rumble and immediately followed up with a potential match of the year with the Wyatt Family at Elimination Chamber. The series with Evolution produced two more classics and all this was done before he had what could be a career defining turn. Since said turn, he’s been the driving force on the heel side of things and has performed admirably. With champion Lesnar gone, Rollins has been even more impressive, stealing almost every Raw and creating a character we want to see get his face kicked in. He may have ended the year in the vacuum that is a feud with Cena, but you can’t take away the fantastic performances from Money in the Bank and Survivor Serie or his memorable feud with Dean Ambrose. He is a star due to his work in the past year, and 2015 only looks brighter.
4. THE RAW COMMENTARY TEAM
What? I want to personally thank Michael Cole, Jerry Lawler and JBL for making it possible for me to spend three extra hours with my son on Mondays. You know, it’s really no surprise that the biggest boom periods in wrestling correlate with some of the greatest commentary teams of all time. And don’t give me any malarkey about Cole and Lawler having less to work with; Ventura made Bushwhacker matches watchable and Ross make D’Lo Brown interesting. It’s like the company has no idea that these are the characters we have to spend the entire show with. If we can’t stand the commentary, we can’t stand the show. But hey, what do I know, these three constantly seem like they’re having the time of their lives out there, so who am I to say they’re terrible? It takes a special kind of psychopath to laugh with glee about how clever they are while two men beat the living shit out of each other. It also takes a special kind of asshole to outright mock the fans for liking who they like or paying for pay per views (who cares if we couldn’t get the network yet while they were doing it. We should have been stealing it! We’re stupid Maggle!!!) It’s been years now with these fools, they have succeeded in getting no one over, and there is no end in sight. My favorite parts are the long silences in the show when they are clearly bored. That’s the best. Like in a match with Titus O’Neil against Darren Young (that, in fairness, is uninteresting), we may be a little more invested if you guys said something or got excited about anything that was happening. It’s actually your job, sell the action. Vince would have done it, Jesse would have done it, JR would have done it, Christ, even Tony Schiavone would have done it. The greats don’t tell us how to feel or what is funny, they show us. It’s a subtle difference but an important one. I can’t believe how much they’ve hurt and continue to hurt the product and yet they remain. It makes no sense. They need to get Regal up there immediately and pay Jim Ross (who I was sick of) whatever he wants until he can train his replacement.
Ok, where was I going? Right…thanks guys for giving me more time with my son.
3. LUKE HARPER & ERICK ROWAN
I love two hulking guys who not only beat the hell out of guys but can move and work with the best of them to boot. They killed it during the match at Elimination Chamber vs. the Shield and followed up with an amazing series with the Usos for the Tag titles. The sheer toughness in them just adds legitimacy to every match they’re in. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Harper’s performance on the outside of the ring during the Cena/Wyatt match at WrestleMania. I’ve never seen a guy so into his character and, as good as Bray can be, I’ve always found that it was Harper who made the gimmick. Rowan seems to have stalled after the split, but Harper was an amazing part of the Survivor Series main event and finished the year with the tremendous ladder match against Ziggler. I can’t wait to see how both of them grow in the new year. Personally, I’d just put them back together. Get the family back together Bray, use your weird persuasion powers. They may not have worked on Cena, but boy did you make him growly for about 30 seconds.
2. DOLPH ZIGGLER
Now I just feel like one of those whiny Internet fans that the WWE is always telling us are unimportant (and showing us with their actions). If they don’t push Ziggler going into 2015, I’m not sure if they shouldn’t just release him. I don’t know if I remember a guy who consistently gets the reactions Ziggler gets and yet we constantly hear about how he doesn’t have it. He has it. 2014 proved it. He started the year quiet but then started having sneaky great little performances. He was a huge part of the greatest battle royal of all time at WrestleMania and had a superb little outing at Money in the Bank. His second half kicked off with him taking the IC title off Miz and doing all he could to add prestige to the belt. Great defenses on Raw and SmackDown (including that awesome three way with Cesaro and Kidd), and I love that two out of three falls match with Cesaro at Hell in a Cell. The final two pay per view outings of the year showed us a guy who’s ready to have the rocket strapped to his ass. He carried the Survivor Series main event both in-ring and emotionally and followed up with a potential match of the year with Harper. Every time he’s out there, he’s great. I wish he’d stop calling himself a show-off, (does a show-off actually call themselves that?) and just be the stud that he is and can be. 2015 should be his year. It won’t be, but it should.
All of it. There’s nothing (short of the streak ending moment) that made me more excited to be a wrestling fan in 2014 than NXT. All of their specials were fantastic, R-Evolution being potentially the best show of the year, and their TV show is easily the best show every week. They throw lot of crap at the wall down there in Florida, but for every idea that doesn’t work, I feel like four or five do and that’s a great ratio. Their comedy stuff is great and doesn’t feel forced (perhaps because the announcers aren’t telling us how funny it is) and I would have never imagined how much an act like the Vaudevillans would make me laugh and smile. Charlotte (and to a lesser extent Sasha Banks) have legit made me excited to watch women’s wrestling. That hasn’t happened in…in…ever. Every time I tune in to NXT, I’m given great matches, interesting characters and no bullshit. Neville and Zayn had a match that would rival any that the main roster put on in the last year. After one entrance, Finn Balor looks like the biggest star in the company. Why does everything click there and so little clicks up with the “Big Boys?” The best thing about NXT on top of its sheer excellence is that it gives me hope. This could be the future of the company. They know how to book a wrestling show with an old school philosophy colored with a contemporary voice. They know how to do it. Just do it in 2015! At least give us the damn commentators.
And now, our overall Five Count…
5. DOLPH ZIGGLER
It’s nothing new, but Dolph Ziggler had a great year. In a perfect world, he’d be a multiple-time WWE champ by now, but he’ll have to settle for the fans’ universal love.
While there may be skepticism about WWE’s main stage product, the future looks bright across the board thanks to NXT. From performers to production, the weekly shows and Network specials remain a source of wrestling joy.
3. THE YOUNG BUCKS
Touring tag team sensations, Nick and Matt Jackson made fans cheer everywhere they appeared over the past year. Whether playing obnoxious jerks or fun-loving high flyers, the Young Bucks put their bodies on the line to forge a worldwide reputation as the guys who can’t be missed.
2. SETH ROLLINS
Over 12 months of injured Superstars and stalled pushes, nobody performed as consistently in a WWE ring as Seth Rollins. Breaking away from the Shield, “The Architect” defied expectations with a solid heel turn and evolved into the top villain in the company, providing a foil for the likes of Dean Ambrose and John Cena while continuing to put together in-ring masterpieces.
1. AJ STYLES
The “face of TNA” for over a decade finally showed his full potential after breaking away from the promotion that so long defined him. Traveling the world and dominating multiple federations, “The Phenomenal One” put on great matches from the U.S. to Japan, etching an indelible mark on the Land of the Rising Sun and cementing himself as a true international superstar. 2014 may have been the greatest year in AJ Styles’ remarkable career, and as fans, we’re all reaping the rewards.