As I explained in Part 1 (and again in Part 2! And Part 3!), 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 Schirmaker, 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.
This week I bring you Matches #10-6, starting with….
#10: Katsuyori Shibata vs. Tomoaki Honma
G1 Climax – Night 8 (NJPW), August 3, 2014
What It’s All About: Shibata is the tough-guy shooter who had an epic encounter with Tanahashi earlier in this list (see Part 3), while Honma is New Japan’s scrappy underdog who can never squeak out that big win. Oh, and he’s super, super over. Two very different wrestlers meet here as part of the G1 tournament in what is a fast, intense match.
Spot of the Match: I gotta say I’m tempted to hand it to Shibata for yet another badass spinning back fist as I did with the Tanahashi match, but I think Honma deserves some love here. His diving head butts get a huge reaction every time he attempts one, regardless of whether or not he actually hits it. After mixed success with the move in this match, he attempts a diving head butt from the top rope as the crowd goes absolutely bonkers for him. But Shibata crushes their hopes by lifting his legs as Honma gets a head full of boot instead. This is the turning point of the match and would eventually spell the end of Honma.
What Could Have Been Better: Normally I would say this should have been a little bit longer at just around 11 minutes in length, but the length actually felt appropriate here. If anything, I’ll say that maybe Honma should have gotten the win here, after losing every other match in the tournament. I know his character is the “underdog”, but if there ever was a time to let him get a big win this would be it, with the crowd in an absolute frenzy for him. But in a match this good, the winner is hardly relevant.
Why It’s Great: Honma has incredible charisma in the ring, and is able to draw major sympathy with the crowd. They seem to pop for just about everything he does, especially those beloved head butts of his! He also has really great facial expressions that make it feel like he is really battling and struggling to overcome all odds, and it really adds to his character. Shibata makes for a great contrast, as he’s clearly portrayed as the more skilled, “serious” fighter to Honma’s less refined, balls-to-the-wall style. Both of these guys brought serious intensity to this match, and never let up for one second. What a blast!
#9: Tomohiro Ishii vs. Hirooki Goto
Power Struggle (NJPW), November 8, 2014
What It’s All About: Ishii is defending his NEVER Openweight Championship – NJPW’s “tough man” title – against Hirooki Goto, a massive beast of a man who looks like he walked right off a Japanese Samurai film. Oh, and Ishii? Yeah, he’s pretty much a badass. These two proceed to beat the living crap out of each for 20 minutes solid.
Spot of the Match: At one point Ishii and Goto are taking turns hitting clotheslines on each other, no-selling at first, then egging each other on, and eventually each clothesline took its toll more and more until they hit a double clothesline and both tumbled to the ground. It was like two rhinos just goring each other to a pulp.
What Could Have Been Better: The nitpicker in me wants to say that, while the match was insanely enjoyable and brutal all at the same time, it didn’t tell much in the way of a cohesive story. But then I slap myself in the face and say “no dummy, two brutes just beating the living crap out of each other IS the story!” Ishii even tightened up those forearms a bit since the Ibushi match, so he must be reading this column!
Why It’s Great: Absolutely everything works here – the slaps, the forearms, the lariats; the selling and the no selling; the “fuck you!” one-count kickouts. I love the fact that they never take the action out of the ring. There are no cheap shots. There is only one “high” spot – a superplex from Ishii to Goto from the top rope – and it is so effective after an entire match of nothing but these two brutes bombarding each other with everything they’ve got. Ishii really does a good job of making his matches feel believable, they always have a very “shoot” feel to them and this is no exception. The finish is great, as Ishii just gets fed up and begins to hit Goto with vicious lariats only to get a 2 count every time. Finally he says “ok, then, if you insist”, and lifts Goto into his well-protected BrainBuster finisher, which looks incredible impressive when delivered to a hulk the size of Goto. If you like “Hoss” matches…or um, wrestling at all– you will enjoy this match greatly.
#8. Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H
WrestleMania XXX (WWE), April 6
What It’s All About: You know the story by now: scrappy “B+” player Daniel Bryan seeks to overcome the odds and prove his doubters wrong. And his biggest doubter was the COO of WWE himself, Triple H. This match is another one on the list I attended live, and I imagine the “I was there!” bias may factor in to my enjoyment.
Spot of the Match: Dare I? Dare I award a “spot of the match” to the oft-maligned Triple H? I can’t resist, as his tiger suplex was not only an unexpected move, but also a logical escalation of the damage being inflicted on Bryan’s shoulder before and during the match.
What Could Have Been Better: Have I mentioned this is becoming a difficult space to fill? So much was done right in this match, from the big things to the little things, so where can I find fault? I’ll just say that I might have preferred if Hunter had tapped to Bryan to really put him all the way over. Not that I can argue with a clean pin fall finish to Bryan’s running knee finisher. Like I said, I got space to fill!
Why It’s Great: Why is this great? How much time ya got? This was easily one of Hunter’s top 3 matches of all time and it might even be #1. He played the role of cocky, bully heel perfectly. He truly delivered a performance worthy of a “cerebral assassin”, focusing on Bryan’s injured shoulder and assaulting it with a varied offense. He wrestled a match in Bryan’s style with a fast pace that never really let up. The finish should never have been in doubt but I still found myself gasping with terror when Hunter set Bryan up for the pedigree. The addition of Stephanie was pure icing on the cake, as she played the role of shrieking, evil, witch lady to perfection, not to mention the pre-match “Eskimo kisses” antics with Hunter. This is a perfect match in every way, and one of the greatest opening matches to a show of all time.
#7. Tetsuya Naito vs. Tomohiro Ishii
New Beginning in Osaka (NJPW), February 11, 2014
What It’s All About: The third and final Ishii match in the Top 25, and this is the match where he first won the NEVER Openweight Championship from Naito to begin his run of tremendous title matches. As I’ve come to expect with Ishii matches at this point, this one is intense, stiff, and incredibly dramatic.
Spot of the Match: At one point towards the end of the match Naito hits an absolutely gorgeous German suplex and Ishii acts like his arm literally exploded upon impact. This wins the award for the combination of perfect execution and excellent, believable selling.
What Could Have Been Better: Naito had some pretty weak forearms. But that’s about all I’ve got.
Why It’s Great: “WHO’S DA CHAMPION NOW” Ishii yells in Naito’s face in English. Have I mentioned Ishii is pretty intense? Much like with Ibushi, Naito wrestles a much different style than Ishii but really cranks up the intensity to match Ishii’s aggression. Both men delivered vicious head butts, strikes, lariats, and suplexes. For some reason the crowd hated Naito and he played up the heel role well with some of his mannerisms and taunting. The final few moments were truly tense with near fall after near fall. The two exchanged head butts until Naito is literally drooling, before Ishii hits a kick to Naito’s head out of nowhere followed by the same BrainBuster he would use to successfully defend his NEVER title for the remainder of the year. I’m not sure that I didn’t like the match with Ibushi slightly better, but I guess you’ll just have to stay tuned for my re-rankings (cheap plug!) in the next few weeks!
#6. Atlantis vs. Ultimo Guerrero
81st Anniversary (CMLL), September 19, 2014
What It’s All About: Apparently this is kind of a big deal. If I hadn’t read about the background to this match I would still know it was a big deal from the elaborate entrances for both Atlantis and Ultimo, and how electric the crowd was. This is a mask vs. mask match – and stakes just don’t get higher than that in Lucha Libre – between longtime rivals. And, par for the course in CMLL, it’s a two out of three falls match.
Spot of the Match: My favorite spot wasn’t even a “spot” as much as a (worked, I believe) “blown spot” when Atlantis gets Guerrero in his submission move, but can’t hold him up and collapses against the rope. This just helped the get the match over as an epic contest where these two were fighting with every last ounce of energy in their souls. After a match like this, it was perfectly reasonable to believe Atlantis legs would go out from under him at that moment. The fact the match went a few more minutes makes me think it was a planned spot and not a botched finish or anything.g
What Could Have Been Better: My biggest complaint about the CMLL two out of three falls matches are that the first two falls often seem to come so easily for each guy, and this was the case in this match as well. The first falls just feel like a throwaway to setup the “real” match in the third fall. It also bothers me how easily both how easily Ultimo Guerrero submits to end the match. This is the biggest match of his career, with the mask on the line, and he taps out within a millisecond? Seems like maybe he should have tried to show some fight especially after such an epic battle.
Why It’s Great: Now that my complaints are out of the way, I’ll explain what was great about this match, which was just about everything else. This match is a great example of the “pageantry” of pro wrestling and there are so many little things outside of the match which contribute to the “big match” feel – the entrances, the announcer, the crowd, Guerrero’s unmasking and speech afterwards, his crying family, the respect shown by longtime rival Atlantis. Even having never seen these two wrestle before I could feel the emotion. The third caida really did feel like an epic match. I really liked how instead of focusing simply on doing damage to each other, they were constantly going for pinfalls out of every move, whether it was a simple rollup or a higher impact power bomb. This really emphasized how important actually winning the match was to these guys, something that often gets lost in epic matches where opponents will just inflict damage upon each other before the eventual finish. What this match lacks up for in substance in makes up for in the overall presentation. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I was actually invested in this feud coming into it!
Well that’s it for Part 4! 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! Next week, I’ll finish up the Top Ten by looking at Matches #5-1. Check out the list at Voices of Wrestling if you want to do your homework ahead of time.