1/8/15 – Andrew Berg – @WrestleRosters
WOTW – 2, MOTW – 5
There seems to be a popular perception that Cesaro has not reached his peak or that WWE has prevented him from fulfilling his potential. He has apparently inherited the title from Dolph Ziggler as the wrestler who has been “buried” by the company. The reality is that Cesaro, when healthy, is on Raw every week, wrestles dependably good matches, and works with a variety of top opponents.
Early in the year, Cesaro fell into an accidental tag team with Tyson Kidd. As he typically does, he made the most of the situation. The tag team became surprisingly popular, successful, and innovative even though they were originally put together as a throwaway in a one-off match. They wrestled a series of very fun matches (with similarly fun vignettes) with the Usos and took the Tag Team Titles from them. After they fended off the Usos, they started to feud with New Day. The two teams executed a subtle double turn that allowed the fans to embrace Kidd and Cesaro and formally turn on New Day.
Unfortunately, Kidd’s untimely neck injury prematurely separated the team and reset Cesaro once again. Cesaro did what he always does and got himself back on track with a series of exceptional matches that had no business being as good as they were. He answered one of John Cena’s US Open Challenges and reminded fans that he works some of his best matches when the lights shine brightest. That performance inserted him in the ongoing rivalry between Cena and Kevin Owens. Once Cena beat Owens to retain his US Title, Owens turned his attention to Cesaro and they worked a series of very good matches over the following months. Cesaro also brushed up against the main event around the same time in matches with Randy Orton with a shot at Seth Rollins on the line.
Like Kidd, Cesaro suffered an injury that required major surgery and ended his 2015. He still worked the vast majority of the calendar year, so it should not be considered a lost year. Cesaro’s fans are right that he has as much ability to entertain in a wrestling ring as anyone in WWE. On the other hand, the fact that he does not wrestle in every main event does not mean that he has been “buried.” Instead, fans should be grateful that they get to watch Cesaro wrestle so many fun matches against so many interesting opponents on a big stage in his prime. Even without the WWE Title, he was one of the best wrestlers of 2015.
- Prince Puma
WOTW – 0, MOTW – 3
Puma, also known as Ricochet, made his mark on the wrestling world before 2015 as a fantastic Junior Heavyweight working in Japan and American indy promotions. With that notoriety as a baseline, he took a big step forward as the top star in Lucha Underground from the day the promotion started. Working under a mask as Prince Puma, he wrestled Johnny Mundo in the main event of the first LU show and only got better from there. Even though LU only aired for an hour per week for the first seven months of the year, Puma was a standout star with numerous memorable moments.
Puma became the clear standard-bearer for LU when he won the Aztec Warfare match in January. The match itself was innovative- a Royal Rumble-style battle royal with a War Games twist that slated the last two combatants in a singles match. Puma beat Mil Muertes in a match that would have been impressive even if he hadn’t just completed an exhausting battle royal. Puma’s combination of strength, agility, and athleticism are unmatched in wrestling today, but his endurance might be his most impressive characteristic.
Over the ensuing months, Puma regularly defended his LU Title and never had a bad match. He wrestled King Cuerno and Mundo in some very good matches. His most memorable rivalry of the period pitted him against Cage. It showed Puma’s capacity to work great matches with bigger opponents. Even at his young age, he showed an ability to put together a compelling match with a story that fits into the larger scope of his rivalry.
As the LU season started to wind down, Puma squared off with a rejuvenated Mil Muertes in the main event of Ultima Lucha. Their match didn’t have the gory spectacle of the Pentagon Jr-Vampiro match, but it was one of the best told stories of the year. Even though Muertes came away with the win and the title, Puma was one of LU’s breakout stars and the most important wrestler in the season in which LU started to revolutionize wrestling on TV.
Puma’s character in LU was Konnan’s protégé, partially to give him legitimacy in the lucha world and partially to give him a mouthpiece. Puma has had more responsibility on the mic in his stints with Chikara, Dragon Gate, and NJPW and has shown that he has no trouble speaking for himself. At 27, Puma has the potential to big a transcendent wrestling star. To meet that potential, he will have to take on more verbal responsibility and excel at it. The other interesting question is how long Puma stays out of the WWE system. He already lives with two WWE wrestlers, and despite a long-term contract with LU, it seems natural that one of wrestling’s biggest talents will eventual work for its biggest company.
- Jay Lethal
WOTW – 2, MOTW – 3
Twelve years after debuting in ROH and nine years after he broke through in TNA, Lethal became the man in ROH. He started in 2004 as a child prodigy and understudy to Samoa Joe. In 2015, Lethal held the ROH World and TV Titles simultaneously, thereby becoming the face of the company and probably the top independent wrestler in the US.
As John Cena did with the US Title in WWE, Lethal elevated the prestige of the ROH TV Title at the end of 2014 and start of 2015. He used his status, wrestling, and tremendous speaking ability to argue that the TV Title was the real top belt in the company, ahead of Jay Briscoe’s ROH World Title. He substantiated the claim by beating a wide variety of challengers and becoming the TV Champion with the most successful defenses in March.
The seeds were planted for an eventual match between Lethal and Briscoe as early as 2014 when Lethal started to assert the primacy of his title. They did not square off until the summer, when their title vs. title match headlined ROH’s Best in the World PPV. They wrestled one of the promotion’s best matches of the year that ended with Lethal surviving a Jay Driller. He used a Lethal Injection to give Briscoe his first loss in almost two years and become the undisputed champion of ROH.
The win gave more credibility to Lethal’s claim that he is truly the best wrestler in the world. He did not sacrifice either title, instead choosing to routinely defend them both in quick succession. Sometimes he even defended both titles on the same show. Most impressively, he beat both members of Redragon to retain both of his belts in the same night.
As great as his feud with Briscoe became, Lethal’s best feud of the year was his long-running rivalry with old adversary Roderick Strong. ROH systematically rebuilt Strong into a title contender over the course of 2015 so he felt like a very viable threat when he reached the top of the card. Lethal repeatedly escaped by the skin of his teeth, including a 60-minute draw that was another candidate for ROH’s match of the year. While Strong was not able to become World Champion, he finally picked up a win for the TV Title in a cathartic moment that earned a huge pop- a testament to emotion that Lethal evokes.
On top of Lethal’s high-end feuds, he toured the country as the headliner for ROH’s non-televised shows. He worked with some of the top Japanese wrestlers through the company’s NJPW talent exchange. He showed that he has the ability to put on entertaining matches with any type of talent in the opposite corner.
There are some parallels between Lethal’s career and Daniel Bryan’s success before he arrived in WWE. While Lethal does not have the same generational technical ability that makes Bryan so special, he’s no slouch in the ring and surpasses Bryan on the mic. Both wrestlers gradually grew from respected indy darlings to kings of the independent wrestling world. Lethal is still only 30 years old and Bryan became a full-time, permanent WWE wrestler at 29. The evidence so far indicates that Lethal can thrive in any wrestling environment. If 2015 was his high-water mark, he will go down as a great, memorable wrestler. Don’t be surprised if he has even more room to grow on a bigger stage.