1/13/16 – Andrew Berg – @WrestleRosters
Check out the previous Wrestler of the Year Entries:
- Kevin Owens
Wrestler of the Week- 5, Match of the Week- 7
About ten years ago, an Argentine soccer fan told me that his national team would never succeed until they stopped trying to find the next Diego Maradona and instead embraced the first successor. A decade later, Lionel Messi has established himself as the greatest player of his generation, the first Messi. Out of Maradona’s shadow, he took his country all the way to the finals of the 2014 World Cup.
With Owens, WWE has their own first. They have spent the last decade attempting to forge a second edition of The Rock, Steve Austin, or John Cena (one might even argue that Cena is nothing more than a slightly worse facsimile of The Rock). That strategy has yielded some moderate success, from Batista to Roman Reigns. It has also created some miserable failures. Although he incorporates elements of many stars who came before him, Owens is in every way his own star.
Owens debuted in NXT near the end of 2014 and immediately became the top star in the promotion. He beat Sami Zayn in his second show and became one of the most effective heels in all of WWE. He only stayed in NXT for a few months, dropping the title to Finn Balor at WWE’s Beast in the East show from Japan around the time he became a full-time member of the main roster.
Owens’s greatest achievement of the year was concomitant with his assignment to the main roster. He attacked John Cena in his debut and cleanly beat Cena with a Pop-Up Powerbomb in his first official match. He went on to wrestle two more PPV matches with Cena at the next two major shows. He lost both, but the exquisite quality of the first two guaranteed that Owens and Cena would appear on every shortlist for Match of the Year and Feud of the Year.
Owens backed off slightly after the losses to Cena. He quickly reestablished himself with more outstanding matches against Cesaro. Their rivalry was uniquely interesting because both seemed to be on their way up the card and either appeared capable of coming out on top. Owens proved to be the faster riser when he emerged victorious. Along the way, they participated in three separate matches that I judged to be the best match of the week. One would expect Cesaro and Owens to wrestle good matches and they absolutely lived up to that expectation.
As the year wound down, Owens regained gold by beating Ryback decisively for the Intercontinental Title. He made a run at the WWE Title before losing to Dean Ambrose in the semifinals of the Survivor Series tournament. The match against Ambrose led to a an Intercontinental Title challenge, which resulted in Ambrose taking the belt from him. The Ambrose-Owens rivalry is a work in progress as the year ends, but it appears to have the potential to be very good for both wrestlers.
The distinguishing feature about Owens is that there is no weak spot in his wrestling arsenal. He can do everything in the ring, from drawing a fan response from a headlock to launching himself over the top rope to the floor. He wrestled great matches with so many different wrestlers this year that it would be shocking to see him have anything but an exceptional outing. Even with that foundation, his greatest strength is probably his ability to tell stories on the mic. He can create a compelling background for every one of his matches, even if it’s something as simple as his disdain for Ryback’s pop psychology books.
Owens is a future WWE Champion, but even that compliment sells him short. He is already the most reliably entertaining wrestler in WWE and he only joined the company a year ago. We don’t talk about Owens as a massive, era defining star because he is so unlike the era defining stars who came before him. Then again, everyone from Hulk Hogan to Steve Austin was unlike the stars who came before them. Owens is good enough in every way to change our understanding of a transcendent wrestling star. Ten years from now, the question we might be asking ourselves is where WWE is going to find the next Kevin Owens.
- New Day
WOTW – 2, MOTW – 4
It’s often difficult to see the effects of paradigm shift while it happens. Only with the benefit of hindsight are we able to see a revolutionary change because we aren’t equipped to process the unfamiliar in the moment. The popular narrative is that New Day were saddled with an obnoxiously corny gimmick as an overly positive band of miscreants and overcame it with determination and creativity. I’m sure there’s some truth in that version of history, but I also believe that New Day would never have become so popular without first actively antagonizing fans.
On a very simple level, New Day is a classic wrestling stable. Kofi Kingston is the aerial threat, Big E is the powerhouse enforcer, and Xavier Woods is the heat-drawing mouthpiece. Each of the three is charismatic and technically sound. It’s a simple formula that has been used, with some minor variation, dozens of times in wrestling history. The more interesting facet of the group is that they appear entirely original in spite of this elemental familiarity.
New Day have been anything but an overnight success, which is part of the reason that their present state works so well. Big E, Woods, and Kingston had all dealt with failed gimmicks and stalled pushes before coming together, and their partnership felt like something of a last, best shot for each of them. The early returns were not promising, as fans reacted to them with universal derision. They entered a feud with Tag Team Champions Tyson Kidd and Cesaro as part of a program that essentially became a double-turn. Kidd and Cesaro won the Tag Team Titles from the babyface Usos, but fans started to cheer them due to their in-ring heroics.
New Day started a series of matches with Kidd and Cesaro before Wrestlemania, and by the big event they were heels for all practical purposes. In fact, the night after Wrestlemania, the loud San Jose arena chose “New Day sucks” as its preferred chant of the night. To that end, many fans were dismayed when New Day first won the titles from Kidd and Cesaro at Extreme Rules. On the bright side, the match was one of many very good matches between the two teams and New Day continued to perform in the ring even as fans grew to hate them more and more.
Around the same time, New Day started to embrace their heelish side. They retained their titles in a rematch with Kidd and Cesaro and then fended off the Lucha Dragons and Prime Time Players, usually with heelish tactics. They dropped the titles to the Prime Time Players for about a month, but won them back in short order. All the while, they brushed up against the main event in singles and handicap matches that reaffirmed their status as burgeoning heel stars in WWE.
When New Day started to get real heat as heels, the members of the group took the opportunity and ran with it. Wrestlers struggling to get time on TV don’t have the leeway to go off script or come up with many of their own ideas. New Day earned a longer leash with a more traditionally heelish approach and they did a great job with their creative freedom. Woods started to use his trombone as a hilarious and memorable accessory/weapon. They came up with new jokes and catchphrases almost every week that were entertaining on their own, but also helped to advance their matches and stories. They even christened themselves as unicorns, producing one of WWE’s best excuses for accessories since Rey Mysterio’s mask.
After they won the titles for a second time, New Day started a rivalry with the returning Dudley Boys. They built the story around the idea of “saving the tables” rather than using them as weapons. The original idea seemed to be to use the Dudleys as an established name to give New Day a rub, but New Day simply got too big for that to work. Working with the Dudleys was not enough- New Day started to earn a large portion of the cheers over their more established foes. The Dudleys never took the Tag Team Titles from New Day as it became apparent that New Day had far more potential, even in the short term.
New Day dispatched the Dudleys and moved on to rivalry with the Usos. The teams had crossed paths before, but as allies. The Usos had been out of action for months. Before they had gone out, The Usos and New Day both played syrupy-sweet, super hero babyface teams. In the Usos’ absence, New Day grew into a very smart parody of that archetype, so their feud had some meaningful subtext baked into it. As they year drew to a close, New Day beat the Usos and Lucha Dragons in an outstanding Ladder Match at the TLC PPV. Headed into 2016, they are at the top of a tag team division that is more interesting than it has been in years.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about New Day is how they took so many tired tropes and turned them into advantages. The tag team division has been down for years, but they made it one of the highlights of every PPV. Their original gimmick was somewhere between stupid and offensive, yet they embraced it to the point of absurdity and made it fun to watch. They were bunched together as three guys who had more technical ability than charisma and they turned it into one of the most likable gimmicks going in WWE. It’s difficult to imagine how New Day can move another level up to the true main event, but everything they have done so far has been in defiance of expectations. I won’t write off the possibility of another step forward.
- John Cena
WOTW- 4, MOTW – 5
With WWE in a period of transition, Cena stands out on this list as the highest-rated veteran mainstay in the company. Of course, Cena stayed relevant by reinventing himself on the fly. Many fans tired of his cartoony superhero routine and begged him to change up his personality. Instead, Cena maintained his personality and reinvigorated his in-ring style. The result was that fans begrudgingly accepted his place among the best wrestlers in 2015 and even started to view him as a technical master.
Cena’s gradual rise up the technical wrestling ranks was hardly apparent at the start of the year. He was locked in a series of matches with the then-undefeated Rusev over the US Title. It made some sense that the uber-patriotic Cena would defend his nation’s honor against the invading foe, but it felt like a bit of a waste for Cena to get the first clean victory over Rusev. With so much gold on his resume, the US Title might seem like a step down and the credibility associated with beating Rusev would be better used by someone else. Rusev cheated to beat Cena in their first encouter, but Cena got the win in a decent rematch at Wrestlemania.
Although the Wrestlemania victory caused many fans to roll their eyes, Cena started his redemption tour the very next night. He introduced a US Open Challenge for anyone who wanted a shot at his US Title. His first defense was a very good match against Dean Ambrose. He went on to have great matches on Raw week after week. His wins over Neville, Sami Zayn, Bad News Barrett, Stardust, and Cesaro all stand out as very good matches that Cena wrestled on free TV. During what his normally a down-period for Raw after Wrestlemania, Cena guaranteed that there would be at least one must-see match every week.
The US Open Challenge brought Cena into his next feud, which would become one of the most memorable of the year. NXT Champion Kevin Owens did not formally face Cena when he answered the challenge. Instead, he attacked Cena and set himself up for a match at Elimination Chamber. Owens shockingly pinned Cena cleanly in one of the best matches of the year. They wrestled at the next two PPVs in two more outstanding matches and Cena got his wins back. Even with two wins in three tries, Cena’s initial loss and the quality of the matches put Owens on the map and helped him rise to a level just below the main event in his first year.
After Cena dispatched Owens, he focused his attention on WWE Champion Seth Rollins. Their first match put Cena’s US Title on the line, and he barely held on for the win after a Rollins knee destroyed his nose mid-match. They went on to face each other in a Title vs. Title main event at SummerSlam, which Rollins won. Even though Cena would win back the US Title from Rollins at Night of Champions, it was the initial run from Wrestlemania to SummerSlam that helped to reinvent Cena and endear him to a set of fans who had soured on him.
Cena’s final major match of the year was a loss to the returning Alberto Del Rio at Hell in a Cell. After working a grueling schedule through the spring and summer, Cena scheduled himself about six week of down time to finish the year. For someone who has been booed and hated by adult fans for so long, the fact that most of the audience was sad to see Cena leave for his time off was astonishing. We often get so caught up in the soap opera hijynx of pro wrestling that we lose sight of the fact that the bell-to-bell action is the lifeblood of the business. Cena proved in 2015 that he could reinvent himself without changing his persona outside the ring. Instead, he refocused his in-ring persona and put together so many great matches that no true fan would dare insult his record.