Today we feature Part 2 of the 2014 Wrestler of the Year Countdown. To see those wrestlers who earned honorable mentions, see here: 2014 Wrestler of the Year – Honorable Mention.
- CM Punk
Wrestler of the Week Wins: 0
Did you know that CM Punk was 1-5 in competitive wrestling matches in 2014, with his only win coming in a singles match against Billy Gunn? Of course, Punk’s in-ring performance has almost nothing to do with the shockwaves he sent through the wrestlig world. Punk has been the best wreslter of the last five years and probably the last ten. If this countdown existed at the time, he would have won Wrestler of the Year at least two times and possibly more. With that in mind, it is no surprise that Punk could find his way on this list without much to speak of in the ring.
When Punk walked away from WWE the night after the Royal Rumble, it became headline news beore that night’s episode of Raw was even complete. Both Punk and WWE remained quiet about the situation for several months. Fans speculated about whether was secretly injured, fed up with his push (as demonstrated by his lone, mysterious tweet, “The view never changes,”) fed up with others’ pushes, frustrated with WWE’s treatment of wrestlers, protesting his pay, or just annoyed at management.
It is easy to forget now, but nearly everyone seemed to believe that Punk would return for Wrestlemania, whether in a match against HHH or someone else. Fans chanted Punk’s name as proxy for disastisfaction with WWE for months.
Then, Punk’s contract ran out in July and stories started to trickle out about legal action over his royalties. Punk married AJ Lee and appeared on The Talking Dead. Every time Punk’s name came up, it became clearer and clearer that he was not on the verge of a triumphant return. He did not only have a lingering injury that simply needed time to heal before he would return. He did not pull a Bruiser Brody and walk out on the company in hopes of a bigger contract.
On Thanksgiving Day, Punk finally broke his silence on Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling Podcast. His list of grievances was a combination of all of the fan speculation listed earlier. Most importantly, Punk made it clear that he and HHH do not get along and their personalities are not ever likely to mesh with one another.
In December, Punk appeared at a UFC show and announced that he had signed a contract to become an MMA fighter for the promotion. His two week run on Cabana’s podcast got his name back in the popular conversation and the UFC news elevated it in a big way- the timing was too perfect to be an accident.
Almost immediately, Punk became a bigger story than WWE or UFC, clearly reinforcing his implied complaint that WWE never knew what kind of star they had with him. Truly, there is no other wrestler in WWE or elsewhere who could leave wrestling for a year and make the conditions of his departure one of the company’s top storylines for the entire year. That’s how Punk gets on this list with little more than a WWE cameo in 2014.
- Brock Lesnar
Wrestler of the Week Wins: 1
Can a professional wrestler reach the pinnacle of his business if his matches for the year number in the single digits? What if two of those matches are among the biggest storyline results in the last generation?
I’m not sure I know the answers to those questions, though Brock Lesnar’s run in WWE remains an on-going case study. Almost unbelievably, Lesnar wrestled only four matches in 2014, yet he was the champion for about half of the year, he conquered the Undertaker’s Wrestlemania streak, and his specter has loomed over WWE for the entire year.
It would be one thing for Lesnar to appear on this list if his four matches were all mat classics, but the reality is that only one of them stands out as an impressive match and even that one was highly unconventional.
First, Lesnar ambushed Big Show at the Royal Rumble with a chair before their match and left him motionless after a match that lasted for about two minutes. An author could write a book about all of the different angles involved in Lesnar’s win over Undertaker at Wrestlemania, but the fact remains that the wrestling in the match did not live up to the standard Undertaker had set over his previous seven outstanding outings at Wrestlemania.
When Lesnar finally resurfaced to face John Cena at Summerslam, he won the WWE Title in a glorified squash match, although the context made that result quite meaningful. Despite a dusty finish due to interference by Seth Rollins, the rematch at Night of Champions was a good match. Technically, it was Lesnar’s only loss of the year, and only by disqualification at that.
Has Lesnar’s role as a special attraction monster been good for WWE? With the WWE Network skewing PPV buy numbers and the inherent unreliability of TV ratings, it’s difficult to answer that question quantitatively.
From a storyline perspective, Lesnar’s title reign has done a few things that I really like. He has made every title defense feel unique and special, which also helps to legitimize and elevate the title. Without Lesnar, the fall and winter would have been littered with more permutations of Cena, Randy Orton, Kane, and Big Show in PPV main events unless WWE decided to rush Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, or Bray Wyatt into that position before the time was right. On top of that, Paul Heyman’s presence has magnified Lesnar’s importace beyond the scope of those four matches.
While I would like to see those 4 matches turn into about 6-8, I ultimately think Lesar had a highly successful 2014 that made WWE better in the immediate term as well as the long run.
Wrestler of the Week Wins: 5
In some ways, Cesaro was the exact inverse of Brock Lesnar in 2014. Where Lesnar was mostly inactive, Cesaro wrestled more total matches than anyone else in WWE. Where Lesnar was a little sloppy when he did get in the ring, Cesaro was a technician with no equal. Where Lesnar was a monster who could never lose, Cesaro seemed to lose match after match to wrestlers who are unquestionably less talented than him. Where Lesnar got over in part because of his perfect pairing with Paul Heyman, Cesaro was somehow hurt by his association with Heyman.
Cesaro was the Wrestler of the Week five times in 2014. That means that there were five weeks this year in which he was the single most impressive wrestler in WWE or any other wrestling promotion in the United States. How is it possible that he could be the best 10% of the time, yet still seem to have such an unimpressive year? Above all, the answer comes down to inconsistent opportunities. No matter how many great matches Cesaro submitted, he has yet to earn the WWE’s trust that he is a main event level star.
In the early part of 2014, it seemed like Cesaro was on track to earn that trust. He had a pair of fantastic matches with Randy Orton and John Cena in one week that made him feel like someone destined for the spotlight in short order. Not only did he look competitive, they were two of the best matches on free TV all year, which is definitely a feather in the cap of a wrestler who prides himself on his ability to work.
He wrestled his way into the six-man main event at Elimination Chamber, only to have a poor showing at the PPV. He quickly rebounded at Wrestlemania with a win in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal that was accompanied by the dissolution of his Real Americans team with Jack Swagger.
The momentum did not carry on, though, as the Battle Royal win did not catapult him to bigger and better things. He did not factor into the main event plotline with The Authority and his association with Heyman never got him extra heat. He wrestled frequently with Swagger as a former associate, but the matches never carried much weight. Even when he won a triple threat elimination match with Swagger and Rob Van Dam at Elimination Chamber, it just felt like a match to keep him busy until something better came along.
It seemed like Cesaro was primed for something better over the summer. Even though he repeatedly got close, he never quite got to the point where he was trusted to take the ball and run with it. He lost to Sheamus in a US Title match at Payback, and Bad News Barrett in an Intercontinental Title match shortly thereafter. He got into the main event at the Money in the Bank PPV but never seriously factored into the outcome when John Cena retrieved the WWE Title suspended above the ladder.
From there, he went on an awful losing streak that almost carried him through the rest of the year despite consistently strong performances in the ring. He challenged both Sheamus for the US Title and Dolph Ziggler for the Intercontinental Title and put on tough, credible matches despite his subpar won-loss record.
Near the end of the year, Vince McMahon addressed Cesaro specifically on Steve Austin’s podcast. He said that Cesaro is extremely talented, but has not found a way to emotionally connect with the fans. While one could argue that McMahon’s comments were overly vague or that WWE has not done enough to make fans invested in Cesaro, the takeaway was clear that he had to add a new wrinkle.
Cesaro comes off as extremely intelligent on top of his prodigious talent and immediately took Vince’s advice by trying something new- teaming with the similarly overlooked Tyson Kidd. With Natalya as a tweener valet, the team has already started to look like a legitimately entertaining tag team duo in a division with too many comedy acts and not enough competitors.
While it’s too early to say with any confidence, Cesaro might be headed in a better direction for 2015. Despite all of his outstanding moments in 2014, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. He finished the year lower on the WWE pecking order than he started it. Cesaro will have to work to continue to refine his personality in 2015 so that he becomes more than the talented worker who never gets the break he deserves.