Last year I began an annual tradition of ranking the top 10 wrestlers from the previous year and analyzing their success in depth. This year, that list will branch out from WWE to include all major American promotions. WWE remains the biggest promotion in the country by a huge margin, so its wrestlers will dominate the list, but I think it is appropriate to give credit to non-WWE stars who have distinguished themselves on a smaller stage. For all the great work done by Japanese and Mexican wrestling promotions, I am not able to follow those promotions closely enough to comment authoritatively on their wrestlers.
Moreover, rankings such as these are never perfect or definitive. At their best, they can start a conversation, so feel free to jump in with your own rebuttals or rankings in response. Due to the length of the Wrestler of the Year (“WOTY”) project, these posts will be broken down into several pieces. Expect to see the rankings broken down into several segments over the next couple of weeks.
One can make a strong argument that Styles is the best professional wrestler in the world right now. For the purposes of this list, many of his greatest accomplishments in 2014- including winning the IWGP Heavyweight Title and working with the Bullet Club- happened in New Japan Pro Wrestling, outside the scope of my rankings. Styles wrestled his final match in TNA after a decade with the company early in January. He became a nomad who worked great matches everywhere from ROH to NJPW to AAA in Mexico. He wrestled memorable TV matches with Michael Elgin and Adam Cole in ROH and several other matches that got great reviews at non-televised shows.
At age 37, Styles is in the prime of his career. He has enough athleticism to continue to perform his entire offensive arsenal, yet he has the experience from which he can draw to enhance the psychology and narrative of any match. The result is that he can work with brawlers, giants, aerial wrestlers, technicians, or even young prospects and bring the most out of them. The bottom line is that if AJ Styles is wrestling on TV, you should make time to watch him.
Adrian Neville and Sami Zayn
The top two stars in NXT were joined at the hip for most of 2014. They separately stole the show at NXT Takeover when Neville beat Bo Dallas for the NXT Title and Zayn wrestled a phenomenal 2-out-of-3 falls match with Cesaro. At Takeover 2, they wrestled each other as well as Tyson Kidd and Tyler Breeze in the best Fatal Fourway match in ages. Finally, Zayn memorably overcame Neville for the NXT Title at (R)Evolution. On top of those high points, they have delivered week in and week out on NXT TV and have demonstrated that they are ready to become major stars on WWE’s main roster. If they are given the same opportunities in WWE that they received in NXT, they will work their way into the top 10 in 2015.
Back from the dead in 2014, Hardy got over as two completely different characters in separate promotions. First, he teamed with Michael Bennett and Adam Cole to form The Kingdom in ROH. He was one of the most purely heelish wrestlers in the world and even spoke about how he consciously changed his wrestling style to make fans hate him more. He not only made himself an impressively loathsome heel, he got Bennett and the likeable Cole tons of heel heat as well.
When he left ROH to go to TNA, he rejoined his brother Jeff to pursue the TNA Tag Team Titles. They wrestled the Wolves and Team 3D in a series of stipulation matches that were some of the best matches on Impact for a month straight. While they didn’t win the titles, Matt somehow regained the respect he had earlier in his career. His success at two opposing roles was a strange feat that few wrestlers could pull off.
Ethan Carter III
It was a lackluster year for much of TNA, but EC3 was a bright spot for the company. He was booked to look strong and generally find a way to win his matches on behalf of Dixie Carter as she tried to maintain power in the company. More importantly, he honed his mic skills to get real heat from the fans in almost any context. It was impressive that his heat remained even after the conclusion of his long program with Bully Ray and his associates. The transition into the fall-out with Rockstar Spud was surprisingly effective, and Carter deserves credit for a large part of that. He is a good example of where TNA can take advantage of WWE. He had obvious talent in the developmental territory, but never found a storyline that clicked. When TNA pounces on every released star, it comes off as a cheap imitation. When they can pick selectively and find a way to enhance talented wrestlers who didn’t hit their stride, they set themselves apart.
The night after Wrestlemania XXX, Paige broke into WWE as one of the most talented woman wrestlers since Gail Kim debuted more than a decade earlier. Despite her youth, she came to WWE with far more experience than some of the fitness models who she faces in the women’s division. Her extended program with AJ Lee was the highlight of the WWE Divas Division in 2014. When they were given the opportunity, they wrestled more physical and creative matches than fans are used to seeing from women in WWE. After they traded the title back and forth and went their separate ways, Paige lost some of her momentum. She continued to work excellent matches without a clear storyline behind them, which speaks well of her potential. The next step for Paige will be to refine her character so it does not need a built-in rival to resonate with fans.
If these rankings were done in real time rather than across the past year, Roode would certainly belong in the top 10. His gradual pursuit of Lashley’s TNA World Title and eventual win was a back-to-basics story that worked extremely well. Roode’s rudderless start to the year was the primary reason for his omission from the top 10. He played the heel character on Dixie Carter’s behalf against MVP’s faction. I find power struggle angles a bit unappealing to start, and when they are disorganized like this one, they do not do the wrestlers any favors. It was a breath of fresh air for Roode to turn face and go after Lashley’s title. His initial loss allowed him to show real passion and persistence before he finally won the title back on the last episode of Impact to air on Spike TV. TNA could not have picked a better torch carrier as they start a new chapter.
One could argue that this was the year Lashley finally put it all together. During his run in WWE, he always felt like a knockoff of Brock Lesnar. At best he was just another quiet, musclebound wrestlers who executed the gimmick in a predictable way. His previous runs in TNA were too disjointed and brief for him to develop a real identity. When he joined with MVP and Kenny King, he was able to absorb some of the character and charisma that they have to share. By association with MVP, he came off as an arrogant, selfish monster. He went about his business quietly, but he came off as stoic and tough rather than boring. He wrestled very good matches with the likes of Austin Aries, Jeff Hardy, and Bobby Roode, even if those opponents deserve a lot of credit for the pacing and development of the matches. He even dropped the title at the right time, as the transition to Roode at the end of the year felt natural and deserved. If nothing else, 2014 eliminated the question of what it would be like if Lashley got a real push and a main event run. For the most part, the answer to that question was positive.
A close second to Adam Cole in the ROH pecking Order, Briscoe had a second consecutive strong year as a singles wrestler. He opened the year with a claim to the ROH World Title since he had to sacrifice it to an injury and never formally lost it. Cole came away victorious in a brutal Ladder Wars match at Supercard of Honor, yet Briscoe remained on a hot streak.
When Michael Elgin did not work out as a successor champion to Cole, Briscoe quickly beat Elgin to become the champion once again. That led to a series of fun matches with top ROH contenders that culminated with an even better rematch with Cole at Final Battle.
ROH is not a mainstream company, so it helps them in a number of ways to have a face champion who is also outside the mainstream. Primarily, the rebellious attitude appeals to much of the fanbase. More quietly, it held to avoid the obvious speculation about whether the champion might leave for a bigger promotion. On the other hand, ROH is a great fit for Briscoe, who gets to share a full dose of his nutty, violent persona.
Many internet wrestling fans complained for years about the lack of attention to the tag team division. Then, when WWE started to put Tag Team Title matches on every PPV, they complained that the Usos were too bland in that role.
For better or worse, the Usos were among the busiest wrestlers in all of WWE in 2014. They were involved in Tag Team Title matches at eight PPV matches in 2014, which is also the number of times the Tag Team Titles were up for grabs on PPV during the year. They wrestled some great matches with the Wyatt Family and the Dusts, as well as some decent matches against the New Age Outlaws and various tag teams of convenience.
On the other hand, neither Uso showed much in the way of emotion or character development, so each match stood more or less on its own. Near the end of the year, Jimmy Uso got involved in a more personal angle with The Miz over Miz’s perceived flirtation with Jimmy’s wife Naomi. The story was not great, but it was at least a reason for a feud where often there were none. Even without that benefit, the Usos have been active and have wrestled plenty of good matches, which warrants an honorable mention.
Perhaps it is unfair to hold Bryan to the impossibly high standard he set in 2013, but injuries clearly prevented him from maintaining his success. The conclusion of the “Daniel Wyatt” storyline early in 2014 was very well done. One of the unexpected high points for Bryan was when the fans unanimously voiced their disapproval for Batista in the Royal Rumble because Bryan did not get to enter. He worked his way into the Wrestlemania main event nonetheless with a fantastic win over HHH to start the show. He got the payoff to his year-long angle with The Authority when he made Batista tap out to the Yes Lock and raised the belts to end Wrestlemania. The following injuries simply made his overall impact on the year too small to fit on the list. Unlike a couple of other barely-active wrestlers, his influence did not persist when he was away from the ring.