2014 Wrestler of the Year Part 3 – Wrestlers 5-7

Welcome back to the 2014 Wrestler of the Year countdown. Today, we spotlight #5-7. To read previous entries, follow these links:

2014 Wrestler of the Year Part 1 – Honorable Mention

2014 Wrestler of the Year Part 2 – Wrestlers 8-10

 

  1. Adam Cole

Wrestler of the Week Wins: 0

 

Adam Cole held the top titles for Ring of Honor and Pro Wretling Guerilla for roughly the first half of 2014. It’s hard to define independent wrestling today, but the popular consensus would probably agree that those are the two most important indies in the Unites States. Whether he was the champion or not, Cole was among the biggest stars in either company all year. He was active, entertaining, and healthy throughout 2014 in a way that few others were. Even if he was not on the biggest national stage, that accomplishment is very meaningful.

 

Cole opened the year with a series of impressive defenses of both of his titles. He wrestled opponents as diverse as Chris Hero, Matt Taven, and Candice LaRae without submitting any bad matches. His ROH Title run crested at Supercard of Honor, where he beat archrival Jay Briscoe in a Ladder War match that was violent and brutal, even by ROH standards. He continued his winning ways against wrestlers from Kevin Steen to Jushin Thunder Liger until Kyle O’Reilly finally slowed him down and won the PWG Title at Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘N Roll in May.

 

One month later, he also lost the ROH Title to Michael Elgin at Best in the World. While Elgin’s title run did not live up to expectations, it was the right call at the time. The story of Elgin’s title chase was well-executed and that moment was his prime opportunity if superstardom was ever going to happen for him.

 

The loss put Cole in a difficult position, but his ability to adapt and rebound is what impressed me most about his 2014. Not yet 25 years old when he lost his belts, Cole could have easily faded back into the pack and become a solid indy hand with a nice resume. In fact, it looked like Cole was headed that way when his partnership with Michael Bennett and Maria Kanellis in The Kingdom reemerged and added Matt Taven to the equation. But Cole did not simply become a member of a dominant stable- he immediately rose to the top as its dominant leader. He showed an edge after Bennett won the Honor Rumble to earn a title shot in a way that demonstrated he was too good to simply be a team player.

 

He rattled off a string of wins over Matt Sydal, Delirious, Hanson, Roderick Strong, Tommaso Ciampa, Christopher Daniels, and Brian Kendrick to earn another match with Briscoe. After their bloody Ladder War, the tension between Cole and Briscoe was already so high that it only took a flip of the switch to reignite the fire for their Fight Without Honor in the Final Battle main event. They delivered in the match, and even though Cole lost, both wrestlers looked great.

 

Perhaps the most interesting news related to Cole in 2014 is the fact that he reportedly signed an exclusive deal to remain in ROH. With his phenomenal in-ring work, mature ring psychology, smooth promos, and impressive appearance, Cole seemed like a natural to move on to WWE. The fact that ROH would offer exclusive contracts is a surprise in the sense that it contradicts their past practice, but the fact that they supposedly invested in Cole (and O’Reilly) is no surprise. If ROH intends to raise its national profile, Cole is precisely the guy to help them do it.

 

  1. Roman Reigns

Wrestler of the Week Wins: 3

At the end of 2014, Roman Reigns is one of the most divisive wrestlers in all of WWE. Despite vociferous support from most fans in the live crowds, many diehard fans see his shortcomings as evidence that he is not ready for the place on the card that WWE wants him to inhabit. How we arrived at this point is as dynamic as the current position. Even Reigns’s loudest critics would acknowledge that he had some transcendent moments in 2014. As a result, he finds himself at this position on the list- not the megastar that WWE’s dubious Superstar of the Year Slammy would indicate, but certainly not a scrub.

 

Reigns opened the year as part of The Shield, which covered his shortcomings and highlighted his strengths. His charisma, look, and athleticism could stand out while Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose did most of the talking and carried the team’s matches. Left to be the enforcer, Reigns started the year on a high note at the Royal Rumble and broke Kane’s old record for most eliminations in a single Rumble with 12. He lasted until the final two, when the recently returned Batista eliminated him to the dismay of most of the fans.

 

Over the next several months, Reigns remained the muscle behind Rollins and Ambrose. They wrestled their way through the Wyatt Family and the New Age Outlaws (in a blink-and-you-missed-it Wrestlemania match) before they got to their marquee program with Evolution. The usual comedown from Wrestlemania held off for a couple of months while The Shield and Evolution had an old school feud over which stable was the baddest in the territory. Just as he did at the 2013 Survivor Series and the 2014 Royal Rumble, Reigns got the star treatment and finished both matches with spears and pins.

 

Immediately after that second win over Evolution at Payback, Rollins turned on Ambrose and Reigns to align himself with The Authority. So began Reigns’s run as a singles wrestler, whether he was ready or not. He had shots at the WWE World Heavyweight Title at the Money in the Bank PPV as well as Battleground, though his best odds came in the latter’s Fatal Fourway main event.

 

After those two high profile matches, he faced Randy Orton at Summerslam in another marquee match. His three month run after the disintegration of The Shield was alternatingly electric and frustrating. At his best, Reigns lived up to his “Juggernaut” nickname with a combination of size, strength, and athleticism that few have ever displayed in a WWE ring. At his worst, he looked like a developmental rookie who routinely bungled his scripted promos and could only put together three offensive moves to end a match.

 

Shortly thereafter, Reigns suffered a severe hernia that held him out of action until December. So far, he has looked much like the same wrestler, though it’s hard to say whether in-ring improvement would be evident against recent rival Big Show. If you squint, you can see some minor improvement in the ring, but his promos are worse than ever.

 

At the end of 2014, I am skeptical yet hopeful about the future for Reigns. There is no doubt that he helped The Shield wrestle some of the year’s best matches in its early months and he deserves credit for the presence that keeps fans behind him. Conversely, he has not shown the development that he needs to become an individual headliner.

 

It was clear from the spotlight at Survivor Series and the Royal Rumble that Reigns was on his way to the top. The facts that his ring psychology remains so green and his promo skills remain so unrefined are red flags. Whether Reigns needs to do something differently or WWE needs to present him differently to change those problems is semantics- if he does not get to where he needs to be in 2015, then his run at the top will be a bitter disappointment.

 

  1. Dolph Ziggler

Wrestler of the Week Wins: 5

If Dolph Ziggler started 2014 as well as he finished it, he would probably be at the very top of this list. Instead, Ziggler followed the same alternating pattern that has defined his career. For the first six months, a combination of injuries, lack of clear direction, and questionable promotional support combined to make Ziggler something of an also-ran. When the flip switched around Summerslam, it flipped in a big way and Ziggler finished the year on a red hot run.

 

I would forgive you if you forgot what Ziggler did for the first few months of 2014. He missed most of January with a concussion before he was eliminated from the Royal Rumble uneventfully. He participated in Wrestlemania, but it was in a non-essential role in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. His penchant for multi-wrestler matches continued at Money in the Bank, where he once again filled a spot but came away empty handed. The most memorable part of Ziggler’s first half of the year was the series of impassioned promos he cut for the WWE App in which he complained that he was not receiving the support he deserves.

 

Ziggler started to turn things around against an old rival in The Miz at Summerslam. Ziggler won the Intercontinental belt in a very good match, which, if nothing else, got him back in meaningful matches week after week. He and Miz traded the title back and forth over the next month and Ziggler went on to defend the belt in great matches against Miz, Cesaro, and Tyson Kidd over the next month to regain the type of fan support he had when he won the World Heavyweight Title.

 

John Cena took advantage of that popularity and invited Ziggler to his Survivor Series team against The Authority. Although Luke Harper took advantage of a worn-down Ziggler to take his Intercontinental Title a week before the elimination match, Ziggler was not to be denied at the PPV. A Big Show double-cross on Cena left Ziggler alone against Harper, Kane, and Seth Rollins. He took a colossal beating, but persevered against the numbers. He nearly had the match won when HHH intervened to keep his position of power. Before HHH could end the match, Sting felled his attempt at a cheap win. Sting pulled Ziggler over the battered Rollins to leave him as the sole survivor. In one of the biggest PPVs of the year, where a storyline more than a year in the making finally paid off, Ziggler was the key to the whole event. If it goes down as the biggest moment of his career, it will be a worthy crowning achievement.

 

Ziggler maintained that momentum over the next month. He took his Intercontinental Title back from Harper in a terrific ladder match at TLC. Perhaps more importantly, Ziggler continued to work strong matches, week in and week out.

 

I have always said that Ziggler does not need a push to the WWE Title to be a success. He is so fun to watch free TV every week due to his intense style that the opportunity for time on TV is the best barometer of whether things are going well for him. In the last half of 2014, Ziggler found success in the storyline. More importantly, he found room on the card to wrestle once, twice, or even three times per week in meaningful matches. Whenever Ziggler has the chance to do that, he will be a major star.