We draw closer to the 2014 Wrestler of the Year winner with today’s #2-4. To check out the rest of the top 10 and the honorable mentions, visit these links:
- Randy Orton
Wrestler of the Week Wins: 3
Randy Orton is one of those wrestlers who will be appreciated to a greater degree after his retirement than he is in the present. When that day comes- and it is probably still quite a few years away- 2014 will go down as a pretty solid microcosm for Orton’s career. He was a key player in WWE for most of the year, the top heel and one of the top faces at different times. He wrestled great matches on free TV and PPV and helped carry some outstanding programs. Despite all of those accomplishments, I suspect that many fans will say that they wished for more from him.
Orton was one of only four wrestlers to hold the WWE Title in 2014 and he opened the year with it. He successfully defended the title against John Cena and then a full Elimination Chamber at the first two PPVs of the year. While his rumored main event with Batista at Wrestlemania had to be tweaked to work in the crazy Daniel Bryan wave of momentum, he still appeared in the biggest slot on the biggest card of the year for the third time in his career. That’s the same total as Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart.
Orton’s most recent title run as the standard bearer for The Authority was one of the best of his career, only eclipsed by his outstanding anger management stint. The selfish, entitled pretty boy was a natural fit for Orton and he became a true heel. There are few wrestlers left so hated that fans want to pay to see them beat, but Orton reached that level at the end of 2013 and start of 2014. While The Authority certainly played a part, it was Orton who was the most natural counterpart for Bryan in his phenomenal title chase that culminated at Wrestlemania XXX. It simply would not have been as big of a moment with anyone else in that spot.
After Wrestlemania, Orton was a utility knife who filled a variety of roles. He reformed Evolution with HHH and Batista to do battle with The Shield and ultimately made them look great. Like his run to Wrestlemania, it would be easy to write that stretch off as a transition that ultimately put over another wrestler, but Orton’s role in both programs as the headliner putting over the next generation was essential. Those outstanding wins for The Shield would not register if Evolution had not helped build the antagonism and deliver phenomenal matches in both cases.
For the next few months, Orton fell into a holding pattern that still placed him as the most important active heel on the roster. He was unsuccessful in multi-person Title matches as Money in the Bank and Battleground before he lost a singles match to Roman Reigns at Summerslam. A win in a very good match with Chris Jericho at Night of Champions put him back in the title picture. Ultimately, he lost to John Cena in a #1 Contender Match at Hell in a Cell, where the old foes managed to wrestle an original and fun match despite their long history together.
While Orton took a small step back, Seth Rollins took a corresponding step forward to put them on relatively equal footing in The Authority. The story of their professional jealousy and competitiveness was told perfectly- it stretched over many weeks while both tried to keep their good situation going despite their egos telling them to do the opposite. When Orton fully turned against Rollins the night after Hell in a Cell, it was a catharsis for the fans who preferred Orton as the devil they know over Rollins as the devil they don’t. Also, Orton’s rage built up to a point where he once again became the fiery, uncaged animal the fans forced into a face turn five years earlier.
It is hard for Orton to consistently work as a face because WWE’s volume of programming is incongruent with the unbridled emotion that makes him popular. Even so, when the storyline machinations bring him to this passionate high point, it makes him intermittently one of the best characters of his generation to go along with his unmatched consistency and in-ring ability.
The fact that the rest of his abilities are so outstanding that he can be one of the top wrestlers in the company when he isn’t firing on all cylinders is a testament to his greatness. Orton was one of the five best wrestlers in the U.S. in the last year. If that’s a disappointment to any wrestling fans, then their expectations might need recalibration.
- John Cena
Wrestler of the Week Wins: 0
For better or worse, we know that John Cena is always going to be involved in some of the most important storylines in WWE. Although it seemed early in the year like Cena might be moving toward building up a new generation of stars who will eventually take his place, various injuries and departures forced him back into a featured role. Some of the stories and matches were tired, predictable, and fraught with the same redundancy that has caused Cena to induce so many eye rolls. Still, Cena did a lot of very good work in tough situations, and even his worst feuds had some elements to like a great deal.
The program between Cena and the Wyatt Family feels like it happened years, not months ago. Cena became involved with Bray Wyatt while he failed to take the WWE Title from Randy Orton at the Royal Rumble or Elimination Chamber. The feud with Wyatt seemed liked it had a ton of potential at first, but devolved in a disappointing direction. I was surprised that Cena beat Wyatt so cleanly at Wrestlemania, although it is understandable for the biggest star in the company to win at the biggest show when he already moved out of the main event.
The more baffling part was the focus on little kids and singing rather than wrestling. When a singing child paralyzed Cena on the way out of a steel cage at Extreme Rules, I was more confused by the story than impressed by Wyatt. In the end, Cena and Wyatt redeemed themselves with a hard-hitting match at Payback that made them both look very good. It was creative, but not in a way that took away from the intensity of the match. Despite all the shenanigans that led up to it, Cena delivered in the end.
While Cena was occupied with the Wyatts, other top-end faces were dropping like flies. Fans rejected the face version of Batista to the point that WWE had to call an audible and replace him with Daniel Bryan as the man standing tall at the end of Wrestlemania XXX. Bryan rode that wave of momentum for a few more weeks until a bum neck forced him under the knife and off of TV. Around the time that Bryan had to leave, it became clear that CM Punk’s departure from WWE was more than a quick break.
With those three out of the picture and the three young members of The Shield still on a steady march to the top of the card, Cena was the only logical option to carry the WWE Title to Summerslam. He won a ladder match at Money in the Bank to take the WWE Title and retained it over Randy Orton, Kane, and Roman Reigns at Battleground. He was memorably trampled by Brock Lesnar at Summerslam to lose the Title. While he put up a better effort at Night of Champions, Seth Rollins interrupted his chance at a win.
From the moment Cena won the Title, he found himself bizarrely at odds with HHH and Stephanie McMahon. Although he is a clean cut, media friendly hero whose hobbies include clean living and charity work, The Authority alleged that he was not “corporate” enough and tried to take the Title from him. They eventually backed Lesnar, which led to more friction with Cena.
He wrestled Orton at Hell in a Cell, where he won to become #1 Contender in a match that was much better than its build-up. He put together a team to knock The Authority out of power at Survivor Series due to a heroic effort from Dolph Ziggler. Reminiscent of his program with Wyatt, he beat Rollins in a nonsensical Tables Match at TLC that was redeemed by an excellent cage match the next night. That brought Cena to the end of the year and another crack at Lesnar at the Royal Rumble, a match advertised as the final confrontation in their rivalry.
Cena stayed healthy and wrestled near the top of the card for all of 2014 with several very good matches. Why, then, does my description of his year sound like an apology? In many ways, Cena suffers from the same problems as WWE at large, particularly compared to NXT. Like WWE, everything Cena does is big and important. He can’t have forgettable matches and feuds because they are always in the spotlight. The good is considered meeting expectations and the bad is exaggerated. Moreover, as the company’s biggest star, he has to appeal to the broadest audience posible. That means he cannot be particularly edgy or ground-breaking.
I do not mean to say that Cena is infallible or perfect, but I also think it is unfair to blame him for being the biggest star in WWE. I have him ranked third on this list because he was consistently very good through 2014. There were bad matches and programs, but even those had some very bright moments. He did not excite or innovate in the way that the two wrestlers ahead of him did, so he does not crack the top two. Even so, it was a yet another strong year from the bell cow wrestler of this generation.
- Dean Ambrose
Wrestler of the Week Wins: 4
There is a strange beauty to the Dean Ambrose character. Beauty might seem like an odd choice of words considering the blood, spit, grunts, and facial contortions that make up so much of his expression. But the beauty is in the completeness of the character. While some wrestlers have to perform narrative gymnastics to make their characters fit in various storylines, Ambrose is always complete. He is like an egg or a perfect circle- consistent and uninterrupted. Shortly after the disintegration of The Shield, we learned all we needed to know about Ambrose and he has been a serious star ever since.
Along with Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns, Ambrose started the year on a tear as part of The Shield. While his internal disagreements with Reigns cost the team a match against the Wyatt Family, they blasted through the New Age Outlaws with Kane at Wrestlemania and cemented themselves as main eventers with consecutive wins over Evolution.
Still, Ambrose was the most awkward fit of the three in the group. While Rollins and Reigns were calculating and surgical in their attacks, Ambrose was always inherently manic. His personality does not allow for the suppression of the wildman tendencies that sometimes did more harm than good to the team.
The fit for Ambrose in The Shield was clumsy enough that I wondered if he would be the forgotten man when the group broke up. When Rollins ambushed Ambrose and Reigns with a chair, I worried that there would not be enough storyline to sustain him as a singles wrestler and he would merely be fed to Rollins on his way to a match with Reigns to close the loops on the group’s storyline. Instead, Ambrose ran toward the manic frenzy that made him different from Rollins and Reigns and it quickly made him the most impressive star of the three.
Ambrose feuded with Rollins and the rest of The Authority through the summer and created numerous memorable moments. The Rollins Curb Stomp into a pile of cinder blocks took him out just long enough to shoot a movie, but the rivalry persisted. He returned in a cab to seek revenge on Rollins and went on to pop out of a birthday present, emerge from a car’s trunk, and use a street vendor’s hot dog implements to go after Rollins. When they finally faced one another at Hell in a Cell, the match deserved the main event slot that it received.
During that stretch, Ambrose became the most popular wrestler in all of WWE. He earned the biggest crowd reaction night after night and he even competed with John Cena in the vaunted merchandise sales category. Speaking of Cena, it was alongside Cena that Ambrose accomplished one of his most impressive feats. When they were paired together across from The Authority, Ambrose did not become Cena’s buddy or allow Cena to suck the rebelliousness out of his character. Instead, Ambrose stood up to Cena with the same vigorous individualism that earned him so much respect against Rollins.
Since the blood feud between Ambrose and Rollins became such a vital part of the WWE narrative with champion Brock Lesnar away from TV, it was somewhat surprising that their feud did not end cleanly. Despite a crazy fall by both from near the top of the Cell through the announce tables, Bray Wyatt broke into the Cell before Ambrose could beat Rollins and laid him out with Sister Abigail to allow Rollins to get the cheap win.
With so much on the line, it felt essential for Wyatt to explain his actions and his failure to do so marred the program as the year drew to a close. There were hints of reasons for a feud- Wyatt’s intimations of a broken family in Ambrose’s past and his desire to serve as a spiritual mentor- but it never added up to a rationale for a fight. Nonetheless, they wrestled at Survivor Series in a match that ended in a way that set up their Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match at the TLC PPV. Once again, Ambrose found himself in the main event slot over Cena and everyone else. He delivered a heroic performance that included increasingly risky elbow drops off of ladders. In the end, Wyatt won due to a monitor that blew up in Ambrose’s face. Like a microcosm for the program, it was not perfect, but it had moments of transcendence that reinforced Ambrose’s high end potential.
When Ambrose was Chris Jericho’s guest on his podcast, he explained that spontaneity, to him, is the linchpin of true emotional engagement. Maybe that is the element that instills beauty in such an otherwise rough-edged wrestler. More than most in his generation, Ambrose wrestles, speaks, and expresses himself from the heart. In a business based on the simulation of reality, those doses of sincerity are invaluable.
If you look across the wrestling world, there are maybe a half dozen wrestlers who have the realistic ability to be the best wrestler in the world. Ambrose is on that list, probably near the top of it. He engages with fans, expresses himself on the mic and in his matches in a deeply emotional way, and works an unmatched style. The last year was a developmental year for Ambrose, but he did not need much development. His ring psychology and character are as fully formed as they can be for someone as new to the national spotlight as he is.