Hello, I’m Joe Lanza, and thanks to the WWE Network, New Japan Pro Wrestling spamming USTREAM, TNA being a train wreck that I morbidly can not look away from, a hot new local promotion running shows in my backyard, no less than a half dozen different promotions with 15 hours of wrestling on my TV every week, and a not-so-booming social life, I’ve probably watched more wrestling during the first four months of 2014 than any other four month period of my life.
Wrestling has been good so far in 2014. It hasn’t been as good as the absolutely fantastic 2013, but with WWE having had perhaps the best in-ring year in its history, New Japan very likely having peaked in-ring during what will be looked back on as a golden age for the company, and the greatest Mania Weekend of all time, some regression was to be expected.
WWE has gone straight into the shitter since (at least what I considered) a very mediocre WrestleMania 30. In fact, when glancing at my list of 4-star+ matches for 2014, I was shocked to find a grand total of only four WWE bouts so far. This was certainly not the case last year, when WWE was churning out great matches every single week on RAW alone, never mind PPV, Smackdown, or any of the other shows they produced on a weekly basis (NXT was great for half of a year, and Main Event was pumping out 20-minute workrate style bouts every week).
New Japan could not possibly keep the pace of 2012-2013 without members of the roster dropping dead, so the off-the-charts all time great shows of the last two years have been followed up by merely very good shows in 2014. We saw this coming. The 2013 G1 Climax, which could very well go down as the best 10 days of wrestling in history during what very well may have been the best overall month in wrestling history (August 2013), was as much of a wake up call to the powers that be running New Japan as it was a critical success, with a trail of broken bodies left in its wake (many of which have still not fully recovered some nine months later). The trade off for the incredible G1 was Hirooki Goto missing several months, a 43-year old Satoshi Kojima toughing out a broken body to main event a month later in a physical match against a nearly twenty years younger Kazuchia Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi possibly doing permanent damage to an already ailing back, and maybe the most sobering after effect, as the tournament was likely the final nail in the coffin of the career of Hiroyoshi Tenzan, who appears to be headed into veteran undercard tag team status with the Manabu Nakanishi’s and Super Strong Machine’s of the world. In hindsight, an aging Tenzan had no business being in the tournament to begin with, and I doubt we’ll see the older wrestlers involved moving forward.
As for wrestling outside of the big two, 2014 has been a mixed bag:
- Dragon Gate continues to stay in their lane, and is once again having a sneaky good year.
- CMLL had a great January, with the well received Fantasticamania shows in Japan, and a Virus vs. Titan bout that had strong crossover appeal with non lucha fans.
- Does AAA exist? Maybe the former Mistico/Sin Cara & Averno will give them a boost.
- ROH is having a great year, both at the gate and in the ring, as they distance themselves from the Jim Cornette era.
- TNA is so awful, it’s gone into “so bad it’s good” territory in some circles.
- All Japan put the Triple Crown on Akebono of all people…and it worked.
- NOAH remains in a sad state with New Japan’s Yuji Nagata on top, and KENTA on his way out.
- Wrestle-1 is wacky and fun, but still looking to find its niche.
Mania Weekend in New Orleans was, in my opinion, the worst Mania Weekend since Mania Weekend became a thing. WrestleMania was a dud. Dragon Gate USA was devoid of Dragon Gate talent, and while Open the Ultimate Gate featured two classics, Mercury Rising was an abysmal show. ROH continues to book TV tapings instead of two mega shows. CHIKARA didn’t even bother to show up. WrestleCon was littered with a myriad of issues. Mania Weekend may have peaked in 2013 folks, and with WWE putting the clamps on things starting in 2015, things may never get back to where they once were.
Enough setting of the stage. Here are you (First Third) of 2014 Awards:
No slow build here, as we go right to the main event. Your (First Third) of 2014 Wrestler of the (First Third) of the Year is Chris Hero.
You were probably expecting to see names like Bryan or Okada or Magnus (well, maybe Magnus was expecting Magnus), but the former Kassius Ohno was the hottest wrestler of the first third of the year. I can tell you for a fact from talking to promoters and attending shows that he’s popped gates in many places. He’s having MOTY caliber bouts everywhere he goes, whether he’s trading elbows with KENTA in Japan, showing up in ROH, Evolve (where he defeated AR Fox to become champion), DGUSA (vs Masato Tanaka), Inspire Pro Wrestling (Ray Rowe), and all points in between. He’s the most sought after indie talent in America, and is having the best matches of his career, regardless of the size of the crowd or whether cameras are present.
Top Ten Runners Up: Tomohiro Ishii, Kazuchika Okada, Daniel Bryan, Cesaro, Tetsuya Naito, Ricochet, Akebono, Masato Yoshino, Shinsuke Nakamura, Ray Rowe
Who I Expect To Eventually Win: Kazuchika Okada. Hero is working a ridiculous schedule and will likely slow down. Plus a good chunk of his best stuff is under the radar. There is also the possibility that he re-signs with WWE, and 6 minute NXT bouts against CJ Parker would certainly hurt the resume. Okada, despite some head scratching booking at times this year, has already had great matches with Naito, Hirooki Goto, & Kota Ibushi. He has a feud with AJ Styles in front of him that could be off the charts good. Daniel Bryan is being booked in gimmick/story heavy stuff, which will hurt him. Tanahashi is hurting and being toned down. It’s Okada’s to lose, although the Bryan sentiment will be strong, and he’s won awards before on reputation because people really like him.
That’s right, none. I don’t think any team on Earth is having a great year. The Uso’s finally broke through, and have had good matches, but where are the GREAT matches? Rhodes Brothers have done nothing. The Wolves have gotten over in TNA, but they’ve wrestled the Bro Mans almost exclusively, and the matches have been mediocre at best. Karl Anderson & Doc Gallows have had a shitty title run in New Japan, as Gallows has largely been a dud. Killer Elite Squad is invisible. TenKoji is washed up. The NOAH scene has been dry. reDRagon had some decent bouts, but have they blown you away? The Young Bucks might be the leaders, but again, aside from a great match against Kota Ibushi & El Desperado at Invasion Attack, what else did you love? What team stands out in Dragon Gate?
My two favorite teams this year might just be ROH’s ACH & Tadarius Thomas, and the Japanese freelance team of HUB & Tigers Mask. Neither will get the big match opportunities or exposure needed to impress the masses, but neither ever disappoint me in the somewhat limited exposure I have to each.
Who I Expect To Eventually Win: Hirooki Goto & Katsuyori Shibata. I’m going to project a Goto & Shibata vs Tanahashi & Makabe feud to dominate the New Japan scene all summer and into the fall. Goto & Shibata have the bad ass/cool factor in their favor, and have already had a few really good matches (most notably vs Okada & YOSHI-HASHI at New Beginning Hiroshima).
Worst Tag Team of the Year
The Bravado Brothers, edging out The Gracies. They stink. They never improve at all,not even a little, even after all of those NOAH tours. Too bad this isn’t 1985, because they’d make perfect Crockett Cup squash fodder for the Horsemen or Road Warriors.
This one is a layup. If you don’t think it’s Tomohiro Ishii vs Tetsuya Naito, then you haven’t seen Tomohiro Ishii vs Tetsuya Naito. Nothing else is even close. Three matches, all serious MOTY contenders, and one that I personally gave the magical 5-stars. After trading wins in both singles & tags, Ishii definitively won the feud, and in the process the matches between the two elevated the NEVER title from an afterthought to a strong secondary belt. No promotion on Earth has stronger titles than New Japan, thanks to great booking & great matches like these two men have produced.
What I Expect To Eventually Win: Brock Lesnar vs Daniel Bryan. I’ve been saying for two years on the Voices of Wrestling podcast that the best possible opponent for Daniel Bryan is Brock Lesnar. Bryan definitively beating Brock in the center of the ring is the big scalp he needs to go from underdog flying goat troll, to a serious babyface hero champion. The Takeshi Morishima feud in ROH shows that Bryan knows how to get the best out of a monster, since Morishima has never done anything even close to as good before or since. Brock is obviously great in the bully role. This feud is 100% going to happen, and it has all of the pieces in place to be *the* definitive, superstar making feud of Bryan’s career.
Worst Feud of the Year
Bray Wyatt vs John Cena. Look, I know people really dig Bray Wyatt, and i’ll probably rile some people up for this. But to me, this feud is total shit, and is a great example of the type of theatrical nonsense that loses me when it comes to WWE. I find Bray annoying, and not in a “he’s a heel, he’s supposed to be annoying” way. Just…annoying. He tries to be creepy & psychological, but just comes off corny & forced. He’s no Jake Roberts. He’s no James Mitchell or Kevin Sullivan, for that matter.
Let’s keep the negativity rolling…
Worst Show of the Year
DGUSA “Mercury Rising”
Worst Match of the Year
Anthony Nese, Trent Baretta, & Caleb Konley vs Chuck Taylor, Biff Busick, & Teddy Hart, DGUSA Mercury Rising
My thoughts on this “match”, from our VOW Mercury Rising review:
This entire segment (I can’t call it a match) was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in a wrestling ring. Starts off with Chuck Taylor vs Maxwell Chicago in a singles “match”, with Maxwell doing his “comedy”. He must be a laugh riot in person, because crowds eat him up, but he’s pretty much the dirt worst on iPPV with shitty sound where you can’t hear what he’s saying. Premier Athlete Brand came out and attacked Chicago, leading to PAB against Taylor three on one. Biff Busick comes out to team with Taylor, and this is briefly a decent match…until Teddy Hart comes out, with THE CAT, and things just completely break down. Hart joins Taylor & Busick, blows a bunch of spots, then turns on his partners leading to the PAB win. Just a mess all around. Crowd chanted “This is stupid”. Leading contender for Worst Match of the Year. I would be shocked if something can top it. -*****
Yes folks, that NEGATIVE 5-stars. Absolutely horrendous and embarrassing. The entire Mercury Rising card was easily the worst show in the history of Dragon Gate USA, exploiting just how thin the roster is without the Japanese Dragon Gate talent around to beef up the cards with seasoned pros. Gabe Sapolsky had to borrow Masato Tanaka from WrestleCon, and probably swallow massive amounts of pride (not to mention dusting off mothballs) by calling Low Ki & Teddy Hart of all people, in an attempt to save his Mania Weekend. Tanaka delivered big time, and Low Ki was fine, but Teddy Hart (and his cat) was an unmitigated disaster.
Worst Announcer of the Year
John Bradshaw Layfield is a lock to break my streak of “awarding” this to Jerry Lawler, something I thought would never happen until Lawler quit or died. Words can not describe how bad JBL is at his job. He is worse than Lawler ever was, even at the peak of Lawler’s awfulness during the Attitude Era. And keep in mind, I think Lawler is worse at wrestling announcing than anybody else in wrestling is at doing literally anything else. Lawler’s announcing is worse than Vince Russo’s booking. Worse than Khali’s wrestling. Worse than Gabe Sapolsky’s public relations. Worse than anything. And JBL has managed to be worse than that.
Worst Promotion of the Year
TNA is the easy answer, but it isn’t the right one. Extreme Rising takes this one home. Three cancelled shows, all at the last minute, which left dozens of wrestlers without weekend bookings and hundreds of fans with dead tickets. A bad product that some people might enjoy is better than no product at all with talent and fans left swinging in the wind.
Pro Wrestling Syndicate is probably still producing the worst shows that actually happen, but I haven’t seen one in 2014, and I’d have to be drunk to be convinced to watch one. And fortunately, I don’t drink.
By the end of the year, Jeff Jarrett’s Global Force Wrestling might just steal this. They have no roster, and I have no idea what it will look like. I just don’t have a good feeling about it.
And listen up CHIKARA, my 2013 winner…I’m keeping an eye on you. Emotion carried you through National Pro Wrestling Day, but you still haven’t technically held a card, and if you plan on coming at me with another endless string of Ants and Eastern European boars and trees, I’d prefer you just disappear again. Holding the 2014 World Tag Gran Prix in total obscurity in Nowhere, Pennsylvania on a Wrestling is Fun card during Mania Weekend wasn’t a good start. Step it up.
Worst Booking Trope
Heel authority figures. Enough.
Worst Acting of the Year
Icarus, for his work in the Ashes videos. Horrendous. He needs to just fly away.
This was all about Samuel Shaw with his Patrick Bateman/Dexter Morgan routine, until TNA ruined it. So, the winner is Dragon Gate’s exotico, Yosuke Santa Maria. This man is waaaay too good at portraying a woman.
I’ll give you my Top 5:
1. Tomohiro Ishii vs Tetsuya Naito, NJPW New Beginning Osaka, *****
2. Chris Hero vs Masato Tanaka, DGUSA Open the Ultimate Gate, ****3/4
3. Ishii vs Naito, NJPW Invasion Attack, ****3/4
4. Cesaro vs Sami Zayn, NXT ArRival, ****3/4
5. Daniel Bryan vs Bray Wyatt, WWE Royal Rumble, ****3/4
I consider the Bryan/Wyatt match a true miracle on the part of Bryan, considering the rest of Wyatt’s singles work ranges from abysmal (Kane) to bad (Roman Reigns, John Cena).
Notable is the absence of the two best wrestlers in the world since 2012, Hiroshi Tanahasi and Kazuchika Okada. Here are the next five:
6. Johnny Gargano vs Ricochet, DGUSA Open the Ultimate Gate, ****1/2
7. Trent Baretta vs Anthony Nese, EVOLVE 25, ****1/2
8. Shinsuke Nakamura vs Hiroshi Tanahashi, NJPW Invasion Attack, ****1/2
9. Kazuchika Okada vs Hirooki Goto, NJPW New Beginning Osaka, ****1/2
10. Taiji Ishimori vs Hajime Ohara, NOAH 1/19, ****1/2
Honorable Mention: Masato Yoshino vs Masaaki Mochizuki, DG Infinity 324 ****1/2, Shinsuke Nakamura vs Hiroshi Tanahashi, NJPW New Beginning Hiroshima ****1/2, Jay Briscoe vs Adam Cole, ROH San Antonio ****1/4, Hirooki Goto vs Katsuyori Shibata, NJPW WrestleKingdom ****1/4, ACH vs Sammy Guevara, Inspire Pro Wrestling Light the Fuse, ****1/4
Let’s do another list!
- Uhaa Nation – A breakout, star making performance against YAMATO sealed the deal. This will be his year.
- YOSHI-HASHI – He’s really starting to excel as Okada’s designated pin eater in tags, after possibly being the most useless member of the New Japan roster for years.
- JoJo Bravo – He’s always been great at comedy, but I never really dug his act. His improvements as of late in-ring have been drastic. He had a legit 4-star match in Austin vs Robert Evans that blew me away.
- Caleb Konley – Another guy who has been a non entity over the years, that all of a sudden seems to “get it”.
- Titus O’Neil – A late addition. I’ve really liked his recent stuff, particularly his aggressiveness, against Kofi Kingston & Sheamus.
Honorable mention to KAZMA SAKAMOTO of Wrestle-1, who improved by default by going from being thrown into ring posts by Tensai to actually stepping into the ring. But more than that, he’s done a really great job as a fun heel in W-1.
Best Title Run
In a year that has featured two of the worst major title runs ever (Randy Orton & Magnus), Akebono has been a breath of fresh air. Just watch this man paw at his opponents like a bear. His title defenses against Go Shiozaki and Kento Miyahara are must watch bouts and perfect examples of how to portray an unstoppable monster.
Gedo & Jado
New Japan Pro Wrestling
Gedo & Jado have come under fire lately, but the reality, as I alluded to earlier, is that New Japan could not possibly keep up the breakneck pace of 2012 and 2013. If nothing else, everything they do is well thought out and planned months in advance, which is more than most other major promotions can say. Where Gedo & Jado have excelled the most, is elevating titles. The elevation of the IC title, and now the NEVER title, was nothing short of brilliant, and has eased the transition from pounding out loaded shows to spreading out the big matches. When you look at New Japan show for show, the shows are still blowing away anything else on the planet. The problem, is New Japan has become a victim of the impossibly high bar they set for themselves the previous two years. But the major shows still feature, at minimum, two to three 4-star+ matches per show. There is more filler, the shows top to bottom are not quite as compelling, and Okada not having a title match at Invasion Attack was inexcusable. But at some point, preserving the bodies of these guys was going to have to happen. With three strong title belts, rotating who works the hardest style on each show will accomplish that. At the end of the day, New Japan is still producing the best shows, and presents the most logical booking. 2012-2013 was an impossible standard to maintain.