It’s the middle of October, which means the “year” used for the purposes of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards ends in about six weeks. In many ways both WWE and NJPW are in holding patterns until their big shows in January. AAA and possibly CMLL have one major show left this year, but in both cases it would be in December which is not covered by the voting period. The same can be said for ROH. TNA has no more shows left all year and for all we know could done. Dragon Gate might have another show of note coming up (I literally have no idea), but their big show of the year is behind them. No other promotion in Japan is terribly relevant. So I figure this is as good a time as any to start looking at the candidates for the WON Awards, in what has been a strange, strange year for pro wrestling.
Today I’ll look at the top award, the Lou Thesz/Ric Flair Wrestler of the Year Award. This award is not an award given to the best worker, but rather the best overall performer in the wrestling business. As a result in ring work, drawing power, mic skills, ring presence, delivery of angles, et. are all things to be considered when voting for this award.
In this extremely informal column I will run down the positives and negatives of the people I regard as the most serious Wrestler of the Year Award contenders. My goal is to be fair and inclusive in considering candidates. Having said that I acknowledge there may be some names I missed who people think merit consideration. Anticipating this I tried to throw some of those names into a brief addendum at the bottom of the column sub-titled “Bizarre Wild Cards.” Even still I may be missing your favorite Dragon Gate performer, so feel free to head over to the Voices of Wrestling forums and put my in my place. But before you do that take a look at what I have to say about the rest of this years field.
And the nominees are….
Positives: Started the year as IWGP champion and held it for half of the relevant voting period. If you are a fan of NJPW main event style you probably see him as having had a great in ring year. Won the G1, before the second biggest wrestling crowd of the year in Japan, and the biggest non-Wrestle Kingdom NJPW show in years. Many hardcore NJPW fans regarded Okada as the MVP of the G1 which was universally praised. Was in the main event of as many iPPVs as anyone in NJPW this year.
Negatives: Most don’t think it was his fault, but when NJPW put the 1/4 Dome show main event up to a vote Okada’s IWGP title defense against Naito got crushed by the Hiroshi Tanahashi v. Shinsuke Nakamura match which ended up going on last. After that Okada really felt like something of a lame duck as champion, and ended up dropping the belt to AJ Styles at the Yokohama Arena, in a match held in front of a half empty arena. Despite being the top title holder for half of the year, you could easily argue he was the third biggest star in NJPW this year, and in terms of being over with live crowds, there were period where he might not have even been that.
Positives: One of the more widely praised workers of 2014, even among groups of fans who disagree on almost everything. Went from being a cult favorite, to something of a star, in large part due to his hard work in the ring. May have saved the career of Tetsuya Naito with their series for the NEVER Title at the beginning of the year, which produced great matches, and got over huge with live crowds, an area where Naito had been seriously struggling for months. Made the NEVER Title feel like a serious championship, and for a several month period may have been the most over wrestler in Japan with live crowds. Had an outstanding run in the G1, despite suffering a significant injury in the tournament. Probably more matches considered at the match of the year level than any one else in wrestling in 2014.
Negatives: While no one doubts how over he is, he has never been tested as a draw and has no meaningful drawing record to speak of. He did headline a few iPPVs, but they were all smaller shows, or G1 shows where he was opposite a much bigger name. He did not even have a match on the Tokyo Dome show, did not do as well in the G1 as many had hoped, and besides the Naito series, he has not been positioned against a top level or near-top level star on any major NJPW show. While he has had great matches, his style of work is criticized by some for it’s emphasis on length strike exchanges and fighting spirit spots.
Positives: Was in the main event/key money drawing match of four of the top five drawing wrestling shows in Japan this year. This included the Tokyo Dome main event v. Nakamura which was the second biggest drawing wrestling show in the world in 2014, and the biggest NJPW Dome show in years. Notably his match was voted to go on last on that show over the match involving the companies top title (Okada v. Naito). Still regarded by NJPW fans as one of the top workers in the world. Drew the three biggest Sumo Hall houses of the year, all against different opponents, with one of those matches occurring for DDT against a virtual rookie in Konosuke Takeshita. Was a better drawing opponent for AJ Styles than Okada was, though there may have been other factors at play. Also worth noting that his semi-main and rivalry matches may have provided strong support to cards with theoretically weak main events. Current IWGP champion.
Negatives: After his initial run feuding with Nakamura over the Intercontinental Title at the beginning of the year, he slipped down the cards, working primarily in tags. While the matches were with other stars of note, and you could argue this as a point in his favor depending on how you look at it, there were a few months where he barely seemed relevant. While his drawing record looks good in some ways, he has still never sold out Sumo Hall for a non-G1 event. Though one could argue how important that fact really is, he is not the clear cut top draw in Japan this year, and the other top contender for that title has positives Tanahashi arguably doesn’t have.
Positives: Arguably the top drawing card in Japan this year. Main evented three of the top five drawing wrestling shows in the country this year, including the two top drawing shows (Which were the second and fourth biggest drawing shows in the world respectively). Perhaps more impressive, he drew two sellouts in major iPPV main events against Bad Luck Fale of all people. Generally thought of as among the most charismatic wrestlers in the world, he seemed to get over in the United States better than any of the other New Japan talent. Like Tanahashi and Okada, is considered a great in ring performer, though in Nakamura’s case his reputation as a worker is also strong even among those who are not huge fans of NJPW main event style. Main evented as many iPPVs as anyone in the promotion, despite the fact that he was never the top title holder this year.
Negatives: Was stuck in a dead end feud with the non-wrestler Gracies that kept him well positioned on cards, but did nothing for him otherwise. Despite his ability to headline major shows as Intercontinental Champion, the companies rumored plan to make the IC Title feel like something at or near equal to the IWGP title does not seem to have worked. While the Fale sellouts are very impressive on paper, strong Tanahashi matches and one of the biggest junior heavyweight matches of the decade bolstered those cards. Similarly, you could argue that the G1 Final house was drawn in large part before he was announced in the main event, and the 18,000 paid figure was arguably disappointing given the size of the venue.
Positives: Started the year as an indie freelancer, where he drew several of the biggest indie crowds of the year for a variety of promotions all over the United States. Even with smaller, lesser known promotions, he was brought in and set attendance records. As a result he was probably the most in demand freelance talent in recent memory on the indie scene. Won the IWGP Title immediately upon his arrival in New Japan. Had an incredible run in the G1 tournament, getting himself over with NJPW fans who had not necessarily taken to him before hand, and emerging as one of the top contenders for Most Outstanding Wrestler of the Year in the process. Has had critically acclaimed matches in a variety of promotions, against a variety of opponents, including a match v. Minoru Suzuki from the G1 that has a real change of winning Match of the Year voting for both the WON and this site. Drew one of the largest non-G1 Sumo Hall houses in years for his title loss to Tanahashi.
Negatives: Did not get over well at all initially in New Japan, despite getting an immediate IWGP title push. His match with Okada at Yokohama Arena, was arguably the biggest bust of the New Japan resurgence period, drawing less than eight thousand paid to a seventeen thousand seat arena. Despite some great matches — especially in the G1 — his IWGP title run will likely be remembered poorly, as the promotion did not seem to trust him to work in main event slots on major shows, and he only had a few IWGP Title matches at all. On top of this, the Bullet Club gimmick brought screwy finishes, and run-in spots to top level NJPW matches, something many fans resented. Despite having been the champion of what is possibly the second biggest promotion in the world, Styles only drew one impressive major league level house all year.
Positives: From a kayfabe perspective he had one of the strongest years in wrestling. Won the major titles of both Dragon Gate USA and Dragon Gate, becoming the first non-native to do so in the case of the latter. On top of this, he also won the Best of the Super Juniors tournament as a non-NJPW talent, and later in the year won an absolutely loaded Battle of Los Angeles tournament for PWG. Generally considered to be the most dynamic high flyer in wrestling today, and thought of by many as one of the top workers in the world. Though he lost the match, he did challenge Kota Ibushi for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title in a bout that was arguably the biggest juniors match in Japan in ten years (and may have been a major contributor to the sellout house the show drew). Is the current Lucha Underground champion. Is an in-demand wrestler for promotions all over the world.
Negatives: Aside from the aforementioned Ibushi match (which went on before intermission), he doesn’t have a ton to hang his hat on as a draw. While Dragon Gate had a solid year at the box office, the “dream match” he was added to for their big show in Kobe was basically an afterthought. He no-showed Triplemania, and for whatever reason was not brought back in by NJPW after losing to Ibushi. Though it’s hard to fault him for it, despite running a modestly sized venue the Super Juniors final he main evented failed to sell out. Some may view him as a big fish swimming around in several small ponds.
Positives: Started the year as the most over wrestler in the world, with no one else really being close. His incredible popularity led to perhaps the most intense fan rejection of a wrestling show in history at the Royal Rumble, forcing the WWE’s hand into pushing him as their biggest star in the process. As a result of this he headlined Wrestlemania, working two matches on the card. In many respects Bryan was as central to the show as any wrestler has ever been to any wrestling show, and as usual Mania was a wildly successful show, that was easily the biggest of the year. Was one of the top workers in the world during the period he was active, with MOTY level matches against people like HHH and Bray Wyatt, both on major shows.
Negatives: After Mania he was placed into a feud with Kane that was secondary to The Shield v. Evolution feud, and did little for Bryan. From there he got a major injury, forcing him out of action for the remainder of the year. While the WWE has suffered greatly in his absence, it is notable that house shows headlined by Bryan did not do as well as house shows headlined by Cena during the first portion of the year. In the end being around for about half of the voting period hurts him, even if you believe he was the clear top guy in wrestling at the high point of the year.
Positives: Like Ricochet he has a strong case kayfabe case. Ended The Undertaker’s streak at Wrestlemania, which was arguably the most significant “major title” in wrestling. Won the WWE title from John Cena in the most one sided mauling anyone can remember in a major title match on a major show. Is used as a special attraction star, so all of his matches in theory should feel like big deals,which is something sorely lacking in modern wrestling. Current WWE champion, and his reign will almost assuredly last for the remainder of the year barring something incredibly strange happening. Considered one of the most unique performers in modern wrestling.
Negatives: Barely works at all, and despite that being a theoretical plus it’s debatable how much that pays off. There is no evidence yet as to whether or not the Cena match(es) helped bump network subscriptions, and the initial ppv buyrate numbers for their first match turned out to be inflated. Though he ended Taker’s streak it was done in a lackluster match, that featured a horrible build where Brock did not come across as a threat. Despite his reputation as a “main event only” level special attraction, he has had four matches this year, and only two of them were main events, both against John Cena. Lacks the depth of great matches, or clear drawing record that is usually expected of a Wrestler of the Year.
Positives: He’s John Cena, so until someone else can put together an undeniable run, he’s the guy starting in the de facto number one slot every year. Still the top merchandise seller in wrestling by a healthy margin, and he remains the best house show draw in the WWE, and almost certainly the world. Held the WWE Title this year, before losing it to Brock Lesnar, in perhaps the most unselfish performance in the history of wrestling. Has had some legitimately great matches this year, against a variety of opponents. For better or worse he still feels like the biggest star in wrestling.
Negatives: His act is incredibly stale to the point where even long time defenders of his have become increasingly bored and annoyed by his character (myself included). Though they did have one great match together, the Bray Wyatt feud was an artistic and creative disaster, as Wyatt has still not recovered from the way he was presented and booked opposite Cena. While Cena is still the top draw on house shows, house show business has not been terribly impressive. Aside from the feud with Brock, Cena has not been presented as the consistent top guy for much of the year.
The Shield Guys
Positives: Reigns, Ambrose and Rollins have been presented as main event players for the bulk of the year. Their early feuds with The Wyatts and Evolution produced some of the best matches in the WWE, if not the World, in 2014. While this was partially the result of stupid booking, The Evolution feud really came across as the top feud in wrestling after Mania and the Wyatt feud was as hot as any WWE feud has been all year in terms of live crowd response. After the break up Reigns was pushed as one of the top faces in the promotion, arguably at or above the level of Cena at times. Ambrose caught fire with the live crowds, and turned in some great in ring performances as a singles worker. Rollins emerged as a sniveling heel character, won Money in the Bank, and in some respects has been the top heel in the promotion over the last couple of months given Brock Lesnar’s schedule.
Negatives: While all three guys got over to varying degrees after the break up, a combination of bad booking, bad timing and bad luck has hurt all of them. Ambrose got hot and then went out to shoot a movie. Since he’s been back he’s been booked as an almost comedic annoyance to Seth Rollins, rather than the crazed psychopath he had been prior to his departure. Rollins is a polarizing figure as a heel, with some loving him in the role and others hating him in the role. Either way he’s not been booked very strongly. Reigns was booked strongly, but has not caught on at the level the promotion had hoped. Worse yet he’s now injured and will miss the rest of the year.
Positives: One of the most charismatic and consistent performers in the world. Even on shows that don’t do strong business, Rush always comes across as a major star. Has had some of the better matches in CMLL this year both from an in ring and business perspective. His feud with Negro Casas is arguably the feud of the year, and their hair v. hair match drew nearly thirteen thousand paid. He also took Shocker’s hair this year in another match that drew 10,000 plus to Arena Mexico. On top of his singles work, his team with La Mascara has produced great matches, and freshened up a stale Mascara act in the process. Has had a few matches this year that hardcore lucha fans rate at or near Match of the Year level, and is generally thought of as the best overall act in lucha libre today.
Negatives: Because of how CMLL books, while Rush has headlined three of the four biggest CMLL shows of the year (and worked second from the top of the biggest), he has also headlined or worked near the top on a whole slew of shows that have done middling business or worse. Though this is largely because of the CMLL business model, a model that works this way is not necessarily one that is likely to produce top level Wrestler of the Year contenders. Furthermore, it could also be argued that a star with Rush’s charisma should be drawing bigger houses on average, regardless of the way his promotion promotes the shows.
Positives: Even in his mid-fifties, Casas is one of the top workers in Mexico, if not the World. Here it is notable given the antiquated time frame the WON uses for their awards, that Casas had a tremendous December from an in ring perspective, capping off a year where many people voted him Most Outstanding based on his run through November. Casas work has remained strong in 2014, with strong performances in tags, trios, singles and ciberneticos to his name. His feud with Rush is arguably feud of the year, drew a big house for the hair v. hair blow off, and saw Casas put over Rush huge in defeat. He is easily one of the charismatic wrestlers in the world, and younger talents always come across as bigger stars when paired with him or opposite him. As a result his presence as a coach for the En Busca de un Idolo tournament helped make the tourney feel like a big deal.
Negatives: Like Rush, Casas is hurt by the booking and promoting decisions of CMLL. Casas has fewer big houses to his credit this year than Rush does,and also missed some time early in the year with injury. While he has been great in the ring, he doesn’t have the volume of high end performances that he had last year, and you could make the argument that several CMLL talents have had better in ring years in 2014. Though he still comes across as a major star, the hair v. hair bout with Rush almost felt like a swan song for Casas as a top level player in CMLL.
Positives: Another guy who is a solid kayfabe contender. Despite being a baby in the business his year on paper has been impressive. He took his first mask, got a major title shot at Arena Mexico, won the critically acclaimed En Busca de un Idolo tournament, and took the hair of Rey Cometa in a widely praised undercard match on the biggest CMLL show of the year (and of all time for that matter). During the course of the year he has had matches v. Titan, Hechicero and Cometa that many lucha fans rate at Match of the Year level. Several lucha experts have pointed to him as the sleeper pick for Lucha Wrestler of the Year, and he is praised as a high level worker even by those who are not major fans of lucha libre or CMLL.. Among lucha fans he is a serious contender for the Most Outstanding Wrestler Award.
Negatives: Is ultimately not a main event wrestler. Similar to Ishii in that he has had feature moments this year, and is over with the crowds, but is not pushed at the level you would normally want to see for a Wrestler of the Year candidate. To my knowledge he has never main evented Arena Mexico even in a trios match, While he is thought of as a great in ring performer (full disclosure: he’d make my top three in the World if voting were done today), there are those who probably put him a level below the absolute top guys in Mexico. Had what was the biggest match of his career up to that point at the En Busca de un Idolo final saved by his opponent Hechicero when he crashed and burned on a major spot, and Hechicero had to change the structure and pace of the match on the fly.
Bizarre wild cards
- Bobby Lashley: Been presented and pushed remarkably well considering he’s in TNA. His title win did see a slight uptick in the ratings. Better in ring performer than he’s given credit for. Still a second rate star, in a tenth rate promotion.
- Eric Young: Solid in ring year, that saw him win the TNA World Title. Many were happy for him, but at the end of the day his title reign was seen as a joke even by TNA standards. Worked hard for little reward.
- Hechicero: Viewed by many lucha fans as the best worker in Mexico if not the world. Was a key part of the incredibly popular En Busca de un Idolo tournament. Still, not a top level star in CMLL, and doesn’t have the kayfabe accomplishments of Cavernario.
- Katsuyori Shibata: Something of a cult favorite for years, he broke out of the pack with a huge G1 this year, where he was among the tournaments top performers. His feud with Tanahashi added much needed depth to Ippv shows, and had a real big time feel to it. That said, he remains a clear step below the NJPW main eventers.
- Rusev: Ostensibly a mid-card act, though there have been periods where his angles have gotten by far the biggest reactions on WWE television, even when paired with lukewarm opponents. Inconsistent worker, though he’s shown improvement, and in his best moments has shown real talent in the ring. Not a top level star…yet.
- Bray Wyatt: Seemed like a contender early in the year. Polarizing figure as some love his act and others find it corny and absurd. Has been in some of the top WWE matches of the year, though they have all been against strong workers. Hurt by the Cena feud, he’s now barely a television presence at all, and seems completely irrelevant.
- Perro Aguayo Jr.: Maybe the top true heel in Mexico, though he’s not presented as a focal point the way you ideally want a top heel to be. Came across as a huge star at Triplemania, and has been in the past, but I don’t know that he’s been a driving force for AAA this year.
- Alberto Del Rio: His appearance at Triplemania made him look like a huge star, and he drew a sold house for his first big match with the promotion. He’s also in demand everywhere right now. On the other hand he spent most of the year as a completely irrelevant WWE mid-carder.
- Psycho Clown: Won the top AAA title, on their biggest show of the year, which drew a massive crowd, in a great match. The Psycho Circus act is over, but he doesn’t come across as one of the absolute top stars in his promotion, let alone the world.
- Myzteziz: AAA business has been pretty solid since he arrived, but it’s hard to say if he’s been a real spark or not. There are conflicting reports about how well shows he’s headlined have done outside of the AAA universe.
- Atlantis and Ultimo Guerrero: Drew the largest gate in lucha history together and had an incredibly dramatic and legitimately great match together in the process. Typically this would be something where you would think of them as strong contenders, but usually these sort of bouts only happen coming off of strongly built feuds, that feature several matches, angles or promos that draw solid business over a period of months. That is not what happened here, as neither guy seemed like a top level player prior to this, nor was either guy a huge factor in the better CMLL shows of the year other than the Anniversary card.
Photos: (c) norihon