WWE has long been the standard of American pro wrestling. There have been many ups and many more downs throughout the company’s history. Debates constantly rage about the quality of the product, its presentations, and its style. As I write this at the end of 2023, the debate is as polarizing as ever. Some view the WWE style as perfecting storytelling, while others view it as boring dreck. One thing about WWE is undeniable: its scale cannot be matched by anyone else. The company is so deeply rooted in its country’s pro wrestling history that its name is almost interchangeable with the word “wrestling.” Therefore, when it really wants to, it can reach heights seen by few other companies and deliver thrills that not many can. The 2010s was a weird decade for the company. It is arguably the best wrestled decade in company history, the working standard higher from show to show than it ever has been. Simultaneously, it delivered some of the worst matches, stories, and booking seen on American wrestling television. Still, it is impossible to tell the story of modern wrestling without showcasing some of the best matches in the history of the most famous wrestling promotion of all time. Here are five of the best of the 2010s. – Kevin Hare
Andrade Cien Almas vs. Johnny Gargano
NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia
For a period of about five years, NXT TakeOver events were some of the safest bets in wrestling in terms of getting a quality, kick-ass wrestling show with a bunch of awesome matches. After years and years of WWE presenting a subpar main roster product to its fanbase, the promotion’s third/developmental brand collected an insane amount of talent from across the wrestling world, and used the weekly NXT television show to build to quarterly supercards (originally contained to NXT’s original home base of Full Sail University in Florida before moving to sold out big arenas in major cities) that presented some of the very best professional wrestling to ever occur under the WWE banner.
Over that five-year period, one of the names that became synonymous with the NXT TakeOver specials was Johnny Gargano. Whether it be as a tag team competitor (primarily alongside Tommaso Ciampa as part of DIY), or as a singles star, you knew that whatever match he was involved in had a strong chance of being the match of the night. Out of all his TakeOver outings, Gargano’s bout with Andrade Cien Almas for the NXT Championship at TakeOver: Philadelphia in January 2018 has a strong claim to being not only the best match in the history of NXT, but a contender for the best match in the history of WWE period.
The match featured incredible back-and-forth action that escalated perfectly as it progressed. Both Almas and Gargano (as well as Zelina Vega and, later on in the match, Candice LeRae) did an amazing job with regards to the actual in-ring wrestling. However, above anything else, this match showcased why Johnny Gargano is such a great underdog babyface. At this point in Gargano’s NXT story, it had been a long road for him since Tommaso Ciampa turned on him the prior summer, and despite various setbacks once he became more of a singles competitor, he scratched and clawed his way into contention for the NXT title. The fact that Andrade felt at the time like a very beatable champion added to the near-falls all the more. I had the chance to see this show in person at the Wells Fargo Center, and while the atmosphere for the whole show was great, the energy in the crowd during this match was nothing short of electric. The crowd went wild for every major false finish, as we were all pulling for Gargano to win the big one. When a wrestling crowd truly gets behind a challenger in a huge title match, and really believes that whatever title is on the line could change hands, there’s almost nothing else like it. The whole vibe of the crowd just goes to a new level. It’s something that can definitely come across through the screen, but being in the building for that kind of match is a totally unique experience.
Even though Johnny Gargano didn’t come away with the title that night, it was still one of the best performances of his entire career, and one of the best matches in WWE history. Credit to Andrade as well. He’s had great matches before and since this show, but I don’t think anything else in his career will come close to the match he had on this night. While Gargano would be embroiled in a feud with Tommaso Ciampa for the next year, which featured very different kinds of matches to this one (a feud that got back going again during the closing moments of this very show), this wouldn’t be the last time Gargano would have an incredible title match on a TakeOver, and he would finally get his big moment just over fourteen months later. If you’ve never watched this match before, it’s absolutely one that you need to make time to watch. In terms of encapsulating what made NXT TakeOver events so special, it doesn’t get much better than this. In hindsight, I’m incredibly thankful that I got to see this TakeOver in person. That era of wrestling is a number of years behind us at this stage, but that night in Philadelphia is one I’ll never forget.
- Johnny Gargano vs. Shingo Takagi – Gargano’s premier independent match against one of the best ever.
- Shinsuke Nakamura vs Sami Zayn – The most significant NXT TakeOver match on the first WrestleMania weekend TakeOver.
- Adam Cole vs. Johnny Gargano – As the bloom began to slip off the rose somewhat, this particular Gargano TakeOver match delivered.
Sasha Banks vs. Bayley
NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn
In the beginning, there was nothing. Then for a brief while there was Trish Stratus and Lita, but then there was nothing again for a long time but Miller Lite Twins and Snooki. But one day, from a magical place in Florida called NXT came four mighty warriors who would bring respectability and dignity to women’s wrestling. Warriors who would shed the title of Diva and become Wrestlers. And everyone lived happily ever after. This is the WWE narrative about women’s wrestling. In typical WWE fashion it ignores everything except for WWE, but is there some meat on the bones of this claim?
To talk about August 22, 2015, in Brooklyn I need to hop in the DeLorean and take a trip back to October 1-2, 2011 in Berwyn, IL. Sitting in my usual uncomfortable seat at the World Famous Berwyn Eagles Club for another weekend taping of SHIMMER Women’s Athletes, in a room with 200 other fans who were there to see the best women’s wrestlers from around the world. In the second match of the first taping volume one of the most respected women in American wrestling, Mercedes Martinez, defeated a wrestler new to the promotion in what was mostly a squash match. It took only 6:30 for Martinez to pin Davina Rose. Davina would go on to wrestle three more times that weekend, losing to Portia Perez, Nicole Matthews, and Kellie Skater. Despite looking competent in all four matches, none of them were particularly memorable, and certainly were not highlights in a weekend with noteworthy matches like Kana vs. Sara del Rey, Britani Knight vs. Saraya Knight, and the best match of the weekend with Ayako Hamada and Ayumi Kurihara vs. Sara del Rey and Madison Eagles. I would have gladly said at the end of the shows I was sure I had seen someone who would change the industry, I just had no idea which person that was.
“BUT HOW WAS THE MATCH?!” I hear you yelling, demanding I cut the reminiscence and get to the wrestling! It was extremely good. Sasha Banks is always willing to kill herself for our entertainment, and Bayley was playing the babyface who has had it up to here and won’t take anymore to perfection. Banks showed brutality, trying repeatedly to crush the bones in the hand of her former best friend, that wouldn’t have been out of place in an old episode of Mid-South Wrestling. Bayley went deep in the bag of tricks, pulling out a hellacious-looking top rope poison rana that made me gasp eight years after seeing it the first time. If you asked me for stars, I’d put five on it given everything, and my scale only goes up to five. It’s a little messy, a lot emotional, and has an intensity rarely seen in modern wrestling.
I went back and watched this match multiple times to prepare. The final time I replayed the match I tried something different. I barely let my eyes open, from the intro packages all the way through the post-match celebration. I wanted to listen to this match. WWE crowds over the years have told stories just through the timbre of their noises. The announcers and the way they choose to present the match gives the viewer almost subconscious clues how they should be receiving the match from their couch. The patter of the wrestlers themselves spotlights their priorities.
In this match, everything sounded important. There was no going off on tangents by the announce team or lecherous commentary on the performer’s looks. The intro package told a story of fighting for respect and achievement in the ring, not concerns about popularity or fitting into a clique. And the crowd…oh the crowd noise. From the opening bell, the crowd was locked in and cared. When important moments happened the sound from the audience was full-throated, a mix of men and women, young and old. A crowd of 15,000+ were living and dying with every move these two made. When Bayley escaped the Bank Statement, the relief was palpable. In the split second of locking in the final Bayley-to-Belly suplex the gasp of anticipation sounded just like it did when Steve Austin was putting that boot into the stomach, or the Rock tossing the elbow pad, or Okada winding up the ripcord before the Rainmaker. And I promise, when using my eyes and ears I saw the same reaction that I heard. No WWE crowd noise loop cranked to 11.
After the match, Charlotte and Becky came out to join Bayley. Eventually, Sasha hugged Bayley as well, and the “NXT Divas” (as they were still called, times had not fully changed) flashed the four fingers while the commentary team told us how they changed the landscape of wrestling. And for once, WWE might have been telling the truth. Or something close to it. Women have headlined Wrestlemania multiple nights since then. The idea of the best match of the night being a women’s match is not some crazy novelty. Sure, the world’s not perfect, then or now. But look back at October 1, 2011. Bayley working in front of 200 people in a small building in Berwyn. Meanwhile, the WWE Divas Champion, the face of their women’s division…was Kelly Kelly. And that seemed normal then. After Takeover Brooklyn, after Bayley vs. Sasha Banks, such a thing would be impossible to imagine happening ever again.
- Sasha Banks vs. Bianca Belair – Banks steals the show on the biggest WWE show of the year and makes a new star (at least for one night) in Belair.
- Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch – Not the first NXT women’s match to get buzz, but the first to get buzz on the same level of the best men’s matches.
- Natalya vs. AJ Lee – An example of what was held up as the best of the best from the division in the era immediately prior.
- SDR & Eagles vs. Hamada & Kurihara – This was happening while Kelly Kelly was dancing around with the Divas belt.
The Shield vs. Wyatt Family
WWE Elimination Chamber
WWE has never been a tag team promotion. Usually, tag teams are two castoffs put together and become relegated to being tag team guys forever, or major stars are put together in order to eventually break up and feud. The amount of WWF/E tag team matches that are remembered as great is relatively small.
The Shield was a complete shock to the system. These were not castaways or big stars. Three of the top prospects in the company were grouped together as a cohesive unit, focusing on chaotic tag and 6-man matches. The faction breathed fresh life into the bland RAW ecosystem and were often the best act on RAW or SmackDown that week. They were a major reason Daniel Bryan got over to the extent of headlining WrestleMania and helped revive Goldust for a final WWE run.
The matches felt like nothing else in WWE ever. Fast-paced and frantic, the refreshing thing about the Shield was how each man had a purpose and responsibility. Ambrose was the brawler, Reigns was the brawn and Rollins was the high-flying athletic one. The Shield run, from debut in late 2012 until their breakup in the summer of 2014, is one of the all-time great runs in WWE history.
Bray Wyatt cultivated his own similar group at the time, the Wyatt Family. A cult-like group, the Wyatts, featuring Luke Harper and Erick Rowan, were much bigger and relied a lot on Bray’s character work to get over. They were more of a dominating, hulking team. Fans knew that it was only a matter of time before the teams clashed.
Once in the ring together, the atmosphere was electric. The Shield’s strategy cut off each member, swarming and attacking in groups. The Wyatts would separate a Shield member, get the upper hand, the Shield would isolate and swarm in a corner away from the rest and get their own advantage. Rinse and repeat. Each played their role perfectly, the hulking Wyatts beating down the smaller Shield, and the Shield using their group tactics to stay in the match. Things escalated when Rollins flipped out of a top rope belly-to-back suplex and hit a big dive sequence. Luke Harper halted the comeback; the beatdown continued.
WWE is very focused on the individual. Their stories, singles matches, etc. Groups are usually a way to get over one specific individual. That’s what made this match so refreshing. After Reigns tagged in, anarchy ensued. Rollins hit even bigger dives. Reigns decimated. The Wyatts attempted to powerbomb Rollins through the announcer table, but Ambrose maniacally saved his brother. These six men just clicked brilliantly together and fired on all cylinders.
By the end of the match, Ambrose was left lying on the concrete floor in some far stretch of the arena. Rollins was slammed through that announcer’s table. Reigns was left by himself. The Wyatt’s successfully used the Shield’s own strategy against them, divided, conquered, and eventually won the match.
Immediately, this entered the WWE pantheon. Few tag matches in the company’s history were this cohesive, athletic, told an elaborate story and worked so well. It is a benchmark of the company’s tag division. Six months later, the Shield were gone. The Wyatts slid down the card. But on this night, they were at the very top of the world.
- Rhodes Brothers vs. The Shield – The Shield doing what they did best – having exciting matches while bringing out every strength of their opponent.
- Wyatt Family vs. The Shield – The two teams would face off a handle more times, almost all being high quality encounters.
- BCC vs. CHAOS & Tanahashi – A highly enjoyable multi-man tag with the throughline of Ambrose/Moxley.
Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena
WWE Extreme Rules
The Prodigal Son returned home.
Brock Lesnar was supposed to be the first new star of the post-Attitude Era. He debuted the night after WrestleMania X8 and main evented WrestleMania 19 the following year. To say that the rocket was strapped to him doesn’t describe it – he was the rocket. He was set to be the star for years and decades to come. But by WrestleMania 20, the writing was on the wall. He left the company. He dabbled in the NFL, wrestled briefly in New Japan, and wound up in the UFC. Again, he was fast-tracked and quickly became heavyweight champion and one of the biggest UFC stars of all time.
Meanwhile, John Cena picked up the slack. After a lackluster debut, he found his footing and became the guy that Lesnar should have been. The company revolved around him. He was the biggest star, biggest character, and (usually) delivered in the big spots he needed to. He was a constant. But he was stale. For as many who loved him, just as many hated him. Once he put on his bright colored t-shirts, jorts, and vowed to never give up, he never changed. He always smiled, always gave his all, was always in the title picture and always absolutely grated on his detractors.
Cena’s career peaked at WrestleMania 28, wrestling the Rock after a year-long build. But it was the next night that changed the company forever. RAW ended with Lesnar, the man who would never return, F5’ing Cena in the middle of the ring. Brock was the anti-Cena. He was badass. He was nasty. He was mean and gritty. He was a legitimate tough guy coming back to take out the wrestling caricature. Lesnar vs. Cena was booked for Extreme Rules 2012.
WWF was built around monsters. A big man would come in, get a push, and gain the upper hand on Hulk Hogan. Hogan, the conquering hero, would always Hulk Up, come back, and win. Rinse and repeat. It was a simple formula and it worked every time. Throughout the Attitude era and beyond, the big men were always pushed and fed to whoever was the ace. Undertaker, Kane, Big Show, Mark Henry, and on and on and on.
Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena was that WWE formula match but presented in a new, chaotic and dangerous way. By 2012, blood was banned in WWE. The first sign of blood would lead to doctors intervening and temporarily stopping the match. It was rarely seen and purposely shied away from. Mere seconds into this match, Cena’s head was absolutely pouring, the victim of vicious Lesnar elbows. It was very apparent that this was going to be a fight. Doctors came into the ring to close the wound while Lesnar paced and taunted. In most other matches, these blood stoppages drag down the action. Here, it only built tension. When the match continued, Lesnar continued to brutalize and punish Cena. Again, the doctors came to Cena’s aid. Cena came back from this stoppage with a fury but quickly was met by German suplexes. Cena made another comeback, but a ref was taken out in the process. Again, what usually is a WWE trope, the ref bump, only built the atmosphere. Two young fans in the front row, dressed completely in matching Cena gear, watched as their bloody hero was dissected right in front of them.
The punishment continued. Lesnar immediately felt different than anyone else in WWE. He delivered nasty knees and stiff lariats. He chained Cena’s legs together and hung Cena from the turnbuckle by those chained ankles. This was not a game. Cena really did never give up, but was stopped every time. There were more ref bumps. Lesnar F5’d Cena into one. He forearmed another. Again, more tropes, but again, these formulas were flipped and delivered in the perfect way, getting the crowd behind Cena, unthinkable moments before.
The most memorable spot of the match happened towards its climax. Lesnar ran the ropes, jumped off of ringsteps placed in the middle, and launched himself recklessly at Cena on the apron. Brock fell hard and awkwardly over the ropes onto the floor, clenching his knee. It looked like a vicious crash landing. After a second of recalibration, he stood up, smiled, stretched out and mocked anyone who would ever think he’d hurt himself. This was his undoing. Lesnar attempted the same stair jump again, but was met with Cena punching him in the face with a chain. That was all it took, one moment of weakness. Cena hit an Attitude Adjustment on the ringsteps and slayed the dragon.
This match is special because it recognizes what it is. It is a style that has been done over and over. But it took that formula, spun it on its head and figured out how to make it compelling all over again. It was vicious, nasty and grimy in a company that had become sterile. It was real, and in the end, it is one of the greatest WWE matches ever.
- John Cena vs. Umaga – The blueprint for every following Cena versus Monster match
- Brock Lesnar vs. The Undertaker – The most violent match of Brock’s career.
- Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena – A few years later at SummerSlam, the two men managed to put on an equally memorable match.
Daniel Bryan vs. Kofi Kingston
WWE WrestleMania 35
There are a million things to complain about with WWE, we at this site are not ones to shy away from that. When you zoom out though, the scale at which they operate means that sometimes all they need to do in order for something to feel special is to not get in their own way. Modern WrestleMania is the prime example of that: every year it’s in front of a huge stadium crowd with a mythos pre-built into the event. All WWE need do is peak a wrestler’s ascent who the fans like at the yearly mega-show and it will feel like a remarkable moment. A great example of this occurred at WrestleMania 35.
It was never the long-term plan for Kofi Kingston to win the world title at that year’s WrestleMania. Debuting on WWE TV in 2008, Kingston was a popular career upper-midcarder. Rarely would more than a few months go by without him involved in some sort of US or Intercontinental title match. In more recent years, he had pivoted over into the tag division as part of the New Day unit. He was firmly cemented in his spot: featured but never really approaching a true top guy. That changed over a decade later in early 2019, when a last-minute Mustafa Ali injury meant Kofi was a late addition to the main event Elimination Chamber match for the world title.
Kofi would surprisingly be the final man eliminated in said match, and put on such a strong performance that the crowd got behind him all the way. This guy who had lived in the midcard suddenly had thousands of people in an arena rooting for him with everything they had to win the world title. A succession of strong performances in gauntlet matches in the following weeks only added to this groundswell; nigh on out of nowhere Kingston was suddenly and clearly the most popular wrestler on SmackDown heading into WWE’s largest show of the year. For all the criticism you could justly give to WWE over the years, on this occasion you have to give them some credit: they went with it and had the unplanned and organic hero not only get the big shot, but win it.
Now it also helped that on the other side of the ring throughout this you happened to have one of the greatest wrestlers in the history of the sport in Daniel Bryan. There may be no better-suited wrestler ever who I would have had more faith to lead a match on such a grand stage with this dynamic, and even by his elevated standards he excelled himself. You can say what you will about the quality of the title reign that would follow, but title win itself was damn near perfect.
Was the build towards the crowning moment good? It was not, with Kofi earning his WrestleMania title shot not by winning matches (he actually spent all of that March losing) but by begging Vince McMahon and having his friends fight for him, but ultimately they got behind and pushed the guy the crowd had chosen. Their crowds had decided they loved Kofi, and Kofi was given the big win.
Similar to the build, what followed on from the title win was also far from perfect. Kofi ended up being a weak champion during a period of significant decline. On that big night though, they got out of their own way, and had the pure babyface who the crowd had organically gotten behind challenge for the world title against the perfect champion to lead the match. They had the exact match that they should have, and in front of the biggest crowd of the year, they gave them what they wanted: the hero triumphed in incredibly satisfying fashion. On that night, it was wonderful.
- Daniel Bryan vs. John Cena – With Bryan on the other side of the light/dark divide, getting his own big show victory.
- Jay Briscoe vs. Kevin Steen – Another fan favorite finally wins The Big One.
- Austin Aries vs. Bobby Roode – Another example of a guy getting over underneath, and the promotion rolling with it all the way to the top title.
The Wrestling 101
- An Introduction to the Project & Match #1
- Unique Spectacles: Matches #2-6
- Multi-Man Magic: Matches #7-11
- What Could Have Been?: Matches #12-16
- Clashes of the 80s: Matches #17-21
- Paving the Road of Kings: Matches #22-26
- The Giant Legacies of Junior Heavyweights: Matches #27-31
- Immortal Matches of WrestleMania: Matches #32-36
- Iconic Moments: Matches #37-41
- Steel & Blood: Matches #42-46
- The New Boom Period: Matches #47-51
- Brown Bag Special: Matches #52-56
- Sports Entertaining: Matches #57-61
- Aaron Taube’s Tremendous 101 Companion Piece
The Wrestling 101 is a Voices of Wrestling group project headed up by Kevin Hare and Robin Reid. You can discuss the series with them on twitter @stan__hansen (Kevin) and @TheRDouble (Robin) or join the conversation over in the Voices of Wrestling Discord.