As 2019 draws to a close, it’s fair to say the Pro-wrestling landscape has shifted quite dramatically.
We’ve witnessed a sudden and aggressive paradigm shift, with young upstart companies screaming onto the scene to disrupt the status quo, finally taking a long-overdue stand against the domineering empire of the WWE.
This article is designed to provide a recap for those of you who may have taken a hiatus this past year. A whistle-stop ride through the last 12 months in the major brands in pro wrestling.
So without further ado…
January is always a lucky month where wrestling is concerned. With both Royal Rumble and WrestleKingdom taking place, there’s more than enough to keep the hardcore and casual fans happy until the February blues inevitably kick in.
It’s quite scary to think it’s close to a full calendar year since Becky Lynch won the women’s royal rumble, formally laying the foundation for her ascension to the top in the industry. Right now it’s near impossible to think of a time before The Man was ruining the show, but prior to her well-fought victory at the rumble, it was unclear if they were truly ready to pull the trigger. Needless to say, their gamble paid off, Becky has proven to be the one person who has been able to truly carry the flag as “The Guy” as the company nears a new decade. It’s been such a long time since a single wrestler has so effortlessly carried their brand. With the Video game tie-ins and advertising campaigns, Becky has shone as one of the cornerstones in what made this year so special.
The rumble also saw Seth Rollins claim victory in the men’s rumble. WWE has been trying for some time to achieve for one of their male wrestlers what they’ve achieved with Becky, and many believed Seth to be the person with whom they could shoot to the moon, but until very recently his trajectory from a quality standpoint took the opposite route to his fiancee.
WrestleKingdom 13 marked the closing chapter of Kenny Omega’s history-making run in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Omega’s reign as champion ended at the hands of Hiroshi Tanahashi in the main event. Omega was the dominant name throughout 2017 & ‘18 but you could feel his story in New Japan was starting to run its course. Following his long-fought victory over Okada, he never managed to reach that level of hunger and drive again. A man more fit for scaling the next challenge than languishing at the top, cultivating defences as his rival had done, Omega would go on for a remarkable year in 2019, but not in an in-ring capacity, or even as a solo performer. His success would be his work alongside his companions in the elite, continuing the growth of arguably the biggest three letters you’re likely to hear in this article AEW.
February is usually somewhat of a lull month, however, New Japan mixed things up quick by having Tanahashi drop the title to Switchblade Jay White in his first defence. Many see Jay as someone who has all the tools but perhaps lacks a little definition in his character. His winning the most prestigious world title in wrestling seemed to come a little out of left field considering how long it took his bullet club predecessor Kenny Omega to achieve the same feat, but it showed the company was prepared to shake up the status quo and make decisions for the future as opposed to being too precious about its legacy.
On the subject of New Japan, their partnership with British independent promotion Rev Pro provided an absolute jewel of a match in the early part of the year, as the two most exciting aerial performers of their generations finally took flight against one another. Pac vs Will Ospreay was a genuine pleasure to behold. Understandably compared to Ospreay’s prior “once in a lifetime clash” against the third man in the conversation to the best flier in the business, Ricochet. Perhaps not leaving as lasting an impression as the aforementioned Ricochet match, the two challengers not only took one another to the limit but also the match itself, culminating in a controversial time limit draw.
February also saw the unveiling of the WWE women’s tag titles which were won by Bayley and Sasha Banks inside the elimination chamber.
Looking back, I remember feeling completely disconnected from the sport around March time. There seemed to be so little happening, especially where WWE is concerned.
The attempt to revitalise the already fading run of the shield shone a light on how “out of ideas” the big company were for the men’s side of the roster. A copy and paste victory over the team of Corbin, Lashley, and Drew McIntyre left much to be desired, which is a real shame considering the talent of the individuals involved.
Moving into April, a distinct gear change could be felt.
Takeover: New York threw down a gauntlet with Pete Dunne finally closing his history-making chapter with the WWE UK Title after a loss to Walter, as well as Gargano beating Adam Cole in a hard-fought 2 out of 3 falls, making him NXT’s inaugural triple crown champion.
In what can only be assumed as an attempt to recapture the magic of his previous run, we saw Kazuchika Okada reclaim his IWGP Title from Switchblade Jay White. Granted it’s not the worst idea to put the title back around the waist of the biggest name in Japanese wrestling, but it kind of feels like a backward step at this juncture. Without the enigmatic Kenny Omega, Okada seems almost redundant.
This event also marked the first time a non-WWE wrestling promotion sold-out Madison Square Garden, an ominous Foreshadowing WWE’s weighing grip on the industry perhaps?
On the subject of breaking new ground, WWE did a little pioneering of its own as Wrestlemania rolled into the garden state.
Despite the company being the ones who rigged the glass ceiling in the first place, it was refreshing to see female talent close the show on the grandest stage of them all for the first time in history.
Becky Lynch would walk out of WrestlemaniaWWE Raw and Smackdown Women’s champion (Becky Two-Belts), cementing herself firmly into the history books after a fantastic match against bitter rival Ronda Rousey. The pair deserve all the credit in the world for making the main event of Wrestlemania matter again, and it’s very likely we may see a repeat of a female main event should the momentum continue.
From opening chapters to closing chapters, Wrestlemania marked the final matches of both Kurt Angle and (one of this writer’s personal favourite wrestlers) Batista. Both men put on stellar performances considering their time away from in-ring competition and provided those all-important Wrestlemania moments.
Batista will go on to headline the 2020 class of the Hall of Fame.
May proved to be a relatively sombre hangover from Wrestlemania season. As is tradition, WWE ran out of steam post mania and went back to the well on The Shield one final time. This match would mark the farewell of Dean Ambrose, whose contract with the company was due to terminate that evening with no talk of any renewal.
Dean’s future was totally unknown, with many speculating all out retirement, whilst others were convinced he would return to independent wrestling.
The show itself served its purpose, a sombre and emotional send-off that had Roman and Seth display a rare moment of candid and endearing appreciation for their departing brother.
Over to the UK independent scene, which seemed to take an undeniable hit following the acquisition of much of the talent pool by WWE developmental.
Progress held their annual Super Strong Style 16 event at Chapter 88, which saw The Progress World Champion Walter defeat Progress Atlas Champion Trent Seven to unify the titles.
Progress still manages to hold it’s placed atop the British independent scene but also serves as an indicator of where the landscape is right now. Frequenting many of the shows the spark is definitely still alive, but a resource in both the talent pool and the constraints in booking around contracted talent can definitely be felt. With the approach of chapter 100 in the new year, it will be interesting to see if the company responsible for much of the independent boom in the UK will change and adapt to more comfortable fit into this new regime, or if they’ll slowly start to be engulfed by the unrelenting harvester of WWE.
Business truly began to pick up in June, with this summer of wrestling being one of the most pivotal times in recent history.
Money in the Bank saw Brock Lesnar take the place of Sami Zayn at the last moment of the match, stealing the briefcase from the grasp of Mustafa Ali in the closing seconds.
Becky’s run as Becky two belts came to a close as Bayley won the women’s ladder match and cashed in at the end of a gruelling night.
As solid a card as MITB was, the most important event of the summer turned out to be the inaugural Pay-Per-View for upstart company AEW, the aptly titled, Double or Nothing.
The night proved to be a cathartic war cry for many independent superstars who were told WWE was the only game in town. In front of a sold-out MGM Grand Garden Arena Cody, The Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega proved that there was room for something new.
Chris Jericho and Hangman Page earned their shot to face one another for the vacant AEW title, Cody faced off against his brother Dustin in an emotional bloodbath, and as evening drew to a close we saw the surprise debut and all-out resurrection of Jon Moxley.
His attack on Kenny Omega following his loss to Chris Jericho, and the subsequent shot of Moxley stood atop the stack of poker chips, backlight by the arena spotlights stands as one of the most iconic moment of 2019. A single image that personifies a change of the times, a new chapter in the professional wrestling history books.
Over in Japan, local lad Will Ospreay captured his second Best of the Super Juniors title in a thrilling clash against Shingo Tagaki. It would be difficult to aptly dummies how spectacular this match is, so I recommend you go find it and watch it immediately following reading this article. Ospreay proves once again how he is in Anabel of having a less than great match, let alone a bad one. Both men are perfectly matched and produce what many would consider a clear match of the year contender.
The summer heat would continue through July, with Adam Cole and Johnny Gargano continuing their fierce rivalry, with Cole once again dispatching the Rebel Heart.
Super showdown was another story entirely, a shameful blemish on an otherwise outstanding summer of wrestling.
Undertaker and Goldberg narrowly managed to not kill one another, with either man taking numerous jackknife spikes to the head in a match that really didn’t need to happen.
We also saw an uneventful “Largest battle royal in history” with 51 entrants. This article will likely be the last mention of the match, as it was won be an unknown who has gone in to do absolutely nothing in the wider company.
Jericho also continued his career year at NJPW Dominion 6.9 in a match against IWGP champion Okada. Battling the champion valiantly but ultimately coming up just shy of the title
AEW also held their rather unique PPV Fyter Fest. The Newley liberated Jon Moxley wrestled his debut independent outing against The Bad Boy Joey Janela in a non sanctioned match. Moxley showed a more violent and unique approach than he’d be able to get away within WWE, igniting the hopes of fans worldwide that he could be the guy to lead the charge against the WWE brass.
AEW continued the drive with Fight for the fallen, seeing The young bucks defeat The Brotherhood (Cody and Dustin Rhodes).
WWE Extreme rules saw Brock Lesnar cash in his MITB contract to regain the WWE Universal title but was otherwise unremarkable.
Onto Mexico where AAA Triplemania XXVII gave us a glimpse of things to come, as Cain Valaseuez’ entered his first professional wrestling bout. Despite being far from game-changing, he looked comfortable enough considering how green he was.
With the success of Ronda Rousey as well as the obvious crossover appeal of Brock Lesnar, Bobby Lashley, and Jake Hagar, it’s very likely 2020 will see the trend of MMA stars crossing over into sports entertainment continue to rise.
In their third match of their series, Adam Cole once again shuts out Gargano in 2 out of 3 falls at NXT Takeover Toronto to continue his reign as NXT champion.
Summerslam gave us the return of Goldberg against Dolph Ziggler, supposedly as a way of sending the big man out on a high note after his “deathmatch” with undertaker in Saudi Arabia. Another legend also returned to in-ring action as Trish Stratus faced off against Charlotte Flair. Trish’s impact on professional wrestling cannot be understated. The two wrestled a fantastic match, with flair capturing the victory by submission.
Perhaps the most significant point in the night was the rebirth of Bray Wyatt as The Fiend. One of the more impactful characters to emerge from 2019. This story arc marks the “lost in the woods” Wyatt finally finding his foothold at the top of the card. Embodying the omnipotent, malevolent force everyone had hoped Bray to be when he debuted on the main roster, The Fiend has managed to fill a gaping void left by the undertaker.
Though his booking hasn’t exactly been without its misfires, it’s certainly a vast improvement over the stop/start booking Bray had run up against on his initial run. The fiend still sits atop WWE as an ever-looming threat.
In an interesting turn of events, Kota Ibushi defeats jay white to win the G1 climax, securing a title shot against Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight title. As many readers will be aware, Ibushi’s closest ally is Okada’s longtime nemesis Kenny Omega. Omega had offered Ibushi a place in his new company AEW, however, Ibushi opted to stay in New Japan to realise his lifelong dream of winning the biggest title in the industry.
Back in the UK Walter defeated tyler Bate to retain the NXT UK Title.
Somewhat of a rematch of their clash at Progress’ Wembley show earlier this year.
AEW also settled the score for their inaugural world champion. Chris Jericho would defeat Hangman Adam Page in a thrilling, high impact bout. Jericho has since given rise to probably the most iconic era in his career, becoming the most memed wrestler of 2019 with catchphrases such as “A little bit of the bubbly” and referring to himself as “Le Champion”.
WWE held the uneventful clash of champions, another middle of the row misfire where Seth Rollins too on Braun Strowman to retain the Universal Championship.
Becky also lost to Sasha Banks via DQ, so she managed to hold onto her Raw Women’s Championship.
This exact kind of short-sighted, non-committal booking is the reason the big company are struggling to keep the interest of the more discerning fan and has become a hallmark of the majority of their pay-per-views outside of the big 4.
Over to Progress now, where Chapter 95: Still Chasing saw Eddie Dennis beat Walter and David Starr for the progress unified world championship after cashing in his title opportunity from beating Mark Andrews at Chapter 76. Dennis had struggled for a long time to step outside of the shadow of former tag partner Mark Andrews, and despite some hesitation from fans it’s nice to see a hard-working veteran get an opportunity to run with the top prize in the company.
On that same card, Paul Robinson took home the inaugural Progress Proteus title in a 30-person rumble match. Paul Robinson lastly eliminated Danny Duggan to become the inaugural champion. Robinson’s selected stipulation was that he could only lose the title by being knocked out or by tapping out.
WWE Smackdown celebrated its 20th anniversary this October, a fun show which saw the return of The Rock who shared a segment with King Corbin and Becky Lynch, as well as the TV debuts of Cain Velasquez and Tyson Fury. This night also saw Brock Lesnar defeating Kofi for the WWE championship, ending Kofi’s historic title reign.
WWE Hell in a cell marked a real low point in 2019. It’s about time this match stipulation was retired, as they seem to get more and more tame as the years go by. If it wasn’t bad enough that they stuck with the horrendous red cell, they also ended the match, the most devastating structure in WWE, where no rules apply and no holds are barred, with a referee stoppage.
It’s the equivalent of disqualifying a boxer for knocking his opponent out! This was a prime example of really short-sighted booking, that I can only pin down to them not knowing how to make hell in a cell match a viable spectacle in a PG 2019.
Keeping Vince McMahon out of Saudi Arabia is like trying to keep a hungry dog out of a split bin bag.
Wwe crown Jewel played host to the matchup between Lineal Heavyweight champion of the world Tyson Fury and the Monster Among Men Braun Strowman. Once again, this was no masterclass, but the bout itself was enjoyable for what it was. Fury’s entrance alone was worth the price of admission and his natural charisma shone through the matchup. Strowman did a fine job of covering for Fury’s lack of experience.
On the note of competitors lacking experience, Cain Velasquez took on Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship in his debut match. Clocking in at just over two minutes, Lesnar squashed Velasquez in dominant fashion. Velasquez has not made any appearances for the company since, but hopefully, we’ll get to see the former UFC champion in competition again in the new year.
Despite the obvious mire of controversy these Saudi shows have been, there was a moment of genuine promise as Lacey Evans and Natalya competed in the first women’s match to take place in the kingdom. The match wasn’t anything to write home about from a wrestling standpoint, but the raw emotion of these two athletes changing the game really pulled on the heartstrings.
The event was closed with the apology match between The Fiend and Seth Rollins, this time someone had the sense to establish the rules ahead of time, declaring a falls count anywhere match with the stipulation being no stoppages for any reason. The Fiend defeated Rollins, taking the universal title back to the firefly funhouse.
At AEW Full gear, Jon Moxley defeated Kenny Omega in an unsanctioned lights out match, continuing the story of a frustrated Best Bout Machine struggling to hold himself to his own standard in his new company.
AEW Champion Chris Jericho took on Cody Rhodes, with the finish being determined by Cody’s corner throwing in the towel on his behalf. A perfect example on AEW’s focus on grounding their product in reality to give a more “sports like” feel. The stipulation prevents Cody from ever challenging for the title again.
NXT Takeover WarGames saw two WarGames matches on the same card, the first of which saw team Ripley defeat Team Baszler in an action-packed thrill ride. Pete Dunne beat Damian Priest and Killian Darin to secure a number one contenders match for the NXT title at survivor series. Finn Balor defeated Matt Riddle in his return to NXT, and finally, Team Ciampa defeated The Undisputed Era in an all-out war.
The following night at survivor series Shayna Baszler (NXT Women’s champion) defeated Becky Lynch (Raw women’s champion) and Bayley (SmackDown women’s champ) in a non-title triple threat match by making Bayley submit.
Adam Cole defeated Pete Dunne in a hard-fought battle. Us British fans are desperate to see Peter hold some gold outside of the UK division, and with his performance against Cole at Summerslam it would seem only a matter of time until The Bruiserweight is granted another opportunity.
This was also the month CM Punk made his king awaited, albeit a confusing return to the world of Pro-Wrestling as an analyst for Fox Sports WWE backstage show. Reportedly punk has little to no contact with WWE Brass, but that’s not to say betting odds for a possible return to the sport haven’t shifted dramatically.
Progress wrestling returned to Sheffield for Chapter 99: With a Flake Please.
Having the pleasure of being front row for this show, the rumour of progress running out of steam is very much just that.
Not only was this one of the stronger cards they’ve had in some time, every match delivered in it’s own style, formulating that incomparable Progress feeling.
The hi-light of the evening was the sublimely executed third match in the series between The Black Swan Cara Noir and Ilja Dragunov. Athletically, aesthetically, and emotionally, this matchup delivered on every level. I’m yet to see a Dragunov match that didn’t live up to expectation, and he brought that unmatched intensity from the minute he hit the ring. The true star of the show, however, was Cara Noir. From the moment The Black Swan enters the room, the atmosphere changes. Admittedly I wasn’t sure of his appeal before seeing him live, but I can say for certain that he’s definitely THE name to watch on the independent scene in 2020. If he works a city near you, I implore you to go to see him in action before he’s lost to the Hype train, you won’t be disappointed.
On that same card, we saw the first progress title change in the steel city with Jinny defeating Meiko Satomura to regain the progress women’s title.
TLC would be WWE’s final pay-per-view of 2019, other than an exceptional performance from Buddy Murphy and Aleister Black,
The event felt more like a Monday night raw episode until the main event. A veritable car crash where the defending Tag Champions the Kabuki Warriors (Asuka and Kairi Sane) took on Charlotte & Becky in a Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match. Midway through the match, Kairi sane was concussed badly, and unfortunately for her Charlotte seemed to be unaware. Rattling the injured party around like a rag doll, spearing the daylights our of her before slapping her in the head, setting up a table, hoisting her near lifeless body up and driving her down in an utterly monstrous fashion. Obliterating the table and probably the last of poor Kairi’s marbles.
None of this is really Charlotte’s fault, it must be difficult to discern quality selling from genuine injury, the referees and road agents should have picked up on this way sooner. In fact, without Becky recognising the signs, this article would possibly read as more of a eulogy than a recap.
All of that aside, the match was intense, brutal, and left a lasting impression as Asuka managed to scramble the victory alone, retaining the belts for her and her partner, a fitting final climactic moment to end the year, and the decade on.
So that about covers it. There’s probably a lot of important moments that have failed to make this article, but these are the ones that seemed to define the flow of the year to me. Some good, some bad, some definitely ugly, but through it all wrestling seems to be in a pretty solid place. Myself, Rob, and Ethan from Staring at the Lights will soon be knocking together our recap of the decade, giving you something similar to this article but in a much grander scale.
But for now, that will about do it for me. Catch us over on Twitter @thelightspod and @staringatthelights on Instagram.