Welcome to Slammer Jabber, your look at the biggest stories in professional wrestling from the past seven days. With the Christmas break, this week we take a special look back at 2018 and dish out the year-end awards for the best and worst of pro wrestling in 2018.
Wrestler of the year - Becky Lynch
Who should win this award, and what criteria should be applied to determine that outcome is a very subjective process. While the likes of Kenny Omega, Kota Ibushi and The Young Bucks may have had some of the most spectacular matches, and AJ Styles might have been the among the most consistent wrestlers over the year as a whole, one performer stood head and shoulders above everyone else as an all-rounder having great matches and cutting some of the best promos, and providing the best character work of her career. That’s right, for me the best in the world this year has been on Becky Lynch. For the earlier part of the year Lynch may have floundered in the Smackdown women’s midcard, despite having a lengthy spell in the Royal Rumble she took a backseat to Asuka and Charlotte at Wrestlemania, working in the pre-show battle royal. Despite the booking, Lynch continued to get strong reactions from the audience on TV and during the Money in the Bank match. However, it was a string of strong wins on TV after Money in the Bank that lead to a cracking match with Charlotte and Carmella at Summerslam, followed by what seemed like a heel turn until the crowd instantly rejected it, such was her popularity. Luckily, after a few weeks of poor booking WWE steered into the skid with Lynch, who began cutting the best promos of her career, getting huge reactions from the audience and generally being treated like the star she should have been all along. Again she had white-hot encounters with Charlotte (whose role in Becky’s rise should not be underestimated, she provided a great foil at points) at Hell in a Cell and Evolution, with the latter in contention for Match of the Year for many fans. She shone during the “invasion” of Raw, and despite an injury which forced her out of a prospective match with Ronda Rousey at Survivor Series; she still shone as the biggest star in the company. Finally, she took part in the main event of TLC in an absolute barnburner with Asuka and Charlotte, which was brutal and gripping. By the end of year Becky has found herself poised to become one of the biggest stars in the industry, with only Ronda Rousey on Raw matching her for star power. No-one has made more of their opportunities this year, put on matches that were excellent across the board and captured the imagination of the fans like Becky Lynch, so for that reason "The Man" is my Wrestler of the Year.
Honourable mentions: AJ Styles, Kenny Omega, Hiroshi Tanahashi
Card of the year - WWE Evolution
A more cynical person than me would have perhaps come to the conclusion that WWE’s first all-women’s PPV was a direct result of criticism of their hosting events in Saudi Arabia, where women are prohibited by law from competing. This was compounded by the timing of the event, some 5 days before they returned to KSA for Crown Jewel. You can debate the politics, and the convenience of the timing of these events all you want, but what is not up for debate is what the female roster did with the opportunity given to them on that night in October. From top to bottom this was a great card, with Charlotte and Becky Lynch having an outright war of a last woman standing match, to Ronda Rousey and Nikki Bella putting on a shockingly entertaining main event. Io Shirai and Toni Storm had a short, but impactful bout in the finals of the Mae Young Classic, while Shayna Baszler and Kairi Sane continued their string of top-drawer matches against each other dating back to the inaugural MYC. Even the throwaway undercard matches with The Riott Squad vs Sasha Banks, Bayley and Natalya, and the Battle Royal were above the average offering on a WWE PPV. Finally, Trish Stratus and Lita rolled back the years taking on Alicia Fox and Mickie James in a nice wander down memory lane for a fun nostalgia moment. This show had a little something for everyone. I also enjoyed that the presentation was a bit more back-to-basics, and looked markedly different to the average WWE show, giving it a different, special feel. A cracking show, with some superb matches and great historical significance.
Honourable mentions - Wrestle Kingdom 12, NXT Takeover: New Orleans, WWE TLC
Worst show of the year - WWE Crown Jewel
Some awards categories have honourable mentions, but in 2018 no-show came close to equalling the mess that was Crown Jewel. Of course, there are the political issues that almost caused the show to be moved surrounding Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, along with the many other criticisms of the human rights issues enshrined into law in KSA. Beyond that, certain WWE stars including Daniel Bryan and John Cena reportedly refused to work the show due to moral (or at least carer-based) objections. The company had to move the event from its original venue to a much smaller stadium due to building works on the venue they first booked. This event had a host of issues before the doors even opened, but they ploughed on, and perhaps it would have been better from an event and from a PR perspective if they’d not done so. The early rounds of the “World Cup” tournament were fine but unspectacular, the booking of the Universal title match was baffling, and the finals of the tournament were one of the worst, nonsensical things WWE have ever done. This show even had the disgraced Hulk Hogan return to “host” the show. However, nothing can compare to the absolutely abysmal main event, which featured The Undertaker and Kane vs Triple H and Shawn Michaels (who came out of retirement for this shambles). Four legends, unquestionable, but also four men who are well past their prime. The entrances were good, but once that was over it was horrendous. You could argue that Triple H tearing his pectoral muscle and having to sit out a big chunk of the match was a factor, but so was the immobility of Kane and Undertaker as well as clear ring rust from HBK. Kane’s mask falling off mid-match summed the whole thing up. Easily the worst match of the year on a major PPV, and a pretty bad PPV at that.
Heel of the year - Tomasso Ciampa
There is truly an art to being a good “bad guy” in wrestling, making the audience hate you, and want to see the hero beat you. Few in this day in age can master it, often falling into the trap of being a “cool heel” still looking to pop the crowd. However this year, one man has gone above and beyond to make himself hated, and that man is Tomasso Ciampa. From his return in January attacking former tag partner Johnny Gargano after he had lost to Andrade “Cien” Almas, through to tormenting Gargano, taking the NXT title from Aleister Black and generally being the best bad guy in the business. His promos, his attitude, his attire, everything screams heel and he has no interest in making the fans like him. It helps that for much of the year Gargano was a superb babyface opposite him, but Ciampa has come into his own in 2018 and no-one has matched him for villainy.
Honourable mentions - Daniel Bryan (who was very close to stealing this award based on the past few weeks), "Switchblade"Jay White (his heel work has been very underrated in NJPW this year), Samoa Joe
Match of the year - Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kota Ibushi - G1 Final
Yes, I am picking a New Japan match that isn’t Kenny Omega vs Kazuchika Okada, want to fight about it? While Dave Meltzer may have rated the ⅔ falls match from Dominion at 7 stars, and it is undoubtedly an excellent match, something was lacking in it for me. I can’t tell you what exactly; it was the intangible certain something that makes a very good match great. I don’t mean near falls or false finishes necessarily, just something. Conversely, I feel that one match that goes under the radar in terms of all of those factors, as well as the sheer emotion of the contest, was Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kota Ibushi in the finals of the G1 in August. Both men were on top form, and there were many believable moments where it seemed the match would end, and ultimately it felt like a foregone conclusion that Ibushi would win given the way Tana had been presented over the past year, a wounded old warrior fighting bravely on. However, even though the G1 told a different story, of a rejuvenated legend over the round robin portion, you still believed that Ibushi would have too much for Tanahashi and the Tokyo dome show would be headlined by a battle between the Golden Lovers. There was even the subplot Ibushi having idolised Tanahashi, and his idol having been openly critical of Ibushi’s style and the direction of New Japan. It was brilliantly paced, had an unexpected but satisfying finish and told a larger, greater story. Plus, the "Ace of New Japan" moved back to the main event scene ready for January 4th. Easily one of the most enjoyable matches of the year and while it will be overshadowed by the Dominion main event for many, I loved it.
Honourable mentions - Johnny Gargano vs Tomasso Ciampa - NXT: Takeover New Orleans, Andrade "Cien" Almas vs Johnny Gargano - NXT: Takeover:Philadelphia, Brock Lesnar vs Daniel Bryan - WWE Survivor Series, Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle vs Stephanie McMahon and Triple H - WWE Wrestlemania 34, Kazuchika Okada vs Kenny Omega - NJPW Dominion
Rookie of the year - Ronda Rousey
Who else? I don’t even feel there’s much I need to write here, but Ronda Rousey has been something of a wrestling prodigy having only made her debut in April to headlining Evolution in October. Rousey has introduced a unique style and continues to have superb matches with everyone she’s up against, be it Charlotte, Nia Jax, Nikki Bella. In addition, her promo abilities and general presence grows week-by-week. It helps that she is absolutely presented like a star, but she is holding her end of the bargain. Sure, her matches are worked on tirelessly in advance to ensure perfection, but you can only judge her on what she does on screen and so far she has been one of the best performers in WWE in her rookie year, and seems a shoo-in for the Wrestlemania main event in 2019.
Promotion of the year - NXT
2018 has been a very strong year for NXT, with event after event knocking out of the park. The in-ring action has been superb, but more importantly, the promotion has built intriguing stories around complex characters throughout the year. Whether it's Johnny Gargano vs Tomasso Ciampa, the rises of Aleister Black and Shayna Baszler, or Velveteen Dream, Kairi Sane, Lars Sullivan, Ricochet, Undisputed Era, Pete Dunne and many others growing and developing into major talents, NXT has been on fire. Few other promotions can boast the sort of weekly storytelling and match quality on a consistent basis, and for that reason, NXT deserves to be crowned promotion of the year.
Honourable mention: NJPW
British promotion of the year - Riptide Wrestling
The British wrestling scene has arguably never been hotter than in 2018 in with promotions up and down the country providing a whole host of phenomenal matches. Of course with the introduction of NXT UK and the rumours of contractual restrictions for UK talent, there have been concerns over that, but we’ll have to see how that pans out in 2019. For me, one promotion really made their mark in 2018 providing a unique experience for fans, an inclusivity that is unmatched by any other promotion (that’s not a knock on any other company, many up and down the country do plenty to create a welcoming environment) and some of the best action on the UK scene. That company is, of course, Riptide. The Brighton-based outfit put on several cracking shows this year, including a three-night event in August where they crowned their first ever champion, Chuck Mambo. It has provided a fertile breeding ground for acts to improve as well, with the likes of Spike Trivet, Chris Ridgeway and Jack Sexsmith coming on leaps and bounds in their time with the promotion. It’s always a party atmosphere at Riptide, and they have the best vegan hotdogs. However, for those who can’t get to the shows, the on-demand service does a great job of capturing that atmosphere as well as showing off the best of independent British wrestling with some of the most cinematic, high-end production values you will see outside of WWE. If you’re not already a subscriber to Riptide, you are truly missing out.
Honorable mentions - Progress, Attack, FCP, Rev Pro
Well, that is it from me for this week. I will be back at the same time next week with a look at the biggest stories in pro wrestling, Raw and Smackdown and more. In the meantime, keep it locked here at Screenjabber for all the best movie, Blu-ray, DVD and video game reviews, as well as all the latest news, podcasts and more. Until next time, so long folks.
Photos: WWE.COM, NJPW1972.COM, RIPTIDE