Happy new year and welcome to the first Slammer Jabber of 2020. As we have reached the end of 2019 and before we get into 2020 proper, it seemed only right to hand out our year-end awards. It was a busy year which made many of these decisions difficult, but after much consideration, these are the big winners from the past year.
Match of the year: Will Ospreay vs Shingo Takagi - BOSJ final
While there are many worthy candidates this year, including Cody Rhodes vs Dustin Rhodes at AEW Double or Nothing and Tyler Bate vs WALTER at NXT UK Takeover: Cardiff, for me nothing tops Will Ospreay vs Shingo Takagi at the Best of the Super Juniors final in June. Although Ospreay will miss out on wrestler of the year for me (I’ll get into that shortly, but believe me it was a photo finish for the winner's podium) he has been on scintillating form in 2019 in both the junior heavyweight and heavyweight divisions in New Japan Pro Wrestling. In a year where the company lost a number of high profile foreign stars (chiefly The Elite), Ospreay stepped up massively.
However, it was not all about Ospreay, as Shingo Takagi also had a huge 2019, tearing through the junior division and remaining undefeated in single competition throughout the first half of the year. More impressive still, was his undefeated streak continuing into BOSJ as he won his block in dominant fashion, bringing home a record maximum points tally. He was positioned as the unstoppable monster of the division and he looked certain to be victorious.
The match itself was a sight to behold with counters on par with an Eddie Guerrero vs Dean Malenko, or a Jerry Lynn vs Rob Van Dam. Ospreay and Shingo were both at the peak of their powers here and it made for something truly wondrous, and likely one of the best junior heavyweight matches in New Japan history. A worthy winner of match of the year.
Wrestler of the year: Shayna Baszler
There is no shortage of in-ring talent all over the world, in fact, I would go as far as to say that the standard of wrestling everywhere is higher than it has ever been. This award could easily have gone to a whole host of wrestlers, with Will Ospreay very high on the list. However, for me, the one consistently excellent performer this year who has outdone everyone else is Shayna Baszler. Whether it was on the microphone or in the ring Baszler was on fire in 2019 in feuds with Bianca Belair, Io Shirai, Candace LeRae, Dakota Kai, Kairi Sane, or Rhea Ripley who Baszler made look an absolute star on the way to dropping the NXT Women’s title. Only Asuka can lay claim to being on the level of dominance in NXT and you can see why Baszler was able to rival that. Her movements in the ring have improved massively, she gets the art and philosophy behind everything her character does and as a result, she comes across as both legitimate and deadly. I have to imagine she is bound for Raw and a feud with Becky Lynch beckons, perhaps culminating in a big Wrestlemania match following on from how things ended at Survivor Series.
Babyface of the year: Cody Rhodes
Long-time readers of this column will know that over the years I have failed to be convinced by Cody Rhodes on a number of occasions. Up until his release from WWE I never really saw main event potential in him, and in truth, I was never truly convinced by him even in his ROH and NJPW days. The improvement was enormous, don’t get me wrong, but I still couldn’t see where he would fit in as a main eventer in any company, let alone the big main event babyface. However, since AEW launched, something changed. Whether Cody finally became comfortable in his own skin, or he grew into his own mythos, or he seems like a big fish in this smaller pond I have no idea. However, whatever changed Cody suddenly became a player in AEW. He connects with the fans in a way that few other babyfaces seem to be able to do and it makes him sympathetic and likeable. His matches with his brother Dustin Rhodes, Darby Allin, Chris Jericho and Shawn Spears were all fantastic affairs, full of high drama and Cody played the babyface in peril better than anyone I’ve seen in some time, and that has made seeing him betrayed by Spears, and later MJF, all the more effective. His promo on Dynamite before the Jericho match at Full Gear was out-of-this-world and something that will be remembered for some time by fans and pundits alike. A great year for Cody, and although I could see 2020 featuring a turn to the dark side, for now, he remains one of the best good guys in the business.
Heel of the year: Chris Jericho
I’m not suggesting that he can go the same way he could 25 years ago. However, when it comes to the overall package, as a heel no-one is as complete a performer as “Le Champion” has been in 2019. He began the year as NJPW Intercontinental champion, putting on a barnstorming brawl with Tetsuya Naito in January. He would have a stellar main event against Kenny Omega at AEW Double or Nothing in May followed by a one-off return to New Japan under his “Painmaker” moniker to face Kazuchika Okada before winning the AEW Championship in August against Hangman Page at All Out.
So far, none of that reads like wrestler of the year material, I appreciate that, we are talking solid to very good. However, it is his work since AEW launched on TNT with Dynamite that has put Jericho over the top for me. Week after week the former-Y2J has put on cracking performances, further evolving his character from deluded Dad-rocker to head of the Inner-circle, while maintaining his heel persona where others would be tempted to lean into the cheers. Jericho has put on classic matches with opponents who, on paper, have no place being near a main event as he selflessly gives back to AEW and the industry as a whole by giving a superstar rub to Darby Allin, Jungle Boy, Scorpio Sky and further elevating existing stars like Cody Rhodes and MJF with their interactions. The booking is heel 101, especially where his "Judas Effect" elbow (which is incredibly simple) is concerned, but now when someone finally kicks out of the move, it will be seen as a big deal. Mostly, you can see how he is giving back to the people around him. Before Dynamite Sami Guevara, Santana and Ortiz and Jake Hagar/Jack Swagger would not have been seen as game-changers, but by association with Jericho, they are bonafide main eventers in their own right. While it might be part of his gimmick, and a great one at that, AEW do genuinely owe their thanks to Jericho because without him Dynamite would not be anywhere near the quality it has been. A brilliant year, and a mighty resurgence for Jericho.
Surprise of the year: CM Punk returns to WWE (ish)
Hell may not have quite frozen over, but it certainly seems like it might be a bit chillier down there based on what went down on WWE Backstage a few months ago. After a nearly six-year hiatus Phil “”CM Punk” Brooks appeared on WWE programming in a sight that some of us thought we would never see. Given the level of acrimony between Punk and WWE, including a long and drawn out lawsuit with one of the company’s doctors, it seemed that there were going to be insurmountable odds preventing Punk from returning to the WWE fold. And he hasn’t, or not entirely. Punk is technically an employee of Fox, who produce and broadcast the show even though it is a WWE programme, so he is not submitted to scrutiny from Vince McMahon, Triple H or Stephanie McMahon, but the producers on Backstage. Does this make a return to the ring more likely? Certainly. Does it mean he’s definitely coming back? Not necessarily. This has felt like Punk dipping his toe in the water, and where it goes from here, if anywhere, remains to be seen. However, Punk appearing on a WWE-based show, or returning to wrestling in any capacity has to be considered the biggest surprise of 2019.
PPV of the year: NWA Into the Fire
A late entry from NWA, but it just pipped a variety of other good shows at the post for me. Into the Fire had a very strong main event between Nick Aldis and James Storm for the NWA World Heavyweight title that delivered in the ring and provided character development for both men, while the post-match shenanigans provided a hook for viewers to tune into NWA Powerrr. Everything else on the PPV offered something good, whether it was debuts (Tasha Steelz and ODB, in addition to an appearance by “The Villain” Marty Scurll), a big title change with Aaron Stevens winning the North American championship, a feel-good story as The Rock “N” Roll Express continued their extraordinary run, fun and silliness from Question Mark, as well as top performances from Eli Drake, Ken Anderson, Thunder Rosa, and Trevor Murdoch. Everything they tried came off, and although there are probably technically better shows, this was more consistent top-to-bottom than pretty much any other PPV produced by any other company in 2019. Top work.
Promotion of the year: AEW
While NWA may have put on the most engaging PPV of the year overall, there can only be one company who takes the top spot as promotion of the year, and that has to be All Elite Wrestling. WWE has presented a variety of excellent shows, but the product also feels bloated and often wildly inconsistent. NWA still feels as though it is finding its feet despite a fantastic first season of Powerrr. However, AEW, while far from perfect has reinvigorated a flagging industry by creating genuine competition in 2019. Dynamite has struck a chord with many fans, providing something that feels genuinely different from Raw, Smackdown, NXT or any other weekly show. It has a WCW-like vibe to it, both in the production style and the way the shows are structured. Everything feels unique and that can only be a good thing. As mentioned earlier, Chris Jericho has been a massive highlight, Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, PAC, Jon Moxley, The Young Bucks, Private Party, SCU, Darby Allin, the list goes on. The roster is fresh, exciting and that translates into the product. It will be interesting to see how they continue into 2020, and they still have lots of course corrections and mistakes to learn from, but as rookie years go, AEW certainly made an impact with theirs.
Well, that is it from me for this week. I will be back at the same time next week with a look at Raw, Smackdown, NJPW's big Wrestle Kingdom shows and anything else that breaks in the next seven days. Until then, 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.
Images courtesy of WWE/AEW/NWA/NJPW