2015's been a roller coaster for WWE so far; for the second straight year their planned direction for WrestleMania season was met with a mixed-at-best response. Vince's choice for the next top babyface, Roman Reigns, failed to galvanize the fanbase. Quite the opposite in fact; when it became evident Reigns would likely be given the ball at WrestleMania, he was met with a harsh backlash to which even The Rock wasn't immune. After a pretty terrible Royal Rumble show where WWE seemed to completely bury the few babyfaces who were actually over (Daniel Bryan, Dean Ambrose and Dolph Ziggler), it looked like we'd be in for a pretty rotten WrestleMania season, particularly since WWE Champion Brock Lesnar seemed to be on his way out of the company.
WWE addressed the elephant in the room at February's new PPV FastLane, by having Roman Reigns defend his WrestleMania spot against the fans' top choice, Daniel Bryan. In what was both a very strong match and a good indicator that Reigns could handle himself in a singles main event, Roman retained his 'Mania spot and was seemingly confirmed as the next big star. Also at FastLane rising heel Rusev got his first real main event-level match against John Cena, and actually beat WWE's posterboy somewhat decisively.
The table was set for a pretty underwhelming WrestleMania, which was met with the lowest level of fan enthusiasm in several years for WWE's biggest show. The one last-minute wrinkle that perked up everyone's ears was Brock Lesnar's announcement that he had signed on for three more years in WWE. This at least meant that the 'Mania main event could end more than one way. Fortunately 'Mania 31 wasn't bad at all. While it lacked a true Match of the Year candidate, the I-C Ladder Match, Orton vs. Rollins, and especially the intensely brutal Lesnar-Reigns fight (and its surprise ending) were universally praised. The big story coming out of the show was Seth Rollins' shocking mid-match cash-in to win the WWE Title. This was the perfect way for the cowardly heel to win his first WWE Championship, and long-term Roman Reigns' popularity was helped immensely by his defeat. Where Reigns went into 'Mania season a besieged target of fan resentment, he has become one of the company's more popular babyfaces and should undoubtedly benefit from a long, slow burn.
Since 'Mania Rollins' WWE Title run has been very mixed, as they've gone a little too far in establishing him as a vulnerable Champion. Never the purveyors of subtlety, WWE generally seems unable to tell the difference between "vulnerable" and "unworthy." My approach to Rollins as Champion would've been similar to Ric Flair's heel run, where he was always in danger of losing the belt but would always find a way to keep it, and his henchmen would follow him blindly, constantly having his back. Unfortunately Creative has put him at odds with the other Authority members almost the entire time, often devoting absurd amounts of attention to the long-irrelevant Kane character, and making Rollins subservient to Triple H and Stephanie. A heel Champion is supposed to be something of a coward, but not in the face of his own support system.
The post-Mania PPV calendar has been largely pretty decent, with the real standout being the return of Elimination Chamber. Booked only two weeks out, Chamber came together effortlessly, and while the two titular matches were less than stellar, the overall Network Special was a consistently good show with two major noteworthy matches - Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose (which ended with an unusually effective Dusty Finish), and John Cena vs. Kevin Owens.
Formerly Kevin Steen on the Indie circuit, Owens was signed to NXT in 2014 and immediately caught the eyes of company officials with his unique look and size-defying moveset. Owens won the NXT Title last December and has held it with an iron fist. He was called up to the main roster on June 1st with an angle that saw him lay out John Cena in response to Cena's US Title "Open Challenge," which had become a weekly feature since WrestleMania. Their first match at the Chamber show was labelled an instant classic, and ended with Owens getting a shockingly clean win. A rematch two weeks later at Money in the Bank was met with equal adulation, and the two are set to meet for the US Title next month. Kevin Owens is currently the hottest star on the main roster, having already proven himself worthy of a main event push. Hopefully the company will see this through and not falter as they have so many times before (see: Rusev).
2015 has brought some very unfortunately-timed injuries, the most prominent of which feels like deja vu: Daniel Bryan was forced to vacate another Championship shortly after WrestleMania (this time the Intercontinental Title), and will be out of action indefinitely due to an undisclosed injury (Some, including Bret Hart, have speculated it's a potentially career-threatening concussion). Also Tyson Kidd will likely be out a full year with a neck injury requiring spinal fusion surgery, halting the momentum of his excellent tag team with Cesaro. The Cesaro/Kidd pairing, coupled with the rise of The New Day as one of the company's best heel acts, had just begun to revitalize the Tag division, and Kidd's prolonged absence will be tough to push through.
The one consistently good cog in the WWE machine has been NXT, where the creative approach is kept simple and concise, and the emphasis is on the in-ring product. There have been two NXT specials so far this year, both of which garnered universal praise. The Women's division especially has become a great template for how the main roster should be booking their Divas; NXT's women play clearly defined characters and are routinely given 15-plus minutes on the Specials, often stealing the show from their male counterparts. Also largely thanks to NXT, WWE has finally embraced the idea of recruiting former Indie talent to flesh out both rosters - the biggest free-agent signing in recent memory has been Samoa Joe, who was originally brought in on a part-time basis while also accepting Indie bookings. But after Joe's debut his T-shirt sold out on WWE's website and they hastily locked him into an exclusive deal. Presumably Joe will be elevated to the main roster before year's end, and that should make for some truly compelling TV.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the sudden passing of Dusty Rhodes two weeks ago. I was never a Dusty fan, but his contributions to the business and his gift for booking and building characters cannot be overlooked. Dusty was one of the prime creative hands in NXT and truly cared about helping young talent succeed. He was one of the all-time legends and inspired multiple generations of wrestlers, including his two talented sons. RIP Virgil Runnels.
Looking to late-2015, the WWE Network continues to grow and their subscriber count is finally in the desired ballpark of 1 million, though they've had to give away three straight months of free new subscriptions to maintain their numbers. The company is still struggling to present a compelling three-hour RAW every week, plus two hours of Smackdown, and the effect has been a mishmash of unremarkable, flat angles and storylines. But PPVs and Network specials have been good overall, and the company has a deep roster of promising young talent ready to carry the WWE brand into the next decade, plus enough big-name stars like John Cena and Brock Lesnar to keep a high profile. While WWE Creative is still a major source of frustration, I'm cautiously optimistic about WWE's product going forward. WrestleMania season has become depressing for me given the reliance on past stars, but sooner or later WWE will be forced to present the current full-timers as the real attractions again.
What a strange year it's been for TNA. After being dumped by Spike TV late last year, TNA scrambled to find a new TV home, and ended up on the much smaller network Destination America. While that cut their overall ratings in half, their numbers seemed solid by DA's standards and by all accounts the weekly Impact show had been improving. But then it leaked that DA is planning to cancel Impact as of September, which could be the death knell for TNA. Finding another television network to carry them after being dropped twice in less than a year is going to be very difficult. While I haven't been a TNA fan since Hogan and Bischoff showed up in 2010, I know full well their potential folding would be a bad thing for the wrestling industry. If I were in charge of TNA I'd rebrand the entire company - come up with a new, less silly name and a new creative approach that wildly diverges from WWE. No one is going to outdo WWE at their own game.
The Destination America story took a strange turn last month when it was announced that Ring of Honor would be airing on the network, as a lead-in to Impact. ROH currently airs in about half the country thanks to Sinclair Broadcasting's many affiliates scattered throughout the US. Their weekly show will now also air on DA through the end of the year, and hopefully beyond. Ring of Honor could conceivably become the #2 wrestling promotion in North America, which would be a great thing. I've been an ROH fan since 2006 (though I don't follow it as closely as I used to) - they have a very talented roster and a distinctive brand, and I'm glad they're still growing steadily and becoming a real alternative to the 'E. If I were ROH I'd market the crap out of footage involving former ROH stars who have succeeded in WWE. They've already done that to a certain extent by pushing compilation DVDs (I have a few of these and they're great), but they should put together TV specials spotlighting matches between their current guys and former talents who signed with WWE. It would attract a whole new audience and demonstrate how vital ROH is to the North American wrestling landscape.
Here's where the fun starts, kids. New Japan Pro Wrestling has quickly become my favorite wrestling product over the past six months. With the introduction of their online streaming service (NJPWWorld.com), New Japan has made it possible for North American fans to enjoy forty-plus years of material, in addition to keeping up with every current televised show.
I picked a helluva time to jump in the water, as New Japan kicked off 2015 with one of the best top-to-bottom shows I've ever seen, WrestleKingdom 9. I'll get into this show in more detail with my WrestleKingdom History piece next week, but long story short, this show had two Match of the Year candidates, plus about six other three-stars-plus matches and only a couple short throwaways. The main event pitted NJPW's top dog Hiroshi Tanahashi (who is more or less John Cena's counterpart but wrestles like Shawn Michaels) against future posterboy Kazuchika Okada (who reminds me of a young Randy Orton), in a match that got 4.5 and 5-star reviews across the board. It was simply an epic war between the present and future of the company, for the World Championship. The semi-main was arguably even better, as Shinsuke Nakamura (an anti-hero with a rock star edge) defended the hugely prestigious IC Title (not to be confused with WWE's nearly worthless belt of the same name) against rising aerial star Kota Ibushi in a 20-minute masterpiece. If those two matches alone weren't worth the price of admission (Trust me, they were), WK9 also featured a damn good AJ Styles match, a slugfest for the NEVER Openweight Title (NJPW's tertiary belt), and a blazing Jr. Heavyweight clash. I strongly urge anyone unfamiliar with NJPW to use WK9 as a litmus test - if that show does nothing for you, you're probably not gonna be a New Japan fan.
WK9 was also New Japan's first foray into American PPV, as Jeff Jarrett's Global Force Wrestling cut a deal to distribute the show here in the States, with no less than Jim Ross doing play-by-play. The show apparently exceeded buyrate expectations, so between that, their crossover shows with Ring of Honor, and the weekly New Japan show on AXS TV, I'm hoping we'll see them gain a much larger footprint here in the next few years. From an in-ring and booking perspective there is no better wrestling company in the world at this moment.
New Japan followed up WK9 with a slew of strong PPVs, from the double-shot New Beginning PPV (which saw AJ Styles regain the Heavyweight Title), to the New Japan Cup tournament (won by the aforementioned Kota Ibushi) to Invasion Attack (headlined by a breathtaking Styles-Ibushi Title match), to Wrestling Dontaku (which saw Nakamura unexpectedly drop the IC belt to Hirooki Goto), and finally the Best of the Super Juniors round-robin tournament won by Kushida in an absolutely sick 31-minute clinic of a Final. Every one of these shows had at least one four-star match, and I haven't seen a wrestling promotion so steadily on top of its game since ROH circa 2006-2007 or the WWF in 2000.
New Japan is gearing up for their annual Dominion PPV in July, which on paper is as stacked as any NJPW show I've seen. If it lives up to expectations this could be the show of the year. In August we'll see the G1 Climax tournament, a massive three-week round-robin with 20 competitors in two blocks, with the winner getting a Title shot at next year's WrestleKingdom show. If last year's tourney is any indication (The 2014 G1 was wrestling bliss on tap), we're in for a helluva ride.
Between established stars like Tanahashi, Okada, Nakamura and Styles; veteran tough guys like Minoru Suzuki, Tomohiro Ishii and Togi Makabe; rising talents Ibushi, Goto, Kenny Omega and Katsuyori Shibata; and exciting tag teams like The Young Bucks and reDRagon, New Japan is teeming with in-ring wizards that deliver unparalleled wrestling action.
In anticipation of NJPW Dominion on July 5th, next week I'll be presenting a string of New Japan columns, including the 3-part History of WrestleKingdom, and my predictions for the Dominion PPV itself - be on the lookout! And in the meantime you can check out my WWE vs. NJPW Dream PPV from April.
Alright so this might seem like overkill but I don't care. Here now are my unofficial picks for the best of the Half-Year 2015.
Best Promotion: NJPW
Best Major Show: NJPW WrestleKingdom 9
Most Disappointing Show: WWE Royal Rumble
Best Feud: John Cena vs. Kevin Owens
Best Match: **TIE** Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena vs. Seth Rollins (Royal Rumble) & Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi (WrestleKingdom 9)
Best Tag Team: Cesaro & Tyson Kidd
Best Wrestler: Seth Rollins
That's all I got folks. We'll see how all this shakes out in the next six months. Till then, keep your eyes glued to Enuffa.com for more wrestling coverage, plus a whole lot of other stuff!