Monday, December 16, 2019

Top Ten Things: Wrestling PPVs of the 2010s

Welcome to a special Decade-End Top Ten Things, here at!  It's the end of the two-aught-tens, so therefore it's time to start counting down the best stuff of the decade.  Stay tuned for several more lists like this in the coming weeks, but for right now let's talk about wrestling PPVs!

Pro wrestling is and always has been a rapidly changing industry, but not since the late 90s has an era been so tumultuous as this one.  At the start of the decade WWE was the one big game in town, TNA was foolishly trying to reignite the Monday Night War, Ring of Honor was coping with the loss of some of its top stars, and NJPW was just beginning to dig itself out of financial ruin thanks to a hot new main eventer named Hiroshi Tanahashi.  Fast-forward ten years and WWE has two major global competitors and a "developmental" brand that consistently outshines the main roster, Impact is creatively improving but lacks star power, ROH has become the new TNA, and pro wrestling as an art form has evolved beyond where anyone thought possible in 2009.  From a talent standpoint WWE boasts perhaps the greatest wrestling roster ever assembled (though on RAW and Smackdown they still don't know what to do with most of them), while New Japan has become the template for combining thrilling in-ring action with detail-oriented storytelling, and building new stars.  Meanwhile All Elite Wrestling is hoping to create a true North American alternative to WWE's monopoly, and NXT is now the most exciting piece of WWE programming.  We're in the midst of a new ratings war, as AEW and NXT duke it out every Wednesday night, while New Japan accomplished something WWE hadn't in years - selling out Madison Square Garden.  It's an exciting, sometimes frustrating, often breathtaking time to be a wrestling fan, and the 2020s promise no shortage of surprises.

But now let's talk about the best PPVs of the 2010s.  From 2010-2019 WWE was hit-or-miss as always, but managed to mine a handful of gems, NXT TakeOver specials rarely scored below an 8/10 for me, and New Japan, bless 'em, smashed the mold into oblivion, producing some of the best PPV events mine eyes have ever seen.  Word of warning, this list is extremely New Japan-heavy.  So let's get to it, but first a few Honorable Mentions...

HM: NJPW King of Pro Wrestling 2012 - New Japan's earliest candidate for "best show ever," which would be upstaged easily a dozen times over the next seven years.

HM: WrestleMania XXX - Nicknamed YEStleMania, this show was centered around Daniel Bryan's journey to the WWE Title.

HM: AEW Full Gear - All Elite's best show so far boasted four ****+ matches and a fantastic heel turn.

10. WWE SummerSlam 2013

WWE's one real standout PPV of 2013 was essentially a three-match show, but a) those three matches included the company's two best of the year, and b) the remaining four bouts totaled 27 minutes of in-ring time.  What this show is remembered for is its double main event, a thrilling no disqualification war of attrittion between CM Punk and Brock Lesnar (still Brock's best match since his 2012 return) and a gutsy MOTY-caliber WWE Title contest between John Cena and the white-hot underdog Daniel Bryan that began his months-long quest to become the unlikely face of the company.  Icing on this cake included a very strong Alberto Del Rio-Christian World Title match and a few solid undercard bouts including Cody Rhodes vs. Damien Sandow, and Dolph Ziggler vs. Big E.  WWE's product in 2013 was as inconsistent as ever, but on this night they delivered a classic show.

9. WWE Money in the Bank 2011

2011 was the Summer of Punk in WWE, and while the followup to this stellar PPV was unfathomably stupid and damaging to the megastar CM Punk had suddenly become, there's no taking away from what an incredible moment Money in the Bank 2011 represented.  It started with the June 27th "pipe bomb" promo to close RAW, where Punk, set to leave the company in three weeks, challenged John Cena to a WWE Title match on his way out and aired his grievances with a promotion that had taken him for granted.  From then on he became a cult anti-hero, and on July 17th, in front of his hometown crowd, he and Cena had a career-defining main event match that saw Punk unseat Vince's posterboy and abscond with the company's top championship.  Of course the company totally failed to stick the landing with this storyline, simply replacing Punk as the champion with Rey Mysterio and then Cena again a week later, leading to a champion vs. champion rematch at SummerSlam (after which Kevin Nash inexplicably showed up to screw Punk out of the title).  But this main event was good enough to render Punk a made man for the rest of his WWE run, plus it featured two excellent MITB Ladder Matches, won by rising star Daniel Bryan and WWE favorite Alberto Del Rio.  This show represented a temporary shift away from Vince pushing HIS favorites and paying more attention to his audience, and it has to be considered the best main roster show of the decade.

8. NJPW King of Pro-Wrestling 2013

That New Japan was able to better the fantastic WrestleKingdom 7 in calendar year 2013 is nothing short of remarkable, but they did so with King of Pro-Wrestling.  The first few matches were brief but serviceable, and then starting with a wild six-man tag involving Prince Devitt and The Bullet Club vs. Kota Ibushi and Great Bash Heel, the show never let up until it was over.  Shibata and Ishii reached new levels of violence in their austere singles match, while Nagata and Sakuraba engaged in a submission-heavy war of attrition.  Then Naito defended the Never Openweight belt in a solid match against Yujiro Takahashi before the double main event for the top two Championships.  Nakamura wrestled Naomichi Marufuji in an startlingly innovative I-C Title match, while Okada faced Tanahashi once again in a 35-minute war that topped all of their previous work.  In this match the two reversed roles, with Tanahashi playing the ruthless villain working Okada's arm unmercifully while Okada gallantly refused to surrender.  In terms of pure storytelling this might be their best match together.  KoPW '13 was a staggeringly good night of wrestling capped off by one of the best matches of the year.

7. NJPW Dominion 2018

Widely considered the best PPV of 2018, Dominion boasted a very strong undercard with a few standout matches, all of which were nearly forgotten about in the wake of its main event.  Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega met for the fourth time in a no-time-limit 2/3 falls match for the IWGP Title, and spun together a 64-minute masterwork that many, including myself, consider the greatest wrestling match of all time.  Okada's unparalleled two-year title reign came to the most spectacular end imaginable in this magnum opus of a match that built on all their previous bouts and paid absolutely incredible attention to detail.  That Okada and Omega were able to top themselves multiple times in this feud is nothing short of miraculous, and this match was so good it overshadowed the rest of the show.  Notable undercard matches included a wild Tetsuya Naito-Chris Jericho brawl in which Jericho unseated the Ingobernable for the I-C Title, a dazzling Will Ospreay-Hiromu Takahashi Jr. Title match, and The Young Bucks capturing the Heavyweight Tag Titles to temporarily become that division's new centerpiece.  Dominion 2018 was the first June PPV to upstage WrestleKingdom, with a strong overall show capped by an impossibly amazing main event (that once again broke Dave Meltzer's star rating system with *******).

6. NJPW Dominion 2017

In much the same way Dominion 2015 gave WrestleKingdom 9 a run for its money as the PPV of the year, the 2017 edition was almost identical in quality to its Tokyo Dome counterpart (for some even better).  Four of the top-billed bouts were rematches from that show, while the undercard was in some ways superior.  The Roppongi Vice-Young Bucks Jr. Tag rematch was a step above its predecessor, the War Machine-Guerrilas of Destiny Heavyweight Tag match was a bit better than the triple threat Tag Title match in January, Cody's bout with Michael Elgin topped his debut against Juice Robinson, and the Jr. Heavyweight Title rematch between Hiromu Takahashi and Kushida was one of the best of its kind I've ever seen (On any other show this would easily be Match of the Night).  On top of that we got two stellar co-main events.  Hiroshi Tanahashi overcame a bicep tear to regain the Intercontinental Title from Tetsuya Naito, submitting the LIJ leader with a cloverleaf in a grueling 26-minute war, while Kenny Omega challenged IWGP Champ Kazuchika Okada for the second time, pulling out all the stops and going to a staggering 60-minute draw that left both men totally exhausted.  This main event was enough to break Dave Meltzer's star-rating system once again, earning an unprecedented ******1/4.  NJPW Dominion '17 was a fantastic, epic companion piece to WrestleKingdom 11 and and the year's second instant classic PPV, further establishing New Japan as the hot brand in pro wrestling.

5. NJPW Domminion 2015

If any 2015 PPV were going to hold a candle to the sublime WrestleKingdom 9, it would have to be this one.  Dominion felt like a half-year tentpole event, much like a huge SummerSlam lineup.  With nine matches and only one tag bout that could be deemed a "throwaway," almost everything on the show either settled a feud or decided a championship.  After the crazy Young Bucks spotfest opener and an undercard tag match designed to show off Tetsuya Naito's new mean streak, the show hit a stretch of nearly uninterrupted awesome.  Shibata faced Sakuraba in a brilliant MMA-inspired fight, Kushida dethroned Kenny Omega for the Jr. Heavyweight Title in a main event-worthy battle, Togi Makabe resolved his feud with Tomohiro Ishii for the NEVER Openweight Title, Tanahashi faced Toru Yano in an unexpectedly engaging bout, and then a pair of superb Title matches closed out the show.  Hirooki Goto defended the I-C title against Nakamura in probably the pair's best match to date, and Okada finally reascended the New Japan mountain in an epic IWGP Title showdown with AJ Styles.  This match had amazing action and palpable drama, and was an easy MOTY candidate.  Dominion was an incredibly satisfying PPV with nary an ounce of fat, and light years better than any WWE show in 2015.

4. NJPW WrestleKingdom 11

For the third straight year New Japan delivered the best wrestling show of the calendar year, four days in.  After losing four of their top stars one year earlier, WrestleKingdom 11 served as a complete reassurance to New Japan fans that life goes on, new stars are always being created, and above all NJPW is still the best damn wrestling company on the planet.  The fairly loaded undercard boasted a pretty great RPG Vice-Young Bucks Jr. Tag match, a couple of fun multi-team bouts, the debut of Cody Rhodes (which also announced Juice Robinson's arrival as a bona fide talent), and a solid Adam Cole-Kyle O'Reilly ROH Title match.  But where this show soared was in its final four matches, all of which were completely different but stellar examples of New Japan's many facets.  Kushida and Hiromu Takahashi had a breathtakingly intense Jr. Heavyweight sprint, Katsuyori Shibata and Hirooki Goto beat the living crap out of each other for the NEVER Openweight Title, Tetsuya Naito dethroned Hiroshi Tanahashi for the I-C belt in a brilliantly classic professional wrestling match, and the main event......  Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega for the IWGP Title is simply one of the greatest matches I've ever seen.  This 47-minute, three-act war smashed boundaries and lit the wrestling world ablaze, earning an unprecedented six-star rating from Dave Meltzer and cementing both men as the two most accomplished pro wrestlers in the world.  The Okada-Omega feud was in 2017-18 what Flair-Steamboat was in 1989 - a perfectly constructed rivalry between two in-ring virtuosos that is unlikely to be equaled anytime soon.  WrestleKingdom 11 set the 2017 bar impossibly high and kicked off one of the most incredible calendar years any promotion has ever seen.

3. NXT TakeOver: New York

Once thought of as simply WWE's developmental brand for talent not quite ready for prime time, NXT grew exponentially in seven years to become the most respected facet of WWE programming.  By WrestleMania weekend 2019, the black & gold team had accumulated a host of top-notch indie talent which formed the base of its burgeoning roster, and on April 5th they absolutely tore the house down.  By my calculations the weakest of the five matches on this show bottomed out at ***1/2, that being the highly entertaining Women's Championship four-way of Shayna Baszler, Io Shirai, Kairi Sane and Bianca Belair.  The rest of the show got ****+ from me.  From the blazing War Raiders-Ricochet/Aleister Black opener to the shockingly good Velveteen Dream-Matt Riddle North American Title match to the brutal Pete Dunne-Walter slugfest to the epic Adam Cole-Johnny Gargano 2/3 Falls main event, this show eclipsed everything else NXT had done up to that point.  TakeOver: New York was for me WWE's first 10/10 PPV in over 15 years, and is currently the brand's yardstick.

2. NJPW WrestleKingdom 10

In 2016 New Japan was tasked with somehow reaching the impossibly high bar of WrestleKingdom 9, and while for me WK10 didn't quite equal that one, it came about as close as can be imagined.  There was literally not a bad match on this show.  From the crazy four-way Jr. Tag opener to Jay Lethal's ROH Title defense against Michael Elgin, to the excellent Jr. Heavyweight Kenny Omega-Kushida bout, to a shockingly good Tag Title match between Anderson & Gallows and Makabe/Honma, the undercard had plenty to like.  But the final three matches launched this show into the stratosphere.  The first match of this amazing trilogy pitted Tomohiro Ishii against Katsuyori Shibata in an absolutely brutal slugfest.  Next up was possibly the biggest dream match in NJPW history, as Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles delivered a MOTY masterpiece that would serve as their joint New Japan swan song.  Not to be outdone, the main event was the rematch from WK9, Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, where the company's top two stars built on their entire history together, weaving together an epic duel on par with their previous match.  As I said, I liked WK9 just a hair better than this show, but WK10 ranks right up there as one of the best PPVs of all time.  It's rare for any wrestling company to deliver even one "perfect 10" PPV, but New Japan did it two years in a row.

1. NJPW WrestleKingdom 9

The 2015 edition of WrestleKingdom was one of the greatest PPVs I've ever seen in my three-plus decades of watching wrestling.  I haven't seen a show this near-perfect since WrestleManias 17 and 19, and that's saying a lot.  WK9 had everything; drama, innovation, athleticism, grit, and as stacked a lineup as one could want on a New Japan show.  The opening 4-way Jr. tag set the tone for a truly special show, and after a couple short multi-man tags, the final seven matches maintained a level of quality and intensity the likes of which we aren't likely to experience again for a long time.  Minoru Suzuki faced Sakuraba in a great little MMA-type match, Tomohiro Ishii and Togi Makabe beat the living hell out of each other for the NEVER Championship, Kenny Omega was made a star in his Jr. Heavyweight match against Ryusuke Taguchi, Goto & Shibata unexpectedly won the Tag Titles from Anderson & Gallows, and in an absolutely perfect three-match finale, AJ Styles had a main-event worthy duel with Naito, Shinsuke Nakamura and Kota Ibushi stole the show with a five-star instant classic for the Intercontinental Title, and Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada topped every one of their previous efforts with a 31-minute masterpiece for the IWGP Title.  Everything about this match screamed "MAIN EVENT," and when it was over the loser, Okada, left the ring in tears.  WrestleKingdom 9 was an unquestionable milestone in the history of New Japan and of the wrestling art form, capturing a moment when the company was beginning the highest creative plateau in its 40-year history.  As of now I consider WK9 the greatest wrestling PPV I've ever witnessed.

At its best, the 2010s represent artistically the greatest decade in pro wrestling history.  Never before had in-ring talent reached such creative highs between the ropes.  While WWE's main roster continued struggling to present a consistently good product, NXT filled the void with amazingly dependable wrestling, and NJPW raised the bar to heights never before seen, delivering some of the greatest wrestling PPVs of all time.  Any wrestling company hoping to top the shows on this list has a high hurdle indeed....

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