Artistically speaking, the 2010s saw some of the highest highs and the lowest lows in the history of the business. Through most of the 10s WWE and TNA/Impact were regularly churning out shit burgers, with the occasional flashes of brilliance, while New Japan Pro Wrestling, on the backs of the amazing Hiroshi Tanahashi, Shinsuke Nakamura, Kazuchika Okada, and Kenny Omega, among others, began a resurgence that culminated in some of the greatest-ever in-ring artistry by the end of the decade. The art form evolved so much over the last ten years that even in WWE few stars get over without being very capable between the ropes. The days of someone becoming a big star based solely on their character or physique are over. Yes, those things are important, but to succeed in wresting these days you have to be able to back it up in the ring, moreso than ever before. Here are 14 examples (the Top Ten plus Honorable Mentions) of wrestlers truly backing it up in the ring, combining thrilling action with dramatic storytelling and gutsy athleticism....
HM: CM Punk vs. Daniel Bryan - Over the Limit - 5.20.12
In my opinion the best match of 2012 was this forgotten gem - Punk vs. Bryan for the WWE Title. These two were given a nice cushy 25-minute slot, and man did they deliver. Spectacular mat wrestling, counterholds, submissions galore, false finishes; everything you could ever want in a great wrestling match. This is the closest WWE has ever come to emulating the groundbreaking work these two routinely produced in Ring of Honor. Punk and Bryan would face each other twice more on PPV that year, but this was the standout of the bunch. A stunning display of classic pro wrestling.
HM: CM Punk vs. Brock Lesnar - SummerSlam - 8.18.13
2013's SummerSlam featured two Match of the Year candidates, one of which was billed "The Best vs. The Beast." This No-DQ bout told the story of Punk's scrappy ability to stay one step ahead of his massive opponent, as he pulled out every weapon available and utilized his superior speed. This amazing match was brilliantly worked out and is thus far Brock's best match of his current run. After 25 minutes of action, Punk fell victim one too many times to Paul Heyman's ringside distractions and was pinned after an F5.
HM: Triple H vs. Daniel Bryan - WrestleMania XXX - 4.6.14
The YES movement took over WrestleMania in 2014, starting with this much-anticipated opening match for a shot at the WWE Title. Both guys played their roles to perfection and told a helluva Face-In-Peril story for 26 minutes. As predicted, Bryan won the match clean to propel himself into the WWE Title match, but Hunter attacked him after the bell in the hopes of rendering him too injured to compete later on. Made perfect sense and beautifully enhanced the drama of Bryan's quest.
HM: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada - WrestleKingdom 9 - 1.4.15
One of the greatest feuds of the decade, hell, all time, was between NJPW's early 2010s Ace and his eventual successor. At WrestleKingdom 9 Tanahashi and Okada assembled an eminently epic, instant classic of a main event that belongs in the same conversation as Austin-Rock II or the two HBK-Taker WrestleMania matches. These two men were born to wrestle each other, and this match somehow topped all seven of their previous bouts, building off those matches and upping the ante. Late in the match both kicked out of each other's well-protected finishing moves, and by the time Tana finally put Okada's quest to an end at the 31-minute mark the audience was shocked and exhausted. Okada sold this defeat like a death in the family, sobbing the whole way back to the dressing room. They'd have an equally epic rematch one year later, where Tana finally passed the torch. Okada and Tanahashi made magic every time they locked horns, but for me the WK9 main event is their greatest encounter.
10. John Cena vs. Daniel Bryan - WWE SummerSlam - 8.18.13
Leading into SummerSlam 2013 WWE Champ John Cena had handpicked Daniel Bryan as his opponent, and the two delivered a legendary match. For twenty-six minutes they went toe-to-toe, showcasing memorable, innovative spots and gritty, realistic fight action. Bryan showed he could hang with the big dogs in a WWE main event, and Cena showed he could hang with the king of wrestling workhorses. Bryan's popularity had surged in the months leading up to this match and the crowd popped for everything he did. This epic showdown concluded with Bryan nailing Cena with the baisuke knee to finally win the WWE Title.
9. Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels - WWE WrestleMania XXIV - 3.28.10
For the second straight year the match that overshadowed the rest of the WrestleMania card was The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels. The angle leading to this match was brilliant, with Shawn wanting redemption for 'Mania 25 and Taker refusing to oblige. Shawn then banked on winning the Royal Rumble so he could challenge then-World Champion Taker at WrestleMania, only to come up short that January. Instead Shawn crashed Taker's Elimination Chamber Title defense, costing Taker the belt and drawing the wrath of The Dead Man. Taker accepted Shawn's challenge on the condition that Shawn would retire if he lost, and the greatest WrestleMania rematch of all-time was signed. Taker-HBK II in my opinion (yes, I know I'm in the minority) surpassed their previous encounter in a streamlined, drama- and action-packed 24-minute masterpiece that echoed not only Taker-HBK I, but Flair-HBK from 2008. Shawn's defiant throat-slash gesture at the end of the match followed by Taker's enraged Tombstone rebuttal was an all-time classic moment. For me this is The Undertaker's greatest WrestleMania match.
8. John Cena vs. CM Punk - WWE Money in the Bank - 7.17.11
Punk's shocking hometown victory over John Cena leading to him "leaving WWE with the Title" is the one bout he'll be most rememered for. This was the climax of the WWE's Summer of Punk angle, following the infamous "Pipe Bomb" promo. After months of lackluster angles and PPVs, Punk's new "disgruntled employee" persona galvanized the fanbase and led to this now legendary PPV and match. From the white-hot Chicago crowd to the brilliant surrounding angle (which was then horribly botched in every way possible but that's another discussion), to the epic 34-minute running time, this match was a career-defining moment for CM Punk. Starting here John Cena became Punk's greatest rival, as they would have three more epic MOTY contenders over the next two years.
7. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles - NJPW WrestleKingdom 10 - 1.4.16
At WK10 the semi-main event went to probably the most anticipated dream pairing in NJPW history, Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles, and it did not disappoint. These two threw everything at each other, even with AJ nursing a nagging back injury. The finishing sequence was fantastic, with tons of suspenseful reversals, until Nak hit a pair of bone-shattering Boma Ye knees to retain his Intercontinental Title. Both men would leave for WWE right after this, and so this amazing bout would be the exclamation point on both men's remarkable time in New Japan. For me this was the match of 2016.
6. Kenny Omega vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi - NJPW WrestleKingdom 13 - 1.4.19
The Kenny Omega-Hiroshi Tanahashi main event lived up to expectations and more. This 39-minute masterpiece equaled and yes, exceeded even the Tana-Okada matches of WrestleKingdoms past. As with the Kenny-Okada battles, this involved every facet of the game, from grappling to big impact moves to table spots. Tana hit multiple HFFs in the ring, one of which Kenny actually kicked out of. These two left almost everything in the ring, but left room for a potential rematch down the line, if Kenny and New Japan ever reconcile. In the end, Tana escaped a One-Winged Angel attempt and hit one last Hi Fly Flow to win his 8th IWGP Title at age 41, capping off an incredible story of redemption for the former Ace. Meanwhile Kenny departed NJPW for the time being to help build AEW. This main event was absolutely superb and in my opinion the second-best in WrestleKingdom history.
5. Kazuchika Okada vs. Katsuyhori Shibata - NJPW Sakura Genesis - 4.9.17
In hindsight one of Okada's most affecting and upsetting matches, the main event of Sakura 2017 was a grueling, at times uncomfortably stiff 38-minute opus, wherein Shibata proved, even in a loss, his hard-as-nails toughness and delivered his greatest (and tragically final) bell-to-bell performance. This match had everything, from mat wrestling, to big moves to cringe-inducing MMA strikes, and when it was over, Shibata collapsed backstage and had to be rushed to the hospital. Okada withstood some of the stiffest strong style offense imaginable, finally putting down his challenger with three Rainmaker clotheslines. Regardless of its aftermath, this is a stunning IWGP Title match and an all-time classic.
4. Kenny Omega vs. Tetsuya Naito - NJPW G1 Climax 27 Final - 8.13.17
Given the unenviable task of following two absolutely superb Block finals in 2017, this G1 final/rematch of Omega-Naito from G1 26 somehow left both its predecessor and the two Block finals in the dust. Over the course of this wild 34-minute war of attrition these two pulled out all the stops, wrestling a sometimes very dangerous style and taking numerous scary-looking bumps. Omega piledrove Naito on top of a table but missed and ended up landing on the floor. Naito hit a reverse rana off the top rope. Omega countered a top rope rana by sweeping Naito's legs out so he crashed face-first into the top of the post. In the end it took three Destinos for Naito to put Omega away and claim the 2017 G1 briefcase. Just an unbelievable match to cap off what was in my opinion the greatest wrestling tournament of all time.
3. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi - NJPW WrestleKingdom 9 - 1.4.15
Most people who have seen this IWGP Intercontinental Title match instantly called it the 2015 Match of the Year, and I can't argue that point whatsoever. Prior to this Ibushi had been almost exclusively a Jr. Heavyweight, and this was his attempt to establish himself as a headliner. Spoiler alert: it worked. This was an impossibly brilliant match, where Nakamura threw every MMA-inspired attack at Ibushi, only for the young lion to shake it off and retaliate with an awe-inspiring aerial move. The pace these two set was truly astonishing without the match coming off as a spotfest. Every big move had weight and repercussions, and the drama built right up to the end, as Nakamura once again retained with the Boma Ye knee. But this bout did just as much for Ibushi as for Nakamura, and is still my favorite match from either guy.
2. Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega - NJPW WrestleKingdom 11 - 1.4.17
I can't remember being this blown away by a wrestling match since the Triple H-Shawn Michaels-Chris Benoit main event at WrestleMania XX. Nearly 47 minutes of just about everything you could ever want out of a main event. The match started methodically with both men showcasing their grappling skills. Act 1 lasted roughly 15 minutes and then the match surged to another level, with Act 2 consisting of some of the most insane high spots since the Attitude Era. Omega landed a moonsault from the top rope, over the railing to the floor, he took a back body drop over the top rope through a table on the floor, Okada took a Dragon Superplex that looked like it killed him, and so on. And this was only the second act of the match! After this the drama actually escalated as both guys tried to put each other away, Omega kicked out of the Rainmaker (previously an honor reserved only for Tanahashi) and tried in vain several times to hit the One-Winged Angel before finally falling to the third Rainmaker of the match. Dave Meltzer awarded this match an unprecedented six stars, and in no way do I consider that hyperbole. Okada vs. Omega was one of the most incredible wrestling matches I've ever seen in my thirty-plus years as a fan....
1. Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega - NJPW Dominion - 6.9.18
....And yet it was topped 17 months later by the same two men. Okada-Omega IV went 69 minutes if you include the two rest periods between falls, and it flew by in a way I've never felt an hour fly by in a wrestling match. Even the best Royal Rumbles don't feel this quick. The first fall lasted roughly 28 minutes, and with every five-minute interval announcement I said, to no one, "Wait, seriously? It's been XX minutes already??" Okada and Omega picked up right where they left off in the 2017 G1, cutting a wildly fast pace considering how long they had to go. This first fall was action and drama-packed, with the wrestling spilling to the outside numerous times and both men hitting most of their signature moves. Late in the fall Okada hit a dropkick off the top rope that sent Omega careening backwards like he'd been shot with a bazooka, one of my favorite spots in the match. Both men went for multiple finisher attempts but neither could land them. Finally Okada countered a sunset flip a la Davey Boy vs. Bret to take the first fall. This was a spectacular 28-minute match, and it was only part 1.
The second fall was much slower, like the second act of a classic drama. Okada exerted his dominance early on, actually smiling as he enjoyed his one-fall advantage. Omega made a comeback, hit a double stomp through a table, and after more traded finisher attempts on the outside, hit a reverse rana on the floor. The back and forth exchanges toward the end of this fall were breathtaking. Omega finally nailed two V-Triggers and the first One-Winged Angel of the match to take the second fall. Okada sold this throughout the rest period like he was dead. Tonally if the first fall was A New Hope, this was The Empire Strikes Back, darker, heavier and with loads of selling.
Okada looked to be totally screwed as Omega hit a V-Trigger and went for OWA, but he leveled the playing field with a Rainmaker. From here on it was a story of both men just struggling to stay upright and finding new moves to throw at each other; for example Omega broke out a Styles Clash and a Phoenix Splash attempt. My other favorite spot of the match was Okada going for a Rainmaker but being so exhausted he couldn't follow through, and collapsing mid-move. Late in the fall both men were on their knees throwing strikes with nothing behind them. The fatique being sold was palpable. The last ten minutes were a bevy of finishers and reversals, with Omega taking multiple Rainmakers that Okada simply couldn't follow with pin attempts. Finally Omega hit an OWA near the ropes, followed by a V-Trigger and another OWA for the win and the IWGP Heavyweight Title, ending possibly the greatest championship reign of all time.
Anyway, like I said, this may have been the greatest wrestling match in history. It built on everything these two had done before and took new twists and turns. It was like an amalgam of their previous three bouts. Like their first match, this was divided into three acts, but instead of being built around spectacle this was about drama and selling. These two hit nearly everything imaginable in the first fall, sold like crazy in the second, and went for homerun swings in the third, all while fighting to maintain consciousness. This is likely to be the defining match of this era. Best 2/3 Falls match ever. Best hour-plus match ever. Probably the best match of any kind, ever.
The 2010s were a new artistic peak in pro wrestling, largely thanks to the Okadas, Omegas, Tanahashis and Nakamuras, but WWE had its share of classics as well, in between stretches of frustratingly bad television. Every wrestler working in the New Roarin' 20s has his/her work cut out; this past decade left some very large shoes to fill.
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