2015 may not be remembered among WWE’s best. The company saw declining ratings, withering fan support and—though the WWE Network crossed the 1mm threshold—general frustration with the product is the new normal.
There were, however, several brightspots that make parts of 2015 worth looking back on. These are the top five matches, performers and shows of the year.
You will find a healthy dose of NXT in these lists, despite the yellow brand only offering one hour a week of general programming (whereas the main roster offers five). The reason is obvious: NXT is on a creative roll and can seemingly do no wrong. It’s successes are only magnified when viewed in contrast to the stumbling main roster creative direction.
THE BEST MATCHES OF THE YEAR
5. Sasha Banks vs Becky Lynch – NXT Takeover: Unstoppable
The story building up to this women’s title clash was hastily put together, at least when compared to other NXT title matches. Becky had been a sidekick to Sasha and lacked a lot of personality and identity, but after winning a number one contenders match, the creative team at NXT did amazing work getting her over and making her a threat to the title that fans could get behind. Their match was brilliant. Not “brilliant for a women’s match” but brilliant. Though Becky had only been a babyface for less than a month, by the end of the contest, the NXT crowd was singing her theme song in a show of solidarity and support for such a gutsy performance.
4. John Cena vs Sami Zayn – RAW, 4 May
You’d be hard-pressed to find a superstar in the last decade who had a better six month stretch than John Cena. The US Title Open Challenge was a brilliant way to let the perennial main-eventer step away from the top of the card while still being a featured player on Raw. Week after week Cena called out anyone who wanted to step up and make themselves famous, and week after week fans were treated to what usually was the best match of the show. No Open Challenge match was better, in my opinion, than the contest against Sami Zayn. The “happy beard guy” face of NXT was given a royal introduction by Bret Hart and then proceeded to bring Montreal to its feet in a twenty minute classic. This was the night he injured his shoulder that kept him sidelined for the rest of 2015, but that only makes Zayn’s performance even more incredible.
3. John Cena vs Kevin Owens – Elimination Chamber
After Zayn, the other man in 2015 to bring out the best in Cena was the man who had just finished establishing himself as the bad guy of NXT. Owens debut match on the main roster is now his ultimate talking point: He “beat John Cena” in his “first night with WWE.” It wasn’t just a victory, it was the cleanest victory Cena had given up to a heel since becoming “the man” in 2005. Owens defeating Cena was enough to grab headlines, but the quality of the match itself is why it ranks so highly. It was the best 1-on-1 match WWE had all year. The nearfalls along with finisher after finisher being hit kept fans riveted, and made the final few minutes of the match some of the most gripping action WWE had in ages.
2. John Cena vs Seth Rollins vs Brock Lesnar – Royal Rumble
This match might get forgotten in other year-end reviews, since it happened so early in the year, but it deserves high praise. At first it was going to be yet another Cena vs Lesnar 1-on-1 match, and at that point fans were sick of Cena being Lesnar’s constant opponent. The addition of then-MITB-holder Seth Rollins added a little more intrigue, but still fans went into the match not expecting it to be the classic it became. Going in, the biggest point of excitement came from fans wanting to see the weasely Rollins get his from an angry Lesnar. Rollins ended up stealing the show and Cena ended up being the third wheel in the match. The final flurry of nearfalls (a trademark of big WWE matches these days) had fans going crazy, and though it was unthinkable going in that Rollins would walk out the champ, there were a few moments when he made believers of fans. Overall this was the best match WWE had in all of 2015, but it’s not the best match of the year…
THE BEST MATCH OF THE YEAR…
Sasha Banks vs Bayley – NXT Takeover: Brooklyn
The best match of the year belongs to NXT. The title match between Sasha Banks and Bayley was literally years in the making. They both began as nobody divas in the then-small NXT before the brand even had a championship for the ladies. Women’s wrestling was still regarded as a bathroom break in WWE and even on NXT it was less of a priority than the rest of the show. By the time they finally had their climactic battle NXT had risen to being a true alternative for frustrated fans, and women’s wrestling in particular had become the posterchild for all that was good about “good wrestling.” The two who best embodied the rise of women’s wrestling in “WWE” had their final battle (so far) in the co-mainevent of the biggest show in the brand’s history. Almost 15,000 were on hand to witness the match, and not a soul was in the bathroom. Everything from the grandiose entrances to the in-ring introductions elevated the contest and made it more than just another match. It didn’t matter that they were women. It mattered that they were two characters that fans had become invested in and were finally witnessing them rise to the level of respect they deserved. They would rematch in a true main event match a short while later, but this is the match that will be remembered. It’s not just a great women’s match, or a great NXT match, or a great championship match; it’s the greatest match WWE/NXT presented in 2015.
THE BEST SHOWS OF THE YEAR
5. NXT Takeover: London
Four of the five Takeover events this year are given a place on this list, with the one left out (Takeover: Respect) only just missing the cut due to a lack of a proper NXT title match. The London Takeover special was NXT’s second big venture outside of FullSail Arena and as with the Brooklyn show the brand proved it was big enough to occasionally (if not frequently) spread its wings outside of Florida. All three title matches delivered with all three champs retaining. The crowd will be the thing to remember from this show, however, as the very-european crowd serenaded their favorite wrestlers and barked soccer chants at the heels.
4. NXT Takeover: Unstoppable
This was a great Takeover, but not as good as the one before it or after it. It had the wonderful (aforementioned) Banks vs Lynch match for the women’s title, and a great Finn Balor vs Tyler Breeze number one contenders match, but the main event was a rematch with basically the same ending. Depending on where NXT Creative takes Hideo Itami when he returns from injury, this show might end up being more memorable, as it was in the leadup to this show that Hideo was “taken out” by a mystery assailant. Overall, this was a great show, but its undercard was not as remarkable as others.
3. NXT Takeover: Rival
This show edges out Takeover:Unstoppable simply due to a stronger card. Finn Balor and Adrian Neville put on a top-ten match of the year in the undercard, and all three title matches more than delivered the fireworks. But what this show will be remembered for is its main event, which saw Kevin Owens win the NXT Championship from beloved babyface Sami Zayn. The manner of his victory especially will be remembered, as it came via ref-stoppage. After two months of beating up nobodies, Kevin Owens was put over stronger than any heel not named Lesnar had been in years. Every other match delivered greatness in front of the always-hot FullSail crowd, particularly the Fatal-Four-Way Divas Match which saw Sasha Banks win the NXT Women’s Title and begin her ascent to the top of women’s wrestling.
2. WrestleMania 31
The only WWE show to make it on the list is the one show a year WWE counts on to deliver the goods. The buildup to WrestleMania 31 was abysmal, with a main event babyface fans had soundly rejected and undercard storylines that were a joke. But, when the show started, it managed to be the best “WWE” show of the year. Every match either lived up to the hype or exceeded it, with the controversial exception of the Sting vs Triple H match, which I still contend was excellent for what it was. The much-derided main event story was thrown out the window once the bell rang and both men just pummeled each other senseless for twenty minutes. By the time the fireworks fired and Seth Rollins of all people walked out with the belt, WWE had silenced all its critics…at least for that day. But it still wasn’t the best show of the year…
THE BEST SHOW OF THE YEAR
NXT Takeover: Brooklyn
This was NXT’s WrestleMania, happening on the eve of WWE’s SummerSlam. It was the first time NXT had presented a major show outside of FullSail and it did so by selling out the same arena that would host SummerSlam and the Raw-after. Of the three shows, there’s no question which one was the most critically acclaimed. The card was perfect, the crowd beyond enthused, and the finishes were almost perfect (I still think Breeze should have beaten the legend Thunder Liger). Two people made their Takeover debut, Samoa Joe and Apollo Crews, proving the NXT is capable of reloading after the main roster comes calling for talent. Considering this show was without Hideo Itami and Sami Zayn—two men who helped to carry NXT at the end of 2014—it’s amazing how good it ended up being. This was the show that proved NXT could become a viable, touring third brand. That still hasn’t happened, with regularity at least, but the day is coming, and this will be the show remembered for making it possible. This is the best show of the year.
THE BEST SUPERSTARS OF THE YEAR
5. John Cena
John Cena makes the cut for his tremendous work done in the middle of the year. For about six months between WrestleMania and SummerSlam, John Cena and his US Title Open Challenge became must-see Raw viewing. Fans who had derided Cena for his in-ring skills were all eating crow as week after week he put on a four star classic match with one new opponent after another. The first part of the year he was pretty insufferable, and toward the end of the year he tapered off (and fell off the map at the very end), but for five or six months in the middle he was magical.
4. Kevin Owens
KO earns his spot for the stellar work he did in NXT all the way up to his swansong at Takeover: Brooklyn. Along the way he captured the NXT title, debuted in WWE to defeat John Cena, put on two more masterpiece matches (in losing effort) with Cena, and said goodbye to NXT by passing the torch to Finn Balor. With Neville moved to the main roster, Sami Zayn out and Hideo injured later on, KO was called upon to help carry the brand and in big match after big match he did just that. He didn’t have a bad “big match” all year, and it’s only now that he’s settled in on Raw that he’s lost a little of his shine. That’s no discredit to him (it’s the fault of WWE Creative); he proved for the first two-thirds of the year that he’s among the very best in the company.
3. Sasha Banks
Consider her the female Kevin Owens. For the first two-thirds of the year Sasha Banks deserved to be the #1 Wrestler in the World, and had PWI voted her as such you wouldn’t have heard a bit of complaining. Banks dominated (like a boss) the early and middle part of the year, putting on stellar match after stellar match, and completely owning it on the mic against every opponent. It’s only now that she’s on the main roster that her star has faded. That’s no discredit to her (it’s the fault…you get it). As soon as WWE Creative decides to put the spotlight on her she will show once again why she’s among the very best sports entertainers in the world.
2. Seth Rollins
Were it not for a freak injury in November, Seth Rollins would be number one. He probably deserves the spot anyway, but I’m putting him at two, not because he didn’t have some great matches, but because he was booked so horribly as champion. His win/loss record on free-TV was abysmal, and he spent most of the year getting punked out by a way past his prime Kane. Still, despite all the obstacles put on him by WWE Creative, Seth Rollins never lost the fans. He continued owning his smarmy, cocky heel persona so well that it didn’t matter if he faced Brock Lesnar on PPV or Randy Orton on Smackdown, he managed to get the fans to buy into the finishes. WWE did everything they could to make the WWE Title a worthless prop in 2015; that it ends the year with any credibility at all is thanks to the tireless work Seth Rollins did from April-October. He deserves a lot of credit, but he just misses the cut as my favorite superstar of the year…
THE BEST SUPERSTAR OF THE YEAR
The New Day
I’ve been singing their praises for months now, and it’s no exaggeration to say they are, consistently, the very best part of Raw. The quality of WWE’s flagship show has been declining for months, but as it does, the lone bright spot has been New Day. Their antics are the only part of the show that don’t feel terribly and overly scripted. It really feels like those three nerds sit around in a circle on Monday afternoons and dream up the night’s antics. And they always—always—deliver. Even as they get more and more screentime, they’ve managed to continuously reinvent themselves and never go too far in one direction or another. I remember being at the Raw after WrestleMania, as fans chanted “New..Day Sucks!” and at the time they very much did, but they’ve since then taken control of their characters away from WWE Creative and have become highlights every single week. For steadily improving month by month all year long, New Day is my official “favorite superstar(s) of the year.”
Those are my favorites. What about you? Got a favorite or a list of favs to share? Comment and let us know!