wrestling / Columns

Hawke’s Top 10 WWE Matches of the Decade

November 29, 2019 | Posted by TJ Hawke
Shawn Michaels Undertaker WWE WrestleMania

10. Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins – 8/11/2011

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This match headlined an episode of FCW that actually was one of my very first reviews for 411mania.

This match had a thirty minute time limit. They told a brilliant story and gave this feud a proper conclusion. They spent the first third (or so) of the match working the match normally. Ambrose got tired of that and decided to change it up. He sacrificed a fall by kicking Rollins in the crotch, but that helped him get to two falls soon thereafter. That caused Ambrose to get a little too cocky, and that gave Rollins an opportunity to pick up a fall to even it back up. Both men were incredibly focused after that as Ambrose realized he could not waste any more time. Rollins looked to have picked up the third fall first with the Curb Stomp, but Ambrose kicked out. In a desperate move, Rollins went for the Phoenix Splash…Ambrose avoided it though. They continued to desperately attempt to finish each other. They just could not do it before the time limit expired. Maxine, the FCW GM, announced that they would continue to fight until there was a winner. They proceeded to have one of the most heated and exciting sequences in recent memory to finish each other off. Rollins outlasted Ambrose though and finished him with a buckle bomb, two kneeling superkicks, and a God’s Last Gift. One of the most outstanding matches in recent WWE history. It featured brilliant storytelling and exciting action. (****3/4)

 

9. Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne – 5/20/2017

This was for Bate’s United Kingdom Championship.

This was one of those matches that exposes pro wrestlers as mentally lazy 95% of the time. Yes, these two did a couple of bigger spots that you don’t need to do in every match. Those spots are not what made it great though.

The key to this match was the tone established early on and their refusal to stray from it. This match was all about trying to win. There was no wasted movement. Both men were constantly looking for openings to get the advantage and quick to try to change things back in their favor.

They did not work slowly, but they also let moments settle for a second instead of just going boom-boom-boom-boom with all their spots.

On top of all that, they also delivered a fantastic finishing sequence that felt incredibly consistent with what had came before it. Bate was progressively going for bigger and bigger stuff in his attempt to finish off Dunne. It eventually led to him going for one risk too many.

He went for the Undertaker dive, and Dunne just deflected him straight to the floor. Bate fell hard, and then Dunne immediately pounced. He brought him straight to the middle of the ring and finished him with The Bitter End.

This was pretty much textbook great wrestling. (****3/4)

 

8. Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena vs. Seth Rollins – 1/25/2015

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This match was for Brock’s WWE Championship.

This was WWE at its best. This match provided a flawless in-ring story, great character work, exciting action for the duration, and a dramatic/unpredictable finishing sequence that had me literally on the edge of my seat.

As most Brock Lesnar matches do, the match started with Brock dominating his opponent. The catch this time was that he had two opponents to do this with when he’s exclusively been working singles matches during his second run in the company. This worked to the match’s advantage as it freshened up a formula that always threatens to become predictable. Rollins and Cena desperately tried various strategies to slow Brock at all, but nothing worked for long. I also loved that Rollins and Cena managed to find creative ways to avoid working with each other despite it being in their best interests to do so.  They kept accidentally working together if anything, and they pulled it off in shockingly organic ways. Brock took three AAs and a Curb Stomp, but he managed to get himself to his feet after it was all said and done. Cena then tackled Brock through a barricade, but Brock would not die. Cena couldn’t even keep Brock down after using steel steps as a weapon. Finally, Rollins had to put Brock through an announce table with a top rope elbow to keep Brock down for an extended period of time. Just fucking fantastic. Brock being down truly meant something by this point because Cena and Rollins had to work so hard to make it happen. After Cena and Rollins did a genuinely fun sequence that involved nearfalls that even my cynical ass bit on, Brock recovered just as Rollins got desperate enough to pull out the Phoenix Splash card. Seth nearly slayed Brock again, but Brock survived and pinned him with an F5. (This match was so great that you all just suffered through my very bad case of word vomit.)

On top of the flawlessly-executed story, this match featured possible career-best performances from Rollins and Brock. Rollins basically had his “Kota Ibushi at Wrestle Kingdom 2015” performance where someone just came across as a main eventer in every way in this match. I’m not sure when Rollins is going to win the world title, but I think he has a chance to deliver fantastic matches when he finally gets there. If this was his “test run” in a world title match, he passed with flying colors.

Brock was in his element here. Battling two men instead of one only served to make him look more dominant and make the achievement of taking him down seem all the more impressive. If Brock somehow ends up facing Daniel Bryan in a singles at Wrestlemania, he will likely wrestle twice this year and deliver two fantastic performances. I would have no problem naming him my Most Outstanding Wrestler of 2015 in that (albeit, unlikely) scenario.

(I don’t mean to sell John Cena short at all. He was great here as well, but it didn’t strike me as one of his best performances considering how many great ones he’s had on a giant stage.) (****3/4)

 

7. Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker – 3/28/2010

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The build to this rematch was damn near perfect. Shawn Michaels realized that there wasn’t a whole lot else to do in his career, but his one big failure was not ending the streak in 2009. He called out Taker, but Taker passed on the rematch. Taker was champion at the time, so HBK entered the Royal Rumble to get a shot at Taker’s belt. HBK failed. At Elimination Chamber, Taker was on his way to successfully defending the belt, but HBK came out from underneath the structure and nailed Taker with a superkick, costing the deadman the belt. Taker then accepted Shawn’s challenge but on one condition: if Shawn lost, he retired for good.

To use a movie analogy, this wasn’t a sequel to their 2009 match. It was part two of a two-part story. One match is not complete without the other. Shawn Michaels came to a mental state where he determined his career was not worth continuing if he couldn’t defeat Undertaker at Wrestlemania. No longer willing to accept a hollow win, he knew he had to throw everything he had at Undertaker to defeat him. Undertaker, being dead and all, was able to survive Shawn’s best weapons and eventually overwhelm him at the end. Taker saw the weakened Shawn Michaels and offers pity. He tells him to stay down…but Shawn went down fighting. Taker finished him with a jumping tombstone. Taker’s grudging respect for Shawn, as he knew his greatest opponent’s career was coming to an end, was the perfect cherry to put on top of the feud. Beautiful stuff all around. (*****)

 

6. Cody Rhodes & Goldust vs. The Shield – 10/6/2013

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The careers of Cody, Goldust, and Dusty Rhodes were on the line.

The whole Rhodes Family vs. The Authority is one of the most hilarious periods in the long history of the Big Trump Fundraiser.

Cody Rhodes was going on his honeymoon. The Raw creative team did not know. They felt some bizarre reason to write him out of the show for two weeks – bizarre because it’s perfectly standard for wrestlers to disappear without explanation and since when has the Trump Fundraiser cared about continuity?

That gave way to one of the most compelling and heated angles in the post-WCW era for Vince’s company. It’s only by accident that the company could do something that so many people got invested in.

Regardless of how they got there though, what mattered going into this match is that they did in fact get there. That gave them an opportunity to deliver something truly special – a rare thing indeed in this company.

Between the brilliant layout and assured execution, the wrestlers managed to do just that.

The Rhodes Brothers were having some early success. It was nothing overwhelming or anything, but it signaled that they were not gonna get run over at the very least. The Shield are tempted to attempt to start a brawl on the floor, but the presence of Dusty Rhodes and his belt dissuaded them.

The next section was competitive and eventually led to a Goldust hot tag. He was building a lot of momentum, but he got a little reckless and crashed on the floor.

The Shield then worked over Goldust. It led to a Cody hot tag where he busted out a lot of big movez (including the Muscle Buster???). The match then broke down.

Dusty took out Dean Ambrose with a belt shot and a Bionic Elbow. The crowd was going wild by this point. Rollins almost stole the match, but then Cody caught Rollins with a  genuinely nasty Cross Rhodes to save their careers.

There’s really not much else you could want from a match from WWE. It’s fitting that the circumstances that led to it were accidental, because the Big Trump Fundraiser are not actually capable of producing this due to their systemic failure to produce cynicism-free art. (*****)

 

5. Oney Lorcan vs. Drew McIntyre – 4/5/2017

No one is doing anything about it yet, but this was the blueprint for the next hot thing in professional wrestling. This was two hungry performers committing unbridled violence against each other, but in a manner that felt totally earned and organic.

This was one of the most physical matches in recent WWE history (a trend for Oney Lorcan matches). Everything they did to each other just had a meanness to it. These two guys wanted to hurt each other.

This was not merely a random sequence of strikes and whatever. Drew and Oney managed to do it in genuinely creative ways.  They adjusted to whatever situation they were in and then did what they had to do in order to put a hurtin’ on the other. It was beautiful.

They of course also managed to present this violence in a compact package so that every little thing they did had that much more meaning. Any move could have been the end here which made the whole thing all the more dramatic and exciting.

On top of all that, this match was not just merely successful on a physical level. This was a statement match for both competitors.

For Drew McIntyre, he let the world know that he is back and he is in his fucking prime. He is ready to go and is a star right now. In 2009, he was the “Chosen One.” The promise is finally fulfilled. If WWE does not recognize that he is a genuine main event star waiting to happen, they are useless.

For Oney, this was the wake-up match for anyone in a position of power in the company. If you watch this match and do not immediately recognize his skill, charisma, and ability to push WWE’s product forward, then you simply are no longer credible enough to be making decisions in the company.

Not every match needs to be short. Not every match needs to be a physical beating. It is often fantastic when those qualities do come together though. Someone with vision and access to resources needs to find a way to market this kind of wrestling so that it can find its niche in the American wrestling scene somehow. This is crowd-pleasing wrestling at its simplest. Someone needs to capitalize on it. (*****)

 

4. Oney Lorcan vs. Lars Sullivan – 9/14/2017

This was simply one of the greatest matches in WWE history. The company doesn’t even know, recognize, or understand when they accomplish things like this which only makes it more extraordinary in a way.

While the WWE should not be financially supported at all due to their evil Trump fundraising nature obviously, what they deserve less from our lives is our time.  They are just so bad so much of the time. It’s only becoming even more glaring now as they have spent recent years acquiring the most amount of great wrestlers in one company in the world and have near-unlimited resources to promote them.

All that is to say that it’s truly weird when a brilliant match like this happens under the banner. And was it ever brilliant.

Oney saw he had the size disadvantage and try to connect on some offense relatively quickly. Lars kept threatening to overpower him though and certainly was not backing down. Oney just kept coming though and progressively fought harder and harder to do some damage.

Every time Oney raised the stakes though, Lars was there to match him. Eventually Lars connected on a monster lariat that took Oney’s head off and then he finished him a slam to definitively win.

The story itself may seem simple, but the way they carried it out contained the brilliance. Both guys were absolutely beating the shit out of each other in this one. As the match moved forward, they only got more physical and reckless in their offense to get to victory.

The progression of violence felt incredibly organic for pro wrestling. Things just naturally got more intense as the match wore on simply because clearly nothing standard was going to work. Everything they did simply just felt like the action best suited for winning the match in any given moment. That so rarely happens in pro wrestling.

This was pushed most clearly by Oney who immediately dropped the pretense of this being worked like a typical match when his side headlock to start the match so easily failed. From that point forward, all Oney could was just charged forward with reckless abandon and hope that he connected on enough offense to enough damage to keep Lars down.

While Lars never truly looked scared at any point, he clearly recognized he needed to up his game because of how tough Oney was. When he fended off one last charge from Oney, he managed to take his head off with a lariat. A lot of Lars’ offense throughout though would have kept lesser wrestlers down. So, Lars went for the double tap and picked up Oney for a gratuitous spinebuster.

Just brilliant wrestling. (*****)

 

3. Sasha Banks vs. Bayley – 10/7/2015

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This was an Iron Woman match for Bayley’s NXT Women’s Championship.

The best feud of 2015 led to two genuine ***** matches. Incredible.

As someone who does not like Iron People matches as a general rule, I was incredibly impressed by their ability to tell a thirty-minute story here when so many 30+ minute matches have completely failed in that regard. Both women were working with honor for a while and using logical strategies to pick up some early pinfalls. After both were relying on pinning combos, they moved on to teasing their finishers. Sasha saw that it was not working though and cheated to pick up the first fall.

Sasha let up after that though in regards to the cheating, and Bayley was able to fire back with a Bayley-to-Belly to even things up. Sasha smartened up and decided to send Bayley repeatedly into very hard objects in order to pick up a fall via countout. Sasha was then firmly in control after that. Bayley kept it competitive though and started building momentum by going after Sasha’s injured arm just as Sasha did in their Brooklyn match. Bayley then had Sasha’s tope scouted and reversed it into a Bayley-to-Bayley on the floor. It seemed like Bayley had all the momentum, but then Sasha rolled through the super poison ‘rana(!) (another great callback to the Brooklyn match). At this point, the drama was just out of this world.

Sasha applied the Bank Statement multiple times, but Bayley escaped by going after the injured arm. Bayley then applied the Jim Breaks Armbar on the same arm. She kicked Sasha’s head in repeatedly until Sasha tapped out with seconds to go.

Between the very high level of character work, storytelling, and drama and the even higher degree of difficulty of the gimmick they had to deal with, this was one of the most impressive matches in WWE history. They had you sucked in from the very beginning and progressively built up the tension until it just exploded in the final minutes. This was brilliant. (*****)

 

2. Sasha Banks vs. Bayley – 8/22/2015

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This was for Sasha’s NXT Women’s Championship.

Originally reviewed here.

Live perspective:

TJ:

Despite some sluggish moments early on and a loss of momentum towards the end (micro issues), the larger story and the majority of the execution was some of the best work in all of professional wrestling. Sasha Banks was already one of the best wrestlers in my eyes going into this match, and it was even clearer after watching her up close. Her mannerisms, her charisma, her in-ring storytelling, her heat segments, and her timing (and her music!) are all things that she is near the top or the very best at in all of professional wrestling. She is a potential gold mine. While Bayley is not quite on Sasha’s level, she stepped up to the plate and looked right at home on the big stage. She could be the babyface that carries the women’s division for years if the bookers on the main roster get their act together. This was easily the match of the night and probably the best match that I have ever seen live.

Replay perspective:

TJ:

I watched this match back in amazement because I managed to like it even more than when I was surrounded by 15k people going nuts for it. My issues about the sluggish start and loss of momentum down the stretch did not stick out to me at all (and I was looking for them) this which alleviated my only big concerns with the match. I’m pretty much at a loss for words. Matches like this make paying attention to pro wrestling all worth it. (FIVE STARS)

 

1. The Wyatt Family vs. The Usos – 7/20/2014

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This was a 2/3 falls match for the Usos’ WWE Tag Team Championship.

What more could you possibly want from a match?

While an absolutely amazing match on the whole, this battle really stands out for Luke Harper’s individual performance. It makes perfect sense that the historically overlooked wrestler in every promotion would deliver such an amazing performance to so little fanfare.

Despite how good everyone was in this match, Harper single-handedly elevated this to all-time status. He was all over this place in this one and did everything in his power to make everyone look like their best selves. It was the kind of performance that should become the stuff of legend and solidify Harper’s spot as one of the very best going today.

Part of what made his work so great was that Harper’s character actually informed the structure of the match. Harper was an incredibly calculated competitor. If you gave him time and space to think before he acted, he was able to get or maintain the upperhand.

A quick flurry of offense from The Usos early in the match resulted in sending The Wyatts to the floor. Rowan wanted to charge right back in. Harper held him back though and calmly worked to get full control of the match instead of letting Rowan rush into a mistake.

During that control, a fluke tag-out by Jey resulted in Jimmy tagging in and going right to the top rope. That gave Harper just enough room to calculate the best course of action. He allowed Jimmy to dive, but he easily avoided it and then immediately pounced to kick Jimmy’s head off with a big boot to get The Wyatts the first fall.

The next time an Uso tagged out, Luke would not be so lucky. Instead of giving Luke time to think, Jey immediately just grabbed onto him and locked in a pinning combination to snag fall #2. Harper was not down though for long and he managed to maintain control of the match right after that.

Harper may have been in control after that fall, but he now had things to worry about. That fall did not just mathematically even things up for the champs. Now, they had a clear successful strategy that they could pursue. They had to take advantage of their speed to nullify Harper’s calculated movements. Harper’s size gives him a slower reaction time and thus provides openings for The Usos. Victory was in sight for champs.

Just doing that was not enough for The Usos to retain and topple the mighty Wyatts. Harper did not go down easily, as he led his team on by adapting to what his opponents were giving.

In one of the biggest sequences of the match, Harper managed to send Jimmy to the floor which gave him just enough time to wipe Jimmy out with his massive tope suicida. Harper’s weakness then immediately flared up again. He saw Jey take out Rowan on the floor. Instead of charting out a logical course of action, he reacted by going right back to the tope well. Jey predictably blocked it and Jimmy then was almost able to keep Luke down for the three as a direct result.

That sequence really summed up the brilliant and thrilling final third of the match. The Usos had their speed. Harper had his wits and size. There was a certain amount of luck though at this point. Whoever had the superior numbers at the right moment was going to likely be the winner. The Usos had momentum, but The Wyatts were proving most resilient.

The Usos did not let the Wyatts’ resilience get to them. They delivered all their big movez and Jimmy even hit the Superfly Splash. They just kept going for the W. The problem was that the Wyatts were too strong of a team on this night to be taken down by the regular stuff. The Usos endured though and finally managed to isolate Luke just long enough to connect on a double Superfly splash to keep him down for the three.

When you combine Harper’s amazing performance with an incredible in-ring story and a white hot crowd, you have yourselves one of the best matches of all time. Everyone owes it to themselves to watch this match. Everyone owes it to Luke Harper to more loudly celebrate his abilities. This was pure beauty. (*****)

This article is “sponsored” by the only AEW podcast. There are no others.

It did not pain me in the slightest to leave this match off the list, but it was fantastic.

My list of 5-Star Matches

article topics :

NXT, Wrestlemania 26, WWE, TJ Hawke