wrestling / Columns

Kevin’s Top 100 Matches of 2018: #10-1

February 4, 2019 | Posted by Kevin Pantoja
WWE Charlotte Asuka Becky Lynch WWE TLC

10. PROGRESS World Championship: WALTER [c] vs. Zack Sabre Jr. – PROGRESS Chapter 77: Pumpkin Spice Progress 10/28/18

WALTER is kind of the perfect opponent for Sabre. The challenger likes to apply submissions to different parts of the body at the most opportune times. He managed wrap up WALTER’s arms, which took away his brutal strikes, but then transition to the leg, to chop down the champion, and it all made sense. Zack was brilliant in this. He goaded WALTER into chops, taking damage so he could eventually catch one and wrench at his hand. WALTER sold the arm by having to change up his chops, saving them for when he was in trouble. This didn’t rely on a ton of finishers and near falls, instead focusing on the little things throughout that built up to a big finish. Sabre’s technical acumen against WALTER’s strength. Though neither advantage overwhelmed the other, they worked as game changers. Sabre would turn the tide with a hold, while WALTER did the same with a strike. The closing few minutes were outstanding and just when Sabre went for his European Clutch, his neck gave way. It was damaged by a pissed off champion earlier in the match. WALTER pounced like a shark smelling blood. He pounded on him and retained with the Fire Thunder Driver in 29:26. It was the best PROGRESS Title match I can ever recall. They just made every little detail work, nothing was wasted, and it had nearly everything you could want in a match. [****¾]

9. NXT North American Championship Ladder Match: Adam Cole vs. EC3 vs. Killian Dain vs. Lars Sullivan vs. Ricochet vs. The Velveteen Dream – NXT TakeOver: New Orleans 4/7/18

NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is honestly the best top to bottom wrestling show I have ever seen. Four of the five matches were ****+. It all began with this. Give six talented guys a bunch of ladders and let them crown the first ever North American Champion. There was a lot to juggle here. You had the red hot Velveteen Dream and Adam Cole. The monsters in Killian Dain and Lars Sullivan. And two guys making their debuts in EC3 and Ricochet. They made it all work. Ricochet was given plenty of room to show off his aerial offense, while EC3 may have taken more bumps than anyone. The big guys destroyed people. Everyone played their part perfectly. And this wasn’t just guys doing spots. They all spent early moments going for the title, but kept getting cut off. From there, it was clear they needed to take each other out to win, which set up the bigger offense we eventually saw. It’s a brilliantly layered match. There were just so many action filled moments, great character stuff, and some truly creative spots. I’d be here forever if I tried listing them all. Just know there were a ton and this match was madness. It seemed like Ricochet had it won, only for Cole to sneak in and knock him off, pulling down the title after 31:16. An absolute war and one of the greatest ladder matches of all time. [****¾]

8. IWGP Heavyweight Championship Two Out of Three Falls Match: Kazuchika Okada [c] vs. Kenny Omega – NJPW Dominion 6/9/18

After giving their first match six stars, breaking his own scale, and killing his limited credibility, Dave Meltzer continued to up the ante for matches between Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega. This one got seven stars. I’ll start by getting the reason why it’s not a perfect match out of the way. The one time Kenny beat Okada was when he overwhelmed him with a quick pace in the G1 Climax. Considering he never beat Okada at a slower paced game and how he bragged about having the stamina advantage, it would make logical sense for him to bring that high energy right off the bat. Instead, they didn’t play enough off their G1 meeting and that didn’t make sense. With that out of the way, let’s praise this match. In the first fall, Omega kept having Okada’s usual formulaic stuff scouted. He understood his opponent in that sense. Knowing he beat Okada the one time he hit the One Winged Angel, Omega went for it too often and Okada countered into a rollup to take the first fall in 28:47. Okada became cocky, knowing he had barely been pinned in two years, so getting pinned twice in one match seemed unlikely. Omega tried new things out of desperation before tying it with the One Winged Angel at 47:47. The final fall beautifully showed how exhausted these guys were. They were dazed, would fall over after moves, and looked to be way out of it. Omega hit two more One Winged Angels to finally end Okada’s reign at the 64:50 mark. It isn’t the greatest match ever, but it’s a fantastic one. Great callbacks, exceptional pacing, quality action, and they didn’t try to go overly long and set some kind of record for the sake of it. Neck and neck with their G1 outing for their best work. [****¾]

7. PROGRESS Atlas Championship: WALTER [c] vs. Timothy Thatcher – PROGRESS Chapter 62: Fear No More, Come To Dust 1/28/18

These guys are tag team partners as part of Ringkampf. Most fans assumed this would be friendly competition for a championship. But, as soon as Timothy Thatcher refused a handshake at the opening bell, you could feel the energy change in the room. Right there, we all understood that these guys were just going to lay into each other. Within minutes, Thatcher’s chest was bloodied. Thatcher found his opening when he ducked a chop outside and WALTER hit the ring post. That changed everything because it negated WALTER’s best weapon. What would he do now? He’d have to use his brain. Thatcher was in control, but WALTER would do something small like shift his weight on a belly to belly to land on Tim, or stop him in his tracks with a brutal lariat. And something like that lariat was a believable near fall because of who WALTER is. His left handed chops were still tough, but nowhere near the right handed quality. He sold Thatcher’s armbar like his title reign was over, but managed to escape. In the end, Thatcher got his hands up to block a chop, so WALTER just CHOPPED HIM IN THE FACE INSTEAD! That was one of the wildest things I saw all year. Shortly after, WALTER ended this with a powerbomb after 21:39. I love that this didn’t rely on near fall shock value as there were barely any until the end. They knew it would take a lot to beat their partner. Violent, dramatic, and the best match in PROGRESS history. [****¾]

6. Unsanctioned Match: Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa – NXT TakeOver: New Orleans 4/7/18

With about a year of build, there may not have been a more anticipated match in 2018. Watching as Tommaso Ciampa came out with no music and have a chorus of boos rained down on him was the perfect start for this. He was our hated villain and Johnny Gargano was our hero. Despite this going 37:00, there was no wasted motion. It also never felt like they were going this long for the sake of it or to pump up star ratings. They hit each other with stiff strikes, brought weapons into play, and threw their best offense at one another. Even the weapons used, like the crutch, had backstory to it. The spot where Gargano took a suplex off the announce table remains hard to watch. I appreciated the old school use of things like the exposed concrete. Ciampa was a masterful villain in this. It was a sign of things to come in 2018. The little elements like clapping on offense or bringing back the #DIY taunt before hitting the knee. He gets it. Gargano used Ciampa’s knee brace for some brutal offense, but stopped just short of ending his friend. He looked at a sad Ciampa and couldn’t bring himself to do it. This was his best friend. They sat next to each other like all their other matches, but Johnny had learned. He avoided the sneak attack and rolled into the Gargano Escape, which then transitioned to an STF with the knee brace for leverage to win. If I had to nitpick, they did go a bit overboard once or twice (the avalanche Project Ciampa near fall for example), but I liked this even more the second time. The wrestling was top notch, but the story elements from throughout their history made it special. [****¾]

5. Aleister Black vs. Johnny Gargano – NXT TakeOver: War Games 11/17/18

There are times when Johnny Gargano can overact. With that small criticism out of the way, I feel that he nailed every little aspect of this match. The issues with Tommaso Ciampa drove him to a dark place. It made him attack Aleister Black and put him on the shelf. Many expected him to come in and get his ass kicked for his actions. Instead, we witnessed something of an evil genius in this one. He got in Aleister’s head by stealing his cross legged sitting pose. From there, he continued to stick and move, always finding himself one step ahead of the former NXT Champion. Gargano was willing to go the extra mile and do whatever it took to win this match. He tried everything during the 18:09 runtime. When he got in true trouble, he begged off and apologized. He left himself open for the Black Mass, only to dodge and go for a cheap rollup right into the Gargano Escape. It was a last ditch effort to be a sneaky little shit. Aleister survived that and hit the Black Mass. A beaten Johnny fell onto Aleister’s chest, only being held up by him. Aleister absolved Gargano of his sins and drilled him with another Black Mass to win. The storytelling in this was off the charts. Probably the best anywhere this year. [****¾]

4. Hiromu Takahashi vs. Taiji Ishimori – NJPW Best of the Super Juniors 6/4/18

When it was announced that Bone Soldier was returning to NJPW, people groaned. Dubbed “Boner” by Bullet Club teammate Kenny Omega, he was a source of bad matches when he was around. So, when it was revealed that the new Bone Soldier was actually Pro Wrestling NOAH standout Taiji Ishimori, it was a nice surprise. He won the A Block of the Best of the Super Juniors, setting up a clash with the best junior heavyweight on the planet, Hiromu Takahashi. This first time ever matchup shattered expectations. When Hiromu waged war with El Desperado in Korakuen Hall in the tournament, they fought into the crowd for a wild match. This had a similar feel, with some early brawling out there. Once Hiromu took a rana down a flight of stairs, it set the tone that this was going to be something to behold. It was the Hiromu Takahashi special. Two guys just throwing their bodies at each other in absurd fashion and leaving the viewer breathless. One thing that helped this stand out from other long NJPW main events (this one went 34:09) was how organically it built. It never felt like time was just being filled. People seem to think I don’t like long matches, but I actually really like them. If they make sense. This one had highs and lows that were perfectly built. There was a ton of drama and emotion throughout. To win, Hiromu countered the Bloody Cross and used a combo of his triangle choke and the Time Bomb to win. Hiromu is just the best, isn’t he? [****¾]

3. WWE Smackdown Women’s Championship TLC Match: Becky Lynch [c] vs. Asuka vs. Charlotte – WWE TLC 12/16/18

There was absolutely a big fight feel here, giving this a unique atmosphere. The women were not only put into their first TLC match, but given a PPV main event and delivered big time. At no point did this slow down or feel boring. They went all out for the entire duration. All three women took MAJOR bumps. Charlotte nearly had her ribs crushed by a Becky senton off a ladder through a table. I thought she was legitimately hurt, but she was up shortly after and wrecking everything. She hit a somersault through a table on Becky and speared Asuka through the guardrail. On that note, I loved the barricade spot in this one as it felt more realistic than the one we usually get. The “C” in this TLC seemed to stand for canes, as the women used kendo sticks often. It made sense since that was part of their build more than chairs. The match was brutal, laid out brilliantly, kept escalating, and had a MOLTEN crowd throughout. After a handful of teases for each winner, Becky and Charlotte battled atop a ladder. Out came Ronda Rousey to tip their ladder over and send them crashing to the floor. I love that Ronda didn’t do anything else. Short and simple. Asuka climbed and won the title at 22:31. A top five TLC and top five women’s match I can recall. From a booking standpoint, it was phenomenal as well, with Asuka getting the big win, while her opponents stayed strong and keep their feud with Ronda going. [****¾]

2. Chicago Street Fight: Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa – NXT TakeOver: Chicago 6/16/18

I could literally just write, “Take what worked about their New Orleans match and amplify it” and that would be fitting. But, I’m here to write, so I’ll go into more detail. They hit each other harder this time around. They added more story elements from their history. The drama and emotion were kicked up a notch. It’s insane to work a stipulation so similar to the previous match, yet deliver something so different. While they still used weapons that fit their storyline, this fight revved things up and brought others into play like the steel steps, trash cans, and the exposed ring. But this truly took off because of the callbacks. This being in Chicago, where Ciampa first turned on Johnny, they redid that moment by the stage. Then, you had Ciampa removing Johnny’s wedding ring to spit at it, only for Johnny to hit him with the Air Raid Crash off the stage, similar to what Ciampa did a year earlier. Incredible. Just when it seemed like the medics and officials would take Ciampa out on a stretcher, Gargano snapped and brought him to the ring for more of a beating. It was violent. He was a man possessed. It ultimately cost him, as he took a surprise DDT from Ciampa onto the exposed part of the ring at 35:27. They somehow bested their last match with one filled with emotion and drama. These guys are special. [*****]

1. NXT Championship: Andrade Almas [c] vs. Johnny Gargano – NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia 1/27/18

A mere 27 days into 2018, the match of the year award was locked up. Andrade Almas and Johnny Gargano put together something truly special. I took extra long writing this piece because it’s honestly hard to put into words what this match means to me. Almas had gone from bust to champion, while Gargano was in the midst of a redemption story following the heartbreaking split of #DIY in 2017. Everything the brand did over the previous few months built to this. Almas threw his entire arsenal at Gargano, wanting to prove that he belonged atop NXT. Johnny survived it all in an effort to prove he was truly past the Tommaso Ciampa situation that helped cost him against Almas the previous August. Zelina Vega was her usual incredible self. Her interference spots were expertly timed, not overdone, and provided perfect emotion. When Candice LeRae hopped the guardrail to finally stop her, you could feel the momentum shift. And yet, Johnny still couldn’t get it done. Almas got more brutal with his manager out of the picture. The running double knees into the ring post was one of the hardest spots of the year. Gargano looked like a battered and beaten man by the end of it all. To punctuate it all, Almas hit a hanging hammerlock DDT and retained in 32:32. Honestly, that’s everything I want in pro wrestling. It was long, yet everything mattered and felt like it belonged in the match. It was emotional, dramatic, fluid, told a story. I could go on and on. I’m not overselling it when I say that this is one of the three greatest matches I have ever seen. [*****]