If at the beginning of 2015 the disgruntled wrestling fan had been told that John Cena would fail to get his hands on the WWE World Heavyweight Championship once over the proceeding twelve months, that Seth Rollins instead would reign with the belt for much of the year, that Dean Ambrose would main event PPVs, Kevin Owens receive a main roster push, and 2015 also see a ‘Divas Revolution’ inspired by the women from NXT, that discontented fan may well have rejoiced and salivated, needing napkins or chicken wings to sop up or satiate the excess moistness.
All of the above occurred, but still 2015 was a disappointing and frustrating year for WWE. It started in the worst possible way at the Royal Rumble, where for the second year in a row fans left their seats and switched off their television sets in anger, after an untimely Rumble victory for Roman Reigns. The fallout lasted until WrestleMania 31, where Seth Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to snatch the title from Brock Lesnar and temporarily halt Reigns’ pursuit.
While it would be unfair to suggest that the spectre of Reigns’ stalled push hung over the main event, Rollins seemed to make a success of his lengthy title run in spite rather than because of the booking, producing some fantastic matches with Dean Ambrose but having to endure convoluted finishes and meandering feuds against Randy Orton, Lesnar, Cena, Sting, and Kane, until a knee injury in November ruled him out of action and paved the way for a new imperium. An insipid title tournament and a squabble with Sheamus were hardly the ways to endear Reigns to the crowd, and while excitement built towards the end of the year, there was still the sense that an all-conquering Roman will not prove sustainable, neither for the sake of his opponents nor in terms of compelling character development.
Meanwhile John Cena was meant to bring prestige to a secondary title in the United States Championship, but while his open challenges on RAW received plenty of acclaim, by the end of the year both the US and the Intercontinental belts had stagnated as WWE continued to fail to elevate new stars. There were plenty of chances to set this right. But Dolph Ziggler never came close to recapturing the high of 2014’s Survivor Series, Rusev slumbered after Cena forced him to absentmindedly shout ‘I quit!’, Ambrose waned when he couldn’t best Rollins, and Cesaro was worked to the point of injury just as it seemed he might swing his way to the top. When Bray Wyatt accosted The Undertaker in October at Hell in a Cell, his natural progression as the face of darkness for a new generation seemed assured. Alas he and his Wyatt family were annihilated by an ageing Brothers of Destruction, and had to scamper back to their barn with their tails firmly between their legs.
We had to turn to NXT for the best of wrestling in 2015, and it delivered on every front. A personal issue between Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens brought the NXT Championship sizzling into the Floridian new year, and following a tournament in memory of Dusty Rhodes, by the year’s end at TakeOver: London the tag division was hotter than ever. Yet for much of 2015 it was the women who blazed the trail for NXT. After Sasha Banks finally overcame Charlotte and Becky Lynch to earn the NXT Women’s Championship, Bayley’s efforts to realise a lifelong goal culminated in two breathtaking bouts against Banks, with the remainder of the year bearing witness to the rise of Asuka.
Of course on the main show, Charlotte, Becky, and Sasha were thrown into loosely drawn factions as the ‘Divas’ continued to play second fiddle. But 2015 ought nevertheless to be remembered as a vital year for women’s wrestling. And whatever ups and downs WWE as a whole enjoyed and endured, there was no shortage of great matches. Here are ten or so of the year’s best.
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Asuka vs. Emma (with Dana Brooke) | NXT TakeOver: London
After making her NXT debut in September, London was the site of Asuka’s second TakeOver, and against a resurgent Emma she faced arguably her sternest test to date. Following a blistering start to the match, which featured a running hip attack off the ring apron, Emma attempted to wear her opponent down with elbows, kicks, and submission holds, stifling an Asuka flurry with a double underhook suplex into the turnbuckle and a low splash. But a German suplex turned the tide in Asuka’s favour, and though underhand tactics and Dana Brooke’s meddling twice interrupted the Asuka Lock – and briefly threatened Asuka with disqualification, when a foreign object introduced by Brooke ended up in her hands – a stiff kick gave Asuka the 1-2-3.
While a couple of months earlier Sasha Banks and Bayley had been given the more obvious honour of headlining TakeOver: Respect, Asuka vs. Emma was the first time two women had opened an NXT special. Spurred by Asuka’s popularity and a sometimes frenetic pace, they proved more than capable of firing up a crowd. The match furthered Asuka’s rise, while showing a new side to her character, forced to recover after sustained aggression from the impressive Emma.
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Randy Orton vs. Sheamus | WWE Battleground
Sometimes surprises can come where you least expect them: as the opener to Battleground, Randy Orton vs. Sheamus seemed a solid bet, but also something thrown together and unlikely to provide much in the way of excitement, a match we had surely already seen too many times before. Yet the two men put on a fantastic display aided by the support of the crowd in Orton’s wrestling hometown of St. Louis, backbreakers and big knees allowing Sheamus to dictate the middle of a long match, which lasted more than sixteen minutes. Sheamus twice escaped the RKO, and looked to put Orton away with a Brogue Kick, but when Orton rolled out of trouble then escaped the Texas Cloverleaf, an RKO out of nothing made for a happy homecoming.
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Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson (c) vs. Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady (with Carmella) (for the NXT Tag Team Championships) | NXT TakeOver: London
It might seem unfair that of the various NXT matches to make this list, none come from the main event, but in one sense this is really a compliment. We already expect a high standard from the likes of Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Kevin Owens, and Sami Zayn – all luminaries on the independent circuit and in other promotions before their arrivals in NXT – and in truth 2015 was a transitional year for the NXT Championship, Balor seizing the belt after Owens and Neville had been promoted to the main roster, and Zayn and Hideo Itami had suffered long-term injuries. Balor’s title bouts against Apollo Crows on weekly television and against Joe at TakeOver: London could easily have made this list.
But Dash and Dawson vs. Enzo and Big Cass was something different, an exciting showcase for an emergent tag division, whose depth had only been discovered a couple of months previously during the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic memorial tournament. Enzo and Cass’s earnest delivery of their charismatic New York City catchphrases had the overseas crowd enraptured even before the two teams locked up. A hot tag allowed Cass to unload before Dawson targeted his injured knee, and though a Rocket Launcher – with Cass propelling Enzo off the top rope onto a fallen Wilder – left Enzo a fraction of a second from victory when he was rudely pulled from the ring, the Shatter Machine flapjack into a double-knee facebreaker meant Dash and Dawson retained their belts. The match offered some excellent back and forth, and Dash and Dawson were classic heels while encouraging the crowd’s sympathies towards an eventual Enzo and Cass title run.
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Brock Lesnar (with Paul Heyman) vs. The Undertaker (Hell in a Cell match) | WWE Hell in a Cell
The third and decisive match in the series between Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker was the best by some margin, a bloody battle whose realism was only enhanced by the intrusion of a doctor, who twice sought to wipe away Lesnar’s blood, only to be sent sprawling from the ring. Lesnar laid waste to The Undertaker with chair shots to the back, with a chair driven rudely into his gullet, and with a series of German suplexes. Taker survived two F5s, but Lesnar faded sharply when locked in the Hell’s Gate, eventually managing to pummel his way out of danger.
The finish to the match was slightly surreal, a creative shift that pulled in the audience as Lesnar tore the canvas open from its centre, exposing the wooden boards underneath. Taker was the first to capitalise with a chokeslam and a Tombstone, but a low blow – fair payback for events at SummerSlam – and a third F5 gave Lesnar the pinfall victory. After the match the cell was raised and Taker acknowledged his opponent, but then the lights went out: a thrilling end to Hell in a Cell and a shift in the order of WWE which seemed set to establish Bray Wyatt, only for the opportunity to be squandered.
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Dean Ambrose vs. Dolph Ziggler (WWE World Heavyweight Championship tournament match) | RAW 16.11.15
Perhaps on paper it is unclear whether these two fit: both rely on spurts of momentum, and as faces spend much of their time on the back foot, while Ambrose does not boast a brand of offence which requires Ziggler’s sometimes overzealous selling, and wrestles an unorthodox style that not everyone suits. There were some excellent matches across November as part of the world title tournament – Cesaro and Sheamus had been fantastic the week before – and it would have been easy to expect a frenzied attempt to compete. Instead Ambrose and Ziggler took their tournament match as the opportunity for something unique, excelling in a slow paced, catch-style encounter, replete with steady holds, swift reversals, narrow evasions, and brief forays to the outside, Ambrose eventually progressing by means of a Dirty Deeds.
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The New Day (Big E and Kofi Kingston with Xavier Woods) (c) vs. Tyson Kidd and Cesaro (with Natalya) (2-out-of-3 falls match for the WWE Tag Team Championships) | WWE Payback
It is no exaggeration to suggest that for a large part of 2015, at least as far as entertainment goes, The New Day carried WWE. But they were given the best possible base thanks to a series of matches for the tag titles with Tyson Kidd and Cesaro. If The New Day cover all the talents – Big E’s strength complementing Kofi Kingston’s speed and agility, with Xavier Woods more methodical in the ring and the key figure on the mic – while harking back to three-man teams of old like The Freebirds, Tyson Kidd and Cesaro were – before Kidd’s devastating spinal injury – a traditional little man/big man combo with a twist, Kidd relying more on technical wrestling than flights through the air, while Cesaro is remarkably agile for a powerhouse of 6 feet and 5 inches.
With Kidd and Cesaro the reigning champions, The New Day had been in the title mix from the turn of the year, but only grabbed the belts at Extreme Rules at the end of April. The following month at Payback they defended in a 2-out-of-3 falls match which stole the show. The teams traded two high energy falls via their double-team finishers, the Cesaro Swing into a dropkick and facebuster into a diving DDT, before Woods stole the victory for his team. Sneaking into the ring in the guise of Kofi, he rolled Cesaro up in a small package and hastily escaped with the gold.
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Roman Reigns vs. Daniel Bryan (to determine the number one contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship) | WWE Fastlane
Roman Reigns may be overly reliant on his Superman punch and spear, but wrestling is the least of his problems: his in-ring work always shows plenty of commitment, and alongside Daniel Bryan at Fastlane he achieved one of the matches of the year. It was only moderately successful as an attempt to mollify the crowd after the Royal Rumble, but aside from demonstrating some of Reigns’ better attributes, it afforded us an all-too-rare opportunity in 2015 to see Daniel Bryan in action, which is enough to warrant the match its place high up on this list.
In the early going Reigns sought to overpower his opponent, but when Bryan took control and cinched in the Yes Lock Reigns barely managed to make it to the ropes. Rolling to the outside, Bryan performed two suicide dives in succession, but Reigns caught a third and delivered a big suplex as both men struggled to return to the ring. They kicked out of each other’s finishing moves – Reigns becoming in the process the first man to kick out of Bryan’s running knee – and when Bryan looked to follow up a flurry of stiff kicks with a second knee strike, Reigns surprised him with a spear, which proved enough to secure the pinfall and his place in the main event of WrestleMania 31.
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Sasha Banks (c) vs. Becky Lynch (for the NXT Women’s Championship) | NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable
This mat-based war of attrition, with chokeholds and armbars punctuated by high spots in the form of Lynch’s numerous suplex variations and a Banks dive to the outside, could not compete on an emotional level with Sasha’s later bouts against Bayley, but on its own terms, it was an equally accomplished wrestling match. At the end of this gruelling affair, Sasha prevailed with a superplex and a Bank Statement, her bridging crossface forcing Lynch to submit. Sasha embodies her character like few others in the history of wrestling, and as the keenest of storytellers, she continued to sell Lynch’s work on her left arm even as the referee went to raise it in victory.
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Seth Rollins (c) vs. Dean Ambrose (Ladder match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship) | WWE Money in the Bank
Rollins squeaked through Elimination Chamber with the world title belt, only retaining when he was disqualified for pulling together Ambrose and the referee: an absurdity in so far as the official’s decision only punished Ambrose, who in the meantime had secured the pinfall after a Dirty Deeds. The sequel a month later at Money in the Bank was more convincing all round, a freewheeling epic which lasted more than thirty-five minutes and seemed a clear case of two wrestlers being given a bit of leeway and showing an overwhelming desire to impress.
Rollins consistently worked over Ambrose’s left knee, and as the challenger struggled for movement, the match became increasingly vicious. Ambrose threw a chair at Rollins’ head as the champion climbed the turnbuckle, then took to the announce table where he nailed a Dirty Deeds, but Rollins recovered with a trio of running powerbombs, the last of which saw both men crash down onto the cold of a ladder atop concrete. Back in the ring another ladder was set up, and as they climbed and fell in harmony it was Rollins who held on, clutching in mid air for possession of the strap.
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Sasha Banks (c) vs. Bayley (for the NXT Women’s Championship) | NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn
Bayley (c) vs. Sasha Banks (30-minute Iron Man Match for the NXT Women’s Championship) | NXT TakeOver: Respect
The history between Sasha Banks and Bayley extended back a tumultuous two years by the time they came face to face in Brooklyn in August. They had exchanged victories from the outset of their careers in NXT, with the manipulative Banks occasionally trying to woo Bayley, but more often resorting to surprise attacks. Yet beyond Banks’ ruthless will to win and Bayley’s relentless optimism, the two share in more areas than they differ: both underdogs, initially contending outside of the NXT limelight, who have sheltered hopes of bringing the best to women’s wrestling ever since their early teens. All of their hopes, dreams, and moments of professional anguish came to bear in their two matches for the NXT Women’s Championship.
Objectively perhaps the Brooklyn bout was the better match, but both were nigh on perfect, ruggedly detailed, expertly constructed from start to finish, and emotionally whole. Inside the capacity Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Banks and Bayley brawled and grappled on the mat and in the turnbuckle, with Sasha landing her diving double-knee drop from the top rope, before pinching Bayley’s injured hand between the ring apron and steel steps. With every stride and step both women showed remarkable nuance, levering for position, stamping on hands and clawing at faces as they attempted to lock in submission holds. Finally Bayley fought her way back, reversing the Bank Statement to wild cheers, and grasping the gold with an explosive modified hurricanrana followed by a Bayley-to-Belly suplex for the 1-2-3.
At the right time in Brooklyn, with the meaning the match held for both competitors plain to see, Sasha let down her guard, embracing Bayley after the bell. Their follow up at TakeOver: Respect was a consolidation of Bayley’s success and a fond farewell to NXT from Banks – though as WWE’s consummate stylist, she marked the occasion with some of her finest work as a heel, refusing any show of friendship, and reducing Bayley’s young fan Izzy to tears when she tossed her idol into a video board, stole Izzy’s headband, and mockingly wore it before flinging it back, full of spite, towards the front row. The climax of years of mutual endeavour, this match also brought a series of firsts: for the first time two women headlined a major WWE event, and as the first women’s match to carry an Iron Man stipulation, its thirty-minute duration would inevitably make it also the longest women’s match in the history of WWE.
The length meant that the match proceeded in phases, an early sequence of catch wrestling culminating in quick pinfalls after an eye poke and a Bayley-to-Belly. A vicious brawl on the arena floor saw Sasha regain the advantage, when Bayley was left strewn in the entryway as the referee counted to ten. But when Sasha looked for a second Boston crab in the centre of the ring after working Bayley’s back, Bayley flipped her over and held on to tie the match at 2-2 with twelve minutes remaining.
Both athletes upped the aggression, and just as their energies appeared to be spent, Sasha took a hurricanrana but landed on her feet, delivering a belly-to-belly suplex of her own and seguing swiftly into the Bank Statement. Yet the strains of the match, and a targeted attack on the hand by Bayley, left Sasha unable to exert full pressure on her opponent’s neck. When Bayley slammed her fingers into the canvas, she was belatedly forced to break the submission, and the two women rose to their feet with just thirty seconds left on the clock. Sasha went once more for the Bank Statement, but Bayley reversed, and wrenched on Sasha’s shoulder and tore at her injured hand, compelling Sash to tap in the final seconds of this groundbreaking, supremely memorable match, easily fit to stand alongside the best that any wrestling promotion has ever offered. If WWE has enough sense to repeat the adventure, we should be in for an epochal main event come WrestleMania 33.