Friday, January 29, 2016

Lucha Underground returns with style

This past Wednesday, Lucha Underground returned with all the flair it set up in season one for a revitalized, more focused season two on El Rey Network. The television based project has been truly unique among wrestling companies, focused solely on making what has already been called by some (including myself) as some of the very finest televised wrestling ever made. The Temple is a set unique in its own right and the cast of luchadores that populate it are some of the best professional wrestlers anywhere in the world.

Season Two picks up with the reopening of the Temple, now controlled by Catrina. Her chosen champion Mil Muertes sits in judgment over the roster, high in his throne atop the Temple, watching over the action. But he also joined the action on Wednesday night as well.

Mil Muertes sits in judgment over the temple. Image credit: Lucha Underground.
The show kicked off with Vampiro in a mental hospital, recovering from the break that brought him into an unholy war with Pentagon Jr at the end of season one. Matt Striker pulls him from his stay and invites him back to the reopened Temple, now far darker under the controls of Catrina, Mil and the Disciples of Death.

The action kicks off with Fenix defending his Gift of the Gods title in a match that came to a shocking end. In a highly competitive battle with King Cuerno, the nefarious hunter played things fair and straight, winning a clean encounter with Fenix and taking the title that offers an automatic title shot against Mil Muertes. But it seemed a fix was in, as Cuerno has cut some kind of deal with Catrina to protect Mil from the Gift of the Gods title being used against him.

The second of the evening's three matches brought the former Trios champions back, but Catrina pitted them against one another for a shot at Mil Muertes' Lucha Underground title in the main event of the evening. Angelico, Son of Havoc and Ivelisse all wanted a shot at the gold, but it was ultimately the scrappy Puerto Rican that beat her two male comrades to earn her shot against Mil.

But any thought of aid against the numbers game wasn't to come for Ivelisse. The Disciples of Death appeared and swarmed the ring, beating down Son of Havoc and Angelico and dragging them from The Temple floor. A tired Ivelisse was forced to fight the fresh Mil on her own. She fought valiantly but her size, her lost stamina and interference by Catrina were enough to allow Mil to pick up the win and retain his belt.

But Catrina wasn't done with her nemesis. She ordered Mil to decimate Ivelisse with another flatliner. Before that could happen though, Prince Puma made his return, knocking Mil away and escaping the ring with Ivelisse safe. Yet, Prince Puma did not come against the combined forces of Catrina alone.

As The Temple went insane, Pentagon Jr hit the ring and laid out Mil with a backstabber. As the chants of Cero Miedo rang down on the ring, he used his Fujiwara armbar to snap the arm of the Lucha Underground champion in the middle of the ring.

It was a show that was hard not to feel goosebumps by the hour's end. And that is the power of Lucha Underground. It's an hour of compelling television every week wrapped up by some of the best wrestling action on the planet. The action is intense and the storytelling never fails to shine through.

And even as the show came to an end, Dario Cueto and Black Lotus made their return with their own alternate Temple, one that seems designed to feed the bloodlust of Matanza. What this means for Catrina's future or the future of the true Temple will surely be revealed as the new season continues over the winter and spring.

Catch Lucha Underground every Wednesday on El Rey Network. Non-cable subscribers (like yours truly) can watch it every week through the Sling service, which also gives free replays of past episodes.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Figured Out: Shinsuke Nakamura in plastic form

I have a love for action figures and statuettes. Always have, probably always will. Japan has a love for ultra detailed figures and statues of their own right. Last year, New Japan Pro Wrestling once again got in on the action as they debuted the Purokaku Heroes series with Kazuchika Okada.

Now NJPW has the second figure in that line coming soon, even though he won't be with New Japan for much longer. Just last night the announcement was made that he will debut for NXT against Sami Zayn at Takeover: Dallas, just before Wrestlemania.

The new Shinsuke Nakamura figure comes in his red leather attire that he's made famous as the King of Strong Style. And while like the Okada figure, he isn't poseable, he should look dominant when placed next door to the slightly shorter WWE figures.

While I am generally not one to shy away from import toys, Nakamura isn't going to come cheap. While available from Diamond Distribution (the guys that deliver to comic shops), his estimated retail is around $54. While I suspect a few hardcore fans might not be able to resist, he is well out of my price range.

Check with your local comics provider, if you're interested in ordering a Nakamura of your own.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Top 10 Wrestlers of WWE, January 2016 edition

Another pay-per-view is in the rear view and that can only mean one thing: it is time to look at the top wrestlers of the last month in WWE.

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  1. The League of Nations: Previously listed individually, the unit of Sheamus, Rusev and Alberto Del Rio are actually coming together nicely as a team. They probably should start picking up wins though if they are going to be treated as anything other than jobbers though. (7/3)
  2. The Wyatt Family: They dominated Brock Lesnar on Raw and at the Royal Rumble. Bray Wyatt and his proteges even have stood up to the face of The Authority. It is an intriguing time for the cult-like stable, one that should lead them to higher places on this list before year's end.  (2/4)
  3. Kevin Owens: He lost to Dean Ambrose and was booted from the Rumble by Sami Zayn, but Owens looked like a million bucks at the paye-per-view nonetheless, even eliminating newcomer AJ Styles. Hopefully Owens/Styles will be on WWE television very soon as it could potentially blow the roof off the house. (8/4)
  4. Sasha Banks: She made a (Banks) statement at Royal Rumble and hopefully set up a three or four way Divas match at Wrestlemania in the process. One can expect a compelling title match between her and Charlotte at Fastlane, but whether or not WWE is ready for the title to change hands yet remains to be seen. (10/2)
  5. Charlotte: Her heel turn and alliance with dear old dad has lit a fire under her that hasn't been seen since her days as NXT Women's Champion. She has put on great performances against Becky Lynch that hopefully will set up something great in the next two months with feuds against Becky, Sasha, Paige or maybe even... Bayley! (6/3)
  6. The New Day: While Big E, Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods may not have had as strong a January as they have previous months, interactions with the Rock and another win over the Usos have kept them in the spotlight. (3/4)
  7. AJ Styles: Just the mention of his name gets a bigger pop than anyone else on the roster. Styles in WWE is huge news and he's already made an impact with a great Royal Rumble performance and a solid win over Chris Jericho, one of several first time ever matches coming from Styles on the roster. (U/1)
  8. Roman Reigns: WWE booked him to get booed at Royal Rumble, but were at least smart enough not to bring the match down to just him and Triple H. He is currently walking a fine line right now. He's got the talent to get over, but WWE's willingness to push him down everyone's throats may end up costing them any chance to get him over as a babyface. (1/4)
  9. Dean Ambrose: After an amazing performance in the Last Man Standing match to kick off Royal Rumble, he put on a stellar show in the final match as well. Ambrose has everything but the company's backing to get over as a major star the world over. He seems destined to be stuck in the Shawn Michaels role from '91 to '95, where it seemed like he can never quite get to the title. (4/2)
  10. Triple H: I had doubts I would ever put his name on this list, but now he's debuting as number one and the new WWE World Heavyweight Champion. While I am not sure having him win was really what was best for business going into Wrestlemania, he put on a strong showing in the Rumble and seems poised to once again waste ten to twenty minutes at the front of Raw for months to come. (U/1)
Expect to see this a lot in the coming weeks. Image credit:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Many Names of Doc Gallows

While rumors twirl that Doc Gallows will join his NJPW Bullet Club mate AJ Styles in WWE soon, one must remember this is far from Gallows' first foray into the land of Vince McMahon. In fact, Gallows made it on to television with the company with three different gimmicks over the year, plus a pair of others in OVW. So I thought it might be interesting to look at the long history of identities that led up to Doc Gallows in the Bullet Club.

Born Drew Hankinson, he started out on the indies in the early 2000s wrestling under a mask under a few different names including Dargon. He picked up the name Dorian Deville when he unmasked and that was the name he brought with him to the WWE developmental territory Deep South Wrestling.
Yep, bad occult gimmick.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Royal Rumble in review

WWE knew from the get go that this year was built around the main event even more than previous years. With nearly an hour and fifteen minutes devoted to the Royal Rumble itself, the other matches were treated more like lead up than anything else. Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose put on a compelling Last Man Standing match while Kalisto shocked Alberto Del Rio yet again to become a two time United States champion. The New Day pulled out a win over the Usos while Ric Flair's interference yet again allowed Charlotte to beat Becky Lynch. In fact, the only really interesting thing to happen on the undercard was the return of Sasha Banks to absolutely brutalize Charlotte post-match.

This was a beautiful thing to see after the Divas match.
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But the story of the night was really all about the Rumble. With Roman Reigns in at number one and defending his WWE World Heavyweight title in the process, he had everything to lose against 29 other men. But after eliminating the #2 entrant Rusev, Reigns got his first big surprise of the night in the form of a man rumored to make his WWE debut for weeks now: AJ Styles.

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Styles wasn't the only surprise of the night however. While he was eliminated a bit earlier than one might expect, by none other than Kevin Owens (who awesomely mocked Styles' pose after the throw out), Owens had his own run ins after already taking a beating in the Last Man Standing match that kicked off the show. First Dean Ambrose followed immediately after his entry, then Sami Zayn made his return to the WWE roster to eliminate his rival from a shot at the WWE title.

The League of Nations attacked Roman Reigns mid-match in perhaps the dumbest mugging in the history of professional wrestling. They brutalized him three on one and put him through a table, but they didn't roll him back in the ring to be eliminated. Instead they let him walk to the back where he could rest up and recoup for the end of the event.

The combined Wyatt Family were not as foolish though. After Braun Strowman single handedly eliminated both Big Show and Kane, he ran head long into a Beast Incarnate. Brock Lesnar eliminated Strowman, Erick Rowan and Luke Harper before Bray Wyatt could even reach the ring, but he couldn't stop them from returning for a four on one beatdown. Even Lesnar couldn't take down the entire unit, who eliminated him en masse. Conveniently, his elimination also allowed both him and Reigns to never share the ring for even a second, sparing a future main event match.

To no one's surprise, the final surprise entrant was #30: Triple H. He followed #29 Sheamus, a man that was jumped by Roman Reigns on his return to the match. After Triple H entered, Dolph Ziggler was quickly thrown from the ring. With Sheamus still out, he tried to form an alliance with Wyatt, but the cult leader turned on the face of The Authority. Wyatt and Jericho wouldn't last much longer, but after Reigns dumps a returning Sheamus, Triple H grabs him from behind to dump him from the ring and eliminate Reigns' chance to retain his title.

It was down to two men: Dean Ambrose and Triple H. And if anyone has ever watched WWE, only one option for victory remained. Triple H eliminated Ambrose to become a fourteen time WWE World Heavyweight champion.

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While the end wasn't a surprise, the Rumble did accomplish a few things: it gave us a reason to root for Reigns come Wrestlemania as he challenges Triple H. It creates a compelling story to give us reason to watch Wyatt versus Lesnar. The situation between Owens and Zayn also sets up a potential match. Overall, this wasn't the best Royal Rumble ever, but it was far far from the worst. Fans didn't go away with the hatred and disappointment they were left with in 2014 and 2015, plus they were given reason to be intrigued by the road to Wrestlemania.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Royal Rumble Is Here!

As everyone who is a wrestling fan knows by now, tonight is the night Roman Reigns defends his WWE World Heavyweight title against 29 other men in the Royal Rumble match. The WWE got something right this time, creating a lot of rumor and speculation about who is going to come out on top and be crowned the new WWE champion. What makes this match so crazy is that we don't even know exactly who might appear in the Rumble, so it is hard to say who is going to take home the biggest prize in the wrestling business. What I am going to do in this post is look a few possibilities of what MIGHT happen.

TRIPLE H: The Game hasn't been in a match since he defeated Sting last year at Wrestlemania. I think there is a huge chance that he will enter the Rumble and take his revenge on Roman Reigns for his attack a couple months ago. The fact he hasn't appeared at all on Raw since means his return is going to be a big deal and the Rumble makes sense. Also, this might be his last Wrestlemania and if the Game is coming to an end, it would be best for business if he put over the new champion with his final match. The  Game is nothing if not a worker, and he'll work a great run to put Reigns over. This theory makes the most sense based on what they've been doing story wise with Roman and Vince.

DANIEL BRYAN: Here is how it is with Bryan; if he does not return in the Rumble, his career is officially finished in the WWE. If he can't come back now, there is no point in him coming back at all until after Wrestlemania. I don't know the truth of what is going on with him and WWE staff, but this is the time it makes the most sense to come back. He's still on Total Divas, right? So it isn't over yet. But it might be come Monday morning.

AJ STYLES: AJ, or perhaps any of the other new hires, might make an appearance in the Rumble. They won't be given a WM shot so early, but they might start off a new feud with a mid-card talent to build up to a WM appearance. I can see AJ coming in and facing Dolph Ziggler, who seems to be the guy who puts people ever, especially since Tyler Breeze is in the dog house with Vince for leaving a RAW taping early. Either way, him and his crew are coming, its only a matter of when they will appear.

THE ROCK: One thing people are missing here is that Roman Reigns is not technically "alone". His family has worked for Vince for generations and he has cousins everywhere. The Usos have a title match that very night but that doesn't mean they aren't going to be in the Rumble. There have been rumors of the Rock appearing at Wrestlemania. The WWE and the Rock desperately want to reverse the negative showing at the last Rumble that Reigns won, so it is entirely possible that halfway through the Rumble, the most electrifying name in sports entertainment is going to come to the aid of his brother-in-arms, Roman Reigns. Not only would this create a huge story within the Rumble itself but it would be a huge surprise to see the Rock come in to lend a hand. Hell, there are a ton of Samoans who could come to his aid, imagine all of them taking a stand at once?!?

JOSH BREDL: Why is this guy here? Because they are putting him in the Rumble. After calling the Social Outcasts "Social Jobbers" and pissing off Bull Dempsey and Kevin Owens, he was explicitly told by Stardust he would be changing in the hallway and was not welcome backstage. Look for him to take a huge amount of real hits in the Rumble this year. Another Blue Meanie moment, perhaps?

BROCK LESNAR: The chances of Brock Lesnar winning the Royal Rumble are about the same as Kofi Kingston, although for entirely different reasons. Brock doesn't need the Rumble, or the WWE title to sell him to crowds. People love watching the Beast take people to Suplex City, it doesn't matter what the main event roster looks like, Brock is a monster all of his own. The question here is who does the WWE think needs a Beast Push? My money is on Bray Wyatt, but I'd love to see Owens lose his match for the title and take it out on Brock at the Rumble. Imagine Brock getting right up after a pop-up power bomb? Those kinds of feuds are what WWE highlight reels are made of. Owens has had his title shots, but he hasn't shed enough blood in a WWE ring to get the title. A match with Brock could set Owens up for the return of a babyface Seth Rollins.

The Royal Rumble is a perfect opportunity to reboot the story lines for the season finale. Let's see what they do with it!

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Rumble is coming

Look, a billion sites are going to give you a billion numbers about a billion different Royal Rumble facts. I'm not one of those sites. I would rather focus on the matches and what they might mean for the upcoming Wrestlemania season.

The show is always built around one match, but this year that match is even more the focus than ever before. In fact up until the last few days, the 30 man Royal Rumble was the only match on the card. The last few weeks of WWE storytelling have been built around Roman Reigns and his battle with the Authority. Vince McMahon, back on television after nearly five years of irregular appearances, changed the match to put the WWE World Heavyweight title on the line for only the second time in the history of the Rumble event. In addition, it will be the first time anyone has ever defended the title in the Rumble, something WWE has reminded fans of about twenty times per broadcast since the announcement.

While I personally think making the Rumble for the belt isn't the best idea as I would argue that the Rumble is slightly more important than the belt as it is about a main event spot for Wrestlemania for the title, this does create an interesting dynamic. Roman Reigns enters at at the number one spot and has to make it all the way through the match to retain. Now I suppose it is possible WWE will over-push Reigns to the point he makes it through all 29 other men and the Authority's machinations to retain the belt, but I suspect they instead will set up Reigns' Wrestlemania opponent (likely Triple H) with an elimination somewhere mid-match. This could then set up Brock Lesnar to take a long path towards the title only to also be screwed by the eventual winner. Who that winner will be remains more open than in previous years however. Names like Sheamus, Bray Wyatt, Chris Jericho and Dolph Ziggler are already entered, plus with the rumors of an AJ Styles appearance and the always real possibility of a Daniel Bryan return, more potential star spots are opening. With a roster heavily depleted by injury, WWE could take this as a chance to set up a new main event for Brock Lesnar at the biggest show of the year.

The rest of the card is filled out with title matches, a move WWE rarely makes for the Rumble cards. I personally think the Royal Rumble should only ever feature title matches and the Rumble because anyone not trying for another belt should be less concerned with petty rivalries than trying to get their chance at the big prize. Unfortunately, most of those matches are rehashes of previous battles we have seen over recent weeks. Becky Lynch gets another chance at Charlotte's Divas title, Kalisto gets a chance to beat Alberto Del Rio for the US title again, and Kevin Owens challenges Dean Ambrose again in a Last Man Standing match. The Usos and The New Day have been in matches against each other as well, although I believe this is the first time they have wrestled in a 2 on 2 title match.

In fact, the only other match with any bit of intrigue is actually the pre-show match where four teams wrestle for a chance to appear in the Royal Rumble. The Dudley Boyz seem like the immediate favorite over The Ascension and the unit of Mark Henry and Jack Swagger, but I am holding out hope that the completely thrown together unit of Darren Young and Damien Sandow pick up the win. Sandow has been gone from television for too long and a good showing in the Rumble would be a great way to reinvigorate his character and hopefully start a good push for one of the roster's most under-utilized stars.

Honestly, I am just happy to be excited about a Rumble match for the first time in quite awhile. The last two years have been woeful disappointments, something WWE has to know. For that reason, I suspect the Rumble to open up several new storylines for what may be the strangest major event in WWE history: Wrestlemania 32.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Top 10 Wrestlers of New Japan Pro Wrestling for January 2016

With Wrestle Kingdom 10 in the past, Shinsuke Nakamura's removal as Intercontinental champion and a shake up already in place, the roster of New Japan Pro Wrestling is definitely in flux. But that won't stop me from bringing the second edition of the NJPW Top 10 list for this spot between the January 4th supershow and The New Beginning events in mid-February.

So without any further ado, on to the list!

Nakamura no longer holds this belt, but he's leaving New Japan with a great
sendoff during the CMLL FantasticMania events. Image credit: NJPW.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Jim Ross is a downgrade for NJPW on AXS

Image credit: Fox Sports.
I am not a regular viewer of New Japan's year old English broadcasts on AXS mostly because I do not have a cable subscription so therefore I have no access to AXS. (Yes, I am proud of that pun.) But I have caught a few episodes whether at a family member's house or during my post-neck surgery hospital stay last summer. And Josh Barnett is far from the reason the commentary on the show is compelling. Mauro Ranallo was the sole reason it is worth listening to the action as much as it is watching it.

Of course, Ranallo is now the voice of Smackdown and in two weeks, he has already added a great sport-centric feel to that program. Personally, I think he has already upped the game of both Byron Saxton and Jerry Lawler as well in just that short period of time. And when AXS needed a replacement, they tapped a man that last called a wrestling match at New Japan's Wrestle Kingdom 9 just over a year ago.

But fans that watched that program know that "Good Ol' J.R." was not at his best. He couldn't keep up with the pace of the show, nor did he seem comfortable back in his old role. Color commentator Matt Striker ended up carrying most of the program, which probably is the reason he continues to travel to Japan to call major NJPW events on their NJPW World international broadcasts.

Of course, the AXS tapings have the advantage of being recorded months ahead of time (which is why Ranallo will continue to appear on broadcasts until the end of February.) Ross will have multiple takes to get his recording right and can go back and fix some of the moves he misses. But even so, I cannot imagine him calling with the power Ranallo did during his broadcasts with Barnett. Ranallo has a knack for making sport broadcasting look easy, whether it is boxing, MMA or professional wrestling.

That is not to say Jim Ross as part of NJPW on AXS will hurt the program. I highly doubt that as the action he's calling is already some of the best in the world. While he may be a bit past his prime compared to the man he is replacing, J.R. still has plenty of good years ahead of him. At least he now has someplace to broadcast his play by play once again.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

POP is good for TNA, but is it enough?

Drew Galloway is just one of several stars with a huge upside for TNA, but
only if TNA spends the time to book them as the hot young talent they are.
The first two episodes of Impact Wrestling on POP TV offered solid wrestling entertainment with some solid talents whether it be from veteran Kurt Angle, journeyman Drew Galloway or TNA originals like Bobby Roode and James Storm (now reunited as Beer Money.) The company seems to be forming a talent pool that will support them moving forward, framed around Ethan Carter III, the former Derrick Bateman who has become a true superstar since his move to the closest thing WWE has to a competitor.

But despite strong matches from the above plus the likes of the Beautiful People, The Dollhouse, The Wolves, Tigre Uno and more, the company still seems scared of innovation. The focus in the main event continues to be a younger homegrown star versus an industry veteran, even when that veteran is as past his prime as Matt Hardy.

And because of their lack of innovation with their cast, it often feels like much of their talent isn't all that important. Sure EC3, the Hardys and Angle are huge stars, but everyone else ends up feeling like they're just filler for the stuff TNA management cares about. An excessive focus on the main event picture has been a problem in WWE sometimes as well, but two weeks into the new show, every thing not involving the four men above just seems thrown together.

The sad part is that it doesn't have to be this way. They've got Dave Lagana on the writing staff alongside Billy Corgan. He has a history of crafting solid scripted television, the kind of clever writing that Lucha Underground has every week. While the title holders may not even be featured on every episode, the writers behind Lucha Underground understand that making sure every feud they develop feels important, whether it belongs at the bottom of the card or at the top. They fill the rest of the show with multi-talent matches or create random challenges thrown out by owner Dario Cueto to keep the progression moving. It's simple booking, but when the focus is quality weekly serialized television, it helps Lucha Underground surpass Raw and Impact Wrestling in quality almost every week.

I'm not saying that TNA can ape that style perfectly, but restoring the focus on simple storytelling surrounding great in ring action won't hurt the company. Coupled with a few smart moves in who to push and TNA could rise from the ashes yet again. The balls in their court.

Monday, January 18, 2016

A few thoughts on the possible NJPW migration

Nearly half these men could be in WWE by the end of February.
While I was focused on the Top 10 wrestlers of 2015, news came out that WWE had started a raid on New Japan Pro Wrestling's talent pool. AJ Styles, Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows of the Bullet Club were in WWE's sights as a future main eventer on the main roster and a new tag team in NXT respectively. Perhaps a bit more surprisingly, Shinsuke Nakamura was also in the WWE rumor mill, as the Japanese star was planned as a possible surprise entry in the Royal Rumble match.

The amount of Shinsuke fan art is
kind of crazy.
I didn't see it as quite as big a surprise. When Nakamura first planned to go on his international excursion (a regular path growing New Japan stars take before securing an upper card spot on the card), rumors of WWE interest were already around. Of course, unlike most rookies that had barely been given a spot above openers, at this point Nakamura was already an IWGP Heavyweight champion, albeit one with an incredibly short time with the belt. But his excursion proved far shorter than most (though he did train with then-IWGP Brock Lesnar for a short period of time) and he returned to New Japan without any visits to the United States.

In the time since Daniel Bryan's first WWE title reign, he made it clear though that Shinsuke Nakamura would be a dream opponent of his. WWE even published articles about it, even as NJPW stars became better known in the United States thanks to Ring of Honor appearances and later NJPW on AXS. While most people didn't think Nakamura would hop from his home promotion to WWE—a company with a poor history using Japanese stars—his position as the endless second tier champion made it clear he was never to return to his position as ace for the company, having been supplanted by first Hiroshi Tanahashi and now Kazuchika Okada. With his natural charisma and physical style, he seemed a sure fit for WWE should he stay healthy.

And as Royal Rumble looms this Sunday, chances are strong that at least one of the four stars will make his debut at or right after the event. AJ Styles has apparently already wrapped his contract with the company, Nakamura has been stripped of his Intercontinental title and is using the current CMLL crossover cards as a farewell tour. Anderson and Gallows may last a little longer as though Gallows contract is currently up, Anderson is contracted through February. They could end up with one last shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team belts before exiting the Bullet Club and NJPW.

Of course, only Nakamura and Gallows have officially announced plans to leave New Japan, and neither have made a WWE signing a 100% sure thing. If and when any of these men make their WWE debut though, expect big things from them. They have proven time and again they have every tool in the world to put on great matches time after time after time.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Sasha Banks: the greatest wrestler of 2015

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When I wrote my own personal Top 20 list for 2015, only one name made sense to put on the top. Still I was worried that it was a name other people might not rate as highly as I did. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Sasha Banks was the greatest wrestler of 2015, hands down. She had a series of amazing matches on every NXT Takeover card but one. Her television matches on NXT and Raw never failed at giving at least a glimpse of how great she was, even when WWE seemed ready to relegate her to secondary shows and PPV pre-shows. Because you just can't keep greatness down.

And did I mention she's only 23?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Kevin Owens: #2 in the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015, presented by ESO-PRO

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The man once known as Kevin Steen made his NXT debut just weeks before 2014 closes. Within two months, he was NXT champion after a brutal match with his former friend Sami Zayn. Three months later, he was on the main roster and immediately embroiled in a feud with John Cena. At Elimination Chamber, he scored an upset clean win over Cena with his pop up powerbomb. And though he wasn't able to take the title from Cena, he stole the show for four straight pay-per-views, against Cena and then Cesaro. A month later, he was Intercontinental champion. Not bad for a guy with barely a year under his belt.

Owens is proof that with the right push from creative on the right talent, they can break through the boundaries quickly and effectively. He is majorly over and while he has yet to challenge for the WWE World Heavyweight title, he has been a dominant figure on WWE television. Yet some people still claim WWE fails to push him.

I am pretty sure half a dozen wrestlers would love to have Owens' spot, where he hasn't missed a pay-per-view appearance since his debut. And unlike some folks WWE has featured regularly (say, Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt), he hasn't had a bad match in the bunch.

Owens seems poised to be a future main eventer in WWE and may be more entertaining than just about any other contender for that title. He does everything he can to improve the program every time he appears. As Mike Gordon puts it: “No one works harder to make it look so effortless.” And that couldn't be more true. Despite his build, I can think of few talents on the independent scene that toiled as hard to get where they are now than Kevin Owens. For goodness sake, this is a native French speaker that taught himself English by watching WWE television as a child. I would be hard pressed to see anyone more devoted to the sport of kings than "The Prizefighter."

ESO-PRO presents the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015: Honorable Mentions Part 6

As we prepare to reveal the wrestlers at number one and two later today and tomorrow, it is time to look at the final five wrestlers that didn't quite make it into our Top 10. These names might serve to throw a few people's guesses for those top two positions into disarray.

Image credit: NJPW.
15. Shinsuke Nakamura: I was the sole voter for Nakamura, but I strongly suspect that won't be the case in 2016. Easily one of the most gifted in ring competitors in the world today, he has a natural charisma that breaks all language barriers as well. The King of Strong Style has one of the fastest, hardest hitting styles in pro wrestling and matches between him and the likes of Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins would be dreams come true.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Bayley: #3 in the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015, presented by ESO-PRO

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If you told me at the beginning of 2015 I would be writing a Top 10 post for Bayley at the end of the year, I would probably have scoffed at your idea. Going into the year, she was a distance fourth among the "Four Horsewomen" of NXT and coming out of the fatal four-way match that gave Sasha Banks her run with the title, she was injured and out of action. It didn't seem like 2015 would shape up to be a superb year for Bayley.

That changed as the company ramped up for NXT Takeover: Brooklyn. With Becky Lynch, Charlotte and Sasha Banks already on the main roster, Bayley beat both Becky and Charlotte on her road to challenging Sasha at the event. And oh, did she challenge Sasha. Many have called it arguably one of the best matches of 2015. I call Bayley and Sasha Banks' epic battle the match of 2015. The match featured every exciting spot the two women could concoct, but it also told a story of an underdog fighting to prove herself as the new top dog of NXT. When Bayley picked up the win, she not only won the title but also the legacy of being the final Horsewoman standing in NXT.

ESO-PRO presents the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015: Honorable Mentions Part 5

As we get closer to revealing the top wrestler of 2015, I just wanted to remind everyone to keep their eye out for the return of ESO-PRO: The Pro Wrestling Podcast. I was a member of the original incarnation of the show, but John Morgan Neal will soon be presenting a reanimated ESO-PRO in 2015 with a wide variety of guests. Keep an eye out for it at the ESO site.

Today we run down the wrestlers ranked twentieth to fifteen on the list.

Xavier Woods greatly increased his profile with his Youtube series.
20. Xavier Woods: While his compatriots in the New Day ranked in at #5 and #8, Xavier Woods spent most of 2015 serving alternately as the team's spoiler and jobber. He lost the titles to the Prime Time Players in one of his few defenses, but he also helped Big E and Kofi win them back at SummerSlam. And while he hasn't got anywhere close to the number of wins his allies have, he's been solid in the ring and on the sidelines, where he's been trombone playing comedy gold. He's also shown how to diversify his career as the host of the new Up Up Down Down Youtube show.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Seth Rollins: #4 in the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015, presented by ESO-PRO

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He dominated the main event picture in WWE from Wrestlemania all the way to the early parts of November when an injury derailed his run as The Authority's chosen champion. Yet Seth Rollins still only comes in fourth among his peers on the Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015.

This does nothing to downplay Seth's accomplishments. I have personally been a fan of his for years, dating back to the days when he was a young up-and-comer named Tyler Black working a bunch of Iowa and Illinois independents. He put on some great matches even then, before his friendship with Jimmy Jacobs landed him a job first with Wrestling Society X and then with Ring of Honor. Tyler Black would become ROH champion, but I honestly thought he had peaked there even when he signed with WWE. I didn't imagine my fellow Iowan would reach the level of success he has today.

A lot of that success must be given to the WWE developmental program. While it has not always been perfect, Tyler Black went in a spot master with limited charisma. Seth Rollins came out a man with some still impressive moves, but with a flow in storytelling and the ability to work the microphone.

The Shield honed him into a main event superstar (as it has also done for Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose) and he became the first man to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase at Wrestlemania, where he won Brock Lesnar's WWE World Heavyweight title by pinning Roman Reigns. He went on an incredibly successful streak as he retained the title against Randy Orton, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Sting and Kane.

The only hindrance to his run was often his alignment with The Authority, which led to a few too many long winded Raw openings and extended promos about very little. But he still kept the WWE ship afloat while John Cena spent most of the year in the midcard ranks and he did it with a flare that showed he had what it takes to remain a main event player in WWE for years to come. He did so well, two respondents rated him as the best wrestler of the year. Mike Gordon said Rollins is the “Best heel in the business. Always a joy to watch in the ring, no matter who he's facing. ”

But it is John Morgan Neal who perhaps summed up his pluses and minuses in 2015 perfectly: “Many complain about how he was booked but that is WWE's issue and affects everyone right now. But the fact remains he was the top dog and carried the company on his back for most of this year.”

And while he enters 2016 on the injured list, he continues to be an ambassador for WWE and an influence on a new generation of young wrestlers as he helps The Black & Brave Academy, the wrestling school (and crossfit program) he runs with long time independent tag team partner Marek Brave. Already the first of his students, Connor Braxton and Eli Machete are making waves in the Midwest with over half a dozen other young talents following after them. Even if he was never to step into a WWE ring again, I expect Seth Rollins would still have a bright future in professional wrestling.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Big E: #5 in the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015, presented by ESO-PRO

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Since Wrestlemania, it's hard to argue that The New Day have consistently been the most entertaining part of Raw week after week. Kofi Kingston, Xavier Woods and a trombone have all had amazing moments, but the true star of the show has been Big E. With his preacher-style presentation, crazy lines and always impressive in ring skill, he is easily one of the top up-and-coming stars in WWE.

Long time viewers of NXT knew exactly how great Big E can be on the microphone and followers of him on social media know that he's just plain crazy much of the time. As Lauren Price puts it in her nomination: “Glad that New Day has given a chance to show his personality and wit on the main roster vs being stuck as someone’s silent bodyguard.”

ESO-PRO presents the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015: Honorable Mentions Part 4

In this the fourth of six posts looking at the people who didn't quite make it to the Top 10, we finish out the folks that came in under 20 on the list.

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24. (3 way tie) Undertaker: Like Sting, he only wrestled a couple matches, but they included two main events against Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam and Hell in a Cell. Along with a victory over Bray Wyatt at Wrestlemania and a tag victory with Kane over Wyatt and Luke Harper at Survivor Series, he looked stronger than he did in years, even if he ultimately dropped the rubber match against Lesnar. While I thought this would be the year he retired, he looks to head into 2016 as a high level special attraction for WWE.

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24. (3 way tie) Nikki Bella: She held the Divas title for most of the year, even if her reign was less than impressive. But she did take more victories over Paige and Naomi than anyone ever could want to count. While injury left her out of action after her loss to Charlotte, she still scored the longest title reign in Divas championship history, even if it feels more like a corporate decision to erase AJ Lee's long reign rather than anything she really earned by her talent. Lauren Price obviously disagreed with much of my assessment in her nomination: “Her commitment to this business is supported by the fact that the worked through a shoulder injury for several months. Puts over other women wrestlers on the mic and on social media. Unfortunately, she is the scapegoat for WWE management’s poor booking of the Divas and does not get nearly enough credit. Cannot wait for her to get back as I would love to see her work with Sasha.”

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24. (3 way tie) AJ Styles: I was the only person to nominate AJ in 2015, mostly because I suspect my fellow reviewers don't follow New Japan closely (or at all.) He had a great 2015, scoring a ton of solid victories in the G1 Climax, even if it came after he lost the IWGP Heavyweight title (which he won earlier in the year from Hiroshi Tanahashi) to Kazuchika Okada. He also had a stellar battle with Tetsuya Naito at Wrestle Kingdom 9 and Kota Ibushi at Invasion Attack. Along with his Ring of Honor work, he put on a 2015 that only made him look more valuable to the biggest show in wrestling, which seems likely with Styles supposedly on his way to WWE now.

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23. Dalton Castle: Joe Crowe was the sole nominator for Dalton Castle, a man that deserved to be higher on this list, but awful booking from ROH kept him from reaching the heights he should have in 2015. He should have been main eventing for the promotion by the end of 2015, but sadly was still stuck in an endless feud with Silas Young. Still, he was easily the most entertaining part of the shows he appeared on. As Joe says, “So fun, so unlike everyone else in ROH. His highlight moment for me was his T-shirt ad on ROH, where he said, 'Get this shirt... before it gets you.'”

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21. (2 way tie) Samoa Joe: Joe hasn't had a great year since 2008, but his career was instantly revived when he jumped from TNA to NXT. After a brief stop in Ring of Honor for matches with Jay Briscoe, Kyle O'Reilly and The Addiction (alongside AJ Styles), he moved to NXT to feud with Baron Corbin, Rhyno and Finn Balor. With great matches in the Dusty Rhodes Invitational and some brutal battles leading into his title match with Finn (including an epic encounter with Tommaso Ciampa), it is hard to argue that Joe doesn't deserve a big thumbs up for a great 2015.

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21. (2 way tie) Finn Balor: I am actually a bit surprised Finn didn't make it at least into the Top 20, but I suppose it is a sign of how much great talent one can currently find in professional wrestling. The first half of the year was spent in midcard NXT battles against Tyler Breeze and Hideo Itami, but after moving into solid title contention, he put on some amazing performances against Kevin Owens, Apollo Crews and Samoa Joe. His amazing entrances at pay-per-views already electrify fans and I suspect will instantly make him a main event star in WWE. John Morgan Neal describes his appeal perfectly: “Mix the Undertaker with Jeff Hardy and watch the money come in.”

Next time around, the Honorable Mentions will take us from 20 down to 16 where we will see a top Lucha Underground talent, a new gaijin star on the rise in New Japan, one of the most entertaining figures on WWE television and two men that main evented multiple PPVs throughout the year.

Friday, January 8, 2016

John Cena: #6 in the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015, presented by ESO-PRO

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Last year I took part in another top wrestling end of year list and I rated over forty talents. John Cena didn't make my list at all. For 2015, I personally rated him third. That's what a commitment to strong storylines, reinvigorating a title and just plain having great matches can do.

Let's face facts: John Cena will never be the greatest in ring performer on the face of the planet, but WWE will continue to push him everywhere they can until he retires from the sport of kings. But after ten years of perpetually being in the main event picture over and over again, Cena used the United States title to help elevate a bunch of talented performers and the belt itself. Within weeks of his victory over Rusev at Wrestlemania, he elevated a title no one really cared about to be almost as important as Seth Rollins' World title. He wrestled classic matches with Cesaro, Dolph Ziggler, Sami Zayn and Neville and his series of matches with Kevin Owens turned Owens into an instant monster star.

He also seemed to learn that taking the job isn't the end of the world. John Cena took a lot of losses in 2015, even if he did dominate in most of his US title defenses.

Unfortunately for the US title, it is now in the hands of Alberto Del Rio which immediately started its devaluation. Del Rio has barely defended the belt after winning it and seems like he's more concerned with tag team competition of late. And Cena's hiatus from the sport to end 2015 may have concluded just as the year drew to a close, but Cena has now also suffered his first major injury in wrestling, with a minimum six months off from WWE again.

But despite a large amount of the fan base still booing him no matter what he does, I suspect Cena has far more fans among smart wrestling fans than he ever did during his fifteen World title reigns. As Lauren Price summed it up: “Haters gonna hate, but his US Title run was wonderful. Solid matches that elevated new and mid-card wrestlers.”

While it seems doubtful, Cena will have as close to as good a 2016 as he did a 2015, I think what matters most is unlike so many of his title feuds, he spent 2015 making his opponents look good and making the WWE roster far stronger.

ESO-PRO presents the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015: Honorable Mentions Part 3

We continue to look at the people that didn't quite get enough votes to make it to the top spot on the Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015 list. Today we look at the four wrestlers that came in rated #27 to 30.

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30. Summer Rae: When I started this list on Monday, I mentioned one name I felt was undeserving of being on it. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Summer Rae. While she has been a solid managerial figure in WWE and did her best to liven up a miserable feud between Dolph Ziggler and Rusev that went on months past its expiration date, her wrestling matches on episodes of Superstars and Main Event have been anything but impressive. I actually had to verify she wrestled at all in 2015 as that's how little a mark she made as an in ring talent. But Joe Crowe ranked her as the fourth best wrestler of the year, saying “In her fights with Lana, it looked like she killed her twice, by knocking her off a chair, and then bending her 90 degrees with an Accolade. She helped Xavier play his trombone, and skeeved out when Dean Ambrose almost dived onto her. She delivered bits of fun all year.” And while I personally don't believe she ranks anywhere above the likes of Mia Yim, Ivelisse, Paige or Bray Wyatt, this list is nothing if not democratic, so welcome to it Summer Rae.

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29. Drago: He's a real life dragon that wrestles. As Joe Crowe puts it describing his exit on the Lucha Underground season finale: “Did he just leave the Lucha Underground temple by transforming into a dragon? Yes. Yes, he did. ” Seriously, Drago may have the best gimmick in all of professional wrestling. He put on amazing matches in every appearance on Lucha Underground, from his best of five series with Aerostar to his title match against Prince Puma to his hardcore battle with Hernandez. Only a handful of talents had a better year in the Temple than he did.

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27. (2 way tie) Sting: He only wrestled three matches in 2015 and two of those were losing efforts, but his profile was huge as he took on Triple H and Seth Rollins. And while his in ring career may very well be over after a vicious buckle bomb by Rollins, Sting finally showed that he had all the ability in the world to main event in WWE even at 56.

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27. (2 way tie) Mil Muertes: Richard Evans was the only person to choose Muertes and you can see his comments in his own article, but just for the gimmick alone, the masked Ricky Banderas deserves to be on this list. While Banderas certainly used supernatural gimmicks during his runs in Wrestling Society X and TNA, it wasn't until Lucha Underground put a mask on him and paired him with Catrina that he finally was allowed to shine as a "1000 Deaths". He dominated the end of Lucha Underground and his feud with Fenix was the stuff of legend.

The honorable mentions return on Monday with a look at some of NXT's top talents, one of Ring of Honor's hottest new star and a man heavily in the news in the first few weeks of 2016!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Prince Puma: #7 in the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015, presented by ESO-PRO

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Few names had as varied a 2015 as the first ever Lucha Underground Champion Prince Puma. While he dominated the main event of the Temple from Aztec Warfare until Ultima Lucha, he also spread his wings under his original unmasked identity as Ricochet. In addition to Lucha Underground, he regularly worked in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, EVOLVE, Dreamwave, multiple English promotions, long time Japanese home Dragon Gate and his new Japanese home promotion of New Japan. Not bad for a 27 year old kid from Paducah, Kentucky.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Kofi Kingston: #8 in the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015, presented by ESO-PRO

For me, Kofi Kingston is probably best remembered as the poor man that died at the hands of Brock Lesnar on July 4th in Tokyo.

As part of The New Day, Kofi had a stellar 2015. When the year opened, the group was barely on television, a bunch of babyfaces being booed out of the building as they clapped like merry fools. But post-Wrestlemania, they turned heel. After beating Cesaro and Tyson Kidd for the tag team titles, Kofi, Big E and Xavier Woods dominated the tag team picture for the rest of 2015, wrestling at every pay-per-view for the rest of the year (even if they lost the belts for a short period to the Prime Time Players, though in a match not involving Kofi.)

ESO-PRO presents the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015: Honorable Mentions Part 2

As the list gets ready to debut #8 later today, it is time to take a look at some of the other talent that didn't quite make it into the top ten. Today we will cover the wrestlers that came in between thirty-first and thirty-fifth place.

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35. (2 way tie) Paige: While 2015 wasn't quite as solid as 2014 for Paige, she continued to be a dominant force in the Divas division, even though she spent most of the year chasing Nikki Bella for the title. She sparked the Diva Revolution in many ways thanks to her non-traditional style in the ring.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Cesaro: #9 in the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015, presented by ESO-PRO

Can't say Cesaro doesn't know how to work the merchandise.
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The wrestler formerly known as Claudio Castaganoli did the same thing he has been doing for nearly a decade as a professional wrestler: he stole the show whenever and wherever he got the chance.

Unfortunately, he also faced the same problem he always seemed to face: a glass ceiling far too low for a wrestler of his immense talent.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Pentagon Jr: #10 in the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015, presented by ESO-PRO

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"Yo soy Pentagon Jr. Cero Miedo!"

He held no titles in Lucha Underground and in fact never even received a title shot during his first season of the promotion. But it is hard to argue that he comes out of season one as the company's biggest star.

ESO-PRO presents the Wrestling Weekday Top 10 Wrestlers of 2015: Honorable Mentions Part 1

While the Top 10 list kicks off with #10 later today, I also wanted to focus on the other wrestlers that gained votes from our wide range of judges. In all, 41 names made it on to this year's list from our panelists and they all have reasons to be there (well, outside maybe one in this humble blogger's opinion, but more on that one in a few days.) I will cover these honorable mentions a few at a time in between posts about the winners over the next couple weeks. For now, let's take a look at forty-one through 37.

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41. Princess Kimber Lee: I was the only one to vote for the new Chikara Grand Champion, but I don't think the importance of Kimber Lee's 2015 should be ignored. She became the first top champion of a major US promotion by beating Hallowicked at the end of the season finale. And she will likely have a lot more exposure in the next year. Already an incredibly talented performer, I suspect she will make a huge name for herself in 2016.

The Top 4 Wrestlers of 2015

I debated doing a rundown of the best matches but once I realized the massive number of matches I've watched since getting back into wrestling this year, I knew that was going to be to be WAY too much work. So instead I've broken it down to the top 4 wrestlers of the year, all of whom will have matches in the top ten lists across the internet.


It's not often you come across a wrestler who can be compared to the Undertaker, but if there is one way to describe Mil Muertes, it is as Luchador Undertaker.  The highlight reel doesn't even do the match justice, go out and find this full match, as it is probably the greatest casket match in history. Lucha Underground is far ahead of the WWE in many ways and this match clearly shows you why.
Mil appeared in Lucha Underground and conquered and his story is definitely one of the most interesting of 2015.