The 2014 professional wrestling year in review
It was one of the most eventful years in recent memory. A look back at the triumphs and tragedies of 2014.
There are no seasons in wrestling, of course. We get to do this all year, every year. And what a long, strange, wonderful, awful, emotional year it has been for fans of professional wrestling. Join me as I celebrate all the glorious things that happened in 2014, ruminate over where the sport lost its way and look forward to the new year.
- The ascension of Daniel Bryan and hope for the long-suffering fan. 2014′s first major (North American) event was the Royal Rumble, where Roman Reigns looked like a million bucks and the crowd clamored for Daniel Bryan, their plucky underdog of a genuine hero and the best wrestler in the world. When the just-returned Batista won the Rumble instead, the crowd (and the Internet) was beside itself. The cynics braced themselves for Batista vs. Randy Orton — a match no one really wanted to see — to headline WrestleMania.
Then something wonderful happened: the WWE listened to the fans.
Daniel Bryan had one of the best matches of the year against Triple H to open WrestleMania and earn entry into the main event, where he won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in one of the most satisfying main events and one of the best WrestleManias ever. After being disappointed so many times after WWE dropped the ball with our heroes, it was a true victory for Bryan and for all of us. We can talk about what came later when we get to the disappointments of the year, but Bryan’s climb to the top of the mountain can never be taken away from him, or from us. It happened. Maybe it can happen again.
- NXT. It’s no secret at this point that the best wrestling promotion in North America is the WWE’s “minor league” feeder system. NXT airs every Thursday on the WWE Network and it alone is worth the $9.99 per month. It’s the best weekly wrestling show you’ll watch and it’s only an hour long. This year has hammered home that when it’s not the Road to WrestleMania (which runs from the Royal Rumble through the day after Mania), you can safely skip the bloated, three-hour RAW on Monday nights and just tune into the PPVs. You don’t want to skip NXT. They have an unbelievable talent pool down there. Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Finn Bálor and Hideo Itami could all become massive stars. Enzo Amore is so good on the microphone he has the potential to become a mainstream success. They have the best women’s division you’ve likely ever seen.
Geez, just start watching NXT, already.
- The Indies threaten to become a revolution.
NJPW and ROH have real, on-your-television PPVs now (filling a bit of the gap after cable companies dropped WWE PPVs in disgust after the launch of the Network). Many other indie promotions are embracing iPPV, which is constantly getting better and a satisfying way to both support promotions and be able to watch far-away wrestling live on your computer. CHIKARA returned from its year-long hiatus and picked up attention from mainstream press along the way, while getting back down to business of having solid wrestling, intricate storylines and characters like a fun-loving yacht captain who gives fruit baskets to the opponents he defeats.
PWG is a legitimate hot-ticket item in Los Angeles, one that gets celebrities and comedians to actually drive out to Reseda to cram into a sweatbox of an American Legion Hall for four hours of wrestling once a month or so. Beyond Wrestling runs “secret shows” in garages on the East Coast that draw great numbers, in addition to their normal shows, which become buzzworthy and feature the next big things before the “bigger” indies like CHIKARA, PWG, ROH, CZW and others start booking them.
Beyond the actual indie promotions, the wrestlers that comprise them are growing the sport in new and exciting ways. Intergender wrestling is on the rise (more on that later). A decade ago, the indie scene was comprised of four things: technical wrestling showcases from wrestlers inspired by Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko, garbage brawls inspired by ECW, flippy spotfests inspired by kids that owned trampolines, or “strong style” matches inspired by fans of professional wrestling. Today, indie wrestlers are making their own stuff up. The high-flyers can also chain wrestle. In some cases, the high-flyers are also brawny strongmen. The hybridized styles are all blending together, with everyone being better at pretty much everything overall. The matches and wrestlers are adaptable. Meanwhile, wrestlers like Timothy Thatcher, Drew Gulak and Biff Busick are championing a return to the Frank Gotch/Georg Hackenschmidt school of turn-of-the-(20th-) century catch-as-catch-can wrestling, proving that you can have thrilling, hard-hitting, exciting matches … without doing moves. It’s a natural response to the everything-and-also-TWO-kitchen-sinks indie wrestling of the past few years. It feels welcome and it feels fresh. The indies are becoming more of the “three-ring circus” that WWE touts itself as. There’s something for everyone.
Indie wrestlers are also becoming more charismatic, better on the microphone, better at connecting with audiences. Better at everything. It’s an exciting time to be a wrestling fan if you’re not just limited to watching the WWE. And you’re not just limited to watching the WWE.
- Brock Lesnar. The beast incarnate ended the Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak and absolutely mauled John Cena in one of the most satisfying main events of all time to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. It’s been a long time since wrestling has had a for-real monster that you believe will leave you lying in a pile of blood and urine and vomit. He may be done with the WWE in 2015, but we’ll always remember 2014 as the year he ran roughshod over the company. And it was glorious.
- NJPW (and Japanese wrestling) had their highest visibility in years. I’m still not entirely sure what combination of factors led to the high-profile year for NJPW and other Japanese pro wrestling companies, but I’m certainly not complaining. The annual G1 Climax tournament actually felt like an event people were paying attention to this year and featured some of the best matches of the year. Cross-promotion events with Ring of Honor led to Kazuchika Okada and Shinsuke Najamura becoming (even more) beloved, buzz-worthy cult heroes about wresting fans. And of course, the WWE signed KENTA and Prince Devitt, who would become Hideo Itami and Finn Bálor, respectively, in NXT. Next year will see the stock of Japanese wrestling rise even more, with the launch of NJPW’s own online network and the January 4 Wrestle Kingdom 9 PPV, presented by Jeff Jarrett’s fledgling Global Force Wrestling. The show will feature English commentary by none other than Jim Ross. Seems like quite a mission statement for them to kick off 2015.
- The Network. Nothing has ever been worth $10 a month more than the WWE Network. The inclusion of PPVs alone is worth the money about six times over. Even if you only like pro wrestling a little, you should be subscribing. Yes, it took a long time for them to find their way, with duds like Legends House, but the sheer amount of content available … every WWE, WCW, ECW PPV ever … EVER. Every episode of Nitro, starting from the beginning. WCCW weekly television. Amazing documentaries. Weekly revisionist-history retellings of the Monday Night Wars. It’s just … so much. And it’s only going to have more things added to it. Did I mention you get the pay-per-views included? You can even watch them on your TV! Seriously, get on this already. If only for the Road to WrestleMania.
- Lucha Underground showed us what the next evolution of pro wrestling could look like.
El Rey Network debuted Lucha Underground this year, a TV show that uses all the best parts of soap operas, Robert Rodriguez movies, lucha libre and pro wrestling. It put a truly diverse cast of grapplers on our television screens and introduced the United States to Sexy Star. It’s great. But don’t take my word for it.
- The brutality of the business keeps destroying our hopes. Yes, a month after WrestleMania, Daniel Bryan had to take time off for injuries and even though he announced he’ll return at the Royal Rumble, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever be given another chance to be on top. Roman Reigns suffered an injury and had to take several months off at the worst time, Unfortunately, WWE wanted to keep Reigns in our thoughts, because he’s probably headlining WrestleMania XXXI, so they kept putting him on TV via satellite to talk to everyone … the one thing Roman Reigns should not be doing.
Dana White learned a long time ago never to count on any one star too much, because you never know when they’ll turn into the next Kimbo Slice. If White had the ability to successfully fix UFC fights to build fighters and storylines, he probably would. But WWE keeps proving that even the best-laid plans of fake fighting can go up in smoke at a moment’s notice.
- The long stretches of awfulness. There was a lull after WrestleMania where it felt like WWE was treading water. Then the run-up to SummerSlam was fantastic and the day after the event in August felt like a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, it was a long, slow death spiral for weekly WWE television after that. The PPVs were almost all fantastic (save the final one, TLC in December) and Survivor Series felt like another welcome breath of fresh air, but the treadmill of the company having no discernible direction outside of WrestleMania season was evident. Watching weekly wrestling turned into a chore by the fall. A chore I was all to happy to opt out of whenever possible.
- CM Punk walks out.
(Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
One of the biggest and easily the most divisive story of the year. CM Punk, injured, exhausted and frustrated with the WWE, quit the company in January and never went back. He recently broke his silence on two episodes of Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast that broke iTunes and are definitely worth your time. Punk is signed to UFC now and is, by all accounts and appearances, happy. Regardless of how you feel about Punk (and if you’re a wrestling fan, you do have an opinion), the end of his WWE career and how it all went down is a major bummer. Punk would have been very welcome in 2014, especially given the absence of Daniel Bryan. Alas.
- You’ll notice I only mentioned TNA in passing this entire article. That’s because it’s only worth mentioning in passing.
- Look out, Grumpy Cat! Here comes Florida Georgia Line!
Yes, Grumpy Cat (which is a registered trademark, apparently) hosted RAW. It was one of the handful of guest stars WWE keeps cramming into their programming in hopes that it will draw in non-viewers and casual viewers. The truth is that adding Grumpy Cat or Larry the Cable Guy or Florida Georgia Line really isn’t going to do much of anything except annoy your core audience. They even roped poor Betty White into it this year. They’ll probably never stop working these guest stars in, but let’s hope they do.
And yes, for the record, The Miz’s segment with Grumpy Cat was totally adorable.
- Wrestling, for the most part, is content with being your drunk uncle. This isn’t just limited to WWE. Pro wrestling, like a lot of sports (and like most things) is an old white dudes’ club. WWE’s weekly shows are hours of JBL and Jerry Lawler making quasi-racist, quasi-homophobic and blatantly misogynistic “jokes” that further nothing. Promos traffic in stereotypes and low-hanging fruit. Indie promotions run entire storylines that build up to an “evil” woman getting hit with a wrestling move as a babyface crescendo.
I am fully aware that pro wrestling needs to play on people’s base instincts. You have to say and do things that appeal to the lowest common denominator, because at the end of the day, it’s muscular guys in underpants pretending to hit each other. But out of the ring, in interviews away from wrestling, people like John Cena and Hulk Hogan sound impressively, inspiringly progressive. Wrestling companies should aspire to do better; to be heroes inside the ring as well. A thimbleful of activism — or even just awareness — would go a long way toward achieving that end.
- The wrestlers we lost. The Ultimate Warrior returned to the WWE following an 18-year exile and just a few days later, he was gone. Sean O’Haire and Viscera died too young. Mae Young and Ox Baker were among the other pro wrestlers who passed away this year, two legitimate legends who gave everything that had to the business for nearly their entire lives.
- The never-ending concussions.
As sports fans, we’re more hyper-aware than ever of the effect and significance of concussions. The leading group investigating CTE and other after-effects of concussions is the Sports Legacy Institute, which was founded by Chris Nowinski, a former WWE wrestler and Tough Enough participant who was forced to retire after not being able to recover from a concussion. This year, NXT wrestler Cory Graves was also forced to retire after too many concussions.
CM Punk’s first appearance on the Art of Wrestling podcast (depending on how much stock you put in his words) revealed that — at least on the main roster — WWE still may not be taking concussions as seriously as possible. In addition, wrestlers work through injuries constantly. Constantly. Because they’re in fear of losing their jobs if they make a fuss, or losing out on paydays, or being away and getting forgotten about. Because of the lack of a union and their laughable status as independent contractors, these are, tragically, genuine concerns.
It’s going to keep happening. Kevin Owens, who used the package piledriver as a finisher in the indies, is apparently using a pop-up powerbomb in NXT. The package piledriver is possibly the safest crazy-looking move you can take and almost certainly the safest piledriver you can take shy of Kane’s Tombstone to Linda McMahon. Yes, piledrivers can be dangerous and are outlawed. Yes, a piledriver once broke Steve Austin’s neck. But powerbombs ARE going to end with your head hitting the mat after a fall from 6-8 feet in the air. Your head is going to hit the mat 70% of the time or more on a powerbomb. CJ Parker’s head hit the mat extremely hard on Owens’ first NXT powerbomb.
And not only is it going to keep happening, but there’s going to be recidivism, because wrestlers cannot stop. Nigel McGuinness, who reportedly failed WWE physicals due to concussions — which meant he wrestled for years in TNA instead, because they apparently don’t care about that sort of thing — was finally forced to retire a couple years ago, because these head injuries put his life in danger. Now, he’s just launched a Kickstarter campaign for a new promotion he wants to start up. He’s promised that if his project is successfully funded, he will wrestle again. This is seen by both himself and his fans as a reward. It just terrifies me.
The shape of things to come
- The next generation is tantalizingly close. A big part of being a pro wrestling fan is complaining about things, or else latching very hard onto the aspects of wrestling that you love, specifically so you aren’t complaining about things. In the early 1990s, everyone was just sort of waiting for Hulk Hogan to go away. In the late 1990s, everyone was just sort of waiting for Kevin Nash to go away. In the 2000s, everyone was just sort of waiting for Triple H to go away. Now people are waiting for John Cena and Randy Orton, et al, to go away.
There are good things about John Cena and Randy Orton, to be sure. But they — Cena in particular — won’t be able to do this forever. The breakup of The Shield was much lamented, but it ended up creating three genuine superstars in Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns. Reigns is the chosen one of the three by the WWE higher-ups and the backlash against him has already started. But Cena’s days in the top spot are clearly dwindling. With so many people on the verge of something big — Rollins, Reigns, Ambrose, Cesaro, Bryan when and if he returns, a bevy of NXT talent — 2015 might just be the year that one or a handful of them break huge.
Even if they don’t become WrestleMania headliners, it’s going to be exciting to have an influx of new talent. In WWE and everywhere. As NXT keeps scooping up indie stars and ROH signs the top level of performers to exclusive contracts, more spots are opening elsewhere for the up-and-coming stars. More talent, more faces and more opportunities are always good things.
- Women’s wrestling is just going to become “wrestling.” For many fans (like fans of CHIKARA, joshi, PWG, etc.), this is already the case. But it remains an important development nonetheless. High-visibility indie intergender wins by performers like Candice LeRae and Kimber Lee dovetailed with all the phenomenal wrestling in the women’s division of NXT and in successful promotions like SHIMMER, in many ways making 2014 feel like a mission statement for women in wrestling. NXT’s strong women’s division and long, spectacular matches in particular feel like WWE is grooming mainstream, mass-market fans to view women’s wrestling as just … wrestling. It’s important and long overdue. And with a larger pool of talented North American women involved in wrestling than ever before, some of your favorite matches in the coming years might not be entirely comprised of beefy dudes.