From a dramatic ratings plummet to a multitude of upper-card injuries, coupled with booking that was shamed in multiples by the in-house development center, 2015 hasn’t exactly seen banner times for WWE. Contrary to those woes, the in-ring product has churned out a number of quality matches that have buoyed forgettable pay-per-views, and occupied space on endless episodes of Raw.
Looking back, picking just ten matches provided a bit of a challenge, but I hold confidence in my selections. Listed here are what I feel were the ten best main roster WWE matches of 2015. It should be noted that NXT matches are not included in this listing, though one main roster match with NXT implications did make the cut.
10. John Cena vs. Cesaro (WWE United States, Monday Night Raw, July 6)
One of the few novelties among one interminable three-hour Raw after another was the resurrection of a secondary championship through widespread coveting. Cena’s weekly open challenge provided some sleeper classics with Dean Ambrose and Neville, and staged the Raw debuts of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens (more of him to come). This match with Cesaro was tops of the free television classics, eking past the half-hour mark with plenty of thrills in its wake. Ever since Vince McMahon’s regrettable comments about Cesaro’s alleged failure in connecting with today’s fan, the ‘Cesaro Section’ received the perfect counter to that asinine statement with this match, which swept away a Chicago crowd incrementally. By bout’s end, following an extended spell of counters and false finishes, Cena had yet again won, but not before further proving Cesaro’s considerable value.
9. Roman Reigns vs. Cesaro (WWE World Heavyweight Quarterfinals, Monday Night Raw, November 16)
Despite culminating with the undesired, momentum-deficient Sheamus taking the belt via his Money in the Bank cash-in, the championship tournament facilitated some quality television matches where motivation was readily built in. Most of the winners weren’t in doubt, such was the case here. “Make Roman look strong” continued its sarcastic bleat among the aforementioneds that stick up for Cesaro, but there was little to mourn in the aftermath. Reigns has come a long way in shedding the layers of green that were evident without his Shield-mates holding him up. The only deficient aspect is a criticism applied to many modern WWE matches, that being a lack of selling (both men forgot they had injured their arms for the final sequence). Minor quibbles, anyhow.
8. John Cena vs. Kevin Owens (WWE United States, Battleground, July 19)
Closing match of the trilogy worked in lulling a catatonic St. Louis crowd out of their collective stupor. Owens dropped this one via submission a mere two months after his main roster debut, which the usual Anti-Cena League construed as burial. I’d argue that WWE doesn’t know how to put spaces between rematches, what with 29 hours of television a week to fill, and the promising Cena-Owens saga ended up more rushed than Acclaim’s releases. For the most part, the rubber match felt like a greatest hits fusion of the first two matches, only with the surprising (and disheartening to many) submission finish. That’s where wrestling is today: a fair chunk of performers can cobble together similar four-star-plus matches, and they seem to feel less and less special. This hardly seems like a glowing endorsement for a great match, to which I say, “Welcome to 2015.”
7. Kevin Owens vs. Finn Balor (NXT Heavyweight, Beast in the East, July 4)
The overall tone of Beast in the East was a refreshing change, and reminded me a lot of those old World Tour tapes from Coliseum Video, where you’d see fans react much differently to the same WWE product that’s oversaturated in the States. Balor, naturally, unleashes his inner demon and Owens, as expected, brings the unabashed jerkiness to remind the crowd who the heel is. Really, anyone that can make chinlock spots fun with well-spoken disdain is a winner. Another match where the victor wasn’t in doubt (Owens was on the main roster, and no way Prince Devitt’s blowing it in the Far East), but it was a wonderful contrast to the usual mechanical WWE Style, with a unique setting to boot. To top it off, it came with some of Michael Cole’s best commentary of the year, so it was a colossal win all around.
6. Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose (WWE World Heavyweight, Ladder Match, Money in the Bank, June 14)
After the cruel tease of Ambrose’s false title win at Elimination Chamber, hopes were high that WWE’s actual top babyface would leave here with the gold. Naturally, they were dashed, because organically unkempt Jimmy Olsen doesn’t get to be champion until bad-script-reading Superman finally wins the big one. Epic length at 36 minutes, and the crowd was lost in parts due to it, but I appreciated the struggle on display. It wasn’t all counter-counter-counter, which is the paint-by-numbers standard nowadays, and it made Rollins look like an empowered warrior for a change. Naturally, that was all undone when Cena reconstructed the, “You’re a false champion,” narrative that he applied to CM Punk in 2012, but for the moment, Rollins looked like a legitimate world-beater. The ending, with both men falling with the belt, had a fairly dramatic touch.
5. John Cena vs. Kevin Owens (WWE United States, Money in the Bank, June 14)
I’d call it moronic to hold a highly-anticipated rematch just two weeks after such an eye-opening first battle, but we’ve already been over WWE’s frenzied approach to telling stories (selling stories?). A fair portion of the story stemmed from a subtle tick at the end of their first battle, with Cena selling frustration at being unable to put Owens away, and the maddening struggle plagued him in middle portions of the second match. That Cena won cleanly kind of undermined the tale, but the trace amount of vulnerability was nice while it lasted. Not too different from the first match in terms of content, save for the finish, but Owens’ poor sportsmanship (and subsequent Pee-Wee Herman laughter) took some of the sting out of the loss for Cena’s detractors. Anything that can get Cena to cease being the goofy superhero that only occasionally tosses in some stern, steely gazes counts as progress, I’d suppose.
4. Brock Lesnar vs. The Undertaker (Hell in a Cell Match, Hell in a Cell, October 25)
Not quite the Guillermo Del Toro bloodbath that their No Mercy 2002 cell match ended up as, but a far cry from their injury-affected WrestleMania XXX snoozer. Had this been the WrestleMania match, with the shocking finish and stunned crowed rivet-gunned onto the denouement (replacing the Wyatt abduction), then the thirtieth showcase sits with X-7 and III in the pantheon. Lesnar and Taker tossing the PG edicts out the window and letting loose with the blood and careless chair strikes really does elevate this to another level when compared to today’s restricted, boxed-in violence. The most notable act of physicality, aside from exposing the ring planks in the final sequence, was Lesnar punking out the doctor sent in to act as cut-man. As most viewers can attest, anything that makes the officials backstage nervous probably makes for good television.
3. John Cena vs. Kevin Owens (Non-Title Match, Elimination Chamber, May 31)
When the Chamber PPV was re-added to the 2015 schedule, it took the place of a Sunday matinee show in eminent B-town Corpus Christi, where many tickets had already been bought up by families with young children that wanted to see the big wrestlers up close. That made for something of an interesting crowd dynamic through the night, and paid off in the reaction to Owens’ clean win over Cena in his ‘debut’ match. Sure, there were the Squared Circlers that were merrily stunned by the outcome, but the youthful shock made it a venerable poor-man’s Taker-Brock astonished response. Of course, this match was worlds better, feeling like a modern take on Bret Hart vs. Bam Bam Bigelow in terms of the one-upsmanship and attempts to outfox the opponent. Again, they should’ve held off on the rematch, yada yada yada. In fact, I’d have been inclined to make this my match of the year had round two taken place no earlier than SummerSlam. The immediate sequels damaged the original’s special feel. Alas.
2. Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns (vs. Seth Rollins) (WWE World Heavyweight, WrestleMania XXXI, March 29)
If Lesnar doesn’t re-sign with the company the week prior to WrestleMania, the fans likely dump on Reigns even more during the marquee closer. At least with Lesnar sticking around, there’s a sliver of belief that he retains the belt, and thus a Reigns celebration is no longer as inevitable. It’s a shame that the fans completely turned on Reigns in the midst of WWE’s attempt to make him the Happy Madison version of The Rock, because he was able to bring it in physical matches. I maintain that this match, regardless of the winner, was worth five stars had it had five more minutes to boil over, because it was a well-executed brawl steeped in high-level brutality and aggression. From the suplexes, to Lesnar bleeding, to the frenzy of signatures and finishers in the end (a rare instance that a million kickouts didn’t feel excessive), it was a virtually-flawless match. The Rollins cash-in imbues it with more historical importance and gives the fans a ‘happy’ ending. Sadly, the cash-in is remembered more than the match, which proved Reigns’ mettle at a supreme level.
1. Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena vs. Seth Rollins (WWE World Heavyweight, Royal Rumble, January 25)
The saving grace of the worst overall Royal Rumble since Steve Austin and Vince McMahon sat out half of the convoluted Rumble match. This provision of mercy came in the form of a wild triple threat match that not only reinforced Lesnar’s status as an unkillable monster (keep him strong to make Roman look strong), but also demonstrated what Rollins can do sharing the ring with two company trump cards. From his busting out of a Phoenix splash to hitting the Shane O’Mac elbow through Lesnar and the announce table, Rollins delivered a star-making performance on a night that desperately needed a hero. Lesnar’s revival from the stretcher job was half-Willis Reed, half-supercharged Rasputin, and that was after he was permitted to kick out of three straight Attitude Adjustments. The match broke the bounds of reality on a number of occasions, contra to the ‘reality’ era that’s known to inhibit fun, and it doubled as the savior of a doomed night. The 1999 Rumble would have been a puddle of bile without Rock and Mankind’s brain-rattler, and 2015’s would have been in complete ruins without this slice of mayhem.