It would be fair to state that 2019 has been another in the growing list of years in which WWE proper (not to be confused with Network-specific brands) has struggled to build or maintain much in the way of momentum, specifically as it pertains to the show and match quality that diehard wrestling fans and pundits evaluate on a week-to-week basis. Business success does not matter to anyone who does not directly benefit from it, so while record revenues can be touted by WWE stockholders and apologists, none of that really matters to the fans who care most about the WWE product anymore than fans of a movie franchise would care about a lousy new film making hundreds of millions against its budget. Overall, when you consider the competition for our collective attention is increasingly robust, it has been perhaps the most challenging year to date to be enthusiastic about the NBA of professional wrestling.
Nevertheless, WWE has had some successes this year, and amidst all the fan angst, those successes are worthy celebrating. So, let us spend a few minutes reminiscing on the good things thus far produced by the mothership’s main rosters.
(A quick note on star ratings – to add qualitative terms to the quantitative analysis, 3.5 stars signifies a really good match, 3.75 boosts the profile from really good to bordering on great, whereas 4 stars denotes definitive greatness, 4.25 stars borders on all-time greatness, 4.5 stars confirms all-time greatness, and anything above that defines a match up into Top 25 ever status)
Top 10 WWE Main Roster Matches in 2019
10. AJ Styles vs. Randy Orton at WrestleMania 35 (Doc’s Rating – *** ½)
It brings up the rear and will surely be passed by something greater, but I really enjoyed this match as a mid-card gem in a library rarely added to in modern WrestleMania lore. They wrestled a smart, methodical bout fit for the second match on the card, working in their signature spots in timely fashion; and the strength of their one promo segment on Smackdown a month prior to bell-time was truly enough to engage me in the fictional conflict between them. While it may not join the likes of Orton-Rollins, Jericho-Christian, and Bret-Piper in the pantheon of 12-14 minute Mania mid-card classics, Orton-Styles was quite good, fit for the second-tier in that elite genre, and very re-watchable.
9. The Shield vs. Drew McIntyre, Bobby Lashley, and Baron Corbin at Fast Lane (Doc’s Rating – *** ¾)
Whereas previous Shield reunions wound up feeling forced or just were not booked well enough to feel like optimized viewing experiences, the last one for presumably the foreseeable future was more authentic, and as such it was memorable to me. Take the emotion of Roman’s comeback, Seth’s ascent back to the top, and Dean’s imminent departure from WWE and add a really nice throwback performance featuring the greatest hits from The Hounds of Justice and you get the complete presentation that will forge the legacy of The Shield’s final outing.
8. Ronda Rousey vs. Sasha Banks for the Raw Women’s Title at Royal Rumble (Doc’s Rating – *** ¾)
It was a challenge determining which of the Women’s Title bouts from the Rumble was superior and there was strong consideration given to just calling them an outright tie, but the reality is that it boils down to taste. Both were very good and bordering on great, but for different reasons. Rousey vs. Banks had that distinctly Ronda-aesthetic, which is a double-edged sword. Compelling as it may be, it is very much in the “other” category stylistically, and I go back and forth on how much I like that style. At times, Ronda seems like a bull in a china shop, much like Brock, which is not an in-ring dynamic that I’m particularly fond of, but Sasha made it very compelling.
7. Asuka vs. Becky Lynch for the Smackdown Women’s Title at Royal Rumble (Doc’s Rating – *** ¾)
I am of the opinion that last year’s Asuka-Charlotte Mania match set the standard for intermediate length women’s matches with big fight feels, and Asuka vs. Becky did not live up to that standard, but it reached a level just below it, methodically rather than aggressively moving across its run-time and arguably struggling to shift into a higher gear; though I’m not convinced that it needed to shift into that next highest gear to achieve what they seemed intent on accomplishing. I do believe that this match would watch much better as the first in an on-going series over the next year or so, like a Jericho vs. Benoit performance; we’ll see if that comes to pass.
6. Daniel Bryan vs. Kevin Owens vs. Mustafa Ali for the WWE Title at Fast Lane (Doc’s Rating – ****)
Now that the angst regarding what might happen with Kofi is off the table, hopefully we can look back at this match and ignore the crowd’s rebellion at the start in order to focus on the quite thrilling performance that these three offered up four weeks before WrestleMania. It was a very weird situation, with the way that KO’s return was handled and then of course Ali getting added to make the match a three-way right before the previously scheduled one-on-one match was about to begin. Admirably, they won over the crowd with an aesthetically pleasing exhibition that confirmed Bryan on a career form, flashed potential of Owens as a protagonist (will we ever see it?), and made obvious why fans of 205 live so often praised Ali.
5. Daniel Bryan vs. Kofi Kingston vs. Randy Orton vs. AJ Styles vs. Jeff Hardy vs. Samoa Joe in an Elimination Chamber Match for the WWE Title at EC (Doc’s Rating – ****)
I’ll be brutally honest in saying that the homogeneity of this gimmick has tainted my long-term appreciation of almost every iteration in recent years and, though I can appreciate greatly the notion that this one was special because of the performances turned in by Bryan and Kofi especially, I rarely find Elimination Chamber bouts stimulating enough to rewatch. I may have to rewatch this one, though, because the story of Kofi’s rise is wrapped up in it and the match within the match that he and Bryan had during the climax rivals that of the awesome Mysterio-Edge finale in 2011. The commitment to thirty minutes-plus for something not truly great (or a Rumble Match) is not one I will make lightly, but I suspect that a replay for me would translate, because of the strength of Kofi and Bryan’s outings, to a boost in the rating and a higher spot on the year-end list.
4. Kofi Kingston vs. Randy Orton vs. Samoa Joe vs. AJ Styles vs. Jeff Hardy vs. Daniel Bryan in a Gauntlet Match on the February 12th Edition of Smackdown Live (Doc’s Rating – **** ¼)
Personal bias favoring last year’s Raw version that reignited the Seth Rollins hype train probably skews my viewpoint toward this being a slightly lesser version perhaps, but regardless we are talking about a strong TV Match of the Year candidate that may overtake the Andrade-Rey match when all is said and done on account of its absolutely stellar elevation of Kofi Kingston, which was such an unsuspected surprise at the time and has become the story of the year in 2019. The first part of the overall performance, featuring Kofi vs. Bryan, was particularly noteworthy in how it previewed their Mania 35 classic, as both wrestlers set the tone for the epic groundswell of emotion that pushed a social media hashtag (#KofiMania) into one of the greatest matches of the WrestleMania Era.
3. Andrade vs. Rey Mysterio on the January 15th Edition of Smackdown Live (Doc’s Rating – **** ¼)
There are a lot of great matches on television in this day and age, but it is rare all the same that one of them really stands out from the pack. Mysterio vs. Andrade stood out for a couple of reasons. First, no other pair of wrestlers could have put on the exact same match as they did, with Mysterio’s vintage performance gelling seamlessly with Andrade’s highly motivated, innovative outing. Second, focusing further on the innovation, this match is in the top one percent of all bouts of its kind in WWE lore. Lastly, for its level of ingenuity, it was remarkably well executed. Motivation, innovation, execution, and a turn-back-the-clock reminder of a legend’s all-time bonafides are a powerful combination.
2. Seth Rollins vs. AJ Styles for the Universal Title at Money in the Bank (Doc’s Rating – **** ½)
Frankly, we will be talking about this match for a long time. It had its own unique dynamic, with it basically being the ultimate match for modern WWE aficionados. Without the added organic swell of enthusiasm for the characters leading into it, there is really no chance of it overtaking Kofi vs. Bryan no matter how well it ages (and I’ve rewatched it three times to confirm that it watches back a little bit more sublimely each time), but appropriate praise should be given to what Styles and Rollins were able to accomplish and I can certainly see it being difficult to overcome in this number two spot on the list as the year progresses. Many of us dreamed of what Styles vs. Rollins would look like, representative as it was of the modern in-ring style at its finest, and it would be safe to say that they delivered a dream come true.
1. Daniel Bryan vs. Kofi Kingston for the WWE Title at WrestleMania 35 (Doc’s Rating – **** ½)
There is no doubt that we will be talking about this match for a long time. It feels good to say that.
Bryan put himself in a higher tier historically with his title reign; it was amazing how well that worked, him as the heel “Planet’s Champion” after what he achieved five years ago, and it was equally amazing that he should find himself in the evil foil role opposite the most organically over male protagonist since the Yes! Movement peaked in 2014. And how about Kofi? What a joy that was to see him reach that level and, though it will never resonate with me quite like it did some of my friends, I love two things more than any others in pro wrestling – for the most over acts to be booked to maximize their skills on the grandest stage and for the ensuing performance to take full advantage of the intangibles that said stage has to offer and knock it out of the park – and KofiMania checked both boxes.