I always deal with three categories at the end of the year – the talking points; the matches; and the one I cover today, the most valuable players. Who was WWE’s Wrestler of the Year?
Unlike in 2017, in which I eventually settled on the Usos as the company’s MVP, 2018 was decidedly easier to pick. Much like 2017, though, world class talent and woeful creative material seems to have continued on as WWE’s quintessential marriage.
But who, within that environment, shone brightest? My name is Samuel ‘Plan, and these are the names I believe proved themselves to be the MVPs of WWE in 2018.
It’s important not to look past the contributions certain prominent members of WWE’s extensive talent pool have made to the product in any given year, even in the face of our rush to always pick the best. In that vein, it would only be right to take a second to consider a number of honourable mentions before diving into the list-proper.
Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano are first up, with a 2018 that has been a potentially career-making year for them both – and, fittingly, it’s largely been accomplished by doing it themselves! Together, the two former best friends compiled a trilogy of critically acclaimed matches in an expansive rivalry that was, in turn, sandwiched by some impressive individual accomplishments as well – more critically acclaimed ring work from Johnny Gargano (especially in January opposite Andrade Almas) and a reign as the most convincingly must-see NXT Champion this side of Finn Bálor for Tommaso Ciampa.
Why only an honourable mention for the two? Ultimately this is my list crafted from my opinion and, while I recognise the acclaim their work has received, it never stuck quite the same note with me, being a fan of an entirely different in-ring design to what they both regularly offer.
Ronda Rousey has made some impactful waves in her debut year in WWE and it would be wilfully ignorant not to acknowledge that. Was it expected? Of course; this is WWE after all, and they don’t go signing arguably the most instantly recognisable UFC alumni in the world just to have her whittle time away on undercards. Ronda has quickly found herself in big match situations but importantly has, more frequently than not, managed to perform up to a standard justifying what many might consider her ‘unpaid dues.’ Appreciating some fans are more cynical towards her ring work and swift ascent, though, limits her standing on this list to a simple honourable mention.
Shinsuke Nakamura may not be a name that immediately springs to mind when considering the MVPs in WWE’s 2018, largely because of a near stone dead final six months. It is for that reason alone he was never going to make it onto the list-proper. Let us remember, though, that it was ultimately the King of Strong Style who won the Men’s Royal Rumble Match this year, his win proving an integral part of that bout’s critical and popular success. Similarly, his WrestleMania main event stands up well to repeat watches, his villainous turn saw him finally bring his much-mooted electrifying screen presence to life for the first time since arriving in NXT two years ago and, even when cooling off, he enjoyed a reign as United States Champion. Not one of the best years in WWE by any means, but one filled impressive, if perhaps easily forgotten accomplishments.
It would have to be a particularly awful year for the Phenomenal One and a particularly outstanding year for everyone else for the former WWE Champion AJ Styles not to make the shortlist of MVPs. Even in a quiet year, he remains one of the company’s most reliable in-ring performers, allowing him to craft tremendous matches out of even the most lacklustre television material. 2018 was a year in which he had to do just that. Strong matches against Nakamura at WrestleMania and Extreme Rules, against Samoa Joe at Summerslam and against Daniel Bryan throughout the last two months are good enough to place him on the short-list; but an overlong title reign, a sense of routine between the ropes (even if that routine is pretty damn good) and the fact he has wrestled only four different opponents on pay-per-view since WrestleMania all speak to a sense of monotony underpinning Styles’ 2018 that has me unable to call him WWE’s true MVP of the last 12 months.
Perhaps because of the sheer force of the buzz that has come to follow ‘The Man’ Becky Lynch around since Summerslam, it has been all too easily forgotten that Charlotte Flair has still had a massively impressive year of her own. The Queen has, on more than one occasion, exceeded high expectations with a quality of ring work that seems to only ever get better – epic matches against Asuka at WrestleMania, Becky Lynch at Hell in a Cell and Evolution and Ronda Rousey at Survivor Series were all of outstanding quality, woven into which are a number of historic achievements. Charlotte ended Asuka’s undefeated streak, enjoyed multiple title reigns and made repeated runs at Match of the Year in one of the award’s most fiercely contested years in recent memory. Each of her aforementioned best matches felt to be possessed of such occasion they really should have closed out their respective pay-per-views, and her participation in the first-ever women’s TLC Match did just that in December. Top it all off with the beginnings of a compelling new character arc for the Queen in the wake of her Rousey encounter and you end up with a deeply impressive 12 months – arguably even another career-year – for the daughter of the actual Man.
What can be written about Becky Lynch that hasn’t been written already? It took Lynch some time to get the wheels moving in 2018 – the only reason, really, that she misses out on the top spot here – but once those wheels started spinning she became an unstoppable juggernaut of a name. Her ascent back to the top of the SDL women’s division was perhaps not as effortlessly swift as Rousey’s alternative ascent on Monday Night Raw (MNR), but it was far more forceful. Evolving from ‘Lasskicker’ to ‘The Man,’ Lynch was sure to claim a newly minted championship in a series of outstanding matches with perennial ‘frenemy’ Charlotte Flair, and when she turned her attention to Rousey she seemed to only grow hotter. Her bloody-nosed visage has already become a slice of contemporary iconography and, while Lynch closed out the year in losing fashion, she is primed for an outstanding, potentially history-making WrestleMania Season. Arguably no other performer has captured the same deeply-felt affection of the fan base quite so fiercely since Daniel Bryan half a decade ago.
If 2018 was a year of ‘career-years’ across the burgeoning roster of contemporary talent still being held back by WWE and its obsession with the past, then Daniel Bryan’s unlikely return to the ring might just stand out as a unique, entirely anomalous aspect of the evolving Era. He now stands as a unique entity, equal parts of the past and of the present. For the longest time, it felt like whatever magic had been there in the past was gone. Lacklustre storylines opposite Big Cass and the Bludgeon Brothers and a disappointingly executed feud with The Miz left Bryan’s relevance somewhat in question. Then came the AJ Styles feud, their trilogy of outstanding matches and a villainous turn that has immediately transformed the New Daniel Bryan into one of the roster’s most compelling characters. Bryan’s career was made as much as anyone’s this year, saving himself from an aimless drift by maximising his opportunity in a resurrection of fortune so immediately impactful it even puts the sudden evolution of ‘The Man’ Becky Lynch to shame. And, not unlike Lynch, Bryan, now WWE Champion once again, stands to have a tremendous WrestleMania Season for the first time in five years.
If any man came close to usurping my pick for WWE MVP in 2018, it was Mustafa Ali – a performer who made me a fan throughout 2017, and has made many other fans throughout this year too. Amazingly, Ali has done this in a situation where everything was playing against him. Having to win over tired and disinterested crowds, having to overcome the steadfastly entrenched attitude among the majority fan base that 205 Live was a non-event and having to create a buzz from essentially nothing, Ali went out week after week and regularly compiled not only the most impressive matches of any given week, but of any given month too; and all, as mentioned earlier, in a year where winning Match of the Year honours will prove harder in every fan circle than in any other year of recent history. That’s damn impressive. Further, Ali has utilised not just the platform he built from nothing, but also the process of building that platform to position himself as a positive role model challenging toxic social ideas, who proudly and by no means quietly fights for open-mindedness, equality and fairness for any and every social group. And all of this without mentioning his epoch-altering victory of a December by becoming the first ‘205 Live graduate’ to earn a permanent spot on the roster of one of WWE’s two main brands!
I’m an infamous Seth Rollins fan, but I can write with confidence that this is far from an unwarranted pick for WWE’s MVP of 2018.
His back-to-back victories over Roman Reigns and John Cena in the famous Gauntlet Match from February kicked off another ‘career-year’ in the company and found itself quickly followed up with the first of two Intercontinental Championship reigns thanks to a victory in WrestleMania’s opening contest, one of many outstanding championship matches to the Kingslayer’s name this year. Indeed, Rollins’ is a list of Match of the Year contenders longer than any other performer in the company; vs. The Miz at Backlash, vs. Bálor on MNR (twice), vs. Owens on MNR (twice), vs. Ziggler at Summerslam and MNR both, vs. Ziggler and McIntyre at Hell in a Cell to name but a handful. Rollins may have ended the year on a much quieter note than he began it with, his final pay-per-view match opposite Dean Ambrose proving another divisive effort, but few have managed to pile up quite so relentless an outstanding match quality as Rollins did this year.
Match quality aside, 2018 has seen Rollins add a number of historic new accomplishments to his growing CV too. Under his watch, the Intercontinental Championship found itself defended in the men’s headlining match on pay-per-view for the first time since 1992 twice; and, unlike Bret Hart, Rollins’ explosion this year achieved it without the handicaps of home territory, a historic event or an 80, 000 seat stadium. As a feat, it’s practically unprecedented and, regardless of the critical reception of the matches themselves, the accomplishment in and of itself speaks to the success Rollins had in striking a deeply-felt chord with the mass audience he hadn’t yet enjoyed.
Beyond this, Rollins became a Grand Slam Champion in 2018, put on the longest singles male performance in MNR history in February, was believed by some (myself included) as the perfect man to defeat Brock Lesnar at Summerslam, continued a compelling years-long character arc developed further in his rivalry with Ambrose and now ends the year perfectly primed to headline WrestleMania for the first time, quite possibly adding a milestone Rumble victory en route.
Many performers have had excellent years this year in 2018 in WWE, and there’s no denying this. In the end, though, massive fan or no, it remains my belief that the sheer number of good to excellent matches coming in unmatched quantity, the impressive historic achievements he can now add to his CV and the inarguably improved position he ends the year in all mean that, in the end, the Architect Seth Rollins was the true MVP in the world’s foremost pro wrestling promotion these last 12 months.
Tell Me: who would you pick as WWE’s MVP of 2018 and why? And what do you think to my selections this year and my reasoning behind them? Let me know in the comments below or on social media!
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