Has it really only been a month so far? 2019 is only 34 days deep and yet has already proven to be a year that could irrevocably change the professional wrestling industry.
All Elite Wrestling (AEW) became a reality mere minutes into 2019 as ‘The Elite’ confirmed the emergence of their brand new pro wrestling promotion this last month. To call it an exciting turn of events for all pro wrestling fans would be an understatement. Events have moved fast, including the announcement of their first major event, Double or Nothing, the cumulative effect seemingly having been to already unlock the decades-old monopolised gridlock of American wrestling; and though for now all it seems to be is a t-shirt printing company, we should expect more big news to drop in February – perhaps including the details of their rumoured television deal.
If such an announcement does come in the looming weeks then it’ll likely serve to only further snowball the suddenly requisite change in WWE. Talent sent a clear message to WWE in January. Compounding the all-time low television ratings suffered in December, the ‘E found itself dealing with the apparent departure of one of the contemporary generation’s biggest stars, Dean Ambrose. The company’s press release concerning the split only reinforces the singular nature of the industry’s current environment. Combined with AEW’s early acquisitions of long-time WWE stalwart Chris Jericho and slighted WWE breakout PAC (formerly Neville), as well as with Hideo Itami and The Revival both pursuing early releases from contract, January saw wrestling talent across the industry deliver a clear and decisive message to Vince McMahon, one that could still get considerably worse for him.
Yet rumours of WWE’s pending demise may be greatly exaggerated. In spite of the tall challenges they face regarding talent relations, industry competition and creative philosophy, WWE’s global expansion began to gain momentum in recent weeks. The NXT UK brand came of age when they put on their first Takeover event in Blackpool, and it was an unadulterated popular and critical success, the UK roster going from showing their potential to proving how sharp their teeth are. What’s more, WWE officially opened up their first overseas Performance Centre in the UK too, only furthering opportunities available for British talent in particular. Rumours continue to persist of Germany soon receiving a similar set-up to their European cousins, and as February begins WWE’s talent development executives have been spelling out the company’s long-term aspirations for the Indian market. Clearly, if the introduction of AEW and the talent departures perhaps catalysed by it dealt the foremost pro wrestling promotion in the world a hefty blow this month, then their increasingly broad vision for international expansion proved that such a blow only rocked the boat a little.
These swiftly escalating events only complicated what is already an always busy, always high-pressure month within WWE itself of course, as it begins in earnest the set-up for the Road to WrestleMania. If there is ever a time for a performer on WWE’s main roster to begin making waves for themselves, then it would be these last thirty some-odd days.
Naturally, the winners of both this year’s Royal Rumble Matches, Seth Rollins and Becky Lynch, have both had impressive months. Arguably Lynch’s time on television has been a little quieter of the two, but her night last Sunday was the more prominent. Her title bout with Asuka seemingly exceeded expectations and the manner in which her Rumble Match story arc was executed was sublime. Further, her confrontation with Ronda Rousey last week on Monday Night Raw (MNR) was self-evident in its electrifying effects and, rumour has it, has once again seen WWE change direction and commit to a straight up singles match for WrestleMania – undoubtedly music to many an ear.
Comparatively, Rollins had the quieter night last Sunday and quite possibly the less head-turning performance in his own Rumble Match, but I would argue he has had the better month on television – from his one night arcs that included an early episode of MNR that saw him wrestle in both a six-man tag and, later, an outstanding Falls Count Anywhere Match for the Intercontinental Championship against eternal rival Dean Ambrose, to his character development on MNR coming out of last Sunday that saw him cut a genuinely emotional promo discussing his pending journey to WrestleMania and ended with a cut-throat confrontation with Brock Lesnar, the Architect’s own January made a little bit more noise overall.
I can’t realistically say either are WWE’s Wrestler of January though. Instead, I have to tip the hat to Finn Bálor, whose career enjoyed a sudden and very welcome resurgence since 2019 began.
On his home brand of MNR, Bálor has enjoyed a month full of tall accomplishments. Starting the year relatively directionless, Bálor managed to score an impressive pin fall victory over the man WWE now explicitly style as ‘The Greatest of All-Time,’ John Cena, in turn earning a long overdue title shot against Brock Lesnar. Despite some questionable scripting, Bálor nonetheless proceeded to enjoy an immersive underdog story building to what became Brock Lesnar’s best pay-per-view title defence this side of 2016 (or, arguably, even 2015). Alone, Bálor’s month on MNR would be enough to warrant his being named my Wrestler of January – but then, on top of all of this, Bálor proved to be a central pillar to the successes enjoyed by NXT UK as well, most notably in an outstanding mid card match at Takeover: Blackpool against protégé Jordan Devlin. Between the noteworthy events surrounding his path to and eventual confrontation with Brock Lesnar to the reliably above-average match quality we’re used to seeing from a man of his talents, Bálor knocked the competition out of the water in January to prove just how valuable a top tier asset he can still be for WWE.
Of course above-average match quality is very much the trend today in WWE, considering their now massive collection of insanely talented in-ring athletes, and between two Takeovers, a television product being (somewhat) rehabilitated and one of the most reliably entertaining pay-per-views of any year in Royal Rumble, it comes as no surprise that January offered up a feast of great ring work for us fans.s
The Main Event Match of January, to be awarded to either of the top two matches used to sell a pay-per-view in this last month, is obviously a limited discussion amounting to a choice between this year’s two Rumble bouts. The Men’s Royal Rumble Match (Royal Rumble) wins out, and not just because my favourite wrestler won it. It’s hard to believe it will be in contention for ‘Of The Year’ honours come December because of its jerky structuring and shallow content, but the Men’s Rumble contained much more polished action and a greater number of outstanding performances from almost half of its field, from prolific iron men to memorable cameos, all ensuring that, while watching somewhat simply, it proves an intensely busy and characterful match to revisit.
The Undercard Match of January, to be awarded to any pay-per-view match not considered a main event, is a tougher choice, but I ultimately settle on Brock Lesnar vs. Finn Bálor for the Universal Championship (Royal Rumble). Not only did Lesnar recapture form he’s been missing for near half a decade, it was irresistible in how it played on its central theme of ‘belief’ through the watertight production of Bálor’s performance specifically. It balanced realism, chance and fluid action to create a compelling and extremely refreshing Universal title bout with a welcomingly restrained run-time.
The Tag Team Match of January, to be awarded to any variant of a tag match on any WWE programming, came down to a battle between NXT brands and their respective Takeover openers. Moustache Mountain vs. Grizzled Young Veterans for the NXT UK Tag Team Championships (Takeover: Blackpool) was very similar to its American counterpart with little separating the two in qualitative terms. The Brits, however, stand out because of the singularly British wit found in both match content and crowd reaction, interlaced with grander historical staging and stakes, creating a colourfully individual take on a genre threatening homogeneity.
The TV Match of January, to be awarded to any singles (or singles variant) match on MNR or SDL, was the month’s hardest category to decide. I cannot look past Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins in a Falls Count Anywhere Match for the Intercontinental Championship (MNR, 07/01/19) though, who edge out immensely tough competition from SDL’s Rey Mysterio and Andrade. They do so thanks to a stronger sense of character depth, a greater contextual meaning, championship stakes and a heavier sense of consequence to everything that unfolds in what is one of the iconic duo’s most robust and gripping genre matches ever.
Network Match of January, to be awarded to any singles (or singles variant) match on Network exclusive programming, provided a strong field of candidates, not least because of January hosting two Takeovers. Perhaps controversially, Finn Bálor vs. Jordan Devlin (Takeover: Blackpool) gets my nod. While both NXT brands offered up far grander epics than this quiet little mid card affair, it was the character-driven nature and the subtext of history that made the unassuming and unexpected student / mentor confrontation so appealing to me; well, that and its simple but intensely effective storytelling. It was old school and, to me, it was delightful. An utter joy to watch.
What are YOUR thoughts on the major events of January? What wrestler did YOU think had the best month? And what matches do YOU feel were January’s finest? Sound off in the comments below, over on social media or by joining LOPForums today!