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Top 10 Matches
10. Naomichi Marufuji Vs. Kaz Hayashi (February 6) ? AJPW at the Korakuen Hall
A story of calculated risks. Marufuji?s All Japan matches were slow, and many of Kaz?s 2009 matches were boring in their attempts at technique as he tested Heavyweight waters. The two came together to avoid both their problems, and it made sense: Marufuji was among the best Junior Heavyweight technicians, and given structure in a bigger match, Kaz?s explosiveness would stand out. They worked slow, logical holds, grabbing openings wherever they saw them, and as they felt increasingly comfortable, they went for very dangerous offense, like an Asai Moonsault or the Brainbuster on the apron. Those led right back into the scientific holds, neither wanting the other man to escape with a speed and resourcefulness they knew they had. Even mid-match, Marufuji looked for smaller setups to big corner charges or his Basement Stomp. And because they had a half an hour, the guys built on that, taking bigger risks, with Marufuji slowly reminding everyone that even with a relaxed style he was a top flyer, busting out his insane Flying Dropkick to the outside. Naturally they went into the Japanese ending stretch of finisher variations that makes any crowd buzz, but they put it together to throw casual and smart audiences off, teasing Super versions early, and Marufuji peppering the interim with kicks and slaps.
9. Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs. Takashi Sugiura (July 20) ? NJPW: New Japan Soul
One thing to look forward to in 2010 is that Sugiura will be in more feature singles main events. In 2008 he had only one, against Morishima, where the two stepped up to prove they belonged ? and NOAH bookers promptly ignored it in favor of poor gate (a purely silly issue ? naturally guys who aren?t consistently pushed as top guys won?t draw as top guys). This year Sugiura?s big shot was against Tanahashi on enemy turf. The NJPW/NOAH feud worked primarily because the wrestlers who participated held nothing back and helped each other look special: the first tag made Go out to be a rookie beast, Goto let Sugiura go over twice, Sugiura made Okada shine (even though he almost killed him), and here at the end, Tanahashi wanted Sugiura to appear as formidable a challenger as he could have. He had to torque Sugiura?s leg with every Screw variation he had to make his opening, and found several of his top moves scouted. Sugiura out-paced him on the mat from the opening, and went after the arm and torso, leading to a moment of subtle greatness when Tanahashi turned the tide, rose, tried to clutch his ribs and couldn?t because his arm was too weak. Sugiura?s Suplexes were particularly brutal and further highlighted his freakish pug strength, and Tanahashi was there to fight them desperately, retaliate with his favorites, and ultimately fall on his head. Naturally when they emerged at the finisher-exchange series the two were on-mark, particularly with the Running Knees and Slingblades, moves they knew worked and hoped would grant victory as bigger moves kept getting reversed.
8. John Cena Vs. Chris Jericho Vs. Rey Mysterio Jr. Vs. Kane Vs. Mike Knox Vs. Edge (February 15) ? Elimination Chamber from WWE: No Way Out
Okay, can we agree that Edge getting Kofi Kingston?s spot for injuring him was stupid? Good. Because that wasn?t in this match. It was poorly conceived but put one of WWE?s best performers into the main event. Mysterio and Jericho started it off with great action, including Mysterio?s phenomenal climb to the ceiling in mid-counter to hit a falling Hurricanrana. Then Kane came in and picked apart the smaller competitors like a methodical predator, establishing the dynamic way a Chamber match could work. Kane stayed in for just long enough to allow Knox to appear as a force, and enabled some great innovations like the Hurricanrana counter to his Chokeslam and Mysterio?s crazy Senton-ish dive from the top of the Chamber. Knox then came in as an even more brutal powerhouse, tossing guys around the cage and requiring even more clever attacks from Mysterio and Jericho, like Jericho catching him in the middle of his finisher with the Codebreaker, and responding with even more vicious offense, like entwining Mysterio?s leg in the chain. When Edge arrived he joined Mysterio and Jericho?s flow, mixing it up with bigger moves and nearer falls. That both Kane and Knox had gone down so quickly only made it scarier for Edge, who had been eliminated with similar brevity earlier in the night, turning his typical opportunism into something a little more fearful and appearance-conscious. We all expected Cena to enter as a house of fire, but his little wave as the door opened was classic, and in the moment, nobody saw the Codebreaker/619/Spear combo or his elimination coming. Eliminating the final man with three men left in the match was a brilliant stroke against expectations. Edge and Mysterio couldn?t match the intrigue of the Undertaker/HHH finals simply by virtue of the latter pair having so much more exposure and push, but they made up for it with more complex and speedy exchanges, preventing the crowd from calming down to rationally assume Edge would be the booker?s favorite. Edge set Mysterio up with several flashy counters, emphasizing the vibe that anything could happen.
7. Davey Richards Vs. KENTA (April 3) ? ROH: Supercard of Honor 4
Richards had an unsung gem against KENTA a couple of years ago. How much better of an opponent he is for KENTA now speaks to his improvements. KENTA?s selling is always pretty shoddy, yet Richards filled that void with exaggerated facial expressions, clutching at himself and showing physical exhaustion in early periods, counterpointing his opponent?s onslaught. When KENTA eventually showed fatigue, Richards?s existing exhaustion complimented it and set a baseline for sympathy where normally you throw out the selling component of a KENTA match entirely. None of this is to pretend the match was about sympathetic selling. It was about brutal offense with two of the top kickers in the world blasting each other. Yet in all the series of fun offense, there was distinct intelligence. Richards used novel holds to weaken KENTA?s leg, and though KENTA wouldn?t fall apart over a weakened knee, it gave Richards something specific to attack when he wasn?t going for knockout blows. He returned multiple times to his Texas Cloverleaf hold, something he really hasn?t built well enough as a main event submission maneuver, and yet made into a dangerous tool that really could have put KENTA away. You know, that or all the kicks. The timing and reprisals of kick-and-throw offense was great at Fight of the Century in 2006, and it was certainly alive here, but Richards had considerably more showmanship, and they managed a couple of Kobashi-level moments, like that Falcon Arrow to the floor. This wasn?t just another KENTA visit to ROH. This was the best singles match of his career, even with the botched finish (which was pretty sharply edited for DVD).
6. Bryan Danielson Vs. Chris Hero (September 4) ? PWG: Guerres Sans Frontieres
What I said in the Danielson Vs. Hero review from ROH stands: Hero no longer needs Danielson or a Danielson-level opponent to have a great match. But where that match was quality, matches like this one still require high-caliber wrestlers, and it?s quite possible nobody else could have had this with Hero but Danielson. Where the Final Countdown Tour bout was just as much about making Hero as it was saying farewell to Danielson, this was a hardcore farewell. The ending was unlike almost any submission Danielson has gotten, yet it worked like McGuinness?s innovation over KENTA. Unlike that match, this ending sat atop an amazing outing from performance and match structure. From the punches to the ear in the opening and the slightly more fluid than average technical exchanges (showing Hero has even improved the ground game he once lived for), to Hero losing confidence and going for things that had beaten Danielson in years past, to Danielson slapping the champion around and asking him if he really wanted to be the best in the world, this was great pro wrestling storytelling. They had reason to be jocular, and then to take it personally. Hero was a great jerk opponent, an apt striker and just as an apt a victim as he flailed or cried in various holds. Unlike the long Hero matches of years past, the longer this went the more drama it actually built, taking advantage of being Danielson?s last appearance in PWG. The dives to the outside and the false finishes could have happened in any match (and really, they all have), but they built into this story of Danielson being the beloved veteran against the guy who held the belt that would validate him one more time, and at the same time, against the guy who might not deserve to take his place (and ultimately, perhaps showing Hero might deserve it). By far and away the best match Danielson and Hero ever had against each other was appropriately their last.
5. Bryan Danielson Vs. Davey Richards (September 25) ? ROH: Final Countdown Tour Boston
This was the match Richards fans were waiting for all those times Danielson crossed his path in other places. With Danielson?s departure for WWE, there would be no rematches, no clash in DGUSA or Evolve. They had to do everything that night, and the result was the best match of ROH?s Final Countdown Tour. Richards?s crispness in delivery is a perfect compliment to Danielson?s minimalism-centered style, such that they would work arm and leg holds, Danielson?s stewardship ensuring they would be meaningful, while Richards ensured they looked amazing. Danielson is no slouch at execution so everything he did worked, while Richards is golden on the mat provided competent competition. Whenever they went up a notch, Richards exploded with intensity and energy, even running the ropes with more enthusiasm than usual. In addition to working harder than their usual world-class level, they built great moments into the match, some you?d imagine Danielson had wanted to do in ROH for years. At multiple points in Danielson?s career he has asked the ref to help pull his arm into position; this was the first time someone used that as a prime attack opportunity, with Richards Missile Dropkicking Danielson?s arm mid-hyperextension. It was an evil move and a great touch.
4. AJ Styles Vs. Samoa Joe Vs. Christopher Daniels (November 15) - TNA: Turning Point
I wrote half the entry for Angle Vs. Wolfe right after the match happened, so excited by an exceptional TNA match. I couldn?t do the same for this one. I was too blown away to take a single note during the match, and afterwards only had superlatives. It?s amazing that four years later, with Joe being heavier, Daniels being even older and Styles having put hundreds more harsh bumps on his body, they can still put on something good enough to challenge the quality of the original three-way dance. Most praise went to Styles, the most conventionally athletic of the trio, but all three deserve major credit. Daniels remained a total maestro, making his 1-on-2 offense look completely effortless where most wrestlers couldn?t even execute the combinations at all. Joe hustled in a way that was very rare for him in 2009, showing underhanded character early, then brutal opportunism as the match went on. Any critic who writes this off as a dumb spotfest is not paying proper attention. Simply watch how they worked the dives. The constantly tried to cut each other off, including the freaky and great moment where Styles caught Daniels?s legs mid-Arabian Press and allowed Joe to smack him silly. Like the famous original match (and to a lesser extent, the not quite as impressive rematches), this had the breakneck pace people associate with mindless matches, but had character and thought through the cut-offs. Like the great original, it was never bogged down in the three-way convention of ?X and Y fight while Z is on the outside, then Z comes in to fight X while Y is down on the outside.? Every potential pairing got time to shine, but the third player could always come in and frequently did, keeping it a true triple threat.
3. Go Shiozaki & KENTA Vs. Kensuke Sasaki & Katsuhiko Nakajima (June 22) - Pro Wrestling NOAH: Southern Navigation 2009 at the Korakuen Hall
Who would have thought Go would be the workhorse in a tag match with KENTA? But there he was, from opening to finish, and KENTA got the longest rest period. Don't let "rest period" fool you, though - this match had almost no slow down. The few attempts at holds we'd typically call "rest holds" were interrupted seconds in, sometimes by Sasaki taking somebody's head off. They paced it out so everyone was rested enough to play their parts, even Sasaki, who used his wind expertly in segments against both men. He clearly aimed to give Go something special, from the opening minute where he staggered where he would normally bulldoze guys, to the big chop battle, to their dueling attempts to steal the victory near the end. And best of all, Go looked like he belonged as the workhorse, against Sasaki and his much faster junior partner. He was fast enough to counter Nakajima, but gave the Junior Heavyweight enough offense to keep him a threat, including a nearfall at the end of the match that validated anything as possible for the true ending. It's the first time I can remember KENTA Vs. Nakajima being completely overshadowed, but their material mixed right in with all the other pairings, even though they were in top form with early mirror offense, the finisher counters near the middle, all the way up to the Dragon Suplex and Tiger Suplex exchange that made both men go down. You had the story of Go as both the weakest and strongest links, Kensuke Office as heavy aggressors, and KENTA being utterly fearless in defending his company. This is about as good as tag wrestling gets.
2. The Undertaker Vs. Shawn Michaels (April 5) ? WWE: Wrestlemania 25
Yeah, that match. It stole Wrestlemania and people were in awe with it for days, but since then critics have tried to rip it apart. There are a couple of noticeable botches, but the big one ? Undertaker?s feet snagging the top rope on the dive ? did not hurt the match at all. In fact the count-out attempt Michaels created is one of the highlights of the match, turning a potential real injury into part of the story. You can?t understate the other highlight: Undertaker?s expression on Michaels?s big kickout, a man famous for no-selling showing utter terror and exhaustion. And beneath the moments, they built a great story of exchanges. The match boasted so many great series of counters, like Undertaker sitting up when Michaels went for the Top Turnbuckle Elbow Drop, leading to the Chokeslam escape, Superkick dodge, Inverted Figure Four and Hell?s Gate submission holds. Even Undertaker lying on his side during the Crippler Crossface to knee at Michaels?s spine led to a series of novel uses of the hold. The Tombstone out of the ?skin the cat? was a classic two decades in the waiting. This is the sort of match you can only do with years of establishing offense. Kicking out of Superkicks and Tombstones simply meant a lot more than any of the many finisher kick-outs in ROH matches. That?s because there was another element active here that was just as important as almost no one kicking out of a Superkick or Tombstone for twenty years: twenty years of these guys honing their craft to make the most of their stardom.
1. Davey Richards Vs. Shingo Takagi (taped September 6) ? Dragon Gate USA: Untouchable/Open the Untouchable Gate
I didn?t think it would be this good. When it was announced I figured Danielson would get a better match out of Doi and this would be a short sprint. When live reports said this was better, I figured it was live fan bias. When reviews came out saying it was the match of the year, I thought it couldn?t be in the league of Undertaker/Michaels. I have no problem if Undertaker/Michaels is your ?match of the year,? as it was great in a way that isn?t really comparable to this. Where Undertaker and Michaels were established by decades of push and positioning, and used their position to tell a match about vulnerability, this was a match about invulnerability. That was a match about two titans in peril, constantly making you question who would lose and always trying to make you believe both could. This was a story of two guys who would not good down, stay down, submit or be knocked unconscious no matter what. It was apparent from the first minutes when Shingo wrenched a leg hold and Richards first did detailed work, trying to wiggle out of position or jar him, and when Shingo tightened it, Richards hammered at his back with all his strength. As it progressed, Shingo needed that leg weakened and Richards had to savagely tear into Shingo?s arm simply to maintain an advantage, finding wicked counters like the arm whip on the apron. Those key counters had some of the best timing of the decade, like Richards?s amazing Saito Suplex that he snapped off from a position of total vulnerability. It made just as much sense to abandon a limb attack as they searched for other ways to bring each other down, but returning to it, especially the way Richards did at the end, enriched things. As two Junior Heavyweights they were matched in size and could play toughness as much as they liked. Because neither flinched in doing anything but express how excruciating something was, and largely fell back on seeming stunned rather than pained, they came off like the biggest badass heavyweights in the world. By the same virtue of intense characterization they earned all their kickouts, which normally would have entered ridiculous territory. Not this match, not where the two were in fighting mode, refusing to show weakness and getting increasingly desperate. That?s why Richards?s crazy Tope Con Hilo worked better here than perhaps anywhere else: because it appeared so late and was so wild, it appeared was one of his last resources. Shingo was the same way, making the Super Original Falconry, a move everyone kicks out of in Dragon Gate, one of the most convincing nearfalls of the match with timing, placement in the match, and expressing nothing but effort and relentlessness. Halfway through I joked to my friend that they were trying to wrestle ?the most badass match in history.? By the end, I wondered if they had.
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