Lapsed wrestling fan's 2018 year in review

Asuka began and ended the year on high notes, with her win in the first-ever women's Royal Rumble match and her Smackdown women's championship victory at TLC, respectively. In January, however, she had to share the stage with a debuting Ronda Rousey. Dave Moser for ESPN

The quality of NXT and its big events, in contrast with the inconsistency of Raw and the WWE's pay-per-views. The rejection of Roman Reigns during his various matches against Brock Lesnar and Braun Strowman, in contrast with the love Reigns received after revealing his battle with leukemia. The fact that few years in the history of wrestling were as important to the progression of the women's division, which stands in contrast with the WWE's controversial embrace of a nation that places draconian restrictions on women.

Here's a look at the MVPs, high spots and botches of 2018 in wrestling, as well as a look at what happened away from the WWE ring.


MVP: Asuka. This is an acknowledgement of history and humility. She won the first women's Royal Rumble, which headlined that PPV and stands as a significant moment in a year full of them for the women's division. Asuka had some memorable moments, like rekindling her NXT heat with Ember Moon, but gets the nod here because she's the Neil Armstrong of the women's Rumble -- and they can't take that away from her. What they could take away, of course, was her spotlight immediately after the win, as attention immediately shifted toward Ronda Rousey so she could announce her WWE contract and perform the most devastating maneuver in the history of the organization: pointing at the WrestleMania sign.

High spot: Andrade 'Cien' Almas defeats Johnny Gargano at NXT Takeover: Philadelphia. It was a nearly 33-minute match that never approached feeling that long, and one that kept the crowd hot despite happening after two other hours of pure hotness in an exemplary main event. This match was a mix of different styles, close finishes, incredible selling and storyline. It also had, for my money, the perfect finish for this type of thing: a clean one, which was then followed by that Tommaso Ciampa crutch shot on Gargano as an appreciative crowd chanted "Johnny Wrestling." This was also the first ever NXT match to earn a coveted five-star rating from Dave Meltzer (and the first WWE-branded match to receive that honor since 2011) -- and deservedly so.

Botch: Raw 25 at the Manhattan Center. Premium tickets for this half of the Raw 25th anniversary celebration -- in the show's first New York City home, while the other half unspooled at Barclays Center in Brooklyn -- were going for $803 before hitting the secondary market. What did the fans get for this? Non-televised cruiserweight matches, a live appearance from The Undertaker that was as confusing as anything booked during the Corporate Ministry angle and a Degeneration-X/sorta Clique/Bullet Club reunion that had all chaotic sizzle of your 30th high school reunion at a local Holiday Inn.

Oh, and The Miz showed up, having won the IC title at that other, better version of Raw in that fans in Manhattan that paid over $800 to watch the bulk of on television that night. Outside the squared circle: Enzo Amore was fired from the WWE in the hours leading up to Raw 25 for failing to disclose an ongoing sexual assault investigation in Arizona. In May, the Phoenix Police Department said it was ending the investigation due to insufficient evidence. He would later release a rap album and attempt to hijack Survivor Series by showing up in disguise as a fan. You can't teach that.


MVP: Seth Rollins. The gauntlet match on Raw was a pay-per-view-worthy exhibition and included clean pins of both Roman Reigns and John Cena (before a weird flex where they jobbed him out to Elias). At 1 hour, 5 minutes, it set a Raw record for longest stretch of action by an individual wrestler on the show. Rollins followed that with a solid showing in the Elimination Chamber, as he continued to look like a next-level talent while others (cough, Finn Balor, cough) were treading water.

High spot: John Cena selling that his road to WrestleMania was closed at Elimination Chamber. We all sorta knew that Cena was destined to end up in a match against The Undertaker (who continued to overstay his welcome) at WrestleMania, but this angle where the former "face that runs the place" kept falling short in his old age was a good one, as was Cena's "Bumblebee"-level emoting after being eliminated from the Chamber.

Botch: Roman Reigns wins the Elimination Chamber. After watching Braun Strowman eliminate everyone but Roman Reigns, only to be eliminated by Roman Reigns, Strowman failed to earn a crack at Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania. The opportunity instead went to Reigns, and the fans revolted (and were revolted), both in the building and online.

Outside the squared circle: Corey Graves and Booker T reveal that they worked the wrestling dirt sheets after Booker invented a story that Graves cost him his announcing gig. The reveal was met in the same manner that the news was met -- with a thundering yawn.


MVP: Randy Orton. Inexplicably, the epitome of "yep, still here" WWE Superstars™ defeated Bobby Roode at the Fastlane PPV to win the United States championship and become the 18th "Grand Slam" champion in the promotion's history. Which is pretty wild, when you consider he had 16 years to do this. Frankly, it was just nice to see him do something tangible rather than being the "RKO OUTTA NOWHERE" guy for an unlikely swerve finish to a midcard match.

High spot: The Bullet Club def. The Kingdom & Shane Taylor at ROH Manhattan Mayhem. This was an "Ultimate Mayhem" match, which sounds a lot better than "WarGames, but without the cage." Two men start, and then the rest of the participants are determined by a series of coin flips. It was all much better than it sounds. Superkick parties! Moonsault parties! This kind of crowd-pleasing match you'd expect from the Young Bucks and friends, but the Kingdom and Taylor rose to the occasion, too. Great Ring of Honor stuff.

Botch: The Fabulous Moolah mess. The WWE announced on Raw that the first-ever women's battle royale would be held at WrestleMania 34. It was named in honor of women's wrestling legend The Fabulous Moolah. But that legend had been tarnished through the years after allegations of abuse and financial impropriety. Twitter roasted the news. Snickers, the exclusive presenting sponsor of WrestleMania, said in a statement that it was "engaging with the WWE to express our disappointment" on the matter. The WWE then changed the name to the WrestleMania Women's Battle Royal. Then there was backlash to the backlash from some of Moolah's peers and protégés. It was a mess all around.

Outside the squared circle: Honestly, it was a pretty placeholder month for the WWE, but the biggest news was that Daniel Bryan was medically cleared to return to active competition, which will factor into many more high spots later in 2018.


MVP: Charlotte Flair. The fact that Flair ended Asuka's undefeated streak at Mania in a show-stealing match would deserve MVP accolades on its own. But let's be real: The fact that she went from being one of Triple H's eye-candy minions during his WrestleMania 30 entrance in New Orleans to having her own male eye-candy harem in the same building as a Golden Queen at WrestleMania 34 speaks volumes about how far Flair and the women's division have come.

High spot: Adam Cole def. EC3, Killian Dain, Velveteen Dream, Lars Sullivan and Ricochet in a ladder match to win the NXT North American championship. Trying to pick the best match from NXT Takeover: New Orleans is like that moment in "Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory" when Augustus Gloop first realizes that everything is edible and just starts shoveling the entire room in his mouth. It was that good. But the ladder match was exceptional, with every combatant seeming like a credible winner, while Dream and Ricochet had a spot-fest within the match. So fun. Brutal, but fun.

Botch: Everything that led to the lead balloon that was Lesnar vs. Reigns at WrestleMania 34. The match was #ActuallyGood, but that really didn't matter given the unpopularity of Reigns multiplied by the crankiness of a crowd (home and in the building) that had already been through eight hours of WrestleMania 34, which apparently was directed by Peter Jackson this year. Lesnar won. Everyone booed.

Outside the squared circle: The WWE held its "Greatest Royal Rumble" -- what essentially boiled down to being an infomercial for the Saudi royal family. The legendary Bruno Sammartino died at 82. The legendary Andre The Giant was featured in a well-received HBO documentary. The not-as-legendary relationship between Cena and Nikki Bella officially ended after six years as their wedding approached. Huge news for "Total Bellas" fans, for sure.


MVP (tie): AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura. Two WWE Superstars ™ kicking each other in the unmentionables to end a PPV match is literally the perfect encapsulation of this month in wrestling.

High spot: All-In sells out in 30 minutes. The Labor Day independent wrestling show willed into existence by Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks sells out in just 30 minutes. The juxtaposition between the mania over this non-WWE product and the apathetic mess of a month in the big league can't be ignored.

Botch: The Lashley sisters. The kind of tone-deaf, cringy attempt at comedy that typically forces wrestling fans to explain their affinity for sports entertainment to their friends with a "no, it's not always this" shrug. Sami Zayn brought out three men dressed as women -- one of them even had a broom! -- in an attempt to infuriate Bobby Lashley. The online outrage over this regressive segment was exponentially louder than the pop Lashley got from the segment, which was [checks notes] nothing.

Outside the squared circle: The WWE and Fox agree in principle to a $1 billion deal to bring Smackdown to that network on Friday nights beginning in October 2019. A jury ruled in favor of CM Punk and Colt Cabana in a defamation lawsuit brought against them by WWE doctor Chris Amann for comments Punk made on Cabana's podcast in 2014.


MVP: Alexa Bliss. She won the Money in the Bank briefcase in an entertaining (a psychologically-focused, rather than spot-fest) ladder match and then used it to bludgeon both Ronda Rousey and Nia Jax later in the PPV -- cashing in to once again put a belt around her waist. At the very least, she gets the nod for being the rare MITB winner who didn't waste our time with a multi-month tease about the cash-in.

High spot: Ricochet def. Velveteen Dream at NXT Takeover: Chicago. The most memorable musical number from the seminal classic "Teen Witch" is a song called "Top That." I would also make it the unofficial anthem of this match, as two of the best athletes in wrestling kept upping their game within a classic. Throw in Dream's Hulk Hogan homage entrance (the first of two this year), and you have yourself one of year's best.

Botch: For this one, we'll go with an actual botch. Rare is the misstep in NXT. And this wasn't a misstep, per se, but a miss-kick between Lars Sullivan and Aleister Black.

Always a guilty feeling with you skip out on (black) mass.

Outside the squared circle: Leon White, aka Big Van Vader, dies at 63. The WWE officially announced Fox deal as well as a contract extension to keep Raw on USA Network. Sami Zayn goes under the knife to fix both (!) rotator cuffs.


MVP: Kevin Owens. Becoming a human cat toy for Braun Strowman might not be on the career bucket list for many, but Owens was terrific in the role -- whether it was getting his rental car flipped over or being trapped and flipped over while inside a Porta-John (one of the best things to happen on Raw in 2018, frankly). Then he capped it all off by doing his best Mankind by getting tossed off the top of a cage at Extreme Rules.

High spot: A.J. Styles def. Rusev at WWE Extreme Rules. At this point, it was assumed Styles was going to give a good match, but to see Rusev actualize in a 15-minute singles match as the entertaining monster fans had been chanting to see was exhilarating.

Botch: Carmella def. Asuka at WWE Extreme Rules. The one where James Ellsworth was suspended above the ring in a shark cage so he couldn't interfere in the match, proceeded to interfere in the match with much frequency and magically cast a Dungeons and Dragons "feeble mind" spell on Asuka to allow Carmella to sneak attack her for the loss.

Outside the squared circle: Hulk Hogan had his three-year WWE suspension lifted, which was slapped on him for a series of racial slurs he had said. Hogan met with the locker room in an effort to clear the air. WWE stars like The New Day and Titus O'Neal found the apology lacking, with the latter saying in a statement, "I must echo the sentiment and dissatisfaction expressed by many of my fellow contemporaries concerning Mr. Bollea's apology and its lack of true contrition, remorse, and a desire to change."


MVP: Finn Balor. Sometimes the world just needs someone to conjure his inner hell demon, have an extravagant entrance and beat the stuffing out of Baron Corbin in two minutes at a PPV. Which is why Balor's appearance at SummerSlam was one of the most satisfying moments of his entire WWE run.

High spot: The slap heard 'round the world. The three-way match for the Smackdown women's title between Carmella, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch was designed to ratchet up the tension between the two challengers for Carmella's title until Flair pinned Lynch. After the match, the friends shared a congratulatory hug ... and then Becky slapped Flair and beat her down, raising the title to chants of "You deserve it!" The start of something truly special, this was.

Botch: Kevin Owens quits. Owens quit the WWE on Aug. 27, sitting in the middle of the ring, after losing an IC title match to Seth Rollins. He returned the following week on Raw. There was no further explanation as to why any of this occurred.

Outside the squared circle: Jim Neidhart, former Hart Foundation member and father to WWE star Natalya, dies at 63. Colt Cabana ends up suing CM Punk for $1.2 million in legal fees and "punitive and exemplary damages" after their trial win over WWE physician Dr. Christopher Amman.


MVP: Cody Rhodes. He was my wrestler of the year for a reason, and the reason was All-In. "The American Nightmare" was one of the driving forces (along with The Young Bucks) of the most successful independent wrestling show (heck, weekend) in the history of the business. At the show, he captured the NWA world title in an old-school affair against Nick Aldis, meaning that he and his father -- the late, great Dusty Rhodes -- are the only father and son who both won that legendary strap. All of this happened three years after he stepped away from the WWE as "Stardust" was withering on the vine. Incredible.

High spot: Kenny Omega def. Pentagon at All-In. The match was exactly what fans wanted out of the IWGP heavyweight champ facing off against the Lucha Underground champ, with close finishes and thrilling action. The fact that it had a postmatch appearance by Chris Jericho -- dressed as Penta in order to hit a Codebreaker on Omega -- was a delightful exclamation point, even if it was just basically a commercial for Jericho's Rock-n-Wrestling Cruise (yes, an entire cruise built around matches on a boat in the middle of the ocean).

Botch: Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman inside WWE Hell in a Cell. One of the recurring sins on "Top Chef" is when the chef-testants lack the ability to edit themselves when creating dishes, i.e. having a dozen components to the dish rather than keeping it simple with just a few good ones.

This match would have gotten the WWE kicked off of "Top Chef."

They had Reigns vs. Strowman in the cell. Great. Stop there. All you need. Then they added Mick Foley as a guest referee and run-ins from Drew McIntyre and Dolph Ziggler (because apparently BRAUN STROWMAN needs help from mid-carders to defeat Reigns). Then there were run-ins from Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose to counter McIntyre and Ambrose, and finally, a returning Brock Lesnar(!) beating up both of Reigns' Shield-mates. Then another referee declared a Hell in a Cell match -- forever considered the way to determine the definitive winner in a feud -- as a no-contest. Yuck.

Outside the squared circle: Renee Young is named the permanent color commentator on Raw, continuing a historic year for women in the WWE.


MVP: Roman Reigns. Who else could it be for this month? The most maligned (and some would argue underappreciated) star in the WWE announced in the ring on the Oct. 22 edition of Raw that he was giving up his Universal Championship and taking a hiatus from wrestling because his leukemia had returned after 11 years. It was a shocking moment that resonated far beyond the wrestling world and one that humanized the 33-year-old Reigns in a way nothing ever had.

High spot: Becky Lynch def. Charlotte Flair to retain the WWE Smackdown women's title. The true high spot of the month was the WWE Evolution PPV, the all-women event on Long Island that ended up being one of the best shows of the year, top to bottom. This was the best of the best on that show. Try as the WWE might to book Becky as the villain here, the fans had her back, meaning a face pop when she won a 29-minute classic against Charlotte after power-bombing her through a table to clinch the victory in this Last Woman Standing match.

Botch: Daniel Bryan def. The Miz at WWE Super Show-Down. Please recall that these two have had an intense, bordering on shoot-worthy, feud for several years. So in a match to determine the No. 1 contender to then-WWE champion A.J. Styles, the WWE flies both these hated rivals to Australia where they have, like, a two-minute match before Bryan wins with a rollup. Truly bizarre, but hey, at least Triple H and the Undertaker got their 27 minutes to lumber around.

Outside the squared circle: As we would discover in November, few stories knocked the WWE off message this year like the debacle that was their Crown Jewel event in Saudi Arabia, which remained on the schedule despite the raging controversy over the Saudi royal family's role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But one star took himself off the schedule in October: John Cena, who quietly ducked out of the event and was officially removed from the card shortly before Crown Jewel took place.


MVP: Becky Lynch. She led an invasion of Monday Night Raw in order to create hype for Survivor Series. That included an assault on Rousey before they marched to the ring for a cross-brand brawl. In the process, a stray punch from Nia Jax bloodied Lynch's nose, and she didn't miss a beat while wearing a crimson mask. (She also unfortunately couldn't capitalize on it, as she was seriously injured and concussed from that punch -- thus missing her scheduled match against Rousey at Survivor Series).

It was the most icon-building moment involving blood since "Stone Cold" Steve Austin passed out in Bret Hart's Sharpshooter at WrestleMania 13. As Rusev tweeted: "LOL ... [Becky Lynch's] bloody nose made her bigger than the entire WWE Raw women roster."

High spot: Ricochet at NXT TakeOver: War Games II. We'll just go with an actual high-spot here, as Ricochet hit a double-rotating moonsault from the top of the WarGames cage.

Botch: Crown Jewel. When the return of Shawn Michaels to the ring in a match involving the Undertaker is just a sidebar to the giant, bold-faced headlines about this show taking place in Saudi Arabia, that's a problem. And it was a problem for the WWE to go ahead with this show after Khashoggi's murder; they even stopped referring to "Saudi Arabia" on U.S. television in reference to the show. Plus, the WWE continued to leave women on the sidelines for its second Saudi Arabia event (excluding Renee Young, on commentary), which felt extremely awkward just days after they put on their first all-women's PPV back home.

Outside the squared circle: After Enzo Amore showed up as a fan at Survivor Series, security personnel at Staples Center were given his photo in an effort to ensure he wouldn't show up on Raw the next night.


MVP: Daniel Bryan. Bryan's heel turn this year was one of the most welcome developments, simply because he plays the role so well. (Less so because his entirely reasonable politics are made to be the stuff of villainy in WWE). His TLC win over A.J. Styles was an incredibly entertaining match, following Bryan's streak-breaking win the previous month for the WWE championship and a crazy match with Brock Lesnar just days later.

High Spot: Asuka def. Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair to win the Smackdown title at TLC. Fun, competitive and awfully brutal tables, ladders and chairs match between these three, which ended after some interference from Rousey that took out Charlotte and Becky. Asuka got a much-needed win.

Botch: We probably haven't talked about the state of WWE television enough during this year in review, so we'll do it here. Smackdown has been consistently great in 2018, with strong wrestling and coherent -- well, as coherent as these things go -- storylines. Raw, by comparison, was a mess. Wrestlers bounced back-and-forth from heel-to-face like a ping-pong ball. Injuries thinned out the roster. Storylines were underwhelming, or at least the ones that were intelligible were.

The final "botch" of the year came on the Dec. 17 Raw, when the McMahon family returned en masse to acknowledge the show's decline in quality -- as Seth Rollins had in prior weeks in a junior varsity version of a CM Punk promo -- and vowed changes as they took power as a collective of four. And yet, the rest of the show played out pretty much as it had during the last few months of malaise. What should be appointment television on Mondays was quickly becoming "skim the DVR for the good stuff" or, worse, "I'll just read the recap."

Outside the squared circle: Larry "The Axe" Hennig and Tom "Dynamite Kid" Billington died. Rumors of WWE returning to Saudi Arabia for two more shows in 2019 have started to circulate.