Here’s a little inside baseball secret: Putting this list together is a battle. This year, it became a war. How do you possibly account for five brands, all of which were fighting to outdo each other for a full 365 days — sometimes on the same show? You don’t. It’s that simple. You just collect the gems you have and hope for the best. Undoubtedly, some slipped through our fingers (two stone-cold 205 Live classics barely missed the cut), but truth be told, you could collect any 25 matches from this year alone and barely even scratch the surface of what it meant. This was the year WWE went wider, bigger and higher, all the way through the glass ceiling even, and it says a lot about the Superstars that there’s almost no list that can possibly put those accomplishments into perspective.
That said, we feel pretty good about this one anyway.
Roman Reigns & The Undertaker vs. Shane McMahon & Drew McIntyre (WWE Extreme Rules)
The Undertaker admitted to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin on WWE Network’s The Broken Skull Sessions that he wasn’t going to let his match with Goldberg at WWE Super ShowDown be the WWE Universe’s lasting impression of him. He meant it, joining forces with Roman Reigns to kick off WWE Extreme Rules in a thrilling No Holds Barred Match against Shane McMahon & Drew McIntyre.
Undertaker and Reigns clicked from the get-go, fending off an onslaught by Shane-O-McIntyre that included a vintage elbow drop through the announce table by Shane and even a couple of vicious guitar blasts by Elias. Ultimately, Shane’s Coast-to-Coast couldn’t keep The Deadman down, and a Tombstone Piledriver was the final nail in the coffin for the “Best in the World,” ultimately proving the WWE Universe’s chants that night correct: Undertaker’s still got it. — STEVEN BARILE
Rey Mysterio vs. Cesaro (Raw, May 13)
There might have been a total of 619 reversals in this match — a high-paced battle with every move being countered and every counter being reversed, like Rey Mysterio setting up for the 619 only to be met with a Cesaro Swing. Then, Cesaro’s Swiss-19 being reversed into a Sunset Bomb. The Ultimate Underdog stood tall with a frog splash, but you couldn’t deny the magic these Superstars displayed or question the reason for displaying it: One challenger wanted to show that he was still one of the greatest Superstars alive, while the other aimed to prove that he was one of the most talented competitors to ever step inside a WWE ring. Two things can be true. — JEFF LABOON
Braun Strowman vs. Bobby Lashley — Last Man Standing Match (WWE Extreme Rules)
Braun Strowman and Bobby Lashley wanted to destroy each other at WWE Extreme Rules. They succeeded. The ring was just for show because the bulk of the action took place everywhere else, from the concourse to a merchandise booth to the international announcer’s row.
Lashley was firmly in control early by repeatedly hitting Strowman with steel steps as the action spilled into the crowd and the concourse. But nothing could keep The Monster Among Men down for the count of 10, not even a spear through a barricade. Strowman finally proved he was willing to do whatever it took to keep Lashley down by shockingly powerslamming The All Mighty off a concourse entrance only to inexplicably emerge. Strowman won, but not much was left of either competitor after the bell — Lashley disappeared for months after and returned a completely different person. — JEFF LABOON
Cedric Alexander vs. Drew McIntyre (Raw, Aug. 12)
It’s a shame that, in the three years since a “Please Sign Cedric” chant broke out at the Cruiserweight Classic, the WWE Universe hasn’t gotten to see all that Cedric Alexander can do. The closest we’ve come, however, might just be this whip-fast fight against Drew McIntyre that went from King of the Ring throwaway to an under-the-radar masterpiece in which both subverted and fulfilled some longstanding expectations.
McIntyre is the kind of specimen who probably shouldn’t lose a fight even in his dreams, and here he is getting taken to school by this flippy guy who damn near beats him. (The exhausted, thank-you-God look on McIntyre’s face when he finally pins Cedric is The Little Things done to perfection.) Likewise, Alexander, a highly-touted prospect who hasn’t quite hit the big time yet, looked as good, if not better, here than he did in the match with Kota Ibushi that put him on the map. He has to settle for looking (very) good in defeat, but the wild part is that the audience still hasn’t seen the full scope of Alexander’s talent. So, a humble proposition: Please give Cedric Alexander more of these matches. Sure, it’s not neat enough for a chant, but the sentiment still stands. — ANTHONY BENIGNO
Keith Lee vs. Dominik Dijakovic (NXT, Sept. 25)
It’s hard to imagine sports-entertainment evolving much beyond Keith Lee and Dominik Dijakovic’s third battle on NXT TV this year. The collision was cutting edge, maybe even futuristic, and most definitely mind-blowing. By now it’s understood that Lee and Dijakovic are gifted with the type of speed and agility that’s normally reserved for Superstars half their size. But even by their high standards, this match was nuts.
There were fast-moving exchanges which recalled the most mesmerizing fight scenes of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The offense was innovative, the feats of strength incredible, the impacts extreme, and the competitors’ fortitude staggering. By the time the 6-foot-7 Dijakovic hit the 340-pound Lee with an avalanche Canadian Destroyer, only for Lee to kick out at two, you almost had to throw your hands up in astonishment. At the risk of sounding fatalistic, it bears asking: How much further can sports-entertainment possibly go? — JOHN CLAPP
Roman Reigns vs. Buddy Murphy (SmackDown, Aug. 13)
“Who is this guy?” That’s the question that the normally unflappable Roman Reigns — and probably more than a handful of WWE fans — asked after a Superman Punch by The Big Dog failed to earn a three-count against Buddy Murphy in the latter’s head-turning SmackDown debut.
Previously seen only on NXT and 205 Live, Murphy made his blue-brand premiere after becoming entangled in Reigns’ efforts to identify his mystery attacker. And although Murphy wasn’t at the root of The Big Dog’s summertime blues, he made the most of his opportunity to face one of WWE’s premiere Superstars. Reigns ultimately won the gritty back-and-forth battle, but despite the outcome, Murphy still held his head high. Few things are more exciting than an unexpected star-making performance — think Jeff Hardy’s “Make yourself famous!” Ladder Match against The Undertaker in 2002 — and that’s exactly what you get with this high-octane thriller. — JOHN CLAPP
The Velveteen Dream vs. Matt Riddle — NXT North American Championship Match (NXT TakeOver: New York)
The math is simple: Velveteen Dream is a preternaturally talented egomaniac. Matt Riddle is a warrior in a “What, me worry?” dudebro’s skin. But somewhere in the middle of this wildly entertaining NXT North American Title Match, the calculus gets changed. As Dream kicks out of move after move, The King of Bros’ usually laconic face mottles in shock and frustration, and the knees start flying faster and faster. Suddenly, the champ is the underdog, the challenger holds the momentum, and the whole thing becomes less a question of whether Riddle is tough enough to take the title than whether Dream is tough enough to retain it. Dream becomes the gritty hero and Riddle the wild-eyed maniac, and the former’s victory plays as a moment of triumph and, dare we say, relief. Things return to normal when the tension passes and Riddle’s good-game-bro handshake is refuted, but until then, it’s a wild trip through the looking glass. — ANTHONY BENGINO
Women’s Elimination Chamber Match (WWE Elimination Chamber)
A 2019 full of twists and turns for Bayley & Sasha Banks can be traced back to February when they were crowned inaugural WWE Women’s Tag Team Champions. The Women’s division predictably overdelivered again when it faced another first, pulling out all the stops in its premier Tag Team Elimination Chamber Match. From The Riott Squad flying from atop a pod to Nia Jax crashing through another, the chaotic encounter eventually gave way to a thrilling closing sprint between the Boss ‘N’ Hug connection and Fire & Desire. A memorable moment with Bayley & Sasha atop one of the pods winked back at the fateful twist in the previous year’s Women’s Elimination Chamber Match, but this time ended in triumph rather than betrayal, allowing the two most indelibly linked women throughout the Women’s Evolution to once again make history. — JORDAN GARRETSON
WALTER vs. Tyler Bate — WWE United Kingdom Championship Match (NXT UK TakeOver: Cardiff)
Watching WALTER and Tyler Bate’s masterpiece at TakeOver: Cardiff is like driving up a mountain: It takes time, builds steadily, demands full attention, has plenty of white-knuckle moments and ends in spectacular fashion. But instead of sprawling vistas, the summer’s hottest U.K. Title bout featured a big-fight feel and championship stakes fought over by bitter rivals. The action was top shelf, whether you’re talking about WALTER’s methodical dissection of Bate or Textbook Tyler’s chops, the latter of which would turn anybody but The Austrian Anomaly cold. Adding to the drama was the rollicking soundtrack provided by the NXT UK fans who filled the Cardiff Motorpoint Arena that night in Wales. This epic clocks in at more than 40 minutes, and if that gives you the slightest bit of hesitation to relive the match, or watch it for the first time, don’t let it: Much like a cruise up the Abergwesyn Pass, it’s time well spent. — JOHN CLAPP
Daniel Bryan & Erick Rowan vs. Heavy Machinery vs. The New Day — Triple Threat SmackDown Tag Team Championship Match (Extreme Rules)
This epic Extreme Rules showdown was a “department store match”: Its Superstars fit all shapes and sizes. From Xavier Woods up to Erick Rowan, with a hefty serving of Blue Collar Solid sandwiched in between, there are not many different Superstar variations a match could offer.
“The Planet’s Champions” were out to save the world, but The New Day and Heavy Machinery were set on throwing their own summer party. In the match’s defining moment, Big E absorbed Daniel Bryan’s repeated Yes! kicks and continued moving forward as if raptured by the religious experience. The ensuing Midnight Hour helped Big E & Xavier Woods recapture the SmackDown Tag Team Titles, and with Kofi Kingston holding the WWE Championship, all three members were donning championship gold BAY-BEE! — BRAD ZAK
Ricochet vs. Johnny Gargano — NXT North American Championship Match (NXT TakeOver: Phoenix)
Say what you will about Johnny Gargano for briefly turning his back on the NXT Universe and enabling Tommaso Ciampa to gradually beckon him to the dark side, but Johnny Wrestling’s controversial decision guided him to his first singles championship.
With the NXT North American Title still in its infancy, Gargano and Ricochet immediately established it as a prestigious prize, one worth the tremendous physical punishment and mental anguish that these two Superstars forced one another to endure. In the match’s most poignant moment shortly after the opening bell, Ricochet offered a handshake and asked the challenger, “Which Johnny Gargano am I gonna get?” He got a left cross to the jaw.
And if that didn’t confirm that Gargano was indeed a changed man, the future champion erased all doubt by exposing the ringside floor and driving Ricochet head-first into the concrete with a stomach-churning suplex. It was a foul tactic that was pivotal to Gargano’s title win and one that he wouldn’t have dreamed of employing just a month or two prior — but hey, the man gets results. – JON CHIK
Men’s Survivor Series Match (Survivor Series)
Thirty minutes of bell-to-bell chaos. If you’re a fan of traditional Survivor Series Matches, what more could you possibly ask of the 15 Superstars who competed in this demolition derby?
Uneasy alliances? Check out Roman Reigns and King Corbin trying to get along. Unforgettable first-time-ever encounters? Just feel the energy of the Chicago faithful when Randy Orton and Tommaso Ciampa squared up, as well as when Braun Strowman and WALTER engaged in a collision of runaway locomotives. Mat-based technical grappling? Matt Riddle and Shorty G have you covered. Physics-defying aerial assaults? Ricochet and hometown hero Mustafa Ali soared fearlessly through the Chicago skies. An incredible breakout performance? Keith Lee whipped the WWE Universe into a frenzy with his mind-bending mesh of speed and strength in his first WWE pay-per-view appearance. This bout – perhaps more than any other on this top 25 list – truly had it all. — JON CHIK
Daniel Bryan vs. Kevin Owens vs. Mustafa Ali — Triple Threat WWE Championship Match (WWE Fastlane)
Kofi Kingston’s run to the WWE Title is full of memorable matches. Here’s one that didn’t actually include him: In a WWE Title Match at Fastlane that was turned into a Triple Threat, Mr. McMahon tapped Mustafa Ali, who had seemed primed for a Kingston-like run before injury struck, would get the opportunity.
The WWE Universe continued to clamor for Kofi, but Ali got them in his corner soon enough, throwing his heart, body and soul into the action. The result was an absolute free-for-all between Ali, “The New” Daniel Bryan — who was determined as reigning champ to prove that the additional competitor didn’t belong — and the recently returning Kevin Owens, who seemed out to make Ali wish he never entered the ring to being with.
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Even though Ali battled with the heart of a champion and left the WWE Universe awestruck, he ultimately found himself taken out by an earth-shattering Running Knee that earned The Planet’s Champion the victory. A star was born all the same. — MIKE BURDICK
Adam Cole vs. Pete Dunne — NXT Championship Match (Survivor Series)
Considering they were just one night removed from NXT TakeOver: WarGames, the fact that NXT Champion Adam Cole and Pete Dunne could even compete in this match was nothing short of remarkable. But all doubts about the conditions of both men were removed the moment the bell rang to begin this battle for the NXT Championship. You could feel the pain of every cringe-worthy mangling of Cole’s fingers and the shock after each kick-out the Superstars managed to muster off moves like the Last Shot and Bitter End. In the end, Cole’s devastating Panama Sunrise to Dunne on the apron dropped jaws all over Allstate Arena, making believers out of everyone in attendance and watching at home that the superiority of NXT on that night…was undisputed. — STEVEN BARILE
Rey Mysterio vs. Andrade — 2-out-of-3 Falls Match (SmackDown, Jan. 22)
With Zelina Vega barred from ringside, Rey Mysterio’s 2-out-of-3 Falls Match against Andrade on SmackDown became a straight-up incredible battle.
Both Superstars impressed the WWE Universe from the start, with Andrade hitting a powerbomb off the top rope to win the first fall and Mysterio firing back with a flipping piledriver to tie it up. But just when Mysterio looked to be closing things down with the 619, Samoa Joe showed up to blindside The Ultimate Underdog and hit him with a powerbomb onto the apron. The unrelenting Samoan Submission Machine went on to hurl Andrade into the ring post and lock Rey into the Coquina Clutch, all in an effort to build momentum towards the upcoming Men’s Royal Rumble Match — a shocking twist in what was set up to be the final chapter of a rivalry that still remains tantalizingly unfinished. — MIKE BURDICK
Brock Lesnar vs. Seth Rollins — Universal Championship Match (SummerSlam)
Over the past few months, Seth Rollins has had a … complicated … relationship with our fans, but nearly every single WWE Universe member was firmly on the side of The Beastslayer at SummerSlam, watching with bated breath in this edge-of-your-seat title fight with Brock Lesnar that was showered in chants of “this-is-awe-some” less than three minutes into the action.
Rollins, who entered the match with bandaged ribs thanks to a series of grisly attacks from Lesnar, employed a stick-and-move strategy to mostly avoid Lesnar’s deadly suplexes and threw caution to the wind by driving The Conqueror through the announce table with a breathtaking frog splash. The post-match image of a war-torn Seth Rollins pounding the mat in jubilation, shaking with emotion, clutching his newly won Universal Title and shedding tears after giving all his mind, body and soul is a sight that the WWE Universe should have never forgotten. That they ultimately did doesn’t dim its light. – JON CHIK
Ronda Rousey vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Becky Lynch — Winner Take All Triple Threat Match (WrestleMania 35)
Making history in WWE is a unique beast. The magnitude of what’s about to be created is ever-present in the leadup to the moment. However, once you arrive, dust off your boots and step through the ropes, more often than not all the pyro and bombast go out the window and instincts take over like they always do.
Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair and Ronda Rousey’s instincts were all on overdrive at WrestleMania 35, as the three Superstars did not flinch in the face of being the first women to ever main event The Show of Shows. Instead, all three strapped in, focusing their attention on walking out of MetLife Stadium as both the Raw and SmackDown Women’s Champion in what turned out to be a physical, gritty affair.
Lynch shattered Flair and Rousey’s onslaughts and the final glass ceiling for the Women’s division in one fell swoop, handing Hot Ronda the first (controversial!) defeat of her WWE career, morphing The Man into “Becky Two Belts” in the shadow of New York City on The Grandest Stage of Them All. The rest, fittingly, is history. — RYAN PAPPOLLA
Men’s Elimination Chamber Match (WWE Elimination Chamber)
As Kofi Kingston drew nearer and nearer to his exalted WWE Championship victory, he made a cottage industry out of coming up just slightly short of the big one. The closest, and most thrilling, he got was this absolute banger of an Elimination Chamber Match, where Kingston zeroed in on then-champion Daniel Bryan with such maniacal fervor it’s hard to remember that the match both laid the groundwork for possibly five other rivalries in the process — Randy Orton eliminates AJ Styles to set up a WrestleMania match and Kofi ousts Orton to foreshadow a SummerSlam one — and featured a delightful smattering of Samoa Joe’s cruelty and what could be best described as Jeff Hardy Doing Jeff Hardy Things.
Even with all that, the lasting image of this one, is, justifiably, Kofi vaulting up to the top of a Chamber pod to loom over a cowering Bryan. The defining sequence is the closing moments that directly tease what would come to pass just two months later. That Kofi lost was somewhat deflating, but no less thrilling. You could sense his moment was coming. In the meantime, the money’s in the chase, and this one was a license to print. — ANTHONY BENIGNO
Pete Dunne vs. WALTER — WWE United Kingdom Championship Match (NXT TakeOver: New York)
At the risk of painting with a broad brush, the magic of sports-entertainment is getting you to believe the impossible might just be possible. Can a wiry British limb-breaker defeat a guy who’s a head taller than him and has an aptitude for chopping off the upper layer of his opponents’ skin? Of course he can’t. But this title match between Pete Dunne and WALTER goes on just long enough, and Dunne holds on just hard enough through each blistering chop from Der Ring General, that you think he might possibly extend his historic reign as WWE United Kingdom Champion. The inevitable, of course, comes, but Dunne’s effort instills the match with the kind of breathless suspense that has defined NXT’s most enduring moments. If this had happened two days later, we’d be calling it one of the greatest WrestleMania matches ever. As it is, it’s not far off: Hogan vs. Andre with the extra footage and alternate ending restored. — ANTHONY BENIGNO
Men’s Money in the Bank Match (WWE Money in the Bank)
“What is wrong with these guys?!” Michael Cole exclaimed that very question during the match as a career-changing opportunity prompted these competitors to test the limits of the human body.
The athleticism of Andrade, Ricochet, Finn Bálor and Mustafa Ali was on full display until a pre-King Baron Corbin or Drew McIntyre used ladders and Spanish announce tables to stop the high-flying antics. At the end of the day, the adage “work smarter, not harder” proved to be the winning mantra. As exhausted competitors were strewn across the floor, Brock Lesnar entered late and grabbed the coveted briefcase. There were many who felt robbed by The Beast Incarnate’s opportunism, but it gifted us Boombox Brock, so we’re all winners in the end. — BRAD ZAK
Ronda Rousey vs. Sasha Banks — Raw Women’s Championship Match (Royal Rumble)
The world of WWE moves incredibly fast. When a match goes down in January, it, at times, can lose its place in the conscience of the WWE Universe by year’s end. So, I’m here with the friendly reminder that Ronda Rousey vs. Sasha Banks for the Raw Women’s Championship at Royal Rumble 2019 was ABSOLUTE PERFECTION. Banks challenged Rousey in arguably the most anticipated match of Hot Ronda’s WWE career at the 32nd annual Royal Rumble event. And, turns out when you pit two ultra-driven Superstars both hyper-obsessed with proving they’re the best sports entertainer breathing against one another, an absolute classic emerges.
Rousey was appropriately decked out like the White Power Ranger because what resulted was her and Banks pushing each other to their max like they were Tommy and Jason at the Angel Grove Youth Center in ’93. Combat turned into martial art with Hot Ronda and Sasha going back and forth, blending different styles into one ultimate melting pot of an unreal fight. Rousey would prevail, snagging the first pinfall victory of her WWE career, giving the WWE Universe in attendance at Chase Field in Phoenix a first-ever moment to lay eyes on… and the perfect wrestling match. — RYAN PAPPOLLA
Seth Rollins vs. AJ Styles — Universal Championship Match (WWE Money in the Bank)
Slaying The Beast at WrestleMania brought adulation for Seth Rollins, but it also brought him a hoard of new challengers, including The Phenomenal One. Light years removed from their only previous meeting 13 years earlier in a Muscatine, Iowa, gym, their similar, yet divergent paths brought them together for a dream showdown in a WWE ring for the first-time ever. Mirroring each other’s squared circle mastery, both were forced to dig deep into their repertoires to try for an upper hand, highlighted by an inverted version of Rollins’ patented superplex/Falcon Arrow combination and Styles’ exquisite counter of the Stomp into the Styles Clash. The Architect ultimately outlasted his adversary, but the competitive respect earned from each other was palpable and the WWE Universe took notice, showering them with “This is awesome!” chants throughout. — JORDAN GARRETSON
Johnny Gargano vs. Adam Cole — 2-out-of-3 Falls NXT Championship Match (NXT TakeOver: New York)
Tommaso Ciampa’s unfortunate injury left NXT temporarily without a champion, but it also set up one of the more unforgettable trilogies in sports-entertainment history. It all started with this bout during WrestleMania weekend with neither Superstar leaving a stone unturned while composing a symphony of gasps and sighs from the Barclays Center crowd. Johnny Gargano would have to overcome not only Adam Cole, but also the rest of The Undisputed ERA, who couldn’t help but get involved in the third fall on The Panama City Playboy’s behalf. Moments after kicking out of two superkicks and The Last Shot for one of 2019’s most unbelievable near-falls, Johnny Wrestling locked on the Gargano Escape to finally conclude his arduous climb to the top of the NXT mountaintop. Johnny Gargano had been the man who was unable to win “the big one” — until he wasn’t — upending the narrative in spectacular fashion. — JORDAN GARRETSON
Becky Lynch vs. Sasha Banks — Hell in a Cell Raw Women’s Championship Match (WWE Hell in a Cell)
Sometimes, you just get a feeling. An unequivocal, unwavering feeling that you’ve just watched something so transcendently special and so uniquely singular that it will be talked about long after any of us are still around to be yapping about sports-entertainment.
Becky Lynch vs. Sasha Banks inside Hell in a Cell this year gave me that feeling, y’all. It also made me come alive, which almost seems coldly ironic to say aloud when it pertains to two Superstars putting each other, and themselves, through literal hell for the rights to pride and the honor of being called a champion.
Lynch, as she did throughout the entire calendar year, would find a way to prevail, temporarily halting Banks’ return to the championship circle. And although nothing is more important than winning, in this one specific instance, who walked out as Raw Women’s Champion is almost secondary to the fact that these two Superstars — scratch that, these two warriors — walked out at all after one of the most brutal, innovative and flat out best matches in WWE history. — RYAN PAPPOLLA
Daniel Bryan vs. Kofi Kingston — WWE Championship Match (WrestleMania 35)
Was this a match or a moment? I say both. Let us agree that while the sight of Kofi Kingston finally — finally — clutching the WWE Championship he probably should have won at least, oh, five WrestleManias ago, is the type of “WrestleMania Moment” that will (justly) be a staple of promo packages from now until the sun burns out, the significance of this match goes beyond a highlight reel.
Let us agree that although this saga was certainly wrestling at its finest, dragons (wink) and dragonslayers, the sight of the Ghananian-born Kingston hoisting the WWE Championship in the shadow of New York City carries a significance that goes beyond a 20’ x 20’ ring. (On a single wrestling note, let us also agree Daniel Bryan has rarely been better than he was as a sneering, gnarled Ghost of Underdog Future, and that’s saying a lot.)
Let us agree that there will be people who disagree with that statement, and that’s fine. But it’s worth going back to watch the tape if you are such a viewer to see if you can’t be persuaded otherwise. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, or at home, or in Ghana, or in the dive bars where noted tough guys MVP and Shad Gaspard went viral as they choked back tears watching someone who looked like them breathe the same rarefied air as the greatest of all time. Even if you don’t understand the tears, let us at least agree that this happened, that it reverberated, that it mattered, in a way that a wrestling match almost never does.
If there’s one thing we won’t agree to do in this entry, it’s dwell on, or even consider, the almost transactional manner in which the reign ended. Business is business at the end of the day, but this transcended the boardroom, transcended the ring, transcends the turning of the machine that eventually declares that all things must end. As far as we’re concerned, Kofi’s still up there, on Big E and Xavier Woods’ shoulders, his family in his arms and the world chanting his name. KofiMania lives and lives forever, Hallelujah, amen. — ANTHONY BENIGNO
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