I am proud to present my list of the best professional wrestling matches of 2015! Only matches that I have viewed personally are eligible for this list, which largely limits this consideration to WWE, NXT, Ring of Honor, and New Japan Pro Wrestling (sorry TNA). I’ve sorted these matches into silver, gold, and platinum tiers with the latter containing my personal ranking for the top nine matches of the year. Of the 26 listed, the breakdown by company is:
New Japan Pro Wrestling – 13
WWE – 6
Ring of Honor – 4
NXT – 3
A handful of performers deserve special recognition for appearing on this list multiple times. These include AJ Styles (5), Kota Ibushi (5), Hiroshi Tanahashi (5), John Cena (3), Shinsuke Nakamura (3), Kazuchika Okada (3), Seth Rollins (3), and Roderick Strong (3).
Kazuchika Okada vs. Roderick Strong – Field of Honor – An excellent addition to the Roderick Strong Versus the World Tour. Witnessing one of the very best American wrestlers grapple with the IWGP Heavyweight Champion was an absolute pleasure.
Jason Jordan and Chad Gable vs. Rhyno and Baron Corbin – NXT TakeOver: Respect – Jason Jordan and Chad Gable have done an amazing job of winning over the NXT crowd with little more than being excellent in the ring. Gable is a chain wrestling prodigy, while Jordan is a hard-hitting amateur-style star in the making. This was the biggest match these two had ever been in, and they delivered. Corbin’s End of Days in this match was a thing a beauty.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Katsuyori Shibata – G1 Climax Day 13 – This was a Shibata-style match, but Tanahashi hung with him the entire time, proving why he is one of the best in the world. In one memorable sequence Tanahashi stopped Shibata’s signature hesitation dropkick with a kick to his shin. When Shibata ran to the far rope to try it again, Tanahashi rose from the corner to counterstrike, but Shibata turned around quickly and delivered the European uppercut. Spots like these made this match feel familiar and original all at once. They traded submissions, then worked up to strikes. The finish deflated me, but could not diminish the quality of a contest that was fun from start to finish.
Seth Rollins (c) vs. Neville for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship – Monday Night Raw June 3 – In my opinion this was Neville’s best match in WWE. He executed a number flips and ranas the WWE audience had never seen before. The unconscious Rollins’s foot on the rope following the Red Arrow was one of the closest two-counts EVER in a WWE Championship match. Outstanding, athletic, heart-racing stuff.
Kota Ibushi vs. Tetsuya Naito – G1 Climax Day 11 – By this point, Naito had fully adopted the role of despicable heel, while Ibushi fought with heart and full crowd support. There were some AWESOME high-impact maneuvers and counters in this one, like Naito’s top rope reverse hurricanrana that I thought took Ibushi’s head off, and Ibushi’s jumping over Naito’s sliding kick and landing straight on Naito’s chest. This match actually made me yell out loud at multiple moments. These two have such amazing chemistry together.
Katsuyori Shibata vs. Kota Ibushi – G1 Climax Day 7 – This was probably the best third-match-from-the-top of any of the G1 Climax shows this year. You knew with the talent of the men involved that this was going to be great, and it was. If only they had given them more time.
Jay Lethal (c) vs. Roderick Strong for the ROH Championship – Death Before Dishonor – One of two matches on this list that I saw live this year, this 60-minute marathon had a polarizing effect on fans. Some thought it went too long without a satisfying conclusion. I’m in the other camp that marvels at the ability for two wrestlers to perform the very difficult feat of going the hour. This is worth your time.
Seth Rollins (c) vs. John Cena for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship – SummerSlam/Night of Champions – I’m lumping these two matches together because I thought they were equally good. I want to pay special attention to the SummerSlam match where Rollins just totally rocked it. He adopted the new white gear, and since he was given a chance to work a long match, looked like a superstar. Rollins brought out a lot of stuff we don’t normally see from him like the frog splash, roll-through Attitude Adjustment, and superplex into a falcon arrow. The crowd’s energy was excellent as well. Even the Jon Stewart finish couldn’t take away from two of 2015’s best.
Tomohiro Ishii (c) vs. Tomoaki Honma for the NEVER Championship – Power Struggle – This was similar is style to their match at New Beginning Sendai, but better on all levels. These men fought like warriors, connecting with more high impact clotheslines, slaps, elbows, and by-God headbuts than I could count. After missing the first couple, Honma hit a suite of Kokeshis from every possible angle including a sick one off the top rope to the floor. The last few minutes saw a slew of near falls following moves that looked like they could kill a normal person. I thought it was over numerous times before Ishii finished Honma off with the brainbuster. The crowd was super into it, and the sight of Honma being helped out in tears was perfect. Excellent match!
HHH vs. Sting – Wrestlemania XXXI – I understand that this might be a unpopular choice for some because, let’s face it, the action in the ring was not the best you’re going to see. However, the spectacle of seeing Sting wrestling in a WWE ring for the first time was definitely special. What made the match for me though, was a first-time ever epic encounter between DX and the nWo. I know they’re all really friends and were standing together at the Hall of Fame the night before, but it didn’t matter to me. Plus, it’s Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania. I apologize for being such a mark.
Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship – Wrestle Kingdom 9 – The story going into this match was that in order for Okada to become the “ace” or “face” of the company, he had to go through Tanahashi first. This was outstanding from bell to bell. Both men won their share of fan support before the end of the match brought them to a frenzy. For the very first time, someone (Tanahashi) kicked out of the Rainmaker Clothesline! This match provided great drama and a surprising finish – one that would ultimately pay off a year later – that make this a must-see.
Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. Kota Ibushi for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship – Wrestle Kingdom 9 – Both of these men had an excellent year filled with classic matches, but in the eyes of many, including me, this is one of the best. Dave Meltzer gave this match 5 stars and I’m not going to argue with his assessment. The sight of Ibushi German suplexing Nakamura into the ring while standing the second rope still hangs with me. If you are a wrestling fan and missed this match, do yourself a service and find it. It is beyond excellent.
ROH All Stars (The Briscoes, Roderick Strong & War Machine) vs. Bullet Club (AJ Styles, The Young Buck, Doc Gallows & Karl Anderson) – War of the Worlds Night 1 – This was probably the best 10-man tag match I have ever seen. The action was so fast, furious, and impactful that it was hard to even keep up with all of it. Each wrestler was given an opportunity to look like a star and the finish took nothing away from anybody. You might call this a demolition derby, and it might be more candy than steak, but my goodness was it delicious candy. This was one of ROH’s best matches of 2015.
KUSHIDA vs. Kyle O’Reilly – New Japan Best of the Super Jr.’s Finals – These two fought like heroes for 32 minutes. Both men suffered arm injuries in the match which caused them to adapt their styles. There were plenty of high-impact moves, strikes, parries, counterstrikes, dodges, and chain wrestling. The last five minutes were packed with edge-of-your-seat action and dramatic near falls. The winner moved into a higher position, and the loser looks better in the loss than when he came in. This is the way wrestling is supposed to be done.
Bayley (c) vs. Sasha Banks for the NXT Women’s Championship in a 30-minute Ironman Match – NXT TakeOver: Respect – Many people view Sasha Banks as one of – if not the – best female wrestlers in the world. In this match, Bayley got to prove that she’s right on that same level. Because it was held at Full Sail, it didn’t possess the epic aura of their classic in Brooklyn, but the more intimate atmosphere allowed for some great heel antics, like when Sasha stole Izzie’s headband to mock Bayley. This is was the first time (in my memory) that women were given the opportunity to main event a major show, and they delivered. The moment when the locker room came out to congratulate Sasha before she moved up to the main roster for good put a giant smile on my face.
Bayley vs. Sasha Banks (c) for the NXT Women’s Championship – NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn – This was absolutely incredible, and arguably the best women’s match in WWE history. Sasha entered in a giant black SUV flanked by bodyguards, making her look like a total boss. Her disdain for Bayley’s dream to become champion coursed throughout this match. The little mannerisms, glances, and details made this special, like when Sasha stomped on Bayley’s hand as she reached for the ropes to break the Bank Statement. Bayley reversed Sasha into her own Bank Statement. Sasha kicked out of the Bayley-to-Belly. Bayley shocked the world with a top rope reverse hurricanrana. The moment where the Four Horsewomen gathered together in the ring to celebrate was one of my favorite moments of the year. I felt sorry for the main event. They had no chance of surpassing this.
John Cena vs. Seth Rollins vs. Brock Lesnar (c) for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship – Royal Rumble – Three consumate professionals competed together and proved just how good they are. Tight sequences, expertly-exucted manuevers, and impecable timing were everywhere here. Seth Rollins’s elbow from the top rope through Lesnar on the table was ridiculous! The Phoenix Splash spot was amazingly well-timed. The counter of finishers at the end was simply excellent. If only the rest of WWE’s 2015 was this good.
9) AJ Styles (c) vs. Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship – Dominion – This was the best match of what was arguably New Japan’s best show of the year. The series of rapid counters and near falls was remarkable. I will never forget the final flurry between these two that eventually ended the match. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything better than it.
8) Kevin Owens vs. John Cena – Money in the Bank/Elimination Chamber/Battleground – This was easily the best series of three matches between any two wrestlers this year. Kevin Owens made a memorable Raw debut by going right after John Cena and telling him that he was going to beat him. Then, in his first match on the main roster, Kevin Owens did just that. His win sent shock waves through WWE, raising speculation that maybe there was an opportunity for a new top guy to emerge. The results of the next two matches dampened that enthusiasm, but we shouldn’t let that distract us from the fact that Owens and Cena produced three absolute classics this year.
7) Kota Ibushi vs. AJ Styles – G1 Climax Day 5 – AJ Styles wrestled this match right around the time he turned 38 years of age. What’s so remarkable is that I’m not sure he’s hit his peak yet. He doesn’t seem to have lost any of his athleticism. His mat wrestling has improved since his time in TNA and his character is more well-developed than ever. In short, he looks like a superstar. In this match, AJ had the opportunity to tangle with another one of the top – and underrated – stars in the world, Kota Ibushi. Ibushi held his own to prove to AJ and all of New Japan that the future is indeed bright.
6) AJ Styles vs. Jay Lethal (c) for the ROH Championship – Final Battle – AJ entered this match having had probably the best year of his professional career. He was one of the few gaijin to ever hold the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and he put on classics while defending it. His Bullet Club was one of the hottest acts in wrestling. More importantly, wherever AJ Styles goes, he’s a megastar. As mentioned on commentary, Jay Lethal must be included in the discussion for best year of any ROH wrestler ever. He was the longest reigning TV Champion in history. He won the World Championship simultaneously and successfully defended both on the same show. He went an hour with Roderick Strong. He made himself arguably into Ring of Honor’s top guy.
These factors made this match tremendously compelling. We entered expecting each to be on top of their game, but both elevated theirs. The first few minutes saw multiple bouts of superior chain wrestling – acts that were long, fluid and innovative. Lethal went after the back, knowing that AJ had been rehabbing it for weeks. Truth interjected himself in all the right moments. A couple wicked spots near the end of the match – including one involving a table – and a finish that seamlessly incorporated Lethal’s storyline with Jerry Lynn made this my favorite ROH match of 2015.
5) Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kota Ibushi – G1 Climax Day 1 – This was the main event of the show that kicked off the G1 Climax tournament, and New Japan picked a doozy. I usually keep notes during matches, but this time I just got too lost in the action. The only thing I wrote down afterwards was “wrestling perfection.” Stop what you’re doing right now and go watch this.
4) Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Hirooki Goto (c) for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship – Destruction in Kobe – This was the product of two masters of their craft who know each other well. Throughout the entire contest, we waited for each wrestler’s signature maneuvers, and so did they. Every move was made new by the creative counters and counters to counters each man employed. This match included working on body parts, hard hitting Japanese-style striking, fluid and innovative technical wrestling, and a slew of near falls. The finish was so satisfying that I actually threw my hands up into the air and cheered after the three count. God, was this good.
3) Brock Lesnar vs. The Undertaker – Hell in a Cell – JBL commented on how the mood of the entire arena changed when this match started, and he was right. This had the feel of two men about to go to war. It was one of the stiffest WWE matches you would see in 2015. Brock and Taker both bled hardway, and it stood out so much since WWE rarely does blood anymore. Lesnar employed wicked chair shots, went brarefisted, and executed quick-as-hell suplexes. Taker took a BEATING, but managed a Hell’s Gate and enough strikes to stay in it. Both men kicked out of each other’s finishers. Lesnar’s seeing the tear in the canvas and deciding to tear the ring up was brilliant. I can’t remember ever seeing the wood beneath the ring in WWE before. The postmatch was perfect. Brock is sold as unbeatable, Taker gets minutes of pure respect as if it’s his last match, and the Wyatts carry him away. I have a busy mind, but I did not lose focus on this for one second. In my opinion this was the best WWE match of 2015.
2) Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. AJ Styles – G1 Climax Day 17 – This was an epic 23-minute contest in which the winner would win the A Block and advance to the G1 Climax Finals. This was a back-and-forth affair in which both men stayed so evenly matched, you couldn’t wait to see who would ultimately seize the advantage. Every move seemed to have a counter, and every impact that landed was intense. This was one of those fights in which all the little things seemed to matter, where the fluidity makes it seem like the game is slowing down for the wrestlers, while we marvel at their heroics in real time. AJ and Tanahashi eventually hit their own finishers and then the other’s! The crowd built to a frenzy by the end of this wrestling classic.
1) Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Shinsuke Nakamura – G1 Climax Final – The G1 Climax is unquestionably the greatest annual tournament in wrestling, and the Finals has consistently delivered one of its best matches. The winner of this one would advance to the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 10 to face the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Kazuchika Okada. Okada had regained the championship earlier in the year, but had yet to cement himself as the “ace” of the company. If Tanahashi won, Okada would face the current ace, and the man he had never been able to defeat at Wrestle Kingdom. If Nakamura won, Okada would face the leader of his own faction, CHAOS, in a match that could see Nakamura “pass the torch” to his younger stablemate.
With the future direction of New Japan Pro Wrestling on the line, the pressure was squarely on the shoulders of arguably the two greatest professional wrestlers in the world to deliver a match worthy of the set up. Given the talent levels of Tanahashi and Nakamura, the fans were expecting something special. We ended up getting a wrestling classic, and one that earns the distinction of being my favorite match of 2015.
Anticipation was palpable. The fans buzzed like a Wimbledon crowd that wanted to explode into cheers, but which was constrained by respect and cultural convention. Tanahashi set the early pace by working a headlock. Once Nakamura escaped, they fell into “wrestling jazz,” a sort of improvisational grappling that ultimately led to a standoff.
Long matches of this kind always need a spark to propel them to the next level. Here, that spark was disrespectful taunting. Tanahashi tried for the vibration kick, then Nakamura lightly, mockingly, and repeatedly kicked a kneeling Tanahashi in the face. Anger and intensity grew. After Tanahashi hit a crazy High Fly Flow onto Nakamura from the top turnbuckle to the floor, the match shifted into high gear.
Tanahashi executed some wicked dragon screw leg whips and negotiated Nakamura into a Lion Tamer. Nakamura escaped and hit a pair of Bomaye knees. Tanahashi attempted to counter a third with a bridging reverse hurricanrana, but Nakamura hit it anyway, leading to a fabulous near fall. The crowd was electric, as they knew the match could now end at any point.
As both men descended into exhaustion, their shots became stiffer, as if each thought he might only have one more left in the tank. Tanahashi and Nakamura chain wrestled into their signature maneuvers. The young lions at ringside displayed expressions of shock. Finally, Tanahashi won a battle on the top turnbuckle and hit three High Fly Flows. He covered Nakamura for the pin at the 32-minute mark, causing the crowd to erupt with approval. I cannot recommend watching this highly enough.
Honorable Mentions: Cena vs. Cesaro (Raw June 29 and July 6), AJ Styles vs. Shibata (G1 Climax Day 1), Ibushi vs. Naito (New Japan Cup semis), Honma vs. Ishii (NEVER Championship – New Beginning Sendai), Adam Cole vs. Kyle O’Reilly (ROH Final Battle), The New Day vs. Lucha Dragons vs. Usos (Tag Team Championships – TLC), Cena vs. Sami Zayn (Raw May 4), Sakuraba vs. Shibata (Dominion), Finn Bálor vs. Adrian Neville (NXT Rival), AJ Styles & The Young Bucks vs. Adam Cole, Matt Taven & Michael Bennett (War of the Worlds Night 2), Jack Evans vs. Angelico (PWG Battle of Los Angeles – Night 2), Nakamura vs. Goto (IWGP Intercontinental Championship (Dominion)), The Young Bucks vs. reDragon (ROH 13th Anniversary)