The Riren 100 #25-1, by John Wiswell

Riren 100
By John Wiswell of

Section A: Introduction

Welcome to my top 100 matches of the year. Today the Pulse is featuring matches 24 to 1. You can see the entire top hundred list in Section B. Section C features a countdown and review of matches 24-1; if you’d like to read the other reviews, check the previous three articles for 100-75, 74-50 and 49-25. Most of these thoughts were written months apart as I watched the individual shows, edited at multiple periods throughout the year. Writing all this in one weekend would probably kill me, but taking a few minutes to write about a great match is a good way to reflect on our collective hobby, especially when so many people have mistaken “criticism” to mean “stuff I hated.”

Each match in both Section B and C list the wrestlers, the date, the company and the show name, so you can track down the episode or DVD of anything you like. This list represents most of WWE’s weekly television and PPVs, TNA Impact and its PPVs, most of what was broadcasted in Japan by AJPW, NJPW and NOAH, all of ROH’s DVDs up to Final Countdown Tour: Boston, TV shows and Final Battle 2009, all of PWG’s DVDs up to Against the Grain, about ten shows from Chikara, a few shows by DDT, Dragon Gate’s weekly Infinity show and PPVs, the two Dragon Gate USA PPVs, and a few miscellaneous independent shows. Any candidate has to be watched at least twice, as the initial viewing (especially a live viewing) leaves a certain impression that needs to be checked. This is the third year of the list and at this point I’m resigned to Lucha not being a part of it. I’d love to get into Mexican wrestling, but at this point it’s either watch that or go outside and do things.

This list is not about who the best wrestler in the world is. Bryan Danielson’s matches have been a staple of the list for all three years, yet he’s very unlikely to have many appearances next year. Some wrestlers don’t get the opportunity to shine often, while others provide consistent quality performances that simply aren’t amazing, and then there’s Santino Marella. Wrestling takes all kinds. This list is only about the best matches of the year. By counting a hundred we can reflect on more of what was worthwhile in the hobby than a mere “match of the year” or top five. If you only have five matches you’re really happy about seeing in 365 -five days, I recommend another hobby.

Just as it doesn’t indicate one best wrestler, the list doesn’t reflect one best kind of match. There’s no such thing. There are great fifteen-minute matches and great hours draws, great brawls, technical matches and high-flying affairs, great straight matches and gimmick matches. Having a longer list also gives us room to acknowledge the disparate kinds of worthwhile matches that happen in a year. #1 is singles, #3 is a tag, #4 is a triple threat and #8 is in a ridiculous cage.

Given that there are a hundred matches, you’re bound to disagree with at least one being ahead of another. Every year somebody makes an empty death threat over their favorite match being beneath some obviously inferior one, or worse, that their favorite wasn’t on the list at all. Even with one hundred matches, some don’t make it. I had seventeen matches on my “short list” that I had to cut this year. But know that any criticism of match placement is less interesting than your response to what I actually wrote about the match. If you have a gripe, your own list (even just a Top 3), or if you have other matches you want to praise, you can e-mail me at

If you enjoy the list, please check out It’s a charitable drive to help with a ridiculously expensive surgery. Any donations will help.

You can also read my blog at . This is another side of my writing, mostly in monologues and short fiction. Something new goes up every day.

On to the list.

Section B: The List

1. Davey Richards Vs. Shingo Takagi (taped September 6) – Dragon Gate USA: Untouchable/Open the Untouchable Gate
2. The Undertaker Vs. Shawn Michaels (April 5) – WWE: Wrestlemania 25
3. Go Shiozaki & KENTA Vs. Kensuke Sasaki & Katsuhiko Nakajima (June 22) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Southern Navigation 2009 at the Korakuen Hall
4. AJ Styles Vs. Samoa Joe Vs. Christopher Daniels (November 15) – TNA: Turning Point
5. Bryan Danielson Vs. Davey Richards (September 25) – ROH: Final Countdown Tour Boston
6. Bryan Danielson Vs. Chris Hero (September 4) – PWG: Guerres Sans Frontieres
7. Davey Richards Vs. KENTA (April 3) – ROH: Supercard of Honor 4
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
9. Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs. Takashi Sugiura (July 20) – NJPW: New Japan Soul
10. Naomichi Marufuji Vs. Kaz Hayashi (February 6) – AJPW at the Korakuen Hall
11. Kurt Angle Vs. Desmond Wolfe (November 15) – TNA: Turning Point
12. Alex Shelley & Chris Sabin Vs. Bryan Danielson & Roderick Strong (May 22) – PWG: DDT4
13. Kota Ibushi Vs. Taiji Ishimori (April 5) – DDT: Judgment 2009
14. Edge Vs. Jeff Hardy (June 7) – Ladder Match from WWE: Extreme Rules
15. Go Shiozaki Vs. Takashi Sugiura (December 6) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Winter Navigation
16. Kaz Hayashi Vs. Shuji Kondo (August 30) – AJPW: Pro-Wrestling Love in Ryogoku Vol. 8
17. Claudio Castagnoli, Bryan Danielson & Dave Taylor Vs. Mike Quackenbush, Jorge Rivera & Jonny Saint (March 28) – Chikara Pro: King of Trios Night 2
18. Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs. Keiji Mutoh (January 4) – NJPW: Wrestle Kingdom 3
19. KENTA Vs. Kotaro Suzuki (January 25) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: First Navigation 2009
20. Austin Aries & Katsuhiko Nakajima Vs. Tyler Black & KENTA (April 4) – ROH: Take No Prisoners 2009
21. Shingo Takagi Vs. El Generico (September 4) – PWG: Guerres Sans Frontieres
22. CIMA, GAMMA & KAGETORA Vs. Naruki Doi, Masato Yoshino & BxB Hulk (July 10) – Dragon Gate: Rainbow Gate 2009
23. John Morrison Vs. Rey Mysterio (aired September 4) – WWE: Smackdown
24. Mike Quackenbush & Jigsaw Vs. Bryan Danielson & Claudio Castagnoli (September 12) – Chikara Pro: Hiding in Plain Sight
25. Bryan Danielson Vs. Chris Hero (September 18) – ROH: Final Countdown Dayton
26. Katsuhiko Nakajima Vs. KENTA (February 11) – Kensuke Office: Take the Dream Volume 7
27. Kurt Angle Vs. Jeff Jarrett (January 11) – No Disqualification Match from TNA: Genesis
28. The Great Muta Vs. Yoshihiro Takayama (March 14) – AJPW: Pro Wrestle Love in Ryogoku Vol. 3
29. The Undertaker Vs. C.M. Punk Vs. Rey Mysterio Vs. Dave Batista (October 25) – WWE: Bragging Rights
30. Katsuhiko Nakajima Vs. Kotaro Suzuki (October 15) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Autumn Navigation
31. Evan Bourne Vs. John Morrison (April 14) – ECW on Sci Fi
32. Masato Tanaka Vs. Toshiaki Kawada (October 24) – Zero-1: Never Gonna Stop
33. CIMA & Susumu Yokosuka Vs. Nick & Matt Jackson (taped July 25, aired September 4) – Dragon Gate USA: Enter the Dragon/Open the Historic Gate
34. KENTA Vs. Chris Hero (aired October 12) – ROH on HDNet
35. Rey Mysterio Jr. Vs. John Morrison Vs. Carlito Colon Vs. MVP Vs. The Great Khali Vs. Vladimir Koslov Vs. HHH Vs. Randy Orton Vs. JTG Vs. Ted DiBiase Jr. Vs. Chris Jericho Vs. Mike Knox Vs. The Miz Vs. Fit Finlay Vs. Cody Rhodes Vs. The Undertaker Vs. Goldust Vs. CM Punk Vs. Mark Henry Vs. Shelton Benjamin Vs. William Regal Vs. Kofi Kingston Vs. Kane Vs. Ron Killings Vs. Rob Van Dam Vs. Brian Kendrick Vs. Dolph Ziegler Vs. Santino Marella Vs. Jim Duggan Vs. The Big Show (January 25) – Royal Rumble Match from WWE: Royal Rumble
36. Shingo Takagi, Dragon Kid & Taku Iwasa Vs. CIMA, GAMMA & KAGETORA (aired April 15) broadcast on Dragon Gate Infinity 128
37. Bryan Danielson Vs. Kenny Omega (April 12) – PWG: One Hundred
38. Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs. Manabu Nakanishi (June 20) – NJPW: Dominion
39. Bryan Danielson, Roderick Strong & KENTA Vs. Davey Richards, Eddie Edwards & Chris Hero (aired September 19) – ROH on HDNet
40. CIMA, Alex Shelley & Chris Sabin Vs. Brian Kendrick, Nick Jackson & Matt Jackson (September 4) – PWG: Guerres Sans Frontieres
41. Chris Jericho Vs. Rey Mysterio (June 28) – Mask Vs. Title Match from WWE: The Bash
42. Davey Richards & Eddie Edwards Vs. KENTA & Roderick Strong (June 26) – ROH: Violent Tendencies
43. Suicide (Christopher Daniels) Vs. Alex Shelley Vs. Chris Sabin Vs. Jay Lethal Vs. Consequences Creed (March 22) – Ultimate X Match from TNA: Destination X
44. Bryan Danielson Vs. Bad Bones (March 7) wXw: 16 Carat Tournament 2009 Night 2
45. Davey Richards Vs. Kevin Steen (May 8) – Anything Goes Match from ROH: Never Say Die
46. Shingo Takagi, YAMATO & Taku Iwasa Vs. Ikuto Hidaka, Hayato Fujita Jr. & Minoru (September 27) – Dragon Gate Infinity 149
47. Jerry Lynn Vs. Bryan Danielson Vs. Austin Aries Vs. Tyler Black (aired June 6) – ROH on HDNet
48. KENTA & Taiji Ishimori Vs. Bryan Danielson & Roderick Strong (July 21) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Summer Navigation
49. Davey Richards Vs. Roderick Strong (July 31) – PWG: Threemendous 2
50. Naomichi Marufuji Vs. Prince Devitt (December 23) – NJPW: Super J-Cup 5th Stage Finals: Land of Confusion
51. Jimmy Jacobs Vs. Delirious (March 14) – No Disqualification Match from ROH: Insanity Unleashed
52. Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs. Masato Tanaka (August 15) – NJPW: G1 Climax Day 7
53. Shingo Takagi Vs. Tyler Black (March 7) wXw: 16 Carat Tournament 2009 Night 2
54. Kaz Hayashi Vs. Super Crazy (September 26) – AJPW at the Yokohama Bunka Gymnasium
55. Bryan Danielson Vs. Mike Quackenbush (March 20) – ROH: Steel City Clash
56. Shingo Takagi & YAMATO Vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima & Masaaki Mochizuki (aired August 6) – Dragon Gate Infinity 142
57. Christopher Daniels Vs. AJ Styles (December 20) – TNA: Final Resolution
58. Kevin Steen & El Generico Vs. Nick & Matt Jackson (June 12) – ROH: Contention
59. Alex Shelley & Chris Sabin Vs. Nick & Matt Jackson (April 11) – PWG: Ninety-Nine
60. Davey Richards & Eddie Edwards Vs. Nick & Matt Jackson (aired November 23) – ROH on HDNet
61. Bryan Danielson Vs. Naruki Doi (taped September 6) – Dragon Gate USA: Untouchable/Open the Untouchable Gate
62. Masato Yoshino, BxB Hulk & PAC Vs. Dragon Kid, Taku Iwasa & Akira Tozawa (July 19) – Dragon Gate: KOBE Festival 2009
63. Davey Richards Vs. Claudio Castagnoli (September 18) – ROH: Final Countdown Tour Dayton
64. Nigel McGuinness Vs. El Generico (taped January 31, aired April 17) – ROH: Caged Collision
65. Jerry Lynn Vs. Roderick Strong (April 24) – ROH: A Cut Above
66. Chris Sabin Vs. Tyler Black (March 6) – wXw: 16 Carat Gold Tournament 2009 Night 1
67. Chris Jericho Vs. Rey Mysterio (June 7) – No Holds Barred Match from WWE: Extreme Rules
68. Dick Togo Vs. Billy Ken Kid (May 20) – Osaka Pro: Osaka Pro 10th Anniversary Show
69. Bryan Danielson Vs. Brian Kendrick (August 28) – PWG: The Speed of Sound
70. Chris Jericho Vs. Rey Mysterio (May 17) – WWE: Judgment Day
71. Mike Quackenbush, Jigsaw, Helios & Lince Dorado Vs. Hallowicked, Frightmare, Hallowicked (Cheech) & Frightmare (Cloudy) (May 24) – Atomico Match from Chikara Pro: Anniversario Yang
72. Jun Akiyama, Minoru Suzuki & Takashi Sugiura Vs. Takeshi Rikio, KENTA & Mohammed Yone (September 27) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Great Voyage 2009 in Tokyo
73. Kurt Angle Vs. AJ Styles (aired October 15) – TNA: Impact
74. Yuji Nagata Vs. Hirooki Gotoh (February 15) – NJPW: Circuit 2009 New Japanism
75. Christian Vs. Jack Swagger (aired February 24) – WWE: ECW on Sci Fi
76. Katsuhiko Nakajima Vs. Roderick Strong (April 3) – ROH: Supercard of Honor 4
77. Edge Vs. John Morrison (aired June 19) – WWE: Smackdown
78. Takashi Sugiura & Atsushi Aoki Vs. Hirooki Gotoh & Kazuchika Odaka (May 5) – NJPW: Divergence
79. Davey Richards & Eddie Edwards Vs. Bryan Danielson & Tyler Black (taped April 18) – appearing on ROH: Double Feature 2
80. Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (November 11) – NJPW: Destruction 2009
81. Jimmy Jacobs Vs. Tyler Black (June 26) – Steel Cage Match from ROH: Violent Tendencies
82. Jeff Hardy Vs. John Morrison (aired July 31) – WWE: Smackdown
83. Bryan Danielson Vs. Tyler Black (aired April 25) – ROH
84. Shingo Takagi & YAMATO Vs. Masaaki Mochizuki & Don Fuji (November 23) Dragon Gate: The Gate of Destiny 2009
85. Hirooki Gotoh Vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (March 15) – NJPW: New Japan Cup 2
86. Mike Quackenbush & Jigsaw Vs. Cheech & Cloudy (February 21) – Chikara Pro: Motivation Means Opportunity
87. Alex Shelley & Chris Sabin Vs. Prince Devitt & Ryusuke Taguchi (July 5) – NJPW: Circuit 2009 New Japan Soul
88. Christian Vs. William Regal (September 13) – WWE: Breaking Point
89. Mike Quackenbush, Jigsaw, Soldier Ant & Fire Ant Vs. Amasis, Hallowicked, Gran Akuma & Icarus (taped July 25, aired September 4) – Dragon Gate USA: Enter the Dragon/Open the Historic Gate
90. Jerry Lynn Vs. Colt Cabana (April 25) – ROH: The Homecoming 2
91. Shingo Takagi Vs. YAMATO (January 23) – No Rope Match broadcast on Dragon Gate Infinity 118
92. Kevin Steen, El Generico & Bobby Dempsey Vs. Davey Richards, Eddie Edwards & Chris Hero (March 13) – ROH: Stylin’ and Profilin’
93. Kota Ibushi & Kenny Omega Vs. Danshoku Dino & “Yoshihiko” (May 4) – DDT in Tokyo
94. John Cena, Ricky Steamboat, CM Punk, Rey Mysterio & Jeff Hardy Vs. Edge, Big Show, Chris Jericho, Kane & Matt Hardy (April 6) – WWE: Raw
95. Alex Shelley Vs. Chris Sabin (January 11) – TNA: Genesis
96. Kenta Kobashi & Yoshihiro Takayama Vs. Keiji Mutoh & Akira Taue (September 27) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Great Voyage 2009 in Tokyo
97. Bryan Danielson Vs. Tyler Black Vs. Adam Polak Vs. Absolute Andy (March 8) wXw: 16 Carat Tournament 2009 Night 3
98. Nigel McGuinness Vs. KENTA (March 21) – ROH: Seventh Anniversary Show
99. Kota Ibushi Vs. Koji Kanemoto (May 30) – NJPW: Circuit 2009 Best of the Super Juniors 16
100. Edge Vs. Jeff Hardy (January 25) – No Disqualification Match from WWE: Royal Rumble

Section C: Countdown and Review

24. Mike Quackenbush & Jigsaw Vs. Bryan Danielson & Claudio Castagnoli (September 12) – Chikara Pro: Hiding in Plain Sight
They’ve wrestled so many times, but these might have been Quackenbush and Danielson’s best exchanges. In Chikara Quackenbush is a superman, and though Danielson is a star on any indy, here he could genuinely react to his opponent like the man was his superior, at least in status. That Danielson wouldn’t go down for a Palm Strike, or could try to shrug it off, was momentous. Castagnoli wasn’t shown up, being just as crisp in holds and smart in attempts at pinning combinations or throwing guys off-guard. I don’t care how low the ring was: Castagnoli Powerbombing Quack into the ring was an amazing sight. Jigsaw played into Castagnoli and Danielson’s offensive strengths, playing his best peril role to date. They came up with brilliant ways to pick apart his leg and torture him, and he managed to be an expressive victim when he wasn’t able to fly in attack. Danielson pounding the heck out of him in the Inverted Indian Deathlock and Castagnoli’s Single Leg Giant Swing were particularly hairy moments. Even how Danielson wrenched on the STF was novel, and Jigsaw played the victim as expressively as an U.S. wrestler can from under a mask. That set Quack up as the righteous savior, his best role, for some phenomenal final moments.

23. John Morrison Vs. Rey Mysterio (aired September 4) – WWE: Smackdown
This match was helped by rumors that management was going to squash Mysterio. Even if you didn’t know the rumors, by placing this in the middle of the show they made it difficult to gauge how long it would go. Like the classic Cena Vs. Michaels 2 from Raw in 2007, placement on the TV show made the time element part of the excitement. Morrison’s TV matches can go 5-10 or 20-30 minutes. The first commercial break was fine, but every time they approached one afterwards a finish of some kind was plausible. They teased their audience from the undercard, and certainly didn’t lie back and let time pass, filling up segments with novel offense that made this seem like a legitimate test of whether the younger, bigger Morrison could be better at Mysterio’s game. That’s a common enough story in wrestling (or in a Morrison 2009 match), but this stood out particularly because of the extra oomph they put into particular spots. When Morrison caught Mysterio and Baseball Slid him out of the ring, Mysterio got air and went ten feet. When Morrison countered a top rope move with a Dropkick, he got the fullest extension on a Dropkick counter I’ve ever seen, and square into the ribs. These are not things you want wrestlers doing all the time, but in high profile matches they make instances meaningful, where hitting Cena in the ribs with a cane eight times doesn’t.

22. CIMA, GAMMA & KAGETORA Vs. Naruki Doi, Masato Yoshino & BxB Hulk (July 10) – Dragon Gate: Rainbow Gate 2009
All the time off really helped CIMA get back into top form, and in a long match like this where he could still tag out, he showed what a ringmaster he could be. He was integral to the big sprints and in cut-offs that played off of his Blood Generation history with Doi and Yoshino. He and Doi had an animosity that built their unification match on a later show, but never held back to the point of detracting from the tag, being particularly cool in their opening exchange and how they tried to trip each other up for the rest of the match. Ironically, though, Yoshino and CIMA had the best segments, moving so nimbly that Doi’s simpler material, while executed well, just couldn’t match up. For the rest, GAMMA played a smaller role with KAGETORA compensating and eating a lot of offense, Yoshino picked things up as the fastest wrestler alive. Both teams were capable of clicking, but the best moments were when they couldn’t keep it entirely together because some member of the opposition new an opening.

21. Shingo Takagi Vs. El Generico (September 4) – PWG: Guerres Sans Frontieres
Notable for both Shingo and Generico getting one psychotic kickout that could have ended the match and made the crowd essentially wet themselves, and the two big false finishes weren’t connected in a series to feed off each other. Instead, both were built up independently, a brave experiment in wrestling for fickle crowds. It probably worked because Shingo and Generico are amazing and amazingly suited to each other, with Shingo being so formidable and Generico being such a punching bag with the unparalleled ability to come from behind against anyone. To his credit, Shingo gave Generico what he needed, bumping for a chop in the opening minute, getting wiped out on a dive and taking all sorts of moves that kept Generico as a threat. Generico was a lovable, somewhat goofy threat, one the crowd could support in a different way than they did Shingo’s precision and brute force. It also helped that Generico might have the best offensive pacing of anyone in America (the timing he gets on beginning and hitting mere boot attacks even contributes to drama) and Shingo was trained and refined in the pacing haven that is Dragon Gate, making them highly complimentary even with disparate offense every time the match picked up.

20. Austin Aries & Katsuhiko Nakajima Vs. Tyler Black & KENTA (April 4) – ROH: Take No Prisoners 2009
Firstly, I hate KENTA’s slingshot move where he bounds into the ring, lands, then casually brushes his opponent with his boot and poses. It hasn’t fit his intense overachiever offense for years and no one should lie there for it anymore. I bring this up because Aries is the only person in recent memory to take it well. You can use it to frame the whole match: he didn’t want to trade kicks, he didn’t want to get hit with big offense, he was a total prick to the visitor – everything in his performance made him deserve to get roughed up. Then when KENTA slung into the ring Aries looked over in relief only to get the minor kick in the face and reeled towards the camera with a great expression. Now was that move the whole match? No, but it’s an example of what went very right here. Nakajima has a great track record with KENTA and was a perfect match-up for Black, but Aries stepped aside from pure athleticism to give the match character. Many WWE matches tend to overshoot one element or the other, but the best indy tags tend to mix personality and performance. Here Aries did everything to avoid personal punishment, amusing the crowd as a goof, but was also hypocrite, eager to drop a safe Elbow Smash to Black when he was unaware on the floor. You wanted them to kick Aries’s head in, while you got the athletic aspect from his partner. This is something Aries is brilliant at, and here he made sure his antics broke up the match but never took too long, letting Black counter him and escape to get things rolling again. Black lent supporting offense, letting KENTA define most of their team’s attacks and plugging himself in when KENTA needed a rest or there was something fresh to do with Aries. All four clicked together in more complicated things, like the kick series that led to Aries thinking he had the match won, only to be caught in God’s Last Gift.

19. KENTA Vs. Kotaro Suzuki (January 25) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: First Navigation 2009
One thing lacking in most KENTA singles matches is the substance of his opponent. His 2008 Kensuke Office match against Nakajima displayed that, with neither able to bring anything different and having to do their normal stuff harder and faster. They couldn’t build something substantial. Normally it takes someone of Naomichi Marufuji or Bryan Danielson’s caliber to have a rock solid match with him. That’s why, even after numerous quality tags against him, it was surprising to see Kotaro Suzuki do so well. In part it was because Suzuki broke the rules, cheating more blatantly and more often than even Minoru Suzuki would in this company. He had little tributes to influences, like the fake double ballshot out of Eddie Guerrero’s playbook, and borrowing high-end offense from notable people in KENTA’s past like the Super Shiranui (Marufuji) and 619 (Marvin). They used the emotional brawling, weapons, ref attacks underhanded shtick to fill out a much better first half than is normally found in a KENTA singles match, before flowing into great competitive wrestling. For his part, KENTA brought his best aggression, delivering all his stuff with the intensity of someone who belonged in a main event.

18. Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs. Keiji Mutoh (January 4) – NJPW: Wrestle Kingdom 3
Wrestle Kingdom has fast become the kick-off of the wrestling year. In 2008 New Japan started things off with a bang in Angle Vs. Nagata. 2010’s Wrestle Kingdom line-up promises at least one must-see match. 2009’s Wrestle Kingdom was even more loaded than 2008, but Mutoh and Tanahashi stood the tallest. Mutoh’s slow mat wrestling has dragged a lot of main events down in the last two years, but Tanahashi knew how to respond with emotion, particularly fear of getting caught or staying caught under the veteran. Years of treating guys like Nakamura like the were killers on the mat paid off in his big match, along with years of growing into a prick who would steal from a vet’s offense. It reminded me of the better Misawa matches of 2007 and 2008, with a younger guy essentially having a good match around the other guy – hardly “wrestling a broom,” but perhaps occasionally wrestling a broom that the audience loved. A broom with a little life in it – which I guess makes Tanahashi the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Hence the massive reactions for a couple of Dragon Screws. Hence the easy setup for dueling Dropkicks to the knees. They made a match where Mutoh rose up over Tanahashi, when he should have simply stood over him from the beginning. Tanahashi’s ability to react and Mutoh’s willingness to give in as the match went on set up better and better exchanges. There hasn’t been a cooler setup for the Shining Wizard than Tanahashi’s missed Frog Splash in years. The middle was like a tribute by and against Mutoh for his trademark offense in a proper farewell from him at the end of his New Japan stint. But what emerged was something that refreshed Tanahashi.

17. Claudio Castagnoli, Bryan Danielson & Dave Taylor Vs. Mike Quackenbush, Jorge Rivera & Jonny Saint (March 28) – Chikara Pro: King of Trios Night 2
I expect hate mail when I declare that the best match in Chikara history only featured two Chikara wrestlers. I’m sorry, Chikarmy, but Jonny Saint is better than Icarus. You had a match of seasoned wrestling all-stars with over a century of combined wrestling experience, and it showed in how they made more out of reactions to offense than any other match made out of actual offense. Danielson crumpling and getting indignant with Quackenbush for attacking his knee, Dave Taylor avoiding Jonny Saint, Rivera’s joy at coming up with counters and fake-outs, and Quackenbush clearly emoting how he figured out his opponents’ holds were all golden, not merely for their individual entertainment value, but how they elevated the guys they fought. In a three-night show with all manner of crazy strikes and flying moves, this was a stunning technical match, from the fun of guys testing themselves against the legendary Saint, to the drama of Danielson fearing for his leg.

16. Kaz Hayashi Vs. Shuji Kondo (August 30) – AJPW: Pro-Wrestling Love in Ryogoku Vol. 8
I love watching Hayashi desperately try to escape Kondo’s power moves. The way he clutched the top rope whenever Kondo went for a big slam was great, and they built that into its own big exchange on the apron where the two teased half a dozen career-enders. Kondo was the consummate power guy with energy to spare, nothing like the guy who slogged through so many shorter matches in the tournament earlier in the month. Though they took lulls in-between the big offense, this didn’t suffer from the pacing issues of Kondo’s big bout with Marufuji last year, and they made better advantage of those lulls by having frequent counters to big move attempts that happened right after them. They also made sure to counter with equally devastating offense that necessitated another breather. By midmatch they struggled to rise against each other, not only showing desperation through facial expressions, but in the Headbutts and Forearm Strikes they threw when they couldn’t even get to their feet. They collected some of the biggest bombs they knew, like Kondo catching the Tope Con Hilo to drop Hayashi throat-first across the guardrail, or Hayashi turning a top rope move into a wickedly innovative DDT. Like the best big puro bouts, it built and built until one bomb was simply too much. It’s clear that when Hayashi steps away from the slower heavyweight style, he’s still amongst the best Cruiserweights going.

15. Go Shiozaki Vs. Takashi Sugiura (December 6) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Winter Navigation
A year ago, would you have thought Go and Sugiura would wrestle for NOAH’s top title? Of course Go became champion after the Misawa tragedy, but it was still a surprise to see the two at the top while Akiyama, Kobashi, Taue, Takayama and even Rikio stood beneath them. This was without a doubt the best of Go’s singles matches since the Misawa tragedy, and is arguably better than his 2008 classic against Austin Aries in ROH. In 2008, Aries did most of the work and Go got to play juggernaut. This time Go did all of his half of the work, feeding everything into Sugiura like a true main eventer. Even the big post-tragedy matches against Rikio, Nakajima and KENTA didn’t show this much star power, nor this much structure. Your average GHC Heavyweight Championship match has the hot opening exchange and then slows, but these guys crashed into each other roaring, went to the mat for a minute, then picked right back up for their brawl on the outside and a Kobashi-like drop for Go on the entrance ramp. As Go unloaded all his big offense, timed combos into Lariats and went into such surprisingly extended strike battles, he had the intensity he needed for his whole reign. It’s a shame he truly emerged just as it ended. Falling so quickly in Sugiura Side Sleeper and the way he sold the Gutwrench Suplex off the apron, heaving for breath and checking several times to see if his body was ready to sit up were the kinds of character cues that can make great matches. It certainly helped this one. Sugiura completely held up his end as a challenger, like against Morishima in 2008, showing off his freakish strength through striking and power that at once made him look amazing for standing up to a bigger opponent while never detracting from Go’s own ability. Aside from Morishima, there isn’t another young guy in NOAH who could eat a dozen spinning chops from Go like that and really earn the right to remain vertical.

14. Edge Vs. Jeff Hardy (June 7) – Ladder Match from WWE: Extreme Rules
I remarked going into the show that it was a PPV of the best and worst matches. Even before we saw it, we knew this was one of the best. They are kings of the Ladder Match, and continued their innovation to the very end with Edge getting caught in-between the rungs. His frantic flailing as Hardy snatched the belt and looked down at him, defiant and victorious, was one of the best visuals of the wrestling year. Long before the end, though, they went brave and creative, falling through ladders in sick fashion, but also finding novel ways to use them, like dropping Edge chest-first through the supports of an upturned ladder. With touches like Hardy preparing a counter to the mid-air Spear, they had enough sense of history as well as timing to accomplish something much better than a mere garbage match.

13. Kota Ibushi Vs. Taiji Ishimori (April 5) – DDT: Judgment 2009
At the beginning I begged Ibushi not to sell his leg because that would only require him to forget it later. That’s the joke about Ibushi, right? While most vestiges of Ishimori’s legwork were shed in the final minutes, Ibushi remained remarkably consistent at showing weakness in the limb and fear of Ishimori’s mat acumen, creating a particularly sharp variation of the Moonsault fake-out by collapsing when he landed on his feet. And while I’ve seen Ishimori try to be a technician in many matches in the last two years, I’d never seen him be this good. He knew the angles at which to sit in holds, kept a great variety of leg submissions and was happy to change it up for his own flying, like one sickening Missile Dropkick to Ibushi’s leg trapped in the ropes. You wouldn’t expect this level of technical slickness from Ishimori, and certainly wouldn’t expect them to weave between methodical and exciting wrestling so well, but they put everything to work, creating some particularly fine counters, like Ibushi throwing up the knees under the Superstar Elbow. They structured the match for their big offense far better than anyone could have expected, creating likely their best singles match against anyone.

12. Alex Shelley & Chris Sabin Vs. Bryan Danielson & Roderick Strong (May 22) – PWG: DDT4
It’s good that the Guns can shine somewhere. In 2008, they were allowed to shine in ROH. In 2009, they got some shots in PWG. In their only match of the tournament they tried to make-up for so many other canceling, not running so much contrived double team offense, instead feeding Strong several moments to punk them out. It continuously broke down into two singles matches, giving it a wild atmosphere that differed from most big Guns matches. Danielson plugged himself in well, alternately as the ironic minimalist with kicks and his super Double Team Hip Toss, and trying to stay in step with Sabin up until the final counters, which led to the coolest application of his Triangle Choke that I’ve ever seen. They kept rocking, with so many false finishes that it could have gone either way, and such that the finals just couldn’t live up to it. Where the finals showed the Bucks as truly out-classed and lucky to win, this was about four guys on the same level using everything they had.

11. Kurt Angle Vs. Desmond Wolfe (November 15) – TNA: Turning Point
If WWE officials didn’t think they were losing something in Nigel McGuinness, this should have convinced them of their mistakes. He certainly didn’t wrestle like a man who failed a physical, and if his health really was that bad, wrestling fans can only hope he can perform like this without exacerbating matters. It wasn’t a match he could have had in ROH, either: this was a big-stage debut that was deliberately off of ROH’s pace, yet fit into TNA’s, especially thanks to the question of how long Angle could last if he was still hurt, and how long Wolfe could hang in there with a main eventer. They played it from the first ten minutes, including the Lariat that could have ended the match, but instead sent it into a massive question of how long this would go. For a story like that you’d expect an ending coming out of nowhere to hurt it, but the Side Triangle Choke made sense – Angle needed a brand new hold. Wolfe mouthed “What was that?” seconds after tapping, cementing that it was something Angle hadn’t used before. It was the best possible weapon against a guy who scouted him so much in advance where Angle scout him. He went for a series of Ankle Lock attempts, which everyone always counters, and when he saw Wolfe taking the bait, he switched into an arm hold that put him in position for the choke. Something totally new, and something Wolfe probably should counter the next time, but he couldn’t then. Wolfe wasn’t hurt after going such a distance against a TNA main eventer and after match plot threads like the arm work that led to his nasty London Dungeon hold, killer strikes and Tower of London.

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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