Friday Morning Backlash: The Riren 100 (Top 25 Matches of 2010, Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle, Tyler Black)

The Riren 100
By John Wiswell

Part 1: Introduction

This was the hardest 100 to date. Two weeks ago my “short list” was 138 matches long. More great stuff appeared in December than in any previous year, despite most indies and internationals still having yet to do their releases. If some of your favorites are missing, that’s a good thing. That means this year was so good that a hundred other matches were noteworthy. Props to TJP in Evolve, Yuji Nagata’s phenomenal G1, and Shinsuke Nakamura’s best year in a while – but a lot of things simply couldn’t make the list.

This annual list began out of one thing: bitching. Wrestling fans complain too much. We backseat drive companies on hearsay and accentuate negatives that we’ll never fix. I’ve been guilty of it. It’s inescapable in a fandom. But writing about the hundred best matches in a year forces you to embrace why you tune in and pay, the primal positive for partaking of pro wrestling at all. Every week WWE puts between 4-6 hours of wrestling on free television, plus their Pay Per Views, plus TNA Pay Per Views and their additional 2-3 hours per week, plus ROH’s weekly show and their DVDs, and those of every other indy. Add to that any international wrestling you watch. I’ve consumed a great deal of Puro, but little European or Mexican wrestling, because I like to spend at least a few hours a week outside. Regardless, if there weren’t a hundred matches you’re glad you watched this year, you should re-evaluate watching modern wrestling. It’s a hobby with a lot of great performances on an annual basis.

This list doesn’t determine who the best wrestler is. I don’t believe there is a single “best in the world.” Davey Richards has more matches on this year’s list than Shawn Michaels. That doesn’t make him better. Nor do the Motor City Machine Guns having more matches higher than the Kings of Wrestling make them inherently a better tag team. Nor do I endorse any one style: there are technical clinics, hardcore matches, strike-heavy stuff and plenty of high-flyers. There’s even one comedy match that made my sides hurt. There are many ways to have a great match, and going beyond the Top 5 or Top 10 lets you reflect on that.

If you’d like to contact me with gripes, praise or job offers, hit me up at riren100@gmail.com. It’s established especially for the 100 column. You can also catch my non-wrestling writing at http://johnwiswell.blogspot.com.

I hope this helps you reflect on a great year of in-ring action. Cheers.

Part 2: Countdown and Reviews

24. Jun Akiyama Vs. Kensuke Sasaki (April 10) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Spring Navigation at the Tokyo Korakuen Hall
With such a storied history and so many veterans slowing down or disappearing, I guess Akiyama and Sasaki decided to prove why they belonged in this match. It wasn’t match of the year, but definitely the match of the Global League until the final day. They worked at a brisker pace than was scene against nearly any other opponents and worked holds in ways I wish more people their age would. Minus some of the stiffness, this style would fit fine in the WWE main event scene, with Sasaki trying various ways to strike out of a Leglock early on, or Akiyama collapsing for a nearfall in Sasaki’s Armlock late in the match. They even had that back and forth pacing that the likes of HHH fetishize, but their facial expressions and physical struggling kept the holds appearing dangerous, getting the crowd buzzing for when one of them would bust out a rarer move like Akiyama’s diving attack off the top rope.

23. Jun Akiyama & KENTA Vs. Yuji Nagata & Ryusuke Taguchi (July 27) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: New Navigation in Osaka
Up to that point it was the most heated of the NOAH/NJPW matches on NOAH soil, with Nagata playing the 2010 answer to 2009’s Kawada for KENTA. Nagata and KENTA didn’t rip into each other because they never gave each other the chance to do it. They had such physical animosity that half the time they wouldn’t even try what they wanted to do, and when KENTA threw an angry kick, Nagata refused it and nearly dragged him into a Back Suplex. KENTA’s lax and disrespectful kicks to save Akiyama late in the match only instigated more hatred against Nagata. Nagata was similarly vicious against Akiyama, picking at him and relishing when he was finally weakened enough to abuse. On offense or in neutral, Akiyama played a similar curmudgeon to Taguchi, refusing to go down or stay down for his holds and tossing him around mercilessly in the final stretch. The unyielding attitude of both veterans and their seconds made the company rivalry feel as heated as any Nexus/WWE sneak attack, but for the duration of a match.

22. Davey Richards Vs. Christopher Daniels (October 16) – ROH: Richards Vs. Daniels
I was among those who thought waiting so long for a non-title match to happen after a pretty explicit challenge made little sense. Well, it was month the wait. Daniels peppered the match with expressions of effort, whether it was whispering to himself (just in range of the microphone) that this “bastard” kicks hard, or snapping “Dammit!” after a kickout. He earned that emotion by wrestling with incredible intelligence, throwing in small touches like covering once Richards was baited into Palmstrikes, and primarily getting into contests (like the Kawada Kicks/Palmshots strike battle) when he was in danger of looking decidedly inferior. It all fit for a match between the company vet and the new hardnose who were legitimately fighting to see who was the best. It started very slow, succeeding on Richards’s intensity and Daniels’s minutia: Richards wrangling into his Tequila Sunrise Cloverleaf looked vicious, but Daniels immediately propping himself up for an escape looked brilliant. When rolled into a pinning predicament, Daniels reached for the ropes, couldn’t get them, and in a splitsecond shot his shoulder up, all the while investing his thought process in his face. Daniels showed fear and frustration, while Richards covered the fire, and so you got most of the emotional spectrum available in an athletic contest. They built to several of the best sequences and counters anywhere – striking sequence leading to the failed Solebutt and Daniels’s Angel’s Wings might be my favorite of 2010, and as someone who’s annoyed with Richards’s use of the Shooting Star Press as a regular nearfall and never a finisher, Daniels changing it into the Koji Clutch was even more delightful.

21. Shingo Takagi, YAMATO & Cyber Kong Vs. Naruki Doi, Masato Yoshino & BxB Hulk Vs. Dragon Kid, Genki Horiguchi & Ryo Saito (taped July 8) – aired on Dragon Gate Infinity 182
Dragon Gate trains guys to be fluid and watch their spots, but it was still remarkable that this match never became a mess. Guys often flooded the ring but they came with direction, like Horiguchi & Saito relying on old tandem offense, or Doi & Yoshino perennially watching each other’s backs. When KAMIKAZE interjected it was generally for YAMATO to be a jerk (like abusing Horicughi’s hair) or Shingo or Kong dropping pure power over the more cruiserweight-style opponents. Most frequently they relied on the puro tag pairing system: if Shingo and Saito climbed in, then they did something focused against each other (in one case, a Shoulderblock contest) before a third man would cut them off and change the pace. That was made impressive by how seamlessly the shifts in pace and offensive style clicked – you could have YAMATO getting humorously scrunched in the turnbuckles ten times, then swap to WARRIORS trying to hit their finishers on Saito with no loss of crowd buzz or sense of flow. That segmented style also paced things out for the performers, such that every man who came in would be rested enough to hit his spots crisply. Perhaps no match this year used that formula so well.

20. Davey Richards Vs. Chris Hero (July 30) – PWG: Seven
A total pleasure. The slow opening ten minutes were full of great details, like Richards grapevining his legs around Hero to try and drag him down, or Hero failing to out-technique Richards and so simply muscling him up and slamming him out of a hold. When Richards tried his favorite Sitting Surdboard, Hero managed to force his way out and slap the same hold on him thanks to sheer size. They channeled raw feelings about Hero’s title situation into their snub-nose style, struggling for holds and going for the hardest hits. They went so tight that when Richards completely overshot a Snap Sunset Flip attempt, they went right into the next move without any awkward pause. And where Richards might out-strike Roderick Strong or El Generico, he was not going to do the same to ‘That Young Knock Out Kid.’ He also couldn’t rely on pure speed, and eventually had to grab and pursue Ankle Locks, finding ways back into the hold time and time again, the way he put Shingo away in DGUSA last year. The one thing he could rely on was personal toughness, surviving bomb after bomb from here. While they could have just sprinted through the latter half, they inserted several clever references to the way sprints work – so Hero delivered a Yakuza Kick, Richards flew onto his back, roared back to his feet like he was going to mount an adrenaline-fueled comeback, only to eat a second Yakuza Kick and go down. You could not rely on this match to simply follow big-indy style, even though they delivered the great highs that style can deliver.

19. Dolph Ziggler Vs. Evan Bourne Vs. CM Punk Vs. JTG Vs. The Great Khali Vs. Beth Phoenix Vs. Zack Ryder Vs. HHH Vs. Drew McIntyre Vs. Ted DiBiase Jr. Vs. John Morrison Vs. Kane Vs. Cody Rhodes Vs. MVP Vs. Carlito Vs. The Miz Vs. Matt Hardy Vs. Shawn Michaels Vs. John Cena Vs. Shelton Benjamin Vs, Yoshi Tatsu Vs. The Big Show Vs. Mark Henry Vs. Chris Masters Vs. R-Truth Vs. Jack Swagger Vs. Kofi Kingston Vs. Chris Jericho Vs. Edge Vs. Dave Batista (January 31) – Royal Rumble Match from WWE: Royal Rumble
Ziggler and Bourne started things off with quick exchanges, both giving something athletically impressive and setting up Punk’s run. Punk was a superb bastard, eliminating them while they were distracted and wiling around for the next several entries, finding new ways to lecture the crowd. While people complained about HHH being the one to eliminate him, I actually loved it – HHH was the definite executioner, a role only Undertaker or a babyface Batista could fulfill. He was physically overwhelming, brooding, highly established, had the perfect entrance music, and essentially every necessary element to get the crowd wild after all of Punk’s underhanded antics. In-between, we got one of my all-time favorite eliminations in Beth Phoenix kissing Khali out of competition. The match pushed on much better than 2009’s, never clotting around too many guys, instead accruing the bigger faces, giving HHH all the exposure he needed before Michaels dropped him. The story of MVP hunting Miz slipped in simply and properly – it’s only a shame their ensuing feud was a dud. Once Michaels finally arrived they teased his desperate pursuit of the title shot, finding ways around HHH, Cena, Batista and the giants. Edge’s late entry was both exhilarating and worrying, teasing the audience for him being back while his return also jeopardized Michaels’s mission. For plot threads and twists, this was one of the best Rumbles in recent years.

18. Davey Richards Vs. Kenny Omega (March 20) – ROH: Epic Encounter 3
Their first ROH outing was one of the late-comers I wished I could have seen in time for 2009’s Riren 100. This was better, only missing the trait of surprise the first one had. Then, it was a shock to see them go at it so hard in the middle of a card. This time it was the main event, with no surprises and all the pressure. They answered in the first minute, with a vintage Japanese-style hot intro that ended with Richards doing a Tope Con Hilo. That should probably never open a match again, but this time? Wow. They went to heavy moves and strikes early so as to get into the middle-match territory sooner, which graduated them to fatigue and wear sooner, and so got the high-struggle in record time. And captured in a sense of struggle, Omega’s counters looked even better than usual. He’s crisp when he’s on a roll, but in countering here he’d stagger a little, forcing him to cover it up with inventiveness shone (like in the Croyt’s Wrath out of the Jujigatame). With Richards’s conviction in everything he threw, even some of the mid-match roll-ups looked like they might end it, while the actually finishing stretch was one of the best of ROH’s entire year.

17. Tyler Black Vs. Kevin Steen (July 24) – ROH: Salvation
In 2008 when Black was having a career-making feud with Nigel McGuinness (TNA’s Desmond Wolfe), it was surprising to see El Generico have a better match against the champ than any of Black’s. Generico simply played that vigorous underdog better and made the match formula his own. In 2010, when Generico was having a career-revitalizing feud against Kevin Steen, it was just as surprising to see Tyler Black make their match formula his own and have a better singles match than any of Generico’s against that same rival. Steen was on a roll for much of the year, embracing despicable (and sometimes disgusting) characteristics, throwing guys around with his weight, trying to bully men who often turned out too formidable to bully. Black was his best target, most suited to being too formidable to bully as champion, but also showing how much Steen’s venom got to him. From the opening takedown Black threw better punches than usual, and Steen squirmed like someone who deserved it. As blood began to flow Steen became even meaner-spirited, throwing on torturous holds like the Sharpshooter and Crippler Crossface, and screaming insults into Black’s bloody face. I disagreed with Dave Prazac’s commentary of Steen trying to get into Black’s head – he was winning and didn’t need the advantage. It was his pettiness, his need to feed his ego, that bully nature that made him stand out as one of ROH’s best antagonists. Black’s big comebacks were some of the best of his ROH career, not mere underdog fire like he’s shown in 2008, but with established high-end offense just to survive. It became increasingly personal as they dropped more high-end offense, with Black both having to and desiring to hit the Double Stomp through the table. They managed to maintain the physicality while reaching the emotional pitch as Steen stole some of Black’s offense, setting up Black stealing the Sharpshooter to keep the bully down.

16. Chris Sabin & Alex Shelley Vs. Max Buck & Jeremy Buck (March 21) – Ultimate X Match from TNA: Destination X
Generation ME was so on-task in this match. They jumped at the bell to blitz the more established team, and after a few minutes of almost solid sprinting Jeremy Buck grabbed a Knucklelock and ran the turnbuckles as though he was going for some super-move, only to bound to the top rope while his brother tripped up Shelley. On top of showcasing some of the smoothest sprinting in any company all year, it was great to watch ME aggressively seek out goals in the match. When it became obvious they weren’t going to steal this match the two teams fell into remarkable cruiserweight offense, both for the innovation on display and how they executed it. One Buck would go through three moves in perfect planning, not mere choreography, but reacting to the proper positioning. Before they went wire-heavy they were innovative; when they climbed, they had phenomenal ideas. As opposed to a normal X-style match, this one moved briskly because of the poise of the teams, dodging artificiality and the lulls that expose other cruiserweights’ weaknesses. Heck, those are weaknesses that hurt their Full Metal Mayhem match later in the same year, and the equally popular (on the indy scale) cluster match from PWG’s Seven. Here they were at their very best, only going into lulls in the wake of a crescendo. They played it brilliantly.

15. Takashi Sugiura Vs. Jun Akiyama (May 2) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Spring Navigation at the Budokan Hall
Akiyama almost ensured that they either fought for moves or came up with a sudden counter at the right times, never letting Sugiura dominate too much. Akiyama’s Kobashi-GHC-defense-like bump on the outside and near-countout was an utter blast. Sugiura, happy to be in a big building and big match, was at the top of his execution, whether it was throwing boots in the opening strike exchanges or rolling around for better footing on the Ankle Lock late in the match. The match was all about struggle, so while thousands of Japanese matches end in apparent exhaustion, these guys earned how they slowed down or became dazed, and every time they tried to fight through it (like the Suplex-exchange semi-sprint) was richer for it. Akiyama went out of his way to validate Sugiura, going even with him so often and letting him win things like the late-match Palmstrike battle, but when it was Sugiura’s turn to have an “I’m screwed” look as Akiyama twisted his arm to set up the Wrist-Clutch Exploder, Sugiura returned the favor. They couldn’t book a better advertisement for a title fight than by making it a rematch to this. It’s only a shame the title fight was a pale imitation.

14. Kurt Angle Vs. Jeff Hardy (September 5) – TNA: No Surrender
I thought they would rein the match in or even call it off after the sickening Powerbomb. Hardy came down so sharply that you worried for a severe concussion or worse. That they could regroup, and that he would even try all of the Swanton attacks within the next fifteen minutes was a tremendous gut check. That real life gut check was a good counterpoint for Angle’s drive, as he chased Hardy through the match, particularly towards the first “ending” and through the first five minute overtime. He hammered desperately on his back and picked at the ankle every way he could, fighting for his career with a desperation that was lacking in most of the Top Ten series. While I groaned at a title tournament match having only twenty minutes, the brief overtimes and Angle’s cut made the eventual termination of the match very reasonable. They couldn’t go any further without risking the health of a wrestler. In terms of the existing storyline for Angle to voluntarily retire if he lost, this was a great motivation for him to return.

13. Bryan Danielson Vs. Shingo Takagi (taped July 24) – Dragon Gate USA: Enter the Dragon 2010
In ways this exploited and exposed Shingo’s greatest weakness, which is that because of all his strength and toughness he hasn’t expanded his game and so is vulnerable to versatile offense from a guy who is at his level. Danielson frequently got free palmstrikes and elbow shots, and towards the end of the match Shingo couldn’t shrug them off anymore, particularly when he collapsed during his attempted Powerbomb out of the Triangle Choke. It’s not a real flaw, but a deliberate flaw in Shingo’s game that worked very well here because Danielson could fill in all those openings with the best technical dominance out there. On its own that could have been too simple a story, so they built in some amazing moments, like Shingo firing up within the Elbow Barrage to hit his Stay Dream, and towards the end they went through a series of Danielson’s finishers ala his best period in ROH, making this strongman look like a juggernaut. That sort of material made Shingo’s game seem inherently adequate; you’d understand why he approached matches the same way all the time, because he could overwhelm just about anybody that way. They also introduced a few things, like Danielson landing out his feet out of the Bloodfall for a big head kick, showing up shortly before this did in every other Shingo match (and Shingo’s expression of horror before the kick was probably his best in any iteration of the counter). After everything Danielson poured onto him, he pulled off the most painful LeBell Lock to date, with Shingo’s mouth hanging open just beneath Danielson’s clasped hands. Wrestling doesn’t get much better than those closing moments.

12. El Generico Vs. Kevin Steen (December 18) – Fight Without Honor Match from ROH: Final Battle 2010
A rare case where a storyline justified going so over the top. Usually matches with gratuitous action self-justify, because it’s rare for bloodfeuds to feel like they warrant going as far as some wrestlers do in their matches. It’s left to the performers to do outrageous things in character and make them feel right (something both Steen and Generico had done many times before). But in this case, no extreme was unbelievable for the story. It was the greatest betrayal in ROH history and was a year in the making, with several increasingly bloody skirmishes along the way. They both arrived deeply in character, Steen seeming at his most depraved, licking blood and happily burying Generico in guardrail covers. And as silly as it is to throw floor mats or guardrail covers on top of someone before doing a move, El Generico turned it into a strong moment by gasping and reeling under their edge. Generico walked in with purpose, deadly serious and driving Steen out of the ring with a great modified version of his usual Yakuza Kick, but when it was time for the bully to beat him, it was one of his most sympathetic performances. Generico gasping for air as Steen tore his mask and ripped open his forehead was legitimately disturbing and necessary for Generico to come back. The overarching story was Generico persevering, over hardcore abuse, bloodloss, and eventually losing a series of referees. Steen tricking him into booting Todd Sinclair, and then deciding to take out the replacement too when he still couldn’t keep Generico down for three was inspired. You had a match where Steen was wobbling between all the major influences of a bully: he wanted to beat down Generico, pin him, and when he kept failing to win, trying to escape back into punishment. Generico finally rose up as the better man, standing over Steen with the chair in the best ending of a match all year, and in a style only comparable to Shawn Michaels’s string of recent Wrestlemanias. It was so much more personal, with Steen finally flinching, holding up his arms and Generico’s old mask. For a moment you could wonder if Generico was going to take him back, like a sad and battered wife, before he dropped it and declared his independence with a chairshot that echoed how the whole feud began.

11. Chris Sabin & Alex Shelley Vs. Robert Roode & James Storm (aired August 12) – 2/3 Falls Match from TNA: Impact
All I heard for the next week was that this should have been the main event. Not even that it was actually good or anything specific about it, just that it should have ended the show. Allow me to say: this should have been the main event, and here is why. There is nothing that Fortune and EV2 could do that (or did do) that would be as innovative as this. Beer Money chained their best power and simple offense, foiling the Guns’ fast-paced game while accentuating how impressive their substance is. The Guns were as crisp as ever, and they set up big spots like the Cross Body/Tope combination brilliantly. Beer Money are great crash test dummies, knowing exactly when and how to get things turned on them. Here, they were always in the right position, which deflated any complaints I’d tolerate about the Guns coming off as too mechanical. Sabin was on his maestro game, nearly directing Roode and Storm to their demise at several points, managing to seem like he was struggling even as he came off as sterling. This was all passion, and it bled through to a crowd that was excited for a rare episode of Impact. On top of their innovation and delivery, they built a competition. Beer Money got the first fall, but the Guns didn’t languish and fight for fifteen minutes from behind like an old Southern team; they came right back, and they should have. As the culmination of a Best of Five series, neither team could be ahead for long. To sustain any kind of advantage they had to destroy each other with their highest offense, like Shelley sampling Kaval/Low Ki’s old Tree of Woe Stomp and Sabin’s phenomenal Springboard DDT. In the end Shelley wiggled out of the Powerbomb/Neckbreaker combination and Storm survived one Skull and Bones, a simple testament to how much they could survive. The last Skull and Bones was just enough overkill to end the rivalry and prove that the Guns should be on top of TNA.

10. Shingo Takagi & YAMATO Vs. Don Fuji & Masaaki Mochizuki (taped August 5) – aired on Dragon Gate Infinity 186
When YAMATO tried to open with a chop battle, Fuji struck him square in the neck. When Mochizuki tried to scale the turnbuckles, Shingo immediately caught him and Powerbombed the sense out of him. The second time Shingo tried to pull Mochizuki into a Made in Japan, Mochizuki kneed him unmercifully in the forehead. They gave each other no quarter for almost all of the seventeen minutes, not countering into a bunch of highspot sprints, but pulling everything into submission holds and dangerous power moves. Don Fuji was firing at a personal best, getting agitated in every strike battle and trying to interrupt KAMIKAZE’s tandem stuff with constant focus. YAMATO was the star of his team early on, getting great exchanges (and his head knocked off), but Shingo rose up in the second half as just as energetic a powerhouse. The result was a tag match that looked very little like typical Dragon Gate, getting hot off of passions running between the teams and their desire to either choke out or knock out the other team. One-upping last year’s Mochizuki/Nakajima tags was a difficult task, but it’ll be far harder to top this one next year.

9. Davey Richards Vs. Kenny Omega (February 27) – PWG: As The Worm Turns
We wanted Omega to define his type of title match, but that wasn’t to be. For practical reasons Omega had to lose the title, and so they went out and had the best PWG-style match they could The Omega fan service mostly ended with the hilarious Mexican Standoff and the champ stroking his own horns suggestively. The horns let them do a little humor to soften the crowd, keeping them from expecting just how intense they were going to get. By mid-match they were going through amazing exchanges in routine, Richards pulling nothing from his strikes, being shorter but more physical against Omega’s agility and variety of offense. As things rose to sprints, Richards seeded in a few devastating arm holds in, which Omega sold dramatically, leaving it believable when he would eventually tap out to them. It seemed like it had to end in pinfall – but it also seemed like Omega had to win the first defense of his reign. With the severe holds built in and the surprise of a title change, they nearly matched the electricity of Danielson/Hero from Guerres Sans Frontieres. That alone was a feat.

8. Naomichi Marufuji Vs. Koji Kanemoto (March 5) – NJPW: 38th Anniversary Series
The early ropes rebound exchanges were classic psychology and comedy, establishing Kanemoto as every bit as clever as the outsider, and maybe moreso. Afterward Marufuji was fighting from behind taking a methodical beating from the veteran striker while still playing the crowd’s split emotions. When Marufuji finally got to turn things around, he did it with an interesting mix of novel holds and high impact, adding more to the dynamic of an outsider the crowd should root against but admired, and feeding into the drama when Kanemoto inevitably caught him. Kanemoto’s quickness in counters and evasions painted him as an unusual force for Marufuji, who even in later defenses had an easier time outthinking or outpacing opponents. The sheer punishment Kanemoto dumped on him, from embarrassing Tree of Woe Palmstikes to the nasty Steiner Screwdriver to his furious attempts at the Ankle Lock, made him look like the kind of legend that could recapture the title for New Japan. When Marufuji escaped all the attempts and beat him, he helped further establish his stardom.

7. Shingo Takagi, YAMATO & Akira Tozawa Vs. CIMA, Dragon Kid & Gamma (aired February 27) – Dragon Gate Infinity 167
The temptation is to write, “This is how you do a trios tag,” but you can’t expect this even semi-regularly. The guys went at top pace and took hard falls that you simply cannot do every night on a demanding Dragon Gate tour. Dragon Kid gets bashed for being lazy, yet here he was as fast as Masato Yoshino. CIMA continued his streak of great performances, not showing his bad knees at all, bursting with full charisma and choreographed grace. Gamma served as the contrast character, being hilariously disgusting and giving his teammates a few breaks, though also keeping pace as the match picked up. Ironically, Warriors 5 largely shone against Akira Tozawa, who spent the entire match trying to prove he belongs on the top stage, embarrassing himself with his attempted splash, and getting smacked around by CIMA, spit on by Gamma, and somehow remaining a believable competitor against all the more established opponents and offense that should have destroyed him. You’d expect Shingo and YAMATO to carry the match, but this was a test for Tozawa, leaving his Kamikaze teammates in supporting roles. They’re two of the best in the company, perfect at interrupting aerial antics like those of Dragon Kid. Especially on re-watches, the match becomes even more impressive for how good it is when Shingo and YAMATO didn’t dominate nearly as much as they could have. It was largely Tozawa taking everything with character and firing on desperate comebacks that were as slick as a young CIMA’s.

6. Kurt Angle Vs. Ken Anderson (April 18) – Cage Match from TNA: Lockdown
Complain all you want about the booking of the feud (I’ll help – it was silly that they had a televised blow-off more than a month before Lockdown and just kept going). But when it came time for them to wrestle a big story match, Angle and Anderson had one of the best blow-off bouts of the year. Anderson was in this for self-promotion, running to unlock the door frequently at the early going, and setting up multiple comeuppance scenarios for Angle. Angle was in it for revenge, driven to destroy himself so long as it hurt Anderson. Nothing is more indicative of Angle’s mindset than the disgusting Moonsault from the top of the cage, but it was obviously throughout in how sharply he snapped off Suplexes, and how he would charge up the ropes to throw Anderson back into the ring. Within their struggle of a vengeful athlete and a talented coward, they built brilliant twists. I questioned using a Ladder Match to build up a Cage Match, but they used that prize to show Anderson’s mentality and built to Angle tossing the key out the cage, which was almost as big an emotional moment as the Moonsault. In all of it, Anderson was a world-class character, with exaggerated facial expressions of glee or worry, and desperately trying to piss Angle off at the end so he wouldn’t walk out and win. When it was time for it, Angle was a great predator, like making an almost cocky gesture for Anderson to charge him after he threw the key out and locked them in together.

5. Shingo Takagi Vs. BxB Hulk (July 11) – Dragon Gate: KOBE World Pro Wrestling Festival 2010
A lot of Japanese matches open on Mexican Standoffs, but the early exchanges were all about Hulk fearing he couldn’t counterbalance Shingo’s power. No dodged kick was as revealing as Hulk’s expression. Some folks (including the friend I originally watched it with) disliked the early part for its pacing, but Shingo used the pace to mug over Hulk and deliver Knee Drops and other offense so deliberately that it clicked into the story of animosity. He was proving himself at his weaker rival’s expense. And then there was the last half hour. Hulk took that bump into the ring post like no other man; usually such things look underwhelming or trite, but he flew like a crash test dummy. The Back Superplex to the floor felt absolutely hazardous even though many riskier things happened in Japan this year. Hulk would fight back at the peek of his career’s charisma, only to have Shingo become even more brutal. Around the time I took in this show, I watched several Tyler Black ROH title defenses. Every time Black would go too long, regardless of whether the crowd was into it or the series of kickouts and counters flowed, so that there his extra nearfalls deflated the ending. This match could have gone the same way, but because Shingo was so intense and Hulk was fighting so hard from behind they wound up earning even their biggest series of overkill. Shingo knowing he had it won at the end and extending it to give Hulk one last move in front of everyone was pure bastard. For one moment, Shingo was the worst person in the world.

4. Naomichi Marufuji Vs. Prince Devitt (January 30) – NJPW: New Japan Ism
In major Puro promotions if someone gets a second straight titleshot, it’s very likely they’ll win. Otherwise you could seriously hurt them as contenders for the rest of their careers. They used that in the middle of their rematch, giving Devitt some fabulous false finishes that looked perfect for the upstart rebounding and bringing the title back to New Japan. Even the Back Superplex, which Devitt doesn’t normally win with, was positioned after so many escalating false finishes and counters that the crowd was livid with excitement for a title change. That excitement, and smart references to their first match from December 2009, helped elevate both the story and the crowd reactions. Devitt remembering things like Marufuji’s corner counters, or his Springboard Dropkick when Devitt returned to the ring avoiding a count-out in 2009, made Devitt not just a gutsy performer, but a smart one. Then it was up to Marufuji to think yet another step ahead, or to get caught. They mixed up who had thought ahead in various circumstances until, if you were watching it live, there was no way to predict who was taking this.

3. YAMATO Vs. Shingo Takagi (May 5) – Dragon Gate: Dead or Alive
What a change. Earlier in the year YAMATO looked scared of ascending to the top against Doi and essentially wrestled the champion’s style of match. Here, in his first title defense, he wrestled his own style. No half-dozen head drops to keep the opponent down, but a smart attack on the arm that he came back to at the least expected points, including a great moment when Shingo tried to hoist him for a Suplex. The finishing combos, of Guillotine Choke to Sleeper Hold to Jujigatame, and that last inverted armhold, were outstanding technical wrestling. Throughout they avoided most of the tropes of Dragon Gate singles main events. Unlike Doi and CIMA’s masturbatory championship match mat work, YAMATO and Shingo tested each other in small grabs and adjustments, even making Knucklelocks seem tense. Their old rivalry boiled up until Shingo simply jacked the champ in the mouth. Shingo throws good jabs, but that one was his best-timed and best-placed yet. Attacking the arm also made sense as Shingo had recently won so many tournament matches with his perfected Lariat, so aside from something YAMATO could go after when he was off his game, it hurt Shingo’s chances at a knock-out. I’ve read complaints that the match was too slow and never kicked into high gear. Those are not quite apt criticisms because this was not a standard Dragon Gate match. Doi as champion would open his matches with the same empty holds over and over at a boring pace; these two worked slowly, but used expressions and small motions to fill the time. They worked holds like nobody in Dragon Gate seems to know how to. Even Masato Yoshino goes through the motions of resistance, preferring to go from submission to submission. They struggled for leverage, pounded on joints or their opponents seeking release, reversed into novel holds or even ones built in story. Shingo entered the heavy-bomb phase for some great moments, and YAMATO met him there with some classic “invincible prick” exchanges and his own major moves, but he didn’t stay at that level. He went to his own level instead. It was exactly what the new champion needed to do.

2. Tyler Black Vs. Davey Richards (June 19) – ROH: Death Before Dishonor 8
In many matches that night somebody beat down his opponent with intensity, then slowed to mug for the cameras and crowd. In every other match it hurt the flow. Here, Davey Richards prowled around the ring with such attitude that it felt like I was still watching action. It didn’t hurt that his burning expressions were followed up by loud kicks against Black’s chest. Black has always been a good victim for striking-based offense, reeling and flailing, but in no match before this did he bump quite so appropriately for somebody’s blows. Where Strong and Richards are unyielding against each other, Black was vulnerable, sagging under the Texas Cloverleaf and making such situations seem even more dire. When it came time to counter, like following an O’Connor Roll attempt by deadlifting Richards and dumping him over the top rope, his execution was incomparably fluid. Many Black matches call for that sort of execution, but this was the one where it was always there. When they entered the count-out tease section of the match they slowed down dramatically – not in a bad way, but in one that was legitimately dramatic, the Van Daminator-style Superkick and the Double Stomp both seeming like they might cost Richards this shot. The sustained beating Richards took would up making me reflect on overkill. Many of his best matches contain double-digit nearfalls, but they rarely come off as “too much.” Why? It is at least partially because he carries himself with such conviction, psyching up and firing back like someone who legitimately needs to be drilled into the mat to stay down. I’d just watched the Cutler Brothers, who are excellent athletes, but who lacked the appearance of focus and toughness to pull off manic nearfalls. With Richards, that is never a question. Like the classic against Shingo Takagi last year, he earned the extraordinary lengths he went to. Going so far that the crowd jeered Black with chants of “You Can’t Beat Him” was a highlight of the wrestling year, and Black polishing him off to disprove it was the perfect ending for that stage in the match and his career.

1. The Undertaker Vs. Shawn Michaels (March 28) – No Disqualification Streak Vs. Retirement Match from WWE Wrestlemania 26

Undertaker returned from knee surgery too soon at the Royal Rumble and still showed lingering weakness at the beginning of this match. They wisely slowed things down with Michaels’s frequent attacks on his legs, giving Undertaker better reasons to hobble around, though he still hustled and even got surprising height on the final Tombstone Piledriver. With the technical base that could slow the match down whenever they wanted, they went about building references not only to the previous Wrestlemania but their entire careers. Michaels went for his Asai Crossbody only to be caught and Tombstoned onto the floor, ala how Undertaker once knocked Jake Roberts out of the WWF. Michaels’s leg attacks alluded to his tricks in past Submission Matches, borrowing from the likes of Flair, Angle and Benoit. And just as they prepared big offense, they prepared big counters, like Michaels’s floatover reversal to the Hell’s Gate that nearly pinned the Dead Man in his own killer submission. Bryan Alvarez came away criticizing that he knew the Last Ride and the first Superkick wouldn’t end match, but they managed to slip in new things, like the Table Moonsault, so as not to rely only on finisher kick-outs. And even if some of the false finishes were predictable, they rolled into a momentum that led to the perfect ending. When you watched Michaels slash his own throat and demand Undertaker keep fighting, you couldn’t begrudge them any prior kickouts. As soon as it was done, there was no other way it should have ended. Like the ending of Flair’s WWE career a couple of years earlier, they plotted something memorable to say farewell for Michaels.

Part 3: The List

1. The Undertaker Vs. Shawn Michaels (March 28) – No Disqualification Streak Vs. Retirement Match from WWE: Wrestlemania 26
2. Tyler Black Vs. Davey Richards (June 19) – ROH: Death Before Dishonor 8
3. YAMATO Vs. Shingo Takagi (May 5) – Dragon Gate: Dead or Alive
4. Naomichi Marufuji Vs. Prince Devitt (January 30) – NJPW: New Japan Ism
5. Shingo Takagi Vs. BxB Hulk (July 11) – Hair Vs. Hair Match from Dragon Gate: KOBE World Pro Wrestling Festival 2010
6. Kurt Angle Vs. Ken Anderson (April 18) – Cage Match from TNA: Lockdown
7. Shingo Takagi, YAMATO & Akira Tozawa Vs. CIMA, Dragon Kid & Gamma (aired February 27) – Dragon Gate Infinity 167
8. Naomichi Marufuji Vs. Koji Kanemoto (March 5) – NJPW: 38th Anniversary Series
9. Davey Richards Vs. Kenny Omega (February 27) – PWG: As The Worm Turns
10. Shingo Takagi & YAMATO Vs. Don Fuji & Masaaki Mochizuki (taped August 5) – aired on Dragon Gate Infinity 186
11. Chris Sabin & Alex Shelley Vs. Robert Roode & James Storm (aired August 12) – 2/3 Falls Match from TNA: Impact
12. El Generico Vs. Kevin Steen (December 18) – Fight Without Honor Match from ROH: Final Battle 2010
13. Bryan Danielson Vs. Shingo Takagi (taped July 24) – Dragon Gate USA: Enter the Dragon 2010
14. Kurt Angle Vs. Jeff Hardy (September 5) – TNA: No Surrender
15. Takashi Sugiura Vs. Jun Akiyama (May 2) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Spring Navigation at the Budokan Hall
16. Chris Sabin & Alex Shelley Vs. Max Buck & Jeremy Buck (March 21) – Ultimate X Match from TNA: Destination X
17. Tyler Black Vs. Kevin Steen (July 24) – ROH: Salvation
18. Davey Richards Vs. Kenny Omega (March 20) – ROH: Epic Encounter 3
19. Dolph Ziggler Vs. Evan Bourne Vs. CM Punk Vs. JTG Vs. The Great Khali Vs. Beth Phoenix Vs. Zack Ryder Vs. HHH Vs. Drew McIntyre Vs. Ted DiBiase Jr. Vs. John Morrison Vs. Kane Vs. Cody Rhodes Vs. MVP Vs. Carlito Vs. The Miz Vs. Matt Hardy Vs. Shawn Michaels Vs. John Cena Vs. Shelton Benjamin Vs, Yoshi Tatsu Vs. The Big Show Vs. Mark Henry Vs. Chris Masters Vs. R-Truth Vs. Jack Swagger Vs. Kofi Kingston Vs. Chris Jericho Vs. Edge Vs. Dave Batista (January 31) – Royal Rumble Match from WWE: Royal Rumble
20. Davey Richards Vs. Chris Hero (July 30) – PWG: Seven
21. Shingo Takagi, YAMATO & Cyber Kong Vs. Naruki Doi, Masato Yoshino & BxB Hulk Vs. Dragon Kid, Genki Horiguchi & Ryo Saito (taped July 8) – aired on Dragon Gate Infinity 182
22. Davey Richards Vs. Christopher Daniels (October 16) – ROH: Richards Vs. Daniels
23. Jun Akiyama & KENTA Vs. Yuji Nagata & Ryusuke Taguchi (July 27) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: New Navigation in Osaka
24. Jun Akiyama Vs. Kensuke Sasaki (April 10) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Spring Navigation at the Tokyo Korakuen Hall
25. Davey Richards Vs. El Generico (February 13) – ROH: 8th Anniversary Show
26. Kenny Omega & Kota Ibushi Vs. Dick Togo & Gedo (April 20) – NJPW: New Japan Brave
27. Davey Richards Vs. Roderick Strong (April 10) – PWG: Titannica
28. CIMA, Gamma & Dragon Kid Vs. Naruki Doi, Masato Yoshino & BxB Hulk (taped March 27) – Dragon Gate USA: Mercury Rising
29. Yuji Nagata & Koji Kanemoto Vs. Go Shiozaki & Atsushi Aoki (November 10) – NJPW: Destruction 2010
30. CIMA Vs. YAMATO (aired January 20) – Dragon Gate Infinity 163
31. Davey Richards Vs. Kota Ibushi (January 16) – Evolve 1
32. Undertaker Vs. Chris Jericho Vs. John Morrison Vs. Ron Killings Vs. CM Punk Vs. Rey Mysterio Jr. (February 21) – Elimination Chamber Match from WWE: Elimination Chamber
33. Kensuke Sasaki Vs. Go Shiozaki (July 27) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: New Navigation in Osaka
34. YAMATO Vs. Masaaki Mochizuki (taped May 13) – Dragon Gate Infinity 177
35. Tyler Black Vs. Chris Hero (April 24) – ROH: Bitter Friends, Stiffer Enemies 2
36. CIMA, Gamma & Genki Horiguchi Vs. Naruki Doi, PAC & Naoki Tanisaki (taped July 20) – aired on Dragon Gate Infinity 180
37. Masato Yoshino & Naruki Doi Vs. Genki Horiguchi & Ryo Saito (taped August 24) – Dragon Gate Infinity 188
38. Chris Jericho Vs. Edge (April 25) – Cage Match from WWE: Extreme Rules
39. Shingo Takagi Vs. Dragon Kid (aired November 12) – Dragon Gate USA: Untouchable 2010
40. John Morrison Vs. Sheamus (December 19) – Ladder Match from WWE: TLC
41. Takashi Sugiura Vs. Takeshi Morishima (December 5) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Joe Higuchi Memorial Show
42. Davey Richards Vs. Masaaki Mochizuki (taped January 23) – Dragon Gate USA: Fearless
43. Shawn Michaels Vs. Rey Mysterio (aired January 29) – WWE: Smackdown
44. Mike Quackenbush, Jigsaw & Hallowicked Vs. Masato Yoshino, Naruki Doi & BxB Hulk (July 25) – Chikara Pro: Chikarasaurus Rex
45. Davey Richards Vs. Tyler Black (August 28) – ROH: Tag Wars 2010
46. Chris Sabin & Alex Shelley Vs. James Storm & Robert Roode (July 11) – TNA: Victory Road
47. Takashi Sugiura & KENTA Vs. Takeshi Morishima & Go Shiozaki (August 4) – 2/3 Falls Match from Pro Wrestling NOAH: 10 Years After
48. KENTA Vs. Atsushi Aoki (August 22) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: New Navigation in Tokyo
49. Claudio Castagnoli, ARE$ & Tursas Vs. Mike Quackenbush, Hallowicked & Frightmare (March 21) – Chikara Pro: Dead Men Don’t Laugh
50. Chris Hero Vs. El Generico (March 20) – ROH: Epic Encounter 3
51. Christopher Daniels Vs. Tyler Black (September 10) – ROH: Fade to Black
52. Rey Mysterio Vs. Jack Swagger (July 18) – WWE: Money in the Bank
53. Chris Jericho Vs. Edge (March 28) – WWE: Wrestlemania 26
54. Daniel Bryan Vs. The Miz Vs. John Morrison (October 3) – Triple Threat Submissions Count Anywhere Match from WWE: Hell in a Cell
55. Kurt Angle Vs. D’Angelo Dinero (July 11) – TNA: Victory Road
56. Naomichi Marufuji Vs. Prince Devitt (June 19) – NJPW: Dominion
57. Bryan Danielson Vs. Kaval (February 7) – Florida Championship Wrestling TV
58. YAMATO, Shingo Takagi & KAGETORA Vs. Masato Yoshino, Naruki Doi & PAC (taped May 28) – Dragon Gate Infinity 177
59. Davey Richards Vs. Roderick Strong (April 24) – ROH: Bitter Friends, Stiffer Enemies 2
60. Hiroshi Tanahashi & Ryusuke Taguchi Vs. Go Shiozaki & Atsushi Aoki (June 6) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Rusher Kimura Memorial Show
61. Claudio Castagnoli Vs. Ricochet (September 4) – PWG: Battle of Los Angeles 2010 Night 1
62. Larry Sweeney, Eddie Kingston, Stigma, Jigsaw, Mike Quackenbush, UltraMantis Black, Hallowicked & Icarus Vs. Pinkie Sanchez, Claudio Castagnoli, AR$S, Tursas, Tim Donst, Sara Del Ray, Daizee Haze & Delirious (October 23) – Torneo Cibernetico Match from Chikara Pro: Dark Ciberknetico
63. Naomichi Marufuji Vs. Yoshinobu Kanemaru (July 10) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Summer Navigation Part 1
64. Koji Kanemoto Vs. Hayato Fujita Jr. (May 30) – NJPW: Best of the Super Juniors 17 Night 1
65. Naomichi Marufuji Vs. Kenny Omega (July 25) – DDT: Ryogoku Peter Pan 2010
66. John Cena, Bret Hart, Chris Jericho, Edge, John Morrison, R-Truth & Daniel Bryan Vs. Wade Barrett, Skip Sheffield, Justin Gabriel, David Otunga, Heath Slater, Darren Young & Michael Tarver (August 15) – Elimination Tag Match from WWE: Summerslam
67. AJ Styles Vs. Doug Williams (December 5) – TNA: Final Resolution
68. Nick & Matt Jackson Vs. Jay & Mark Briscoe (April 10) – PWG: Titannica
69. Yuji Nagata Vs. Go Shiozaki (August 10) – NJPW: G1 Climax 20th Anniversary Night 4
70. Daniel Bryan Vs. Dolph Ziggler (October 24) – WWE: Bragging Rights
71. Giant Bernard & Karl Anderson Vs. Yuji Nagata & Wataru Inoue (September 26) – NJPW: Circuit 2010 G1 Climax Special
72. Ayako Hamada Vs. Cheerleader Melissa (taped April 11) – SHIMMER: Volume 32
73. Chris Hero Vs. Akira Tozawa (September 5) – PWG: Battle of Los Angeles Night 2
74. Masato Yoshino & Naruki Doi Vs. CIMA & Ricochet (aired November 12) – Dragon Gate USA: Untouchable 2010
75. Jay & Mark Briscoe Vs. Davey Richards & Eddie Edwards (July 22) – ROH: Bluegrass Brawl
76. Bryan Danielson Vs. Munenori Sawa (September 11) – EVOLVE: EVOLVE 5 – Danielson Vs. Sawa
77. John Cena Vs. Dave Batista (March 28) – WWE Wrestlemania 26
78. Kota Ibushi Vs. Prince Devitt (June 13) – NJPW: Best of the Super Juniors 17 Finals Night
79. Undertaker Vs. Rey Mysterio (January 31) – WWE: Royal Rumble
80. Mike Quackenbush & Jigsaw Vs. Naruki Doi & PAC (taped May 8) – Dragon Gate USA: Uprising
81. Christopher Daniels Vs. Frankie Kazarian Vs. Amazing Red Vs. Brian Kendrick (March 21) – Ladder Match from TNA: Destination X
82. Naomichi Marufuji Vs. KENTA (December 5) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Joe Higuchi Memorial Show
83. Naomichi Marufuji Vs. KENTA (June 6) – Pro Wrestling NOAH: Navigation With Breeze
84. Davey Richards Vs. Kenny King (April 3) – ROH: The Big Bang
85. John Morrison Vs. Jack Swagger (aired April 23) – WWE: Smackdown
86. El Generico & Colt Cabana Vs. Kevin Steen & Steve Corino (April 24) – Street Fight from ROH: Bitter Friends, Stiffer Enemies 2
87. El Generico Vs. Roderick Strong (April 23) – ROH: Pick Your Poison
88. K-Ness & Susumu Yokosuka Vs. CIMA & Gamma (taped July 8) – aired on Dragon Gate Infinity 182
89. Chris Hero Vs. Bad Bones (March 5) – Westside Xtreme Wrestling: 16 Carat Gold Tournament 2010 Day 1
90. Meiko Satomura Vs. Aja Kong (April 9) – SENDAI Girls: Sendai Zepp
91. Masato Yoshino Vs. Dragon Kid (May 7) – 2/3 Falls Match from Dragon Gate USA: Open the Northern Gate
92. Jimmy Jacobs Vs. Jon Moxley (October 29) – I Quit Match from Dragon Gate USA: Bushido: Way of the Warrior
93. Claudio Castagnoli & Chris Hero Vs. El Generico & Colt Cabana (September 10) – ROH: Fade to Black
94. Rob Van Dam Vs. AJ Styles (May 16) – TNA: Sacrifice
95. Mike Quackenbush & Jigsaw Vs. CIMA & Super Crazy (taped January 23) – Dragon Gate USA: Fearless
96. Chris Jericho Vs. Evan Bourne (June 20) – WWE: Fatal Fourway
97. Chris Hero & Claudio Castagnoli Vs. Shelton Benjamin & Charlie Haas (September 11) – ROH: Glory By Honor 9
98. Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs. Tetsuya Naito (August 8) – NJPW: G1 Climax 20th Anniversary Day 3
99. Chris Sabin & Alex Shelley Vs. Chris Hero & Claudio Castagnoli (May 8) – ROH: Supercard of Honor 5
100. Ric Flair Vs. Mick Foley (July 10) – Last Man Standing Match from TNA: Impact

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