As a new year dawns, it’s always fun to look back at the year gone by. In the past 12 months, professional wrestling saw a full mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. So sit back and join us as we reflect on, in our view, the most important professional wrestling stories of 2018.
1. Year of the Woman
The year 2018 saw a number of “firsts” for the women’s division in WWE: the first Royal Rumble match and the first TLC match (both of which headlined the respective PPVs), and, most significantly, the first-ever all-women’s pay-per-view event, October’s Evolution.
With a teased feud between Becky Lynch and Ronda Rousey proving to be one of the most compelling things on TV, it’s not unthinkable that a women’s match might even headline WrestleMania in 2019.
Impact Wrestling, which was years ahead of WWE in embracing the movement, has been making strides in improving its Knockouts division as well, particularly with the signing of Tessa Blanchard, who has dominated. And the introduction of Scarlett Bordeaux who has used her beauty to gain a different kind of power over men (though, she hasn’t really had a significant storyline yet, so time still may tell).
With the success of the Netflix series GLOW and even Total Divas and Total Bellas putting new eyes on the product, mainstream awareness of women’s wrestling has never been higher. So, while 2018 was a game-changer, the best may be yet to come.
2. Cody and the Young Bucks go ALL IN
“Not any time soon” was the reply Dave Meltzer gave in response to a fan’s question as to whether Ring Of Honor Wrestling would be able to sell out a 10,000 seat arena. “I’ll take that bet, Dave,” tweeted Cody Rhodes in response. And with those words, Rhodes and the Young Bucks were ALL IN.
That was the name of the independent event that they held on September 1 under their own banner. The roster featured a veritable who’s who of independent wrestlers from around the world — like SCU, the Briscoe Brothers, and the legendary Rey Misterio Jr. — along with other luminaries like TV’s Green Arrow, Stephen Amell. Even Chris Jericho made a surprise appearance.
The weekend in Chicago had a WrestleMania week vibe, thanks to events that were booked to cater to their interests, like Starrcast and a rare autograph signing appearance by Chicago’s own, CM Punk.
The event itself, which aired on pay-per-view, was considered by most wrestling reviewers to be a huge success. And, yes, it did indeed sell out — in about 30 minutes, no less — making ALL IN the biggest independent show in about 25 years in North America.
Buoyed by the success of ALL IN, last week, Rhodes and the Bucks announced that they have formed, along with billionaire entrepreneur Tony Khan, All Elite Wrestling. With Khan’s vast financial resources and a popularity that has eclipsed that of companies for which they frequently compete, and arguably New Japan Pro Wrestling and possibly even Impact Wrestling, some pundits think The Elite now have a chance to build the most successful challenger to the WWE since WCW’s demise.
3. Roman Reigns faces toughest opponent yet
Sure, they wanted people to get behind Roman Reigns. But nobody wanted it this way. On October 22, in a very emotional, very real moment, Roman Reigns opened RAW by revealing that the leukemia that he had been battling for the past 11 years had returned. And as a result, he would have to relinquish the WWE Universal Championship and take a hiatus from the ring.
His departure marked the end of a four-year run at the top of the roster, either as the World Heavyweight Champion or the Universal Champion or in contention for one of those titles.
Over the years, many fans were critical of the company’s intentions to push the “Big Dog” to the top, and for a long time, Reigns received the “Cena treatment” — i.e. although he was a good guy, he typically came to the ring to a mixed reaction, with kids and women supporting him, while older male fans showered him with boos and catcalls.
But, when he promised that “after I’m done whoopin’ leukemia’s ass once again, I’m coming back home,” the fans were unified in their support for Reigns, standing up and chanting his name in unison. And hoping that he does indeed get well and come back soon. Believe that.
4. Hart Dungeon wing of Heaven expands
In the mid-1980s, WWE’s tag team division was headlining shows, thanks in no small part to the pairing of the Hart Foundation against the British Bulldogs. The chemistry that those four men had together was unlike anything else in the company. Unfortunately, two of the men behind that classic feud — Jim “the Anvil” Neidhart and “Dynamite Kid” Tom Billington — passed away in 2018.
Before joining WWE, Neidhart was trained in Calgary’s legendary Hart Dungeon and worked for Hart patriarch Stu’s Stampede Wrestling promotion. While he was there, he married Ellie Hart, one of Stu’s daughters, and the sister of his eventual Hart Foundation partner, Bret “Hitman” Hart. Together, they had daughter Natalya, a WWE superstar in her own right, and two more daughters. Neidhart’s death on August 13, was attributed to a head injury suffered after a fall.
Billington, considered by some to be one of the best pound-for-pound wrestlers of all time, had a great deal of success in Calgary, thanks to his explosive offense and high-flying aerial assaults. He was also related to the Harts by marriage, having married Bret’s then-sister-in-law. If not for injuries suffered in the ring — over the years, damages to his back and legs left him unable to walk, and are believed to be the ultimate cause of his death — it’s thought that he could have been one of the biggest names ever.
5. John Cena — You can’t see me… on WWE TV
For much of the year, John Cena was everywhere — the movies, hosting awards shows, making late-night TV appearances, and even in China where he documented his stay on YouTube. Everywhere, that is, except for WWE programming.
By our count, in 2018, John Cena averaged less than two matches a month for WWE and only a handful of appearances other than those.
Like the Undertaker, Cena is now considered to be more of a special attraction than an actual roster member. And like Taker, it’s not unreasonable to think that we’ll be able to count the number of Cena’s matches in 2019 on one hand — one finger for each move (we don’t count the Lightning Fist as a sixth, since it’s really a glorified punch).
Which is not to criticize Cena, or suggest he needs an attitude adjustment (see what we did there?). Really, he doesn’t owe anybody anything. He’s had an undisputable Hall of Fame career, he’s been a tremendous ambassador for the company, he’s been a near saint in terms of his dedication to Make-A-Wish and other charities, and he — like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson before him — have proven that professional wrestlers can be all-around A-list entertainers. The Muhammad Ali Award for his charity work from Sports Illustrated is an unprecedented recognition for a professional wrestler.
But, in terms of his WWE career, like he says in his theme song, his time is up.
6. Chris Jericho: Man of 1,004 Holds… and promotions
The list of Jericho grew considerably in 2018 — if the list we’re talking about is the list of wrestling promotions that he worked for. Y2J had a truly busy year, with appearances in WWE, New Japan Pro Wrestling, ALL IN, and even booking his own event, a wrestling-themed cruise called Chris Jericho’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Rager At Sea. That’s on top of touring extensively with his rock band Fozzy and hosting his own Talk is Jericho podcast.
What may be even more remarkable is that the man shows no sign of slowing down — even at 48 years old. His matches at this stage of his career are still stellar (one of his matches during the year earned a 5-star rating from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, while two others received 4.5 stars). And he seems more driven than ever.
With this week’s announcement that Jericho has signed with All Elite Wrestling, where he’ll get the opportunity to face some new, fresh talent, it’s likely that Jericho will be able to cement his self-professed title as the “Best in the World at What He Does.”
7. Yes! Daniel Bryan returns to the ring
They said his career was over. They said the concussions, the seizures, the threat of permanent brain damage were too high, and that Daniel Bryan’s 2015 retirement from in-ring action was permanent. But, to steal Bryan’s catchphrase, “No!”
In 2018, after passing a multitude of neurological and physical tests, Bryan was medically-cleared to return to the ring. And to that news, the WWE Universe said (to steal his other catchphrase), “Yes!”
And he hasn’t disappointed. In fact, the calibre of his matches make it seem like he never really went away. Any fears of ring rust disappeared when threw his first flying dropkick. Any fear that he had lost his conditioning disappeared when he lasted over 76 minutes in the Greatest Royal Rumble match. And any fear that he had lost anything on the mic (let’s be honest, his Smackdown GM stint wasn’t a particularly great showcase) has since gone away after his heel turn — in fact, his promos in December and so far in January have been some of the best of his career.
8. The booking was spotty, the matches were shoddy, WWE in Saudi was liked by nobody
To great criticism, WWE held two network specials / PPV events in Saudi Arabia in 2018: the World’s Greatest Royal Rumble and Crown Jewel. While the decision to hold the shows was already subject to criticism — given the Saudi government’s deplorable record on human rights and freedoms, the gender apartheid against females, and the horrific slaying of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the corrupt Saudi government rightfully — WWE made sure to alienate even their most staunch defenders by putting on shows that rivalled each other for the worst show of the year.
While the Rumble show had a couple of standout matches, they were lost amongst the simply unpalatable pro-Saudi government propaganda videos that littered the broadcast. The screwy finish of the Reigns-Lesnar cage match and the listless Rumble match, though, ended the show on two lousy “main events”.
Crown Jewel on the other hand was pretty much all bad, thanks to the swerve that saw Shane McMahon win the “Best in the World” World Cup tournament after winning one match, thereby rendering the tournament as meaningless. And the embarrassing match between a reunited DX vs. Brothers of Destruction match did nothing but to crap all over the legacy of all four men’s careers and cheapen HBK’s magnificent retirement match moment from a few years ago.
Unfortunately, WWE has signed a multi-year contract to hold shows in Saudi Arabia. And it’s unlikely Vince McMahon will have the grapefruits, as he likes to say, to do the right thing and, shareholders be damned, tear up the contract.
9. Viral Wrestling Videos Spark Amazement and Outrage
While 2018 didn’t have anything as viral as the “RKO outta nowhere” meme from a few years ago, there were a couple of videos that got the internet’s attention.
The first was the video of a match from independent promotion Empire State Wrestling that saw Ace Romero launch his opponent Anthony Gaines out of the ring and over a dozen feet into the crowd. The clip instantly caught the world’s attention, making mainstream headlines and being shared and retweeted thousands of times.
The other video was not nearly as funny or fun and rightfully earned universal scorn. That one saw Angel o Demonio hurl a concrete block at the head of his opponent Cuervo, knocking him out immediately. Cuervo was walking on the floor at the time of the blow and his back was towards Domonio at the time, so was blindsided by the projectile. The video is easily found online, but in the interests of good taste, SLAM! Wrestling will not post a link.
WWE Hall of Famer Kurt Angle was only one of wrestling’s luminaries to criticize the move, which resulted in Cuervo being hospitalized for an epidural hematoma and a skull fracture. “… that stupid MFer that threw the brick. Shouldn’t be anywhere near the business,” Angle tweeted.
10. Rock cooks up smelly films, but box office still raises like an eyebrow
Despite his 2018 film releases, Rampage and Skyscraper receiving middling reviews, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson still crushed it in terms of box office receipts.
Rampage, based on the ’80s video game, saw Johnson monkey around with a giant ape and other large creatures in a film that critics called a dumb but fun blockbuster. But, despite a mediocre rating of 52% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, Johnson’s fans seemed to enjoy it, buying tickets to the tune of $428 million worldwide.
Skyscraper, Johnson’s summer action film that saw him leaping out of tall buildings and trying to save Neve Campbell’s career, was also a miss with critics but a hit with audiences. Critics gave the movie a 46% Fresh rating, noting that the movie was an entertaining escape, but was by no means a game-changer in the action genre. Still, the sales were solid, and the film grossed over $300 million worldwide.
Johnson has three movies scheduled for 2019, namely a Jumani sequel, Hobbs and Shaw (a spinoff from the Fast and Furious franchise that he’s pretty much taken over top billing on since joining a few films ago), and Fighting With My Family, the bio-pic about WWE superstar Paige that he is also producing. The first two are pretty much guaranteed to be successful, and the third will certainly have a huge promotional drive behind it. So look for Johnson to continue his run as the most electrifying man in Hollywood next year as well.
Other Big Stories
– RIP to three industry giants: Bruno Sammartino, Vader, Nikoli Volkoff. Others who passed away: Brian Christopher, Matt Capotelli, Big Bully Busick, Masa Saito, Brickhouse Brown, “Luscious” Johnny Valiant, Jose Lothario, “Dirty” Dick Slater.
– Johnny Impact has a good run but gets voted off Survivor.
– Paige’s career cut short due to injury, becomes Smackdown GM.
– Jeff Jarrett mends fences with WWE, joins their H-A-Double-L of F-A-M-E.
Resolutions for 2019
Lastly, we’d like to list a few things that we’d like to see in professional wrestling in 2019:
— Support your local indy scene. There are thousands of talented and driven young men and women who are out there performing in local venues every weekend, all hoping to make it to the big time. If you’ve never checked out an indy show, then try it and support their dreams. Many of today’s superstars were on the indy scene for many years before they made it where they are today. So check out a show — who knows? You may be watching a future legend today.
— Enough with the “What?” chants already. You’re not being clever.
— Ditto for “CM Punk” chants. Face it. He’s gone off to be a UFC jobber. Let it go.
— No more unprotected chair shots to the head. The industry has gotten so much better in recent years with concussion awareness, but there are still some places where unprotected chair shots to the head are common. If you’re a wrestler, don’t do it. If you’re a promoter, don’t allow it. And if you’re a fan, don’t cheer for it.
— Join the Cauliflower Alley Club. This not-for-profit organization assists retired wrestlers who need financial assistance and support for medical payments. As a non-unionized business, wrestling veterans don’t have a pension or other benefits to fall back on in times of hardship. The CAC can make a crucial difference to the quality of life for the people who sacrificed their own well-being for our entertainment. Their annual CAC reunion is also a hoot, so make the trip if you can. To become a member, make a donation, or buy tickets to the reunion, visit caulifloweralleyclub.org.
- SLAM! Wrestling 2018 AwardsHappy New Year, everyone. And Happy Rusev Day, too.