Best of the Squared Circle: A 2014 Wrestling Observer Awards Ballot

By the time you read this the annual awards issue of Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter will be published. The Wrestling Observer Awards, which date back to 1980, are based on results of ballots submitted by subscribers of the newsletter. Aside from some awards that are exclusive to Japan, the Wrestling Observer Awards get more mainstream coverage that any other pro wrestling awards in the world. Being a subscriber for several years now, I always look forward to working on my ballot and seeing how it lines up with the overall results.

Keep in mind these awards cover the period from December 1, 2013 through November 30, 2014. Anything that takes place before or after those dates isn’t considered.

All categories and category descriptions are copied from the ballot in the December 1st issue of the newsletter, with my choices and reasoning listed below.

“CATEGORY A” AWARDS: FIRST, SECOND AND THIRD PLACE FINISHER IN EACH CATEGORY

LOU THESZ/RIC FLAIR AWARD: This is open to pro-wrestlers, for a combination of everything, being both important and influential this year in a positive manner from a business perspective, combining both box office impact as well as strong match quality in worked matches.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

1 – A.J. Styles
In his debut match for the company A.J. Styles became the 6th gaijin (non-Japanese) wrestler (counting Big Van Vader, Scott Norton, Bob Sapp, and Brock Lesnar) to win the New Japan Pro Wrestling’s IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. He held the title for roughly six months, in which time, as a member of the insanely popular Bullet Club (replacing WWE bound Prince Devitt/Finn Balor,) he brought NJPW to perhaps its highest level of exposure by also wrestling stateside for Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. On top of all of that he worked some of the most exciting and spirited matches of his 15 year career.

2 – Daniel Bryan
Daniel Bryan’s title chase—including the incredibly over “Yes Movement”, which transcended beyond wrestling into pop culture—and subsequent win at Wrestlemania was one the most exciting—even if at times maddening—and important storylines in wrestling, as it was driven by the fan’s passion and refusal to accept any other result. It could be argued that it’s the main reason anyone signed up for the initial six months of the WWE Network; because not only would you get Wrestlemania at a cheap price but it was all but guaranteed that Bryan would be going over in the main event.

3 – Adam Cole
Adam Cole held of the Ring of Honor World Heavyweight Championship for nine months; eight of those during the eligible balloting period. In that time he developed one of the top charismatic heel personas in the business by employing a subtle old-school style and great facial expressions in the ring with poignant promos. His title feud with Michael Elgin was top notch heel work.

Honorable Mention: Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Brock Lesnar

MOST OUTSTANDING WRESTLER: This is based on working ability in the ring only. Simply, the best workers in the world on a consistent basis over the past year. Drawing power, charisma and push shouldn’t be considered.

1 – A.J. Styles
I didn’t watch one A.J. match from last year—and I watched a lot of them—that I didn’t like. Since leaving TNA he’s happier, healthier, and re-energized, and it shows in his in-ring work. He participated in the grueling 21 day G1 Climax event and managed to put on high-quality matches every night.

2 – Seth Rollins
Like fellow former ROH Champion Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins has the ability to pull a good match out of seemingly anybody. Even when he’s saddled with lumbering opponents like Kane or handcuffed by gimmick matches and poorly-scripted finishes, he has the Dolph Ziggler-like ability to put on a hell of a show every time.

3 – Kyle O’Reilly
On the English broadcast of NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 9 Matt Striker casually mentioned that Kyle O’Reilly is one of the 100 best wrestlers in the world. In my opinion he’s one of the top ten American wrestlers with upward momentum working today. He combines an athletic MMA-like offensive skill set (consisting of BJJ, grappling, Muay Thai, and judo) with a unique way of selling and dramatic facial expressions that really tell a captivating story inside the ring.

Honorable Mentions: Dean Ambrose, Dolph Ziggler, Cesaro, Tyson Kidd, Sami Zayn

BEST BOX OFFICE DRAW: Based on drawing big houses (or for that matter selling tickets to small houses as the case may be), buy rates and/or television ratings. Ring work shouldn’t even be considered.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

1 – Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar ended the Undertaker’s Wrestlemania win streak in a completely shocking and somewhat controversial fashion and in doing so cemented himself as the same type of “special attraction” figure that ‘Taker is. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that when Brock’s scheduled for the event everyone pays attention.

2 – Ronda Rousey*
Ask any novice to name one current MMA fighter and it will be Rousey. With television shows, commercials, and movies, she’s the most visible and intriguing MMA fighter and one that generates the largest amount of interest from the general populous.

*Many of the Observer Awards catagories are open to MMA fighters, including this particular one. Aside from this one vote I left my MMA awards off this list, as we’ve already published our extensive First Annual Tuff Gnarl MMA Awards piece back in December.

3 – Daniel Bryan
See what I said at the top of this piece about Daniel Bryan’s part in selling the WWE Network and his “Yes Movement” infiltrating pop culture.

Honorable Mentions: A.J. Styles

FEUD OF THE YEAR: This should be based on a combination of having a compelling storyline along with having great matches that should strengthen the box office.

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Photo: shuaijiao.com

1 – Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose
When Roman Reigns went down with an injury all of us smart marks silently rejoiced as the returning Dean Ambrose replaced him in the feud with Seth Rollins. The feud spread out over few big shows with some short but energetic matches and fun vignettes outside the ring. (“Ice Bucket Challenge”, being my favorite.) This eventually led to them headlining Hell In A Cell, and we all felt vindicated, at least for a little bit.

2 – Daniel Bryan vs. The Authority
Evening though it was downright infuriating at times—especially since it mirrored the real-life view of WWE decision makers towards smaller guys who’ve honed their craft and gained notoriety on the independent scene as opposed to in-house—it ultimately led to Daniel Bryan winning the big one.

3 – John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar
I don’t particularly care for Cena, but I’m a sucker for intriguing slow burning angles that take a long time to play out and don’t give a clear indication how or when it will end. This one actually dates back as far as 2002 (2001 if you count Ohio Valley Wrestling) and has resulted in some of the more heatedly discussed stateside matches in recent history. Things really ramped up this last year with the controversially-booked and difficult to watch SummerSlam match, in which Brock punished Cena for the entirety of the match.

TAG TEAM OF THE YEAR: For the best working and most valuable tag team during the previous year.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

1 – Red Dragon (Kyle O’Reilly & Bobby Fish)
Since March of 2013 there’s only been three months that the ROH World Tag Team Championship hasn’t belonged to three time champs Red Dragon. (Stylized as reDRagon, the DR is emphasized as a nod to/dig at O’Reilly’s former roommate/training partner Davey Richards.) In November they became the NJPW IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Championships for first time.

2 – Young Bucks (Nick & Matt Jackson)
Like Red Dragon, the Young Bucks were also dual ROH and NJPW tag champs for a brief period in 2014. While on their third run as NJPW champions they ended Red Dragon’s second ROH championship reign. Two months later they would drop the ROH titles back to Red Dragon, and a month later lose the NJPW belts to the Time Splitters.

3 – Time Splitters (Alex Shelley & Kushida)
After beating the Young Bucks, the Time Splitters spent nearly five months as NJPW IWGP Jr. World Tag Team Champions before eventually dropping the belts to Red Dragon. And thus the circle of the three best tag teams last year is complete.

Honorable Mention: American Wolves (Davey Richards & Eddie Edwards), War Machine (Hanson & Ray Rowe), Wyatt Family (Luke Harper & Erick Rowen), Gold & Stardust, The Usos (Jimmy & Jay Uso)

MOST IMPROVED: This is based on making the biggest strides in ring work during the previous year. This should not be for someone who was already good, but was given a bigger push.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

1 – Silas Young
Ring of Honor guys take all three spots here. Silas Young in my opinion has been highly underrated for a couple years now. He made large strides this past year, getting title shots against Michael Elgin, and proving he can hold his own in the big matches.

2 – Cedric Alexander
Cedric Alexander, although getting a little soft around the mid-section, also improved greatly and showed that he’s also capable of performing well and keeping the crowd captivated during big matches.

3 – Matt Taven
Matt Taven, a guy I couldn’t stand to watch three years ago, has gotten better with each passing match, and is now to a point where I don’t fast forward through his stuff anymore, and actually, kind of look forward to it.

BEST ON INTERVIEWS: Who has given the best interviews on a consistent basis over the past year? Reputation from previous years shouldn’t be taken into consideration. It should be based on work over the course of the year as opposed to one or two memorable interviews.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

1 – Dean Ambrose
Even when I’m in fast forward mode, I’ll always stop for Ambrose’s promos. I was in the building for the RAW taping right after The Shield split, and the energy moving throughout the crowd while he cut his promo on Rollins was just incredible.

2 – Adam Cole
Adam Cole works an old-school, straight forward, non-shouting promo. Reminds me a lot of the great Nick Bockwinkel, but without all the fancy words.

3 – Enzo Amore & Big Cass
Enzo & Cass’ pre-match ritual is one of my favorite parts of NXT every week. It’s very much in the same vein as the New Age Outlaws in terms of enticing crowd participation. And their backstage and off-campus vignettes have been pretty entertaining as well.

Honorable Mention: The Rock (See: The Wrestlemania show open and his lone RAW appearance.)

MOST CHARISMATIC: What person had to do the least to get the most out of it? Who do crowds naturally react to emotionally even before the person does anything?

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

1 – Seth Rollins
2 – Dean Ambrose
3 – Daniel Bryan

Rollins and Ambrose have the “it” factor. All Rollins has to do is show up on camera with really wet hair and a sly shit-eating grin and a deafening wall of boos rain down. Similarly, all Ambrose has to do is appear on screen (wet hair or not) and people go bananas. And Bryan, well, all the dude has to do is walk into the arena and the “YES” chants start.

Honorable Mention: The Authority (Triple H & Stephanie McMahon), John Cena (See: “Let’s Go Cena!” vs. “Cena Sucks!”)

BEST TECHNICAL WRESTLER: This is for having the ability to use high level technical wrestling moves within the context of building a great worked pro wrestling match.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

1 – Kyle O’Reilly
2 – A.J. Styles
3 – Tyson Kidd

The inclusion of O’Reilly here may have some people scratching their heads, but those people haven’t watch his matches from last year. A.J. is a no brainer. Kidd didn’t wrestle a single match this year that I fast forwarded through, which is saying a lot considering just how much wrestling is available these days.

BRUISER BRODY MEMORIAL AWARD: This is for the wrestler who uses brawling tactics to put together the best matches during the previous year. It’s not for a guy who does brawling matches that aren’t any good.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

1 – Brock Lesnar
2 – Luke Harper
3 – Bray Wyatt

I’m not actually a big fan of brawling matches (or big guys in general) but I do appreciate their place in the pro wrestling lexicon. The best brawlers are those that can cleverly disguise their lack of technical ability and keep you captivated during the course of the match. All three of these dudes do it very well.

Honorable Mention: David Hart Smith, Hanson

BEST FLYING WRESTLER: This is for the wrestler who does the most innovative and solidly executed flying maneuvers within the context of putting together great wrestling matches. This is not for simply the hottest daredevil moves, which are sometimes hit and sometimes miss.

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Photo: undergroundluchador.tumblr.com

1 – Puma/Ricochet
2 – Adrian Neville
3 – ACH

Representing Lucha Underground, NXT and ROH respectively, these are the three workers that came to mind immediately upon reading the description of this category. My eyes are glued to the set when these guys pull out their respective arrays of aerial moves.

MOST OVERRATED: The wrestler who gets the biggest push, despite lacking ring ability or charisma.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

1 – Rusev
2 – Michael Elgin
3 – Kevin Steen/Kevin Owens

If Internet wrestling marks are anything like gamers my choices here will result in my Twitter account being flooded with rape and murder threats.

Runners Up: John Cena, Randy Orton, Roman Reigns

MOST UNDERRATED: The wrestler with the most ability, who, for whatever reason, doesn’t get a push commensurate with their ability. This should be based on this past year, and not a business reputation earned in prior years.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

1 – Dolph Ziggler
2 – Cesaro
3 – Tyson Kidd

Although both Dolph and Cesaro had brief flourishes of opportunity this last year, most of the time the way they were booked left us throwing our hands up in frustration or screaming at the TV in anger. And while Tyson Kidd held a strong spot in NXT he was mostly used as enhancement and leadership for up and coming guys like Sami Zayn, Adrian Neville, and Tyler Breeze. He’s got all the potential in the world to be a top guy on the main WWE roster but it’s unlikely that it will ever happen. I’ve been fantasy booking him as the guy to leave WWE and take A.J. Styles’ spot in the Bullet Club for months now.

Honorable Mention: Silas Young, Roderick Strong, James Storm, Curtis Axel

PROMOTION OF THE YEAR: Should be based on which group put together the best live and television product on a consistent basis, and secondarily, the ability to sell that product at a high level. This means box office and marketing combined with product quality. Theoretically, the top pick should be a company at or near the top on both categories.

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Photo: NJPW.co.jp

1 – New Japan Pro Wrestling
This was the year I turned the corner on NJPW. They’ve done an incredible job of immersing a sports-like aspect into their product that easily allows for suspension of disbelief and emotional investment in match outcomes and titles.

2 – World Wrestling Entertainment
Despite all of the flaws, of which there are many, WWE still keeps me coming back time and time again like a bad habit.

3 – Ring Of Honor
Since 2002 ROH has consistently put on the best independent wrestling shows in North America and last year was no different. Similar to NJPW the sporting atmosphere and focus on in-ring product goes a long way for them.

BEST WEEKLY TV SHOW: Weekly television shows are the only ones eligible, not monthly shows, specials or individual episodes of a specific program.

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Photo: WWE.com

1 – NXT (on WWE Network)
2 – Ring Of Honor (on Sinclair Broadcasting)
3 – Lucha Underground (on El Rey Network)

All three of these programs offer pro wrestling fans what pro wrestling fans love the most about pro wrestling: pro wrestling.

MATCH OF THE YEAR: The three best matches, in order, from the time period. Remember, matches from last December are eligible, but nothing after November 30th from this year is eligible.

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Photo: ROHwrestling.com

1 – Kyle O’Reilly vs. A.J. Styles, ROH Death Before Dishonor XII, 8/22/14, Milwaukee, WI
Highlights here.

2 – Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena, WWE SummerSlam, 8/17/14, Los Angeles, CA
Like Brock’s win over Undertaker at ‘Mania, his SummerSlam match with Cena was a polarizing staple of conversation amongst fans. Personally I loved the way it was booked. It was downright uncomfortable to watch at times which allowed for great suspension of disbelief. And it was successful on multiple levels: Brock’s total devastation of Cena gave longtime Cena haters something to cheer about, it established Brock as a true monster heel, and it furthered his status as a special attraction. And in my opinion, by putting the title on a guy that disappears for lengthy periods of time it actually rehabbed the importance of the Heavyweight Championship by making it seem elusive and unattainable.

3 – A.J. Styles vs. Minoru Suzuki, NJPW G1 Climax Block B, 8/1/14, Tokyo, Japan
Entire match here.

BEST NON-WRESTLER PERFORMER: For the best performer on a television show who isn’t a traditional wrestler, whether they be a management figure, a woman who doesn’t wrestle, or a traditional manager.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

1 – Paul Heyman
Paul Heyman is like a great point guard; when he’s on the mic he makes everyone around him better.

2 – Stephanie McMahon
I hate the Authority. I literally hate The Authority. That being said, a large part of the reason I hate The Authority is because Steph has the charisma and the promo skills to generate the heat of a thousand fire breathing dragons.

3 – Lana
Although I usually fast forward through Rusev’s matches, I always wait until after Lana’s promos. Like Stephanie she’s got her character dialed down to perfection. She’s at her best when her usual hoity-toity and composed self ever so slightly begins to lose her composure.

BEST TELEVISION ANNOUNCER

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

1 – Renee Young
Renee really won me over this year. She interjects a ton of personality into her NXT role. She’s cute, she’s sassy, and she’s seemingly has a genuinely love of professional wrestling.

2 – Steve Corino
Corino understands that ROH’s audience are largely “smart” fans. He’s not afraid to comically acknowledge it but he does so while also maintaining a level of kayfabe that isn’t insulting to the fans. And as a 20 year ring veteran himself, he’s got a wealth of historical information and in-ring knowledge that helps enhance the story being told in the matches he’s adding color commentary to.

3 – Vampiro
I have always loved Vampiro’s whole Canadian-living-in-Mexico-death punk-cholo persona. He’s not actually the great an announcer but I voted for him here only because I invented a new drinking game that you can play during Lucha Underground. The rules are simple: every time Vampiro says “brother” you take a shot of tequila.

WORST TELEVISION ANNOUNCER

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Photo: WWE.com

1 – John Bradshaw Layfield
2 – John Bradshaw Layfield
3 – John Bradshaw Layfield

This guy’s fucking terrible. Whether or not he’s being fed lines by Vince in his headset I do not know, but I do know he’s got real go-away heat. Like, turn the channel heat. And turning the channel can’t be, in the immortal words of The Authority, “what’s best for business.”

Runners Up: Taz

BEST MAJOR SHOW: This should be a major show, as opposed to a TV taping or house show.

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Photo: mixedmartialarts.com

1 – NJPW G1 Climax
The 2014 G1 Climax tournament was the longest in history, lasting three weeks, and provided a cornucopia high quality matches. It’s a daunting task to try and take it all in but don’t worry, I’ve developed a method for my fellow NJPW novices. Here’s how it works: Pick one wrestler from Block A and one from Block B and watch all of their matches in order. (For the sake of variety in style I chose A.J. Styles and David Hart Smith.) By watching all the matches by your chosen wrestler you will then see everyone else in the tournament at least once and you will likely pick other matches to watch based on who you liked. (For example, based on his match with Smith, I ended up watching most Shinsuke Nakamura matches as well.)

2 – Wrestlemania
Undertaker’s streak ended and Daniel Bryan finally won for real.

3 – Tie: NXT Takeover / NXT Takeover: Fatal 4 Way
The best NXT specialty show so far actually happened in December at Takeover: R Evolution. Although R Evolution is outside of the eligible balloting period, the last two preceding it were also very good, and pretty much set the stage for Sami Zayn’s ascension to the top of NXT.

“CATEGORY B” AWARDS: ONE IN EACH CATEGORY

WORST MAJOR SHOW OF THE YEAR

WWE TLC
TLC was complete gimmick match overkill. There was a tables match, a chairs match, and a totally unnecessary “stairs match.” And all of that happened before the main event which was, yes, tables, ladders and chairs.

BEST WRESTLING MANEUVER

Young Bucks’ Superkick Party
Not so much a singular move but rather the same move used a million times a match in a way that doesn’t ever seem like overkill.

Honorable Mention: Young Bucks’ Meltzer Driver

MOST DISGUSTING PROMOTIONAL TACTIC

WWE advertising match stipulations that don’t stick
How many times this year did we hear “the WWE will never be the same” and then one week later it was exactly the same?

Runners Up: WWE firing CM Punk on his wedding day

WORST TELEVISION SHOW

TNA Impact Wrestling (on Spike TV)
Impact is perpetually bad television. And things were no different in 2014. Well, except for that part where it finally lost its slot on Spike TV.

Runners Up: WWE RAW (on USA)

WORST MATCH OF THE YEAR

John Cena vs. Randy Orton, WWE Hell In A Cell, 10/26/14, Dallas, TX
Nobody, and I mean nobody, needs to see these two ever wrestle each other again. WWE likes to spin these two as “one of the all-time great rivalries in history”, which is wrong if anything because it includes the word “great.”

WORST FEUD OF THE YEAR

The Authority vs. John Cena
A boring and nonsensical feud that involved three of the most hated people in WWE.

Runners Up: Nikki Bella vs. Brie Bella

WORST PROMOTION

Total Non-stop Action
What can be said about the problems with TNA that hasn’t been said a million times already? They have all the pieces to the puzzle, but nobody who knows how to put them together. I’m really hoping the Impact re-launch on Destination America works out. (Sadly though it just looks like more of the same so far.) I genuinely want TNA to succeed. I want them to be good. And I want them to be the big-time WWE alternative that we desperately need.

BEST BOOKER

Gedo & Jado (NJPW)

PROMOTER OF THE YEAR

Takaaki Kidani (NJPW)

BEST GIMMICK

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Photo: NJPW.co.jp

The Bullet Club
NJPW’s gaijin-dominated stable of wrestlers borrows all the best parts of ‘90s North American factions like the N.W.O. and Degeneration X and puts a decidedly current spin on it. A.J. Style’s inclusion gave the already popular group and extra boost of notoriety in 2014.

Honorable Mention: The Kingdom

WORST GIMMICK

The Authority
The WWE has so much disdain for their own audience (and maybe even for themselves) that they decided to take the one thing the fans hate most—the real life behind the scenes decision-makers—and make them the focal point of the show. Clearly the WWE is run by sociopaths. And clearly those sociopaths don’t know good TV, or they wouldn’t open every single episode of RAW with 30 minutes of Steph & Hunter telling us how stupid we are for being wrestling fans.

BEST WRESTLING BOOK

I didn’t read any wrestling books this year, which is odd actually, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the excellent pro wrestling fanzine Hug It Out, which I wrote about here.

BEST PRO WRESTLING DVD

For the first time in several years I didn’t buy any wrestling tape or DVDs. Not that the stuff I normally buy would count in this category, as I tend to go for live event tapes and best-of compilations, and I think this category is geared more towards documentaries. So my vote goes to the WWE Network as a whole.

Nathan G. O’Brien has over 500 VHS tapes of pro wrestling and he’s only a little embarrassed about it. Follow him on Twitter at @OMG_NOB.

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Nathan G. O'Brien

Nathan G. O'Brien has written for Maximum Rocknroll Magazine, Scene Point Blank, Verbicide Magazine, and Tight To The Nail. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.

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