In terms of things that really mattered, a review of 2015 would be short, and include one or two things that happened in or around Stamford, Connecticut, and little else. Luckily, as journalists, we have a certain freedom to create our own narrative, put a spin on things that either stubbornly resist and kind of circular momentum or are gossamer-slight, and make mountains out of molehills.
Still, one story dominated professional wrestling in 2015 like no other, and it is a story of determination, failure, pig-headed was, self-sabotage, and an eventual victory at a cost yet to be determined. Or, put simply, Roman Reigns.
That Reigns has been earmarked as the chosen successor to John Cena’s crown for the last three years is no revelation. His inevitable coronation may have been derailed by duplicitous internal organs in 2014, but there were no such visceral concerns in 2015, save for the reluctance of the WWE Universe™ to do what they were told, dammit.
So Reigns got a bad reaction to winning the Royal Rumble, and he got a bad reaction to being carried to a passable performance the next month by Daniel Bryan (pbuh), and the fear of a bad reaction at the year’s biggest show was so palpable that they called an audible and put the belt on a whiny cross-trainer in leather trousers instead.
Seth Rollins, for it was he, as champion was an undoubted failure. Ratings plummeted and he floundered, an increasingly-desperate champion, his stock falling until his knee finally cried, “enough!”, during a feud with that up & coming hungry young tiger Kane, ironically in the last weeks of a title reign that was planned to end with Reigns’s delayed-succession at Survivor Series.
Reigns did become champion at that show, but at the climax of the world’s least-exciting tournament, instead, only to lose the belt in an instant to the only man guaranteed to be booed ahead of him, the milk-white bore/boor Sheamus. It was this GENIUS decision that turned the tide, because ANYONE was better than Sheamus as champion, and so the WWE Universe™ (the parts of it without penises and/or body hair having come around earlier) finally accepted their inevitable fate. Well, there was the small matter of hotshotting a month’s worth of booking in two nights at Hell In A Cell and Monday Night Raw, leaving little on the table and them having to keep the champion out of any matches for fear of him being booed against anyone that isn’t Sheamus or an McMahon, but that’s between the WWE and their empty playbook…
Away from Reigns, the rest of the WWE struggled through the year, with only The New Day – free to develop their own characters after a huge failure by the old, white writing team to understand three young, black men – getting over to any kind of merchandise-shifting degree. Oh, Daniel Bryan (pre-mysterious injury), Dean Ambrose (post-terrible movie), and Cesaro (the world’s most charismatic Swiss) may have also gotten over if they’d been allowed: for some reason, Vince McMahon hates money.
Outside the WWE, professional wrestling was good. And bad. And ugly. New Japan trod water for a year, with no new stars coming through save for a broken Kota Ibushi and a re-invented Tetsuya Naito. Naito’s new gimmick – a dick who steadfastly refuses to give even a single fuck – is confusing and brilliant, and 2016 should be his year on top, if only because there really isn’t anyone else right now.
The next biggest story from Japan was a man who looks not unlike Tom Selleck using his penis to thwart a sex-pest, which belies a year of solid action from Big Japan & DDT, and outstanding work from Sekimoto, Okabayashi, HARASHIMA, and more.
Mexico was a disorganised mess, and that’s a phrase that could have been written in any year – and any thing – south of the border, for ever. AAA somehow contrived to lose two of their top stars through not actually having them sign contracts, after another had been tragically killed in a match with the fourth (although not for AAA). CMLL, meanwhile, steadfastly refused to push anyone younger than fifty, although Dragon Lee II forced his way to international attention through a series of fantastic bouts with Kamaitachi, and La Sombra forced his way out of the door to NXT. It was left to Lucha Underground, set in a fantasy world with only a passing resemblance to our own (erm, isn’t that professional wrestling as a whole? – ed), to carry the torch for the rightside, and the climax of their first season was nothing short of INCREDIBLE. Who knew that Vampiro would be in a MOTY candidate EVER, let alone in 2015?
If Lucha Underground was a television success, albeit one not seen by that many people, then TNA continued to be a televised failure, albeit one not seen by that many people. Achieving the remarkable feat of being thrown off a channel whose biggest shows were about Bigfoot and BBQing (although not BBQing Bigfoot), the moribund “promotion” stumbled on, with little or no reason to exist save for giving semi-regular work to wrestlers who the WWE have no interest in. And Grado. Ring Of Honor fared slightly better, although they attract smaller crowds than most UK indies for the majority of their shows, despite their position as darling of the, well, I don’t really know anymore.
It was left it WWE to provide their own competition in 2015, and NXT stepped up to the plate – and knocked it out of the park – with a series of sold-out shows outside their Florida base, and a progression of outstanding quarterly specials, nearly dove-tailing in a 10,000-seat sell-out for their final show of the year in London. Although the promotion essentially exists to provide talent for the main roster, its business plan has shifted slightly to allow it to stand alone and aside, and one of the most interesting things in 2016 will be plotting that course.
While NXT promoted the biggest “non-WWE” show of the year in the UK, home-grown promotions also did sterling work in 2015. Chief amongst them was ICW, who sold almost 4000 tickets to their Fear & Loathing show in Glasgow in November, although the year-long efforts of PROGRESS have also been notable. With the UK scene in such rude health (seriously, it’s flicking you the Vs, mate), it’s a great time to be a fan of the grappling game in an otherwise bleak, grey, and increasingly-selfish country.
And that’s the thing: professional wrestling is escapism. There’s little room for reality here, because we get enough of that at home, and at work, and stuck on the M6. Suspend your disbelief, jump on board, and enjoy the ride. Yeah, 2015 ended with that fella you don’t really like – because he WON’T STOP SMILING! – as the only major world champion left in the business, but he’s on a show with three other blokes who make you laugh with hip gyrations, unicorn-horn headbands, and a FUCKING TROMBONE. So I’ll see you at the matches, right?