Every decade of wrestling marks a new transition into something completely new. A lot of stars are eventually swapped in for fresh talent, hungry for their time in the spotlight. The style of wrestling tends to change along with it. In the 80s, it was all spectacle and grandiosity. There were your *gags* Hulk Hogans, Macho Man Randy Savages, and Andre the Giants, stars who transcended the platform the way actors would. These were massive ticket sellers and the characters would bleed into real life. It’s the equivalent of seeing an actor really play the superhero they played in the movies.
The 90s and early 2000s saw that same spectacle mixed with more refined wrestling and an edge that strayed away from the cheesiness of 80s characters. Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, and The Undertaker were more indicative of provocative, imaginative personas and attitudes. Time would eventually move forward with or without those aforementioned stars and wrestling would grow and evolve as society did.
The 2010s would see the non-WWE wrestling ecosystem grow exponentially with devoted wrestling fans as the accessibility and awareness of these promotions grew with them. Our accessibility and awareness changed the way a lot of people viewed wrestling, favoring work rate even more so in addition to characters we liked. In that manner, some of the best matches of all time came from the 2010s. I gathered a few friends of mine to discuss 10 of the best wrestling matches of the 2010s, spanning from WWE, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Lucha Underground, and AAA.
Our group didn’t write about CM Punk vs John Cena (Money in the Bank 2011) or Bayley vs Sasha Banks (Takeover Brooklyn I) as to not repeat the same thoughts that have been discussed to death. Otherwise, they would’ve made the list. Here are some matches that missed the final cut but were still worthy of mention: Sami Zayn vs Shinsuke Nakamura (NXT Takeover Dallas), Samoa Joe vs Brock Lesnar (Great Balls of Fire), DIY vs The Revival (NXT Takeover Toronto), Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania 26), Kyle O’Reilly vs Katsuyori Shibata (King Of Pro Wrestling 2016), Katsuyori Shibata vs Tomohiro Ishii (Wrestle Kingdom 10), The Usos vs The New Day (Hell in a Cell 2017), Kofi Kingston vs Daniel Bryan (WrestleMania 35), Daniel Bryan vs John Cena (SummerSlam 2013), Seth Rollins vs John Cena vs Brock Lesnar (Royal Rumble 2015), Kazuchika Okada vs Kenny Omega (Wrestle Kingdom 11), and Kenny Omega vs Tetsuya Naito (G1 Climax 27). With that out of the way, here’s the list proper.
AR FOX VS KILLSHOT (ULTIMA LUCHA TRES)
I’m generally not a huge fan of hardcore, borderline death matches; I don’t have that deep thirst for gory, twisted action where guys are making each other bleed for half an hour. However, with this match, its immersive blend of grisly action with a weighty story and more standard, high stakes wrestling makes its spine-chillingly violent spots a must-see. The story of Killshot and AR Fox being former military guys and Killshot leaving Fox for dead in war ups the stakes of a hardcore affair and made the Hell of War match necessary. A fight to the death was only right between two people with issues stemming back from that war. As a result, they left it all on the battlefield. The ending left me stunned in silence during my first watch. During Lucha Underground’s time on-air, this is undoubtedly the best they had to offer.
ADAM COLE VS JOHNNY GARGANO (NXT TAKEOVER NEW YORK)
This match is the definition of when you have resiliency on WWE 2K19. Both of these guys came in the ring with a level OVR 99. It’s crazy how this was supposed to be Tommasso Ciampa vs. Johnny Gargano, but Ciampa got injured. However, I can honestly say that they couldn’t produce a match as good as this. Johnny Gargano was the ultimate babyface who always had the Match of the Night at Takeover but could never win the big one. Adam Cole was the confident heel who always felt is was his night to become NXT World Champion while leading the Undisputed Era to greatness. Knowing all of this prior and the hot New York Crowd who absolutely flipped on Gargano and cheered Cole, we were in for a special main event. The drama, action, near-falls, close calls, and a happy ending. It’s everything we love about NXT. Did they overdo it with the near falls? You can argue that, but it worked and it had us on the edge of our seats. It’s quite possibly the greatest NXT Championship match in history. Two guys who were on a mission to get the one belt that had eluded their careers up to that point and they left it all in the ring.
WALTER VS. TYLER BATE (TAKEOVER CARDIFF)
The beauty in this match is in the buildup of Tyler Bate’s offense. He hits a body slam in the beginning and uses his speed advantage. Every time he tried to compound some offense, the sheer size of WALTER came in. Bate would strike with him and try to match him from a strength standpoint. It was then WALTER would just fire up one of his infamous chops or a submission move to wear Bate down. WALTER didn’t let him hit power moves until the latter half of the match, even teasing the Fireman’s carry spot for the eventual payoff later.
The NXT brand is known for a multitude of near falls during the climax of his matches – a theme also prevalent in New Japan Pro Wrestling. When all looked lost and WALTER’s series of punishment looked too much, Bate pulls off a suplex. It doesn’t stop there; there’s a powerbomb, an impressive slow German suplex, and an array of aerial moves. WALTER gets frustrated – every thunderous strike only emboldens Bate. Fate always wins and iron sharpens iron. Bate’s kick-outs towards the end didn’t tire us, it only gave us hope he would overcome. In its brief history, this is probably NXT UK’s greatest singles match to date with a near-perfect story to tell. The scrappy, spunky first champion of the brand stared up in the face of the unstoppable champion and both came out looking stronger for it.
JOHN CENA VS. AJ STYLES (ROYAL RUMBLE 2017)
Ah, Sweet 16. It was magical, even if not at Mania as many likely predicted it would occur. John Cena prevailed over one of his latest and toughest rivals in the international sensation AJ Styles. Styles previously bested him thrice and was riding a crazy wave of momentum after regaining the title from Jinder Mahal the Smackdown before Survivor Series. He went on to successfully retain it at Clash of Champions as well. Cena was well into the “part-timer” phase of his career, so it wasn’t certain whether this would be another pump fake for #16 to help get Styles over some more, or if they would finally do it. He did have one victory over Styles, but only in a six-man tag match, which didn’t carry as much weight as eating two singles pins and taking the fall in a triple threat.
The match was spectacular, and the build only aided that. One of my favorite moments being Cena putting AJ in the Figure Four Leg Lock, a clear homage to the man he was trying to tie for most world title reigns, The Nature Boy Ric Flair. He had done this before at SummerSlam 2015 in the Winners Take All match versus Seth Rollins that he lost due to Jon Stewart’s interference. This time around, the result was different. AJ countered an AA, Cena countered him into what looked to be a stolen Styles Clash but instead, he wanted to make AJ tap out poetically. We saw an Avalanche Attitude Adjustment, and the signature roll through double AAs Cena added to his repertoire over the years. AJ fought valiantly to keep his belt and seat atop the House that he built on Smackdown. Fortunately, time was on Cena’s side. A three count later, he entered the record books. It went from #BeatUpJohnCena to #TheChampIsHere in under a year. Cena foreshadowed making history off of AJ in the lead to their triple threat match with Dean Ambrose.
BLUE DEMON JR. VS DR. WAGNER JR. (TRIPLEMANÍA XXVII)
This was my introduction to AAA wrestling and MAN this match was violent. I knew nothing of the overarching story going into it but the match itself represents a larger hatred between two sides and the stakes needed to be as high as it was. It was a Máscara vs Caballera match, translating to Mask vs Hair; Blue Demon Jr. would have to unmask if he lost; Dr. Wagner Jr. would have his head shaved if defeated. It was the ultimate symbol of shame and neither party could afford that loss. As a result, they beat each other until battered and bloodied, pulling out garbage cans, glass bottles, massive metal pans, a hammer, and an ending with a cinder block that shook me to the core. It is a bloody mess of a match, its real-life fight feel made it one of the most dramatic, gruesome encounters I’ve ever watched.
KATSUYORI SHIBATA VS. KAZUCHIKA OKADA (SAKURA GENESIS 2017)
Kazuchika Okada was coming off two impressive IWGP championship title defenses against Kenny Omega and the returning Minoru Suzuki. Within this reign, there was a sense of confidence within Okada, some would say cockiness. At Sakura Genesis 2017, the New Japan Cup winner nicknamed “The Wrestler,” Katsuyori Shibata was his next challenge. The match itself was the end of a long road to redemption for Shibata that stemmed from 2005 when he left the company as a freelancer. There was a long mending of the fences between him and the New Japan Pro Wrestling fans, but this title shot felt like he had finally arrived at his time in the sun.
The match began as a technical battle. Each man effortlessly flowed into a bunch of chain wrestling exchanges. After a while, the gloves came off, and they dropped the pleasantries. Elbows, palm strikes, Pele kicks – as time went on, this was less of a match and more of a story of two men who wanted to prove their threshold of toughness. Okada would hit his signature moves, and Shibata didn’t back down once. Shibata would either shrug off the setup for the Rainmaker or give Okada a thunderous slap to stop him in his tracks. As the rise of New Japan continued from an international standpoint, this match displayed the apex of two wrestlers in their prime.
Unfortunately, this was Shibata’s last match. He would suffer a subdural hematoma because of ‘that’ headbutt. It’s still difficult watching the end of that match knowing what occurred and frankly, it’s a miracle he’s even alive. You can’t help to think of “what if?” Okada would build his legend further, but that was cut short for Shibata. Just think of how many brilliant matches were waiting in the wings for this rivalry.
BRAUN STROWMAN VS SAMOA JOE VS ROMAN REIGNS VS BROCK LESNAR (SUMMERSLAM 2017)
“BIG SWEATY MEN BUMPIN’ MEAT!” as Big E from the New Day would like to say. This main event was nothing but an all-out war. When four of the most dominant men in WWE collide for the Universal Championship, chaos ensues. Samoa Joe looked like the Samoan Submission Machine that we all knew and feared. Braun Strowman looked more dominant than anyone who breathed air at the time. Roman Reigns showed us why it was still his yard no matter what, and Brock Lesnar proved why he is the conqueror. Speaking of Brock Lesnar, we really underestimate how much he gives to another wrestler. This man knows how to sell like no other and he makes it believable. He was literally put through two tables by Braun in this match and it looked like he was done for the night. When I think of blockbuster main events this decade, very few top this one. They simply wanted to be the hell out of each other.
DANIEL BRYAN VS. BROCK LESNAR (SURVIVOR SERIES 2018)
Fresh off a heel turn and calling the WWE universe ‘fickle,’ Bryan would face the immovable object, RAW champion Brock Lesnar. Surely, this dream champion vs. champion matchup that occurred at Survivor Series 2018 could only go down one way, right? Bryan began the match, going after the leg of Lesnar and looking to tire him out. However, Mike Tyson once said, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
When Lesnar’s bear claw-like hands struck Bryan, the crowd got silent and social media grew concerned. Bryan, the man who somehow triumphantly came back after an almost three-year absence, was getting thrown around like a rag doll. Suplexes. F-5s. We all have bore witness to the Lesnar squashes of the past. That’s how his aura still permeates to this day. However, it’s a testament to how great ring generals Brock and Bryan are. We forgot about Bryan’s heel standing and watched him pick up steam. Running knees, stomps, dropkicks, and a yes lock to boast; was David about to beat Goliath?
The best wrestling matches have you fall in love with the illusion of the impossible result. While Bryan would not beat Lesnar that night, at least we thought it could happen. It was another brilliant earmark in the second coming of Bryan’s revived wrestler career. For Lesnar, it was another shot at detractors who claimed that he was just there to clock in and take title belts. This match was another one in a series with the likes of AJ Styles, Rey Mysterio Jr, and Finn Balor, where he helped make the smaller wrestlers look like giants.
CHARLOTTE VS BECKY LYNCH (WWE EVOLUTION)
Becky Lynch’s run from 2018-2020 was one of the biggest runs we’ve ever seen in quite some time. She was the top superstar in the company. However, you can’t be a top star in the company without having an arch-nemesis. Stone Cold needed Vince McMahon, John Cena needed Edge, and Becky Lynch needed Charlotte Flair. Now granted, the storyline wasn’t really made for Becky to become the star she is now but the fans wanted her regardless. They wanted The Man, not Charlotte and you can tell from this brutal match how much they got behind Becky. Kendo sticks, tables, ladders, and chairs. Both women laid it all on the line. If you go back to SummerSlam 2018 with Carmella and Charlotte, that was the match when The Man was coming. If you fast forward to the WrestleMania 35 main event with Ronda Rousey and Charlotte, that was the match when The Man was here to stay. However, if you stop at WWE Evolution, you knew this match was when The Man had arrived.
ANDRADE CIEN ALMAS VS JOHNNY GARGANO (NXT TAKEOVER PHILADELPHIA)
In my opinion, this is the best NXT match of all time. It’s far better than any of the Tommaso Ciampa matches. It’s better than the DIY matches. The only match I’d be willing to hear an argument for is Bayley vs Sasha Banks at Takeover Brooklyn I— more on that one later. This was Johnny Gargano at his peak as a babyface character. The story of Johnny having to find himself after being betrayed by his partner and best friend Tommaso Ciampa is an especially effective one when you pair him with my personal favorite NXT champion, Andrade Cien Almas. After going on an unfortunate losing streak, he finally started to rake in wins. It felt organic during this time period because the reasoning behind his losing streak was believable. He was introduced to NXT as a tag team act and Ciampa was his best friend. One could question themselves as to whether or not they could work on their own. Once he finally found himself, it was relieving and he was a likable enough personality to make you want to root for him. Once it came to his first NXT championship match, people were ready for him to complete his natural arc. Andrade was the perfect foil for his babyface fire.
One complaint I always had about Gargano’s matches is how they existed in a never-ending cycle of excess. The Ciampa series (aside from the first match) was unbearably long at points and the drama was soiled in its inability to properly sell the action. It was all in an effort to move on to the next action set-piece rather than something than a series with believable weight. In the Andrade match, Gargano demonstrates expert selling: the blood crusted lips, the dazed look in his eyes, and the instinctual kick-outs make for peak immersion. Andrade is effortlessly suave, his deep arsenal of moves and perfect tempo balances Gargano’s fire. Zelina Vega, his manager at the time, is perfectly antagonistic in Gargano’s earnest efforts towards winning. It’s the best NXT Championship match in NXT history, if not the very best match NXT has to offer.