Another year, another excuse to complain about the booking and promotion of the largest wrestling organization in the world. More than any year in recent memory, 2019 saw WWE struggle to maintain the audience’s attention even as it expanded into a wider television market. Things got so bad that the McMahon family had to literally reboot itself heading into the year and promise that everything would be different in 2019. That lasted for about two weeks before the creative team fell back into lazy tropes and crowds simply stopped tuning in. It wasn’t just Monday or Tuesday nights, either, as NXT — newly brought to the USA Network — struggled to find its footing both with and without the competition from AEW.
All this creative turmoil is made even the more baffling when one considers the simple insane amount of talent currently working under the WWE banner. Just look at the list of men who have held top titles in one of the company’s four distinct brands (205 Live is now a sub-NXT brand. The sooner you accept that, the happier you’ll be) — each one is a fantastic example of professional wrestling greatness. Each is magic in the ring, capable of greatness on the mic, and able to elevate any show they are on…and yet, each has faced questionable, and at times downright awful booking this year.
Even in spite of these challenges, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to rank these paragons of pro-graps on impact, duration of reign (within the past 12 months) and match quality. As I said, every man on this list is a fantastic performer, and that’s why it was so hard to put someone at the bottom of this list. Especially when the man at the bottom is…
10) Johnny Gargano
Won the Title: TakeOver: New York (April)
Length of Reign: 57 Days
Memorable Matches: vs. Adam Cole (Bay Bay)
Every year that I do this list I feel bad for the men at the bottom of it. It’s not as if Jonny Wrestling failed to put on excellent matches this year. It’s not like he wasn’t, again, one of the best performers in all of wrestling…it’s just that after being at the forefront of NXT’s greatest storyline of all time, shaking off the yolk of the Ciampa feud in order to attain the championship that has been just out of his grasp for so long and becoming the first triple crown champion in the company’s history…he just lost the title after a month, no successful defenses to his name. Don’t get it twisted — he put on banger after banger with a newfound foil in the form of Adam Cole (Bay Bay)…he just lost them all. Then he disappeared for a while. Then it seemed like he was going to get into a fairly exciting program with Finn Balor…but then he got injured and missed his first TakeOver in years. It just hasn’t been Gargano’s year, and it looks pretty unlikely that another run with the big X belt is in his near future. Fortunately, though, you can always count on Gargles to put on a fantastic match, no matter who he’s in there with.
9) Tommaso Ciampa
Won the Title: NXT, July 2018
Length of Reign: 238 Days
Memorable Matches: vs. Aleister Black (TakeOver: Phoenix)
Speaking of the missed potential coming out of the best told story in NXT history, Tommaso Ciampa deserved a better end to his title run than his untimely neck injury would allow. After a stellar term as the black-and-gold brand’s most dastardly heel, the stage was finally being set for the denouement between Ciampa and his forever frenemy Johnny Gargano — a program that remained incredibly popular despite an ill-advised main roster debut that had the Psycho Killer smiling on the TitanTron as he reformed the former DIY. And yet it was not to be, as Chompers was sidelined for most of the year rehabbing what, for many, would have been a career ending injury. Since his return, Tommy Sports Entertainment has remained near the top of the card, though the rise of Keith Lee and the return of Finn Balor have seemingly moved Ciampa and Goldie further apart than we may have hoped. Still, Tommaso remains a firm part of NXT’s main event scene, and is a strong candidate to be the next man wearing that big gold belt.
8). “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt
Won the Title: Crown Jewel (October)
Length of Reign: 50+ Days (Ongoing)
Memorable Matches: vs. Daniel Bryan (Survivor Series)
Oh, what a year Bray Wyatt has had. Since rebranding himself with the Firefly Funhouse series, Wyatt has been the hottest thing in the wrestling world — and the debut of his Fiend persona in his glorified squash of Finn Balor at SummerSlam only elevated the excitement around the character. Things were looking up for Wyatt until he ran headlong into Seth Rollins at Hell in a Cell. In a one-sided angle that saw the Fiend absorb a, frankly, stupid amount of offense only to had the ref stop the match (a Hell in a Cell match, mind you. One that has no disqualifications and is built around wanton violence), the crowd thoroughly sh*t all over the “match,” the event and WWE as a whole. As such, the company had no choice but to book a rematch between the two at the blood money house show that was Crown Jewel, and even less choice on how to book the finish. The result is a Universal Champion who may have ascended to the top of the card too soon. Wyatt’s a talented performer and certainly has an eye for the character, but his gimmick of an unstoppable horror movie monster does limit the kinds of stories he can and can’t tell. Fortunately, he’s currently in the midst of a feud with Daniel Bryan, so that should do a lot to start his title run off strong. Though time will tell where Wyatt will land on this list next year.
7) Pete Dunne
Won the Title: NXT TakeOver: Chicago (2017)
Length of Reign: 685 days
Memorable Matches: vs. WALTER (TakeOver: New York)
This ranking should not be taken as an indication of Dunne’s quality as a champion — just of his run with the United Kingdom Champion in 2019. For nearly two years, Dunne was an unstoppable force, having good-to-great title defenses on TV every couple of months like some sort of British vegan Brock Lesnar (though Dunne kept active on the British indies and eventually, NXT UK). Then he ran into the Ring General and his reign ended in a show-stealing effort at TakeOver: New York, and since then, the Bruiserweight has been a lot more stoppable. He’s still putting on great matches (his title bout with Adam Cole at Survivor Series was the best worked tilt on the card), he just seems to lose a lot nowadays. It’s a far cry from going undefeated for a few years to eating pins from Damian Priest and Killian Dain, but Dunne’s transfer to NXT Prime has introduced him to a wider audience — and may lead him to gold in the coming year. It’ll probably be mid-card gold (watch out, Roderick Strong), but gold all the same.
Won the Title: NXT TakeOver: New York (April 2019)
Length of Reign: 260+ Days (Ongoing)
Memorable Matches: vs. Pete Dunne (TakeOver:New York); vs. Tyler Bate (UK TakeOver: Cardiff); vs. KUSHIDA (NXT)
Giant Austrian murder baby WALTER came into the WWE with a ton of hype, and though his performances in the ring have certainly lived up to his impressive credentials, his booking hasn’t always been what it, perhaps, should have. Admittedly his time on NXT UK is well presented, as the Ring General is a figure of menace on the brand, but not quite untouchable — lending credibility to his ubiquitously smaller challengers like Tyler Bate or KUSHIDA. The problem comes when he was made to interact with the main roster in the build to Survivor Series. While Adam Cole (Bay Bay) was able to have competitive matches with the top stars of the Monday and Friday shows (even beating Daniel Bryan clean), the same could not be said for his UK counterpart. On SmackDown, WALTER and his entire stable, Imperium, was sent packing by the New Day and some also-ran tag teams, then on Raw the undefeated champion would lose two matches (one by DQ, another a tag match in which he didn’t take the pin) to Seth Rollins and a collection of B-squad Raw guys. Worse yet, once WALTER was named to the NXT team for Survivor Series, he was eliminated in three minutes with little fanfare. This is not how you book a dominant champion, and really serves to underscore the WWE’s view of its British brand. Still, WALTER has impressive in-ring work, a genuinely intimidating presence and is a boon to the NXT UK brand. Now let’s just keep booking him as such.
5) Brock Lesnar
Won the Title: Crown Jewel (November 2018); Extreme Rules (July)
Length of Reign: 184 days (Combined; ongoing)
Memorable Matches: vs. Seth Rollins (SummerSlam); vs. Rey Mysterio (Survivor Series)
Hey look, Brock Lesnar’s on the list. Goody. Like most years, 2019 saw Bork Laser holding a title for most of the year, but only performing a handful of times, and yet still finding ways to stunt the progress of a full-timer along the way. His time with the Universal Championship was more of an angle than a run, (his time with the Money in the Bank briefcase was far more memorable), but his latest run with the WWE Championship came at the expense of Kofi Kingston’s widely celebrated first reign with a main championship — all to pay off another underwhelming run at the top for The Beast. The dust hadn’t even settled from his 8-second win over Kingston before he was onto the next, infinitely more underwhelming, challenger in Cain Velasquez. That match would also last only a few seconds, and lead to his next match which (though infinitely more enjoyable) would also effectively be another Brock squash, this time of Rey Mysterio. There has to come a time when WWE realizes that they need more variety in their booking, but it’s not likely to be any time soon. Expect Brock to hold this thing through at least SummerSlam, and for the US Title to be the de facto main title on the Red brand because of it.
4) Seth Rollins
Won the Title: WrestleMania 35 (April); SummerSlam (August)
Length of Reign: 179 days (Combined)
Memorable Matches: vs. Brock Lesnar (SummerSlam); vs. Braun Strowman (Clash of Champions)
Man, what a roller coaster year Seth Rollins had. The Architect started the year by winning the Royal Rumble en route to a show-opening title victory over Brock Lesnar. With the red strap back in regular rotation, Rollins set out to be the fighting babyface champion many had wanted him to be since returning from the knee injury that ended his first run with a major title. Things were looking good…until they decided that Baron Corbin (firmly in the midst of his “dressing like a day manager at Express For Men” phase) deserved a three-month+ run of title shots. This produced countless uninteresting, formulaic matches that served to cool off not only Seth’s momentum, but that of his real-life fiancé (remember when they kept hammering that home?) as well. The addition of Becky Lynch and Lacey Evans to the Universal title scene set a negative tone for his run, and that wasn’t helped by a quick title turnover that saw Brock regain the belt for a month. When Seth got the title back, it seemed like his personal life became a bigger story than his time in the ring. Seth’s Twitter fingers soured many fans on the Architect as a fan favorite, and by the time he entered into the booking disaster that was his feud with The Fiend, fans were ready to boo the Kingslayer once again. Fortunately, the WWE got the hint (eventually) and have re-established Seth as the top (full-time) heel on Monday nights. Unfortunately, with Brock ruling the roost on the red brand, it seems like Rollins will have to settle for contending for the US Championship for the time being.
3) Adam Cole (Bay Bay)
Won the Title: TakeOver XXV, June
Length of Reign: 200+ (Ongoing)
Memorable Matches: vs. Johnny Gargano (every time they fought); vs. Daniel Bryan (SmackDown); vs. Pete Dunne (Survivor Series); vs. Finn Balor (NXT, December)
It was hard to rank these last three men on this list, as they were all amazing this year in different ways. With Adam Cole (Bay Bay), this was the year of work rate. When Tommaso Ciampa went down with a neck injury, Cole stepped right into the main event scene and never left it. After taking the belt off Johnny Gargano at “TakeOver: Connecticut I guess?,” Cole did nothing but put on banger after banger with anyone and everyone set across from him. His series with Gargano somehow managed to get better with each match, his exhibition against Daniel Bryan was the highlight of the Survivor Series build, and he turned in an amazing performance in WarGames only to turnaround and have the match of the show the next night. If there’s a weakness to his game — and it’s a faint one — it’s an over-reliance on his stablemates in the Undisputed Era that can sometimes leave Cole looking a bit like a chickensh*t heel. Of course, the beauty of NXT booking is that he’s also allowed to win big matches on his own a lot of the time — something he might not be allowed to do if/when he comes up to the “main roster” with the UE. He absolutely should stay with UE, by the way — I don’t want to imply that the Millennial nWo is anything but fantastic as a unit. I just hope that, should he end up working Mondays or Fridays in the near future, they don’t forget what makes Adam Cole (Bay Bay) work.
2) Daniel Bryan
Won the Title: SmackDown, November 2018
Length of Reign: 145 days
Memorable Matches: vs. AJ Styles (Royal Rumble); Elimination Chamber (take a wild guess); vs. Kevin Owens and Mustafa Ali (Fastlane)
If Cole was the work-rate champion, Daniel Bryan was the “best for business” champion of 2019. Let the irony of that phraseology sink in for a second. What I mean is that, though he was ostensibly the top champion of the blue brand and the guy main eventing the show, Bryan proved to be the most selfless champ in recent memory. The American Dragon showed a real desire to not only work with young up-and-coming Superstars, but put them over as well. His bouts with the likes of Mustafa Ali and Adam Cole (Bay Bay) allowed both performers to look like true stars and future champions — and that’s to say nothing of his work with Kofi Kingston (but we’ll go more into that in the next entry) which spoke to Bryan’s other strength as a champion willing to work with new talent: storytelling. His reinvention as the obnoxious eco-warrior turned what was a feel-good man of the people into one of the most hated heels in the company, and all he had to do was ratchet up his own opinions and strap a piece of Burlap covered in turquoise around his waist. Bryan has seemingly reinvented himself again by returning to his roots and getting back into chain and combination wrestling. It seems he has settled back into the upper mid-card for now, but Bryan’s popularity, selflessness and willingness to do what’s best for both the story and the business itself, means he’s never far from title contention.
And the best male world champion of the year is…
1) Kofi Kingston
Won the title: WrestleMania 35, April
Length of Reign: 180 Days
Memorable Matches: vs. Daniel Bryan (WrestleMania 35); vs. Kevin Owens (Money in the Bank); vs. Samoa Joe (Extreme Rules)
WWE puts a lot of emphasis on the power of “moments.” Those that inspire us, those that make us cringe, basically moments that provoke an emotional response are the company’s bread and butter — and nothing that happened this year provoked an emotional response on the level of Kofi Kingston’s ascension to the WWE Championship. Kingston’s story of a man who has been overlooked for 11 years resonated with audiences around the world and showed that hard work and consistency can pay off. Better still, this wasn’t a one-and-done performance, as Kofi held the belt for about six months and continued to put on high work-rate, story-driven performances that paid off long-served storylines. Shoot, they actually gave Kofi closure over the 2011 Randy Orton feud (kind of) that served as an albatross around his neck for the past decade. The run came to an abrupt, and frankly insulting end, but it doesn’t erase the impact of that WrestleMania Moment. Not since Daniel Bryan’s ascent at WrestleMania XXX had a WWE Championship match been so perfectly built and paid off — and the fact that Bryan himself was now the heel, echoing the same talking points used against him to put down Kingston, was icing on the cake. Then there was the series of videos of Kofi visiting his native Ghana where you could see how his title win impacted not only the man himself, but his peers and fans around the globe. As good as Cole was in the ring, or as fun as Bryan was yelling about the enormous hot dogs, nothing compares to the emotional impact of Kofi Kingston’s title win and six months atop the WWE.
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