If you like pro wrestling but you only casually follow along, you should be aware of two things. One is that NXT, the WWE developmental system’s TV show, is an absolute must-watch: An hour every week, full of guys who you’ll hopefully see on TV sometime soon, many of them recruited from the indie ranks, putting on a simple and pure and ridiculously fun show in front of a small and appreciative crowd. It’s an ideal midpoint between the grimy hyper-athletic intensity of American indie wrestling and the larger-than-life punching-with-feelings bigtime WWE style, and it’s on Hulu every Thursday. The other is that New Japan Pro Wrestling is the best wrestling company on the planet right now, and you can easily find entire four-hour pay-per-views on YouTube like two days after they happen. This is always a worthwhile use of your time. You get used to not hearing any English, and you get to see Tanahashi and Okada wrestle each other five times a year.
1. Antonio Cesaro vs. Sami Zayn (2 Out of 3 Falls, NXT, 8/22/13). Two guys from the indie circuit, with relatively fresh WWE contracts, get to deliver a complete and emotionally intense story in a way that they rarely got to do on the indies. Cesaro, the former Claudio Castagnoli, is a scowling Eurotrash-brute bad guy with a staggering array of uppercuts and an alliance with the xenophobic Tea Party manager Zeb Colter. Zayn, the former El Generico, is the unmasked upstart who plays the underdog character probably better than any other wrestler on the planet. Their match together is near-perfect: Every move leading to something else, every consequence evolving naturally out of what came before it, every big move (the through-the-ropes diving DDT!) arriving within the flow of the match rather than the match being contorted around to allow for it. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of work and a sign for a bright WWE future if they can stop it with all the bickering-authority-figures storylines for a minute.
2. Daniel Bryan vs. John Cena (WWE Championship, WWE Summerslam, 8/18/13). Bryan’s reign atop WWE turned out to be a short and sad blip rather than an indicator of a massive sea change within the organization, the beginning of an era when the best and most popular wrestlers within the company also might be the ones to drive it forward. His actual combined title reigns amounted to something like 22 hours. His character suffered hard once it became a main focus. But the actual match against Cena that marked Bryan’s bigtime elevation was a truly thrilling thing: Both guys pushing themselves and each other hard, escalating the intensity with perfect assurance, pulling out new moves, telling a story much cleaner than the one the writer’s room tried to tell immediately afterwards. Bryan’s running boot to the head immediately made me think of Shinsuke Nakamura, and I wish more things that happened on WWE TV made me think of that guy.
3. Daniel Bryan vs. Antonio Cesaro (WWE Raw, 7/22/13). And we’ll always have the buildup to Summerslam, that brief glorious sliver of time that the company made Bryan look like an absolute killer. This match came right in the middle of a gauntlet match for Bryan, after he beat Jack Swagger and before he beat Ryback (by DQ, but still), and it was a crazy sprint that lasted 13 minutes, both guys doing huge moves on each other the whole time. Cesaro’s uppercut volley was beautiful, and Bryan’s rollup win was maybe the most dramatic one I can remember seeing. WWE could put a match like this on every show, and sometimes it does, but not often enough.
4. Kazuchika Okada vs. Prince Devitt (IWGP Heavyweight Championship, NJPW Kizuna Road, 7/20/13). Okada is the new anointed one in NJPW, an arrogant rich-kid asshole character whose dramatic Rainmaker gesture, and his fold-you-in-half finishing lariat thing, walk a great line between peacocking and backing it up. NJPW’s pulled off a neat trick with him, turning him into a good guy when he’s facing heels and a heel when he’s facing good guys. Devitt, a sneering Irish high flyer who leads the dastardly all-foreigner Bullet Club faction, is the company’s best heel right now (even if he’s basically playing a stock Guy Ritchie character), and they did such a nice job building him up that I honestly thought he might beat Okada. He came close, and the match itself never really slowed down. Every Okada match ends in a crazy series of finishing-move reversals, but this one was especially crazy. Also worth noting: Devitt has arguably the single coolest entrance in all of pro wrestling. There would be more NJPW on this list if the company didn’t have its huge G1 Climax tournament during the last quarter, which just meant they put out way more wrestling than I could ever get around to watching and I didn’t really know where to start. (Though I should say that the Nakamura/La Sombra match, also from Kizuna Road, was badass.)
5. Brock Lesnar vs. CM Punk (WWE Summerslam, 8/18/13). Lesnar barely ever wrestles these days, so it feel like a big deal whenever he does. And this might be his best match since returning, with Punk having to figure out way to outsmart this huge monster who can easily outpower him but then fucking things up for himself when he went after Lesnar’s manager Paul Heyman. In the end, these two just beat the shit out of each other, which is how every Lesnar match goes, with Lesnar’s weird skin turning totally pink and Punk going absolutely crazy-eyes by the end. The whole Punk/Heyman feud hit its climax here, and it should’ve ended with this, but whatever.
6-10. Randy Orton vs. Goldust (WWE Raw, 9/9/13); Brian Cage vs. Anthony Nese (PWG TEN, 8/9/13); Roman Reigns & Seth Rollins vs. the Usos (WWE Tag Team Championship, WWE Money in the Bank, 7/14/13); Austin Aries vs. Bobby Roode (TNA Destination X, 7/18/2013); Paige vs. Emma (NXT Women’s Championship, NXT, 7/25/13).