It was a transformative decade for WWE. From the launch of the WWE Network that changed the company’s entire business model, to high-profile television deals with Fox and Viacom, WWE’s business has never been more profitable. But what about the matches?
While this decade will certainly not go down as a high point in the storied history of World Wrestling Entertainment, there were still plenty of amazing matches and unforgettable moments peppered throughout the 2010s. The beginning of the decade is almost unrecognizable from the end, but the one constant throughout the past ten years is moments we’ll be talking about for years to come.
So let’s get started and take a look at the best match (as decided by yours truly, don’t @ me) of every year in the 2010s, starting with…
2010: Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker (WrestleMania XXVI)
Date: March 28, 2010
Location: Phoenix, Arizona
Story: Streak vs. Career. No disqualification, no countout
2010 seems like an eon ago in WWE, and there’s no better way to exemplify that than by pointing out that Shawn Michaels was still an active competitor then.* Of course, that wouldn’t be the case for long, as the Heartbreak Kid’s career was on the line against The Undertaker at that year’s WrestleMania, when the Phenom’s famed streak was in full swing. WrestleMania XXVI was the second year in a row these two would go at it at the Show of Shows, and predictably, both matches were a masterclass in pro wrestling from two bona fide Mount-Rushmore-of-wrestling legends.
The match that would end Shawn’s career* starts out aggressively and with purpose, skipping the usual “feeling out” process and largely picking up where they left off the year before. What follows is basically the perfect wrestling match: great, innovative counter after counter, in-ring storytelling such as HBK noticing Undertaker’s tweaked knee and attacking it for the rest of the match, and of course memorable high spots, like Shawn’s picture-perfect moonsault off the top rope to the outside.
Michaels, defiant to the end, made Undertaker’s throat slash gesture at him and slapped the Deadman in the face, earning a jumping Tombstone Piledriver to put to rest the career of arguably the greatest in-ring performer the history of the sport.* Add in an emotional, heartfelt goodbye to the fans in attendance and the WWE Universe at large, and you have one of the best sendoffs ever.*
* Crown Jewel 2018 never happened, I can’t hear you, la la la…
2011: John Cena (c) vs. CM Punk (Money in the Bank)
Date: July 17, 2011
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Story: CM Punk’s WWE contract expires immediately following the match
In July 2011, CM Punk and John Cena put together not just one of the best matches of the year or even the decade, but one of the best matches in WWE history. And it all started with a Pipebomb.
If you like wrestling enough to be reading a top matches of the decade list, you know the story: CM Punk was legitimately on his way out the door at WWE, he aired his grievances in a now-legendary promo atop the entrance ramp in Las Vegas, and then he went on to beat John Cena in an era where that rarely happened at all, let alone cleanly.
The aforementioned Pipebomb promo and everything surrounding the storyline gets such a focus that the match itself almost feels secondary, but it is truly an excellent match in its own right. This is thanks in no small part to the Chicago crowd, which will go down in history as one of the hottest crowds ever. Punk’s entrance is one of the biggest “big time feel” moments you’ll ever see, and commentary really sells the importance of the WWE Championship — Cole calls is “the symbol of this company, and everything to the McMahon family” — and what it would mean if a “demagogue” like Punk were to walk away from the company with it.
The match itself is full of extremely convincing false finishes, including a slick GTS to STF counter just when you think it’s finally over. But the story and acting from everyone involved, including Vince McMahon who eventually made his way ringside, is what puts this match firmly in the annals of pro wrestling history.
No one will ever accuse John Cena or CM Punk of being expert mat technicians, but as far as telling a story inside the ring, there aren’t many much better. This angle did what seemed like the impossible in 2011: it put wrestling back on the map, and had everyone talking about it. For a short couple of months, thanks to the Voice of the Voiceless, wrestling was cool again.
2012: CM Punk (c) vs. Daniel Bryan (Over the Limit)
Date: May 20, 2012
Location: Raleigh, North Carolina
Story: WWE Championship and possibly AJ Lee’s affection on the line
After 2011’s match of the year, change was in the air in WWE. Though the aftermath of Money in the Bank left a lot to be desired, eventually Punk found himself in a WWE Championship reign that would last a historic 434 days. Meanwhile, fellow indie darlings like Daniel Bryan were beginning to rise in the ranks of the company. And on May 20, 2012, the two squared off for the WWE Championship at Over the Limit.
Okay, so it wasn’t the changing of the guard it should have been, as a match between John Cena and erstwhile on-air authority figure John Laurinaitis was the night’s main event over two talents at or near their primes for the richest prize in the sport.
Regardless, the match delivered on expectations, creating an instant classic. Both men knew each other well from Ring of Honor and the independent scene before making it to the top of the card in WWE, and had great chemistry in the ring. The match is as technically proficient as you’d expect — guillotine chokes, Mexican surfboards, and everything in between are employed by Punk and Bryan, who was just starting to become recognized as the best technical wrestler in the company. The result is a forgotten diamond in the rough in what looking back was a rough year for the company.
It’s interesting to look back on this match with hindsight: CM Punk hadn’t yet lost his smile, so to speak; Daniel Bryan was a bad guy, but what would later be known as the Yes! Movement was on the rise; and the woman who would later become Punk’s real-life wife was smack in the middle of the storyline between the two. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be a real turning point for both men, as Bryan was in the early stages of a legendary run and CM Punk was just starting to fall in love with AJ Lee while falling out of love with wrestling.
2013: The Shield (c) vs. The Brotherhood (Battleground)
Date: October 6, 2013
Location: Buffalo, New York
Story: Cody, Dustin and Dusty’s careers on the line
Oftentimes, all the pieces are there to create a memorable storyline, but for whatever reason WWE doesn’t connect the dots. When they do, however, the results are legendary, and that’s what happened on this night in Buffalo when the stars aligned. Cody Rhodes and Goldust, however beloved by the fans, were perennial mid-carders in WWE. But in 2013, the two brothers had formed a tag team dubbed “The Brotherhood” that gave way to a storyline involving the entire Rhodes family. In retrospect, Battleground was the perfect sendoff of the patriarch of that family, Dusty Rhodes.
In a nutshell: The Rhodes family had earned the ire of Stephanie McMahon and the Authority, and if Cody and Dustin couldn’t defeat The Shield for the Tag Team Championships, both their careers and the career of their father were over. This was no small task, especially considering the current champs were Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins of The Shield, who were perhaps even more dominant back then than they are today.
This is a bittersweet match to look back on today, especially when you consider the match’s two enforcers outside the ring. Dean Ambrose is no longer with the company, opting for greener pastures in AEW. And tragically, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes passed away two years later. But I can’t think of a better way to close out the on-air chapter of his life than embracing his two sons who themselves have made indelible marks on the wrestling industry he helped propel into the mainstream following a feel-good match (and one of the best Cross-Rhodes ever hit).
2014: Randy Orton (c) vs. Batista vs. Daniel Bryan (WrestleMania XXX)
Date: April 6, 2014
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana
Story: The Yes! Movement vs. The Authority
To think, one of the greatest storylines ever told in the modern era almost never happened. But thanks to several forces outside of WWE’s control, like CM Punk leaving the company and the fanbase’s near-unanimous, relentless love of Daniel Bryan, real life influenced the on-air product in a way that can only happen in professional wrestling, creating maybe the best Cinderella story ever told in the sport.
While what would go on to be called the Yes! Movement was picking up steam in 2012, it reached a fever pitch in the summer of 2013. So when then-WWE Champion had the chance to hand-pick his opponent for SummerSlam, the obvious choice was Daniel Bryan. Bryan ended up winning the match, but was immediately betrayed by COO of the company and special guest referee for the match, Triple H. A kick to the gut and a Pedigree later, Randy Orton marched down to the ring to cash in his just-earned Money in the Bank briefcase to ensure Bryan’s first WWE Championship reign didn’t last more than a few minutes.
About five months of Bryan being screwed over by The Authority followed, but he never lost the support of the fans. In fact, when it started to become clear WWE didn’t have any greater plans in place for Bryan, fan support only grew to the point where WWE could no longer ignore it. And after Triple H’s planned WrestleMania opponent, CM Punk, suddenly left the company, the perfect replacement was waiting in the wings. After the Royal Rumble (which was a complete debacle, also because of Daniel Bryan, but that’s an article for another day), Bryan would have the opportunity to get his hands on Triple H to get revenge for months of holding him down, and if he was successful, he would get a shot at the WWE World Heavyweight Championship later on in the same night, at WrestleMania.
The rest is history: the perfect confluence of real-life circumstances and a once-in-a-generation connection with a fanbase gave way to one of the most feel-good moments in WWE history as Daniel Bryan defeated every member of Evolution not-named Ric Flair in the same night to overcome all the odds and win the richest prize in the game. Bryan will forever be known as one of the most unlikely main eventers in WWE history, and the “Miracle on Bourbon Street” cemented him as an all-time great.
2015: Sasha Banks (c) vs. Bayley (NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn)
Date: August 22, 2015
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Story: Can Bayley win the big one?
Right around the middle of the decade, NXT became a fixture in WWE thanks to the birth of the WWE Network. A weird game show-type competition that took the place of WWE’s ECW brand in 2010 eventually morphed into the successor to the company’s developmental brand at the time, FCW, and the result was a wrestling show unlike anything WWE had ever produced. NXT had an intimate feel merged with WWE’s top-notch production values — essentially, NXT was what WWE’s version of ECW should have been. Thanks to the WWE Network, WWE’s “third brand” began having their own PPV-like specials, and to this day NXT TakeOver remains appointment television for nearly every wrestling fan.
NXT has given the wrestling world a lot, but the biggest mark it’s left has to be in women’s wrestling. NXT brought the death of the Divas division and ushered in a golden age of women’s wrestling, thanks in huge part to the Four Horsewomen: Sasha Banks, Bayley, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch. In August 2015, at the inaugural NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, Sasha Banks and Bayley tore down the house in what was billed as one of two main events of the evening. The ultimate underdog took down The Boss in an instant classic, and the world of women’s wrestling hasn’t been the same since.
2016: Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn (NXT TakeOver: Dallas)
Date: April 1, 2016
Location: Dallas, Texas
Story: Nakamura’s WWE debut
2016 saw a slew of new names join WWE, a lot of them from New Japan Pro Wrestling. One of the most anticipated and surprising was Shinsuke Nakamura, the King of Strong Style. Nakamura had become an outright legend in NJPW, so when it was announced his first match under the WWE umbrella would be taking place WrestleMania weekend at NXT TakeOver, expectations were high.
His opponent: Sami Zayn, who had been appearing more and more regularly on main roster shows, but was still considered the heart and soul — and similarly, the gatekeeper — of NXT. The result was an instant classic match, the type of dream match that wasn’t even really considered beforehand because it never seemed like a possibility.
Reporting at the time suggested that Zayn and Nakamura didn’t plan out their match or even really interact much before it, which makes this impressive match even more so. In a company that so heavily invests in the “story” aspect of wrestling, Nakamura and Zayn showed that they are masters of in-ring storytelling, even without an elaborate angle building up to the match.
2017: Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne (United Kingdom Championship Tournament – Day 2)
Date: January 15, 2017
Location: Blackpool, England
Story: First-ever WWE United Kingdom Champion to be crowned
WWE’s expansion into new brands continued in 2017 with the United Kingdom Championship Tournament, the foundation on which NXT UK was built. Held at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool, England, the inaugural tournament introduced the WWE Universe to a host of new faces, several of which are pivotal players to this day.
The tournament eventually came down to Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne, two relative unknowns to American audiences at the time. However, by the end of their fantastic match, everybody knew who they were. This was a star-making performance for both Dunne and Bate, two young upstarts — Bate was only 19 at the time of this match! The precocious, Big Strong Boy came away with the victory and the first-ever United Kingdom Championship, paving the way for what would become WWE’s first brand to have a home base away from the United States.
2018: Adam Cole vs. EC3 vs. Killian Dain vs. Lars Sullivan vs. Ricochet vs. Velveteen Dream (NXT TakeOver: New Orleans)
Date: April 7, 2018
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana
Story: Ladder match to crown the first-ever NXT North American Champion
I always find it difficult to rate multi-man gimmick matches accurately alongside more traditional one-on-one matches. However, the six-man ladder match at TakeOver: New Orleans over WrestleMania weekend in 2018 was just special, and for a lot of reasons. It was the televised debut match for both EC3 and Ricochet, two of the hottest free agents in wrestling prior to their NXT signings, one of which is still thriving today (what have they done to my poor boy Ethan?). More importantly for the NXT brand, however, it was to decide the first-ever NXT North American Champion, a new mid-card title that helped solidify NXT’s status as a legitimate third brand alongside its Raw and SmackDown counterparts.
The match itself is absolutely insane, with far too many dangerous, spectacular spots to list here. Keep an eye on EC3 during the carnage, however, and marvel at how much abuse he takes. This being a ladder match obviously had Ricochet fans salivating, but it was the likes of EC3 and Lars Sullivan who were the quiet heroes of the match. In the end, Adam Cole came away with the North American title, adding even more gold and accolades to the Undisputed Era’s coffers. Undisputed Era is where the title resides these days, albeit around the waist of Roderick Strong.
Adam Cole vs. Johnny Gargano (NXT TakeOver: New York)
Date: April 5, 2019
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Story: Two out of three falls for the NXT Championship
NXT TakeOver and the Barclay Center, name a better duo. The only competitor would be NXT TakeOver over WrestleMania weekend, and earlier this year we were treated to both scenarios at the same time. While this was the fifth TakeOver held in Brooklyn, it was titled the first TakeOver: New York to more closely align with WrestleMania being marketed as taking place in New York (even though it took place in New Jersey. Makes sense, right?)
While Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa was the most compelling storyline in NXT, and quite possibly in all of WWE at the time, an unfortunately timed injury left Ciampa on the shelf formonths and left out of the Mania festivities. Undisputed Era leader Adam Cole stepped up and filled the spot flawlessly, providing a nearly equally compelling foil for Johnny Wrestling to overcome as Cole and Gargano vied for the vacated NXT Championship.
There’s a lot of debate about whether this two out of three falls match is better than the rematch between the two at TakeOver XXV, but for me the stakes and the setting, as well as the match booking itself put their TakeOver: New York effort a cut above. The Undisputed Era threw the everything but the kitchen sink at Gargano, but Johnny Wrestling persevered. It may not have been quite the crowning moment we were hoping for — it would have been that much sweeter against his forever opponent, Tommaso Ciampa — but this was almost as good as it gets.
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