Welcome to Deadspin’s irregular pro wrestling column, in which Tom Breihan and Ernest Wilkins will comb through the past month or so of superkicks, lariats, and 450 splashes in search of the greatest things that this most American of artforms has given us.

Tom Breihan: Is John Cena having the best year of his career? For plenty of wrestling fans, Cena was something like a necessary evil for so long: WWE’s unstoppable virtuous good guy who never loses and who manages to make persistence seem like the corniest thing ever. He’s had plenty of great moments in the past decade-plus, of course. His 2011 Money in the Bank match with CM Punk is the closest thing we’ve got to a canonical classic this decade, and I’m still pissed at myself for not seeing it in person when I could’ve. And I’m also partial to things like his doofy early battle-rapper character and his Last Man Standing match with Umaga at the 2007 Royal Rumble. But Cena has been the big, bold center of the world’s biggest wrestling company for what feels like an eon, and now I’m suddenly finding myself excited when he shows up on TV.

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Cena started the year with a triple-threat match against Brock Lesnar and Seth Rollins at the Royal Rumble that probably still ranks as the single best match I’ve seen this year. And while his feud with Rusev was overlong and ill-planned, it still gave us Rusev rolling to the ring in a tank at WrestleMania. He’s finally branched out of wrestling in ways that he couldn’t manage when he was making shitty action movies, showing up on Parks And Recreation and dating Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, finding an unexpected place in the Hollywood comedy elite. And now he’s got the U.S. Open Challenge, which is the best thing on WWE TV every week by a motherfucking country mile.

Ever since Cena won a second-rate title from Rusev at WrestleMania, he’s turned it into a big deal by defending it every week on TV, having great and competitive matches with people perceived to be below him. At first, some of those matches were good (Stardust) and some were boring (Kane), but they made for a fun sideshow. Somewhere along the line, though, they became essential. He gave Sami Zayn an incredible main-roster debut. He made it look like Neville could beat him. As I’m writing this, he’s spent the past two weeks running having incredible instant-classic matches against Cesaro. And he’s introduced Kevin Owens to the WWE audience in the grandest fashion possible. Those two are about to have their third pay-per-view match in three months, and I’m not even close to being sick of that combination. He’s welcomed in the WWE’s latest generation of indie standout signings by giving them the sorts of matches that they couldn’t have in the indies, combining the constant big-move kickouts and big power moves of those indie matches with a surefooted storytelling that only a seasoned TV veteran like him can bring. He’s on an absolutely massive roll right now, and when I think back on it, I’m hard-pressed to think of a wrestler who’s having a better 2015. What do you think, Ernest? Are you working on your Cenation green card?

Ernest Wilkins: Tom, seeing as pro wrestling comes from a history of carnivals, there’s always heavy embellishments and outright lies presented as facts. The promoters tell the story, so of course the successful ones get to repaint history in broad strokes. OF COURSE the Attitude Era was the best wrestling era! OF COURSE DX invaded WCW that one time in a tank and totally won the Monday Night Wars! OF COURSE there were 93,000 people at WrestleMania III! The truth is, DX drove a jeep as a publicity stunt, that 93k at Mania 3 is commonly known to have been fudged and while the Attitude Era brought unprecedented levels of cash to the biz — so much in fact, that for some reason people keep giving former WWF/WCW writer Vince Russo jobs and forums to speak even though he’s the booking equivalent of when your leg falls asleep on the toilet — the fact is, the creative was pretty butt. Another example: one John Felix Anthony Cena. Like you said Tom, he’s been the tippy top guy more or less since WrestleMania 21 and has faced everyone from The Rock to Triple H to The Undertaker (not to mention Edge, Randy Orton, Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, the entire Nexus, the entire Shield, the entire Wyatt Family...you get it). He’s been able to achieve that superstar goal of getting decent matches out of lunks like Umaga and JBL. (Go watch his I Quit match at Judgment Day 2006, notable because it’ll be the last time you ever see John Cena bleeding profusely in a WWE ring again.) More truth: if you use his first WWE title win at WrestleMania 21 in 2005 as his start on top, he has been a focal point of the biggest wrestling organization on Earth for 10 years. Cena has now been on top longer than every popular wrestler in post-Hulkamania WWE. Austin, Rock, HHH, Foley, Taker, Michaels...he’s been around on top longer than them all.

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This doesn’t mean it’s been a good run. Since turning face way back when — and wearing shirts in possibly every color in existence since then — the character has remained the same. Going up against a supernatural menace and his kooky cult? Salute, promise to never give up and win. Butting heads against an upstart group of NXT kids? Salute, promise to never give up and win. Are you the other guy in the angle that single-handedly renewed mainstream interest in professional wrestling? More of the same. That’s killed his credibility with the smarts but thanks to him being an all-star Make-A-Wish legend and kids being generally in love with him, that’s not going to change. Because of that, this “veteran takes on all comers/Rocky” hybrid we’re getting now should be appreciated more. His match with Owens at this weekend’s Battleground PPV was another great one and given that Cesaro and former foe Rusev are in the picture, we’re only getting better. Tom, that brings me to my next point: It’s July, which means we’re halfway through the year. It’s time for THE MID-YEAR AWARDS, BRUH! What are your picks for the following categories in 2015 so far:

  1. Match of the year so far
  2. Wrestler of the Year so far (male or female, we don’t care)
  3. Show of the Year so far
  4. Best Weekly TV show
  5. Keep an eye on...(most underrated, basically)

Tom:

Match of the year so far:

As mentioned above, I’m going to have to give match-of-the-year honors to the John Cena/Brock Lesnar/Seth Rollins triple threat match at the Royal Rumble. There were so many other great ones: Shinsuke Nakamura and Kota Ibushi at New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom, Lucha Underground’s incredible Grave Consequences match between Fenix and Mil Muertes and its Prince Puma/Johnny Mundo iron man match, Kevin Owens mauling Sami Zayn for the NXT title. But that Royal Rumble match was three guys who are all at the top of their respective games, working different styles but still meshing perfectly, and beating the absolute shit out of one another in the way that WWE can do when the company lets itself be great. It was perfectly paced, with huge moments and a story that made sense, and everyone involved walked out looking like world-beaters. At this point, Lesnar is on the short list of the greatest monsters in wrestling history, and this may be the best match he’s ever wrestled.

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Wrestler of the year so far:

But as great as Lesnar’s been in his limited appearances, I don’t think I’ve loved any wrestler this year more than I’ve loved Kevin Owens. The former Kevin Steen was one of my favorites on the independent circuit, partly for all the ways he seemed absolutely ill-suited to ever show up in the WWE. So when he did show up, playing the most complete character he’s ever had and tweaking his offense just enough that he doesn’t seem like he’s about to paralyze everyone he wrestles, it felt like a miracle. He barnstormed his way through everyone in NXT, destroyed the feel-good story of Sami Zayn’s rise, and kept radiating absolute disdain for everyone around him. Then he moved up to the main WWE roster and wrecked John Cena in his first match. I love everything about Owens’ rise, and right now, he’s one of the few reasons to stop fast-forwarding Raw.

Show of the year so far:

This is about the most basic answer I can give, but I think WrestleMania was this year’s best show. They haven’t all been winners in recent years, but when WWE puts everything together right, it can put on a show that nobody else can touch. This year’s big event had pomp, spectacle, water-cooler moments, nostalgia appeal, incredible entrances, more good wrestling than it honestly needed, and the sort of surprise ending that makes you wonder what’s coming next. It was a testament to what WWE can do when the company gets out of its own way and lets itself be great.

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Best weekly TV show:

The best weekly TV show this year has been Lucha Underground, and it hasn’t been close. At this point, I’m enjoying it more than any non-wrestling TV show, too. The show has great energy, an excellent crowd, a sense of imagination, and a production budget that feels way higher than even what WWE can come up with. It gets amazing thing out of wrestlers like Johnny Mundo, the former John Morrison, who was absolutely stagnant in WWE, and it’s introduced a teeming cast of characters who all seem larger-than-life in one ridiculous way or another. If I ever prayed, I’d be praying for it to be back for a second season.

Keep an eye on:

The question of the year’s most underrated wrestler is a tough one, since there’s such a teeming online wrestling fanbase that every wrestler, no matter how small-time, has a few dedicated spokespeople out there. Like, would it make sense to call NXT Women’s Champion Sasha Banks underrated when everyone who watches her matches realizes that she is the absolute shit? And can you say that the master indie technician Biff Busick isn’t getting his due when everyone who watches Pro Wrestling Guerrilla knows what he can do? So I’m going to go with Lucha Underground’s Pentagon Jr., a great wrestler who’s also a great wrestling character, one who’s perfect for his home promotion. He’s an evil skeleton-man who breaks opponents’ arms just to sacrifice them to his mysterious master, and his Cero Miedo taunt is more fun to do than anything this side of the Too Sweet sign. Ernest, what are your picks?

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Ernest: Before we get to mine, I think a mid-year awards column wouldn’t be complete without...a THIRD COLUMNIST.


Ladies and gentlemen...joining us this month is one of the best wrestling writers walking this Earth and the man who pioneered phrases like Five Moves of Doom, CANADIAN VIOLENCE, and others...The Original SmarK...BlogOfDoom.com’s own Scott Keith!

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Scott, we gotta know: what are your picks for the following categories in 2015 so far?

Scott Keith:

Match of the year so far:

​ We’ve actually had some really strong matches in an otherwise crappy year for WWE, as they churn out high quality PPV product that can pretty effortlessly blow away the smaller companies. The Royal Rumble three-way with Cena v. Rollins v. Lesnar was right up there, and even dark horse candidates like Sasha Banks v. Becky Lynch from NXT. I’m tempted to go with Styles v. Okada from NJPW Dominion just for the finishing sequence alone, but I think ultimately the match that is going to be remembered most at the end of the year is Kevin Owens upsetting John Cena at Elimination Chamber. It was not only a high-level match, but caused everyone to immediately freak out and e-mail me afterwards. That’s a level of excitement that WWE just hasn’t been able to produce otherwise, which is why I have to give it the nod. ​

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Wrestler of the year so far:

​Say what you will about the man, but John Cena has been carrying WWE on his back in the US Open Challenge role for months now and having great matches with anyone and everyone, so you gotta go with him until someone can prove otherwise. Unless this pick makes Brock Lesnar mad, in which case it’s totally Brock I meant to say all along. ​

Show of the year so far:

​WWE has had a bunch of middling PPVs with great matches interspersed, but I think the one blowaway PPV done by any of the major companies this year has to be New Japan’s Dominion, which exceeded all expectations for me. Styles v. Okada was a fantastic main event and the undercard was a bunch of a good-to-great matches showcasing a variety of styles, like Kushida winning the Junior heavyweight title and the antics of the Bullet Club. I really wish they could have English commentary from Mauro and Josh on live shows like this one, because they could probably build up a market in America that way. ​

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Best weekly TV show:

​Speaking of Mauro and Josh, whereas RAW is three hours of white noise for me, NJPW on AXS pretty much made me bounce on the chair with delight the first time I saw it and rekindled a lot of my love for wrestling. ​You not only get great matches in an easily-digested one-hour show, but Mauro Ranallo is exactly the kind of wrestling announcer that is lacking from the WWE product these days. He makes you care about the matches and characters and never makes you feel stupid for watching the show. It’s a fantastic show to decompress with on a weekly basis when the WWE product makes me murderously angry at wrestling.

Keep an eye on:

​I’m gonna go with the dark horse pick and say the girls from NXT that just invaded RAW last week.

The Divas division has needed a total overhaul for months now, and although the effectiveness of their initial angle might be questionable, the thought is at least in the right place. Clearly there’s an awareness that something needed to be done, and I think Sasha Banks and Charlotte are such high-level wrestlers right now that they can overcome any limitations in the booking and get themselves over like a modern Lita and Trish.

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Thanks for having me here, guys, and I also want to remind everyone to check out my regular column over at The Sporting News before I go. Back to you!

Ernest: Thanks, Scott! As for me:

Match of the year so far:

Like Tom, I also loved the triple threat match at the Rumble and like Scott, Cena/Owens 1 was a great bout that had me jumping on my coffee table — I’ll also throw love to the absolutely insane Grave Consequences match from Lucha Underground and the 10 man tag main event from ROH/NJPW Global Wars — but my match of the year so far happened four days into 2015: Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi at New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 9. Unlike the other picks, this was the first time I actually saw a match for which I had no real backstory going in and it just outright blew my mind. Nakamura is as charismatic as he is devastating, Ibushi is an insanely talented worker...look, I demand you seek out Nak’s entrance which is equal parts Michael Jackson circa “Bad” and ...uh, just watch it the thing he does with the ropes.

Wrestler of the year so far:

I’m torn between Cena and Owens...so can I just defer and hope they have a massive feud blowoff match at Summerslam?

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Show of the year so far:

Wrestle Kingdom 9. Between the co-main events, a wild as hell junior tag team opener, a crazy Ishii/Makabe hoss fight and Styles/Naito, you’ve got a solid event that outshines the dull spots.

Best weekly TV show:

Lucha Underground, and it’s not even close. If this is February, NXT is the clear winner but has fallen into a morass once all the main eventers either got injured or promoted and now it’s kinda...just there.

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Keep an eye on:

Sasha Banks. Given her recent promotion to the main roster, it might seem like she’s already made it. Don’t sleep though, she’s the best female wrestler in WWE right now that isn’t blood related to Ric Flair. Hopefully, she gets the time to really show what she can do, especially given that she’ll logically have to drop the title soon (at the forthcoming Brooklyn NXT Takeover show, maybe?) I’m just saying...don’t sleep on the Bo$$.


Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum. He’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical, and he writes the Netflix Action Movie Canon column for Deadspin’s Concourse. He lives in Charlottesville, VA. He is tall, and on Twitter.

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Ernest Wilkins is a writer living in Chicago. He’s written for Gawker, Complex, Pitchfork, Noisey, GQ, Rolling Stone and the Chicago Tribune. He’s 5’11” on a good day, and is also on Twitter.

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