You may notice a theme in my top 10 WWE matches of the year so far.
Only one singles matches from the main roster made my list. The rest of the matches representing Raw and Smackdown involve multiple people, gimmicks, or both. And what made those matches so good, for the most part, wasn't the nitty-gritty work. It wasn't the snap of the punches, the timing of the comebacks. It was the broad strokes. Sure, their participants executed those strokes well, but without that grander vision guiding them, the matches would probably be as forgettable as the rest of the 40 hours of wrestling WWE pumps out a month.
There are singles matches in my list, though. They just come from NXT, expectedly, and 205 Live, rather unexpectedly. These are the matches where the nitty-gritty carries the most weight. These are the matches where two wrestlers made their match memorable by simply going to the ring and wrestling their asses off.
I won't say that a well-worked match is innately better than a well-booked one. But I will say that the very best matches, the ones at the top of this list of WWE's best of 2018 so far, are both.
10. WWE United Kingdom Champion Pete Dunne vs. Kyle O'Reilly, NXT (June 13). I wanted to like this match more. Dunne might be my favorite performer in the whole company, and O'Reilly has won me over with his goofball side as part of The Undisputed Era. But his submission exchanges with Dunne in this match just feel like two guys showing off their enthusiasm for MMA — I'm almost surprised they didn't call out the names of the holds as they hurried through them. The striking, and O'Reilly's work on Dunne's leg, felt just as perfunctory. But the Full Sail crowd loved it, and these two have such a high default setting that their match still snuck onto my list anyway.
9. Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle vs. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, WrestleMania 34. Like many of the WWE main roster's matches on this list, this mixed tag WrestleMania feature benefits from nearly perfect booking. It's a little long, sure. But its confrontations between Rousey and McMahon, as well as Rousey and Triple H, couldn't have been more compelling. The match certainly also benefits from Rousey being a surprisingly natural pro wrestler, trash talking and throwing hands like she's been training five times as long as she has. In that sense, there was some poetry in her pairing with the also preternaturally talented Angle.
8. Smackdown Women's Champion Charlotte vs. Asuka, WrestleMania 34. This women's dream match makes the list in spite of itself. It has Charlotte making a show-stopping entrance and looking the most poised and queenly she has in her career, as well as some slick wrestling and striking with Asuka. But it ends far too abruptly, with the wrong person winning in Charlotte, and quickly cedes the stage to John Cena's dumb storyline with the Undertaker. Here's hoping the rematch gets the respect — and winner — it deserves, perhaps at Evolution in October.
7. Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns vs. John Cena vs. Elias vs. Finn Balor vs. The Miz vs. Braun Strowman, Raw (Feb. 19). Rollins started 2018 treading water after a Shield reunion and odd-couple tag team with Jason Jordan both ran aground due to injury. But his showing in this two-hour-long (!) gauntlet, in which he pinned both Reigns and Cena during his 65-minute (!!!) run, reasserted him as a centerpiece of Raw. And he's ridden that performance to an impressive reign with the Intercontinental Championship and, presumably, some involvement with the Universal Championship once it's finally liberated from Brock Lesnar.
6. Buddy Murphy vs. Mustafa Ali, 205 Live (July 3). Murphy and Hideo Itami have been establishing WWE's cruiserweight show as a place where floundering NXT prospects can revive their careers. Murphy has been especially revelatory, reinventing himself as a brawny "Juggernaut" with vicious power offense and the will to fly when needed. And this brutal no-disqualification match against the always dynamic Ali may be his best showcase of that range yet.
5. NXT Champion Aleister Black vs. Tommaso Ciampa, NXT (July 25). The irredeemable Ciampa is the best heel in the company in years. Pivoting him from his blood feud with Johnny Gargano to winning the NXT Championship reads like Triple H rewarding him for that work. And Ciampa proved why he deserved the nod, having a nail-biting match with Black that put the championship not only around Ciampa's waist, but with its clever finish, at the center of his feud with Gargano. Also, leave it to Drake Younger to take his first ref bump on exposed cement.
4. The women's Royal Rumble match, Royal Rumble. If you didn't smile at least once during this match, you have to be dead inside. This historic match was just one terrific moment after another: Lita rocking #MeToo gear, Kairi Sane's elbows, Beth Phoenix facing off with Nia Jax, Asuka crossing paths with recent rival Ember Moon only to make fun of her injured arm, Trish Stratus facing off with old foe Mickie James and hopeful new one Sasha Banks, and of course the debut of Ronda Rousey. I didn't need to see Kelly Kelly or Michelle McCool again, but otherwise, the first women's Royal Rumble could go down as its best.
3. Ladder match for the new NXT North American Championship: Ricochet vs. Velveteen Dream vs. EC3 vs. Lars Sullivan vs. Adam Cole vs. Killian Dain, NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. Monsters, flyers and dirtbags came together WrestleMania weekend to have one of the best multi-man ladder matches in WWE history. From Ricochet's graceful dives to Dain manhandling everyone in sight, the action was unbelievably varied. And Cole, the opportunist with the most over crowd participation spot in the whole company, was the perfect one to crown the first NXT North American champion.
2. Unsanctioned match: Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa, NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. As hateful as it was long, this hellacious match between former friends also had maybe the best finish in NXT history. Like many, I thought Gargano would fall for Ciampa's attempt at a reconciliation, lose the match and move on to 205 Live. Instead, he avoided Ciampa's sucker punch, grabbed his knee brace and applied an STF with the device across Ciampa's face, a flash tapout that ended the match on a feel-good and deliriously exciting note. Best of all, it meant this brilliant feud would only continue.
1. NXT Champion Andrade "Cien" Almas vs. Johnny Gargano, NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia. Almas may be the most relentless wrestler in the company, and there's no "maybe" about his act with Zelina Vega being one of its best. So he's the perfect opponent to deliver punishment to the nerdy everyman Gargano, whose expression just gets more and more faraway the longer this match goes. With fantastic striking, flying and submission wrestling, this match had it all, and both its ending and its epilogue are just devastating for Gargano fans.
Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.