Every NXT Men’s & Women’s Champions Ranked – Part 2

I’ll be going live on https://www.twitch.tv/strongstylesmark at 6pm GMT (half an hour after this article goes up), playing two games from my Game of the Year 2020 list, ScourgeBringer & Spelunky 2! I’d really appreciate it if you came along and hung out!

A couple of weeks ago, I started ranking every NXT men’s & women’s champion. There, we discussed the bottom half of the list with reigns that were somewhat underwhelming, but today, we’re covering the top half and get to relive the best of what NXT has given us over the years.

13 – Bo Dallas

Days as Champion: 260
Successful Title Defences: 5
Best Match As Champion: vs Adrian Neville (Ladder Match) at NXT Arrival

While he might not have the most significant legacy in NXT these days, Bo Dallas was the first NXT Champion to really feel like an NXT Champion in the way we know it today. He wasn’t the most amazing wrestler (though he could definitely put on good matches) but he was the first champion with a clearly defined character and style. That’s not to insult Rollins or Big E, both of those guys are world-class, but their NXT characters felt really vague and purposeless outside of ‘win’.

Meanwhile, Bo Dallas was a brilliant character. After floundering for a while as a cowboy(ish) character, he found his ‘Bolieve’ gimmick and the sky was the limit. His heel work is the kind of thing that we praise people like MJF for in the modern-day. A considerable part of its charm is that it would only work in front of an NXT crowd. I don’t think there’s any other crowd in wrestling right now that would literally get out of their seats and turn their backs on the ring to insult a wrestler they dislike.

Bo worked with moments like these to become a genuinely insufferable character. The contrast of the way he would joyously praise self-betterment (helped by his relatively soft voice) and the genuinely despicable things he would do to some of his opponents was pure brilliance. His title defences weren’t all that memorable, but he did have some good ones against Cesaro, Sami Zayn & Neville.

Truthfully, if his reign was in one of NXT’s golden eras, it would probably be remembered a lot more fondly, but it happened just before the wider IWC truly realised how brilliant NXT could be (myself included), so it has a bit of a forgotten legacy. However, that doesn’t stop it from being one of the greats.

12 – Rhea Ripley

Days as Champion: 109
Successful Title Defences: 2
Best Match As Champion: vs Charlotte Flair at Wrestlemania 36

Rhea Ripley’s rise was the kind of rocketing upwards that you don’t see very often but is precisely what NXT handles very well. When she first made the jump from NXT UK, it felt like a big deal, but she didn’t feel like the woman who would topple Baszler’s years of dominance. However, NXT set about changing that very quickly. Not only did she lead are WarGames team to victory from a 4-2 deposit, but she took it to the Raw & Smackdown women’s division at Survivor Series, and suddenly she felt like a megastar who could not be stopped.

Her match against Baszler was brilliant and everything it needed to be. Not only did it feel like a massive moment for Rhea to take her place on the throne, but it put a definitive end to Shayna Baszler’s stranglehold that had defined the NXT women’s division for the past couple of years. She launched straight into gear with a great match against her former NXT UK rival, Toni Storm and pushed ahead past the Royal Rumble, where a lot of hype started building around her title reign.

After Charlotte Flair won the women’s royal rumble, the idea that Charlotte was going to challenge for Rhea’s NXT title became the prevalent theory after both the other women’s titles seemed to have plans already in place. Immediately, this drew more eyes to Rhea as she put on a vastly underrated feud against Bianca Belair. I think for many, this was the feud where Bianca became a future star, rather than future mid-carder and the resulting match proved it, something Rhea’s contribution to cannot be forgotten.

However, the best of Rhea’s reign was still to come as she began her feud with Charlotte Flair in earnest. Not only did Rhea then become the first NXT Champion to defend their title at Wrestlemania, but she did it in what was easily the best pure-wrestling match of the entire weekend. I spoke about this match in my match of the year list, but it really was something special that proved how well Rhea could hang with the best, even though she took the loss in the end.

While her reign as champion didn’t last as long as I’d hoped it would’ve, what she did with her 100 days as champion elevated her and everyone around her. She proved that the NXT Women’s division had plenty of life after Baszler left and all of her title feuds were fantastic, so she definitely gets the nod on this list.

11 – Adrian Neville

Days as Champion: 286
Successful Title Defences: 9
Best Match As Champion: vs Sami Zayn at NXT Takeover: R-Evolution

It’s genuinely hard to believe that this is the same person as the utterly ripped monster we see on AEW currently.

Neville had the benefit of being the first NXT Champion to experience the joys of the fabled NXT Takeovers. These Pay-Per-View events for NXT that would produce some of the best wrestling of the past decade. While the early Takeovers aren’t the most memorable, I’d still put their main events on par with many of the more memorable ones, and Neville is a huge part of that.

While I’d argue Rollins may be a better all-round wrestler, Neville was the first NXT Champion that was allowed to having long main-event matches for the title that benefitted both him and his opponents. Looking back at the opponents he faced during his title reign is a laundry list of wrestlers who are so much better than they ever were on WWE’s main roster. It’s almost sad in a way, but the incredible matches he had with the likes of Tyson Kidd, Tyler Breeze & Bo Dallas are definitely worth a rewatch if you’re in the mood for it.

He was also the first NXT Champion to experience a proper character arc during his NXT title reign. That was the benefit of NXT back then, the writers knew their characters would have an endpoint of their stories. While that’s still somewhat the case these days, it’s a little more nebulous, and you have people like Gargano & Undisputed Era who have been in NXT for ages. Neville’s transition from a pure high-flying babyface champion into a character who, despite still being good, doesn’t mind taking a shortcut here and there was an interesting one. I know it was mostly only done to serve Sami Zayn’s story, but it still made Neville’s journey a great one to look back on.

With this placement of Neville, we see how unfair a list like this can be because while 11th place sounds low, he really was a brilliant champion. It’s just that NXT raised the bar year-on-year for the better part of a decade, so the people who came after him managed to surpass his incredible achievements.

10 – Bayley

Days as Champion: 223
Successful Title Defences:5
Best Match As Champion: vs Sasha Banks at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 1

Bayley was the last of the four horsewomen to hold the NXT Women’s Championship, and I think it’s safe to say that her reign solidified the legacy the four of them would leave on NXT and the legacy they will leave on women’s wrestling when they one day hang up their boots.

Bayley’s title reign started off in the best possible way any title reign can begin, with the culmination of NXT’s best stories to date, not to mention my personal favourite NXT match of all time. Bayley & Sasha Banks’ rivalry in NXT is the stuff of legend, so much so that people spent 5 years begging for it on the main roster before it finally happened. Bayley’s first title defence continued that feud with the iron-woman match at NXT Takeover: Respect and it lived up to the second match’s hype so much so that many people say they prefer this match.

While Bayley’s reign would never reach those heights again, it still definitely stayed strong. Bayley put down a wide variety of opponents during her title reign, including Alexa Bliss, Carmella, Nia Jax. She even got a half-way decent match out of Eva Marie, which is a miracle in and of itself. Bayley’s title reign is like a who’s who of current Raw & Smackdown women’s division stars and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. When she eventually lost the title to Asuka, it was a big deal and a brilliant match, along with feeling like the perfect time and the perfect situation for Bayley to bow out of NXT.

Bayley was this eternally endearing character who you always wanted to route for. While the main roster would eventually squander this so much that they had to turn her heel (which led to another top-tier title reign), NXT Bayley was a bundle of purity that brought joy to all of our spiteful hearts.

9 – Charlotte Flair

Days as Champion: 1st Reign – 258; 2nd Reign – 73
Successful Title Defences: 1st Reign – 6; 2nd Reign – 1
Best Match As Champion: vs Io Shirai vs Rhea Ripley at NXT Takeover: In Your House

Being the daughter of one of the greatest to ever do it is no small shadow to step out of. It’s the kind of shadow that many 2nd or 3rd generation wrestlers have utterly failed to step out of (including Ric Flair’s other children), but NXT did something very interesting, but in hindsight, quite clever. Quite simply, for the entirety of her NXT run, she had no surname. It was no secret whose daughter she was, but they didn’t always draw attention to it and kept her just as ‘Charlotte’. Even on the main roster, they waited until she was an established superstar in her own right before starting to call her ‘Flair’.

As NXT Women’s Champion, she took Paige’s work in women’s wrestling and took it further than ever before. While she was still slightly constrained by the lingering perspective of women’s wrestling as a sideshow, she blazed a trail that was truly her own and made sure no-one could deny her star power. She was (and still is) one of the best female wrestlers on the planet and she made sure that her talents were never denied.

On top of that, her title reign put the spotlight on her contemporaries and turned the four horsewomen into the establishment they are today. Her work didn’t just elevate her, it elevated Sasha Banks, Bayley, Becky Lynch, hell, even Natalya and Summer Rae looked a hell of a lot better after having a great match with Charlotte. The Fatal 4 Way between all of the horsewomen remains their only encounter to date, and it was everything you’d hoped it would be.

Charlotte’s second title reign was very different. When she won the title, I thought it would be a lot more than it was. While I thought Rhea should’ve won at Wrestlemania, I saw the upside of having someone with Charlotte’s star power carry the NXT Women’s Championship, as it could elevate everyone in the division. Which sort of happened. Rhea initially looked really good with how she stepped it to Charlotte, but quickly became the unimportant player as Io Shirai stepped into the spotlight once again. Ultimately, Io winning the title from Charlotte was a huge moment, and Io has had a fantastic reign since then, but I was really hoping for more; and if some backstage reports are to be believed, the NXT writers were hoping for more too…

While her second reign was disappointing as a whole, it did bring us a couple of really great matches (including 2020’s best WWE match). Meanwhile, the roads Charlotte paved with her first title reign ensured that she will forever have a legacy in NXT as one of their best champions.

8 – Sasha Banks

Days as Champion: 191
Successful Title Defences: 4
Best Match As Champion: vs Bayley at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 1

If Paige’s reign is where the rise of women’s wrestling started, and Charlotte’s is where it built a solid foundation, then Sasha’s title reign is where it became mainstream.

Looking at the title defences through each of these first three NXT Women’s Champions, the progression is clear as day. Sasha’s title defences were not only more frequent, but the matches average a longer runtime, especially on Takeover events. This was also when stories in the women’s division finally started to properly pull away from the stereotypical stories of friends suddenly hating each other, or the classic “you’re just jealous”. We started to see writing that was on-par with the storylines the men were getting, and it was proving a success.

Outside of that, Sasha continued to raise the bar that her predecessors had set. She took on all comers and looked like a strong badass as she did so. She put down Charlotte (twice), Becky Lynch (in what was inarguably Lynch’s best singles match in NXT) and Alexa Bliss in matches that were all a lot of fun to watch and of a high enough quality for a mainstream wrestling audience to finally start to take notice.

What undoubtedly put this over the top though, is Banks’ legendary feud with Bayley. I’ve talked about it a bit already, but it cannot be understated just how monumental this story and the match at Takeover: Brooklyn was in establishing women’s wrestling as the kind of franchise that the mainstream wrestling fans would not let WWE ignore. When WWE sit around patting themselves on the back for what a great job they’ve done with this whole ‘women’s revolution’ stuff, it’s moments like the end of that Brooklyn match that we can look to as the truly great moments.

While most of the focus is on Bayley’s story when it comes to this moment (and rightly so), there’s no such thing as a good underdog story without a proper villain, and Sasha Banks in NXT may be one of the best. Before “The Boss” just became a meaningless nickname, Banks carried herself with an indomitable aura that you hoped and prayed would be destroyed, but never was. Her entrance at Takeover: Brooklyn is the perfect example of this. Showing up in a black SUV with blacked-out windows and a swarm of bodyguard may not be the flashiest entrance ever, but it’s precisely what a character like her is made for. Don’t get me wrong, Sasha’s current persona is excellent, and I’m loving it, but this version of Sasha Banks will be the one I always remember the most fondly.

7 – Bobby Roode

Days as Champion: 202
Successful Title Defences: 4
Best Match As Champion: vs Hideo Itami at NXT Takeover: Chicago

Roode is one of the more forgotten NXT Champions, which I think is a real shame because he’s one of my more favoured ones. Ultimately, I think this is down to how WWE did absolutely nothing with him during his time on the main roster. When people these days say that Bobby Roode is a crap wrestler, as much as I disagree, I can understand where that perspective comes from, when that’s how WWE’s treated him for years. It’s perhaps one of the worst cases of mishandling between NXT and the main roster in history because Roode’s time as NXT Champion was brilliant.

While his entrance theme and overly dramatic Takeover entrances were undoubtedly the most memorable parts of his title reign, the truth is he had some really good matches too. They were never the flashiest affairs, but they always such a firm grasp of the fundamentals that they honestly didn’t need that much extra to be great watches. Roode cultivated this character who thrived on the understated and simple and his style reflected that. It’s styles like this that I point to when I want to prove that ‘wrestling heel’ doesn’t have to mean ‘slow and boring.’

On top of that, he had a great character. He was never the best promo in NXT, but he had a clear mission statement and the way he carried himself was all you need to know. The robes, the suits, the watches, it was a brilliant set of ideas that made him the ideal opponent for just about anyone. Whether it’s someone chaotic like Shinsuke Nakamura or Hideo Itami (KENTA) or a true of heart family man like Roderick Strong (before he joined UE, at least).

I will always be upset that WWE management never saw anything in him, because he genuinely deserved so much better, but at least we got this.

6 – Kevin Owens

Days as Champion: 142
Successful Title Defences: 5
Best Match As Champion: vs John Cena at Elimination Chamber 2015

The dude beat John Cena clean as a whistle while he was champion, what more do you need to me to say?

Following Zayn’s title win, Kevin Owens turned up. I don’t mean he debuted, he already did that earlier that night, I mean the Kevin Owens we all know today turned up. I know he’s a face at the moment, but the utterly despicable man who would turn on anyone and everyone he’s ever loved and use his words to utterly eviscerate them, that Kevin Owens turned up.

It was shocking to see him immediately contend with Zayn for the title because surely Zayn wasn’t going to lose the belt so soon after his remarkable win? Oh…oh no.

The match between Owens & Zayn was something we hadn’t seen from NXT until this point, and it was brilliant in how horrible it was. The way Owens kept beating him down with no remorse for his former best friend as Zayn just flopped around, surviving, but only just was heartbreaking. Owens became a monster that night, and a monster with a championship no less, winning the match via referee stoppage, which was incredible.

Owens kicked his title reign off with a bang, having a brilliant, but completely forgotten match with Finn Balor on NXT TV, before running through Sami Zayn again at Takeover: Unstoppable. Zayn had a bit more fight in him this time, but Owens still came out of it looking dominant, even if he was laid out at the end by a debuting Samoa Joe. From there, Owens’ title reign took a fascinating but very unusual turn.

In a surprise debut on Raw, Owens showed up to answer John Cena’s open challenge. He wasn’t the first NXT star to do this, but instead of merely having a great match and then losing to Cena, Owens put Cena down in a promo and then laid waste to him and his title. When a champion vs champion match was set for Elimination Chamber, I think we were all a bit sceptical. In 2015, Cena hadn’t transitioned yet into the great wrestler who puts over young guys that he is today, and people were still expecting the worst. However, we didn’t get it, in what was a genuine surprise, Owens hit Cena with the Pop-Up Powerbomb and pinned Cena as clean as clean can be.

From there, Owens continued to defend the NXT title on the main roster. He beat both Zack Ryder & Heath Slater in rapid squash matches and had a rather good match with Neville on Raw for the title. However, his title reign would come to an end quickly afterwards, as Finn Balor beat him for the title in Japan, where Balor made his name as Prince Devitt.

Owens did things as NXT Champion that no-one else has ever done with the title, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he ended up spending less than 6 months in NXT before moving up to the main roster. However, the downside of that is that he didn’t have a very long reign, and while numbers aren’t everything, in the context of this list, it certainly causes him to drop a few places.

5 – Finn Balor

Days as Champion: 1st Reign – 292; 2nd Reign – 137+
Successful Title Defences: 1st Reign – 4; 2nd Reign 2+
Best Match As Champion: vs Kyle O’Reilly at NXT Takeover: 31

Finn Balor’s time in NXT has been a bit of a weird one, and I think my opinion of it varies quite noticeably from the general opinion of the IWC. While I could never deny that Finn’s run as champion defined NXT’s first golden era, I actually think his second (and current) run in NXT is far superior.

His first run with the title began in grand fashion, winning it in front of a Japanese crowd in the land where he made his name. He defended it in NXT’s first-ever ladder match, which was a great match, but will enterally be overshadowed by the Sasha/Bayley match that preceded it. From there he defended the title against Apollo Crews…via DQ and then battled Samoa Joe for well over six months. Truthfully, Balor and Joe never had a bad match, I was just sick of seeing by the end, and it brought down my opinion of Balor’s title reign.

Granted, NXT didn’t have the enormous depth of talent that they do now, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that Balor didn’t get to wrestle a greater variety of his opponents for what was, at the time, the longest title reign in NXT history. That said, Balor’s still in 5th place on this list because all of his matches were good-to-great and it was the longest reign in NXT history for several years.

What puts him over the top for me though, is his current run as NXT Champion. When he returned to the black & yellow brand, it was unclear exactly what his role would be. He fought for the title twice but lost both times. Then he turned heel and embraced his old ‘prince’ persona again, but with new wrinkles for everything he’s done since then. It seemed like he was mostly going to be around to have feuds with NXT’s up-and-comers, but the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Karrion Kross’ injury worked in Balor’s favour.

He beat Cole for the title and, despite only defending it twice so far, has already had a better title reign than his first if you ask me. Both of his matches against Kyle O’Reilly were two of the best I’ve ever seen either man put on. On top of this, the boosted credibility and profile of NXT these days combined with Balor’s heel persona makes him so much more fun to watch week in and week out, even when he’s out healing a broken jaw.

I have no idea where Balor’s current title reign is going to go, and maybe this time next year, he’ll be worthy of one of the top spots on a list like this, all I know is, I like what I’m seeing now, and he could even usher in a third golden era for NXT in 2021.

4 – Tommaso Ciampa

Days as Champion: 237
Successful Title Defences: 3
Best Match As Champion: vs Johnny Gargano at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 4

The top 5 of this list were tough to organise, because they’re all so brilliant.

While the process for years in NXT was that people will eventually leave the brand and go onto the sometimes greener, sometimes barren pastures of WWE’s main roster, Ciampa was the first person who really felt like he’s an NXT guy for life. His feud with Gargano is inarguably the best in the brand’s history so far, and as much as Gargano was the face, I think Ciampa is the one who came out of it looking like one of NXT’s greatest stars.

In his seven months as champion, he only defended the title three times, which is something I’ve railed on other people for, and it did contribute somewhat to Ciampa not making the top three. However, all three of those title defences were truly incredible matches and some of the best title defences NXT has ever seen.

His first defence was in a Last Man Standing match against Gargano, in what was the last true match of their feud (I don’t count the cinematic one from 2020 because it was shit) and it enclosed everything that had gone into that iconic story. Gargano fought with all of his heart and soul, but at the end of the day, Ciampa was just tougher and smarter…and he didn’t throw himself off of a stage for no reason like Gargano did.

Next up was against Velveteen Dream in what remains to this day Dream’s best match in terms of wrestling action. Dream had been on the rise in NXT for a while, but this match was when many, myself included, sat up and realised that he could easily be the top guy on the brand if the opportunity arose. Finally, he wrestled Aleister Black in a match that was everything I wanted it to be and more. Two of the best pure wrestlers to have been NXT Champion facing off against each other and made for a brilliant watch.

Unfortunately, things would end on a bit of a bum note. As the finale match was set for Takeover: New York between Ciampa and Gargano, Ciampa would suffer a neck injury that required surgery and saw him out of action for over half the year.

The injury was heartbreaking and came at the worst possible time in terms of the story being told, but that shouldn’t be allowed to take away from the incredible run Ciampa had at the top. Not only was he one of the best-defined characters NXT had seen in years, with heel heat so genuine that for a while, they didn’t give him entrance music because the boos were so loud, but he was one of the best wrestlers to ever sit atop the brand of black and gold.

3 – Asuka

Days as Champion: 522
Successful Title Defences: 11
Best Match As Champion: vs Nikki Cross at NXT 23rd June 2017

After the four horsewomen left NXT for Raw & Smackdown, there was a lot of concern surrounding the division’s future. NXT had spent so much time hailing Charlotte, Becky, Sasha & Bayley as prodigies that there was a worry no-one would be able to fill their spot and make waves in quite the same way. In hindsight, it’s laughable we were ever worried.

It was clear from the moment she signed that Japanese star Kana (re-christened Asuka for NXT) that she was going to be a big deal on the brand, getting the ‘sitting in the crowd’ treatment at an NXT Takeover, which seems to be their favourite way of showing off new superstars. Her dominance was immediate, and it didn’t take long for her to build up quite the winning streak. By the time she won the title, she was so popular that people didn’t even mind that she had to take down the beloved Bayley to become a champion.

Asuka held the title for an incredible year and a half, defending it against just about everyone who was anyone in the NXT women’s division at the time. Bayley, Nia Jax, The IIconics, Ruby Riott, Nikki Cross & Ember Moon all stepped up to take on the empress of tomorrow and all were put down in some of the best matches the division had seen at that time. Asuka was untouchable, and the hype surrounding her managed to only keep building as her undefeated streak surpassed even that of Goldberg’s.

She got to tell some interesting stories in her time as champion too. She got to wage a brutal war against the unhinged Nikki Cross and told a compelling story with Ember Moon of Asuka starting to retain her title by any means necessary. Unfortunately, Asuka’s title reign would come to an end somewhat prematurely as an injury would force her to vacate the title after a record 522 days holding it. Whether or not this was a good thing is down to your perspective. On the one hand, this allowed her to drop the title without losing her undefeated streak that immediately gave her an aura of indestructibility when she debuted on Raw later in the year. However, it also meant that no-one in NXT got to benefit from being the one to finally topple Asuka, which could’ve instantly made a new star-like Kairi Sane or Shayna Baszler.

Regardless of how it ended, there’s no denying that Asuka’s title reign was one of the best while it was happening. She looked incredibly strong at every turn and was able to build up her opponents’ standing in the eyes of the fans, even when she was beating them. She really did it all.

2 – Adam Cole

Days as Champion: 403
Successful Title Defences: 11
Best Match As Champion: vs Johnny Gargano at NXT Takeover: XXV

For Cole, you essentially take everything I said about Asuka, add a large handful of the greatest matches in NXT history, and you’ve got your answer as to Cole’s position on this list.

From the moment The Undisputed Era appeared in NXT, they have been absolutely beloved by the fans, and with good reason. Although they are some of the more despicable heels of NXT’s current generation, they have this undeniable cool factor to them that you just can’t help but love. Their entrance music is basic but carries this swagger to it that dramatically enhances their walk down to the ring, and ‘Adam Cole Bay-Bay’ is one of the most fun things to yell as part of a live crowd.

When Gargano had his crowning moment at Takeover: New York, there was the feeling that maybe it should’ve been Cole’s time to shine. In hindsight, giving Gargano a run with the title, even a fleeting one, was the right move, because Cole didn’t suffer even a tiny bit from having to wait an extra couple of months. As soon as Cole won the title, he began his incredible work at the top. The title looked so perfect around his waist, and he put in some incredible work as champion.

Straight away he defended the title against NXT UK star Zack Gibson, and Akira Tozowa at Evolve’s 10th-anniversary show, which was a great showcase. He then put an end to his epic feud with Gargano in a three stages of hell match that was as over-the-top as it was brilliant fun to watch. From there, Cole ran through everyone who stepped in his way, often with the help of The Undisputed Era, but quite a few on his own merit. During this time, The Undisputed Era fulfilled their ‘golden prophecy’ where every title in the NXT men’s division was held by a member of the faction.

After a good feud with Matt Riddle, November 2019 rolled around and NXT was to be included in the brand warfare for Survivor Series, alongside Raw & Smackdown, which was a big deal. Cole showed up on Smackdown, and not only had a fantastic 20-minute match with Daniel Bryan but won the damn thing as clean as you’d like. Cole was one of the NXT stars who put on an incredible double-performance that weekend, participating in a brutal WarGames match, before defending his title against Pete Dunne in what was easily the best match of the night.

Cole continued to lead NXT into the new year, and even in the pandemic era, Cole put on some of the best matches out of everyone on the brand. He took out a returning Finn Balor and a returning Tommaso Ciampa in matches that were much-hyped, long-awaited and didn’t disappoint. His feud against Velveteen Dream defined a good chunk of the spring and was one of the highlights of that period until his reign would finally come to an end at Keith Lee’s hands in July.

Cole’s run at the top of NXT was the kind that hadn’t been seen in the men’s division of NXT for a long time, and it was sorely needed as many of the top stars moved on to the main roster. Cole and The Undisputed Era dominated NXT for so long, and yet it never got tiring, and they never felt boring, it’s no wonder that almost as soon as Cole dropped the title, the group turned face, people are desperate to cheer these guys. It defined NXT for a long time and put to bed any doubts about whether a guy like Cole could really be a top star.

1 – Shayna Baszler

Days as Champion: 1st Reign – 132; 2nd Reign – 416
Successful Title Defences: 1st Reign – 3; 2nd Reign – 8
Best Match As Champion: vs Kairi Sane at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 4

There’s no way it could’ve been anyone else. Asuka may have had an undefeated streak, Cole may have had the cool factor, but no-one felt as indestructible and dominant during their time as champion as Shayna Baszler.

After being the runner up in the first Mae Young Classic, Shayna ended up jumping the gun on winner Kairi Sane and took the title from Ember Moon in reasonably dominant fashion almost as soon as she arrived on NXT. Many people at the time were expecting Ember Moon to pick up where Asuka left off and have a lengthy run as champion, but Baszler shocked everyone by putting an end to that early. In all honesty, Baszler’s first run with the title was nowhere near as great as her second, however, even though many of her matches weren’t the best, her character work was second to none. She came into her dominant, cocky (but could back it up) and nasty persona so easily, and it would only grow.

Baszler lost the title to Kairi Sane at Takeover: Brooklyn 4 in what is one of my favourite Takeover matches ever, but quickly took it back in another brilliant match at Evolution. This is where Baszler started to use fellow former MMA stars, Jessamine Duke & Marina Shafir, as her entourage who would interfere in matches for her, adding to her aura of indestructibility. NXT show so much restraint with heel groups interfering matches so that, when they do, it almost always serves the story in a way that enhances it, not diminished it as we see on Raw & Smackdown all the time.

From here, Shayna’s dominance and heelish persona would grow and grow, to the point where the NXT audience could cheer for just about anyone, even heels if they went up against Baszler. She understood how to get under a crowd’s skin both in promos and during matches, without sacrificing the in-ring action’s quality. She also had the fantastic ability to look vulnerable without ever looking weak. In all of her battles with women like Io Shirai, Kairi Sane or Bianca Belair, you felt like maybe they were just an inch away from toppling Baszler, and maybe if they had just one more shot they could do it, but Baszler still came out on top every single time.

Finally, Baszler’s reign actually got to feel complete by the time it ended. Not only had she torn through the NXT women’s division and beaten everyone there is to beat, but she actually got to lose the title to a fast-rising star, so someone gets to benefit from everything she built up. Rhea Ripley became a star pretty much overnight, and the timing was perfect for her to be the one to finally put an end to almost two years of Baszler’s dominance. The moment when Rhea won the title was a fantastic climax and one of the highlights of 2019, and that was only possible thanks to the unmatched title reign Baszler had leading up to it.

While Baszler was champion she had the best matches, did the best character work, elevated everyone she stepped in the ring with, and capped it all off by making a brand new white-hot star in Rhea Ripley. That, my friends, is what a perfect title reign looks like.

So there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. As another reminder, I will be going live very shortly after this article is posted, so please check out https://www.twitch.tv/strongstylesmark if you haven’t already. Finally, make sure to come back here this time next week, where my coverage of the Royal Rumble will begin with predictions!

Best Post-Game Features in Pokemon Games

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When it comes to determining my favourite Pokemon games, one of the biggest considerations is how much there is to do in the post-game. For those unaware, the post-game is any features/stories that become available to you only after you have seen the game’s credits roll for the first time. In Pokemon games, this translates to anything that happens after you’ve defeated the champion and entered the hall of fame.

These are the features that keep you playing hours after having finished the game and provide a handful of extra challenges to prove your team’s mastery. To be clear here, I’m not talking about the general stuff that you can do in every Pokemon game, such as shiny hunting or competitive battling, I’m talking about the unique stuff that only features in one or two games. I also won’t cover the Isle of Armor or the Crown Tundra, as those are DLCs you have to pay extra for.

8 – Ultra Wormholes – Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon

It’s become standard fare in the modern era of Pokemon for at least one game in every generation to include all of the legendary Pokemon from previous generations for us to catch and encounter. This has led to a few fun systems. The Dynamax Adventures in Sword/Shield are a lot of fun, but I struggle to call them post-game, since they’re a huge feature in the Crown Tundra DLC, and the ‘soaring’ mechanic in Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire filled that purpose well too, but I think this was the best it has been done.

Once you switch the control method away from motion controls, the mini-game through which you find all of these Pokemon is a lot of fun. It only takes a couple of minutes every time, and it provides a little bit of challenge to get to the Pokemon you want, rather than just fulfilling certain requirements. On top of that, you had to look for the different coloured portals to find the right Pokemon, and even if you didn’t encounter a legendary, you could find plenty of other Pokemon with boosted shiny odds, so it was a win-win, really.

The little environments made good use of the multi-verse concept those games focused around, with each of the Ultra Beasts’ domains being especially beautiful and fun to explore. As a shiny hunter, I spent a lot of time using this feature in USUM, and I’m glad it was a lot of fun to do so.

7 – The Battle Zone – Diamond/Pearl/Platinum

To be clear, I am not including the Battle Frontier in this bit, I’ll talk more about that later, I’m referring to the island as a whole that you get to explore after becoming champion in the Sinnoh games.

For starters, as soon as you get there, you have a double battle with the final Gym leader and an Elite Four member, which is pretty cool and after that, you’ve got a whole island to explore. It features three whole towns, each with their own unique features, a massive villa that you can own and furnish, a whole host of Pokemon not in the Sinnoh-dex, a cafe where you can rematch Gym leaders, and a god-damned Volcano where you can fight Heatran.

What I love so much about this island is how completely different it feels to the rest of Sinnoh. Even the ground is a different colour here, playing off of the volcanic/tropical island vibes to great effect. The routes are winding and dangerous, just like you’d hope them to be at such a late stage in the game, with one final dungeon for you to explore in the form of Stark Mountain. The music is pretty kick-ass too.

It’s just so cool to have a bunch of new areas to explore after you think you’re done with the game, even if nothing major happens around those places in the grand scheme of thing.

Speaking of…

6 – The Rest of Unova – Black 2/White 2

In the original Black & White games, the post-game allowed to explore a new portion of the map. It was ok, but ultimately didn’t really hold anything special outside of a few non-Unovan Pokemon and the Kyurem battle. However, the direct sequels had a lot more to offer on that front.

In Black 2 & White 2, you start the game in a completely new area of the map, with some brand new cities to explore, but that means you completely skip all of the starting towns from the original, including two of the gyms. They still sit there on the map though, taunting you as to the possibilities of what you could find there, so when you’re finally let loose to explore it in the post-game, there’s a lot of fun to be had.

Much like the Battle Zone, it provides you with a bunch of new areas to explore, only these areas are filled with a bunch of nostalgia from the original Black & White games. You get to explore fully fleshed-out towns from the originals and encounter a load of new content there. It’s a wonderful blast from the past if you played the originals and a great series of places to explore for the first time if you didn’t.

5 – The Pokemon World Tournament – Black 2/White 2

Let’s see what we have here…a bunch of trainers from old games? Check. Every old Gym leader? Check. Every old Elite Four member? Check. Every old Champion? Check! What more could you possibly ask for?

It’s a huge blast of nostalgia, but that’s exactly what I want from a post-game battle facility like this. It pulls in everyone from all the old games and celebrates the contributions they made to their games. We get remixed themes, improved and remixed teams, and the game celebrates them like the heroes they are to those of us who have played the old games. It’s wonderful to see the Pokemon games happily throw caution to the wind and just let you have a bit of everything for the ultimate tournament experience.

On top of that, it’s genuinely challenging. The battles I had in the champions’ tournament are genuinely some of the most challenging singleplayer battles I’ve ever faced in the series. This is an area that has absolutely no desire to hold back and throws the best of what it has to offer at you in an attempt to earn the ultimate victory. In an era of Pokemon where the lack of difficulty is one of the main complaints about the franchise, it’s really great to go back and remember some of the times where the franchise gave you absolutely no mercy.

We’re three full generations removed from this world tournament, and honestly, I want to see it happen again. Sword & Shield didn’t shy away from using tournaments in its climactic battles, so having another situation where trainers come from around the world to compete in an ultimate tournament would be amazing. Stuff it to the brim with as many trainers as possible to make it feel like a proper Pokemon league, and it may just skyrocket to the top of lists like these.

4 – The Battle Frontier – Platinum

That’s right, I’m putting my cards on the table. Platinum’s Battle Frontier is better than Emerald’s, it just is, ok?

The post-game battle facilities haven’t been all that great in the modern generations. The Battle Tree is fun when it comes to seeing old trainers, but that’s about all it does differently. Meanwhile, X/Y and Sword/Shield did the bare minimum with the Battle Chatuex and Battle Tower respectively. They present a nice challenge if that’s what you want from your post-game in Pokemon, but personally, it’s not what I get drawn towards.

That’s what makes the Battle Frontier so special to me because it makes those post-game challenging battles more fun by adding a whole heap of gimmicks on top. You’ve got the Battle Tower, which is your standard streaks of battles, which is fine enough, but the other facilities are where the real fun lies. The Battle Castle puts a minor twist on the usual formula by not healing your Pokemon between battles, instead giving you currency and forcing you to make some tough choices as to how you how/what you want to recover between battles.

The other facilities get progressively more wild and fun though, you have the best battle facility from Emerald making its reappearance in the form of the Battle Factory. True to Dynamax Adventures in Sword/Shield, using rental Pokemon can be a lot of fun and cause you to use Pokemon you would have never otherwise considered to some great results. Then there’s the Battle Hall, where you have 1 on 1 battles against Pokemon that are a type of your choice. This is fantastic, as it’ll force you to consider unconventional strategies to take down Pokemon of types your Pokemon is very weak against as you wipe the floor with everyone in sight.

Finally, there’s the Battle Arcade, where every battle rolls random effects. Some will help you, some will utterly destroy you. It’s random, stupid and sometimes ridiculously unfair, but that’s honestly why it’s my favourite facility. It’s unpredictable and wild as to what will happen, and I have so much fun trying to work my way out of corners the randomizer forced me into.

This version of the Battle Frontier injects fun gimmicks in the post-game battles that really keep things interesting, and there’s enough variety in how they operate, that there’s likely to be something for everyone within its walls.

3 – Team Rainbow Rocket – Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon

Yes, this was just an excuse for Game Freak to bottle nostalgia and sell it back to us and I don’t care, because it’s cool as hell.

From the moment I saw that ridiculously cool piece of promo art, I knew I was in for a treat when it came to the US/UM postgame, and I was not disappointed. Team Rocket show up out of nowhere, and not only do they have a renewed sense of threat to them, but they’ve also got an updated battle theme that holds the essence of the original and makes it cooler than ever before. That rock version of the Rocket battle theme is just too good to not point out.

Then, you head to Aether Paradise, and all of that juicy nostalgia hits you in the face. First of all, you go through a bunch of puzzle rooms that mimic the old style of evil-team bases. There are teleport puzzles, arrow trap puzzles and just about everything you could want. Then, there are the actual team leaders themselves, except these are the versions of them that didn’t lose to a 10-year-old kid and actually succeeded in destroying/altering/ruling/creating a whole new world.

You face these leaders with a strong sense of their ideals as they give you a small glimpse into the world they created, and you get to fight some buffed-up teams of theirs for some epic battles. In here, it’s the little touches that make these battles so much fun, like the fact that they’ve all caught their Pokemon Master Balls or the INCREDIBLE remixed battle-themes. Cyrus & Lysandre’s especially are some of my favourite pieces of music in the whole franchise.

Then you face off with Giovanni, who seems like a genuine threat for the first…well, ever, to be entirely honest with you, as he attempts to rule the multiverse, whatever that means. He too gets a kick-ass battle theme and a strong team of Pokemon that will really put you to the test if you didn’t adequately prepare.

To put it simply, it was just so much fun to experience all this nostalgia in one lovely digestible sequence of events. Facing the old leaders, seeing them all team up and getting to fight them all off in an epic series of encounters. Is it a bit over-the-top and childish? Absolutely. Do I care? Not in the slightest.

2 – Delta Episode – Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphie

A handful of Pokemon games have held over narrative elements into the post-game. There was the 7 sages in Black & White, or the Heatran stuff from the Sinnoh games, for example, but until the Delta Episode, it had never been done to this extent.

When Zinnia showed up following the credits of ORAS, there was a lot of intrigue to be had. Not only was this something we’d never seen in a Pokemon game before, but it completely diverged from the story of the original Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald games, of which these were a remake. It wasn’t some massively epic story or anything, but I like how it gave you a quick mystery, hit you with a pretty significant threat and then immediately sent you off to the tower. Here, you learn a bit more about the lore of Groudon, Kyogre & Rayquaza, and there’s that slow realisation of where this is going.

Additionally, this was the first time Pokemon actually addressed the possibility of a multiverse, something Generation 7 would play around with a lot in its narrative. What really blew me away were the two major reveals that happened during this sequence. I have no idea if these were revealed before the launch of the game, but when I played through them for the first time, I had no idea that 1) Rayquaza was not only catchable in the game but had a mega-evolution that is honestly one of the cooler ones out there and 2) You got to catch DEOXYS of all Pokemon, which was an incredibly cool and memorable moment when I experienced it for the first time. As the Crown Tundra has proved, Pokemon games seem to be becoming more willing to make Mythical Pokemon available as an occasional treat, and it gives me high hopes if the Sinnoh remakes are ever produced.

While I don’t think we’ll see this kind of thing super often anymore, as the franchise has moved on to more fully-formed DLCs instead, but either way, this was a very memorable experience that held a nice couple of surprised following the ORAS credits.

1 – Kanto – Gold/Silver/HeartGold/SoulSilver

It’s an obvious choice, I know, but what else could it possibly be? Sure, some of the other entries on this list might hold more interesting aspects or flashier ideas, but this a WHOLE REGION for you to explore, including an extra 8 gym battles. This is the stuff we can only dream of in the modern era of Pokemon.

I experienced the Johto games for the first time in the form of the remakes, HeartGold & SoulSilver, which are absolutely incredible games in their own right. Once I’d finally fought through to defeat the Elite 4, to be told that there was now a whole new region for me to conquer was terrific. More to that, since this was only the second Pokemon game I’d ever played (first was Platinum), I’d never seen Kanto before, which meant all of it was brand new to me. It was like an extra Pokemon game on top of my Pokemon game.

Even if you had already played through a Kanto game, there was still huge value to be found in exploring the region a few years following the events of the original games. There’s great fun to be had in seeing how the gyms had changed and who was leading them. After battling Koga in the Johto Elite 4, you find out that his daughter has taken over his Gym, you find out that your former rival took Giovanni’s place as the final Gym leader. It’s got the right balance you want from a ‘sequel’ of the region, with a bunch of nostalgic elements, with a feeling of progression.

Then, once you’ve done all of that, you get to go to Mount Silver and have what is still, to this day, one of my favourite battles in the entire franchise against Red with some ridiculously high-levelled Pokemon for the standard singleplayer experience. Given that Gold & Silver were originally designed to be the last games in the franchise, they definitely nailed the feeling of wrapping everything up from the first two generations, and the exploration into Kanto was a huge part of that.

So there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post, please let me know what you thought of Pokemon post-game features, either in the comments below or on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Make sure to come back here this time next week, where I’ll be covering my favourite Fall Guys levels.
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Every NXT Men’s & Women’s Champion Ranked – Part 1

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Ahh NXT. When the world of Raw & Smackdown makes it feel like wrestling will never be good ever again (which doesn’t happen all the time, although sometimes it does feel like it) there’s always the warm black and gold glow of Full-Sail University gently sits you down and reminds you that: “Hey! Wrestling’s fun and you enjoy watching it!” Whether it’s compelling storytelling or five-star matches, NXT has just about everything you could want from a modern-day wrestling promotion and no-one better embodies that than it champions.

Between the main Men’s and Women’s Championships, 25 different wrestlers have stood at the top of the brand at some point in their career and each of them brought their own unique style and flair to the title. That said, as is the case with everything in life, not all of them were equal, and it’s always going to be someone’s job to file their opinions on these titles reigns in the form of a ranked list.

As for what criteria I’m ranking these on, it’s a combination of hard stats (days as champion, number of defences etc.) and my personal feelings of the quality of storylines and matches they had while champion. Whatever they did outside of their title reign is irrelevant, all that matters is what they did when the gold was around their waist.

I also won’t be including Io Shirai in this list, nor will I count Karrion Kross. In Io’s case, I don’t think it’s fair to judge a title reign before it’s over, while in Kross’ case, the injury was a tragedy, and the 4 days he held the title wasn’t representative of what was planned for him. All-in-all, I just think it would be mean to put him on the bottom spot of this list when it wasn’t his fault his reign was so short.

With those caveats made, let’s get started.

26 – Kairi Sane

Days as Champion: 71
Successful Title Defences: 0
Best Match As Champion: vs Shayna Baszler at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV

Kairi Sane had the unfortunate distinction of being a hot up-and-comer in the NXT Women’s division during Shayna Baszler’s run of dominance. While this time was terrific for the NXT Women’s division as a whole, with countless incredible matches, very few women ever got a taste of the gold. However, the only woman who managed to interrupt Baszler’s time at the top for a little while was Kairi Sane.

Sane won the title from Baszler in one of the best matches of that year and was just one chapter in the fantastic rivalry the two had. Given who was on the NXT Women’s roster at the time, there was all the potential in the world for Sane to spend a year going around and having brilliant matches with everybody in sight, especially after Io Shirai burst onto the scene. Unfortunately for Sane, Baszler had so much potential, and NXT management saw more money putting the title back on Bazler.

So, at Evolution, without a single title defence under her belt, Kairi Sane lost the title back to Shayna Baszler. Again, the match was great, and Baszler would do great things with the title, but it was disappointing for Sane. It’s an unfortunate scenario of a wrestler being in the wrong place at the wrong time, meaning their chance at crowning glory was swept to one side for someone else.

25 – Johnny Gargano

Days as Champion: 57
Successful Title Defences: 0
Best Match As Champion: vs Adam Cole at NXT Takeover: XXV

Well, if you want a ‘victim of circumstance’ look no further…

Gargano’s title reign should’ve been so much grander. It should’ve felt like the culmination of the whole previous era of NXT. From the moment Ciampa threw Gargano into the LED screen at Chicago in 2017, it had felt like Gargano has NXT Champion was NXT’s new endgame. Then the world intervened, and NXT had to adapt and create something different. Which unfortunately left Gargano in the dust.

The match where Gargano won the title at Takeover New York was fantastic, but it should’ve been so much more. When the finale of the Gargano vs Ciampa series was set for the show, it felt like we were finally going to reach the end of this story. The characters had changed and adapted over the years, but they were still the same people, and they still had business to settle. Then, tragedy struck, and Ciampa got injured. Adam Cole came in as the replacement and – as I said – the match was one of the best of that year, but the moment when Gargano won the title didn’t feel like the massive payoff it would’ve if it was against Ciampa. In fact, once the match changed many fans, myself included, turned against Gargano and was rooting for Cole to win the title instead.

Seeing their best-laid plans fall directly into the bin, NXT management did what they do best and adapted. They didn’t stubbornly stay the course, they changed tactics and during the rematch a couple of months later. Cole took the title from Gargano, ending a completely empty reign. Once again, the match was one of the best NXT has ever produced, and it started off a fantastic title reign for Cole (more on that later), but it left Gargano with nothing to do from that point onwards. He’s managed to find a better character angle to take now, but it took almost a year to get there.

The only thing that separates this title reign from Kairi Sane’s down at the bottom is that Gargano’s matches where he won and lost the title were better. Other than that it’s just two faces that should’ve had everything but, thanks to circumstances beyond their control, ended up with almost nothing.

24 – Keith Lee

Days as Champion: 52
Successful Title Defences: 1
Best Match As Champion: vs Dominik Dijakovic on NXT 15th July 2020

Well, this was a disappointment.

For context, when I started writing this list, Lee hadn’t even won the title yet. It was during the build to The Great American Bash, and there were high hopes for Lee to have a dominant run at the top of NXT.

I think the main problem with Lee’s title reign is that it came just a little too late in his run. Lee spent about a year doing practically nothing of note in NXT until he suddenly hit the big time in 2019. He had that star-making performance against Roman Reigns & Seth Rollins at Survivor Series. He spent the first half of 2020 blowing everyone away with his defences of his North American Championship. Realistically, he probably should’ve taken the title from Cole in the spring.

By the time Lee won the title, two things had happened. First, those behind the wheel on Raw realised what a ready-made star they had on their hands with Lee, and they wanted a piece. Second was that an absolute monster had arrived in NXT by the name of Karrion Kross, and there was no way he was doing anything other than shooting straight to the top.

There was at least some good story during his reign, I loved the rivalry turned friendship that Lee & Dijakovic have shared over the past year, and it was brilliant to play that into Lee’s feud with Kross. In addition, at least Lee got to defend the title at least once, which puts him over both of the other champions we’ve covered so far. As disappointing as it was for Lee to lose the title so quickly, he’s absolutely killing it on Raw right now, and we’ll always have that euphoric visual of him holding up both titles amongst the confetti.

23 – Drew McIntyre

Days as Champion: 91
Successful Title Defences: 2
Best Match As Champion: vs Andrade “Cien” Almas at NXT Takeover: WarGames

It pains me to do this, it really does.

Being a man who had already seen success in WWE prior to his 2017 run in NXT, it always felt like Drew was never going to stick around for very long down at the Performance Center. Not only had he already been an established WWE star before his 2015 release, but he’d come back looking like one of the toughest tough guys to ever be tough, of course Vince was going to decide he wanted a piece of that action on Raw & Smackdown sooner rather than later.

This meant that, despite coming into NXT full of fire and taking the title from Bobby Roode in an excellent match, he didn’t really get much of an opportunity to do anything exciting with the championship while he was holding it. While the 91-day length is longer than several other entries on this list, he didn’t get a chance to show what he can really do in any of those 91 days. Both of his successful title defences were on NXT TV, rather than at a Takeover, which meant that they didn’t have that atmosphere or drive that takes NXT matches to the next level despite both being excellent.

When he lost the title to Andrade, it came as a surprise to many, myself included, as it felt like his reign was only just kicking into gear. As it turned out, even if he had won that match it wouldn’t have made a difference, as Drew suffered an arm injury in that match and was out of action until Spring of 2018 when he showed up on Raw.

Drew Mcintyre is a brilliant wrestler who deserves all the success he is currently experiencing in his career; however, he left no lasting impact whatsoever when it comes to NXT.

22 – Samoa Joe

Days as Champion: 1st Reign – 121; 2nd Reign – 13
Successful Title Defences: 1st Reign – 1; 2nd Reign – 0
Best Match As Champion: vs Finn Balor (Steel Cage) at NXT Takeover: The End

Given that Joe was the first-ever two-time NXT Champion in history, you’d surely expect him to be a lot higher on this list than fourth from bottom. However, let me ask you a question: What did Joe actually do with the title? Seriously, what did he do during his time as champion to leave any impact whatsoever on NXT? The answer, my friends, is nothing.

For one thing, Joe’s title win wasn’t even televised. For context, by this point in 2016, Joe & Balor had been feuding for ages, and Joe had come out on the losing end every single time. At both London & Dallas, Balor had put Joe away cleanly, walking away with the title both times. Then suddenly one night, on an untelevised house-show, Joe wins the title from Balor. It wasn’t a botch, this was a genuine booking decision made by NXT management. Now, title changes happen on house-shows once every couple of years or so (usually at Madison Square Garden), and it’s always fun when it does. However, in Joe’s case, it felt a bit underwhelming, especially after he’d failed to win the title so many times before.

Joe’s 121 days to his first title reign may sound impressive, but don’t let that fool you, nothing of interest happened during that time. He defended the title against Balor in a Steel Cage, in a good match, but nothing extraordinary. Then Shinsuke Nakamura burst onto the title scene, they feuded for two months, and when they finally had a match, Nakamura won the title, just like that.

“But what about his second title reign?” I hear you ask. Well, it lasted about as long as this sentence.

Joe won the title back from Nakamura at Takeover: Toronto in a shocking moment. However, this title reign lasted an upsettingly short 13 days. The only reason Joe even won the title back is that NXT was doing a show in Nakamura’s home country of Japan in a couple of weeks and they wanted Nakamura to win back the title there. That’s honestly it. Joe left NXT shortly afterwards, and it honestly felt as if he’d never been there in the first place. It seemed like him having the NXT title was more just something for him to have on his resume when he went up to the main roster. I honestly don’t think the history of NXT would have looked any different if the title had gone directly from Balor to Nakamura instead of using Joe as a stop-gap.

21 – Shinsuke Nakamura

Days as Champion: 1st Reign – 91; 2nd Reign – 56
Successful Title Defences: 1st Reign – 0; 2nd Reign – 1
Best Match As Champion: vs Bobby Roode at NXT Takeover: San Antonio

I seriously considered having Joe & Nakamura share a slot to be entirely honest with you because I have very similar things to say about them. As great as we know Nakamura can be, I don’t think he left much of an impact on NXT while champion. His best work on the brand all came before he won the title. His match against Finn Balor was one of the last stepping stones before he challenged for the title and his match with Sami Zayn (his unquestionably best match in NXT) was his debut.

By the time he’d actually won the title, it felt like NXT was ready to move onto the next era. They were starting to sign a bunch of big names left-and-right, and with no secondary title, they rushed a bunch of them to the title too quickly. In fact, Joe & Nakamura are great examples of this. They both should’ve had long and fruitful reigns with the title, but they rose to the top at almost the exact same time, which meant they both dragged each other down.

The story with Nakamura’s title reigns is just as dull as Joe’s. He won it from Samoa Joe at Takeover: Brooklyn II, lost it back to Joe at Takeover: Toronto, before winning it back again in a taped match from Japan. A few weeks later, their feud finally ended when Nakamura beat Joe in a Steel Cage in Melbourne. It’s worth noting that all of these matches were good, it’s just that it had got very tiresome by the end, and I now look less fondly on the earlier matches as a result.

Finally, Nakamura was free of Samoa Joe and could move on to defend the title against NXT’s best a brightest…or not. Nakamura surprisingly lost the title at Takeover: San Antonio to Bobby Roode…and that was that. He lost a rematch to Roode in Orlando and showed up on Smackdown later that week. Thankfully, Roode would break this cycle and be a far superior champion, but it meant that Nakamura’s legacy in NXT is quite a disappointing one.

20 – Sami Zayn

Days as Champion: 62
Successful Title Defences: 1
Best Match As Champion: vs Adrian Neville at NXT Takeover: R Evolution

Sami Zayn’s title win marked the end of the first era of NXT. It was the biggest story the brand had ever had, and Zayn’s title win represented the culmination of it. It was the point where many fans finally turned their heads and started paying attention to the black & gold brand. The great thing about Takeover: R Evolution though, is that it didn’t just culminate a great story, it immediately started a new one.

Immediately getting annihilated by his best friend Kevin Owens, Zayn had a red-hot storyline to kick off his title reign. He put on a good show in his rematch with Neville shortly after he won it, but following that, it was all Kevin Owens. NXT had taken it’s biggest babyface and given him a rival that had everything. Not only are they real-life best friends, and thus know each other better than anyone, but they’ve both got unmatched microphone skills and storytelling ability. It was that storytelling ability that pulled Zayn’s title reign up a few places from where it should realistically be.

When you look at the bare facts of how Zayn’s title reign ended, it sounds like a travesty. The biggest babyface NXT ever had up until that point got absolutely annihilated, to the point where the referee called for the bell, handing the title to the new monster heel, barely two months into his title reign. The thing is though it was brilliant. Zayn as a face is undoubtedly a character that benefits from getting arse kicked, and the story surrounding it meant that this outcome made sense. Owens knew Zayn’s in-ring style inside and out, while Owens had totally transformed himself into a killing machine. There was nothing Zayn could do to get one over on Owens, and it made all the sense in the world.

However, as great as the story was, it doesn’t change the fact that Zayn lost the title after barely having a cup of coffee with it.

19 – Big E Langston

Days as Champion: 168
Successful Title Defences: 2
Best Match As Champion: vs Seth Rollins at NXT 6th December 2012

When looking back on the history of NXT, the early champions are always pretty hard to rank, because the only thing that connects 2012-2014 NXT to 2015-present NXT, is the name – apart from that, they may as well be two completely separate entities.

As it stood, Big E was a big dominant guy who had an undefeated streak, and that was pretty much it. The fun & exciting part came from where he demanded that the referee count 5 on his pinfalls instead of three. A fun little gimmick at first, but it’s not a great deal to go on. This was before the NXT writers room was full of the most inspired storytellers in the business, and was instead just a bunch of guys that weren’t ready to write for Raw yet.

He dethroned Rollins to become the second-ever NXT Champion, as Rollins was a bit busy being one-third of the newly debuted Shield at the time. Then we hit our next stumbling block with this era of NXT, because, although Big E held the title all the way from the start of December through to the end of May, he only defended the title three times, with minimal story going into any of them.

He dispatched of Conor O’Brian (who would later become one half of The Ascension…and put a ‘K’ at the front of his name for some reason) sometime in March. A few weeks later he beat Brad Maddock (yes, the guy who was Raw GM so briefly you’d almost certainly forgotten about it) in under 90 seconds. Then Bo Dallas came around, and that was that. Big E had already debuted on the main roster by this point as Dolph Ziggler’s lackey, and there was very little value in him being NXT Champion anymore.

I think Big E definitely has some decent role in establishing NXT for the success it would later see, but I can’t say that what he did with the title was particularly impressive.

18 – Ember Moon

Days as Champion: 140
Successful Title Defences: 3
Best Match As Champion: vs Shayna Baszler at NXT Takeover: New Orleans

Based on the numbers, you might think Ember should be a bit higher up on the list, but as much as she had an enjoyable run as champion, I don’t feel like she left much of an impact on the brand.

In 2017, it felt like Ember Moon was to be the successor to Asuka’s throne. It’s hard to say whether or not she would’ve eventually overcome Asuka had The Empress of Tomorrow never gotten injured, but the general feeling was that Ember Moon was going to be sitting on top of the NXT Women’s division for quite a while. Sadly, she fell short of these expectations, not because of any fault of hers, but because she was surrounded by some extremely hot prospects.

When Ember Moon won the NXT Women’s Championship, it wasn’t too far out from the very first Mae Young Classic tournament ending, which meant that there was a fresh crop of incredible women’s wrestlers waiting for their time to shine in NXT. Ember was delayed in winning the title to begin with, thanks to the insanely hot run Asuka found herself on, but once Ember got a hold of the title, there were some high expectations.

Her first defence of the title was against Sonya Deville on an episode NXT in November. It was a good match, but it was only 7 minutes long and served more to be a mini-showcase for Sonya Deville than anything substantial. Then Ember ran into the woman who would cause her run at the top to be cut short: Shayna Baszler. Admittedly, Baszler was nowhere near as dominant as she would later become just yet, but anyone with half a brain could see all the potential in the world, so her winning the title was very much a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.

Moon successfully defended the title against Baszler twice, however, both times it was by the skin of her teeth; one via an opportunistic rollup and the other via DQ. On top of that, Baszler laid waste to Ember at every opportunity. Great for the purposes of building Baszler up as the next big thing, not so great for Ember and her title reign, which would end at Takeover: New Orleans with relatively little fanfare.

As great as Ember Moon had the potential to be as champion, the way history has played out, her legacy is entirely overshadowed by the two dominant forces that surrounded her in the form of Asuka & Shayna Baszler.

17 – Seth Rollins

Days as Champion: 133
Successful Title Defences: 3
Best Match As Champion: vs Big E Langston at NXT 6th December 2012

Rollins gets a prestige boost by virtue of being the first champion, but that doesn’t carry him far.

If I’m being entirely honest, my thoughts of Rollins as champion are very similar to my thoughts on Big E’s time as champion. The difference here being Rollins at least wrestled for a lot longer during his title defences. Admittedly, that’s not much of a benefit when his main rival was Jinder Mahal, but it’s still got to count for something.

Defeating Jinder Mahal in the finals of a tournament, Rollins was chosen as the very first man to carry the black and gold brand to glory, and he did an admirable job for the upstart promotion. His first title defence was against Michael McGillicutty – who would later come to be known as Curtis Axel – and while it wasn’t anything incredible, it was a better match than you’re probably thinking it was.

Rollins then didn’t do much of anything for a few months, until Jinder Mahal came sniffing around once again, looking for vengeance. Following this match, Rollins debuted on the main roster as part of The Shield, and the writing was on the wall for his title reign. At the next set of tapings, he lost via DQ to Corey Graves in 5 minutes, then lost the title to Big E.

Much like Big E, Rollins held the title for a decent number of days and defended the title cleanly in decent matches. That, alongside being the very first champion gives him a slightly grander legacy as champion than most from this era, but that really isn’t saying much in the grand scheme of things.

16 – Aleister Black

Days as Champion: 108
Successful Title Defences: 2
Best Match As Champion: vs Tommaso Ciampa at NXT 18th December 2018

Aleister Black was such a dominant force in NXT for so long that I always find it quite surprising looking back at his title reign because it’s so boring. He’s one of those people who ended up doing most of his best work before and after his time as champion. All of his best matches (vs Velveteen Dream, vs Johnny Gargano, w/ Ricochet vs War Raiders) happened without the championship over his shoulder.

His victory against Almas was a good one, but it didn’t main event the show, as that slot was (quite rightly) taken by the first Gargano vs Ciampa match (trust me, this is going to be a pattern). Black was made to look very strong as champion and came out on top more often than not in any encounter he had, but none of them were all that memorable.

He defended the title against Eric Young on an episode of NXT that was good, but not very long. Then, when Takeover: Chicago II rolled around, Black once again had the main event spot taken from him by the second Ciampa vs Gargano match. Sadly, his match wasn’t anything too special either, as he dragged Lars Sullivan to a passable 15-minute match.

Before we knew it, the time had come for Black to lose the title, and it wasn’t even on a Takeover event. After being shunted aside for it twice, Black found himself stuck in the middle of the Ciampa/Gargano feud. Gargano’s actions in his title defence against Ciampa would indirectly cause him to lose the title. Black was set to fight in a triple threat match for the title at Brooklyn 4, but an injury put the lid on those plans.

Black’s reign wasn’t very glamorous or memorable, but it rises this high on the list because he was treated very well as champion. As I said, he rarely if ever lost a non-title match, and continued to cultivate his strong and mysterious persona.

15 – Andrade “Cien” Almas

Days as Champion: 139
Successful Title Defences: 2
Best Match As Champion: vs Johnny Gargano at NXT Takeover: Philadelphia

Andrade is one of those people that I always seem to forget was NXT Champion. Not because he didn’t do well as champion, I liked a lot of what he did, he just didn’t seem to leave much of a mark on the belt at the end of the day.

As 2020 seemed to mark the end of NXT’s 2nd goldern era, I think it’s interesting to look at where it began. Most people focus on the Gargano/Ciampa rivalry, as that’s a large part of what defined the era, I think a very good case could be made for Andrade as the first champion of that era. The match where he won the title from Drew McIntyre was good, but not amazing thanks to Drew’s injury, but Andrade would work his arse off to make his title reign worth it from there onwards.

Having Zelina Vega as a mouthpiece was brilliant for him and the two clicked better than most wrestler/manager combinations have in recent memory. They both carried themselves with a cocky swagger that suited Andrade’s persona and even though they didn’t directly talk all that much, their chemistry during Andrade’s matches was incredible.

Speaking of Andrade’s matches, there’s one that sticks out in the mind far more than others. His first title defence at Takeover: Philadelphia against Johnny Gargano was the first in a long, LONG series of genuinely unbelievably good series of Takeover main events. It was the first match in NXT to be awarded 5 stars by the Wrestling Observer and remains one of my favourite NXT singles matches to this day.

The problem with Andrade though is that he doesn’t have much of a legacy in NXT outside of that match. He defended the title again a few weeks later against Gargano in another great match that is largely forgotten by history. Then, while the match where he lost the title to Aleister Black was brilliant, it was entirely overshadowed by everything else that happened on Takeover: New Orleans, a show seen by many to be NXT’s finest work.

I wanted to place Almas higher, but when you look at his title reign’s content, it doesn’t really justify it. Admittedly his match against Gargano carries him up a handful of places on its own, but given that it was immediately followed by the Ciampa/Gargano feud, this reign tends to be a bit more forgettable.

14 – Paige

Days as Champion: 273
Successful Title Defences: 3
Best Match As Champion: vs Emma on NXT 12th June 2013

Paige is somewhat of a difficult one to rank in the context of this list. When you compare her to the women who came after she’d left NXT, she technically didn’t do all that much fantastic stuff with the belt, however, I think doing that woefully understates the impact she made on, not just NXT, but main roster WWE as well.

With Paige, you have to look at what was going on with the women’s division in WWE at the time and how Paige’s work compares. For one thing, WWE was still calling them ‘Divas’ instead of ‘women’. The longest women’s match on Pay-Per-View for the entirety of WWE in 2013 was 11 minutes long, and that was only because it was a 7 on 7 elimination tag match, and even then it was one of the worst Survivor Series tag matches we’ve ever seen.

Then, you put that in contrast to what Paige was doing in NXT at the time. She was putting on 15-minute matches that outshone just about any women’s match in WWE history at the time and carrying the only women’s title that felt like it meant anything in WWE. When looking back at the rise of women’s wrestling WWE, the four horsewomen are always the most obvious people to point at for where it all started, but I don’t think that’s true. The four horsewomen may have brought the idea that women can actually do great wrestling to a mainstream audience, but Paige was the one who knocked the door down in the first place for them to take advantage. It’s entirely possible that without Paige putting in the incredible work that she did, NXT never would’ve come around to booking it’s women’s division seriously, and then where would we be?

It wasn’t perfect though, the fact that she defended the title only 3 times in 9 months isn’t the best, especially when one of those was a 3- minute match against Summer Rae. On top of that, she never actually lost the title. Instead, she was forced to vacate it by JBL (who was apparently the General Manager of NXT for a while?) after she showed up on Raw in the spring of 2014 and won the Divas title from AJ Lee. That move did lead to great things in the long-run, but the fact that the first NXT Women’s Champion never actually lost the belt is a bit of an oddity.

Paige laid the groundwork for what would become NXT’s revolution in women’s wrestling, and her role cannot be understated. However, when you compare her to the modern era, where women’s wrestling is taken far more seriously, her title reign just doesn’t quite hold up against a lot of them. She was the one who lit the fire but didn’t get much of a chance to enjoy the flame.

And there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. Please, let me know what you thought of these NXT title reigns, either in the comments below, or on Twitter @10ryawoo. Finally, make sure to come back here this time next week, where I’ll be covering my favourite post-game features in the Pokemon series, PLUS the week after that for part 2 of this list!

Game of the Year 2020

We’re here! The year is finally coming to a close! As we all sit and pray that 2021 won’t somehow be worse than 2020, it’s time to wrap things up with a look back at the games released over the last 12 months and see what we enjoyed the most.

First, some caveats. I HAVEN’T PLAYED CYBERPUNK 2077. I do want to play it, and I am going to in the new year, but it became apparent to me that even if I did play it on launch day, I wouldn’t have been able to play enough of it in time to fairly judge how much I liked it. So, I’m not writing it off, but expect to see it appear on my 2021 ends of year lists rather than here. Secondly, I don’t own a PS5 or an Xbox Series X, so if a game was exclusive to either of those consoles, then I haven’t played it.

I will also be continuing to add the games I think are worthy into my 100 Favourite Games list, so check that out too, if you want context on that one.

Outside of that, though, I’ve played quite a wide range of games this year. I don’t know if I played quite as many as in 2019, but that’s more because there have been fewer games coming out. As such, this list will cover quite a variety of stuff, and I won’t waste any more time rambling. Let’s look at the best of what this year had to offer!

SPOILER WARNING!

While I’ll try to avoid anything too plot-critical, I will be talking about spoilers for all of these games. I’d recommend you tread carefully with games you like the sound of, especially as some of these are heavily narrative-focused games.

14 – Cloudpunk

Release Date: 23rd April
Developer: Ion Lands
Publisher: Maple Whispering Limited
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows

I didn’t know how to feel about Cloudpunk for quite a long time, but after thinking it over, I definitely think it deserves to be discussed on this list.

Cloudpunk is a game with an incredible atmosphere. The sound design team did an absolutely incredible job of creating the feel of the kind of city Cloudpunk is set in. The whirring of the cars, the low rumble of chatter in the street and the miserable atmosphere the whole thing carries with it. Even the music the in-game radio gives you has such a ‘manufactured’ feel to it which is perfect for the tone the game is trying to convey.

On top of that, it’s a master of the ‘show, don’t tell’ philosophy. Your job as a courier (and occasional taxi driver) around the city means that you really get to see every aspect of the place. From the dark, dank depths on the underbelly to the more well-off areas, and the people that live in them. You start in an unfamiliar land with unfamiliar people, but as the game progresses you really grow to feel a sense of attachment to the city and many of its citizens, and you see all sides of it.

The game doesn’t shy away from giving you the moral choices either. It dumps a pretty heavy one on you reasonably early, and they keep on coming from there. It’s not the perfect dynamic system of something like Papers, Please, but it’s more than enough for what the game is trying to do.

So this may pose the question, why did I not know how to feel about it? The simple answer is that the ending wasn’t what I was hoping it would be. That’s not to say it was bad, but I definitely think a lot more could’ve been done with it and I almost wish they’d made it a little longer to properly dig into some of the ideas it touched on. However, I’ve also spoken to people who loved the ending and thought it was perfect, so you’ll have to make up your own mind on that one.

Even if I did feel it ended on a low note, the world and narrative throughout have still stuck with me all these months after I first played it, and that definitely makes it deserving of a spot on this list.

13 – Spiritfarer

Release Date: 18th August
Developer: Thunder Lotus Games
Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac, Linux, Google Stadia

There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to Spiritfarer. In terms of gameplay, it takes elements from a lot of different genres. On the face of it, that sounds like a bad thing, but in actuality, the game takes just the right amount from each genre and balances them incredibly well.

The first thing that struck me when I started playing was how beautiful it’s visual/animation style was. Everything looks so wonderfully vibrant and colourful, and every character moves and acts in such adorable ways. It puts me in mind of some of the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons with how much life the animations bring to the characters and the world. Similarly, the sound design is a huge plus. The sounds of the ocean and the slow creaking of your boat are very relaxing sounds to listen to, and when music comes into play, it wraps itself around you and pulls you right into the moment.

The survival/crafting elements that drive the largest portion of the game are great. The process of collecting/manufacturing resources is never a chore and done at just the right pace so that you don’t breeze through it all and get bored. What’s great is that all of the main character quests will take you to the places you need to find the new resources, so you’re always progressing at the perfect pace for where the game wants you to be.

Similarly, the world is a joy to explore. The game limits the areas you can explore in just the right way so that you don’t get too overwhelmed or stray off of the beaten path until you’re ready to. Even at the start of the game, when you’re the most restricted, there’s still a huge amount of areas and oceans to explore, and you never lose that sense of discovery. Additionally, travelling from place to place is never a chore. There’s always something to be doing to keep you occupied as your boat sails from one place to another. Some farm will need watering/picking, or food will need cooking, or ores will need smelting, and even if you’ve done all of that, you can always fish for more food.

What drives this game at its very core though, is the spirits which travel with you along the way. Your job as the spiritfarer is to see spirits through their last business in the world, before taking them to the gateway to the afterlife, and no matter how many times you have to do it, it’s still an emotional moment. You get to see the lives of spirits laid out before you and understand what they’re truly like, only to have to eventually say goodbye and move on to the other spirits you need your help. To describe the kind of feelings it evokes is difficult, but if you’ve ever experienced grief, then you’ll definitely relate to the feelings on display here.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 95

12 – Star Renegades

Release Date: 8th September
Developer: Massive Damage
Publisher: Raw Fury
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac, Linux

Arguably the most obscure game on my list this year, Star Renegades mixes the roguelike & turn-based strategy genre in a way that I haven’t seen since Into the Breach.

What I love about turn-based strategy (TBS) is the feeling of sitting down and working out a really good plan, whether that plan works or fails miserably is beside the point. In a TBS, I see each battle as a puzzle to be solved, and it’s the thinking through the possibilities that brings me the most joy. Star Renegades is brilliant at tapping into that part of me.

The battle system comes together in the kind of way I absolutely adore. The fact is, you could technically go through any battle without taking a single hit if you’re good enough, but the game makes sure to keep applying the pressure to make sure you never get too good. It takes ideas from D&D in that each ‘turn’ is 60 seconds of battle-time, and in that time, every character on both sides of battle gets to act once. The kicker here is that if you go before another character, not only do you do more damage to that character. However, you can also ‘stagger’ that character, meaning they end up attacking later than they originally would’ve.

Already, that’s perfect for the puzzle-solving mindset I take in these games because every character starts with 5-7 attacks/abilities and they all do different things. You can push for heavy damage, but you’re going to attack last and take more damage, or you can focus on only doing little chips of damage that will stagger your opponent and save you from taking as much damage in return. Then you add on the fact that every character can only be staggered a certain amount of times, and if you stagger them far enough, they won’t attack at all, and you’ve got all the makings of a battle system I can really sink my teeth into.

Of course, there’s a bunch of different character classes to play around with too, and as you progress through each run, your characters will level up, get new gear and gain new abilities, slowly growing the tools at your disposal. It’s not a perfect game, and it’s not even that unique in the grand scheme of things, but it ticks all of my boxes in just the right way, and I played a lot of Star Renegades since its release.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 86

11 – ScourgeBringer

Release Date: 21st October
Developer: Flying Oak Games, E-Studio
Publisher: Dear Villagers, Yooreka Studio, Plug In Digital
Platforms: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac, Linux

At its core, ScourgeBringer doesn’t really bring anything new or unique to the roguelike genre, but it’s filled with all the little optimisations that the genre has accrued over the years, and that’s what makes it such a compelling experience.

First up, we have the movement which is so incredibly crisp that I would honestly love to play a platformer using these kinds of systems. The precision and speed with which you can navigate the map put me in mind of Towerfall Ascension with how much I enjoy playing it. What’s even better is that the game puts a heavy focus on movement, as positioning is key to surviving every fight. The dash attacks, the wall runs and the floaty jumps can be combined to create all sorts of movements that you’ll be able to process at a speed that makes just navigating a screen satisfying.

Secondly, the combat ticks all of my boxes. It all focuses on that split-second decision making of a whole bunch of aspects you need to balance. What to attack and how to attack it: Do you dash towards it? Do you shoot it? Do you wait for a chance to stun? Do you charge in like a madman? All of these are viable strategies, and you have to employ them at a speed that makes you feel highly skilled even when you’re not doing all that well. On top of that, every hit feels crisp and heavy, the sound and visual design are perfectly on point to make slashing away at enemies very fun.

Finally, I enjoy the sense of progression. The truth is, as with most roguelike games, I’m probably never going to make it to the credits. The genre is known for somewhat of a steep difficulty curve that you need to put a lot of time and effort into overcoming, which I don’t often do. This puts me off some roguelikes, but with ScourgeBringer, I don’t really care. Not only is the gameplay fun enough in and of itself that I don’t mind if I don’t make much progress, but the constant unlocking of new abilities and story elements kept me going for quite a while.

If you’re looking for a unique take on the roguelike genre, then ScourgeBringer probably won’t do it for you. However, if you just really like the genre and want great games in it, this will be sure to please you.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 79

10 – The Henry Stickmin Collection

Release Date: 7th August
Developer: Puffballs United
Publisher: Innersloth
Platforms: Windows, Mac

Calling this a game is almost doing it a disservice, it’s more like a sketch show about the history of video games.

For context, several ‘episodes’ of this game were initially released between 2008 & 2015 on Newgrounds as funny little games with some clever writing. However, I’m counting this as a new release as a whole bunch of content was added to the old episodes, and one whole new one was added that is utterly massive.

The reason I like this game is honestly very simple, it’s really, really funny. The simple mechanic of having you make a bunch of different choices to get over various obstacles is all that’s needed to lead into a huge amount of hilarious cutscenes that show you just how fun failure can be. I mean that by the way, because it’s one of those games where picking the wrong options is usually funnier than getting it right because of the hilarious ways in which you end up fucking it all up.

Mixed in with all that is a true love letter to video games & gaming culture. This thing is PACKED with so many references there’s no way you’ll even get them all. What’s great is that they’re not lazy references either, they’re always implemented in a hilariously creative way that sometimes you don’t even realise it’s a reference until you get blasted with the punchline. Despite having a limited amount of content, the game is incredibly replayable thanks to the several different paths & endings for each episode. Usually, I don’t bother with finding every path in a game like that, but with Henry Stickmin, I HAD to see everything, because it all made me laugh hysterically.

I’d love to dive deeper than that, but the truth is this is just a hilarious game made by some hilarious people, and I love it.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 69

9 – The Solitaire Conspiracy

Release Date: 6th October
Developer: Bithell Games
Publisher: Bithell Games
Platforms: Windows, Mac

If you read my 100 Favourite Games series, then you’ll be all too aware of how much I adore Mike Bithell’s games. They’re never anything super flashy, but the writing, atmosphere and tone of the world he & his teams create put him among the elite when it comes to indie developers. The Solitaire Conspiracy is no exception.

For starters, the premise is that you’re a spymaster who does their spying by solving Solitaire puzzles, which already has me hooked. Then, once you get into the game, you’re greeted by a man who definitely isn’t secretly the bad guy explaining the whole deal to you. The FMV acting in this game isn’t world-class, but it injected a real sense of personality into the story, the cutscenes are brief, and the actors they got in carry the scenes well enough so that I was always pleased to get a new one.

Outside of that, the story is told through the short text descriptions before and after each mission which give a good sense of world-building to the story. I also like how it justifies the style of gameplay, as the variant on Solitaire you play is described as you directing your team and organising all of their movements, which is very creative. Admittedly, I wouldn’t rank it among the best of Bithell’s narratives, but he writes at such a high quality anyway, that I still loved every second of it.

The puzzle-based gameplay is really fun and a lot cleverer than it first seems. Each new ‘team’ you can play around with brings new abilities with them that let you manipulate the cards you have around you, and there’s a surprising amount of variety in them. What’s great is that they were all clearly designed with the idea of collaboration in mind, as once you get to grips with the systems, you start to see the interesting ways in which you can chain these abilities to breeze through a puzzle.

What I love even more is how every ability can end up being as much a hindrance as it is a help depending on how you use it. It all depends on the context. Sure, ‘Bloodline’s’ ability to ‘kidnap’ the lowest card of that suit and bury it at the bottom of the pile might seem like it would hurt. However, when you use it to dig out a card at the bottom of a big stack and put it at the bottom of a small stack, you begin to realise how much of a help it can be. It means that every team’s ability requires you to fully understand how it works to master it and create some excellent puzzle-solving moments.

It might not be anything revolutionary or mindblowing, but The Solitaire Conspiracy is intelligent in all of the right ways. It has Bithell’s trademark endearing world design and puzzle gameplay that I’m always in the mood for.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 61

8 – Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Release Date: 20th March
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch

This is hardly an original sentiment, but I think it’s true to say that Animal Crossing was the game that came about when we needed it most.

Personally, my relationship with the game was a bit of a weird one. When I first bought it, I played it A LOT. When we were first entering lockdown, it was pretty much my morning routine to play Animal Crossing for a couple hours at the start of each day. In an era where survival/crafting/building games are an extremely oversaturated market, this one manages to strip it back and allows people to just have fun with it.

For one thing, there are no survival elements, which makes me happy, because, at this point, I just see stuff like that as a lot of faff. On top of that, it brings forward the series’ trademark style into something that’s just very sweet and enjoyable. The wonderful truth about Animal Crossing is that it’s a game that can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be.

While I didn’t grow particularly attached to any of my villagers, I really loved the feeling of a growing community that forms as you progress through the game. Personally, I would’ve liked the ‘camping on a deserted island’ vibe to stick around for a while longer, but that didn’t stop there being a significant amount of joy to come from new buildings popping up all over the place and expanding your island into a lovely little community.

Even though I haven’t touched the game in about 6 months, I still have fond memories of slowly building up my islands and creating something that felt really personal to me. It gave me more excuses to hang out with my friends (virtually) in a time where we were all apart, and that’s what I was hoping for from a game like this.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 59

7 – There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension

Release Date: 6th August
Developer: Draw Me A Pixel
Publisher: Draw Me A Pixel
Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android

There Is No Game is a brilliant blend of a comedic story, an homage to retro games and extremely creative puzzle mechanics.

From the moment you open the application, the game is all-in on its premise. The first time I booted it up, I ended up accidentally quitting it because of some deliberately misleading menus which was an amusing moment right out of the gate, and it doesn’t let up from there. I won’t go too much into the story, because it really is the kind of thing you need to see for yourself, but the premise of the game desperately not wanting you to play it manages to be the source of near-endless comedy that keeps coming back in fun new ways.

The puzzles are main driving force of the gameplay, and they will mess with your head in all of the best ways. Each chapter plays with different puzzle mechanics, all of which are innovative and encourage you to go against the grain as much as humanly possible. It’s the kind of game that will have you interacting with everything just because you want to see what the hell it could possibly do, with inevitably hilarious results.

On top of that, it’s clear how much love the developers have for many of the games they parody in the story. Point-and-click adventures, 2D adventure games, overly money-grabbing mobile games and even credits are all shown love and turned into the most ingenious puzzle levels I’ve ever seen.

In all honesty, I feel bad for making this entry so short, because I adore the game, but it really is the kind of game that you need to play for yourself to really understand. I’d recommend going in as blind as possible to let the game blindside you over and over again. All I will say is that I promise you will have an absolute blast.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 51

6 – XCOM: Chimera Squad

Release Date: 23rd April
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Windows

To put it mildly, I love the XCOM series. XCOM 2 is one of my favourite games ever, so when a PC exclusive new title in the franchise was surprised announced this spring, I was very excited to play it.

It takes the usual XCOM formula and remixes it into something faster and slightly simpler, but just as engaging. Mixing up the way turn-order works was an interesting choice that totally shifts how you plan your moves. Instead of having breathing room to allow your team to act as one, you have to think about every unit as an individual. It makes you ponder over your choices a little harder because you’re always going to be putting one of your units at risk by making some moves that would be fine under normal circumstances.

Breaking up each level into smaller areas was an interesting way of doing things as well. It removes some of the stealthier elements of XCOM, with you no longer having to strategically explore each area, but it makes up for it by making each room essentially a puzzle in terms of how to clear it. There are so many variables at play: Where to breach; What order to enter your units; Who to target when you get in, that it allows for a wide range of strategy for each small segment of gameplay, and also allows you to mix-up strategy mid-mission, rather than having to commit for an extended period of time.

On top of that, being able to finally play as different alien species was a very welcome addition. While the writing could’ve been a bit better in terms of giving them stereotypical personalities, their gameplay elements were done very well. Every alien on the team had a valued role and distinct purpose in terms fo playstyles, which is precisely what you want when facing such a diverse set of enemies. It added to the feeling I mentioned of having to treat every unit as an individual, rather than a group.

At the end of the day, I’d still say I prefer the regular XCOM formula, however, as an experiment into mixing things up, this was a roaring success as far as I’m concerned. I will definitely come back and play this one through again at some point next year.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 49

5 – Haven

Release Date: 3rd December
Developer: The Game Bakers
Publisher: The Game Bakers
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows

This was the last new game I played this year (I finished it less than a week ago), and in a year with so much bollocks, I think it was very nice to go out on a game so unapologetically positive & optimistic as this one.

The two lovers at the core of this game are some of the most genuine characters I’ve seen in gaming all year, and the positive relationship they hold together is so heartwarming. What I love so much about the portrayal of their relationship is how it doesn’t rely on them being lovey-dovey all the time to show how good of a relationship it is, it’s more down-to-earth than that. It’s not two young idiots who are madly in love with each other, it’s two people who are just right for each other, and it comes across every time they interact, which is pretty much the entire game.

The story focuses purely on this couple, and we see the entire world through their eyes, and some of the writing is very clever in how you learn about the world. As the couple discovers new things on the planet they’ve found themselves on, you learn as they do, so far so standard, but I really like how it handles the backstory. The game doesn’t pull you back at any point to be like “here’s the backstory” or have the characters turn around and say things like “hey, remember this event from our past?” instead, the backstory is baked into the dialogue subtly. It was quite bold to start throwing out some of its terms without explaining them first, but it becomes pretty apparent what everything is purely by how the characters refer to it in their speech. That is the kind of writing I love because it can weave the function into the world-building and never stops the pace to explain something to us.

The gameplay is a lot of fun too, even if it isn’t anything mindblowing. The gliding mechanics are very satisfying; a feeling that only grows when combined with the idea fo cleaning up the environment as you glide over it. The focus is definitely on exploration, and that feeling definitely comes across. While there isn’t as much variance in the visuals as I would’ve liked, you’re always encountering new creatures, plants and mysteries to keep you wanting to push on. The combat is relatively simple, and not particularly difficult, but I don’t think it needed to be, the game even tells you that it wasn’t designed to be complicated. It’s not the game’s focus, just a part of it to keep things interesting, a function it definitely fulfils well.

At the end of the day, Haven was just a fairly chill game that left me feeling nice and warm inside. It was full of positivity and optimism, and it put a smile on my face, what more could you ask for?

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 44

4 – Spelunky 2

Release Date: 15th September
Developer: Blitworks, Mossmouth
Publisher: Mossmouth
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Windows

When a sequel was announced for Spelunky several years ago, I was both excited and confused. I played far too many hours of the original, and it seemed like such a perfect formula that I really didn’t see what could be added to it to make it better. Having now played Spelunky 2, it seems the answer to that was that there wasn’t really much they could add, and as such, it simply focuses on being a brand new adventure for Spelunky players. You could argue that Spelunky 2 feels more like an expansion pack for the original than an outright sequel, but for only £15 I’m honestly fine with that being the case.

Instead of worrying about adding a bunch of new mechanics to the already fantastic Spelunky gameplay, the development team behind this one instead looked to take what the original gave you, and simply give you more of it. Every aspect of this game is just “more” than in the original, which is definitely a plus for this game. New environments were implemented to make the world far more complex and varied to explore, with many opportunities to find brand new and endlessly convoluted secrets.

Outside of that, everything just feels a lot smoother. Visually, many rougher edges have been smoothed out, and the new enemies all fit perfectly into their settings. As such, I’ve played a lot more of the sequel than the original this soon after launch. It’s a game that I still play on an almost daily basis three and a half months away from its launch. Usually, it’ll only be for half an hour or so at once, but that’s enough time to have a few runs that keep me entertained while I’m playing them. Once again, it’s a game where I know I’ll probably never actually ‘complete’ it, but I don’t care, I just enjoy booting it up and seeing how far I can get with a few runs.

The simple fact is that if you enjoyed the original Spelunky, then you’re going to like Spelunky 2. As far as I’m concerned, the only changes made were positives ones, and you generally get a lot more for your money with this one.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 42 (replacing Spelunky)

3 – Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

Release Date: 10th November
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Windows, Google Stadia

The Assassin’s Creed franchise is one that I’ve had my ups and down with over the years, and my opinion on the previous game in the franchise, Odyssey, was the epitome of that. I didn’t have a great first impression of it, but a few months later I came back around to it and played it a lot and eventually came away liking the game. So, when I booted up Valhalla to find that it does basically everything Odyssey did but SO MUCH BETTER, you can imagine how pleased I was.

The combat system was focused down and massively improved. Instead of worrying about giving us seven different weapons, they narrowed it down to just a couple of main types and made them feel fantastic to play around with. The light and impactless combat of Odyssey has been fine-tuned to be slow, heavy and the most satisfying combat system in the entire franchise. On top of that, your gear and abilities’ in-game progression was made to work so much better with the open-world design. While the massive sprawl of the ability tree wasn’t perfect, the way they scattered the stat upgrades between the actual abilities meant that your power creep felt far more natural than it ever had before.

Looking at the open-world design, it was far more interesting than the previous few examples. Where both Egypt & Greece look the same pretty much all over, the combination of England & Norway meant that the environments felt way more varied and more enjoyable to explore. Even though you don’t spend much of game time in Norway (comparatively), I didn’t get sick of the English environments either purely because they’re so bloody pretty.

I like how Ubisoft has completely thrown out the idea that their games have to stick to realism in their worlds and stories. I mean, the Assassin’s Creed stories have never been world-class, and this is no exception, but the fact that they’ve allowed some of the more gamified elements to seep into the story is nothing but a boon for both the narrative and combat aspects of the game. I meant that the terrain didn’t have to be entirely realistic to England, the abilities didn’t have to be super grounded and it generally felt like the development team were less constrained their designs here.

I’ve fallen back in love with the Assassin’s Creed franchise since they shifted to an RPG style of game, and this is by far the best version of that we’ve seen to date.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 37

2 – Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout

Release Date: 4th August
Developer: Mediatonic
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Windows

Trying to describe what a near-endless source of joy this game has been so far is a tough task, but I’ll give it a go.

Battle Royale is a genre I’ve always wanted to like a lot more than I did for a while. I love the idea of taking tonnes of people and slowly whittling them down to the very best, unfortunately, I just never fell in love with the previous titans of the genre, it’s hard to say why, but that’s the way it is. However, once I saw Fall Guys’ premise, I knew I was in for something fantastic.

For one thing, it’s so inherently different, and yet feels somewhat familiar. There are no games in the battle royal genre that look anything like Fall Guys (not including all of the copycats that came after this released) with the overly light and bouncy aesthetic that gives such a pleasant atmosphere. On top of that, invokes a lot of feelings of nostalgia on two fronts. On one front, it puts me in mind of Takeshi’s Castle, which is a show I watched a lot of when I was younger, and on another front, it puts me in mind of the soft-play areas, which were tonnes of fun to run around as a kid.

All of the games in Fall Guys are so inventive. Not all of them are amazing, but even the worst Fall Guys games still have a pretty high base-line of fun to them. There was a considerable risk of it getting stale with a limited set of levels if you played it too much, but they honestly never do. I’ve played Fall Guys for over 50 hours currently, and I’m not bored of any of it, even the games which have been in it since launch. I think a large part of that is down to how great of a variety of games you get in each match, they made sure to design it so that you get a little taste of everything if you make it far in a match so, by the time a game comes around again, you’ve played a lot of other things in between it.

What’s great is how much the dev team are committed to supporting the game into the future. As much as the people spamming ‘dead game’ on Twitter would like you to believe otherwise, the game is still booming as far as the community & support are concerned. The wait-time for games is still just as quick as it was at launch (maybe even a bit quicker thanks to server improvements) and the new seasons add a whole host of new games that are sure to keep people interested over the next year and beyond. Yes, that will change one day, but for now, Fall Guys is here to stay, and I’m going to stay with it.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 30

1 – Watch Dogs: Legion

Release Date: 29th October
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Windows, Google Stadia

Watch Dogs has not been one of my favoured franchises over the past generation. I hated the first game, and while I enjoyed the second game, I didn’t think it was anything special. So what’s so special about Legion that I’m willing to call it my game of the year? Truthfully, it’s got quite a lot going for it.

Where the original Watch Dogs was heralded as the encapsulation of what the then ‘next-gen’ consoles could achieve and failed miserably, Legion actually does feel like an actual ‘next-gen’ experience. The graphics aren’t a significant leap or anything like that, but the systems the game contains are above and beyond what has been achieved in open-world games before.

The ‘play as anyone’ gimmick was one that I wasn’t expecting much from because it honestly seemed too good to be true. It felt like another case of a games company over-promising what they could achieve to get some flashy headlines. I was wrong, though, because the system really worked as good as they promised. Watch Dogs already had the systems in place to generate people are random around the world, it was a feature in both of the previous games. However, this game stepped that up and gave all of them histories, relationships and abilities that the game actually remembers.

Yes, the fact that you’re playing as literally anyone and everyone means the story has to treat your character as a bit of a blank slate, but that doesn’t really matter because it’s the kind of game where your characters form their own stories as you play. I think the game is enhanced significantly when you play with permadeath on because it gives every mission stakes. As you form bonds with your characters and send them into missions, the story’s emotional stakes aren’t as important as how desperate you are to keep your character alive because you know that failure means losing them forever.

On top of that, every building in the game is like it’s own mini Hitman level with how you have to infiltrate them. The tools at your disposal are so varied depending on who you’re playing as that you can always mix up your styles to get the most out of each experience. Sure, using the spider-bot to infiltrate every building is probably by far the easiest way to do things, but it’s so much more fun to use my uniform disguised recruit to walk in there unseen and take people out stealthily. The nature of how the game used its abilities means that I’m happy to go for a more risky strategy if it’s more fun to execute.

On top of that, it’s really nice to be able to wander around (and cause havoc at) places around London that I know quite well and actually recognise. They captured the city’s feel very well, and while the story is nothing mind-blowing, it does develop into quite the exciting action-thriller by the end. The result is a game that pulls me all the way into a franchise I didn’t particularly care for at the beginning of the year, and now I’m looking forward to where they take it next.

Place on 100 Favourite Games List: 27

And there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this and all of my articles this year. Please, let me know what games you loved from 2020, either in the comments below or on Twitter @10ryawoo! Finally, make sure to join me this time next Saturday, where I’ll be ranking every champion in NXT history!

WWE Match of the Year 2020

Much like every company (and every person) in 2020, it’s been one hell of a year for WWE, with a lot of ups and downs. However, it led to many things we’ve never seen before, some stuff we never thought we’d see in a WWE ring and a lot of bloody good wrestling. So, as we sail off into a new year which surely HAS to be better than this one, let’s take a look back at some of the best matches WWE gave us in 2020.

10 – Men’s Royal Rumble – Royal Rumble

Putting a Royal Rumble on the match of the year list almost feels like cheating, because even a lousy rumble is at least a little bit good. However, I think this one did enough unique things that it deserves to be spoken about.

Rumbles often have a bit of a through-line story to them, especially when there’s a story surrounding who enters first, however, normally in that instance it’s about that wrestler being an underdog. So here, we finally got a chance to see what it would be like if that formula got turned on its head. Brock dominating the first half of the match was brilliant, I know some people say it went on for too long, but I entirely disagree, it was perfect. Not only was it something new, but it gave us so many great little moments between Brock & various competitors, and the little moments are what make a lot of the best rumbles so good.

On top of all that, it led to what was possibly the largest crowd reaction of the year (not exactly a high bar, but whatever) when Drew eliminated Brock from the match. From there we got loads of really fun Rumble antics that hit all the beats you want from a match like that. We got a bunch of fun action as the ring filled up, until what was ACTUALLY the biggest crowd reaction of the year when EDGE returned to wrestle for the first time in 9 years. Then, as the match drew (heh) to a close, we got another brilliant final four-segment between Orton, Edge, Roman & Drew that gave me a result I wasn’t expecting but was very happy about.

The past few years have been absolutely brilliant for rumble matches, and it makes me all the more excited for 2021’s version of the match, whatever form it takes.

9 – WALTER(c) vs Ilja Dragunov – NXT UK 29th October
(United Kingdom Championship)

Live crowds weren’t the only thing we missed out on this year, thanks to the UK’s restrictions, NXT UK was off the air for a large chunk of the year. However, once it came back, they did as much as they possibly could to make up for all the time they missed.

Truth be told, there isn’t really anything complicated about why this match is so good. It’s not a technical masterpiece or an epic story, it’s just two men beating the absolute stuffing out of each other for twenty minutes, and it blew me away. WALTER wrestled a ferocious style at the best of time, it’s what made his matches against Dunne and Bate so incredible to watch, but when he’s up against a guy like Dragunov who, despite his smaller size, can hit back just as hard, it’s compelling in the weirdest way possible. Almost like a car crash, in that, you just can’t quite bring yourself to look away.

Despite the brutal style, they still did a great job making Dragunov someone I wanted to cheer. I don’t watch NXT UK’s weekly show very often, so I wasn’t very well informed of the story going into this match, but I got all I needed to from watching the match itself. He was able to mix his strong strikes with that kind of plucky underdog style of creating openings and pulling out ‘hope’ spots; a factor that is greatly aided by the fact that WALTER is bloody massive. There’s a reason you have to write his name in all-caps, after all.

This match was a brilliant showcase of the best of what the division has to offer, which was desperately needed after the show had been off our screens for many months.

8 – Bayley(c) vs Sasha Banks – Hell in a Cell
(Smackdown Women’s Championship)
(Hell in a Cell)

Bayley and Sasha are just really good at wrestling each other.

Their NXT matches are, in my opinion, the two very best women’s matches the world has ever seen (and in the conversation for best overall) and they haven’t missed a beat since those encounters, even with the heel/face roles reversed. In fact, I’d argue the reversal of the roles was to this match’s benefit, as it created a very different feeling match. Sasha can draw love from any crowd by simply selling like she’s being murdered with every move she takes. At the same time, Bayley spent 2020 producing the best heel-work seen in the company all year, to the point where the super-babyface NXT Bayley genuinely feels like a completely different person.

Hell in a Cell matches are usually not for me, they’re the very height of slow builds to high spots we’ve seen plenty of times before, but in this match, the competitors didn’t let the weapons detract from the action. Other cell matches would grind the match’s pace to a halt so the wrestlers could set up a spot, only to immediately go through the motions to do the next one, in this match, the weapon spots were primarily set up during the auction. There were a few points where things had to slow down, but they were few and far between, and the match’s wrestling action spoke for it more than the weapon spots.

That said, what weapons spots there were had a significant impact. The thread of Bayley using the chair that came back towards the end was classic storytelling done to near-perfection, and it helped the match build to its climax. Sasha winning wasn’t was I was expecting going in, but with hindsight, it was definitely the right conclusion. I’ve become so used to WWE dragging out stories for way longer than they needed to, that I forgot how great it feels when the big win happens when it feels like it’s supposed to. It rounded off a great match which a wonderful emotional moment that left me with very positive feelings.

7 – The Undertaker vs AJ Styles – Wrestlemania 36
(Boneyard Match)

I was really worried this was going to be crap. The few times in the past WWE had tried cinematic matches, they’d been awful, or cheap imitations of what other companies had already done. However, when the world felt like it was ending, WWE pulled out all the stops and created some genuinely amazing pre-taped stuff this year. The Money in the Bank match isn’t on this list, but it was a little bit out there, and genuinely hilarious with the bits they filled it with, and it showed that when WWE employees are allowed to be creative, they can create some magic. Speaking of…the boneyard match.

It reminded me of some of the more epic fight scenes from movies, but with a difference. The thing is, in a movie, a fight scene is just one part of the overall story, there’s usually so much more going on around it that the scene is either short or constantly cut away to see what the other characters are going. However, in a wrestling match, the fight IS the story, so we got 24 minutes of two men fighting like their lives depended on it.

The build was a little bit goofy, but in the match itself, both men leaned all the way into it, and it made it work. AJ became the most hatable human in the world and Undertaker had the badass vibes we haven’t seen from him in a while. With the hindsight of knowing this is Undertaker’s last match, it gains a whole other layer too. The way he fights like an old gunslinger on his way out of the door, the way he acts so visibly tired in some points, and even the way he talks to Styles as he puts him in the ground. It’s not the send-off I expected, or even wanted for Taker, but it really works.

It was the kind of match that I was genuinely on the edge of my seat during it because it was something I’d never seen before. Every new twist popped me in some way, and at the end of the day, it left me with a massive grin on my face, and I can’t ask for more.

6 – Roman Reigns(c) vs Jey Uso – Hell in a Cell
(Universal Championship)
(Hell in a Cell)
(I Quit)

There’s been a lot going on with Roman Reigns this year. After it looked like we were in for another run with face Roman at the top following Wrestlemania, the unfortunate circumstances forced him to take time off from WWE and miss out on that opportunity. We all knew he’d come back at some point, and I was looking forward to seeing him around again, but little did I know just how great it would be. After years of asking for it, we’ve finally got to see what Roman Reigns can do as a heel, and it’s absolutely fantastic. He has this aura of indestructibility around him that makes him the kind of figure you always want to pay attention to when he’s on-screen.

A considerable part of building this aura was his story with Jey Uso, where he showed himself to be genuinely ruthless in a way we haven’t seen from anyone in WWE for a very long time. Jey Uso is the kind of guy that I don’t think anyone ever saw as a single star, that’s not to say he didn’t have the potential to do well. It’s just his identity (and looks) as a wrestler are tied so heavily to his brother, it seemed impossible for them to do anything outside of the tag team division. This was precisely the right story to prove that belief wrong, though.

This match at Hell in a Cell is the best part of this story. The Cell is largely irrelevant, and to be entirely honest, so is most of the actual wrestling action. What matters here is that the story that was told was one of the most compelling WWE have told in years. Every element simply worked. Roman wanting to assert his dominance as the leader of the family, Jey desperate to prove himself, Jimmy wanting to make sure his brother didn’t get hurt and Heyman standing by to put the exclamation point on everything, along with being the personification of Roman’s betrayal of his old ideals.

The way Roman would put Jey down with such ease, only to watch Jey struggle to his feet. He would gain the advantage here and there, but it never lasted long. It was clear that Roman was the far superior wrestler, but Jey just wouldn’t say die, which ended up being his undoing. We got to see just how much of a bastard Roman has become, not just in the way he brutalized Jey, but in the way he pretended to break down crying, only to emotionally manipulate his cousins into letting their guard down.

It struck the right balance of drama so that it didn’t feel over the top, it just felt real, and I felt the emotional weight of every moment of it. It didn’t just establish Roman as an absolutely horrible person, but it elevated Jey’s standing to the point where he’s now seen as a credible singles competitor. Everybody wins.

5 – Drew McIntyre(c) vs Seth Rollins – Money in the Bank
(WWE Championship)

There really isn’t any complexity to this one, it’s just a bloody great wrestling match.

Drew McIntyre’s ascension in 2020 has been one of the more positive stories of this dark year. I’ve already talked about his Royal Rumble win, but once he actually had the title over his shoulder, the pressure was on to deliver. We all knew he had it in him, it was just a matter of whether or not it would be able to shine in his feuds. Thankfully, WWE knows what they’re doing sometimes and knew that Seth Rollins was the perfect person for Drew’s first major feud as champion.

This match let us see all sides of what Drew could (and would) give us as WWE Champion. He was able to look beatable, without looking weak, he was able to look tough without seeming too dominant, and most importantly, he could wrestle like hell and hang with the best. Both competitors came together perfectly to create a match that was an absolute joy to watch. When Rollins lets loose, there are honestly few better in WWE and McIntyre rose to his level particularly on that night.

Rollins adapted his fast & flashy high-flying offence into something slightly slower and hard-hitting. Instead of bouncing all over the place with some fast-paced flying knees, he slowed them down and made them more impactful when he smashed Drew in the face with them. It worked to Drew’s more brutal style and created the sense of a real fight that kept me engaged in the action from start to finish.

4 – Rhea Ripley(c) vs Charlotte Flair – Wrestlemania 36
(NXT Women’s Championship)

While Ripley’s star has faded slightly from what it was at the beginning of the year, the fact that she was able to have the best singles wrestling match of Wrestlemania against one of the best women’s wrestlers in the history of the sport is something that will forever keep her a star in the eyes of everyone inside and out of WWE.

This was the match I was the most hyped for going into Wrestlemania, and it didn’t disappoint. As the opening match for night 2, it set the tone perfectly for the rest of the show. It’s easy to roll your eyes at Charlotte these days after she was pushed so hard for so long, but we can’t forget that when it comes to pure wrestling ability, she’s in the discussion for best women’s wrestler of all time. Charlotte pulled out all the stops in this match, and Rhea matched her beat-for-beat. This match felt so explicitly crafted to make both women feel perfectly matched for one another, and Rhea came out of it looking like a star, even in defeat.

The action was so fluid and satisfying at all moments, with Rhea slipping into the role of the hungry underdog, while Charlotte looked down her nose at Rhea as the veteran. Charlotte underestimated Rhea in the opening segments but quickly learnt what she was capable of, which was all the story that was needed to turn this into one of the best matches of the year.

3 – Keith Lee(c) vs Dominick Dijakovic – NXT Takeover: Portland
(North American Championship)

While NXT is still an excellent wrestling product these days, it definitely feels like the golden era is over now. For the past couple of years, NXT has dominated my ‘match of the year’ lists, but as you’ve seen, it’s been pretty barren this year so far. I think it has suffered greatly from the lack of live crowds – perhaps more so than any other major promotion – so I guess it makes sense that one of their better matches would come before we were all locked down.

Keith Lee is a rocket waiting to take off. From his performance at Survivor Series 2019 all the way through 2020, you can feel the stardom that awaits him when he’s finally allowed to run free, and this remains one of his finest works. Interestingly, it took me a hell of a long time to get on board with Dominick Dijakovic (now Retribution’s T-Bar). For the longest time, I just didn’t understand what was so special about him, he was just another big guy, right? Wrong, very, VERY wrong.

Turns out, he’s a big guy moves like a cruiserweight and can put on fast-paced, exciting and bombastic matches with a wide range of opponents. Lee & Dijakovic clicked like you wouldn’t believe in this match, they were absolutely perfect for each other. Rather than focusing entirely on power, the early stages of this match focused more on the two competitors out-manoeuvring each other to get the upper hand, only busting out their feats of strength when they had the upper hand. Then, once the opening was out of the way, they slammed their feet down on the accelerator and started to destroy each other for our entertainment.

This match stunned me in how amazingly fast it was, yet it still managed to convey the two men’s power and brutality. All of the biggest moments came and went in a flash, and yet they left such an impression on me that I can still picture some of the spots almost a full year later. Lee seems like he’s going to reach the spot her deserves at some point over the next few years, and I hope Dijakovic does the same because he deserves so much more than what he’s currently getting.

2 – The Fiend Bray Wyatt vs John Cena – Wrestlemania 36
(Firefly Funhouse Match)

The only reason this isn’t number 1 because it wasn’t technically a match. Truthfully though, I believe it to be one of the best things WWE has ever aired.

When The Fiend lost to Goldberg, there was a lot of worry about how the character would be treated going forwards. This was the hottest property in the company all year, and it seemed like it was going to be squandered. Then, the character set his sights on righting the wrongs of the past, not just of himself, but of the company. Focussing on Wrestlemania 30 for this feud, and how Cena definitely shouldn’t have won was a brilliant way to frame the animosity between these two that hasn’t been done to this great effect before. Cena leaned all the way into it as well and came across like quite an embittered man about the whole thing, something Wyatt preyed upon.

I don’t even know how to go about breaking down how brilliant this whole thing was. It was a complete and total character assassination of, not only John Cena but the whole WWE system of hand-picked stars to carry the company. It’s a miracle that it was ever even allowed to air on a WWE product given that included lines such as puppet Vince McMahon saying “it’s such good shit”, a line used by Jon Moxley to mock Vince after he left the company. It broke down every aspect of John Cena’s career and highlighted how much of a farce it was, and how deeply flawed it was. While it didn’t directly address many of the topics at hand, it doesn’t take much backstage knowledge of WWE to understand the implications of stuff like nWo Cena, tearing down not only Cena but also Hogan’s history of keeping people down for no good reason.

The Firefly Funhouse match didn’t just blur the lines between fiction and reality, it straight-up shattered that line and used every broken piece of the line to create the finished product. It’s the kind of thing that I never thought I’d see on a WWE product and may never get the chance to see it again and I utterly adored it.

1 – Charlotte Flair(c) vs Rhea Ripley vs Io Shirai – NXT Takeover: In Your House
(NXT Women’s Championship)

While, in all honesty, the Firefly Funhouse match was probably my favourite thing to happen this year, this is a list about proper wrestling matches, and on that front, nothing this year came close to this match.

I don’t think NXT made the most of having Charlotte Flair as their champion. It’s not entirely their fault, as they were somewhat handcuffed by the fact that Raw still wanted to use Charlotte on a weekly basis without even referencing the fact that she was NXT Champion. Either way, there was definitely a feeling of wasted potential when it came to an end. That said, they sure as hell did their best to get as many amazing performances out of it as possible. I’ve already covered her Mania match with Ripley, but on top of that, we saw a great match against Io Shirai on NXT and this match, which is one of the best triple threat matches I’ve ever seen.

Shirai was definitely coming into this match with momentum, but I really didn’t think she stood a chance of winning the title. I’m glad that I was wrong about this, but I honestly thought NXT had missed the boat with her thanks to her rise coming right in the middle of Shayna Baszler’s run of dominance. The match’s story was definitely with Rhea & Charlotte following their Wrestlemania encounter, but Io Shirai burst into the feud and made sure her voice could not be ignored.

This patch was paced to near perfection, and never let up. It used the triple threat factor to its advantage and never let there be a moment where nothing was happening. Rhea felt like a vicious underdog who was looking to recover from her Mania loss, Charlotte fought like a woman fuelled by her hatred of anyone that wasn’t her, and Io came in like a house on fire, tearing down any and every obstacle in her way.

It had everything I want from a headline NXT match: Drama, action, excitement and ending out on both a surprise and a high-note. I think it says something about how fantastic NXT is that even in a year where I consider NXT’s performance to be sub-par, it put on some of the best damn matches in the entire company, in 2020.