If there was a theme to 2018 in professional wrestling, it was the variety and quality of performance on display both in and outside of the WWE. Understandably, with a growing number of niche options outside of the WWE, the selection process for 2018 wrestler of the year was all over the page.
Rather than synthesize all of the wildly varying opinions held by our panel, we've elected to highlight just how bright the future of wrestling looks by shining the spotlight on a select group of performers who stood out above the rest. Depending on what you enjoyed most over the past 12 months -- the rising tide of women's wrestling, independent juggernauts, tag teams or dramatic storytelling -- there's something for you here.
Dating back to their time together in NXT, Becky Lynch always felt like the most forgotten member of a quartet who labeled themselves the "Four Horsewomen." Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and Bayley all became NXT women's champion during their time in Orlando; despite helping to form the foundation of a revolution in women's wrestling, Lynch never had the honor.
In April 2016, Lynch once again had a hand in a historic moment as part of a triple threat match at WrestleMania 32 against Flair and Banks, with the newly rebranded women's championship on the line. Despite playing a role as a key cog in that moment, Lynch didn't win. Finally, in September of that year, Lynch finally got her due, or so it seemed, as she became the first-ever SmackDown women's champion. She'd ultimately defend that title only twice on TV -- both times against Alexa Bliss -- and ultimately lost that belt via Dusty Finish in a tables match.
The rivalry between Lynch and Bliss helped carry SmackDown for months on end, but even as Lynch was seemingly set up to win the title back in February 2017, Bliss once again got the nod. Every time it felt like Lynch had an opening to burst through and reclaim her top spot among the women of SmackDown, someone else stepped in the way and claimed the opportunity instead. Flair, Carmella and Natalya each enjoyed their moment in the spotlight, and even as Lynch continued to enjoy as much (if not more) crowd support along every step of the way, the breakthrough never seemed to happen.
The first women's Royal Rumble came and went, as did a WrestleMania battle royal and another Money in the Bank match. As the frustration built up among fans and supporters of Lynch, she started showing that chip on her shoulder onscreen and only built up bigger reactions as she went along. Finally, once we reached SummerSlam 2018, it felt as though it could only be Lynch's moment to resume the mantle of SmackDown women's champion and run with it. Yet, once more, Flair swooped in and stole the victory -- but that aggression would no longer stand.
Lynch attacked her longtime friend before what can only be described as the loudest reaction from any WWE crowd in 2018, as years of frustration and excitement came to the surface all at once. Just as Daniel Bryan had harnessed the undeniable will of the fans four years prior, Lynch was the conductor of a runaway train that was not going to be stopped by anything. She quickly beat Flair for the title at Hell in a Cell, built up a tremendous amount of animosity in two title defenses that didn't end cleanly, and then wrestled arguably the best WWE match of the year in a Last Woman Standing match against Flair at Evolution.
Though Lynch's match with Ronda Rousey was short-circuited by a freak injury just days before Survivor Series, her attack on Rousey and her bloody-faced snarl to close that episode of Raw went downright viral and cracked into the mainstream. Her trash talk, swagger and full embodiment of her nickname of choice -- "The Man" -- has made her the hottest commodity in the WWE. TLC may have brought Lynch's title reign to an abrupt end, but as it came at the hands of Rousey and also involved Flair, the stage is set for a potential WrestleMania main event for the ages.
Lynch may have played the bridesmaid a few too many times over the past five years, but the journey and the culmination of that struggle appear to have all been worth it. -- Tim Fiorvanti
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Becky Lynch's "The Man" T-shirt bears a close resemblance to Stone Cold Steve Austin's classic "Austin 3:16" T-shirt. WWE fans turned Austin from heel into antihero back in the day, and they did the same thing with Lynch following her heel turn against Charlotte Flair at SummerSlam.
That arguably made her the hottest superstar in the business, but Lynch's popularity only increased in the months that followed. Lynch suffered a legitimate concussion and face injury at the hands of Nia Jax, and she was not happy about being forced out of action and missing her scheduled match with Ronda Rousey, calling her recovery time "doctor jail." But as has been the case throughout pro wrestling history, taking a legitimate beating only served to give her more credibility with the audience and made Lynch even more popular in the long run.
It also speaks volumes that Lynch channeled Daniel Bryan's path to the top. Fans wanted Bryan to get a much bigger push than the WWE initially planned to give him, and that level of support eventually forced the company's hand into moving Bryan into main event status. Lynch is following that same path, as her unexpected popularity has motivated the WWE into having her headlining the first all-women's TLC match against Flair and Asuka. It may not stop there, as the momentum she's riding and the ending of that match have positioned Lynch in such a way that she seems to be in contention for a spot in the top women's match at WrestleMania 35 -- a battle that could end up as the main event on that card.
This type of historic run already helped Lynch become the first woman ever to top the ESPN WWE Power Rankings. It should also be enough to vault "The Man" to ESPN's wrestler of the year status. -- KC Joyner
The wrestler of the year is the best in the world, right? Congratulations, Shane McMahon! If only it were that simple. The wrestler of the year, in my estimation, is a man who is as "Golden" as much as he is "Elite" -- IWGP heavyweight champion Kenny Omega.
Omega's year started as it always does for New Japan's best: Wrestle Kingdom. Although Omega was not in the final match as he was in 2017, IWGP United States champion Omega and "Alpha" Chris Jericho put on a 35-minute classic in a no-disqualification match. Dissension in the Bullet Club began as Omega lost that title to Jay White, but that moment opened the door for one of the more emotional storylines of the year in professional wrestling: the reuniting of Omega with former Golden Lovers partner Kota Ibushi.
Omega and Cody Rhodes carried over a rivalry from 2017, resulting in a match at Ring of Honor's Supercard of Honor in April. Omega once again stole the show in another 30-plus-minute match, this time in a losing effort. The feud continued into July when Omega beat Cody and they ultimately joined forces in the Bullet Club OGs vs. The Elite feud. Omega also made appearances at the two biggest independent shows of the year; at All In, Omega defeated Penta El Zero M, which led to the continuation of his feud with Jericho on the latter's Rock N' Wrestling Rager in both a singles match and Bullet Club vs. Alpha Club. Late in the year, he did it again, in Poughkeepsie, New York, of all places, as he thrilled the wrestling world against Penta's brother Fenix for Northeast Wrestling.
But the crowning moment that cements Omega's claim on 2018 wrestler of the year honors came at NJPW's Dominion show on June 9, when Omega became the IWGP heavyweight champion. After their previous three matches went 1-1-1, Omega defeated Okada in a 65-minute, two-out-of-three-falls match. From innovative feuds that weaved through multiple companies to high-quality matches from Japan's most successful gaijin wrestler since AJ Styles, Omega finally has ascended to the top of the mountain in New Japan -- and the world, for that matter, as the 2018 wrestler of the year. -- Andrew Davis
Head-to-Head: Kenny Omega vs Arash Markazi
Pro wrestling superstar and avid gamer Kenny Omega stops by the ESPN Esports studio to play some Street Fighter with a determined Arash Markazi.
Year-end awards serve the function of being a sort of "you gotta see this" list. For New Japan Pro Wrestling's Kenny Omega, my wrestler of the year for 2018, I'm having a difficult time narrowing down all the must-see matches. Do you focus on his unstoppable in-ring year, such as his brawl with Chris Jericho at Wrestle Kingdom 12, his emotional match against the Young Bucks alongside teammate Kota Ibushi at Strong Style Evolved, or his match with the vicious Penta El Zero M at All In? Do you tell someone to just watch the G-1 tournament, and see his world-class matches against the likes of Tomohiro Ishii, Tetsuya Naito, Zack Sabre Jr., Ibushi, and even a memorable and thoroughly entertaining comedy match against Toru Yano?
The list is crowded, to be sure, but at the top of that list is Omega's match against Kazuchika Okada at Dominion, where Omega won a two-out-of-three-falls match to finally become the IWGP heavyweight champion.
You see, this match comes at the crossroads of his three major stories -- his falling out with the Bullet Club, his reunion with Ibushi, and his magnetic rivalry with Okada. Omega had gotten close to the top with the Bullet Cub, but when Cody Rhodes tried to usurp his position, Omega needed to find himself -- a moment that became the catalyst for his reunion with Golden Lovers teammate Ibushi. Omega and Ibushi improve each other so much that instead of the Elite or the Young Bucks at ringside, Ibushi is there at Dominion. After a 65-minute match for the ages, Omega ended Okada's two-year reign and celebrated with Ibushi; the Young Bucks waited and looked on from the top of the ramp before they reunited as one.
Omega's 2018 was nothing short of special, and he's set to make 2019 just as memorable as he kicks it off in the main event at the Tokyo Dome again on Jan. 4 against G-1 winner Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 13. -- Sachin Dave Chandan
In an era in which the Universal champion is mostly absent from Monday Night Raw, Seth Rollins has been there to carry the show on his back for nearly all of 2018. This year, the beginning of the moniker "Monday Night Rollins" really got some legs when Rollins participated in a now-legendary gauntlet match back in February. Facing off against Roman Reigns, John Cena and Elias, Rollins lasted for over an hour pinning both Reigns and Cena along the way, before finally being eliminated by Elias. The fans gave him a standing ovation as they could sense big things were on the horizon.
Rollins held the Intercontinental championship on two separate occasions, winning at Wrestlemania 34 over Finn Balor and The Miz, and again at SummerSlam after defeating Dolph Ziggler. Rollins spent most of the summer feuding with Ziggler and the returning Drew McIntyre, which led to some incredible matches -- namely, the Iron Man match that main-evented Extreme Rules whose only blemish was the Pittsburgh fans interjecting themselves throughout by counting down every minute along with the clock. Additionally, Rollins and Dean Ambrose won tag team gold (Rollins' second tag title reign in 2018, by the way) during the Monday Night Raw episode that also saw Ambrose turn heel by attacking Seth Rollins post-match in 2018's most notable betrayal.
While Seth Rollins has not held any of the two "top titles" in the company (Universal and WWE championships) since mid-2016, it can be argued that Rollins has put together the best resume of 2018. He has been involved in many big moments on Raw and always has high-quality matches, no matter the opponent. Rollins deserves another chance at a main belt, as he has shown himself more than worthy as the face of Raw and potentially the entirety of WWE moving forward. -- Peter Ferlazo
No WWE superstar has had the kind of year Seth Rollins has managed. Rollins' year featured moment after moment that made fans say he should be holding Monday Night Raw's top prize, the Universal championship. While that mantle and the man holding it, Brock Lesnar, continue to elude him, Rollins is unfailingly the most reliable, consistent and dependable performer on WWE's flagship show.
Rollins began 2018 with a marathon performance in a gauntlet match on Raw that featured pinfall victories over John Cena and Roman Reigns as he wrestled for an hour straight. The man who calls himself "The Architect" delivered a show-stopping performance at Wrestlemania to claim the Intercontinental title in a triple threat match against two other top-tier stars, Finn Balor and The Miz. Rollins and Dolph Ziggler competed over the IC title in some of the most athletic and entertaining matches of the year. Rollins was also a part one of the biggest storylines of the year when the Shield reunited the night after SummerSlam.
As the year wound to a close, injuries and illness forced Rollins to the top of the card where he belongs. His recent TLC match on Raw against Baron Corbin was just the latest example of what Rollins has shown us for all of 2018 -- he can create main-event-quality moments with any opponent. 2018 belonged to the Architect, and Raw's future is bright with Seth Rollins at the helm. -- Terrance Williams
This is not a sympathy pick; let's get that out of the way upfront. Reigns stunned the world in late October with his announcement that he was relinquishing his Universal championship and taking a leave to get treatment for leukemia. The past few months of 2018 have been validation of how valuable he is to the company. Monday Night Raw has stumbled since Reigns stepped away, and the idea that Brock Lesnar, a part-time performer, holds the belt again isn't even infuriating. It's just boring.
While I can appreciate the efforts to turn and elevate Dean Ambrose and put more emphasis on Drew McIntyre, along with the fact that Seth Rollins remains the most talented wrestler in the company, there is a glaring hole when it comes to storytelling. Who are we actually excited about at the moment? What rivalry on Raw is moving us? There's an excitement factor that's missing, which is someone ironic, because Reigns is hardly the most exciting guy in the ring.
Reigns undeniably makes us want to tune in and boo or cheer -- or both. His absence is a reminder that it takes a special talent to sell solid, cogent, attention-grabbing narratives. Maybe Reigns wasn't the best wrestler of 2018, but he was undeniably the most valuable. -- Matt Wilansky
Professional wrestling is about more than wins and losses; it takes big moments and meaningful storylines to capture wrestler of the year. However, wins can't be dismissed entirely as part of the equation, and nobody won more wrestling matches in 2018 than AJ Styles.
Styles spent the first 10 and a half months of 2018 as WWE champion, defending his title against the likes of Shinsuke Nakamura (albeit with too many low blows involved), Samoa Joe and Daniel Bryan. He defended his title in a handicap match, a six-pack challenge, and a Last Man Standing match, among other highlights. While he wasn't always the main focus of every pay-per-view he wrestled on, Styles was always there and always put on a show. You certainly can't say that about Raw's reigning Universal champion.
Along the way, Styles became the longest-reigning SmackDown champion ever, passing John Bradshaw Layfield's unlikely run atop the blue brand. Styles ultimately held the WWE championship for a total of 371 days -- tied for eighth longest all time along with Randy Savage -- before losing to Daniel Bryan following Bryan's shocking heel turn (and, it should be noted, once more running into a low blow). Few people in WWE possess the total package of skills that AJ Styles has, and in 2018, SmackDown was yet again the house that AJ Styles built -- and that makes him my pick for wrestler of the year. -- Nick Irving
What started as a Twitter wager with Dave Meltzer became one of the most successful grassroots movements in the history of the professional wrestling business, as Cody, The Young Bucks and the rest of their Elite comrades packed the Sears Centre Arena outside of Chicago with over 10,000 fans for the All In pay-per-view in September. He was the frontman for what turned out to be a multiday celebration of what wrestling still has the capability to look like in a world in which the WWE has corporately cornered the market on so many aspects of fan culture.
Everything clicked, from the 29-minute sellout, to the Starrcast podcasting festival that grew around All In, to the general unpredictability of the whole "hey, kids, let's put on a show" venture, which featured everything from phallic druids to Glacier. In the ring, Rhodes captured the NWA world title in an old-school affair against Nick Aldis, meaning that he and his father -- the late, great Dusty Rhodes -- are the only father and son who both won that legendary strap. (He'd later drop it back to Aldis at the NWA 70th Anniversary PPV later in the year.) The year ended with the indie wrestling world wondering if he was going to take the Ring of Honor championship into free agency in 2019 (he ultimately wouldn't), or potentially even start a new promotion with an NFL owner and a few of his close friends.
In 2018, it felt like the future had already arrived: a pay-per-view born on the internet, fueled by a YouTube show and headlined by someone who dug himself out of a WWE burial to redefine his career and, in some ways, the scope of what is possible in this industry. -- Greg Wyshynski
Not only is Tommaso Ciampa the best heel in NXT, he is one of the best heels in all of the WWE. He consistently generates massive heat from audiences by virtue of his arrogant demeanor, nefarious actions and smug words. He is the definition of what a heel should be and, on top of that, he backs it up in the ring with impeccable performance after impeccable performance.
Ciampa took part in, what I consider, the match of the year alongside Johnny Gargano in a Last Man Standing match at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV. It was the only match to earn a perfect five-out-of-five rating (according to my rating scale) in the WWE this year. The two had already put forth another classic just two months prior in a street fight at TakeOver: Chicago II, after kicking off the trio of incredible matches in April at TakeOver: New Orleans. Most recently, Ciampa stole the show again at TakeOver: War Games II with the Velveteen Dream.
Ciampa is the champion and face of his brand, and this is just the beginning of what should be a stellar career. -- Sean Coyle
2018 gave Johnny Gargano the chance to showcase himself as not only one of the best in-ring performers in NXT, but also one of the most fascinating characters at the same time. At NXT Takeover: Philadelphia, Gargano brought the house down with Andrade "Cien" Almas in the main event as they battled for the NXT championship. After the match was over, Gargano was attacked by former tag team partner Tommaso Ciampa, planting the seeds for what will go down as one of the best rivalries in professional wrestling history.
Gargano and Ciampa competed in a trilogy of matches that were praised for their in-ring execution and creativity, but renowned even more for their ability to tell a compelling story that added a psychological element that transformed all three matches into instant classics. From those matches, Gargano emerged as a more compelling figure. His obsession with defeating Ciampa led him to become a more twisted character. Gargano excelled at showing a man wrestling with the darkness inside him. He became more unstable and aggressive, ultimately culminating in a heel turn with his attack on Aleister Black.
With his new persona, along with an ever-shifting landscape in NXT, it'll be fun to see what 2019 has in store for Johnny Gargano. -- Lenny Ginise
To me, there are two candidates for 2018 wrestler of the year -- Daniel Bryan and Becky Lynch. I think when I look back and tell a wrestler's full story for the year, Bryan gets the nod, although you can reserve this spot for Lynch in 2019.
To start 2018, Bryan was retired, and presumed by some to be trying to get out of his contract in order to resume his in-ring career outside the WWE. But through a series of small miracles, and a bevy of medical testing, Bryan was cleared by WWE doctors and got back into the ring at WrestleMania 34 for a tag team match with Shane McMahon against Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn.
As was the case with Bryan's retirement speech two years prior, the moment Bryan announced his return became 10 times more memorable thanks to an emotionally charged speech -- this one about fighting for your dreams, and letting your dreams fight for you. It was meaningful for fans because we all knew how meaningful it was for Bryan.
But this vote is for Bryan's entire 2018. A long-awaited feud with The Miz may have left us wanting more, but the important thing was that we undeniably wanted more. The moment when Bryan's 2018 turned from feel-good story to knockout year came just last month, when Bryan got an unexpected WWE championship win on the final edition of SmackDown just before Survivor Series.
What followed was an amazing six weeks that showed just how talented Bryan is, both in the ring and in projecting his character. Bryan turned a crowd that was once so pro-Bryan that it forced the change of a WrestleMania main event into one that felt pure hatred and spat venom at him. With his self-righteous-to-the-point-of-disgust environmentalist character, Bryan has shown that he can be as good as a heel as he was a face, although his first WWE title reign proved he could walk that line.
His two PPV matches as "The New Daniel Bryan" at the end of the year proved to be two match-of-the-year candidates. His first, against on-again, off-again Universal champion Brock Lesnar, what started as a match that the crowd was booing out of the building turned into an incredible affair unlike anything we've seen from Lesnar in quite some time. Then, at the final PPV of 2018 -- Tables, Ladders & Chairs -- Bryan and AJ Styles put on another classic worthy of the reputation those two have earned, and a reminder of just how good they both are.
From being possibly finished on Jan. 1 to wrestler of the year, it's been an unbelievable 2018 for Bryan. -- Matt Willis
Listen, this is far from an easy choice. We've been entertained immensely throughout the year with great matches, feuds, promos and more by talented superstars around the world. Outside of the WWE Universe, fans will clamor for Kenny Omega or the Young Bucks to take this spot.
Inside the WWE stratosphere, we've had a phenomenal year from AJ Styles, who shines every time he's in the ring. Daniel Bryan returned to form quickly and stole the show as a face and then a ruthless heel. Seth Rollins was basically the only man that the company could count on week in and week out, and Becky Lynch became an instant legend over the past six months with a new persona that brought life back into the WWE women's division.
Then, in NXT, two men who likely will spend their careers attached to each other in some way -- Tomasso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano -- brought the brand to yet another new high.
All of these options are incredible, but the one man who deserves this award is Braun Strowman. Raw and many of the year's biggest pay-per-views revolved around Strowman. His physical efforts drove storyline after storyline, and even though he hasn't held that WWE Universal championship to this point, he's always in the conversation and is most definitely on his way to winning it. Over the course of 2018, Strowman was used as a way to reunite The Shield, as a vehicle for Drew McIntyre to become a bigger player, as a foe for Brock Lesnar, a foil for Kevin Owens, Baron Corbin and Roman Reigns, and more. Raw revolved around Braun, even to the point that when he was injured it needed to keep him on the PPV card just to maintain the status quo.
Let's be serious -- for a good portion of the year, you watched Raw to see what Braun would do next. I know I did. -- Andrew Feldman
The Young Bucks had some of the best matches of 2018. Their resume includes their match against the Golden Lovers (Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi) at New Japan Pro Wrestling's Strong Style Evolved in March, their six-man tag with Ibushi against Rey Mysterio, Fenix and Bandido at All In in September, and their Ladder War match at Ring of Honor's Final Battle in December. But that's not the reason they are the wrestlers of the year. The Young Bucks are the co-wrestlers of the year because they changed professional wrestling in 2018.
All In was hands down the show of the year, as well as a wildly successful financial and critical success. Even more importantly, All In proved that wrestlers are capable of creating their own destinies in an ever-changing wrestling landscape. The Bucks already proved they had creative savvy in their must-watch "Being the Elite" YouTube series, but All In represented something much larger. Many years from now, we'll look back at All In as the day that changed the way we view independent wrestling. Ring of Honor, long considered a "super-independent," sold out Madison Square Garden on the coattails of All In. If the rumors hold any truth, the Young Bucks and Cody, with the help of a major financial backer, are on the verge of creating their own promotion in 2019.
Whether this is all just a well-played angle with ROH or the Elite legitimately go out on their own and attempt to create the atmosphere of All In on a full-time basis, no performers hold more power in professional wrestling than the Young Bucks. That makes them 2018's wrestlers of the year. -- Michael Wonsover