By Graham "GSM" Matthews
Well, 2013 is now in the history books, and it is safe to say that it was a pretty good year for the WWE. Granted, I still think 2012 was a slightly better year for them, but from an in-ring standpoint, 2013 was filled with marvelous matches and that will not be soon forgotten.
Even during the WWE's "dark days" from September to December, there was still a lot of outstanding action that saved the product from being completely unbearable to watch. I planned on writing this article a bit sooner and publishing it on Bleacher Report, but I decided to make it exclusive to Next Era Wrestling instead (UPDATE: This article has seen been published to B/R and you can read it here.). So, with all that being said, let's reflect back on the highlights of what's being considered one of the better years in terms of fast-paced, suspenseful, solid wrestling.
(Note: The following list does not feature matches from WWE Superstars or NXT, as neither show is currently being broadcast in the United States. Hopefully that will change in 2014 with the debut of the WWE Network.)
25. Kaitlyn vs. AJ Lee for the Divas Championship (WWE Payback - June 16, 2013)
Kaitlyn and AJ had history dating all the way back to their time on NXT Season 3 together in late 2010. So, putting them in a feud against one another was only ideal. They had been feuding on-and-off for over a year before they finally clashed at June's Payback pay-per-view for the Divas Championship. Kaitlyn had been reigning as the champ since January, but it was pretty apparent that it was AJ's time to take the title from her. The match ended up going over 10 minutes long (which is rare by Divas standards nowadays) and featured a surprising amount of storytelling. AJ locked Kaitlyn in the Black Widow and forced her to submit to win her first Divas title. It was by far the best Divas match of the year, and one of the most memorable feuds in the Divas division in a long, long time.
24. Triple H vs. Brock Lesnar in a Steel Cage Match (Extreme Rules - May 19, 2013)
Triple H and Lesnar first clashed at SummerSlam, where Lesnar emerged victorious. HHH won the No Holds Barred rematch at WrestleMania 29 where his career was on the line. Both matches were solid, but lacked excitement due to the crowd being dead silent for both of them. By the time they were set to collide inside the Steel Cage at Extreme Rules, they had been feuding for well over one year and almost everyone was ready for their rivalry to be put to rest. Thankfully, they had their best match to date at this event and put forth a strong effort. It wasn't an amazing match, but a step above their prior two encounters. The best part of all was that Lesnar ended the feud victorious, albeit from the use of dirty tactics and the interference of Paul Heyman.
23. Alberto Del Rio vs. Rob Van Dam in a No Holds Barred Match for the World Heavyweight Championship (WWE Battleground - October 6, 2013)
While the feud between Del Rio and RVD didn't exactly light the world on fire, there is no denying that their matches were excellent. It felt as if they were holding back a bit during their bout at Night of Champions, so their rematch at Battleground was welcomed. It was held under hardcore rules, an environment that RVD thrives in. Despite that, Del Rio found a way to outsmart both him and his ally Ricardo Rodriguez to emerge victorious still the World Heavyweight Champion. RVD putting Del Rio over cleanly on his way out was a nice touch.
22. The Royal Rumble Match (Royal Rumble - January 27, 2013)
The Royal Rumble is always one of the biggest spectacles that WWE has to offer every year. It is filled with fun, unpredictability and surprises: three things that all wrestling fans love. This match had no shortage of any of the aforementioned elements, as it proved to be one of the more entertaining Rumbles in recent history. It kicked off on a high note with the returning Chris Jericho squaring off with his longtime rival Dolph Ziggler and both competitors lasting until the very end. The match also saw the returns of Goldust, who confronted his brother Cody Rhodes, and The Godfather, who brought along his "ho train" with him. Granted, John Cena's predictable victory left a sour taste in mouths of many fans, but it wouldn't prevent me from going back and re-watching this match all over again.
21. The Undertaker and Team Hell No vs. The Shield (Monday Night Raw - April 22, 2013)
Prior to this night, Undertaker hadn't wrestled a match on Raw in over three years. Three years! Thus, his return to the ring on the flagship show felt incredibly special and was built up accordingly. Seeing him reunite with his (kayfabe) brother Kane and even team up with an up-and-coming star in Daniel Bryan was truly a sight to behold. The Shield was picking up victories left and right at the time, and they had just met their biggest challenge to date. Regardless, all six competitors provided a strong matchup that was one of the longest matches on Raw in 2013. Dean Ambrose rolled up Bryan for the shocking victory, the biggest one in their careers up to this point.
20. John Cena vs. Mark Henry for the WWE Championship (Money in the Bank - July 14, 2013)
On the June 17 edition of Raw, Henry pulled off one of the greatest swerves in pro wrestling history by feigning his retirement and sending a message to the WWE locker room that his time was far from over. He subsequently challenged Cena to a match for the WWE Championship at Money in the Bank in July. The story was that Henry wanted one last reign as world champion, and while he didn't end up getting it (or at least not yet), he had a great match with Cena that did not go unnoticed. They both executed their finishers on each other and pulled everything out of their arsenals, but it wasn't until an STF from The Champ that Henry was finally forced to give up.
19. The Shield vs. The Usos for the WWE Tag Team Championships (Money in the Bank - July 14, 2013)
Most matches that have taken place on the pay-per-view pre-show over the last two years haven't been very newsworthy. However, the tag team title match pitting The Shield against The Usos set the bar for all Kickoff matches from that point forward. The Usos were just getting on a hot streak at this point and were ready to contend for the tag team titles. No one thought going in they had a chance of capturing the gold, but they turned a lot of heads in this contest and made viewers think that they just might win. It was tag team wrestling at its best, and set the tone for the rest of the show. The Shield ultimately came out on top, but it certainly wouldn't be the last time these two teams would square off.
18. John Cena vs. Randy Orton in a TLC Match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship (WWE TLC - December 15, 2013)
One night removed from the (atrocious) Survivor Series pay-per-view, it was announced that Orton and Cena would square off in a TLC match to determine an undisputed champion once and for all. Sure, the build-up to this supposedly historic match was rushed, but let's face it: this was long overdue. The World Heavyweight Championship didn't mean as much as it used to, and it was only inevitable before they were merged. Cena and Orton had fought in many gimmick matches in the past, but never a TLC match. They had an entertaining contest, even if a few spots were botched (especially the ending). The important thing was that Orton went on cleanly and a WWE pay-per-view ended for the first time in a long while without any shenanigans.
17. Daniel Bryan Runs the Gauntlet (Monday Night Raw - July 22, 2013)
One week prior to this night, John Cena selected Bryan to be his WWE Championship opponent at SummerSlam. Raw General Manager Brad Maddox felt Bryan still needed to prove his worth, so he placed him in a gauntlet match against three of Raw's toughest competitors. First up was former world champion Jack Swagger, who Bryan put away within mere minutes. His next opponent wasn't as easy, however, as Antonio Cesaro ended up being quite the challenge for Bryan. These two former Ring of Honor stars collided for the first time ever on this show and had an excellent outing. Bryan took a brutal beating at the hands of the Swiss Superman, but still managed to prevail. Next up was Ryback, who dominated Bryan for most of the matchup. After Ryback put him through a table, Bryan was named the victor. If those three wins didn't show that The Bearded One was ready for a shot at the prestigious prize, nothing would.
16. Alberto Del Rio vs. Dolph Ziggler (WWE Main Event - February 13, 2013)
I have honestly lost track of how many matches Ziggler and Del Rio have had against each other in the last year, but needless to say, all of them were fantastic. If I were to rank each of them, they would take up more than half of this list, so I decided to chose the best bout from their series and rank that instead. I went with their second match against each other on the February 13 edition of Main Event, where they were given plenty of time to shine and provide an excellent contest. Ziggler, who was still Mr. Money in the Bank at the time, proved to the world that night that he was definitely deserving of a run with the World Heavyweight Championship. Meanwhile, Del Rio proved that he can be very fun to watch in the ring even when his character can be stale. The fact these two never rekindled their feud over the world title at the end of the year is simply a travesty.
15. Daniel Bryan vs. Randy Orton in a No Holds Barred Match (Monday Night Raw - June 24, 2013)
Similar with Dolph Ziggler vs. Alberto Del Rio, Orton and Bryan had so many great matches in 2013 that it would be tough to rank them all. Between their most recent match against each other on the December 16 episode of Raw and this match from June 24, I ultimately went with the latter. Bryan was out to prove that he wasn't the "weak link" in Team Hell No and that he was ready to be a main event star in WWE. After a few cheap finishes to their prior matches, Orton and Bryan finally settled their score in this No Holds Barred match in the main event of Raw, no less. Bryan forced Orton to tap out to his patented "YES!" Lock, putting The Bearded One over huge in the process. This win was crucial in Bryan's evolution as a top star in the company, so kudos to Orton for doing the clean job for him.
14. Cody Rhodes and Goldust vs. The Shield vs. The Usos for the WWE Tag Team Championships (WWE Hell in a Cell - October 27, 2013)
Bringing back Goldust and pairing him with his brother Cody Rhodes was one of the smartest things WWE did in 2013. They brought the tag team division back to life and have had some awesome matches, this being one of them. All three teams had history with each other going into this match and had their respective claims as to why they should be the tag team champions. Unsurprisingly, their match (which opened the pay-per-view) stole the show and no other matches was able to follow it. There was even one spot where a mass of humanity spilled to the outside from the top turnbuckle. The Rhodes brothers pulled out another victory and kept their tag team title run alive.
13. The Rock vs. CM Punk for the WWE Championship (Elimination Chamber - February 17, 2013)
On the premiere episode of Raw in 2013, The Rock returned to confront CM Punk in an epic war of the words. The build-up to their title match at the Royal Rumble was spot-on, but the actual execution of the match at the event left a lot to be desired. Restarting the match following interference from The Shield was fine, but the fact Rock won mere moments later with a People's Elbow was ridiculous. Thus, I found their rematch at Elimination Chamber to be a huge improvement. We all knew Rock was coming out with the win, but Punk put up a good fight against The People's Champ with many suspenseful near-falls. Rock was successful in overcoming The Voice of the Voiceless once again and went on to defend the title against John Cena at WrestleMania 29.
12. Alberto Del Rio vs. Christian for the World Heavyweight Championship (SummerSlam - August 18, 2013)
I know I wasn't the only one who was left clamoring for Christian to receive one last run as World Heavyweight Championship following his two brief reigns in 2011. He returned to the ring looking better than ever in June 2013 and immediately starting asking for his "one more match" for the world title. He earned it by winning a Triple Threat match on the August 2 edition of SmackDown and advanced to SummerSlam for the world title. They have proved in the past that they are capable of excellent matches (see: Extreme Rules 2011), and this match was much of the same. Christian came close to winning the prestigious prize on several occasions, but it was Del Rio who ultimately emerged as the victor with the title in tow. If that was the last title match Christian ever receives, I would be completely content with that after this spectacular performance.
11. CM Punk vs. Ryback in a TLC Match for the WWE Championship (Monday Night Raw - January 7, 2013)
It was the first Raw of the new year and everyone was trying to make a good impression, especially Ryback. After coming up short of winning the WWE title at both Hell in a Cell and Survivor Series, he was looking to make it three time's the charm on this show. In the TLC match they were supposed to have at the TLC pay-per-view (which got called off due to Punk suffering an injury), Punk and Ryback had their best match to date and went all out with the extreme environment that surrounded them. Just when it looked like Ryback might finally win "the big one", The Shield interfered and cost him the matchup. This allowed Punk to capitalize by ascending the ladder and securing his title belt to remain the WWE champion.
10. Chris Jericho vs. Rob Van Dam (Monday Night Raw - July 16, 2013)
Rob Van Dam made his long awaited comeback to the WWE at July's Money in the Bank pay-per-view, coming up short of capturing the briefcase. However, he returned to the ring on Raw the very next night in a match against Chris Jericho. Brad Maddox hasn't made many wise decisions since taking the reins of Raw, but this was certainly one of them. Whereas RVD was on his way back in WWE, Jericho was on his way out, so this was a fantastic final match for Y2J on the flagship show. Their match went so long that it had to prevent another match (Daniel Bryan vs. Wade Barrett) from even happening! It was filled with exciting back-and-forth action that concluded with RVD hitting the Five Star Frog Splash to pick up the victory. Sure, it was a match straight of the Ruthless Aggression era, but these two wily ring veterans showed that nothing has changed in the last decade in terms of how good of matchup they can put on. What a way to go out for Jericho!
9. All-Stars Money in the Bank Ladder Match (Money in the Bank - July 14, 2013)
Never before had such a star-studded Money in the Bank Ladder match been asembled. It featured all former world champions, all vying for another shot at the most prestigious prize in the business: the WWE Championship. This match also marked the return of Rob Van Dam, who received a monster ovation from the Philadelphia crowd upon entering. It was originally supposed to feature seven competitors, but with Kane removed due to injury (kayfabe), it was down to six. Interestingly enough, this was the first time that a MITB match had featured that many Superstars since the match's inception in 2005. That didn't hinder the match at all, however. If anything, it helped it, as it gave each of the competitors more of a chance to showcase their amazing abilities. If there was ever one word to describe the incredible action in this match, it would have to be "reckless". More than half of the Superstars suffered some sort of injury by the end of this match, which just goes to show how willing each of them were to put their body on the line for that briefcase. Following a shocking turn of events that saw Paul Heyman betray CM Punk, RVD ascended the ladder to grab possession of the briefcase dangling high above the ring, only to be RKO'd by Randy Orton, who ultimately won the contest.
8. World Heavyweight Championship Contract Money in the Bank Ladder Match (Money in the Bank - July 14, 2013)
It was strange to see the All-Stars Money in the Bank Ladder match consist of all faces when it was first announced. It was an even stranger sight for the World Heavyweight Championship Contract Money in the Bank Ladder match to consist of all heels. However, if there was ever a place to pull off such a stunt, it would be in the city of brotherly love in Philadelphia. The fans in attendance that night took a liking to almost every competitor in this matchup, regardless of their villainous status. Unlike the All-Stars match, this contest consisted of up-and-coming Superstars, with only one of them (Jack Swagger) having been a world champion before. The two tag teams that were thrown in the mix also made things interesting. Whereas The Real Americans worked well together to ensure one of them captured the briefcase, Damien Sandow betrayed his partner Cody Rhodes to win the match for himself. The ovation that Rhodes received that night was the catalyst for his face turn and his eventual feud with his former friend.
7. CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Cody Rhodes, Goldust and The Usos vs. The Shield and The Wyatt Family (Raw Country - November 18, 2013)
When it was initially announced, I thought Raw Country would be a complete throwaway show. Much to my surprise, it ended up being much more entertaining than I ever expected it to be. Granted, there were some parts of the show I could have done without (Divas musical chairs, for example), but its highlights definitely outweighed the low points. Among those highlights was the night's main event that saw Punk and Bryan pair up with the Rhodes brothers and The Usos to take on The Shield and The Wyatt Family in a massive 12-man tag team match. One week prior on Raw in England, The Wyatt Family and The Shield briefly came to blows, but they put their differences aside for this one night to take out common enemies in their opponents. The match was given great time and the finishing sequence was extremely entertaining. Punk's coalition picked up the victory and earned bragging rights in defeating two of the most feared stables in all of WWE right now. The best part? This match was better than anything else that happened at Survivor Series that Sunday!
6. CM Punk vs. Chris Jericho (WWE Payback - June 16, 2013)
Eight days removed from his loss to The Undertaker at WrestleMania 29, CM Punk took his ball and went home on the April 15 edition of Raw. In late May, Chris Jericho challenged Punk to a match at WWE Payback, which was accepted by Paul Heyman on Punk's behalf. What Jericho seemed to forget that Payback would be held in from of Punk's hometown of Chicago, one of the most racous crowds in wrestling history. That didn't seem to slight him one bit at the event, as he had an unsurprisingly awesome match with The Voice of the Voiceless. For a guy who hadn't wrestled in over two months, Punk looked great in his return match and showed no signs of ring rust. This match was arguably even better than any of their previous encounters from 2012. It was Punk who scored his first win on pay-per-view in over six months that night, solidifying his status as a fan favorite.
5. Cody Rhodes and Goldust vs. The Shield (WWE Battleground - October 6, 2013)
During a time in WWE where nearly nothing was going right, there was one storyline that was well built and intriguing week in and week out: the Rhodes family vs. The Authority. Cody Rhodes was "fired" at the start of September, and Goldust was unsuccessful in getting his brother's job back the following back after losing to Randy Orton. However, they were given one last chance at WWE Battleground, where they would be rehired if they were to defeat The Shield. If The Shield won, however, their father Dusty Rhodes would be fired from his job down in NXT and would never work for the company again. With so much on the line, the tag team match was filled with drama and suspense as to who would emerge victorious. Remember, Goldust and Cody never tagged together prior to this night, so fans we skeptical on how well they would mesh. Well, they proved those critics wrong, as they delivered one of the best tag team matches on pay-per-view in ages. Cody performed one of his best Cross Rhodes ever on Seth Rollins to earn his and Goldust's jobs back and keep his father's job safe. The Rhodes brothers performed so well as a tandem that they were kept as a permanent fixture in the tag team division, where they are still reigning as the WWE Tag Team champions to this day.
4. CM Punk vs. The Undertaker (WrestleMania 29 - April 7, 2013)
Following his loss of the WWE Championship at the Royal Rumble, CM Punk immediately set his sights on The Undertaker and his storied streak at WrestleMania. He won a Fatal 4-Way match on Old School Raw to advance to 'Mania as 'Taker's opponent, but he didn't start playing mind games with The Deadman until the next week. 'Taker paid his respects to his fallen father Paul Bearer (who legitimately passed way) on the March 11 edition of Raw, only for Punk to interrupt and mock the legend of Bearer. Punk kept this up until 'Mania, where 'Taker was finally given the chance to unleash his anger on Punk. The two put on a match that surpassed any other match they had together during their feud in late 2009 and every other match on the WrestleMania 29 card. Honestly, 'Mania was a major disappointment this year, with this match being the sole gem of the show. Of course, it was pretty predictable that The Phenom was going to reign supreme, but that didn't take away from the pure awesomeness of the matchup. Nailing the Second City Saint with a Tombstone piledriver, 'Taker brought his legendary streak to a whopping 21-0.
3. John Cena vs. CM Punk in a No. 1 Contender's Match for the WWE Championship (Monday Night Raw - February 25, 2013)
As a wrestling fan, my favorite match is undoubtedly John Cena vs. CM Punk for the WWE Championship from 2011's Money in the Bank pay-per-view. Thus, I might be bias for any match between the two. They have clashed multiple times in recent years, but it is safe to say that they delivered their best match to date on the February 25 episode of Raw. Sure, their Money in the Bank match had a more intriguing story behind it, but this match was better wrestled, in my opinion. With a WWE Championship match at WrestleMania 29 hanging in the balance, both individuals put everything on the line to pick up the victory. Once each of them kicked out of the other's finisher, they resorted to moves that we don't normally see from them. For example, Cena executed a powerbomb and even a hurricanrana on Punk, while Punk pulled out a rare piledriver on Cena towards the end of the contest. This was pure proof as to how desperate both men were in putting one another away. It wasn't until an Attitude Adjustment from Cena that he finally reigned supreme, but not without going through the depths to hell first. As predictable as a Cena win was going into the bout, some viewers were nearly convinced into thinking that The Voice of the Voiceless might actually win. That's when you know you have an instant classic on your hands.
2. John Cena vs. Daniel Bryan for the WWE Championship (SummerSlam - August 18, 2013)
After being handpicked by John Cena himself to contend for the WWE Championship at SummerSlam, Daniel Bryan was put under a lot of pressure. Could he finally win "the big one"? Could he defeat the face of the company and as a result become the face of the company? When the bell rang at the biggest party of the summer, all the critics were silenced. Bryan and Cena had only one match against each other prior to this night (which also occurred in the month of August), so it was a relatively fresh match we were witnessing. Throughout the bout, Bryan was made to look like Cena's equal. He battled through everything that Cena dished out and refused to give up. To Cena's credit, he was working through a nasty elbow injury at the time, so the fact he was competing at the level he was let alone competing at all was astonishing and admirable. Fans were curious as to how Bryan would be able to defeat Cena, seeing how The Champ rarely ever lost cleanly. However, Bryan managed to do just that: he connected with a knee to the skull of Cena (a finisher he debuted in this match) to pick up the clean pinfall. The Staples Center erupted for the title change as Bryan celebrated the monumental victory. Granted, he had his title taken from him mere moments later at the hands of Triple H and Randy Orton (who conspired together prior to the event), but the important thing is that Bryan solidified his status as a main event player in the eyes of the fans with a clean win over Cena.
1. CM Punk vs. Brock Lesnar in a No Disqualification Match (SummerSlam - August 18, 2013)
Who knew that two matches that happened on the same show would rank as the two best matches of the year? Of the two matches, I would certainly say I enjoyed this one more. Was Cena vs. Bryan better wrestled? Maybe, but Punk vs. Lesnar wasn't meant to be a wrestling match. It was meant to be a flat-out fight. Going into the match, Punk had done such a terrific job of relaying that fact that he so badly wanted to get his hands on Paul Heyman (the man who stabbed him in the back at Money in the Bank) that he was willing to go through Lesnar in order to do so. Lesnar and Punk had a handful of brutal brawls on Raw leading up to this event, so fans were already given a small preview of what to expect in this match. Despite the difference in size between the two competitors, they have such similar styles in terms of mixed martial arts backgrounds and things of that nature. The intense action even spilled over to ringside at one point with Punk delivering a flying elbow to Lesnar through the commentating table! The Beast had The Beast locked in the Anaconda Vise and was on the verge of victory right when Heyman made his presence felt by interfering. For the first time ever, Punk finally got his hands on Heyman and locked him in the hold as well. However, because Punk's personal disdain for his former friend got the best of him, this allowed Lesnar to capitalize with an emphatic F5 onto Punk for the victory. Needless to say, the match left this viewer and many others wanting a rematch from the two at some point down the line. I mean, if we got three matches from Lesnar and Triple H, why not from Lesnar and Punk?