The Wrestling Observer Year-End Awards, what began in the early 1980s as but a collection of a dozen or so awards decided upon by Meltzer and newsletter correspondents, evolved substantially in the ensuing decades – much like the newsletter itself – into an annual tradition, amongst the most well respected yearly wrestling awards in the world, voted upon by thousands of subscribers.
But with an Observer subscription standing as the sole requirement for voting eligibility, the existence of oversights and misrepresentations in some of the award categories is all but guaranteed. Some inclusions are more glaring than others – with Dana Brooke placing third in Rookie of the Year, Shinpei Nogami placing third in Best Television Announcer, or Connor McGregor winning Most Outstanding Fighter of Year – but oversights and erroneous inclusions are to be expected from all annual awards, let alone one with a voter base the size of the Observer’s. And generally speaking, the winners of most every category remained within the realm of reason and expectations.
The Thesz/Flair award, the Observer’s award for best overall wrestler, accounting for drawing power, in-ring performance, promotional impact, and mic work (if applicable), is arguably its most prestigious. The 2015 pool was deep in terms of potential winners, but paradoxically shallow as far as strong candidates were concerned.
Sasha Banks was my personal choice for the award, not because I found her work overly compelling, at least in comparison to Most Outstanding candidates Roderick Strong, Kota Ibushi, Timothy Thatcher, Katsuyori Shibata, Tomohiro Ishii, Chris Hero et al., but rather because her 2015 will likely bare more significant historical interest in years to follow than any other performer under consideration, particularly if the women’s division continues to grow in the coming years, which I fully expect given Hunter’s growing influence. Joe Lanza on the Voices of Wrestling podcast argued strongly against Sasha Banks as MVP, and raised some valid points, particularly relating to her slim match catalogue. It would appear that the majority of the Observer readership shared his sentiments, with Banks placing eighth with only 80 first place votes.
AJ Styles topped the list with 299 first place votes, followed by Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada in second and third respectively. Styles had as strong a candidacy for MVP in 2015 as anyone, working at or near the top of most major NJPW cards and drawing major attention when touring with ROH and independent groups. He was a fantastic in-ring performer, which was the general consensus amongst a variety of pro-wrestling observers, writers, commentators, and wrestlers in 2015, many with differing philosophies on what constitutes good work .
In my view, Okada and Tanahashi were weaker candidates than Banks; Tanahashi particularly so, as he spent a large portion of the year feuding with Toru Yano whilst recovering from a recurring back injury – a programme that meant nothing for the company on any significant level. He had a fantastic G1, but wasn’t necessarily the very best performer in that tournament, with Ibushi and Styles shining just as bright. Tanahashi’s second place position is a strong example of a potential retroactive voting mentality in some of the more open categories. When there isn’t a particularly obvious first place candidate, there appears to be a significant minority of balloters that vote for performers based entirely upon strong prior performances. I suspect a smaller, albeit still significant, portion of voters choose candidates highly touted in the Observer without granting substantial thought to the candidate’s case.
Okada had a stronger year than Tanahashi. Whilst he too experienced dramatic slow-downs throughout 2015, his post-Dome programme with Fale was still semi-major, at least in comparison to Tanahashi’s with Yano. After besting Fale, Okada stepped into what was New Japan’s premier programme of 2015, his series with AJ Styles. Okada was placed in more main event positions, was a more central focus in the top picture, and was New Japan’s 2015 ace; realistically, he should have placed ahead of Tanahashi.
AJ Styles also won the ‘Most Outstanding Award’, the Observer’s top prize for in-ring performance. Styles didn’t place in my top three, but I am clearly in the minority, and have no objections to Styles winning. Strangely, however, placing second was Shinsuke Nakamura, who by all accounts had an underwhelming 2015, with the majority of his year marred by inconsistency. He may have had the best matches on the two biggest New Japan shows of the year, against Ibushi and Tanahashi, but both of those men performed at a far higher level year-round, as did Tomohiro Ishii and Tomoaki Honma in their style. Inoffensively, Tanahashi placed third.
The Young Bucks claimed ‘Tag Team of the Year’ for the second consecutive year. They were at the top of my list surprisingly, not because I enjoyed their in-ring performances over the likes of Strong BJ or reDragon – although they were consistently good and at times great throughout 2015 – however, no other team was a more successful package than the Bucks. As far as self promotion was concerned, they did as good a job as any act on the indies. They were not only the independents’ most successful team, but were easily one of its top five most successful overall acts. They come across as superstars wherever they worked, and whilst they may not have been my favourite team, or the greatest working tandem of the year, they were easily one of the most important.
‘Best Technical Wrestler’, a seemingly archaic award but a few years ago, has blossomed into one of the deepest of the niche categories in recent years, with the likes of Timothy Thatcher, Drew Gulak, Zack Sabre Jr., Biff Busick, and Kyle O’ Reilly reviving the style on the American scene. Zack Sabre Jr. placed first, O’ Reilly second, and Thatcher third. Unfortunately I didn’t see as much 2015 O’ Reilly as I would have liked; he has been at many points a top five American worker of mine. However, I am confident that Thatcher would have taken second place, had he worked a Ring of Honor or New Japan – he too would have assuredly placed higher in ‘Most Outstanding’.
Ricochet took ‘Best Flying Wrestler’, which I would object to on a personal level, as utilization of flying within the context of good wrestling matches is emphasized in the criteria for this award – and Ricochet, for all his athletic ability, consistently disappoints me as a worker. As great a year as 2015 was for Ibushi, he flew less in 2015 than in any year I can remember, and the same can be said for KUSHIDA. I would have chosen any one of Mike Bailey, Matt Sydal, or Dragon Lee over Ricochet as far as flyers are concerned.
Most of the remaining awards reflect the sentiments of my ballot: Kane as ‘Most Overrated’, Cesaro as ‘Most Underrated’,
Ibushi/Nakamura as match of the year, WrestleKingdom as show of the year, and so on. There were some misses, and a couple of puzzlers, but for as noteworthy as some of those may be, and as fun as they are to discuss, on a large scale, much like the Observer itself, the 2015 WON Awards painted an accurate large scale picture of the 2015 pro-wrestling landscape – and realistically, that is what I hope and expect from it.