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Dave Meltzer's 2020 5+ star matches: Young Bucks, Okada, Takahashi

Image: AEW/Lee South

Even with the pandemic changing the way pro wrestling operated around the world, there were still plenty of outstanding matches in all organizations, 12 of which earned five stars or better in Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer Newsletter.

As we do at the end of every year, we present Dave's top-rated matches from the past 12 months with a slightly edited excerpt from the corresponding linked WON.

After starting with those which attained five stars, we now move onto the seven matches that went above five stars: five of which were in New Japan and two of which were in AEW and involved the Young Bucks. One of those was Dave's top-rated match of the year, garnering six stars.

With the wrestling new year officially kicking off with Wrestle Kingdom 15, here's a final look back at 2020's top-rated matches.

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Hiromu Takahashi vs. Will Ospreay | Wrestle Kingdom 14
January 4, 2020 | *****1/2

Note: Originally, Dave rated this five and 1/4 stars watching it live. After watching all the WK matches back on TV, he bumped it up 1/4 star.

"The show turned around with Takahashi’s junior title win over Ospreay in the best junior heavyweight match ever in the building. You could tell from the December Korakuen Hall shows that Takahashi hasn’t missed a beat. These two have wrestled in the past before Takahashi’s injury and, of course, it was great. But, this was their best match together up to this point.

Ospreay was injured in the match landing on his feet in a crazy series of moves when doing a space flying tiger drop to the floor. He never reacted like he was hurt and continued to do two more spots landing on both feet, hitting a second space flying tiger drop over the next seconds. After the show came word he was injured and may have broken his heel. He said he didn’t feel that bad when he got up two days later and worked New Year’s Dash. But that night he was really hurting bad. He underwent X-rays and had suffered a fractured heel.

This was the third best match in Tokyo Dome history at this point, although that only lasted about an hour."

IWGP Champion Kazuchika Okada vs. Kota Ibushi  | Wrestle Kingdom 14
January 4, 2020 | *****1/2

Note: Originally, Dave rated this five and 1/4 stars watching it live. After watching all the WK matches back on TV, he bumped it up 1/4 star.

"Okada vs. Ibushi was an all-time classic.

This was Okada’s record-setting 30th career title defense, breaking Hiroshi Tanahashi’s record of 28 when he beat Sanada in October. I’ve seen everyone on big stages who has been considered the all-time best of the last 50 years, whether that be Jack Brisco, Terry Funk, Ric Flair, Mitsuharu Misawa, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kenny Omega, Ibushi, Ospreay, Jumbo Tsuruta, Genichiro Tenryu, Randy Savage, Ricky Steamboat or anyone else you want to throw in that mix. Okada right now is a step above every single one of them. There are those better at mentally putting a match together. There are those at his level as athletes. There are those who execute as good. There are those with more natural charisma. But Okada is unique in that a few years ago, he was a super wrestler who was clearly behind Shinsuke Nakamura and Tanahashi when it came to charisma. He comes out now with that aura that you are seeing a guy like the Jordan of his sport which was really something only Kobashi had and Flair had and Tanahashi was maybe slightly shy of."

AEW Tag Team Champions Hangman Page & Kenny Omega vs. Young Bucks | Revolution
February 29, 2020 |  ******

"After the match was over, the immediate reaction was that it was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, tag team match of all-time. Jim Ross called it the greatest tag match he could remember broadcasting and Tony Schiavone said it was the greatest tag team match he’d ever seen. Then again, given they are AEW announcers, you have to temper that. Still, my reaction when it was over that it was the best tag team match ever in the U.S., and the only stuff that may have been comparable was early 90s All Japan stuff in the Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue days, and the All Japan women stuff in the Manami Toyota & Toshiyo Yamada days.

So this past week, I watched in a row: Misawa & Kobashi vs. Kawada & Taue, Midnight Express vs,. Fantastics (which I always considered the beat American tag team match I ever saw, a match from Chattanooga where the Fantastics won the U.S. tag team titles) and Bucks vs. Omega & Page for the third time in four days. Pardon the pun, but those were three fantastic matches and completely different -- different times, different places and different audiences. The key is that with the first two matches, if you transported them to 2020, decades after they both took place, and could bring the audience with them, they are still ***** matches.

...As for Saturday’s match, watching it after the other two, it was clearly the best match of the three for a 2020 crowd. While both of those matches would still be among the best, Midnight-Fantastics would be the fourth best match I’ve seen this year (better than Sabre-Ospreay in London but well below Okada-Ibushi and Ospreay-Hiromu Takahashi). The All Japan tag match would be about the same while Saturday’s would be first or second.

It had the best storytelling, but it was not that far ahead of Midnight vs. Fantastics in that realm, but did beat the All Japan match handily. It was the most spectacular of the three, easily. It did not have the sports feel of the Japan match, but it had a very different and more respectful and smarter audience than the NWA match. In many ways, it was the most healthy atmosphere because while the guys were going too far with the risks, without a doubt, the audiences appreciated them for what they were doing. There was no con involved, no attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the audience or pretend, which you can’t do in a modern world. There was no guy along for the ride like Taue or Stan Lane (who both brought something to their matches but were clearly the least talented of the four).

Part of that is that the person who would be thought to be ahead of time as the guy on that spot in this week’s tag match, Page, was the key player in the key story. The story of the match is that, in the end, Page was to outshine the other three by design and win strongly at the end. But this match not only had more stories and more layers, but also far more depth to the storytelling. All were close to perfect for their audiences. All would transport into different eras and be among the best matches of the year. Nobody had an edge in pacing and none of the three bouts, all over 30 minutes, had a second of down time or ever dragged or felt too long. All actually left much shorter than they really were.

In the end, this week’s match was the best, but saying any of the three weren’t among the best tag matches of all-time seems ludicrous to me now."

Kota Ibushi vs. Minoru Suzuki | New Japan G1 Climax
October 10, 2020 | *****1/4

"This may have been the best match of Suzuki’s career and he’s had match of the year wins with Tanahashi and A.J. Styles. This was just insane. It was more like a one-take movie fight scene with the hero of the movie facing the monster that won’t die. 

...Ibushi did the Urijah Faber-style jumping knee but Suzuki got the choke again. He went for the Gotch piledriver, but Ibushi used a jumping knee which Suzuki caught. They traded sick headbutts and there was a double headbutt. Ibushi finally connected on a jumping knee and hit the kamagoye for the pin. The scene was spectacular because the idea was the only way to stop Suzuki in a fight was to knock him out cold. So, Suzuki laid on his back like he was knocked out cold and got a big smile on his face."

Kazuchika Okada vs. Shingo Takagi | New Japan G1 Climax
October 10, 2020 | *****1/4

"Okada vs. Takagi was not the best match of either man’s career, but would have won match of the year in the vast majority of years. This was totally different from the Ibushi-Suzuki match but every bit of the same level of a classic that would have won match of the year more years than not over the past 30. 

Okada hit a spinning tombstone, put on the money clip and hit the rainmaker but Takagi came back with a pumping bomber. Takagi used a headbutt, punches and then a rainmaker for a near fall. Takagi hit last of the dragon for a near fall and a pumping bomber. This was again where time calls are effective especially when everyone knows that every win or loss makes a difference because this race is going down to the wire. At this point, most figured a 30:00 draw after this classic of a match. Okada hit another rainmaker and put on the money clip. In desperation, Takagi got up, doing this incredible sell job on the money clip, grabbed the referee (Red Shoes Unno) and pulled him down. Okada used a neck snapper and put on the money clip again. Takagi did an unreal struggle. Unno was screaming at him about giving up and then Takagi passed out without tapping, so Unno stopped the match."

AEW Tag Team Champions FTR vs. Young Bucks | Full Gear
November 7, 2020 | *****1/4

"Ever since The Revival broke out as the best working heel tag team in pro wrestling in NXT with matches against Johnny Gargano & Tommaso Ciampa and Chad Gable & Jason Jordan, there had been an underlying social media feud with The Young Bucks.

It was the perfect battle of philosophies: old school vs. new school style, The Revival’s tagline of “no flips, just fists” was in response to the Young Bucks perception of doing flips, which at one point led to a spot doing a bunch of flips to do a back rake to play into the criticism. From that point, both teams wanted to do the match. During the ROH years, the Young Bucks & Cody would say “F*** the Revival” as a chant at the end of shows. The Bucks would sometimes wear FTR on their outfits.

The Revival turned down ridiculous money from WWE (at a time WWE didn’t want to lose anyone) to come to AEW, choosing fun and personal fulfillment. They knew there was a low ceiling for them in WWE as tag teams are slotted in a certain way and they had the handle of very good workers but not particularly charismatic: the kiss of death in WWE. Sometimes, they’d be featured at a certain level and other times they’d be ignored.

In leaving WWE, they played on the feud, changing their ring names to FTR. They spent months building for their first match on this PPV. It started with them as clear rivals but not enemies. They both vyed for a tag title shot at Adam Page & Kenny Omega, but Page cost the Bucks the match with the idea that FTR had manipulated him. FTR then won the gauntlet and beat Page & Omega to win the titles. Then, the Bucks behaved heelish with the idea they weren’t turning heel but needed to get into the dark space for the match. Then they added the stip to where if the Bucks didn’t win, they would never challenge for the titles again. This was the same stip that Cody used one year ago for his match with Chris Jericho which he lost, and at least thus far, has never reneged on. To try and create the drama, FTR won every match since their arrival.

The Bucks won the titles in a match where you could see that both teams wanted to make a statement with and have an all-time classic. It was a clear-cut match of the night on a show filled with great action. Many remarked it was one of the best tag team matches ever held in the U.S., and some even ranked it above the Bucks vs. Page & Omega earlier this year (which I would still say is the best U.S. tag match I’ve ever seen)."