We have reached the end of quite a year around the world and WWE. With lockdowns in effect in most of the world, the WWE was forced to go without fans for the majority of the year. It was an interesting sight to see and the adjustments that Vince and company made in lieu of the goings-on around the globe left little to be desired by most fans.
Luckily we are at the end of the tumultuous 2020 and with the start of a new year, there is always optimism that things may turn around. A turn around that can start as early as the first week of the New Year.
During this week the WWE pulls out all the stops to start their new year off on the right foot and usually, the quickest way to do this is by booking a championship match on either the first RAW or Smackdown to kick off the New Year.
Below I have highlighted some of the best championship matches that have taken place in the New Year. I had to make a cut off at some point so I only took a look at matches that took place on either RAW or Smackdown within the first seven days, Jan 1st to Jan 8th, of the New Year.
5: Triple H v Rikishi –WWE Championship Match | Smackdown – January 4th 2000
At this point in the WWE timeline, we were just entering into the initial push of Triple H, and yes I can feel the eye roll from everyone reading this. While we were still a few years away from HHH’s burial of the entire roster the future leader of NXT and his DX cronies were still a major part of the show. Some would say that too much a part of the show.
This frustration boiled over on the first Raw of the New Year when, with the help of DX, of course, HHH went low on then WWE Champion the Big Show and captured the WWE title. Now, this is not the match that makes this list but merely a precursor to it.
On Smackdown, just a few days after his WWE title win, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon decided to hold a raffle to see which man HHH would defend the title against. This was obviously a ruse by the power couple and it was clear that they were going to pick the easiest opponent possibly for the game. Alas, a one Mr Howard Finkel threw a wrench into their plan when he knocked over the container with wrestlers names and then proceeded to pick a name himself, drawing Rikishi out of the container. It was quite the funny segment and set up the main event for the first Smackdown of the New Year.
Rikishi was an interesting choice to face Triple H in his first title defence since winning the championship but it was the correct one. As a part of Too Cool, the big man had been dancing his way into the hearts of the WWE Universe for months. The pops he was getting from the crowd were deafening and he had built himself into a top tier talent so having him go up against the new champion was a great way to get him even moreover.
The match was exactly what one would expect from an Attitude Era contest. There was plenty of interference and brawling on the outside and naturally, there was a screwy finish when HHH decided to pummel Rikishi with a steel chair and his title belt to get himself disqualified. This was typical Attitude Era writing but it was still an entertaining encounter that helped to push a rising star over the top.
4: The Miz v Dean Ambrose – Intercontinental Championship Match | Smackdown – January 3rd 2017
After Maryse had returned to join her husband in mid-2016 the Miz was pulling off some of the best heelwork of his career. The Miz was always at his best when he was playing the slimy heel so it was great to see that he was back in his wheelhouse pissing off anyone and everyone that he could. This was especially true during a backstage interview with Renee Young.
After a successful title defence against Apollo Crews, The Miz was being interviewed by Dean Ambrose’s real-life partner Renee Young backstage when he made a rather scathing remark revealing the relationship between Ambrose and Young. This prompted Young to haul off and slap the A-lister thus sparking a feud between Ambrose and the Miz that would go on in some form or another for the better part of the year.
When the Miz decided it was his best course of action to insult the main squeeze of the lunatic fringe it pushed Ambrose into challenging the Miz for the Intercontinental title on the first Smackdown of 2017.
The match was a fantastic match but that is not all that surprising considering the two men who were involved. Ambrose and the Miz were two of the best workers in the company at the time and when they were put together they seemed to bring out the best in one another. The Miz was at his heels best using Maryse to distract Ambrose at every possible turn and Dean Ambrose played the foil to each distraction attempt perfectly.
A particularly great moment in the match was nearing the end when Maryse slapped Ambrose outside the ring causing the referee to threaten to DQ the Miz thus saving his championship. Ambrose sprinted back into the ring to plead with the ref not to do this and instead ban Maryse from the ringside area. It was a great way to circumvent Miz and Maryse’s constant underhanded tactics and the pop it got from the crowd showed that it was a great direction to take the match in.
The end came with Dean Ambrose getting the best of the Miz and winning the Intercontinental championship. It began one of the better runs of the Intercontinental title in the company’s history and it all started on the first Smackdown of the New Year.
3: Mankind v The Rock – WWE Championship Match | Raw – January 4th 1999
I know, I know. This may be viewed as a bit of a cheat since this match was technically taped in late December but it did not air until the first Raw of the New Year and that’s good enough for me!
Since the Rock turned heel and helped to screw Mankind out of the WWE championship both men had been involved in a pretty darn good feud. They had a good match at the Rock Bottom pay per view that of course ended with a screwy finish; it was the Attitude Era.
That Dusty finish led to their match on the Jan 4th edition of Raw. Going into the match one did not expect a whole heck of a lot out of it. Mankind was an incredibly over talent but as a fan, one could have never imagined that they were going to put the man over. Incredibly, when the glass shattered and Austin interjected himself into the contest we got to see Mankind walk away with the WWE championship.
The action during the match wasn’t very good, to be honest as it was just a brawl all around the ring and ringside area and with DX and the Corporation as lumberjacks, we all knew that they were going to interfere preceding’s as much as they could. Thus taking the focus away from the two athletes in the ring. While the action in the ring may not have made this contest an all-time great the historical meaning behind it will definitely have it in the running.
This is what many industry insiders and fans alike target as the turning point in the Monday Night Wars between the WWE and WCW. Tony Schiavone, the lead announcer for WCW, famously, since Raw was pre-taped, announced on a live episode of Nitro the results for the Raw that was being aired that evening. The hope from WCW was that fans would not tune into Raw but instead keep their television channelled on Nitro. Alas, the announcement from Schiavone did not have the intended effect, as thousands changed their channel to Raw to watch Mankind win the WWE championship thus changing the tide of the Monday Night Wars for good.
2: CM Punk v Dolph Ziggler – WWE Championship Match | Raw – January 2nd 2012
Punk had just recently embarked on his historic 434 title reign when he was beaten by Dolph Ziggler in a gauntlet match on Raw to determine the new number, one contender, for his title. Dolph had been in and out of the main event picture for a while and he was a perfect opponent to put against the second city saint. He was already a proven worker and with Vickie Guerrero, as his manager, he was going to get the heel heat necessary to be in a successful program against the WWE champion.
It should also be mentioned that during this feud his feud with CM Punk that Dolph Ziggler had another ally in interim Raw general manager John Laurinaitis. Punk had dropped many a pipe bomb at the expense of the man in charge which obviously made him a powerful enemy. So naturally Johnny Ace was going side with any opponent of Punk.
When the bell rang the chemistry between the pro wrestlers was clear to anyone who was watching. They kept the pace up for the majority of the contest and wrestled a near-perfect match. Both men were on top of their game and the crowd ate it up from the opening to the closing bell.
The finish came when Laurinaitis came down to the ring and “inadvertently” held down the top rope as Ziggler sent Punk flying towards the apron. This caused Punk to go tumbling over the top rope and smack his head and shoulder fairly hard on the ground which in turn prevented Punk from answering the ten count from the referee.
By this point in the Punk and Ziggler feud most had known that they were heading for a showdown at the Royal Rumble so this was a creative way to continue the feud and add Johnny Ace into the mix.
1: Roman Reigns v Samoa Joe – Intercontinental Championship | Raw – January 1st 2018
The WWE was trying very hard at this point in Reigns career not to completely shove the man down our throats. The main event experiment of Roman Reigns was not well received by the fans so the WWE thought maybe if we have him sit in the mid-card for a while fans may come around to the fact that he is the guy. So this is why we can assume they put the intercontinental championship on him. It wasn’t a terrible idea but the fans were still not entirely enamoured with Reigns as the guy so they did resist him as the champ.
It is a shame that his Intercontinental title reign did not go over with the fans as well as it did because Roman did put on some amazing matches in the short time that he held the title and none were better than the tilt that he and Samoa Joe had over the Intercontinental title on New Year’s Day.
Joe had been involved in a brutal beating of both Reigns Shield brethren, Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, just a few weeks prior to this contest so there was a good piece of history there and reasoning why they would be facing off against one another.
It is also important to note that on the Christmas Eve edition of Raw, Reigns and Joe faced off for the IC title only for Reigns to lose his temper and use the title belt to bludgeon Joe. This led to a stipulation being added to their New Year’s match that if Reigns were to be disqualified he would lose the Intercontinental championship.
The match itself was a great one to start off the New Year. Both men wrestle a very physical game and from the opening bell, they were like two bulls just running at each other to see who would budge first.
A great moment in the match came nearing the end when both men were on the outside and Samoa Joe was trying his hardest to goad Reigns into using the steel steps on him thus causing a disqualification. It was a great bit of psychology that added that little extra something to an already fantastic match.
Of course, the finish came with Reigns retaining the title, was there any doubt about that? But this did not take away from the fact that Reigns and Joe put on an absolute classic Intercontinental Championship match on New Year’s Day