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MJF’s Time Is Now

Elsewhere, Ricochet and Mustafa Ali face off in the SmackDown World Cup while Kairi and Mayu Iwatani battle for the IWGP Women’s title

WWE/AEW/NJPW/Ringer illustration

There’s more great pro wrestling in 2022 than we know what to do with. So The Ringer brings you a regular cheat sheet with the three best matches of the past week—one from WWE, one from AEW, and one from the rest of the immense wrestling world.

Ricochet vs. Mustafa Ali

WWE SmackDown, November 18

Two of the more underutilized talents in WWE had a great, compact TV match in the first round of the SmackDown World Cup. Ali especially is a guy who the company has seemed ready to pull the trigger on multiple times, only for his momentum to be cut off, sending him back down the card. Ali came in initially as part of the Cruiserweight division, competing in the Cruiserweight Classic and being part of the ill-fated 205 Live roster. He debuted on SmackDown with a big push, and was supposed to be in the Elimination Chamber, but an injury caused him to be replaced by Kofi Kingston, who ended up starting a program that ended up with Kofi winning the WWE title at WrestleMania. Ali was apparently scheduled to win the Money in the Bank briefcase in 2019, before being told moments before the match that the plans had been switched to Brock Lesnar winning the match. After being pulled off TV for months, he returned as the leader of Retribution heel stable, which was a failed attempt to do an antifa heel stable. Post-Retribution, Ali publicly requested his release and has been in limbo ever since.

Recently the company seems to be reheating Ali, giving him a story line in which he keeps challenging Bobby Lashley, only to absorb Lashley-sized beatings. He came into this SmackDown World Cup match against old rival Ricochet with taped ribs from his last encounter with Lashley. Ricochet even tried to talk him out of wrestling in a backstage segment. The addition of that tape gave some ballast to a match that was always going to have a super-high level of workrate and athleticism.

Ricochet started the match by attempting multiple lighting-fast roll-ups, trying to end the bout quickly out of concern for his friend’s health. Ali came up grimacing, and they went into the corner, they were tied up, and Ricochet threw a back elbow as the ref was trying to break them up, prompting Ali to then hand Ricochet a receipt in the form of a forearm blast to the back of the head. All of the concern and sportsmanship was out the window by then, and the match got heated, quickly.

Ali hit the first big move, spiking Ricochet with a top rope backstabber, which unfortunately meant that Ali landed with a ton of impact on his ribs. Ricochet hit a big superplex during the commercial break, but when they returned Ali was able to send him to the floor with a headscissors. Ali cut off a couple of Ricochet’s attempts to get back in the ring, hitting him with a pescado that Ricochet caught in an incredible feat of strength, drilling Ali with a Michinoku driver. I remember Ricochet as a super skinny kid with an Afro starting out in IWA Mid-South and feuding with Chuck Taylor; it’s great that he has bulked up enough to hit a power spot I can really only remember Mark Henry and Lesnar being able to pull off. It’s like watching 2022 Steph Curry of the Warriors taking on 2007 Davidson Steph Curry.

Ricochet threw him back into the ring but missed a Phoenix splash; Ali then locked in a tight Peruvian Necktie, which sent Ricochet to the ropes. Ali failed an attempt to lift Ricochet in a fireman’s carry, and got dropped with a dragon suplex, a discus lariat, and a lionsault for a two-count. Ali was able to grab a tornado DDT, but missed a 450 splash; Ricochet put him down with an amazing-looking shooting star body press for the win.

This match set up a Ricochet vs. Braun Strowman match in the next round, which will play off Braun’s impolitic Twitter rants about high flyers. The winner of the World Cup gets an Intercontinental title match and the company set up Braun vs. Gunther later in this show, so it feels like Ricochet may be just cannon fodder.

Both of these guys are so supremely talented, but seem like they are in the wrong place. I can imagine Ali as a huge babyface in AEW, and Ricochet slotted right in the midst of the Elite and Death Triangle group of high flyers. This is really an example of where wrestling could use a trade system—something like these two and a prospect to be named later for the House of Black would work out perfectly for everyone involved. We really need Nick Bond to build a Wrestling Trade Machine.

MJF vs. Jon Moxley

AEW Full Gear, November 19

AEW put on a course-correcting pay-per-view on Saturday night. It was a show full of very good matches (as its PPVs virtually always are), but more than that, the company ended the night with all three of the major titles around the waists of AEW homegrown talent, all going over wrestlers who achieved their primary fame in the WWE. The Acclaimed retained their tag championships by beating Swerve in Our Glory, Jamie Hayter captured the interim AEW Women’s title over Toni Storm, and MJF became one of the youngest world champions in history at the age of 26, likely sending Jon Moxley on a well-deserved and delayed vacation.

MJF came into the match as a babyface, albeit one who still kept all of his smarm and dickishness. He was wrestling in front of a semi-hometown crowd in Newark that was rabid to see him win. He had split from the Firm (a heel stable who were mercifully kept out of this match entirely), and had sworn that he was going to beat Jon Moxley fair and square and prove to William Regal that Regal was wrong to dismiss and discount him years ago. Moxley is just Moxley; he wants to fight, and doesn’t really care whether the crowd is supporting him or not. The fact that the crowd was cheering for MJF didn’t make Moxley want to beat his ass any less—it might have made him want to beat him up more.

Mox opened the match by walking up to MJF and slapping the fluoride out of his teeth. He then absorbed a return MJF slap and cracked him with a brutal elbow to the point of the jaw. MJF responded to that onslaught by trolling, hitting the Fargo strut, and teasing a dive to the outside before just running the ropes. MJF trolled his way all the way to a world title match, and his game plan was to be a burr under Mox’s saddle, frustrating him enough get him to make a mistake. It certainly backfired early with Mox just beating him senseless, crossfacing him, and dropping him with a hard lariat, all while flipping off the partisan MJF Jersey crowd. If someone had scored the first 10 minutes it would have been 10-8 Moxley, with MJF getting blown out.

MJF was able to get back into the match a bit, with some classic babyface comebacks, including Jerry Lawler–style jabs, and even smashed Mox’s head into the turnbuckle as the crowd counted along. MJF got a table and hit a Tombstone on the ring apron, damaging Mox’s neck but also wrecking his own patella. That knee buckled when MJF attempted another piledriver, which allowed Moxley to hit a nasty-looking sit-out piledriver off of the ring apron through a table. MJF barely beat the count, only to walk into a paradigm shift for a super close near-fall. Mox immediately locked a figure four on the bad knee. It was a great figure four spot by both wrestlers, with Mox twisting the ankle and bridging up to get extra torque, and MJF feeding off the crowd’s energy to reverse the hold. MJF was able to hit his heatseeker short piledriver, but a second attempt tweaked his knee, and Mox jumped right back on him. They fought to the top rope, and Moxley reversed an avalanche powerslam attempt into an awesome-looking avalanche paradigm shift, dropping MJF hard on his neck, with Max just able to drape his hand on the rope to avoid the pin. Mox then taunted a dazed MJF into a strike exchange, where he battered the knee with inside kicks. MJF then pulled referee Bryce Remsberg in front of a charging Moxley and we moved into the shenanigans.

MJF pulled out his diamond ring, but William Regal charged down and screamed at him to win the match fair. MJF tossed the ring to the floor, only to get put in a choke. They guys did a great near-fall with MJF walking the ropes and pushing off for a pin (with CM Punk gone, someone has to do the Bret Hart spots), with a second ref suddenly appearing to count the pin. That second ref got bumped as well, and there was no one to see MJF tap out from the bulldog choke. Regal told Mox to roust Bryce, and then slid in his brass knuckles to MJF, who cracked Moxley with them to win the title and turn Regal (and MJF) heel.

My final verdict on that finish is really going to come when I see how AEW follows it up. This was a great babyface performance by MJF up until the finish, and it felt like there was still a fair amount of runway left with him as a crowd favorite, especially since we have seen him as a shitbird heel for years now. I am also not sure this was an evil enough action to really turn the crowd on him, and I am not sure how it will work if he is cheered by the crowd while doing his sometimes over-the-top heel shtick. I really think we need one more night out of Mox, where he responds to Regal turning on him, and gets violently destroyed, maybe even bumping Renee Paquette. If Max is going to be a heel champion, really make him repulsive; half-measures aren’t going to do it.

This also seems like the end of the Blackpool Combat Club, and while I loved a lot of what AEW did with it—there were some great matches—it feels like it was overall a lost opportunity. Wheeler Yuta was elevated initially, but disappeared in the last month or so. They dragged the Jericho Appreciation Society feud out way too long. It should have ended after Blood and Guts, but instead, they just rewound it again and went back to the same well. It felt like they should have been the Horseman or the Bloodline; what we got feels more like a cool idea that never lived up to its promise; more LWO than nWo.

Despite my ambivalence with the finish, this was a great, hard-hitting world title match, with excellent performances from both guys. Moxley put the promotion on his back in the midst of all of its problems and closed this run out with an absolute banger of a title match. Despite only having a handful of matches this year, MJF showed he is still a great in-ring talent, and I am really interested to see what he can do with the burden of delivering main-event-level title matches on a regular basis. Overall a great show; it will be fascinating to see where the promotion goes in the next several months.

Kairi vs. Mayu Iwatani

NJPW/Stardom Historic X-over, November 20

She was the one that stayed.

The three daughters of Stardom—Mayu Iwatani, Kairi Hojo, and Io Shirai—built the promotion; they teamed together as the Threedom, at one point holding all of the major Stardom titles. However, both Io Shirai and Kairi Hojo left Stardom and headed to the WWE, where Hojo (renamed Kairi Sane) won the inaugural Mae Young Classic, the NXT Women’s championship, and was one-half of the WWE Women’s Tag Team Champions with Asuka. Iwatani, however, stayed behind, delaying a rumored retirement to take over as the top star of the promotion to help rebuild it, lead it through the pandemic, and steward the promotion to its current heights.

When Hojo returned—now named Kairi and announcing her desire to contend for the new IWGP Women’s title—the daughter who stayed (much like the eldest son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son) resented her sister, resented her success, her willingness to abandon her family, and her arrogance for returning. The promotion had slain the fatted calf for Kairi’s return, giving her a bye in the IWGP title tournament—clearing the path for her to main event the first joint New Japan and Stardom show. Iwatani fought her way through two tough matches and relinquished her SWA Undisputed World Women’s Championship, all to focus on becoming the first IWGP Women’s champion. All of the minor grievances, irritations, and petty grudges present in every family were bubbling to the surface—this wasn’t just a title match, it was a family feud.

Traditional Japanese wrestling has been segregated by sex. There were Joshi promotions, like All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling and JWP in the ‘90s and 2000s and Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling and Stardom in the 2010s and 2020s, and then your major men’s puroresu promotions like New Japan Pro-Wrestling, All Japan Pro Wrestling, and NOAH. While you would see some overlap in indy promotions like DDT and most famously FMW in the 1990s, for the most part, in Japan men’s wrestling and women’s wrestling operate separately. When Bushiroad acquired the Joshi promotion Stardom in 2019 (after previously acquiring New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 2012), those boundaries began to crumble, with Stardom wrestlers starting to appear on New Japan shows, all leading to the Historic X-Over joint show between the two promotions which was held on Saturday night in Tokyo. The main event of that show saw Mayu Iwatani and Kairi battle for the inaugural IWGP Women’s title in their first match against each other in over five years for a title that will be defended on New Japan shows in both Japan and the United States.

Kairi came into the match with a taped elbow underneath her elbow pad and Iwatani’s eyes went wide. After some high-impact dropkicks and a tope, Iwatani went after that elbow, wrapping it around the ring ropes and cracking it with a dropkick, stomping the joint and dropping a knee on it. That one weak spot allowed Iwatani openings, although she spent much of the match absorbing blows. Kairi is pretty small, but she is a brutally hard hitter; her cutlass spinning backfist is as violent as Eddie Kingston’s or Aja Kong’s, both of whom are twice her size.

Kairi also hit a pounce which sent Iwatani flying backward, violently crashing into the turnbuckle. That set up Kairi’s anchor (her bridging leglock), but she couldn’t hold it because of her bad elbow. Iwatani, who is famous for her ability and willingness to take punishment, waded through two cutlass backfists that sounded like cracking lake ice and drilled Kairi with a crescent kick. Kairi wouldn’t go down easy either, kicking out after a Tombstone and a dragon suplex. Kairi cut her off with another cutlass and looked like she was going to finish Iwatani off with an “#InsaneElbow,” only for Iwatani to kick out in shocking fashion. Iwatani was able to counter a sliding elbow with a kick to the bad arm. A couple of dragon suplexes gave Iwatani near-falls, however when both exhausted women stumbled to their feet, Kairi drilled one more brutal cutlass and landed her signature elbow drop, finally ending the war. The prodigal daughter had returned and been feted, leaving the one who stayed behind to be shoved to the side. Kairi is scheduled for an IWGP Women’s title defense at the Tokyo Dome against Tam Nakano during Wrestle Kingdom 17, but there is no way that this family feud has come to an end.

Phil Schneider is a cofounder of the Death Valley Driver Video Review, a writer on the Segunda Caida blog, host of The Way of the Blade podcast, and the author of Way of the Blade: 100 of the Greatest Bloody Matches in Wrestling History, which is available on Amazon. He is on Twitter at @philaschneider.