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Dax Harwood’s Phenomenal Singles Bouts Continue

Elsewhere, Ricochet and Santos Escobar revive an old feud and Kenta battles Mike Bailey

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.

Bryan Danielson vs. Dax Harwood

AEW Dynamite, November 30

AEW’s willingness to run out long matches between their best wrestlers is one of my favorite things about the promotion. There was no real background to this match, no story line to be furthered; it was just Dax Harwood saying he wanted to wrestle the best wrestler in the world, and Bryan Danielson is always willing to fight. Sometimes that is enough.

It’s the little things that can elevate a match from good to special. There are a lot of wrestlers who work “great match”–style. You watch enough wrestling and you can predict every beat: Start with some feeling-out mat work, some evasion and reversals, some strike exchanges, some big moves, and big near falls with close 2.9 pins. Mix in a couple of shocked faces (and some super version of a finisher) and you can have a technically excellent yet altogether soulless “This Is Awesome” match.

Great wrestlers find ways to adjust that style 5 percent to the left or right or add in a grace moment or small twist. It is what both of these guys do so well, and there were lots of those tiny adjustments here. The early-match scramble ended with Harwood trying to tie up Danielson’s legs while Danielson reached for the ropes. Harwood took a moment to break clean and Danielson landed a hard upkick right to Harwood’s jaw, and Harwood responded with a stiff, borderline unprofessional stomp to the head. Just for a moment, a smooth wrestling match between skilled professionals got a bit raggedy and chippy. As one might expect, this match was full of hard shots, and I liked how both guys sold the impact of both delivering and taking the moves. Harwood kept shaking out his hand every time he threw a hard chop, and during the exchange of clubbing lariats you could see both wrestlers wilt with the exertion of throwing so hard.

Later in the match, there was a battle on the top rope that ended with Harwood reversing a top rope back suplex into a body press. Before he did that, he grabbed the ring-post camera to adjust and steady himself, which, again, is something most wrestlers wouldn’t think about. In the final run, Harwood caught a Busaiku Knee and turned it into a springboard Liger bomb. Harwood then rolled that into a sharpshooter, wisely pulling down Danielson’s kneepad to give him extra grip and leverage. The finish was a bit unexpected, which added to the match as well, with Danielson turning that sharpshooter into an inside cradle. Harwood and Danielson then rolled around on the ground exchanging reversals into two-counts, leading Danielson to fake another rollup reversal that he instead spun into the LeBell Lock. The normal pacing of 2022 wrestling would have that hold be another near fall, maybe even have Dax Harwood fight to the ropes, or reverse it and lead into another series of big moves. Instead, Danielson just cranked it and Harwood tapped out.

Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler have had a very odd year. As FTR, they have captured (and currently hold) three major promotion tag titles and had some of the best matches of the year, although nearly all of the most acclaimed matches came outside of AEW proper, either being on ROH shows, indies, or New Japan. ( I have written up three FTR tag matches, and none of them have been in AEW.) They also were missing entirely from three of the four major AEW pay-per-views. Despite that, Dax Harwood has had a bunch of big singles matches, getting a chance to have long signature singles matches with CM Punk, Adam Cole, his partner Cash Wheeler, Will Osprey, Claudio Castagnoli, and now Bryan Danielson. Sticking Dax Harwood out there and letting him cook for 20 minutes seems to be a default AEW booking tool, and while it has really delivered some bangers over the last year, I am curious to see what the end game is. FTR is challenging the Acclaimed for the AEW World tag titles on Dynamite this Wednesday, and they don’t have a match scheduled for ROH Final Battle this weekend, so I imagine clarification is soon to come. I can’t hate on great wrestling, though, and both guys certainly delivered that.

Ricochet vs. Santos Escobar

WWE SmackDown, December 2

One of the major changes since Triple H has taken over creative is that they are letting Ricochet be Ricochet. While Ricochet actually had a run with the Intercontinental title during the end of Vince McMahon’s tenure, he didn’t really have the stylistic freedom that he has had under Triple H. If you look at his NXT match against Carmelo Hayes, his earlier match in the Smackdown World Cup against Mustafa Ali, and then this 20-minute tournament final against old Lucha Underground rival Santos Escobar, Ricochet has gotten to work the high-wire, hyper-athletic style that made him such a phenom in the indies and New Japan prior to his WWE run and during his time in NXT.

Escobar came out with Legado Del Fantasma, which is my current favorite of the “three men and a little lady” stables that seem to be all over the WWE now (including Judgment Day and the O.C.). There was some early interference that led to the ref ejecting Escobar’s crew from ringside, which is always a way to get the crowd into a match, especially one between two guys just coming into their push.

Escobar was able to take over after the commercial break, drilling Ricochet with his incredible missile tope, a move that often looks bad in WWE but somehow Santos makes look beautiful. The tope sent Ricochet hard into the announce table kidneys-first. After that move, Santos grounded Ricochet a bit, including putting him in a great Romero Special.

The match turned explosive soon after that, with Ricochet hitting a Shooting Star body press off the ring apron (then hitting a great run-up superplex), and a nasty head-bonking crash in the middle of the ring. Then, in the most outrageous spot of the match, Ricochet lept from the stairs to the barricade; while walking the edge, he lost his balance, regaining it only for Escobar to leap up and flip him off with a rana to the floor.

The final run was all fireworks, with Ricochet reversing a top rope super rana and landing on his feet, Escobar countering a Shooting Star press by putting his knees up, and Escobar spiking Ricochet with a poison rana. Escobar then tried to place him on the top rope, but got reverse-rana’d off. Ricochet then hit a jumping knee, superkick, and a hook kick to set Escobar up for a 630 and the win.

It was a cool moment for Ricochet, a big win in a long main event match on SmackDown. It really serves as a vindication for his style on the main roster of WWE, and the win earned him an Intercontinental title shot against Gunther in two weeks. Gunther is in the midst of a program with Braun Strowman, so I would be very surprised if Ricochet wins the title, and I (sadly) don’t see an obvious program for him going forward. Still, while the immediate future is a bit cloudy for both Ricochet and Escobar, it is obviously a very good sign that the promotion trusts them in a big spot like this, and they both totally delivered.

Kenta vs. “Speedball” Mike Bailey

REVOLVER Season Finale, December 3

Bailey has been one of the biggest road warriors in wrestling this year; this was his 132nd match of 2022, and he has wrestled all over the U.S. independent scene, as well as in Canada, England, and Germany. Bailey has also held the Impact Wrestling X-Division title (after being allowed back in the U.S. after a five-year travel ban). This was a true dream match for Bailey, as Veda Scott (Bailey’s wife) mentioned on commentary that he used to make music videos for Kenta’s matches before he started wrestling.

2022 has been a year when a lot of Japanese wrestling legends have come to the U.S. to wrestle dream matches in both AEW and on the indie scene. Naomichi Marufuji, Tomohiro Ishii, Jun Akiyama, Minoru Suzuki, and more have all delivered really cool performances, and now it was Kenta’s turn.

Kenta was one of the most celebrated junior heavyweights of the 2000s. He held the GHC Junior Heavyweight title (a.k.a. NOAH’s junior heavyweight title) three times, and even captured the GHC Heavyweight title. During that time he also had multiple matches in the U.S. with Ring of Honor, including several classics with Bryan Danielson, Nigel McGuinness, and Low Ki. Kenta left NOAH and had an underwhelming five-year stint in WWE, where he was frequently injured, although he did have a couple of standout NXT TakeOver matches. After leaving WWE in 2019, Kenta returned to New Japan, turned heel, and has held the IWGP United States Heavyweight title, the NEVER Openweight title, and won the New Japan USA Cup.

Both Kenta and Bailey have kickboxing backgrounds and much of this match was focused on them both throwing sharp violent kicks to the chest, knees, and head, with every strike loudly accented throughout the venue. The match opened with some amateur wrestling scrambling, and then an exchange in which both guys threw full-force kicks that were checked and avoided. It looked like a Jet Li fight scene, and that movie vibe continued throughout.

They brawled onto the floor, and Bailey missed a kick and cracked the ring post with his shin. Kenta immediately began working on the leg and a big story line throughout the match was Bailey trying to match Kenta strike for strike despite his injured leg. Bailey further aggravated his legs later in the match when he attempted his Lethal Weapon moonsault knee drop on the ring apron, crashing both of his knees on the side of the ring. Both guys spent the match going for their big moves, with Bailey kept attempting and missing the Lethal Weapon, and Kenta attempting the Go to Sleep (a move he invented), which was initially reversed into a poison rana but eventually hit for a finish. In between those big-move attempts, they would constantly square up and try to kick and forearm each other’s heads off. At one point Kenta threw a forearm so hard that I thought he knocked one of Bailey’s teeth out. Strike exchanges are one of the most overused things in pro wrestling, but if you are going to do it, go ahead and throw this kind of heat.

Kenta seems to be closing out the year on a mini U.S. tour; he wrestled on a NJPW STRONG TV taping at the end of November and is wrestling Low Ki for House of Glory on December 17 in a rematch of their iconic ROH Final Battle match in 2005. KENTA already had one match in AEW in 2020, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he showed up again. There isn’t really a “dream match” hook scheduled for ROH Final Battle this year the way the two Briscoes vs. FTR matches served that role on the first two AEW-era ROH shows. KENTA showing up on Dynamite to challenge Bryan Danielson and set up a rubber match in their ROH series would be the kind of thing that could grab the hardcore fan audience that may have already considered sitting out this show.

Extra Credit Match: El Hijo del Vikingo vs. Laredo Kid

AAA Showcenter, October 23

One of the great things about being a pro wrestling fan in 2022 is the speed in which footage becomes available. When I started getting into tape trading in the 1990s, everything that wasn’t WCW or WWF would take weeks to filter out to you; now most great wrestling is streamed live or available almost immediately. Sometimes, however, match footage can still take a bit longer to be released. I see this column as providing an ongoing survey of the best wrestling of the year, so if something truly elite takes a while to float out into the ether, I will review it when it drops as an “extra credit” match.

This was part of a special series of AAA television tapings for Space TV, and this match was the final of a Showcenter Tournament, rather than being for Vikingo’s Mega Championship. It was a rematch from a Mega Championship match in December 2021, but was worked very differently. The first match was a showcase of both wrestlers’ athleticism; this was a fight. Both of these guys are tremendously athletic high flyers, but Laredo Kid came in to take out Vikingo and was aggressive and violent throughout.

Early in the match, they spilled to the floor, where Laredo smacked Vikingo with a cup of beer before smashing him in the ribs with a missile tope (that might have strayed a bit low). Laredo then spent the match going after that midsection, landing body shots, kicks, and high-impact splashes, including a frog splash and a 450 off of a stage to the floor. Vikingo’s mouth started bleeding like he was injured internally, and he sold each shot like he was hemorrhaging. (I think he actually busted his lip on a Shooting Star to the floor, but it worked with the match in this case.) Vikingo is known for his unpredictable offense, and there were some magical moments in this bout, including a great 630 splash and a big dive before Laredo slammed Vikingo off the top rope; Vikingo landed rib-first on the corner of the ring apron before crashing to the floor. Vikingo did make a comeback, but he met the floor once again after missing a dive. Laredo then broke a beer bottle over his head, took them both to the top rope, and hit a moonsault belly-to-belly suplex for the pin and the Showcenter Tournament win.

It was actually the Laredo Kid who ended up in the hospital with internal bleeding after this match—he really got crunched with the 630—and has been on the shelf ever since. Still, there really needs to be a rubber match in AAA between these two for that Mega title on a big show. I could also totally see this being a touring match now that Vikingo finally has a U.S. visa and is beginning to take indie bookings. Laredo has been an Impact Wrestling regular and appeared in AEW three times as well; it would make sense for either of those promotions to just import this match and let it steal the show on a TV or PPV.

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.