There’s more great pro wrestling in 2022 than we know what to do with. So The Ringer brings you a regular cheat sheet, the three best matches of the past week–one from WWE, one from AEW, and one from the rest of the immense wrestling world.
Sammy Guevara vs. Darby Allin
AEW Dynamite, February 16
Finding a balance between established stars and developing youth has been a challenge in wrestling since its earliest days. One reason that Verne Gagne founded the AWA is that Lou Thesz was holding on hard to the NWA title and not letting the younger Gagne take a shot. Then, in the AWA, Verne didn’t pass the baton to Nick Bockwinkel until the latter was 40 years old, and Hulk Hogan famously left the AWA in part because he never beat Bockwinkel. Decades later, WCW was brought down in large part by Hogan’s unwillingness to cede ground to the younger talent. It’s the pro wrestling circle of life. There are a finite number of spots at the top, and wrestlers are traditionally hell-bent on holding on to them.
This week’s episode of Dynamite was a microcosm of that challenge, and an example of how well AEW is striking that balance. The show opened with 43-year-old CM Punk cutting a promo on 25-year-old MJF, setting up their big rematch at AEW Revolution on March 6. Bryan Danielson, 40, prevailed in a hard-fought but perfunctory match with Lee Moriarty, 27, and then continued the story of recruiting 36-year-old Jon Moxley to form a stable with a goal of mentoring the younger talent. Chris Jericho, 51, dropped a fall in a tag match to 31-year-old Santana. AEW is full of established stars, but the company knows that to succeed long term, it will have to grow its own group of stars, and the willingness of the veterans to assist in that process has been really helpful. The show was main-evented by another match in the excellent series between TNT champion Sammy Guevara, 28, and 29-year-old Darby Allin, two of the four “Pillars” of AEW’s future (with Jungle Boy and MJF).
These two are huge favorites despite their relative youth, mostly because both wrestle on that razor’s edge. Watching Darby Allin wrestle is like watching Ja Morant play basketball–you marvel at the explosive heights they can reach, but fear the consequences when they land.
I have been watching Darby Allin matches since he broke out in EVOLVE wrestling six years ago, and nearly every match has at least one insane bump that feels like he’s 1 inch to the left or right from a full body cast. Early in this match he got dropped from a fireman’s carry position on the top rope, over the buckle, onto the ropes, and straight to the floor. He landed hard on his back on the buckle and cracked his kidneys on the side of the ring apron on the way down.
Darby is either a master of appearing out of control on his falls or an extremely lucky masochist. For contrast, see later in the match, when Sammy missed a flip senton on the ring apron, and even though the landing was brutal, he seemed to be in control the whole time. Darby always just seems to fall and let gravity have its way with him. While his offensive wrestling is full of grace, when he takes bumps it is graceless in the best way.
They told a really clever story in this contest: Sammy could have controlled the match simply by using his size and power, but he was instead obsessed with matching Darby in athleticism and recklessness. Sammy was unwilling to win if it meant letting Darby have all of the GIFs on the internet; the hubris of youth refuses to let him win ugly. Sammy jammed his knee attempting a moonsault after wearing out Darby’s back, which gave Darby a target to attack, and later Sammy smashed his kidneys on the ring apron after the aforementioned senton (he even told the camera, “I’m crazy,” before trying the move). The definition of a wrestler has changed over time: They used to be ex–college football players who wanted to avoid 9-to-5 jobs, and these days they’re lifelong wrestling fans who dreamed of being TV stars. Both Darby and Sammy bring that mentality to their ring work. Sammy isn’t just going to beat Darby and cash his check and keep his title—he has to match him moment for moment, highspot for highspot, and Icarus’s wax wings were going to either get him to the sun or be his downfall.
I love to watch Darby move—he has some of the best fast-twitch athleticism in wrestling, and when he goes on the attack it almost feels like the video switches to 1.5 speed. There are a lot of wrestlers whose athleticism seems smooth (Sammy is a great example), but Darby’s athleticism seems glitchy—making it a great contrast with whoever he is against. The finish of the match had Andrade interference, which forwarded the three-way feud among Andrade, Darby, and Sammy, but didn’t lead to a satisfying payoff. Still, if both guys can stay healthy (a big if), we should be seeing them make magic together for years to come.
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn
WWE Smackdown, February 18
This match was an example of WWE’s deep bench, and how talent management can be one of the trickiest things about running a professional wrestling company. Shinsuke Nakamura—the super rookie, the youngest IWGP heavyweight champion of all time, the King of Strong Style—is in WWE and available to wrestle on a weekly basis. Hell, he has even held the Intercontinental title for seven months, and has defended it exactly once. (That’s on TV or PPV—he did beat Apollo Crews and Jinder Mahal on European tours, and weirdly beat Seth Rollins as the opener of a Lexington, Kentucky, house show.) It’s unlikely he will be in anything bigger than a Battle Royal at WrestleMania, but he is there; you can pull him off the shelf, dust him off, and stick him in a nearly 20-minute match on SmackDown and he’ll still be Shinsuke Nakamura.
Sami Zayn and Shinsuke Nakamura had one previous televised singles match against each other before last week. It was Nakamura’s debut in WWE as part of NXT TakeOver: Dallas on WrestleMania weekend 2016, in what was widely considered an all-time WWE classic.
It is interesting to compare last week’s match with that match six years later. This might be my hottest take in the history of this column (all three weeks of it), but I think I like this one better. The TakeOver match was worked as a “this is awesome” dream match—it had a raucous crowd that was into everything and a lot of huge moments, but there was not a ton of actual match structure, outside of near falls. It was an exhibition to introduce Nakamura to WWE. This week’s match was on a pre-taped SmackDown between a pair of marginalized wrestlers—neither would be featured on the Elimination Chamber show the next day—but by the end of the match, the crowd was invested and reacting to it.
Zayn is far removed from the newsboy-capped ska fan Sami of 2016. He now has a scraggly beard and wild hair, and is a full-on conspiratorial heel. He doesn’t wrestle with the athleticism he did six years ago; in 2022 he is a nasty lowlife who uses his smarts and vicious streak. Sami came into the match with a taped fist, and threw really great downward punches to the temple, in a nice contrast to Nakamura’s kicks and knees. Sami wasn’t trying to play to the crowd; he was trying to claw his way to a title.
Nakamura’s sparse usage may have allowed his body to heal up, because while he might be a tiny bit slower then he was in 2016, he had the same sort of spring in his moves. There was a cool callback with Sami going for his diving DDT through the ringpost like he did in the first match, and just like at TakeOver Nakamura cracked him with a jumping kick to the face. It was Sami’s one mental mistake in the match—otherwise he was one step ahead. Nakamura missed a knee on the apron early in the match and Sami attacked the knee, continually returning to that target and keeping Nakamura uncomfortable. Nakamura was able to go on an offensive roll near the end of the match, and set Sami up for his Kinshasa knee strike (which is named after the city in Zaire where Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman). That move felled Sami in Dallas, but this time he was a different, more cerebral wrestler, and he bailed out of the ring, tripped Nakamura, wrapped his knee around the ringpost, caught a kick in the ring, clipped his bad knee, and rolled him up for the win and the title. Sami has evolved, grown, and learned; Nakamura hasn’t. And this time the result was different. This match wasn’t positioned to be remembered, but it was a pretty great belated sequel to one of the more memorable matches of the 2010s and well worth tracking down and watching.
Matt Makowski vs. Tom Lawlor
Black Label Pro: Pro Wrestling (Mikey’s Version), February 19
There has always been a symbiotic relationship between mixed martial arts and pro wrestling. Pancrase, the first MMA promotion in Japan, was founded by pro wrestlers (New Japan dojo and Pro-Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi alumni Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki), and billed as “pro wrestling but real.” (Well, mostly real—there were definitely some fights where business decisions were made.) MMA promotions have used pro wrestlers as attractions, whether it was Bob Sapp and Kazushi Sakuraba in PRIDE in Japan or UFC using CM Punk and Brock Lesnar in the U.S. The pipeline goes both ways; there have been many MMA fighters who have shifted to the wrestling ring, both in major promotions (Ronda Rousey in a main event at WrestleMania, American Top Team wrestling in AEW) and on the independents.
Filthy Tom Lawlor actually worked as a pro wrestler on the Florida indie scene while training for MMA, but transitioned into a successful UFC career, appearing on Season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter and amassing an 11-8-1 MMA record before retiring last year. After being suspended from the UFC in 2017, he returned to pro wrestling, where he had a long run as the Major League Wrestling champion and is currently one of the lead stars of the New Japan USA promotion, where he holds the Strong Openweight Championship. He came into this match holding the Black Label Pro Midwest Championship, which he defended here. (The show is available on IWTV.com.)
“Weapon X” Matt Makowski fought in Bellator and EliteXC before training in pro wrestling in 2019 for Chikara Pro before it shut down. He has quickly become one of the featured wrestlers in Beyond Wrestling and other Northeast independents.
This match was a really interesting mix of MMA and pro wrestling. It wasn’t shoot style, a style in which professional wrestling abandons its tropes and attempts to only do things plausible in a shoot fight. There were top rope moves, chops, and a figure four, but there were clearly strikes, takedowns, and grappling, which were inspired by their MMA background. Makowski is one of the more creative wrestlers in the world, constantly finding unique ways to counter moves and grab submissions. Lawlor is a black belt in jujitsu. There were some breathtaking back-and-forth grappling scrambles in this match, especially early on.
The contest was full of incredible highlights. They exchanged blistering elbows and chops; Makowski nearly beheaded Lawlor with a knee counter to a takedown; Lawlor hit one of the most natural and violent looking enzuigiris I have seen. Makowski countered a choke sleeper by driving Lawlor’s head into the middle turnbuckle in a move that felt an inch away from paralyzing Lawlor. Interspersed through the big moments, there were lots of little things that looked great: Makowski throwing check kicks, Lawlor scrambling for the choke, Makowski grabbing Lawlor’s cauliflower ears to break a hold. Many wrestlers can deliver loud moments; also being able to deliver the quiet ones is what makes a match stand out.
The finish run was incredible—Makowski hit a top-rope butterfly suplex, which he transitioned midair into a cross armbreaker. Lawlor was able to stack up to release the pressure, but Makowski held on to the arm and lifted Lawlor into a cutthroat torture rack, which he then spun into another cross armbreaker. It was one of the wildest series of submission attempts I have ever seen, the kind of thing you rewind multiple times to figure out how they did it.
It just kept going, though. Lawlor was able to get to the ropes to break and block several Makowski attempts at German suplexes; Lawlor then hit his own Saito Suplex into the top turnbuckle and a sheer-drop Michinoku Driver, and instead of dragging out the pin drama until a millisecond before the third count, Makowski kicked out at one! Lawlor then grabbed his arms and pulled Makowski’s face straight into Lawlor’s knee, straightjacketed his arms, and then kneed him brutally in the back of his head for the win.
The whole match escalated and escalated in both violence and creativity, and finished off with one of the greatest final two-minute stretches I can remember. Both of these guys have been tremendously entertaining since they became pro wrestlers—Makowski especially has basically been a phenom in just two years. (He would be a perfect member of a Danielson Dojo in AEW.) But on its own, this match was next level—the best I have seen from either guy and easily one of the best matches of 2022.
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.