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.
Bianca Belair vs. Doudrop
WWE Monday Night Raw, February 21
There has recently been a major shift in WWE’s talent development strategy. At the beginning of the year they cut a large group of talent who had come to NXT, WWE’s developmental league, after spending years as independent wrestlers. NXT was rebranded NXT 2.0, and the company’s focus shifted from indie darlings to new, rawer talent. WWE also took advantage of the loosening of the NCAA rules about compensation to sign multiple college athletes to deals when they’re still active NCAA competitors to help promote the company and train to wrestle after they graduate. While some of those deals were just promotional deals with influencers, WWE has clearly decided that their best path forward is to focus on training people to wrestle—people who largely come from organized sports backgrounds—rather than sign already trained wrestlers. Fewer Bryan Danielsons, more the Rocks.
WWE’s success at developing its own stars is mixed at best, with plenty of developmental wrestlers crashing on the rocks before they can even reach the main roster. However, WrestleMania is being headlined by the two most obvious homegrown success stories, Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar, both of whom have never really wrestled outside the WWE system (Brock had a handful of matches for New Japan during one of his hiatuses). In the women’s division, one of the poster children for homegrown development is Bianca Belair.
Belair was a NCAA track and field All-American and CrossFit athlete before trying out for WWE on a whim and being signed by former company talent coordinator Mark Henry. (Henry was very good at talent scouting, finding Belair and Braun Strowman, among others. His loss, just as WWE was shifting focus to scouting athletes, might matter much more than it initially seemed.) Belair was trained by Sara Del Rey (and others) at the Performance Center, worked her way through NXT, and eventually main-evented night one of last year’s WrestleMania, beating Sasha Banks for the SmackDown Women’s Championship. As long as I’m listing “bests” here, it was the best WWE match of last year.
Post-WrestleMania, Belair has had some ups and downs, defending her title in a Hell in a Cell match against Bayley, but losing the belt when Becky Lynch made a surprise return at SummerSlam and defeated Belair in about a minute. This was widely criticized, as many fans believed WWE was cutting the legs off of one of its biggest young stars, and the racial optics of a Black champion being tossed aside unceremoniously for a white champion were both familiar and disheartening (on the men’s side, Kofi Kingston, Big E, and Bobby Lashley have all had their title reigns sacrificed to Brock Lesnar).
Belair recently won a WrestleMania title shot at the Elimination Chamber and is set to wrestle Lynch again; hopefully her revenge will be served up before it gets too cold, and her momentum will be restarted. Her match against Doudrop on Raw this week was a great showcase for what makes her such a special talent. Doudrop (the former Piper Niven, stuck with one of the worst examples of WWE name-changing syndrome) is 210 or so pounds and really great at using her size and power in a violent way. She landed some big bombs in this match, including a nasty backdrop suplex and a jumping Michinoku Driver. Doudrop is also excellent at using that size to highlight her opponent’s strength. Some big wrestlers go up way too easily for throws and suplexes, which makes it much less impressive-looking when it happens—it was one of my few complaints about the otherwise unassailable Vader and is an issue for a lot of “athletic” big men in indie wrestling. Doudrop, however, will leave her feet when thrown, but it really looks like a huge struggle. She will take a suplex, but you might get a hernia lifting her up.
Belair is one of the great pure athletes in wrestling, but just as pro wrestling has an endless list of great wrestlers without natural athleticism, there are even more great athletes who can’t convey that athleticism in their wrestling. Belair is not one of those so hindered. She is unparalleled at translating her physical gifts into big wrestling moments.
There were three huge Belair spots in this match: a vertical suplex that required her to try multiple times to get Doudrop over, a running powerbomb where she snatched Doudrop off the turnbuckle (a moment that saw the crowd stand in disbelief), and a KOD (a fireman’s carry flipped into a face-first drop) where she actually squatted Doudrop before hitting the move. When most people think of highspots, they think of dives or flips, but I love strength highspots where a wrestler demonstrates their power in a cool and interesting way. Belair is incredible at strength highspots, and Doudrop was a perfect opponent for her to show off that power.
In a month, Belair will have a chance to re-create last year’s huge Mania moment again, and really cement herself as one of the biggest stars in wrestling. A match like this one makes you realize how much of a reality that is.
Bryan Danielson vs. Daniel Garcia
AEW Dynamite, February 23
Bryan Danielson has dabbled in a lot of match genres in his short time in AEW. His first babyface run was all about playing in the sandboxes of his opponents. The Minoru Suzuki match was a Minoru Suzuki match, full of hard, violent exchanges and lots of mean faces, two guys standing in the pocket and trading until one falls down. His Kenny Omega match was an amped-up version of Omega’s New Japan matches—hyper-athleticism, big bumps, wild near falls. His Dustin Rhodes match was a version of a 1990s Dustin WCW match, all about timing and building to a big crowd-pleasing explosion. The Eddie Kingston match was all about brawling and fire and allowing Eddie to sell punishment, something Eddie does as well as any wrestler ever. It felt like Danielson wanted to prove his versatility, not just in terms of ringwork but in the very concept of the sport.
Since turning heel, however, Danielson has started to carve out a distinct style: the brutal taskmaster. A brutal taskmaster is a veteran wrestler who uses all the tricks of the trade to torture and punish their opponents, making the guy he is wrestling pass through a gauntlet of pain, to test the guy on the other side of the ring, to see whether pressure busts pipes or makes a diamond.
The legend of Stu Hart taking wrestlers down to the Hart Dungeon and stretching them was a version of that idea. The great Spanish wrestler of the 1950s and ’60s Tony Oliver was incredible at that style; All Japan legend Masa Fuchi was maybe the greatest ever at it; and William Regal, especially when he would come out of retirement in NXT, was my favorite U.S.-based version of it.
Danielson is a Regal disciple and has been stretching and brutalizing wrestlers in his mentor’s image for the past several months. He tore Alan Angels’s MCL, kicked a tooth out of Colt Cabana’s head, and mangled the shoulder, knee, and head of Adam Page in their two classics.
The context of this match and the previous week’s match against Lee Moriarty is that Danielson is auditioning the young grapplers of AEW for a spot in the dojo he is hoping to start with Jon Moxley. Danielson is playing the part of the sleazy wrestling trainers of the ’70s and ’80s. Wrestling school owners would take the money for training up front from prospective students, brutalize them so badly they would quit, and then keep the cash. (Hiro Matsuda famously broke Hulk Hogan’s leg on his first day of training.) Danielson wrestled this match with Garcia like he was trying to bust him out on the first day and keep his check.
Garcia has great energy. He wrestles like a kid with a bad family life who is sent to an MMA or boxing gym as a last resort. He spent the entire match in Danielson’s face, refusing to fold, even as he was beat up, bruised, and stretched. Garcia went doggedly after his opponent’s leg, slowing Danielson down with a chop block and several submission attempts on the knee and ankle.
The problem for Garcia was that anytime he got momentum, Danielson would counter, turning Garcia’s submission attempts into something even more painful for Garcia. Dragon rolled through on an ankle lock and ground his knuckle into Garcia’s eye socket. Garcia had a leglock cinched and Danielson posted up and smashed him in the ear and temple with forearms. Another time, Garcia went for an ankle lock and Dragon kicked out the knee and elbowed him in the ear. Finally, when Garcia went to a Dragon Screw, Danielson stuffed it, went to the stomps to the head, and finished him with the Nate Diaz double biceps pose triangle choke. Garcia proved he was tough enough to bring it to the American Dragon, but still had plenty left to learn.
There are so many young wrestlers who have grappling-based styles, wrestlers who are clearly Bryan Danielson’s stylistic children, and I could watch him stretch a different one every week. You could get an entertaining six months just out of Danielson auditions. AEW could launch a whole new show with him traveling to a different indie every week to mangle that promotion’s bright young grappling star. Dominic Garrini, Kevin Ku, Matt Makowski, Robert Martyr, Daniel Makabe, Fred Yehi, Austin Connely—there isn’t room for AEW to sign them all, but I want to see American Dragon get a chance to hurt each one of them just like he did to Garcia this week. In a business built on impassioned violence, it’s breathtaking when that impassioned violence really stops you in your tracks.
Matt Cardona/Brian Myers vs. Sean X-Pac Waltman/Joey Janela
GCW: Welcome to Heartbreak, February 25
Matt Cardona has been one of the more surprising success stories in pro wrestling in the past year. He spent 15 years in WWE, mostly wrestling under the name Zack Ryder, almost exclusively as an undercard attraction. He did have a brief moment of acclaim as one of the first wrestlers to leverage social media to improve his standing, when in 2011 he started a YouTube show called Z! True Long Island Story. It became popular with the wrestling diehards, and led the crowd to chant “We want Ryder” on shows he wasn’t appearing on. The resulting push saw him win the U.S. Championship, but after that an angle where he was cuckolded by his supposed friend John Cena saw him soon slide back down the card. By the time he was released in 2020, with a field full of pro wrestling free agents with more defined areas of excellence, it was hard to imagine what the future held for him.
But the thing that made him succeed for a time in WWE is still an immense skill of its own: Cardona is a tremendous self-marketer. After a short, unmemorable stint in AEW, he started a podcast about action figures and toy collecting (The Major Wrestling Figure Podcast), which expanded into a podcast network. After starting a trolling back-and-forth with indie wrestling cult hero Nick Gage on Twitter, he invaded Gage’s home turf, super indie GCW, attacked Gage, and later won the GCW Deathmatch title. The match was special—after initially attempting to work a WWE-style match in a ring surrounded by light tubes and barbed wire, he eventually found footing in the deathmatch milieu. Cardona has positioned himself as an avatar for sports entertainment in an indie scene that detests that moniker, and has thus become one of the most hated heels in wrestling. In an era when most heels are either secretly beloved or ironically appreciated, Cardona seems legitimately despised.
This match was set up after Cardona’s single’s match against Joey Janela at GCW’s Hammerstein Ballroom was marred with interference by Cardona’s longtime tag partner and podcast cohost, Brian Myers, among others (Smart Mark Sterling, Hornswoggle, Cardona’s wife Chelsea Green, and WWF ’80s star Virgil—just go with it). Legendary ’90s and ’00s icon Sean Waltman (a.k.a. the 123 Kid, X-Pac, Syxx, Lightning Kid, Cannonball Kid, Kamikaze Kid, etc.) came out to help even the odds, setting up a big tag match for GCW’s next big show in Los Angeles.
Joey Janela is another example of the many different ways wrestlers can achieve success in the 2020s. Janela was one of the founding fathers of GCW, getting as much praise for his wrestling promotion and video production as he did for his wrestling or mic work. The Joey Janela’s Spring Break shows, traditionally on WrestleMania weekend, were a mix of hardcore wrestling, comedy matches (including a match between two invisible men, and a yearly clusterfuck battle royal with famously oddball cameos), and bizarre dream matches (Janela wrestled Marty Jannetty and Great Sasuke; Matt Riddle wrestled comedy WWE wrestler James Ellsworth, among others). Those shows were often hyped by unique and creative YouTube videos that would often get as much or more attention than the shows themselves.
Janela was able to parlay the buzz around his shows to a spot as an inaugural member of AEW’s roster, and has been more of a special-attraction wrestler at GCW for the past several years.
This match was an entertaining showcase for Cardona’s heel shtick and was mainly designed to put over Waltman, who was clearly the man the crowd came to see. Waltman hit some of his signature moves, including a Bronco Buster and an X-Factor, and even took out both of the Major Players with a flip dive to the floor. We got a little bit of interference when Cardona’s wife and proud British Columbian Chelsea Green hit a Canadian Destroyer on Janela, and both of the Major Players cut the ring off to work over their opponents. After a series of near falls, X-Pac countered a double-team attempt into an X-Factor through a door on Myers for the pin.
The post-match segment here was as vital as the match itself. Waltman thanked the crowd and announced his retirement, only to get a cheap-shot superkick from his partner Janela. This led the crowd to pelt the ring with trash and Janela to jump into the crowd, Ron Artest–style, after catching a beer to the face. It was a wild scene, certainly ill-advised, but undeniably compelling.
The way Joey Janela just punted the wrong dude pic.twitter.com/6f6BqITOHI— P E R C • P H A R A O H ★ (@TranquiloSZN) February 26, 2022
The whole production is an example of how GCW has captured some of that outlaw anything goes spirit that made ECW so memorable. Janela seems likely not to have his AEW contract renewed (he hasn’t wrestled on Dynamite since May, and hasn’t worked AEW at all since early January), and his heel turn opens up a lot of opportunities for him in GCW in the future, starting with a Sean Waltman single’s match at the next Spring Break, this the upcoming WrestleMania weekend in Dallas. In pro wrestling, the old adage is “Anything can happen.” GCW is finding ways to make that more true every time out.
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.