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CM Punk Loses in Style, Rey Mysterio Reminds Us Why We Love Him, and Psycho Clown Gets Violent

Your top pro wrestling matches of the week

AAA/AEW/WWE/Ringer illustration

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

CM Punk vs. MJF

AEW Dynamite, February 2

Did you ever see something amazing happening before your eyes, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on what made it amazing? If you need a concrete example of the way AEW is changing professional wrestling, look no further than the bell time on this one—it’s basically unprecedented for AEW to put on multiple 40-plus-minute matches on U.S. television. Historically you would get an occasional Ric Flair vs. Sting marathon on a Clash of the Champions or a WWF experiment like Shawn Michaels vs. John Cena in 2009 or the Brock Lesnar–Kurt Angle Iron Man match in 2003, but they would be few and far between. AEW has now run two long epic NWA title-match-style 40-plus-minute matches in 2022, the brutal Bryan Danielson–Adam Page match on January 5 and this one, after ending 2021 with a Danielson-Page 60-minute time limit draw, and there is no sign that they’re slowing down.

AEW owner Tony Khan was forged in the fires of the wrestling internet. He is a message board guy, a tape trader, a guy who will go on a podcast and talk for over an hour and a half about Ric Flair vs. Ted DiBiase in Mid-South. You get the sense he is comfortable enough in AEW’s position with their networks to fully let his wrestling freak flag fly. He has gotten ratings and exposure that TNT and TBS have to be thrilled with, and now he can try to re-create the epic 1980s territorial wrestling that he was weaned on.

All of that is to say nothing about the biggest name involved in this match: CM Punk. When he made his return to wrestling last year, I don’t think even the biggest Punk optimist thought he would come back and be the best CM Punk we have ever seen. His first big U.S. run 15 years ago saw him bring the indie wrestling workrate style to the main stage. Along with Bryan Danielson and a few other stalwarts, they took what ROH and IWA Mid-South were doing and injected that into mainstream WWE wrestling. Years later, it’s clear that that style has won out. It has become the house style for wrestling all over the world.

When Punk returned to the ring after seven years in the wilderness to a landscape he helped create, he did an about-face and became a pro wrestling throwback. In a world where everyone is working fast, he is working slow; where everything is effortless, he is showing the effort. This match was Punk as Jerry Lawler working against a hated rival in a packed Mid-South Coliseum, or Carlos Colón in San Juan, or Bruno Sammartino in MSG, or Bret Hart in Calgary—a beleaguered babyface who was going to swim through a river of scorpions with only the crowd’s cheers to drink and eat. Punk sold this match like he was falling to pieces. His shoulder and elbow were nonfunctional, his knee was blown, his neck and back crunched into cookie crumbs. It was never showy theater kid “OW MY ARM” selling; he seemed like a fighter who is realizing mid-fight that his body can’t give him what he needs it to. There is a saying in boxing that a fighter can age 10 years in 10 rounds, and that’s what was happening to Punk in this match.

As for his opponent, the conventional wisdom on MJF is that he is a guy with great microphone skills who isn’t necessarily at the same high level in the ring. If you’ll indulge me, I will hot-take in the other direction. Much of his heel mic work seems performative, less Roddy Piper than Jonny Fairplay, but between the ropes he has really seasoned into a great heel performer. While this match was overall a Punk Picasso, there were lots of little moments that were MJF’s—getting the stinger in his neck when he hit the ropes, the begging off only to pounce, the back-and-forth with Bryce Remsburg after the restart, the artful magician’s pass of the diamond ring for the finish. To say he held his own is an understatement, but it was Punk’s willingness to lose and lose graphically that made this one sing.

AEW has trained its audience to expect clean finishes in nearly all of its matches. I loved how it did a double-fake-out here. When MJF got the initial win with the rope-assisted choke hold only to have the referee overturn the decision, the crowd was trained to believe they would get satisfaction. The wrestling trope is that the heel’s plot has been foiled and the babyface will get his redemption; it is why the immediate post restart roll-up pin by Punk got such a pop. As the match went on, it felt like the story it might have been telling instead was one of the aging veteran passing the torch to the young gun, and that MJF might end up winning clean. But then it subverted expectations a third time by having MJF just do a better job cheating to win. It is a very hard thing to go against expectations in any narrative fiction in a way that feels consistent. Many of the shocking swerves in wrestling (and movies and books) fall apart if they are examined closely, which is why the ones that work well are so fondly remembered. This battle subverted expectations, but in a way that fully worked within what they were trying to do. This match was the rare kind that will stay high up on the résumé for both the winner and the loser.

Rey Mysterio vs. AJ Styles

WWE Monday Night Raw, January 31

With the retirement of Tom Brady last week, there has been a lot of sports discourse about how athletes have been able to extend their athletic peaks. Chris Paul is having one of his best seasons at age 36; Rafael Nadal is winning tennis majors at 35. Forty-seven-year-old Rey Mysterio and 44-year-old AJ Styles main-evented Raw this week, and while wrestlers have frequently been able to wrestle well into their late 40s (and sometimes even much later), the fact that these two could perform such an athletically complex and physical match at their age seems really significant. I am not sure whether Styles and Mysterio are eating plant-based diets and using hyperbaric chambers, but they are sure performing like NFL MVPs.

There are different iterations of the pro wrestling form—the pay-per-view match, the house show match, the indie wrestling small-venue match. Rey Mysterio is the greatest television wrestler of all time. His first U.S. TV match was a 1995 ECW showcase against longtime rival Psicosis that set a new bar for what was possible in a professional wrestling ring. He would go on to years of tremendous TV matches in WCW, and both bigger stage matches on Nitro and Thunder and little hidden classics on syndicated shows like WCW Pro and WCW Worldwide. He followed that up with a multiple-decade run in WWE.

Orson Welles said that “the enemy of art is the absence of limitation,” and Rey Mysterio has always been incredible at working with the constraints of televised wrestling. Styles spent much of his career wrestling in the more open world of the indies, TNA, and Japan, but he has also adjusted really well to working within the house style of WWE.

The theme of this match was two veterans both working “one step ahead”—they both had long scouting reports on their opponent, and nearly every attempt by either guy to hit one of his big moves was reversed: 619 ducked, Phenomenal Elbow avoided, Frog Splash evaded, Top Rope Styles Clash countered. Often that type of reversal-heavy match can look like swing dancing—two guys obviously cooperating with all of the struggle removed. That’s where the real expertise of these two shone through: Every reversal in this match came across as smart wrestlers in real competition, anticipating and finding and exploiting openings. You never got the sense that they were working together, always against each other.

One of the things I have always adored about Rey Mysterio is his ability to put twists on spots and sequences he has done thousands of times. You always know the outlines of a Rey match, but there is always a zig. It is like watching a band you love play a song you love live, and hearing the way they elongate the guitar solo or shift the vocal. In this match Rey looked like he was going to take his signature Pete Rose sliding bump to the floor, but at the last minute he turned it into a somersault and landed on his feet. It is amazing that he can still shock and delight the viewer after 27 years in the spotlight. I was a little bummed to see Styles win the match—he is great and deserves a spot, but the winner of this bout was going to earn a spot in the upcoming Elimination Chamber, and Rey is the master of the chamber. Every time he has been in one, he has found some new and cool way to use the structure, and it would have been neat to see him get another chance to play.

Anytime two wrestlers with this kind of legacy and prestige meet in a ring, it’s worth watching. But when two wrestlers at this age can put on a near classic within the confines of an episode of Raw, it’s a reminder that pro wrestling can aspire to something greater than grunts and groans.

Psycho Clown vs. Gringo Loco

GCW If I Die First, February 5

Lucha libre has been a small but significant part of Game Changer Wrestling over the past handful of years. The consensus best match of its first pay-per-view was a wild trios match between Team Bandido (Bandido, ASF, and Laredo Kid) and Team Gringo Loco (Gringo Loco, Demonic Flamita, and Arez). That is the kind of thing most U.S. fans think of when they think of wrestling from Mexico—wild, acrobatic spots; crazy dives; nutty innovation. The lucha trios matches that ran during ’90s WCW introduced that style to American audiences, and GCW has been a big part of continuing that tradition. But lucha libre isn’t just that, it can also be this: a violent, bloody war with an incredibly charismatic técnico spilling sangre against a rudo determined to see him put down.

Psycho Clown is the son of the iconic lucha star Brazo de Plata, a.k.a. Super Porky, and the grandson of Shadito Cruz. The Alvarado family has had 18 different members compete as luchadores, and the Brazos trios team (his father and his uncles Brazo de Oro and El Brazo) were among the biggest stars in Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s, headlining shows throughout the country. Psycho Clown started his career as Brazo de Plata Jr. before joining the AAA promotion in Mexico and rebranding as Psycho Clown, part of the Los Psycho Circus trio of evil clowns (with Monster Clown and Murder Clown). Los Psycho Circus went on a three-year, 600-plus-match winning streak, before finally losing at AAA’s big Guerra de Titanes show to the Perros del Mal team (WCW veterans Halloween and Damián 666 and their partner X-Fly). The Psycho Circus eventually turned on Psycho Clown, and he became arguably the biggest singles star in Mexico, winning the biggest mask match in decades at Triplemania XXV, when he took the mask of the iconic Dr. Wagner Jr.

Gringo Loco started training at lucha gymnasiums in Chicago as a high school student. After seeing the talent of the luchadores who would come up from Mexico to work those shows, he saved money and traveled to Mexico with only the phone number of CMLL star Tarzan Boy in his pocket. He started training at the CMLL wrestling school, and then moved over to the IWRG gym to get more experience. He became a top star in that promotion, before leaving and retiring from wrestling. He came back several years later to work local lucha shows, and his talent as a base (the wrestler serving as the dance partner and making a high-flying opponent look good) led him to catch the eye of GCW promotor Brett Lauderdale. He became a regular and the conductor of their wild highspot-filled lucha matches.

Loco hadn’t been involved in the wild brawls that had been a big part of the success of GCW, but the chance to go to war with such a huge star in Mexico led him to dip back into that IWRG bag of tricks and bring the violence. In wrestling, like in regular life, it can be very easy to keep yourself in a successful lane; Gringo Loco had gotten to the highest point of his career being excellent at a specific thing, but here he showed the whole bag.

After a brief chain wrestling standoff, Loco ripped the top off of Psycho’s mask, slammed him into the ringpost and started the gore. They kept escalating the violence, with Clown crotching Loco on the turnbuckle and opening him up with a chair shot. This led Loco to really bleed heavily, matting his long hair and covering his face with the proverbial crimson mask. Prefabricated doors have mainly replaced tables as the weapon of choice in indie pro-wrestling to drive someone through, and there are a couple of huge moments based on such doors. Psycho put Loco through a door with a spinning dive and crushed him through a door with a Spanish Fly for the finish. The biggest moment of the match (and one of the biggest moments of the year anywhere) saw Loco place Clown on a door laid on chairs and smash him through it with a Senton bomb off a set of indoor football goalposts (the show was being held at an indoor multipurpose sports complex). (Here’s another view.) Psycho almost one-upped him a bit later with a crazy plancha off a heavy-bag support beam. But for an insane GIF-able spot to really hit, it has to be surrounded by a great match, and this was, at its heart, a wild fight with the punches and kicks looking as cool as your big stunts and dives.

It’s all in the story: A high dive is nothing without the punches and kicks that got you there. But the larger story matters too—whether the story is about a young veteran and one of the biggest stars in the world bringing Mexico City bloodletting to Dallas, or two legends in their third decade in the sport doing what they do so well, or a long back-and-forth battle that harkened back to the glory days of territorial wrestling, it’s hard to look at these three matches and not see that we’re in a glorious period of our own.

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.