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.
Alpha Academy (Otis and Chad Gable) vs. RKBro (Randy Orton and Riddle) vs. Seth Rollins and Kevin Owens
WWE Monday Night Raw, March 7
Six of the top wrestlers on Monday Night Raw met up for a wild three-team tag to determine the Raw tag team champions. For over 20 minutes all three teams exchanged big moves and delivered exciting near falls. This match was a good microcosm of the different pipelines in which talent is developed and delivered to major promotions.
Randy Orton is one of the textbook examples of a legacy wrestler. His grandfather, Bob Orton Sr., was a regional star in the 1950s and ’60s holding tag and singles titles in the Midwest and Florida and even challenging for the WWWF world title in Madison Square Garden against Bruno Sammartino. Orton’s father, Bob Orton Jr., was a mainstay of the ’80s WWF wrestling boom, participating at the first three WrestleManias–including famously seconding Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff in their main-event tag against Mr. T and Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania 1. Randy Orton has easily been the biggest star of the family, holding a version of the world title 14 times, winning the Royal Rumble twice and headlining two WrestleManias (Mania 25 against HHH and Mania 30 in a three-way with Batista and Daniel Bryan). He isn’t at the absolute top tier of legacy wrestlers (the Rock, Roman Reigns, and El Hijo del Santo hold top honors there) but is certainly a great example of pro wrestling as a family business. The WWE is full of up-and-coming second-generation wrestlers (Von Wagner, Bron Breakker, Dominik Mysterio, Solo Sikoa), and that seems to be a clear developmental strategy for WWE going forward. In the old days, promoters would often focus their shows on themselves or on members of their own family as a means of keeping control of the product; in a post-territorial world, building through the families of your former stars is a reasonable bet.
Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins both came to the WWE after substantial independent wrestling careers. Both held the ROH world title, and had multiple memorable moments in other indie promotions (Rollins was a PWG tag champion and Full Impact Pro champ, Owens was a three-time PWG champion and three-time PWG tag champ). Despite his pedigree, Rollins is the more natural fit for WWE: good-looking, athletic, and relatively tall, he may have started in Indiana high school gymnasiums, but he always felt destined for bright lights. (He also came into the WWE developmental program younger, and so evokes the vibe of a WWE product more than his partner.)
Owens was signed during the height of the NXT independent wrestling raids, and is an example of the type of wrestler who the WWE seems uninterested in signing or retaining moving forward. Except that in every non-surface way, Owens is exactly the kind of wrestler WWE prizes–and the company just rewarded him with a new contract in the vicinity of $6-9 million. Maybe he’s the exception that proves the rule: Owens has excelled despite not looking like Vince McMahon’s idea of a pro wrestler, and he’s set for a WrestleMania confrontation with Stone Cold Steve Austin, a plum spot for any current star. (He also held the universal title for half a year.) He has tremendous versatility, equally capable of playing a beloved hero, comedic foil or vicious killer. WWE should take note: If you never sign Kevin Owens types, you never get wrestlers like Kevin Owens.
Riddle, Chad Gable, and Otis are examples of the third pipeline. Sign legitimate world-class athletes to try to turn them into pro wrestlers. Chad Gable and Otis are both decorated amateur wrestlers. Otis was a Pan-American bronze medalist and an Olympic team prospect in Greco-Roman wrestling, and Gable competed in the 2012 Olympics in the 84kg Greco-Roman weight class. Both men lived and trained together in the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. It took a while for both guys to find the right spot in the WWE, with Gable treading water in several tag teams before briefly being saddled with the nickname “Shorty G,” and Otis being stuck in a George “the Animal” Steele-style romance angle with Mandy Rose, but they have found a niche as a hard-hitting, suplex-tossing tag team. Hopefully they’ll be able to stick in this role for a while, and the WWE will resist the urge to break them up and stick them in a go-nowhere feud with each other.
Riddle had a successful mixed martial arts career, competing on The Ultimate Fighter and finishing with a 10-3 UFC record before being released for failing a drug test. He had a four-year run on the indie circuit before being signed by the WWE, but he was on the company’s radar from the start, and was long considered a shoo-in for a WWE gig once he proved reliable and gained some seasoning. His WWE run has been a bit hit and miss, but it’s clear that WWE brass has taken a shine to the comedic charms of the pothead grappler, and he has the look, charisma and talent to be a main-event-level mainstay for a long time.
The match on Raw was billed as a WrestleMania eliminator match with the winners guaranteed a shot on the card and the losers risking watching from home. (That may be a legitimate worry for the Alpha Academy, but Owens already had a spot with Austin in the works, and Rollins will assuredly find his way to a big match, as well.)
The match got plenty of time to stretch out, and showed the value of having different skill sets in a promotion. Orton brought a lot of the structure to the match, serving as the conductor–timing cutoffs and setting up the biggest spots of the match, including multiple side suplexes on the table and a great cutoff of a Gable moonsault into an RKO (20 years in and he keeps coming up with new ways to hit it)–and bringing a Randy Orton-level importance to the match. Owens and Rollins brought the flash, a big tope by Rollins, a huge swanton to the floor by Owens, and the car-crash finish run. The biggest spot of the match was a huge tower of doom superplex spot, and that is right out of the indie wrestling playbook of both guys. The athletic force and electricity were provided by the Alpha Academy and Riddle. Otis especially is a beast in the ring, with everything he does looking painful and punishing.
One of the cool things historically about wrestling has been the bizarre variety of looks and body shapes. Most of the WWE now looks (and wrestles) like CrossFit athletes, all lean muscle and developed abdominals. It is great to have a guy like Otis who looks like a medicine ball with a head, or someone like Owens who looks like the guy on your Beer League softball team who has surprising speed to first base. This was a really entertaining television match which had the time to deliver multiple changes in momentum, a few big, exciting moments, and a satisfying finish. The WWE has to deliver 10 hours of programming a week (more when there are WWE Network specials), and just giving talented wrestlers 20 minutes to perform is a great innings eater.
Sammy Guevara vs. Scorpio Sky
AEW Dynamite, March 9
The bad influence. Everyone has had someone in their life growing up who would push them a little farther than they should go. If you were lucky, they might push you into skipping school or trying a beer; if you were unlucky, they might convince you to rob a liquor store.
AEW’s Darby Allin is a Bishop-in-Juice-level bad influence. Sting was a retired real estate investor, then he starts hanging out with Darby and he is diving off of balconies and driving people through tables. Cody Rhodes is the clean-cut face of a franchise, but then he starts feuding with Darby and he gets an unfortunate neck tattoo and ends up throwing his body through flaming tables. Sammy Guevara was always a little nuts, but since he recently started teaming with Darby he’s hit a Spanish Fly off of a scaffolding rig through tables, and here in this match missing a 640 senton to floor exploding a table into smithereens. Darby is a force multiplier, any bad decision or wild idea someone might have, hanging out with Darby seems to make it much, much worse. I am pretty concerned about Jeff Hardy–a guy who seems perfectly willing to make terrible decisions about his health all on his own–because now that he is hanging out with Darby, who knows what he is going to try.
Sammy has been pushing the envelope for months now, and this was the match where it all caught up to him. The fight quickly spilled to the outside and Sammy tossed Scorpio Sky into the barricade and stairs before setting him on a table for the aforementioned senton attempt. Scorpio moved and Sammy crashed and burned, with the table smashing beneath him. It is one of the crazier table bumps ever, when you factor the degree of difficulty of the move, the speed in which he attempted it, and the force with which he landed, especially considering that Sammy came into the match still smarting from an equally crazy stunt at the PPV over the weekend.
During the commercial break, the doctor and Sammy’s girlfriend, Tay Conti, came out to check his damaged ribs. Sammy refused to go to the back and even spit in Scorpio’s face (which seemed like a bit of an unnecessary escalation. What did Scorpio do? He just moved out of the way!). The rest of the match saw Scorpio work over the back and ribs with some very nasty hard backbreakers and some intense trash talking. Sammy made a comeback, hitting a springboard cutter and a go to hell, but he was unable to make a quick-enough cover due to his bad back, he was also a bit tentative in going up to the top rope, which allowed Scorpio to raise his knees on the shooting star press so that Sammy landed right on his bad midsection. Paige VanZant, the ex-UFC fighter who had recently signed with AEW and was aligned with Scorpio and American Top Team, jumped Conti, which distracted Sammy and allowed Scorpio to hit a TKO and win the title. The match was surprisingly quick for an AEW title match—there may have been some timing issue with the show which cut it short—but it actually worked well, since once Sammy obliterated his body, the clock was ticking, and win or lose the match should have been fast.
This was a big moment for Scorpio. He is a 20-year wrestling veteran and this was his first major singles title (unless you count the All Pro Wrestling–Los Angeles light heavyweight title, which you probably shouldn’t). He has been a solid worker for a long time, and it will be interesting to see whether he can step into a bigger position. Wrestlers are a lot like actors, there are often great character actors who can’t carry the lead in a movie. Scorpio landed his big role—now we get to see whether he can be a star.
In a broader sense, the TNT title is in kind of a weird place right now. Since it began it was sort of segregated as part of the Codyverse. After Cody Rhodes lost a match with the stipulation that he would never challenge for the AEW World Title, the TNT title was created and immediately felt like his corner of AEW to focus on. Cody was seemingly either holding or challenging for the title for most of its existence. With Cody Rhodes gone (Probably? He certainly hasn’t shown up in the WWE yet, and the latest scuttlebutt is that the company low-balled its offer, so for all we know he might show up next week and challenge Scorpio for the belt again), it is unclear what purpose the title really serves. It will be interesting to see whether Scorpio immediately drops the belt to star-in-the-making Wardlow next week or gets a chance to stretch out and have a real title reign.
The post-match beatdown and VanZant signing her contract on Conti’s lifeless backside seems to suggest that the Sammy vs. American Top Team feud will continue. There’s a sense that Sammy and Conti have become the power couple replacement for Cody and Brandi Rhodes. They were clearly setting up an American Top Team vs. Rhodes family feud before they left, and it feels like Brandi’s rear would have served as VanZant’s signing table if the Rhodeses were still around. If a Rhodes replacement role is what they have in mind for Sammy and Conti, it is a big step up for both of them in the hierarchy. Sammy may have to tone down his behavior to last long enough to claim it.
Vikingo vs. Flamita
AAA Lucha Libre: Show Center Championship, March 12
Rey del Aire, the King of the Air. There is a yearly Reyes del Aire tournament in Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) to crown the best high-flier in that promotion, but the Rey del Aire title transcends promotions in the lucha libre world. There has historically been a wrestler in Mexico who holds the unofficial title of the most athletic and acrobatic high-flier in wrestling. Mil Máscaras, Matemático, Lizmark, Rey Mysterio Jr., Místico, Máscara Dorada, and Fénix all at one point have been known as the most spectacular wrestler in Mexico—often before moving on to bigger spots in the U.S. or Japan. The luchador who currently holds that unofficial title (and, in concrete terms, the actual AAA Mega Championship) is El Hijo del Vikingo.
The Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland said she often did “six impossible things before breakfast.” Vikingo will frequently do six impossible things in every wrestling match. He doesn’t always hit every move perfectly, but that just emphasizes how on the edge he lives. The wobble makes the landing of the move seem even more amazing, the way a tightrope walker will always shudder or shake to tease the idea he might fall to his death.
Flamita is a veteran of both Pro Wrestling Guerrilla in the U.S. and Dragon Gate in Japan along with being a longtime Lucha standout. At one point he had designs on the Rey del Aire crown himself, but he recently turned rudo (a heel, in lucha parlance), renamed himself Demonic Flamita and wrestled a much more mat-based, aggressive style, which functionally disqualifies him from that specific glory, but which made him a perfect opponent for Vikingo. In these types of matches you usually want a more grounded wrestler to be the opponent of the wild flier.
Vikingo came into this match with an ankle injury, and Flamita put a target on that ankle immediately. The first move of the match was a huge spear to the floor by Flamita, and when he threw him back into the ring, Flamita was on the leg. Kicking it, stomping it, hitting dragon screws, landing a dropkick to his knee, and even whipping out a Negro Navarro–style spinning figure four (which is an awesome submission someone in the U.S. should steal ASAP).
Vikingo wasn’t going to let a leg injury stand in the way of dazzling a crowd, though, and adrenaline and youth can cover a multitude of sins. He ripped off a second-rope springboard tornado poison rana that looked like it was created by CGI, the kind of move you just watch over and over again to try to figure out the physics. He also landed a springboard 450 from the ring to the stage, and dropped an inverted 450 splash to keep his title. It is great to watch wrestling matches with structure and build and drama, but sometimes you just want to watch the craziest, most impressive athletic feats possible. The show with the biggest fireworks, and right now no one has a bigger Roman candle than El Hijo del Vikingo.
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.