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.
Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Great-O-Khan
New Japan Pro Wrestling, New Japan Cup—Night 10, March 17
New Japan Pro Wrestling, the best wrestling company in Japan, is in the midst of its own version of March Madness, the New Japan Cup. This 48-man single-elimination tournament has been running since 2005 (although this year has the largest field), with the winner getting a shot at the IWGP World Title. The New Japan Cup is always a highlight of their calendar, and unlike previous years, the tournament is open weight, meaning both junior heavyweight wrestlers and heavyweights (which usually exist in separate divisions) are in competition. The tournament is so big that they’ve brought in a bunch of wrestlers from other promotions in Japan and had singles matches between wrestlers who wouldn’t normally face off. This particular bout was a rematch from a tremendous match the two men had in last year’s G1 Climax tournament (which is a round robin, rather than a single-elimination format).
Zack Sabre Jr. is one of the most acclaimed grapplers of the past decade. He won seven straight Bryan Danielson Award for best technical wrestler from the Wrestling Observer, breaking a nine-year streak by Danielson himself, only to have his streak broken in 2021 by Danielson again. He started his career in the United Kingdom, gaining success as one of the top stars of Progress Wrestling and Revolution Pro Wrestling in England and WXW in Germany; he also had successful U.S. runs in EVOLVE and PWG, and made it to the semifinals of the WWE Cruiserweight Classic, although he declined to sign a contract. (Both Sabre and Kota Ibushi got to the semis of that tournament despite not being under WWE contractual control, something that seems totally impossible today.) Sabre signed with New Japan in 2017 and has become one of its top foreign stars, winning the 2018 New Japan Cup and holding one half of the IWGP tag titles. He started his career doing a self-aware tribute act to the British World of Sport wrestlers of the ’70s and ’80s, but as he has evolved he has mixed in more jiujitsu and MMA-based submissions. Sabre has become adept at using his long limbs to catch and stretch his opponents, and he always seems to see the angles of attack, cerebrally anticipating what his opponent will try to do.
Great-O-Khan had a very successful amateur career, winning a national championship in high school before joining the New Japan dojo. He is the latest in a long line of wrestlers to work Mongolian gimmicks (going all the way back to Iska Khan in Europe in the ’50s, and including big U.S. stars like the Mongolian Stomper and Killer Khan). O-Khan started out in New Japan under his real name, Tomoyuki Oka, and developed the Great-O-Khan gimmick during his excursion to Europe—traditionally, New Japan has sent its young wrestlers to Mexico, Europe, or the U.S. to learn, sort of a semester abroad for pro wrestlers—and when he returned to New Japan he joined Will Ospreay’s heel group United Empire.
Matching up with Sabre brought out Khan’s amateur grappling background, and the match was contested heavily on the mat, with both guys attacking limbs and trying to land submissions. The current top stars of New Japan are mostly showmen rather than grapplers, so Sabre’s style brings a needed variety to the upper card. Rather than serving as a contrast to Sabre’s style, Khan embraced it and tried to out-technician the technician—and at first, he was able to keep up valiantly. The first big momentum shift came when both guys rolled to the floor while being locked in dueling knee bars. When the ref tried to break them up and get them back into the ring, Sabre released his hold while Khan just cranked harder on his. He then wrapped the knee around the ring barrier and ring post, setting the target on Sabre’s knee. It got chippier after that, with Sabre landing hard uppercuts and Khan hitting Mongolian chops and shots to the knee.
The mat work was really interesting—Khan is bigger and stronger, has the better amateur base, and is more skilled at takedowns and control. Sabre, however, is a trickster, a master at finding angles and approaches to slap on submissions and baiting his opponent into making mistakes. All that combined to make this resemble an MMA fight between a talented wrestler and a submission artist, sort of a pro-wrestling version of Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir. There was a point in the match when both guys were exchanging strikes to test fighting spirit, which is a somewhat tired trope in New Japan matches and their many imitators, but in this variation, Sabre used the exchange to wrong-foot Khan, and when Khan lunged for a chop, Sabre dropped down and grabbed a leglock.
The finish was similar bit of Sabre magic. Khan overpowered Sabre and locked in his Sheep Killer submission, a nasty-looking combo of a shoulder lock and a carotid artery choke. Right when he thought he had Sabre beat down enough to hit his Eliminator claw slam, somehow Sabre was quickly able to attack the arm, first trying for a cross armbreaker. Then, when Khan lifted him up, Sabre shifted seamlessly into a hanging arm bar for the tap. In this battle of power versus guile, guile got the win. It was a really great showcase of what makes both guys special, and it set up a quarterfinal battle between Sabre and fellow Brit Will Ospreay, which could easily find itself in this spot in next week’s column.
Roderick Strong vs. Wolfgang
WWE NXT U.K., March 17
With the recent shift in WWE’s talent development focus, Roderick Strong has found himself the last man standing. His fellow Undisputed Era compatriots (Kyle O’Reilly, Adam Cole, and Bobby Fish) are all gone to AEW, and his fellow gritty mat-based fighters, including Biff Busick, Timothy Thatcher, and Hideki Suzuki, were all recently released, but Roderick Strong is still inexplicably there, like the one house on a block untouched by a tornado. It makes a ton of sense that he has been sent to the WWE version of the island of misfit toys, NXT U.K., another place that seems to exist out of space and time.
He had his NXT U.K. debut last week against Wolfgang, a tatted-up Scottish brute who looks like a Sons of Anarchy extra. (Did they ever go to Scotland? I know they had a weird season in Ireland for some reason.) Wolfgang may be the most anonymous great wrestler in WWE—he has been under WWE contract for six years (which is a year longer then the Ultimate Warrior’s run, and twice as long as Rick Rude’s), and I would guess there are fanatical WWE fans with podcasts and combative Twitter feeds who wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a lineup. He is a perfect match-up for Strong, though—both guys fight off the front foot with hard-charging stiff shots.
Strong actually started the match doing some stalling and crowd riling—there was an actual crowd for this taping, unlike the empty crowds for the last several months of NXT U.K. shows—but his heart isn’t into that stuff, and after a desultory minute or two he got back into the ring and started swinging. Wolfgang took the early sections of the match, working over Strong’s arm and including lifting him over his head with a straight arm bar, in an impressive show of strength.
But Strong was able to draw him to the floor, driving his back into the ring apron and landing a backbreaker on the ring railing. Wolfgang looks like a guy who works at an Irn-Bru bottling factory and threw out his back lifting a pallet, so back work on him is especially painful looking.
Eventually Wolfgang was able to use his size to get some advantage. Strong is known as one of the harder choppers in wrestling, but Wolfgang matched him chop for chop. He hit Strong with some big, hard shots, with Strong even getting a nasty-looking bloody scrape over his eye. However, every slam and shot that Wolfgang landed tweaked that back, and you could see him laboring with every blow. Wolfgang’s selling wasn’t theatrical, just lots of deep breaths and resigned sighs. Strong is built like a triathlete, and even though he was taking punishment, it felt inevitable that his cardio was going to win out.
In the end, the damaged back slowed Wolfgang down enough that Strong was able to leapfrog a tackle attempt and land a hard-running knee to the temple for a KO win. It was an ugly match in a beautiful way. An NXT U.K. run for Strong is intriguing—there are plenty of hard men in this promotion he can trade shots with. Strong and Ilja Dragunov had a hell of an NXT TV match against each other in 2021, and I imagine a U.K. title match between the two would be a corker.
Darby Allin vs. The Butcher
AEW Rampage, March 18
There are a finite number of narratives in fiction. Every movie, novel, play, or wrestling match is some variation of a story that can be traced back to the early reaches of recorded history. David vs. Goliath, the small underdog fighting and triumphing against insurmountable odds, is one of the oldest and most easily applicable to great pro wrestling. Darby Allin is one of the greatest Davids in wrestling history, and his body is his slingshot. Darby first jumped on my radar when he was having great matches is EVOLVE against beasts like Keith Lee, Chris Hero, and WALTER, and he has had some tremendous AEW matches in that style as well against Brian Cage and Miro. When Darby gets flattened, thrown, pounded, and smushed, while still finding a way to claw his way into a match, it’s pretty much unassailable. Darby has some of the best timing in wrestling, and is incredible at having his offense look violent, even with large size discrepancies.
The Butcher is one of the coolest and scariest-looking wrestlers in the world, like if David Crosby turned to powerlifting and was an extra in Gangs of New York. The Butcher hasn’t been a full-time wrestler for very long, and this was the first time I have seen him fight like he looks. The violence was amped up; he obliterated Darby with brutal-looking forearms and lariats and tossed him around the ring like laundry. He has always had the presence of Stan Hansen, but here he was finally wrestling like Stan Hansen.
The match was part of the feud between Darby, Sting, and the Hardys on one side and the Andrade Family Office on the other, but it had an additional layer to it. Darby and the Butcher had main-evented one of the early pandemic shows at Daily’s Place in Jacksonville, and Darby attacked the Butcher’s hand, legitimately tearing a tendon in his thumb and putting him on the shelf for five months. This was an especially devastating injury for a professional metalcore guitarist. (The Butcher, a.k.a. Andy Williams, had until recently been the guitarist for Every Time I Die.) So understandably the Butcher was coming in with a score to settle.
If the match had been scored on points, it would have been a Butcher whitewash—he brutalized Darby from the opening bell, at one point nearly knocking him out of the ring with a concussive forearm. Darby was able to get a brief early advantage by drilling the Butcher in the sternum with a tope. Darby has to be in contention for the greatest tope in wrestling history (non-luchadore division)—the speed he gets is hard to believe, and it always looks like he is crushing the guy he lands it on. A lot of dives in wrestling need to be caught, but Darby’s tope needs to be survived.
It still gave him only a brief respite though; when they got back into the ring, the Butcher continued the onslaught. He power-bombed Darby from a cloverleaf position, whipped him around the ring by his ears, and absolutely beheaded him with lariats. He hit one on the floor right under Darby’s chin that looked like it made Darby 3 inches taller. The finish saw the Butcher swinging Darby like a sack of laundry against the guard rails. Just when he looked ready to finish off the pest, he was caught by Darby’s speed. Darby evaded a knee, sending the Butcher crashing into the metal stairs. Darby then whipped out a fast code red on the floor, and climbed all the way to the top and splattered the Butcher with a Coffin Drop senton, landing like someone dropped a duffel bag out of a three-story window, and stealing a count-out win. Darby absorbs huge shots and takes disgusting bumps, but he just stays alive and defiant, refusing to give an inch, just waiting for one moment. If his opponent gives him that moment, it can be all he needs.
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.