There’s more great pro wrestling in 2022 than we know what to do with. So The Ringer brings you a regular cheat sheet with the three best matches of the past week—one from WWE, one from AEW, and one from the rest of the immense wrestling world.
CM Punk vs. Dax Harwood
AEW Dynamite, March 23
Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels’s real-life rivalry had some very ugly moments, moments that had nothing to do with aesthetics or style, and everything to do with political maneuvering and personal animus. However, their different approaches to the art of professional wrestling have become wrestling’s primary aesthetic divide 25 years after their battles in the ring. The wrestlers who grew up with that rivalry are now in their primes and the top guys in the sport.
Realism vs. showmanship, grit vs. flash, wrestlers portraying a contest vs. wrestling participating in a performance—that’s Bret vs. Shawn. AEW is the promotion in which the divide is most clearly represented. Adam Cole and Jay Lethal had a very Shawn match on this episode of Dynamite last week, and Kenny Omega and Young Bucks are examples of the Michaels style taken to its logical conclusion. Bryan Danielson’s (despite ironically being initially trained by Michaels) and Jon Moxley’s hard, punishing, violent style is Hart Dungeon wrestling, a big-stage version of what Stu Hart was doing to trainees in his wood-paneled basement.
CM Punk and Dax Harwood are Bret guys, and they delivered a tremendous television match fully in that Bret Hart style. The influences can be overt: Punk has been repurposing sections of Bret Hart matches since he returned to wrestling last year, and Harwood uses the sharpshooter and has been very vocal about his Hart fandom on social media. However, the comparison is more about the way they tell the story in the ring than any direct tribute spots. You can see it right at the opening lockup as both guys drove into each other, fighting for position and dominance. In most matches, moves like lockups and rope whips are just filler moves, ways to get to the bigger moments; here, everything mattered, and the small stuff was filled with as much struggle and effort as the superplex. Something as simple as a standing switch had so much fight in it, with Punk jockeying to keep his position and Harwood firing sharp, hard elbows backward at Punk’s jaw. There was no point when things felt cooperative, like two guys putting on a show; this was a contest of wills.
It was a match with a great sense of shifting pace. Many lesser matches are worked at a uniform pace, all fast, or all deliberate, or the match has jarring shifts with guys going from moving a million miles an hour to selling like a bomb went off and then right back to moving fast. This match’s pace shifts felt more organic: When they revved the motor, you could see both wrestlers amp themselves up for the movement, and conversely, after it was over, you could see the effects of that exertion.
This match wasn’t all small moments of grace either. It had more than its fair share of big moments. Harwood especially broke out his bag, hitting a huge snap superplex that sent both men down hard and whipping out a nasty slingshot Liger bomb (a spot I have only ever seen Último Dragón hit on Rey Mysterio Jr. at World War 3—Dax was clearly deep in his tape study). The match also had some great duality, with moments that were set up early paying off at the end. Dax went for the diving headbutt early in the match only to come up short, but was able to hit it when he tried a second time. Harwood also went for a sharpshooter and got kicked off, only to cinch it in after reversing a go to sleep near the end of the match. Finally, Punk failed to fully lock in the anaconda vice initially, allowing Harwood to scramble out; however, at the finish, he was able to squirm out of the sharpshooter and slap on the vice quickly, not giving Harwood enough time to adjust and escape. You could see both men adjusting their game plans mid-match, finding ways to succeed where they failed earlier. Bret Hart cared deeply about the internal logic of professional wrestling, and this match was an example of how a match could be worked within those parameters and still be tremendously exciting.
Meiko Satomura vs. Isla Dawn
WWE NXT UK, March 24
With the big WWE television shows fully in WrestleMania prep season, I had to dig under the proverbial couch cushions a bit to find some hidden treasure for this week’s top WWE match. The WWE has over 200 wrestlers under contract, but one of the most inexplicable has to be Meiko Satomura. Satomura debuted in 1995 and has been wrestling for 27 years. Her first U.S. television appearance was on WCW Worldwide in 1996, after which she had a handful of short TV matches and then a 22-year break from American wrestling television before appearing as part of the second NXT Mae Young Classic women’s tournament, getting all the way to the semifinals. Then she went back to Japan for another two and a half years before signing with NXT UK and debuting in early 2021. Now she comes in and tapes a couple of killer matches a month, which hardly anyone watches or talks about.
In between those U.S. cameos she had one of the great professional wrestling careers of the 21st century. It was one incredible match after another, first in GAEA, where she was a trainee of the iconic Chigusa Nagayo, and then in her own promotion, Sendai Girls. In the ring, she may currently be the best women’s wrestler in the world, and arguably a top 10 all-time female performer. Having Meiko in the WWE but on NXT UK is like if Dwyane Wade were still somehow in his prime, and still on the Heat, but mostly just playing G League games and garbage-time fourth quarters. I’m not complaining—at least we get to turn on Peacock and catch an icon every six weeks or so.
Isla Dawn is a Scottish wrestler who has been with NXT UK since 2018. She has recently transitioned into doing an evil witch gimmick—it’s less over-the-top silly than it sounds, certainly less silly than the voodoo stuff Alexa Bliss did on RAW, but in that same general category. I don’t think she really pulls it off perfectly; she seems less the odd girl at high school who is really into Wicca and more like the popular girl who makes weird faces to make fun of that odd girl. Still, she was in the ring with Meiko Satomura and brought the violence and intensity needed for that task. Dawn focused her attack with hard, violent knee strikes, really lighting up Meiko with several jumping knees to the head, and some nasty grounded knees to the ribs. Meiko has gone to war with Aja Kong and Asuka and Akira Hokuto; if you are going to hit her, you had better make it look like something, and Dawn really did that.
Joshi wrestling (Japanese women’s wrestling) is frequently built around hierarchies. Meiko has been both a young protégé fighting her way to the top, and the unbeatable ace of a promotion, and she is masterful at crafting a match with a wrestler below her in the pecking order. Dawn takes most of this match, but Meiko always seems in control. The crowd bought the couple of Dawn near-falls, but a Satomura win always felt inevitable. Dawn got to kick out of the Death Valley driver and avoid the cartwheel kneedrop, only to get caught in a tight cradle. Inevitability was coming for Isla Dawn; the only question was whether she could steal a win before the curtain fell. The answer was no, but even going toe-to-toe with a legend is the kind of thing to build a career on.
I’m not sure if WWE has an end game planned with Satomura, but there are so many incredible matchups possible. Does Sasha Banks want to visit Buckingham Palace? Does Becky Lynch have nieces and nephews in Cork she wants to see? Apparently, creative has nothing for Asuka to do, and NXT UK is a perfect place to do nothing. The WWE has one of the all-time-great tools in their toolbox, and it would be a shame if her run ended without getting a chance to come out and play a bit more.
Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Shingo Takagi
NJPW New Japan Cup, March 26
For much of its history, Puroresu promotions almost exclusively pushed wrestlers who started in their dojo systems, with the exception of an occasional foreigner. The legends of New Japan—Shinya Hashimoto, Tatsumi Fujinami, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Masahiro Chono, Keiji Mutoh, Yuji Nagata, Hiroshi Tanahashi—were all products of its training system: brought into school soon after high school, trained in austere brutal conditions, sent to Europe or the U.S. or Mexico for seasoning, and then pushed in New Japan. Recently, however, New Japan wrestling has really benefited from expanding its horizons and cherry-picking wrestlers who started other places. The current IWGP champion and promotional ace, Kazuchika Okada, started his career as an Último Dragón trainee and part of Toryumon Mexico before being signed by New Japan, and the first IWGP Unified World champion, Kota Ibushi, started his career in DDT. While there are still New Japan trueborns like Tetsuya Naito and Hiroshi Tanahashi at the top of the card, there are also the best of the best from around Japan and the world. Both of the wrestlers in this New Japan Cup semifinal match had long successful careers before becoming stars in New Japan.
Shingo Takagi was the first graduate of the Dragon’s Gate dojo and was one of the top stars of that promotion for nearly 15 years, holding the Open the Dream Gate Championship four times. He also was part of some big U.S. independent wrestling matches, wrestling in the acclaimed six-man tag matches in ROH, being one of the top stars of Dragon Gate USA, and participating in the PWG Battle of Los Angeles in both 2007 and 2018. Takagi jumped to New Japan in 2018 and quickly became a mainstay, first as a junior heavyweight winning the IWGP junior tag titles (with his partner BUSHI) and getting to the finals of the 2019 Best of the Super junior tournament. (The final match against Will Ospreay was called one of the best junior heavyweight matches ever by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.) He then moved up to heavyweight, where he won the NEVER Openweight Championship and the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship.
Zack Sabre Jr. started his career at 14 years old, when he was trained at the Hammerlock school in the UK and taken through the paces by notorious hard men Jon Ryan and Andre Baker. He started his Japanese career in Pro-Wrestling NOAH, where he held the junior heavyweight tag titles twice, but spent most of his career back and forth between the U.S. and UK. Much like Takagi, he bulked up to heavyweight, and joined New Japan as a member of Minoru Suzuki’s Suzuki-Gun stable, winning the New Japan Cup in 2018, and winning again on Sunday in a great match against Tetsuya Naito.
Sabre and Takagi met in the semifinals of that tournament on Saturday and delivered a banger showing how diverse backgrounds and styles can meld into something truly special. The Dragon’s Gate style is intense, fast-moving, and hard-hitting, and Takagi spent this match attacking and throwing huge bombs. Sabre, however, was trying to use his submission skills and mat wrestling to wear Shingo down and target his bad neck (which was damaged by a Chase Owens package piledriver on a chair earlier in the tour). The neck was the story of this match, with Sabre placing a big bull’s-eye and attacking it with chokes, uppercuts, cravats, and neck twists. The neck also limited Shingo a bit offensively as his big suplexes, slams, and impactful moves jarred his own neck when he applied them. There was a moment early in the match when Shingo countered a jumping guillotine with a northern lights suplex, and the whiplash of the suplex caused him to grab his neck, unable to follow up, and throughout the match he kept stretching the neck and trying to work out the tingling and nerve damage.
Highlights from ‘NEW JAPAN CUP 2022 Day14’ (Mar 26th)— njpwworld (@njpwworld) March 26, 2022
Watch now in English:https://t.co/lKe7TYnxq5
7th match: NEW JAPAN CUP 2022 SEMI FINAL
Shingo Takagi Zack Sabre Jr.#njcup #njpw #njpwworld pic.twitter.com/t1Li8s6vzp
The way Shingo was going to win the match was by turning up the pressure and pace, and his advantages all came when he sped the match up and made it explosive, even if those explosions did as much damage to him as they did to his opponent. Meanwhile, Sabre was just waiting to grab an arm or leg and drag Shingo into murky waters, pulling him into submissions and always adding an extra crank on that bad neck. The end run of the match saw Zack lose his composure a bit and try to match Shingo’s strike to strike and bomb to bomb, like a counterpunching boxer getting lured into a slugfest. However, when Shingo attempted his last of the dragon Death Valley driver variation, Sabre crawled like a spider monkey onto his back and locked on a choke sleeper. Shingo fought and fought, even lifting Sabre on his back on the second rope and driving him backward, but Sabre held on and eventually put Shingo to sleep.
It was the definition of a big-time match, a very cool stylistic clash with a master grappler taking another scalp on his way to a huge tournament victory. This victory gives Sabre an IWGP title shot, and it will be interesting to see whether New Japan pulls the trigger on a Sabre title run. He was absolutely the MVP of the Cup and his unique style of neck-cranking, limb-breaking violence would be a fascinating style to see on the top of the New Japan mountain.
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.