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Moxley and Danielson Redefine Brutality, Dragunov and Frazer Test the Limits, and Slamovich and Mack Bend the Rules

Your top pro wrestling matches of the week

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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.

Ilja Dragunov vs. Nathan Frazer

NXT UK, March 3

NXT UK is one of the odder things in the current wrestling landscape. It was created in 2018 as the first attempt to turn the NXT brand into a worldwide franchise—at the time, there was talk of NXT Japan and NXT Mexico as well, and even an NXT Latin America. But there was certainly evidence that WWE launched it initially as an attempt to kneecap a World of Sport reboot on ITV in Britain.

We are in a different wrestling world in 2022. The entire idea of the original NXT has completely changed, and the idea of worldwide expansion has seemingly been scrapped. The old-school NXT super-indie wrestling style, which is more or less the style worked in NXT UK, is out of favor. The ITV WOS reboot is long in the dirt, but NXT UK still exists. Due to British COVID restrictions, the recent shows have been taped in an empty TV studio with what seems like piped-in sound. The more robust UK Paycheck Protection Act was widely assumed to be the reason that the NXT UK roster was spared from roster cuts, but whatever the reason, NXT UK keeps chugging along, unkillable, having cool matches with seemingly no impact on any wrestling discourse.

Nathan Frazer is just 23 years old. He trained to wrestle at the Black and Brave Academy (run by Midwest indie veteran Marek Brave and Seth Rollins), while in the U.S. on a soccer scholarship. He was beginning to have standout matches on the indies, and worked several AEW Dark matches as Ben Carter (though he had to wrestle for free because of legal issues surrounding his student visa), before signing with NXT UK. Frazer has tremendous athletic explosion and is one of the fastest wrestlers in the world. Many of the WWE wrestlers who work a similar high-flying indie style were part of the roster talent cuts, but Frazer is young and promising enough that he was apparently deemed worth keeping around. You may not need 20 Nathan Frazers, but it is good to have a couple.

Ilja Dragunov was born in Russia but emigrated with his family to Germany, where he broke out in the German wrestling promotion Westside Xtreme Wrestling (WXW). He had an epic feud with WALTER (now renamed Gunther) in WXW, which they imported into NXT UK, with Dragunov taking historically brutal beatings in acclaimed matches. (The October 2020 match was given 5 stars by Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer and the August 2021 rematch was awarded 5.25, one of only four WWE matches in history to receive over five stars.) Dragunov won the NXT UK title in the rematch, and this was his fourth title defense.

Overemotive facial expressions have been one of the banes of current pro wrestling. Time and time again, near-fall two-counts are met with wrestlers making these agonized faces of horror and disbelief. It often feels like a junior high drama class doing warm-up acting exercises. “OK, show me terror! Show me sadness! Show me despair! Show me shock!” Wrestlers will get a two-count on a move that never earns a pin and make a face like they just saw their beloved great aunt spontaneously combust. Dragunov leans into that trope so much that he somehow comes out the other side into something cool. He comes off less like a community theater ham, and more like a genuine weirdo outsider artist, like a wrestling version of Crispin Glover or an especially-in-his-bag Nicolas Cage.

Dragunov is also one of the most intense wrestlers in the world—he throws everything with full force, constantly moving forward. He wrestles on his front foot, like Antonio Margarito used to box, putting on total pressure and a willingness to take ungodly punishment to get his teeth into his opponent. It makes him a compelling opponent for a killing machine like WALTER, but it also makes a cool style clash with Frazer, who, in this match, used his elusiveness to bait Dragunov into mistakes.

The big turning point of this match came when Dragunov attempted a forearm to Frazer on the mat, missed, and just decimated his arm. It actually looked like he might have cracked a bone in his forearm. That gave Frazer a target and a way to back Dragunov off.

There is a great near fall, when Dragunov blocks a Frazer superkick with his injured arm, which leaves him open to a second big one that knocks him down, and a third kick where Frazer nearly beheads Ilja as he is sitting on the ground. Traditionally, when wrestlers sell a body part, the damage means that they can’t execute offense correctly, as if something is taken out of their playbook. Dragunov instead masochistically flung that hurt arm into the guy across from him, like he was willing to destroy his own body to destroy Frazer, and eventually that force of will led him to the win.

Despite the circumstances—no crowd, no spotlight, no flowers—NXT UK is still putting out compelling matches every week, outshining promotions with much higher profiles. It is odd to call a match put on by the biggest wrestling promotion in the world a hidden gem, but that is what this was, and it is cool that the WWE can deliver neat things like this on the margins.

Masha Slamovich vs. AC Mack

IWTV: ​​The Movement Begins, March 4

235,257,021. That is the number of views that Chris Dickinson vs. Addy Starr had on Beyond Wrestling’s YouTube channel at the time I was writing this review. To be fair, Chris Dickinson is one of the most talented independent wrestlers in the world, and Addy Starr is a talented wrestler as well, but it is fair to say that their talent may not fully explain why a video of their match has over 235 million views. (Chris Dickinson vs. AEW’s John Silver, also from Beyond, for example, has a very respectable 9,500 views.) Intergender wrestling can be such a sizable—and borderline inexplicable—revenue stream for independent promotions that it has become a normal part of the stories they are trying to tell. Women are winning titles and tournaments and being booked and treated like dangerous and talented fighters on their own, not just as plucky underdogs.

Coming into this match, Masha Slamovich was booked as a force of nature, eager to collect a bounty on AC Mack’s head. She portrayed that role well and was totally plausible as a vicious killer, counter to the way a woman would traditionally be booked against a man. The match itself was a stiff brawl, with Mack landing hard punches and kicks, but because of the way Slamovich presented herself and the way she was booked, there was nothing uncomfortable about it. While the impetus for this progressive booking style may be a bit unseemly, the result is not.

The IWTV Independent Wrestling World Championship was established in 2017 as a blanket championship for the multiple promotions that air shows on the IWTV streaming service. The champion plays a similar role to the old touring NWA champion of the 20th century. They travel to various promotions, many of which have their own champions, and defend that belt against the top local wrestlers. The belt has been held by multiple current AEW wrestlers (Kris Statlander, Orange Cassidy, Lee Moriarty, Wheeler YUTA) and other independent standouts (Tracy Williams, Jonathan Gresham, Warhorse, Erick Stevens, Alex Shelley). AC Mack defeated Shelley on the previous ACTION show to win the title and become the first out gay man to win a recognized world title. (Pro Wrestling Illustrated lists the IWTV title as a world title, which is historically how the business distinguishes between a legitimate “world title” and a lesser one.) Mack has been a standout in Southeast independent promotions and despite starting out as a hated heel, is one of the most popular wrestlers in that area.

When Mack won the title in January, he threw down a gauntlet, saying that he would defend that title only in the Southeast, and that if wrestlers from other regions wanted to win the title they would have to come down south. This established a regional feud between the northern promotions (especially Beyond Wrestling) and promotions based in the Southeast. Mack traveled up to Massachusetts, where he defeated Willow Nightingale and won the right for the Southeast to host the IWTV weekly program Uncharted Territory, which had previously been run by Beyond out of New England. Mack is a villain outside of the South and a hero in it, almost an independent wrestling version of Bret Hart when he was a hero in Canada and a heel in the U.S., and the atmosphere in this match was like a college basketball home game against a hated rival.

Slamovich was trained by the legendary Chigusa Nagayo in Japan, and has a super aggressive style. She jumped Mack in the middle of his signature mic spiel (a good way to rile up a crowd is to rob them of their chance to chant along with a wrestler’s catchphrases) and tossed him through multiple rows of chairs. Slamovich hits hard, and comes off like a whipsaw Baba Yaga, with her tongue sticking out and a wild look in her eyes. The first part of the match was worked entirely in the crowd, with Mack firing back and getting in some big shots on Slamovich as well. Mack has great timing, natural charisma, and a real sudden athletic explosiveness. There was a moment when he grabbed Masha in a ura nage and whipped her violently face-first into the mat; it was an incredibly fast change of direction, a little like watching a running back with a stutter step or a point guard with a killer crossover dribble. The match built to a pretty wild ending, with Slamovich seemingly winning the title with a cradle piledriver, only for Mack to save the belt by draping his leg over the top rope. Masha then rushed at him a second time, and he was able to flip her into his Mack 10 finisher (a cross-arm pedigree) to retain the title. There is a lot left on the bone in this region-vs.-region feud and it is a great hook for multiple independent promotions to build around in the next year.

The actual work in the match was great, but it was really elevated by an invested crowd. Much of the time, today’s wrestling fans interact with a match like an audience appreciating a performance. They chant “both these guys” or “this is awesome.” They may boo a heel, but they are playing along with the show rather than showing real hate. Wrestling is at its best, however, when the fans are living and dying with a hero, when there is real emotional investment. Because of the story they told, everyone in that audience wanted to see Mack win and Masha lose. That rabid sports-fan atmosphere is something that is unique to pro wrestling as a narrative art form—you don’t see fans at Othello cursing and spitting at Iago. To get that reaction in 2022 is pretty rare, and it’s special when that vibe is recaptured.

Bryan Danielson vs. Jon Moxley

AEW Revolution, March 6

Over a 20-plus-year career that included a historic run in the indies and ROH, as well as a legendary decade in WWE, Danielson has always seemed like a wrestler with a purpose. In many ways, this match was the culmination of Danielson’s career mission statement. I was at the final of the 2001 Super 8, where Bryan Danielson drove up to Delaware from Texas, and he and Low-Ki changed U.S. indy pro wrestling in one fell swoop. Using a mix of New Japan Juniors–style wrestling and Japanese UWFi–style strikes, Ki and Danielson silenced the crowd with the violence they were willing to inflict on each other. They toured that match to other promotions, and used it as a starting point when helping launch ROH.

Throughout Danielson’s career, he has done many different things and wrestled many different styles, but when he has been given the chance, he always brings it back to this: hard, nasty, punishing wrestling, with every shot thrown full force, every hold cranked, and not an ounce of daylight. You could even see it at moments during his WWE run, like when he got the freedom to book a mini program with Drew Gulak and they went out and grappled for 20 minutes on a WWE PPV.

Moxley has had a handful of moments in his career when he has done things like this as well: He had a war with William Regal in FCW and a brutal fight with Chris Dickinson in Bloodsport. Still, I was so impressed that he was able to travel down into Danielson’s dungeon and match him blow for blow, hold for hold. It was a bit of wrestling symbolism that legend William Regal made his AEW debut at the end of this battle, because this match really reminded me of the classic wars Regal had with Fit Finlay in WCW—and it had that same kind of incongruity with the rest of the card. When Regal and Finlay came out in WCW, it made everything else on the show seem like a completely different exhibition. Revolution was a very good PPV, and Eddie Kingston and Chris Jericho especially laid in the shots in their match, but that wasn’t this. Very few things in wrestling history have been this.

The match started with both men testing each other’s wills. The I-hit-you, you-hit-me sort of one-upmanship is a really overdone trope. It is a spot that has been spammed a ton in modern wrestling, and wrestlers usually aren’t hitting each other hard enough to justify it. Here, though, it made some real sense, since the build for this match was both guys auditioning each other for an alliance. So a test of mettle worked within the story they were telling. I really liked how Moxley was the one taking things a bit too far early. His kick to the spine floated up to the back of Danielson’s neck, and his kick to the chest grazed his chin. It added a bit of recklessness to a series of spots that you see a lot of, like Moxley was going to push that envelope a little bit. Danielson responded by laying in an absolutely crushing kick to the body that looked like it sawed Moxley in half, showing that he was more than willing to escalate too. Danielson spent the next several minutes punishing Moxley with body shots and kicks and even a spinning sole butt. Just vicious stuff—it is very hard to do a good-looking body shot in pro wrestling and Danielson was digging in like Julio César Chávez.

They spilled to the floor and just started throwing hands and elbows frantically, with Danielson opening up Mox with a straight right hand. They moved into the big bomb portion of the match, and there were some big ones: Moxley obliterated Danielson with a huge lariat, and Danielson was able to hit a brutal-looking top-rope back superplex with the impact landing right on Moxley’s neck, which he then followed up with some of the nastiest Gary Goodridge–inspired MMA elbows I have ever seen him throw.

I adored how as the match reached its crescendo it returned to the mat. The last 10 minutes saw both guys attempt submissions, with a tremendous struggle to both counter and get to the ropes. We saw sleepers with bodyscissors, LeBell locks, Dragon sleepers, cross-armbreakers, with both guys desperate to see the other pass out or tap out. There was an incredible moment when Moxley was cranking a painful-looking bulldog choke, turning Danielson’s face eggplant purple, and the final moments saw Danielson hit his signature stomps to the face and lock in the triangle choke. Moxley started fading, and he grabbed at Danielson’s beard and eyes to try to escape, all while Danielson was punishing him with elbows and straight punches into Moxley’s bloody head wound. Moments before Moxley went out, he was able to roll Danielson up into a pin. Both guys brawled after the bell, until the appearance of the iconic William Regal to Inoki slap them in the face and seemingly form an epic alliance.

This match seems to be setting up a Xavier School of violent pro wrestlers, with Regal as Professor X, and Danielson and Moxley as a wearily aligned Cyclops and Wolverine, respectively. It is very exciting stuff, and there are so many cool and interesting ways that it can go. Even more intriguing, it is clearly going to lead back here at some point, with these two having another chance to dance the violent dance.

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.