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CM Punk and Dustin Rhodes Turn Back the Clock and Show Everyone How It’s Done

Also: Riddle–Jey Uso and Biff Busick–Kevin Ku in your top pro wrestling matches of the week

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Dustin Rhodes vs. CM Punk

AEW Dynamite, April 20

Dustin Rhodes was called “The Natural” early in his career; the nickname referred to his preternatural athleticism and unmatched pedigree. As the 6-foot-6 son of the iconic Dusty Rhodes, he moved around the ring like an NFL free safety and seemed destined to be a multiple-time world champion. It’s fascinating how much his career arc has mirrored that of Roy Hobbs, the titular hero of the 1984 film The Natural. While Hobbs’s career was interrupted by a gunshot to the stomach, Dustin had his career cut short by substance misuse and the politics of pro wrestling. Hobbs was able to make an iconic return well past the point he should have been finished, and, at 53 years old, Dustin has had an iconic old man run. This match against CM Punk last week was the equivalent of a game-winning home run into the lights.

Dustin spent much of the 2000s in the WWE in an undercard role after becoming sober and getting back in shape, and while he had some big highlights, they were almost exclusively in tag matches. He never had the opportunity to wrestle the generation of elite workers that followed him—there were no singles matches against Eddie Guerrero, Kurt Angle, or Rey Mysterio. He also never got a chance to work the generation after that, guys like AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, and Low-Ki, and he never wrestled either CM Punk or Bryan Danielson before AEW. Now Dustin is being given opportunities he hasn’t had in over 20 years, to have the kind of classic singles matches he had in WCW in the mid-’90s with wrestlers like Arn Anderson, Bunkhouse Buck, Rick Rude, and Vader. As a longtime Dustin fan, I never expected to see Dustin Rhodes vs. CM Punk given the time, match placement, and respect it deserves. Most generation-vs.-generation matches feature a member of the current era against an icon of the last one. This match was last generation against the one before that—but with two older guys showing the young guns how it’s done.

Dustin is incredible at wrestling with flaws. Too many modern wrestlers’ characters are good at everything—they’re technical maestros who are brutal strikers, suplex machines, and high flyers. When you get two wrestlers like that, it looks less like an athletic contest and more like a video game. Narratively, it is much more interesting to watch someone work around the holes in their game, attempting to make weaknesses into strengths. Dustin has unmatched heart, toughness, and guile, but he has 53 years of hard living on his body and can turn it up only in spurts. The story of this match is him biting down, fighting through the pain, and hoping that he can line up one of those bursts at the right moment and steal a win—against a younger opponent who reached the heights that Dustin grasped for and failed. CM Punk main-evented PPVs and won world titles; Dustin was the Natural, an all-time great without the résumé commensurate with his talent. Roy Hobbs never got the World Series ring, but he didn’t put down his bat.

The match was worked at a slower pace than most current wrestling, and it was a prime example of how letting moves and moments breathe can connect and engage a crowd. Dustin tried to speed up the pace early, hitting a couple of arm drags, but he missed an in-ring cross body and caromed off the mat and flew hard to the floor (a signature Dustin Rhodes bump). Dustin came up limping on his left leg, and the target was set for Punk, who went to work on the bad wheel and turned up the aggression when he got stung with an upkick to the shoulder. Dustin was able to take a bit of an advantage when he catapulted Punk over the top rope and he targeted the shoulder with an arm-twist slam on the apron.

Dustin took control for a bit, landing 10 punches on Punk in the corner, but when he hopped down, Dustin tweaked his bad knee. It was a completely relatable moment for anyone with some miles on their odometer—when you get older, a simple thing like hopping down off the second rope can lay you out. It just isn’t something your Hooks and Dante Martins of the world have to worry about.

Punk went back to the knee, and they had a great battle over a figure four and exchanged thumping punches to the head. Punk made the mistake of trying for spice in a meat-and-potatoes match by going for a springboard, and Dustin cut him off with a punch. Dustin saw his opportunity—he put on the jets and quickly hit a cross-Rhodes and a jumping piledriver for a super-close near-fall. Dustin took a deep breath, marshaled his resources, and started throwing jabs. He went for the Dusty Rhodes memorial flip-flop and fly, but the pause allowed Punk to hit a high kick. Punk went for the go to sleep, but the fatigue got him too, and he cramped up. Dustin slid off for the rollup, but Punk stacked him up and got the pin.

This was a classic match that would have been just as acclaimed at any point in wrestling history. The fact that it got over as big with the crowd as it did shows that with all the advances in moves and athleticism, wrestling is, at its core, simple. Give fans a reason to be invested in the battle, and then have the wrestlers have a logical, well-executed, dramatic fight. The miles on both guys added greatly to the match: Even the most athletic parts of this felt labored, and that labor is what made it so compelling.

Riddle vs. Jey Uso

WWE Smackdown, April 22

One of the well-worn booking tricks of the WWE is match inversion. If guys are setting up a big premium event singles matchup, it will put them in a tag match opposite each other. If you have two tag teams about to square off in a big tag match, it’ll split them up and have them wrestle each other in singles matches. They have hours of television to fill each week, and this is a fine innings eater approach—keep moving the story incrementally forward while waiting to deliver the meaningful match. Riddle and Jey Uso locked up on Smackdown this week for a great television match, which really heated up their upcoming tag title unification match at WrestleMania Backlash.

Riddle is an ex-MMA fighter, and ex-MMA guys often have trouble throwing convincing pro-wrestling strikes. It can take awhile to figure out how to throw something that doesn’t look too pulled, but also doesn’t actually smash their opponents in the head. It is a big issue in current Ronda Rousey matches, for example (although she had some weird-looking punches in MMA too). Riddle has hit his stride, though—he’s figured out how to throw good-looking heat, and he and Jey really wale on each other. Jey has an awesome uppercut—one of the best punches in the WWE—and he really cracked him both in the ring and outside while cutting off a Riddle dive. Riddle responded with some nice hard kicks and big knees. Much of the meat of the match was exchanging shots, although the match ended with a big offensive run by both guys. Riddle landed a flipping senton off the top rope for a close near-fall, and Jey hit a nasty-looking pop-up neck breaker, which Riddle sold like he was partially paralyzed. The finish came when Riddle was able to counter a top rope Uso splash with a rollup for the win.

The in-ring action was really good, but the little extras really made the match. Roman Reigns and Paul Heyman were backstage watching, and Heyman was great as Gollum hunched over tenderly stroking the title belts. Heyman isn’t afraid to look like a ghoul and that is one of the things that is so great about him as a performer. Reigns is tremendous at looking disappointed and exasperated at the Usos for losing. He is like a pissed-off sports dad who can’t believe his son won’t run out a ground ball.

Randy Orton is celebrating his 20th year in the wrestling business, and there have been lots of tributes to him online. I am a bit mixed on Orton. Anyone who has had as long a career as Orton in one place will have highs and lows: He has been part of some great matches, but also some really dull periods. One of my favorite under-the-radar things about Orton is his skill as an apron tag worker or a second. Orton has been a heel most of his career, and this is a specific babyface skill, so we haven’t seen it much. But when he gets the chance, he’s like an amazing bench player in the NBA who always has the best reactions to crossover dribbles and big dunks, like early Splash Brothers–era Kent Bazemore. Orton is tremendous at rallying the crowd behind a beleaguered partner, and it was a ton of fun to watch him react to all of Riddle’s offense and root for him when he was down. Jey hit Riddle early with a backdrop on the announce table, which is a signature Orton spot, and they build to this great moment when Orton cuts off an interfering Jimmy Uso by hitting the announce table backdrop on him. I can’t wait to see Orton work the ring apron in a proper tag match between these two teams—I can tell that he will have the crowd hyped up.

It’s bugged me for years that the WWE has dueling world titles and tag team titles. It’s like it took one of the things from boxing that everyone hates—title proliferation—and unnecessarily inserted into pro wrestling. I understand the business reasons for keeping up the appearances of a brand split, but you can certainly have tag champions and world champions shuffle between shows. It’s always better for there to be a singular goal that every individual wrestler and tag team is striving for. Hopefully, WWE will keep the world title unified, keep the tag belts unified after the RK-Bro-Usos match, and build toward Bianca Belair and Charlotte unifying the women’s title as well. Whether it is temporary or permanent, it is a great hook for the upcoming match between these teams, and it will surely be one of the highlights of next weekend’s show.

Kevin Ku vs. Biff Busick

C*4 Wrestling Time and Tide, April 22

Biff Busick’s elite attribute as a wrestler is his intensity. He approaches matches like an alley cat just let out of a burlap sack. It’s what made him such an entertaining TV wrestler in the WWE for the past five years (where he wrestled as Oney Lorcan), and made him a star on the indie scene before and after his run there.

On Friday, Busick’s intensity was matched by Kevin Ku, one of the rising young stars on the indie scene. Ku has mostly made his name as part of the Violence Is Forever tag team with Dominic Garrini (that team has been on a belt-collecting roll; they currently hold the tag titles is Action Wrestling, C*4, Southern Underground Pro, and Black Label Pro Wrestling, and Ku is currently Action Wrestling champion). Ku wrestles a similar front -oot style to Busick, full of hard violent strikes and stretching mat wrestling. He wrestles like Busick’s stylistic progeny, like someone who modeled himself after Biff. Ku started his career in 2014 in the New England wrestling scene (Busick is a Boston native), which would have been right during the height of Busick’s pre-WWE indie tenure.

The match main-evented the most recent C*4 (Capital City Championship Combat) show. C*4 is based out of Ottawa and has been running since 2007, and was an indie home base for Kevin Steen, Sami Zayn, the Dark Order, and Speedball Mike Bailey. (The show will be available to stream starting Tuesday April 26 on IWTV.com.)

Busick started hot, jumping Ku before the bell with a diving uppercut and they kept it at that hard-charging pace for the entire match. They brawled to the floor and exchanged violent chops—Busick really puts his whole body into his chops, which simultaneously make sharp treble chopping sounds, and deeper bass-thudding impact. Ku missed a chop and smashed the ring post with his hand. This is a spot that is done a lot in wrestling, but this was special—Ku’s hand made a gross smacking sound, like someone throwing a tomato against a windshield. Busick worked over the hand, attacking it to cut off Ku’s offensive attempts and really wrenching the wrist and fingers. Ku was able to get some distance, grab a door, prop it up, and hit a fisherman’s buster suplex onto a wooden door, turning both the door and Busick’s neck into splinters. Ku set up a table between two chairs, only to get brained with a thrown chair by Busick and then superplexed through the contraption for the win.

The thing that really separated this from other indie matches that are full of doors and chairs and other plunder was that the chops and kicks landed harder and more violently then the weapons. There is a frenzy to the best Biff Busick matches—watching him is like watching a great pressure-fighting boxer, like prime Aaron Pryor. Ku matched him in frenzy, and the result was a compact, intense scrap, a tight 10 minutes of beautifully orchestrated violence.

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.