Darby Allin vs. Jeff Hardy
AEW Dynamite, May 11
There was an uncomfortable feeling in the air when this match was announced. Allin has shown his utter disregard for his own safety and willingness to be a pernicious influence on his opponents and partners. Darby Allin sets a tone, and that tone is hazardous.
Jeff Hardy has played a similar tune for over 25 years. He started his career wrestling on trampolines in North Carolina with his brother Matt and a group of similarly rowdy kids (Shannon Moore, Shane Helms, Venom Jason “Venom” Arhndt, and Cham Pain Marty Garner). The Hardys started working as enhancement talent on WWF television before founding their own promotion, Omega (Organization of Modern Extreme Grappling Arts, a truly excellent goofball wrestling acronym), which mixed the high flying of New Japan Juniors wrestling and WCW Luchadores with the wild stunts and brawling of ECW along with traditional Southern tag wrestling. I took a bunch of road trips from Washington, D.C., to North Carolina for Omega shows in the late ’90s and it was truly cutting-edge stuff, a real precursor to what wrestling would become in the 21stt century. Jeff was always the wildest of the Omega wrestlers—he flew the highest and fell the hardest.
The Hardys would go on to push the boundaries for wild stunt brawls with a series of TLC matches with the Dudley Boyz and Edge and Christian. Jeff would then go on to be a huge singles star, capturing the WWE title once and the World Heavyweight Championship twice, along with three TNA World titles (a place he would decamp to when he had too many substance misuse violations for the WWE). He had multiple memorable huge stunt moments in his career, hitting a Swanton Bomb off of the RAW set on Randy Orton, putting Abyss through a table with a Swanton off of a lighting rig in TNA, and a huge Swanton off a ladder through a table on CM Punk in a TLC match during their legendary feud (which saw the straight-edge Punk target Hardy for his well-known substance misuse issues). Jeff’s run with his brother in AEW seems likely to be his last, but he was always going to burn out rather than fade away.
Darby Allin is clearly heavily influenced by Hardy and his death-defying style. Just look at his face paint: Darby’s gimmick is that he is half dead already, after nearly dying in a car accident when he was 5 years old (an accident that killed his uncle) and his entire wrestling career is like watching a Final Destination movie. Death is coming for Darby and he is reaching his hand out to greet it.
This was a matchup in the first round of the Owen Hart tournament (Jeff wrestled Owen early in his career), and was semi-surprisingly made a No-DQ match—surprising considering the relatively conservative namesake of the tournament, but utterly unsurprising considering the combatants. It started with the knob turned up to 10 and pretty much stayed there, with Darby sending Jeff to the floor and drilling him with a tope between the first and second rope. Too many American wrestling topes look like trust falls, or running hugs, but Darby’s tope is in the true spirit of lucha legends like El Hijo del Santo and Ciclón Ramirez, and hits like a shopping cart careening down a hill. Darby then set up a sectional couch made up of steel chairs, which would come into play later. Jeff cuts him off and tries to whip him into the stairs and, in a great moment, Darby somersaults over the stairs and lands on his feet, only to get cut off with a diving clothesline by Jeff. Jeff then pulls an extremely high ladder out from under the ring and throws it in. There are some near-falls and exchanges in the ring: Darby hit a Code Red, Jeff hit a jawbreaker, but Chekov’s ladder is waiting. Jeff teased the ladder dive first, but got crotched on the top rope.
Darby then hit a truly suicidal flip dive off of the ladder in the ring to the floor, driving his and Jeff’s body through the set-up couch of chairs. It looked awesomely absurd, especially from the great underneath camera angle AEW shot it from. Darby took the brunt of the impact, but that move wasn’t about hurting Jeff, it was about seizing his crown. There were two additional masochistic spots after the ladder dive, including Darby missing a coffin drop on the apron and Jeff missing a Swanton and landing back first on the steel steps, but they were basically epilogues. Jeff ended up advancing after eating a coffin drop and rolling him up with a crucifix pin (which is the same way Triple H beat Hardy in their World title match at No Mercy 2008). This really wasn’t about the tournament though—it was about the passing of a spiked chalice. The loss is immaterial. Darby has taken his spot at the top of the mountain of madness, and lord knows what his reign will entail.
Ilja Dragunov vs. Jordan Devlin
WWE NXT UK, May 12
Dragunov may be wrestling’s premier masochist. He earned his stripes by getting absolutely obliterated by Walter (now known as Gunther) in both WXW and later in the WWE. Both bouts were some all-time violent wrestling maulings that saw Ilja’s body beaten purple and black like a rotten eggplant. Dragunov briefly retired in 2017, and decided that the best way to end his career was to have his nemesis, German wrestler Bad Bones, destroy him with violent chair-shots to the skull. Although his wrestling style is completely different, his utter disregard for his own health makes him in many ways the natural heir to Mick Foley.
Ilja is hidden away on NXT UK, a show that seems to exist completely in its own pocket universe, untouched by the rest of the WWE. Once every six weeks or so, he puts his and his opponent’s body through absolute life-changing hell. The stiffness and violence of his matches seem like something that would get watered down on a bigger stage, but there are some advantages to being forgotten. He has held the NXT UK title since August and this week defended it against Irish wrestler Jordan Devlin.
Devlin was trained by Finn Bálor in Ireland, beginning when he was 12 years old. He was a mainstay of European indie wrestling from his youth, and even spent six months (in two stints) in the Zero-One promotion in Japan when he was just 21. He was part of the inaugural 16-man tournament to crown the first NXT UK champion, and has been part of that brand ever since. He had a previous run in the U.S., capturing the NXT Cruiserweight title, but COVID restrictions stranded him in the U.K., and he dropped the belt in a unification bout to interim champion Santos Escobar at NXT TakeOver: Stand & Deliver after he was allowed back in America.
In addition to this being a title match, the loser of this match would leave NXT UK forever. If that functionally means a move across the pond to NXT US, it might be more like a reward then a punishment, even if Devlin will probably be renamed Paddy McJamisons or something, but for all we know he might be leaving the WWE altogether. Regardless of the practical outcome, the stipulation really added to the atmosphere and intensity of the match. This wasn’t just a title on the line, but they were defending their careers and their home.
The match started with some whip-fast and powerful Judo throws by Dragunov. Devlin was able to press Dragunov into the corner and after a struggle hit an incredibly violent brainbuster on the top turnbuckle, compressing Dragunov’s neck and sending him crashing hard to the floor. That move was Sami Zayn’s kill shot when he was on the independents as El Generico, and it is a testament to the lack of oversight on NXT UK that, while Zayn hasn’t used it once in the WWE, it got broken out by Jordan Devlin in England. Dragunov sold the move tremendously—he crumpled lifelessly to the floor, only to stir a bit and tentatively reach to his neck, with a real look of terror in his eyes, like he had finally pushed himself too far and the reckoning was upon him. Devlin threw him back into the ring, and just viciously and methodically focused on Dragunov’s neck.
There was a real specter haunting this match—wrestlers have died and been paralyzed from in-ring neck injuries (Oro, Mitsuharu Misawa, Hayabusa, and Japanese legend Shinjiro Otani, who is currently paralyzed in the hospital after taking a German suplex in the corner last month) and the violence of the move and Dragunov’s selling of the damage made that seem like a real possibility. At one point, Dragunov got whipped into the ropes and the impact made him fall forward in pain, and it really seemed like the ref should have just stopped the match. Ilja’s early attempts at comebacks were easily rebuffed and countered, but he was able to squirrel out and hit a huge falling forearm, and some hard Goodrich elbows to stun Devlin. He hit several stiff clotheslines and German suplexes, but his attempt at a bridging Gotch lift suplex led to sharp trauma on his own bad neck, swinging the advantage back to Devlin. Both men went back and forth, with Devlin continuing to pound on the neck, until Devlin hit his swinging back suplex for the three count, with the referee missing Dragunov’s foot on the ropes.
In a classic big match wrestling trope, general manager Johnny Saint came out and restarted the match. That led to a wild two-minute restart fall, with Dragunov hitting a couple of big barfight headbutts. Devlin cut off a charge with a perfect Destroyer, and then landed a nasty brainbuster for two, but then Devlin missed a 450 splash and got hit with Dragunov’s running torpedo headbutt to the back of his head, a released German suplex, and a running torpedo to the face for the win. It was a wild, exciting, violent match that really felt like two wrestlers competing with huge stakes on the line. Devlin is probably off to bigger things—despite his relatively small size, of the two he certainly feels more like the archetype of a 2022 WWE wrestler. Dragunov will continue to excel in his little corner of the world, delivering war after brutal war for 200 fans in a British TV studio unremarked upon, but brilliant nonetheless.
Kevin Blackwood vs. Timothy Thatcher
West Coast Pro Wrestling, May 13
Timothy Thatcher has kept a relatively light schedule since his release from the WWE. This is only his fourth match in 2022 (compare that to Biff Busick, who was released around the same time and had his 14th match on this same show in a war against Vinnie Massaro). His run as Evolve champion in 2015-17 was a bit divisive, with some fans finding Thatcher’s style plodding, especially compared to the flashier independent wrestlers in that scene like Johnny Gargano, Zack Sabre Jr., and Marty Scurll. It feels like post-WWE, Thatcher has returned to a wrestling scene that has evolved toward what he excels at. Thatcher’s intense grappling style is a great fit for the way wrestling has shifted since he first left the independents. There has been a recent boom in mixed martial arts–influenced independent shows like Bloodsport and the Paradigm Pro Wrestling UWFI Contenders series, along with mainstream wrestlers like the Blackpool Combat Club in AEW.
In this match, Thatcher returned to the Bay Area, where he got his start, to wrestle one of the young up-and-coming indie stars who is working a complementary style. Kevin Blackwood was trained in the upstate New York indie scene by Pepper Parks (a.k.a. the Blade in AEW) and started wrestling there as well as in Canada. In 2019, he was in a serious car accident with several other indie wrestlers (including tag partner AEW’s Daniel Garcia), where he broke both legs and suffered serious head trauma. He was out for a year (as was Garcia) and returned just in time for COVID to shut down indie wrestling. After those setbacks, he just started to break out nationwide at the end of last year and this year, wrestling for PWG and GCW and getting showcase matches against bigger names like Jonathan Gresham and Minoru Suzuki. Blackwood is one of the sharpest and hardest strikers in wrestling, throwing especially crisp and impactful body and head kicks.
This match was built around Thatcher smothering Blackwood with his pressure. Thatcher is the bigger man, and has tremendous tendon and grip strength and he imposed his will on Blackwood, grabbing, twisting, and stretching limbs. Thatcher wrestles the way Khabib Nurmogomedov fought in the UFC: constant intense grappling pressure, sapping the will of his opponent. Blackwood was able to find some openings, lacing Thatcher with kicks, including a kick to the spine that Thatcher sold like it numbed up his hand.
For a guy with a rep for being a bit dry, Thatcher has really emotive facial expressions, bugging his eyes out when he grabs a good submission, grimacing and blinking out tears when he gets stung, and going doll-eyed when he gets drilled with a kick to the head. As the match progressed, Blackwood was able to get separation, landing a nasty buzzsaw kick to the temple and a Death Valley Driver. The finish was absolutely killer and really elevated this match. Blackwood went to the top rope to attempt a double stomp and Thatcher lifted his knees causing Blackwood to land awkwardly and unevenly. Blackwood sold the impact like he tore his quadricep, and Thatcher is the last guy you want to leave an opening for. Thatcher went immediately after the leg, and after absorbing some sharp upkicks from Blackwood, Thatcher locked in a deep single leg crab while stepping on Blackwood’s neck for the tap.
Timothy Thatcher is an aesthetic in and of himself—he has a specific vision for pro wrestling, one informed by Fit Finlay and Yuki Ishikawa and Johnny Valentine. He clearly has no interest in modulating or adjusting his style at all for a promotion or a specific fan base. Thatcher in the WWE is like Lars von Trier trying to direct a Marvel movie, or Thomas Pynchon ghostwriting a Jack Ryan novel. He belongs on the margins, and I am excited to see him back dancing his specific 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. He is on Twitter at @philaschneider.