Ronda Rousey vs. Charlotte Flair
WWE WrestleMania Backlash, May 8
As much as the Seth Rollins–Cody Rhodes match—and the main event—lit up the message boards at last night’s Backlash show, my heart is with the brutal showdown for the SmackDown women’s championship. The “I Quit” match has a long and impressive history in pro wrestling. The first famous “I Quit” match was Tully Blanchard vs. Magnum T.A., at Starrcade 1985, a hellaciously violent match that ended with the virtuous babyface Magnum embracing his inner psychopath and driving a broken chair into Tully’s eye. The WWE has never really done a fully satisfying “I Quit” match—Rock vs. Mick Foley is the most famous and certainly delivered the brutality, with the Rock unloading with multiple concussive chair shots in front of Foley’s family, but it was marred by an unsatisfying overly cute finish with Rock playing a previous recording of Foley saying “I quit” over the arena speakers. Although it wasn’t gore-soaked like Magnum vs. Tully, in many ways the Ronda vs. Charlotte match on Sunday night had the same kind of ragged, unhinged violent energy that made that such a classic.
When a pro wrestler is in a fight with such a decorated mixed martial artist, establishing credibility is an issue. I like that Charlotte decided borderline unprofessionalism was the answer. There were no elbow exchange standoffs in this match—instead, Ronda landed a knee right to Charlotte’s mouth, and Charlotte hit a back elbow directly on Ronda’s lip and another elbow right in the back of her head. The strikes didn’t feel cooperative or pulled; they felt like two women dishing out receipts. The early in-ring section also saw Charlotte hit a German suplex where Ronda landed as badly as El Puerto Ricano used to land on ECW Taz squashes. Similarly, the powerbomb on the barricade later in the match had that same utter disregard for where or how Ronda landed on her neck—Charlotte just chucked her and let her land awkwardly.
I could have done without the Kendo stick fight which felt like the most pre-produced part of the match, although I did dig Charlotte chucking the video camera at Ronda’s head to slow her down. The crowd brawling section of the match was great. Ronda threw some shockingly good-looking body shots (they looked terrible at WrestleMania), and I enjoyed when Charlotte tossed the drink in Ronda’s face, sending her into the hockey boards and trying to break her back by stretching her in the metal handrails. Charlotte has the air of a young Ann Coulter, which really adds to the hateability of her trash talk.
The match had two tremendous “I Quit” near-falls—in one of them, Ronda almost yanked Charlotte’s arm off with a hanging armbar with Charlotte upside down in the corner. Charlotte was able to break that hold and send them both crashing to the floor, with Ronda yet again landing awkwardly on her neck. Charlotte locked in a great-looking figure eight, which Rousey broke by throwing a chair at Charlotte’s hip. Charlotte tried for a final submission but got her arm laced through the chair, and Ronda asked her to quit one final time before breaking her arm like she did to Miesha Tate.
Ronda had one of the best in-ring rookie years of all time in 2018—she was a fully formed performer from her first match. Her comeback has been much more spotty. She didn’t look great at the Royal Rumble, she bombed her big Mania showcase, and she has been skippable in her mic work setting up this match.
This was the first great match of her comeback tour, and a deserving title win. Of course, a ton of credit has to be given to Charlotte, who brought a lot of the nastiness and violence to the match and really gave Ronda something to play off of. WWE seemed to write Charlotte off the show for a while with the broken arm, and it will be interesting to see where Ronda goes from here. Raw-SmackDown roster barriers aside, there are several super-talented women on the roster who she hasn’t tangled with yet, like Asuka and Rhea Ripley. There’s also a seemingly obvious feud with her former training partner and stablemate, Shayna Baszler. Most intriguing might be a title unification match against Raw women’s champ Bianca Belair, but who knows to what degree WWE is dedicated to a full-spectrum unification project. Regardless, this match really rekindled my excitement for another Ronda run, and there are a bunch of intriguing roads WWE could go down.
Angélico vs. Yuya Uemura
AEW Dark, May 3
AEW Dark and Elevation are programs in the spirit of the old syndicated wrestling shows like WCW Worldwide and WWE Velocity. Instead of being on old UHF stations at 10 a.m. or midnight like Worldwide or Pro (shout-out Channel 44 in the Bay Area), though, they’re posted on YouTube. And because they’re much more low profile than the major shows, it gives the promotion both an opportunity to develop younger talent and to experiment a bit with off-kilter matchups. Sometimes on these B-shows you can get real gems (there’s an incredible Kaz Hayashi vs. Raven match from Worldwide worth checking out, and an awesome Mark Jindrak vs. Doug Basham WWE Velocity banger), and a lot of watchable semi-failures (there is an El Dandy vs. Erik Watts match on Worldwide that isn’t good exactly, but I was very happy watching it). There’s something really appealing about low-stakes wrestling—just throw two wrestlers out there and let them work it out, and often odd pairings can deliver fun stuff.
This was a WCW Pro-tastic styles clash on paper, and it really delivered. Angélico is a South African wrestler who moved to Mexico to train in the llave style of lucha libre mat wrestling with the legendary technical wizard Negro Navarro. Angélico’s earliest stuff was really rough to watch, but after working with legends long enough he began to pick things up. He started teaming with Jack Evans in AAA and Lucha Underground, and that team was one of the early AEW signings, although they never really had many signature moments. Evans’s contract expired, but Angélico is still hanging around, mostly just hanging out on the YouTube shows and leaning into wild submission wrestling.
Yuya Uemura is one of the most promising of the next generation of New Japan Young Lions. A collegiate Greco Roman champion, he started in New Japan in 2018 after training in their Dojo for a year. He spent the first two years of his career on the undercard, mostly losing, which is traditional in the New Japan system. He was then sent on excursion to the U.S., where he has been training at the L.A. Dojo with Katsuyori Shibata and wrestling as part of the New Japan Strong promotion. This was his first AEW match—it seems that part of the burgeoning relationship between the AEW and NJPW is a direct line from the L.A. Dojo to AEW Dark.
The match was almost entirely grappling, with Uemura using his athletic explosion to hit quick escapes and takedowns, and solid basic go-behinds and amateur rides. In contrast, Angélico tied Uemura in knots using off-kilter standing armlocks, including a nasty one that he put on when he extended his hand to Uemura after a standoff. Uemura landed a thwacking chop in response, and Angélico, wanting no part of throwing hands with the kid, went right back to the mat stretching and twisting Yuya’s knees and ankles. Uemura sped the match up a bit by landing some big forearms, arm drags, and a really powerful back suplex. Angélico, however, was able to survive his rush and was able to counter; he hit a dragon screw leg whip and a killer Navarro Death Roll (a spinning reverse figure four) for the tap out.
.@AngelicoAAA gets the victory over @Im_YuyaUemura with a vicious leg submission in this fantastic match full of technical exchanges here on #AEWDark!— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) May 3, 2022
▶️ https://t.co/ezc1tmnFsx pic.twitter.com/8EK2nGSXID
This was a really different kind of match than we are used to seeing on AEW. Angélico is going for something pretty unique in the weird margins of the company. That kind of lucha libre–inspired submission wrestling is pretty rare outside of Mexico (and increasingly rare in Mexico as well) and it is bizarre and cool that a South African in neon tights and a bucket hat is carrying the flag of Negro Navarro, Blue Panther, Skayde, and the rest of the aging lucha libre maestros. Uemura was game to try to match Angélico odd hold for odd hold, and showed the fire and athletic explosion that will likely make him a big star in Japan in the near future. In a sense, this match was inconsequential—Uemura’s future is not in AEW, and Angélico seems unlikely to go anywhere higher up the card—but there is something to be said for consequence-free wrestling.
Anthony Henry vs. Alex Shelley
ACTION: Jawbreakers, May 6
The grappling theme of this week’s column continued with a nasty, violent, submission-heavy battle between two longtime indie wrestling veterans in the opener of Friday’s ACTION wrestling card. It featured a pair of guys who are known for their mat wrestling and testing how far the tendons and ligaments in their opponents’ limbs will stretch before tearing completely.
Alex Shelley was part of the mid-2000s class of indie standouts. He was part of the early days of ROH—he led the Generation Next stable with Roderick Strong, Jack Evans, and Austin Aries, and was part of Prince Nana’s Embassy with the late Jimmy Rave—and wrestled in TNA most notably as a member of the Motor City Machine Guns tag team with Chris Sabin. Shelley also had a long run with New Japan Pro Wrestling as part of the Time Splitters tag team with Kushida. (He even had a one-off NXT appearance, in which he teamed with Kushida in the Dusty Rhodes Classic.) After a short retirement, Shelley has returned, and he recently held the IWTV world title and has been wrestling in Impact Wrestling and New Japan Strong.
Anthony Henry is a longtime independent standout, wrestling primarily in the Southeast both as a singles wrestler and part of the WorkHorsemen tag team with JD Drake. Henry was part of Evolve wrestling, and had a brief run in WWE as Asher Hale (he was released six months after signing as part of the talent cuts around the rebranding of NXT). Since being released, he has been a big part of some major indie wrestling shows, along with working some AEW dates.
I am normally a bit of a low voter on both of these guys, but this match leaned into their strengths while minimizing the things that can bother me about their matches. Like many wrestlers, these two can be so eager to move on to their next dance step that they don’t let the audience react and appreciate the move. Here, they really let every hard strike and violent throw sit for a beat, and allowed the impact to be felt. I really dug how Henry reacted to an early Shelley spin kick: He popped up quick initially to get back in the fight but then slumped back a bit and adjusted his jaw, the kind of delayed reaction you often see in real fights but not really something that happens much in pro wrestling, at least organically.
Most of the match was built around some extremely violent limb work, with Henry wrenching back on a nasty grounded hammerlock-reverse armbreaker (Pentagon Jr.’s Sacrifice finisher). Shelley responded with a pair of hyperviolent dragon screws, one with Henry’s leg trapped in the rope and one with his legs figure-foured. The landing on both moves was a little awkward, which added to the violence—it looked like the kind of awkward landing that would send a basketball player straight to the locker room without even shooting the free throws. Shelley also put on a hard-to-describe but awesome-looking Indian deathlock–armbar combo, which looked like it tore Henry’s rotator cuff and MCL at the same time.
All of the violence in the beginning of the match really helped the finish, as they went into a wild series of reversals, with Henry hitting a great brainbuster, which he rolled right into Shelley’s own border stretch submission. Then Shelly reversed into a roll up, a Shellshock, and a Border City Stretch of his own, which then got spun into a roll up by Henry for the pin. All of this happened in less than a minute. Reversals are really good when they are either slow so you can see all of the steps, or super fast—too many times they are in a middle speed and feel like swing dancing instead of an athletic contest. The finish run here had that hyper-athletic explosiveness that made it feel like two guys teetering on a razor’s edge.
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.