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Moxley, Riddle Shine in Impressive TV Main Events (and Switchblade Wins the Gold)

Also, Daniel Makabe and Anthony Henry put on a clinic in your top pro wrestling matches of the week

WWE/NJPW/AEW/Ringer illustration

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.

Jon Moxley vs. Kyle O’Reilly

AEW Dynamite, June 8

It is clear that CM Punk’s unfortunate stage-dive-induced foot injury has left AEW booking a bit spun around. Punk had just won the AEW World Championship and the promotion had just set up Punk vs. New Japan legend Hiroshi Tanahashi for the AEW title at the Forbidden Door co-promotional pay-per-view on June 26. Tony Khan famously books well in advance and Punk’s injury is a spanner in the works. In an attempt to solve the problem, AEW booking got a bit convoluted, anointing Jon Moxley the no. 1 contender (when as of a week ago, Wardlow was the company’s no. 1 ranked contender, so that was a bit funky) and saying he would face the winner of a casino battle royale on Dynamite. The winner of that match would go on to face the winner of Hirooki Goto vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi for the interim AEW World Championship. It feels like they took five steps when two or three would do, especially because the battle royale was missing some of the promotion’s biggest stars (Chris Jericho, Adam Page, Bryan Danielson) and included some undercarders with no plausible claim for a world title shot (John Silver, Gunn Club, Dante Martin). Still, this is a column primarily about the matches, not the bookings, and however clunkily AEW got to Jon Moxley vs. Kyle O’Reilly, the match itself was a total banger.

Since joining the Blackpool Combat Club, Moxley has added a lot of gritty Karl Gotch–inspired grappling to his portfolio, clearly showing the influence of both Danielson and William Regal. That melded perfectly here with the more MMA-influenced style of O’Reilly. Early in the match, Moxley took O’Reilly down with a Cornish Hype hip toss variation and grounded him with a nasty hammerlock. Mox then gave O’Reilly a free shot, and he responded by busting up his mouth with a combination of elbows, kicks, and slaps—at this point, Moxley rarely wrestles a match without someone leaking a bit. One of the best things about O’Reilly is how he varies his shots. Too often wrestlers just stand and trade weak elbow strikes; O’Reilly mixes it up with leg kicks, palm strikes, body shots, and feints.

There was an incredible moment late in the match when Moxley put on a chicken wing choke with O’Reilly’s arms locked up. O’Reilly went to bite the rope to break the hold, only to see Moxley kick the rope, seemingly sending O’Reilly’s bicuspids into his brain stem. Moxley then nearly decapitated O’Reilly with a lariat for a near fall. A bit later, Moxley attempted a Gotch piledriver (where the arm is hooked in the crotch on the lift), which O’Reilly was able to counter with a great arm-trapped triangle choke, which he then flowed into a kneebar—just awesome, high-leverage violent wrestling.

The end was just a slugfest with both guys exchanging elbows, slaps, and hard clotheslines until they collapsed in almost an embrace. Moxley was finally able to chain a rear naked choke, into a bulldog choke, into a running knee, into a paradigm shift to finally get the win. O’Reilly came off like such a badass because Moxley had to completely pull out all the stops to put him down.

There are a vocal group of AEW fans who resent O’Reilly, Bobby Fish, and Adam Cole as NXT interlopers, but this kind of performance should go a long way toward getting any residual NXT stink off of him. Moxley is in the midst of an all-time run, in both AEW and elsewhere (he had a great match with “Speedball” Mike Bailey in Wrestling Revolver over the weekend as well). Moxley has been calling out Tanahashi ever since he left the WWE, and I was left underwhelmed by their interactions in the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship four-way last month, but Moxley clearly wants to deliver a special match in the main event of Forbidden Door and I have a ton of faith he will pull that off.

Sami Zayn vs. Riddle

WWE Friday Night SmackDown, June 10

Since unifying the WWE Championship and the WWE Universal Championship at WrestleMania, Roman Reigns has wrestled only once on either TV or at a premium live event, a six-man tag match at WrestleMania Backlash. He has had no televised championship defenses (although he has defended the title against Drew McIntyre 10 times at various house shows). His absence leaves the WWE in a weird booking conundrum; the nearest analogy I can think of is when Ric Flair only showed up in the ’80s NWA territories only every couple of months to defend the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. However, even when Dick Murdoch and Butch Reed were feuding to get a chance at Flair, there was at least a North American title to fight over; the WWE has a couple of secondary singles titles, but the United States Championship and Intercontinental Championship are midcard titles, not something fought over by contenders to the World Championship. This requires the WWE to build its TV and premium live events around things other than title defenses, while still keeping Reigns floating above it all.

The main event of SmackDown was the culmination of the story line with Sami Zayn auditioning for the Bloodline. The stipulations for this match were as follows: If Zayn won, Riddle would be barred from SmackDown for life, and Zayn would gain purchase with the Bloodline. If Riddle won, he would get a title shot against Roman Reigns (on SmackDown, not the upcoming Money in the Bank premium live event, which says a lot about what the WWE is prioritizing these days). This allowed Paul Heyman to sweat, flutter, and glare at ringside like a nervous cantor, and gave the whole production a big-match feel.

Randy Orton, Riddle’s now-injured erstwhile partner, was the ghost haunting this match. Zayn used Orton moves to taunt Riddle, and Riddle has added a bunch of Orton offense to his already overflowing move arsenal. During Zayn’s time as El Generico (allegedly) and his NXT run, he was one of the most offensively diverse and innovative wrestlers in the world, frequently breaking out huge and memorable spots. In this current heel run, he has mothballed almost all of it, and is now mostly punches, elbow drops, stomps, and stooging, more Buck Robley than Kenny Omega. That is a feature, not a bug—however honestly, wrestling could use more Buck Robleys, and Zayn is a pretty great Robley.

The match started with Riddle unloading on Zayn, gutwrench suplex into a powerbomb, jumping triangle choke, exploder suplexes, the whole kitchen sink—in contrast to Zayn, Riddle has one of the deepest bags in wrestling, and he emptied it all over Sami early. Zayn was able to take over into the commercial break, however, by shoving Riddle off the top rope, sending him careening into the barricade. Post commercials, Sami pummeled Riddle with punches and stomps and he even hit Orton’s hanging DDT, but got caught with a knee when he tried an RKO. Riddle took over, hitting an Orton powerslam and a hanging DDT of his own, but got his RKO attempt cut off with a Blue Thunder Bomb in a great spot. Sami hit an exploder in the corner and went for his running kick, only to be caught mid-sprint with an RKO for the pin.

Riddle vs. Reigns is one of the biggest matches the WWE can run, and while Riddle has very little chance of winning, this is a chance for him to establish himself as a top-of-the-card star, in a promotion where that list has suddenly become pretty slim.

Daniel Makabe vs. Anthony Henry

ACTION Suge, You’re Going Down, June 10

Daniel Makabe is one of the outsider oddballs that make wrestling so great. Makabe started training for wrestling in 2003 in British Columbia and wrestled off and on in between stints as a guitar player in hardcore and shoegaze punk bands. He began getting some more national attention as part of the 3-2-1 BATTLE! promotion, where he got a chance to grapple with bigger names like Jonathan Gresham, Negro Navarro, and Timothy Thatcher, whom he had a three-match series with. That led to more opportunities and Makabe went on to win both the Scenic City Invitational Tournament and the WXW Germany Ambition shoot-style tournament, and is challenging for the IWTV world title on Monday.

Makabe is a hard-core wrestling-footage geek (I sold him some bootleg mixtapes in the late ’90s), but instead of cribbing suplexes and big spots, he borrows a Carl Greco hammerlock, a Masa Fuchi knee bar, and a Shu El Guerrero reversal and mixes it all up in a limb-ripping, tendon-shredding stew. In true DIY punk tradition, Makabe has no real ambition to do anything more than tour around the world tearing people’s shoulders out of their sockets. Anthony Henry is coming off of an abbreviated stint in WWE as Asher Hale, and has returned to indy wrestling working a high-impact, mat-based style, a more aggro version of Makabe’s bread and butter.

The pace difference between these two made an interesting contrast. Henry is intense and forward moving; a wrestler in the lineage of the Dynamite Kid, he comes into most matches with a big athleticism advantage. In contrast, Makabe is more of a problem solver: he sets traps, attacks an arm to set up an attack on a leg, and finds a way to evade and elude. On offense, Makabe tried to keep contact, always grabbing a wrist or a leg as a way to flow into different roll-ups and submission attempts. Henry had his best moments when he was able to get some separation, hitting a snap piledriver or a penalty kick to the spine. Henry had some success on the mat, and Makabe was able to land some shots, including cutting off a dive with a huge wind-up punch, but both guys were better off keeping the match in their wheelhouses. The end of the match got wilder and wilder, including a great moment when Makabe countered an ankle lock with a leg lace takedown, leading both men to lock in leglocks. They rolled to the apron, where both guys refused to be the first to break, and instead crashed violently to the floor while locked together, with the legs slamming awkwardly into the wooden floor.

After both wrestlers crawled back into the ring, the pace intensified with counterhold after counterhold until Makabe reversed a Gotch piledriver into a takedown. He then flowed seamlessly into an STF, spun that into a Fujiwara armbar, and turned that into a hammerlock roll-up. It was the apex moment of all of the crazy grappling Makabe was doing the entire match. Watching him when he gets on a roll like that is like watching an AND1 mixtape dribbling expert, or the kid juggling Rubik’s Cubes while solving them—a kind of physical performance art that doesn’t seem possible, with moves that in their own way are as spectacular as the wildest Dante Martin dive or huge Brock Lesnar suplex.

Honorable Mention

Jay White vs. Kazuchika Okada

NJPW Dominion, June 12

New Japan Wrestling’s Dominion card closed out with the battle for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship between longtime rivals Kazuchika Okada and “Switchblade” Jay White. Okada has been the ace of New Japan Wrestling for the past decade. He started his career training in Mexico under Último Dragón, before joining the New Japan dojo in 2007. He captured the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship five times, won the annual round robin G1 Climax tournament three times, and had held the Unified IWGP World Heavyweight Championship since January. He was the first Japanese wrestler to place no. 1 in the Pro Wrestling Illustrated 500, and was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler of the Decade (2010s) by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.

White is originally from New Zealand, but came up through the New Japan dojo system after being discovered and recruited by Prince Devitt (Finn Bálor) in the U.K. White was a member of Okada’s CHAOS heel faction until he attacked and turned on Okada with Okada’s longtime manager Gedo and became the leader of the Bullet Club faction (a spot previously held by Devitt, AJ Styles, and Kenny Omega). White had previously held the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, but lost it to Okada at the main event of the Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling super show at Madison Square Garden. Coming into this match, White held a 3-1 record against Okada, but the one loss was the only title match between the two.

White worked a punishing, methodical pace for much of this match. He damaged Okada’s ribs when he threw him over the top rope with a Saito suplex, and damaged his knee with a pair of nasty dragon screws and his reverse figure four submission (which he named the TTO for Tanahashi Tap Out, after he tapped Hiroshi Tanahashi with it). White was a great shit-talker in this match, flapping his gums the entire time, telling Okada he was going to beat him with his own style, trying to get the fans to start an Okada chant counter to the COVID-era rules in Japan forbidding chanting, chatting with Gedo about what moves he was going to put on, telling Okada he was going to rename the TTO the OTO (Okada Tap Out). It was like watching a keyed-up Draymond Green trying to get in the head of his opponents and daring the ref to eject him. Okada was more stoic, gritting his way through pain to hit big dropkicks which looked like they hurt him as much as White. White’s antics made every shot Okada landed really feel satisfying, like he was finally going to shut this clown up. The best moment of the match came after a ref bump when Gedo slid a chair into the ring for White, only to have Okada step on it and slide it right back out before lacing into White. It felt like the kind of triumphant babyface move you might see out of Dusty Rhodes or John Cena.

The match finish lost some of the goodwill the previous 35 minutes engendered, though. A lot of the big New Japan matches finish with a section of both guys ducking and reversing and no-selling multiple finishers and finisher attempts. At its worst, it is something that looks more like swing dancing than a fight, and this match got very do-si-do in the last couple of moments before White finished the cha-cha with a Blade Runner (swinging Stroke, a.k.a. Alex Shelly’s Shell Shock).

White winning the title throws a bit of a twist into the upcoming Forbidden Door joint New Japan–AEW pay-per-view. They seemed to be setting up Adam Page to challenge Okada for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, with Adam Cole being involved, possibly in a three-way. With White capturing the IWGP title and delivering some taunting to Page about not challenging for the belt, it seems more likely that we will get Okada vs. Page with no title, and White possibly defending against Bullet Club alumnus Adam Cole, or some sort of multi-person Elite–Bullet Club tag match. New Japan clearly sees White vs. Okada to be the successor to the Okada vs. Omega feud; this match didn’t reach the heights of that feud, but they will clearly have more chances to deliver a classic.

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.