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.
Seth Rollins vs. Cody Rhodes
WWE Hell In a Cell, June 5
The Hell and Cell as a gimmick has always been at its best when it’s gruesome. Whether that means Mick Foley plummeting to his death like Alan Rickman at the end of Die Hard, or Brock Lesnar and the Undertaker taking a bubble bath in their own blood, the horror is what makes it memorable. The long-standing ban on intentional bleeding in the WWE–and the institution of the annual HIAC show, which makes an assembly line out of the death match–has taken a ton of steam out of the Cell. Taking a look at a list of Hell In a Cell matches in the last 15 or so years, it is a litany of the half-forgotten and dimly remembered: CM Punk vs. John Cena vs. Alberto Del Rio in a 3-way? Randy Orton vs. Drew McIntyre? Roman Reigns vs. Rusev? CM Punk vs. Ryback and Paul Heyman? You take away the nightmare fuel, you just have some guys working a stunt brawl.
Word came down yesterday afternoon that Cody Rhodes had suffered a torn pectoral muscle while training, but he was determined to go through with the match. If it was unclear how serious the situation was–this is pro wrestling after all–the sight of Cody’s repulsively bruised chest, pulsating, swelling and changing colors answered the question loudly. Just looking at him, it felt certain to be a performance for the pro wrestling history books. It looked like he was going through necropathy mid match, and every bump he took or move he applied made it look worse. This is the kind of performance which should propel him into made-man status. There have been wrestlers who have wrestled through worse injuries, but nothing so visual. We can’t see a slipped disc or a cracked vertebrae, but we could see every shade of violet in that torn pectoral.
This match, however, seems destined to go down as one of the iconic Hell In a Cell matches, even without the claret. We can’t forget that Cody is one of pro wrestling’s true sickos–he went through a flaming table in a random TV match and did a moonsault off of a cage and barely got caught. Here he wrestled this match with a torn pec that absolutely should have put him on the shelf for months and left the right side of his body purple, blue, and midnight black. It’s Hell In a Cell and Cody just said to himself “I can’t bleed out of my head, but they can’t stop me from bleeding in my body.”
I wasn’t a big fan of the previous two matches between Rollins and Rhodes–both guys are obviously talented professionals, but I thought both matches came off as sort of empty finisher trading spotfests with lots of shocked faces and faux dramatic kickouts. I think if Cody had been healthy last night and they ran the same match move for move, it would have left me similarly underwhelmed, but all of those dramatic kickouts were so much more visceral when you see how injured that shoulder was and how physically demanding every kickout really was. It was almost hard to watch Cody trying to lift Rollins up in suplexes with his arm about to fall off his body like a cheaply made action figure. All deserved respect to the extreme icon Sandman, but kendo sticks have become one of the most overused and dead tropes in all of wrestling–and yet, when you crack a guy with a Kendo stick right into his diseased eggplant of a shoulder, it still means something. Same goes for table spots–when Rollins teased putting Cody through a table, he would be going back and shoulder first, with that arm crashing through wood, and you winced at the thought.
I thought the iconography of this match worked well too, Seth coming out in the polka dots that Dusty Rhodes, Cody’s father, made famous was a cute heel touch, and I like this deranged troll character more than a lot of the things they have done with him in recent years. There was something a bit hokey about Cody breaking out Dusty’s bullrope, but wrestling is built on shmaltz, and it worked for me in a way that the ending match spots built around Triple H tributes really didn’t. The match was best when it was focused on Seth brutalizing the injury and Cody fighting back valiantly. When a match is gifted something so visceral, minimalism is the way to go. Instead they went maximalist at the end which hurt the match a bit. I thought the last five minutes were more of a greatest hits montage of their previous matches, and got away from the grittiness which made this such a memorable match and moment. We really didn’t need the dueling Crossroads. A simple armbar by Seth would have worked much better.
Nitpicking aside, wrestling is about memorable moments, even more than it is about great matches, and Cody Rhodes fighting his way through such a horrific-looking injury to avenge his family’s name and vanquish his enemy is about as memorable as it gets.
Young Bucks vs. Lucha Brothers
AEW Rampage, June 3
Homecomings in sports and life are potent moments—for athletes who have left home for a bigger stage and return a bigger star, the hometown return is a transcendent moment for the star and for the audience. It’s also one of the ways AEW has differentiated itself. WWE has famously humiliated wrestlers in their hometowns, possibly to avoid the Bret Hart scenario where crowd reactions are different in different towns. From William Regal getting squashed by Fandango in his last matches in England to Sasha Banks losing her Women’s title in Boston, in WWE, coming home is bad news. The smart move might be for wrestlers to bill themselves as being from Parts Unknown. WWE seems to want to control the crowd reactions, even if that means boos.
AEW has done the opposite, embracing and showcasing hometown wrestlers and idiosyncratic reactions, even running a show in Long Island during the MJF vs. CM Punk feud where the normally hated heel MJF received a rapturous reaction and Punk, the biggest star in AEW, was booed out of the building. AEW clearly believes that intense invested crowds are worth the trouble, even if they aren’t toeing the company (story) line.
The Young Bucks got the hometown heroes’ welcome on Rampage this week, competing in Ontario, California, a half a dozen or so miles from where they started wrestling on a ring in the backyard of their childhood home. The Bucks got their official training under “American Wild Child” Ron Rivera, So-Cal wrestling icon Super Dragon and current TNT champion Scorpio Sky, and first broke out as part of Southern California super indie Pro Wrestling Guerilla. They became multiple-time PWG tag-team champions, and parlayed that success into tours of Japan with Dragon’s Gate and eventually New Japan. The Bucks were early members of the Bullet Club faction, who became so popular that their T-shirts were best-sellers on both Pro-Wrestling Tees and in Hot Topic stores, despite not being a faction in the U.S. The Bucks and fellow Bullet Club members Kenny Omega and Cody Rhodes parlayed that success to run the All In event and become the founders of AEW. The Bucks are a modern pro wrestling success story, going from skinny short kids wrestling in their backyards to founding members of a national wrestling company, working the sort of frenetic spot heavy style which veterans in the wrestling business have long insisted would never be anything more than a sideshow.
This match was a celebration of that journey, the ninth match between the Bucks and the Lucha Brothers, a feud which started in Southern California for PWG in 2016 and was a major match on the first AEW show, Double or Nothing, in 2019.
The match delivered what you would expect on paper: wild spot after wild spot, with all four guys cranking the volume knob up to Spinal Tap’s 11. After a hand gesture standoff—Penta sticking his Cero Miedo sign in the face of Matt Jackson, who responded with the Bullet Club/NWO Too Sweet gesture—it was all bottle rockets, starting with armdrags and flips, escalating into dives on the floor and climaxing in huge double team maneuvers. The wrestlers kept building on that crowd response and pushing themselves into crazier and crazier moves. Some of the highlights include a tremendous double springboard tornillo dive by Fénix, Matt Jackson hitting a double locomotion Northern Lights Suplex on both Lucha Brothers, Nick hitting a top rope dropkick on an elevated Fénix causing him to poison rana his own brother, and Fénix hitting a huge superfly splash off the shoulders of Penta.
In many ways the whole match was one long finishing run—one epic move building to the next—but the actual last minutes were even more frantic. The Bucks hit a Meltzer driver (a front flip spiked tombstone, which was named after Wrestling Observer journalist Dave Meltzer, an enthusiastic Bucks match rater), only to see Pentagon break up the pin. Matt then snatched the mask off of Pentagon to incapacitate him, leaving a stunned Fénix to take a V Trigger double knees for the KO win.
Normally I’m a low voter on this style of match, but it’s hard to deny that when it works, it works. This match was the equivalent of drinking a Slurpee too fast or doing a whippet—it was all a wild headrush that makes you feel bad and good at the same time. AEW is clearly a promotion in flux right now with new world champ CM Punk needing surgery less than a week after winning the crown. (He seems to have broken his foot diving into the crowd. How does a guy who has been to that many hardcore punk shows not know how to crowd surf without fucking himself up?) In times like these it’s a luxury to have this kind of match in your back pocket, ready to invigorate both the crowd in the arena and the fans at home.
Mike Bailey vs. Alec Price
Black Label Pro, June 4
Since being allowed back in the U.S. after a five-year ban due to an immigration violation, Speedball Mike Bailey has been on an absolute tear. He is easily one of the most prolific wrestlers in the world—he has had 58 matches in 2022, and seems to want to speed through every great match he missed out on during his U.S. exile.
Alec Price is one of the breakout independent stars of this year. A Boston native, he has this magnetic Southie dirtbag energy. With stringy, greasy hair and a wispy starter mustache, he feels like a character out of Gone Baby Gone—wired up, unstable, the kind of guy who would snort a line of Adderall and start a bar fight for no real reason. It’s a great wrestling gimmick and he’s a tremendous in-ring talent as well.
This is a rematch from a great fight in March, but Round 2 featured an interesting role reversal. Price is almost always a heel, and Bailey is almost always a babyface, but this night Price’s intensity connected with the crowd. He may be a shithead, but he was their shithead. Meanwhile, Bailey’s smiling strip-mall sensei energy kind of crossed over to smarminess. He has a white mouthpiece, which can look like local news weatherman veneers, and he seemed to be smirking the entire match.
After coming in and bowing to the ring announcer and his opponent and offering a handshake, Bailey jumped on Price with a brutal running kick and a sheer drop brainbuster for a quick pin attempt. It certainly wasn’t cheating, but it felt a little cheap-shotty, which was the vibe Bailey was going for the whole time. Speedball laid into his shots with more weight than I can ever remember seeing before—frequently his karate is more flashy than violent, but here it felt like he was trying to take Price’s head off with every shot. He also kept throwing Price to the floor and asking the ref to count him out, a total heel move that presaged the finish to the match. At one point Bailey offered Price a free shot in response to an elbow exchange, and Price’s boney elbow hit Bailey like a police truncheon.
Like all Bailey matches, there were some incredible exchanges—super-high difficulty-level stuff—with both guys tap-dancing on a highwire. One incredible segment started with Bailey rolling out of the ring to dodge a frog splash. Price then tried to run and dive on him, but Bailey tripped Price and jumped back into the ring only to fly back out, cracking Price with an elbow suicida, which sent them both three rows deep into the crowd. Bailey then threw Price into the ring, but while he was gloating, Price ran and hit his own dive, flying recklessly over the top rope like a tweaker leaping off a speaker at a Dropkick Murphys show. Price went for a second dive, but Bailey evaded it and they both ended up standing on the apron, where Bailey obliterated Price with a jumping kick. Speedball then set up his double-knee moonsualt on the apron, but Price moved, snatched Bailey in a torture rack and flipped him jaw first on the apron. It was an incredible two minutes of wild wrestling, as cool as anything I have seen all year.
The finish was tremendous as well. They exchanged some big moves, including a moonsault powerslam by Bailey and a big jumping double stomp by Price. Bailey evaded a kick and went to the apron, Price ran at him, and Bailey sidestepped him and in one motion hit a beautiful top rope Asai moonsault that sent both guys crashing into chairs. Bailey slid back into the ring to beat the count and eke out a countout win.
It was a nice change from the series of 2.9 counts that you normally see in a match like this, and it felt a bit unsatisfying to the crowd in a good way—the expectation was subverted in a way that made Bailey come off like kind of a jerk without actually doing anything wrong. This leaves them 1-1 against each other and sets up a great rubber match. I’m not sure how long Speedball can keep delivering matches at this pace—he’s on a mid-1980s Ric Flair clip right now, and every match is hard-hitting, punishing stuff. Still we need to treasure this while it’s happening—it’s a truly special run.
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.