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Don’t Call It a Comeback; It’s Still Kevin Owens’s Show

Elsewhere, Eddie Kingston battles another one of his idols, and Dustin Rhodes takes on ROH champion Claudio Castagnoli

AEW/WWE/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.

Kevin Owens vs. Chad Gable

WWE Raw, August 22

Kevin Owens is wrestling’s ultimate utility player; he can be plugged into virtually any spot on a wrestling card and perform at a high level. He has spent the past couple of years doing stoogey, heel comedy stuff—being flummoxed by Ezekiel, continuing his odd-couple tag team partnership with Seth Rollins, and hosting “The KO Show”—all of which came to an apex with his big WrestleMania main event against the returning Steve Austin, in which he did a stellar job of making the long-retired Austin look like “Stone Cold.” Owens previously has been slotted in a more serious role—which included holding the Universal title for more than half a year—and made his name in the WWE with big, workrate-heavy matches with John Cena, Sami Zayn, and Seth Rollins. That style was a big part of his calling card on the independent scene with Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, and others. He looked like an artisan butcher at a hipster charcuterie bistro, but he could perform athletic feats at the highest level.

Owens is one of the biggest beneficiaries of Triple H taking over the creative for WWE. While it was clear that Vince McMahon had a lot of trust in him as well (you don’t get the Austin spot unless you are extremely well regarded), Triple H clearly sees him not as a comic foil, but as a top star, a position Owens held in the Triple H–run NXT. Since Triple H took over, Owens first convincingly ended his feud with Ezekiel, sending him to the hospital with an apron powerbomb, a move Owens hadn’t used in years. Owens then came out the next week saying he was done joking around, re-embracing his “prize fighter” persona; he then had a big back-and-forth match with Drew McIntyre.

Raw in Toronto was the full debut of Owens as a fired-up babyface. He came out to accept an open challenge by Chad Gable, a talented wrestler currently mired in lower-card comedy muck (the SHOOOOSH T-shirts that Alpha Academy are wearing seem like the kind of thing destined to be bulk donated somewhere), and he and Gable really went after it in a fireworks-heavy match filled with nasty suplexes and big moves.

Owens came out firing, bumping Gable all around the ring to the delight of the Canadian audience until Gable was able to land an exploder suplex on the floor and a German suplex on the ring apron before the commercial break. Gable continued the suplex party when they returned, hitting some rolling Germans. Gable was a Greco-Roman Olympian and has really explosive hips; he just flings Owens tiptoes over elbows with seemingly no assistance from Owens.

The post-commercial-break section of this match was heavy on the offense, with both guys exchanging moves without a ton of long-term selling, although Owens did a brief nod toward selling a knee. The two were throwing everything at each other, including Owens flying halfway across the ring with a frog splash, and Gable hitting another bridging German suplex and a Dynamite Kid–style flying headbutt. Owens also hit an unbelievable fisherman’s superplex before putting away Gable with a superkick and pop-up powerbomb.

Owens showed he can still work a “big moves,” PWG-style match, and it gave Gable a chance to show off a bit in the ring, as well. I really like both Gable and his Alpha Academy partner Otis, but I am not sure if it’s going to happen for them. It feels like the Creed Brothers are on their corner a bit, and the Creeds don’t have the grime of years of failed-sitcom-writer ideas weighing them down (Gable’s previous stint as “Shorty G,” Otis as a modern George “the Animal” Steele, whatever the hell this current gimmick is). I think Alpha Academy would do well with an attempted reinvention in NXT: a Steiners vs. Miracle Violence Connection, jacked-up amateur wrestling-style feud with the Creeds would be pretty cool and a way to put some shine on both teams.

Owens seems like a newly minted title contender, and it wouldn’t shock me to see him challenge either Roman Reigns or Drew McIntyre after Clash at the Castle. It also feels like a mega babyface “Montreal Boys” run with Owens and Zayn versus the Bloodline would be a great program leading to Survivor Series.

Dustin Rhodes vs. Claudio Castagnoli

AEW Rampage, August 26

AEW has made homages and callbacks a big part of its brand. Tony Khan is a deep-dive wrestling fan, raised on message boards and tape trading, and there have been many Easter eggs throughout AEW’s history. Whether it is spots lifted from famous Bret Hart matches, FTR designing their gear to mimic legendary tag teams, or Bryce Remsburg dressed in the full hazmat suit like the ref in the famous Atsushi Onita vs. Terry Funk exploding barbed-wire match. That kind of winking nod to hardcore fans is a big part of overall pop culture—Marvel movies are full of references to obscure comic book story lines, House of the Dragon has callbacks to events from novellas and George R.R. Martin cash-grab history books, and even the most popular airport dad novel series are often laden with technical jargon and spycraft terms.

The fact that we all have supercomputers just sitting in our pockets, which are hundreds of millions of times more powerful than the computers that sent man to the moon, allows those obscure references and callbacks to be easily available. You may not know who Valentina Allegra de Fontaine is and what her relationship is to Nick Fury, or the story of the 10,000 ships of Nymeria, or why CM Punk is walking out in basketball shorts to AFI’s “Miseria Cantare,” but even the most cursory Google search will tell you more than you could possibly need to know.

The finish of the Dustin Rhodes match, with current ROH World Champion Claudio Castagnoli getting accidentally low-blowed on a leapfrog leading to Rhodes hesitating to capitalize and getting dropped by Castagnoli, was a callback to the end of the WCW tag title match from Clash of the Champions XXI in November 1992. Rhodes didn’t follow up on a similar accident on Ricky Steamboat, and it cost him the WCW tag titles and led to his partner, Barry Windham, turning on him. This time, 20 years later, it cost him the ROH world title.

The match leading up to that finish was the kind of excellent heavyweight slugfest you can expect from both guys. Rhodes never had the most chiseled physique and always has been a wrestler who shocked you with his athleticism. At 53, Rhodes is like the old guy in the Equinox pickup run who may make business decisions on fast breaks, but who can dust a guy half his age with a hesitation dribble. Rhodes caught Castagnoli with a slick rollup and a very quick armdrag early, and hit some big highspots during his comeback. Castagnoli is one of the great bases in wrestling history, and he helped make Rhodes’s second-rope rana and code red look incredible.

Castagnoli has definitely rubbed a little dirt on his wrestling style since joining the Blackpool Combat Club, and after Rhodes took his signature missed bodypress bump to the floor, Castagnoli started to grind Rhodes down, driving his forearm into his eye socket, punishing the shoulder, cranking a crossface. Castagnoli has such visible grip strength, all of those extra cranks and twists look especially brutal; he looks like a guy who can rip phone books in half, and having those hands rip your shoulder joint is especially nasty. Rhodes was actually able to get back into the match by speeding it up, which is an interesting strategy for the much older man, but the accidental headbutt to Castagnoli’s crotch broke up his momentum.

The finish was an interesting choice; callbacks for callbacks’ sake, however, are a pretty shallow style of storytelling, and the effectiveness of the ending will really depend on where they go from here. In AEW, Rhodes has been used as a special attraction, popping up every three months or so, having a banger, and then fading back into the background. If this is the last we see of him for another three months, then the finish is just a cute little wink to hardcore fans.

They talked a lot on commentary about how Rhodes had always fallen short of a world title, and how this might be his last opportunity. If the story is that Rhodes’s hesitancy has always been his Achilles’ heel and now Arn Anderson will burn that compassion out of him—well, that is a wrestling story worth telling. Rhodes tweeted about needing to do some soul searching, which does suggest something more long-term may be in the works.

Anderson and Rhodes have such a deep history, as well; Rhodes offered up his innocence and Anderson paid him back in scorn, and the idea of Anderson pouring poison in Rhodes’s ear and Dustin having to embrace the devils he thought he had conquered is really intriguing. Will he have to live a nightmare to finally achieve his dream?

Eddie Kingston vs. Naomichi Marufuji

HOG High Intensity 9, August 28

The seminal New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat said, “Influence is not influence. It is simply someone’s idea going through my new mind.” The ideas that went through Eddie Kingston’s mind came from two major sources: the wild ECW brawls he watched on television growing up in New York and the All Japan King’s Road wars he saw when he began to trade tapes. We see the influences of Cactus Jack and Terry Funk when Kingston speaks powerfully about his pain and struggle, when comes to the ring with dead eyes and a gas can, when he hurls himself and Chris Jericho into barbed wire. He also wears the influences of the 1990s All Japan legends on his chest—the black-and-gold gear paying tribute to Toshiaki Kawada, the Kenta Kobashi bullet chops in the corner, the Jun Akiyama–style exploder. However, what separates Kingston’s All Japan tribute matches from other American wrestlers trying to do moves they saw on tapes is his selling.

Kingston is one of the great sellers in wrestling history, he is consistently finding new and interesting ways to convey to the audience the pain he is in and the slow betrayal of his body. That selling is what really made All Japan Pro Wrestling special—the way Mitsuharu Misawa would let you know that he was in a war by a slight stumble or wince, or how Kawada would study MMA fighters and boxers to see how they react to getting stunned or knocked out.

Naomichi Marufuji is from that All Japan lineage. He started his career in the All Japan dojo and when his mentor, Misawa, split off from All Japan to form Pro Wrestling NOAH, Marufuji joined him. Marufuji soon became one of the top junior heavyweight stars of the promotion, capturing the GHC Junior Heavyweight title before moving to heavyweight, where he became a four-time GHC Heavyweight Champion, beating icons Jun Akiyama, Yuji Nagata, Minoru Suzuki, and Keiji Muto to win those titles.

Marufuji is a tremendously influential wrestler as well; his matches against Kenta are templates for the direction in which pro wrestling has moved in the 21st century. You can draw a straight line between that style and the style which main events New Japan, AEW, and WWE. Wrestlers like Kazuchika Okada, Seth Rollins, and Kenny Omega all come from that Marufuji stylistic tree.

Eddie Kingston wasn’t interested in having that kind of Marufuji match, though. He wanted to go back a generation ago to war with the student of Misawa. The House of Glory undercard seemed to run pretty long (there was a Charles Mason vs. Joey Janela match that felt like it lasted 11 days), and thus the main event was seemingly truncated. I think in many ways this may have been to its benefit—the short time caused them to work a hard-hitting sprint with any fat mercilessly trimmed out.

The match opened with both guys exchanging chops, with Kingston walking through the first one only to crumple after the second. The match was hard exchanges back and forth, with Marufuji throwing a dropkick or two, and his Shiranui, but otherwise he kept the match simple and violent. Marufuji hit a sick knee to the back of the head, which Kingston sold like Tommy in the basement in Goodfellas. Marufuji used his speed to avoid Eddie’s rushes and counterpunched with hard jumping knees.

Kingston was able to even the playing field when he drew Marufuji into another back-and-forth exchange. You could see the pain behind Kingston’s eyes as Marufuji blistered his chest, but he knew the only chance he had was to absorb shot after shot and hope for an opening. Marufuji got tired of the chop exchange and unloaded a wild combo, interspersing hook kicks right to the jaw and hard jumping knees. Kingston was stumbling around the ring rubber-legged, but he got his one opening and he was able to drill Marufuji with a back fist that didn’t drop him, but did slow the onslaught enough for Kingston to land two hard back fists for the knockout. On this night, Kingston’s hands were a bit heavier, his spine was a bit stiffer, and he was able to outlast and survive a hero of his. There is too much talk about a Jun Akiyama match for it not to happen eventually, and I love the idea of Kingston touring the indies and taking down his idols, one by one.

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.