It’s 2023, and guess what? We still have more great pro wrestling 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.
Death Triangle (Pac, Penta El Zero Miedo, and Rey Fénix) vs. the Elite (Kenny Omega, Matt Jackson, and Nick Jackson)
AEW Dynamite, December 28
I braved a snowstorm in the Denver area on Wednesday night to attend Dynamite and Rampage live. It was a great overall card—highlights include a fun Bryan Danielson vs. Ethan Page match (the first time I saw Danielson wrestle live since his Munenori Sawa bout in New Jersey for Evolve back in September 2010), Blackpool Combat Club bullying Top Flight, and Samoa Joe and Wardlow slugging it out. However, surprisingly to me, the standout was the sixth match of AEW’s best-of-seven series between Death Triangle and the Elite. I think this kind of chaotic spotfest brawl works really well as a live experience. There are constant explosions going on all over the arena, and you really feel like you are in the middle of a riot.
I wasn’t particularly excited when they announced this specific best-of-seven series; I have been a low voter on most of their previous interactions, and I am generally lower on the Elite, Penta, and Pac than most wrestling fans—all love to Fénix, no shade on that guy at all. They have done a nice job of making sure these matches feel different than their previous encounters, with folks shifting up their styles a bit and mixing in gimmicks while selling long-term injuries. This match was “falls count anywhere” and really delivered on the pandemonium that stipulation promises.
The wrestlers actually started the match in the back, brawling amongst the catering with a couple of big backstage spots, including Pac hitting a moonsault off of some risers, Fénix getting backdropped through a table and some deli trays (sending the hotel-catering-style cookie array flying), and Nick Jackson landing a flip dive that sent Penta through the chip table. I saw two types of Doritos—regular and Cool Ranch—some regular Lays, and some Fritos, all with black tape over the labels (for licensing reasons, I imagine). It feels like AEW should have healthier catering; these guys are top-level athletes, so they should at least have some salad, maybe some grilled salmon.
I loved how they shifted the match out of the back. The Young Bucks, Penta, and Pac came brawling through the curtain, and Fénix, perched above the stage like the Phantom of the Opera, came flying 15 feet down on the Bucks. Then, just as he was celebrating, Omega came sprinting from the back right with a V-Trigger that sent Fénix ass over teakettle. Nick Jackson then sent Pac downhill on the ramp with a series of rolling Northern Lights suplexes, including a final double Northern Lights suplex on both Pac and Fénix.
The in-ring portion of the match never slowed down, with wrestlers flying in and out of the ring at breakneck speed. Omega destroyed Pac with a garbage can, putting it on his head and drilling it with a V-Trigger, and then flattening the can (and smashing Pac’s kidneys) with a Liger Bomb. Fénix was a monster throughout. One highlight sequence saw him get flipped into a hurricanrana on one Buck, somersault into a cutter on the other Buck, and then wipe out Omega and Michael Nakazawa with a tope con hilo.
The finish was pretty great: Pac and Penta were squared off with the Bucks and ripping through one of their high-octane, tag-match-finishing runs. Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I started to notice that Omega and Fénix were brawling over near the side of the stage. Pac had Matt Jackson locked in the Brutalizer, and then suddenly the attention of the crowd shifted to Omega planting Fénix with a One-Winged Angel off of the stage through tables for the win. I loved how the finish snapped the crowd’s attention to an entirely different part of the arena, and how they timed the pin moments before Jackson was about to give up the ghost.
I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to watch a demolition derby on TV, but if someone invited me to a dirt track somewhere, I would be totally amped. This was a hell of a live demolition derby and was definitely the match that stuck in my mind as I was driving 25 miles per hour down a freeway with my hazards on in a white-out blizzard. These two teams have one more match left, an Escalera de la Muerte match that will no doubt be amazing. Omega hasn’t been in a ladder match since 2016, and I am sure he has lots of disturbing ideas saved up and ready to unleash.
John Cena and Kevin Owens vs. Roman Reigns and Sami Zayn
WWE SmackDown, December 30
A retired wrestler coming to town and walking tall through a rampaging heel team is a classic wrestling trope. When “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan needed help with Skandor Akbar’s army, he called up “Cowboy” Bill Watts to throw some soup bones. When the Fabulous Ones were getting brutalized by the Moondogs, their mentor “Fabulous” Jackie Fargo strapped on the bowtie. The Freebirds could run wild over the Von Erich brothers but would be in big trouble if papa Fritz Von Erich came calling. When someone needed to shut Roddy Piper’s big mouth, Bruno Sammartino put down his microphone and put on a pair of high-waisted wrestling trunks.
These types of matches are usually very simple and very crowd-pleasing: the heels almost always will get a long advantage on the active wrestler who called in the favor, delaying the entrance of the icon until the very end, when he will come in and run wild. John Cena returning to SmackDown for the last show of the year hewed closely to that classic layout. (It’s called a classic layout for a reason.)
I loved the early-show vignette between Paul Heyman and Sami Zayn. Heyman is the secret MVP of the entire Bloodline story line. He was incredible here, with this sort of genial menace, joking about Hanukkah and Ramadan with Zayn, arm around Zayn’s shoulders, but then just casually mentioning that Zayn getting crowd chants isn’t great “optics.” Heyman’s like Paulie Cicero in Goodfellas, all smiles and backslaps and warmth, but any minute now Zayn might be walking into a paneled basement.
The match opened with Zayn and Owens going at each other with Owens gaining the early advantage, landing a hard senton, and even blooding Zayn’s nose a bit with a hard right hand. Reigns then tagged in and dropped Owens with a clothesline. During the commercial break, Owens had his eyebrow split and was bleeding from the eye as Zayn and Owens worked him over. When Owens went to make a tag, Reigns pulled Cena off the apron and ran him into the barricade. This led to Owens fighting both Bloodline members by himself, even landing a frog splash on Reigns for a near-fall. Reigns then blocked a pop-up powerbomb with a Superman punch but missed a follow-up spear and smashed his shoulder into the turnbuckle. That allowed Owens to finally tag Cena and the conquering hero ran wild, dropping both Reigns and Zayn with back suplexes and setting up a double Five Knuckle Shuffle with Owens, dropping Reigns with the Attitude Adjustment, leaving Owens to stunner Zayn and get the pin.
The match felt a bit truncated, and I would have liked them to find a way to show the whole thing rather than have a bunch of the heat on Owens happen during the commercial break. However this kind of purely crowd-pleasing wrestling is really fun to watch, and Cena clearly still has a tremendous connection to the fans. I imagine if Cena ends up at WrestleMania, he will put on a show, no matter where on the card he ends up.
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. the Great Muta
NOAH the New Year 2023, January 1
The week between Christmas and New Year’s is always a big one for wrestling, and there were a bunch of great contenders for this spot in my column. GCW ran a pair of shows, highlighted by “Speedball” Mike Bailey ending his extremely busy year with a slugfest against the ageless 2 Cold Scorpio. Giulia and Syuri battled for the World of Stardom title. IWTV and Beyond Wrestling ran a year-end Wrestival, with nine shows over three days crowning both a new IWTV World Champion and the inaugural IWTV tag champions. And with all of that going on, Vikingo defended his AAA Mega Championship against Bandido in a match that had the GIF makers racing to capture the daring spots they pulled off. However, the New Year is about fireworks and spectacle, and I am celebrating spectacle this week.
NOAH headlined its Budokan show on January 1 with one of the last matches in the legendary career of the Great Muta, as he took on visiting WWE star (and former IWGP Heavyweight champion) Shinsuke Nakamura. Muta is 60 years old, has had multiple knee surgeries, and is obviously physically limited, but still retains his timing, mystique, and charisma. Nakamura was returning to Japanese wrestling for the first time since he signed with WWE in 2017 (outside of some WWE house shows) and was clearly eager to put on a show against one of his idols.
Presentation is a big part of a match like this, and both guys had really great-looking entrances and outfits. Nakamura brought over Lee England Jr. to play the violin as he came to the ring, and he was decked out in a black-and-red bodysuit (think a wrestling version of Eddie Murphy’s Delirious outfit). Muta had on an elaborate robe and a leather mask that resembled his iconic face paint and walked slowly to the ring to ominous music.
Muta is well known for his methodical wrestling style. While he obviously hasn’t sped up his style in his 60s, he is really great at making the things he does mean a ton. There were a lot of breaks in the action when both guys made weird faces at each other—luckily these are a pair of guys who are great at making weird faces.
The match opened with a bit of grappling, and Nakamura dodging Muta, dancing and mocking the legend. Muta was able to take control on the outside, choking Nakamura with a cable before throwing Nakamura back into the ring and hitting his signature power drive elbow. Nakamura took over with kicks and knees, but got cut off with a great-looking Dragon Screw leg whip, a move Muta really popularized during his Pro Wrestling Love period, when he held All Japan Pro Wrestling’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Muta then locked in a figure-four leglock, forcing Nakamura to the ropes. Nakamura was able to block Muta’s first Shining Wizard attempt (another move Muta invented), clocking him with a spin kick. Nakamura then took over with his signature offense, including ax kicks and a sliding German suplex, which was a pretty harsh bump for an old man to take.
Muta then cut off a running attack from Nakamura with a spray of red mist. Muta went to work with a chair, but Nakamura was able to clear his eyes and take over with punches and kicks. Nakamura sprinted down the entrance ramp to hit a clothesline and then locked in his flying juji gatame, only for Muta to break the hold by spraying his even deadlier black mist in Shinsuke’s eyes. That allowed Muta to drill the Shining Wizard for a close near-fall. He landed one to the back of Nakamura’s head, but a third attempt got cut off with a Kinshasa jumping knee.
Then, in one of the coolest and most creative finishes in years, Nakamura gave Muta the Corleone kiss of death, sucking the poison mist from his mouth. Nakamura then spit the original iconic green mist into Muta’s face, blinding him and leaving him open to be drilled by the Kinshasa, securing the win for Nakamura. Muta matches are really more about memorable individual moments than hard-hitting workrate, and the Nakamura kiss is one of those moments which will be remembered for a long time.
Muta has one final match, teaming later this month with Sting and Darby Allin in a six-man match. Their opponents haven’t been announced yet, but I am sure it will be wild. It says something about Muta’s standing as an iconic figure that he will wrestle both WWE and AEW wrestlers during his final tour; I can’t really see that being allowed for anyone else. (Keiji Muto will have a final paint-less match in February.)
Nakamura hasn’t been used on WWE TV since losing in the first round of the SmackDown World Cup in November. It would be cool if they referenced this Muta match as a way to repackage him. You could have Nakamura stealing the mist be permanent and have him blinding people as a heel move. With the rumblings of an Asuka repackaging, having them together as a couple of mist-spraying chaos demons would be pretty great. Nakamura is too good to flounder and he showed here that when given the opportunity, he is still a huge star.
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.