There’s more great pro wrestling in 2023 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.
Darby Allin vs. Samoa Joe
AEW Dynamite, January 4
AEW opened 2023 by debuting in front of a raucous Seattle crowd that was rewarded with the crowning of hometown hero Darby Allin as new TNT champion with an intense victory over Samoa Joe. This was a rematch of their great fight from several weeks ago, which ended with Joe giving Allin a disgusting ura nage on the exposed wheel trucks of Allin’s skateboard. I am really in awe of all of the new ways Allin finds to mangle his body each week.
AEW does a really nice job of leaning into homecomings and giving local wrestlers big moments. Allin had a Seattle-themed video wall intro and hugged Seattle-based wrestling prodigy Nick Wayne—the son of Allin’s trainer, Buddy Wayne, who already has an AEW contract waiting for him when he turns 18—before he started the match. Joe strutted down to the ring with a belt over each shoulder (Joe also holds the ROH TV title) and went to the front row and grabbed Nick Wayne by the throat (which should set up an awesome match either in DEFY or in AEW after Wayne graduates high school). Allin drilled Joe from behind with a tope, and then slammed him in the back multiple times with his skateboard. He then ollied off the stage and landed the wheels of the board right into the kidney area of Joe’s back. Then, because it’s his hometown and he is reckless, Allin dragged out a 12-foot ladder and hit a flip dive off of the top rung, crashing into Joe but tweaking his own knee in the process. A truly brutal start to a match, especially considering that all of this happened before the bell even rang.
A raddled Joe took over when he caught a dive off the apron, hurling Allin spine-first into the ring steps. It looked totally reckless; Joe just tossed him with little guidance to where he would actually land, and it looked way nastier than a more guided bump. Then the beating commenced, with Joe sending Allin flying wildly into the ring post, then to the floor. Joe followed up with a dismantling of Allin’s body, punishing Allin with chops, kicks, chokes, and a nasty double cross-legged kneebreaker. There is the obvious connection between Allin and Sting, and in many ways, this was Allin’s version of the Sting vs. Vader classics of the early ’90s. Joe has that same sort of combination of methodical menace, shocking agility, and one-shot knockout power that made Vader such a phenom.
Allin was able to grab a go behind, but Joe blocked the roll-up by ripping off the turnbuckle pad. Chekhov’s exposed turnbuckle would come back to bite him moments later, though, as Allin countered a Joe choke by driving his head into the metal bolt. Allin then hit a great-looking Code Red followed by two Coffin Drops for the win. Joe is really great at taking moves like the Code Red; Austin Aries hit a similar-looking crucifix driver to set up the finish when Joe lost his ROH world title. Joe just flings himself backward violently with such explosion and force that they really look like knockout blows.
It has been so much fun to watch Samoa Joe the past couple of months. I had assumed that injuries and age had taken away any chance for Joe to be the force he was in his prime, but especially in these two Allin matches, Joe has looked like Samoa Joe, which is just awesome to see. I hope that this loss doesn’t derail him; there are a lot of matchups I still really want to see. For example, MJF recruiting Joe as a roadblock to his old foe Bryan Danielson could be something really special.
Currently, every AEW title is around the waist of a homegrown AEW talent rather than an ex-WWE import (outside of one-third of the trios titles being held by Pac, who isn’t a wrestler who screams “Stamford”). This feels like a bit of a correction to the post-WWE budget cuts hiring spree AEW went on early last year.
AEW really feels like it has righted the ship after an injury-and-backstage-turmoil-plagued 2022 (although it was a 2022 that had some tremendous high points). Allin has been mostly used in tag matches with Sting in the past year or so, and while those have been super fun exhibitions, he is one of the promotion’s most over and talented wrestlers. I like the idea of Rampage being built around Allin and Orange Cassidy title matches (both Allin vs. Mike Bennett and Cassidy vs. Kip Sabian were tremendous this week, and very close calls for this column). There are lots of great Allin matchups out there and I am very excited to see what his 2023 will look like.
Kenny Omega vs. Will Ospreay
NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 17, January 4
This was the semi-main event of Wrestle Kingdom, New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s annual January 4 Tokyo Dome show, and was a dream match between the previous New Japan gaijin ace Omega and the man who has taken on that role since he left to help form AEW, Will Ospreay.
Omega was a huge part of the mid-2010s resurgence of New Japan. He headlined two previous Wrestling Kingdom shows, and his series of matches with Kazuchika Okada were some of the most acclaimed in-ring matches in wrestling history. Their Wrestling Kingdom 11 match in January 2017 was the first match given six stars by Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer, their rematch in June 2017 went 60 minutes and bested the match ranking by getting 6 ¼ stars, and the two-out-of-three-falls match in June 2018 was even higher, getting seven stars (there has been some real grade inflation going on with the Meltzer star ratings in the past five years). Omega hadn’t returned to Japan since starting in AEW in 2019 and was hurt during last year’s joint AEW-NJPW Forbidden Door pay-per-view, a show which may have had this match on it.
Ospreay has picked up Omega’s gauntlet since he left. Like Omega, he started as a junior heavyweight in New Japan, capturing the Best of the Super Juniors tournament title in 2016 and holding the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship three times. In 2019, Ospreay moved up to the heavyweight division, toning down some of his acrobatics and leaning more into hard-hitting wrestling. He captured the IWGP World Heavyweight title by defeating longtime rival Kota Ibushi in April 2021, but was forced to vacate the belt due to a neck injury. Ospreay’s return included capturing the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship, which was the belt he was defending against Omega in this match.
The buildup to this match saw Ospreay angry with Omega for belittling his legacy, placing New Japan on his shoulders during the pandemic while Omega left for greener pastures. The meta story line for this match is the two most critically-acclaimed wrestlers of their era facing off in a singles match for only the second time. (Their first match against each other was a Pro Wrestling Guerrilla encounter from December 2015, back when they were both more high-flying junior heavyweights.)
I think most people expected this match to be an athletic work rate contest, similar to Ospreay’s matches with Ibushi, Ricochet, and Shingo Takagi or Omega’s battles with Okada and his trios matches with the Elite. While there was certainly some of that, for the most part, both men instead chose violence. They laid into each other with reckless regard for the health and well-being of their opponent, and that made the match truly compelling.
Ospreay and Omega felt each other out for the first couple of minutes, with Omega delivering the first bit of true nastiness as he push-kicked Ospreay head-, back-, and neck-first into exposed turnbuckle hooks. Ospreay returned the favor moments later with a hard Kawada kick to the eye and a stiff superkick to the face, one of which seemed to swell and bruise up Omega’s eye. Omega was able to block an OsCutter on the ring apron and knock Ospreay to the floor. He then placed a table on top of Ospreay’s back and double-stomped a chunk right through it into Ospreay’s back and kidneys. (Ospreay “nearly died” from a serious kidney infection in May of last year.) Omega, who at his heart is sort of a goober, then stuck his face through the hole and yelled “Here’s Kenny!” like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Ospreay was able to respond by suplexing Omega on the turned-over table, driving his head and neck into the folded metal table legs.
Omega took back control in the ring by blocking an OsCutter and landing three hard shots to the back of Ospreay’s head, a V-Trigger, poisonrana, and cross-leg driver that sent the back of Ospreay’s skull into Omega’s knee. Omega tried for a top rope Dragon suplex, but Ospreay was able to flip out, hit a spinning kick, and stun Omega with an OsCutter for a close near-fall.
They then migrated over to the exposed turnbuckle, where Ospreay trapped Omega’s head and landed three full-force superkicks to Omega’s face, which swelled up his eye even more. They battled on the top rope for control, with Omega hitting some stiff shots to Ospreay’s kidney area and driving him down on the metal bolt with a DDT, sort of a version of El Generico’s old top rope brainbuster finish. Ospreay collapsed to the floor and came up covered in blood (NJPW has mostly eliminated blading, so Ospreay’s crimson mask may have been hardway blood, but either way it certainly came at a perfect time for the match). Omega flew on to him with a tope con hilo, and then grabbed Ospreay’s head and started smashing holes into the table with it.
The final stanza of the match featured a blood-covered and glassy-eyed Ospreay trying to stay alive amid the violent attack of Omega, who targeted Ospreay’s head and neck with hard palm strikes, suplexes, and drivers. Omega smashed Ospreay out of the ring with a V-Trigger, but when he went to the top, Ospreay stumbled into the rope, crotching Omega on the metal buckle. Ospreay tried for a top-rope move, but couldn’t get his balance, and Omega ended up dropping him jaw-first on the exposed buckle. A V-Trigger to the back of the skull should have ended it, but instead, Omega lifted Ospreay to the top rope and hit an Avalanche Croyt’s Wrath German suplex. Again that should have been all, but Omega pulled him up once more and landed another V-Trigger to the face, but the delay somehow gave Ospreay enough time to kick out (some big New Japan matches are loaded with implausible kickouts; this was really the only one in this match which made me scoff a bit).
We then got Ospreay almost doing a Jerry Lawler–style dropping of the strap/hulk-up after catching a knee strike. Ospreay then spun out of an Omega lariat and hit a Liger bomb before hitting a Hidden Blade elbow to the back of Omega’s head, a second to his jaw, and finally a top rope OsCutter for a two-count. Ospreay attempted a Stormbreaker, which Omega wiggled out of, attempting to hit the One-Winged Angel. Ospreay countered, attempting a quick pin before hitting a Styles Clash, an homage to AJ Styles, who Omega betrayed when he took over the Bullet Club. Ospreay then hit possibly his most disgusting Hidden Blade ever with a running elbow strike to Omega’s face that sounded like a shotgun blast. Ospreay tried his Stormbreaker, but Omega slipped out and hit a V-Trigger; he then held Ospreay’s wrist as they exchanged brain-rattling shots. Ospreay got the advantage with elbows, but Omega kept hold of the wrist until he maneuvered him into a position for a kill shot. Ospreay saw what was coming, but was helpless, doing nothing but cursing at Omega and spitting blood into Omega’s chest. Omega then hit Ospreay with a final V-Trigger to the jaw before hitting the One-Winged Angel for the pin.
This was a brutal spectacle. It didn’t have the flips and big spots that other acclaimed matches from these guys have had; instead, they focused on violent shots to the skull. Omega missed a lot of 2020 due to shoulder injuries and vertigo, and those ailments couldn’t have been helped by Ospreay trying to drive his elbow through the side of his head—and this match was in between a violent “falls count anywhere” match on Dynamite last week and an Escalera De La Muerte match this week on Dynamite. Ospreay has already had to vacate a title once with a bad neck, and that neck was on the receiving end of multiple nasty suplexes and running knees. By the end of the match, it felt like the 15th round of some grimy ’70s boxing war, Ruben Olivares vs. Alexis Arguello with knees and elbows instead of jabs and hooks. There is a reason fights like that became legendary, and this will similarly be remembered for a long time. The rumor is that this is scheduled to be the first match of a multi-match series, and I shudder to think what these two daredevils will try to pull out for Match 2.
The Usos vs. Sheamus and Drew McIntyre
WWE SmackDown, January 6
The latest episode in the riveting tale of the Bloodline was the highlight of WWE TV yet again this week. Raw saw the normally SmackDown-based group invade the show (again), laying waste to the locker room, with Solo Sikoa beating Elias in a Music City Street Fight and the Usos and Sami Zayn taking out the Street Profits and Kevin Owens. SmackDown opened with a promo by the Bloodline in which Roman Reigns snapped on Zayn, screaming at him for guaranteeing a win last week and embarrassing the Tribal Chief only for Reigns to be challenged by Kevin Owens to a match for the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship at Royal Rumble, one of the first times we have seen the normally stoic Reigns lose his cool.
Then we had a great backstage segment in which it looked like Reigns might take Zayn out fishing like Fredo Corleone, but instead apologized to Zayn for losing his temper and set up Zayn vs. Owens for this week on SmackDown. I love how the WWE is teasing the dissension between Zayn and the Bloodline only to pull it back; they are so entertaining together that the seemingly-inventible violent breakup is going to hurt, and the constant teasing is almost like a false jump scare in a horror movie. Zayn keeps opening his refrigerator, but instead of Ghostface stabbing him through the eye, he just gets a carton of milk.
This all led to a main event match with the Usos defending their Undisputed WWE Tag Team titles against the superteam of Sheamus and Drew McIntyre, a pair of wrestlers who trained together and feuded against each other in Irish Whip Wrestling, and have recently become wary allies against the Bloodline. This was a compact match that had a number of different mini-explosions. Both Sheamus and McIntyre are much bigger than either Uso, and are both former World Champions, which makes their kicking out of big moves credible, and makes any huge shot by either guy a plausible three-count. This is especially true because Sheamus and McIntyre beat the Usos in a non-title match prior to Survivor Series WarGames in November.
The match really picked up post-commercial, with a series of big near-falls, including Sheamus getting dropped with a pair of kicks and a Superfly splash, and Sheamus and McIntyre hitting simultaneous second-rope White Noises. McIntyre hit an impressive no-hand flip tope and a Claymore for a pin, which was barely broken up by Jimmy. Solo Sikoa, McIntyre, and the Brawling Brutes all started fighting on the floor, which left Sheamus alone in the ring with both Usos. Sheamus was doing fine, getting a near-fall with a Brogue Kick and sending the Usos to the floor, hitting a double axehandle on them both, only to fall to an assisted roll-up by the Usos.
Really fun TV main event, which might have been overshadowed by a great sight gag. During the match they kept cutting back to Zayn, Heyman, and Reigns watching in the locker room. The first cut back Zayn was eating popcorn and being side-eyed by Reigns when he offered him a bit. When they cut back a second time, all three had buckets of popcorn. It felt like something from a classic-era Simpsons episode, and was a great example of how Zayn’s saving grace is his enthusiastic charm. He is just too likable to beat down, which will make it mean so much more if the Bloodline takes him out.
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.