There’s more great pro wrestling in 2023 than we know what to do with. Normally, 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. This week, we gave you the best matches that took place during the two-night WrestleMania 39; now we’re looking at the best matches from the non-WWE pro wrestling shows that took place in Los Angeles during what’s known as WrestleMania Week.
Josh Barnett vs. Timothy Thatcher
GCW Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport 9, March 30
Timothy Thatcher ended Josh Barnett’s six-year undefeated streak by tapping him out in the main event of Barnett’s ninth Bloodsport show. Barnett is an MMA icon, the youngest UFC heavyweight champion ever (although he was stripped of the title after testing positive for banned substances), with MMA wins over Randy Couture, Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Frank Mir, among others. He identifies as a catch wrestler, tracing his lineage back to Billy Robinson and Frank Gotch. Thatcher has similar catch wrestling roots and has mastered a grinding, mat-based style that meshed with Barnett perfectly.
Barnett is like a mat-wrestling grizzly bear; he grabbed ahold of Thatcher’s limbs and just tried to twist them off. Thatcher clearly has impressive grip strength but came into this match at a strength disadvantage—and possibly a skill disadvantage as well when matched up against such a decorated and experienced wrestler. After an opening mat duel ended in a stalemate, Thatcher was the first wrestler to uncork strikes, banging away at Barnett’s kidneys with short punches and knees. Barnett responded with some big throws, including just yoking Thatcher over by his neck.
The counterwrestling in this match was special; every hold locked in by either wrestler was a puzzle for his opponent to unlock. Thatcher transitioned out of an armbar attempt into a half crab; Barnett wheeled out of it into a knee bar. Thatcher then stacked up and started landing ground-and-pound strikes before Barnett grabbed him and pulled him in. Thatcher then switched to a short-arm scissors, and Barnett lifted him and slammed him.
The entire match was like that: attack, parry, counterattack. There is a great section where Thatcher started setting up for a double wristlock and got this gleeful look in his eye as he executed every step of the hold, only for Barnett to turn the tables on him with a nasty toe pick into an ankle lock. Bloodsport doesn’t have any ring ropes, and that led to the big high spot of the match: Both guys locked each other in kneebars, and they rolled each other out of the ring onto the floor, landing awkwardly and hard. They took it back into the ring and began to exchange forearms and suplexes. Barnett landed a powerbomb, but Thatcher shifted his weight and caught him in a Fujiwara armbar. Barnett went to roll out of it, but Thatcher was one step ahead, countering Barnett’s counter before he could even pull it off, sinking in a reverse knee bar for the tap.
This match was different from anything else during ’Mania Weekend (even different from most of the other matches during this show). It was a pleasure to watch two skilled technicians try to outthink each other. ’Mania was full of big action blockbusters; this was the equivalent of a knotty, talky indie film.
Lio Rush vs. Kushida
Multiverse United: Only The STRONG Survive, March 30
This is kind of a dream match from WWE’s 205 Live era. Kushida was originally a Nobuhiko Takada trainee who started as a hybrid MMA fighter and pro wrestler. He had a very successful run in New Japan, where he was a six-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion before a less-successful WWE run that ended in April 2022. He has recently returned to New Japan while also wrestling in Impact, where he will be competing for the vacated Impact title at their next big show. Lio Rush is also currently touring with New Japan after abbreviated stints in WWE and AEW.
Kushida’s MMA and shoot-style background flavors how he wrestles. While he is perfectly able to work a high-octane style and can trade speedy reversals with Rush, his focus is the arm and locking on his Hoverboard Lock. The match mostly had Rush on hit-and-run duty; he is one of the most sudden wrestlers in the world, and the speed in which he goes from point A to point B is unmatched by almost anyone. Meanwhile, Kushida was looking to slow Rush down and brutalize the arms, weakening them for his submission. Anytime Rush got some space, he exploded with big moves. He hit a low tope that looked like a crossbow bolt driven into Kushida’s skull, and Rush nearly took his opponent’s head off with a spin kick. Kushida was able to turn a jumping Guillotine by Rush into the Hoverboard Lock, but Rush was able to fight out and hit a big reverse rana and a springboard stunner for a two-count. Rush then went up top for the frog splash only to get snatched out of midair right into the Hoverboard Lock for the submission.
I really liked the contrast of Rush’s speed and explosiveness with Kushida’s single-minded focus on tearing out Rush’s labrum. I would love to see this match run back—possibly in New Japan—and I think Kushida would be a really interesting Impact champion if that is the direction they take after Josh Alexander forfeited the title.
Komander vs. El Hijo del Vikingo vs. Black Taurus
WrestleCon Mark Hitchcock Memorial SuperShow 2023, March 30
Coming off of his star-making performance against Kenny Omega on Dynamite, Vikingo was all over the place during ’Mania Weekend, having standout singles matches against “Speedball” Mike Bailey, Komander, and Laredo Kid, breaking out multiple mind-blowing spots in all of them. Watching the 25-year-old Vikingo during ’Mania Weekend is like seeing a band in the middle of a tour right as their single is breaking out; this is the last time you are going to see them play backstage near the bar. It’s big arenas from now on.
This three-way main event of WrestleCon’s 2023 Mark Hitchcock Memorial SuperShow was my favorite of the Technicolor Vikingo showcases. It had the most hectic pace and the biggest number of stunts that looked like CGI. It also had Black Taurus, who adds some special sauce to these matches. Taurus has an awesome Minotaur mask and is great at both tossing little guys around and basing for their ranas and arm drags. It’s cool to watch one small guy hit a fast crucifix bomb on another small guy; it hits a bit different when they drop a block of granite on his head.
This was an unhinged binge of high spots, in rapid succession with no respite. Some of the standouts included: Taurus hurling Komander with a press slam onto both opponents; Vikingo and Komander both walking the same rope, meeting in the middle, and hitting a double top rope moonsault onto Taurus; Komander running the top rope into a springboard front flip rana; and Vikingo hitting a rope walk 630 on both opponents on the floor. Komander just started walking the top rope six or so months ago, and he has already come up with dozens of cool variations. Now Vikingo is getting in on the party too.
These stunts were incredibly difficult, and all three wrestlers danced through raindrops without getting wet; there wasn’t much going on below the surface, but what they did do was spectacular.
2 Cold Scorpio vs. Bryan Keith
GCW For the Culture 2023, March 30
GCW’s For the Culture show is dedicated to celebrating Black excellence in professional wrestling, and this year they brought in all-time legend 2 Cold Scorpio to match up with one of the biggest up-and-coming indie stars, “Bounty Hunter” Bryan Keith. Scorpio is best known for being one of the trailblazers in high-flying wrestling during his time in WCW, ECW, and WWE (as Flash Funk). However, in the 2000s he spent many years in Pro-Wrestling NOAH, teaming with Vader and dishing out (and taking) stiff beatings. At 57 years old, Scorpio still has some spring in his legs, and this was NOAH Scorpio coming in and matching one of the hardest hitters in the indies, blow for blow. Scorpio, the uncle at the cookout who you never want to slapbox with, was eager to test the young guy’s mettle.
Scorpio kept grounding Keith, working him over with a keylock or an armbar, leaning on him to deplete his wind and making him work his way out of the holds. Scorpio kept calm; as a 30-year vet, he’d be the one setting the pace. When Keith was able to speed the match up, he took advantage, hitting a spinning DDT for a two-count and locking in a seated Indian Deathlock to force Scorpio to the ropes. Keith then made the mistake of trying to exchange elbows with a wrestler who battled Mitsuharu Misawa in over 90 matches in a nine-year span, and he ended up paying for it by getting drilled with a shot so hard it sent him flying. They then exchanged Yakuza Kicks, and you could see Keith gaining Scorpio’s respect; Keith cracked Scorpio with one and Scorpio grinned like, “I see you.” Scorpio then dropped him with a thrust kick, went to the top, and proceeded to hit both a flip splash and a phenomenal moonsault. Scorpio then signaled for the 450, but we were robbed of the opportunity to see if he could still do it when Keith pushed the ref into the ropes, hit a top rope exploder, a running boot, and a Diamond Dust flipping stunner for the pin.
Great performance by Scorpio. He has slowed down since his prime, but uses that change of pace to his advantage. He seemed like a hill that Keith needed to climb, an icon whose defeat is significant. This weekend had some great gray-beard legend performances by guys like Jun Akiyama, Último Dragón, and especially Negro Casas, but it was great to see Scorpio still out there checking chins and flying through the air.
Claudio Castagnoli vs. Eddie Kingston
ROH Supercard of Honor 2023, March 31
If there are two things Eddie Kingston loves, it’s ’90s All Japan Pro Wrestling and hating someone. Getting to beat on longtime foe Claudio Castagnoli in a ’90s All Japan–style main event for the Ring of Honor World title at Supercard of Honor? Sounds like the perfect Saturday night for Eddie Kingston. This match had seemingly been scheduled for the finals of the 12 Large Tournament in Chikara in 2011 before Castagnoli bailed out midstream to join WWE. The 12 Large final between Kingston and Mike Quackenbush is one of the greatest U.S. indie matches ever, and while it is still disappointing that we never got to see what Kingston and Castagnoli would have done in that setting, it’s awesome that we got to see it a decade later.
Kingston came out on 10, bull rushing Castagnoli into the corner and raining down hard chops and slaps, only for Castagnoli to send him to the floor with a hard uppercut. Kingston was at a deficit in strength, technique, and fitness, and his only chance was to press Castagnoli, continue coming forward, and break him mentally and emotionally. The only way Kingston would win is if he could drag Castagnoli into hell and hope he’d burn first.
Kingston started cracking Castagnoli with short, sharp open-hand shots to the body and face and then clipped his knee, forcing Castagnoli into a split. Kingston then went for a dive, only to be met with a hard uppercut, and then Castagnoli hit a hanging vertical suplex on the floor. One of the great things about Castagnoli’s suplexes is that his opponents never jump, never assist him; he is always just yoking them over with pure power.
They ended up back in the ring, where Kingston drew Castagnoli into a slap fight; despite Castagnoli’s freakish strength, Kingston has heavier hands, and he stunned him with a pop on the ear. Castagnoli responded by grabbing a double leg and then used the giant swing as a counter rather than as a crowd-popping spot, although he couldn’t hit many rotations because of the bad knee. Castagnoli then hit a big superplex, again just using his power to hoist Kingston over the second rope into the ring. Castagnoli followed that up with a disgusting double stomp to the skull, which is a move William Regal always claimed retired him for good.
Kingston just kept coming through, chopping, slapping, and refusing to give Castagnoli a rest. He hit an enziguri, which was able to knock Castagnoli to the floor; Kingston then hit Castagnoli with a tope and exploder on the floor. When they got back into the ring, they exchanged more slaps, and Castagnoli dead weighted a Kingston suplex attempt and started drilling Kingston with forearms. Kingston was able to lock on a Stretch Plum and hit a back suplex, but was unable to take Castagnoli out. They then went back to trading shots, and that exchange ended with a Crowbar-ish clothesline from Castagnoli, which landed like a left hook on Kingston’s jaw.
Castagnoli then went for the Ricola powerbomb, but Kingston squirreled out and drilled Castagnoli with his backfist for a close near fall. They both stumbled to the apron, where Castagnoli blocked an exploder and grabbed a gut wrench, holding him in position and letting Kingston think about it for a second before hurling him off the apron, sending Kingston crashing violently to the floor. Castagnoli roughed him up a bit on the floor, and crushed him with an uppercut in the ring. They exchanged slaps on the ground, but an exhausted Kingston didn’t have much behind his shots. He even hit a weak backfist, which Castagnoli laughed at, only to smash him with a harder one right after. Castagnoli blocked a follow-up suplex and swung Kingston around by his neck before hitting a Neutralizer. It looked like that might be it, but Kingston instead kicked out at one to the crowd’s delight. However, Kingston then stumbled right into another defenestrating uppercut, which really felt like the end. Kingston somehow lifted his shoulder right at 2.9, a near fall that really convinced the crowd that this might be his night. A dead-on-his-feet Kingston then got peppered with slaps, then crushed with a Castagnoli uppercut that surely rattled his brain stem. Castagnoli then lifted him for a Ricola Bomb, only for Kingston, someone who’d spent years training lucha with Quackenbush and Skayde, to whip out a great-looking rana counter. Kingston nearly got the win, but Castagnoli reversed it into a roll-up of his own to escape with his title.
It was a true classic match, one with lots of thought put into each twist and turn. It was shockingly violent without having to use any props, just great selling from both guys and a ton of dramatic near falls. I loved the story of Castagnoli getting more violent and desperate when Kingston kept coming at him, and Kingston—a gritty, blue-collar underdog fighting with every ounce of his heart and soul—coming within millimeters of pulling off the biggest win of his career only to fall tragically short.
I always want Kingston to win his matches; he is one of the only wrestlers I am emotionally invested in. I do get why he lost, though; clearly, the Kingston-Castagnoli conflict will be the main story of this new era of ROH, and if Kingston wins the title, the story is over. It’s important to note that even though Castagnoli won the match, he didn’t put Kingston down, nor did he stop him from coming—he simply escaped with a roll-up after Kingston walked through his biggest shots. It sets up nicely for a rematch, possibly a Texas Death or Last Man Standing match, I have to believe that Kingston still has a big win in him, and if the first act of this feud was this good, I can only imagine how much I will love the coda.
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.