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Sami Zayn Solidifies His Spot in the Bloodline

Elsewhere, Chris Jericho and Tomohiro Ishii revive their decades-old relationship and there was a huge battle for the AIW Intense title in Cleveland

WWE/AEW/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.

Chris Jericho vs. Tomohiro Ishii

AEW Dynamite, November 23

One of the great things about AEW is its shagginess. There is a sense that the promotion will give its wrestlers opportunities to scratch their itches, explore their odder ideas, and play a bit. While the WWE has traditionally been more scripted and storyboarded, AEW feels more like an Adam McKay film, in which the performers are given the freedom to improv and McKay rolls with the best stuff for the final product. This can be a hit (Eddie Kingston getting to live out a lifelong dream against Jun Akiyama on a pay-per-view pre-show, Darby Allin and Anthony Henry rewinding their EVOLVE feud on Rampage—while beating the breaks off of each other) or it can be a miss (like Cody and Brandi Rhodes cussing out American Top Team, much of the build to Forbidden Door, or running three matches on the last PPV built around wrestlers’ ethical struggles over foreign objects). The Chris Jericho vs. Tomohiro Ishii main event on AEW Dynamite this week was a great example of how the creative freedom AEW affords performers can deliver something special.

In the midst of the build to Final Battle, this bout is a weird detour, allowing AEW to put on a stylistically intense match around a long-simmering beef centered on Ishii’s time as Chris Jericho’s young boy in the WAR promotion 25 years ago. As a longtime Wrestle and Romance fan, it warms my heart that we got a match based upon internal WAR politics on American television, even if Jericho and Ishii never actually wrestled in WAR at the same time—to be fair, Ishii was in the dojo, so they certainly could have interacted before he debuted.

Ishii wrestles a very specific match style, challenging his opponents to engage in extended violent strike battles. His matches are a battle of wills: Can his opponent stand face to face with the Stone Pitbull and chip chunks off of the statue? Jericho is the big star, and Ishii is the import, but Jericho didn’t make Ishii work a Chris Jericho match—he dove headfirst into Ishii’s idiosyncratic style.

The match opened with Jericho getting in Ishii’s face and functionally telling him in Japanese to “go get your fucking shine box.” It worked about as well for Jericho as it did for Billy Batts, as he exchanged slaps with Ishii, who then punted Jericho in the spine. They then exchanged hard forearms and moved right into a chop exchange that lasted the entire commercial break. Jericho proved what a true sicko he is by blading his chest; when they came back from the break, Jericho’s chest was mottled with purple bruises and bright red spots, as if he was basted in a patina of plasma. (Side note: 2022 has really been the year of the bruise, from the Cody Rhodes Hell in the Cell performance to all of the abstract art Gunther did on Sheamus’s chest. With this match, Jericho and Ishii added another canvas to this year’s grotesque gallery.)

Jericho has much more optionality than Ishii. He could win the match in many ways, while Ishii really could only win his way, but Jericho’s ego wouldn’t allow him to exercise his options. He was going to out-strike the striker or die tryin’. Jericho hit Ishii with a ferocious DDT on the ring apron, but instead of using it to his advantage, Jericho went right back to exchanging forearms. Ishii took a couple of hard German suplexes, but it is hard to damage someone’s neck when they don’t really have one. Ishii got a couple of big near falls with a sliding lariat and a brutal standing lariat, but Jericho kept him from executing his signature brain buster, countering with an enzuigiri into first the Walls of Jericho and then the Lion Tamer, with Ishii initially flipping off the ref before being forced to tap.

You have to give both of these guys a ton of credit; Ishii is 46 (a hard 46) and Jericho is 52. Neither man needs to be doing this to themselves at their age. Jericho has made plenty of money in his career and could easily just shtick his way through his final years; instead, he has Tony Khan send the Stone Pitbull a plane ticket just to show he can take and deliver a world-class beating. It isn’t emotionally, physically, or spiritually healthy, but it sure is compelling to watch.

Kaplan vs. Matthew Justice vs. Derek Dillinger

AIW Hell on Earth XVII, November 25

Absolute Intense Wrestling is a Cleveland-based indie promotion that has been running since 2005. Multiple big stars have come through AIW over the years, including Eddie Kingston, Ruby Soho, Shayna Baszler, Bryan Danielson, and Seth Rollins. Johnny Gargano was a student at the AIW wrestling school and eventually became its head trainer. AIW and Game Changer Wrestling are the flagship promotions for the recently launched FITE+ streaming service, which makes the AIW and GCW libraries and current live streams available for $5 a month. Both GCW and AIW are spiritual successors to ECW, mixing high-flying and technical wrestling with hardcore brawls. Where GCW tends to lean more toward deathmatch wrestling with light tubes, barbed wire, and glass, AIW has really kept alive the ECW chair shots and brawling style. This match was a three-way for the AIW Intense title, AIW’s no-rules championship (although the rules are already pretty relaxed in their normal title matches). This was their version of a Cactus Jack/Sandman/Raven-style ECW three-way match, with possibly even less regard for the health and well-being of the competitors.

Matthew Justice is billed as the “One Man Militia” and he indeed looks the part. Justice has made a reputation in AIW (and elsewhere) for jumping (and being thrown) off of high places, and came to the ring accompanied by legendary ECW ref and manager Bill Alfonso. Kaplan is a two-fisted, cigar-smoking, blue-collar brawler who makes and sells his own beef jerky, sort of a 21st-century Dick the Bruiser. Derek Dillinger, the Neon Tarantino, is the last man left of the Production stable, a longtime AIW stable that launched Danhausen’s career. He is a beefy kid who can fly and wrestle technically, but also throws himself into these violent brawls with true abandon.

The match started quick and extreme, and pretty much stayed that way. The first big move of the bout saw Justice sprint down the ramp and spear Dillinger, almost ending the match immediately. Fonzie then tossed a chair into the ring to Justice, who then flung it hard at Kaplan’s skull. Justice went to set up a Van Terminator, but Dillinger winged him with a thrown chair right to his eye (which was split, badly) before hitting a Tower of London on the ring apron. Kaplan then chimed in by hitting a pounce on Dillinger, which sent him flying over the guardrail into the third row. Just a wild series of spots to open a match. All three then brawled through the crowd, landing suplexes on bleachers and hard wooden floors.

AIW clearly decided it needed a new entrance ramp, and the end of this match was a retirement ceremony for the old one. First, Kaplan placed both of his opponents on the ramp and attempted a flipping senton off the top rope down to the ramp. Everyone moved and the gigantic Kaplan smashed a hole in the ramp with his tailbone. A bloody Justice then hoisted an even bloodier Dillinger into a Death Valley Driver, putting him straight through the ramp and sending both guys crashing into the abyss. Spots like this, in big promotions with budgets, often feel like controlled stunts with breakaway sections and crash pads; this was clearly just one guy driving himself and his opponent through a piece of possibly rotting wood.

Eventually, all three guys dragged themselves back into the ring, with Kaplan getting a near fall with a huge lariat on Justice, only for Dillinger to bash both guys in the head with the title and finish Justice with a great-looking curb stomp on the belt. A truly intense spectacle, the platonic ideal of this kind of plunder-filled stunt show. Older wrestlers talk about working smarter, not harder; these guys worked very hard without any smarts at all. I am not buying stock in their longevity, but the fans in the crowd and all the new FITE+ subscribers will remember their names.

The Bloodline (Jey Uso, Jimmy Uso, Roman Reigns, Solo Sikoa, and Sami Zayn) vs. Drew McIntyre, Kevin Owens, and the Brawling Brutes (Butch, Ridge Holland, and Sheamus)

WWE Survivor Series WarGames, November 26

It is hard as a fan of any medium to divorce expectations from results, especially as you get older and art isn’t necessarily aimed at you anymore. It is easy to grumble that YoungBoy Never Broke Again doesn’t sound like the Notorious B.I.G. or that, despite what the screenwriters claim, Captain Marvel isn’t 2 Days in the Valley, or that a WWE WarGames match doesn’t really resemble the Four Horsemen vs. the Super Powers and the Road Warriors. As a critic, you have to try to judge something on its own merits rather than compare it to something else, even if they are using that thing as an inspiration. That said, the main event of Survivor Series WarGames wasn’t the WarGames match I foresaw in my head, but I wrote a long piece on those matches and what was done here doesn’t take away from how great those matches were. These WWE performers absolutely delivered a tremendous match and told another chapter in the best long-term pro wrestling story in years: the Bloodline and Sami Zayn.

The match opened with Jey Uso and Butch, who is great in this format. In many ways, WarGames is all about intensity, and Butch is champing at the bit every time he is in the ring or on the apron. He also really brings the viciousness—you aren’t going to see bloody faces raked against mesh cages in 2022 WWE, but Butch twisting and mangling wrists and fingers has that same kind of violent energy. Jey came in with taped-up fingers and it was really nasty to watch Butch stomp, stretch, and twist them around the cage

Solo Sikoa was another standout. The Usos and Roman Reigns are charismatic, cool, and athletic, in the tradition of the Rock and Rikishi. Solo taps into the fear that guys like Umaga or Meng brought as competitors who look like they are ready to pop your eyeball out in a bar fight and step on it. I loved Solo staring down the Brutes team while they were in the shark cage or no-selling shots to the head and going toe-to-toe with guys like McIntyre and Sheamus. He has been such a great addition to the Bloodline act, and he felt like a guy you very much would not want to be locked in a cage with.

I groaned a bit when Jimmy Uso and Kevin Owens started their entrances by tossing in chairs and tables. The WWE weapons match has become a tired trope, most of its brawls have become very same-y, and the work in both WarGames matches didn’t feel like it distinguished itself enough from the generic WWE style. I also felt like the match dragged a bit in the middle, which can be a problem in all WarGames matches, especially with the ostensible face team having the advantage. The setup didn’t really allow for the kinds of mini hot tags, with the babyface making saves, that can be such a big part of the excitement of the early sections of a WarGames match. Guys like Sheamus and Kevin Owens had great bursts of energy, but the match didn’t showcase them properly. Also, while the Bloodline are technically heels, they are beloved by the crowd, and the WarGames format works best when you want to see the heels get massacred. All of those complaints are minor because this match wasn’t really about the in-ring work, this was a Sami Zayn passion play, and the promotion pulled that off spotlessly.

Sami came into this match with decisions to make. Would he rejoin his longtime friend, Kevin Owens, a guy who he fought his way up from indie shows in Quebecois biker bars to the pinnacle of wrestling with and the best man at his wedding, although a friend who has turned his back on him before? Or would Sami prove himself to his new blood, fully embracing his role as the Tom Hagen to the Corleone-esque Anoa’i family?

I loved the idea of Roman sending in Sami to help Jey out when he was getting beaten on by the Brutes. The past several months have been built around Jey doubting Sami’s sincerity, being the only member of the Bloodline not to embrace the Honorary Uce—the doubting Thomas who needs to see the miracle on his own. The relationship between Sami and Jey was the story of the match. Sami saved Jey early from a charging Ridge Holland. When Jimmy Uso entered the ring throwing in tables, Jey shoved Sami when he went to set one up. After all five men were in the ring, Jey missed a superkick on Butch, laying Sami out, and he didn’t seem that upset about it. It felt like their simmering pot was finally going to boil.

They also did a nice job of keeping Sami and his longtime friend Owens apart until the final denouement. Owens and Sami ended up face to face, with Owens loudly yelling “This is your family?” Owens caught a Jimmy superkick, only for Sami to hit a low blow on his former best friend, drop him with a Helluva Kick, and serve him up to Jey Uso for the win.

The post-match was tremendous, with Jey enthusiastically embracing Sami and the Bloodline standing tall, the “honorary” qualifier seemingly removed from the “Honorary Uce” title. One of the great little beats of the Bloodline story over the past several months has been Sami making Jey break and laugh, and Jey having to hide how much he enjoys Sami’s shtick. I love how they tied that all together, as Jey was thrilled to finally have Sami prove himself, and in the post-match, Jey showed Sami more love than anyone else. Just a great payoff to the entire arc.

There has been a lot of conjecture about how this story will end—will the Bloodline turn on Sami? Will Sami instead end up being the Judas that Jey always suspected he was? It has felt like the fracturing of Sami’s relationship with the Bloodline would be the big story line leading into WrestleMania, but maybe it won’t fracture? Maybe Sami has found his place, and we won’t see him reunite with Kevin Owens to battle the Bloodline. One thing is for sure: If we continue to have the Bloodline as a unified force, it will become an even bigger mountain for whoever finally ends up climbing it.

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.