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The Buffalo Kid Wins Big

Also, Sheamus and Gunther tease another banger in the midst of a six-man tag on ‘SmackDown’ while Masha Slamovich bests “Speedball” Mike Bailey

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.

Daniel Garcia vs. Wheeler Yuta

AEW Dynamite, September 7

In the midst of the most chaotic week in the promotion’s history, AEW leaned into what it has always done best: in-ring pro wrestling. It loaded Dynamite and Rampage with great matches. Best Friends and Death Triangle ripped off a great trios match, the stories in the Bryan Danielson vs. Adam Page and Darby Allin vs. Sammy Guevara matches added new chapters in their rivalries, and Claudio Castagnoli vs. Dax Harwood had a classic, hard-hitting world title match. All of those matches were at the level of the best matches on their All Out pay-per-view from Labor Day weekend. The week was highlighted, though, with two of the future building blocks of AEW battling for Ring of Honor’s Pure title.

This was the third singles match between Wheeler Yuta, 25, and Daniel Garcia, 24. They opened the rivalry with a 60-minute time limit draw for the IWTV Independent Wrestling World title in August 2021. Their second match was at Ring of Honor’s Death Before Dishonor pay-per-view back in July; Yuta successfully defended the ROH Pure Championship against Garcia. They are clearly being positioned as generational rivals, and they will likely have dozens more matches against each other over the years (more if AEW starts doing house shows; Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat have wrestled over 200 times, while Randy Orton and John Cena have over 300 listed matches).

The context in this match is very different than it was in the other two. In their first bout, Yuta was working as a heel, but the match was built around a test of skill and will. Their second match was in the midst of the feud between the Blackpool Combat Club and the Jericho Appreciation Society, and saw Yuta as the clear babyface and Garcia as the heel. Two months later, the context surrounding their positions had changed a bit. Yuta was clearly still a babyface, but Garcia had been in the midst of a crisis-of-conscience battle for his soul between Chris Jericho and Bryan Danielson. Garcia was also wrestling in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, and got a full returning conquering hero reception.

Garcia had Buffalo rap kingpin (and pro wrestling enthusiast) Westside Gunn rapping him to the ring, with Gunn’s crew at ringside all dressed in red. (Garcia’s nickname is Red Death.) It gave the entire match the feel of a loud college basketball home game. Yuta wasn’t exactly working heel, but the entire Blackpool Combat Club style has a hard edge to it, and that aggression is a good contrast to a hometown hero fighting for a title.

This match was contested under Pure rules, which allow each wrestler three rope breaks, and if they are used up, a submission can happen while holding the ropes. There are also three judges in case of a time limit draw, and wrestlers are allowed only one closed-fist punch, with the second strike resulting in a DQ.

The match started out as a stalemate until Yuta cranked on a courting hold and started stretching Garcia’s arm. Garcia dragged Yuta to the ropes, using one of his rope breaks, and right when Yuta broke, Garcia hip tossed Yuta over the top rope. It was a clever spot that highlighted the increased prominence of rope breaks in a Pure title match. The match got significantly tougher after that, with both competitors throwing hard chops and slaps, followed by Yuta being a bit of a prick and tagging Garcia with taunting soft kicks to the head.

They exchanged a series of rolling German suplexes, switching the role of “suplexer” to “suplexee,” culminating in Garcia dropping Yuta hard on his neck with a second rope German, a move so brutal that it caused both Taz and William Regal to talk about the damage their long pro-wrestling careers did to their necks.

Yuta ramped up the viciousness after that, removing the padding on the turnbuckle bolts and stepping on Garcia’s head, driving his temple and ear into the steel, a move that Garcia reciprocated moments later. Garcia was able to force Yuta to use a rope break with his first attempt at the Dragon Slayer (his variation of the Scorpion Deathlock/Sharpshooter). When they broke, Yuta unloaded a hard punch to Garcia’s temple. It was a cool use of the Pure rules as a storytelling device; Yuta saved his one punch like his own twisted version of the coach’s challenge, waiting for the perfect time to break it out. Garcia went back to the Dragon Slayer, though, surviving a Yuta reversal into a crossface that was followed by a seatbelt pin—which Yuta won their previous match with. After escaping that, and surviving a series of reversals, Garcia locked in the Dragon Slayer once more to win the match and the title. Bryan Danielson came from the back to strap the title on Garcia, which then led to Jericho coming out and yelling at Garcia, and Yuta glaring at both of them.

There are lots of interesting things set up by this ending. Garcia seems clearly immersed in a face turn, which could adversely lead to a Yuta heel turn; he spoke in a post-match video package about being frustrated at Danielson cosigning Garcia. A heel turn could cause him to leave the Blackpool Combat Club, or just exist as a heel in the group. I have groused in the past about the number of titles currently being defended in AEW (18 separate titles have been defended on AEW television or PPVs this year, not even counting interim titles), but there was something significant about Garcia winning a belt in his hometown, even if it was a tertiary title of a zombie promotion. No matter what happens with all the guys in their late 30s and early 40s acting like fifth graders, the actual kids in this promotion are doing all right.

Imperium vs. the Brawling Brutes

WWE SmackDown, September 10

I was initially hesitant to follow up last week’s article on Sheamus vs. Gunther with another write-up of both guys on opposite sides of a trios match, but when you get something this awesome, it pretty much closes any argument.

The in-ring peak of the past decade in WWE was based around intense six-man tags. The Shield (Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, and Dean Ambrose) had weekly bangers against teams like the Wyatt Family, Team Hell-No and Ryback, the Rhodes Family, the New Day, and Evolution. As a match format, it allows shining moments for secondary members, the teasing of big moments while still saving something for big singles matches, and hiding the limitations of newer performers. This match harkened back to those days, delivering a high-impact battle that compared favorably to those classics.

This six-man match focused on the other members of both teams, relegating Sheamus and Gunther to the sideline, ready to deliver huge meaningful cameos. Nothing wrong with focusing a match on these supporting players, though; all four of those guys are scene stealers.

Changing Pete Dunne’s name to Butch has been justifiably mocked; it is always a bit silly when WWE takes someone who has been on their TV for years and all of a sudden gives them a newsie cap and new name. (Hopefully that is a Vince McMahon thing that he takes with him wherever he ends up retiring.) Still, that is Pete Dunne underneath the Peaky Blinders cosplay and he was great here—a total unleashed Doberman, snapping fingers, leaping off the ring apron, throwing big dropkicks, and leaning into every huge shot by Imperium.

Ridge Holland was the greenest guy in this match, but he’s a really good heater, strong as straight whiskey, and always ready to clean someone out with a big power move. Ludwig Kaiser and Giovanni Vinci have been a tag team for a long time and are great at cutting off the ring and making the face-in-peril sections compelling. Kaiser is a second-generation star (he wrestled in Europe as Axel Dieter Jr. before wrestling under his real name, Marcel Barthel, in NXT) and he has the crispness and execution of someone who grew up in a wrestling ring. Vinci is such an athletic marvel, with a ton of snap and explosion on his moves. There was a great moment during the finish run when he just caught a diving Butch midair and powered him into a neck-compressing brainbuster. Gunther was mostly used as a one-shot momentum killer, dropping Butch and Holland when they got rolling and taunting Sheamus on the apron but never really locking up with him. Sheamus was kept almost completely out of the meat of the match, teasing his arrival while Butch was getting beaten on, finally leading to one of the hottest hot tags I can remember in years.

The crowd erupted when Sheamus finally made the tag, laying waste to both Kaiser and Vinci—including 25 Beats of the Bodhrán nearly caving in Kaiser’s chest. Sheamus has been in the WWE for 13 years and all of a sudden is the most over he has ever been; a guy who has been in the middle for over a decade is suddenly 1997 Sting. There have been a lot of great matches throughout the years that fade quickly into irrelevance, but the Clash at the Castle match between Sheamus and Gunther seems to have catapulted both wrestlers to another level. It feels like Sheamus could be put into a program with Roman Reigns right now and would be seen as a plausible threat, something which would have been seen as utterly laughable two weeks ago.

The finish run saw a brief moment of Gunther and Sheamus, but they saved most of that juice for a rematch, which I want to see more than anything. (Make it a “first blood” match, with the blood only being able to come from the chest.) Imperium was able to take out Holland with the Imperium bomb, but there is plenty of meat on the bone to run this back again and again. Hell of a match that left me salivating for all variations of these six guys, and really excited for what a feud with either team and the Bloodline would look like. This whole program is just an unqualified, unimpeachable success.

“Speedball” Mike Bailey vs. Masha Slamovich

ETU New History, September 9

“Speedball” Mike Bailey and Masha Slamovich are two of the most prolific independent wrestlers, performing multiple times a weekend on the indies in addition to both competing in Impact Wrestling. (Bailey is the current X-Division champion, while Slamovich is the next contender for the Knockouts title.) Here they matched up in New Jersey in the semifinals of the Expect the Unexpected (ETU) Key to the East title tournament. There can be credibility issues with some intergender wrestling, but Slamovich has such a menacing aura and wrestles such a physical style that her work with the smaller wrestlers of the independent scene feels more plausible than if Sasha Banks wrestled Randy Orton.

Slamovich was trained by Joshi wrestling legend Chigusa Nagayo, and she demonstrated some of that technical prowess early, taking it hard to the mat with attempts to snatch a keylock and triangle. Bailey quickly showed that no quarter would be given, flattening Slamovich with a jump kick and dropping her on the top of her skull with a brainbuster. Slamovich responded by hitting as hard, if not harder, than Bailey, including some jaw-jangling upkicks and headbutts that sounded like someone dropping a cantaloupe off of a balcony.

Bailey is known for his kicks, but there was a part of the match when they were exchanging body kicks on the ring apron and Slamovich’s kick thudded with a deeper bass sound than Bailey’s. Slamovich also dropped Bailey with an Air Raid Crash into the turnbuckles, which felt like it might have made him 2 inches shorter (and he doesn’t have a ton of height to spare). Bailey responded with a trio of nasty kicks to the head, but got only a two count. The stiffness of the match just kept escalating with Bailey throwing full force thrusts to Slamovich’s throat to knock her off the top rope, where he attempted his moonsault double knees only to miss and drive both patellas hard into the mat. It felt like both wrestlers were testing the level of violence their opponent was comfortable with, and both kept inching up the dial. When Slamovich finally reversed Bailey’s Flamingo Driver into a roll-up, it felt like a merciful ending. Impressive stuff, especially considering both had wrestled a match earlier that night and Slamovich still had two matches to go that night, in addition to both having matches scheduled the next day. WWE and AEW wrestlers work fewer dates per year than their predecessors did in the ’70s and ’80s, but Masha has had 92 matches in 2022 so far, while Bailey has had 99—in comparison, Adam Page has wrestled 19 times. Slamovich and Bailey are out here putting each other through hell while working Greg Valentine or Ric Flair’s 1985 schedule, which is a true credit to how dedicated they both are. Appreciate them while we still can.

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.