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Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn Continue to Fight Forever

Elsewhere, Mickie James completes her Last Rodeo, and Ruby Soho matches Anna Jay and Tay Melo’s gore quotient

WWE-AEW-Impact-Ringer illustration

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.

Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn

WWE SmackDown, January 13

Kevin Steen and Rami Sebei are two wrestlers who have been tethered together for nearly their entire careers. This bout on SmackDown was the 78th singles match between the two; their first match was all the way back in 2003, when they were both teenagers wrestling for the International Wrestling Syndicate in Montreal. They broke into the U.S. together, teaming up in Ring of Honor, fighting each other in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, and even holding the PWG and ROH tag titles. Steen ended El Generico’s ROH career in a bloody ladder match before they reconciled during Generico’s final matches in the indies, getting to the finals of PWG’s DDT4 tournament in 2013. Owens’s WWE debut involved him attacking Zayn after Zayn won the NXT title, and in the WWE they continued to both feud and team up with each other. Even when they weren’t teaming or feuding, Owens and Zayn have been part of each other’s stories; they are real-life best friends and are as intertwined as any two wrestlers have ever been.

All of that history (a.k.a. the last 20 years of their careers)—battling in Quebecois bike bars, traveling the road together as a tag team, Steen reuniting with (and saying goodbye to) Generico in the indies, their battle for the NXT title, allying against the McMahons, facing each other at WrestleMania—is part of this current chapter of the relationship.

Zayn’s entire career arc has been about finding acceptance. From the first time he put on a lucha mask to debut in IWS, all the way to the early part of The Bloodline story, when he was a goofy flunky, he has wanted love, and now he believes he has finally found it. On the flip side, Owens’s story has always been about respect. The cheers and chants that El Generico got were the reason Owens initially turned on him. The bitterness about his friends signing to the WWE while he made the rounds on the indie circuit was the motivation for him attacking Zayn in NXT. Owens has spent the last several years in the wilderness, feuding with Shane McMahon, getting clowned by a long-retired “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and doing comedy with Ezekiel (and Elias), and now he is frothing at the mouth to regain his good name and capture a title. If he has to break up his friend’s new family to do it, he will; that’s a sacrifice Kevin Owens has always been willing to make.

Their latest match opened with Owens offering his hand, a gesture that Zayn dismissed by kicking it away. The announcers sold it as Zayn dismissing his old friend, but Zayn knows what kind of spikes can be present in a handshake from Owens. An early shoulder block by Owens dropped Zayn, only for Zayn to pop up and slap Owens in the face. Fists started to fly, but Zayn was able to take the first big advantage of the match by catching Owens on the apron and dropping him with a nasty-looking brainbuster on the proverbial “hardest part of the ring.”

It continued to get uglier as they returned from commercial. Owens grabbed Zayn’s beard to reverse positions and rain down punches on his eye; Zayn then stuck his thumb in Owens’s eye to pull him off. There were lots of punches and kicks that landed on parts of the body where they don’t normally land, including a shot that opened up a small cut on Owens’s forehead. Zayn and Owens eventually ended up on their knees exchanging slaps, leading directly to a hockey fight. (This is not a spot that normally looks good, but if anyone can pull it off, it would be this pair of Canadians.) Everyone who has ever fistfought their brother knows how ugly it can get.

We then got a bunch of greatest hits highlights from their previous matches: Owens hit a great-looking frog splash, Zayn landed his tornado DDT, and Owens hit a huge top rope fisherman’s suplex to counter Zayn’s superplex. After that move, they ended up moving into a second hockey fight, exchanging punches on their knees. Zayn beautifully spiked Owens with two hard half-and-half suplexes. Zayn had set Owens up for the Helluva Kick to put him down for good when in came the Usos and Solo Sikoa to jump Owens. The Bloodline beat Owens down, highlighted by two sharp Samoan Spikes by Sikoa, who also put Owen through a table with a running splash off the ring barricades.

There was a vignette before the match in which Paul Heyman told Zayn that he had sent the Usos and Solo Sikoa away from the arena and that the Tribal Chief had faith in him to handle Owens on his own. This, of course, set up the run-in and Zayn’s look of betrayal. He was gaslit by Heyman, someone who historically cannot be trusted, and now he is starting to believe that the faith Roman Reigns supposedly had in him is fake. Zayn was also pissed at the lack of trust. He’s beaten Owens so many times; he didn’t need anyone’s help to take him out. Zayn’s loyalty has been his blind spot for decades, and it felt like this might have been the first moment in his relationship with The Bloodline that had him looking at The Bloodline differently. Maybe these guys aren’t really his family, and his loyalty might not be fully reciprocated. With a little over two months until WrestleMania 39, it feels like this Bloodline–Sami Zayn story is coming into the home stretch, with one big domino falling during SmackDown.

Mickie James vs. Jordynne Grace

Impact Wrestling Hard to Kill 2023, January 13

This was the climax of Mickie James’s “Last Rodeo,” where James, after losing the TNA Knockouts title and going on a losing streak, promised that she would win her way back to a title shot and vowed to retire if she lost a match during that journey. James started her mainstream pro wrestling career in TNA under the name Alexis Laree, and she was a member of Raven’s Gathering stable in 2003 (Raven wished her luck backstage before this match). She would go on to the WWE, where she had a memorable rivalry with Trish Stratus that started with an obsessed stalker angle but ended up with some of the most acclaimed women’s matches of that era. After her WWE stint, James returned to TNA and became a three-time Knockouts champion. She left TNA to raise a family but returned to WWE at the end of the 2010s for a stint that included a big NXT Women’s title match against Asuka at NXT TakeOver: Toronto in 2016. After getting released by the WWE in 2021, James returned to TNA and Impact Wrestling after six years away, winning her fourth Knockouts title and even appearing in the 2022 women’s Royal Rumble match as an Impact representative.

Jordynne Grace is a record-breaking powerlifter who has had a dominant Knockouts title reign since June of 2022 and is tremendous as a powerhouse. There have been a lot of superstrong wrestlers who can’t convey that strength in the ring; Grace is great at finding ways to show power in interesting ways in her work. Grace wasn’t coming into this match as a heel, exactly; she was just a proud champion who was unwilling to be the supporting actor in someone else’s star turn.

James was played into the ring by a Mattaponi tribal drum and dance team, and she started the entrance lying prone, covered by a feathered blanket. James hadn’t really leaned into her Mattaponi heritage in her wrestling career until this point, and the entrance and Native American–themed gear were a cool way to show how important this match was to her.

Grace looked like an unsolvable problem early, powering James into the ropes, countering an armbar by snatching her out of the air, and blocking a roll-up attempt by just flexing her giant concrete traffic barrier–sized legs and walking out of it. James attempted a go behind, and Grace just chucked her to the ground with her hip. This led to James getting in Grace’s face and firing off five slaps, only for Grace to drop James with a single slap to the side of the head that looked like it might have popped James’s eardrum. Grace then cut off a series of James chops with a nasty headbutt and then nearly caved in her chest with a double stomp. These were impressively dominant opening minutes that really established the size of the mountain James needed to climb.

Little by little, James fought her way back into the match. She was able to counter a Grace top rope suplex attempt and drop her with a bulldog from the top. She was also able to land a rope walk senton to the ramp. Grace showed off her power, though, hitting an awesome-looking hanging superplex; she then lifted James directly into a Jackhammer—think of the leg and arm strength one would need to pull that off. Grace got a couple of close near falls with a Liger Bomb and a spinebuster, but James was able to avoid the Grace Driver and hit a crescent kick and her Mickie-DT for a super-close near fall of her own. The finish did, unfortunately, feel a bit wobbly; Grace had a choke sleeper on James, who tapped her arm (I assume to let Grace know she was going for a reversal). To the crowd and the announcers, it looked like James had tapped out. They had to sort of improv a reason that the match didn’t end, and it felt like the rhythm got disturbed. It also felt like they were going for a finish involving the removal of the top turnbuckle, but James couldn’t get the turnbuckle off and Grace had to audible a shoulder into the post to set up the tornado DDT and the pin.

Still, a minor complaint for an emotional win by James. This match featured classic booking, with the legend having a final moment in the sun, overcoming the odds, and getting it done. They did a really good job of showing what James meant to Impact, and the entire booking and presentation made the victory seem huge. Grace still came out looking strong, and I assume she will be back on top of the division when James’s run ends. It will be interesting to see what they do with James now that she is at the top of the mountain and not just climbing it.

Ruby Soho and Willow Nightingale vs. Anna Jay and Tay Melo

AEW Rampage, January 13

AEW celebrated Friday the 13th by releasing its own little horror movie, complete with Ruby Soho as a blood-soaked final girl getting her revenge on Tay Melo for breaking her nose at All Out in September. Melo and Jay were previously in a gory street fight in the “New Year’s Smash” episode of AEW Rampage back in 2021; they were babyfaces taking out Penelope Ford and the Bunny. They come into this match as hated heels and members of the Jericho Appreciation Society, with Melo especially turning herself into one of the most reviled acts in the AEW alongside her husband, Sammy Guevara. Melo is really great in this atmosphere; her promo before the match talked about how she grew up in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and then showed her screeching, “I live the street fight, I am the street fight,” which is an awesome catchphrase (and would be a great hard-core punk chorus).

This isn’t the first time Ruby Soho has gotten grimy, either; during her pre-WWE stint on the indies, she spent some time in IWA Mid-South, where she competed in the Queen of the Death Match tournament and had a brutal Falls Count Anywhere match with the aforementioned Jordynne Grace. IWA MS listed it as one of their top-20 matches ever.

Willow Nightingale didn’t come in with the same sort of dirt under her nails, but she certainly had a positive attitude and a lot of enthusiasm for carnage. Nightingale and Soho, dressed in their Dudley Boyz tribute camo pants, jumped TayJay from behind, and all four women started brawling on their way to the ring. Jay was able to put Soho in a garbage can, allowing Melo to smush her with a double stomp. When she got out of the can, Soho started leaking plasma all over the floor. That gave Jay and Melo the advantage; they really worked the babyfaces, tearing at Soho’s wound and DDTing her on the back of a chair. While Soho lay on the floor bleeding, TayJay double-teamed Nightingale, with Melo especially throwing hard, potato-ish cheap-shot elbows any time Nightingale got an advantage. So much of hard-core wrestling is folks just kind of wandering around between stunts; it really adds to the match to have a legit badass like Tay Melo throwing hard shots, making a match feel more like an out-of-control fight than just a series of TikTok stunts. Anna Jay called back to the previous street fight by wrapping her arm in barbed wire and trying to choke out Nightingale, only to have it broken up by a rallying Soho, who cracked her in the skull with a chain.

Nightingale then put a metal garbage can on Anna Jay’s body and cannonballed into her, hit an awesome-looking Death Valley Driver on the ring apron, and then took Jay to the top of the ramp and gave her a powerbomb off the stage through a table (although she mostly missed the table and banged Jay’s head on the concrete). That move took Nightingale and Jay out of the match, leaving Soho and Melo to try to end their rivalry. Soho pulled out a table, but it backfired on her, with Melo giving her a Gotch-Style Piledriver off the apron through the table. Melo then dumped a bag of thumbtacks on the mat and tried to stomp Soho’s bloody face into them (this featured a great image of Soho dripping gore on the tacks). Soho escaped by tossing a handful of tacks into Melo’s face before hitting the Destination Unknown (which is a version of Bray Wyatt’s Sister Abigail), sending Melo face-first into thumbtacks for the win (and revenge). The match ended with an awesome visual of an exsanguinated Soho standing victorious with Nightingale as Rancid blasted through the arena.

Unsurprisingly, this match led to a bit of a Twitter dustup, which will always happen when women in professional wrestling bleed like this on TV. Certainly, these four ladies are as tough as any male wrestlers, and while this kind of thing is best put on sparingly, I am totally into the idea of a yearly Tay Melo and Anna Jay bloodbath.

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.