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.
Bryan Danielson vs. MJF
AEW Revolution, March 5
AEW Revolution was capped off with “The American Dragon,” Bryan Danielson, warring with MJF in an all-time classic 60-minute Iron Man match. While the buildup to the pay-per-view was a bit underwhelming, AEW rarely misses when given a chance to put on a big show, and a PPV in which almost every match over-delivered ended with a match that even outstripped my very high expectations. It was the best Iron Man match of all time and a contender for the best match in AEW’s short but quality-packed history.
Danielson is a perfect pro wrestler; he’s both an incredibly skilled technical wrestler and in possession of one of the greatest minds in the history of pro wrestling. You couldn’t ask for a better performance from Danielson, who is a master of big operatic moments and smaller nuanced ones. Danielson has had a lot of experience with long wrestling matches: In addition to his 60-minute draw with Adam Page in AEW at the end of 2021, in Ring of Honor he had a pair of 60-minute draws with Nigel McGuinness and Colt Cabana and a 74-minute match with Austin Aries (which was initially scheduled to go close to three hours, until Danielson realized he was losing the crowd and called an audible). Meanwhile, MJF didn’t even wrestle 10 matches in the previous year, letting his mouth tell the story his ring work didn’t. Despite all that and the excellent Danielson performance, this was MJF’s match.
Emotional range is a pretty rare thing in professional wrestling. For the most part, even great performers remain themselves throughout a match, and attempts to hit a range of emotional beats can usually come off as corny. However, in this match, you could actually watch MJF’s emotional journey. MJF’s character arc is one of insecurity. He postures and trash-talks and struts around like Ric Flair, but while Flair believed his hype, MJF doesn’t. MJF hoped wrestling could fill his chasm of self-hatred and self-doubt, and he lashes out at his heroes, like CM Punk and Bryan Danielson, to punish them for his failure to heal. When people complain about cheap heat in his promos and ring work, they miss the point of what he’s doing. He wants the crowd to hate him as much as he hates himself; he is an emotionally damaged person who pushes people away, justifying the fact that he’s not loved by being unlovable. Here, MJF was cornered, forced to go 60 minutes with a threshing machine, someone who relishes pain, violence, and pro wrestling. Danielson was a mirror, and MJF didn’t like who he saw looking back.
Danielson opened by showing his superiority on the mat, luring MJF into his world, and demonstrating his superiority. They then did a series of reversals, and after a double kip-up, MJF offered his hand. Danielson kicked it away, which caused a flustered MJF to go into the crowd and throw a tantrum. MJF dumped a drink on a little kid, yelled at Dave Meltzer, and started Fargo Strutting, ostensibly trying to get under Danielson’s skin. MJF, however, came off less like a master wrestling villain and more like a petulant child breaking his toys. MJF was able to grab Danielson’s arm and wrench it over the top rope; you could see him start to gain some confidence, countering a Danielson tope by driving him shoulder first into a guardrail and cranking at his arm. They went back and forth for a bit. Danielson hit some big-impact moves, and MJF went for Danielson’s arm. There was a great spot when Danielson got thrown over the top and tried to skin the cat, but he had to shake out his shoulder first, allowing MJF enough time to drill him with a superkick. MJF then attempted a quebrada. It really felt like more of his insecurity was coming to the forefront; this was MJF trying for something flashy solely to show that he could, but he ended up missing and landed awkwardly on his knee. If you’re a gazelle, the last thing you want to do is show the lion a limp. MJF was still able to keep it together, catching a diving Danielson in his Salt of the Earth armbar and then turning that into a nasty Storm Cradle Driver for a near fall. They then went into a series of fast two-count roll-ups. This is a spot I usually don’t like, but it worked well in this kind of match, in which both wrestlers are trying to steal as many falls as possible. It also served as a cardio suck for MJF, winding him and leaving him open for Danielson to hit the Busaiku Knee and take the first fall.
MJF responded by going cheap, tossing away a fall with a low blow, and then quickly covering Danielson two times to even the count to 2-2 halfway through the match. MJF was still discombobulated, though, frequently bailing to the floor to guzzle bottles of water (something Taz pointed out was more likely to cramp you up than help you). Danielson then lasered in on the leg, smashed it into the ring post, and locked on a tight figure four; you could see the confidence leach out of MJF as he was being tortured. Meanwhile, Danielson yelled at MJF like the Great Santini as he pummeled MJF’s leg with Marco Ruas–style kicks.
MJF was able to post Danielson, and then you could see him make a decision. His knee was shredded; he needed to either give up the ghost or dig deep and prove he was worthy (while proving everyone else wrong). MJF climbed to the top rope, first removing the bolt padding to steady himself, and landed a leap of faith elbow drop through Danielson and a table, seemingly caving Danielson’s chest in with the impact. Danielson was able to beat the count, but MJF pulled him out and tombstoned him through the already collapsed table, showing deliberate disregard for his own knee. MJF then threw a bloodied Danielson into the ring and hit the Heat Seeker piledriver to get ahead in falls, three to Danielson’s two.
You could then see MJF replace the bravado with certitude. He had fought through the knee injury and had the Best in the World bloodied and beaten, and he would now talk his shit, punching Danielson in the bloody wound and giving shout-outs to Danielson’s little girls. Unsurprisingly, Danielson fought back, reversing MJF into the post and hitting him with a knee off the apron and a plancha. Danielson then set up a superplex but hooked his legs so that only MJF took the impact, a great example of the thoughtful little things Danielson adds to every match. Danielson then hit a big diving headbutt that split MJF open from temple to temple, leaving him dazed and vulnerable to another Busaiku Knee; flattened him; and left him defenseless as Danielson forced a bloody MJF to tap to the Regal Stretch, tying up the match at 3-3.
The final 10 minutes saw both men covered in plasma, grabbing limbs, and trying to force the other to give up. MJF came very close to tapping Danielson out, locking up three limbs and tearing at Danielson’s shoulder, only for Danielson to get a toe on the rope. They then kneeled in front of each other and started throwing hard rights and sick headbutts, coating each other with blood and giving MJF a huge swelling contusion on his forehead. As they were laying into each other, Danielson started smiling, blood on his teeth, a pro wrestling monster in his happy place. However, at that point, MJF proved that he belonged there, too. It was 56 minutes into a war, and the mouthy Jewish kid from Long Island—all bark, no bite; an indie mud show fraud—was right in the pocket going toe-to-toe with (arguably) the greatest ever. MJF had conquered his fears and doubts and showed the world (and, more important, himself) that he was more than talk.
With two minutes remaining, they fought on the top rope; MJF survived Danielson’s hammer and anvil elbows and hit a second-rope avalanche tombstone, knocking Danielson cold but obliterating his own already damaged knee. MJF was unable to cover, and when he did, Danielson got the advantage, twisting MJF with a half crab. MJF screamed in pain but was unwilling to end his dream, and somehow he gutted his way to the end of the clock, showing everyone he could hang with the Best in the World for an entire hour, eke out a draw, and keep his title. MJF proved his mettle, his guts, and his heart while forcing everyone watching in the arena and at home to give the devil his due.
While that was the ending MJF deserved, it wasn’t the one he got. Tony Schiavone ran down to the ring, announcing that Tony Khan had restarted the match with a sudden-death period. Both men were lying in the ring being tended to by ringside doctors; an exhausted MJF was being given oxygen. In the overtime period, MJF reverted to his old ways; he had done it the right way during the 60-minute bout, leaving it all on the field, only to be unfairly forced back into the fray. So now he would do whatever he had to do to keep his title. He tried a low blow and wanted to use the diamond ring, but instead he found himself back in the half crab that he’d withstood at the end of regulation. MJF fought to the ropes again, and as he grabbed the rope to break (flipping off the crowd again), he fake tapped, tricking Danielson into thinking he’d won and dropping his guard. MJF then rolled to the floor, grabbed the steel oxygen tank, and clonked Danielson in the head with it. He then threw the LeBell Lock on a concussed Dragon, and after one last Danielson struggle, MJF forced him to tap out. MJF kept his championship and vanquished his foe, despite being forced to tarnish his achievement. MJF is an addict; he can have moments when he looks like he’s standing on his own, only for the lure of the shortcut, the cheap shot, to suck him back into the mire. Maybe the MJF story is one of delayed redemption, and his final triumph will be proving himself worthy and becoming a better person. Until then, I will continue to enjoy watching him gloriously fail to grow.
Tyler Bate vs. Carmelo Hayes
WWE NXT, February 28
While SmackDown and Raw are primarily concerned with table setting for WrestleMania, NXT held down the great match fort last week, delivering a main-event match between two of its young stars. Tyler Bate is 25, and Carmelo Hayes is 28; they are both in their athletic primes, and in this match, they took full advantage of everything NXT allows to showcase their talent.
The match opened with some fancy counter-wrestling, and Bate broke out a few World of Sport British wrestling reversals. I really liked a spot in which Bate had Hayes rolling with go-behinds and up-and-unders and then offered him his left leg. But instead of grabbing it and continuing the dance, Hayes smartly backed off. Bate was able to stay ahead of the game in the early part of the match, hitting a great-looking tope over the top rope and then cutting Hayes off with a forearm when he attempted a dive of his own. Hayes was able to take control during the commercial break; both men struggled to lift each other, but Hayes was able to use the second rope as a springboard to take Bate over and into the ring with a suplex.
Bate was soon back on offense, though, and he hit an airplane spin, which, thanks to WWE’s corybantic camerawork, gave the audience the same sort of nausea that the competitors had. It then broke down into a bit of a slugfest. My favorite part of the match may have been Hayes’s short left hook and skin-searing chop; you don’t really think of Carmelo Hayes as a big striker, but he threw leather. Bate hit a top rope exploder but got distracted by Trick Williams and missed a Sky Twister Press. Then Hayes hit a jumping stomach breaker and a top-rope Nothing but Net leg drop for the win. This was a match with a lot of ideas, and it felt a bit overstuffed, as if there were things that should have been saved for a rematch. Still, with wrestlers this creative, Bate and Hayes will surely have more in their bag if it gets run back.
Bate was the inaugural NXT U.K. champion when he was just 19 and has been in WWE for six years now. He is sort of like the wrestling version of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: He is preternaturally talented but has been mired in a small pond. Much like how Gilgeous-Alexander keeps getting shut down for tanking purposes, Bate has been relatively inactive, wrestling fewer than 50 times since the start of 2020. I’m not really sure where his role is in the current WWE, whether he will be part of the theoretical NXT Europe or just stay in NXT in a sort of gatekeeper role. But he’s someone in his prime who isn’t really getting an opportunity to show it.
Hayes, on the other hand, has felt like the next guy up for a while. We could be getting Hayes vs. Bron Breakker for the NXT title at Stand & Deliver, and it feels like whoever loses the match should probably move up to the main roster the following week. I’m not sure whether I’m more interested in a long NXT title run for Hayes or for him to swim in the big pond; I also don’t know how many more stories there are for him to tell on Tuesdays. I would like to see him work as a top babyface, something he hasn’t really gotten an opportunity to try. If they are keeping both Breakker and Hayes on NXT, a big double turn at Stand & Deliver could be pretty cool; let Breakker lean into a vicious proto–Brock Lesnar role, and give Hayes a chance to be cheered fully by a crowd that is clearly eager to embrace him.
Timothy Thatcher vs. Speedball Mike Bailey
West Coast Best Coast, March 4
This was a battle of arguably the two best independent wrestlers on the scene, two guys with divergent styles which meshed great. “Speedball” Mike Bailey, like his nickname suggests, wants to keep things fast and fight at a distance. He has lightning-quick hands and feet and the ability to fly high and land hard on his opponents. Timothy Thatcher, meanwhile, wants to slow a match down, keep his opponent close, and tear and rip at their limbs. Could Bailey land the big shot before Thatcher ground his joints and muscles into dust?
The early part of the match saw Thatcher pressing into Bailey and grinding at him, the kind of full-court press Thatcher is known for. Thatcher propped up Bailey’s arm on the mat, so it was bent in a down-push-up position, and drove his knee hard, right into the ulna. Thatcher then followed this up by viciously stomping Bailey’s wrist. It was wince-inducing stuff, and it looked like he broke Bailey’s arm and/or dislocated his elbow. Thatcher then started the torture in earnest, yanking at the elbow and wrist, lifting Bailey up with a keylock and carrying him around the ring, later actually tossing him with a keylock suplex. Meanwhile, any time Bailey could break away he would fire kicks and punches, primarily focusing on Thatcher’s ribs and midsection. I loved how the match ended, as they eschewed the traditional indie wrestling finisher spamming and instead Bailey was able to gain enough separation to land his Ultimate Weapon moonsault knee drop from the top rope, which Thatcher immediately sold like it had punctured his lung and ruptured his spleen. No 2.9-counts and shocked faces, just a knockout blow sold like it had finished someone off.
Before this match, indie wrestling icon Chris Hero made his on-camera return to wrestling (he has just been running seminars since being part of the WWE COVID cuts) and announced he would be West Coast Pro’s matchmaker. I would have rather seen Hero announce he was challenging the winner of this match, but I am interested to see what the promotion has coming up. You don’t announce Chris Hero as your matchmaker unless you have some wild matches to make, and hopefully the promotion brings back Thatcher and Bailey and lets them continue to play in this playground.
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.