WWE’s annual marquee event, WrestleMania, was back and at full strength for the first time since 2019, and you know what, it was actually pretty good! Night One, on Saturday, was easily the better of the two shows, with a great match on both the men’s and the women’s sides and an overwhelming helping of fan service at the end when Stone Cold Steve Austin wrestled his first match in nearly two decades. Night Two … well, it had Johnny Knoxville beating Sami Zayn with a giant mousetrap, and I think sometimes that’s all you need for a show to be a success.
Just as cool—I’d say even cooler, actually—than the big extravagant weekend at JerryWorld was the exhausting amount of lower-profile wrestling that surrounded Mania itself. After a Mania behind closed doors in 2020, and a scaled-back version in Tampa last year, all of the smaller promotions were out in full force in Dallas this past weekend, showcasing every kind of wrestling you could imagine as they aimed to attract some fraction of the fans who make the trek for the industry’s biggest weekend. It’s like Lollapalooza, but with fewer shirtless dudes beating each other up.
Within those shows were a ton of excellent matches. And while it would be truly deranged to try and keep up with everything that happened in a ring somewhere in Texas, I’ve picked out five from five different events that I particularly enjoyed, and which might make a nice sampler for anyone hungry for some more fake fighting.
Here they are, not ranked in any way except the order in which I saw them.
This was a gloriously gross way to start off the weekend on Thursday. I questioned my own morals while watching this match, and the thumbnail of the video alone should be enough to explain why, as Biff Busick’s blood is just waterfalling onto Jon Moxley while Mox holds him in a rear naked choke.
The gimmick behind Bloodsport is that the wrestlers at these shows are engaging more in worked MMA fights than traditional pro graps. That means these matches are nastier, grimier, and less beholden to traditional “build to a big climax” storytelling. But this confrontation between Moxley, the huge AEW star who also just lives for this violent indie stuff, and Busick, the solid but lesser-known recent WWE release, marries the best of both worlds. It’s ugly in a way that you rarely see on TV, and yet it still retains the drama of great television. I have some very mixed feelings about the cut that opens up on Busick’s head in the middle of this one, but the intensity of the match’s finish, beginning around 13:20 in the video below, will stick with me for a long time.
Mox using Hole’s “Violet” as his entrance music also scores him tons of points with me, as if I could be an even bigger fan of him than I already am.
“Speedball” Mike Bailey was probably the MVP of the whole weekend, wrestling nine times in three days as they continue the tear they’ve been on through America since the beginning of the year. The 31-year-old Québécois was banned from the U.S. for five years back in 2016 for trying to enter without a visa to perform on a show, and though they competed in Canada and internationally in the ensuing years, Bailey’s career has reached new heights already in just the few months they’ve been back stateside, as they’ve signed a contract with Impact Wrestling and performed with a who’s who of major talents on the indies. With their ever-present grin and lighthearted martial arts style, Bailey’s become a fan favorite everywhere they’ve been.
Of the three Bailey matches I saw, this one against Bandido was the standout. It’s a crowd-pleasing series of a big spots, and crucially, it makes sense as a crowd-pleaser because at this WrestleCon show a legit $5,000 prize was given to the performers who put on the fan-voted match of the night. Bandido’s signature moves sometimes frustrate me for the way they require his opponents to put themselves in illogical positions, and that was an issue for me later on in his Ring of Honor main event. But here, the goofy chemistry and thrilling athleticism that both he and Bailey posses provided more than enough excitement for the two to split the bonus cash. This is very accessible and very fun.
This was an odd show for Ring of Honor in that it was scheduled by folks who no longer own the company. Once run by Sinclair, who had just ended everyone’s contracts amid plans to turn it into a freelance-based promotion, ROH was bought by AEW president Tony Khan in March, and the event was kept on the schedule because fans had already purchased tickets for it.
Khan didn’t just go through the motions on this one, however. While it made sense for him to buy ROH for its rich library of footage that features plenty of current AEW stars, he also, somehow, intends to keep it running as its own promotion alongside his much more popular first company. I don’t know how that will work. Frankly, it seems kind of silly to me. But this show worked as a statement of purpose and also, likely, an attempt to steal the weekend from WWE in the hardcore segment while AEW itself stayed away from Dallas to avoid the perception that they were riding any coattails.
Even without the brand name on the marquee, several AEW talents crossed over on this show, and plenty of title changes worked to reorient the company with Khan’s vision. The Briscoes vs. FTR, then, was the centerpiece of the night—a pulse-pounding dose of tag-team action of the kind that has stolen so many AEW shows already.
This match frickin’ ruled, as a pair of extremely talented duos with contrasting aesthetics just went at each other with no bells or whistles for nearly half an hour. FTR are vintage ‘rasslers signed to AEW who take themselves so seriously as in-ring craftsmen they come back around to being endearingly funny. The Briscoes are hillbillies who do “redneck kung fu” and, it must be said, have a homophobic past that might forever keep them off mainstream wrestling TV. All four men made you feel the sparks between them even before the first bell, and as the match built and built, the superficial differences between them blurred until all you could see was four fantastic wrestlers trying to gut out a five-star classic.
I’m echoing myself here, but I still can’t get over the excitement of Cash Wheeler as he embraces Dax Harwood after the three-count. They’re selling the prestige of the belts they just won, of course, but they also just seem so proud of what they accomplished in the ring. If the continuation of Ring of Honor means more moments like this, then I guess I can’t question what Khan is doing.
From an in-ring standpoint, this probably wasn’t anyone’s favorite, but the oddness of this pairing, coupled with Suzuki’s otherwordly aura, made it a highlight for me.
Kross is a recent WWE release, built up by the company’s developmental brand only to get turned instantly into a joke on Monday Night Raw, where he had to wear a stupid Ninja Turtles–villain getup that a biting heckler mentioned during this match. Nobody would ever heckle Suzuki, on the other hand, unless they had a death wish. Legitimately one of the best and most influential MMA fighters of the ’90s, the 53-year-old Suzuki returned to pro wrestling in 2003 and, in the twilight of his career, has become a icon with his hard-ass old man persona. This match from last year against Bryan Danielson, which tries its damndest to make you believe it’s an actual fight, is a must-see if you do not fully grasp why Suzuki cannot be fucked with.
So in one corner is a man who commands respect from everyone in wrestling, and in the other is a man who, unfortunately, has none from anyone at this point in his career. And funnily enough, that’s exactly how the story of the match plays out. Though Kross physically looks more intimidating than Suzuki in 2022, the ageless bastard—to the delight of the crowd—does not pay him any regard. He insults Kross, beats on his chest, and takes him apart on the mat before getting the pin in less than 10 minutes. In kayfabe, this is an embarrassment to Kross. But in reality, there’s probably nothing better he could do to win some fans back than step into the ring to take an ass-beating from Minoru Goddamn Suzuki.
I’ve always found the square-shaped brawlers to be the easiest wrestlers to root for, personally, and nobody fits that bill better than Tomohiro Ishii, the cult favorite from New Japan Pro Wrestling who’s made an entire career out of trying to appear impervious to pain. (His nickname is “The Stone Pitbull.”) As with Suzuki, it’s a treat to have Ishii competing in America for a few different reasons: one, the fans aren’t subject to the hypercautious COVID restrictions on crowds in Japan; two, we don’t know how many more opportunities the 46-year-old will have to perform; three, he is absolutely awesome.
Ishii may be a few years past his physical prime, but his formula remains just as effective as always. In this match against the well-traveled veteran and current Impact wrestler Eddie Edwards, Ishii plays all the hits for an adoring crowd. He gets right back up after suplexes, walks directly into forearms to the jaw until his impotent opponent is trapped in a corner, and he fires up on the attack with no regard for any punishment he’s just taken. Well, almost no regard. The way he sells these slaps when Edwards stops looking is, to me, the extra dimension that elevates Ishii’s character into greatness. It’s not that he doesn’t feel pain. He just wants his opponent to think so.
Maybe I’m stating the obvious here, but it’s just incredibly cool to have all these matches, with all these stars from around the globe, not only all in one U.S. city but also then available for anyone with an internet connection to watch. In the old days, so I’m told, you had to literally trade VHS tapes with other collectors to see someone of Ishii or Suzuki’s status. Now it’s just click click click and choose matches from an impossible number of options. Maybe you want a violent mess. Maybe you want an all-action lucha affair. Maybe you want to see a guy get high-fived to the ground by a gigantic hand-shaped contraption. It was all there—more than you could ever possibly want or handle.