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Year In Review

Some Wrestling Matches I Liked In 2023

Tetsuya Naito flying in with a knee on Keiji Muto
Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

This is my third year of writing a year-end pro wrestling recap, and I enter it more cynically. 2021 brought the return of the indies and of live weekly touring, plus the peak of All Elite Wrestling. 2022 was a full year of full-scale wrestling, with an overwhelming selection of strong matches from all over the world. But 2023 was a year of blows to the business—WWE somehow found a way to become even more monolithic with its UFC merger; AEW stretched itself too thin; the major Japanese promotions, despite being finally freed from COVID restrictions, struggled to draw arena-sized crowds or hold on to top talent.

However, even if these disappointments sum up my broader feelings about wrestling in 2023, I was still pretty happy when I dug through the hundreds of matches I watched this year and realized that there were still too many good ones to comfortably fit in this blog. The most exciting work was a little more spread out, a little less easy to find on a week-to-week basis. But there was still plenty to go around—enough to satisfy all but the most indefatigable fans. Here are 15 matches I liked, from 15 different promotions, presented here in chronological order.

Crazzy Steve vs. Trey Miguel, Impact Wrestling, January 21

I am pleased to begin this list with a classic "staple gun to the dick and balls" spot. For those not versed in the finer points of the art of professional wrestling, that's what they call it when one competitor fires a staple gun at the other's dick and balls, and it's a fitting highlight for this Monster's Ball match made even more hilarious, to me, by the fact that it's mostly forgotten within just a few minutes.

Monster's Ball, a feature of Impact Wrestling, is one of the silliest stipulations out there. It's a match that occurs after the combatants are supposedly placed in solitary confinement for 24 hours with no light, food, or water. In theory, this makes them extra ornery. This particular match pits Trey Miguel, an eye-catching flyer, against Crazzy Steve, whose deal is explained by his name. It's cartoonish and ridiculous, especially when they come back from commercial with a no-context fork stabbing. But there is still a story here, with Miguel losing his mind as he contends with Steve and banters angrily with the crowd.

I don't have a lot to say about Impact as a company other than that they exist, they have some talented people, and their women's division has been laudable at times. In a play for some fermented nostalgia, they're returning to the moniker "TNA" next year, which is both representative of some of the bleakest wrestling of the 2000s and a name I will never say out loud to anyone who isn't already in the know. I'm not sure what the endgame is supposed to be, but for now it's a promotion that pays wrestlers and achieves greatness every once in a while. As long as enough fans keep showing up, I can't complain.

Here's the whole match, time-stamped to the most memorable part.

Alex Hammerstone vs. Jacob Fatu, MLW SuperFight, February 4

This is the one Major League Wrestling match I watched this year. And I liked it! MLW had a messy year that's not quite interesting enough to summarize in detail—there was an antitrust suit against WWE and some cable TV politics that put them on the station Reelz for only 10 weeks. (That sounds small-time but apparently Reelz's reincarnated version of Cops is a legit hit among ... well, among people whose taste I judge.)

Anyway, this Hammerstone vs. Fatu meatfest was the opening bout on one of those episodes, and it's tailor-made to make you go "Whoa, what is this?" if you're the carryover audience at the top of the hour. With a crowd that, sweetened or not, sounds rabid, and the astounding size/speed combination that the two performers possess, this has the feel of a heavyweight title fight, and it tells a compelling story about one devastating move of Hammerstone's and what happens after he manages to hit it. Like the Impact highlight above, this is a reminder that fun wrestling exists in pockets all over the U.S., and can be watched by pretty much anyone, as long as you're lucky enough to stumble upon the right moments.

Watch the episode on the Internet Archive.

Kento Miyahara vs. Yuji Nagata, AJPW Excite Series 2023 - Pro-Wrestling Day MANIAx, February 19

Around the time that AEW announced its multi-year agreement to employ Ric Flair and promote his mushroom juice on television, I seriously considered becoming an exclusive All Japan Pro Wrestling die-hard. I did not commit completely, and I can't say I know much about what goes on in their mid-card and below. But based on the matches I did see, AJPW was probably my favorite promotion of the year, boasting a Luis Arráez-in-AA batting average as they built and maintained a coherent and compelling main event picture.

The foundational duo of AJPW right now is Kento Miyahara, the promotion's longtime ace, and Yuma Aoyagi, who's next in line and got to hold the championship for the first time this year. (Katsuhiko Nakajima, owner of the sharpest kicks you'll ever see, has also been hanging out here as a freelancer since leaving NOAH.) They're supplemented by a solid junior heavyweight division that heavily features Yuma's younger brother, compelling tag teams like the Saito Brothers who serve as a foil for Kento and Yuma, and the occasional legend like Minoru Suzuki or Yuji Nagata, who can get more space to work in this smaller promotion than in NJPW.

AJPW used to be able to draw tens of thousands of people to its big shows in the '90s, and this incarnation is a blip in comparison. But the fans they do have are as passionate as you'll find anywhere, and in this year the smart booking and compelling in-ring work was rewarded with visible growth. Nagata vs. Kento for the belt early in the year helped set the tone with a standout in which Kento—who's so good at building crescendos without conceding a boring beginning—whipped up a storm of offense that the 54-year-old Nagata had to endure. It's a thrilling tale of an in-his-prime stud against a legend who might still have a little bit of It left in him.

Keiji Muto vs. Tetsuya Naito, Keiji Muto Grand Final Pro-Wrestling "Last" Love, February 21

I wrote about this supershow celebration of Keiji Muto's retirement back when it happened, but after a full year in which Japanese crowds even exceeding 5,000 felt like a rare sight, this Tokyo Dome spectacle stood out. The undercard, featuring contributions from nearly every significant Japanese promotion, is a who's who of wrestlers who helped define the year. But it's the main event, featuring the barely mobile Muto somehow getting it together for one more show, that towers above.

This was a wild year for the detached iconoclast Naito, who sent off one of his heroes, looked for several months like he was mostly coasting on aura, then suddenly shot back up to the top of NJPW and seems almost assured to hold the championship again following Wrestle Kingdom in January. He's the assist man here, however, as Muto drags just enough from his body to support a poignant dramatization of that moment when an athlete just can't go on like they used to. A lot of my favorite spots of the year involved, like, fireworks and vampirism and a staple gun to the dick and balls. But Muto not being able to will himself into a moonsault will be embedded in me forever. If you understand sports at all or honestly just the act of aging, even if you don't get wrestling, the climax of this match should click with you.

Watch the show on the Internet Archive.

Kazusada Higuchi & Ryota Nakatsu vs. MAO & Shunma Katsumata, DDT Judgement 2023 - Longest 5 Hour Special In Korakuen Hall History, March 21

As much as you can love a place that you haven't been within 5,000 miles of, I love Korakuen Hall. It is not the shiniest building that hosts pro wrestling in Japan, nor the largest. But as the go-to location for the smaller promotions' biggest events and the hidden gems of the larger companies, it serves as the vital heartbeat of wrestling. No other building matters more, because no other building has hosted such a constant succession of wrestlers and fans who demand the best.

I adored this falls-count-anywhere tag match in large part because it gave me such a wonderful tour of this place that I only know through my laptop. As is DDT's trademark, and MAO's in particular, it's also chock full of creative choices, like dueling tumbling falls all the way down the stairs and Higuchi hitting his head on the ceiling as he tries to leap through a table. This was also a pretty enjoyable way to tease a would-be lethal balcony spot.

I don't have a passport, but I've resolved to obtain one and do some legit traveling, world and life permitting, within the next few years. When I eventually, hopefully, get to Korakuen Hall for real, this match will deserve some of the credit.

Watch the show on the Internet Archive.

Hirooki Goto & Yoshi-Hashi vs. Kyle Fletcher & Mark Davis, NJPW Sakura Genesis, April 8

I will try to limit all my New Japan Pro Wrestling takes to one paragraph only. I mentioned last year that their golden generation is taking its last bows, and the promotion clearly understood this in 2023. But instead of taking their next generation and portraying them like the superstars they could be, management gave these budding talents middling roles and forced them to pay more dues. Instead, to succeed the icons at the top, they choose long-established mid-carders like David Finlay and Sanada, who, rather than elevating themselves to the moment, made main events feel like mid-card bouts. Playing the long game with Shota Umino, Ren Narita, and especially Yota Tsuji already feels like a major mistake, especially after a year that saw two former world champions in Will Ospreay and Jay White choose AEW in free agency. Though still the most popular company in Japan, NJPW is fighting an uphill battle against slumping interest and desperately needs a new face to break through.

The four men involved in this match aren't going to be those faces. Goto and Yoshi-Hashi are rooted to their spots in the hierarchy, and Fletcher and Davis are in AEW now. But this Bishamon vs. Aussie Open tag title match was a crowning moment for the latter team, who first got mentioned in this space two years ago for a match in front of maybe a few hundred people on their home continent. There's rarely blood in New Japan, but Fletcher here gets what some would call a fortuitous legit injury after hitting his head on a guardrail and forcing staff to tape him up. I wouldn't advise doing such a thing, personally, but the blood-stained headband he sported for the rest of this fight only added to his scrappy charm, and as the big-impact moves piled up—like they always do in an Aussie Open match—you could feel these two inching closer and closer to victory.

I don't know what New Japan is going to become. I know that this kind of match isn't it. The lifeblood of the company is still conservatively building singles wrestlers over the ultra-long term, and unless they suddenly push someone new out of nowhere (like did they with Okada 10 years ago—remember how well that went?!) they'll rise or fall based on how they manage at that particular aspect of wrestling.

But that's not my job! I just pick someone to cheer for and then say "ooh" and "aah" during their performance.

Bad Bunny vs. Damian Priest, WWE Backlash, May 6

After it decided not to put the belt on Sami Zayn in February, WWE had a pretty boring in-ring year. It's fitting, then, that an outsider helped put on its best match of 2023. And since it's WWE, it had the clout necessary to bring in one of the biggest outsiders imaginable—Bad Bunny, who not only wrestled in this singles match but legitimately gave it everything he could, setting a towering new bar for A-listers in the squared circle.

Because Benito only had two-ish matches prior—a tag match at WrestleMania 2021 and an appearance in the 2022 Royal Rumble—this is a smoke-and-mirrors affair that gets its gas from an arrogant Priest controlling the tempo and milking the crowd. But the singer is a fantastic underbunny and shows just enough athleticism that you could buy him stealing a pin. His sheer stamina here is impressive, which I guess you get from enduring massive concert tours, but he's fully convincing as a good guy in peril as well, drawing strength from a crowd that views him (and his surprise allies) like they're all CM Punk in Chicago.

If WWE is running a major show in a relatively unconventional city—in this case, San Juan—you can bet it's because the local government paid them for it. Saudi Arabia, which has probably lined the bathroom stalls of WWE corporate with diamonds by this point, provides the most garish example of these transactions. But it makes me a little uncomfortable even in the U.S. or Europe, knowing that the people who go to the shows are being double-charged through both their taxes and their tickets. Still, the big WWE show in San Juan turned out to be a long-awaited blowout. Whereas the Saudi events have this uncanny, Potemkin feel every time the camera goes wide, the overhead shots on Benito's entrance capture an enthusiasm that cannot be faked, an excitement that money doesn't buy. In a year marked by WWE's continued attempts to insulate itself from any possibility of ever losing money, it's an important reminder that these fans are the people who give life to pro wrestling.

Himeka Gauntlet Match, Stardom Last Jumbo Princess, May 14

Stardom is the top women's promotion in Japan but has never really been my jam, especially in comparison to their more anarchic and colorful rival Tokyo Joshi. The company's stiff, grueling style is off-putting to me, because the matches and crowds don't demand it. Instead, it's as though the wrestlers are just trying to prove a point about how tough they are, with few real benefits to themselves or their work. The high number of injuries the roster has suffered in 2023 might be a sign that their philosophy needs to shift, or at least be tweaked. (Also, we don't have time to fully get into this, but the company's relationship with its fans is ... complicated, as you might expect when heavily male crowds show up to watch exclusively attractive young women, and you can often sense it in the atmosphere even on the other side of the world.)

That said, the level of talent on Stardom's roster ranks with the world's best, and when they're not just kicking out after ridiculous bumps, their personalities give the promotion its allure. The best proper match Stardom put on this year involved the interplay of 12 wrestlers in a cage match to determine which of them would be kicked out of their faction, and their other big emotional highlight was Himeka's retirement show.

Himeka, known affectionately as the Jumbo Princess (more for power than actual size, I would say), was a mainstay of Stardom for a few years but decided she wanted to move on from wrestling and do other things with her life at just 25 years old. That made her final match less of an "aging athlete just can't hack it anymore" affair and more like a college graduation. In this gauntlet, Himeka got one minute each in the ring with over 30 of her fellow wrestlers. Some of them actually did wrestle, but others took the opportunity to do bits, like how my favorite, the baseball-loving Mayu Iwatani, gave her an at-bat. It's the complete opposite of every other Stardom main event this year, and probably for that reason, it's the one that had the strongest effect.

Watch the show on the Internet Archive.

Chihiro Hashimoto vs. Sareee, Sareee-ISM – Chapter One, May 16

Just a few years ago it felt like every wrestler and their dog was finding creative freedom after ditching an awful WWE experience. Sareee was a throwback to that genre in 2023. On the USA Network, she was given this atrocious magical schoolgirl gimmick that never went anywhere. But back home in Japan, she produced a couple of her own shows while embarking on an electric tour of under-the-radar women's promotions.

Her very first match back, in front of an intimate and adoring crowd, came against the muscular Hashimoto. The two combined for a hard-hitting, exhausting struggle that made Sareee look like a no-doubt ass-kicker. The grittier, less-smiley style helps illuminate why nobody at her old workplace knew what to do with her, but this match never felt like Sareee trying to get back at her old bosses. It's her simply continuing a career that was briefly interrupted for a weird detour in a much different line of work. And now it's almost as if she never left.

The highlight clips are a little too rapid-fire for me, but you can watch the match on Dailymotion.

Mike Bailey vs. Yoshihiko, GCW Now And Forever, July 14

There's an idea prevalent among a faction of wrestling-business veterans with podcasts that, in order to hook new or casual fans, the action needs to scan as "real" and "serious" and avoid silly comedy nonsense that breaks the suspension of disbelief. With the caveat that everyone has different tastes, I find this to be quite false. When I've introduced new people to wrestling, even if they haven't turned into hardcore sickos, I enjoy waiting for this little lightbulb moment they get when they realize wrestling can exist outside the box they had mentally constructed for it. That moment can be as cute as the Young Bucks giving Adam Cole a little smooch on the cheek before completing an in-ring move, or as goofy as Fuminori Abe wrestling a guy dressed as a giant worm in a Tokyo bar, or as bizarrely awesome as "Speedball" Mike Bailey pretending to fight a blow-up doll named Yoshihiko while the crowd goes wild.

There might actually be like five different "Speedball" Mike Baileys walking around on this planet right now, because other than cloning I have no idea how this dude's been able to keep up their schedule over the last couple years. But my favorite had to be this bout with Yoshihiko (who's actually had a long career in the business, believe it or not) that Samer and I saw in Queens this summer. There's a human wrestler, a puppet, and a crowd that buys in and treats both as living entities and worthy competitors.

Yes, there is of course a level of irony in the way that people cheer for Yoshihiko and get indignant when Bailey carelessly smashes it against the mat. But when you watch a wrestling match, sometimes a crazy thing happens to you. It's not that you forget what you're watching is "fake." It's that you don't care. You're outwardly mad about cheating, and you're not entirely sure if you really mean it. You're freaking out that an underdog might steal a win even though that both does and doesn't matter. And, for just a split second on a false finish, you stop thinking "Bailey moved Yoshihiko so it looked like the puppet kicked out" and you process the moment as "Holy shit, Yoshihiko kicked out!" Wrestling is one big game of make-believe, and it's the performer's job to find the version of authenticity in whatever it is they're doing that gets the whole crowd to buy in. Bailey had an absurdly tough task here, but they Pinocchio-ed the hell out of this puppet, and that's why Samer and I agreed it was the best match of the night.

Daniel Garcia vs. Katsuyori Shibata, ROH Death Before Dishonor, July 21

File this under "matches I will probably regret not going to for the rest of my life." Death Before Dishonor was a good show (please do not get me started on the booking of Willow Nightingale), and this match was one of several strong moments. But mainly, I hope it doesn't become my last chance to ever see Katsuyori Shibata ply his trade in person.

Shibata, though never the top guy in New Japan, was one of the leading forces who redefined what wrestling could be in the 2010s for a Western internet audience mostly used to cable TV. Just watch this tornado of violence between him and Tomohiro Ishii, the other guy I'd put in his league. Shibata was straightforwardly vicious without even the most minute of sports-entertainment frills. His nickname was "The Wrestler." He wore nothing but utilitarian black trunks. His showmanship was the visceral power of his strikes.

And it got so real it almost killed him. In 2017, after maybe his greatest match yet against Kazuchika Okada, he collapsed backstage and needed emergency surgery for a subdural hematoma. He emerged four months later to say "I am alive. That is all." He took up teaching. He inched his way back into performing with a few angles and careful exhibitions. In January of 2022, he reportedly went off script to have a more dangerous match than planned against his protege Ren Narita. And in June of that year, he showed up unexpectedly in the States, kicking off a run under Tony Khan's AEW/ROH umbrella. Even if he has his limitations, and most of his matches center a safer, submission-based style, every Shibata appearance feels like a terrifying miracle.

This was a very special year for my wrestling bucket list—Kota Ibushi, Zack Sabre Jr., a diminished but not broken Hiroshi Tanahashi—and it's partially for that reason that I skipped out on Death Before Dishonor. I had seen the GCW show above the previous week, took the train up to Boston for Ibushi & Guts the following Wednesday, and on Friday, when I had the opportunity to make the four-hour round trip to Trenton for this show, I declined due to exhaustion.

Shibata is, at least for now, back in Japan with no future dates set anywhere near me. Though his leaving the States was not supposed to be a goodbye, nobody can take for granted that he'll make it back, let alone to actually wrestle. I will have to just imagine, possibly permanently, what it's like to be in the presence of this master—the real-life figure he cuts, the true sound of those kicks, unfiltered. To watch his old matches now is to demonstrate my faith in his immortality.

Mistico vs. Soberano Jr., CMLL Super Viernes, September 1

In this lucha libre match from the oldest promotion in the world, held at the legendary Arena México, Mistico is the icon and the good-guy hero. But I just cannot stop thinking about Soberano's limbs. This long, athletic man's movement is fascinating and almost hypnotic, the way it conveys such an attitude without the benefit of facial expressions. Look at the way Soberano struts, cheats, dives, and swaggers as he takes the first fall of this best-two-of-three confrontation. It's pure silent-film artistry.

This match catches Soberano on the verge of turning full-on heel, which is a mode that suits him well and is almost always necessary in this throwback lucha environment that's built on archetypes. But the slightly subtler setting he was on during this match will remain my favorite, because it demands that you watch closely, that you interpret his movements, and form your own observations about his character that aren't helped along by him, like, putting an upside down cross on a new mask designed to look like he's bleeding from the eyes. That version of Soberano remains a top talent, but rewatching this one, I think that no man has ever been more gorgeous while completely hiding his face.

Find this match in thecubsfan's Lucha Drive.

Jay Malachi vs. Lucky Ali, DPW Carolina Classic, September 17

The simpler way to run a U.S. indie is to stay loose with continuity from show to show. Since a promoter at that level isn't signing any talents to exclusive commitments, and you never know who might get signed away, it's easiest to just see who around the country is available in a given month, who you can afford, and then reverse-engineer a card based on that. The North Carolina–based Deadlock stands out in this scene because they do it differently. Yes, you'll see one-offs from more mercenary types just passing through, but more than anyone else in their sphere right now Deadlock stands on the shoulders of their guys. This maximalist main event title clash between Jay Malachi, 19 years old, and Lucky Ali, who barely wrestled outside the Carolinas before debuting here, is proof of the good that can come when these kinds of shows have local roots and aren't just interchangeable barnstorming tours.

I'm out of breath just thinking about how much Malachi wrestled on this day. In two other matches earlier on the card, including the one immediately preceding this, he put in something like 35 minutes to earn a title shot against the good-for-nothing scoundrel Ali. My expectations were that Malachi's challenge would end with a sudden shock, for his cardio's sake, but this ludicrous hardcore grind lasted nearly another half-hour, pulling out every indulgence in the book as the kid dehydrated himself for glory.

The climax will have you delirious, but as I'm writing this now, it's also bittersweet. Deadlock already this year almost lost a cornerstone in Colby Corino, who agreed to join up with WWE but got screwed over by management before he could actually sign. Ali and Malachi, however, both seem to be definitively on their way there after they finish up their current indie commitments. It's the way of the world, and for most people who wrestle, the indies will always be a means to reach TV and greater stability. I just hope it doesn't discourage the Deadlock owners from building up the next Ali and Malachi, however difficult that might be.

Bryan Danielson vs. Zack Sabre Jr., AEW WrestleDream, October 1

This is neck-and-neck for AEW Match of the Year with the bloody bacchanal that was Swerve vs Hangman. But the tie goes to the best wrestler of 2023, and even with multiple injuries that kept him out for extended periods, that wrestler was Bryan Danielson, who at critical moments for this company brought higher stakes and a more infectious intensity to his work than anyone else in any promotion.

This match in Seattle, with lanky, charismatic, Tory-hating Zack Sabre Jr., is the one best-suited to live in people's memories long-term, because it's something that nobody else at this level even really thinks about doing. It's a match to determine, to use the storyline term, the best technical wrestler in the world, which basically means it's closer to legit amateur wrestling than anything else on TV—no flips, no weapons, no distracting the ref. Even after imposing all these limitations on themselves, these two craft a logical, progressive masterpiece filled with sequences that feel brand-new. It functions as though the competitors are testing their brains as much as their bodies, and the question of the match, instead of the usual "Who's gonna hit their finisher first?", becomes the much rarer "Who's actually better at this kind of thing?" (I gotta note, too, that Jon Moxley just ripped on commentary throughout, bringing so much enthusiasm while staying trained on the action.)

For a lot of the fans that gave it life in its early days, this was the year AEW changed from a WWE alternative into just the second-place promotion. For me, at least, it's the year when I stopped even attempting to keep up with everything they put out, as the product got more scattered and wobbly and frustrating. Once, AEW's problem was that they were trying to stuff four hours of television into a two-hour block. Now, they've quadrupled their number of PPVs while trying to support three nights of TV, and particularly without CM Punk as a centerpiece the show-to-show quality has suffered mightily. Danielson winding down his full-time career only increases the pressure to build new stars. But AEW brings its A-game often enough that it continues to make me believe in its future. And it's still, I hope, the best place in America for people who love pro wrestling in every single form it can take.

Watch the match on Dailymotion.

Carlos Ramirez vs. Charles Mason, HOG The Darkest Hour, December 1

It's possible you had to be there. I was, immersing myself in this venue-wide brawl like I was following Tiger at the Masters while Jon Rahm bladed his forehead in a sand trap. This match put Charles Mason—quintessential rich psycho baddie—in front of the little-known but very large Carlos "La Sombra" Ramirez in a symphony of destruction that required real commitment to be witnessed in its entirety. As these two spilled outside the ring area, and they traveled to the corner of the venue where wrestlers posed for pictures with fans, the space became the site of an impromptu competition to see who could snatch up the good views. I rushed around in search of the best perch, and Samer did too. But thankfully, the most jaw-dropping spot began from a higher place than any of us could reach, so we were all looking up as first Ramirez and later Mason fell to Earth.

Credit: Samer Kalaf

You can watch the entire thing on YouTube, but through a screen, this match might come off as more messy and chaotic than anything. That's fair, but this is my list, and let me tell you: A bloodied Charles Mason looked at me while holding a chair and I felt a real adrenalized split second of fear that I will remember for a long, long time. That's the brilliance of theater, baby.

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