Photos by Earl Gardner Photography, WWE and NJPW

Every match I really dug in January 2021, presented in chronological order. Matches of particular note in bold! Recommendations welcome. This list will morph and grow as I watch more wrestling through the year.

  1. Jimmy Lloyd vs. G-Raver I Quit (GCW, 1/1):

A blood feud literally fought over the blood G-Raver spilled in a match with Lloyd a couple of years ago that nearly ended his career and life. This is absolutely insane death match action. Raver has learned no lessons from his near tragedy and goes as hard as ever. I’d expect nothing less.

2. Lee Moriarty vs. Blake Christian (GCW, 1/1): Two of the best young technicians in the sport, working out the kinks of what will surely be legendary careers.

3. Alex Colon vs. Atticus Cogar Death match (GCW, 1/1): Cogar is filling in for his 44OH kingpin Ricky Shane Page and acquitted himself, if not with honor, at the very least well. Colon has a real gift for this insane art, where plasma flow is every bit as important to match structure and development as mat work or near falls.

4. Kazuchika Okada vs. Will Ospreay (NJPW, 1/4): I am not a huge admirer of Ospreay, but credit where due. This was a New Japan style workrate classic. Okada, at the tender age of 33, has the world weary lethargy of a savior, exhausted from carrying his promotion on his back for so long, but too proud and powerful to ever really let it show. The big question remains one he’s been unable to answer since the Omega feud captured the wrestling world’s attention—what’s left for the man who’s done it all?

New Japan clearly hoped Ospreay would be the heir to Omega here. But, though he has the technique and all the moves, he lacks the heart and charm to pull that off. What’s left is a matchup that feels like an echo of the Omega bouts, an emotionless display of prowess with all the soul of a particularly flashy car commercial.

5. Kota Ibushi vs. Tetsuya Naito (NJPW, 1/4): A lesser entry into the Ibushi/Naito lexicon. But the two go hard and my beloved finally wins the big one. There’s something quite interesting about this pairing, with Ibushi’s near physical perfection contrasting so nicely with Naito’s nearly grotesque lack of beauty.

5. Jeff Cobb vs. Shingo Takagi (NJPW, 1/5): Takagi is the heir to Ishii as New Japan’s workrate god on the undercard. This is the best I’ve ever seen Jeff Cobb look, a middleweight amateur wrestler who’s eaten and lifted his way into the facsimile of a heavyweight contender. In this shrunken down era of wrestling these two miniature mountains are the closest things left to hoss wrestlers. When you’re this parched, even a sip of what you crave can quench that aching feeling of loss, if only temporarily.

6. Kota Ibushi vs. Jay White (NJPW, 1/5): A slow burn, psychological classic. If Naito vs. Ibushi was an action movie, this was his Hitchcockian attempt at gravitas and profundity. Ibushi, after much failure, finally figures out the Bullet Club boss to retain the double belts.

7. Raquel Gonzalez vs. Rhea Ripley (NXT, 1/6): Can two women wrestlers be hosses? If so, these are the two. A banger, with Dakota Kai offering a nifty distraction and taking a beating of her own.

There were several of these kind of “Last Man Standing” matches this month, often meandering and boring affairs broken up by a big spot here or there. This wasn’t like that at all—this was non-stop action, well-executed, with an epic finish. Just two of the best women in the world, working a match that is perfectly-designed for their skillsets.

8. Kyle O’Reilly vs. Finn Balor (NXT, 1/6): The sequel couldn’t quite match the original, but these are two damn slick wrestlers. When these two face off in the ring, it doesn’t feel like a choreographed wrestling match. Balor and O’Reilly have fights. The difference is subtle but noticeable. Balor, whose jaw was broken in the first match, spends much of the match targeting O’Reilly’s jaw in turn. It’s a nifty touch that takes this match to places, emotionally, you don’t always find in contemporary wrestling.

9. Kenny Omega vs. Rey Fenix (AEW, 1/6): Oh, no big deal, just a five-star workrate extravaganza for Kennsington Omega on free television. Rey Fenix is a complete wild man and Omega is able to meet that energy head on. You can tell that wrestling the Lucha Bros is a real challenge. The spots are intricate and wild and the physicality taken to the extreme. Many acts melt under the challenge. Omega is primed for it. He and Fenix are one of the great pairings in all of wrestling and I hope we get to see them again before Omega’s physical decline prohibits him from engaging in this kind of contest.

10. Atticus Cogar vs. Akira  Death match (NHB 9, 1/10): In the old days death matches were a slow build to the gimmick being used. Now they are often workrate matches of a kind, with spot after gory spot. I’m here for it all. BLEED MOTHERFUCKERS!

Photo by Red Shoes Media

11. Darby Allin vs. Brian Cage (AEW, 1/13): I enjoyed this AEW TV main event quite a bit and this was Cage’s best showing in an AEW ring. A modern version of big guy/little guy, as Cage towers over Allin and is almost twice as wide.

For those paying close attention, there was a nice Easter Egg here—in a previous bout, Allin attempted to use a pinning combination, only to be reversed and lose the match. Taz, Cage’s manager, offered to help him perfect the move. Allin shook him off, claiming to know already how to fix his mistake, infuriating Taz in the process.

Here, with the stakes super high, Allin used the same hold to beat Taz’s protege. A neat touch.

12. WALTER vs. A-Kid (NXT UK, 1/14): I’m at the point where Walter’s mere presence makes me suspect a match is the fucking goods. While nowhere near as brutal as his match-of-the-year candidate last year with Ilya Dragonov, but still very WALTER.

A-Kid is still learning his craft and struggles in places. But, ultimately this holds together well enough to be worth your time and attention.

13. Daniel Bryan vs. Cesaro (WWE, 1/15): All these years later Danielson and Claudio are still out there doing the thing. There’s a lot of very professional work here, including Cesaro selling the arm even when he is on offense, refusing to forget all the damage Bryan had inflicted earlier in the match. You don’t see that much anymore, making it really stand out when it does happen.

15. Kenny Omega/Good Brothers vs. Rich Swann/Moose/Chris Saban (Impact, 1/16): This was a very slickly executed six man in the New Japan style. Everyone had a chance to look great—Moose, especially, rose to the occasion in a big way. Coming out of the match, Omega was primed for title matches with both the Impact and the TNA champion. Very well handled invasion angle. Good booking. Good work.

16. Timothy Thatcher vs. Tomasso Ciampa Fight Pit (NXT, 1/20): NXT is such a crazy amalgamation of all kinds of pro wrestling. That they let Timothy Thatcher come in and just do his thing is pretty special and isn’t appreciated nearly enough. This is a really great TV match that is very different than the standard WWE bout—but here it is anyway, out there for the world to see what our art can be when yanked from the mind of a madman.

17. Manders vs. Nate Webb (GCW, 1/29): I have really loved discovering Manders. Just a big ole burly guy out there pretending to fight. He’s a classic wrestling cowboy character wrestling a classic style. Nate Webb has sprung back into the narrative with a cooking show and a catchy entrance. But the guy can also work, especially in the ECW garbage style we got here. Just good fun.

18. Matthew Justice vs. KTB (GCW, 1/29): Matthew Justice is simply a complete nut. He has no regard for himself—and we’re reaping all the benefits. GCW offers a very ECW style product and Justice is the absolute king of that kind of gritty violence. KTB is an athletic hoss who hits people hard, a remorseless ass kicker who isn’t afraid to lay it in and make it look good. The two mix well together and this was one of the standouts from GCW’s Fight Forever, an adventurous experiment offering a 24-hour long wrestling show.

19. Hoodfoot vs. AJ Gray (GCW, 1/29): Big meaty men, slapping meat. These guys slapped the crap out of each other, bellies and chests jiggling with each incredible blow. This is what pro wrestling used to be in the glory days, when locker rooms were filled with hookers, blow and giant leaky coolers of beer. A throwback to the kind of wrestling you’d get when two ex-football playing meatheads would collide, nary a soul in the ring even familiar with the concept of role-playing games, let alone participants.

Fucking men.

20. Shlak vs. Oren Veidt (GCW, 1/30): Guns don’t kill people. Shlak kills people. This was gory, disgusting, gratuitous death match violence. I loved it, obviously. Shlak, an anthropomorphic muscle covered head to toe in tattoos is one of the world’s best death match wrestlers, a man who looks the part and delivers exactly what you’d expect.

21. Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Great O-Khan (NJPW, 1/30): This match reminded me a lot of the Young Lion matches that open most New Japan events. There’s a beauty in the simplicity, two skilled workers just having a good old fashioned wrestling match. The stakes for this one were relatively high for a match on the undercard and the wrestlers provided it the gravitas it deserved.

22. Will Ospreay vs. Satoshi Kojima NO DQ (NJPW, 1/30): You expect a certain kind of match from New Japan Pro Wrestling. This is the home of Antonio Inoki, Riki Choshu and Shinya Hashimoto, living embodiments of bushido all. This is a ring accustomed to being the home of technical, hard-hitting, serious wrestling.

This match, clearly, was something quite different, an ECW Arena bout from 1997 transported in time and place directly to contemporary Shihon Puroresu. As a hardcore bout, it was competently executed, if nothing special. It’s the participants and the venue that made this one really stand out.

23. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Shingo Takagi (NJPW, 1/30)

I loved everything about this match, which was essentially a battle of ideologies between two men who have spent their careers positioned in very different parts of the wrestling hierarchy.

Tanahashi, of course, is New Japan royalty. He’s the long time “Ace” of the company, a man who quite literally saved the promotion from ruin during its darkest time. He’s been in rarefied air so long that competing for an undercard title like the NEVER belt is completely unfamiliar to him.

Takagi, a newcomer to New Japan, has spent a career in smaller promotions, just below the attention of the mainstream. He’s a workhorse and a craftsman of exceptional talent—but even in his wildest dreams, he’s not Hiroshi Tanahashi.

It’s the fact that they see the NEVER belt so differently, one as the culmination and one as a beginning, that makes this such a compelling struggle.

The match, of course, rocked.

24. Women’s Royal Rumble (WWE, 1/31): It wasn’t too long ago the idea of WWE finding 30 women to fill a battle royal, let alone 30 capable of producing an exciting, action-packed hour, would have been completely laughable.

I don’t talk a lot about booking, but this was booked perfectly too. Bianca Belari and Rhea Ripley looked like superstars, Charlotte was Charlotte, Lana got her revenge, Billie Kay in comedy relief, Naomi shining in the workrate position—pretty flawless execution in my opinion.

25. Roman Reigns vs. Kevin Owens Last Man Standing (WWE, 1/31): This was one of WWE’s very self-conscious “epics”, designed to hit all the marks required by the WWE Network for documentary-style hagiography. There was much walking around and hitting each other with stuff, several incidents of falling from high places and generally excellent corporate-approved and extremely stylized violence.

These two have great in-rng chemistry, so as those kinds of matches go, this one was especially excellent. The “botch” at the end, with Paul Heyman struggling to release Reigns from a pair of apparently quite tricky handcuffs, is the kind of thing we’ll all enjoy in a haze a nostalgia in ten years.

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