Texas Death Masterpiece, In-Ring Returns & TV Projects | Hulbert’s Weekly Match Guide 11/21


With respect to the other six matches featured in this Guide, just one bout was required to make it a pretty special wrestling week. AEW’s Full Gear PPV only hosted one truly great match in my view, it just happened to be one of the greatest outings in promotional history. That’s the focus here but it’s not all as elsewhere, Chris Hero returns to the ring while Ronda Rousey continues her emerging independent wrestling campaign, stopping through REVOLVER on the way to ROH.

Recent WWE TV projects continue also, as Dragon Lee and Xia Li both benefit from purposeful creative. Finally, Dax Harwood is at it again while NJPW’s World Tag League gets underway at Korakuen Hall. As always, these are NOT necessarily the week’s best matches, but simply a selection that I wanted to expand upon. To the graphics!

Athena & Billie Starkz vs. Marina Shafir & Ronda Rousey (Wrestling REVOLVER Unreal)


Look, this is just plain weird. Even after a baffling second stint in WWE, there is an undeniable novelty to Ronda Rousey’s emerging independent wrestling campaign. Last month, Rousey made an unadvertised appearance at Lucha VaVoom, teaming with Marina Shafir against Brian Kendrick and Taya Valkyrie. This was announced shortly after, as Rousey and Shafir would again team on Revolver’s Los Angeles supershow, with ticket sale profits being donated to Lahaina Wildfire Relief.

The news earned some attention, with its intrigue only being multiplied by the opposition. Athena and Billie Starkz are quietly producing one of wrestling’s best storylines right now, taking that dynamic to this “tag team dream match.” It’s a bout that’d become more noteworthy afterwards, also, as Rousey appeared at the following night’s Ring of Honor tapings, stepping under the Tony Khan umbrella for a rematch of this very bout.

Live reports have suggested that the sequel may not have been particularly different to its predecessor, and understandably so. This match works, actually exceeding expectations and earning some goodwill for Rousey’s next wrestling chapter. Admittedly, it’s not even armed with much of an atmosphere either, which only exacerbates the occasion’s weirdness. I’d imagine that a similar vibe will accompany Rousey’s HonorClub debut, which is somehow even stranger.

Nonetheless, Athena’s aura in this setting Is astounding, often feeling like the actual special attraction. Since becoming ROH Women’s World Champion, Athena has only made a couple indie dates, entering this match in the midst of a career-best run. Inside the ropes, she provides the match with some immediate shape too, ramping up her heel antics. First and foremost though, they build to the obvious attraction of Athena’s interaction with Rousey, allowing Shafir and Starkz to set the stage.

Those two recently faced each other in REVOLVER’s Women’s Grand Prix Final, previously battling in the promotion’s 2022 “season finale.” That’s evident with their chemistry, neatly positioning building blocks in the meantime. The result is that after hitting the mat, Starkz is forced to tag out, bringing in Athena who after a brief flurry, finds herself greeted by Rousey. Athena bails in response, giving the match a clear outline as things trend towards Rousey’s eventual comeback.

In truth, it seems as though some of the audience would’ve been happier to boo Rousey, but this approach simplifies the match and suits its setting. If Rousey continues to make appearances in ROH however, that dynamic may need altering. As usual, Starkz plays a terrific punching bag throughout, also showing a striking mean streak after an Athena interference unlocks their cutoff. They’re both impressive in that control segment, getting some heat on Shafir as Athena gleefully taunts Rousey.

It’s not a natural role for Shafir, but positions Rousey to succeed, neatly transitioning to her pretty slick hot tag. That comeback organically escalates proceedings, swiftly eating an insane German suplex in response. With everyone down, they earn some fleeting “this is awesome” chants, then trading bombs into snappy tandem offence. Both teams earn a near fall each, going into some genuinely creative sequencing from there as this veers closer towards its “dream match” billing than most forecasts would’ve suggested.

The finish doesn’t hurt on that front either, transporting me back a couple decades with the only feasible ending to any true independent “dream match.” Bits aside, this is actually quite good. It’s a simple match that colours within the lines and as a result, ultimately exceeds expectations. The execution is decent throughout, with Rousey’s usual game sporting noticeable motivation. Opposite her, Athena and Starkz are thrilled to provide the match’s glue, keeping things moving throughout.

It’s a bizarre, often surreal watch but as a tag team wrestling match, delivers on its own merits. Nothing spectacular, but a smart take on this matchup nonetheless.

Axiom vs. Dragon Lee (WWE SmackDown)

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In a truly mind-blowing venture, WWE have welcomed Dragon Lee to the main roster by allowing him to do Dragon Lee things. Shocking, I know. Even crazier, it’s working! Imagine that. In all seriousness, this mini-project is a great example of how with just common sense, WWE can fix their previously broken formula. In 2019, Dragon Lee would’ve sat in Elias’ headlock, with the idea being that such a contrast would’ve further highlighted the luchador’s fireworks.

By contrast, Lee has instead been paired with likeminded wrestlers that allow him to run wild. That approach was most evident on Friday, as Axiom stopped through SmackDown for a one-off television match. Previously A-Kid, the Spaniard was repackaged to the masked persona in July 2022, providing NXT’s undercard with some excitement since. That role included some interactions with Dragon Lee, though their only singles match came on a Gainesville, Florida house show.

Even still, they are a natural pairing, showing immediate chemistry with a babyface opening. The match will be remembered for its late thrills, but they actually set the stage with something vaguely traditional. Granted, their take on traditional is still pretty eye-catching, but it’s not an outright shootout from the bell regardless. By charging out to an early lead, Axiom is quietly positioned in his obvious role, fighting uphill as the bout’s momentary babyface.

That’s assisted by a salvo of chops from Lee also, feeding into a gorgeous Axiom flurry. Things build rapidly from there, increasing the output as more expansive offence becomes the norm. There isn’t much heat for the match as obviously, Evansville, Indiana isn’t even slightly invested. They do enjoy the show though, responding to the match’s standout moment with “this is awesome” chants. The finish isn’t far behind, allowing this to close with an exclamation point.

In a vacuum, this really isn’t much, but it jumps off the page within SmackDown. That’s wrestling’s biggest show, but it’s seldom home to even bursts of the offence that make up much of this. As a result, it’s more impressive, earning reviews beyond its actual quality in my view. It’s not undeserving by any means, to be clear, really maximising its television time with a snappy midcard thriller. More than anything, it’s effective too.

Dragon Lee is the focus here and it’s another triumph on that front, but he also does an awful lot for Axiom. Simply by leaning more on his power and strikes, Lee allows Axiom to shine brighter as the bout’s underdog. It’s a little thing, but arms this with a more distinct personality. Good match, which has been a theme with Lee’s television outings thus far.

Dax Harwood vs. Rush (AEW Collision)


In the latest addition to Dax Harwood’s singles catalogue, the FTR man met Rush, sharing a television tilt to build Full Gear’s tag title ladder match. For the most part, they’ve actually been loosely aligned in that picture, even teaming up to close a recent Collision. That was Rush’s first match back in AEW since May, returning as a de facto babyface which in his case, doesn’t really mean anything. Babyface or heel, the approach is unchanged: violence ahead.

That style seemed certain to suit Harwood, who’s increasingly keen to trade knockout blows. While their creative has been messy, I’ve noticed a palpable sharpness to FTR’s recent efforts, wrestling with visible motivation. That carries over to this encounter, as Harwood engages in a duel at the heart of Rush’s comfort zone. If the above graphic excited you, it is exactly the match you were hoping for, even veering beyond those expectations until the television finish.

The tone is set immediately, with Rush rejecting Harwood’s handshake as they trade chops at the bell. Rush briefly plays Harwood’s game from there, quite rigidly engaging in a familiar opening sequence. It’s merely a delay of the inevitable though, spilling to the outside only for Harwood to take a thudding back body drop on the floor. That puts Rush in control, shaping the rest of the match in doing so.

As usual, Rush doesn’t really let up from there, running Harwood around ringside and generally bossing things throughout. Harwood responds accordingly though, firing back along the way and sparking some frightening exchanges as a result. Rush even draws blood from Harwood’s chest, serving as a mountaintop for the tag team grappler to valiantly climb. That element is only reiterated by Jose’s brief involvement also, dishing out a cheap shot at ringside.

Once again, babyface or heel, it’s Rush. This match doesn’t need much shape in that regard anyway, living and dying with its physicality. They clobber each other to oohs and aahs, frequently returning to these pockets of violence. Harwood seldom manages sustained momentum, almost operating in retaliation throughout. Even though the content is repetitive, they are insane enough to manage some escalation regardless, simply expanding those pockets down the stretch.

Unfortunately, the match concludes with a 2015 SmackDown finish, but these are the games we play. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with a TV finish, as I’d rather we get the match regardless of outcome. With that being said, a little creativity would’ve helped, with pretty rough execution not helping either. Even still, it’s the clear highlight of Collision, an absolute slugfest. Nothing complicated, just two fighters throwing bombs. To translate: the game I love.

Chris Hero vs. Timothy Thatcher (West Coast Pro Whiplash)

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Almost four years removed from his last bout, Chris Hero finally returned to the ring on Friday, reigniting his rivalry with Timothy Thatcher. These two hadn’t wrestled since 2019, last meeting in PROGRESS, as Hero stopped through as Kassius Ohno, a guest representing WWE. Their most famous matches came a few years prior however, battling on four occasions in 2015. That time period is often cited as Hero’s strongest, with Thatcher becoming a signature opponent of that chapter.

Their dynamic is best simplified as striker vs. grappler, with an awful lot of overlap in-between. Hero often grapples with Thatcher, particularly when unable to crack the technician’s sturdy chin. Even after Hero’s years away, those ingredients remain intact, allowing these two to pick up where they left off. Understandably, it’s not quite a complete picture though, hitting a speed bump or two but broadly veering in the right direction.

It’s an encouraging showing for Hero more than anything else, slotting back into a good match that shows flashes of something more. The bout is armed with a familiar grit, a roughness that conceals some of its blemishes. They are both such smart wrestlers, operating with a degree of detail that provides these matches with a safety net of sorts. It’s not trying to be a smooth ride and so there’s no pressure in that sense, it’s purposefully scrappy.

As usual, their grappling exchanges are deliberate, struggling for position and introducing some ideas. Hero briefly chips away at the hand, also getting under Thatcher’s skin with a subtle bite. That increases Thatcher’s aggression, seeking a submission only for Hero to weaken the leg in response. It very much feels as though he’s merely containing Thatcher with those efforts though, being overwhelmed as strikes are thrown in the corner.

Hero embraces that firefight nonetheless, luring Thatcher into a boot that allows further work on the leg. On the mat, he’s still playing Thatcher’s game regardless, pursuing a slugfest as Thatcher threatens further submissions. As they veer towards Hero’s preferred form though, that sporadic looseness is more of an issue, losing their shape slightly but pulling things back together in time for a finish that fits both their history, as well as this particular occasion.

It’s a good match that bodes well for Hero’s comeback, showing that as many expected, his game should age gracefully. He’s noticeably rusty here, which is increasingly evident as the match develops, yet still navigates towards something inherently watchable. This was the ideal return match in that sense, as their dynamic has such a reliable rhythm, especially on the mat. They are thoughtful wrestlers, which buys them an awful lot of time while any physical hurdles are overcome.

If you’re fan of either wrestler and/or their series together, this will scratch an itch for you that’s increasingly untouched. It’s a refreshing watch in that regard, taking me back to an independent era that feels like a lifetime ago. After so long away, Hero isn’t yet what he was, but there was more than enough here to include that “yet,” as it feels very much within reach once he’s back wrestling regularly again. Good match with a comforting, familiar tone.

Adam Page vs. Swerve Strickland (AEW Full Gear)


The highlight of AEW’s recent programming, ‘Hangman’ Adam Page and Swerve Strickland have combined for a compelling feud. Last month, that translated to a strong PPV outing, levelling up WrestleDream with a match that packed a main event punch. Since then, their programme has ventured beyond the usual parameters, with Strickland breaking into Page’s house, ultimately setting the stage for this Texas Death Match sequel. While nothing new, that type of segment is always challenging.

It’s the kind of direction that if pushed far enough, can make almost everything comedic out of its sheer ridiculousness. Thankfully, Strickland executed the angle just about perfectly, playing it straight enough to maintain this feud’s edge. After all, it’s a dynamic rooted in very human ingredients. Strickland views Page as complacent, the status quo that he’s so desperate to overcome. It’s a resentment that shapes Strickland’s every move, pushing Page to his limit in the process.

Considering their work before the bell, this entered Full Gear as the consensus prediction for match of the night. Even still, those expectations were shattered, both in violence and quality. This is an instant classic, one of the most extraordinary matches in AEW history. At half an hour, it’s also a unique hit, breaking so many rules on its way to greatness. That extended runtime doesn’t even slightly slow their opening either, kicking things off with an electric jumpstart.

Page is all over Strickland at the bell, skipping his entrance and flirting with immediate revenge. The blood and brutality will rightly dominate the memory of this match, but it also benefits immensely from structure. While it’s not portrayed with arm drags or dropkicks, this first act still serves as Page’s babyface shine, effectively. Before the weaponry enters, he even hits an early Buckshot Lariat, setting the tone and wrestling like a man possessed.

Considering the build, that opening was only the logical approach, though it’d escalate at an almost unfathomable pace. Within minutes, Strickland is covered in blood, sprinkled with staples to boot. Strickland is a master of the very particular heel sell that allows these matches to work, sustaining a beating without even hinting at something admirable or courageous. Instead, Strickland scurries from one attack to the next, staggering around ringside as Page relishes his revenge.

Horrifying visuals soon emerge, with that theme quickly becoming the match’s defining trait. Both Page and Strickland have a real feel for those moments, with the latter sporting some especially superb snarls. There are these snapshots that in an instant, feel etched in your memory, coming to life as an outright horror movie as Page drinks Strickland’s blood. That’s the obvious one but even beyond that, they show such a knack for these haunting, potentially iconic images.

Again though, they maintain the match’s structure. In fact, this is initially tighter in that sense than many of the night’s more traditional matches. With a low blow, Strickland turns the tide, transforming into a bloody zombie as he walks through the remaining flames. Strickland even staples himself which in terms of visuals that’ll live forever, makes for a good runner up to Page’s crimson beverage. Even when showing such toughness though, Swerve remains more scary than cool.

Strickland has swung so big with his character as of late that he feels feasibly at home here, wrestling an entire match as the sinister monster that usually only creeps out in flashes. It’s not a wrestler that he can be every single week, but it’s an element that’s quickly allowing him to secure superstardom. With his gruesome control segment, Strickland ensures that he’s not the only one bleeding, dropping Page on the barricade with a sickening piledriver.


The blood streams as Strickland pours water over his head, somehow leaving him no less red for the trouble. Incredibly, all this (and more) is managed well before the fifteen minute mark. In no world should they have had rungs left to climb, but this is no ordinary match. As they reach a double down, Page and Strickland allow their efforts to breathe, almost putting a bow on that initial duel. Page makes a staggered comeback from there, even while unsteady on his feet.

Considering the content of this match and its continued escalation, they do a marvellous job of selling throughout. Clearly, they are going beyond any reasonable limit and that’s the point, but the pace noticeably adjusts to the tone. The deeper they get, the more desperate both men feel, visibly wrestling more and more on instinct after each attempted murder. That allows them to layer the violence in such a unique way, as each offering remains registered.

The stunts that do occur feel secondary to their intent also, seeming far more spiteful than showy. Like most truly special matches, they are also blessed by a happy accident or two along the way, with a barbed wire chair virtually fish hooking Page at one juncture. Even on rewatch, I’m forced to question their direction at times, uncertain that they still have levels ahead of them. Somehow though, they manage it each time. It’s staggering.

Down the stretch, they use the ten count for assistance in that sense, giving each brutal burst time to breathe. Smartly, that element is limited in the first half, preventing it from feeling monotonous late. The Brian Cage interference will be the match’s most polarising ingredient and admittedly, it was another element that left me uncertain. Once again though, the juice proved worth the squeeze for my money, building to an epic Prince Nana table spot.

In addition, it’s logical that Strickland expects some backup as there is nothing honourable about his approach to this fight, it’s a matter of survival. Best of all, the Nana business transitions to perhaps my favourite visual of all, as Strickland appears from the rubble with a cinderblock in hand. It’s a classic horror image, as Strickland creeps up from behind our hero, only leaving us with enough time to gasp. ‘Hangman’ is then hung, with Strickland finding room for a few more fabulous facials.

It’s not a match that concludes at its absolute peak, which weirdly works in its favour. As the bell rings, Strickland collapses, leaving a bloody puddle behind him. It’s a match that goes far enough to almost drain any degree of triumph. It’s not a victory so much as a chance to walk out of Full Gear on one’s own feet. Strickland doesn’t even really celebrate, he just owns the moment, sporting a knowing grin up the ramp.

The expression is suited to his victory but also feels like relief, and not the kind that you’d associate with survival. Strickland isn’t relieved to be alive, he’s relieved to be exactly the monster that he thought he was. As you can probably tell, this match is very much about him and in history, should be viewed as the night that changed his life. I’ve wrote similar sentences before and the jury remains out on those, but his statement couldn’t have been made any clearer here.

With that being said, it’s yet another hit for Page’s substantial catalogue. For all his creative ups and downs, Page remains truly prolific inside the ropes, often producing a PPV highlight, regardless of role. This feud has done an awful lot for him too, reiterating his value after a slim few months. It’s a level of match that’s powerful enough to define both men, a genuine spectacle. This is a bloodbath with such cinematic flair, a strangely moving horror masterpiece.

It’s an experience, the kind that breaks every rule and for many, even transcends taste or preference. This Texas Death Match is one of 2023’s most astonishing bouts, an instant classic that even in a world of blood and brutality, feels truly singular.

BULLET CLUB War Dogs vs. Kaito Kiyomiya & Ryohei Oiwa (NJPW World Tag League)


At the end of his unfortunate G1 Climax campaign, Kaito Kiyomiya invited Ryohei Oiwa to Pro Wrestling NOAH. That’d serve as the young lion’s excursion, venturing beyond NJPW two years after his professional debut. Earlier this month, he and Kiyomiya challenged for the GHC Tag Team Titles, falling short against Anthony Greene and Jack Morris. Their story is secondary here though, with Kiyomiya’s fiery conflict opposite Gabe Kidd being the main attraction.

Those two met in Kiyomiya’s aforementioned G1 foray, battling to a heated double count-out. That didn’t settle a thing and their dynamic has only increased in intensity since, now carrying over to the World Tag League’s opening night. The tournament got underway at Korakuen Hall, with this serving as co-main event. It’s as advertised, immediately so in fact, with Kidd and Kiyamiya sharing a pre-match confrontation to set the stage.

They didn’t make you travel far for that destination either, kicking things off with a spiteful shootout between the two. As expected, their dynamic is central to the entire bout, starting with an aggression that they maintain throughout. Alex Coughlin and Oiwa certainly aren’t passengers though, actually carving out their own highlights within this war. That’s quickly evident as they spill to the floor, being transitioned to by a brief Oiwa flurry.

He and Coughlin produce quite the effort at ringside, whacking one another hard enough to momentarily steal the spotlight. That shift only allows the cutoff to pack an extra punch, with Oiwa being flattened on the outside. The War Dogs take some heat from there, working over Oiwa while Kidd continues to target Kiyomiya in the meantime. Their work in that segment is somewhat secondary, though Oiwa shows great fire along the way.

Coughlin is impressive here also, and seems to be getting sharper with each outing. This team has helped him a great deal in that regard, as Coughlin is growing increasingly comfortable while Kidd quite naturally dominates each scene. He and Oiwa combine for a neat transition spot, with the latter finding a slick counter for the gutwrench suplex. That launches Kiyomiya’s hot tag, actually making a comeback on Coughlin after dispatching Kidd from the apron beforehand.

Kidd soon returns fire however, tripping Kiyomiya’s leg and unleashing an absolute onslaught in the corner. It really can’t be overstated just how good Kidd has been in this role, bringing almost every match to life. He’s such a refreshing watch, breaking from some of the promotion’s more formulaic crutches and feeling genuinely raw. There’s a sense of danger to his work, and not because he’s an unbeatable monster, but because he wrestles with such overwhelming emotion.

Their eventual finish is a natural follow-up on Kidd and Kiyomiya’s G1 outcome, though it’s executed wonderfully well. They head to the outside with a fitting attempt at destroying Kiyomiya, then brawling wildly in a scene that feels truly chaotic. That atmosphere is never really sacrificed in truth, being fully unlocked by this 12-minute runtime. The War Dogs provide some shape with that brief control segment in the middle, but even that feels somewhat frenzied.

This rocked, selling me on a spotlighted singles match between Kidd and Kiyomiya while showcasing Coughlin and Oiwa along the way. Fiery, spirited graps, an ideal start to any tournament campaign.

Becky Lynch vs. Xia Li (WWE RAW)

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Earlier this month, Becky Lynch was attacked by Xia Li, being prevented from entering the battle royal to crown a new number one contender. Li had been targeting Lynch over the prior weeks, vowing to take opportunity into her own hands. That angle followed her first RAW win, scoring a knockout over Candice LeRae. Since then, Li repeated that feat, also taking out Indi Hartwell. It’s a simple idea, establishing Li’s kicks as dangerous and in doing so, making her a worthwhile opponent for Lynch.

The project intrigued me, as even after almost seven years in WWE, Li remains somewhat of a mystery for my money. Throughout her entire run, Li has seldom wrestled television matches of any real length, with these recent knockouts obviously continuing that trend. Li was called up in October 2021, heading to SmackDown and debuting two months later. It was another two months until Li actually wrestled on TV though, then disappearing again until a sudden heel turn.

That usage has defined much of Li’s main roster run, spending most of 2023 on Main Event. As a result, this opportunity felt all the more important, with Li being the latest to benefit from Lynch’s recent efforts. ‘The Man’ has been working through RAW’s entire division, putting some time in opposite Indi Hartwell and Tegan Nox after an impressive return to NXT. Since the cage match with Trish Stratus, Lynch has hardly missed, elevating almost every opponent.

In that sense, this latest outing is one of her finest yet, rocking Grand Rapids with Li. In fairness, they are a lively crowd to begin with, but the work only gets them further onboard. It’s an interesting match in that they don’t build around Li’s kick as much as you might think, which feels like a vote of confidence. Instead, Lynch works a mostly traditional match with her, especially early. That approach comes with a few stutter steps along the way, but Lynch is always quick to steady the ship.

In addition, they still establish Li’s kicking game anyway, with Lynch ducking an early attempt as she steers the ship. Her shine is preaching to the choir with this crowd, then being kicked to the outside for Li’s cutoff. The heat that follows is almost completely concealed by an ad break, returning to Lynch’s comeback as she continues to guide the match. I find her to be such a fascinating watch in these scenarios, leading bouts on knowhow and feel rather than snap or physicality.

The final act features some pretty extended back and forth action, culminating with a superplex that has its intended effect, signifying the match’s escalation and bringing the people to their feet. Ironically, Li’s eventual kick doesn’t even land with much oomph, still serving its purpose regardless. That’s a credit to Lynch’s connection with those in attendance, as immediate “Becky” chants emerge in response. Beyond that though, and perhaps more interestingly, it’s an example of creative actually assisting the talent.

With around five minutes of prior in-ring time, they gave Li a distinct role in the division, establishing her as a relative threat in the process. It’s not complicated, but works, putting the babyface in enough danger for the people to root her upright. They go home soon afterwards, first sharing a double-down at ringside only to both beat the count at 9. It’s an absolute triumph, not only making the most of Li’s current skill-set but also producing compelling TV in doing so.

In a vacuum, this works well as an exciting television tilt, though it’s real value is far greater than that. With matches like these, Lynch is steadily building a bridge between the best and the rest. Not everyone will be able to cross that bridge once they’re done working with Lynch, but she’s addressing the elephant in the room regardless. Li delivered here, leaving the match in a far stronger position than she had entered.

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