One day later than usual, the match guide is back for an especially eventful edition. This past weekend, Stardom’s 5STAR Grand Prix concluded while stateside, the big two produced major events. For WWE, that meant NXT No Mercy, featuring some main roster cameos as Becky Lynch closed the show opposite Tiffany Stratton. In addition, Carmelo Hayes and Ilja Dragunov met in the co-main event, sharing a sequel of their Great American Bash epic.
Meanwhile on WrestleDream, three major hits emerged, as AEW produced one of the year’s strongest shows. Finally, Gunther added another match to his 2023 campaign, defending the Intercontinental Title against Tommaso Ciampa. An incredible week of wrestling and I’m already late enough, so let’s get to the reviewing, shall we?
Maika vs. Suzu Suzuki (Stardom 5STAR Grand Prix Final)
Over two months removed from its opening night, Stardom’s 5STAR Grand Prix concluded on Saturday. It had been an incredibly eventful tournament, with acclaimed action accompanying injuries to some of the promotion’s heaviest hitters. Ultimately though, it came down to Maika and Suzu Suzuki, with both blocks wrapping up prior to the final. Maika defeated MIRAI to secure her place while Suzuki had some fortune, with results going her way elsewhere, opening the night in a battle royal.
These two have actually been frequent partners in 2023, showing immense chemistry in their first singles match together. It’s a virtual shootout, going fourteen minutes or so at an intense and fiery pace. They do engage in some formalities early, sharing a neat opening exchange and wrestling for position in centre ring. That quickly departs however, with desperation and emotion taking over as they spill to the floor, wrestling urgently in pursuit of a potential career-best win.
It’s instantly heated at ringside, meeting for a heated exchange of forearms after Maika follows Suzuki to the floor via clothesline. The moment isn’t lost on either wrestler, stepping back inside to continue their duel where it counts. Suzuki wins that exchange, momentarily taking a segment that’s mostly made up of an extended submission spot. It’s too early in the match for people to truly bite but again, it matches that overarching tone, with both Maika and Suzuki racing to the finish line.
It feels urgent, as Suzuki then plots a suplex to the floor only for Maika to rally with a powerslam. She rattles off some more offence in that mould too, with Suzuki showing defiance as they both fight upright in response to some bruising offence. That defiance earns further punishment for both parties, sharing a double knockout as they time respective blows. In an instant, that brings the action to a halt, then charging back into the fire at the first opportunity.
It quickly trends in Maika’s direction, going through the gears with some extraordinary offence as Suzuki soaks up a sustained onslaught. She’s hanging on for dear life at times, somehow standing within that storm but finding near falls throughout. Each of those builds on the last, with Maika’s final kickout being a lifeless shift of weight more than anything else. The finish follows, bringing a somewhat sudden end to a match with hardly any wasted motion.
To their credit though, they do a terrific job of pushing a pace without sacrificing the match’s magnitude. Instead, that pace speaks to the significance of this moment, wrestling urgently and producing an undeniably worthy tournament final. It’s the kind of conclusion that’ll pack a far bigger punch for those invested in the journey to that point, building on the 5STAR’s winding road and operating as a final act more than anything else.
That’s not a criticism either, as this is without some of the Stardom main event tropes that test my patience on occasion. It’s a very good match, featuring world class offence and terrific timing. In a vacuum, there isn’t much depth to it beyond that for me but again, it’s not working in a vacuum. This is a tournament final and a fitting one at that, being incredibly engaging for its entire runtime.
Carmelo Hayes vs. Ilja Dragunov (NXT No Mercy)
At Great American Bash, Carmelo Hayes remained NXT Champion, producing a career-best outing opposite Ilja Dragunov. That match worked on a level that I personally didn’t foresee, with Dragunov dishing out a substantial beating that showcased Hayes’ bumping and fire. They wasn’t done yet either, meeting for a sequel at Saturday’s No Mercy event. The immediate response to this was that they’d emphatically exceeded the standard they had set in July.
Certainly, they pick up where they left off too, immediately returning to the shape that unlocked their first meeting. That night, it took them some time, struggling for a natural form until Dragunov well and truly took over. There is no such delay here, as Dragunov drops Hayes at the bell and immediately unleashes an offensive onslaught. The challenger swiftly produces aggression and violence in that role, brutalising Hayes, even to a somewhat muted response.
Once again, Hayes’ work is inconsistent by comparison, but that familiar fire is in attendance, firing back as openings emerge. Those openings vanish just as rapidly as they appear though, with Dragunov uncorking knockout blows from the bell. It’s a captivating first act, positioning the champion as an underdog from the outset. The approach does slightly limit their crowd reaction however, as the split audience doesn’t exactly embrace Hayes as the bout’s protagonist.
It’s the right version of this pairing regardless, even if it prevents the duelling atmosphere that this dynamic could’ve warranted. They find a direction that allows such a response anyway, reaching a double down that unlocks an organic excitement. Suddenly, those duelling chants are present, emerging at the first sign of back and forth action. I don’t think that suggests that they were initially on the wrong track either as clearly, they had Bakersfield’s attention throughout.
In fact, “this is awesome” chants are just a single near fall away, transitioning the match to a more bombastic shootout. As those more expansive offerings arrive though, they never lose that initial tone. There’s something unusually ugly about this bout, a roughness around the edges that wasn’t even fully there at Great American Bash. Beyond the content itself, it feels shaped by that flavour, a palpable distaste behind each bomb.
The work is befitting your expectations of an NXT Title match on stage such as this, but that spite gives this a distinct personality. They operate at a seriously pace too, reaching believable false finishes as early as twelve minutes or so. Anytime the action slows, it’s as a result of the latest car crash, with the content throughout often suiting that description. Again though, it does so with a palpable struggle, as blood even emerges on Dragunov’s forehead.
In addition, they never lose themselves to a total 50-50 shootout either, even with the momentum swings late. Instead, that first half still very much feels relevant, as Dragunov continues to dominate, even as things escalate. Admittedly, that form isn’t without flaws, as Dragunov gets increasingly theatrical in response to Hayes’ defiance. That’s more of an issue here than it was in July but ultimately, is part of Dragunov’s game at this point. Your mileage may vary.
Personally, it’s a fleeting eyeroll that they quickly erase with the next explosion, still somehow surpassing their established standard. They go far enough in fact that the finish struggles to suit what came before it, feeling earned but not quite packing the punch that seemed possible a near fall or two prior. Even still, this is one of the year’s most hectic and hateful title tilts, going twenty minutes at a breakneck, almost unhinged pace.
It’s a match built on the two biggest triumphs of their last match, basically being split into separate halves. The first half is Dragunov taking an extended cut of his prior control segment, then expanding their explosive finishing stretch to boot. It’s an incredibly effective formula, rocking Bakersfield with an epic sequel. I’m actually torn on how it compares to their first match, as while they’ve improved upon those rough edges, I did prefer that bout’s shorter, more sudden finishing stretch.
Either way, it’s great, another example of this pairing’s quite remarkable chemistry. Dragunov’s intensity really simplifies Hayes’ output and allows his biggest strengths to shine bright, bumping big while showing life with highlight reel hope spots. More than anything else, it’s very clear that he actively wants to match Dragunov’s intensity, creating a fiery dynamic even when he falls short of that incredibly high bar. Dragunov is a demon in that regard, producing a physicality that remains jarring in this setting.
An excellent NXT Title match, making it two hits in a row for Carmelo Hayes and Ilja Dragunov.
Becky Lynch vs. Tiffany Stratton (NXT No Mercy)
Tasked with following Carmelo Hayes and Ilja Dragunov’s engaging shootout, Becky Lynch and Tiffany Stratton had some work to do. After their first match’s success though, it was hard to doubt them. That TV main event managed a notable atmosphere, bringing genuine big fight feel to the WWE Performance Center. Mere weeks later, they meet again, coming together for an Extreme Rules match to close NXT’s No Mercy special.
For the most part, it’s what you’d expect, with Lynch bringing weaponry to the ring and quickly going to work in that regard. From the outset, it’s clear that they have an awful lot of ideas and while some hit better than others, that does allow for an almost always engaging watch. To a fault, something is usually happening throughout, often going hastily from one spot to the next.
In fact, it’s present in the opening minute, as Lynch uses one weapon after the other as though she’s ticking items off a list. If nothing else, that approach ensures immediate aggression, also setting the stage for an early walk and brawl through the crowd. Somewhere along the way, Stratton finds herself busted open, only adding to the bout’s organic chaos. The blood suits their initial story too, as Stratton is forced to adapt to a previously unfamiliar environment.
Lynch is the battletested veteran, setting a standard that in order to survive, Stratton swiftly matches. With that adjustment, she takes a weapon-heavy control segment, bringing out a toolbox that much like Lynch earlier, she uses weapon by weapon, slightly undercutting the bout’s gravity in doing so. Again, it’s a result of the ideas that this match lives and dies by but can be slightly jarring, as the antagonist throws away a wrench as though its work is done once it’s been used.
Either way, the portion allows Lynch to sell, providing some drama until her usual comeback. That comeback quickly becomes unusual too, as Lynch introduces a barbie alternate to the thumbtacks spot. It’s not much of a hit, particularly as Lynch launches them Stratton’s way, seemingly clobbering a fan or twelve along the way. In a strange way, that spot works as a suitable snapshot for the match surrounding it, as the sheer effort whittles away at your apathy.
It’s not a good spot at all in truth, but it’s performed with such enthusiasm and sincerity that warts and all, you feel almost obliged to embrace their efforts. It’s such a spirited outing, packed with content that while inconsistent, seldom leaves you with the time to dwell upon a miss. Naturally, that prohibits the hits from truly hitting too, but it’s a worthwhile sacrifice for the broader picture they’re painting.
The setup time is mostly minimal also, aside from one necessary delay as Lynch finds a temporary solution for her wounded arm. Admittedly, that becomes more commonplace as they near a finish, going into some more elaborate set pieces that slightly undo that initial chaos. Even still, they stick the landing, maintaining the live crowd’s attention and better yet, earning the bout’s biggest reaction for Stratton’s final near fall.
The finish itself is a sharp sequence, building dramatically and adding excitement to its expected conclusion. Stylistically, this isn’t my favourite wrestling genre by any means, especially under a WWE umbrella. With that being said, it’s hard to leave this viewing it as anything other than another triumph between Lynch and Stratton. It’s not without issues and borders on being overwhelming at times in terms of sheer output, yet it’s almost always trending in the right direction.
There is a lack of quality control here that’ll divide viewers but there is also an outright refusal to do anything but deliver in this spot. Regardless of route and the plethora of ideas that emerge throughout, this reaches its target destination: unquestionably hooking the live crowd and producing a worthy main event. That was no mean feat after Dragunov – Hayes either, which speaks to the value of their relentless, frenetic approach.
This is not a match that’ll make my year-end list by any means, but it’s still a credit to both champion and challenger. Stratton remains an extraordinary prospect, passing yet another test here while Lynch continues to be an incredibly safe bet under lights this bright. While not blessed with the physical firepower that came before her on this show, Lynch understands wrestling to a degree beyond individual hits and misses.
Both ends of that scale are certainly in attendance here but again, each arrives with such energetic sincerity that by the end, you’re left onboard with the live crowd’s standing ovation. Good match that while not as good as No Mercy’s co-main event, followed it in the building without incident, earning its biggest reaction in the dying moments. Simply put, a triumph.
Adam Page vs. Swerve Strickland (AEW WrestleDream)
Since joining AEW in March 2022, Swerve Strickland has often appeared to be on the precipice of greatness. He and Keith Lee were superb tag team champions, splitting up late last year. Strickland’s transition back to singles action wasn’t particularly smooth, struggling for suitable surrounding pieces until his Mogul Embassy merger. Many expected that to bring AEW International gold around Strickland’s waist, but it wasn’t to be, reigniting his rivalry with Darby Allin instead.
In recent weeks though, Strickland has earned his biggest opportunity yet, targeting ‘Hangman’ Adam Page for a genuine main event programme. That led hm back home to Seattle, with consistent promo work setting the stage for the biggest match of Strickland’s career. It was substantial for Page too, serving as his first significant singles bout since the bloody series opposite Jon Moxley. Naturally, the result was a matchup with sky high expectations.
They met those lofty heights too, even working on levels that I didn’t necessarily foresee. As expected, it’s armed with an electric atmosphere, as Seattle positions Swerve as the match’s protagonist if nothing else. They let that atmosphere breathe too, sharing a main event opening and letting the people talk for them. In an instant, Strickland feels as though he belongs, appearing totally at home in this main event standoff.
Page is equally comfortable, responding to the boos by ramping up the physicality and subtly leaning heel. He doesn’t do so in a fashion that undercuts his usual demeanour, becoming some moustache twirling villain overnight, but he does register their reaction. In doing so, he allows Strickland to embrace their adoration too, not even having to lean in that direction to do so. Instead, Page does that work for him, which really positions Strickland to succeed.
He’s worthy of that spotlight too, showcasing some of his flashier offence while maintaining that major league poise. Page doesn’t unnecessarily reign himself in on that front either, still playing the hits but offering a pause in-between, allowing Seattle’s distaste to expand. He takes a lot of this nonetheless, effectively leading a control segment as he targets Strickland’s hand. Operating as the match’s babyface, Strickland briefly fights uphill, firing back with signature offence as they reach a double-down.
Page responds by returning to that aforementioned hand, barely even slowing Strickland’s surging momentum. Instead, he requires a Dead Eye on the steps to do so which admittedly, probably could’ve played a bigger part in proceedings. Here, it mostly serves as a double-down at ringside, getting slightly lost in the bigger picture. Nonetheless, they find another compelling wrinkle late, with Strickland targeting the shoulder after having his hand bitten by Page.
They introduce this idea rather deep in the match but position it as pivotal, opening the door for Strickland’s most successful burst yet. They go into a finishing stretch from there, maintaining that emerging injury while returning to Strickland’s hand along the way. Those two elements provide some depth, giving them specific chinks in their armour as the bombs arrive. The finish itself likely goes a beat or two beyond its absolute peak, but efficiently protects Page while making Strickland earn it nonetheless.
He’s still a heel of course, requiring Prince Nana but having to go beyond that for the conclusive manoeuvre. It’s the biggest match of Strickland’s career thus far, making serious strides towards the main event promise land. That process seems likely to also reiterate Page’s importance, bringing some focus back to him after a quiet few months. This was the first of the night’s three great matches, instantly finding a seamless pace and rhythm, escalating wonderfully throughout.
There are almost certainly more matches ahead of Page and Strickland, with this being an incredibly encouraging start. It’s a genuinely great match, providing more than mere thrills and feeling legitimately big time in the process. Terrific bout and truly effective too, taking Strickland an awful long way across that bridge to AEW’s top tier.
Bryan Danielson vs. Zack Sabre Jr. (AEW WrestleDream)
Originally set for the inaugural Forbidden Door event, this was a quite literal definition of ‘WrestleDream.’ For years, Bryan Danielson and Zack Sabre Jr. had dominated the technical wrestling genre, becoming a natural dream match since the latter’s increased notoriety. They’d actually met previously, wrestling twice in the late 2000s. An awful lot had changed since then though, with Danielson achieving superstardom while ZSJ became a major league player in his own right.
At times, these dream match scenarios can be hard to navigate, wrestling expectations as much as anything else. In this particular case however, those expectations were present for a reason, as this pairing just seemed obvious, a natural all-star clash. Placed generously in the middle of WrestleDream, that stylistic overlap is immediately apparent too, as they hit the mat for the almost obligatory opening sequence. It’s gorgeous, because of course, grappling fluidly to a delighted response.
Before that though, there’s a palpable sense of competition at the bell, avoiding the very real trap of working a hollow exhibition. It’s still certainly a showcase of style and skill, but there’s a caution on display, a tactical element that highlights the potential danger of each exchange. That duel is central to the entire match in fact, as those tactics evolve throughout, becoming increasingly spiteful along the way. Again though, it’s just a beautiful watch.
There is such fluidity to the match’s flashier sequences, yet almost every transition arrives with noticeable struggle, swiftly striking a perfect balance in that sense. Unable to earn an advantage on the mat, Sabre Jr. then throws the bout’s first strike, luring Danielson into a trap in which he uses his injured right arm. Sensing a striking advantage, Danielson plays into ZSJ’s hands, providing a target that shapes much of Sabre Jr.’s success afterwards.
Unfortunately, Sabre Jr.’s own ego again plays a part, immediately admiring his handywork as Danielson begins to focus on his legs. He initially does this by necessity, adjusting after being unable to use his right arm. As he goes further in that direction though, Danielson delivers a horrifying dragon screw, soon uncorking kicks on the increasingly stationary target. While trying to close the show via submission however, Danielson only exacerbates the pain in his arm and wrist.
That opens the door for Sabre Jr.’s eventual retort, but only after an electric uptick in pace. The response is a standing ovation, Jon Moxley included. He’s terrific here by the way, adding an awful lot alongside Nigel McGuinness in particular. Now with established targets each, Danielson and Sabre Jr. sprinkle in a smidge more spite, wrestling with bad intentions as they meet their technical mirror image. That includes a seated strike exchange, which goes about as you’d expect for ZSJ.
Once the pace slows, those targets are positioned to tell the tale, trading blows to their foe’s respective injuries. Danielson’s right arm allows for some especially gruesome visuals, as Sabre Jr. threatens a submission finish in that direction. That only makes Danielson’s triumphant response feel all the more desperate, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. It feels like an emptying of Danielson’s tank, closing the show with his final bullet and yet, I was almost mad at it being over.
Truly, I could’ve watched these two wrestle for another hour, if such a thing was possible that is.
This is an instant classic, an AEW match that’ll likely be remembered for years to come. For an entire generation, this bout seems likely to define the potential of this pro wrestling genre, an utter masterpiece. Timeless pro wrestling magic, a competitive, tactical war between two technical wizards. It’ll probably be the match that Sabre Jr.’s most remembered for one day, performing remarkably opposite an absolute force of nature.
Bryan Danielson is the greatest professional wrestler that I’ve ever seen and for my money, he produced one of the performances of his career at WrestleDream. Beautiful match, an embodiment of everything that I love about pro wrestling.
Christian Cage vs. Darby Allin (AEW WrestleDream)
Tasked with closing a sublime PPV, Christian Cage and Darby Allin had a tough act to follow. In the show’s penultimate match, Aussie Open and FTR had struggled for heat, working incredibly hard in front of an understandably exhausted crowd. In addition, Allin and Cage were working with a 2-out-of-3 falls match, which can be a challenging stipulation. Naturally, there can be only be so much drama to that first fall and change, requiring a poise while you plant seeds for later.
In addition, Adam Copeland’s seemingly inevitable arrival had dominated the headlines, threatening to overshadow the match itself, especially in front of already tired fans. With that being said, those potential hurdles seemed unlikely to faze these two, especially after such a strong programme to this point. They’ve really maximised their dynamic, with a pair of singles matches being accompanied by frequent interactions elsewhere. It’s been a terrific fit, increasing Cage’s match time and adding another hit rivalry to Allin’s emerging catalogue.
They take things slow initially, with Cage’s response to the initial reaction only allowing it to expand as a result. With a single pause or stare, Cage can multiply the heat, registering every shift of momentum in that sense. It’s a traditional wrestling match early, sharing a similar open to their Collision main event. Once again, it’s immense, showing the range of both men as a frustrated Cage spits at Allin to no avail.
Instead, Allin continues to wrestle, remaining a step ahead and even containing Cage via headlock. The champion roughens things up for his retort, landing a back elbow and launching some chops, bringing his size advantage to the party. Allin outthinks Cage again however, using the turtleneck to score an early fall. It’s an inherently funny spot, especially with Cage’s sell, but he quickly adjusts to that possible shift in tone.
Enraged by his sudden deficit, Cage clobbers Allin with a cheap shot, devastating his challenger and immediately increasing the intensity. That initial grappling match is now a distant memory, with Cage wrestling desperate, taking every available shortcut as he chases Allin from behind. He dominates much of the second fall, with Allin only offering signs of life along the way. Those flashes are unlocked by Allin’s speed advantage, overwhelming Cage at times with combination offence.
Cage gets himself in trouble by targeting Nick Wayne’s mother however, almost losing his title until a timely counter keeps him ahead. Things then escalate rather violently, as Allin takes some of the most horrifying bumps that I can ever recall, including a particular steel steps body slam that was frankly revolting. Cage looks almost hesitant as he pulls the trigger, but these were the inevitable results of a Darby Allin PPV main event.
Either way, that levels things up, with Cage scoring a count-out fall as a result. While the challenger is tended to, Cage tears up the ring mat, exposing the canvas as Allin is placed on a stretcher. Ordinarily, this’d be a strange choice and I wouldn’t even argue that point here, but it is fittingly supervillain for Cage. There is something believable about Cage arranging the next deathtrap as Allin’s lifeless body is moved to presumed safety.
The champion capitalises upon that too, landing a frog splash on Allin and rolling him back onto the exposed canvas. With that, they go into a violent race to the finish, with Allin somehow surviving and even threatening to steal the deciding fall. Neither is able to close the show, going into a theatrical finish that admittedly, is probably my least favourite part of the match. I understand its purpose though, with Nick Wayne’s turn matching the build while also setting up Adam Copeland’s debut.
Either way, this is an extraordinary main event and may be the best match of either man’s career. On first watch, I was very aware that they’d produced something great here but after a single revisit, it’s a borderline masterpiece in my view. There is such a coherent, compelling narrative throughout, with each twist and turn building on the last. This is a staggering effort, using natural chemistry and a simple dynamic to produce one of the year’s most brilliant main events.
Rewatch this match as soon as you possibly can. It is truly meticulous, a deliberate and precise classic.
Gunther vs. Tommaso Ciampa (WWE RAW)
Originally intended for Saturday’s Fastlane PLE, Gunther’s latest title defence was shifted to RAW main event instead. His challenge would be Tommaso Ciampa, providing a sequel to their memorable 2021 TakeOver thriller. Ciampa returned from injury three months or so ago, going without any clear direction until this recent pursuit of the Intercontinental Title. Even without much of a runway, he’s earned some support, winning fans with his usual intensity and fire.
That’s present before the bell even rings too, reddening Gunther’s chest with a pre-match push. That translates to immense aggression as things get underway, uncorking a heavy chop and immediately chasing his submission finish. Even with some substantial offence, Ciampa is unable to floor Gunther but continues to push the pace, scoring success on the floor too. He secures the Sicilian Stretch afterwards, doing so to minimal response as Gunther bails to the floor for the first ad break.
Gunther’s in control once we return, leading a heat segment as unusual duelling chants emerge. “Let’s go Gunther” – “Gunther sucks” appears to be the duel, with the work not really swaying that for a awhile. With an extended runtime, Gunther is given more space to fill and produces something surprisingly vague, reminding us that no one is truly infallible. It’s still steady of course, just a slight slog compared to his own high standards.
Ciampa’s eventual comeback gets them back on track regardless, convincing people with his second Sicilian Stretch. Gunther’s response is suitably desperate, unleashing some spite as they share a fiery exchange on the floor. The champion wins that particular battle, taking over as they go into a second break. We return to an explosive shootout, trading chops for the match’s most heated exchange yet. Ciampa eventually avoids a colossal chop, with Gunther’s hand slamming onto the announce table.
That almost allows for a count-out win but Ciampa runs wild at ringside regardless, targeting that the hand specifically. He throws it in any feasible direction, forcing a left chop from Gunther and using that target to maintain his momentum. Ciampa is tremendous here, stomping Gunther’s head into the mat as though he’s killing off some horror movie monster. It’s such a committed effort that he even allows San Jose to believe, producing multiple genuine false finishes.
With his historic title reign in doubt, Gunther sacrifices his bad hand for a necessary bomb, regretting the decision as Ciampa stays alive. With one last Sicilian Stretch, Ciampa still can’t close the show, then winning a final chop exchange but failing to pick Gunther up for the conclusive blow. In the blink of an eye, that costs him, being powerbombed through the mat and violently put to sleep. It’s an incredible finish as once again, Gunther quite graphically seizes an opportunity to remain champion.
This is a match of two halves, in my view. The length is a hinderance in that sense, stretching things and producing an uneven first half. Once they’re able to unveil fireworks though, it becomes quite spectacular, with the final ten minutes being comparable to Gunther’s finest work as champion. Prior to that, it doesn’t quite match those levels, wandering without specific focus when Gunther’s in control. Again, that’s a first for this reign and they certainly get there in the end anyway.
It’s still borderline great, especially with that final portion. Personally, I settle at very good with flashes of the tier above, but it’s still a terrific television main event regardless. I’m much higher on Gunther than Ciampa but in this case, I actually thought the challenger stole the show. These two are a natural pairing, providing immense physicality, especially as they go head to head. They made us wait for that here but it was a worthwhile stay, delivering big once we got there.