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photo by STARDOM

The two current hubs for professional wrestling around the world, the United States and Japan, moved in opposite directions in March. While American wrestling took a mild step back with WWE’s incompetent WrestleMania build and the worst AEW pay-per-view so far in Revolution, it seems that every other promotion in Japan knocked it out of the park with at least one first-class match in March.


WWE

Drew McIntyre vs. Sheamus – 3/1

This was the best Monday Night RAW match in years.

Recently, I’ve been considering doing a critical re-appraisal of Sheamus’s WWE career: He was pushed too soon and saddled with an “unsafe worker” reputation. When he’s in the ring with someone also willing to match his physicality, though, the results are often spectacular.

Tonight, McIntyre and Sheamus beat the absolute hell out of each other. It was about as violent as a main roster television match can get without weapons. By the end, I felt the match elevated both wrestlers, plus it got me more interested in their rubber, more so than any other match at Fastlane. (****)

Finn Bálor (c) vs. Adam Cole for the NXT Championship – 3/10

When you take two of the best workers in the United States and give them a main event world title contest, the match will probably be excellent. That’s exactly what happened here. It didn’t stand out from other NXT main events, but the action was so crisp and fast-paced that I didn’t mind. (****)

Drew McIntyre vs. Sheamus – 3/21

I could watch these two wrestle forever. They gave fans a rare WWE in-ring feud that actually built to a logical, satisfying conclusion. McIntyre and Sheamus battered each other on television in the lead-up to Fastlane, so the no-holds-barred stipulation made sense in that it was meant to elevate the intensity of the action. This was exactly what I expected it to be, and it was a complete success. (****)

Roman Reigns (c) vs. Daniel Bryan for the WWE Universal Championship – 3/21

While most of Fastlane was horrendous, WWE did provide two excellent singles matches. Matching up the company’s top star, Reigns, against the company’s best wrestler, Bryan, was an intriguing booking decision.

These two delivered a main event with big-time feel, including all the vintage WWE storytelling tropes you’d probably expect. Edge’s involvement slightly hindered the match, but the point here was to set up a match for WrestleMania. The fact that Reigns and Bryan were still able have a bout this good despite the rest of the show’s booking is a testament to their talent. (****)

Honorable Mentions:

Kay Lee Ray (c) vs. Meiko Satomura was a great NXT UK debut for the legend . . . The Dusty Classic rematch between Dakota Kai & Raquel Gonzalez (c) vs. Ember Moon & Shotzi Blackheart was almost as good as the original . . . Ilja Dragunov vs. Sam Gradwell was a wacky hardcore match with a bad build that nonetheless turned out to be pretty good.

AEW

Cody Rhodes & Red Velvet vs. Shaquille O’Neal & Jade Cargill – 3/3

Who would have expected their match to be this good? Three-star legend Cody Rhodes teamed up with relative unknown Red Velvet to take on 48-year-old NBA Hall-of-Famer Shaquille O’Neal and a debuting Jade Cargill in a match that had no business making this list, in theory. Shaq going through a table onto the floor is one of the most spectacular lasting images in Dynamite‘s short history, but it was Cargill and Red Velvet who anchored this match. You would have thought Velvet was a veteran out there, while Cargill turned out to be a can’t-miss a prospect. (****)

Rey Fénix vs. Matt Jackson – 3/10

The Young Bucks should wrestle singles matches more often; they’re that good on their own. This was a phenomenal opener to set up their upcoming tag title match, and it left me salivating for more. It didn’t quite reach the heights of the Fénix vs. Nick Jackson classic from a year ago, but it continued to establish the Young Bucks and Fénix, as great wrestlers in either tag team or singles competition. (****)

Dr. Britt Baker, D.M.D. vs. Thunder Rosa – 3/17

What a smashing success for the first women’s main event in Dynamite history. Rosa and Baker wrestled their hearts out in this blood-stained “unsanctioned” match. Baker’s crimson mask turned has become a defining image for AEW history, and Rosa’s emotional post-match promo was so heartfelt and genuine that you can’t help but get behind her.

This was the best women’s match in AEW history and one of the three best matches overall in the history of Dynamite. (****½)

Kenny Omega vs. Matt Sydal – 3/24

After having a whirlwind of hype behind him as Evan Bourne in WWE, Matt Sydal has struggled to reach those same heights again. He seems snakebitten, between his arrest in Japan just as he was establishing himself there, to slipping off the ropes in his AEW debut, but this match was his coming-out party for the company.

The “if Sydal wins, he earns a world title shot” stipulation was brilliant. Had the match been for the title, we may not have bitten on all the great near-falls. Omega gave Sydal so much while still feeling dominant in victory, which is exactly what you want out of a world champion. (****)

Kenny Omega, Doc Gallows, & Karl Anderson vs. Penta El Zero Miedo, Rey Fénix, & Laredo Kid – 3/31

This was just insane stuff from bell to bell. I mean, come on. I marveled at the sheer athletic capabilities of the wrestlers onscreen during this. It featured more dives than I could count, and each looked unbelievable. Omega is the best in the world at winning decisively while also leaving you fans thinking something like, “Wow, his opponent(s) looked really good for some reason, too!” (****¼)

Chuck Taylor & Orange Cassidy vs. Miro & Kip Sabian – 3/31

Arcade Anarchy! One of the underrated aspects of AEW’s production is that they are the only wrestling company in the US who produce engaging plunder brawls. Years ago, from WCW to TNA to everything in between, we seemed to get one every week, and they were almost always terrible. Compare those with AEW’s Parking Lot Brawl, or Moxley & Archer vs. Omega & KENTA, or the Bunkhouse Brawl, or Young Bucks vs. Butcher & Blade, or even something like Stadium Stampede. Arcade Anarchy was no different, with these four killing each other to put on a great show. Miro was a monster, Cassidy was crazy popular, and we saw the returns of both Trent and Kris Statlander, too. This was everything I want out of a television main event. (****)

Honorable Mentions:

Tully Blanchard returned to the ring after decades away in FTR & Tully Blanchard vs. Jurassic Express. He didn’t embarrass himself, either . . . AEW Revolution was disappointing, but Hikaru Shida (c) vs. Ryo Mizunami was the best match on the show . . . The inaugural AEW Dark: Elevation main event of Riho vs. Maki Itoh showed why Riho is the best female wrestler on the roster . . .  Young Bucks & Brandon Cutler vs. Lucha Bros & Laredo Kid featured more dives than you can count . . . Darby Allin (c) vs. John Silver allowed Silver to work on top for once, and despite some odd moments, it came across well.

NJPW

Tetsuya Naito vs. Great-O-Khan from the New Japan Cup – 3/4

You’re either an O-Khan believer or you’re not. I tend to fall into the latter camp. It’s not that Tomoyuki Oka wasn’t a great wrestler or that he lacks charisma, it’s that the O-Khan gimmick just isn’t conducive to purely athletic wrestling matches. That said, in upsetting Tetsuya Naito, he had the best match of his career. More of this, and less of O-Khan’s wacky stalling and Mongolian chops. (****)

Kota Ibushi (c) vs. El Desperado for the IWGP double titles – 3/4

El Desperado was never supposed to be final double-titles challenger. This was Hiromu Takahashi’s spot. Even still,  this match was fantastic, just as you would expect from these two. The best part was Desperado’s beautiful and innovative cradle pins, as well as Ibushi’s timing on the kick-outs. Despite not having a marquee challenger, it was a worthy contest, and the final one for NJPW’s two top titles. (****¼)

Minoru Suzuki vs. Tomoaki Honma from the New Japan Cup – 3/6

This came out of nowhere. Since Honma’s devastating neck injury four years ago, he’s looked like he can barely walk; his singles match with Taichi from the 2019 New Japan Cup is as bad as NJPW gets.

But Suzuki is a genius, and since Honma is an intelligent worker in his own right, this match worked beyond my wildest expectations. It was so hard hitting that you’d think these two genuinely hated each other. There’s been nothing like it in wrestling so far in 2021, and to say that about Honma, of all people, is a testament to both mens’ talent. (****¼)

Kazuchika Okada vs. Shingo Takagi from the New Japan Cup – 3/6

There aren’t many first-round New Japan Cup matches with high stakes like this. It felt like a foregone conclusion that the winner of this would make the tournament finals and perhaps even take whole tournament, so the drama was at an all-time high. It also doesn’t hurt that these two are among the best in the world. (****¼)

SANADA vs. Tomohiro Ishii from the New Japan Cup – 3/9

Ishii may be 0–2 in singles matches in 2021, but they’ve both been excellent in terms of quality. After his singles match against Jay White at Castle Attack, Ishii and SANADA used their clashing styles for something unique. Ishii brings out great physicality in everyone he wrestles, but it’s especially noticeable when it’s with the likes of SANADA, who perform a more refined, technical wrestler. Couple that with genuine drama about the result—the match felt like a true a toss-up—we got one a hidden gem of a match, and one that makes a tournament like the New Japan Cup so enjoyable. (****)

Shingo Takagi vs. Hirooki Goto from the New Japan Cup – 3/13

There’s a group of wrestlers in NJPW that seem to make up the unofficial NEVER division, including Takagi, Goto, Ishii, Suzuki, Taichi, and Cobb. Any combination of those wrestlers is practically guaranteed to create a great match, so it was no surprise to see Takagi and Goto deliver in a main event setting. The storyline hook here was that Shingo’s streak of deafting past New Japan Cup victors, including Mr. Goto himself. (****)

Will Ospreay vs. Zack Sabre Jr. from the New Japan Cup – 3/14

Ospreay vs. Sabre was unlike anything else in the tournament. It was completely unlike their previous matches, a non-stop war from the opening bell. Sabre’s targeted attack on Ospreay’s shoulder in addition to legitmately breaking Ospreay’s nose, added so much edge to their match. What happened here would also play into the rest of Ospreay’s matches over the rest of the tournament. Aside from the finals, this is the other must-watch match from the Cup to check out. (****½)

Jay White vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi from the New Japan Cup – 3/15

You’ve got a babyface champion and a dastardly heel. If the other wins, it means we’ll probably see a title match down the line between the two. What more do you need out of a wrestling match? Tanahashi and White are so incredibly gifted in whatever they do that even a rather unspectacular match layout was phenomenally entertaining. Their upcoming NEVER Openweight Championship match should be even better. (****)

Will Ospreay vs. SANADA from the New Japan Cup – 3/18

These two met in the 2019 G1 in a rather absurd match that felt more like an athletic exhibition than a competitive fight. This match had similar issues at times, but ended up a much improved version compared with the first,  specifically because of Ospreay’s overall improvement. The story of Ospreay’s legitimately broken nose here led to perhaps the most fun match of this year’s Cup. (****)

Will Ospreay vs. David Finlay from the New Japan Cup – 3/20

This was perhaps the best match of Finlay’s career. It had a supremely engaging structure from the start, with Ospreay as infallible monster beating on the upstart with just one legitimate victory in his NJPW career. Finlay’s sold well  throughout this. Longtime Ospreay fans will recognize this match layout, however, since it’s almost identical to his 2018 Wrestlemania weekend classic with Matt Riddle. This time, however, Ospreay wrestled as indestructible behemoth, with a storyline emphasis on his new size. (****¼)

Will Ospreay vs. Shingo Takagi in the New Japan Cup Finals – 3/21

The fact that this is even being compared with their spectacular 2019 Best of the Super Junior finals match is unbelievable, considering this took place under the pandemic setting.

Ospreay’s ruthlessness was on full display here, putting Takagi through hell throughout. We saw Ospreay use a backbreaker on the guardrail, a top rope Spanish Fly, a 450 splash through a table to the floor, among other wild spots. The World Heavyweight champion, Kota Ibushi, sat outside the ring in support of Shingo. It’s unfortunate that the bone-headed post-match angle overshadows the match itself, which was one of the very best of the year so far. (****¾)

Honorable Mentions:

Jeff Cobb vs. Satoshi Kojima was beefy goodness . . . Hirooki Goto vs. Taichi had a raucous main event at Korakuen Hall . . . KENTA vs. Juice Robinson added more evidence to my belief that Juice is uniquely good in matches against the Bullet Club . . . Few wrestlers are more engaging wrestling rookies than Sabre, as evidenced by Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Gabriel Kidd . . . YOSHI-HASHI vs. David Finlay continued YOSHI-HASHI’s streak of surprising performances . . . KENTA vs. Minoru Suzuki was hard-hitting, with both clearly swollen afterwards. . . Jay White vs. David Finlay, or the biggest win of Finlay’s career, planted the seeds for a possible breakup between “Switchblade” and Gedo . . . Kota Ibushi, Kazuchika Okada, & Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Jay White, KENTA, & Yujiro Takahashi showed the beautiful professionalism of all six men, calming down the crowd and remaining in character during an earthquake.

STARDOM

Momo Watanabe vs. Nanae Takahashi – 3/3

This was a polarizing match-up, as it featured the last of the “old guard” of joshi, like Takahashi, facing off against one of its brightest young stars in Watanabe. It was intense, with Watanabe taking some particularly sick backdrop suplexes. Both women really laid in their offense.

The finish saw Takahashi pin Watanabe clean. While I thought the match leading up to that finish was excellent all around, some fans were turned off by the finish. I didn’t mind the finish as much as most, and besides, Watanabe is only 21 years old, and she will get her time in the limelight. (****)

Mayu Iwatani vs. Yoshiko – 3/3

Iwatani vs. Yoshiko was almost as notable as Stardom running their first show at Budokan. Like her senior, Nanae Takahashi, Yoshiko also made her return to Stardom after years away, post-Act Yasukawa incident.

This turned out to be completely insane and very stiff but surprisingly emotional between two of the world’s best, particularly Yoshiko. When they embraced after the match, it was a deeply powerful moment which seemed to signal a possible turning point in joshi wrestling going forward. (****½)

Utami Hayashishita (c) vs. Saya Kamitani for the World of STARDOM Championship – 3/3

Two great things happened in this match: (1) Hayashishita established herself as one of the best world champions in all of wrestling, and (2) Kamitani proved that she was ready for a main event on a big stage. This was so much better than anyone could have hoped for based on the combined track record between the two. It was truly the Stardom equivalent of Okada vs. Ospreay, with Hayashishita’s cool presence and power provided a perfect complement to the unrestrained flying spectacle that was Kamitani, which turned out to be her first singles win on a major show ever. (****¼)

Giulia (c) vs. Tam Nakano in a Luchas de Apuestas Hair vs. Hair match for the Wonder of STARDOM Championship – 3/3

You’re Stardom president Rossy Ogawa. You decide that you’re happy with Stardom’s growth and want to take the company to the next level by booking a show at Nippon Budokan, the first joshi show to run that building in decades. What do you do? How do you create a match so unique and intriguing that people buy tickets and show up? You book a hair vs. hair match. Not just any hair vs. hair match, though: You book a hair vs. hair match with two of your top stars, two of your best workers, and two women whose popularity and character work hinges greatly on their physical appearance and attractiveness.

When I first heard the stipulation, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t want to see either woman have to shave all their hair off. But I also know how talented these two are, and I knew that they’d pull out all the stops to put together a great and worthy main event at Budokan. And they did that and more.

These two had a great feud last year, but this match blew everything else they did out of the water. Giulia landed a piledriver on Nakano through a table. Nakano came back with a vertical drop Steiner Screwdriver right on Giulia’s head. We also got the single greatest slap fight in wrestling history, resulting in some terrifyingly swollen faces and a crowd of stunned silence. And then, when Nakano finally beat her hated rival, all semblance of kayfabe was thrown to the wayside with Giulia having to sit down with the humiliation of having her head shaved in public. There has been nothing else like this in wrestling in months. Must-see. (****¾) – MATCH OF THE MONTH

Tam Nakano, Mina Shirakawa, & Unagi Sayaka (c) vs. Mayu Iwatani, Starlight Kid, & Saya Iida for the Artist of STARDOM Championships – 3/7

This was a lovely little coda to the heated Cosmic Angels vs. STARS feud from late last year, with Iwatani and co. finally getting their trios tag title shots. It was also Shirakawa’s return match after taking a couple months off due to a facial injury, but she didn’t look rusty at all here. Former associates turned hated rivals Nakano and Iwatani enjoyed kicking each other’s heads off for the entertainment of paying fans. (****)

Tam Nakano, Mina Shirakawa, & Unagi Sayaka (c) vs. Momo Watanabe, Saya Kamitani, & AZM

Every couple months, three random Queen’s Quest wrestlers decide to remind everyone that Stardom is the best women’s promotion in the world, because on any given night, they can show up and show out with a classic match. Shirakawa and Sayaka barely did anything in this one. It may as well have been Nakano vs. QQ, one-on-three. But that probably made for a better match, considering the run Nakano’s on. The QQ trio complement each other so well; Watanabe is the powerhouse worker, Kamitani is the spectacular flyer, and AZM is the glue that holds everything together. (****¼)

Honorable Mentions:

AZM (c) vs. Natsupoi was the perfect high-speed appetizer for Stardom at Budokan . . . QQ almost never wrestles a disappointing tag match, and Bea Priestley & Konami vs. Momo Watanabe & Saya Kamitani was no different . . . Stardom does a great job with unique matches, because Utami Hayashishita vs. Tam Nakano vs. Natsupoi wouldn’t happen in most promotions . . . Maika & Himeka (c) vs. Mina Shirakawa & Unagi Sayaka was a big test for all four, and they succeeded . . . It’s always great when Iwatani and Watanabe interact, like in Mayu Iwatani & Saya Iida vs. Momo Watanabe & AZM . . . Saya Iida (c) vs. Ruaka was the best match of young Ruaka’s short career . . . A QQ tag match was really good? Big surprise: Giulia & Syuri vs. Bea Priestley & Konami.

DDT

Konosuke Takeshita & Akito vs. Shunma Katsumata & Yuki Iino – 3/12

With the beloved ALL OUT stable having run its course, this epic half-hour main event from the stable’s farewell show was a fitting good-bye. It was wonderful how this match was a microcosm of both the positive and negative qualities of all four wrestlers; Iino’s haka schtick is played out, Akito’s grappling is occasionally yawn-inducing, Katsumata is out of control, and you’d think a top star like Takeshita would get a greater farewell for his longtime stable. But none of that mattered once the match kicked into high gear during the final ten minutes or so, with all four beautifully complimenting each other en route to one of the most purely fun tag matches all month. (****)

Yuki Ueno (c) vs. Yusuke Okada for the DDT Universal Championship – 3/14

I love it when a match makes sense.

Ueno and Okada are two sides of the same coin. Both are very young and extremely athletic with seemingly endless reserves of potential. Ueno is a pretty boy, while Okada, the Jun Akiyama-disciple, is more rugged and macho of the two.

Sparks flew in Okada’s challenge for Ueno’s Universal title. This was one of those hot Korakuen Hall main events that let’s you forget we’re living in a pandemic. From a hurricanrana to the floor to an unbelievable rope-run counter into a tornado DDT, everything they did was performed with urgency and force. It felt like a competitve wrestling match! Crazy, I know. (****½)

Tetsuya Endo, Yuji Hino, Daisuke Sasaki, & Mad Paulie vs. Konosuke Takeshita, Yuki Ueno, MAO, & Shunma Katsumata – 3/28

It’s difficult for me to understand why more companies don’t book matches like this phenomenal eight-man tag from DDT’s Judgment show. Just put four top guys from two different stables out there and let them wrestle an action-packed tag match. Highlights included 37Kamiina’s four-way dive onto DAMNATION, Mad Paulie inexplicably putting his working boots on, and rare interactions between Endo and Takeshita, perhaps DDT’s two biggest stars. (****)

Jun Akiyama (c) vs. Kazusada Higuchi – 3/28

These two had a match last year that was essentially DDT’s version of Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg; Two giant dudes throwing bombs at each other for a few explosive minutes before one finally overpowered the other. In their rematch, they did something completely different and had a 20+ minute epic. The story was simple: Higuchi’s finishing move is the claw, so Akiyama attacked Higuchi’s hand throughout the entire match. The only thing that hindered this match was that there was no realistic chance of a title change occuring. The fact that Higuchi’s work gave me slight hope of that happening is a testament to how talented these two are. (****¼)

Honorable Mentions:

Shunma Katsumata (c) vs. Chris Brookes‘s title change allowed Katsumata to take some losses in the BJW Ikkitousen tournament. . . Akito, Kazuki Hirata & Shota (c) vs. Tetsuya Endo, Soma Takao & Yuji Hino was an exceedingly wacky and enjoyable six-man. . . Jun Akiyama, Yusuke Okada, & Makoto Oishi vs. Kazusada Higuchi, Yukio Sakaguchi, & Toi Kojima hyped Akiyama and Higuchi’s upcoming title match wonderfully.

NOAH

Takashi Sugiura & Kazushi Sakuraba (c) vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima & Masa Kitamiya for the GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Championships – 3/7

Pro Wrestling NOAH really doesn’t do wrestling like any other companies right now. While others are putting on shorter, more condensed shows, NOAH has introduced the idea that “longer equals better.” On occasion, that’s true, as evidenced by this fantastic tag title match between two men in their 50s, and the reuniting AGGRESSION, the latter with a renewed killer edge. The finish here was spectacular: Kitamiya’s legitimate headbutt of Sugiura, leading immediately to the finish and leaving a trickle of blood down his own face, was one of the most incredible images from pro wrestling in 2021. (****¼)

Seiki Yoshioka (c) vs. Atsushi Kotoge for the GHC Junior Heayvweight Championship – 3/14

I feel like NOAH has struggled to find the sweet spot in its junior heavyweight title matches, as they go from one end of the extreme (short, hyper-focused singles matches) to the other (25+ minute title matches in the junior tag division). This title match fell between both extremes—and it was better for it.

Yoshioka is unique in that he doesn’t do one thing particularly well, but everything he does looks so great and he’s got these wonderful facial expressions that sell the magnitude of the moment and the exhaustion of the match. I was disappointed to see him lose in this spot, but Kotoge is a worthy champion as well, and it will be interesting to see if they keep this formula for their junior championship matches going forward. (****)

Kenoh (c) vs. Kazuyuki Fujita for the GHC National Championship – 3/21

Maybe the single most polarizing wrestling match of 2020 was the half-hour staredown between Go Shiozaki and Fujita during a GHC heavyweight title match. They went back to the well again here, but it was more like eight minutes of standing and staring instead of 30. I didn’t mind it much, especially once the stables started brawling on the outside, but when the match got going? It was incredible. Kenoh is my favorite wrestler in NOAH, and Fujita is one of the few performers in wrestling that still comes of as a legitimate fighter and all-around bad dude. I didn’t even mind the finish where Fujita whiffed on a punt, because he turned right around and punted poor Kenoh’s head off to win the GHC National title. (****¼)

Honorable Mentions:

Go Shiozaki, Naomichi Marufuji, Takashi Sugiura, & Kotaro Suzuki vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima, Masa Kitamiya, Manabu Soya, & Tadasuke was a big-time tag match featuring many of NOAH’s top stars . . . NOAH has an underrated rookies division, and Yoshinari Ogawa & HAYATA (c) vs. Daisuke Harada & Junta Miyawaki was a beautiful little showcase for the extremely talented Miyawaki.

Miscellaneous Promotions

DRAGONGATE: Shun Skywalker (c) vs. Kaito Ishida for the Open the Dream Gate Championship – 3/7

Dragongate has had a relatively quiet start to 2021 compared to a hot end to 2020, but this match is essential viewing if you’re already a fan. While I’m of the belief that some abstract “limbwork” is vastly overrated and almost never naturally plays into a match, when it’s done right, it can turn a match from “great” to “fantastic.”

Ishida completely dismantled Skywalker’s leg throughout this match, and seeing it come into play when you least expected it, like in failing to spring up on a German suplex, or being unable to roll through on a dive attempt, was smart storytelling. Skywalker is Dragongate’s top young star, but Ishida, almost exactly the same age, is just as good in his own way. The future of Dragongate is in good hands. (****½)

BJW: Abdullah Kobayashi vs. Violento Jack – 3/8

Here, we have a fantastic example of a company using its round robin tournaments to the fullest extent. There are sixteen competitors in this year’s Ikkitousen deathmatch tournament, so putting Jack, the deathmatch star outsider who will almost certainly go far in this tournament, against Kobayashi, the beloved throwback brawler, was the right move. This ended in a bloody mess of broken glass, and was certainly the best match of the tournament so far. (****)

BJW: Yuko Miyamoto vs. Drew Parker – 3/24

Speaking of wrestlers willing to put themselves through hell to have a great deathmatch, Drew Parker won his block in this year’s Ikkitousen tournament. His wonderful contest against Miyamoto was a TLC match, but it was wrestled far closer to a standard match that just so happened to have tables, ladders, and chairs allowed. Parker has a legitimate chance to be a top Western deathmatch star soon, and him winning this match and his Ikkitousen block definitely supports that idea. (****)

IMPACT: Rich Swann (c) vs. Moose for the IMPACT World Championship – 3/13

Aside from its questionable finish, this was a really impressive performance from both men considering the empty arena environment. Moose is the most improved wrestler on IMPACT’s roster and he’s really made the most of his fantastic athleticism recently, especially after exceeding expectations as a replacement in the main event of January’s Hard to Kill pay-per-view. Swann has the biggest test of his career coming up when he faces Kenny Omega, but if his recent performances are any indication, he’s ready. (****)

AJPW: Suwama (c) vs. Yoshitatsu for the AJPW Triple Crown Championship – 3/21

While things should pick up steam for AJPW once their yearly historic Champion Carnival tournament gets underway (and once new top stable TOTAL ECLIPSE get their footing), it’s been a year of running in place for All Japan. Almost everything meets (but occasionally falls short of) expectations, but this surprising  Triple Crown defense from Suwama against Yoshitatsu was impressive. For all his maligned skill and talent, there is something about how Yoshitatsu wrestles that lends itself to longer matches where the crowd gets behind him as the underdog. We saw it when he challenged Kento Miyahara a few years ago, and we saw it again here, too, in a title defense second only Suwama’s defense against Yuma Aoyagi defense at the beginning of 2021. (****)

RIOT: Hijo del Vikingo vs. Arez – 3/21

In wrestling, the biggest victim of the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been lucha libre. With that being said, I can’t tell you how much it warmed my heart to see this poorly filmed spectacle between two of lucha libre’s best high-flyers. It built beautifully, from tentatively feeling each other out and scouting the other’s moveset to to just nonstop action at the finish, like a sunset flip powerbomb and a top rope Spanish Fly and everything in between. Vikingo is the hottest young star in lucha libre and he may be leading the pack to be the next person to challenge for Kenny Omega’s AAA Mega title; anyone who watched this match will want that title match to happen as soon as possible. (****)

ROH: Bandido vs. Flamita vs. Rey Horus – 3/26

This may have been the best empty arena American match since the pandemic started. Not even promoted ahead of time — it was the result of an angle on the pre-show — these three unbelievably talented luchadors came together to create a stunning, balls-to-the-wall spotfest that would easily find itself on any PWG or The Crash show. I firmly believe that if this match had been held in front of a hot Reseda crowd, it could have contended for a five-star rating from someone like Dave Meltzer; alas, they will have to settle for simply “best empty arena match in the US.” (****¼)

Honorable Mentions:

Rush (c) vs. Shane Taylor was a good world title match for ROH that furthered the LFI storyline . . . Masashi Takeda, Takayuki Ueki & Toshiyuki Sakuda vs. Daisuke Masaoka, Jun Kasai & Toru Sugiura set up an exciting Ueki challenge of Sugiura’s title . . . Dragongate has done quite a lot of teasing big matches, as evidenced by KAI vs. YAMATO . . . Kento Miyahara, Yuma Aoyagi, & Atsushi Aoyagi vs. Zeus, Shigehiro Irie, & Izanagi set up Zeus and Irie’s great tag title match . . . You couldn’t ask for a much better debut for a top heel stable than Suwama, Shotaro Ashino, Hikaru Sato, Koji Iwamoto, & Dan Tamura vs. Jake Lee, Koji Doi, Hokuto Omori, TAJIRI, & Yusuke Kodama for TOTAL ECLIPSE.

Kento Miyahara & Yuma Aoyagi (c) vs. Zeus & Shigehiro Irie was a good tag title match even if the challengers didn’t really have a chance . . . Despite a barren Korakuen crowd, ASUKA vs. Rina Yamashita was engaging and exciting . . . Shun Skywalker (c) vs. KAZMA SAKAMOTO, while entertaining, felt slightly redundant when compared to the Ishida defense . . . Jonathan Gresham (c) vs. Dak Draper was the best match of Draper’s career . . . Despite the environment, Rush (c) vs. Jay Lethal came off like a big-time main event for Ring of Honor.

Wrestler of the year (so far):

1. Shingo Takagi (NJPW)
2. Will Ospreay (NJPW)
3. Giulia (STARDOM)
4. Kota Ibushi (NJPW)
5. Kenny Omega (AEW)
6. Tam Nakano (STARDOM)
7. Hiroshi Tanahashi (NJPW)
8. Rey Fénix (AEW)
9. Jay White (NJPW)
10. Kazusada Higuchi (DDT)
11. Tsukasa Fujimoto (ICE RIBBON)
12. Yuki Ueno (DDT)
13. Momo Watanabe (STARDOM)
14. Shunma Katsumata (DDT)
15. Konosuke Takeshita (DDT)
16. Jon Moxley (AEW)
17. Kazuchika Okada (NJPW)
18. MAO (DDT)
19. Yoshiko (SEAdLINNNG)
20. Yukio Sakaguchi (DDT)

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