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Match Madness: WrestleMania weekend, AJPW Champion Carnival & more

April Match Madness:

WrestleMania weekend is always a highlight of the year for wrestling fans. This year’s ‘Mania week was a truncated version that also included two nights of NXT TakeOver supercards and a variety of other great indie shows.

In Japan last month, a brand new IWGP World Heavyweight champion was crowned, yet another fantastic major STARDOM show was had, and the bulk of this year’s AJPW Champion Carnival took place.


Pete Dunne vs. KUSHIDA – 4/7

KUSHIDA has been one of the most consistently entertaining acts in NXT this year, while Dunne has been revitalized after his repackaging as a submission specialist. This match was hot, compact, and a perfect way to start WrestleMania week. (****)

WALTER (c) vs. Tommaso Ciampa for the NXT UK Championship – 4/7

WALTER is the best wrestler currently employed by WWE. There’s nobody else in Western wrestling who matches up to his unique combination of stature, presence, aura, intelligence, and pure violence in a wrestling ring. His matches are appointment viewing, and even with those standards, this first-time matchup somehow exceeded expectations. Ciampa took a beating on the level of his hardcore wars with Johnny Gargano, and until it was surpassed at ‘Mania three days later, this was the best WWE match of 2021. (****½)

MSK vs. Grizzled Young Vets vs. Legado del Fantasma for the NXT Tag Team Championships – 4/7

WWE is hit-or-miss on how they utilize the talent they sign, but there are certainly wrestlers who were good on the indies whose talent crystallizes into something great in the big leagues. These three teams are all examples of wrestlers who just got better after signing with WWE. MSK, in particular, were unrefined but thrilling  as”spot monkeys” on the indies, but in WWE, they’ve been in two of the better tag team matches in NXT history. Wes Lee (ugh) has quickly become one of my favorite individual performers on the roster, showing up and showing out like a ball of fire when called upon in a high-profile situation. (****¼)

Io Shirai (c) vs. Raquel Gonzalez for the NXT Women’s Championship – 4/7

I loved the story of Gonzalez being Shirai’s (literal) biggest test yet; what we got was these two throwing bombs at each other in a legitimate TakeOver main event spot. Shirai’s big spot was spectacular, a hopeful swan song of a swan dive into prosperity on the main roster. (****)

WALTER (c) vs. Rampage Brown for the NXT United Kingdom Championship – 4/8

Perhaps the most overlooked match of WWE’s WrestleMania week was this brutal main event from the oft-ignored NXT UK division. Prior to his signing late last year, Brown was a big of a journeyman no-name on the British independent scene, whose claims to fame were a tag title run in RevPro and a spot as the keystone of the short-lived Defiant Wrestling promotion. But man, he lived up to the expectations that a WALTER singles match demand. Maybe the best part of this match was how compact it was; it felt like they fit all the same brutal action that we saw in, say, WALTER vs. Joe Coffey, just in less than half the time. Brown’s the type of guy who should be running through the roster, so it will be interesting to see what’s next for him in the UK. (****)

Finn Bálor (c) vs. Karrion Kross for the NXT Championship – 4/8

This was unquestionably the best match of Kross’s career. At this point, the Batista comparisons are unavoidable. Kross carries himself and wrestles just like The Animal, with an added mystical element that sets him apart. He still has a ways to go before he can carry a match on his own, but pairing him with a professional like Bálor is a great way to set him up for success. (****)

Adam Cole vs. Kyle O’Reilly in an unsanctioned match – 4/8

One of my least favorite criticisms of a match is that it’s “too long.” To me, that doesn’t mean anything. There’s no inherent disadvantage to booking a match to go a long time. Problems arise when a match goes long and isn’t entertaining. Luckily, Cole and O’Reilly lived up to Gargano-Ciampa’s high standard with a forty-minute epic of brutality and innovative wrestling. It was the culmination of Undisputed Era breakup, and considering the wars they’ve gone through, the storyline could only be concluded in a match like this. (****½)

Seth Rollins vs. Cesaro – 4/10

WWE is so obsessed with creating WrestleMania “moments” that they walked into one from their own incompetent booking. Cesaro has been one of the best wrestlers in the world since he was Claudio Castignoli in CHIKARA, and aside from an Andre the Giant Battle Royal victory in 2014, he has remained stuck definitively in the midcard or in a tag team. The story here was simple: Cesaro wanted to break the record for how many rotations he could reach on his giant swing. Couple that simple story with some great wrestling and one insane no-hands airplane spin? You get perhaps the best pure wrestling match at WrestleMania. (****)

Sasha Banks (c) vs. Bianca Belair for the WWE Smackdown Women’s Championship – 4/10

Heading into WrestleMania, I was despondent at the botched build to this match, yet when the main event of night one came and it was time for these two to put on a show, the storyline didn’t matter. They did exactly what they needed to do. Belair was an athletic marvel, effortlessly pressing Banks over her head and leaping all over the ring despite her size. She teased moments of being overwhelmed by the moment of it all, which led to a beautiful juxtaposition against the consummate veteran status of Banks. And then we got that hair whip, with a crack so loud that it echoed and left a welt on Banks that could’ve been visible from the cheap seats. It was a true WrestleMania moment if I’ve ever seen one. These two Meteora’d and hair-whipped their way through this glass ceiling, resulting in one of the great-EST WrestleMania main events in history. (****½) – MATCH OF THE MONTH

Roman Reigns (c) vs. Edge vs. Daniel Bryan for the WWE Universal Championship – 4/11

Speaking of baffling builds, I didn’t think it was possible, but a little over a year after his return, WWE booked Edge into such a difficult position that they were forced to turn him heel. Luckily, Daniel Bryan, the greatest American wrestler of the 21st century, was here to save the day. He was the real focus of this match, and his insertion into the storyline made it feel entirely up in the air as to who would walk out as Universal champion. I thought the match layout here was fantastic, all-action, exactly what a WrestleMania main event should be. Reigns’ double pin on his two opponents was one of those wacky decisions that only WWE could pull off. The only question that remains is “what’s next?” (****¼)

Meiko Satomura vs. Aoife Valkyrie – 4/29

Our lone WWE match outside of WrestleMania week came courtesy of the oft-forgotten NXT UK brand, who has been quietly putting on must-see matches every other week or so on Peacock. One such highlight was this out-of-nowhere classic between the legend Satomura and the relative unknown Valkyrie, who cut her teeth in Dublin-based OTT before signing with WWE early last year. While I find that Satomura often doesn’t live up to her “best in the world” reputation, she was in top form here, as was Valkyrie, with the two matching each other hold for hold and strike for strike. I can’t think of an NXT UK women’s match better than this one. (****)

Honorable Mentions:

The NXT North American Championship Gauntlet Eliminator was a fun multi-man with Isaiah Scott in particular standing out . . . Despite some bad heel vs. heel booking, Santos Escobar (c) vs. Jordan Devlin was an appropriately brutal ladder match . . . It’s incredible that Johnny Gargano (c) vs. Bronson Reed was probably Gargano’s “worst” TakeOver match, and it was still excellent . . . Bobby Lashley (c) vs. Drew McIntyre was a great way to kick off Mania with a big-time heavyweight battle . . . Bad Bunny & Damien Priest vs. The Miz & John Morrison continued WWE’s streak of surprisingly competent celebrity appearances at Mania . . . Despite some sloppiness Riddle (c) vs. Sheamus was appropriately violent . . . Not much more happened until later in the month, where Tyler Bate & Trent Seven vs. Noam Dar & Sha Samuels was one of the better non-title NXT UK matches in the show’s short history.


Kenny Omega, Matt Jackson, Nick Jackson, Konosuke Takeshita, & Michael Nakazawa vs. PAC, Rey Fénix, Penta El Zero Miedo, Matt Sydal, & Mike Sydal – 4/9

You probably haven’t seen this one! This unique ten-man tag comes thanks to some fan in Daily’s Place who decided to shaky-cam film AEW’s first house show in its history. And I’m very thankful they did, because aside from the next match on this list, this was the very best bit of in-ring action that AEW put on all month. It was the wild spotfest you’d expect considering the talent involved, but it was also a lovely showcase for Takeshita, whose quick excursion from DDT was a success. I’m a big proponent of just throwing out a great match every once in a while, storylines be damned; this contest is evidence in favor of that point. (****)

Matt Jackson & Nick Jackson (c) vs. Rey Fénix & PAC for the AEW Tag Team Championships – 4/14

Heel Young Bucks are so good. Their character turn was the shot in the arm they needed. This match was an epic way to start off the 4/14 edition of Dynamite, with the company’s best tag team facing off against two of the best individual wrestlers on the roster. If you’re familiar with these four, you already know what this match was: a testament to the high standard I hold for these men.  (****½)

Honorable Mentions:

I was so glad to see the long-unsigned big man get his first national TV exposure in Darby Allin (c) vs. JD Drake . . . Konosuke Takeshita vs. Danny Limelight was the best match in AEW Dark: Elevation’s young history . . . Chris Jericho vs. Dax Harwood continued Harwood’s quiet streak as a rock-solid singles competitor . . . Hikaru Shida (c) vs. Tay Conti was a good showcase for Conti, who’s career has seen a complete 180 . . . The 4/21 Dynamite was main-evented by two of AEW’s biggest young stars in Darby Allin (c) vs. Jungle Boy.

WrestleMania Weekend Indies

Bloodsport: Jon Moxley vs. Josh Barnett – 4/8

My new favorite event among the indies holding events at WrestleMania weekend is Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport. It’s rare to get a true big fight feel outside of WWE and AEW, but these two made it work at this year’s Bloodsport with an appropriately violent and, yes, bloody encounter filled with stiff strikes, head-drop suplexes, and tight grappling. (****¼)

GCW Spring Break: Laredo Kid, Dragon Bane and Aramis vs. Gringo Loco, Black Taurus and Arez – 4/9

This was the best match I saw all WrestleMania weekend. While covering this show for F4W Online, this match was so hectic and out of control that at one point I simply typed “The action was too fast to call at this point.” Perhaps the biggest pro wrestling casualty of the pandemic has been Mexican wrestling and lucha libre in general, as a lack of health infrastructure has left Mexico unable to return to any semblance of normalcy over a year after the pandemic started. Plus, with travel restrictions, there has been so much talent just waiting for a chance to break out. Well these six men certainly broke out at Spring Break with the most insane six-man tag I’ve seen since the pandemic started. If you have any interest in high flying, acrobatic, dive-centric wrestling, this is the match for you, with AEW upstart Laredo Kid and Mania weekend standout Arez being the stars of the show. (****¼)

GCW Spring Break: Joey Janela vs. Chris Dickinson – 4/9

Dickinson has a knack for creating a brutally intense and oppressive environment for his opponents. Both men gushed blood in this one, and I think that played to the match’s benefit, as much of the layout and time was dedicated to setting up stunts that Janela is known for. When Dickinson smacks a wooden door across Janela’s head at full strength, a minute or two pause to allow the severity of that spot to set in is called for. Was the match nonstop action? No. Did it make any sense for Janela to just submit Dickinson clean in the ring with a figure-four? Not at all. But the sheer effort these two showed transcended those flaws to put this match over the top. (****)

GCW Spring Break: Rickey Shane Page (c) vs. Nick Gage for the GCW Championship – 4/9

“Gage was a bloody mess – you could see literal pools of blood under him,” is a quote from my review of this match, and that isn’t even close to the craziest thing about this one. The culmination of a year-long storyline between Rickey Shane Page, his heel 44OH stable, and Gage led to one of the most insane and bloody American deathmatches in years. While the contest didn’t end up being the all-time classic that some expected. There was a *lot* of overbooking, interference, and stunt-work in this one, it completely delivered on the promise of RSP finally getting his comeuppance after a dreadful year on the American indies. The post-match appearance by Jon Moxley was just icing on the cake. (****)

Honorable Mentions:

Wheeler Yuta vs. Adam Priest kicked off IWTV’s willingness to experiment with Bloodsport-style grappling, as did Tony Deppen vs. Daniel Garcia . . . The hottest match of IWTV’s weekend was Dan Maff vs. Calvin Tankman . . . Arez vs. Aramis was the highlight of a mostly terrible GCW Acid Cup . . . Chris Dickinson vs. Shane Mercer was a battle of two athletic freaks . . . While still very good, Brian Cage vs. Chris Dickinson left me really wanting more . . . Alex Colon vs. Lucky 13 was a worthy match to crown the inaugural GCW Deathmatch champion.



Kota Ibushi (c) vs. Will Ospreay for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship – 4/4

The brand new title semms generally unpopular among NJPW fans. Nonetheless, this match was absolutely incredible, and if you haven’t given it a chance, do yourself a favor and check it out. Ospreay honed his in-ring character as a ruthless killer even further here. (****½)

Will Ospreay & Aaron Henare vs. SANADA & Shingo Takagi – 4/15

Due to the pandemic, NJPW has been running Korakuen shows ad nauseam, leading to matches that wouldn’t normally make tape being uploaded on NJPW World. The vast majority of those matches are redundant and skippable, but not this one: this was a breakout match for Henare, whose entrance into NJPW’s new top stable means he’s been given, by far, the biggest opportunity of his career. He and Shingo performed some classic NEVER division-style violence while Ospreay and SANADA used their acrobatic skills to maximum effect. If you watch one NJPW non-title tag match this year, make it this. (****)


Post-pandemic NJPW has inched closer and closer towards what I don’t like to see in wrestling, like ref bumps and matches that go too long, but this showed that NJPW can do those things right if done in small doses. You wouldn’t think a 27-minute singles match with YOSHI-HASHI and tons of interference in front of a barren Korakuen crowd would work, but it did. Much of the credit here goes to KENTA, whose storytelling around a simple subject, YOSHI-HASHI’s bo staff, made the rivalry feel personal and heated. Despite the low attendance at the show, this match got some of the strongest reactions from any NJPW Korakuen crowd all year. (****)

Brody King vs. Tom Lawlor for the inaugural NJPW Strong Openweight Championship – 4/23

Lawlor was confident and ruthless in his first two matches, but in the finals, King was a much greater threat, and Lawlor performed as such, moving evasively and baiting King into making mistakes. Lawlor was the right choice to be the inaugural NJPW Strong Openweight Champion. (****)

Honorable Mentions:

Tom Lawlor vs. Ren Narita was the next-best match in the tournament and a great showcase for Narita . . . Thank goodness for Ishii, who got a really nice match out of Yujiro in Tomohiro Ishii vs. Yujiro Takahashi . . . The NEVER Openweight Six-Man belts have been revitalized due to the champions, who worked hard once again in Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii & YOSHI-HASHI (c) vs. KENTA, Yujiro Takahashi, & Taiji Ishimori . . . SANADA vs. Aaron Henare was the rare case of SANADA carrying a match to great results . . . While not as good as their New Japan Cup match, Tetsuya Naito vs. Great-O-Khan continued to establish O-Khan as a threat . . . The IWGP Junior Heavyweight tag title rematch of SHO & YOH (c) vs. El Desperado & Yoshinobu Kanemaru was better than the first.



Tam Nakano (c) vs. Natsupoi for the Wonder of STARDOM Championship – 4/4

An essential follow on Twitter for any joshi fan is user @Blue_Kano1, whose encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese women’s wrestling adds so much context and enjoyment to the matches I watch. This match for STARDOM’s white belt was a perfect example of that storytelling. Both of these wrestlers have roots in the joshi indie Actwres girl’Z, whose hybrid actress/wrestler/idol style is unlike anything else in wrestling. Some have unfairly criticized graduates of the idol wrestler style for not being “real wrestlers” (an absurd complaint even at face), but it is precisely that acting background that allows wrestlers like Nakano and Natsupoi to have phenomenal facial expressions that pull a viewer in and get them invested. Some have called this a Match of the Year contender, and while I don’t think the actual action was focused enough to reach that standard, the emotional impact was undoubtedly there. (****¼)

Utami Hayashishita (c) vs. Bea Priestley for the World of STARDOM Championship – 4/4

Bea Priestley’s final match in STARDOM was her best. A year ago, Hayashishita vs. Priestley for STARDOM’s top title would have been an underwhelming choice, but after plenty of improvement from both, and especially Hayashishita, who has established herself as one of the best champions in wrestling, this blew past expectations. Hayashishita structures her matches very similar to her Queen’s Quest stablemate Momo Watanabe, full of bombs, suplexes, and big moves, and that’s exactly what we got here with the powerful Priestley. Despite her talent, I don’t really see a lot of success in the cards for Priestley assuming her destination is WWE, so I’m thankful we got this last excellent match out of her in STARDOM. (****¼)

Maika & Himeka (c) vs. Giulia & Syuri for the Goddesses of STARDOM Championships – 4/4

It’s unfortunate that this low-key epic of a tag match was overshadowed by the preceding two singles contests, because in my opinion, it was just as good. Maika and Himeka have quickly become one of the more reliable tag teams in STARDOM, and their opponents in stablemates Giulia and Syuri are two legitimate top singles stars. This was nonstop action for almost an entire half hour, sheer hard work that was completely different from anything else on the show. (****¼)

Honorable Mentions:

Momo Watanabe vs. Mina Shirakawa may have been the best match of Shirakawa’s career . . . We got a battle between two of STARDOM’s fastest-rising stars in Saya Kamitani vs. Unagi Sayaka . . . Syuri vs. Natsupoi was the best part of round 1 of Cinderella.


Suwama vs. Kohei Sato – 4/9

After a disappointing Triple Crown title challenge from Sato earlier in the year, the two giants made up for lost time with a much more focused and intense performance on the first day of the Champion Carnival. What I wanted from their first matchup was more violence, and that’s what we got here, with Sato breaking out his customary headbutts, Suwama firing back with lariats and huge bombs, and one brutal falcon arrow that gave Sato one of the biggest victories of his career. (****)

Kento Miyahara vs. Zeus – 4/9

These two have incredible chemistry. The charismatic pretty-boy Ace facing off against a jacked brick wall of a man is a formula that works. Every time Miyahara and Zeus lock up, sparks fly, including multiple unbelievable Triple Crown matches and perhaps AJPW’s best match of 2020 in last year’s Champion Carnival finals. (****¼)

Kento Miyahara vs. Shinjiro Otani – 4/10

Otani’s performances in this year’s Carnival have been a revelation. I knew he could still go after watching him in a great main event against Hayato Tamura at ZERO1’s anniversary show, but it would have been easy to chalk that up to Otani’s natural charisma and simply being beloved by the ZERO1 faithful. But man, he’s been great! Maybe his best performance was against Miyahara, where we got a match that may as well have been a verbal debate with the amount of jawing and jacking between the two. I loved the little touch of ending the match with Miyahara’s Blackout knee in lieu of the traditional Shutdown suplex; decisions like that add up over the length of a tournament. (****)

Suwama vs. Zeus – 4/11

Oh, you wanted bombs? Congratulations, you got a collection of absolute BOMBS in this one. After Zeus shockingly submitted the champ in five minutes in last year’s Carnival, this match was worked far more conventionally, with Zeus summarily dismantling the beast, Suwama firing up like only Suwama can, and the match building and building to a violent conclusion. (****)

Zeus vs. Yuma Aoyagi – 4/17

The match layout here was not dissimilar to Zeus’s encounter with Suwama on the previous Champion Carnival show, but unlike Suwama’s fiery uprising like an awoken kaiju beast, Aoyagi’s work from underneath was scrappier (and more believable). Zeus just beat the life out of this guy until the young man surprised him with a killier guillotine, giving Aoyagi one of the most important wins of his young career so far. (****)

Suwama vs. Yuma Aoyagi – 4/24

These two had the best Triple Crown match of 2021 so far back in January, where it looked like Aoyagi might give the champion his biggest test yet. It’s funny, how patterned Suwama’s matches are, and yet they’re almost always excellent. With that formula perfected, all it takes is a couple tweaks to make it even better. Those tweaks came in the form of a seemingly endless closing stretch of lariats and backdrops, with Suwama growling like a woolly mammoth being tormented by a sabre-toothed tiger. Aoyagi being completely willing to land on his head over and over turned the violence up a notch and made this one of the best matches in this year’s Carnival, on the level of their title match earlier in the year. (****¼)

Suwama vs. Kento Miyahara – 4/25

This sequel to last year’s AJPW Match of the Year lived up to expectations. The story hook here was the crushing resumption of no-crowd shows, forcing AJPW into an empty Shin-Kiba 1st Ring. And yet against all odds, the environment here was just as hot as any Carnival show so far, with AJPW staff, trainees, and even signed talent making their way to ringside and hooting and hollering and living and dying with every single thing these two did. These two are both masters of the insane, wacky, almost comical comeback where they ride the line between inspiration and mockery of professional wrestling. They hit the mark here with a brutal, hard-hitting affair and for my money, the best AJPW match of 2021 so far. (****¼)

Kento Miyahara vs. Shuji Ishikawa – 4/28

One of AJPW’s more underrated banger matchups from last year was the de facto “block finals” for the Champion Carnival between Miyahara and Ishikawa. They ran it back here just a few months later with another great fight, including Ishikawa’s best individual performance in this year’s tournament. Miyahara is just unbelievable when it comes to wrestling against giants and fellas that are built like freight trains, we’ve seen it with Suwama, Jake Lee, and Zeus, and we saw it here as well, as Ishikawa brutalized Miyahara until a raucous comeback with Miyahara somehow defying gravity on his Blackout knees. In the end, Ishikawa got his win back after last year’s loss, potentially keeping Miyahara from winning the tournament. (****)

Kento Miyahara vs. Yuma Aoyagi – 4/29

One of the easiest stories in wrestling is tag partners facing off. These two have a unique history, as early in 2020 Aoyagi shockingly turned on AJPW’s ace…. before the two made amends late that very same year. Now, the two are AJPW’s heavyweight tag champions, with Aoyagi winning most of the falls in the team’s title matches. While Miyahara is the promotion’s ace, Aoyagi’s career has been inextricable from that of his partner’s: Miyahara beat Aoyagi in the latter’s debut match, and Aoyagi has never beaten Miyahara despite a half-dozen shots. AJPW’s booking of Aoyagi’s guillotine choke has been so strong that when he locked it in during this match, I thought for sure that it was over. While this year’s Carnival has been highlighted by short matches, the longest match of the tournament was also one of its best. (****¼)

Honorable Mentions:

Yuma Aoyagi vs. Shinjiro Otani kicked off Otani’s Carnival run with a bang . . . Suwama vs. Jake Lee planted the seeds for Lee’s eventual Carnival victory . . . While still very good, I’m waiting for Kento Miyahara vs. Shotaro Ashino to be the matchup it can be . . . Jake Lee vs. Yuma Aoyagi had a great, unexpected layout . . . The Twin Towers collided in violent fashion during Shuji Ishikawa vs. Kohei Sato . . . CIMA (c) vs. Hikaru Sato was unquestionably CIMA’s best junior title defense . . . Jake Lee vs. Zeus continued the streak of Zeus elevating his opponents . . . Suwama vs. Shotaro Ashino was a matchup between this year’s likely Real World Tag League victors.



AWG: Miyuki Takase (c) vs. SAKI for the AWG Championshp – 4/4

Takase is the best joshi wrestler you’ve never heard of, combining intelligence, superstar aura, and brutal action into a perfect package for Actwres girl’Z ace. And while I’m not the biggest fan of SAKI, I can’t deny the hard work she put in during this big-time title match, one of the most important Actwres girl’Z matches in a long time. This was hard-hitting and intense, to the point that a shoot headbutt exchange wasn’t even the most thrilling part of the match. (****)

DDT Ganbare Pro: Ikuto Hidaka vs. Kouki Iwasaki – 4/7

I love a simple storyline in wrestling where an outsider “invades” and runs roughshod through the company before finally being taken down by one of the company’s most essential talents. That’s exactly what we’ve got from Ikuto Hidaka over the last few months, as he effortlessly dispatched half of the Ganbare Pro roster in singles matches en route to this culminating match against talented journeyman Kouki Iwasaki. Hidaka is one of the single most underrated in-ring competitors in the world, and combining that with a compelling story (as opposed to just throwing him out there in random NOAH multi-man tags) made this one his best match in a long time. (****)

DDT Ganbare Pro: Takashi Sasaki vs. Ken Ohka – 4/7

Sasaki’s as consistent as they come in deathmatches, but Ohka, the face of Ganbare, isn’t exactly used to this type of setting. I thought the match layout was perfect: Sasaki just beat down and humbled Ohka, essentially saying “This isn’t meant for you,” before Ohka finally fired up at the end. This match had one of the hottest post-pandemic crowds I’ve heard in Japan, a testament to the working ability of these two as well as the goodwill that a consistent promotion like Ganbare Pro fosters in its fanbase. (****¼)

ICE RIBBON: Maya Yukihi & Maika Ozaki (c) vs. Tsukasa Fujimoto & Tsukushi Haruka for the International Princess Tag Team Championships – 4/11

This was all prelude to the challenging team’s eventual singles match for ICE RIBBON’s top championship. Fujimoto and Haruka, otherwise known as the Dropkickers, worked the heavy-handed “can they get along?” storyline effortlessly. I love the little touches of Fujimoto being summarily outwrestled by Yukihi, who the former defeated less than a month prior, as well as the powerhouse Ozaki manhandling diminutive Tsukushi. The best part, though, is the turning point in the match, when the literal Dropkickers have a double dropkick countered, leading to the finish. You can read my in-depth report of this match here. (****)

ICE RIBBON: Masashi Takeda vs. Suzu Suzuki – 4/24

This was something else. For the uninitiated, Suzu Suzuki is an 18-year-old pro wrestling prodigy who has already won ICE RIBBON’s top championship and has now taken it upon herself to run through a gauntlet of the top deathmatch talent in Japan. It’s one thing to face off with consistent journeymen like Yuko Miyamoto and Takashi Sasaki; it’s a whole new world to take on Masashi Takeda. The layout in this match was perfect, with Takeda just brutalizing young Suzuki from the start. Suzuki got almost no offense in, and yet she kicked out of all of Takeda’s finishers, including those that have won him championships. The match was stopped due to blood. Suzuki was never pinned or submitted, adding a new wrinkle to her seven-match deathmatch series. (****¼)

ICE RIBBON: Tsukasa Fujimoto (c) vs. Tsukushi Haruka for the ICExInfinity Championship – 4/24

“Effort” is perhaps the defining word when it comes to ICE RIBBON; despite being an indie just barely knocking on the top five joshi promotions in Japan, the amount of care and hard work put into everything around the company, from the storytelling to the match layouts to the actual work in the ring, is incredible. No two wrestlers in the company embody “effort” more than Fujimoto, who truly out-works everyone à la Christian Cage, and Tsukushi, a consummate underdog whose out-of-the-ring scandal from a few years ago essentially forced her to start over from scratch. There was a ton of backstory and intrigue to this championship match, but above all, it was also just perfectly worked, and resulted in one of the best women’s matches all year. You can read my in-depth report on the match here.

IMPACT: Kenny Omega (c) vs. Rich Swann (c) for the AEW and IMPACT World Championships – 4/25

This match, the most important IMPACT match in at least a decade wasn’t as good as it could have been, but even a mild disappointment from Swann and Omega is still better than most wrestlers’ best. There were botches, yes, and a mildly baffling layout featuring the babyface Swann essentially creating his own heat by dropping himself on his head, but man, that closing stretch was something else. Some criticized Swann’s performance, but I thought he was mostly excellent, as he perfectly sold the exhaustion and overwhelming nature of facing off with Omega, the best in the world. And we even got a clean finish, something I had no faith around with the wacky, dumb “two referees” gimmick and six corner men at ringside. You can read my in-depth report on the match here. (****)

NOAH: Kazuyuki Fujita (c) vs. Takashi Sugiura for the GHC National Championship – 4/29

NOAH’s booking post-pandemic has been completely unconventional and no other promotion puts together their title pictures in the same way they do. Take the GHC National Championship, for example, which turned into a shooters’ belt about six months ago with Kenoh as champion. Fujita may as well be the final boss of all pro wrestling shooters, and so he served Kenoh a legitimate kick to the head. However, Sugiura’s challenge here signaled something different for the title. It was one of the best Fujita matches I’ve seen. It was like an Ishii vs. Suzuki match except the strikes were harder, the selling was more dramatic, and the crowd was more in awe of what they were seeing. Sugiura’s been such a reliable hand for so long that you almost always leave him out in “best wrestler alive” discussions, but it’s hard to think of somebody who steps up to big matches at the level that he does. One of the things I look for most in wrestling is violence; this had more of that than any other match this year. (****½)

TJPW: Miyu Yamashita vs. Hikari Hoa – 4/17

Best match of Noa’s career! The Up Up Girl had a massive test facing off against TJPW’s ace in Yamashita, but she more than held her own with a gutsy performance of desperation and true desire to win. I’m burying the lede, though: This match was all about the finish, where Yamashita legitimately hit the most incredible move to finish a match I’ve seen all year. Those ten seconds alone make this one worth seeking out. (****)

TJPW: Rika Tatsumi (c) vs. Maki Itoh for the Princess of Princess Championship – 4/17

I’ve long been a critic of Maki Itoh, whose online presence has essentially become a meme among American fans, to whom “cute Japanese girl saying bad words” is an engaging character choice. But man, she showed up and showed out here, resulting in one of the best matches in TJPW history. The story borrowed from real life: Itoh, by far TJPW’s most popular wrestler internationally, wanted to win and take the company to new heights, but she’s unfortunately nowhere near as good a wrestler as Tatsumi. This match was legitimately worked like a classic WWF main event, full of these two getting the most out of just a little. You can read my full report of the match here.

Honorable Mentions:

Nanae Takahashi & ASUKA vs. Rina Yamashita & Honori Hana was classic, hot SEAdLINNNG tag action . . . Honma showed why she’s one of the most underrated talents in joshi during Maika Ozaki & Tae Honma (c) vs. Hikari Shimizu & Mari . . .  Yuki Ueno & Shunma Katsumata vs. Keisuke Ishii & Shota was a fun spotfest and rare Ganbare appearance for main roster DDT talent . . . We got a simple, but effective, setup for Rebellion during Kenny Omega, Karl Anderson, & Doc Gallows vs. Rich Swann, Eddie Edwards, & Willie Mack . . . Mask vs. Mask matches are always must-see, even in a comedy situation, as in Diamante vs. Bokutimo Dragon . . . Kazusada Higuchi & Yukio Sakaguchi (c) vs. HARASHIMA & Yuji Okabayashi ended ERUPTION’s incredible reign as champs . . . Sera continued to brutalize poor ICE RIBBON roster members in Risa Sera (c) vs. Thekla.

Yuka Sakazaki & Mizuki vs. Shoko Nakajima & Hyper Misao vs. Mirai Maiumi & Suzume was a super fun all-action three-way tag . . . Kazuyuki Fujita & Kendo Kashin vs. Takashi Sugiura & Kazushi Sakuraba set up Fujita vs. Sugiura in the most violent way imaginable . . . HARASHIMA & Yuji Okabayashi (c) vs. Jun Akiyama & Makoto Oishi was a worthy first defense . . . Yukihi deserves a break after finally losing the tag belts in Maya Yukihi & Maika Ozaki (c) vs. vs. Hiroyo Matsumoto & Hiragi Kurumi . . . Ace Austin (c) vs. TJP vs. Josh Alexander was X Division comfort food . . . Keiji Mutoh (c) vs. Masa Kitamiya had a much stronger layout than the Kiyomiya defense the month prior.

Updated Wrestler of the Year Rankings:

  1. Shingo Takagi
  2. Will Ospreay
  3. Kota Ibushi
  4. Tsukasa Fujimoto
  5. Giulia
  6. Kenny Omega
  7. Suwama
  8. Tam Nakano
  9. Rey Fénix
  10. Kento Miyahara
  11. Hiroshi Tanahashi
  12. Yuma Aoyagi
  13. Yuki Ueno
  14. Jon Moxley
  15. Kazusada Higuchi
  16. Konosuke Takeshita
  17. Shunma Katsumata
  18. Maya Yukihi
  19. Jay White
  20. Utami Hayashishita
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