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Here’s Match Madness: All the best wrestling from the month of July, from WWE’s Money in the Bank, to NJPW hitting the Tokyo Dome, to the biggest Dragon Gate show of the year and everything in between.


WWE

Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens (7/2)

Generico vs. Steen was one of the pre-eminent indie rivalries in America during the 21st century. While their paths have often crossed in WWE, they haven’t reached nearly those heights outside of one big NXT Championship match. In 2021, however, Generico and Steen (now Zayn and Owens) are putting together some of their best work. They had two very good matches at Wrestlemania and Hell in a Cell, respectively, but this last one on Smackdown may have surpassed those two. They just destroyed each other in this no disqualification match. As two of the more consistent performers on WWE’s roster, I’m content to keep them together indefinitely. (****)

Adam Cole vs. Kyle O’Reilly (7/6)

These two were hamstrung by baffling storytelling and still managed to put on a very good match. Somehow, the 40+ minute unsanctioned epic from WrestleMania weekend wasn’t the blow-off to this feud. As we found out in subsequent weeks, this match wasn’t the blow-off either. But it’s a testament to the skill of these two between the ropes that the wrestling was more than engaging enough to make up for those shortcomings. O’Reilly is a wonderful babyface, and my hope is that he eventually gets the upper hand in the feud en route to another NXT Championship opportunity. (****)

RAW Women’s Championship: Rhea Ripley (c) vs. Charlotte Flair (7/18)

At Hell in a Cell, these two had a horribly disappointing encounter that resulted in a disqualification. I was so frustrated with that match, because these two phenomenal athletes could put on the type of match that nobody else in America could. Luckily, they got with the program at Money in the Bank. This match was like a Drew McIntyre vs. Sheamus match translated to the women’s division, all power and stiff strikes and sloppy transitions. I loved how their response to an un-cooperative crowd was essentially “fine, we’ll MAKE you care.” WWE could put on women’s matches like this on every PPV, but I’ll take them when I get them. (****)

Men’s Money in the Bank: Drew McIntyre vs. Kevin Owens vs. Riddle vs. Big E vs. Ricochet vs. John Morrison vs. Seth Rollins vs. King Nakamura (7/18)

In my eyes, this was the best Money in the Bank ladder match in history. Everyone played their part perfectly. Ricochet and Morrison were the athletic flyers with jaw-dropping spots. Riddle and Big E displayed unbelievable power to match their athleticism. Rollins and Nakamura had perfect timing, running in for some excellent misdirection and keeping the pace of the match going. Owens practically killed himself. Finally, McIntyre was the emotional focus of the match, and his failure to win is intriguing. Couple all the insane spots and brutal bumps with an emotional winner in Big E, and this is easily the best WWE ladder match since NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. (****½)

Honorable Mentions:

Wes Lee and Nash Carter (c) vs. Tommaso Ciampa and Timothy Thatcher kept up MSK’s hot streak in title matches . . . John Morrison vs. Ricochet saw these two professionals work their asses off in a ridiculous falls count anywhere match while The Miz did his best to distract from the proceedings with his wacky comedy.

AEW

IWGP US Heavyweight Championship: Jon Moxley (c) vs. Lance Archer (7/21)

Man, I missed live crowds. A hot crowd’s ability to turn the tide of a match from “good” to “must-see” is unlike anything else in sports or mass entertainment. At Daily’s Place, this would have simply been a really fun hardcore match with a mildly surprising result. In Austin, TX, however, it was one of the most thrilling Dynamite matches of the year. These guys bled all over and worked even harder than they did at the literal Tokyo Dome, but the story of the match was Archer. His mid-match babyface turn here (bolstered by his home-state crowd) sent the audience into the stratosphere. When he won, the pop was deafening. This is wrestling! (****¼)

Elimination: Kenny Omega, Matt Jackson, Nick Jackson, Doc Gallows, and Karl Anderson vs. Hangman Page, Evil Uno, Stu Grayson, John Silver, and Alex Reynolds (7/28)

I hated the finish in this one and at the time of publication I have no idea what AEW is doing with their world title. Frustrations with the finish aside, the match we got here was stellar. I loved the individual showcases for the babyface team, especially Silver and Grayson. The former got to utilize his signature ball-of-fire hot tag against AEW’s top stars. The latter, meanwhile, is just out of his mind in terms of what he’s willing to do. He hit this ridiculous twisting springboard moonsault to the floor, splatted on the ground, and immediately got up and landed a dive off the stands. Page’s fire in the one-on-three portion was engaging as well. I just wish the match hadn’t ended like it did. (****)

Honorable Mentions:

Matt Jackson and Nick Jackson (c) vs. Eddie Kingston and Penta El Zero Miedo was a worthy first main event on the road . . . Darby Allin vs. Ethan Page continued Allin’s streak of finding new ways to bump . . . Chris Jericho vs. Nick Gage was controversial, polarizing, bloody, and deeply engrossing.

NJPW

Tomohiro Ishii vs. Yuji Nagata (7/1)

This one feels like it’ll be a hidden gem. On a relatively minor Korakuen Hall event, this match stole the show. It wasn’t the culmination of a feud or anything, just a singles match to set up a NEVER six-man title defense. But man, these two are just incredible performers. Nagata’s a legend who is still among the very best wrestlers in the world at age 53. Ishii is, well, Ishii; you know exactly what you get, and it’ll be fantastic. Tons of stiff strikes, hard bumps, and an all-around hostile and mean environment made this one must-see. (****¼)

IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championships: Taichi and Zack Sabre Jr. (c) vs. Tetsuya Naito and SANADA (7/11)

One of the underreported aspects of the pandemic is its impact on match length. Companies shorten their cards for safety reasons, leading NJPW to almost never have a show with more than five or six matches. What that results in, however, is a desire to not skimp out on the wrestling, so with fewer matches, those contests go a long time. This match went 37 minutes and it wasn’t thrilling for that entire time, but the final half was excellent. The pairings of Taichi/Naito and Sabre/SANADA both have unbelievable chemistry, and that work (alongside the Dangerous Tekkers’ placement as the most consistent team in NJPW today) made this one well worth its length. (****)

Tetsuya Naito vs. Taichi (7/22)

Speaking of the chemistry between Naito and Taichi, it was on full display here. This fantastic main event is undoubtedly the best match these two have had together and is among the best singles matches of Taichi’s career. I have adored Taichi’s evolution over the past few years from a midcard junior who constantly cheats to a poor man’s version of Kawada, all backdrop drivers and stiff kicks just for the hell of it. The renegade energy here was off the charts, and it was perfect build for their tag title rematch. (****¼)

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships: Taiji Ishimori and El Phantasmo (c) vs. Rocky Romero and Ryusuke Taguchi (7/25)

This one may be more “personal taste” than most as Taguchi is one of my favorite wrestlers from any era. It was such a fresh matchup, moving us away from yet another SHO and YOH title challenge or an eye-rolling heel vs. heel battle with Desperado and Kanemaru. “The Mega Coaches” are so easy to get behind, and Ishimori and (especially) Phantasmo are so easy to hate. The work was pristine, with just enough flying and intensity and drama to move it up into the next tier. (****)

Kazuchika Okada vs. Jeff Cobb (7/25)

Still not seeing the “Okada is breaking down” stuff, folks. He wrestled an intense, hard-hitting Tokyo Dome match with a killer in Jeff Cobb and came out looking like a million bucks. What makes Okada so great is his versatility; he’ll do technical stuff with Sabre, work babyface against someone like Switchblade, and match these hard hitters like Cobb strike for strike. That’s exactly what we got here. Couple that with Okada keeping the much-maligned Money Clip to about 15 seconds maximum, and you get one of the better NJPW special singles matches of the year.

IWGP World Heavyweight Championship: Shingo Takagi (c) vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (7/25)

Tanahashi is truly the greatest. When Kota Ibushi came down with pneumonia and NJPW had to book a replacement, Tanahashi didn’t just step up to the plate; he knocked it out of the park. He wrestled a physical singles match with KENTA the night before and ran it all back (and more) in the main event of the Tokyo Dome to put on one of the best matches of the year.

These two put on a five-star match at New Beginning earlier in 2021, and somehow built on that in this one. It was longer and more intense with an extended closing stretch rivaling anything you’ll see all year. Tanahashi even busted out the shoot headbutt just for kicks! [Ed. note: This was not an actual “shoot” headbutt, and Tanahashi was not injured during the match.]

Honestly, the only thing keeping this from surpassing their previous matchup was that I never bought Tanahashi, the replacement challenger, having a chance to win. Shingo’s the best wrestler in the world, and Tanahashi may be the best wrestler of all time. (****¾): MATCH OF THE MONTH

Honorable Mentions:

Despite existing in the shadow of Ishii vs. Nagata, Hirooki Goto vs. Satoshi Kojima was excellent . . . Kota Ibushi vs. Yota Tsuji was the perfect way to end the Young Lion trial series, as was Shingo Takagi vs. Yuya Uemura . . . El Phantasmo vs. Rocky Romero was a fine little sequel to their Korakuen main event . . . Zack Sabre Jr. vs. SANADA showed off their unique chemistry . . . Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. KENTA felt like it had much higher stakes with the Tokyo Dome looming the next day . . . El Desperado (c) vs. Robbie Eagles was a fun technical battle with a surprise winner . . . Tetsuya Naito and SANADA (c) vs. Taichi and Zack Sabre Jr. essentially ran back their excellent first encounter.

STARDOM

Goddesses of STARDOM Championships: Giulia and Syuri (c) vs. Mayu Iwatani and Koguma (7/4)

When Koguma scored a flash pin over Giulia to set this match up, it could’ve just been a filler defense for the champions. But no, Giulia and Syuri (a.k.a. ALK) are the best tag team in the world, and even “just another defense” is still stellar. Of course, it helps that Koguma’s partner for the challenge was none other than promotion ace Mayu Iwatani, who paired off with Syuri for this match for some nice physicality while Koguma endeavored to confuse and infuriate Giulia with her high speed antics. The champions retained here, but this kept Iwatani hot and elevated Koguma ahead of the 5STAR GP. (****)

Wonder of STARDOM Championship: Tam Nakano (c) vs. Saya Kamitani (7/4)

Stardom has put a lot of stake in the inexperienced Saya Kamitani, and so far, she’s made them seem brilliant for doing so. After challenging for the World of Stardom Championship at Budokan and winning the Cinderella tournament, she cashed in her tournament victory to challenge Tam Nakano here in a battle of former idols. It has been so fulfilling to see Kamitani’s growth over the past year or so, but it also helps that she’s paired off with incredible workers and storytellers like Nakano, a step ahead of Kamitani in every way. As the de facto main event for this Yokohama Cinderella show due to Natsuko Tora’s injury, this lived up to that standard. (****)

Wonder of STARDOM Championship: Tam Nakano (c) vs. Starlight Kid (7/21)

All the way back in February, when Nakano was gearing up to put her hair on the line against Giulia for one final shot at the white belt, she was interrupted by the young phenom Starlight Kid, who laid her claim for the next challenge. It was such a simple storytelling moment and yet it involved so many threads: Nakano leaving STARS while Kid remained loyal, Kid putting Nakano’s fight for the white belt on hold, and Giulia’s habit of tearing at Kid’s mask all coalesced into one perfect little moment of storytelling. Six months later, with Kid turning heel and joining Oedo Tai, we finally got that match, and it was great. Nakano’s an incredible champion and Kid’s preternaturally gifted; not even Oedo Tai buffoonery could ruin this one. (****)

Goddesses of STARDOM Championships: Giulia and Syuri (c) vs. Utami Hayashishita and Saya Kamitani (7/22)

I already mentioned how ALK is the best tag team in the world in this column. Aside from one truly thrilling exchange between Giulia and Kamitani, these four practically sleep-walked their way to yet another fantastic title defense. We got the customary Utami vs. Syuri interactions (they’re paired off for life now), but it was that sequence between Giulia and Kamitani that made this match appointment viewing. Giulia’s character recently has been that of a dismissive “I’m better than you” type of attitude, especially against “idol” wrestlers like Kamitani. Well, Kamitani had had enough of that and slapped the soul out of Giulia. So what does Giulia do? She comes back and cracks her head against Kamitani’s with one of the most devastating headbutts you’ll see. This match is worth watching for that sequence alone. (****)

5STAR Grand Prix: Syuri vs. Saya Kamitani (7/31)

That Saya Kamitani vs. Giulia sequence described in the paragraph above? It was outdone a little over a week later by Giulia’s tag team partner Syuri. There was an exchange late in this match of just some ridiculously physical strikes, leading to swollen faces and one of the better singles matches of Kamitani’s career. After years as an indie journeyman in high demand, Syuri has really come into her own as one of the most protected members of Stardom’s roster. She feels like a final boss-type character; someone like Kamitani has insurmountable odds when she faces Syuri. That dynamic leads to some great drama, and whoever beats her in this tournament gets some major rub. (****)

5STAR Grand Prix: Mayu Iwatani vs. Momo Watanabe (7/31)

This was a battle of Stardom mainstays who’ve stayed mostly out of the title picture over the last year. Perhaps the two best pure workers in the company, Iwatani and Watanabe displayed Stardom’s insane roster depth by putting on the best match of the opening night of the 5STAR. Iwatani is versatile and can work any style of match. Thankfully, Watanabe works one of my favorite styles in wrestling: non-stop bomb-throwing until someone can’t go any longer. These two tossed each other all over the place until Watanabe picked up her biggest win in a year. (****¼)

5STAR Grand Prix: Utami Hayashishita vs. Maika (7/31)

Until 2021, I wasn’t a huge believer in Maika. I felt her best qualities (physicality, strength, technical skills) were all done much better by other members of the roster (Momo Watanabe, Utami Hayashishita, and Syuri respectively). Even now, after her incredible yet simultaneously under-the-radar breakout year, I still had a hard time placing where the improvement comes from. What Maika does so well is take bumps and sell. She’s so compelling as an underdog because instead of the contrived fire-up spot we get so often in wrestling, she instead just pops up, hits her big move, and then collapses as if that took everything out of her. This was a more compact version of their World of Stardom championship battle earlier in the year and is currently the crowning achievement of Maika’s career. (****¼)

Honorable Mentions:

Tam Nakano, Mina Shirakawa, and Unagi Sayaka (c) vs. Utami Hayashishita, Saya Kamitani, and AZM continued to show why QQ are the most reliable multi-man wrestlers in joshi, as did Momo Watanabe, Saya Kamitani, and AZM vs. Konami, Starlight Kid, and Ruaka . . . Giulia vs. Starlight Kid rounded out a stellar first day of 5STAR GP action.

GCW

Tony Deppen vs. Starboy Charlie (7/10)

Starboy Charlie is the future. He’s already surpassed 95% of what you’ll see on the indies, even major ones like GCW. And when he’s matched up with a major league talent like Tony Deppen, the contest becomes appointment viewing. Deppen’s a small guy, but he wrestles an intense, physical style, which led to an awesome dynamic as he got to work on top for once against the slight Charlie. Innovative spots, hard hits, and big dives. What more could you want? (****)

AJ Gray vs. 1 Called Manders vs. Mance Warner vs. Matthew Justice (7/10)

I’m probably the only person who watched this match who thought it was truly excellent, but man, what a blast this match ended up being. This was a hardcore four-way between four legit indie heavyweights, which are coming an increasingly rare breed as the years go by. These four all worked extremely hard, but the highlight was Justice, whose lack of care for his own health or the safety of others in the match was so engaging. Was this a car crash? Yes. Was there a contrived lighter fluid spot in the middle that completely failed? Of course. Did I love the whole package anyway? Absolutely! (****)

GCW Ultraviolent Championship / BJW Deathmatch Championship: Alex Colon (c) vs. Drew Parker (c) (7/24)

All Drew Parker did was win the BJW Deathmatch Championship, immediately hop on a plane to the United States and win the GCW Ultraviolent Championship from Alex Colon all in about 36 hours. The man is insane, but he’s also a fantastic performer. It’s been so fulfilling to see him go from essentially a young boy in BJW to perhaps the most in-demand deathmatch wrestler in the West outside of Nick Gage. This match was terrifying, as expected; darts came into play multiple times. That should sound appealing to you. (****¼)

GCW World Championship: Nick Gage (c) vs. Matt Cardona (7/24)

This was one of the most polarizing matches in recent memory, but in my eyes, it couldn’t have been done much better. Gage is the personification of “outlaw spirit,” a babyface who’s done bad things but adores his fans and the indies as a whole. Cardona, meanwhile, is the complete opposite: a guy who spent 95% of his career doing sports entertainment things in WWE. Cardona is scuplted and jacked; Gage wears a raggedy tank top. Cardona’s got blinding white teeth; Gage’s are in disarray. That juxtaposition led to one of the most heated indie matches this side of PWG you’ll ever see.

Cardona throwing a tentative light tube shot at the start was hilarious, as was him begging off of Gage as blood poured from his upper body. The match threatened to fall apart with all the interference and the awkward Chris Jericho tease, but to me, all that just added to the manic energy of the building. And then Cardona won, and the crowd pelted him with trash, and the American indies felt so much more vital than they have since WWE and AEW started snapping up anyone with a modicum of talent. (****½)

Honorable Mentions:

Alex Colon (c) vs. AJ Gray more than lived up to its billing as Gray was a late replacement for Nick Gage . . . Joey Janela vs. Atticus Cogar was a fun battle between one of the better babyfaces and heels on the American indies.

DDT

King of Gate Semifinals: Kazusada Higuchi vs. Yuji Hino (7/4)

Wrestling doesn’t necessarily have to be difficult. While I absolutely admire people who put care and thought into their performances, sometimes, all you need is to hit each other really, really hard. That’s exactly what Higuchi and Hino did in these excellent semifinals for the King of Gate tournament. There were a million deafening chops in this one; Higuchi’s chest, in particular, was shredded to bits by the end. A compact, impactful 12 minutes of wrestling as the winner would advance to the tournament finals that same night. (****)

King of Gate Finals: Konosuke Takeshita vs. Yuji Hino (7/4)

Speaking of, those finals were just as good, if not better. When Hino joined DDT late last year, this was the match I had penciled in as my dream match, and it delivered. The dynamic here is great, because Hino’s a massive, dense powerhouse, but if there’s one wrestler in DDT who can match Hino’s sheer strength, it’s Takeshita. The drama here was excellent. I’m a huge believer in Hino and desperately wanted to see him win this tournament and earn a shot at Jun Akiyama’s KO-D championship. Meanwhile, he’s faced off with Takeshita, DDT ‘s top star who’s never too far from the main event. While Hino fell here, his build throughout the year served to put Takeshita over big time, and Takeshita vs. Akiyama is the biggest match DDT can put on right now. (****)

DDT Extreme Championship / DDT Iron Heavymetalweight Championship: Chris Brookes (c) vs. Shinya Aoki (c) (7/15)

This was the type of match only DDT could put on. Shinya Aoki, a welterweight fighter who competes in ONE FC and RIZIN, wrestling a hardcore championship match against the 6’5″ Chris Brookes. And against all odds, it was absolutely great! [Ed. note: Shinya Aoki is a Japanese MMA icon with a 20+ year career and has captured Lightweight championships in Shooto, DREAM, DEEP, and ONE FC].

Aoki’s clearly a huge fan of pro wrestling, but he did stuff that I would’ve never expected in this match. He’s out there doing springboards and dives, setting up hardcore spots, and just doing all-around dumb pro wrestling stuff that couldn’t be further removed from his MMA chops. Brookes was a very solid veteran presence out there to make it all happen, leading to one of the more unique spectacles of a match you’ll see in 2021. (****)

Honorable Mentions:

Konosuke Takeshita vs. Daisuke Sasaki featured some of the closest near falls I’ve seen all year . . . Tetsuya Endo, Soma Takao, and Yuji Hino (c) vs. Yuki Ueno, MAO, and Shunma Katsumata was a reliably strong title defense between six of DDT’s best.

NOAH

GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships: Daisuke Harada and Hajime Ohara (c) vs. Haoh and Tadasuke (7/11)

These tag titles were in such a bad place for such a long time with STINGER as champion. I’m not as low on Ogawa and HAYATA as some, but the matches were so formulaic and flat-out boring that I dreaded watching them. Now, with Harada and Ohara as champion, they have rounded out the NOAH title picture so that every championship is must-see. The challengers here were excellent as well. Haoh’s probably the most underrated guy in the division, a great athlete who’s just in perfect position every time. Tadasuke meanwhile, is hit-or-miss; he reminds me a bit of NJPW’s Taichi in that his offense looks great, but the “cool guy” demeanor never really sticks because he has no physique and is pretty small. But Tadasuke was the emotional center of this match, the best GHC junior tag title match all year. (****)

GHC Heavyweight Championship: Naomichi Marufuji (c) vs. Takashi Sugiura (7/11)

Come on, it’s Marufuji vs. Sugiura. You already know it’s going to be good. I didn’t think this one was quite as good as some of their previous encounters, but considering the heights they’ve gone, that’s not really an insult. Marufuji still has the best chops in the game. Sugiura still has maybe the best comeback in the game. And it’s NOAH, so we get all the exhausting, thrilling, drawn-out main event drama we could possibly want. (****)

GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Championships: Masa Kitamiya and Kaito Kiyomiya vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima and Manabu Soya (7/23)

I’m often baffled by NOAH’s storytelling and booking, but the matches almost always deliver. That was assuredly the case here. Kitamiya and Nakajima’s breakup while being tag champions was completely nonsensical. Then they had their grudge cage match, and I thought the wrong guy won that one too. Finally, to resolve the tag title situation, they were asked to pick a partner; Nakajima picked the guy third from the top in Kongoh, and Kitamiya picked the guy whose current story is “he just keeps losing.” You take that mess of a background, and what do you get? Perhaps the best NOAH tag match of the year. It would have been easy to let the rivals take the brunt of this match, but all four worked extremely hard, with Soya coming through with his best NOAH performance yet. (****¼)

Honorable Mentions:

Masa Kitamiya, Kaito Kiyomiya, Daisuke Harada, and Hajime Ohara vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima, Manabu Soya, Haoh, and Tadasuke built up the two tag matches listed above . . . KENOH, Katsuhiko Nakajima, and Manabu Soya vs. Masa Kitamiya, Yoshiki Inamura, and Atsushi Kotoge was an all-star six-man tag for a major show . . . Naomichi Marufuji and Masato Tanaka vs. Kazushi Sakuraba and Takashi Sugiura was tons of fun and let Sakuraba shine . . . Haoh, Nioh, Tadasuke, and Aleja vs. Atsushi Kotoge, Daisuke Harada, Hajime Ohara, and Junta Miyawaki was an excellent final for NOAH’s one-day junior stable tournament.

DRAGON GATE

YAMATO vs. KAI (7/9)

Nobody in Japan does grudge matches better than Dragon Gate. YAMATO and KAI had been at each other’s throats for a year, and their deciding match lived up to that billing. This no ropes, no disqualification, lumberjack match was all sports entertainment: a babyface (YAMATO) stacked up against seemingly insurmountable odds (KAI and the rest of R.E.D.), and beating those odds to win. Also, the knowledge that the winner would likely challenge for the Open the Dream Gate championship (as is customary for main event Dragon Gate feuds like this) adds so much more weight and momentum to the story. Dragon Gate’s best Tokyo match all year. (****)

Open the Triangle Gate Championships: Dragon Dia, Jason Lee, and La Estrella (c) vs. SB KENTo, Diamante, and Dia Inferno (7/31)

Internationally, Dragon Gate may be best known for its incredible multi-man tags, and that’s exactly what we got at Kobe World. Dragon Dia, Jason Lee, and La Estrella are all excellent at this style. SB KENTo and Diamante are rock-solid. But what elevated this match was finally resuming the white-hot Dragon Dia vs. Dia Inferno feud. Dia Inferno is a completely different wrestler when he’s in there with Dragon Dia. He’s so much more intense, and Dragon Gate is unafraid to lean into the mystical aspect while still keeping up his wrestling chops. Their eventual Mask vs. Mask match will be required viewing. (****)

Open the Dream Gate Championship: Shun Skywalker (c) vs. Kzy (7/31)

Poor Kzy. The spiritual fan favorite of Dragon Gate wrestled maybe the best match of his life in the main event of Kobe World, and it still wasn’t enough to capture the promotion’s top title. He is now 0–5 when challenging for that belt. But man, what a match to get there. It took utter destruction for Skywalker to put Kzy away, including some completely unique monkey flip-based offense, including one absurd one all the way to the floor. The stakes, the pageantry, and the stage were all set to make this Kzy’s crowning achievement, but he’ll have to settle for simply “the best Dragon Gate match of 2021.” (****½)

Honorable Mentions:

Masaaki Mochizuki vs. Kota Minoura continued Minoura’s fast ascent . . . Masato Yoshino, Naruki Doi, and Shachihoko Boy vs. Kzy, Susumu Yokosuka, and Genki Horiguchi was a worthy Tokyo send-off for Yoshino, as was YAMATO, Ben-K, Dragon Kid, and Yasushi Kanda vs. Masato Yoshino, Naruki Doi, Don Fujii, and Kota Minoura for KBS Hall . . . Masato Yoshino, Shuji Kondo, Toru Owashi, YASSHI, and Takuya Sugawara vs. Naruki Doi, Ultimo Dragon, YAMATO., Dragon Kid, and Kagetora set the stage for Speed Star’s final match the following day . . . Kaito Ishida and KAZMA SAKAMOTO (c) vs. Susumu Yokosuka and KING Shimizu capped off Shimizu’s incredible redemption story.

Other Promotions

[AAA] Alas de Oro Cup: Hijo del Vikingo vs. Aramis vs. Toxin vs. Latigo vs. Komander vs. Kamikaze (7/3)

AAA has been putting on incredible scramble spotfest matches all year. While Vikingo is the most gif-worthy performer out of the bunch, a few others should be highlighted in this one. Komander is like Vikingo-lite, doing his own insane work without Vikingo’s unique look and reputation. Kamikaze, who wrestles as Ninja Mack in the United States, is extremely early in his career but is perhaps the most natural acrobat I’ve ever seen in wrestling. And Aramis may just be my Mexico MVP for 2021 with consistently spectacular performances every single time out there. These matches are as simple and crowd-pleasing as wrestling gets. (****)

[AJPW] AJPW Triple Crown Championship: Jake Lee (c) vs. Shotaro Ashino (7/22)

Suwama’s unfortunate positive test for COVID-19 (and subsequent vacating of the Triple Crown) mean Ashino had to step up as Lee’s first defense. And while that’s suboptimal – my perfect booking scenario would have seen Ashino as the one to eventually take the title from Lee. It shows the trust that AJPW has in Ashino that they’ve given him three Triple Crown chances in his first year-plus with the company. This was a worthy Triple Crown match, not spectacular in any one way but rock-solid in all aspects. Lee’s an absolute killer as champion. (****)

[BJW] BJW Strong Heavyweight Championship: Yasufumi Nakanoue (c) vs. Yuya Aoki (7/4)

My belief is that Yuya Aoki should be the top guy in BJW’s Strong division sooner than later. Daisuke Sekimoto and Yuji Okabayashi are finally showing signs of age. Daichi Hashimoto and now Nakanoue have had very solid reigns, but they rarely elevate a match to that must-see next level. Aoki, meanwhile, is such a breath of fresh air. He’s got all the BJW Strong chops you’d expect like stiff strikes and great throws, but combines that with an awesome babyface fire and almost manic energy with a touch of intense Okabayashi humor. His first heavyweight title challenge was so great, and at age 24, he’ll only get better from here. Jump on the bandwagon now. (****¼)

[FREEDOMS] King of FREEDOMS Championship: Toru Sugiura (c) vs. Violento Jack (7/4)

Pour one out for Sugiura’s nearly two year reign as King of FREEDOMS champion. It was the right time to bring in someone fresh as champ. Jack’s won this title before, but his excellent stint in BJW’s Ikkitousen tournament brought his name up to a new level, and the mystique of this masked man being one of the few foreigners to stay in Japan throughout the pandemic has to stand for something. He absolutely destroyed Sugiura’s arm in this one, and the fresh matchups available have me so excited for what’s next. Just run back Sugiura’s reign with Jack this time, Jun! (****¼)

[GLEAT] SHO vs. Takanori Ito (7/1)

One of the more unique surprises this month was NJPW junior heavyweight SHO working the main event of upstart indie GLEAT’s first big show. He did so in a LIDET UWF rules match against Ito, who has looked like a whole new wrestler since joining GLEAT after WRESTLE-1 folded. I’m hit-or-miss on this style of wrestling. While I respect the talent and energy it takes to perform at this level, I’m often left thinking, “If I wanted to watch MMA, I’d just watch MMA.” But here, SHO and Ito took the best aspects of MMA (stiff strikes and throws) and put them in a purely pro wrestling package, resulting in GLEAT’s best match yet. (****)

[IMPACT] Impact World Championship: Kenny Omega (c) vs. Sami Callihan (7/17)

I knew this would deliver. Callihan has this odd reputation of being a terrible wrestler among some folks, so when he was announced as Omega’s challenger for Slammiversary, it came across as a controversial choice. But I’ve been a big believer in Callihan’s talent for a long time, and that shined through in this excellent main event. This was violent and bloody and exactly what it should have been. Omega, for his part, matched Callihan’s intensity with some wild spots (including bringing a pizza cutter just before Nick Gage did so on AEW Dynamite). This was better than Omega’s Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch with Jon Moxley and is the best hardcore performance of Omega’s American run. (****¼)

[ROH] ROH TV Championship: Tony Deppen (c) vs. Dragon Lee (7/11)

These two got about ten minutes and decided “we’re going to fit everything we possibly can in those ten minutes.” It was the perfect way to follow up the drawn-out Jonathan Gresham vs. Mike Bennet match from immediately before. The spot that this match will be remembered for is Deppen’s tope suicida into a destroyer on the floor, but there was so much physicality and intensity in this brief match that it easily surpassed their PPV match from late last year and reminded everyone that Lee is one of the best in the world. (****)

[ROH] ROH World Championship: Rush (c) vs. Bandido (7/11)

I am a firm believer in the principle of “make your best wrestler your champion.” So I was firmly in the corner of Bandido in this main event, the most important match of his career, as even though he doesn’t have the “championship” look of the much larger, unmasked Rush, he’s a far more entertaining wrestler. ROH did their best to stack the odds against Bandido in this one, and in doing so, made him look like a worthy champion. I’m praying for Bandido to defend against his long-time tag team partner turned bitter rival Demonic Flamita down the line. (****)

[SEAdLINNNG] Beyond the SEA Championship: ASUKA (c) vs. Ryo Mizunami (7/11)

This was a battle between two wrestlers who have upped their already impressive game in 2021. ASUKA has been the highlight wherever she shows up, whether it’s right here in SEAdLINNNG, Ganbare Pro, or that incredible Hana Kimura memorial show from May. Mizunami, meanwhile, wrestled the best match at AEW Revolution in March before capturing the Beyond the SEA Championship in this match. Like all matches between these two, this one was very physical, but one spot stands out. With their arms interlocked, Mizunami yanks Asuka toward her, leading to their heads colliding and a simultaneous collapse. This would have contended for the best SEAdLINNG match of the year . . . (****¼)

[SEAdLINNNG] Nanae Takahashi vs. Arisa Nakajima (7/11)

. . . that is, until the very next match. That B Driver, though! SEAdLINNNG, along with ICE RIBBON, is the most reliable main event producer in joshi. They literally always deliver exactly as advertised, except when they exceed expectations. There’s also no joshi promotion that makes matches like this, just obscene ridiculous bomb-throwing and pure effort throughout. Is it the most intellectual wrestling in the world? No, not at all. But at its core I like wrestlers who work extremely hard and do cool stuff, and SEAdLINNNG is the epitome of that standard. (****½)

[SENDAI GIRLS] Sendai Girls World Championship: Chihiro Hashimoto (c) vs. Mio Momono (7/11)

Hashimoto vs. Momono has been the best rivalry in joshi this summer. Starting with their thrilling interactions in the main event of GAEAISM and continued with Momono’s shock pin to win the Sendai Girls tag titles, we finally got the rubber match at Korakuen Hall. What makes these two so great is their sheer chemistry. Momono has so much energy and intensity that it may be easy to lose some of the gravity that makes a main event title match so essential. But Hashimoto works perfectly as the powerhouse on top, knowing exactly when to dominate and when to sell. Both these wrestlers have a ton of momentum right now, and I hope their promotions capitalize on it. (****¼)

[TJPW] Miyu Yamashita, Maki Itoh, and Mizuki vs. Rika Tatsumi, Miu Watanabe, and Suzume (7/17)

One of the more fulfilling things about watching all this wrestling is finding diamonds in the rough. I’d venture even the majority of TJPW fans skipped the 7/17 show; it was just a normal card full of tag matches. No titles were on the line. But by my estimation, this main event ended up being the best TJPW multi-man match all year. The Yamashita/Itoh/Mizuki team is just a ton of fun, and Tatsumi and Watanabe have loads of chemistry. But the highlight of this match was the finish. Yamashita went viral earlier in the year when she practically killed Hikari Noa with a spin kick. For my money, the one she used to put away Suzume here was even better. (****)

[WARRIOR] Warrior Wrestling Lucha Chmapionship: Aramis (c) vs. Daga (7/17)

Aramis may be the most consistently excellent luchador in the world in 2021. After winning the inaugural Warrior Wrestling Lucha Championship in that incredible War of Attrition match back in June, his first defense was an excellent one against Daga, whose journeyman status and relationship with Tessa Blanchard has left him a bit of a forgotten man during the pandemic. Aramis just works harder than everyone else. This wasn’t TripleMania or an AAA Gold Cup match, just a midcard match for a midwestern American indie, but it more than delivered. (****)

Honorable Mentions:

CIMA, Shigehiro Irie, and Issei Onitsuka vs. Kaz Hayashi, Keiichi Sato and Soma Watanabe continued STRONGHEARTS’ streak as incredibly reliable tag team wrestlers . . . Ryuichi Kawakami vs. T-Hawk put Kawakami over as a GLEAT monster . . . Brian Cage vs. Shane Mercer was a battle of two major powerhouses . . . Kento Miyahara and Yuma Aoyagi (c) vs. Koji Doi and Kuma Arashi saw NEXTREAM retain their tag titles as an underratedly great team . . . Demonic Flamita vs. Rey Horus was the perfect way to kick off ROH Best in the World . . . Jake Lee and Koji Doi vs. Suwama and Shotaro Ashino hyped Lee vs. Ashino and established the Suwama/Ashino team . . . Suwama vs. Koji Iwamoto was the best of the “Iwamoto vs. heavyweights” experiment.

Josh Alexander (c) vs. Ace Austin vs. Trey Miguel vs. Rohit Raju vs. Chris Bey vs. Petey Williams was all X-Division spectacle . . . Mio Momono and Starlight Kid vs. AZM and Mei Hoshizuki was joshi high speed distilled down to its purest form . . . Suwama, King Tany, and Hikaru Sato vs. Yuma Aoyagi, SUSHI, and Takuya Wada continued to establish the Atsushi Aoki memorial match as a must-see tradition . . . El Lindaman and Soma Watanabe vs. Hayato Tamura and Ryuichi Kawakami was the best GLEAT showcase for the gifted Tamura yet . . . Miyu Yamashita vs. Mizuki was the best match of the first few rounds of the TJPW Tokyo Princess Cup.

Wrestler of the Year through July:

  1. Shingo Takagi (NJPW)
  2. Will Ospreay (NJPW)
  3. Giulia (Stardom)
  4. Syuri (Stardom)
  5. Kenny Omega (AEW)
  6. Kota Ibushi (NJPW)
  7. Utami Hayashishita (Stardom)
  8. Konosuke Takeshita (DDT)
  9. Kento Miyahara (AJPW)
  10. ASUKA/Veny (Freelance)
  11. Hiroshi Tanahashi (NJPW)
  12. Tsukasa Fujimoto (Ice Ribbon)
  13. Tam Nakano (Stardom)
  14. Yuma Aoyagi (AJPW)
  15. Suwama (AJPW)
  16. Momo Watanabe (Stardom)
  17. Mio Momono (Marvelous)
  18. Matt Jackson (AEW)
  19. Yuki Ueno (DDT)
  20. Shunma Katsumata (DDT)
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