If January brings the excitement of a new year and the motivation to keep up with every promotion going, then February is inevitably the month when real life intrudes. Unless you’re young enough to have very few responsibilities (and lucky you if so), the sad reality is that you can’t watch everything. However, fear not, because that brilliant match you missed in the crowd? It might just be on this list, ready for you to discover it.
Timothy Thatcher vs Bryan Danielson, Dynamite (1/2/23), AEW
Timothy Thatcher doesn’t feel like most modern wrestlers. He’s a throwback, a big gangly man with a face crafted by punches. That also means he’s regularly misunderstood and dismissed by critics who see his unwillingness to water down his style for a larger audience as a weakness rather than a strength. His signing for WWE was reminiscent of Robert Eggers getting big studio cash to make The Northman. Sure, it ultimately ended with Tim losing his job and The Northman losing money, but their stubborn refusal to bend to the will of ‘The Man’ only amplified my respect for them.
It also made Thatcher both perfect and completely unsuitable for the role AEW put him in. Yes, I believe he would relish the opportunity to come in and test his wrestling acumen against Bryan Danielson, one of the canon greats. However, I don’t think for a second that he would have answered the phone to someone like MJF. Still, I’m willing to let that go because it meant we got this match, Tony Khan throwing the wrestling nerds in his fanbase a bone by booking the kind of outing that the fabled casual fan will, according to ‘experts’ on Twitter, supposedly despise.
And, of course, this would have been better if Danielson had made the trip to NOAH, but it was still Thatcher doing what he does best. He approached the action with scientific brutality, picking apart Danielson’s arm with a snarl. You could see that WWE training kick in as he girned at the camera, exposing his lack of teeth, but this was all about the wrestling. Moments like Tim escaping a Jackknife pin by twisting around the arm to set up his next attempt at a Fujiwara were executed to perfection, as his talents proved so unmatchable that Danielson had to abandon trying to compete on the mat, instead getting the victory by creating distance and coming crashing in with a Busaiku Knee.
Even a ref bump and MJF’s ugly mug popping up wasn’t enough to take away from the action, as Danielson and Thatcher got the time and space to do what they do best. Yes, as mentioned, it would have been better elsewhere, without that stuff, and if they had a little more time to set the finish up properly (it felt a tad curtailed and could have used a minute or two more to breathe), but I’m not expecting AEW to provide perfection. It was enough to see Timothy Thatcher get a chance to do his thing against one of the greats.
Sakura Hirota vs Haruka Umesaki, PHASE 2 Reboot 3rd ~ NAMI 1 (1/2/23), WAVE
I don’t want to cast aspirations on Sakura Hirota, but she’s become a somewhat corrupting influence on Haruka Umesaki. The young wrestler who sought out Diana to learn from Sareee has been drawn into Hirota’s nonsense orbit, teaming up with her for the recent WAVE tag tournament and learning the ancient art of the kancho (among other things). Now, they had the chance to face off, and things quickly got silly.
Of course, it was silliness in the best sense of the term, featuring a joint rope walking attempt (all while holding hands) before ending in a flurry of kanchos and Rina Amikura entering the ring to apply some cold spray to Hirota’s arse. It was wonderful nonsense, with the added bonus of being beneficial to Haruka. She’s an incredibly talented young wrestler, who everyone expects to go onto big things, but that shouldn’t stop her from experimenting. While not all of those experiments will land (the KARMA gimmick she is doing in Stardom is cringe personified), the best wrestlers have always been able to adapt. What better person could there be to learn that from than Sakura Hirota, a 26-year veteran who has proven countless times that she has the golden touch when it comes to tweaking her shtick?
I don’t expect Haruka to become a full-blown nonsense wrestler (although I would have no issue with that being the case), but I love how readily she’s embraced it. She’s shown (with both this and the Stardom stuff, no matter how bad it might be) a willingness to think outside the box and do something different. That will never be a bad thing, and if it leads to quality shenanigans like these, it will certainly keep me happy.
Mio Momono & Chikayo Nagashima vs Cosmic Angels (Unagi Sayaka & Rina Amikura), Marvelous (3/2/23), Marvelous
Rina Amikura and Unagi Sayaka were outstanding in this match. Coming in, I was a bit worried for them, not sure if they’d be able to keep up with Chikayo and Mio, but not only did they do that, they left their mark on the action. I can’t claim to have been a devotee of Rina’s career, but from what I have seen, this was right up there in her pantheon, particularly when she was interacting with Mio. She was a perfect hoss for Momono to play off, and whether Mio was bamboozling Ami with tricks or getting thrown around, the two of them clicked. It’s not a match I would have begged for before this, but I’d love to see them get the chance to play some more.
They even had me believing Unagi might win, something that has been a recurring issue with her matches against established names since going freelance. When she hit Chikayo’s own Fisherman Buster on her, I bit, convinced she’d done it. It spoke to the fact that this was Unagi used right, finding that balance between her as a ridiculous, annoying (in kayfabe) character and someone who can be an actual threat. She’s never going to go out and dominate your Chikayos and Mios of the world, nor should she, but she was impressive in that scrappy underdog role, lashing out at everyone with everything she had. It got to the point where Momono and Nagashima almost felt heelish, their total lack of respect towards her only ramping up the sympathy.
It’s also worth saying that Mio was predictably brilliant. However, I’m about to go on about her at length below, so I’ll keep this one about Unagi and Amin, who managed to stand out despite being in the ring with an in-form Momono. That’s something they can feel proud of.
Rina Amikura vs Yuko Sakurai, YOUNG OH! OH! (5/2/23), WAVE
Since leaving AWG, Rina Amikura and Yuko Sakurai have gone from strength to strength. While I don’t want to suggest they wouldn’t have improved if they’d stuck around in Actwres (that company has produced a lot of exciting wrestlers), following SAKI into the wilds of freelancing has allowed them to spread their wings and shine. It’s gotten them to the point where they can headline a show together and be the best thing on it.
And as I already heaped praise on Rina above, I wanted to focus on Sakurai, who has perhaps lagged behind the rest of COLORS over the last year. Thankfully, she’s not out of the race yet, though, as this might be the best performance I’ve seen from her. Up against her hoss pal, she put in an impressive babyface showing, selling the beating Rina was dishing out and throwing everything she had back at her. Everyone else in COLORS has their thing: Saki is the leader, Shimizu kicks, and Rina hosses, but Sakurai perhaps lacks that definable attribute. Here, though, battling from underneath and picking up that shock victory, she was all babyface fire, and it felt like something clicking.
It also seemed to mean a lot to her, as she burst into tears afterwards, only adding to her charm. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing, and it was a lovely ending to a sneaky great match that (as much as I’ve focused on Sakurai) saw both wrestlers put in show-stealing performances. Go out of your way to see it!
Super Delfin vs Ice Penguin vs Flying Penguin, Dotonbori Pro (5/2/23), Dotonbori Pro
Dotonbori Pro blessed me with my first taste of Flying Penguin, a rookie coming through in 2.5 Joshi Pro-Wrestling (a project from the minds of Momoka Hanazono and Super Delfin), and I was instantly charmed. Things kicked off with her attempting to sing herself to the ring (she came to life when a flying penguin crashed into a singer), only for Ice Penguin to wander out and interrupt her before she could get going, leading to Flying Penguin angrily chasing after him to try to explain what he’d done. It was basically a perfect start and enough to already position her as a potential favourite.
What followed only reaffirmed that feeling, as this essentially turned into a wrestling lesson for Flying Penguin, and it’s safe to say she probably didn’t earn a passing grade. What she did do, however, was keep me laughing the whole way through, as this was a brilliant and very silly deconstruction of the form. We’re not quite at Lulu Pencil levels of ripping things apart, but as Super Delfin tried to walk Flying Penguin through rather simple ideas, which she inevitably found a way to mess up, it was a delight to revel in her incompetence. She is, of course, an actual rookie, but it still takes a magic touch to portray yourself as one to this heightened degree, and if she can expand on the base she built here, she’ll be a nonsense hall of famer before we know it.
Arisu Endo vs Moka Miyamoto, Max Heart Tournament Final (11/2/23), TJPW
Arisu Endo vs Moka Miyamoto is not a big match. They’re only two years into their career and have faced each other a lot in that time. When TJPW announced it for this Korakuen, it was a lovely little bonus, but it wasn’t going to get people through the door. However, in the nine minutes and twenty-seven seconds that they wrestled for, Moka and Arisu convinced me it was the most important thing in the world.
They didn’t have to do anything complicated to do so, either. In many ways, this was simple wrestling, but it was simplicity executed brilliantly. From the start, there was an edge to proceedings, a feeling that they understood this opportunity doesn’t come around often and that failing to grasp it wasn’t an option. For Arisu Endo, though, that feeling was further amplified. Coming in, she still hadn’t picked up a singles victory, and a battle with Moka, a close peer, was a chance to shrug that burden from her shoulders. That wasn’t a story they told before the match (there were no explanatory videos or dramatic promos), but it was all there. It was sold by how these two wrestled, every moment taking its toll while opening up the potential for success.
In the end, that extra motivation was enough. Even when Moka crawled to the ropes, desperate to force Endo to break her Camel Clutch, Arisu refused to accept her escape, rolling back to the centre of the ring and ramping up the pressure. Endo didn’t just want to win, she needed to, and I believed that. And if she can convince me that a match means the world to her, I will treat it as such, and a midcard bout between two young wrestlers can become vital. That’s what happened here, and while it wasn’t the match on this card designed to blow minds (the main event did that job), it is the one that has stuck with me the most.
Mio Momono vs Kaoru Ito, Marvelous in Chiba (12/2/23), Marvelous
If Mio can stay fit in the coming months, you should probably get used to seeing her name on these lists. As mentioned above, Momono is hitting form, and battling a veteran like Kaoru Ito was a fantastic opportunity for her to show it.
Before I start wanging on about Mio again, though, I do want to take some time to focus on Ito, who was exceptional here. It’s almost redundant to point out that Kaoru might not move like she used to, but, like most of her peers, when called upon, she can still pull out that big performance. Here, she gave Mio everything she needed, opening the match by playing the role of a brick wall for her to bounce off of, but then slowly crumbling as it went on, giving Momono the hope that she might break through. She even took a fucking German, something I did not see coming. If you were to focus purely on the result, Ito coming into Marvelous and beating Mio might appear frustrating, but that would be missing the point. This was an incredibly generous performance designed to help get Momono to where Marvelous wants her to be.
Which, as I’ve pointed out many times before, is down at the bottom. This was the first match in a trial series that will see Mio take a beating (more on that later), and I’m sticking to my prediction that she’ll come out the other side having powered up, ready to build towards her challenge for the AAAW Title. If she doesn’t, well, we’ll still have seen some incredible performances. Mio is on fire right now, selling her arse off and bumping around like a maniac before unleashing those flurries of petulant violence. Every injury leaves you worried that she won’t return the same, and it sounded like this one was touch and go as to whether she would come back at all, but a few months on, she’s right back to where she was before, battling to be considered the best wrestler in the world. It’s a joy to watch her do her thing, and if you’re not, you should probably fix that.
Miu Watanabe vs Janai Kai, Winter City Circuit ~ Nagoya ~ (18/2/23), TJPW
There is a lot to love about matches like Janai Kai vs Miu Watanabe. Was it an incredible, blow-away performance? No, not really. Don’t get me wrong, it was really good, it wouldn’t be on this list otherwise, but it’s unlikely to make any end-of-year lists. However, that’s why things of that nature are fundamentally flawed. Because while this wasn’t a perfect, iconic match, it did everything it wanted to do right, and there is real satisfaction in that kind of wrestling.
Its goals were twofold, set Kai up as a kicker to be feared and then have Miu overcome her. The first got ticked off early, as it’s an easy thing to do when someone is genuinely delivering scary kicks. Janai has those (to steal a phrase) educated feet, as she took Watanabe apart with a series of well-drilled strikes. It felt like she was chipping away at the pink hoss, cutting her down to size and preparing to take her out. It was what you wanted her to do, and she did it brilliantly.
And it set Miu up to tick box number two as she continued the trend of her International Title run and overcame a new challenge. Previously, it was Trish Adora, one of the few wrestlers she’s faced who can match her for strength, and this time it was being kicked black and blue. Miu joined Kanai in being brilliant, taking those blows and finding a way to bully her way through them so she could get into position to unleash those muscles. Watanabe is now at the point where you believe she only needs that one opening, and if she can find it, the match is over.
It made for some damn good pro wrestling, and while plenty of stuff out there tries to give you more than that, it often fails. Miu and Kai gave us everything we needed, and sometimes that’s more satisfying than getting all the extras on top.
Suzu Suzuki vs Takashi Sasaki, Prominence Kakki Enen (19/2/23), Prominence
Another month, another brilliant Suzu Suzuki deathmatch performance. Most of the hype this month around Suzu has focused on her main event with Giulia, but that did fuck all for me. It was the worst of Stardom’s excesses, a fight that could have been wrapped in incredible amounts of pathos but dissolved into two people doing stuff. I don’t necessarily blame Suzu and Giulia either, as they were somewhat hamstrung by the internal politics of it all (along with the house style). Rossy and co would never admit that Giulia is anything apart from the hero of her story, which might not bother people who only watch Stardom but does tend to frustrate others. Although, I should point out that I’ve never shared other people’s anger about Giuliagate. A young woman choosing to leave her job for whatever reason is none of my business, and while she could have gone about it differently, that’s not my grudge to hold. However, for the sake of the story, she does need to shoulder some of that burden (and I suspect her feud with Maya Yukihi will see history repeat itself). Anyway, I’ve gone off-track.
Because I’m here to talk about great matches, not mediocre ones, and Suzu’s battle with Takashi Sasaki was the latter. I’m not well enough versed in the deathmatch scene to know how people perceive Sasaki, but in his Prominence appearances, he has come off as something of a deathmatch dad. He always feels like he’s testing his opponents, seeing what they can do, and pushing them to go that step further. There was a moment in this match where he suddenly came roaring out of the corner, stomping towards Suzu and demanding she stand her ground. It was a brilliant visual, this hulking scarred man challenging this young wannabe to give him everything she had.
Of course, you don’t have to tell Suzu twice. While this was the rare one of these where I came out focused more on her opponent than her, it’s not to suggest that she wasn’t equally as impressive. I may have had issues with the Giulia match, but that’s hardly proof that she’s losing her touch, and in front of those Prominence fans, she doesn’t tend to miss. She’s their lass, and while she would once again fall to an elder statesman of the scene, she’s proven time after time that she can stand toe-to-toe with any of them.
Akane Fujita vs Miyuki Takasa, Prominence Kakki Enen (19/2/23), Prominence
There isn’t much to say about this one other than that it was a proper fight. Fujita and Takase gave us a gruelling, hard-hitting battle where they relentlessly stiffed each other. Akane has wrestled a lot in Prominence’s first year as an independent group, but she’s somewhat slipped off my radar, overshadowed by Suzu and Risa. Thankfully, this reminded me that she is happy to go out and beat the shit out of a motherfucker. And when you try to beat the shit out of Takase, she will hit you right back. Things quickly devolved into a slugfest as they built up to delivering clunking headbutts that left me squirming in my seat. Did they need to go that hard in the Prominence midcard? Probably not, but that doesn’t change the fact it ruled.
Mio Momono vs Arisa Nakajima, Marvelous (21/2/23), Marvelous
Arisa Nakajima scares me. Not to get too personal, but last year I had some minor surgery, and when I was under general anaesthetic, I had a dream that she was chasing me. That’s not the first time I’ve had a dream like that involving a wrestler, but the last one was Brock Lesnar, and if you showed those two people to someone who knew nothing about them, I think they’d understand the Brock one more. And yet, Arisa occupies that same place in my brain. Joshi wrestling doesn’t lack people who will try to rearrange your face, but Nakajima has an aura and authenticity that few can challenge.
Which also makes her a damn near-perfect opponent for Mio right now. As mentioned above, Marvelous appear to be in the process of cutting Momono down to build her up, and what better person to come in and do that than Nakajima? Arisa wrestled this match with a smile on her face, the kind of smile that tells you she is going to fuck someone up, and it’s clear that she took great joy out of putting Mio in her place. However, it shouldn’t be mistaken for one-way traffic. Momono might not have entered my nightmares, but she’s still a violent wee prick, and she threw everything she had at Nakajima. It’s just that right now, that’s nowhere near enough.
The amazing thing is that while this match fucking ruled, it didn’t feel like it was anywhere close to all they could do. If Mio is the best in the world, then Arisa is in the chasing pack, and if this is a sign that Marvelous and SEAdLINNNG have made up (they hadn’t worked together for roughly three years), then I really hope they run this back when it’s not part of a wider puzzle. These two have the potential to put on a classic, but at the moment, we’ll have to settle for brilliant.
I contribute regular reviews to Marshmallow Bomb, so if you’d like to read more of my writing, you can subscribe here: https://marshmallowbomb.substack.com/
If you enjoyed my ramblings, please consider contributing to my Ko-fi. Even the smallest amount is appreciated.
Leave a Reply