wrestling / Columns

Pantoja’s Top 100 Matches of 2023 (#10 – 1)

February 9, 2024 | Posted by Kevin Pantoja
WrestleMania 39 Sami Zayn Kevin Owens WWE Image Credit: WWE

10. Wonder of Stardom Championship: Mina Shirakawa [c] vs. Natsupoi – STARDOM Fukuoka Goddess Legend

Image Credit: STARDOM

This was one of my most anticipated matches of the year. There was a fair bit of history here from Mina questioning Natsupoi’s addition to Cosmic Angels to Mina leaving the stable to form her own faction and more. Natsupoi was more aggressive than usual as she opened with a slap, fired off a bunch more, and hit an apron German in the first few minutes. She overwhelmed Mina for a good chunk of this and even weathered comeback attempts. For example, after Mina used a springboard kick to get going a bit, Natsupoi LIT her up with forearms and some loud spin kicks. They sounded disgusting in the best way. Natsupoi had her well scouted and the only time Mina could do her signature attacking of the leg was in cases where it came from out of nowhere. Mina couldn’t hit a top rope DDT but she immediately pounced and shifted to a dragon screw off the top. That kind of stuff is so my shit in wrestling. They traded suplexes late and Natsupoi might’ve had it won with a straightjacket suplex but Mina’s legs landed in the ropes so the bridging pin using the last of Natsupoi’s leg strength was useless. That felt like her last hope as Natsupoi was soon bested by the Glorious Driver after 20:27. This was hard hitting, brilliantly laid out, smartly worked, and had drama. A masterful start to Mina’s reign and Natsupoi delivered again on a big stage, looking like an absolute star. [****¾]

9. AEW World Championship Ironman Match: MJF [c] vs. Bryan Danielson – AEW Revolution

Image Credit: AEW

The most difficult match to get right is probably the Ironman match. Especially when they’re meant to last 60 minutes. More often than not they end up dragging and disappoint the crowd but MJF and Bryan Danielson aren’t your typical wrestlers. For the duration of this match, they kept things exciting and told an excellent story. I like that it took 25 minutes for the first fall because these are guys who aren’t easy to beat so it should take a while to put them down sometimes. I also dug that MJF got desperate after that, used the old self-DQ trick, and then tied it with two quick pins. It’s such a simple, smart layout for this kind of match and that’s why it works so well. Both guys got another fall and the final 10 minutes saw this thing tied at 3-3 before time expired. Not having it come down to the final seconds was a good way to avoid the clichéd ending in other Ironman matches. That sent us to overtime which continued the status of great pro wrestling and really helped get MJF’s tremendous 2023 off to a strong start. MJF ultimately retained after 65:15 in one of the best matches AEW ever put on, it just needed a bit more drama since I never believed a title change would happen. Still, among the best Ironman matches ever. [****¾]

8. Undisputed WWE Universal Championship: Roman Reigns [c] vs. Sami Zayn – WWE Elimination Chamber

Image Credit: WWE

Roman Reigns came out first, really allowing for the build-up to Sami’s entrance in Montreal. I can’t really put into words what the reaction for Sami was. He’s been my guy since I first saw ROH in 2006 and to see this was something special. Roman wasn’t taking Sami seriously but you could tell that the crowd kind of rattled him early. The reaction for everything Sami did was magical. Even a simple headlock got a huge pop. Once Roman took control, he made sure to stop and talk trash to Sami’s wife at ringside, effectively taking the crowd out of it as he dominated. Sami kept finding ways to get going and his sunset flip bomb off the top looked tremendous. Sami hitting his own Superman Punch into the Helluva Kick made for a fantastic near fall. I could go on and on about specific moments in this match. Sami hit the Helluva Kick and got the visual win but the referee had just taken a bump. That gave us a Jimmy Uso run in as he hit the splash on Sami and everything. Still, Sami survived. We got some big Jey Uso/Roman Reigns drama capped Sami accidentally Spearing Jey. Roman then beat on Sami with the chair viciously and used another Spear to win in 32:21. That was legitimately special. I nearly went the full five though I have some issues with things like the second referee stupidly ignoring what Jimmy Uso had done but this was indeed something remarkable. [****¾]

7. Strap Match: Bryan Danielson vs. Ricky Starks – AEW All Out

Image Credit: AEW

CM Punk walked out of WWE and Bryan had an all-time run to the World Title. CM Punk’s antics kept him from an MJF program late last year and Bryan stepped in to have a fantastic match with MJF. Hell, even when Punk left ROH, Bryan became champion soon after. Punk leaves, Bryan shines. Ricky attacked before the strap was officially on and he busted Bryan open with his belt buckle. Then, from the opening bell, Ricky dominated. He choked Bryan with the strap at every turn and remained aggressive even when he stopped to showboat from time to time. When Bryan started with his own strap shots, they sounded BRUTAL and the crowd ate them up. Ricky got busted open during this section too. Down the stretch, they came face to face and just started trading shots with the strap to the face. That gave this a level of violence I hadn’t seen in this stipulation before. Bryan no sold some as he fired up and then wailed on Ricky with his own. Big Bill got involved so Steamboat (who was on commentary) pulled him off the apron and fired off right hands. Bryan survived a Spear and Ricky kicked out of a Busaiku Knee. Bryan then applied the LeBelle Lock before wrapping the strap around Ricky’s neck to choke him out and win in 16:36. Move over Savio Vega vs. Steve Austin, this is the best strap match I’ve ever seen. This was special from start to finish. Ricky is a star and Bryan is the best to ever lace up a pair of wrestling boots. If you disagree, argue with the wall. [****¾]

6. WWE Intercontinental Championship: Gunther [c] vs. Drew McIntyre vs. Sheamus – WWE WrestleMania

Image Credit: WWE

The number one match on my list last year was Gunther vs. Sheamus, so WWE ran it back in a way that could potentially somehow improve on things. They threw Drew McIntyre into the mix and the results were spectacular. This was a case of three hard hitting men just beating the hell out of each other for 16:36. And let me tell you, that is right up my alley. I don’t even have too much to say about it because it’s such a straightforward match in the best possible way. They found inventive ways to put twists on their usual spots and made the most out of simple things like chops. Drew’s dive to the outside was one of the best spots across both nights of Mania and though he’s done it before, it felt special in this environment. Sheamus was kind of the MVP here, throwing himself into every move and taking some vicious bumps. That’s basically Sheamus’ career in a nutshell. Gunther retained to continue his outstanding reign after powerbombing Sheamus onto Drew and then giving Drew one of his own, capping one of the best matches in Mania history. [****¾]

5. IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship: Kenny Omega [c] vs. Will Ospreay – AEW x NJPW Forbidden Door II

Image Credit: AEW

Will brought back the “Aerial Assassin” moniker and his old theme. Don Callis was out with him. This got off to the kind of start that let you know it would go long but they didn’t just do stuff for the sake of it. The back and forth was really a battle for positioning and the first upper hand. Callis tripped up Kenny at one point and got ejected but Ospreay took the next big advantage with some impressive offense including a sweet SSP though his apron Oscutter looked bad. I loved him violently trying to put Omega’s head through the table as revenge for the Tokyo Dome. Omega being busted open added to it. Ospreay also played the dick, defacing the Canadian flag and getting his ass kicked for it, possibly reigniting Omega. That led to Omega slamming his head into the steps and busting him open even worse than at Wrestle Kingdom. This was something special with close calls that had me on the edge of my seat. Both guys looked exhausted and were battered. Callis showed back up which kind of defeated the purpose of him getting ejected. He handed Will the screwdriver and he used it on Omega before hitting Stormbreaker for what looked like the finish but Kenny got his foot on the bottom rope. Will added One Winged Angel, which nobody has ever kicked out of, but Kenny kicked out at one. Will never stopped, adding a sickening looking Tiger Driver ’91 for yet another near fall (that went a bit far in near falls) before finishing with Stormbreaker after 39:38. I preferred the first one as I didn’t love the Callis involvement but this was still remarkable. [****¾]

4. Bryan Danielson vs. Zack Sabre Jr. – AEW WrestleDream

Image Credit: AEW

The hype for this match was through the roof. That was also the case for Bryan Danielson vs. Kazuchika Okada but unlike that match, this one lived up to and exceeded those lofty expectations. For 23:13, they gave us everything we could ever want. The ridiculously smooth exchanges and transitions from the two best technical wrestlers alive and possibly ever. The limb work as ZSJ targeted Bryan’s injured right arm and Bryan destroyed Zack’s knee with an especially vicious dragon screw. The story of Zack goading Bryan into right handed strikes to further injure that arm. The violent strikes down the stretch, including some knockout style kicks while on the mat. Jon Moxley popping on commentary and Nigel McGuinness running down Bryan verbally at every turn. It was all perfect. So was the finish as Zack had taken control and Bryan seemed to realize this, opting to move away from mat work and just lay him out with two Busaiku Knees to win. I could go on and on about this match but it’s must-see and right up my alley of what I love about pro wrestling. [*****]

3. Texas Death Match: Hangman Page vs. Swerve Strickland – AEW Full Gear

Image Credit: AEW

Page ran out before his music hit to start this match and he hit a Buckshot Lariat in the opening minute. He took it to the next level, using a stapler as a weapon Less than five minutes in and Swerve was bleeding so Page just stapled him in the face a couple of times. The tide turned when Swerve started no selling staples. He even stapled himself. Both guys painted the ring with their blood as this was just barbaric. They brought barbed wire into play and somehow managed to keep the violence level ridiculously high throughout. The spot where Swerve hit Hangman with a chair from behind only for a piece of the barbed wire wrapped around it to get stuck across Page’s head was sickening. Swerve hit a 450 splash onto broken glass on Hangman’s back and added his finisher but Page still got up. Page went into a barrage that included the moonsault fallaway slam off the top through boards and it was capped by a Buckshot Lariat with barbed wire around Swerve’s neck. However, Nana pulled Swerve outside so he beat the count, bringing out Brian Cage to beat up Page. Page turned it around and took him out before putting Nana through a table with Deadeye off the apron. Swerve took that opening to hit Page with a cinderblock and then hang him with a chain, keeping him down after 29:44. An incredible match. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I love this stuff. Exactly the kind of violent war it needed to be. [*****]

2. WWE Undisputed Tag Team Championship: The Usos [c] vs. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn – WWE WrestleMania

Image Credit: WWE

What an incredible story this was. Lil Uzi Vert performed to introduce The Usos. Owens and Zayn had the PWG gorilla on their attire which was a nice touch. Jimmy made Jey start so he could go up against Zayn. That worked out well, with Zayn getting isolated and that’s such a good role for him because he’s a top-tier underdog babyface. He made the hot tag to Owens earlier than expected, leading to a sick somersault senton outside. Of course, that was all to set up Owens as the next face in peril. Sami even busted out an apron Brainbuster similar to his old corner Brainbuster. Him getting the tag and hitting an Uso splash for two was a cool moment. Even after that, The Usos showed why they’re in the conversation for the best tag team ever, firing off a bunch of moves, talking trash, and holding serve. The superkick sandwich on Sami might’ve ended another match but Sami wasn’t going to die that easily. Sami then became the first person to kick out of 1D. Jey shouted at Sami to quit, emotional because HE CALLED SAMI HIS BROTHER and he then hit his own Helluva Kick. As Jey talked trash, Sami hit a corner T-Bone and made the tag to Owens for a Stunner near fall that everyone bit on. The teams stood across from each other in a dope moment before hockey fights began. Sami took out Jimmy and Owens gave him the big tag, setting up Sami vs. a downed Jey. Sami hit the Helluva Kick and Jey fell into his arms so he added a second. KO took out Jimmy with a Stunner and Sami added a third Helluva Kick to end the reign in 24:16. Words can’t do this justice. I was emotional throughout as someone who loved Steen and Generico since 2007. They delivered an epic match fitting of the main event but when you add in the storytelling elements from the close calls to the callbacks between Sami and Jey especially, you’ve got something special. Something special and something perfect. [*****]

1. IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship: Will Ospreay [c] vs. Kenny Omega – NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 17

Image Credit: NJPW

As a guy who isn’t a huge fan of either (though I do like Kenny a lot more now), I was intrigued to see if they can live up to the hype. Kenny’s entrance was an incredibly cool nod to Final Fantasy VII that you have to go out of your way to see. Ospreay brought back his old “Elevation” theme which a lot of people like but I actually never dug it. Say what you will but this had a big fight feel. Will came out with a boot at the bell but Kenny calmly avoided it. Early on, Will had the upper hand through his athletic advantage so Kenny combated that with veteran knowhow and being aggressive. They played that up with Ospreay making the mistakes a young man will, like an apron Oscutter that failed and saw him land on his back. Things got taken up a notch when a table was brought into play and Kenny took a ROUGH bump onto the metal underside. Kenny targeted the neck and back but his main focus was on the kidney that nearly killed Willy earlier this year. Kenny’s DDT onto the exposed buckle (complete with kidney punches) was next level and busted Ospreay open. It was also a nod to the G1 Finals he had with Naito in 2017. Ospreay was basically done there and Kenny didn’t hold back. He hit stiff dropkicks, dropped him on his head, and beat the shit out of him. Omega DESTROYED him with V-Triggers and everything that he did. Dropping the man on the buckle again and hitting an avalanche German Suplex was just absurd. Will was basically dead but fought back with the Styles Clash (another nod to history) and Hidden Blade. That was basically his last hurrah though as Kenny weathered the storm and finished him. He did so with Kamigoye because Ibushi matters in this story, and then One Winged Angel after a grueling 34:38. I can’t believe I loved that as much as I did. I’ve always said I didn’t like “Best Bout Machine” Kenny because as a character, the gimmick of “I CAN DO COOL MOVES, GIVE ME THE MOST STARS, DAVE” makes no sense. Will follows the same template a lot of the time. Here, this wasn’t about that. Kenny came out to murder Will and they told a hell of a story in the process. This was easily Will’s greatest performance and honestly, Kenny’s best Dome match, just besting the Tanahashi one. [*****]