wrestling / Columns

Pantoja’s Top 100 Matches of 2023 (#70-61)

February 1, 2024 | Posted by Kevin Pantoja
Royal Rumble Cody Rhodes Image Credit: WWE

70. Suzu Suzuki vs. Tam Nakano – STARDOM 5STAR Grand Prix 9/9/23

Image Credit: STARDOM

This was more than just a standard tournament match. Tam had a loss and draw already, so she needed to win to stay among the top performers. Suzu knew a win over the champion can do wonders. Throw in their interactions in the Generational Tags and some verbal jabs and you had something with some intrigue. They opened this by trading strikes in a show of toughness and just kept up that level of aggression. Tam folded Suzu in the corner in a brutal way and the fight spilled all the way up the steps in Korakuen. Once they were back in the ring, we got bigger moves and the trading of German suplexes, though I kind of wish Suzu got the better of that exchange since that is kind of her signature move. Tam kept blocking the Tequila Shot and had Suzu scouted well. She got a bit too cocky though, as an arrogant pin left the door open for Suzu to kick out of a signature move. From there, Suzu kind of grabbed control hitting a move off the top and a German Suplex. Tam countered out of a second attempt but Suzu hit two more to win in 13:24. As if this was going to be anything other than excellent. Just a spectacular pro wrestling match between two of the best right now. Suzu has future World of Stardom Champion written all over her. [****¼]

69. Kazuchika Okada vs. Will Ospreay – NJPW G1 Climax 7/27/23

Image Credit: NJPW

I have been very vocal about how this isn’t a pairing that I enjoy. They’ve have plenty of great matches, it’s just that it never clicks the way it should for me. Too often it feels like they’re trying to have an epic rather than just having one, if that makes sense. Anyway, Okada entered this with a 7-1 edge over Willy and that one win came with the help of The Great O-Khan. I’d also only given them **** once in that span. What boosted this match above their past is the story of Ospreay fighting the clock. The idea was that he couldn’t beat Okada and to do so in under 20 minutes was seemingly impossible. That time limit meant Okada formula was out the window and that’s always when he’s at his best. He took it right to Will with several DDTs outside and Ospreay had to rally in the back half of this match. The crowd was behind him, which only helped that story even more. Those final 5-7 minutes were frantic because you could sense Will’s desperation, especially since Okada was 4-0 at this point and he was 3-1. They countered each other’s signature moves until Ospreay hit Hidden Blade and Storm Breaker to get the pin in 17:12. Easily their best work together. [****¼]

68. World of Stardom Championship: Giulia [c] vs. Suzu Suzuki – STARDOM Supreme Fight

Image Credit: STARDOM

Giulia’s first title defense. At the time, I wasn’t fully aware of how good Suzu Suzuki was so I was excited to give it a rewatch for this list. This opened with some pretty basic wrestling but it quickly got more aggressive as they came face to face and started trading forearms. Things really got taken to the next level when they fought outside and Giulia got thrown into rows of chairs several times in a row. Suzuki got in a ton of offense and it set up Giulia as someone who had to fight from behind. I understand that route but I do think Giulia should’ve looked a bit more dominant at parts of her first defense. Giulia turned the tide and started working the arm a bit before we got another step up when Suzuki did an apron powerbomb. Their back and forth in the final act saw them dropping each other on their heads. Suzuki’s avalanche German was especially vicious. Giulia managed to rebound from it as they threw shots at each other again. Giulia hit a sickening that only earned a one count before she won with her finisher at the 25:04 mark. Given the somewhat up and down start, I do think this went a bit long but it picked up in a huge way and what we got was a great main event. [****¼]

67. Men’s Royal Rumble Match – WWE Royal Rumble

Image Credit: WWE

What a fun Royal Rumble this was. From the very beginning, it felt kind of special, with Gunther and Sheamus reliving their phenomenal 2022 match as the first two entrants. Gunther was the obvious standout here, entering at #1 and lasting a record-setting 71 minutes, while putting on one hell of a performance. It’s in the conversation for the best in history and that’s not just talking about longevity. The short Brock Lesnar run was well done, Judgment Day kicked ass for a while, and there was even an appearance from Booker T. Logan Paul also had a strong run, providing a highlight against Ricochet. Of course, the memorable ending involved record-setting Gunther and the returning Cody Rhodes, giving us the rare #1 vs. #30 final two. They put on one of the best closing battles in Rumble history, similar to Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels in 2007 but with less drama because it always felt like Cody was going to win. And he finally did after 71:42, capping one of the better Rumbles ever. [****¼]

66. Generational Struggle: Giulia, Mayu Iwatani, Syuri & Tam Nakano vs. Maika, Saya Kamitani, Suzu Suzuki & Utami Hayashishita – STARDOM at Korakuen Hall 6/4/23

Image Credit: STARDOM

The idea here was that one side was the established veteran top ladies and the other side were the rising stars of the company. We got Giulia/Suzu to followed by Maika/Syuri, Mayu/Saya, and Tam/Utami with nobody really interrupting each exchange. They just let it all play out. There were so many intertwining and intriguing stories here from rivalries being reignited to the last three World of Stardom Champions all being on the same team. Everyone got a chance to get their stuff in and everyone took time to bump and sell for their opponents, showing that there were no egos getting in the way of the action here. The Giulia/Utami back and forth was a prolonged one and one of the better parts of the contest. Maika continued her streak of being extra aggressive, especially as she battled Giulia, taking it right to the former champion. At one point, Utami and Maika avoided tandem offense from Giulia and Tam, which resulted in them stopping only for Tam to just clock her teammate because of their history. The Suzu/Tam exchange was probably my favorite part of the match. In fact, Suzu showed out big time here and stole the show. Tam and Mayu also worked seamlessly together. The closing stretch saw things break down with tons of action and big moves. Saya was hit with a barrage capped by a Mayu moonsault but the 30:00 time limit expired before a pin could be made. A fantastic match with the expected result but everyone delivered with non-stop great exchanges and so many storylines coming together. The elimination rematch wasn’t quite as good but was still great. [****¼]

65. Steel Cage Match: Becky Lynch vs. Trish Stratus – WWE Payback

Image Credit: WWE

A staple of WWE in previous years was that feuds were poorly built across TV but then the big match delivers. Think things like Sasha Banks vs. Bianca Belair or the first Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar match. Trish vs. Becky joined that list as the rivalry disappointed and even their first matches didn’t totally click. They made up for it all with a fantastic blow-off inside a steel cage. For 20:02, they put on a show. They did a decent job of using the cage for spots with the highlight being Trish taking a legitimate superplex from the top. It’s absurd that she took that bump at 47. The callbacks to Victoria and Lita’s cage match from decades ago was also a nice touch. My only major gripe was the Zoey Stark run-in. I get that she’s part of the feud but the stipulation is meant to keep people out yet in WWE, they always get in. Becky took her out and then beat Trish with the Manhandle Slam off the top, capping a fantastic match. We really need to appreciate that Trish keeps coming back and somehow gets better each time out, more than hanging with the tremendous women who are around now and in their primes. [****¼]

64. IWGP Women’s Championship: Mercedes Moné [c] vs. AZM vs. Hazuki – NJPW Sakura Genesis

Image Credit: NJPW

The Mercedes Moné run of 2023 getting cut short by injury was criminal. Putting her against two of the best talents in STARDOM was brilliant though. Mercedes fit into the fast paced style of these STARDOM ladies seamlessly. They came up with a lot of creative spots from rollups to mat work to some aerial moves. They didn’t always come off smoothly though I did like it at times when it felt more realistic because of that. If you hit every athletic spot cleanly, it feels more choreographed than as if I’m seeing a real clash. Every exchange here worked from AZM and Hazuki’s short bursts to Mercedes and AZM going at it to Mercedes and Hazuki throwing haymakers at each other. They kept it all just different enough while remaining entertaining throughout. The finish saw Mercedes catch AZM in the midst of a rollup on Hazuki with the Money Maker, which she did onto Hazuki, retaining in 13:53. A hell of a fast-paced match with plenty of exciting moments and great action. Mercedes remained the best, AZM continued her roll, and Hazuki shined. Gedo couldn’t have the women steal the show so he kind of just stopped booking them after this. [****¼]

63. WWE Intercontinental Championship: Gunther [c] vs. Chad Gable – WWE Raw 9/4/23

Image Credit: WWE

The way that WWE decided to heat up Chad Gable this year was great and further proof that they can kind of do that with anyone. He went from a joke to a comedy guy to being treated as the legitimately great wrestler that he is. In the biggest opportunity of his career, he headlined Raw against Gunther with a chance to stop the champion from breaking Honky Tonk Man’s record and of course, they put on a show. For 16:03, these two delivered one of the better televised matches you’ll see anywhere. They worked through two commercial breaks as Gable survived everything Gunther threw at him and dished out his best stuff in return. This also had the added emotional impact of Gable’s family watching from the front row. The close calls Gable got on things like Chaos Theory and the Ankle Lock were some of the best I saw all year and they totally had the crowd believing he could do the impossible. Alas, Gunther got sick of Gable and hit a series of moves capped by a lariat to retain, adding another outstanding performance to a WWE run full of them. Gable is a special talent and Gunther is way better than most people mentioned as “best in the world.” [****¼]

62. Wonder of Stardom Championship: Saya Kamitani [c] vs. Mina Shirakawa – STARDOM All-Star Grand Queendom

Image Credit: STARDOM

Back on 11/3/22, Mina lost to Kamitani and got her face/jaw busted when she took a Phoenix Splash. Mina fought back from injury and earned another shot against Kamitani, who was on a record run with the Wonder of Stardom Title. Also of note, since that moment, Saya hadn’t done a Phoenix Splash again. Mina put a target on the knee in this one, using the ring post Figure Four that I’ll always pop for. Saya managed to do some aerial stuff before her knee damage got too bad and she threw some big shots of her own, seemingly bloodying Mina’s nose. Saya had the Phoenix Splash set up but stopped at the top and couldn’t bring herself to pull the trigger and possibly injure Mina once more. That bit of storytelling marked the turning point of the match. Still, Saya has some selling issues, using her legs as if it nothing happened to them or doing things like bridging on it despite the issues. She managed to hit the Phoenix Splash on her second trip to the top but Mina kicked out. The dragon screw into the Figure Four made for a great close call and Mina kept fighting before winning with a spinning Glamorous Driver in 17:56. A fitting epic to a long reign. There were parts I didn’t like but this was fantastic overall, had great bit of storytelling, and the emotional capper. [****¼]

61. AEW International Championship: Orange Cassidy [c] vs. Daniel Garcia vs. Katsuyori Shibata vs. Zack Sabre Jr. – AEW x NJPW Forbidden Door II

Image Credit: AEW

Right off the bat, the personalities in this shined through. OC did his comedic kicks, Garcia got treated like a goof, and Shibata traded vicious shots with ZSJ. I love the idea of two serious wrestlers being in there with two guys who are known for various antics. Even when spots involved other guys, ZSJ and Shibata just wanted to go to war with each other. Garcia just doing his awkward dance while getting beaten up was great. I liked the spot where everyone just hit vertical suplexes on each other. Garcia tried to steal this by using the Pure Title as a weapon but Shibata kicked out. OC stepped up to face Shibata in a strike exchange that went about how you’d expect. OC’s damaged hand was a target throughout, especially by Sabre. The counters and seamless way that everyone moved in and out of this ruled. After going at a breakneck pace, OC caught Garcia with a crucifix to retain in 11:26. That was so much goddamn fun and exactly the kind of multi-man match I love to see even if I don’t like the tired finish. [****¼]