Pro wrestling is a weird bastard art, and if you’re unfamiliar with its intricacies, the hordes of people in your social media circles obsessively pontificating about it every Monday night must be a truly confounding experience. Let our very own Dominic Griffin, lifelong wrestling enthusiast, teach you a little something right here, In This Very Ring…
So, I get asked who my favorite wrestler is a lot, and I’m generally bad at answering. I like a lot of different wrestlers for a variety of reasons, and it’s difficult to pin down who my absolute fave is. Over time, I’ve grown to care less and less about technical ability in a vacuum. A skilled wrestler married with the right character and booking at the right time can be a thing of true beauty. Thus, my pantheon of favored grapplers has come to include very specific iterations of pro wrestling characters.
Early Nineties “Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, fresh off of betraying his tag team partner Marty Jannetty.
“Stunning” Steve Austin, back when he still had hair, and was putting on clinics with Ricky Steamboat.
Original “Best In The World” Bryan Danielson with the bald head, who claimed he “had til 5” when a referee wanted him to break a submission hold.
Every possible version of Ric Flair.
Every possible version of Eddie Guerrero.
(Maybe those last two are cheating, but I’m not narrowing down either of those legends. I just can’t.)
There’s quite a few current wrestling characters I’m over the moon for, as well, but that aren’t quite all time faves. Not yet, anyway. Those include but are not limited to:
“Rainmaker” Kazuchika Okada, in his current form as a babyface on the precipice of greatness who must defeat his rival Hiroshi Tanahashi to cement his legacy.
Shinsuke Nakamura, as the swagged out, coke shakes demigod who might be the Actual Best Wrestler On Earth.
Tomoaki Honma, the lovable former death match innovator who rarely wins but tries his hardest.
Kevin Owens, Canuck murderdad who is basically the Walter White of pro wrestling, a selfish, prideful piece of shit who uses his family as justification for all manner of hideousness.
Roderick Strong, as the pissed off, perpetually annoyed aging frat guy veteran who feels he hasn’t gotten his due and takes it out on the spines of his opponents.
But over the last few weeks, I’ve grown to realize that my two favorite wrestlers of the moment are unlikely as fuck. If I went back in time five years and said, “Dom, these two guys are going to be your favorite wrestlers and you’ll legitimately consider violence when naysayers bad mouth them,” I’d probably be really shocked. Mostly over the existence of time travel, but also the identity of these two stars.
The Second Coming of Dadbod Papi
AJ Styles might be the best fucking wrestler on the face of the Earth right now.
I know I kinda said that about Nakamura a few ‘graphs back, but AJ is it right now for me. My obsessive adoration of his work this year has long since transcended simple mancrush levels and is bordering on the kind of homosexual attraction that might make AJ himself a little uncomfortable.
I’ve always liked AJ Styles, but not once in his career did I ever feel anything passionate for him or his work. He’s always been one of those guys whose relative greatness I’ve taken for granted. Back in the early days of ROH, “The Phenomenal One” was one of my favorite guys to see mix it up, but he was never a particularly compelling character. As a performer, he had an undeniable fluidity and natural chemistry with each of his opponents, so even a bad AJ match was at the very least an entertaining one, but he never connected with me on a gut level.
Because of a number of factors, not the least of which being the persistent unfairness of the universe, AJ spent much of his career in TNA, where no matter how good he got in the ring or on the mic, he was never in a position to truly be the big star he always had the potential to be. When he left the company over contract disputes after a decade of service, I figured he’d pop up on the indies and do stuff here and there. I did not anticipate him showing up in New Japan, taking over The Bullet Club, and winning the promotion’s top prize. There’s something very cloying about the continued existence of The Bullet Club as a stable, but AJ’s presence in the group is kind of the best thing that’s ever happened to him.
At best, The Bullet Club is a self-aware, meta take on the heel groups of the Attitude Era. They do the “too sweet” finger gesture that The Kliq popularized, while borrowing heavily from The NWO and D-Generation X. It worked so well to start because it was supposed to be a joke, but the longer they last, the more it seems fans (and the members themselves) are buying into the mythology. AJ as their leader works so well because he seems like a recently divorced father who got left with nothing but the house, so he invites the neighborhood kids over to drink skunk beer, smoke dirt weed, and watch Raw reruns on the WWE Network. He seems like a character Bill Paxton might play in an indie movie all the while enjoying a career resurgence of McConnaisance proportions.
The reason he succeeds as an effective villain and legitimate draw in New Japan is that he’s so uniquely detestable. Instead of being booked as a chickenshit heel who needs his cronies to help him win matches, he’s been positioned with some decisive wins (during last year’s G1 Climax as well as this year’s second IWGP Title reign) and is presented as a real contender. The fact that he’s an amazing wrestler and maybe in the prime of his career (at 38 years old) and still breaks the rules just to be a dick is despicable. He doesn’t need twelve dudes in Bullet Club shirts at ringside, but he’s something of a wounded, broken figure, and having a posse is as much for his ego as it is for practical cheating reasons.
His last two high profile matches, against Kota Ibushi at Invasion Attack and against Kazuchika Okada at Dominion, are two of the finest bouts of the year. You could argue otherwise, but it’s AJ’s chip on the shoulder ferocity coupled with the same astonishing acrobatics that made him a name in the first place that makes those matches what they are. I’m going to spoil the finish of the former with a .gif to show you a brief snapshot of just how “phenomenal” AJ Styles still is.
To me, he’s the best out right now.
AJ Styles vs Kota Ibushi – NJPW Invasion Attack
AJ Styles vs Kazuchika Okada – NJPW Dominion
AJ Styles vs Adam Cole – ROH War of The Worlds Night 1
Mid-Life Crisis On Infinite Jerns
John by God Cena is having one of the most exciting years of his career, and to me at least, it is 100% because, after a decade of being untouchable, he finally seems vulnerable.
For the longest time, there’s been a split narrative to Cena’s on-screen character, largely due to the schism in WWE’s audience. The accepted reality is that casual, mainstream fans (read: women and children) still love Cena because he’s the ultimate good guy who never gives up and wears primary colors, while “internet” fans and old school followers (read: men. Bitter, bitter men.) can’t stand him because he’s boring, always wins, and hasn’t done anything new in years. They also say he can’t wrestle. Now, these are horrible simplifications. There’s more complexity surrounding Cena’s appeal, or lack thereof, but that’s generally how it’s presented on screen to answer why half the crowd is booing the living shit out of the company’s biggest star. Familiarity breeds contempt, and it’s natural to get sick of a guy after his millionth world title reign—especially when his character is distilled down to a dude that has to justify why he’s still a good guy despite being treated by fans like he recreationally slaughters children.
Ever since Wrestlemania, where he won the US Championship—a secondary title he’s been defending every Monday Night Raw in an open challenge—he’s been on a serious roll. Taking Cena out of the main event picture and letting him be the gatekeeper of the midcard solves a lot of problems with his character. First, you don’t get as sick of him “stealing the spotlight” from guys you wish had a turn at bat when he’s in the middle of the show instead of the end of it. Second, by placing him against hot up-and-comers with something to prove, you brilliantly juxtapose John Cena with his own mortality. No man stays on top forever, so now, every week, Cena is face to face with his would-be replacements. In addition to giving him new dance partners instead of wrestling Randy Orton over and over again, he’s going toe to toe with his own impending obsolescence.
There’s a poetry to the open challenge, as Cena himself debuted during a similar challenge from Kurt Angle. In one night, he was made into a potential star by taking one of the best wrestlers in the world the distance. Now, every week, Cena gets to pay it forward. The WWE presents this as Cena testing the future stars of the company, but in reality, it’s Cena being pushed beyond his limits. In diverse, exciting matches, he’s proven himself more versatile and adaptable than his detractors have been saying for years. His promos, while still a little inconsistent, have more fire and passion than he has in years, and for the first time in awhile, his in-ring prowess is more apparent to even his staunchest haters. Cena’s always been very good in the ring, but his reliance on the same, small repertoire of moves made him seem limited. Now, when faced with a bunch of indie-based newcomers, he’s learning new tricks to keep apace.
The Kevin Owens feud in which he’s been embroiled has been great, and I obviously love Owens to the moon and back, but only with a guy like Cena could it work. He’s like Liam Neeson in Taken, expertly using his gravitas to elevate pretty basic material into high art. Watching a guy like John Cena experimenting with his offense and trying moves he learned on YouTube from The Amazing Red is beyond compelling. When’s the last time a mid life crisis was this action packed?
Cena may have only cleanly lost one notable match this year, but the way he’s working his matches, he seems more vulnerable than he has in ages. In Cena terms, losing one match is like The Death of Superman, and ever since, he’s come off like a man with something to prove. Maybe not to his opponents or his fans, and certainly not to the so called “smarks,” but to himself. He’s performing like a man possessed, and even when he botches that godawful springboard stunner, I pop for it, because you know he’s fucking going for it in a way few others are right now. We’ve complained for years that he was resting on his laurels, and now he’s busting his ass even more to prove he still belongs at the top, and I couldn’t be more ecstatic. Raw is three hours every week, but all I long for is the twenty or so minutes John’s going to put in with some lucky soul. They got me excited to hear the obnoxious horns in Cena’s entrance music again.
That’s gotta count for something.
John Cena vs Kevin Owens – WWE Money In The Bank 2015
John Cena vs Neville – WWE Raw 5.11.15
John Cena vs Cesaro – WWE Raw 7.5.15