Andrew Stewart presents his favorite matches of January 2021…
Obviously, 2020 was almost definitely the weirdest year in modern professional wrestling. The spring of 2020 felt like it was genuinely going to be one of the most important periods in the history of the business. AEW was in top form; Supercard of Honor saw a resurgence of the New Japan/Ring of Honor partnership; NWA’s Crockett Cup sold out a big arena; WWE was on the road to WrestleMania with Drew and Rhea at the top of the card—all gone in a flash.
The summer was absolutely dire in terms of really great wrestling, but by the time Japan was able to see the return of crowds, it seemed as though most of the major companies started to figure out how to exist in this new world. In fact, by the end of the year, there were some novel companies making their way into the collective consciousness due to the fact they were simply in top form. Pro Wrestling NOAH, Dragon Gate, Tokyo Joshi Pro and Stardom all started garnering more attention due to the lack of some other companies performing to standards…or because they simply weren’t existing.
That being said, January of 2021 was easily the most incredible month of professional wrestling since the world shut down. It was the first time I felt a true sense of escapism in almost a year; so much so that I decided to start keeping a notebook for my matches of the year. This idea was compounded by my inclusion in the Voices of Wrestling MOTY ballot and I felt as though I wanted to put even more effort into compiling the perfect list to look back on. I am looking at this notebook as a personal journal of the thing I love; I enjoy sharing that love, so I decided it would be fun to compile these monthly lists for all of my fellow super-nerds. I watch far too much professional wrestling, so I might as well do something proactive with it.
First, some honorable mentions; as I write this, Bianca Belair won the Women’s Royal Rumble match. While I would not categorize the entire match as something to go out of your way to watch, the last ten minutes were pretty awesome. Bianca SHOULD have won the Rumble this year, so let’s hope WWE can make a star in spite of themselves.
My second honorable mention is Dragon Gate. While there wasn’t necessarily a match that stood out this month due to the fact there weren’t nearly as many televised shows as there were in December, it seems wrong to not have anything from that company on my list for January. Through December there would have been five or maybe six separate Dragon Gate matches that would have easily made their way onto this compilation, but with Champion’s Gate being just a little over a month away and a big Korakuen show coming our way on February 5th, I can almost guarantee there will be more than a few next month. The Masquerade/R.E.D. multi-man tags are something to behold and Kaito Ishida challenging Shun Skywalker for the Open the Dream Gate Championship has me salivating.
With all that said, let’s get to it!
Kazuchika Okada vs. Will Ospreay—January 4th (Wrestle Kingdom, NJPW)
We hadn’t seen this version of Okada in a very, very long time. Between wallowing in the muck with Yujiro Takahashi and attempting to (in my opinion) troll the audience by refusing to tire of the Money Clip, it was a big part of what turned people off of New Japan in the middle of last year. While I think everyone assumed we would see the return of “big match” Okada, there was a tinge of anxiety. Ospreay was also being viewed through a more discerning lens with the official move to heavyweight and whether or not he would be able to fully adapt. Heavyweight Ospreay didn’t land in every match of his G1 quite like junior heavyweight Ospreay did in the G1 Climax 29.
Well, both guys landed on night one of Wrestle Kingdom. It was literally everything I could have hoped for from a Wrestle Kingdom semi-main event between two exceptional in-ring workers. They fought like they had something to prove…and they did have something to prove, in both reality and in canon. This was the first exceptional match of Wrestle Kingdom, but it was not the last…I wouldn’t even say it was the best.
Shingo Takagi vs. Jeff Cobb—January 5th (Wrestle Kingdom, NJPW)
This is almost guaranteed to make it into the vast majority of top ten lists by the end of the year. In fact, I would bet my life’s savings on it being there. What’s more, I think it will be one of two NEVER Championship matches to make it into the top ten and they happened in the same month. I’m telling you—January was good!
This was a real-life kaiju film; both guys performed feats of strength that felt genuinely impossible, even in the realm of professional wrestling. Shingo has been incredible for a very long time and his NEVER matches were literally carrying New Japan through the summer and autumn. The evolution of Jeff Cobb seems to be nearly complete; with his inclusion in the United Empire and embracing the monster gaijin role, the world is his oyster. Even though Cobb is essentially the third man in a three man stable, the other two are Will Ospreay and The Great O-Khan: I don’t see his place in the hierarchy as a demerit. This was an insanely physical battle that embodies what so many people love about Japanese professional wrestling.
Kota Ibushi vs. Jay White—January 5th (Wrestle Kingdom, NJPW)
It is fair to say this match has aged like a fine wine. SO many people think Jay White is a boring wrestler and I am here to say that they are objectively wrong. Jay White is basically Randy Orton if Orton was actually as great as WWE constantly tells us he is. White works a classic heel style with a modern athleticism, aesthetic and emotional drive. I believe everything Jay White does…and apparently so did everyone else after that all-timer of a post-match promo. The discourse surrounding the future of Jay proves just how fantastic he is. I hope everyone finally accepts it.
The story of the longest Wrestle Kingdom main event in history is what made this match top tier. There was literally NOTHING Jay could do to put Ibushi away, and while so much of that match focused on the repeated failure of Jay White, Kota Ibushi finally became GOD. New Japan has done long-term storytelling better than anyone in the last ten years and this match exemplified all of that. I was convinced Jay White would spoil Ibushi’s dreams one last time in the Tokyo Dome after taking the G1 briefcase from Ibushi, but Ibushi simply wouldn’t have it. A classic New Japan story capped off with White and Ibushi being minted as faces of this post-Tanahashi era.
Rhea Ripley vs. Raquel Gonzalez—January 6th (NXT)
I usually find Last Woman/Man Standing matches unbearable; there is a distinct lack of tension that makes it almost impossible to keep yourself from scrolling through twitter every time a ten-count starts. There have been two exceptions to that rule in recent memory: Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair at Evolution and Rhea vs. Raquel.
This match was an absolutely brutal barrel of monkeys and a showcase of new talent that feel like genuine attractions. Both Rhea and Raquel look like they were born to be superstar professional wrestlers. There are few matchups left in NXT that fill me with ACTUAL excitement considering it feels like we have seen every combination of main eventers many times over. Rhea and Raquel feel fresh, and if Rhea is making her way to Raw or SmackDown, it will stay that way. I’m not sure I could explain exactly why Dakota Kai being stuffed into a locker is the most memorable spot for me…but it is.
I probably had low expectations for this match based on the stipulation, but it far exceeded even my highest hopes. Definitely the most memorable NXT television match in a very long time.
Kenny Omega vs. Rey Fenix—January 6th (Dynamite, AEW)
In a world where Kenny Omega is seemingly making it his goal to blur promotional lines across the globe, it makes a lot of sense that all three matches between Fenix and Omega have been in three separate companies; NEW, AAA, and AEW. Unsurprisingly, this match was just as excellent as the previous two, even if it was shorter due to the medium of television. That being said, for a television main event, it was just about perfect—twenty minutes of blistering action that lives up to everything you would expect from both Fenix and Omega.
It is incredibly rare that I re-watch a match in the same week it aired. More often than not I will go several months before going back to it…I watched this match three times in three days, and I appreciated it more with each viewing. The backflip into the German suplex is literally one of the greatest spots ever conceived; so great that Ricochet has tried (and failed) to recreate it twice in the last thirty days. Omega and Fenix are a part of one of the greatest match-ups in modern wrestling; I don’t think anyone with at least one discerning eye could say otherwise. It is literally exhilarating, a match that illustrates why wrestling is worth paying attention to. This is the “New Japan Kenny” everyone has been clamoring for and Rey Fenix is probably the most exciting worker alive.
Daisuke Harada vs. Hajime Ohara––January 10th (NOAH)
I am still fairly new to Pro Wrestling NOAH and while the main event scene is something to behold, the junior heavyweight division is known for being a bit…chaotic. There is a stark juxtaposition between the division as a whole and the GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion, Daisuke Harada. Harada is cool, calm, collected, and simply LOOKS like a Japanese professional wrestler. It is no secret that the Japanese junior heavyweight style is a marriage of lucha libre and strong style. In this particular case, Ohara acted as the lucha purist while Harada was more grounded.
If you have any interest in investing in NOAH beyond the Shiozaki title reign, this is a perfect place to start. The execution is a spotless blend of intelligence and violence, and while Harada isn’t the GHC Champion everyone is talking about, they probably should be. Also…Wrestle Universe is less than ten dollars a month…just sayin’.
Darby Allin vs. Brian Cage—January 13th (Dynamite, AEW)
This match has been in the works since Brian Cage’s debut at Double or Nothing in 2020. While Allin’s matches against Ricky Starks and the myriad of tag team combinations Allin and Cage found themselves in were fantastic, this match was definitely of a higher importance.
For those knowledgeable of AEW’s booking style, most could probably have figured this match out beat for beat in less than ten minutes. That may sound cynical or negative, but sometimes the obvious thing to do is the best thing to do. Darby took an absolutely insane amount of offense from Brian Cage throughout, but he just would NOT stay down. It is a story Darby has told dozens of times, but it feels a bit different when it involves someone as physically imposing as Brian Cage.
While Darby was ultimately able to outsmart Cage, even that was a story brilliantly told. Darby learned from past encounters and mistakes that literally planted the seeds for Taz’s animosity toward the champion. An example of ACTUAL long-term storytelling. Beyond all of those things, the match was insanely brutal, and I am a ghoul so I love that sort of thing.
The Good Brothers and Kenny Omega vs. Chris Sabin, Rich Swann and Moose—January 16th (Hard to Kill, Impact)
This is a notable match more so for what it represents than the actual work that was presented throughout. Impact wrestling has been having a rough go of it as of late. Although the company had a pretty tremendous resurgence in 2018, the problem stems from talent utilizing Impact as a stepping stone more so than a place to invest in. Nonetheless, the catastrophic tsunami of releases WWE perpetrated in the spring of last year led to an influx of former talent signing with Impact.
Most notable of these signings were The Good Brothers, Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows. Once Kenny Omega beat Jon Moxley for the AEW title and announced he would be appearing on Impact with Don Callis, everyone could see the writing on the wall. Nothing like this has happened in mainstream North American wrestling in a very long time, so even if the eventual match wasn’t great, the fact it was able to exist would be great. Well, it just so happens that the match was pretty great. From Omega and The Good Brothers unabashedly rocking Bullet Club gear to Moose looking like the world champion he claims to be, this was literal tons of fun. While I’m not sure the entire pay per view was worth the price of admission, the main event came pretty close; it felt important.
Go Shiozaki & Naomichi Marufuji vs. Daisuke Harada & Atsushi Kotoge – January 16th (NOAH)
On its face, this match comes off as fairly unimportant. Essentially a house show main event between a pair of heavyweight NOAH legends and two of the high ranking juniors, you could see they were all enjoying themselves. Perhaps this match stood out because my expectations weren’t all that high, but they beat the crap out of each other in the final stretches. Kotoge, in particular, was taking a ridiculous amount of stiff offense from Shiozaki and Marufuji. Matches such as this are a perfect advertisement for Wrestle Universe as a streaming service. While this match isn’t something I would say is necessary viewing, you are missing quite a few gems of this ilk if you are not subscribed to Wrestle Universe. If you are, watch this.
Dragon Lee vs. Rey Horus – January 18th (ROH)
How this match flew SO far under the radar, I genuinely have no idea. It’s no secret that I attempt to shout my love for ROH from the rooftop, but this match in particular was my favorite thing they have produced in the last six months. I’m sure that partially stems from a very distinct Dragon Lee withdrawal that we have all been going through since the beginning of the pandemic, but either way, this was a pay per view caliber television match.
It is hard to believe that I kind of forgot Dragon Lee existed due to the fact he was completely removed from any kind of wrestling media for so long, because he is an actual once in a generation talent. While there are many tremendous junior heavyweight and lucha wrestlers across the globe, I don’t know of anyone that wrestles like Dragon Lee. His speed and precision is only rivaled by Rey Fenix, in my opinion. While quite a few of these matches are only available on paid services, this one is free…go watch it. Not to mention, heel Dragon Lee kind of scares the hell out of me.
Kota Ibushi, Hiroshi Tanahashi & SHO vs. SANADA, Shingo Takagi & Hiromu Takahashi—January 25th (NJPW)
Since New Japan’s return in the summer of last year, I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of the classic “Road To” shows have been watchable at the best of times. When New Japan runs Korakuen fifteen times in three weeks, it is pretty easy to get a little tired of LIJ vs. Hontai multi-man main events.
That being said, this six-man tag absolutely ruled. Not only was the focus of the match centered on the upcoming NEVER Openweight Championship match between Tanahashi and Takagi, but the work itself was elevated well above general “Road To” Korakuen shows. While Takagi and Tanahashi were the centerpiece, the entire match was constructed around impending title matches.
The ultimate drama was in the attempt to figure out who exactly was going to come out on top of this match; if it were 2019, it would almost be a guarantee that SHO would be eating the pin here. Considering SHO’s upcoming title match with Hiromu, this seemed like an impossibility, and in fact… it was. The fact that THIS match went to a thirty minute draw elevated it from being “good” to “memorable”. It also doesn’t hurt that Tanahashi professed his undying love for Shingo Takagi. Shingo did not feel the same. I’m surprised Tana didn’t cry about that in the middle of the ring.
Jungle Boy vs. Dax Harwood—January 27th (Dynamite, AEW)
Every once in a while there is a classic professional wrestling dynamic that executes the idea of heel vs. babyface in such a way it reinforces your belief that this is the greatest form of entertainment on the planet.
Jungle Boy has had some classics within this framework in AEW’s short history. The matches against Jericho and MJF not only served their express purpose, but blew everyone away. For me, this match was no different. Dax is a brilliant heat machine; he beats the hell out of a babyface better than anyone else in modern wrestling and it feels like attrition. By the end of this match, I wanted Jungle Boy to win so badly that I was literally bouncing in my seat the way a toddler would when they are about to be fed.
Beyond the brilliant meta dynamic between FTR and Jurassic Express, it felt like we hadn’t seen Jungle Boy in a position such as this in far too long. Not only was it a pertinent reminder of just how great he is, it was the type of match that allows me the stew on the thought of just how great AEW could be in the next decade.
AJ Gray vs. Hoodfoot—January 29th (GCW)
GCW’s “Fight Forever” was obviously one of the most ambitious projects in the history of professional wrestling. In a time where the independent scene is in constant need of a shot in the arm, this broadcast seemed to help that a bit. The state of the independent scene is obviously nowhere near the peaks of 2017 and 2018. Beyond the pandemic, the dynamics of the industry are completely different than they were in the golden age of the Bullet Club.
While this show was ambitious, there wasn’t a whole lot that stood out from the pack…aside from AJ Gray and Hoodfoot. AJ Gray is easily one of the most popular stars on the indie scene and consistently backs up that popularity with a fire and vigor that seems to be missing in a lot of regional wrestling. I had never seen a Hoodfoot match before this one, and Jesus Christ…I don’t think I will be forgetting that name any time soon. This is the definition of a “beef slapper”. They did not hold ANYTHING back throughout the match, and if their desire was to make a mark on that cold, dark, empty building, they were wildly successful.
Satoshi Kojima vs. Will Ospreay—January 30th (NJPW)
It isn’t very often that you see full-on plunder matches in New Japan; in fact, we haven’t seen one since the Texas Death Match between Moxley and Lance Archer. Novelty was not the only thing carrying this match, however.
The best “no disqualification” matches still feel like wrestling matches, with the ultra-violence only being executed at the points that feel necessary. Kojima and Ospreay perfectly executed that classic dynamic. While I wouldn’t put Tenzan and The Great O-Khan in my top matches of the month, it was the preceding match; after this no disqualification bout, the utter destruction of Tencozy was successfully perpetrated. The Tencozy/United Empire feud was EASILY the hottest feud in all of New Japan since its inception and Nagoya was a perfect payoff to the well-executed build. I didn’t know I needed angry Kojima in my life, but now that I have had this revelation, I am worried I may never see him again.
Shingo Takagi vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi—January 30th (NJPW)
This match was literally the perfect end to a ridiculously prolific month of professional wrestling. This was a five star match: plain and simple. This was Shingo’s second five star NEVER Openweight Championship defense in four weeks, and that is insanity—Cobb vs. Shingo was an incredible physical war.
While the Tanahashi match was extremely physical, I am sure we all had a far deeper emotional connection to this match than we did with Cobb. When I say “extremely physical”, I mean that in the most literal sense. I was really hoping that Tanahashi would hit those higher gears, and aside from almost breaking his neck on a Made in Japan, this was a career performance. Every single time I think Tana has lost an integral step, he pulls out a match like this one…or the Naito match in last year’s G1…or the Jericho match that had no right to be as great as it was. It isn’t as if this is news to any New Japan fan, but Tanahashi is a master of his craft. As is Shingo Takagi. This was a CLASSIC New Japan main event that reminds you what made it the best promotion in the world throughout the entirety of the previous decade.
There we have my matches of the month. What did you think were the best matches in January? Let me know in the comments below!