Consider it my own New Years Resolution to be more verbose on this site in 2023. As it stands, I wrote a whopping (goes to check) one article. Egads. Mea culpa my friends. Well. Let’s double my output before 2022 is laid to rest!
When it came to the year in professional wrestling, as a fan, I’m going out on a limb to say it was one of the best years we have had collectively. A lot of moving and shaking. A lot of false finishes. And more than a few memorable matches, stars elevated, and rivalries built. With that being said, let me ring in the new year with a wrap up on my personal top ten moments of professional wrestling of 2022.
Let’s kick it off with a bang.
- CM Punk and MJF’s feud
Y’all read my only other article this year, right? To say I’m conflicted when it comes to my favorite wrestler is a bit of a sticky wicket. Up until the “Brawl Out at All Out”, CM Punk was a fantastic presence on AEW TV and PPV. His angle with MJF — ostensibly the first (and maybe last) real angle with meat on the bones of Punk’s return to pro wrestling — was absolutely pitch perfect. The war of words turned out banger after banger. MJF (who, trust me, is showing up again on this list) matched the voice of the voiceless word for word. He did his homework… utilizing old Punk promos to posthumously poke at Punk’s pride throughout their two match feud. And in the ring? Old school meets the new. No overt spots-for-spots sake. Just solid brawling, great psychology, and a believable narrative. If it wasn’t clear to others as it was to me? MJF’s eventual crowning as AEW Champion would have been over Punk had Punk not opted to kill his resurgent career over insignificant slights.
But MJF would never proclaim himself the Devil without this feud. So? It’s on the list.
- The Acclaimed ascent to scissor us all
I’ll be honest. The Acclaimed, when I first saw them, didn’t impress. Max Castor’s pre-match raps honestly pale in comparison to John Cena’s off-the-cuff cuts of yesteryear. Anthony Bowen’s schtick (call out the city, scream, and wag his tongue) was appropriately grating… but unimpressive. In the ring? They’re not memorable. Their tag team finisher — Bowen performing a modified sidewalk slam, and Castor dropping a top rope elbow — pales in comparison to half a dozen or more daunting duo maneuvers elsewhere in the division. On paper, and on screen? They were a fine mid-card duo, with neither truly standing over the other. No obvious Jannetty meant a long career ahead of them to find their footing.
And then out of nowhere, they did.
A mid-card feud with The Gunn Club (Billy Gunn’s offspring Austin and Colton Gunn, enjoying their heel run being mocked by the crowd proclaiming them The Ass Boys, thank you, Danhausen), resulted in the oddest unforeseen turn of all. Billy Gunn, now dubbed Daddy Ass, became the elder statesman managing the Acclaimed (who, honestly didn’t need a mouthpiece… especially the very lackluster mewlings of Mr. Gunn!). Call it one of those “only in pro wrestling” moments, but hearing Bowen scream “Scissor me, Daddy Ass!” becoming an arena-rocking moment, made my glower contort into a smile.
Follow this up with Tony Khan reading the room near perfectly by granting the Acclaimed a well-deserved rematch post All Out to top Swerve in Our Glory (Swerve Scott and Keith Lee) resulting in new tag team champions? It’s a feel good story of the year. Mid-card annoying heels now impossibly over as some of the biggest babyfaces? I’m here for it. Consider me scissored.
- Commentary is listenable again
It wasn’t that long ago wrestling commentary was so bad I started watching with the sound muted. Commentary, when done right, elevates the talent and stories being told. When it’s bad though? It distracts and dissways. Recent shifts for both AEW and WWE have made their audio presentations ten times better.
Starting over in AEW… their shifts have been subtle. Tony Khan likes a packed booth. While it creates more opinions being slung, more often than not, it just creates chaos. While AEW has yet to limit it’s flagship shows (Dynamite and Rampage) with less than a trio… the specific move of Jim “Bah Gawd” Ross from Wednesday to Friday has improved both AEW shows. Make no mistake: Good ole’ JR remains the voice of pro wrestling. But he’s also 70 years old. Where he was once the preeminent storyteller on commentary, he has slowed down considerably in his once immeasurable bravado. Pair this with his more recent penchant for gaffes and flubs? He’s better suited to the one hour booth on Rampage than the two hour Dynamite commentary table.
Over in the WWE, new helmsman Triple H (more on him in a bit) reshuffled the decks on RAW and Smackdown. Going a bit more globally focused, the WWE commentary booths are decidedly svelte. Each show includes only a pair on the headsets. On Monday night we have “CM Punk’s Towel Boy” Corey Graves (sorry, not sorry. I still hate him.) partnered with Dublin’s own Kevin Patrick. Their commentary is less “heel/face” as previous partners (think Jim Ross and the King Jerry Lawler, or Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon), and the more family-friendly positivism is down right easy on the ears. Over on Friday nights, Smackdown is helmed by stalwart voice Michael Cole partnered with the British Bad News Wade Barret.
- AEW homegrown talent are coming into their own
My biggest concern when I’d started watching AEW was whether I’d ever come to “love” their homegrown talent. I freely admit: I’m not a big Elite guy. Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks are great in the ring, but their whole schtick is generally not my wavelength. They have a massive posse. They are also behind-the-scenes brass. Which makes me see any title reign or angle they do through a scrutinous eye. Kinda like Jeff Jarrett being daddy’s champion… it always smells a little funky.
Bucks and Omega aside? AEW is choked to the gills with talent — without any former associate to Vinny’s Stamford federation or elsewhere. Ricky Starks, Jamie Hayter, Sammy Guevara, Britt Baker, Jade Cargill, Darby Allen, Top Flight, Jungleboy Jack Perry, Powerhouse Hobbs, and literally a dozen more could all be listed here as worthy of a look. That these folks have built their characters without any real known backstory (save perhaps Jack Perry) and are over-like-rover? It’s a sign that as an alternative to the WWE, AEW is building the next generation of stars their own way.
- FTR are legit Top Guys
Call them what you want. The Revival. Dash and Dawson. Cash and Dax. FTR. It’s all the same to me: 2 hard-hitting, well-seasoned, dedicated pro wrestlers that have stayed the course throughout their career. Their gimmick was antithetical to being “over the top”: that of a throwback tried-and-true homage to tag teams of yesteryear — akin to Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, the Midnight Express, or the Rock n’ Roll Express. Their “no flips, just fists” mentality in the ring garnered them plenty of heel heat. But like so many a villain… over time, the crowd came to appreciate the hard work enough to organically turn them babyface.
As faces, FTR still embrace the same in-ring acumen, but now without the referee distractions, and chickenshit heel tactics. They earned the AAA (a popular Mexican federation) Tag Team Titles, the IWGP (a popular Japanese federation) Tag Team Titles, and earlier this year… they also earned the Ring of Honor Tag Team Titles. To hold gold in 3 promotions simultaneously this year shows how their dedication to the old school continues to pay off. And while they’ve not won the big one at AEW (as heels, they did win the gold, but their reign was stopped short by the covetous Young Bucks). The fans still clamor for it, but the dirt sheets would have you believe perhaps that FTR may not be long for AEW much longer.
No matter where they are though? 2022 proved FTR to be the top of the tag team world, company-not-needed.
- Roman Reigns is finally, truly, over
Give the devil his due. With options running aground all over the WWE, Vince went all in on Roman Reigns carrying the company. John Cena? Off making movies. The Undertaker? Long retired. Brock Lesnar? All the juice was squeezed out of the character and all that remains is some random attraction matches. With all the other stars truly off the board and the pandemic shutting things down in the arenas… Roman gained control of the championship belts in 2020 and developed a new character.
No longer a too cool for school good guy, Roman became The Tribal Chief. Owning his Samoan heritage — far more than his actual family Dwayne ‘Black Adam was Profitable, Damnit’ Johnson or Yokozuna (yes, the former WWF Champion who portrayed a Japanese sumo wrestler, was in fact Samoan) — Reigns declared himself the top man of WWE. Taking ownership of the boos he once garnered being force-fed to the fans as their top superhero, Reign’s in 2022 showcased his ability to be one of the greats. Did it take 2 years to form? Sure. But I’d be damned to admit seeing him now and the presentation he brings to the ring each time… it’s actually been worth the build (even if I personally didn’t watch it).
Now, as we enter 2023, Reign’s is clearly ramping up to lose his titles… But the reign of Reigns cannot be tossed out. He earned his stripes with the company on his back, and wherever his career goes from here? He’s stepped outside the shadow of The SHIELD, as well as Vince McMahon’s idiotic over-booking.
- Women’s wrestling is truly no longer about bewbs and crazy bitches
It would be tempting to say that women’s wrestling finally made it by the time Bayley, Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, and Becky Lynch became 4 top stars in the WWE. That with the Ronda Rousey / Lynch WrestleMania main event, it was clear that women had made it. But to that temptation, I say nay. Now is when I’m personally ready to declare women’s wrestling is mainstream and thriving.
We’re not that far removed from butterfly belts and matches revolving around bikinis. The rosters of WWE and AEW are no longer populated by mostly fitness models and reality TV athletes. And while both WWE and AEW are still not devoting equal time to both sexes… they are both fielding complete rosters.
WWE boasts 30 main roster female talents (plus or minus one depending on several contract issues). AEW lists 28 active women on their roster page as well. Even 5 years ago? We’d be talking half or less of these ladies ever seeing screen time, let alone main events.
Better than just raw numbers though are the stories. That is to say… the lack of terrible stories. Where women of “the attitude” or “ruthless aggression” eras seemed to only fight because one called the other a bitch… now, stories are varied. Sometimes it’s a matter of talent (aka who has more in-ring acumen). Sometimes it’s a matter of pride. There are grizzled veterans fighting up-and-comers. There are tag teams. Factions. And yes, now there’s even Rhea Ripley proudly declaring herself a Muscle Mommy, while sporting hella goth makeup, and just brutalizing men and women in the ring. This isn’t Chyna being served up better wrestlers to make her look good. This is a well-versed wrestler having an unforgettable gimmick and the chops to back it up in the squared circle.
- Sami Zayn is getting the attention he deserves
It’s the feel good story no one saw coming.
When Sami Zayn — a well-traveled “glass ceiling” wrestler — declared his allegiance to Roman Reigns and his Bloodline stable… everyone guessed at the easy-to-read outcome. Roman suspiciously breaks his otherwise steely grimace and apparently likes Zayn. But Jay Uso remains sus of Sami at every turn. Everyone, and I mean everyone figured we’d get 4-6 weeks of Zayniness before Roman would give the thumbs down signal, and Sami would be eviscerated.
Sami Zayn continued to bring levity to a gimmick that became mired in the muck. His antics and energy broke everyone in the Bloodline. Corpsing and being caught on live TV for Sami telling them they weren’t being Ucey enough. And because Triple H was now behind the helm (see below as to why), suddenly this angle was given more room to breathe.
And here we are on the precipice of the Royal Rumble, and the storyline is still going strong. The whole wrestling world is finally acknowledging an in-ring general and beloved star. While it’s still very likely things will end by Mania? This whole ordeal has given stock to Sami Zayn and elevated him into the main event picture — which is something I never thought I would type. That, my friends, is the uciest.
- Vince McMahon finally outed and ousted
As much as I want to make this the best thing to happen this year, I’m going to have to be a bit more biased with my top spot. But let’s say just below said spot comes the joy I have in seeing the slow downfall of Vince McMahon.
As it came to play over 2022, multiple allegations over McMahon’s past began to surface. It would seem that Vinny “The Genetic Jackhammer” Mac couldn’t quite keep it in his pants. Feel free to *ahem* bone up on the details as you desire. The main takeaway is simple enough: Vince McMahon — much to the surprise of precisely no one — has paid millions in hush money to women he has slighted. All of this came out into the open, and with it… Vince was heavily influenced to step down from his prominent role in his company.
This was a boon for the WWE. Hell, let me be completely honest. Since the rise of AEW, my personal viewing habits of the WWE dwindled to the point I actually unsubscribed to even DVR’ing their programming. The product was essentially unwatchable, no matter who was being presented. Angles would stop and start on a whim. Silly, racist gimmicks were brought out — like turning Japanese wrestler Akira Tozowa into a ninja — and there went my personal stake in their fandom. With Vince’s departure behind the scenes, came the rise of his son-in-law Paul Leveque, aka Triple H.
Under the former Terra Risin’s pen (no, seriously.), Leveque is rebuilding the WWE on screen and off. He started out with subtle changes in booking and presentation. He’s brought back misused stars who were unfairly let go. And he’s even hired a long term story producer behind the scenes to start cultivating narratives — versus his father-in-law’s previously schizophrenic wares.
And while I’m not exactly dissecting the on-air product of the WWE quite yet? I’ve put both RAW and Smackdown on the DVR and zip my way through it enough to get to the good bits. Trust me when I say: that’s a good thing.
- MJF — The Reign of Terror Begins Anew
I can’t help myself. I’m a schmuck. With all the backstage upheavals, evil old men being ousted, and legit five star matches dotting the landscape of professional wrestling in 2022… here I pick the most shameful one as my topper?
Damn straight I do.
Maxwell Jacob Friedman was nothing more than a live-the-gimmick indie darling scooped up by AEW at inception. From week one though, MJF had the business figured out. Rather than be a run of the mill chickenshit heel, he would be the crown prince of them. Over the last 3 years, he’s made every single angle and match feel like it matters. Even one-off contests with folks like Wheeler Yuta were elevated by Max’s moxie. He truly makes you want to see him get walloped.
Nearly half a year ago (if this is to be believed), MJF loudly walked off from AEW in a bitter on-screen tirade. He proclaimed to every dirt sheet and interviewer who would listen that he was fed up being paid on a “rookie deal” under Tony Khan’s promotion. He saw himself above the fracas of the other “pillars” of AEW, and would sooner sit at home than so much as raise an arm for Khan until his contract was renegotiated. At the All Out pay-per-view in September, MJF returned — under a devil mask and subterfuge. He had returned — letting everyone know that Tony Khan acquiesced to his financial demands — with his eyes firmly affixed to the AEW championship belt.
Thus began a well-paced story in which Maxwell Jacob Friedman once again took the audience into the palm of his storytelling hands. He waxed poetic about his humble beginnings in the business (years and years before AEW). Where he sought after the advice of William Regal (for those not in the know: Regal is one of, if not the best, of talent scouts working today). Regal took a shine to MJF back in the day, only to pull the rug from underneath poor Maxwell. “Things have changed in our business. Get noticed on your own, and then if you’re good, we’ll find you.” (I’m paraphrasing). This lit the fire so-to-speak, and here now was a fully-made MJF. We the audience half-believed this odd babyface turn. He was still the same entitled prick we knew before, but the fire and passion in his eyes? It was palpable.
At the following pay per view, MJF stood opposite AEW’s reigning champion, the incomparable brawler Jon Moxley — who fought under William Regal’s “Blackpool Combat Club” banner. The match was brutal, and in the end… it was William Regal, tossing MJF his signature brass knuckles that sealed the deal. A distracted referee, a clobbering blow, and the subsequent 1-2-3. Maxwell Jacob Friednman, only 26 years old, now holds the AEW championship.
He strolled out at the next TV appearance, sucker punched Regal with those same brass knuckles, and told the crowd to never trust the devil. Indeed. He went in the following week to declare a whole new reign of terror — a tip of the hat to Triple H of the WWE, whose own championship reign was reviled as being a bane to the fandom. MJF laid bare his plan: to hold the title, and defend it only when he’s paid top dollar. To never wrestle unless it’s absolutely demanded of him. And to win always by any means necessary. His goal? Hold the title until his contract is up in 2024, when he uses it as a bargaining chip to earn the most money in professional wrestling. “The contract war of 2024” he’s dubbed it.
And I for one am absolutely here for it. MJF sews old school heel tactics with new school panache. He’s a forward thinking throwback that takes the literal best parts of those most reviled villains of the industry, and wraps it up into a single disgusting package. By the time someone does actually prevail over what I hope will be a memorable and frustrating reign? They will be the most over hero in the industry. And MJF will only be 27. We’re on the precipice of a Burberry age. All hail Maxwell Jacob Friedman. He’s better than us… and he knows it.