As I write this in mid-September 2022, AEW is weathering a storm of negative publicity. A series of unfortunate events has caused many fans and outside observers to focus more on rumors, gossip and scuttlebutt, instead of on the positives that made AEW a big deal in the first place.
So to try and shift the focus away from various “news items” and “reports”, let’s look back to better times and revisit what is quite possibly the best match in AEW history.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
One month earlier, Adam Page beat Kenny Omega to win the AEW World Championship. This was a big deal for several reasons. Not only was Page considered the first true home-grown AEW star to wear the belt, but he finally managed to beat Omega one-on-one. The feud between them spanned way longer than just what was seen on AEW programming. The two of them were stablemates in the Bullet Club going as far back as 2017 and worked together in ROH, New Japan, and beyond. And during that time, Page was largely in Omega’s shadow, especially in New Japan, where Page was the fall guy in big multi-man matches more often than not. And when Omega won the IWGP Heavyweight title, the gulf between him and Page widened.
So when AEW started, Page was pegged as the company’s future ace. It took a long time and many losses, but Page gradually worked his way up. Then, a month before this match at Full Gear, Page finally reached Omega’s level to win the title. But on that same card, AEW’s newest signee Bryan Danielson beat Miro to earn a shot at the title.
While Page’s world title celebration at Full Gear was well-earned, many people felt his time as champion was limited. In his first title defense, Page had to face arguably the best technical wrestler on the entire planet. As we’ve seen before in this series and elsewhere, Bryan Danielson has long been an outstanding wrestler that competed at a truly elite level. And despite suffering several career and life-threatening injuries, Bryan was able to wrestle in AEW like he did in ROH: without restrictions. After all, he went to a 30-minute draw on September 22nd against Omega and showed that a decade of working in WWE hadn’t caused him to lose his step.
Even though Page had advantages in height, weight, and strength, Bryan was still considered the better wrestler by a wide margin. Bryan had more experience, superior technique, a stronger grasp of psychology, and was deadly on the mat. What Bryan lacked in power he made up with scientific skill. But would all of that be enough for Bryan to beat Page before Page’s title reign even took off? Or would Page continue his momentum by beating two world-class wrestlers in a row?
This match originally took place on December 15th, 2021 on the Winter Is Coming special episode of AEW Dynamite. It was rated five stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and TJR’s John Canton as well.
The bell rings and the crowd are already very loud chanting “AEW”. They lock-up and struggle for control. Bryan mocks Page and then the two wrestlers do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock. Bryan wins that struggle and switches to a hammerlock but Page wrestles into an armlock of his own. But Page’s control doesn’t last long as Bryan lands an overhead suplex. The crowd boos as Bryan hides between the ropes to keep Page at bay. He’s acting all smug and superior, doing a great job of getting this crowd to hate him.
Page escapes a rear waistlock and tackles Bryan to the mat. Bryan goes for Page’s ankle but Page kicks him off. Bryan avoids another clothesline and then the two try the knuckle lock again. But before both hands can be clasped, Bryan does some clever ground wrestling to take control of Page’s arm. Page answers with a kip-up but Bryan pushes him to the ropes for a break. A shoving match ensues but Bryan once again hides between the ropes, leading to LOUD boos. A quick technical exchange ends with a sudden boot from Page that takes Bryan by surprise. Bryan offers a handshake and when Page declines Bryan mocks him and hams it up some more as a heel.
The two trade armlocks and then Page sends Bryan into the ropes. Bryan goes for a leapfrog but Page catches him and slams him down hard. A big chop sends Bryan into the ropes but Bryan goes right after Page’s legs. Bryan locks in a face-pulling bow-and-arrow hold and then switches to a Romero Special and then the dragon sleeper variation. Page escapes so Bryan hits him with chops but Page hits back with an even stronger chop. They trade chops in a corner and Page hits ten corner punches but Bryan takes him down again, lands a type of dragon screw leg whip, and then starts working over Page’s left leg. Page tries kicking free with his right leg but Bryan switches to a deathlock to attack both of Page’s legs. Smart wrestling here. Then Bryan uses his hands to land head and body shots as Page struggles to protect himself.
Once standing, Bryan uppercuts Page and sends him into the ropes but Page blocks a back body drop with kick. Bryan sends Page onto the apron and lands a boot. He goes for his Buckshot Lariat but Bryan hits him first as he jumps up. Page falls to ringside and Bryan teases a dive to the floor. But before he can do that, Page returns and boots Bryan’s face. Page follows with a triangle clothesline and a plancha onto Bryan on the floor. Back in the ring, Page goes for a diving clothesline but Bryan roundhouse kicks his ribs in midair. Bryan follows with kneedrops and kneelifts to Page’s midsection as the crowd boos loudly. Then Bryan catapults Page ribs-first into the bottom rope, then he traps Page through the ropes and stiffs his exposed midsection some more. Bryan follows with a diving kneedrop to Page’s back for a two-count.
We go to picture-in-picture which sees Bryan lock in an abdominal stretch and roll into a pin for a two-count. Page avoids Bryan’s Cattle Mutilation submission so Bryan mounts him and hits palm strikes to the back and side of Page’s head. Bryan follows with a kick to Page’s ribs but then Page tries fighting back with forearms, only for Bryan to shut him down with chops. Page chops back but Bryan counters an Irish whip and lands another kneelift for a two-count and locks in a double-arm stretch with his knee in the small of Page’s back.
As the commercial ends, Page powers out of the hold and escapes Bryan’s control with a back suplex. Page starts firing up and whips Bryan into a corner. Bryan flips over and out and goes for his WWE-style comeback but Page catches him on a crossbody and hits a fallaway. Then he kips up but is slow to capitalize due to the pain in his ribs. Bryan reverses a corner whip but as he charges Page blocks and sends him not onto the apron but onto the top rope…crotch-first. Then Page hits another triangle clothesline to send Bryan to the floor. Topé suicida by Page, followed by a top-rope Orihara moonsault to the floor. High risk, high reward.
Back in the ring, Page charges for a sliding lariat but Bryan ducks and lands a crucifix cover for a two-count. Page pulls a John Cena and lifts himself up with Bryan on his shoulders. And despite Bryan elbowing Page’s face, Page hits a Death Valley Driver. One, two, Bryan kicks out. The crowd chants for both wrestlers as Page chops Bryan and lifts him into the top turnbuckle. Page teases a top-rope superplex but Bryan slips between his legs and crotches him on the top rope. Bryan elbows Page’s collar and teases his Avalanche Backdrop but Page elbows him to the floor. Page goes for another moonsault…and misses. Majistral cradle by Bryan. Page kicks out. Bryan lands more body shots to Page’s exposed midsection and sends him into the ropes. But this time, instead of landing another kneelift, Page counters with a roll-up for yet another two-count. Suddenly, Bryan goes for the crossface. But Page rolls him over for another pin (and another two-count). Bryan flips over to avoid a Dead Eye piledriver and gets a two-count of his own and twists Page into an ankle lock and then kicks Page’s ribs once again. Bryan lands two running corner dropkicks and goes for a third. But Page counters with a pop-up Ligerbomb. One, two, Bryan kicks out.
The crowd’s giving Page a monstrous ovation as he goes to the apron for his Buckshot Lariat. Bryan sees Page and bails to the floor on the other side so Page dropkicks him. Then Page goes to the top rope for another moonsault. But this time Bryan pushes Page off and he hits the ring apron shoulder-first. There’s a really nasty landing for Page. Bryan takes advantage by driving Page’s now-damaged shoulder (and also his face) into the ringpost several times. Bryan gloats in the ring as Page still recovers at ringside, now busted open from hitting the post.
As the next commercial break occurs, a doctor attends to Page. He’s given water and his cut is cleaned as Bryan gloats in the ring. Strange how he hasn’t been counted out yet. The break ends and Bryan hits a sliding dropkick to Page’s bloody forehead and then lands both a flying knee and punches to the wound. Bryan drapes Page over the edge of the ring and drops yet another knee on him and then smashes his shoulder into the post once more. Bryan hits ten corner punches and does his ‘I have ‘till 5 ref’ spot. Then Bryan rubs Page’s head into the turnbuckle and then kicks the turnbuckle pad right into Page’s face. Continuing his two-pronged assault, Bryan lands some over-the-shoulder armbreakers but Page frees himself by elbowing with his other arm. Bryan hits back with an uppercut and charges but Page catches him and goes for another fallaway Slam. Bryan slips out and lands a bridging German suplex. One, two, Page kicks out. Cattle Mutilation locked but not perfectly. Page manages to avoid lying flat and uses his legs to push himself to the ropes for a much-needed break.
Both guys end up on the apron and Bryan starts kicking Page’s chest. He winds up for a big one…but Page ducks. Bryan ends up kicking the ringpost. Sensing a critical opportunity, Page lands a running shin breaker into a different post. But Page isn’t done. He traps Bryan’s boot in the barricade and kicks it as hard as he can. The crowd cheers wildly as Page seems to be getting closer to a comeback. Page lands a standing knee crusher in the ring and then tries a second one right after but Bryan flips over. Bryan lands on his feet and staggers, which allows Page to land a leg pick and a figure-4 leglock. Bryan rolls to the ropes for a ropebreak leading to another commercial.
We don’t see what happened this time, but when we get back little appears to have happened. Page goes for Bryan’s bad leg but Bryan uses his free leg to land an enzuigiri. The commentators describe how Page further attacked Bryan’s leg during the commercial using dragon screws and knee breakers (you can imagine what that looked like) as the two wrestlers trade forearm strikes. Bryan hits an uppercut and charges to the ropes. Page goes for another pop-up Ligerbomb counter. But this time Bryan counters that counter with a Frankensteiner. One, two, Page kicks out. Cross armbreaker by Bryan. Page clasps his hands together. Bryan hits some elbows to break Page’s grasp and rolls into a triangle choke. Page starts deadlifting Bryan up. And despite Bryan punching Page’s forehead, Page powerbombs Bryan. But Bryan maintains the triangle choke. Bryan hits nasty elbows to Page’s head and all Page can do is roll to the ropes for another break.
After some recovery time, Bryan head-butts and kicks Page’s weakened right arm with both legs. Bryan goes for another head-butt but the collision rocks him. Page takes advantage with a Tombstone Piledriver out of nowhere. One, two, Bryan kicks out yet again. Page puts Bryan on the top rope and the two have a chop/head-butt exchange. Bryan blocks a top-rope superplex and knocks Page down. Page uses the rope to keep himself standing but Bryan dives off with an ax handle to that same arm. Fantastic strategy here from Bryan. A bridging Regal-plex gets Bryan another two-count. Avalanche back suplex. Bryan slowly crawls over for another cover but Page kicks out once more. Bryan traps Page’s arm and hammers his collar with more elbows. Then Bryan tries another armbar but Page gets a ropebreak and goes to the apron. Bryan teases a Gotch-style piledriver. Page counters with a Dead Eye back-to-belly Piledriver of his own. Bryan gets spiked on the apron! Page tries to toss him in for a cover but Bryan crawls away. But that doesn’t stop Page. Page dives from the top rope…and crashes into a table!
Yet another commercial ensues but this time we see both wrestlers crawling around ringside. Bryan pulls off some ringside mats and breaks the ref’s ring-out count. DDT onto the concrete floor by Bryan! Bryan gloats during the commercial (instead of going for a pin, for obvious reasons). Bryan sells his leg a bit and then hits a top-rope head-butt for yet another two-count.
The commercial ends and Bryan locks Page in a chinlock when suddenly Page escapes and hits a German suplex. Bryan kicks with his left leg, realizes it’s causing him too much trouble, and switches to his left leg, but Page blocks and hits that leg hard. Page goes for a lariat but it does very little because his arm is weakened. Page tries a few more times with the same result, and on a third lariat attempt Bryan kicks him down. Bryan follows with a running kick to Page’s weakened arm and goes for another Avalanche Backdrop. But this time Page lands on his feet. Both men run towards each other. Page smashes Bryan with a discus lariat!
Both wrestlers take a long time getting up. Once they do they start a yay/boo forearm exchange. Bryan’s starts staggering and needs to use Page to keep himself up. Bryan switches to head-butts and an uppercut. Page goes for a Misawa rolling elbow. Bryan ducks and tries a dragon suplex. Page slips out and both guys trade roll-ups and two-counts. Bryan rolls into another German suplex. Page lands on his feet yet again. Misawa rolling elbow connects! And then Bryan hits Page with the same! Page tries one more. Bryan hits first with a roundhouse to the side of Page’s head.
Five minutes left.
Bryan hits another roundhouse and covers. One…two…Page kicks out.
Some fans start booing, apparently aware of where this match is going. Unfazed, Bryan traps both of Page’s arms and stomps on his jaw. Bryan teases his running knee strike finisher. Bryan charges…and runs into another Dead Eye. Bryan gets spiked! The referee counts one…two…and thr – no, Bryan kicks out once again. This is insane!
Page grabs both of Bryan’s arms and gets revenge with Danielson stomps to rile up the crowd. He pulls off his elbow pad and goes to the apron. Buckshot Lariat…is blocked. Bryan locks in his crossface! Page tries crawling to the ropes. Bryan hits forearms to Page’s head to keep him in place.
One minute left.
Page tries the same rollover counter to the crossface he did earlier but Bryan blocks it. Page counters that with a catapult slingshot into the ropes. Bryan grabs the top rope and skins the cat. He turns around…and walks into a lariat! But Page doesn’t cover. Instead, he goes to the apron. Then he springboards. Buckshot Lariat connects! Page starts crawling over to cover when suddenly the bell rings! Both wrestlers collapse as the fans boo vociferously!
STILL AEW World Champion due to a 60-minute DRAW: “Hangman” Adam Page
A link with the full video is here.
Oh Hell Yeah! Amazing match! This absolutely lived up to the hype. Easily one of the best matches of the year and by far the best match in AEW’s (short) history. There wasn’t a single dull moment between the bells. Bryan showed exactly why he keeps getting called the best wrestler in the world. And Page put on a career-defining performance here. I was hesitant to believe in the Hangman hype because Page was Omega’s boy and I was worried that Page would try to emulate his former Bullet Club teammate. Thankfully that didn’t happen. This wasn’t like a modern New Japan match with a plodding first half and an explosive ending with crazy counters at the end. Instead, this was more like a classic 1980s NWA match or a 1990s All Japan match with the counters and shifts in control spread out throughout the match more evenly to create a more compelling narrative and smoother pacing. It really was, and still is, a genuine and must-watch classic.
Let’s start with the match’s psychology. Anyone that follows this review series knows that I’m a huge fan of psychology and logic, even in something as colorful and wacky as pro wrestling and especially where 5-Star matches are concerned. A match is always better when the wrestlers involved do things that make sense and go the extra mile to add some believability to their actions. That’s exactly what happened here. Page found himself on the defensive from the very beginning as Bryan targeted his arm, his legs, and his ribs with surgical precision and unrelenting offense. Page endured constant punishment to multiple body parts and saw most of his offensive capabilities taken away as well. He could barely even chop, much less swing his arm for his lariat, for most of the match. Bryan’s calculated efforts made him into an amazing wrestling villain despite his popularity. Page kept hanging on by a thread; each time he looked doomed he pulled off a sudden reversal, counter, or kick-out to keep the match going. He gave his fans a sense of hope as he overcame seemingly insurmountable odds in his superior grappler of an opponent. The tables turned gradually for Page at first as he landed random big moves like the Ligerbomb and some suplexes to slowly pick away at Bryan’s neck. Then Bryan got too greedy with a kick and Page got his chance to return the favor and show off his own psychological know-how. He demolished Bryan’s legs to the point that Bryan could barely stand and had to switch back-and-forth between both legs to kick. Both guys sold like they were in genuine pain and at times struggled to capitalize on big moves because they were both tired and had badly damaged body parts. This sort of selling is increasingly rare, especially with most indy feds focusing more on spectacle over substance. So seeing Bryan and Page wrestle almost scientifically while also being entertaining was a much-needed breath of fresh air.
This match reminded me of these two Kawada vs. Kobashi 60-minute matches from the 1990s, which I consider standard-bearers for exciting 60-minute draws. Both of those were the exact same as this one: the champion going 60 minutes in his first defense but the two of them swapped positions between the first match and the second. This match was slightly closer to the latter with the younger wrestler having something to prove against a much more experienced challenger. Page used every trick in the book to try and beat Bryan but it wasn’t enough. Bryan relied on his veteran instincts and likewise tried to win by any means necessary. He tried slowing Page down by taking out his legs but that didn’t work. He tried taking Page’s lariat and chopping arm out of the equation but that failed too. He even tried beating Page bloody but Page just wouldn’t die. Page showed the kind of babyface grit and never-say-die attitude that makes for an excellent underdog hero that’s easy to get behind.
It’s no wonder that the fans were so into Page as a babyface; he had that simple attitude of never giving up. It also helped that he had an excellent villain to guide the match for him. Like a perfect heel, Bryan attacked Page from every angle possible but failed to stop Page’s slow but relentless march forward. And had Page done things a bit differently at the end, he might’ve actually gotten the three-count at the very end instead of having to accept a draw.
Of course, it also helped that both wrestlers kept the fans guessing as the match progressed. Both wrestlers caught on to each other’s strategies and big moves, so what worked early on was blocked or countered later. That made this match so much more enjoyable; it makes sense to go for the same move more than once in a single match if it works, but it’s even better if that same move gets blocked or changed because the wrestler taking experienced it and knows what to expect.
But as much as I’m praising this match for all its positives, it wasn’t without flaw. Once again, one of my biggest pet peeves reared its head: bad limb selling brought about by bad match layout. I’ve called that out before in otheroutstandingmatches and it seems to be a common issue that even the best wrestlers struggle with from time to time. In this match, Bryan put lots of effort into attacking Page’s legs but less than a minute later Bryan’s legwork ended, Page was running the ropes, jumping onto the apron, and moving smoothly as if completely unfazed. Bryan’s a submission specialist so those holds, even if they’re transitional, should be sold as big deals. But Page didn’t even bother selling them, and his arm selling was also a bit off. Bryan dismantled Page’s arm even more than he did Page’s leg, yet Page continued hitting forearms and elbows with his weakened arm. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: why not simply switch to the other arm to inflict more damage and do less damage to yourself?
But this isn’t just my personal pet peeve; bad selling like this hurts the match in general as well. Wrestling fans, like most people these days, lack patience. It’s harder to keep their attention for very long and so something as ambitious as a sixty-minute match needs to be well thought out and consistent to be successful. So why waste everyone’s time by doing some submission moves and targeting a limb when it doesn’t lead to anything else? To pad the match’s length? To show off a move as if it’s part of a checklist? Doing stuff with that mindset might get a momentary pop, but it won’t keep people’s interest for long if the person taking those moves doesn’t do the bare minimum of showing that they were even effective.
Page was guilty of this early on, but Bryan wasn’t blameless either. Page spent a long time dismantling Bryan’s leg and apparently during the third commercial Page used lots of high-damage leg-targeting moves. With all of that, Bryan should’ve been limping and struggling to stay standing; if his leg was in such poor shape, why would he run to the ropes and then land a Frankensteiner (both of which require the legs to be healthy to be successful)? And speaking of that Frankensteiner spot, why didn’t Bryan let go of his own hold because he basically flipped himself onto his knees and shins, including the one that Page attacked for minutes on end? Bryan’s selling would’ve reached that elite level had he followed what was done in this match and broken his own pin to sell how badly Page had demolished his leg and this would’ve improved the match bigtime.
Also, this match definitely should’ve been saved for a PPV because the commercials ruined its flow and logic. As many other fans have noted elsewhere, the commercials impacted the match in a mostly negative way. The action during each one slowed down, there were gaps in flow during the second one, and the third one saw a complete lapse in logic that made it blatantly obvious that Bryan was stalling. He spiked Page head-first onto concrete with a DDT and his next action…was to do jumping jacks. Not to pin, or go for a submission, or even drag what was left of Page’s carcass into the ring. But to gloat. He knew that he was in a commercial break so he had to stall and that hurt the match. Though the match had fairly airtight psychology and pacing when live, the action during the commercials created holes in the match’s structure that made it less exciting. It’s like streaming a film or a great sporting game live and then your stream starts buffering; your sense of immersion is diminished by forces outside the wrestlers’ control. Had this match taken place on PPV, it would’ve gone without breaks and both Page and Bryan would’ve been able to wrestle more seamlessly and tell an even better story than they already did.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Despite some holes and flaws in it, this was an outstanding, phenomenal wrestling match. If I were to rate this match using a percentage, it would be somewhere between 96% and 97%. It came so close to being genuinely flawless. A few tweaks here and there and we’d have a genuine all-time classic on par with some of the cream of the crop of best matches.
One thing I would change would be Page’s finisher. The Buckshot, while visually pleasing, is too cumbersome to work into a compelling and back-and-forth match. So many wrestlers prior to him managed to make the lariat work by keeping it simple. I know it makes Page stand out but it doesn’t work in matches like this one. It requires too much setup and it makes it harder to believe he’s still selling for his opponent when he does all that extra motion to hit a simple arm swing. This match’s finish proved that. He had the match won with his first lariat and should’ve pinned at that moment. Bryan’s neck was all but destroyed after Page spiked him so many times so a single lariat would’ve been enough to end the match (as long as it came from the healthier arm).
It’s a shame that AEW doesn’t have a video library that allows fans to re-watch classic matches like this. I know the wrestling library market is already saturated and wrestling fans only have so much money to spend on a monthly basis. But if AEW were to invest in such a thing, then there’s a good chance that this match would be among the company’s most-viewed videos.