10 OF THE BEST- AEW Matches of the Year 2023
By Mick Robson
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A week and change into the New Year, I'm finally getting started on the AEW Matches of the Year article. I mentioned in the WWE article how the original plan was to do "International Matches of the Year", which would basically encompass WWE and AEW, as I don't have time to do ALL the promotions. But WWE have had one of the best years they've had in a long, long time, firing on all cylinders, and AEW can be relied on for having plenty of matches that get those sweet, sweet Meltzer stars or Cagematch ratings.
Side tangent- people like to mock and make jokes about star ratings. I get it. At the end of the day, wrestling is subjective, and everyone likes different flavours of ice cream, so to speak. To me, I use them as a general guide of whether a match was good or great, or bad or absolute shit. I'm never gonna argue with someone over rating a match differently to me. It's all wrestling, I love wrestling, and it's just a scale of "I enjoyed it this much" to "I enjoyed it THIS much" most of the time.
Back on track, I said I was waiting for AEW to hold its final PPV of the year, which happened of the final day of the year here in Australia, that being AEW Worlds End (review here: https://www.thearenamedia.net/single-post/aew-worlds-end-review-31-12-2023). So that PPV has been and gone, and we're now getting our feet set in 2024. At the time of writing, we're a couple of days away from a Homecoming episode, where AEW returns to Daily's Place in Jacksonville, Florida, and weeks away from AEW Revolution, where the Icon, STIIIIIIIIIIING! has his final match (yet to be announced).
But before we look toward the future, we need to look at the (recent) past.
Disclaimer: 10 OF THE BEST isn't a series in strict order. It's just, as it says in the title, 10 of the best in a particular category.
Let's do this.
10- TNT Championship- Christian Cage vs. Adam Copeland- AEW World's End
Am I putting this here to justify my waiting for Worlds End to conclude before writing this list? ...Maybe a little bit. Worlds End was not a good show overall. But what helped the tide turn on the show to save it from going in the bin, was this emotionally-charged weapons-filled brawl between two lifelong friends.
I loved the nostalgia ride from Copeland wearing a version of his WM22 attire, as well as re-doing the flaming table spot with Nick Wayne (even if didn't land perfect). From there there were callbacks to other iconic Edge moments- the Spear through the table from ECW One Night Stand, the sunset powerbomb from the Eddie match on Smackdown, and finally the post-match cash-in after Copeland briefly won the TNT title- a fitting turn of events for the first ever Mr. Money In The Bank. Brilliant stuff from Copeland and Christian.
9- The "Real" AEW Worlds Championship- CM Punk vs. Samoa Joe- AEW All In London
AEW's first foray into Wembley Stadium was a massive success business-wise, but the in-ring highlight may have been what kicked off the show. Punk and Joe have a storied rivalry from their ROH days, and while they both had lengthy WWE runs, both just missed each other in that promotion. In front of a red hot crowd, they played their greatest hits, and also had a little fun with some John Cena and Hulk Hogan references. Punk got some colour after being thrown through the side of the announce table, and finally he hit the Pepsi Plunge- a finishing move he never busted out in WWE to my knowledge- to put this one away and walk out of AEW a winner amid a storm of controversy.
8- Kenny Omega vs. El Hijo del Vikingo- AEW Dynamite
I had seen little clips of Vikingo online, and it was clear he was an uber-exciting luchador who had absolute mastery of the ropes. Tony Khan booked this one out of nowhere as a "dream match" on Dynamite, and as much as fans and critics bemoan the lack of a story, this was an incredible exhibition that helped remind people that the Best Bout Machine Kenny Omega was still there, even if he was older and had been through his fair share of injuries and surgeries. He kept pace with the scintillating Vikingo, with his immense speed and crazy spots, highlighted with a springboard 630 to the outside through a table. How Vikingo didn't split his skull on the apron, I have no idea, but it was one of the most amazing matches seen all 2023, and it happened on TV.
7- AEW World Championship- Kenny Omega vs. MJF- AEW Collision
It's a good thing Omega still has something left in the tank, because he was able to give it to us on Collision. As Maxwell Jacob Friedman approached record status with his AEW title reign, the man with the record, Kenny Omega, stepped up. The match was booked with a few days notice on Collision. If Max retained, then he would claim the record as the longest reigning AEW Champion. If Omega won, he would take the title and retain his spot in the record books.
While this seemed booked out of nowhere, it had been subtlely built up to through small interactions in the preceding months, where MJF would remind Omega how close to the record he was, with whispers of, "_____ days, bitch!" The resulting match was a hard-hitting war which saw MJF with his working boots on as much as they had been throughout his whole title reign. There was some Don Callis interference which served as a distraction to Kenny, but the final sequence was all champion and challenger trading near falls, until Max went into his best buddy Adam Cole's playbook, hitting a Panama Sunrise before the Heatseeker to finally retain.
6- Texas Death Match- Hangman Page vs. Swerve Strickland- AEW Full Gear
One of the stories of AEW in the second half of 2023 was the emergence of Swerve as a bonafide main event star. The potential was always there, going back to his NXT days, but here it was finally realised, with Strickland carrying himself with extreme confidence in every segment. The feud with Hangman, which started with Swerve just wanting Hangman's spot, got extremely personal as he invaded Hangman's home.
The resulting Texas Death Match was suitably violent given the way this match was built up. There was blood- Hangman even drank Swerve's blood in a gross spot- and there was barbed wire and weapons galore. It bordered on uncomfortable, even for someone who loves gimmick matches, and the finish established Swerve as a sadistic force willing to do anything to win, as he smashed Hangman in the back of the head with a cinder block, then choking him out with a steel chain to put him down for the final 10 count. Swerve undoubtedly has the main event aura coming out of that gruesome match.
5- Bryan Danielson vs. Zack Sabre Jr- AEW WrestleDream
For something completely different- this was a technical masterclass between Danielson and Sabre Jr. Originally scheduled for Forbidden Door 2022, Bryan was injured, which led Claudio to step in and make his AEW debut against ZSJ. Here, Zack had a plan, and that plan was to attack the recently broken arm that Bryan suffered against Okada.
This physical chess match was also greatly enhanced by the commentary, with Nigel McGuiness continuing his endless crusade against Bryan, while Bryan's BCC stablemate Jon Moxley was incredibly invested as a guest commentator. With Bryan's arms rendered near-useless due to ZSJ's attack, he resorted to using his legs and managed to eek out the win following two Busaiku knees. Just brilliant!
4- Kenny Omega vs. Will Ospreay- AEW/NJPW Forbidden Door
I don't follow New Japan super closely. I do make an effort to watch the Wrestle Kingdoms usually- although at the time of writing I still haven't seen the 2024 edition. Last year, Omega and Ospreay met in what I could call the MOTY, but I haven't seen the rest of the NJPW stuff to compare it to. It was most definitely special, though, and the Forbidden Door rematch was more of the same.
Mind blowing athleticism was the order of the day, but heavyweight Ospreay uses a little more psychology to accompany some of the spectacular flippy shit he can still do. Both men got bloodied up, and Omega DDTed Ospreay on the steel stairs. January had the top rope DDT on the exposed turnbuckle, June had the stairs. Hard to say which was worse/more spectacular. They hit their biggest moves, including a spine-crunching Tiger Driver 97, a Hidden Blade and a Stormbreaker on Omega to finally end him! Insane action.
3- AEW World Championship- MJF vs. Darby Allin vs. Jungle Boy vs. Sammy Guevara= AEW Double or Nothing
These four men have often been called the Four Pillars of AEW, as they are four young homegrown stars that didn't have an extended run in another promotion first to establish their stardom. I don't know how well the Four Pillars thing has aged as the CM Punk fight sent "Jungle Boy" Jack Perry away from AEW, and he hasn't been seen since. (EDIT- he has since appeared on NJPW's Battle In The Valley as this article was being finalised)
This verged on video game wrestling that made me so critical of the Gargano vs. Cole series in NXT, very little in the way of selling or pacing, just hitting all the coolest sequences that they could with little regard to selling and pacing. But it did work to a degree given the stakes involved- the AEW Championship- and the general promotional feel of AEW. "Stealing the show" is almost as important as winning, which opens up a whole other can of worms, but point is, it made more sense for the Four Pillars of AEW to be that flashy in this environment, like proving to each other and the fans that they could do anything and everything to both win and be noticed. MJF finally retained, in a clash where the action never slowed, and all four men stayed involved for the vast majority of the match runtime. An absolute rollercoaster ride!
2- FTR vs. Bullet Club Gold- AEW Collision
Tag team wrestling often gets a bad rap. Done right, it can be just as captivating, if not more, than a big time singles match. That was the case in the early days of the Collision TV show. As CM Punk's mates on CM Punk's show, FTR were Collision mainstays, and Jay White and Juice Robinson also found themselves as a core part of the Saturday night roster as Bullet Club Gold.
They went almost an hour, aided by the 2 out of 3 falls format, and went through stretches of dominant heel beatdowns, hot tags and both sides hitting their best moves. The atmosphere was electric as the crowd in attendance realised they were seeing something special. Blade Runner gets BC Gold Fall 1. Shatter Machine/Big Rig gets FTR Fall 2. And finally, because they're massive Bret Hart marks, the Sharpshooter cinches the third and decisive fall for FTR. Stellar tag team wrestling for an hour straight. Incomparable.
1- AEW World Championship- Iron Man Match- MJF vs. Bryan Danielson- AEW Revolution
Occuring earlier in the year, while I say that "10 of the Best" isn't a series in strict order, the #1 here may well be the best AEW match of the year. I have mixed feelings about the Ironman match stipulation- I can't stand the Hart vs. Michaels match from WM12, where it feels like they just work a headlock for 45 minutes of the hour-long match. I much prefer matches like Rock vs. HHH and Angle vs. Lesnar, where they make an effort to fill the hour with dynamic action, and use whatever bells and whistles they need to make that happen.
This match had some bells and whistles, but was moreso meat and potatoes. MJF, the reigning champion, is blessed with the gift of the gab, so as such, a lot of people sleep on his in-ring ability. But he and the American Dragon put on a shift in this one, giving Friedman the reputation boost of going to the limit with Bryan in what turned out to be an hour plus. MJF used his brains, costing himself a point with a blatant low blow to get the advantage over the technically savvy Danielson. Back and forth, we get to 60 minutes with the score tied 3-3, and MJF taps to Danielson after the bell. The match goes to sudden death. MJF was given oxygen after the 60 minutes expired and uses the tank to smash Bryan, undetected by the ref, then applies the Lebell Lock to get the win and retain. What a brilliant scumbag.
And that does it for the best of AEW in 2023! They're far from a perfect wrestling promotion, and Tony Khan absolutely needs to log off Twitter, but as far as bell to bell great wrestling action, they do it better than most around. You're really doing yourself a disservice if you do the tribalism thing and dismiss them as a "glorified indie" or whatever. Check out these matches and give them a chance. Ignore TK's childish outbursts, he pays some really great talents to wrestle for him, they're worth your time.
Until next time, take care.