By: Bruce Lord
Despite being officially announced back in November as one of the quarterly TNT supercards which were an element of the renegotiated deal between Turner Broadcasting and AEW, Battle of the Belts felt like something of a rushed obligation heading into tonight’s show. The card couldn’t help but be overshadowed by Dynamite’s debut on TBS earlier this week, which has been the focus of AEW television and storytelling for months and featured one of the promotion’s most acclaimed title matches in its history, regardless of gender or championship. Factor in today’s NJPW/NOAH and Impact shows and Battle of the Belts feels somewhat starved for attention at the end of a very packed week of wrestling programming.
Another factor hampering any buzz for the show has been the lack of build towards specific matches. Of course, a card specifically themed around title defenses can’t be booked too far in advance so as to preserve the credibility of interim fights. But there’s been very little build for the women’s title match, which has been in place for six weeks. If memory serves me correctly, there’d been only one backstage segment featuring Riho and Britt Baker on Dynamite and possibly a quick pre-taped promo or two before last night’s tag team match featuring both competitors. That a second match on the card was only announced this Wednesday may have perversely been a blessing in disguise: the Cody/Sammy Guevara rematch being scrapped due to medical protocol just 48 hours after its announcement meant that no real investment of time was lost. Its replacement, Guevera vs Dustin Rhodes match for an interim TNT title, has the potential to be a decent enough match but doesn’t bring any new luster, outside of the possibility of it setting up a rematch of one of AEW’s first truly great matches. The Ricky Starks/Matt Sydal match for the FTW championship (making two of the three titular belts on the line tonight unofficial) which was announced last night looks solid on paper and will give Starks some well-deserved in-ring air time after not having had a singles match on AEW television since early October, but isn’t exactly high profile.
All that being said, a great show can always excuse an unremarkable build, so let’s see how tonight’s show from the Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina fared.
Interim AEW TNT Championship – Sammy Guevara vs Dustin Rhodes: A bit uneven at times but a pretty entertaining match with some notable highspots. RECOMMENDED.
FTW Championship – Ricky Starks (c) vs Matt Sydal: A fair enough match which gave Starks’ in-ring work some needed attention, but didn’t exceed expectations.
AEW Women’s World Championship – Britt Baker (c) vs Riho: Some solid heelwork from Baker and a couple of cool moments, though the focus on out-of-ring stories may detract from its value as a title match.
Interim AEW TNT Championship – Sammy Guevara vs Dustin Rhodes
Our usual commentary team of Jim Ross, Tony Schiavone, and Excalibur is on the call as both men come to the ring, with Arn Anderson accompanying Dustin. Justin Roberts acknowledges the presence of North Carolina auto racing promoter Humpy Wheeler (no, I’m not making that up) and David Crockett, who was recently seen on the Christmas Day episode of Dynamite.
Dustin offers a handshake which Sammy accepts, and we’re off to the races, as I’m sure Humpy would say. After a quick exchange of tosses, both men give a seemingly split crowd a moment to get loud. Dustin seems to be winded early and begs for time, and Sammy deftly outmaneuvers some of Dustin’s signature offense. Dustin heads to the floor to catch his breath, and Sammy pursues him there. Sammy mimes pulling a Glock on Arn, who responds with a single-digit salute. After some strikes and guardrail spots, Guevara’s knee is driven into the ring steps, and he eats a piledriver on the floor. Sammy’s back inside at the nine count, and Dustin begins working the injured knee, the story being that Dustin is having to hobble the much younger fighter to slow the match to his own pace.
Dustin hits a trademark powerslam for two and milks the classic Goldust turnbuckle punches and posing, which earns a gasface from Daniel Garcia whom the camera cuts to in the crowd. Guevara hits a fantastic double springboard senton to the floor but further damaged his knee in the process. Guevara goes for a double springboard cutter in the ring, but Dustin ably counters that into a Cross Rhodes as both men are down and winded at the ten-minute mark. A Code Red from Dustin gets another two-count. A very blown-up Dustin slowly climbs the turnbuckle and Sammy picks him up for a GTH which gets a two.
Fuego del Sol suddenly appears from under the ring and sets up a table outside much to Sammy’s approval. Fuego’s quickly chased off by Arn. Both fighters trade blows on the apron, an exchange which Dustin definitely gets the better of as the fifty-two-year-old hits a Canadian Destroyer off the apron and onto the floor through the table!
After a two count back inside, Dustin hits a pair of Cross Rhodes’ to Sammy and appears to be going for a Tiger Driver 98 as an homage to his brother before Sammy escapes and buys a moment with a superkick. There’s a sequence of quick-rolling pins, which Sammy ultimately wins.
Sammy Guevara defeats Dustin Rhodes via pinfall at 16:17 to win the Interim AEW TNT Championship.
Crockett enters the ring to present Sammy with an interim belt and is congratulated by Dustin who embraces him. As soon as Dustin leaves Daniel Garcia enters the ring to confront Guevara, and the two quickly begin brawling and are pulled apart by refs as we go to the commercial.
The takeaway: This match featured some incredible high spots and built what was initially a somewhat sedate crowd into a fervor, though there were some odd pacing issues at the beginning and a couple of awkward transitions at the end. It was tough to tell if Dustin was legitimately winded, especially at the beginning, or was just trying to put over the difference in age and cardio between him and Sammy, but this was still perfectly entertaining.
Back from the commercial, we have a quick video recapping the championship matches from last Wednesday, and Schiavone asking Sammy about Garcia’s run-in. Sammy says “ruin my moment, I’ll ruin your face”, setting up a match for the interim title with Garcia on next Wednesday’s Dynamite.
FTW Championship – Ricky Starks (c) vs Matt Sydal
Starks is accompanied by Will Hobbs, who takes the FTW belt to the timekeeper’s desk as Sydal starts off with some strikes, a ‘rana, and a standing mariposa. Sydal targets Starks’ quad, and Hobbs stares down Sydal to delay him from pressing the advantage as Starks recoups on the floor. Starks gains the advantage outside, and both men exchange control back in the ring. After an atomic drop, Starks checks his equipment for damage and reassures Bryce Hemsberg that everything’s in place. Starks does some Hogan miming between strikes and eventually hits a long-delayed fallaway vertical suplex.
A twisting uranage nets Starks a two, Sydal delivers spin kicks to the injured leg and head. Starks goes for a top rope Roshambo but Sydal counters with a top rope ‘rana and Michinoku Driver. The leg fails Starks as he goes for the Ro Sham Bo again, and Sydal hits a lightning spiral for two and follows up with a Meteora. After getting his foot on the rope to break up a pin, a battered Starks is able to hit a spear and Roshambo for the win.
Ricky Starks defeats Matt Sydal via pinfall at 9:02 to retain the FTW Championship
After the pin, Hobbs joins Starks to put the boots on to Sydal. Lee Moriarty’s out for the save, but he’s quickly neutralized. Dante Martin comes out to stop the Team Taz attack and squares off with Hobbs before the latter and Starks retreat.
The takeaway: This was a perfectly cromulent match which allowed Starks to get some good character work in (as well as reminding viewers of the affiliation between Sydal, Moriarty, and Martin, which was somewhat lost in the shuffle during the Martin/Team Taz storyline), but didn’t really go beyond expectations.
We have a quick package underscoring Britt’s inability to put Riho away, communicating the idea that while Britt’s been an undeniably strong champ, she has to win this match in order to properly cement her title reign. Having this video playing on Dynamite for the past four weeks or so might have helped to build some hype for this match…
AEW Women’s World Championship – Britt Baker (c) vs Riho
Britt has Rebel and Jamie Hayter in tow, and it’s apparent before the match even starts that Hayter and Baker still have static. The crowd sounds about 70/30 in Britt’s favor as some quick kicks from Riho take Bake outside. Riho hits a top turnbuckle splash to the outside, but Britt ducks out of the way to leave Rebel to take the full force of the attack. Hayter entreats a hesitant Baker to help her set a table up outside, and Riho knocks Britt out of the way to do a cool ‘running up the table’ spot to take out Hayter.
Back inside with the lackeys disposed of for the moment, Britt starts grinding at Riho with kicks, forearms, and suplexes, putting over her physical dominance over her much smaller opponent. Some mean knees to the face from a side clinch and a chin lock further wear Riho down. None of this is the flashiest of work from Baker but it feels properly aggressive and sadistic.
On cue after the picture-in-picture break, Riho gets a double foot stomp to regain control and follows with a tijeras. A drop toehold sets Britt up for the Tiger Feint Kick for two, and Riho moves to an arching single crab. Rebel pulls Britt onto the apron to protect her and gets a double foot stop for her efforts. Britt evades another foot stop inside, hits an Air Raid Crash, and dons her black surgical glove. Riho goes for a dragon suplex but Britt counters and nearly gets the Lockjaw on. Riho turns a second Lockjaw attempt into a pinning predicament for two, and Britt replies with a curb stomp for two. Standing on the apron, Hayter suddenly lobs the belt into the ring, seemingly encouraging Baker to use it and risk disqualification. Rebel is nonplussed, picks the belt up, and is quickly tossed by Paul Turner. Hayter and Britt exchange words, and in the distraction Riho hits a crucifix bomb, and northern lights suplex for a very near two. Another ugly curb stomp from Britt only gets two but leaves Riho open to the Lockjaw to which she quickly submits.
Britt Baker defeats Riho via submission at 12:35 to retain the AEW Women’s World Championship
The announcers are noting that while Britt has technically defeated Riho, it wasn’t the unsullied win they’d hoped for. There’s a tug of war between Britt and her two comrades over the belt as her win is being announced, teasing further conflict, but Hayter ultimately hands Britt the belt and embraces her, quashing the beef for the moment as AEW’s first Battle of the Belts concludes.
The takeaway: While maybe not at the level of some of her previous matches with Shida and Statlander (let alone the Thunder Rosa match), this was a decent enough match that nicely underscored Baker’s character and kept the story between her and Hayter brewing. The amount of interference from Rebel and Hayter might turn some folks off and detract from its significance as a title defense.
Nothing on this card was a disappointment, yet none of it truly transcended the somewhat muted mood it carried with it heading into this weekend. Like your average episode of Rampage this was a fast-moving show with solid action, yet put just as much focus on ongoing (Martin & Team Taz, Baker & Hayter) and new storylines (Guevara & Garcia) as it did any of the titular title fights. An enjoyable, if not especially auspicious or imperative debut for this new form of AEW programming.