AEW Battle of the Belts III Report: Claudio Castagnoli vs. Konosuke Takeshita
The third installment of AEW’s Battle Of The Belts series has received a measure more promotion and hype on Dynamite and Rampage than its two preceding iterations, though admittedly that’s not saying much. January’s Battle Of The Belts featured one match which wasn’t announced until the night before, and another which was changed on the day of the show due to medical protocol. April’s show didn’t fare much better in terms of buzz, with both Jonathan Gresham and Dalton Castle making their first AEW appearances in a cold match. In contrast, each of the three matches on tonight’s show has been given fair to solid builds and features six competitors with whom the AEW audience will be very familiar.
Jay Lethal’s moderate upset of Orange Cassidy on Dynamite has allowed him to quickly transition away from his loss to Samoa Joe, and while there have been questions as to whether his association with Satnam Singh has been a benefit to either the veteran or the rookie, Lethal’s made the most of his opportunities on AEW television. While Wardlow’s TNT title reign itself still feels somewhat undefined, it’s clear that frittering away a couple of weeks with Mark Sterling and Tony Nese did the big man no lasting harm, and the looming possibility of a collision between him and Singh adds some extra juice to tonight’s match.
The ongoing ambiguity concerning how much Ring Of Honor promotion is (or should be) happening on AEW television has kept Claudio Castagnoli’s ROH World Championship reign on the margins in terms of exposure, but given that the honeymoon period is very much still in effect with the former Cesaro, Castagnoli’s (SECOND?) defense feels fairly hot going in, even if it seems like Konosuke Takeshita is guaranteed another valiant loss to a high-profile opponent during his US excursion. For his part, a decisive thrashing of both Ryan Nemeth and Peter Avalon yesterday on Rampage showed that US crowds are still very excited by Takeshita, win or lose.
While Thunder Rosa’s feud with Britt Baker has proven to be the most enduring in the history of AEW’s Women’s World Championship, the scene has become more complex with the formation of the Thunder Storm tag team and the question of Jamie Hayter’s loyalty to Baker, which has been kept on the back burner for months. While she hasn’t been given a great deal of television focus, Hayter’s proven herself able to whip up live crowds with her in-ring work, as was the case with her tag match with Baker against Rosa and Toni Storm on Dynamite.
Taped right after yesterday’s live episode of Rampage, Battle Of The Belts should benefit from a hot Grand Rapids crowd at the Van Andel Arena, presuming that these three title matches maintained their interest.
- TNT Championship – Wardlow (c) vs Jay Lethal (w. Sonjay Dutt & Satnam Singh)
Another chapter in the trio of Lethal, Dutt, & Singh’s ongoing machinations. Good enough for a television title match, but not a huge amount to recommend it in terms of in-ring.
- AEW Women’s World Championship – Thunder Rosa (c) vs Jamie Hayter
A hard-hitting contest between two of the women’s division’s best which speaks to their respective tenures in Japan. – RECOMMENDED
- ROH World Championship – Claudio Castagnoli (c) vs Konosuke Takeshita Pure technique and pure technique are on display in a masterfully executed and exciting match. – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
TNT Championship – Wardlow (c) vs Jay Lethal (w. Sonjay Dutt & Satnam Singh)
Lethal gets an early start after Dutt distracts Wardlow, but the big man no-sells a vertical suplex and clotheslines Lethal outside. Dutt and Singh again help Lethal take advantage and hit an enzuigiri. Wardlow gets a tilt-a-whirl for two, Lethal tries a roll-up after playing injured, hits a tope suicida to the outside, and does some styling and profiling. Lethal works Wardlow’s knee during PIP, but after the break Wardlow transitions another roll-up into a powerbomb tease. Lethal Injections and more powerbombs are both evaded, and Wardlow sends Lethal for a 270° spin with a big lariat which sets up a powerbomb for the pinfall.
Wardlow defeats Jay Lethal via pinfall at 7:22.
After the pin, Dutt and Singh rush Wardlow, and the three-man beat-down leads to Singh’s shoe on Wardlow’s neck while Lethal goes back to wrenching the knee. Wardlow gets up, hits a low blow to Singh, and teases a powerbomb, but Lethal intercedes. Singh chokeslams Wardlow through a table, and Dutt sets the TNT title on Lethal’s chest as the trio pose over the fallen champ.
The takeaway: Singh and Dutt giving Lethal opportunities to work a grimy heel vet style helped the challenger feel credible for much of this match, but ultimately this was meant to set up a Wardlow/Singh match down the road while keeping Wardlow in place as a credible monster more than capable of dispatching Lethal on an even playing field. This was fine enough for a television defense of a television title but was clearly meant to continue the larger story more than provide a satisfying conclusion.
AEW Women’s World Championship – Thunder Rosa (c) (w. Toni Storm) vs Jamie Hayter (w. Britt Baker & Rebel)
Hayter jumps Rosa while the champ is posing with the belt, and hits a very nice snap suplex to keep her grounded. Hayter shines the crowd on as they’re cheering for Rosa, and lights her up with chops. Rosa gets some breathing space with some dropkicks, but Hayter hits Rosa with a forearm as Rosa goes for a tope. Strikes are exchanged outside the ring, Rosa hits a DDT and rolls Hayter in for a one-count. Baker distracts Rosa by grabbing the title, allowing Hayter to hit a backbreaker on the steps as the broadcast goes to PIP. Rosa holds the advantage during the break, grinding Rosa’s neck into the ring ropes. More Joshi-styled chop exchanges set up another nice Hayter suplex. Storm chases Britt and Rebel away after the heels rub Rosa’s hat into her face. Another lengthy exchange of forearms lets Rosa hit a Northern Lights and viciously dropkick a slumped Hayter through the ropes. A top-rope crossbody gets Rosa a two count, Hayter counters with a backbreaker and brainbuster for two. Storm and Britt start striking after the latter grabs Rosa, with Storm hitting a tornado DDT. Rosa tries a trio of roll-ups while Hayter is momentarily distracted, and just barely keeps Hayter down for the three-count the third time with a cazadora.
Thunder Rosa defeats Jamie Hayter via pinfall at 11:30.
The takeaway: A case could be made for Rosa and Hayter being the two best in-ring competitors in AEW’s women’s division, and while there was a modicum of extracurricular shenanigans involving the various seconds, this match was set up to allow them to support that case. The Joshi flavor in this match’s strikes and suplexes gave it some nice edge and intensity, and while the last roll-ups looked a bit rough, what might have been accidental only played into the idea that it was Hayter’s head being crunched during the cazadora which allowed Rosa to keep her down just long enough. Good stuff.
ROH World Championship – Claudio Castagnoli (c) vs Konosuke Takeshita
Bobby Cruise introduces the competitors as Caprice Coleman and William Regal join the desk. Things start fast with crossovers and leapfrogs but settle down with both men working in and out of head and wristlocks. Dueling monkey flips showcase both men’s strength from the ground as the crowd comes to its feet, realizing this is going to be a technical showcase. More grappling leads to a hip toss by Takeshita and Castagnoli fighting out of a cravat. More shooting off headlocks likely has Danielson remembering a certain PWG match backstage. Castagnoli hits two backbreakers for two as the broadcast goes to PIP. Castagnoli works a stepover armbar, no doubt happy to be able to work creative and mean-looking submissions during commercial breaks. Takeshita eventually outmaneuvers Castagnoli and gets a few seconds of breath after a delayed vertical suplex, but Castagnoli goes back to grinding at his back. Takeshita gets a top rope rana and Takeshita Line diving lariat, and hits a tope con hilo, which has the commentary reminiscing about both men’s histories with El Generico.
A big gut-wrench from the second rope gets Castagnoli a two count as the crowd comes to their feet to see the airplane spin. A blue thunder bomb from Takeshita delivers more nostalgia of a generic variety. Takeshita hits a turnbuckle DDT (I can’t have been the only one imagining a turnbuckle brainbuster) and a slightly short frog splash for two, but is knocked out of the air with a European uppercut while going for a second Takeshita Line. Quick exchanges of Germans and lariats lead to another close two-count for Takeshita and another well-deserved standing ovation from the crowd. Takeshita evades the pop-up uppercut and hits a big brainbuster for another near fall. Takeshita’s back is to hurt to hit the Cinnabomb, Takeshita turns a Ricola Bomb attempt into a roll-up near fall. Claudio reverses a jumping knee into a DVD and uses some BCC hammer and tongs elbows to finally set up the Ricola Bomb for the win with only seconds to spare before the broadcast ends.
Claudio Castagnoli defeats Konusuke Takeshita via pinfall at 19:46
The takeaway: This was an intense technical masterpiece, and exactly the sort of match hardcore wrestling fans have been hoping for since news of Castagnoli’s departure from WWE broke. The commentary team did a great job of pointing out the various ROH and Japanese wrestlers and feuds this match had allusions to, but even if you were unaware of those, the throughline of Castagnoli grinding his opponent’s back and Takeshita assaulting his neck gave this match plenty of standalone stories. And hell, you didn’t even need to pay attention to that if you didn’t want to, as both men put on one of the most thrilling and action-packed matches of the year.
As I discussed up top, this was the best-built Battle Of The Belts show to a marginal degree, but in terms of in-ring, it handily trumped its predecessors. The TNT match was nothing of real note but didn’t overstay its welcome, and the women’s match delivered an entertaining slug-fest while keeping aloft a number of the division’s major players. And you could hardly ask for a better calling card for whatever form Tony Khan’s vision for ROH will finally adopt than the main event, which might be the best match I’ve seen all year that didn’t feature either Will Ospreay or FTR.