Featured image by Lee South
First reviewed here.
First, Ricky Starks.
I have been a fan of Ricky’s for the last four years or so now, I recall being really enthralled by his mic and ring work on NWA Powerrr. By the time he made it to AEW Dynamite against Cody, it felt like a reasonable step up for him, and I’ve found him to be a highlight of AEW TV when he’s given the ball. That being said, the one criticism of his I can understand is that there’s always seemed to be a ceiling on his in-ring output. While I don’t think that Ricky’s ever been a bad worker at any time in the last four years, I think it’s fair to say that he doesn’t have a long list of great-level matches to hang his hat on.
2023 finally felt like the year that he began to beat those allegations. His run as one of the focal points of early Collision put him in regular positions to have great matches, most notably in all his in-ring encounters with CM Punk. I’ve seen a lot of fair criticism surrounding whether or not Starks should have stayed face instead of turning back heel, but at the end of the day, that time on TV produced his very best in-ring work ever by virtue of being in there with someone like CM Punk who could apply the intangible touches that could get the very best out of Starks’ raw natural capability.
Then CM Punk got fired.
Obviously, this wrecks a lot for Ricky. He’s last bout with Punk was a loss, their continued feud will now have no end, and he’s left without an opponent at the big Chicago pay-per-view, All Out. When things go wrong like that, there’s worse you can do than throwing Bryan Danielson at the problem.
While I was optimistic for this match, I really didn’t expect it to land quite as strongly as it did. The malaise of the entire Punk debacle hung over this match especially at the pay-per-view, and the set up to it was perhaps the best they could do in that short time but still leaving something to be desired.
Luckily, I found Starks up to the task here. I was surprised to find just how divisive Starks was as a performer, even among my online circles and audience. My take on the matter really is something as simple as this: a match this great does not happen on the efforts of one man alone. We can ascribe the lion’s share to Danielson if we want (and I will), but Starks holds up more than his end of the bargain here.
What he delivers on more than anything in this match is pure dedication to the role. It’s not a pretty or even flashy performance from Ricky Starks, and that works entirely to his benefit. It’s rooted right in what Starks needed to be as a heel. He’s brash and cocky, dastardly and threatening, but he also self-sabotages from his need to always take the easy way out instead of pushing his way through. That’s why we have him attacking before the bell, busting open Dragon before they can even get tethered properly. It’s why when he’s in control initially, the strap shots land but they don’t feel cool enough to be admirable. It’s a good performance for that part of the match, because it aligns us to what our brains naturally look for: Bryan Danielson returning from injury, cast clearly as an underdog, and Starks in a position to flex and preen while picking apart someone we love.
Ah, but then the comeback.
Let’s take a moment to really bask in the things that Danielson’s capable of here. When Starks is in a vulnerable position up on the top rope, and Danielson’s got the strap in his hands ready to whip the man to death, he lets the moment breathe. The camera gets real close, we see the determination on his bloody face as he begins to rise up. The crowd seems to rise with him, and at the apex of their anticipation, the first lash from Danielson.
The sound that leather makes when it hits Ricky Starks never fails to send a jolt of electricity through me. It’s by far the hardest blow in the match to that point and it changes the entire complexion of the action. Danielson keeps laying in these truly horrific whippings on Ricky Starks and it is viscerally satisfying. It’s the kind of brutal comeuppance that a heel like Starks is born to receive. They’re lashes so strong and powerful that they eliminate any thoughts of “work” or “gimmickry.” That shit is real, plain and simple.
From there, the match takes on a new kind of meaning. Yes, there’s still the inherent narrative of heel Ricky Starks paying dearly for his sins, but Danielson takes things a step further. As he would repeatedly towards the end of the year, Danielson actively dares Starks to get on his level. When he stands there absorbing the whipping from Starks and it looks like Stark’s body and heart are about to give out at once, Danielson eggs the young man on and sort of forces the heel to reach into a final reserve of power. It’s important to the moment here that Starks doesn’t give in, but he never betrays his position as a heel either because even when Starks empties the tank and gives it his all: it doesn’t work.
Starks may have tapped into something special on this night, might have broken through his own ceiling and attained a level of performance yet unseen from him at this point, but there’s levels to all of this. There’s Great and there’s the Greatest.
As he has repeatedly down throughout the history of his career, Bryan Danielson grants a promising talent the best match of their life. He literally beats it into Starks. Even in defeat, Danielson does Starks a favor, not just by forcing self-elevation, but by granting Starks the dignity of a pass out defeat as opposed to the submission. Matches this great don’t happen off of one man’s efforts alone.