If you asked Jon Moxley about his rivalry with Wheeler Yuta prior to the April 8, 2022 edition of AEW Rampage, he’d probably tell you that there is no rivalry. They’d fought a few times, sure, and both William Regal and Bryan Danielson had taken an interest in the kid, but it’d been all business up to that point.
A squash match against some Best Friend lackey, the lowest of lows. A last-minute replacement for a match Mox wasn’t even that bothered with. Even in their lone tag match encounter, Mox had no preference in who he damaged, as long as he was the one inflicting violence.
For Jon Moxley, he was doing his job. Wrestling. Mangling. Hurting people for sport.
For Wheeler Yuta, this was his wake-up call, and their rivalry changed the trajectory of his character in AEW forever. Let’s take a look at how we got here:
October 16, 2021: Dynamite
We’re a week removed from “Hangman” Adam Page’s huge victory in the second-ever AEW Casino Ladder Match, where Page defeated six strong competitors. However, the final shot of that match was the crowd cheering as Hangman knocked Moxley off the ladder right before he pulled the chip down.
Moxley knows he got beat. Now, it was time to beat on someone else.
Wheeler Yuta was already in the ring. No entrance needed. Just a nigh-faceless victim for an angry, scorned former champion. Jon Moxley stormed through the crowd, kicked the barricade out of the way, and before Yuta could even process that the bell had rung, Moxley had already hit him with a King Kong lariat.
Moxley beats on Yuta’s face in the ropes, hits him with a Money Clip (the Moxley suplex toss version, not the Okada submission version), grounds and pounds Yuta until referee Bryce Remsburg pulls him off, then lifts him up for a final elevated Paradigm Shift.
This match lasted 47 seconds.
While Moxley stomped up the ramp, a battered Wheeler Yuta slowly sat up while his mentor, Orange Cassidy, consoled him in the ring. The camera made a point of highlighting Orange’s quiet rage (or whatever negative emotion Orange could muster) as he looked up the ramp at his protégé’s assailant.
Jon Moxley was looking for gold. AEW was looking for a way to get Orange Cassidy and Jon Moxley in the ring with one another. Wheeler Yuta was looking for some kind of explanation, the hole in his gameplan.
For a while, none of them got what they wanted.
February 2, 2022: Dynamite
Jon Moxley had just come back from a few months out in rehab. Unlike when he left, the crowd was now absolutely unified in their support of the healthy, happy father. In fact, the only person who seemed to have any type of ill-will for Moxley was the confident wrestling master, Bryan Danielson.
Moxley was set to face off with long-time friend of Danielson’s, Brian Kendrick, on the 2/2/22 episode of Dynamite, but past comments of Kendrick’s resurfaced online prior to the show, meaning Kendrick was out and a replacement had to come fast.
Wheeler Yuta got yanked out of whatever AEW Dark: Elevation match he was scheduled for that evening and was told that he would now be opening AEW’s flagship show with the man who’d decimated him almost four months earlier. For Moxley, this was still just a warm-up match before his inevitable clash with Bryan Danielson. For Yuta, this was a chance to prove himself.
When the bell rang, Yuta immediately tried to hit Moxley with a dropkick, learning from their previous encounter. Moxley was able to dodge it and go for his King Kong lariat again, but Yuta dodged it himself, sped around the former AEW World Champion, and hit him with a front dropkick, sending Mox out of the ring.
For the first time, Yuta had Mox on the defensive.
Mox distracted himself staring down Orange, but he was still too attentive to let Yuta dive on him. Mox caught Yuta’s tope and choked him out on the floor. The two exchange chops and dropkicks both in and out of the ring, and one thing is clear: Yuta’s offense is way less effective than Moxley’s. It comes to a head when Moxley thumbs Yuta’s eye, sets him up on the top rope, and slowly rakes Yuta’s back before attempting (and failing to hit) a superplex.
Yuta remains in dire straits until Mox once again stares down Orange Cassidy, then is “cursed” by recent addition to the Best Friends, Danhausen. This momentary distraction allows Yuta to dive onto Moxley, Danhausen’s curse being proven effective.
Yuta is able to flip out of a high-angle Paradigm Shift and gets a string of big moves in — a rebound German suplex, an Olympic slam, a dive from the top rope that gets him a 2.8 count — but Yuta’s cazadora attempt is one move too many as Mox chokes him out again, hits him with the King Kong lariat, and finishes Yuta with the Paradigm Shift once more.
Wheeler Yuta may have lost, but he put in a much better fight. There was still a hole in his game plan though, one he couldn’t account for, but maybe Bryan Danielson had the answer. After this match, Danielson came down to the ring and told Moxley point-blank that young guys like Yuta could benefit from Mox and Danielson’s leadership instead of “jokes” like Orange Cassidy and Danhausen.
Though other guys like Lee Moriarty and Daniel Garcia did quickly respond, Yuta didn’t say anything in the moment. He kept his cool, and he waited for another chance.
March 16, 2022: St. Patrick’s Day Slam
A slight detour from the trilogy as Wheeler Yuta and Jon Moxley did have one more encounter between their second and third singles matches: a tag match pitting Yuta and Chuck Taylor against Moxley and Bryan Danielson.
This match does a lot for Yuta’s character at the time, establishing a few things. First, he is no match for Moxley or Danielson, especially as a team. He got minimal offense in on the Blackpool Combat Club during the first stage of the match, and Yuta tagging out to Taylor immediately changed that, as Taylor is a surprisingly competent competitor despite his easy-going nature.
It also establishes that Moxley really isn’t invested in this “rivalry” with Yuta. William Regal is putting Yuta over on commentary, and Bryan Danielson is playing into Yuta’s need to prove himself against Bryan’s kicks, but Moxley is almost ignoring Yuta.
During the pre-match assault, Moxley goes straight for Chuck Taylor. When Mox and Yuta are face-to-face, Moxley doesn’t avoid confrontation, but he’s also quick to tag out when it makes sense, not dragging out their fight for pride’s sake. The moment where Moxley tags in, rakes Yuta’s back, and almost immediately tags out is a microcosm of their relationship from Mox’s point-of-view: just violence to get the job done.
Yuta does impress Regal, Bryan, and the crowd more and more as the match goes on and he keeps fighting the BCC off, but after Bryan makes a show of stomping Yuta’s head in, Mox tags in and quickly locks in a bulldog choke to end things.
Though the Best Friends head up the ramp in defeat, Yuta comes back down after the match and tries to shake Regal’s hand. Regal smacks him across the face. Yuta gets in his face, impressing Regal, but not all the way. Yuta has to go prove himself a little more.
April 8, 2022. Rampage
On the April 6, 2022, episode of Dynamite, it was announced that Jon Moxley would be facing Wheeler Yuta once again on Rampage. Yuta had just had a crazy match with Bryan Danielson the previous week on Dynamite, and the Friday between these Dynamites, Yuta became the ROH Pure Champion.
Regal outright stated that he was very impressed with Yuta, and Danielson was intrigued, too. The only person Yuta needed to prove himself to now was the man who was hardest to impress, Jon Moxley.
Moxley was uninterested. He cut a generic promo about broken bones and raining blood. Yuta wasn’t his guy. This was a match his partner and mentor wanted, not him.
In the pre-match promo on Rampage, Yuta had a lot to get off his chest, capping it off by saying that he’s not scared of Jon Moxley. “I’m the Ring of Honor Pure Champion, and tonight, I earn your respect.”
Moxley dismissed it, saying it’s not his job to show Yuta respect. They’re not friends or buddies, and Mox doesn’t care what Regal thinks of Yuta. Mox is just going to spill Yuta’s blood.
The first move of the match has evolved from Mox jumping Yuta right as the bell rang in match #1 to Yuta diving onto Moxley in the middle of his entrance in match #3. The two brawled into the crowd, and this time, Yuta’s chops HURT Moxley. They brawl back into the ring, and though Mox does regain his control, Yuta keeps up. They’re neck and neck as grapplers.
So, Mox gets violent. He sends the plucky underdog over the top rope with a reversal, drags him over to the steel steps, and curb stomps him into the diamond plating, busting Yuta open. By the time we come back from break, Moxley is fully on top of the red-masked youngster, but in a flip from just before the break, it’s Yuta’s turn to send Moxley out of the ring. Moxley spins around to recover, but Yuta is already diving onto him, hitting a crossbody that sends both men through the timekeeper’s table.
Yuta learned to keep up with Danielson as a wrestler, but this was about learning to FIGHT. Yuta has also learned how Mox specifically fights, so Yuta not only dodges Mox’s King Kong lariat, but he stays on top him for most of the match. A German suplex is a lead-in for another German suplex. An Olympic slam isn’t a set-up for a pinfall, but rather a diving body splash. If Mox kicks out of that, he gets him in the crossface. Gets him in a bulldog choke of his own. Gets him in a sleeper hold, which transitions into a rear naked choke.
Yuta cannot let go of Mox, or it’s all over.
Finally, after two matches of getting his back raked, Yuta finally gets to dig into Moxley’s back to send him off the top rope, but when Yuta dives after him, Mox hits him with a Paradigm Shift out of nowhere. This seems to be the end of the match, but YUTA KICKS OUT.
Yuta can break out of a bulldog choke. He can survive a boot to the face. He even kicks out of a second, this time ELEVATED Paradigm Shift. But that last act comes from a final spurt of defiance, not true strength. Moxley gets him in a sleeper hold, but Yuta was already out of it.
The ref calls for the bell. Yuta has lost a third time.
Why was this important?
In the canon of AEW, Wheeler Yuta grew a lot through this one-sided rivalry. He started out as a good wrestler with no chance against a main eventer, and by the end, he was pushing a former AEW World Champion to his limits. He was a Best Friend, and now he’s a Blackpool Combatant. His character and his allegiance have shifted.
But in a booking sense, this storyline was a prime example of both making a star using in-ring action AND rolling with the punches that life throws your way.
Wheeler Yuta has only said about ten sentences throughout this storyline, but the fans in the arena still chant his name because, in that ring, Yuta is incredible at telling stories. AEW knows Yuta is a little wrestling genius, and this story was a great way to get him over without exposing his flaws or making drastic, senseless character changes for the people around him.
But more impressive to me is that they did this without knowing where the whole thing would go. They didn’t know Moxley was going to go to rehab when he did. They didn’t know Brian Kendrick was going to get cancelled hours before Dynamite. They didn’t know William Regal was going to get fired three months after Yuta got squashed.
But it all felt seamless, mostly tied together by in-ring action.
The squash that built Yuta’s drive. The rematch that showed Yuta’s potential to Danielson. The three-match where Moxley finally realized that Yuta was worth looking at.
AEW built a fan-favorite character and gave him a title, a new faction, and tons of positive exposure. The future could and should be bright for young Wheeler Yuta, but as Moxley said, “Now, the real work begins.”
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