Here’s how it works: you get into a car accident the first day you move to a new city and don’t drive again for nearly a year. When you do, it’s not because you want to, but because you’ve booked yourself on a solo three-day roadtrip across the United States of America to see some professional wrestling. You fly from Atlanta to Detroit. You are given a Nissan Sentra at the Hertz counter though you are promised a Ford Focus. You get behind the wheel, turn the ignition, put the car in drive, place your foot on the pedal, and drive all the way to Cleveland, Ohio, which was a second home for you once, because once, you were part of a wrestling promotion there that was starting to build a reputation for itself before you moved. That wrestling promotion is Absolute Intense Wrestling. Before you can go to Easton, Pennsylvania to watch the rebirth of CHIKARA, you’ve got a double-shot of AIW, The J.T. Lightning Invitational Tournament. It’s AIW’s wildest night of the year, a two-day party thrown by 24 of the best wrestlers in the world, but you’re tired and you’re catching up with friends and everything is a blur, and holy shit you need to be awake early tomorrow to make it out to Easton. So Johnny Gargano and Chris Sabin are in the ring having their match and it just kinda passes you by. Jesus, how does that happen?
This match is Chris Sabin’s AIW debut, and Johnny Gargano is AIW’s ace wrestler. Whenever there’s a big debut, it seems Gargano is the hand-picked opponent, and it is hard to question the logic of that choice. Gargano, as Pedro DeLuca’s introduction lets you know, is a son of Cleveland. He was born there, trained there, and lives and wrestles there still. He’s one of the top names in Dragon Gate USA, he wrestles in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, and he was a major part of CHIKARA’s roster until their relaunch, but in AIW he is unfettered by DGUSA’s storyline expectations or where he’s placed on PWG’s show. In AIW he is the attraction, and any match against him is the main event. When Gargano stops to flash a money sign to the crowd after driving his knees into Sabin’s gut, it’s not because he’s a prick, but because he is Cleveland, Johnny Wrestling to the Brown’s Johnny Football, and nobody standing across the ring from him will leave an encounter forgetting it.
This match has a definite “showcase” feel to it. Gargano had wrestled in PWG the night before and was recovering from a dislocated jaw. There was still novelty in seeing Sabin on a show that wasn’t promoted by TNA Wrestling. Wedged in-between rounds of the JLIT tournament, there were no storyline implications and nothing on the line between the two but pride, as they say, so the feeling-out process between the two is prolonged and the action, while heated, never threatens to overwhelm the rest of the show. What ends up happening is that this encounter becomes an example where good, competent announcing elevates the entire match. Matt Wadsworth and Leonard F. Chikarason are both storytellers, and halfway through the match Wadsworth’s point about Gargano’s dislocated jaw making it harder to breathe through his mouth as the match goes on segues into Chikarason saying that Sabin knows about Gargano’s injury because the two follow each other on social media. And then Sabin dropkicks Gargano in the jaw and follows with a European uppercut, and it all syncs so well with what’s being said at the commentary table that you remember the impact that wrestling moves must have on the anatomy.
Maybe it’s because of Gargano’s jaw, but the match never quite makes it out of first gear. Granted, when you’re talking about Johnny Gargano and Chris Sabin, first gear is going to get you pretty far. The two do a good job of working around Gargano’s big spots—the corner lawn dart, the grounded kicks, and the Garga-No Escape—but late in the second night of a two day wrestling orgy, it’s pretty clear that the audience at Turners Hall is saving themselves for the conclusion of the tournament. The attention they pay to the wrestlers in the ring is polite, but reserved, and beyond a suicide dive that nearly sees Gargano fly into the first row and his two transitions into the Garga-No Escape (which has grown into a beautifully applied submission maneuver), there’s not really much for them to get out of their seats for. This is two of the best on the independents firmly in cruise control; good but not great. Gargano continues building his name, and Sabin continues reestablishing his reputation on the independents. It’s a good debut, and Sabin would later return to AIW to face Kevin Steen in the opening match of Absolution IX (which, wow—the opening match?), but both men are capable of more. With the introductory phase now behind them, I’d be interested in seeing what they’d do in a rematch.
This match was provided for free courtesy of Absolute Intense Wrestling. Follow them on YouTube. Buy the J.T. Lightning Invitational Tournament from AIW, or from their partners at Smart Mark Video. Full disclosure: I used to work for AIW as an announcer and as a member of their social media team. Fear of a Ghost Planet is also the sponsor of this video.