WrestleMania weekend is special, not just because of the WWE-branded content—although that’s obviously the major draw—but for all of the pro wrestling that pops up around the major event. Smaller companies and independent promotions all gravitate to the WrestleMania city every year, each hoping to siphon a little bit of that Mania buzz, making it a must-visit destination for wrestling fans.
This year in Orlando is no different: Companies like Ring of Honor, Evolve, Chikara, Progress and more make their way to “The City Beautiful” in order to take part in the WrestleMania Weekend festivities. There’s so much to look forward to: Revolution Pro Wrestling makes its Mania Weekend debut as Zack Sabre Jr. defends the British Heavyweight Championship against Pentagon Jr. at WrestleCon; Chikara Grand Champion Ultramantis Black defending his title after the completion of the company’s “secret season”; there’s even an appearance by Marty Jannetty at Joey Janela’s Spring Break.
Below, check out the 10 matches we’re most excited to see during WrestleMania weekend 2017.
Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Jimmy Havoc, Progress Wrestling, Noon Friday
Any match with Zack Sabre Jr. is going to be a strong contender for match of the night, including his two bouts at Evolve 80 and 81, tonight and tomorrow night, as well as his appearance at the Revolution Pro Wrestling card at WrestleCon vs. Penta el Zero M (Pentagon Jr.) But it’s this match we’re most looking forward to, against death match master Jimmy Havoc, who makes a rare appearance stateside as part of Progress’ debut WrestleMania Weekend show. Havoc can take a beating, but can he outwrestle the submission expert Sabre?
Riddle remains one of the most impressive, charismatic and popular figures in independent wrestling. The former UFC fighter has taken to pro wrestling quicker than most, having only been wrestling for a little more than two years, and he’s a must-see talent on every card. Here he matches up with the creator of “British Strong Style” Trent Seven, late of WWE television fame, and their two somewhat complementary styles should make for an exciting back and forth for the company’s Atlas Championship.
The most anticipated match of the weekend? In what could be the Hardys’ last weekend as non-WWE contracted talent, Matt and Jeff Hardy put their Ring of Honor tag team titles on the line against Nick and Matt Jackson, the Young Bucks, in a ladder match. Due to an ongoing legal battle, it’s unclear whether the Hardys will perform as their “broken” characters, or bring along their newly-dubbed “Broken Championship” (the former TNA tag titles, which they threw in a lake) but if their last Ring of Honor Ladder War was any indication, this match is going to be a must-watch.
Honestly, the entire Supercard of Honor should be incredibly strong, as Ring of Honor continues its resurgence with young talent like Marty Scurll, Will Ospreay and Punishment Martinez alongside stalwarts like Adam Cole and Jay Lethal, and one-off stars like Volador Jr. Dalton Castle is perhaps leading that resurgence, and here, he challenges for the ROH World Championship against Christopher Daniels, whose journey to the title was one of the most satisfying tales in recent pro wrestling history. Castle, for his part, has long been one of the most celebrated—if not the most celebrated—talents in ROH over the last year or two, and this could be the torch-passing coronation they need to solidify him as the company’s top talent.
Speaking of Cole and Scurll: The two men will square off for the Ring of Honor Television Championship, in what could be a classic. Scurll has been nothing but impressive since joining the ROH roster, and the company has booked him like a major talent. He’ll face a three-time ROH World Champion in Adam Cole, who recently lost the belt to Daniels, and is now looking to reclaim some gold. Cole has “future WWE superstar” written all over him, so there may not be many opportunities to see him wrestle a match like this again. A possible show-stealer, for sure.
The debuting Black—formerly independent wrestler Tommy End—is reason enough to be excited for this match. That he’s making his first televised NXT appearance against Almas is an added bonus. Almas is one of the company’s most underrated talents and arguably the best wrestler on the entire NXT roster. As La Sombra, he was legitimately one of the biggest stars in Mexico, and though his NXT transition didn’t start out as smoothly as everyone hoped, he settled into his villainous Los Ingobernables-esque role extremely well, and is now consistently one of the most exciting talents to watch on any NXT card. The two men have likely never battled before, so it’s essentially a low-key dream match as part of the Takeover undercard. We’ll take it.
LuFisto vs. Su Yung, Shine Championship Match, WWN Mercury Rising, 8 p.m. Saturday
Mercury Rising, the WWN Supershow, has a lot going for it: The crowning of the first-ever WWN Champion, both the Evolve and Progress champions in action, Ethan Page vs. Jimmy Havoc. But it’s this match that’s perhaps the most intriguing of all. The last Shine event ended with a literal bloodbath, after Su Yung appeared in the ring and doused herself in blood falling from the ceiling, a bizarre ceremony that ended with an invitation to “the Red Wedding” for LuFisto. One of the more underrated women in independent wrestling for some time, LuFisto is no stranger to blood herself. It’s a shame that it’s going up against Takeover, but be sure to watch at least a on-demand version. If these two really let loose on one another, it could make for a hell of a show
In one of two highly anticipated Jimmy Havoc appearances this weekend, the UK punk takes on Ethan Page, one of the standout performers at Evolve. Page has come a long way in recent months, having turned from a minor, irritating heel into a major presence at each Evolve show. The transformation began after stabbing Johnny Gargano in the back during his final Evolve appearance in 2016, and has gained momentum in feuds with Zack Sabre Jr. and Darby Allin. It will be interesting how the two men’s styles match up, and whether Page can take it to the next level against Havoc.
Since his battle with Chris Hero at Hero’s second-to-last independent wrestling show, Keith Lee has been somewhat of a made man, booked in solid matches in Evolve and other indies and showcasing an impressive athleticism for a wrestler his size. This could be one of his strongest appearances yet: Jeff Cobb, a stout and solid former Olympic wrestler turned indie darling, is one of the people to watch in 2017, and has a hard-hitting style coupled with an amateur wrestling background, making a showdown with the much larger Lee a serious hoss fight and candidate for sleeper match of the weekend.
While the buildup to WrestleMania has been somewhat lackluster over the past few weeks, there has been one consistent bright spot: The feud between former “best friends” Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho. Jericho is a consistent bright spot on any WrestleMania card, and Owens is one of the company’s best workers, period. The two have incredible chemistry with one another on the microphone, and it will be interesting to see what they can do inside the ring.
Paul DeBenedetto is Paste’s assistant wrestling editor.