On July 18 at Slammiversary 2020, the Motor City Machine Guns returned to Impact Wrestling for their first match together in the company in eight years. Just two days later, the duo of Chris Sabin and Alex Shelley defeated The North to win their second Impact World Tag Team Championship, almost a decade after they won the belts for the first time. It was a moment of redemption and triumph for Sabin and Shelley, especially Sabin who was finally wrestling again 18 months after suffering the third major ACL tear of his career. 2020 has been a rather shit year all around, but when the Motor City Machine Guns came back and won the gold, it offered the world just a little ray of sunshine during this dark and gloomy period.
I’ve been a Chris Sabin fan for almost as long as I’ve been a wrestling fan. I discovered him in the summer of 2004 when I stumbled upon TNA Wrestling. Back then I was a year into watching wrestling and had only known about WWE, but discovering TNA and its flagship show Impact (which at the time aired on FSN) opened the door to a whole new group of wrestlers, one of whom included Chris Sabin. I was quickly enamored with his crisp and fluid athletic skills, exciting moves, and white meat babyface appeal, so Sabin became one of young Andrew’s favorites. A few years later, when Sabin started teaming regularly with Shelley, the MCMG became one of young Andrew’s favorites too; even when they were heels, the burgeoning internet smark in me loved them because they put on such kickass matches. It’s a love that has endured to this very day.
It hasn’t always been easy being a Chris Sabin fan, though. While Sabin’s first four X-Division Championship reigns occurred within his first four years in TNA, it took the Motor City Machine Guns three whole years before they finally won the company’s tag belts. After dropping the titles in early 2011, Sabin tore his ACL and MCL at the same time and was out for a full year. Then when he came back in 2012, he soon suffered another ACL tear in his other leg and was out for another full year. By the time he returned in 2013, Shelley had left TNA to form the Time Splitters with KUSHIDA in New Japan. Sabin was thrust back into the singles spotlight in a huge way when he defeated Bully Ray to become the TNA World Heavyweight Champion at Destination X 2013, but Sabin lost the title back to Bully a month later and returned to the X-Division. He left TNA in 2014 as a record eight-time X-Division Champion, but his final days in the company spent feuding with his then-girlfriend Velvet Sky ended his 11-year run on a rather tepid note.
Sabin ventured over to Ring of Honor in early 2015 (where he had wrestled sporadically from 2003 to 2010) and, following a brief heel run as part of the ill-fated Knights of the Rising Dawn storyline, reunited the MCMG with Shelley. Their run didn’t exactly light the world on fire in comparison to their work from ‘07-’11, although they managed to hold the ROH World Tag Team Championship for a little over five months and have one of the craziest Ladder Wars in company history at All Star Extravaganza VIII. However, similar to TNA, the Guns’ time in ROH ended rather abruptly in 2018 when Shelley took a hiatus from wrestling. Sabin suffered his third ACL tear a few months later, also putting him out of action.
Suffice it to say Sabin’s not had the smoothest sailing in his career, but from what I see and read in interviews, he hasn’t let the hard times get to him. Like his compatriot Shelley, he always comes across as affable, respectful, and in general just a very positive, optimistic guy. He loves pro wrestling and he’s grateful for his career. And despite not becoming a megastar on the level of another X-Division legend in AJ Styles (not many do, to be fair), Sabin still has plenty of fans. Hell, when the freakin’ Young Bucks pay tribute to you during their matches, you know you’ve made one hell of a dent in pro wrestling.
A September of Sabin will pay tribute to Chris Sabin as well. This new month-long miniseries will look back on five Sabin matches from over the course of his career. Some of these matches will be singles matches, others will be Motor City Machine Guns tags, but the goal will be the same no matter what: To remind people that Chris Sabin is an awesome wrestler who deserves his due.
So without further ado, let’s get on with the show and wind the clocks back to our first match.
Super X Cup 2003 Finals: Chris Sabin vs. Juventud Guerrera
NWA:TNA on PPV #61
September 3, 2003
Tennessee State Fairgrounds Sports Arena (TNA Asylum)
Our journey begins in 2003, where a young Chris Sabin is making a name for himself during the infancy years of TNA. Sabin himself is still a baby as far as wrestling is concerned; at just 21 years old, Sabin is only two years into his career. He doesn’t even have the “Hail Sabin!” vocals in his entrance music yet, he just has his precursor theme “Modern OZ.”
What Sabin lacks in experience, he makes up for in accolades. He debuted in TNA in April 2003 and won his first X-Division Championship just a month later on May 14 against Jerry Lynn and Amazing Red. Sabin would hold the gold until August 20 when he lost it in the first-ever Ultimate X match to Michael Shane. Sabin’s 98-day X-Division Title reign was the longest in that belt’s history up to that point, another feather in the young man’s cap. It’s no wonder his nickname at the time was “The Future.”
Tonight Sabin is wrestling in the finals of the 2003 Super X Cup. The Super X Cup was a single-elimination tournament for the number one contendership for the X-Division Championship. 2003 was its inaugural year, and despite Mike Tenay on commentary applauding TNA officials for looking into making the Super X Cup an “annual tradition,” that wouldn’t turn out to be the case. The tournament has only been held two more times: 2005 (won by Samoa Joe) and 2017 (won by Dezmond Xavier).
Sabin beat Jerry Lynn in the quarterfinals and Frankie Kazarian in the semifinals to get to the tournament decider. The man standing in his way of hoisting up the Super X Cup trophy is former WCW Cruiserweight Champion Juventud Guerrera. Juvi was placed in the “World” bracket of the tournament and beat Japan’s NOSAWA (of Out of the Question fame) and Canada’s Teddy Hart to reach the finals. So on one side, we have Chris Sabin, the cocky upstart looking to further his career by winning the tournament and reclaiming the championship he just lost. And on the other side we have Juventud Guerrera, the world-traveled veteran who wants to humble this young gun and add the X-Division Championship to his mantlepiece. It’s a very simple story to tell, but it’s really all you need.
The match starts hot when Sabin feigns a handshake and SLAPS Guerrera right in the face. Guerrera, not one to take something like that lightly, slaps him right back. A shoving match ensues, then Juvi and Sabin bounce off the ropes, drop down at the same time, then hop back up and do the classic “two guys throw a dropkick at the same time” spot. It’s a little signifier that despite Sabin’s experience level being minimal compared to Juvi’s, he’s not some dumb kid who’s gonna get outwitted by the veteran. Keep that in mind.
Juvi now offers a handshake, but this time he feigns Sabin and gives him the middle finger. Animosity! I love it. Guerrera takes control with a beautiful headscissors and grounds Sabin with an armlock. Tenay points out that both guys need to have good conditioning because this is their third match of the night. Guerrera attempts some sort of running hurricanrana, but Sabin counters it by dumping Juvi with a disgusting powerbomb RIGHT ON THE BACK OF HIS HEAD! It’s in all likelihood a botch—with Juvi supposed to flip and land on his feet—but it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the match, not when Sabin immediately hits a running enzuigiri to follow. It looks like he’s gonna take control of the match by targeting Juvi’s neck, but that doesn’t last long because Juvi quickly hits Sabin with a jumping spin kick and plancha to the outside to resume control.
Guerrera rolls Sabin back into the ring and crushes his chest with a slingshot elbow drop for a nearfall. “I know we’ve seen Chris Sabin so often the last couple months and how impressive he’s become,” rasps Don West on color commentary, “but how about Juvi! How about ‘The Juice!’ He is SO on his game, Mike!” God bless Don West. Sure he didn’t have the deep wrestling background a lot of commentators have, but he brought so much enthusiasm and energy to the table that it superseded it. He was like an excited kid jumping headfirst into this crazy technicolor world and embraced every weird inch of it. And he’s right! Sabin is very impressive for his age and experience, but Juvi has looked just as good, if not better.
Juvi tries to go fancy and do a Good Lucha Thing out of a victory roll position, but Sabin counters it into a wheelbarrow slam for a two-count. Sabin goes back to targeting Juvi’s neck with a straightjacket lock, then heads over to the corner for a top rope move. In his youthful arrogance, Sabin wastes time mocking Juvi by wilding waving his finger in the air, the universal symbol for “I’m gonna do a crazy flip move!” that Juvi was wont to do. Guerrera comes underneath Sabin to put him in a powerbomb position, but Sabin counters that with a sunset flip. Unfortunately this allows Juvi to roll through and BLAST Sabin with a seated dropkick right in the kisser for another two-count.
Sabin rakes the eyes and puts Juvi into another quick submission, driving his knee into the back of Juvi’s neck. The fact that either guy isn’t able to maintain dominance for prolonged stretches of time—but rather shorter bursts—plays into this theme of Sabin and Juvi being more evenly matched than their experience levels let on. This trend continues over the next few minutes. Juvi takes a page out of the Manami Toyota playbook and hits a Japanese Ocean Cyclone Suplex for a nearfall; lucky for him there were no deep puro nerds in the area to soil their diapers over it. Sabin counters a waistlock and goes for a German suplex, but Guerrera lands on his feet. Sabin then tries to powerbomb him, but Juvi lands on his feet again! A sunset flip from Sabin, which leads to Roll Up City: Population 2. It’s nothing but twenty seconds worth of back-and-forth pin attempts, but neither man can get the three. “Mike, I’m getting dizzy trying to follow this!” Don shouts, and in a wonderful moment of synchronicity, Sabin and Juvi collapse to the mat out of dizziness as the crowd claps.
The two men are slow to get to their feet, but when they finally do, the match turns into a slugfest as they exchange blows. This isn’t just about a tournament trophy or a title shot anymore, dammit, now it’s getting personal! We then get a FANTASTIC reversal sequence where Sabin lifts Juvi in what looks like a Reverse Bloody Sunday attempt, but Juvi lands on his feet. Sabin twists and lifts Juvi into an Air Raid Crash attempt, but Kitty Cat Juvi lands on his feet yet again. Juvi goes for a backdrop suplex, but turnabout is fair play as Sabin lands on his feet. Sabin puts Juvi into a piledriver position, but Juvi drops down into a roll-up, Sabin reverses that into another wheelbarrow attempt, and then Juvi counters with a Rey Mysterio-like bulldog to bring this smooth-as-silk sequence to a close. PHEW. The crowd are chanting “TNA! TNA!” and I’m right there with them because these guys have hit a stride. Juvi’s skill speaks for itself, but if Sabin is this cohesive with just two years under his belt, imagine what he can do with five or ten.
The Juice is loose as Juvi nails Sabin with a springboard dropkick and KIPS UP to the crowd’s delight. He motions for the Juvi Driver, but Sabin floats over and takes out Guerrera with one of his early signature moves, the Over Easy DDT. (Think of Susumu Yokosuka’s Yokosuka Cutter, except instead of twisting the guy over into a cutter, he twists him over into a DDT.) It’s another close two-count, so Sabin decides to break out the heavy artillery and sets Juvi up for his primary finisher at the time, the Future Shock (a Fisherman’s DDT). Juvi slips out of it and blisters Sabin with some knife-edged chops. Hey, remember early on in the match when Sabin dumped Juvi on the back of his head? Well you can’t leave the store without a receipt, so Juvi gives one to Sabin by drilling him with a Tiger Driver ‘98. Sabin lands DIRECTLY ON TOP OF HIS HEAD!!! Somehow he kicks out at 2.9.
Juvi Driver attempt #2, and if you thought this would be the end of Chris Sabin, you’d be wrong because he counters the move again into a crazy snap DDT. Guerrera does his own 2.9 kickout and Don West screams “YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME!” Check that one off your bingo cards, folks. Sabin goes up top and dives off with a Flying Nothing, but Juvi catches him with a big dropkick for another nearfall. Now Juvi goes to the top rope and Sabin follows up with a BIIIIG superplex. As they land, both guys’ shoulders are down and they each have an arm draped over the other. Since it’s TNA and Vince Russo has the book, a lump in my throat forms because there’s a chance they’ll do a double pinfall, each man will raise his arms in victory, and then the match will get restarted in a case of unnecessary schmozzery. Thankfully that doesn’t happen because both guys lift their shoulders up at two.
Guerrera and Sabin both try consecutive school boys and get nothing. Luckily Juvi is a big comedy fan who subscribes to the rule of threes because he finally nails the Juvi Driver on the third attempt! He could easily get the win here, but Juvi doesn’t cover Sabin. No, he wants to give the people a Kodak moment worthy of the Super X Cup AND put this young punk Sabin in his place by delivering two finishers in a row. How can he do that? By busting out the Juvi Splash. Juvi climbs up top, jumps off, and hits that 450° rotation *chef’s kiss* with the precision of an Olympic archer. This is it. It’s over.
1… 2… Sabin gets his foot on the ropes.
Juvi can’t believe it. He puts his hands on his head. We can’t see his expression because he’s facing away from the hard cam, but we know exactly what he’s thinking: This annoying little shit—THIS ROOKIE—who was dead as a doornail after two of my finishers was still able to get his foot on the rope? Are you kidding me?
Mike Tenay expresses the same amazement: “You talk about presence of mind? You talk about ring awareness? How does a 21-year-old with only two years of experience, how is he able to react like that under pressure?”
Juvi wastes no time going for the kill shot, which in this case looks like another Juvi Driver where he lifts Sabin from behind and rotates him over à la Chuck Taylor’s Awful Waffle. Sabin though lands on his feet, kicks Juvi in the gut, and hits the Future Shock! 1… 2… 3! Chris Sabin has won the 2003 Super X Cup.
Sabin collapses out of exhaustion, but soon finds the strength to get up and lift the trophy. The crowd shows their appreciation as Tenay puts over the finals and the Super X Cup tournament as a whole.
I know I’ve harped on the fact that Sabin is so good for his experience level, but seriously guys, he’s only two years in and he’s already SO DAMN GOOD! Look at the crispness in his exchanges and reversals with Juvi, look at his confidence and aggression as he slaps Juvi in the face. As Don West says during the match, it’s like we’ve been watching this guy for ten years. This wasn’t the veteran Guerrera holding the rookie by the hand and guiding him through the match; this was the rising star going toe-to-toe with the veteran and establishing himself as the future of pro wrestling with this big victory. Sabin would go on to win the 2003 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Rookie of the Year Award. With matches like this one, it’s not hard to see why.
Next Time on A September of Sabin
Sabin steps into the ring with a hot newcomer to TNA in the summer of 2005. His opponent is a man who proves that the X-Division is not about weight limits, it’s about no limits.