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(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Roman Reigns vs. Daniel Bryan Triple Feature

roman reigns daniel bryan fastlane wwe

Roman Reigns. Daniel Bryan. Two sides of the same coin. Both of them are considered ‘the best pro-wrestler’ by different groups of fans.

One was the spitting image of what a ‘WWE Superstar’ is supposed to look like, sound like, and act like. The other was his antithesis: a smaller man that made it to the top by his in-ring talent, force of will, and determination to stick it to those at the top that kept telling him ‘no’. These two men fought several times over the years as part of multi-man and tag matches, but only faced each other one-on-one six times in nine years. Of those six matches, three were high-profile main-event matches, and it’s those three that we’re looking at today.

So without further ado, let’s look back at the (supposed) best matches between Roman Reigns and Daniel Bryan in WWE.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

Reigns vs. Bryan, Part I: Fastlane 2015

The story

This match came about due to forces outside WWE’s control. A month or so earlier, Reigns won the 2015 Royal Rumble match and therefore earned a right to challenge Brock Lesnar for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.

But there was a problem: many fans despised Reigns at that point.

Since his return from emergency hernia surgery in the fall of 2014, Reigns’ character had begun changing. He was being transformed from the silent badass powerhouse of the Shield into, well, John Cena 2.0. The powers-that-be were desperate to create a marketable, family-friendly, corporate-approved face of the company, and decided to make Reigns that person. In doing so, the WWE corporate machine got their hands all over Reigns and began stripping away the things that had made him likeable in the first place. The fans that genuinely liked Reigns for what he was at first were furious with what he was turning into, especially when he began cutting awful Vince McMahon-influenced promos that turned him into a corny joke. And since those same die-hard fans couldn’t get to Vince McMahon himself, they decided to collectively s**t on Vince’s new pet project, hoping that with enough collective protest they could force McMahon’s hand. It was a challenge, but one those fans took up all the same.

Anyway, Reigns’ 2015 Rumble victory was met with a torrent of boos. Not even his universally-beloved ‘cousin’ Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson could placate the chorus of boos that showered Reigns as he tried his best to smile. Part of this negativity was because of how Reigns was basically ‘handed’ the win on a silver platter. But there was also reason for this hatred: many fans wanted Daniel Bryan to win the Rumble. Bryan had reached the top of the mountain the year prior but had to relinquish his titles following a devastating neck injury. He returned earlier in 2015 and entered the Rumble, but was eliminated midway through. It was after that point that the fans turned on the match and booed almost everyone, including Reigns.

To (try and) placate the fans, WWE held an online poll asking fans if they thought Reigns deserved to main-event WrestleMania against Lesnar. The fans voted no and preferred that Daniel Bryan face Lesnar instead. So even though Bryan lost the Rumble match fair and square, fan rejection of Reigns was so widespread that they preferred Bryan be shoehorned into a main-event spot that, despite his popularity, he hadn’t earned.

Thus WWE decided to make the best of the situation and booked a singles match for Fastlane 2015. Reigns and Bryan would face off with the winner facing Lesnar at WrestleMania 31.

The match

This match originally took place on February 22nd, 2015 at the Fastlane PPV. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.

The crowd is split 50/50 between both wrestlers as they lock up. Bryan shoves Reigns into a corner and then locks in a deep headlock. Reigns powers out into one of his own and shoulder tackles Bryan down. Bryan counters a charge with a roll-up for two and then goes for Reigns’ legs. He attempts the surfboard/Romero stretch but Reigns powers out. Bryan lands some quick thigh kicks but Reigns shuts him down with a big uppercut. He sends Bryan into a corner but Bryan flips over him and charges, only for Reigns to counter that with a tilt-a-whirl slam.

A clothesline sends Bryan to the floor and then Reigns smashes him back-first into whatever he can find. He tosses Bryan back into the ring but Bryan gets up first and dropkicks Reigns’ leg as he goes through the ropes. Bryan lands more kicks to Reigns’ hamstring and locks in a Figure-4/Indian deathlock, but Reigns punches his way out. Reigns goes for a powerslam but Bryan escapes and lands more kicks. Bryan counters a back body drop but then gets dropped throat-first on the top rope. Reigns lands a Samoan drop and a big clothesline. He charges towards a corner but Bryan drop toeholds him and he eats turnbuckle. Bryan lands a big kick and goes to the opposite corner. He charges…but runs into a big clothesline. Reigns pins but only gets two.

Reigns lands a trio of waistlift suplexes and then lands his big drive-by dropkick. He teases, and goes for, the Superman punch. Bryan hits first with a kick to the hand. Fans chant ‘yes’ as the ref makes Bryan back off to check on Reigns. Bryan fires away with kicks and knees to Reigns’ injured hand. He lands three massive running corner dropkicks and the fans start chanting as he goes back to kicking Reigns’ hand. Super Franken – no, Reigns counters with a superbomb for two. Reigns follows with multiple corner clotheslines…with the bad arm that he couldn’t even lift up seconds ago. He goes for a superplex but Bryan escapes and crotches Reigns on the top rope. Super back suplex connects. Reigns kicks out. Bryan applies the Yes Lock crossface. Reigns drags himself – and by extension, Bryan – to the ropes using his weakened arm. Reigns escapes to the floor. Bryan lands not one but two suicide dives. He goes for a third and dives through the ropes…but Reigns catches him and suplexes him onto the floor. Reigns goes for a spear. Bryan sidesteps and Reigns hits his bad shoulder on the steel steps. Both men collapse.

Bryan makes it back into the ring at the ref’s count of nine and Reigns does the same at 9.75. Bryan dives from the top rope. Reigns hits first with a Superman punch and pins for two. Reigns charges for a spear. Bryan counters into a small package for 2.5 and lands a kick to Reigns’ head. Bryan lands a running knee strike. One, two, Reigns kicks out. Reigns becomes the first person to ever kick out of that move.

Bryan lands a flurry of kicks to Reigns’ chest and shoulder and winds up for a big one but Reigns catches his leg. Bryan answers with slaps but Reigns grabs his throat. So Bryan counters into a cross armbar. Then he rolls into the crossface. Reigns powers out and unloads with forearms. Bryan follows with a triangle choke. Reigns counters that with a deadlift one-arm powerbomb. Both men collapse and start trading strikes on the mat. Bryan gets the upper hand (foot?) and kicks Reigns’ head in. He goes for another running knee…but Reigns counters with a spear. One, two, three! Reigns wins and is going to WrestleMania.

Winner after 20:10: Roman Reigns

Review

This was solid but disappointing. Both wrestlers had good ideas on paper but they didn’t live up to the hype in execution. I didn’t see the classic that so many people spoke of when this match first took place. the crowd wasn’t as hot, the action wasn’t as compelling, and there wasn’t as much tension as one would expect of such a supposedly-great match. It was indeed solid, but that doesn’t mean anything special.

As with most Bryan WWE matches, he was placed in a David vs. Goliath situation. Reigns powered out of most of Bryan’s moves early and seemed largely unfazed by Bryan’s attempts at limbwork (as seen with a successful drive-by kick even after Bryan attacked Reigns’ legs with different holds). Bryan scored a lucky liver kick but like his submission holds, that was largely forgotten once Reigns began spamming his power moves.

The whole ‘make him look strong’ cliché was in full force here, as Reigns not only beat Bryan with a single finisher, but he also kicked out of Bryan’s ultimate finisher. As if that wasn’t enough, Reigns rendered all of Bryan’s armwork completely irrelevant once he started landing clotheslines and pulling himself with a supposedly weakened arm.

I once read somewhere that WWE has this booking tendency whereby their chosen ‘guy’ cannot show weakness…ever. This was the case for John Cena for a very long time and was the case in this match. But there’s a problem with that mentality: it strips the match of any genuine tension. If the top guy doesn’t sell for his opponent or never shows any weakness then why bother putting him in a match in the first place? If he always overcomes everything thrown at him to the same degree then people will grow bored of seeing the same shtick over and over. Is it really so hard for a top guy to actually sell pain and struggle so that it looks like he’s actually overcoming something? Does WWE really lose money if their franchise player shows weakness for even a moment in order to create a more compelling story and give viewers their money’s worth whenever they tune in? I don’t think so, but someone in WWE clearly does because Reigns came across as another tacky 1940s/1950s Superman knock-off that had no flaws. And as we’ve all seen in wrestling and in other media, ‘flawless’ characters tend to suck and turn potential viewers away.

Reigns vs. Bryan, Part II: Fastlane 2021

The story

Much has changed in six years. Bryan was forced to retire due to injuries, spent two years as a non-active on-screen personality, was sanctioned to return in 2018, and became a world champion again on SmackDown. Meanwhile, Reigns’ massive first push as John Cena 2.0 continued unabated despite much fan resistance all the way until 2018. Reigns became world champion more than once, main-evented four WrestleManias in a row, became one of only two men to beat The Undertaker at WrestleMania, and beat top guys left, right, and center. He was booed vociferously…until he announced his leukemia came back. Reigns relinquished his title, beat cancer, came back, and then spent about two years bouncing around top feuds and matches. Reigns disappeared for a bit during the COVID pandemic out of concern for his health as an immunocompromised wrestler and then returned after SummerSlam 2020. Soon afterwards, Reigns won the WWE Universal title and embarked on an incredibly long and successful title reign. As of September 2022, Reigns has surpassed the two-year mark as champion. In fact, there hasn’t been a single world title reign in WWE as long as this one since Hulk Hogan’s first world title reign from 1984 to 1988.

But in 2021, Bryan vowed to prove that he still had it in WWE. He wanted to avenge his loss from six years earlier and take Reigns’ precious title away from him. But could he do it? Did he still have enough in him to beat Reigns who was now unquestionably in his prime and far more dangerous than ever before?

The match

This match originally took place on March 21, 2021 at WWE’s Fastlane PPV. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.

Bryan tries to use his quickness with some strikes and a single-leg but nothing works. Reigns powers Bryan into a corner and lands a forearm cheap-shot as a warning. Bryan tries a heel hook but Reigns gets to the ropes quickly. After another failed heel hook Bryan decides to start a Greco-Roman knuckle lock but Reigns overpowers him easily. But Bryan manages to counter that into a cross armbreaker, only for Reigns to get another ropebreak.

Bryan lands a jab to Reign’s gut but Reigns brushes it off. Reigns lets Bryan punch him some more bur Reigns doesn’t sell at all. Bryan toys with Reigns some more until Reigns takes him down with a judo throw. Bryan slips out of a grounded headlock and counters with a hammerlock. Then Bryan traps one of Reigns’ arms with his foot and stretches the other one. Then Bryan manages to push Reigns onto both shoulders like he did with Seth Rollins/Tyler Black in 2008, but Reigns kicks Bryan off before the ref can count the pin.

Reigns hits back with a head-butt and a kick to Bryan’s head to keep him grounded. He hits some power moves until Bryan lands a counter dropkick. Bryan lands some standing over-the-shoulder armbreakers to Reigns’ left arm (not sure why since it’s painfully obvious that Reigns always strikes with his right arm) but Reigns blocks one by going into a corner. Bryan hits back with corner strikes and answers a corner whip reversal by flipping over Reigns as he charges. Bryan builds up momentum but Reigns shuts him down with a tilt-a-whirl slam for a two-count.

Reigns smashes Bryan’s face into the mat and lands a suplex for a one-count. Bryan tries another single-leg but Reigns kicks him over and over. Reigns applies a rear chinlock but Bryan fights to his feet. He escapes but Reigns sends him onto the ring apron and then lands an uppercut. Reigns trash-talks with ringside enforcer Edge and then tosses Bryan back-first into the barricade. Bryan tries another comeback but Reigns quickly shuts him down by reversing a throw into the ringpost. Reigns tosses Bryan into the ring for another two-count.

Reigns lands another suplex and covers for a two-count. He lands a corner clothesline and sends him into the opposite corner, but when Reigns charges for a punch Bryan counters with a drop toehold and Reigns eats turnbuckle. Bryan fires up and hits multiple corner kicks followed by a running dropkick. He goes for a super Frankensteiner but Reigns blocks and counters into a Boston crab. Bryan reaches for the ropes but Reigns powers him away. But Bryan uses that momentum to flip Reigns over into a small package. One, two, Reigns kicks out. Bryan ducks a clothesline from Reigns and lands his own. Both men collapse.

Both wrestlers struggle to their feet and Bryan lands another strike flurry. Reigns overpowers him and goes for a back body drop but Bryan blocks with a kick. Bryan ducks down and sends Reigns to the floor and flies over the top rope. Pescado – no, Reigns catches him. He goes to toss him into the post but Bryan escapes and Reigns hits the post face-first. Bryan capitalizes with a running knee strike from the apron. He tosses Reigns into the ring and hits a springboard knee to the side of Reigns’ head. Then Bryan hits a diving shotgun dropkick for a two-count. He kicks Reigns’ chest and then his hamstring to keep Reigns on his knees. Bryan charges up for a big kick but Reigns blocks it and powers Bryan into a corner. Reigns is enraged as he unloads with forearms, slaps, kicks, and stomps on Bryan in a corner. Suddenly Bryan hits a kick to Reigns’ shoulder and tries another takedown but Reigns blocks it. Reigns tries a powerbomb but Bryan counters with a headscissor and some successful kicks to the head. One, two, Reigns kicks out.

Bryan traps both of Reigns’ arms and stomps away on Reigns’ face and collar. Then he rolls into the crossface. Reigns reaches out for the ropes but Bryan rolls him over and away and reapplies the hold. Bryan locks in the hold with all his might but Reigns powers out. Reigns hits a barrage of forearms to Bryan and then hits a big powerbomb for a two-count. Reigns goes for a spear. Bryan blocks with a kick. Bryan goes for the running knee strike…and hits…the referee. The ref goes down. Reigns hits the spear. He covers Bryan. And after a few critical seconds, Edge comes in to count the pin. One…two…th – Bryan kicks out. Reigns had a visual six-count but Bryan kicked out before an “official” three-count can be decided.

Edge assumes the role of referee (even though one could’ve easily run down from backstage by now) as Reigns hammers Bryan with forearms. But he hits one forearm too many as Bryan traps Reigns’ arm and locks in a triangle choke. But Reigns powers out and tries a one-shoulder powerbomb. But Bryan wrestles out and locks in another crossface. Bryan hits some forearms to try and break Reigns’ resolve. Suddenly, Edge gets taken out by a superkick from Jey Uso. Then he superkicks Bryan and throws Edge shoulder-first into the ringpost. Jey grabs a chair but Bryan hits him with a running knee. Bryan punishes Jey with that same chair and goes to use it on Reigns. But Reigns ducks and Bryan hits Edge instead. Reigns takes advantage with a Superman punch and goes for the Spear. Bryan blocks it and locks in another crossface. Reigns starts fading and his eyes start closing. Then he taps. It’s ever so slight but Reigns is seen tapping. But here comes Edge. Edge hits both Bryan and Reigns with the chair. Edge leaves and NOW a new referee comes in. Reigns crawls over and covers Bryan. One, two, three! Reigns retains his title!

Winner and STILL WWE Universal Champion after 30:00: Roman Reigns

Review

That was better than their 2015 match thanks to a much more improved and confident Reigns and Bryan being, well, Bryan. They had a nice little David vs. Goliath dynamic with Bryan using his speed and technique against Reigns’ raw power. That story worked well for the first 2/3 of the match. Bryan tried toying with and annoying Reigns into making a rash decision and it worked once or twice. Bryan’s constant goading caused Reigns to make a few bad decisions, which made it easier for Bryan to counter Reigns’ biggest moves and land his own. In doing so, it slowly started becoming possible that Bryan could win. That seemed pretty much impossible when the match started, but by the twenty-minute mark Bryan managed to convince people that he had Reigns’ number. All his planning and use of strategy was paying off.

Then the ref bump happened.

As soon as that ref went down, the match fell downward. It became overbooked with forced involvement from Edge that wasn’t entirely justified and didn’t really help the match at all. Edge spent over half the match doing nothing, and by the time he actually got involved in the match it seemed obvious what he was going to do. And once he did get involved in the match directly, psychology and logic flew out the window. As I said earlier, why didn’t another ref come out immediately? Why didn’t the second ref disqualify one or both guys for the chair-shots or Jey’s involvement? Why didn’t the officials stop the match because of all the shenanigans and wait until both guys could recover for a bit and then restart it under ‘pure’ conditions so that a fair decision could be made?

These gaping flaws in the match’s flow and structure ultimately harmed it. I know they led to a cheap win for Reigns, but at the same time they weren’t necessary. Reigns didn’t need cheap heat; he got plenty of normal heat by being, well, himself. He didn’t need to go into WrestleMania facing a numbers disadvantage. And a clean win here would’ve done more for his reign (pun intended) than the obvious shenanigans that were shown here.

I know there’s an obvious answer to all these questions: it was so that WWE could justify Reigns facing both Bryan and Edge at WrestleMania. And yet, what was wrong with Reigns facing Edge one-on-one? That would’ve been fresh and exciting on its own. Instead, we got a needless triple-threat match that had good action but was creatively empty.

Reigns vs. Bryan, Part III: SmackDown, April 30, 2021

The story

Following Fastlane and then WrestleMania, Bryan ended up losing to Reigns twice in a row. But despite those losses, Bryan still wanted one more shot at Reigns’ title. Reigns, being commonsensical, accepted under the condition that Bryan wager something against his title. And since Bryan only had one thing of value to offer, he decided to put his career on the line. Thus, Bryan found himself in a wager match: a title vs. career match (or, to be more precise, a loser leaves town title match). It really was all or nothing for Bryan. He had to win here otherwise he’d leave SmackDown and WWE altogether. Losing was not an option here.

The match

This match took place on the April 30th, 2021 edition of SmackDown. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Melzer.

The bell rings and Bryan hits a single leg dropkick right away. Bryan kicks Reigns some more but Reigns shoves him back and drops him with an uppercut. Bryan fights out of a headlock but Reigns tackles him down. Reigns catches Bryan on a leapfrog but Bryan fights out of a bearhug and tries the crossface but Reigns escapes. But Bryan doesn’t give Reigns time to breathe as he dropkicks Reigns through the ropes and hits a running knee from the apron.

We come back from the commercial break and Bryan has Reigns in a hammerlock and drives his knees into Reigns’ arm. Bryan hits some standing and running kicks into the corner but on his third charge Reigns bursts out and clotheslines Bryan, sending him end over end for a two-count. a vertical suplex gets Reigns another two-count so he applies a chinlock. Bryan tries fighting out but Reigns shuts him down with a kneelift. Reigns sends Bryan into a corner but Bryan flips out and ducks a clothesline but Reigns hits him with a back elbow. One, two, Bryan kicks out.

Reigns hits more forearms but then Bryan hits some uppercuts. And just like in the Fastlane match, Bryan drop toeholds Reigns into a turnbuckle. Bryan goes for a super Frankensteiner but Reigns blocks it and lands a diving powerbomb. One, two Bryan kicks out.

After another commercial break, Reigns throws Bryan around the ringside area and then covers in the ring for a two-count. Reigns lands more kneelifts and goes for a top-rope superplex but Bryan slips out and crotches Reigns against the rope. Bryan capitalizes with a super back suplex and covers for another two-count. Bryan begins his comeback with uppercuts and kicks to Reigns’ chest and hamstring. Bryan charges for a big kick but Reigns ducks and lands a Samoan drop. One, two, Bryan kicks out.

Reigns goes for the Superman punch but Bryan kicks his arm. Bryan lands his wind-up kick, but he kicks Reigns’ right arm instead of his head. He follows with some over-the-shoulder armbreakers but Reigns hits a forearm to push Bryan off. Reigns charges but Bryan ducks and Reigns gets dumped to the floor. Bryan goes for a suicide dive. Reigns catches him and lands a belly-to-belly suplex on the ringside mats. Reigns goes for a spear. Bryan dodges and Reigns goes through the barricade instead.

After yet another commercial, Bryan hits a diving head-butt for a close two-count. He charges for a running knee. Reigns hits first with a Superman punch. One, two, Bryan kicks out. Why would Reigns risk a kick-out by punching with his bad arm? You have a healthy left arm right there, Roman, use it! Anyway, Reigns charges for a spear but Bryan counters with a small package for a two-count. Then Bryan ducks a clothesline and connects with the running knee strike. One, two, and Reigns gets his foot on the rope.

Bryan drags Reigns away from the ropes, traps both of his arms, and stomps on his head and collar. Bryan locks in his crossface finisher. Reigns counters by stretching over into a cover, forcing Bryan to release the hold. Reigns hits a spear. Bryan kicks out. Reigns tries a guillotine choke but Bryan slips out and locks in a cross armbreaker. Then Bryan transitions into a kimura/crossface combo. Reigns reaches out for the bottom rope. Bryan traps the free arm and rolls away into another crossface. But Reigns powers out once again and hits more forearms and then hits a powerbomb. Then Reigns pulls a page out of Bryan’s playbook and hits forearms/elbows to Bryan’s exposed head. Reigns follows with another powerbomb and goes for another guillotine choke. Bryan blocks when Reigns uses his right arm so Reigns switches to his healthy left arm. Bryan can’t block that. Bryan squirms around like a caged animal. Then his arm goes from being stretched out to completely limp. The ref taps Bryan’s arm and gets no reaction! Then the ref calls for the bell! Reigns retains! Bryan’s SmackDown career is over!

Winner and STILL WWE Universal Champion via referee’s decision after 27:18: Roman Reigns

 

Review

That was quite possibly Reigns’ best match from an in-ring standpoint. If this Reigns existed in 2015 then many people wouldn’t have suffered so many headaches between then and 2019. Reigns was great here and so was Bryan. They repeated a few spots from their previous two matches but improved on their match structure as well. it still had some flaws courtesy of the WWE style being so centered on overt spots and ‘telegraphability’, but otherwise this was one of the better WWE matches of 2021.

This match started off faster-paced than the other two and stayed consistent for the most part. Bryan played the underdog as usual but Reigns was different from before. He actually sold more deeply and in a more realistic way for Bryan than I expected. Maybe that was because he was playing heel in this match (but was he really a heel?), or maybe it was because WWE felt like Bryan deserved a proper sendoff. Whatever the reason, Reigns was far more compelling here than in most of his prior matches. I really liked the finish, with Bryan nearly escaping Reigns’ guillotine choke when it was applied with the bad arm, only for Reigns to switch to his good arm. At the same time, it was a bit dumb for Reigns to not switch arms earlier. Why hit weaker punches when you have a healthy left arm you can use? If Bryan’s submission holds are as lethal as everyone says they are, then logic would dictate that Reigns wouldn’t punch with a weakened arm. But aside from that, Reigns did a great job selling the idea that Bryan was a major threat and that he had to go the extra mile to keep him down.

The only other major drawback here was that the match had a few too many copied spots from the earlier two matches. Obviously that makes sense in some respect; if something worked in a previous case then you should redo it later on. And yet, it would’ve helped if they went further with the switches or the twists and turns. They did change things up a bit here but not enough overall. Repeating the exact same spot without even the slightest of deviation makes wrestlers come across as mechanical and repetitive. As I’ve said in many rivalries covered here (but especially in the Tanahashi/Okada matches), it gets harder to enjoy multiple matches from the same two sides when you see the same sequences move-for-move without change. And while that does make the wrestlers involved look good by showing that they can perform at the same level without faltering, it also leads to too much familiarity, which in the ends breeds contempt.

Final Rating for Match #1 (Fastlane 2015): ***3/4

Final Rating for Match #2 (Fastlane 2021): ****

Final Rating for Match #3 (SmackDown, Title vs. Career): ****1/4

These two wrestlers had an interesting trilogy of matches. Both of them enjoyed tremendous success and both of them earned their legions of fans. But I think that the matches they had could’ve been better. I don’t blame either one of them, though; the fault lies within their environment. As we’ve seen with Bryan manytimesbefore, he can put on genuine MOTYCs when given complete freedom to wrestle however he wants. And Reigns has shown that he can deliver under the right circumstances.

Unfortunately, Reigns hasn’t always been in the right circumstances and Bryan has spent most of his WWE career hamstrung and restricted in what he can do. But at least this series started low and ended on a fairly high note instead of starting off great and failing towards the end.

Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.