Think about your favorite pro wrestling rivalry.
There are a lot of truly beloved ones in wrestling history. Just pick one, keep it in your mind and follow it as far as you can down the timeline to when it ends. I don’t just mean the climax of the feud either. Follow it all the way down. Find where things end truly, fully stop between the participants of that rivalry.
Odds are you’ll find yourself at an ending that just kind of happens. It’s not always awful, but it’s often something that ends with too much unresolved or wraps up contrary with themes contrary to the very best moments of the rivalry. I could name a few examples of the top of my head if you don’t believe me.
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Bret Hart and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin had matches that many hold as the best ever in WWE history. Their rivalry rocketed Austin into the main event scene, where he would dominate as one of the most commercially viable professional wrestlers of all time. Everyone remembers their iconic “I Quit” match at WrestleMania 13, but they didn’t stop feuding there. The natural conclusion of Austin finally getting his big win over Bret never came to pass.
The match that saw Mitsuharu Misawa defeat Jumbo Tsuruta on June 8th, 1990 is looked to as one of the defining moments of the 90s. It fast tracked the rise of the Four Pillars of Heaven in All Japan, and brought about the beloved era of King’s Road wrestling. Yet, in the years that followed, Jumbo got his win back from Misawa time and time again. When Jumbo’s main event career ended in 1992 due to illness, it meant that Misawa would never get that climactic final victory.
Every time it seems that Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn have definitively put their rivalry to bed — at ROH Final Battle, 2011 or maybe at WWE Battleground 2016 — they find themselves inevitably drawn back into each other’s spheres either as partners or opponents. Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi reached an emotional apex at Wrestle Kingdom 10, before becoming Mega Powers-style friends, and then sporadic opponents.
Wrestling is littered with these open endings and half-hearted whimpers. A lot of that comes from the nature of wrestling itself as a continuing serialized form of entertainment. There’s always the next show, and the next, and the next to worry about. There’s rarely space to just stop and let things rest because any promoter is too busy thinking about the next big payday.
There’s also the matter of changing circumstances. People get hurt, careers end, plans change. Those are just the big factors, on the week-to-week level there’s also the shifting perceptions of the people involved. One day, someone’s the hottest babyface in the world, the next they come out to crickets. Planning ahead, even in the best-case scenario, can be a difficult thing.
That’s why I love Wardlow vs. MJF so much.
Of course, MJF is in the news right now as rumors continue to swirl around his contract status and backstage issues. I don’t particularly care to pick apart the details of that tangled mess. Instead, I want to focus on the work he and Wardlow did through the entirety of this feud because it might be both men’s career work to this point.
Put simply, Wardlow vs. MJF might just be a perfect rivalry.
I don’t mean that it’s the best thing wrestling’s ever seen or that it’s some crazy innovative thing. But rather, there’s a satisfying completeness to it that’s extremely rare in any other form of pro wrestling. Every piece of it worked, and there’s no single part of it I can point to call it bad or even questionable.
Compare the Wardlow feud to MJF’s other big program of the last year against CM Punk. As wonderful as the highs of that feud were — the two matches, Punk’s promo challenging MJF to a dog collar match, the go-home show beatdown — there were still segments and moments that could have been edited out without much trouble. Some left me a little weary on the feud, even if the two generally did well to regain my good will by the end.
But with the Wardlow feud? There just wasn’t any fat on this program.
A big part of that is Wardlow.
That man, also blessed with a lack of fat on his own body, has made the absolute best of the “less is more” principle. The dude does a great powerbomb, so he does a bunch of them every week and people leave happy. It’s the easiest pro wrestling booking anywhere in the world.
The Monster of the Week-style booking of Wardlow against a revolving door of gigantic hired guns didn’t produce the best matches in the world but they didn’t have to. All of them were succinct, simple squashes that allowed Wardlow to look like the coolest person on earth every single week.
It’s impressive just how much fun Wardlow squashing giants and killing security every week was. Every single segment in the feud played off the same two general ideas, but it never soured. In fact, the Wardlow/MJF segments stood out as the must-see part of Dynamite in the Double or Nothing pay-per-view cycle.
MJF, for his part, did what I would say is some of his career-best character work throughout this feud. It’s not quite as complex and ambitious as the stuff he did with Punk, I get that, but he really boiled down his character in this feud to something truly hateable — a prick with money.
Perhaps it’s not the most artistic work in the world, but I felt a real, visceral dislike for him every time he called Wardlow “pig.” Something about it just felt wrong, in all the right ways I want out of professional wrestling. All that arrogance and bluster, anchored by cowardice at every turn made this one of MJF’s most effective feuds since coming to AEW. Every time MJF dropped that insult on Wardlow, I yearned for the big man to powerbomb him into a grave.
Like I said, perfect pro wrestling storytelling.
It would have all been for naught if the match didn’t happen. I’m not making any claims as to the morality of potentially no showing a match like this. That’s not what I’m here to talk about. The fact is that the match did happen, and we’re all the better for it.
What a match it was too.
It’s one of the best performances of MJF’s career. A deliberate, systematic breakdown of all the defenses that the character MJF had put up around him. None of his tricks grant him any purchase in this match. He can run but Wardlow can catch him, he can beg but Wardlow won’t listen. The climax of that was Bryce Remsburg taking away the Dynamite Diamond Ring that MJF had used so effectively in the past. Once that’s gone from MJF, only brutal defeat lay ahead of him at the hands of Wardlow.
As great as MJF’s stooging and selling was, Wardlow also deserves credit. His charisma and ability to work the crowd through the whole thing made it clear why he’s a massive star in the making. It’s easy to like a guy who says he’s going to beat the crap out of bad guys and then does so without breaking a sweat. It’s aspirational, it’s cool.
It’s about as textbook as you can get. The babyface destroys the heel, sending him out of the arena a beaten and broken man. If this had been MJF’s last match in AEW, it would have been the perfect way to cap off his run. In many ways, it’s the final payoff to everything that MJF’s ever wanted to be. Any heel worth their salt prays for such a satisfying loss. What good is all that heat if you don’t pay for your sins in the end?
The best part? On the follow-up Dynamite, Wardlow doesn’t mention MJF, and MJF doesn’t mention Wardlow. This story is done, at least for now.
The feud actually ended, and it ended right. I can’t think of anything more precious in professional wrestling.