AEW Dynamite aired live on Thursday this week, pre-empted by a slate of NBA Playoff games that did not happen. In response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man who was shot seven times by Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer Rusten Sheskey, the Milwaukee Bucks opted to sit out their game against the Orlando Magic. Rather than accept a forfeit win, the Magic also opted not to play. The strike spread from that game to the league itself, from the league to other major sports organizations like Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, tennis, and the WNBA, who have led the charge on athlete activism for a very, very long time.
The message, which has been repeated again by athletes and non-athletes alike, was quite plain: sports are a distraction from a very real, very brutal reality, one where nearly 180,000 people have died of a pandemic, Black men and women have been slain with impunity by agents of the state, protests are being met with violent, deadly force by local, state, and federal agencies, and white supremacist militias, showing up to protect TJ Maxx and Target, have taken to murdering protestors. On Tuesday night, a day before the NBA went on a temporary strike, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old whose ambition was to become a police officer, shot three protesters in Kenosha, killing two. He was allowed to walk away by the police and turned himself in the next day. This, Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Breona Taylor, a list of names, of people, too long to recount here—this is what the sporting world was asked to and asked us to acknowledge. On Thursday, it was reported that Blake was handcuffed to his bed. That the NBA’s players elected to finish the playoffs. That Donald Trump held a rally on the White House lawn while a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” played over a fireworks display. And wrestling happened, too.
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I’ll admit, it may not be fair of me to think of wrestling in this way, but it is hard, as a critic of a multimedia entertainment monolith whose business is distraction, to look away from these things it is meant to distract from and wonder what the fucking point is. The day before Dynamite, the show that preempted it featured an on-air walkoff by Kenny Smith and truly, utterly empty arenas—the myth of American normalcy amidst all of this shattered, even if only for a night or two. And then you turn on Dynamite and there’s an honest-to-G-d crowd of real human beings in the stands. Socially distanced, sure. Ejected for not wearing masks, sure. But there, having a good time, buying into the insane fiction that it is okay to ignore the all too real possibility that someone there is sick and capable of transmission for the sake of what was probably the talkiest two hours of AEW programming this year. It’s so bizarre, so jarring, the way this happens over and over again, this cycle of national tragedy followed immediately by wrestling, the indefatigable, that which only stops for the rarest of its own tragedies. How the show was is of no consequence—what matters is that it happened, that it served its purpose and will continue to do so for as long as the bubbles it’s built for itself continue to hold.
FTR Won a Tag Team Gauntlet Match
But since it happened, here’s how it was. The evening began with a four team gauntlet match to determine the number one contenders to Kenny Omega and Hangman Page’s AEW Tag Team Championship. Gauntlet matches are a strange animal—WWE has had success with them lately, but they’re hard to pull off very well because they have build, crescendo, and resolve like a regular match, but while containing that structure within each individual match. The way this one was built made that prospect a reality—the Young Bucks and the Natural Nightmares do the basic stuff to warm the crowd up, the Bucks and Best Friends do the exciting stuff that fans want to see out of both teams, and Best Friends and FTR further establishes the team who’ve been building towards a match with Page and Omega since their debut. Beyond the basic structure of the match achieving its goal and having a satisfying twist in the middle, there wasn’t a ton to bite into. Here’s why, broken into its three segments.
The Young Bucks def. The Natural Nightmares
First, you almost have to give credit to AEW for making Dustin Rhodes a legitimate attraction wrestler for the first time in three decades before squandering that by making him the leader of the Rhodes Family B-team. Rhodes is one of my favorite wrestlers of all time, someone whose later half of the 2010s led to my naming him one of the best wrestlers of the decade, but now he’s just … kinda there, stuck in some weird family affair angle that I’m not sure I’ll ever get, winning tag matches on Dark with QT Marshall. He’s older, obviously, and this match played into that, with Dustin getting winded by the heat and taking a back seat while Marshall ate a lot of double team stuff from the Bucks, barely making it back to the ring apron before QT fell to the BTE Trigger. It’s fine, but outside of Cody it feels like the Nightmare Family is just a perfunctory presence within the company and that nothing of real consequence can be built around any of them.
Best Friends def. The Young Bucks
I don’t know how many times the Bucks and Best Friends have wrestled, but this felt like a greatest hits collection of sorts, with a lot of interrupted finishers and signature moves. Because the Bucks did all of the early match build in the previous segment, this one starts fast and mostly stays that way, but every time the Bucks wrestle a team like Best Friends I’m reminded that they’re one of the least compelling teams in the division they built. Most people would disagree with me and that’s fine, but I don’t think “we’re really good at what we do” is that compelling, characterwise, and I never want to see them win. The big thing here, really the highlight of the gauntlet match, is that Hangman Page screwed up the Meltzer Driver for the Bucks and held Nick’s ankle while Trent had him rolled up for the win. The Bucks, super pissed, yelled at Page from ringside while he took a long walk out of Daily’s Place, including a frankly great shot of him walking up the bleacher stairs, completely alone. This segment was the best match of the night, but nothing you can’t see in greater detail on your average PWG DVD.
FTR def. Best Friends
Chuck Taylor hurt his knee during his match with the Young Bucks, and that’s what FTR went to work on here, almost exclusively. I hate “we’re old school wrestlers” gimmicks the same way I hate “we’re really good wrestlers,” gimmicks, and FTR is decidedly not for me. They kind of suffer from the same thing as Shawn Spears, where they were good in the fishbowl of NXT but still feel like NXT characters on a show that should be altogether different. So I’m left not wanting them against the Bucks, nor them against Page and Omega, which sucks because that’s what I’m getting. The match falls apart a little when Rick Knox flat out misses a pin, but they recover well enough with the closing sequence, where Trent is cut off from making a tag, Chuck is put in a leglock, and Dax ends up making Chuck tap unexpectedly. Just like that, we’ve got our tag team title match.
Grade: As a whole, this did its job of continuing to break up the Elite while establishing FTR as a legitimate threat for the tag titles. It also made me think about how boring I think most of the tag teams in AEW are, which was not particularly fun.
Segment: Darby Allin, wearing a Ricky Starks mask, climbs to the top of a bridge in the country somewhere and jumps off into the river below. That’s cool. Darby’s cool.
Lance Archer def. Sean Maluta
Archer crushes Maluta, obviously. This match is here to establish how large and dominant he is, which is probably less necessary, across the board, than AEW thinks it is. Archer hits a massive chokeslam in this that’s beyond pretty, and Jim Ross notes that it made Jake Roberts “orgasmic,” in case you ever wanted to picture Jake the Snake cumming.
Grade: What can be said about AEW’s penchant for big dudes squashing jobbers on TV beyond “why not a women’s match?”
Promo: Jake Roberts cuts a promo about the Casino Battle Royal that Archer’s in, and, you know what? Jake Roberts, legendary wrestler and promo, is not good as a manager. He just isn’t. I dig his hoarse whispervoice, but that’s it. Archer doesn’t need a manager, and Jake just flat out doesn’t have this in his system. Which is fine, but AEW has almost as many managers as Hulkamania-era WWE had, and the only one who really thrives in the role is Taz, who is out to confront Roberts. All things being equal, this should have been a barnburner, but Jake is pretty washed and his crack about Taz being the Wilma Flintstone of Team Taz popped nobody except Jake, who kept running over Taz’s lines with brick after brick. Darby Allin comes to the ring on his skateboard and dropkicks Starks out of his slides, which is pretty cool, meanwhile the other four men in the ring tease a confrontation between Archer and Cage.
Segment: At last, a hype video for a women’s championship match. It’s a barnburner, too, as Shida, Thunder Rosa, AEW’s commentary team, and the truly miserable Billy Corgan discussed the significance of the match and the opportunity presented to Rosa. Where has this been the whole time AEW’s been around?
The Contract Signing
There hasn’t been a main event feud in AEW of less interest to me than Jon Moxley vs. MJF since the company launched, and, I’m going to be honest, it’s all on MJF. For a couple of years, all of the talk about him has been about how he’s a natural, an incredible antagonist on the microphone, and, on the independents, that may have been true. But his act, which, boiled to its essence, is to call fans fat, drop a ton of cloying references, maybe call a woman a rat, and talk about the next 50-100 years of his reign atop the professional wrestling world, just hasn’t clicked on television. Set across wrestlers with more major television experience than he has years in wrestling, his routine comes across as small. That isn’t helped by his goofy presidential candidate gimmick and kayfabe neck injury, leading to this segment where MJF’s demands are that Moxley gives up the Paradigm Shift in their match at All Out. Why Mox would agree to this, outside of the challenge to his manhood, is beyond me, but okay.
So the segment, like MJF’s state of the industry address, is an overlong talk segment where he just keeps talking in one long incredibly unbroken sentence, meditating on how he’s an actual wrestler who idolized wrestlers while Mox is hot garbage because he grew up idolizing John Zandig and Atsushi Onita. Mox, on the other hand, focused on how giving up the Paradigm Shift allowed him to think of other ways to hurt MJF. His part of the angle is short, sweet, and works except for the part where the language he slipped into the contract entitles him to a match against MJF’s lawyer, which is something I absolutely do not want to see. Nobody goes through the table, but since CM Punk cut the exact same promo about contract signings ending in violence years before MJF did, it doesn’t really matter. This is just a thing. Their title match is just a thing. It’s going to need to be great to justify the absurd amount of airtime MJF has been given to chew, because boy do these long segments feel like massive vacuums of emotion.
Promo: In 30 seconds, talking about Trent’s mom’s car, Santana and Ortiz do a better job of building for next week’s match against Best Friends. They say that the only thing they’re sorry about is that Sue wasn’t in the car when they smashed it, which is hard as fuck.
The Butcher, the Blade, Pentagon Jr., and Fenix def. Sonny Kiss, Joey Janela, Griff Garrison, and Brian Pillman Jr.
Eddie Kingston is at ringside for this match but isn’t really a factor. This ends up breaking down into people waiting for dives pretty quickly, but it settles into an effective showcase of this new squad (RIP Death Triangle 🙁 ) as well as Sonny Kiss’ newfound fire since his match against Cody for the TNT Championship. If anything, I’m kind of surprised that Pillman’s the one who ate the pin, falling to a Penta/Fenix double team. After the match, Kingston got on the mic to abuse Bryce Remsberg and announce that all five of his crew would be in the Casino Battle Royal, which is shaping up to be a thing with a lot of manager/stable involvement. Rad.
Grade: Did its job in further establishing the group of Butcher, Blade, Fenix, Pentagon, and Kingston. That’s all you can ask for.
The Dark Order Eulogize Cody Rhodes
This was a bizarre segment, but in an engaging way. It began with Dark Order bringing out a casket and Evil Uno talking about how Brodie Lee bought everybody a new lawnmower in celebration of his TNT Championship victory. Brodie comes out, driving a new car to the arena and wearing a new suit, hugs and high fives all around. Lee talks about how things are going to be different, no more laughing at the Dark Order, no more TV time to indie wrestlers. The Order starts a “You Deserve It” chant and Lee shuts them up. John Silver says he’s been celebrating all week and gets knocked out. Lee announces that Anna Jay has officially joined the Dark Order. Later, she’ll give Taya Conti a folder with information on how to join. QT Marshall and Dustin Rhodes interrupt all of this, and when they get beaten down Scorpio Sky comes to the ring to assist. He challenges Brodie, but gets distracted and knocked out. Colt Cabana is distraught about all of this, but Lee leaves with him and Jay, then Matt Cardona hits the ring to clean house on the rest of the Dark Order, drawing a big time groan because the image of the leader of a stable just bailing as his dudes beat up their targets was way more engaging than what happened.
Promo: Backstage, the Bucks confront Adam Page. They call him a jobber. They throw a drink in his face and call him a drunk, something they say has been necessary for a long time even though they’ve been snickering about it in his face for the better part of a few months. They kick him out of the Elite and leave him to look into a broken mirror, a nigh universal sign that a drunk has hit bottom in movies and TV shows about alcoholics made by people who don’t know many alcoholics.
Big Swole def. Penelope Ford and Rebel
Hey! A woman’s match with a storyline attached! Unfortunately, it’s not very good. Penelope Ford immediately messes something up so bad that Chris Jericho and Jim Ross speculate that the ring bell must have scared her, and Rebel is doing this inexperienced wrestler thing where she’s wobbly on the ropes and generally unsure of herself, which, no offense, isn’t something I want to see out of this women’s division at the moment. Rebel accidentally hits Ford with a crutch and Swole picks up the win, and with it the right to name her match for All Out.
Grade: A bad match that didn’t give Swole a needed moment of triumph in this feud, which has grown less and less satisfying the longer it’s gone on.
Tables Match: Sammy Guevara def. Matt Hardy
Something must have happened with the timing of the show (my suspicion is that the MJF/Mox thing went long), so the majority of this match, which is wrestled at lightspeed to get in and out before a showing of Ready Player One to begin with, takes place during picture-in-picture. It’s been awhile since I’ve complained about PIP during commercials, but car insurance commercials and ads about the bravery of frontline workers during these uncertain times are not a good soundtrack for wrestling. They get in a few table spots where both crash through after failing to hit a flying move, both bleed, but the shine of this match is completely lost in the glare of those advertisements, and the finish is a clean superplex through a table (that happens to have a chair under it), rendering it fairly unexciting with no real place for their feud to go. Hardy can’t go the way he used to, but with more time/without shunting the majority of the match to commercial, this could have been something, a real way to make Sammy something more than the Inner Circle’s pin eater.
Grade: Frustrating for its inability to realize obvious potential. A disappointing main event for both.
Segment: As soon as the bell rings, Orange Cassidy fucking *books it* across the entryway to attack Chris Jericho. The show ends with the two of them brawling, Orange fully locked in and ready to, uh, throw Chris Jericho into a tub full of mimosas.