In Failure, Eddie Kingston Is the Wrestler of the Year

I have abandoned a half dozen attempts at writing about Eddie Kingston.

In theory, I gave myself an easy assignment. Eddie Kingston was the best wrestler of 2021. He was the best in the ring. He was the best on the microphone. I know those things are true, but I’m not drawn to them. I’m drawn to Kingston the person—at least the version of himself he presents on national television—and every time I find myself typing the word “relatable,” I press down the delete key until the page is nice and blank again.

I don’t want to write about how Eddie Kingston is relatable. About how we both deal with depression. About how we’re both pretty open about the role of psychiatric medicine in keeping us alive. In those last two sentences, you can see it happening, see the “I” of the author creeping in. This is why I’ve aborted so many drafts of this essay. There is truth to the notion that wrestlers are supposed to draw fans in by revealing parts of their character that say “Hey, I’m just like you,” but Eddie Kingston, in character, has never once invited that kind of gaze. I could try to relate to him. It would be wrong.

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But it’s hard not to. Eddie Kingston the wrestler never seems to be working without some kind of pain. Eddie Kingston has spent the entire year frustrated, often to the point of rage, about one thing or another, to the point that one can see him visibly trying to keep things together, to stay focused. More than anything, Eddie Kingston has failed.

Failure is what drives the Eddie Kingston character. You can call it redemption if you like, but redemption is a return from failure, a making good on it, and Kingston will be the first to tell you how much he has to make up for. Fucking up his career. Not treating women right. Friends he’s lost or let go or outright betrayed. Kingston has a ton on his ledger, and that character is playing to an audience of millennials who also feel a profound sense of shame and embarrassment and whatever else the brain dredges up when we fail, whether it’s by our own hand or by circumstance.

Small wonder so many of us are drawn to him. But relating? Turning his pain into mine? I pump the brakes, I hold delete, and I start over again.

Loss

It started with a bomb, literally and figuratively. Covering a helpless Jon Moxley with his own body at AEW’s Revolution pay-per-view, he and the audience braced as the countdown clock ticked down to zero. Zero, then … sparklers. This is a site of failure. It’s not Kingston’s fault, but when the earth-shattering kaboom promised by AEW in the run-up to their no-ropes barbwire exploding ring deathmatch failed to kaboom, the two people in the center of the ring, camera gazing straight at them, were Kingston and Mox. This happened once to Terry Funk and Cactus Jack, in the finals of IWA Japan’s King of the Deathmatch tournament, even, but Funk and Jack were fighting each other, so they could do some crazy stuff with a ladder and make up for the bomb. This was Eddie Kingston’s dramatic face turn after spending much of 2020 tormenting his former friend. He had no such option, so he kept covering Moxley.

I cared a lot about the finish of Revolution back in March; amateur deathmatch fan that I am, I was probably pretty mean about it (but never the wrestlers). Now I think that what happened was for the best. That it was beautiful. Yes, the intended result would have been preferred, but sometimes I think about Kingston charging into the unknown to sacrifice himself for someone whose brotherhood he’d scorned, and think that that act is professional wrestling at its most aspirational, no matter how big the bomb.

In the interest of being honest, I don’t remember much of the specifics of the Kingston/Moxley vs. Young Bucks feud that followed. If I’m being completely honest, I don’t remember much about wrestling this year. On those occasions where I’ve declared myself wrestling criticism’s vibes guy, it’s because my spring, summer, and fall were almost entirely blotted out by a mental health crisis that this job’s adherence to a pro wrestling schedule really helped when it came to telling time. Kingston and Mox were a constant during that time, continuously hunting the Bucks, stealing their shoes, making their lives hell. AEW did a fair amount of Attitude Era runback with Chris Jericho and the Inner Circle this summer, but Eddie Kingston and Jon Moxley were the actual Attitude, swaggering around Daily’s Place like they owned it, like they could beat every man in the building.

So naturally, they lost to the Young Bucks at Double or Nothing, AEW World Tag Team Championships on the line. The match is good, but what stands out to me is how the Bucks won, picking apart Eddie Kingston until he’s unable to save Jon Moxley. It’s a reversal of Revolution in that you know Kingston would save Mox if he could, but the short distance between the two cannot be crossed.

Resiliency

That’s been a constant in Kingston’s 2021—coming close to something, whether it’s a championship or a meaningful win, and falling short. These efforts have been spectacular, but beyond him and Mox beating Lance Archer and Minoru Suzuki, they have been losses. Miro, Bryan Danielson, CM Punk—with titles, title opportunities, and a years-long grudge in the balance, Eddie Kingston walked in with the crowd behind him, proved himself as being on the same level as these men, and lost. Against Punk and Danielson, he refused offered handshakes.

I get it—an offered handshake from someone who just spent weeks criticizing your cardio, your passion, and your ability to close is pretty fucking patronizing. Taking it says that you accept the loss, accept the level you’re at, and accept your opponent as the better man. (It’s telling that Danielson, who really laid into Eddie on the mic, is now a full-on heel.) The thing about failure in wrestling is that you may as well quit the game if what you think at the conclusion of a hard match isn’t “I know I can beat this guy.” More than main events or titles or money, this is what wrestling is about: the drive to win, even in defeat.

That match against Bryan Danielson, right? It’s astonishing. Brutal. Endlessly rewatchable. But I remember Kingston getting trapped in the triangle choke and flipping Danielson off as it put him to sleep, defiant to the last. More than that, I remember this being the rare occasion where Danielson didn’t look like he had a lot left in the tank. He wasn’t up immediately after the bell. He didn’t look fresh the way he did after his matches with various members of Dark Order. He was pushed if not to his limit than close to it in a way that’s only happened in AEW against Kenny Omega, Miro, and Hangman Page after 30, 20, and 60 minutes, respectively. King did his damage in 16; spent, but not finished until the lights went out.

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I’ve been trying to figure out what the word “resiliency” means in professional wrestling, a pre-determined sport where the normal athletic usage, the figure of a man who takes a lot of punishment in his position but logs a lot of minutes or scores a lot of points or won’t quit, doesn’t apply as neatly as commentary suggests that it does. Matches go as long as they do, wrestlers take the moves that they do because the narrative demands it. It takes resiliency to be a professional wrestler, to take bumps on a regular basis, but that’s basic. I don’t think wrestling resiliency is something you ground in the reality of the sport, and I don’t think it’s about kayfabe physical endurance. It’s spiritual, probably, like a gimmick granted by a higher power.

Eddie Kingston is resilient. In every single one of his major losses this year, he has managed to gain more than most wrestlers do by winning. His popularity, his reputation, his place on the card (whatever that means)—have grown every single week since he saved Mox from the bomb-that-wasn’t. He became the de facto babyface in the build to his matches against Bryan Danielson and CM Punk, two of the most beloved wrestlers in history. In a way it’s like watching Mick Foley’s unexpected rise in the WWF, like Kingston held on long enough for people to realize how incredibly, impossibly good he’s been for a much longer stretch of time than 2021. If you’re like me, you really, truly love to see it.

Failure

Eddie Kingston is not a failure.

He is a wrestler who has endured his fair share of it. He is a wrestler who has been shaped by it, but he is not, himself, a failure. To say that is to say that Eddie Kingston is a man without a future or a purpose. He has both, and his goals are tantalizingly close, which means that being a fan of his is a constant agony. As a vibes guy, I think that how a wrestler makes me feel is much more important than whatever a traditional metric for how well a wrestler performs is.

Well, Eddie Kingston makes me feel.

To what extent? Okay. CM Punk. CM Punk is probably my favorite wrestler who isn’t named Bret Hart. He got me back into wrestling by being different than everybody else in WWE in 2006, and he remained my favorite until he (justifiably) left the industry. In my closet, right now, there’s four different CM Punk shirts. I have both wrappers from the ice cream bars I had at All Out. My mom asks how “my guy” is doing and doesn’t mean Sting. You get the picture, probably.

I was desperate for Eddie Kingston to whip his ass.

If I reduce my reason why down to one word, I’ll have to delete this article and start on draft seven. Let’s say that part of it is the homerism of seeing someone whose matches you called perform at the level Kingston is now performing at. Let’s say that part of it is because you’re a sucker for mic work, and Kingston is as good as any other poet in the field at drawing out the emotion of a given situation. Let’s say that it’s because you like watching people get hit hard, and Kingston can hit a motherfucker real hard. Then, yes, you have to factor in the Player’s Tribune article, the way Punk was practically bulling Kingston for his weight and his ambition, the fact that Kingston had lost so many of his high profile matches that it felt like his time, at last, had come.

It didn’t—it hasn’t—but that doesn’t matter. Failure doesn’t matter except as something a wrestler learns from, an embarrassment that becomes a strength. I cannot count the number of times something I’ve tried artistically or personally has come to failure, how many times my response to that failure has been to give up on a project. Eddie Kingston never gives up, and not in the John Cena way. His professional life is a struggle, his demons chase him, but if he loses a match it’s like he’s been given a new quest, a loose end that will nag at him until he throws himself at it again and again and again. Because of this, I still want Eddie Kingston to whip CM Punk’s ass.

Earlier in this essay I said that Kingston’s attempted rescue of Moxley was aspirational. Beyond that, I think Eddie Kingston is aspirational. Wrestling can be a lot of things to a lot of people, but it is a rare thing for it to set an example. In trying, and failing, and trying, and failing, Eddie Kingston sets an example. A lesser man would cheat. A lesser man would abandon his aspirations. A lesser man would simply break. Hit the delete key, look at the blank page, walk away.

I can’t relate to Eddie Kingston’s 2021, but I can aspire to its thematic underpinnings—I can push myself to do what others feel is impossible, I can thrive where I would have settled for survival, and I can pick myself up off the mat when I fail and work hard for another chance. No other wrestler’s journey made me feel like this. Nobody came close. If I were capable of evaluating wrestling on another metric, by their matches or their promos, I might be writing about someone else, but I doubt it. In failure, in triumph, nobody had the year Eddie Kingston had. If 2022 is a degree kinder than this year, he’ll finally see the reward for for his unending struggle.

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