Tonight, Chris Jericho’s Inner Circle and MJF’s Pinnacle meet in a Stadium Stampede match that will determine, among other things, whether or not the Inner Circle continues as a going concern in All Elite Wrestling.
It is just the third time these two factions have met in the ring since The Pinnacle’s March 10 debut.
I am of two minds when it comes to the build to this match, which offers, on its surface, some of the highest stakes AEW has considering how a part of Jericho and Maxwell Jacob Friedman’s characters concepts like ratings, demographics, money, and merchandise are concerned. I will lead with the more generous reading, which is this: If MJF beats Jericho and breaks the Inner Circle up, it will be a good enough resolution to an angle that’s been running much longer than two months, a saga that started with subtle digs at one another in the parking lot, peaked with a critically acclaimed musical number that won a year end award in the New York Times, and ended in bloodshed.
The less charitable read of this angle is that all of that was the lead-in for one of the more underwhelming soft launches of a wrestling stable in recent memory; win, lose, or draw.
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Launching a wrestling stable isn’t easy. Of the three major ones that debuted over the pandemic, The Pinnacle is easily the best. It isn’t tied to the burning of police precincts the way Retribution was, and it’s not cosplaying in vaguely nationalist, ominously incelish attire the way The United Empire is. It’s The Four Horsemen, essentially, or two versions of the Horsemen smushed together, with MJF, FTR, and Shawn Spears as the Flair/Arn/Tully/Windham analogues, Wardlow as the Sid Vicious, and Tully Blanchard as JJ Dillon. They do Horsemen things, they wear Horsemen clothes, they eat Horsemen food, and they cut Horsemen promos.
Thus far, that’s about all they’ve done.
The Pinnacle is a stable of six men who have talked endlessly and wrestled three times as a unit since their formation. Including Dax Harwood’s loss to Chris Jericho and two FTR tag team matches on Dark, The Pinnacle has six matches under their belt. Across the ring (or stadium) from them tonight will be the Inner Circle, who have wrestled twice in that time—Jericho’s win over Harwood, and the May 5 Blood & Guts match.
There is some logic to this, I suppose. If you keep the two factions apart, you make their inevitable clash feel more important. That’s a basic tenant of booking that frequently eludes AEW’s main competitor, WWE, who are content to book the same main event title matches across months of television and pay-per-view, but I don’t think it’s helped in establishing The Pinnacle as an ongoing force in AEW, or in turning the Inner Circle babyface, as all I have to go on for how these units function in their newfound roles are six matches. The rest is literally noise.
The beef between The Inner Circle and The Pinnacle suffers from two issues that are pretty much unique to AEW: An overreliance on promos, and the use of pull-apart brawls as a substitute for character development. Both of these issues can be—and frequently are—framed differently. AEW offers more freedom on the mic than its rival, and those pull-apart brawls get a lot of people on Dynamite who otherwise wouldn’t. That’s part of the problem though: It feels like none of the other members of The Pinnacle or The Inner Circle would be on TV if they weren’t needed as bodies between MJF and Jericho. This is a singles feud that happens to have nine other guys attached, and to get those nine other guys involved requires 10 minute stable promos, Monday Nitro-ending brawls, and angles lifted from the video clips WWE trots out when they’re forced to do a Throwback Raw. That the end result from all of this is a structured brawl that still won’t leave me with much clue as to the in-ring identity of either crew does not bode well for the future.
The Inner Circle
Frankly, this has been one of the biggest issues AEW has had when it comes to booking its marquee factions beyond The Elite, who they’d pretty much booked as a team in the middle of breaking up from the company’s launch. I’d go so far as to say that this is an issue that the company has with a lot of the classic wrestling constructs its bolted on to its modern wrestling presentation—most of their managers add nothing to the people they represent, with the exception of Taz and Don Callis—but the Inner Circle has existed since the second episode of Dynamite, and the only members of the group who’ve moved up or down the card as a consequence are Jericho and MJF, who officially joined the group by beating Jericho at Full Gear last year.
That’s kind of the gift/curse of how AEW utilizes names like Jericho. Like, yeah, he’s one of the biggest names in wrestling, one of the greatest of all time, and working with him on a week to week basis cannot have done anything but help Santana, Ortiz, and Guevara in the long run. But along the way there have been so many flashes of brilliance from those three—Santana and Ortiz in particular—that’ve been brushed aside that it’s long felt as if the best thing for the Inner Circle would be its dissolution.
That was exacerbated by the gradual integration of MJF into the fold. From the promo the two did after Friedman betrayed Cody Rhodes (which happened in November 2019) forward, it was clear that the two were destined to work with each other. I’ve never really felt like the comparisons between Jericho and MJF were apt other than that both are extremely talented on the microphone and both like scarves, but they both have big, dominant personalities and their characters crossed paths in a way that suggested that one might feel like the other owed him something. His eventually angling to join the group made good on that assumption, but it also pulled the stable out of the ring and into a frankly appalling number of specially branded segments on Dynamite that ranged from great to forgettable.
“My Shadow and Me” was the peak of this angle. That much is inarguable. It also happened in October 2020, a month before MJF and Wardlow officially joined the stable. In the four months they spent in the Inner Circle, the tension was whether or not Chris Jericho would wake up to the fact that MJF was clearly trying to get his friends to turn their back on him. There were ultimatums and war councils, rededications and threats to leave the group, but because everything was so tightly focused on the MJF/Jericho relationship, the end of which was never in any doubt, we never really got to see how this new dynamic played out in the larger landscape of AEW. The Inner Circle was trapped in a bubble. Rather than let it burst, on March 10, it grew.
The Four Horsemen
Two months of television isn’t a lot of time to build for a win-or-go-home match that will ultimately involve eleven men, but this wouldn’t be such an issue if the identities of nine of those men weren’t so tied to the destinies of the main two. If The Inner Circle had an identity beyond being Jericho’s friends, if they *and* The Pinnacle had wrestling matches under their belt that suggested what these characters are like when they’re functioning in the ring together beyond Blood & Guts, I’d be intrigued.
For the record, I loved Blood & Guts, right up until the end, which has nothing to do with what Chris Jericho landed on after MJF shoved him from the roof of the cage. My issue is that the match gave me pretty much everything that I wanted—a sense of the way The Pinnacle and The Inner Circle fight as a cohesive unit—until Jericho and MJF got into the cage. At that point, the two worked their way out of and to the top of the cage, which, given the layout of Daily’s Place (it’s cramped, so far as television production purposes go) forced the cameras to shoot Jericho and MJF fighting on top of the cage by themselves. Whatever was happening in the rings below was largely left to the imagination.
This was a letdown, I felt, though I’m putting it down to production limitations. The Inner Circle are babyfaces because The Pinnacle are not—their face turn is almost hilariously unearned. Seeing them fight to get out of the cage so that they could beg MJF not to throw Jericho off would have added a lot to this angle just because it would have been physicality with true stakes as opposed to the endless grind of one stable going “gotcha!” to the other.
It also would have helped if AEW had broken from its booking pattern to put some focus on The Pinnacle as an in-ring attraction, because when one of their promos featured FTR saying “why are we doing this when we could be chasing our tag titles,” I felt that.
The Pinnacle are a 1980s NWA stable on a 2020s WWE part-timer’s schedule. Outside of Blood & Guts and AEW’s April 9 untelevised house show, we’ve gotten a look at them as a unit once, when FTR and Shawn Spears beat the Varsity Blonds and Dante Martin on March 24. The first WarGames took place on July 4, 1987. Its Four Horsemen contingent was Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Lex Luger, Tully Blanchard, and J.J. Dillon and they wrestled Dusty Rhodes, Nikita Koloff, The Road Warriors, and Paul Ellering. Limiting my search on Cagematch for the two months leading into and including that match, I counted 29 matches where various combinations of Horsemen wrestled together, 10 of which were against various combinations of their opponents, two of which involved steel cages before WarGames. The combinations broke down like this:
- Lex Luger and Ric Flair: 8
- Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard: 6
- Arn Anderson and Lex Luger: 5
- Lex Luger and Tully Blanchard: 2
- Luger, Blanchard, and Anderson: 3
- Luger, Flair, and Blanchard: 2 (including a cage match)
- Luger, Anderson, and Blanchard: 1
- Luger, Anderson, Blanchard, and Flair: 1 (cage match)
- Luger, Anderson, Blanchard, Flair, and Dillon: 1 (WarGames)
It’s not a one-to-one comparison given that modern wrestling booking looked a lot different from 80s wrestling booking before the pandemic, but look: Luger had become an official member of the Four Horsemen two months before I started counting matches, completely changing the makeup of the team by ousting Ole Anderson, which made Luger the group’s secondary singles star and put Arn and Tully together as its main tag team. The booking leading to July 4, 1987 wasn’t just a means of getting us to WarGames, but of integrating Luger and establishing how this entirely new vision of the Horsemen operated as a unit. You get six Arn and Tully tag matches and a whole lot of Luger as a guy earning his stripes. By the time the strategy-intensive WarGames match comes around, they have had 28 further opportunities to figure out how they work together, nine against their rivals, and two in a cage.
Most of these matches, including WarGames, were untelevised, with promos and DQ finishes and jobber squash matches and the occasional brawl serving as the momentum between big shows at the Omni, the Greensboro Coliseum, and elsewhere, but they happened. You could read about them in magazines, you could see photos of them, you could see the bruises and cuts accumulate on the bodies of the 10 men involved the longer their issue ran, and by the time they clashed at the Great American Bash, both teams were functionally units, their wildcards being the involvement of Ellering and Dillon, two former wrestlers turned manager.
What’s different about the build to these two matches is that, in 1987, we were shown these two groups coalescing, and in 2021 we’re constantly being told that they are. It’s fine if you’re willing to stack up a bunch of promos and brawls as build, but Jericho went from October to March with MJF as the apple of his eye, and MJF’s recruitment of Spears and FTR was so deep-background that Friedman and Spears betting on the outcomes of matches when the two of them were part of the ringside crew on early-pandemic episodes of Dynamite. While a significant amount of team building in athletics is culture-based—your steak dinners and trips to Las Vegas—most teams, most good teams, come together on the field.
I’m going to stop just short of saying that AEW couldn’t have emulated NWA-style booking to put The Pinnacle together—their reticence to have Shawn Spears and FTR do wrestle together despite their having Tully Blanchard in common for the better part of a year beforehand still doesn’t make sense and would have made it so that they only thing they “lacked” was a leader—because they could have. Aside from Jericho and MJF, whose stars probably should be protected heading into a pair of grueling, character-defining matches, literally everybody else involved could use more definition, more reason to care about what will or won’t happen to them at the conclusion of Stadium Stampede, and that’s still something wrestlers can figure out from bell to bell.
AEW has run 34 cards since The Pinnacle formed. Between 11 men, we’ve gotten six matches. Santana and Ortiz, who are one of the best tag teams in the world, haven’t wrestled a tag match since March. FTR have had two, both enhancement matches on Dark. Has every Inner Circle/Pinnacle promo in-between March 10 and now been so spectacular as to render the possibility of a first-time-ever match between those two teams unappetizing? Are Shawn Spears, Jake Hager, and Sammy Guevara so secure in their characters that they can’t wrestle on YouTube? Is AEW above protecting the finish of a main event match on a PPV by running a double DQ/count out on Dynamite?
The answer to all of those questions is no, and yet we’re stuck where we’ve been since the moment MJF threw in the towel on Cody and continued Jericho’s reign as AEW Champion: With the possibility of Jericho and Max settling the score as the selling point to a story between two personalities so large that they’ve rendered the rest of their crew ancillary. This wasn’t an issue in the feuds this match is pulling from, and its leads were Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes.
Like Blood & Guts was, tonight’s Stadium Stampede show might be great on its own, but there’s too much unsaid about both groups going into it for this to feel like the game-changing moment for AEW that the amount of time they’ve invested into this feud suggests that it ought to be. If The Inner Circle wins, we’re getting a rubber match. If they lose, there still needs to be one on one resolution between Jericho and Friedman. Regardless, the match will leave the nine other guys involved looking for direction, which is what they were looking for going in. There’s always next week’s Dynamite to get the ball rolling on that, but imagine the weight this match would have had that project started earlier, had it utilized the time AEW has beyond Dynamite, had it trusted everybody involved to carry something heavier than the question of what AEW would look like without The Inner Circle.
Right now the answer to that question is “a promotion with one less entity capable of talking for 15 minutes” and not “a promotion now absent one of the pillars that first established them.” To achieve the later outcome, The Inner Circle needs to be something more than Chris Jericho’s shadow, and The Pinnacle something more than MJF’s. They are, after all, already each other’s shadows. The “Me and my shadow/my shadow and me” routine of the song and dance they did back in October was fine when the point of the angle was to occlude the rest of The Inner Circle so Max could whisper poison in their ears, but it feels like that song still hasn’t ended , and at this point I’m desperate for someone else to sing.