Is AEW Dark: Elevation Worth Watching?

I was suckered into watching two hours of AEW Dark: Elevation by the promise of its main event and the amount of advertising that went into its debut, but, being honest here, no, it’s not.. It’s just AEW Dark with a subtitle, an endless stream of competitive enhancement matches filmed before an audience of wrestlers who have to endure marathon tapings and don’t seem too enthusiastic to be there.

Its role as something of a proving ground for prospects/waystation for full-timers who aren’t doing anything on Dynamite means that Dark’s format holds nothing for me, occasional banger aside. I am a squash match enthusiast—WCW B shows were my bread and butter as a kid—but two full hours of squash matches that tend to run seven or eight minutes instead of four is asking a lot, and, frankly, does nothing for the featured wrestler.

As such, this isn’t going to be a standard recap. You can look at the card, guess who won, imagine the basic formula, and be done with it. But there are a few elements of the show that I’d like to discuss before moving on with my very busy wrestling-watching schedule of Shotgun Saturday Night and WCW weekend offerings like Ultimo Dragon vs. Randy Savage.

Well, it’s the Big Show

Elevation is absolutely not the sole reason Paul Wight, the artist formerly known as the Big Show, was brought into AEW, but the company was clearly high on the prospect of having him in the booth. He is new to it, so there’s time for him to get better, but I feel kind of charitable in saying that he’s not very good at this.

Which makes sense! Calling a wrestling match is nowhere near as easy as people make it out to be, so there’s a certain amount of leeway I’m willing to grant to his clinging to the cliches of a player-turned-announcer. Half of what he sees is innovative, the other half is stuff he used to do as a young man, and his scouting reports have the depth of someone who has been watching the product for two or three weeks.

The main problem is that he sounds like a WWE announcer. Not in the sense that he’s overly polished, but in the sense that he doesn’t have much of a personality. AEW’s commentary teams have their ups and downs, but they all sound like people whose engagement with wrestling goes beyond the transactional relationship one has with their dayjob. I have never in my life heard an announcer on a show at this level talk about wrestling as if it was fake, but Wight went through the intricacies of Shaq’s wrestling debut like a smart fan with a podcast, referring to the NBA legend by hyping up the bumps he took and hailing Cody Rhodes as a general for leading the match. It felt off, and while there is room to grow, it wasn’t a weird enough for me to stick with.

Good squashes and bad squashes

A good enhancement match does one of two things: It can showcase the particular skills of a wrestler, or highlight aspects of their character that are going to be important going forward. Big Swole vs. Skyler Moore is a good example of the former, as Swole is returning from two months away due to Crohn’s disease complications. She got a tune up match, looked great in it, and reminded us why she was a ranked wrestler before she took time off. Even better, Moore’s extended bursts of offense made sense given Swole’s ring rust.

Matches like Danny Limelight vs. Jungle Boy are far less necessary. What can we learn about Jungle Boy in a squash match at this point? What does his having an even match against a freelancer do when he’s in the middle of a feud against one of the company’s top teams? This kind of match works if you like the wrestlers involved—Tay Conti vs. Ashley Vox was pretty enjoyable—but there’s no rule that says an online show *has* to be two hours long, so why run clock?

On the other end of the squash spectrum, Miro and Kip Sabian’s tag win over Baron Black and Vary Morales made sense as a further evolution of the dynamic between the two and Penelope Ford, which is taking a turn towards the abusive. Miro mostly stood on the ring apron yelling directions at his partner until Sabian needed bailing out due to being left out there for too long, at which point Miro snapped and wrecked the other team. He let Sabian pick up the win, but he looked confused and Ford looked incredulous, so it’s a change of pace from the initial Best Man pairing.

On the unnecessary side was Abadon squashing Ray Lyn, as I think I’ve seen everything I need to see from Abadon, who doesn’t look particularly good in these scenarios. Similarly, while impressive, there wasn’t much point to QT Marshall throwing Marko Stunt around like Marshall was first run Brock Lesnar, given that Marshall’s ceiling as a heel and interest in the fracturing of the Nightmare Family isn’t extremely high. The rest was fine, but that’s it. There wasn’t much in the way of curious style clashes or extended looks at potential signees. The highlight of this slew of matches was Wight talking about the Burn Book from Mean Girls like he didn’t know that Mean Girls was a movie, just that “Mean Girl” was a nickname Dani Jordyn went by, and that the Burn Book was something she had.

The best Kenny Omega is the one who isn’t pressed about being the best in the world

Elevation did have a storyline, which was nice. After the Sydal Brothers picked up a tag win, they were interviewed by Alex Marvez. Kenny Omega interrupted, trying to shoo the Sydals away by saying that the people wanted to see the World Champion, who was there to scout the show. Matt Sydal said that his goal was to earn his way towards a match against Omega, whose idea of a top five was a little different than Tony Khan’s, as Omega’s was just him, five times. But he offered Sydal an opportunity: Beat Michael Nakazawa, get a match against Omega; beat him, get a rematch for the AEW World Championship.

So Matt Sydal wrestled Michael Nakazawa. It wasn’t much of a match, though Schiavone and Wight sold the fact that this was Sydal’s second match of the night, so fatigue would be a factor. If I were to make Dark a habit, it would be for wrestlers like Nakazawa, who was fantastic in DDT but isn’t featured on Dynamite other than his role as a background character in the petite drama that is Kenny Omega’s championship reign. He wrestled in his Sprint Store uniform, slowly taking off elements of his business guy attire so he could attack Sydal with them. He rules. Jokey proxies to the champ rule.

Sydal pantsed Nakazawa and got the win, which brought out Omega. He cut a JRPG promo about how PUMPED UP and ready he was for the match he promised Sydal, hit him with a V Trigger and One Winged Angel, and won the match. This brought out Khan, who was upset with Omega for walking back his agreement to give Sydal a week to prep for the match if he won. Khan’s a little awkward on the mic, but he’s an enthusiastic occasional GM, a fan who wants the fans to get what they paid for, even if the fans are wrestlers who are paid to be there. So instead of that finish, Sydal gets Omega on Dynamite next week.

I’m not very interested in Sydal, but Omega’s performance was great, carrying a perfect “major champion visits the B-show and throws his weight around a little too much” vibe, which is something that shows like this could use every once in awhile. Why Sydal, outside of “these two wrestlers can really go,” I don’t know, but presuming there’s connective tissue between last night’s events and next week’s Dynamite, it’s possible that Elevation can serve as a platform for short programs like this, which is of value.

Main Event Maki

Maki Itoh is on her way back to Japan at the moment, but her send-off was a main event match against former AEW Women’s Champion Riho. It was good, of course—Itoh is wildly charismatic and Riho is an extremely capable wrestler, and sometimes that’s all you need—but compared to Itoh’s previous outings at Daily’s Place, this match felt a little flat.

I explored this a little in reviewing the Women’s Eliminator Tournament, but that has a lot to do with the vibe on Dark. Itoh’s debut at Revolution was the most well-received surprise of the night. The debut of her theme song on Dynamite was extremely over with the live audience, the commentary team, and social media, where views on the video handily eclipsed everything from NXT and AEW that night, even the numbers on the Mox/Kingston and Omega promos in the aftermath of their much-derided exploding ring death match.

Like Orange Cassidy, Maki Itoh has a character that really lives and dies by the reaction of a live audience, and a group of casually interested peers is not that. There’s no warmth to an AEW Dark taping, no sense that anything is must-watch, and I was frankly a little surprised that AEW didn’t do something about that to at least make the first episode of this extension of the Dark brand feel important. It was just Tony, Paul, and the hollow echo of the handful of folks at ringside, which made the fact that this is it for Itoh in America for the time being a little bittersweet.

The match is worth seeking out, and I’m glad that Riho is back and will be a regular presence in the women’s division again. That said, American wrestling is difficult enough to watch at the moment regardless of how many people are there, and putting out a diet version of your product is only going to appeal to the lifers who are already on board for the prospect of matches that serve to do little more than pump up someone’s win/loss record. I am not a lifer, and I’m not much for diet wrestling. I needed something more, and this was not it.

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Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

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