Look. We’re far enough into the reality of this pandemic that the idea of “essential workers” and “front lines” have become part of everyday speech. We don’t flinch at them, though we should—when we talk about essential workers like cashiers and janitors as “being on the front lines,” we’re talking about sending people into a situation where they might die to perform the labor assigned to them. So when AEW decided that the proceeds from this years Fight for the Fallen were going to go towards COVID relief, I flinched. Hard. It wasn’t just the t-shirt, AEW’s Fight for the Fallen logo with its clutched fist thrusting a mask into the air, but the fact that wrestling, like it or not, has contributed to the notion that it’s possible to carry on through this thing without too much inconvenience. Raising funds is great. Doing so for a cause that you and your competitor indirectly exacerbated by convincing major sports leagues that it’s possible to create literal bubbles from which real humans can risk their lives to entertain those of us living in the ruined society outside of the bubble.
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- A Pilgrimage to Scott Steiner’s Shoney’s
What’s incredible is that, instead of preparing to write an essay about that aspect of Fight For the Fallen, I was instead able to turn off that impulse and watch a wrestling show. I don’t believe in wrestling as a distraction, regardless of the image wrestling promoters have of their product, but I am too tired, too weary to do the critical equivalent of doomscrolling, and last night AEW kind of succeeded in distracting me from the dozen or so things contributing to said weariness. I’d debate them on the notion that this was a “pay-per-view quality” card, as it was very much a normal episode of Dynamite with a fancy name, but we can get into that in the recap.
TNT Championship: Cody Rhodes (c) def. Sonny Kiss
The story of Cody’s reign as the initial TNT Champion is two-fold, and continues here, as Sonny Kiss, a wrestler who normally wouldn’t get a shot at a singles title, goes up against a champion whose whole thing is being overprepared for every opponent to the point that there are actually cracks in his armor. I’m normally more compelled by the former than the latter, and that’s true here. But this is the first TNT Championship match I’ve seen that accomplishes both goals, as Sonny, the obvious underdog, brings a lot to the match that doesn’t fit on Arn Anderson’s Waffle House menu and nearly upsets Cody on more than a few occasions. I still feel like too much of the focus of these matches is on Cody—we know him, we know what he brings to this gimmick, and by comparison AEW hasn’t spent a fraction of its existence promoting Kiss as a championship level competitor, so that elevation is far more interesting than Tully Blanchard scouting Cody, and even more interesting than Arn functioning as a coach and telling Cody to get his head out of his ass.
The match also offered an interesting narrative road not taken, as at several points Cody did some heel stuff, like taking off his weight belt and pausing before deciding not to whip Sonny, without committing to the bit. They’re going to run with Cody as the TNT Champion for awhile, but he doesn’t have to win every match, and his plans can fail. If he whips Sonny, or if he smashes him onto an exposed turnbuckle in full view of the referee and gets disqualified, what does that do to him as a character? What does that mean for him and Arn? I realize that I’m asking these questions at the beginning of what’s likely a slow burn, but more than my being impatient to get to the climax of that story, I keep thinking about what an actual win over Cody would mean for some of the wrestlers he’s defending against, what it would look like if some of the more interesting undercard wrestlers on the roster started moving up the card the way Orange Cassidy has. Neither wrestler is hurt by what happens here, but there’s so much more narrative potential than Sonny looking kinda uncomfortable while Cody hugs him for putting in a Good Effort.
Grade: Good wrestling matches are either supposed to leave you wanting more or come to a resolution. This one was good, though it met neither of those objectives. I want more for Sonny Kiss than a firm hug and a hearty handshake. I want more for Cody than Unexpected Competition.
FTR def. Lucha Bros
I’m gonna be honest, y’all: This was a bad match. There was zero chemistry between FTR and the Lucha Bros, and while at first blush I wanted to blame that on Dax and Cash being fresh out of the WWE system, in truth it was on Fenix and Pentagon, Fenix in particular. He was consistently a step or two slower than usual, struggled to pick up and hold the weight of another body, and kept positioning himself in strange ways. If it weren’t for my willingness to believe AEW about checking temperatures before wrestlers are admitted into the venue, I’d be wondering whether or not Fenix wrestled sick. I don’t exactly buy into the FTR hype to begin with, but beyond Fenix the underlying issue here is that FTR’s reputation as culty WWE midcarders has translated into them being pushed as this big dream match tag team, and most dream matches fail to live up to the hype because how the hell can they? The finish, where Dax unmasked Fenix and rolled him up because doing so isn’t illegal in these United States, was some good, classic stuff, but otherwise this never clicked.
Grade: Probably the most disappointing Big Match in AEW history thus far.
Promo: After the match, the Young Bucks steal back the keys to FTR’s fancy truck and Kenny Omega hits the ring with a foam cooler with exactly three beers in it as a make good to their rivals. Dax and Cash, rather than allow Kenny Omega to taste beer for the first time, ruthlessly bully him for buying a foam cooler for three beers and dump theirs on his head. Then they try to start their fancy truck and drive away, but it won’t start. Incredible turn of events.
Promo: Chris Jericho is calling himself the Demogod now, which is certainly a decision. He’s obviously a great promo, but this is nothing special, the usual heel who won a match refusing a rematch thing. Orange Cassidy, however, is special. He shows up and, like Batista deciding to wrestle Triple H at WrestleMania 21, does the ol’ thumbs up/thumbs down, and Jericho and the Inner Circle are drenched in orange juice. When Jericho is given a towel to dry off with, it’s a gigantic portrait of Cassidy. Jericho spends the rest of the night complaining about his $7,000 jacket, claiming that he’s been doused like nobody in history before. Man, when Orange beats him it’s going to feel so good.
The Elite (The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega) def. Jurassic Express
The more I see Jurassic Express in matches they almost win but don’t because of the size disparity between Marko Stunt and everybody else, the less I care. Marko’s a good wrestler and I like him a lot, but they’ve gone to this well so many goddamn times that I ultimately don’t care who is on the other side of the ring. That said, this is a good, enjoyable match, cut with backstage promos where Adam Page is drinking alone, then with FTR. Stunt’s valiance comes into play as he survives a really wicked Snap Dragon suplex and wiggles out of a One-Winged Angel to nearly beat Kenny, but Kenny immediately destroys him after that sequence, picks up the pin, AND CONTINUES BEATING UP STUNT AFTER THE MATCH. I’ve lapsed on AEW a bit and don’t watch Being the Elite, so excuse me if they’ve been hinting at the return of THE CLEANER for a moment, but this isn’t at all the direction I thought AEW was going when they decided to have friction between Page and Omega, and while The Cleaner is somehow even more high school theater over-the-top than Omega’s babyface persona, it’s different (both for him and compared to everybody else) and immediately revitalized my interest in him. I can hear the chainsaw arms revving up already.
Grade: Your usual Good Showing, but with the added bonus of Kenny Omega spiraling into madness.
Promo: Hikaru Shida says that there aren’t a lot of women active on AEW’s roster and that she’s willing to fight anybody who wants to challenge for her title. I’m game. Not, like, to fight her—she’d whip my ass—but for more Shida title matches.
Promo: Jon Moxley has had a lot going on in his life—his wife had COVID, his plans to defend his title were pushed back, and his friend Danny Havoc passed—but he gets to purge some of his negative emotions against Cage last night. He telegraphs his gameplan, which is going after Cage’s surgically repaired bicep.
Nightmare Sisters (Brandi Rhodes and Allie) def. MJ Jenkins and Kenzie Paige
Brandi Rhodes’ new nightmare makes its AEW Dynamite debut, squashing MJ Jenkins and Kenzie Paige. It’s one more episode of Dynamite where the content is lacking on the women’s roster, and it stings a little since Jenkins is so good, truly deserving of the platform, and instead she just gets crushed.
Grade: Brandi, stop trying to make Nightmare happen. It’s not going to happen.
Promo: Nyla Rose introduces her new manager. Like many suspected, it’s Vicki Guerrero. I’m of two minds on this. One mind says that Nyla is perfectly fine by herself, no help necessary. The other mind fucking loves and cherishes Vicki, one of the lone bright spots of a truly abysmal era of WWE programming who went unappreciated in her time because wrestling fans can’t handle camp despite wrestling being camp. It’ll be interesting to see her presented as a serious character, and the first suggestion I’d make to that end would be to not try shoehorning in references to Eddie Guerrero’s lying, cheating, and stealing in her promos. AEW has a lot of managers at the moment, but it’s impressive that all of them feel unique and add dimension to their charges. We’re one step removed from AEW emulating WWF/NWA style manager-led stables, and I cannot wait for the day that happens.
AEW World Championship: Jon Moxley (c) def. Brian Cage
AEW is in kind of an interesting situation with their main event, where the EVPs who would ostensibly otherwise be in the role Brian Cage is in (so far as card positioning is concerned) are largely in their own sandbox, Jericho’s had his moment with the title, and nobody else on the roster is truly at Jon Moxley’s level, so the build to the title match, which Mox is pretty much a lock to win, mostly serves as an introduction to the featured wrestler both in and out of the ring. I never really had much time for Cage on the indies or on Impact and Lucha Underground, but I really like what he brings to AEW. Again, AEW’s use of managers, this time Taz, really works to accentuate the character. Applying sports science to wrestling is a little goofy, but Taz’s kayfabe shoot fighter suplex man thing lends itself well to the idea of him being a squat bastard in a suit with a perfect weapon at his disposal, like Paul Heyman if Paul Heyman could choke a guy out.
True to his word, Mox goes after Cage’s arm throughout the match, which works despite his having told Cage he was going to do it. Where Moxley’s battle plan goes awry is when he does the things it’s clear Taz has scouted him on, like trying to use chairs and guardrails as objects upon which to suplex Cage. Those spots, however, don’t really play well in a mostly-empty venue—those are large-scale props, and with nobody there to pop organically for their use, they seem small. The match really hits its groove as an exchange of bombs between two pissed off men with a lot to prove. I absolutely loved the finish, too, as Mox succeeded in getting a cross armbreaker, then kept countering Cage’s attempts to get out, laughing in Taz’s face as he debated throwing in the towel, which, screaming, he eventually did. There wasn’t any question as to whether or not it was the right decision, either—Mox had Cage dead to rights, Cage’s arm was in jeopardy after surgery, and Taz chose to live to fight another day. Jim Ross did a great job walking that through, Cage accepting the decision sold it even more, and then he got his heat back by hitting Mox with his FTW Championship, but Mox is saved by a returning (for the second or third time this year) Darby Allin, who also has a somewhat undefined relationship with Mox. Hopefully Darby can continue building his star without doing a further injury angle.