It’s the opening moments of the least-anticipated bout of All Elite Wrestling’s All Out pay-per-view. One competitor, an extraordinarily large man, has his opponent backed into a corner, one massive hand pressed against the smaller man’s neck. The big guy is Paul Wight, who has spent nearly thirty years as the resident Man of Size in WWE as the Big Show and WCW as the Giant. The smaller one is QT Marshall, decked out in rhinestone-bedazzled trunks and kneepads, his tight navy shirt already ripped in two. Wight raises his finger to his lips and calls for the crowd to be quiet, then brings his hand down onto Marshall’s bare chest so forcefully that the slap echoes through the NOW Arena. “That’ll clear your phlegm,” says Jim Ross as a low roar travels through the crowd.
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It’s a throwaway match—the most anybody has said about it since All Out aired is that it gave the TV audience a good spot to run to the bathroom. Nobody came to this show desperate to see a 49 year old with a reconstructed hip go up against someone best known for starting a mutiny in AEW’s sixth most popular stable, especially sandwiched between CM Punk’s first match in seven years and a main event packed with surprise debuts. All Out 2021 is a show that will live on for as long as AEW’s tenure lasts, but this match might have been forgotten halfway through Christian’s entrance.
But I still keep thinking about it, because, in its way, this little nothing of a match encapsulates the subtleties of the art of wrestling. It doesn’t have the weight of Punk’s return, nor the drama of Cole and Danielson’s debuts, no. It doesn’t have the sheer exhilaration of the Young Bucks vs. the Lucha Bros or the feel-good energy of seeing Ruby Soho get her big moment in front of a hometown crowd.
What it does have is a perfect grasp on how the structure of a wrestling card matters. Anyone can make a surprise appearance by a big star seem special. But rather than assume that everything between the highlights would somehow work itself out, AEW put real effort into making the entire show meaningful—even this cool-down match.
We often talk about wrestling matches in isolation, as though each match starts with a fresh crowd that is ready to judge the performance solely on its own merits. The persistence of the star rating system reinforces this tendency, especially in a historical sense—we come to think of a match as an individual event, and judge it according to that standard. But wrestling never actually works like this in reality. A match is part of a card, and the shape of the card influences the audience’s response to the match; rearrange the card, and you rearrange the way the audience reacts, even if every move were sequenced the same way. This is true for no other reason than humans only have so much energy and breath capacity to expend at once.
As a result, most big events need to have a cool-down match somewhere on the card. It’s where women’s wrestling was frequently stuck, unfortunately—the example that comes to mind is the hopeless position of the women’s title match at Wrestlemania XXX, stuck between the end of the Undertaker’s streak and Bryan Danielson’s Miracle on Bourbon Street. What’s different about Wight/Marshall is how the match cooled the audience down through deliberate structure and pacing, not just because it happened to be a worse match than the ones around it.
In the case of All Out, the evening needed to end with the championship match between Christian Cage and Kenny Omega. Specifically, it needed to end with the crowd going apeshit at the sight of Bryan Danielson standing next to Jungle Boy in an AEW ring. But that match followed CM Punk vs. Darby Allen, the match everybody in Chicago came to see. If we go straight from Punk/Allen to Cage/Omega, then everybody is worn out from chanting for Punk and the main event looks worse by comparison.
So we need something to break that up—a breather match, something short and relatively less exciting than the others on the card. We could just call this segment the “bathroom break,” sure, but to do that is to mistake this match as a weak part of the card instead of a fundamental part of making the show complete. A breather match is as much an exercise in manipulating the crowd’s reaction as when a tag team builds the audience up by teasing a hot tag: over the course of the show, it’s just as important to know how to cool the audience down as it is to know how to heat them up.
Paul Wight Smashes The Factory
The impetus for the match between Wight and Marshall is that Marshall and his cronies have been bullying Tony Schiavone across AEW TV, prompting Wight, Schiavone’s commentary partner on Dark: Elevation, to step in on his friend’s behalf. While the next phase of the story is likely to follow why the Gunn Club turned on Wight on the Dynamite before his match with Marshall—not exactly the most compelling angle in AEW at the moment—in the long term, the most important thing to come out of this program should be a deepened relationship between Wight and Schiavone. This seems promising: the best commentary teams have layered histories that make their calls more meaningful.
In the meantime, Schiavone’s commentary during Wight/Marshall shows his delight in seeing Marshall get manhandled. “I’m feeling good about this,” says Schiavone as Wight backs Marshall into a corner again. “I wanted to see all Paul Wight offense, nothing from QT.” When Marshall manages to get the upper hand for a few seconds, Schiavone’s disappointment is palpable: “Well, I guess he got something in,” he grouses.
Wight’s chest slaps are the most important element of the structure here. Wight and Marshall repeat the spot four times over the course of the match, with Wight backing Marshall into the corner and shushing the crowd each time. This takes up the majority of the match time; following the fourth slap, Marshall gets in a dropkick and tries to mount a comeback, but Wight shrugs off his attempt at a Diamond Cutter. Marshall’s goons from the Factory try to get involved, but Wight tosses them around just long enough to get their faces on camera, then catches Marshall in a kneeling chokeslam for the pinfall. The match lasts just over three minutes from bell to bell.
When I watched this a second time, I was surprised at how many times they ran the corner spot—four is a lot of repetition for such a short match. But then I started to pay attention to the crowd. At the beginning of the match, they are listless and tired, out of breath from cheering for CM Punk. But the cumulative effect of Wight’s calls for quiet isn’t just to draw attention to his slaps—it’s to shape and direct the audience’s silence.
By the end of the sequence, they aren’t just quiet because they are worn out, but because that is the appropriate response for the match at hand. And because the crowd’s noise level has been reset in this way, they are in a position for Cage and Omega—and eventually Cole and Danielson—to light them on fire again.
All Out is likely to go down as one of the most momentous events in wrestling history. That reputation will be staked on the title matches and arrival of big new stars; it won’t be remembered for Paul Wight squashing QT Marshall. But from a structural perspective, this cool-down match was integral to the overall success of the event. The big matches became better because of this one.
In short: However many stars you give to Cage and Omega, at least one of them belongs to Wight and Marshall.