Welcome to the latest edition of Off the Top Rope. Every Thursday, we offer you compelling analysis and an interview or feature focused on some of the most important newsmakers in the sport of professional wrestling.
"They need to stop this match. Seriously. Or someone's going to die."
The fans sitting directly behind me at All Elite Wrestling's All Out last month in Chicago were worried about Nick Jackson. The younger of the two Jackson brothers who make up the iconic Young Bucks tag team, Nick is the daredevil of the team: a high-flying wild man who seemingly knows no fear.
But everyone in the audience felt it for him during the "Escalera De La Muerte" match with the Lucha Bros—especially as he tumbled from atop a ladder all the way to the floor where he missed all but a piece of the two tables that were supposed to break his fall. It was the highlight-reel spot in a spectacle that was immediately ensconced in wrestling legend, one of the most incredible stunt shows the sport has seen.
"We probably almost went too far," Nick admits in an exclusive interview. "There was a point where I almost died when the ladder was tossed and I clipped the top rope with my feet and went through the table. And one minute later, Matt landed awkwardly on his side when Penta pushed the ladder. Those two things weren't supposed to go down that way, but when they did go completely wrong, that's when I was thinking 'I hope fans are not thinking this is too much.'
"...I think it was my idea to end the feud with a ladder match. We just didn't know what we were going to name it at the time. (AEW owner) Tony (Khan) loved the idea to do a ladder match at the end. We knew if we had a ladder match with these guys it would be nuts because we've had ladder matches before but we'd never had a ladder match with two of the craziest wrestlers in the business today.
"We knew if we got them in a ladder match, it would probably make history. And here we are now."
Before Nick even began his frantic, foolish and utterly spectacular fall, his brother Matt knew something had gone horribly wrong.
"Immediately, I knew that there was going to be an issue," Matt says. "Nick was supposed to be climbing a 10-foot ladder, but the Luchas had by mistake taken out the 8-foot ladder. From the rehearsal we knew it was gonna take a 10-foot. When I saw Nick climbing the 8-footer, I thought 'He's not gonna make it. I don't even know why he's trying, he's not gonna make it.'
"I'm on the floor panicked but what do you do? I figured he's gonna have to climb to the very, very top rung, which he pretty much did. He was on the second to last. I was concerned, but I thought to myself as long as he can make one of the tables he'll be OK and it can help break his fall.
"I saw him up there, and as he was falling, my heart almost stopped. I was watching my little brother just almost die right there in the match."
It was a frightening moment. But despite the pleas of some in our section, the match continued. Matt still had some high-risk, high-impact spots of his own to close the bout and knew his brother, despite being banged up, was going to be OK.
"We always give each other a look to kind of talk to each other," Matt says. "We've been doing this long enough now we can talk to each other without actually speaking to each other. I can just look at his eyes. I saw his eyes and he gave me the look like 'I'm OK.'
"We have such good referees at AEW who we trust with our lives. Rick Knox has been reffing our matches our entire career, so he's been with us throughout these types of matches. He communicated with Nick right away and then he came and told me that he was OK. It is like a game of Telephone. We're all talking without talking. There's this secret society stuff going on and nobody realizes it."
While the fan-favorite Young Bucks lost the match, no one in the audience could be too upset. They were, it seemed, just happy that everyone survived the carnage.
Because of their popular YouTube series, Being The Elite, the Bucks seem less like distant and unapproachable celebrity athletes and more like close friends you simply haven't met yet. It's a unique relationship that gives fans a cheering interest in the match that feels different to anything else in wrestling.
"I feel like when we get hurt, or almost get hurt, they are so emotionally invested it's like watching their friend almost die," Matt says. "The crowd would go to a hushed silence after some of those bad falls because they really care about us.
"This is one of the few matches of my career, that I can remember, where fans were literally begging me to never do one again. When the fans are saying that, it really hits home for me. Maybe we have pushed the boundaries a little too far. We had guardian angels watching over us that night."
Tag team action, though perhaps action not quite this risky, will be a staple of AEW programming. The division has been dormant in the American mainstream for decades, with even title matches serving as little more than pre-show fodder on WWE's top shows.
The Bucks, executives as well as wrestlers for the new promotion, are uniquely situated to serve as their own proof of concept, demonstrating to any skeptics that tag team wrestling can mean money in contemporary wrestling.
"For some reason, whatever it is, Vince McMahon just doesn't like tag team wrestling," Nick says. "And for 20 years now, he's controlled the mainstream market in wrestling. It's become a lost art form because of that. I think we're gonna change that come October 2 because we have the best tag teams in wrestling. We're gonna focus on it more so than anything you've seen in 20 years. Don't be surprised if a tag team match is the main event on TV multiple times a year."
Wearing the dual hat as executive and wrestler hasn't always been easy for others who have attempted to pull it off over the years. In the case of AEW, all four executive vice presidents (the Bucks, Cody Rhodes and Kenny Omega) are among the most popular acts in the company. That means they'll be putting themselves into prominent positions on the card, something that might not sit well with other wrestlers and a subsection of hypercritical fans.
"There's a fine line, but when it's all said and done, Tony is the last call to order," Nick says. "He has final say on everything. There have been two times now where Matt and I have actually said 'OK, we want to lose tonight' and it gets to Tony and he goes, 'Nope, you guys are winning.' We tried to dispute and we've failed both times. Of course, fans aren't going to see that and will probably think I'm even lying by saying it, but it's the truth."
While Matt agrees it's a tricky situation, he believes it's manageable if they keep the same ethos and philosophies that have guided them to this point.
"I never even wanted to tell people I was an EVP and it just kind of got out," he says. "There are other EVPs who love that. They want to talk about it. That's fine, but Nick and I have always been the type of people who say, 'No, I'm always a wrestler first and I want people to think of me as a wrestler.'
"We always just want to be one of the boys. It's tricky territory. They are going to say, 'Well, they're booking it. Of course, they're gonna go over.' Then there's the argument they are the popular act everyone wants to see so, of course, they should win.
"I don't think we should overthink it. A big reason we did this was to shine a spotlight on talent that isn't as well-known, and Nick and I are very unselfish in that way. We really want to get other people over.
"We don't have to win every match. We've been losing most of our career, people don't realize. We probably don't have a winning record if you looked at it. It's not that important to us, but we should keep ourselves to a point where we don't look overly weak. It's very, very tricky, and you know what? We are never going to be able to keep everybody happy."
By next week at this time, the inaugural episode of AEW Dynamite will be done. What the promotion is, and what it should be, will be widely debated for weeks and probably years to come. But the Jacksons know from experience what they don't want it to be if they want to see success.
"You have to be different," Nick says. "You can't try to be them. The one thing TNA did wrong was try to be a lesser version of them. We can't be them because we're not competing with them. We have to be different and we have to listen to the fans."
For Matt, it's all about serving the audience that helped get them here. AEW talks about fans as family and intends to build a show wrestling fans can love, not one they watch begrudgingly hoping this is the week when things turn around.
"They feel like they're so neglected," Matt says. "The things that they want, they just don't get. What we learned early on when we did our first show, All In, was we built this entire show and gave the fans the finishes they wanted, and they came out of that show feeling so good.
"Some of the things they expected, but we learned that it's OK sometimes if they expect something and they want something, you just give it to them. It's what a really good television show is. You build to this climax and you're thinking in the back of your head, 'Man, when they get to the season finale, they have to do it this way,' and then just imagine actually doing that.
"Aesthetically, we have to look, we have to smell, we have to sound different. If you're flipping through the channels on Wednesday night, you have to know within one second from looking at one frame of our show, 'Oh, that's AEW.'"
While no one can say for sure yet what AEW Dynamite will look like, The Young Bucks are willing to share what it won't be. As much of their success as they owe to Being The Elite, they have no intention of trying to duplicate their YouTube phenomenon on mainstream television. Instead, it will morph into a companion piece for the actual show, continuing to develop characters and bringing the audience closer to the performers as people.
"We're going to keep those things separate, and I kind of like that," Matt says. "I think BTE should live on YouTube. It can be the TV-MA version of our show. You can watch SCU do a PG-13 rant on the Turner program, and you can watch Frankie (Kazarian) drop 12 f-bombs on Being The Elite.
"As for the Road To program, I would love it if we kept a lot of that stuff and put it on the television show because that's a great way to develop characters and tell their stories. I think our television show will look like a lot of the stuff on Road To."
By Wednesday, the guessing games can finally come to an end. After months of buildup, AEW will finally have arrived on national television. Stay tuned to this space for weekly coverage and more exclusive interviews and content.
Match of the Week
Jay White vs. Tetsuya Naito (New Japan Pro-Wrestling Destruction in Kobe, September 22)
Since his disappointing return at the Tokyo Dome to start 2018, Jay White has slowly transformed himself into the best heel in all of professional wrestling. He's the kind of cerebral villain the sport hasn't seen since the 1970s, a throwback to men such as Nick Bockwinkel.
White is cunning when brains are paramount, tricky when need be and fierce when force is required. You can see the wheels turning, even in the midst of his matches when most performers have fallen into their rote routines.
His signature has become a series of intricate reversals and counters, each match riding on the outcome of one final battle of wills. It's thoughtful, edge-of-your-seat stuff. Well worth exploring if you're interested in jumping into the Japanese scene.
Runner-up: Matt Riddle vs. Killian Dain (NXT, September 25)
Ref, I Have Until Five!
At Ring of Honor's Death Before Dishonor in Las Vegas on Friday night, Women of Honor world champion Kelly Klein defends her title against Angelina Love.
The two women have spent weeks going back and forth on the microphone. Now, Love will have her chance to prove she's the best woman in the promotion.
We had a chance to sit down with Klein and ask five questions about the state of women's wrestling and her reign as the ROH champ.
Jonathan Snowden: I know everyone at Ring of Honor was riding a high after the Madison Square Garden show, but when I watch the shows on Honor Club these days, it seems like business is sagging a bit. What does it feel like inside the company? Does it seem like things are steady or is there some uncertainty as the industry goes through a big transition?
Kelly Klein: I think that for me, I'm really focused on what's going on with the women in Ring of Honor. We are accelerating and growing. Over the last four years, we've gone from just hoping to get a match here and there to now being featured on TV and pay-per-views and things like that. And to be actively adding talent, we're just continuing to grow and build and, I think, offering something new to our audience.
JS: It's an exciting time for wrestling but particularly for women in wrestling. For years, the only opportunities for women in the sport were as Divas and Nitro Girls. How do you feel these days seeing so many promotions with amazing divisions where women are succeeding and performing at a high level?
Klein: More women are starting to pursue wrestling. There are all of these really talented women. And if you look across all of the women who are working regularly or signed a contract at major companies, it's thriving. There are so many more women than there are jobs. The competition is good for everybody.
It's so great that there are so many places and so many opportunities, and I hope that there continue to be more because there's so many women from so many backgrounds. If you look at the demographics among the women, it used to be there weren't as many black women or Asian women or Latina women. No women from different backgrounds. They just weren't necessarily going into wrestling because they saw the limited opportunities and sometimes the sort of cliched, stereotypical characters.
I love seeing all of these women just continue to be successful. And then as we continue to see more of that, I think we're going to see even more young girls from all backgrounds who may see professional wrestling as an option. That'll pursue it. And it's just going to keep growing and strengthening.
JS: When I talked to Brandi Rhodes from AEW, she mentioned the lack of women in creative roles in wrestling and how that might lead to on-screen scenarios that are uncomfortable for the performers. Have you ever had an experience where you were asked to do something that seemed off or might have been scratched if there had been a woman in the writers' room?
Klein: There are definitely challenges. And I would say I noticed more of those things when I was newer in wrestling. That was the landscape of wrestling at the time, coming off of the Attitude Era. That was how women were portrayed.
You know, it was like, 'Oh, you can distract this guy by, like, lifting up your shirt.' Those were the ideas, and at the time, I was young and I was new. So a lot of times I didn't argue. But I look back now and, you know, there are things where I'm like, 'Oh man, that was, like, not great. I wish I had felt more confident to speak up.' But I did kind of start to speak up over time.
JS: Does anything stand out in particular as a regret? And how did you build that confidence in yourself to speak out?
Klein: There were things that people would say, 'Oh, we'll do this. The crowd will love it.' And I would say, 'You know what, I'm not gonna do that.' Even if it was just thinking, if my mom were to see this match, how would she feel? You know?
I think sometimes you can get caught up in things, but then if you take a step back and think, 'Do I want anybody and everybody to see this? What would I be representing?' So, I did start to speak up.
But it's scary, particularly when there were fewer women and fewer opportunities for women. It's scary to say no to things and think I'll be labeled as a diva or difficult to work with. I think there's often been a double standard there where, if a man turned down an idea, he wouldn't be labeled in a similar way. You know, he's standing up for himself and understands his character or whatever. I have definitely experienced that.
And then, more recently I have felt like I've had a voice and it's a give and take to. Everybody's kind of in a different position and has to make their own own choices. And, for me, there have been times where I thought, 'You know, what, if somebody is not OK with me taking a stand, then I'll go teach preschool.'
I do feel like I work somewhere that my voice is heard and I can approach several different people in the creative and management areas and talk to them about things. And I feel I have some leeway. It's not all one-sided where one person is totally creating the character or the story or telling me every word to say.
JS: Your last major series of matches was with Mayu Iwatani, one of the best in-ring talents in all of women's wrestling. Your current program, with The Allure, couldn't be more different. Do you prefer the challenge of a more sports-entertainment approach or a pure sport build?
Klein: I think that there is certainly a difference. With Iwatani, we didn't have as much back and forth, and we didn't have as much promo work. It became more performance-based and people were, for the most part, looking at what were we doing in the matches themselves.
With Angelina Love, I think that a lot of people see it as all banter and a story. And in a way, I think people are maybe sort of missing the part where Angelina is somebody who has wrestled for years successfully and is a very good wrestler.
I think that people need to pay attention and make sure they don't miss out on the wrestling part of it, too. I don't want people to exclude themselves from taking all of it in. Just because there's all of this back and forth and that kind of stuff doesn't mean that's all there is. There has been, and there will continue to be, some physicality. I think people are going to be really surprised at the parts that they're maybe not expecting right now.
Kelly Klein is the Woman of Honor champion and defends that title Friday at Death Before Dishonor. The show, streaming live from Las Vegas, is available to Honor Club subscribers.
Hard Times Promo of the Week
The wrestlers of WWE and AEW spent months building a bridge of good will, agreeing almost to a person that a second major wrestling promotion could only benefit the talent.
The rise of AEW and NXT gives prospective wrestlers two more places to ply their trade and creates dozens of full-time jobs in a business that had been shrinking for decades.
Well, Kenny Omega took a flamethrower to that bridge last week, dismissing NXT wrestlers as little more than preliminary fodder still in the developmental stage of their careers. This week, just in case, he firebombed what was left of the relationship between the two groups in an incredible promo on Being The Elite.
Omega, sitting in front of a giant blowup poster of his Pro Wrestling Illustrated cover, ostensibly apologized for his previous comments. But then, thinking the camera was off in an ode to The Simpsons' "Gabbo" episode, proceeded to give "those SOBs" the business. In particular, he targeted NXT preliminary wrestler Dominik Dijakovic in an in-character rant.
Here's the money segment:
"He's not even used. OK? But I can see him. Donovon D--khead. Right? Sitting there, 'Now Triple H will push me. I'm gonna get the TV time now! I'm gonna stand up for the team.'
"I speak a promo in character, OK? Is he mad that I said bad things about Jon Moxley? No. How many fans do you think came to me and said, 'Kenny, not cool, bro! You really want to hurt Jon Moxley? You're not sympathetic to his injury?' How many people do you think f--king said that?
"No, its these children. It's these people that barely have a grasp on the English language and they're tweeting at me saying, ‘How dare you say that these guys are developmental talent! They're not developmental and they're better than you actually. They did more for the business than you!'
"OK. You want f--king reality? You know how many match-of-the-year awards I have? You know how many records I f--king broke? I shattered. And no one is ever gonna rebreak them.
"People in Japan are still trying on a daily basis to be the next Kenny Omega. They're trying so hard."
Three-Count: Looking Ahead
Ring of Honor Death Before Dishonor (September 27, Honor Club)
- Rush vs. Matt Taven (C) (ROH title match): Taven's ROH title run has been widely criticized online, but I've really enjoyed some of his matches. However, it feels like Rush's time to shine.
- LifeBlood vs. The Briscoes (C) (ROH tag titles): The Briscoe brothers have been one of the best tag teams in the world for more than a decade at this point. While LifeBlood hasn't completely won me over as a fan, this one will be hard to screw up.
- Jonathan Gresham vs. Jay Lethal: Gresham is one of the world's best technical wrestlers and Jay Lethal is ROH's mainstay babyface, but this will be far from a display of scientific holds. Gresham has turned heel, and you should expect these two former partners to brutalize each other.
AEW Dynamite (October 2, TNT)
- Cody Rhodes vs. Sammy Guevara: Cody is one of the biggest stars in wrestling. If he doesn't beat Guevara, an athletic high-spot artist with a relatively low national profile, I'll be shocked.
- The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega vs. Chris Jericho and two mystery partners: The Elite had an excellent six-man tag match at Fyter Fest against the Lucha Brothers and Laredo Kid. While the match itself will no doubt be fantastic, the air of mystery here recalls the spirit of the Monday Night Wars. Who will be in Jericho's corner? We'll have to wait and see.
- Nyla Rose vs. Riho (AEW Women's Championship): The AEW executive team has high hopes for the women's division. While there has been some solid action so far, nothing has truly stood out—in part because the AEW cards have been filled with incredible matches and spectacles. Perhaps this will be the bout that makes the world take note?
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.