Darby Allin: On Creative Freedom in AEW and Wrestling in the Time of COVID-19April 30, 2020
On Wednesday night's AEW Dynamite, Darby Allin once again pushed Cody Rhodes to the absolute limit. It was another in a series of show-stealing performances by one of the promotion's true breakout stars.
Even in a losing effort, Allin has a gift for directing all eyes his way, his energy and passion almost a physical presence in the ring.
A year ago, Allin was struggling on the independent scene. Now he's on the cusp of greatness. Find out his thoughts on his rise to prominence, wrestling in the time of COVID-19 and the future.
Jonathan Snowden: So, you and I met briefly in Atlanta last year. I was working on a story about Ken Shamrock but was wowed by your performance. I interviewed you in the parking lot. The Yeti showed up. It was a weird time.
Darby Allin: I was just talking about that earlier.
Jonathan: I remember asking the promoter about talking to you specifically because I was like, 'This guy has something. There's something special there.' And now, a year later, you're on national television. Does it feel like you've come a long way or does it feel like it's all still a work in progress?
Darby: A little bit of both to be honest. (It) definitely came a long way with just noticing all the fans taking notice of your work. But at the same time, it's a work in progress because I know there's a lot of s--t I need to do to make it to that next level.
Jonathan: What do you mean by 's--t I need to do?'
Darby: Just keep proving people wrong. Walking in here back at Fyter Fest, a lot of people were kind of like at first, 'Who's this skinny little dude?' But a lot of those people have, over time, shut their mouths and taken notice of what I can actually bring into the ring and I'm not just a crash test dummy.
Jonathan: I've heard you talk several times about proving people wrong. I'm interested in your perspective on this because, from the outside, I see pure positivity surrounding your name. Everyone loves what you're doing. You're looking at it from the opposite perspective, looking to prove people wrong. Do you feel like you're powered by negativity? Does it push you?
Darby: I am powered by that negativity. You can look at a lot of people, the best times in life are either A: they're angry, or B: they're sad. And that goes for everybody. Musicians, some people write their best songs when they're pissed off or sad.
So negativity's never going to go away with people, so it's always there, but it kind of just drives me to wake up and not be in the place I was seven years ago and just feeling lost and not knowing what's next in life, and just hoping, one day, things will break out. It's about never getting comfortable. That's the word I'm searching for. Complacent or comfortable. I just stay far away from those two phrases.
Jonathan: One of the things we talked about in that parking lot last year was how different you feel from other wrestlers. I know you draw on influences from outside of wrestling. Sometimes, creatively, wrestling is very self-referential, whether it's talking about Bill Watts or the Attitude Era, wrestling is about previous wrestling shows. You do something a little bit different. Where do you find your inspiration for the unique things you bring to the table?
Darby: Real-life people, whether it's musicians and s--t like that or skateboarders. I don't know what it is. I respect the hell out of wrestling. It's like what I live for. But for some reason I just don't feel like I would've clicked with those human beings, back say in the '80s, or '70s, or maybe the '90s, you know what I mean?
Darby: So when I look at like some punk rockers or some skateboarders, I really feel like those people I would have blended with. So why not use that energy when you enter this world of wrestling?
Jonathan: You mention the '80s and '90s. Do you feel like you fit in with the current people that you work within wrestling? Or is it part of who you are to feel like an outsider, even now?
Darby: It's weird because I do at times, but then other times I'm like, 'Man, what the hell?' I'll go to the building and I'm not trying to be standoffish, but sometimes I just feel so damn awkward that I always go to my own little part of the room and away from everybody. And then after the show, I'll be like the first to kind of say, 'OK, I'm going back to my hotel room. I'm not really going to go out.' It's not like I want to be an assh--e. I don't want to ever run into problems and if you s--t where you eat, you're dealing with all this, like, drama and stuff. I'd rather just kind of disappear and keep the drama at an all-time low.
Jonathan: I've always found wrestling to be interesting because you and the other person are creating this art together. But, at the same time, you're also competitive for what are a very small number of positions and slots. Is it kind of a weird environment to operate in?
Darby: I wouldn't say weird, because I just don't feel like it's so cutthroat as it once was. I don't know if it's just the newer generations or what the deal is, but I don't get this vibe where, like, say I'm wrestling somebody and thinking, 'He's trying to take my spot,' you know what I mean? Especially with AEW, I feel like everybody is so friendly and just wanting to kick ass as a group, so to speak. So, I don't get that vibe, you know? I feel like everybody's like just in this together, which is nice.
Jonathan: I definitely get a real sense of positivity when I talk to people from AEW. But, at the same time, you were featured at Fyter Fest and had some momentum, and then you weren't featured much at all for a little while. The competition is pretty fierce. There's a lot of talented people there.
Darby: Of course. Of course, there's talented people. But a lot of them aren't willing to do what I'm willing to do.
Jonathan: You mean physically? Or mentally?
Darby: Everything. Everything. Physically, mentally, busting your ass, going the extra mile, filming promos, doing s--t, not just sitting around and waiting for a handout. You take it.
Jonathan: I can really see that AEW is a place that lets you reach out and grab it. Really go for it. From the outside, at least, it seems to me like AEW provides artists with some degree of freedom creatively. Do you feel satisfied with the creative opportunities you've been allotted with AEW?
Darby: Of course. Look at my promo two weeks ago. I tied my friend to the back of a 4x4 and dragged him across the yard.
Jonathan: I loved it.
Darby: I'd say I'm pretty happy with my creative freedom here.
Jonathan: Your vignettes feel different than your standard 'let me tell you something, brother' kind of wrestling stuff. How are those things done? Do you and your friends do them? Do they send a camera crew? Walk me through how something like that is created.
Darby: Me and my friend Max Yoder, we're just a two-man group. All it is.
Jonathan: And you guys just film it, put that together and hand it off to them?
Darby: That's it.
Jonathan: That is pretty awesome. There's probably not a lot of other national TV shows that operate that way. That's got to feel pretty cool to see your vision on the screen like that.
Darby: Oh yeah, definitely. And that's the thing, anybody can do that. It's not like I walked in there with any special rights, you know what I mean? Like anybody, if you've got a friend and a camera, anybody can dictate their own story and put out their own vision.
Jonathan: When you do something like that, what's the feedback process? Who do you talk to in the company? I don't know if supervisor is the right word for wrestling, but who do you work with for something like this?
Darby: Just (AEW President) Tony (Khan).
Jonathan: Just directly with the boss, huh?
Darby: Yeah. I send it to Tony. First thing I send it to Tony and then I'll send one to Cody. Jericho too, I'll send him s--t. Just like, 'Yo, look at this.' It's not, like, so much to be hoping that they'll put the thumbs up. Because I know that they'll like it. It's just that I just want to share my art with certain people before it gets on air. Just being like, 'Tell me your thoughts on this.'
Jonathan: What is success for you in wrestling? Is it winning matches and title belts? Or is it more about presenting some kind of vision and message your way? What's making it? I know you never want to be complacent, but what's the immediate goal?
Darby: The company's just started, it's still fairly new. For somebody like me to get in a spot and to have their faith. Week three I wrestled Jericho, and for them to have that faith, week three, for me to be put out in the main event against Jericho—I considered that a success. The company was willing to put things on your back and willing to feature you and as a person that's in the media as one of the poster children.
I want to be featured, I want to be doing everything for the company. I want to do all the media. At the same time, it always changes in my mind. If someone told me I'd be where I am two years ago, I would have said 'I'm on top of the mountain.' But then over time obviously you grow and then you think, 'Wait, this isn't good enough. I got to keep going and going and going.' So success always changes.
Jonathan: When you look at your rise with the wrestling fandom, is there a moment that stands out to you that really got the audience's attention. To me, it was when you rode the skateboard down the ramp for the first time—you launched yourself physically and metaphorically. But maybe that's not what you remember. What was the big moment for you?
Darby: I'd say my debut, taking Cody to the max. The fans kind of, like, expected this outcome and then they got a different outcome. I remember after that match, a few weeks later I wrestled at Fight for the Fallen and I remember coming out from my entrance and getting a reaction that definitely wasn't there a few weeks before. Even though that was before TV, I felt the tides were changing at that point.
Jonathan: You talk about the crowd and the energy that they provide and the energy that they give you. I'm curious about the empty arena matches you've been doing. How does that work? Do you go out and have a regular wrestling match, and they're filming it and there just happens to be nobody there? Or do you produce them differently? What does it like behind the scenes when you're doing these matches?
Darby: Same thing as always. Just go out there and you just put it all out there. To be honest, I've wrestled in indie shows with less people than we have now. So it doesn't bother me none. I remember all the people watching at home and I don't ever want anybody to say some bulls--t like, 'He phoned it in tonight,' 'He took it easy tonight.'
I know there are a lot of fans that we have watching at home, and I know if I didn't put in the work, it would drive me mad. So it doesn't really change my aggression or it doesn't change anything. I'm still on 110 percent and I think the match with Sammy speaks volumes on that.
Jonathan: It sounds like it's not a big deal for you, but other people I know are really driven by, like, the energy they get from an audience. There's no part of you when you do something awesome and then there's no response, that feels weird on some level?
Darby: It does, but it doesn't because I'm in such a zone that it's weird. Even when I'm in the building with thousands of people and I do something, people are like, 'Did you hear that pop?' And I'm like, 'no' because I have tunnel vision. It's so weird to explain, but once I get in that zone, everything around me kind of goes out the window. And that's how it's been at the tapings recently. S--t don't bother me none.
Jonathan: It really felt to me like you guys were building something pretty special there. And not that you're not doing great work now, but obviously things have gotten weird. Do you feel like AEW and wrestling generally is going to be able to pick back up whenever we're allowed to pick it back up? Or do you feel like an opportunity has been lost over the last couple of months?
Darby: No, not at all. Beyond wrestling and entertainment, people are hungry for everything to come back. So without a doubt, I think everybody's going to be supporting this more than they were before when everything comes back. Without a doubt. That's how I see it, at least.
I just feel like people want things to succeed. I think people want to go to the movies. I think people want to see wrestling and I think people want to go to concerts and they're going to support everything because they realize how fast things can change. So I'm very excited for what the future and everything holds.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.