The Elite Outshines Lackluster Title Match Leading into AEW Double or Nothing

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterMay 21, 2020

Photo courtesy of AEW

Normally there are close to 70,000 people filling TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida, for every Jaguars game. That wasn't the case on AEW Dynamite, as 10 men did battle in the cavernous tomb, 10 tiny ants alone on a field of glory, filling a space meant for an army.

But the Inner Circle and the Elite didn't need a crowd to light up the stadium. They bring their own, seemingly endless supply of energy with them everywhere they go. There was no audience in sight, not even the small cadre of wrestlers who normally surround the ring. But you could sense the ghost of one, inserting its cheers and boos where they fit, the AEW audience there in spirit if not flesh.

The Young Bucks made a triumphant return, only to be outdone by "Hangman" Adam Page, running the length of the field in a button-up and cowboy boots before unleashing weeks of pent-up aggression on anyone foolish enough to come in his field of vision.

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HANGMAN @theAdamPage is BACK! https://t.co/7cPEp89GnO

For a moment, the Elite were together, truly together, for the first time in ages, four men (seven if you count Matt Hardy and his various essences) standing tall and prepared to lead wrestling into a bold new future. It was, of course, a vision that couldn't last long.

Page, still struggling with self-doubt and a particular brand of millennial angst, walked off alone. The other four stood united but incomplete, a Hangman-sized hole allowing negativity, recrimination and doubt to slither home where moments earlier only positivity reigned.

If you didn't close the show with the kind of elevated heartbeat that only accompanies the buildup to a particularly compelling wrestling match, you may, in fact, be legally dead.

Unfortunately, not every big match managed to evoke that kind of excitement and anticipation. While I'm salivating for the Stadium Stampede match and the TNT Championship tournament final, the AEW World Championship match leaves me cold.

The Dark Order, from day one just shy of one year ago at the inaugural Double or Nothing, has been the only major AEW act to fail at launch. No one seemed to know the group at the time and its placement on subsequent cards as a rival to the popular Young Bucks was rejected by fans.

In a promotion whose fanbase loves just about everything it's presented with, the Order's failure was glaring. Great effort was spent rehabilitating the premise, with a series of really fantastic "recruitment" videos laying the foundation for a self-help guru/cult leader to emerge and lead his fanatics to glory.

The group sought out struggling talent and promised to help improve their lives. The group had, it claimed, infiltrated the wider world. Having a hard time at home, on the job, navigating life? The Dark Order could help.

It was, dare I say, interesting.

That all ended when Brodie Lee was revealed as the "Chosen One." The Dark Order, at least as it had been pitched to us for weeks on AEW programming, completely disappeared. Lee wasn't a charismatic self-help guru helping to unleash the potential in others. He was a garden-variety bully in a suit, playing a version of Vince McMahon that no doubt popped the people in the back, but did little to make him an interesting character on screen.

To be fair, this is an opinion completely forged in a vacuum. Normally, the crowd is there as a guide. Some wrestling acts don't really do it for me. But the audience serves as a sort of fact-checker, with the roar or indifference of the crowd serving as a powerful barometer for what's working and what isn't.

Lee's entire tenure has transpired in the COVID-19 era. We don't know if the AEW audience is rabid for him or if he's being met with polite silence or worse—a rare occurrence during Dynamite.

Either way, the title match with new champion Jon Moxley feels incredibly premature. In a promotion where wins and losses matter, five quick victories over mostly enhancement talent doesn't seem like enough to compel a championship opportunity.

The shot is unearned, the build lukewarm, and Lee himself appears to be a step off his best game. Moxley, in his first opportunity to shine since winning the belt from Jericho in February, is playing third fiddle as a world champion.

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I understand that this kind of criticism is probably unfair. The promotion has played the pieces left on the board, not necessarily making the moves it wanted to, but rather the ones it could. With talent scattered across the country, often unable to travel because of COVID-19 restrictions and concerns, AEW has been forced, like so many of us, to make the best of a bad draw.

With the Elite vs. the Inner Circle, it's dealt the audience an ace. And, while the title match may be nothing more than a solid seven, at this point, action-starved wrestling fans are ready to rejoice, double down and bet big that AEW delivers its normal bell-to-bell extravaganza.


Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.