As the first match of his All Elite Wrestling career was really starting to get going in the ring, Matt Hardy was just off-camera in the entrance tunnel, furiously trying to yank his pants on and transform from "Broken" Matt into the high flying sensation he'd been in his youth. It was an attempt to once again break new ground in the sport of professional wrestling, changing the game sartorially this time rather than athletically.
Hardy and his brother Jeff have already reinvented the business twice in a career spanning three decades, joining Edge, Christian and the Dudleys what feels like a lifetime ago to set new standards in the ever-changing calculation of what constitutes acceptable risk. Leaping off ladders, crashing through tables and battering each other with steel chairs, the six men rewrote the rules and essentially created contemporary car-crash wrestling in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
"It's just evolution, man," Hardy told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "Evolution takes over, and times change. That's one of the only consistent facts in life. Times change. We were just doing what we could do to put our names on the map, and become stars. And really make as much money, live our dreams, try and be special, try and be remembered. And, it's so cool we did it."
For the better part of a decade, the Hardys established themselves as key cogs in the WWE machine. Then, when his career was supposed to be in decline, Matt again lit a fire under the wrestling world with a character unlike any in history. With "Broken" Matt, he helped introduce cinematic-style wrestling and set new standards for what was possible with just a dose of ingenuity, some space to operate and a functional video camera.
"Here's a guy who really isn't credited enough for what he's done, because for many years he was in one of the biggest box-office acts ever in tag team wrestling," AEW Executive Vice President Matt Jackson said. "And people don't realize he was probably the brains behind the operation. He's just so smart and savvy. So the moment we realized he was free, we knew not only did we want Matt Hardy the wrestler, I wanted Matt Hardy for his brain, because I think a guy like him can lend a helping hand to a lot of the young guys that we have in the back.
"Talk about someone who just knows how to tell a full-length story that's interesting and nuanced, it's Matt. So there's a million reasons I can list why we wanted him, and Nick and I have a storied relationship with him and his brother. And they're great friends of ours. We consider them the greatest tag team in the history of the business. So it's like, obviously we wanted Matt the second that we knew he could go."
Jackson's brother and tag team partner Nick Jackson chimes in, inspired in a major way by the man he helped bring into the AEW fold.
"I don't think they get enough credit to be honest, because there's so many guys in our locker room that literally watched and studied every match that they had and how they did things and how would they get reactions for certain things," Nick said. "Like, for example, Private Party. Those guys idolized the Hardys. Kenny Omega's another one. There are a lot of guys who pretty much used their template on how to do a match. So they've had an influence on not only just us but most wrestlers in every single company in the world."
Which brings us back to Hardy's latest innovation and the first of two costume changes in an immediately iconic street-fight match pitting Matt and partner Omega against Chris Jericho and his protege Sammy Guevara. In addition to running Guevara down with a golf cart, demented look lighting up his expressive face, Hardy's essence filled three different vessels in one live wrestling match.
"It's just an idea I've had for a while. I pitched it to (AEW owner) Tony Khan and Tony loved it. And that's one of the most amazing things about AEW. There's such creative freedom," Hardy said. "The cool thing about it was, this stuff was all live. It was all real-time and live. The first one was more difficult because I literally had to pull my old school 'Classic' Hardy Boys pants over the tights I was wearing. And then, I had to take off the top, which was a little knotted up from the earlier fights, and then it was back out into it. When I was in the icebox, the new costume was actually sitting right outside. I had to pop out, get it, pop back in.
"I came out as 'Broken' Matt Hardy, possessed by this essence, Damascus. This emptiness inside him. He starts the match. And then, all of a sudden you see, 'Classic' Matt Hardy comes back out, and he does some of his classic TLC spots off the ladder through the table. And then, I end up in the icebox, and then coming back out of that, boom, you have Damascus again. So, I thought it was cool. Nothing's ever been done like that. I love breaking ice and breaking ground and doing new things that have never been done before."
Twenty years removed from his legendary ladder match at WrestleMania 2000, Hardy continues to look for paths forward in a business that always seems to have one nostalgic eye firmly fixed on the past.
"I was so proud," Matt Jackson said. "I felt like that's what the show has needed. It needed something outside the box. I mean, people are only going to watch wrestling in front of no fans for so long. And I think doing something unique like that was so exciting and fun and different. And it was just a different take on what wrestling could be. It could be fun.
"We've had many of the sports-like matches. A lot of the fans like them and we do, too. But we need to appeal to people who aren't just wrestling fans, because if I'm swiping through Twitter and I see this guy get ran down by a golf cart, I'm probably going to click the thing and go, 'What the hell was that situation?' you know what I mean? Or Kenny almost killing himself with that moonsault off of that lift. Those are clips that excite me and kind of enticed me to want to see what's more, even if I'm just someone scrolling through. And I think we need more of that on the show.
"Sometimes we get stuck in our own heads and we just produce wrestling shows for wrestling fans. And I think that matches like that, that's the magic. And that's the key. That's how you hook to people who aren't necessarily into the wrestling thing. And they might want to watch it."
After a wild, intense thrill ride that included a series of stunts that seemed to escalate in their level of pure insanity, Jericho's Inner Circle overwhelmed Hardy and Omega with pure strength in numbers, setting up a pay-per-view match Saturday that will go down with a ring positioned at the 50-yard-line of TIAA Bank Field, a perk of the Khan family's NFL ownership.
"I was very happy with it," Hardy said. "We wanted to set the table for the Stadium Stampede Match. The whole idea of fighting, making our way through the concourse and starting to slowly get into the Jacksonville Jaguars Stadium, was a little foreshadowing. I think it's very cool now that you know the match is happening, to have this foreshadowing and we were building and starting to tell a story. I also love the involvement in that kind of storytelling.
"I'm a huge fan of Kenny Omega. I love the stuff he does. That move he did off of the scissor lift was absolutely incredible. And I was able to physically demonstrate the differences between 'Broken' Matt Hardy and 'Classic' Matt Hardy, which are going to be two separate entities in AEW. It was cool that I was able to do that during the context of the match."
It was, in a word, brilliant. Another word might be "silly." A third, likely coming from fans who stubbornly refuse to come along for the madcap ride, would likely be unprintable. There are a group of nostalgia fetishists who reject Hardy's oddball character and broken syntax, not willing to play along as the art of wrestling dips its toes ever so gently into surrealist waters after decades of tough-guy method acting.
"There are purists who don't like it," Hardy admits. "'Broken' Matt Hardy is a very polarizing figure, and that's OK. I'm OK with that. I understand. Other people find 'Broken' Matt Hardy extremely entertaining, especially casual fans. I know when I first started doing it, there were a lot of people who'd seen me and they'd go, 'Oh my God, this guy is really crazy. He says things crazy. He's unpredictable. And he's fun to watch. I want to see what he's going to do next, or how he's going to pronounce a word, or whatever it may be.' So there's definitely a lot of appeal there.
"Ultimately, I've built a super layered character where there's more than just those two personalities within me. You'll realize later on, Matt Hardy has multiple versions. Maybe there's a lot of different personalities in his head. It's the very beginning of a long play. I think it's going to be a very thorough, deep layered character, one that I'm really excited to create and let it grow in front of people."
It began, as so many things in wrestling do, with a change of plans. The details are typically convoluted as they tend to be in the Byzantine world of wrestling politics, but aren't especially important. Suffice to say, Hardy found a scheduled feud nixed. Instead of pouting or walking away, he saw an opportunity to try out a new idea he'd been workshopping, making the most of a lost opportunity.
"I said, 'That's fine. If we're going to drop this, I feel like I can use this as a catalyst to even go to something different.' Now that I'm getting older and, I need to add more entertainment value with whatever my persona is, and really be smart with how I work matches," Hardy said. "If I go out and bust my ass for 25 or 30 minutes in a match, I know that I'm not going to be able to feel super good for another couple of weeks. Because I don't bounce back. I'm not 25 anymore.
"I said, 'What if there's a big injury and I get hurt—a head injury?' I started saying I had unlocked and broken the limits of my mind, I can use more of my mind than other mortal human beings can. Now I am cognizant and aware of where my soul has been in every body. It's in a body, and when that body dies, it goes to another body, and so on. So, I am aware of that. Now I can claim I am ancient—but I'm really talking about the essence that is inside of me. Actually, that's a concept that I got from True Blood. I thought that was so cool. Just the idea of a vampire living for so long, through a whole bunch of different time periods.
"Once I started doing the 'Broken' Matt Hardy stuff, I knew either they'll just think I'm crazy or they'll buy into it and play along. 'Oh, he's this supernatural, strange dude who has weird powers and he talks crazy.' And it works. People started digging it, they were like playing along with it. They were in on it, they were winking at me."
The result was a character that became the talk of the industry in a way few things outside the mainstream world of WWE ever do. Hardy, already a legend, became a meme—in some ways even more valuable currency in the modern entertainment world. Broken Matt spread through the wrestling world like a virus, a grassroots movement powered not by an entertainment monolith but by old-fashioned word of mouth.
"The reason everything he does always works it's because he commits to it and nothing's ever half-assed," Matt Jackson said. "Whatever he's doing, he gets full-on commitment. I remember when he first did the Broken Matt stuff, and he would do podcasts or interviews in full character or even show up at appearances in full character.
"I think that was truly why the gimmick became so successful. Wrestling really wasn't driven by characters anymore. It was more about the performers in the ring and how the matches were and the work rate style. I think he realized 'Man, the wrestling business is kind of lacking those over the top characters, and maybe there's a thirst and hunger for those things.' And he brought in Broken Matt, and it was the perfect timing. Matt is just a forward-thinking wrestler who always finds a way to reinvent himself. I don't use the word often, but in wrestling, he's one of the very few people I consider a genius.
"Every group chat I had was getting lit up with screen grabs of how crazy Matt looked with this new hair cut he had and the hair dye. And everyone was just going, 'WTF is Matt doing right now?' And it was getting all the boys' attention. And that's when I realized, 'Oh, he's got something here.'"
The culmination of this initial wave of creative inspiration was "Final Deletion," as much gonzo short film as a wrestling match. There was no ring, no arena and no fans. But there was one dilapidated boat, a number of drones, a dirt bike and a memorable riding lawnmower.
Shot in an exhausting, exhilarating and fantastic 16 hours on the Hardy compound in North Carolina, Final Deletion was about as experimental as it gets in the traditional world of grunt and groaners. There was no real budget or crew. The whole thing was produced by the Hardy brothers, two cameramen and two grips to help lug equipment and lights from shot to shot. It was a work of love, luck, absurdist humor and, yes, genius.
"It was myself and Jeff along with Jeremy Borash and Jimmy Paradise," Hardy said. "JB and Jimmy shot it all. I am very proud of it. Looking back, it was a wreck. It was our first time really delving into and I know there were a lot of little things we would have done differently. Jeff and I would have done the fight a little different but, it was an amazing learning experience. It was genuine and real. It was two guys trying something new, busting their ass and, sailing on to unchartered waters. It was a moment in the wrestling industry. I really feel like Final Deletion was a real genuine moment."
Final Deletion, ultimately, blazed a path back to where it all started—Vince McMahon's WWE. Hardy was a little nervous about the move, afraid that McMahon might not understand his vision or what to do with a very different kind of wrestling character.
"I knew I was rolling the dice going back to WWE," Hardy said. "Because it's not a Vince creation. Vince isn't always going to support something that isn't his creation, at least as much as he's going to support his own personal creation.
"We were just hot at that time. We had such a cult following and, people were talking about us and we were going viral online. So, that's why they wanted us to come back, obviously. I think 'Broken' Matt Hardy was the catalyst to get talks started with us. They want to possess, or have the ownership to all of the hottest talents in the business."
It was a fear that was eventually realized when, after a mind-numbingly loud response from the crowd in his initial reintroduction, Hardy spent most of three years with little to show for his time and efforts.
"Vince and WWE didn't understand. They'd say, 'Oh, this guy has a funny laugh, people like it. So that's what he can be.' I want to be multi-dimensional. I don't just want to do a funny voice. I want to be mean, I need to eat people's faces off. I need to do things that are torturous or cruel. There has to be a serious streak as well. 'Broken' Matt Hardy is always going to be over the top in whatever he's doing, but he can be serious. Seriously over the top. He has to play off the correct scenario and match the environment of the match."
Despite the disconnect, WWE offered Hardy a huge deal to stay, at the time seemingly desperate to keep any popular talent from drifting to their new competitors at AEW.
"Eight or nine months before my deal was up, I was offered a very good amount of money to stay, but I was very consistent," Hardy said. "I only have a few years left to do this. I really want to be creative. I don't want to be the champion. I don't want to be the centerpiece of the show, but I want to be creative. So, I needed to speak with Vince. I needed guarantees. But I never got that meeting. Never could get those guarantees.
"They would offer me more money and then even more money. When I kept saying no, they said, 'OK, well, let's just have some people beat him on TV. He'll probably take the money.' But, it wasn't about the money to me. It never was about the money. Honestly, I could sit my old ass at home now, because money is not even an issue for me. The most important thing is I want to enjoy what I'm doing because I am so passionate about it. And it was AEW who ended up becoming the perfect combination, because not only are they an amazing promotion, full of super, uber-talented people, but Tony Khan is very much on the pulse of wrestling in 2020."
Hardy may end up being among the final big AEW signings for the foreseeable future. Company executives told Bleacher Report that, like everything else, the wrestling economy has been upended by COVID-19 with little evidence of a return to the status quo insight. That means the pressure is on Hardy to deliver—which is right where he wants to be.
"I'm here to contribute. Put me in the game, I want our team to win. The stuff we've been doing here has been amazing," Hardy said. "The street fight was so much fun to create and put together. I think on Saturday, the Stadium Stampede Match is going to be great. It's going to be crazy. I honestly think it's going to be one of the most remembered matches in pro wrestling history, something people talk about for a long, long time.
"Right now I am loving the AEW, and I'm waving the AEW flag very proudly. There's so many young guys here that I look forward to working with, being in matches with, watching them grow and seeing them blossom into big superstars. There's so many guys there just have special 'it' qualities, it factors, that they can become big superstars. I'm excited to hopefully contribute and watch them become big stars.
"My biggest goal is to be as entertaining as I can. Be creative, contribute to the show, have new fans tune into the show. I want to help the younger guys. And then, I want to help build the AEW brand. I feel like I belong here."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report. You can stream AEW's Double or Nothing Saturday on B/R Live.