MJF and the Real Winners and Losers of AEW Dynamite
Creating compelling wrestling television in the era of COVID-19 is a difficult challenge. So much of the sport is built around earning a crowd reaction, to the point that a good audience can make or break a show.
All Elite Wrestling, for a time, was able to use extras and undercard wrestlers to replace some of that enthusiasm, and a series of new signings helped generate buzz. But those tricks no longer have the same power they once did.
This week, for the first time in ages, it felt like AEW Dynamite missed the mark. Instead of focusing on the talent already in house, it added another ex-WWE mouth to feed in Matt Cardona and its wild multi-man extravaganza that normally hits the (high) spot devolved into a complete and total mess of a match.
Usually, I come out of an AEW show ready to run through a wall, confused about how I'm going to manage to make it all the way to Wednesday for another dose of my favorite wrestling drug.
This week it felt like the tracks were coming off the hype train and AEW might be about to derail in glorious, terrible fashion.
Of course, over two hours, there were plenty of hits. But there were some big misses too, big enough that you could feel the wind from the whiff all the way at home on the couch.
Let's go through them, segment by segment, in Bleacher Report's "Real Winners and Losers" style.
Losers: The 10-Man Tag
I had such high hopes for this match. Everyone involved is a veteran of these wild AEW trainwrecks and all of them, to be clear, are excellent talents on a week-by-week basis.
But, frankly, this stunk.
I'm not one of those fans who worries too much about "following the rules" or "holding the tag ropes" but the free form nature of this bout really subtracted from the action in the ring. Normally these matches build smartly, providing the matchups and pairings AEW wants to best highlight the competitors in the ring.
Without the structure of a typical tag match, though, there was no narrative to rely on for storytelling purposes, making the entire spectacle seem a little listless and off-kilter.
Toward the end, Luchasaurus' mask fell off when he was supposed to be on the attack. The match stalled and everyone looked silly—making it the perfect metaphor for a 15-minute segment best never spoken of again.
WARHORSE (in all caps out of respect for an indie legend) had the biggest opportunity of his life against TNT champion Cody. He'd either rise to the occasion like heroes do, or slink back to the indie scene with a new reputation as a guy who just couldn't cut it in the big leagues.
Well, rest easy independent wrestling fans: Our boy went out to the ring on national television and proved he belonged with one of the very best in the entire industry.
He didn't win the match, but he owned the moment, proving that his 38 defenses of the Independent Wrestling Championship prepared him to go head-to-head with anyone in the world.
I'm not sure what's next for one of the stalwarts of IWTV, but if this is his one cup of coffee, he has a lot to be proud of.
For the second week in a row, a stellar wrestler has come to AEW from the shadowy world of the independents and proved his merit. Perhaps AEW owner Tony Khan and his team might focus their attention there rather than on those leaving WWE headquarters after failed runs up North? Isn't this promotion, after all, about change?
WARHORSE's big moment, it turned out, was quickly overshadowed by the AEW debut of Matt Cardona, the artist formerly known as Zack Ryder. Years of toil on the indies and a 10-minute battle with Cody were quickly erased so AEW could, once again, shine a bright light on another WWE castaway.
And, look...I get it.
For AEW, the crowd has long been an unsung hero, so close to the performers that they often feel like part of a big, extended family. Replacing that energy has been tough—the natural ebb and flow replaced by the "surprise signing" in a desperate attempt to keep the base engaged and the ratings where they need to be.
Sometimes, like with Matt Hardy or FTR, the ploy works. Acts that feel like they belong in the promotion are able to provide a shot of adrenaline, even without the roar of the crowd to greet them.
Other times, like Wednesday's inauspicious debuts of Cardona and Ariane (formerly WWE's Cameron), they feel like failures from the jump, sad attempts to capitalize on faded New York glory.
Winners: The Dark Order
Kenny Omega and Adam Page were their usual stellar selves, combining incredible ring work with the slow-burn story of their eventual breakup. What else is new?
But the real winners here were The Dark Order, AEW's first notable failure that has been completely rehabilitated to the point that it's become one of the show's most consistent acts. Evil Uno and Stu Grayson proved they could compete with the best in the world, both in a kayfabe and a very real sense.
Even better, to me, is they way the group (including understudies John Silver and Alex Reynolds) steal the show weekly on Being the Elite—no small task considering the improv talent that show has assembled over the years.
This isn't The Dark Order we imagined when they debuted at Double or Nothing last year. It's better. And that's the beauty of wrestling when it's working well. At its best, the genre can still surprise and delight. Personally, I can't wait to see what Mr. Brodie Lee and his rag-tag group get up to next.
Winner: MJF and Justice
MJF picked a fight with AEW executive Cody Rhodes—and while he won that battle in the ring, the aftermath hasn't been particularly pretty for the young star.
While Cody has moved on to title glory, MJF has been stuck in neutral, unable to achieve the greatness that seems pre-ordained despite his impeccable ring record.
MJF believes he would be a better champion than Jon Moxley, a man he considers little more than a "Stone Cold" Steve Austin ripoff. And based on his ranking, he should have had the chance to prove it long ago. Unfortunately, because he didn't come from WWE, it takes a little more than mere excellence to make that case.
And, it seems, MJF is tired of sitting around hoping the phone will ring with a call from the Duval County area code.
Instead of waiting for the brass to come to the same conclusion he's reached and give him the title shot he's earned, MJF has taken his case to the people, demanding the chance to prove he's the best.
"My talent," he told Moxley, "outweighs your tenure, Jon."
At All Out on Sept. 5, he'll get a chance to prove he's right.
Loser: Ricky Starks' Back
Ricky Starks, a former independent wrestling and NWA star, has made quite an impression on AEW fans. Joining forces with Taz and Brian Cage, he's launched himself immediately into the main event scene.
That's a good thing as far as awareness and brand-building are concerned.
But it can be a bad thing, too. That main event slot comes with serious expectations in a company like AEW, filled with lunatics who will do just about anything to rise to them.
Last week, Starks attacked Darby Allin from behind. This week, unfortunately, he got the receipt in the form of a dozen or so thumbtacks embedded in his back. The delivery mechanism? A skateboard off the top rope.
Wrestling, when done right, is absolutely great—for everyone, in this case, except Ricky Starks. Welcome to the big leagues!