While All Elite Wrestling does so many things well, it has its faults (nobody’s perfect). One of them has been an inability to center the roster around its younger talent, one the company can build a foundation off of for years to come. That shouldn’t be an issue after last night’s Full Gear PPV, and specifically Swerve Strickland and Adam Page putting on quite possibly the best match the company has ever produced.
I am not a deathmatch guy. They certainly have their place in the wrestling world, and if done well, they can be the perfect capstone to any story. But they can also just be empty gore for the sake of it, which is just shock value. If I’m allowed one more shot at my favorite target, and I am because this is my show, think Cody Rhodes superplexing Andrade through a flaming table for literally no reason other than to celebrate himself. There are plenty others, but I’m always itching for a sideswipe. Often, they’re just a sideshow.
Page and Strickland was everything about a deathmatch that any fan could have asked for. Oh, it had its ridiculous spots that made everyone turn away from the screen. There was barbed wire, cinder blocks, staplers, and anything else to make the use of simple tables and chairs seem nothing more than a tea set. And of course blood, because that’s what AEW does, and the image of Page not only letting Swerve bleed onto his face but forcing him to might end up being the enduring image of the show, if not AEW’s year.
But this wasn’t empty gore. This was the culmination of a story that had become very personal, a blood feud in both the figurative and literal sense. Swerve, jealous of the opportunities Page has had to the point of a home invasion angle, and Page in an utter rage over Strickland’s overstepping of bounds. When Page turns up to this level, there may be no other person in the industry better at taking a story to the red-hot level.
Strickland was taken to a new level that he thought he could duck out of through his shortcuts, cheating, and deviousness and still get ahead. Page brought him somewhere we hadn’t seen him in AEW before, both in story terms and now in star-level on the roster.
And none of this works without a connection to something, to a story that fans can get into. This one had it in spades, thanks to the work of both men. Page’s rage and Strickland’s evilness were clear as day and supported by what had come before, giving every spot that extra 5-10 percent of spice and pop that they need to go from just crowd pleasing (if not stomach turning) to strident bullet points in a plot. It meant that much to both men to go through this gauntlet, and thus it meant that much to the fans.
AEW has tried to pivot to its younger side of late, but not with full effort. MJF is the champion and unquestioned face of the company. But other than him, AEW has gotten a lot out of Bryan Danielson, who will be retiring from full-time wrestling next year. Before that, the company hinged on CM Punk, and while his volatility might not have been totally predictable (it was totally predictable) he was still in his 40s and certainly not a long-term fixture. MJF has feuded with Samoa Joe, also in his mid 40s and unclear how much longer he’ll be wrestling. The signing of Adam Copeland didn’t do much to assuage these fears. Chris Jericho is 50. Kenny Omega has long hinted he didn’t know how much longer he could perform. In AEW fans’ darkest moments, they wondered if this wasn’t all a castle in the sand that the sea would come for before too long.
Strickland and Page, both in their early 30s, are now the company’s biggest stars behind MJF, even just after that one match. Last night’s unveiling of Will Ospreay (though not without some apprehension from a lot of corners) is another step in that direction, and he’s coming off one of the best years a wrestler has put together in a long time. Tony Khan didn’t even shy from doing so on the women’s side and creating some momentum there, with both Toni Storm and Julia Hart being allowed to capitalize on their recent runs and popularity with title wins. While this would only be the 497th opportunity for Khan to make the women’s division something more than just a box-checked, fans are totally in on “Timeless” Toni Storm and the goth queen Hart. Both are in their 20s and have no less potential to be big stars.
All of these moves on the show last night were enough to overcome a wonky (at best) main event story that was overbooked in a way that would have made even Bruce Pritchard blush. MJF and Jay White delivered a good match, which they should have been allowed to do without a fake cancellation of the match early in the show and MJF arriving in an ambulance and tease of Adam Cole that never paid off, at least not entirely. There was still no reveal of the Devil that had popped up on TV recently. A simple injury angle for MJF to insert some jeopardy into a match no one thought he would ever lose would have sufficed.
But that’s how good Strickland-Page was. With the topping of the rest of the show, all that silliness will be an afterthought. AEW is heading into its round-robin “Continental Classic” phase for the next six weeks, which means it can have both of these guys on TV every week to capitalize on their new standing. Everyone’s going to want to see their matches from here on out, and Khan can’t pass their spots off to someone else.
The company finally has the pillars for the long-term installed, the ones that Sammy Guevara and Jack Perry just weren’t ever cut out to be. AEW doesn’t have to worry about the waves for quite a while if they don’t want to.
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