What an interesting AEW pay-per-view to dissect. This isn’t bliss that I’m feeling for AEW. I was feeling bliss for Top Gun: Maverick early Sunday afternoon. Angst is a more appropriate label for how I’m feeling about AEW. After a Sunday night of staggering in chores here and there to pace myself for being up with the owls, I felt like my favorite pro wrestling promotion had reached an interesting crossroads by the wee hours of Monday morning. The main-event was memorable, though its quality left it lingering in a crowded yet less enthusiastic Match of the Night room. The victor made sense on one level, but struck a familiar chord all the same, not one AEW had ever struck before. Overall, the show also felt familiarly indulgent, and just in case it’s needed for the record, not in a good way. There are things to celebrate, there are questions to be answered, and there are gripes to process. Care to dive deeper with me? Here…we…go.
Ladies and gentlemen, AEW Double or Nothing 2022, which felt all week to me like a show actively trying not to be great. The card was solid, with a couple of noteworthy matches complimenting a deeply intriguing main-event for the World Title. Punk vs. Hangman, in particular, carried the bulk if not all of the purchase price at my house. The build, beyond a very well done 12 week arc between Wardlow and MJF, was less than what the company is capable of creatively, focused primarily for weeks as it was on qualifying for the Owen Hart tournament, which overall proved to be an enjoyable experience. Revolution 2020 is the standard for AEW PPV build; coming close to it is more than acceptable, but getting nowhere near it is disappointing. Tony Khan’s answer to that foundational problem was to over-bloat this card, but not adjust its total runtime. It seemed inevitable that we’d all be up to 1AM (EST), which for many of us means hanging in there rather than enjoying that final peak before the show ends. Then, there was the MJF controversy, with some outlets suggesting he might not even wrestle as advertised. A super last minute issue with the B/R app that prompted being double-charged for the show was added for good measure. And so it seemed that a variety of factors were conspiring against Double or Nothing’s 4th iteration from the outset.
It started well enough, which I might add is long before I realized that AEW was at a crossroads. I’ve had a lot going on as of late, and my eye wasn’t drawn to AEW as strongly for this PPV like it had been for the last several in a row, I wasn’t compelled in the same way to listen to the wrestling media’s previews either, so maybe this crossroads was more evident beyond our walls. I just wasn’t thinking about it, neither in the last week nor during the first couple of hours of the show. I was frankly thankful that MJF showed up to take the loss to Wardlow in the opener, as it was what the story called for and I didn’t want the threat of MJF not being there to linger over the event. Wardlow now gets the chance to sink or swim beyond his association with AEW’s top heel. The crowd’s energy fed us intranetally, so me, my wife, and my oldest daughter were feeling energized – albeit with their MJF fandom – polarized to start the night.
The Hardys and Young Bucks put on a nice show for us, though varying expectations seem to have painted a vastly multi-colored picture at the star ratings polls. I thought the Bucks did the best with the aging Hardy brothers as possible, perhaps not on the Darby vs. Jeff level from the Owen’s opening round, but on a level not too far down from it. 4-stars doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Matt and Nick Jackson were excellent showmen, as usual, and held my attention so that I did not get as sucked in as some to the banged up, shell-of-a-shell-of-himself Jeff Hardy story. The Hardys played the greatest hits well enough that the Jacksons could adequately pick up the slack and deliver a candidate for best match of the night.
Then, after Jade Cargill and Anna Jay showcased their improvements in an overshadowed third match, the House of Black vs. Death Triangle kept this show feeling like a PPV with major potential to outkick the coverage averagely supplied by its creative build. It followed and exceeded (**** ¼) the Elite vs. Delete mayhem to provide arguably the show’s top performance, though a lackluster climax weakens the argument and keeps it in that previously mentioned crowded field. During the bulk of the trios showcase, these six guys offered evidence for their ascent out of the crowded upper-middle tier of AEW. Less is more as a wrestling roster philosophy was abandoned long ago, and matches like this – show-stealing(?) as it arguably was – lend credibility to Tony Khan needing to find a way to sprinkle some of that ethos. Pac, Fenix, Penta, and Malachai Black are all too good to consistently be lost in the shuffle on PPVs. So is Andrade. Real estate is at a premium, and that issue was never more apparent in AEW than on Sunday night.
Maybe I’ve indulged AEW too much and Double or Nothing was just my point of awareness. Perhaps not. It felt after Sunday night that they were losing their identity, or had already lost it. How are you feeling about the promotion as a whole at the moment? Before All Out last year, my then fiance (Tabatha) and I talked on a podcast about how the introduction of so many new people was watering down the shows, something along the lines of it being difficult to enjoy a steak or a turkey leg on the same night you had already eaten a rack of ribs and a top notch chicken dish. It’s just too much in one sitting (a PPV in wrestling, for instance) unless the courses are dished out with much greater care. We also talked about AEW needing to be careful not to lose their identity while simultaneously trying to build a bigger roster full of elite talents with plenty left in the tank who made their names in WWE. Recall that was a night headlined by Christian Cage and CM Punk, and arguably just as famous for the (somewhat) surprise-debuting Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson. As Tabatha said that night, AEW was founded to be like a great local coffee shop and those who wanted it that way didn’t want AEW to become Starbucks.
Eight months later, there may not be any reason to draw sweeping conclusions, but AEW today is not the AEW of All Out 2021, for better or worse or simply different. AEW did not take nearly the care with this card as it did at even Revolution back in March. The matches were dished out in heaping gobs at times. And dare I say the over-indulgence was reminiscent of an overstuffed WrestleMania. During the Owen Hart Tournament Finals, the show’s length started to become a little daunting, not even because the show to that point had been long, but because we all knew the show was going long and had to start trying to prepare for it if we didn’t want to be asleep by the time the biggest match came on. Joe vs. Adam Cole and Soho vs. Dr. Britt DMD were both solid matches, the culmination of a lot of television time, and the situation called for Dr. Martha Hart to be up there endearingly soaking in an adoration that clearly surprised her – it was a big moment for Owen’s legacy – but all the while the clock loomed over us. There were still SIX matches left 2.5 hours into this show. Scorpio’s crew further spiraling Sammy Guevara’s act down the drain (what a 3 month turnaround for that guy, sound the booking alarm!) only added to the fatigue, forcing Darby Allin vs. Kyle O’Reilly into the position of drastically shifting this PPV’s momentum.
Like I said, I didn’t go into Sunday night thinking there was something existential going on with AEW, but these were the things that ended up on my mind while I was doing such tasks as kitchen clean-up and refilling water cups, prepping to stay up for the match I paid (twice) to see. Fortunately, on the night, Darby and Kyle were up to the task of getting me locked back into the show. This kind of match was made for an AEW PPV, which only naturally has so many spots for the big time bouts and should look to supplement each card with two really talented workers who don’t need more than 10-minutes to tell a compelling tale inside of a stylistically diverse, aesthetically pleasing package. 3 and ¾ stars is meant as an extreme compliment for a non-existent feud thrown together in the final hour and offered 9-minutes (gave the same rating to Mysterio vs. Angle at Summerslam in ‘02 and it made my Top 100 WWE Matches and Rivalries book).
However, the booking of Darby to lose created another layer of angst about this PPV from where I sat, adding to the Bucks losing to the Hardys (why?) and Pac losing to Julia Hart’s mist. House favorites losing en masse taught my family, still learning the ins and outs of wrestling fandom, a key lesson that tenured members of our exclusive club always eventually learn the hard way: the deeper you’re invested in the product, the more it stands to disappoint you, so set your internal gauge appropriately. That was not a gripe from yours truly, but you are who you hang out with, so no different than seeing a movie with someone who hated it organically skews negatively your own opinion of it, when your cohorts watching wrestling with you don’t like what’s being presented, it brings forth more negativity in your own mind. Maybe that’s why I have had all these critical thoughts about AEW; maybe it’s that simple. In the famous words of Goose (go see Top Gun: Maverick, by the way): “Nahhhhhhhhh.”
I personally quite enjoyed Thunder Rosa vs. Sereena Deeb, further getting this card back on track after O’Reilly vs. Allin. It was good to see Rosa so over this deep into a show with a WrestleMania-sized cloud hanging over its head. The Vegas audience had every right to be nearly spent, so it meant something to me that Rosa held their attention. At this point in AEW Women’s Title history, I look for the matches during a championship reign that I would view as having added to the legacy of the title and titleholder, and I think this match was good enough to warrant that kind of praise, if not loudly and proudly (at the 4-star level), then certainly quietly and respectably (*** ½).
But good Lord that WrestleMania-sized, MORE is MORE cloud hung low and ominously around the time that we heard “Wild Thing” for the second time in a row the entire way through. Anarchy in the Arena began, and kept going…and going…and going….for over a third of an hour, a faction clash that didn’t need four extra guys much less ten extra minutes went for broke, visually assaulting the viewer at home with quick cuts, blood, garbage brawl spots, and the further watering down of Bryan Danielson (Grrrr). It was fun, but overly indulgent, almost disgustingly so. For that reason, my enjoyment of the match was overridden by its being a perfect microcosm of the issues that arose (or became glaringly obvious) during this show. 22-minutes, the Triple H vs. Batista at WrestleMania 35 in AEW lore. Borrowing from Top Gun again, “Bullshit 22-minutes, this thing should’ve been over in 12-minutes; now get on it!” It felt tone deaf.
Kudos to each player in the AEW World Tag Team Championship match for resetting the tone before the main-event, giving of themselves in predictably aesthetically-pleasing fashion but also attempting to be part of the show rather than the previous match’s attempt at trying to be the show, to be the main-event. It was a great match (****) that made everyone look better for having been part of it while not doing too much.
Which brings us back to the compelling main-event between CM Punk and Hangman Page for the AEW Title. For weeks, I went back and forth trying to predict a winner, convincing myself by bell time that it was the most unpredictable AEW Title match ever, that nothing else really even came close to its unpredictability. In the end, Hangman telegraphed it a bit last week didn’t he? When he got all fired up at Punk again, talking about protecting AEW from his legendary opponent, it felt storyline-forced but authentic too. Perhaps he learned the result for the Double or Nothing title defense last Wednesday and felt inclined to say his peace; and there was really no better person to say what he said given his homegrown status and success as the World Champion. Who knows? Punk is now the champion, and I’m admittedly conflicted right now.
Again, this is not the time to draw sweeping conclusions. Punk being back has been awesome. He was my fan anchor to WWE for the entirety of his top guy run. It has been a joy to see him back in wrestling these past several months, from the promos to the matches. I’m a firm believer that AEW wouldn’t exist without CM Punk’s contributions to mainstream pro wrestling. He has many interesting feuds and PPV bouts ahead, the story and match with Hangman was no exception (****+), I hope that Punk quells my philosophical issues with him being the champ, and I’ll give him every opportunity to put those issues to rest. You could say I’m very much a CM Punk guy.
This also isn’t 2019. AEW doesn’t need a legendary ex-WWE star to give the title credibility. Jericho already did that. So, on the surface, what does strapping the title around Punk’s waist do for AEW? Moxley redefined himself and proved a point to Ambrose naysayers, Omega did his damndest to show the wider wrestling world what his pre-AEW hype had been about, and then Hangman became the first of the core young group (also including the so-termed Pillars) to ascend to the top and carry the load. All of the previous title changes felt purposeful and timely. They were all predictable, too, but in a good way. Punk vs. Hangman may have been unpredictable, yet I’m unsure if the result was as purposeful or timely. Wasn’t CM Punk supposed to be a wrestling version of Top Gun: Maverick? Nostalgia mixed authentically with “he’s still got it” satisfaction? Did he need to be more than that? Combined with the 5 hour PPV length and the shift in identity that this particular title change entails, I’m left feeling different about AEW than I have before.
All in all, there is no question that Double or Nothing 2022 was worth the price tag. The main-event delivered the drama it promised, the opener completed nicely a long-term story, there were three very good tag team matches all worth revisiting singularly, we got Owen Hart’s name back in wrestling, there was a 9-minute special treat, and the women’s division’s present and future was nicely highlighted. Nevertheless, I don’t ever wish to see another show like this from AEW. 5 hour PPVs (not counting the Buy-In). Nope. Philosophically inconsistent booking moves for the face of the brand role? Hmmm. These feelings of unrest are new to AEW for me, so I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being overly angsty. AEW has a lot of equity with me and there’s a lot of trust for them on this end, but over-indulgence (more is not more!) and loss of identity ideally aren’t the themes to be dominating my thoughts after a $50 (actually $100) show.