From even before it was announced, All Elite Wrestling is a company that has marketed itself as the tip of the spear in a wrestling revolution. In 2017 the wrestlers behind it staged a faux invasion of Raw for their Youtube series, after putting on their first show ALL IN they declared they had a movement that would change the industry and they announced their new company by saying outright, “it feels like a revolution.”
Yet for two of the biggest stars in the company, Cody Rhodes and Jon Moxley, this revolution has been typified with a return to tropes of wrestling past, a return to elements of wrestling the industry had seemingly moved on from, at least in its most mainstream presentation. Yet this back to the future attitude has not fallen on an apathetic crowd waiting for the next sugar rush of flips and superkicks but has instead shown the power of the old school formulas that took pro wrestling to the height of its popularity in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
To boil their formula down to its most simple, in an age where in ring workrate, movesets and spectacle is what’s deemed most important, Cody Rhodes and Jon Moxley make their character the priority in everything they do. Instead of wooing the crowd with the most technical or spectacular matches, they win the crowd over by presenting engaging characters taking part in stories and matches the audience can get emotionally invested in.
Take for example the amazing ten lashes segment from Dynamite last week, a segment that I believe will become a legendary moment in the folklore of AEW. It could have been purely a gruesome spectacle of a man whipping another for nothing more than pleasure and while it was that, it was so much more. The true brilliance of the segment was how it spoke so deeply to the characters of the two men involved, raised the emotional stakes of the story to a fever pitch and even furthered the story of other wrestlers on the periphery of the segment.
Cody went out to prove he had the resilience and perseverance his father spoke of, when he talked about the hard times that blue collar America was going through in the 80s. Cody’s triumph was simply in persevering despite the physical and emotional pain he was going through and his performance from determined, to angry, to despairing and ultimately to triumphant was one the crowd rode with him. MJF on the other hand, who sees Cody Rhodes as a man of the same ilk as him, all fancy suits and false swagger, went from sauntering around the ring full of arrogance, to boiling with rage at the end of the segment as his belief in Cody’s weakness was proved wrong. Thinking Cody was just like him, MJF believed his rival would quit in the the face of the humiliation and pain of the lashes (just as MJF would also have quit against Jericho) so was left furious when Cody proved he was cut from tougher steal than him. Instead of facing humiliation Cody heads towards their eventual meeting knowing he has already taken the best shots MJF could ever hope to get on him and with the crowd even more on his side than ever.
A segment like this, where the hero of the story has to take an inhumane level of punishment to help get the audience’s sympathy is nothing new in wrestling. A branding iron wielding Terry Funk would leave burn marks on the faces he wrestled, Greg Hamilton nearly strangled Roddy Piper to death in their Dog Collar match and Tommy Dreamer took countless Singapore Cane shots from The Sandman to work his way into the heart of the ECW crowd. To be relatable, particularly to an adult, a hero needs to have fire and grit on top of likeability and this kind of violent but emotional segment can show both of these elements in spades.
It’s not just Cody though, Jon Moxley also has also been the beneficiary of this character focused style. Even though he is indeed a man of violent action, his entire presentation: his entrance, his music, his in-ring style, his gear is all centered around creating his badass, anti-hero, Jon Macleanesq persona. In his match with Kenny Omega, Moxley literally crawled through glass to emphasise his determination and resilience. Over the last few weeks he has been showing the same kind of grit by taking on all comers despite sustaining an injury to his right eye at the hands of Chris Jericho.
Once again it is the kind of angle that would have been completely at home in Mid-South or Smokey Mountain Wrestling: an every man hero gets bloodied by a cowardly and vicious champion but refuses to give up and fights on with only one eye. Moxley has been so dedicated to the narrative that he has continued to pose on social media and even fight against Minoru Suzuki in New Japan with his eye patch still on.
The result of all this dedication to character building has yet again been incredible buy in from the AEW audience who blow the roof off every time he enters an arena.
As I said in the first paragraph, from its inception AEW has presented itself as a revolution. While some of that is of course just marketing bluster, one of my hopes for the company is that part of the change they bring to the industry will be the return to the mainstream of the kind of grit and character focus that made wrestling popular all those years ago. Moxley and Rhodes popularity are proof that while the kinds of matches Kenny Omega or The Young Bucks can put on are incredible, making character and narrative a priority is the best way to engage the fan base and build the emotional bonds that have people tuning in week after week.
That wraps it up for this week, let me know what you think of the Cody Rhodes and Jon Moxley’s most recent angles in the comments below. You can also chat to me further on Twitter @Sir_Samuel or in the AEW section on the LOP Forums.
Missed last weeks column? Check it out here.
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