“I ain’t gonna hide behind this belt. Like I said from day one, I’ll take on anybody, any time, any place. Line ‘em up and I’ll go ahead and knock ‘em down. Right now though, it’s time to knock back some whiskey.”
– Jon Moxley, AEW Revolution, 2020
Jon Moxley’s run as AEW Champion has been the unprecedented success of pro wrestling in 2020. For nine months and two days, between winning the championship at AEW Revolution, and losing it at Winter Is Coming just this week, he brought to life everything he spoke about in that promo after taking the belt, everything wrestling fans have wanted as a champion for years. A badass who showed up rain, hail or once in a century pandemic, took the fight to anyone and everyone who stepped in his way and never gave up even when there was blood in his mouth and the odds were completely stacked against him. A wrestler who was never short of a quick quip or intense monologue when the time was right.
It is easy to forget quite how far Jon Moxley came on his road to being AEW Champion. Just a year before he won the belt Dean Ambrose had been written off by the majority of wrestling fans. In an article from February 2019, I wrote, “His [Dean’s] departure will bring to the close a chapter in the career of one of the undisputed top guys of his generation but is also a story that could have been and should have been so much more”. The majority of the comments on this site and social media heartily disagreed with me, saying he was never a top guy and that his failed heel turn was the final nail in the coffin of an experiment that peaked years earlier.
Nearly two years later part of me feels like channelling Nate Diaz and proclaiming in capital letters “I’M NOT SURPRISED MOTHERF****S!” but even me, one of Ambrose/Moxley’s staunchest fans has been surprised and delighted by everything he has been able to achieve in 2020.
There is no doubt that when Moxley won the AEW Championship from Chris Jericho in February that he had a lot to live up to. The inaugural champion set a fantastic precedent for what it meant to be an AEW Champion, with two blockbuster feuds with Cody and then Mox, while also elevating a number of midcard talents through tv matches and providing entertaining TV segments every week.
As the new AEW Champion Moxley was not helped by the majority of the western world going into lockdown and wrestling into the empty arena era just two weeks into his reign. Stuck in Vegas away from the Georgia block of tapings, Moxley’s first feud with Jake Hager and initial back and forth with Brodie Lee certainly left a little to be desired. While Mox appeared on camera cutting typically excellent promos, his inability to appear in ring or in front of his opponent with any kind of regularity was far from ideal. However, after saving the Brodie Lee feud with a brutal monster match at Double or Nothing his reign built more and more momentum through each program: breaking down the impossibly impressive Brian Cage, beating the closest thing he has to a protege, Darby Allin, in an emotional roller coaster of a match, putting the unbeaten M.J.F. in his place, surviving a rampaging Lance Archer, forcing his former friend and riding partner Eddie Kingston to quit and finally facing off against the only other man who could call himself the best pro wrestler in the world, Kenny Omega. Propelled by a combination of Moxley’s incredible verbal skills on the mic and his raw, brawling in-ring style, every program has felt more compelling than the last, right up until his final match as the champion against Kenny Omega that he legitimately sold beforehand as a clash between two mythical titans of the modern pro wrestling industry.
Unlike other long term champions who have trampled on the momentum of those below them on the card, with the possible exception of Jake Hager, Mox has left every one of his opponents looking tougher, rougher and better than before they faced him: Brodie Lee’s next feud after facing Mox was winning the TNT Championship off of Cody, Brain Cage can still boast that he was never beaten, Darby Allin’s next big move was to take the TNT Championship off of Cody, MJF has gone on to beat Chris Jericho and Eddie Kingston is now embroiled in a stable war and still circles Moxley like a vulture.
From a business perspective as champion Moxley has managed to be both a reliable box office and ratings draw and constant anchor for the AEW roster. Ratings analysis show that when he appeared in the ring, AEW either held or drew more eyeballs to their product. While I never correlate quality with popularity, from a pure legacy perspective it is worth noting that when AEW drew its highest ratings this year, it was when Moxley was prominently featured.
All of which begs the question of where this championship run rank historically?
The last decade has been an era of strong heel champions. The highest-profile and most celebrated World Championship runs have been almost exclusively by heels: Randy Orton from 2013-14, Seth Rollins in 2015, Brock Lesnar in 2017-18 and 2019-2020, Tommaso Ciampa in 2018, Daniel Bryan 2018-19 and Adam Cole 2019-20, these high profile and critically acclaimed champions all reigned at the top as heels. Even more recently it has been Roman Reigns as the Tribal Chief that people have fallen over to praise when his previous top face runs received mixed reviews at best.
By comparison face champions have been far less celebrated in the WWE with the possible exception of Kofi Kingston in 2019 and Drew McIntyre earlier this year or lower down the card John Cena as US Champion in 2015 and Seth Rollins as Intercontinental Champion in 2018 being the two strongest face midcard title runs of the time.
I don’t think it is too controversial to say that none of the reigns I’ve listed match up with what Moxley has achieved both in and out of the ring as champion.
The only WWE World Championship run that really compares to Moxley’s AEW reign is that of CM Punk from 2011-13. Punk started as a face but ended the reign as a heel and while he certainly had higher profile matches against John Cena, Chris Jericho and The Rock, I would argue he also had far less consistent momentum across the entirety of his run. Beyond the WWE you really need to go to New Japan to Kazuchika Okada in 2017-18 and Hiroshi Tanahashi from 2011-12 to find another reign in a global promotion that compares. All three of those runs are truly rarefied air and it is hard to compare the American episodic wrestling style to the touring, tournament-based New Japan presentation, due to what is actually expected from the wrestlers.
For someone, people wrote off as a failed project, while wrestling in an era of dominant heel champions, being the owner of the greatest face championship run of the last decade in western wrestling is a pretty incredible title for Jon Moxley to carry.
But even beyond personal titles Moxley’s run as AEW champion has shown so much more. It has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the WWE isn’t the be-all and end-all of box office wrestling. It has shown critics who proclaimed that dominant faces, such as John Cena or Roman Reigns, will always draw the wrath of the modern wrestling audience, that a strong face champion can still be beloved by even the most jaded wrestling fans when they are presented correctly. And it has shown yet again that when wrestlers are left to build their own creative direction, they will so often produce their best ever work.
The new AEW Champion Kenny Omega is possibly the best wrestler in the world, he is someone who can legitimately claim to have had the greatest wrestling match of all time. However, after what Jon Moxley achieved as champion, it will take a career-best run even from him to fill that spot at the top of the AEW mountain.
That wraps it up for me this week. Who do you think will win at Full Gear and why? Also what matches are you most excited about? Let me know in the comments below or you can find me on Twitter @Sir_Samuel.
You can even write your own preview on the Columns Forum by following the link below.
In case you missed it here is why I think Kenny Omega will succeed as AEW Champion
Why Kenny Omega Isn’t The Same In AEW But Should Still Be The Next Champ