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AEW Goes in Different Direction in Empty-Arena Match with Mixed Results

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Jake Hager battled Jon Moxley for the AEW title on Dynamite.Credit: AEWIt’s not often professional wrestling can shock me anymore. From the Four Horsemen brutally attacking Ricky Morton in the dressing room to Mick Foley getting tossed off the top of a steel cage, to the not-so-surprise betrayal of Cody Rhodes by the villainous Maxwell…

Jake Hager battled Jon Moxley for the AEW title on Dynamite.

Jake Hager battled Jon Moxley for the AEW title on Dynamite.Credit: AEW

It’s not often professional wrestling can shock me anymore. From the Four Horsemen brutally attacking Ricky Morton in the dressing room to Mick Foley getting tossed off the top of a steel cage, to the not-so-surprise betrayal of Cody Rhodes by the villainous Maxwell Jacob Friedman, I’ve seen it all over the years, consistently delighted by wrestling’s predictable unpredictability.

But when I looked up at the clock on the wall as Jake Hager made his way out to the ring for an empty-arena title match with Jon Moxley and saw more than 30 minutes of television time remained, my jaw dropped to the proverbial floor.

That’s a long match for anyone to pull off, especially without the benefit of an enthusiastic crowd to help provide spiritual support. Without an audience to help guide the emotional beats of the match, empty-arena bouts can feel sterile and devoid of spirit. There’s an emptiness there that extends beyond the vacant chairs, a lifelessness that steals away whatever it is that makes wrestling hum.

There are a handful of AEW wrestlers who could make a match like that work, charismatic technicians capable of flights of artistic wonder—but Moxley and Hager are not those men.

You could see what the two were trying to accomplish. And my goodness did they ever try. No one could possibly claim the effort wasn’t there to make this a memorable moment for fans who could use a respite from the real world right about now.

Unfortunately, it just didn’t click.

The opening section, a display of slow and ponderous mat wrestling, never quite jelled. Somehow the match got even more meandering as they took it to the outside, the opportunity for hardcore spots appearing and disappearing, 10 endless minutes devoid of anything remotely violent.

It picked up at the finish, not surprisingly, when the two returned to what they know best—straight-up professional wrestling. Moxley nailed Hager with a hard clothesline and earned a stiff knee in response as a receipt. Business, as they say, picked up from there, and it came to a close with a satisfyingly clean finish.

All Elite Wrestling on TNT @AEWonTNT

Absolutely vicious clothesline from the champ @JonMoxley 👏 #AEWDynamite https://t.co/K23TrwHJFV

It stands out as a dud, in part, because until the main event the show had been a consistent delight, another triumph for a promotion that has been knocking it out of the park week after week, meeting the coronavirus pandemic head-on and consistently delivering fantastic television no matter the challenges it faced.

Dynamite had already delivered several entertaining enhancement matches, each one made special by the incredible impromptu announcing team of Chris Jericho and Tony Schiavone. The already-iconic duo play off each other like the best broadcast partners, showing the chemistry that made Jesse Ventura and Vince McMahon or Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon such immortal pairings.

That energy was lost when the main event shifted to a one-man booth featuring Jim Ross, a legend of the industry who doesn’t have the style to carry a long match solo. No one really does—but the contrast between Ross and the comedy duo that preceded him was jarring. It’s like we were watching one show, light and breezy fun with Pineapple Pete and Orange Cassidy and the whole gang, before being dropped into the middle of a grim and apocalyptic hellscape for the main event.

AEW, like everyone else in sports and entertainment, is learning what works and what doesn’t in this new world, testing limits and trying to find what the audience wants to see in this unusually grim time for the nation and the world.

AEW has leaned heavily on two of its strengths, comedy and amazing video packages that humanize the performers—and it’s working. And the promotion will continue to get better as it gets more opportunities to both try and, occasionally, fail.

Hager and Moxley took their best swing at a moving target—and they missed. It happens, even to a promotion as consistently on the mark as AEW. These rare failures aren’t fatal, and having the courage to dust yourself off, get up and try again is how AEW will perfect a formula it is well on its way to creating.

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.

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