Updated: Dec 19, 2022
Acting is hard. Professional actors — that is, people for whom their entire job is pretending — often do not pretend entirely convincingly. In Gangs of New York, Daniel Day Lewis outacts DiCaprio who outacts Cameron Diaz, and the whole thing suffers for it, and all three of these people are hugely successful, top-of-their-game-type actors. But there are levels.
So too in pro wrestling, where the actors are not only pretending to be wrestlers but also pretending to have wrestling matches. Few are great at both. It seems to be the opinion of the wrestling establishment at large that the more important skill here is in putting together great matches. That a certain level of compromise vis-a-vis acting is acceptable if it means the crowd can count on a few 4-star matches a night.
I submit to you, humbly, that that opinion is exactly backwards. I think we’d all have a better time if the acting were better and the wrestling worse.
Look at CM Punk. His return to AEW was the largest single wrestling moment of the last decade — maybe more than that. His fall from grace is arguably the biggest story of 2022, and this was the year that Vincent K. McMahon stopped running WWE. People cared about Punk. He wasn’t the most powerful wrestler, or the most technical, or the most flashy. He was just believable. When he was angry at some other wrestler, or with the powers that be, people believed it, and they got behind him. His emotions came out so authentically, his stories so convincingly, that even after he was absent for seven years people cried when he came back because they knew he’d make them believe again.
AND THEN, at the peak of Punk’s AEW run, Eddie Kingston stood across from CM Punk and called him a phony. The fire in Kingston’s voice and eyes (and eyebrows) was just real, and by the halfway point of the promo the crowd was booing Punk. No amount of quality ringwork could have done that. We know this for a fact because Punk had been in the ring with superior wrestlers over and over again in his career. No one ever wrestled so good that the crowd decided they liked him more than Punk. But three minutes with a great actor and, like a magic trick, nearly a decade’s worth of invested energy was absolutely inverted. The crowd wanted Eddie to win. We still do.
If the above argument is true, then we need to be taking more seriously the ability of pro wrestlers to convince us that they are who they purport to be. We should be talking about who is a better actor than we thought they were, who is a worse actor than their allotted promo time suggests, and who is so good that they might profitably be made champion.
We need, in other words, Professional Wrestler Acting Power Rankings.
What follows are those rankings for All Elite Wrestling. I rewatched the last two weeks of AEW programming and took notes on any wrestler who spoke for longer than a few seconds. Their acting is rated here on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 means “Their acting damaged every segment they were in, and it is difficult to imagine that it will ever be otherwise,” and 5 means “This wrestler could play themselves in a AAA movie without preparation.”
Preston Vance: 1.5
Skye Blue: 1.5
Orange Cassidy: 2.0
What do you do with a man whose character has become wildly popular, whose character traits are mostly “be disengaged,” and who has trouble performing lines in a way that reflects that disengagement? The answer that AEW is playing with is “give him a lot to say every week.”
Colten Gunn — 2.0
Kenny Omega — 2.0
Kenny is a phenomenal professional wrestler, but his natural speaking mode has no threat to it. The man is simply too nice. He overpunches almost all of his lines to compensate. This works a bit better when he’s a full-of-himself villain, but in his current iteration it just diminishes his segments.
Butcher — 2.5
Ortiz — 2.5
Jungle Boy — 2.5
Wardlow — 2.75
Jeff Jarret — 3.0
Malaki Black — 3.0
Saraya — 3.0
Cash Wheeler — 3.0
Trent Seven — 3.25
Sammy Guevara — 3.25
Jade Cargil — 3.25
There is a style of line delivery native to 90’s wrestling that really only makes sense there. (If you ask a friend to impersonate a pro wrestler, it’s the cadence they’ll adopt. It’s become ingrained in us.) When speaking in this style, it does not matter if the opponent you're yelling at is across from you or across the country. Really, nothing matters at all. You are a totally self-contained bundle of anger.
Jade’s reign, which in many ways is unprecedented, feels familiar. It’s because she’s taken this cadence and made it hers.
“Hangman” Adam Page — 3.5
Austin Gunn — 3.5
Jamie Hayter — 3.5
Hayter, newly the Women’s World Champion, is getting more mic time now. That’s not a bad thing. Hayter’s capacity for expressing contempt is second to none. There’s a sting in her delivery that she doesn’t wind up for. Her eyes seem to sneer with her. The other things she has to say — the non-contemptuous ones — never ring with that same level of truth or intensity.
Darbie Allen — 3.5
Ricky Starks — 3.75
There’s so much to like about Ricky Starks. Unmanufactured intensity. Naturally sympathetic personality that isn’t the slightest bit precious. Wrestling talent to back it all up. The most underrated tool in his belt is his voice. Starks might have the most effective instrument on the roster, and when he really winds himself up, it harmonizes with the anger in his face and over-the-top body language. At his best, Ricky Starks makes music.
The problem is that Starks can’t coast at the level his intensity peaks at. In his lead-up promos vs. MJF, Starks was awkward. His over-the-top body language had nothing to gesticulate, and at some points Ricky looked like an angry toddler.
Daniel Garcia: 3.75
Stokely Hathaway: 3.75
Jon Moxley: 4.0
Jon is in a period of transition. He can’t hit the same psychopath notes that he has in the past. The slithering shoulder thing he does no longer registers as genuine (He knows this, it seems, and has been doing it less).
If you watch closely, you can see the transition in action. Jon now has a Bill Murrayness to him. He has seen almost everything wrestling has to offer. He’s been to hell and back (in more ways than one). So when he tries to slip back into the hate-filled Moxley promo style of yore, it fails. He isn’t that guy anymore.
Britt Baker : 4.0
Hobbs — 4.25
Dax Harwood — 4.5
Over the last year, as FTR has been given the screen time (and mic time) they deserve, the nature of their act has clarified itself. Dax and Cash are equals and both masters of their craft. This isn’t a Lennon and McCartney partnership, though. It’s Penn and Teller.
Of course Cash isn’t silent, but in his speaking role he might as well be. In their promo on Friday, Cash’s job wasn’t to deliver any content, it was to build the crowd up for Dax. And insofar as Dax on the mic is Penn, he captivates by fusing two things: Stone Cold Steve Austin — attitude, look, voice — and a totally sincere Aw Shucks quality. How could you not love him?
Kip Sabian — 4.5
Samoa Joe — 4.5
The 90’s Wrestler’s Cadence that the old guys of the roster use is fertile ground for some creativity. MJF’s genius move has been to play a character who believes he is one of these guys, while actually being something much more sinister. That means that his promos that might otherwise come off as insincere instead read as the work of an insincere man. This conceit has also allowed him to operate in the same kind of anticipatory space as Keith Lee. We always know there’s room for more because we have seen the mask drop.
The difference is that in Keith Lee’s case, we anticipate a move from calm to elevated. MJF can be giving the most fiery, elevated promo that the industry has seen in months, and we might still anticipate a further ratcheting up, because beyond his masterful poetic outbursts, there lies an MJF who is really and truly an insane person.
Eddie Kingston: 5.0
It’s been said many times now that Eddie Kingston does not know that professional wrestling is fake. The joke is that he’s a good actor.
Moment Most Elevated by Acting — Kip Sabian feuds with the Best Friends
The Best Friends Extended Universe is a difficult place to navigate. The Best Friends proper are two regular boys who just want to have a good time; Orange Cassidy gives you nothing; Danhausen is a children’s cartoon villain. Most of the heels in their feuds flounder, understandably.
Kip Sabian has managed to elevate everyone involved by matching the Best Friends’ energy while remaining, somehow, believable. His Magnificent Bastard schtick has been pitch-perfect over the past couple weeks, and is exactly the attitude which the Best Friends’ nonchalances can foil delightfully.
Moment Most Deflated by Acting — Preston Vance makes Negative One his enemy
The storyline with the most juice in it meets newly unmasked 10, and Vance shows just how quickly a thing can become nothing. Even a replacement wrestler-level performance would have turned Vance into the most despicable man in AEW for months. He couldn’t deliver, though. Watch the last moment of his interview on Friday, where he says “Hey kid, it’s time to grow up” to a child whose father has died, and then gets up from his chair. Even in a prerecorded segment, they could not arrange for this moment to have any emotional content to it. If not from that, then from what?
Special Moment in Wrestling — Evil Uno shakes his head at Hangman’s problems
Sometimes in wrestling there is a very serious moment about a father being very hurt and then not remembering the name of his son. Sometimes in wrestling that father’s friend is a man who is wearing regular clothes and a scary purple mask. Sometimes in wrestling you can still see the heartbreak in that friend’s masked eyes.