Updated: Sep 9, 2021
After Money in the Bank, where Bobby Lashley beat Kofi Kingston, MVP tweeted that The Undertaker once told him that "what we do in the ring is tell stories. The moves are just the illustrations."
This is true. Professional wrestling is a storytelling medium that merges a fighting-based presentation with storytelling to create a unique form of entertainment. The purpose of MVP tweeting this was to explain that Lashley didn't just squash Kofi for no reason. It's part of a larger story.
Wrestling has various styles that are, for the purpose of the point I'm making, perhaps best compared to genres of films. One of these styles, or genres, is death match wrestling, of which Nick Gage is the current face.
Death match wrestling is often disregarded as mindless violence, relying on blood-lust and not in-line with the artistic intentions of other forms of wrestling. Rather than the moves illustrating the story, moves exist purely to feed a thirst for blood from the fans and the performers alike.
Like with any artform, there are bad examples of death match wrestling. Blood-thirst is a huge part of the reason why death match wrestling fans love it so much.
However, there are examples of death matches which go beyond this and create a unique story that otherwise couldn't be told in wrestling. Nick Gage vs Matt Cardona, just days before Gage faced Jericho, is a perfect example of this. So, yes, death match wrestling is perfectly capable of telling stories.
What is this story's purpose?
The first thing to do is qualify what we mean by a "story" in this context, because some matches exist as a story on their own whilst others act as a chapter serving a larger story. Such as Lashley vs Kofi Kingston, which goes back to the point of MVP's tweet earlier.
Not every match has to be a storytelling masterclass. Some fans love the acrobatic style in Lucha Libre, some fans enjoy the hard-hitting nature of strong-style and some fans enjoy the blood-lust of death match wrestling. But remember that these styles all exist to tell stories in their own unique ways.
When analysing Jericho vs Gage, it is paramount that we judge it as a chapter in a larger story, rather than a story itself, and that it's being worked in a particular style to tell a specific story about Chris Jericho.
From this we can surmise that the story will be that the character (Chris Jericho) wants something (to defeat Nick Gage to get his match with MJF). The antagonist (Nick Gage) will provide an obstacle (the death match style) to which Jericho must rise to meet the challenge, or fail.
That is putting it very simply, but really this is a simple story. We go in with a perception of Chris Jericho and we come out of it seeing a different side of him in how much his goal, a match against MJF, will drive him to persevere. That is the purpose for this match to exist, from a storytelling perspective.
Before the match started, MJF said on commentary, "I don't make matches, I make movies and this is going to be a gruesome horror flick." So, was Nick Gage vs Chris Jericho at AEW's Fight for the Fallen an example of death match wrestling telling a story in its own, ultra-violent way? Or another example of death match wrestling using blood-lust for cheap entertainment?
The Key Stats
The stats provide us with a deeper understanding of how wrestling puts its stories across and the main stat that stands out is Nick Gage's use of weapons and big offence. Not because it's surprising, because it's exactly what you would expect. This story is a simple one.
Gage uses weapons over three times more than Jericho whilst also hitting three times the amount of big offence, largely due to those weapon attacks. Again, this is what we expect from Gage but it is also evidence that Gage, as the antagonist, proved to be a good obstacle as the "God of the Death Match" that Jericho must overcome.
Given the style of death match wrestling, it isn't surprising to see many of the other stats looking the way they are. This type of match is very focused on weapons attacks and small strikes between them in order to get to the next spot. To truly understand the story of this match we must analyse the offence in the context with which it happened.
How it played out.
Nick Gage dominated the early minutes of the match when the two men focused more on a traditional style of wrestling. This was somewhat surprising as you would think that is where Jericho would get the edge, and eventually he did.
Gage's box of tricks ran out pretty fast when weapons weren't involved and as he went for a move for a second time, a running boot into the corner, Jericho reversed it and turned the tide. Jericho locked Gage in the Walls of Jericho which is what forces Gage to go back to what he knows, the weapons.
As Gage is distracted finding light tubes under the ring, Jericho recovers from being thrown head first into the ring-post and goes under the ring himself to find Floyd, his baseball bat. This shows that Jericho knew what sort of match he was in for and was smart enough to plan for it. His plan works as he gets the upper hand. This mentality foreshadows the finish, but we'll get to that.
As we move into the fourth minute, it is clear that Jericho's head has been busted open and it's unclear exactly what from. This is shortly before Nick Gage gets out his trusty pizza cutter and this is a place where you could seriously question the storytelling of the match.
Why is Jericho bleeding before the pizza cutter comes out? Surely the pizza cutter would be the moment you draw blood? And this is where the criticisms for death match wrestling come back. Instead of using blood as a plot point to enhance the drama, it just appears out of nowhere, for no real reason.
Anyway, back to the flow of the match and Gage is generally in control of the fight. Jericho has his moments but Gage is the one dictating traffic as he find chairs, light tubes and even a pane of glass. Gage comes across like a legitimate psychopath as commentary does an excellent job of selling the danger this man brings.
Into the 8th minute, with the pane of glass set up above Jericho's face on two chairs, Gage prepares to launch himself through it. However, Jericho again sees the danger and adapts, instead hitting a hurricanrana off the second rope, sending Gage crashing through the pane of glass.
It is at this point that MJF, on commentary, says, "I didn't think Chris would take it to this level." To which Tony Schiavone replies, "well he has to." And that's a prime example of wrestling commentary at its best. MJF and Schiavone combine to inform the audience of how Jericho has been forced to take it to the next level.
A minute later Gage has recovered-ish and has gone back to his trusty light tubes. Hitting Jericho across the back, the head and grinding the end of the broken light tube into Jericho's forehead. And again commentary comes in with another excellent line, this time Jim Ross, saying, "this match has escalated to hell." Once again ramming home how this match has escalated in its violence, rather than being the chaotic blood-bath that death match wrestling is often accused of being.
As we come towards the end of the match, in the 12th and 13th minutes, we can see a huge spike in offence from Nick Gage as he seeks to put Jericho down for good. This serves well as a final obstacle for Jericho to overcome in this match and forces him to take it to the next level, which he does.
Did Nick Gage vs Chris Jericho Tell a Good Story?
Jericho survives the onslaught from Gage and 'The Painmaker' has one more trick up his sleeve. As Gage goes for what is essentially one of his signature moves, a pack of light tubes to the head, Jericho spits green mist in Gage's face. This is a tribute to The Great Muta, Keiji Mutoh's alter-ego, which Jericho used as inspiration for his 'Painmaker' gimmick.
Jericho then hits Gage with the light tubes before hitting the Judas Effect for the win. Just like earlier in the match Jericho has lured Gage in, making him think he has the advantage, all the while Jericho has something up his sleeve. That's Jericho's experience telling. That's exactly what MJF couldn't have seen coming and that's why Jericho chose 'The Painmaker' gimmick for this match, to tap into his darker side.
This ending ties back into the larger theme of the overall MJF vs Jericho feud, a battle of wits. Two men constantly trying to one-up each other at every turn. The Labours of Jericho is quite literally MJF trying to break Jericho mentally, physically or both. Jericho is constantly on the back-foot, but always has a plan up his sleeve to overcome the obstacles that MJF is setting up for him.
It's simple, but I have to admit, as someone who doesn't much care for Jericho, it is effective storytelling. It is hard not to root for him in the moment and whilst a lot of that is down to MJF's excellent job of playing a despicable heel, it's also down to great, simple storytelling and... yes, I admit it, Jericho performing well as a babyface.
To answer the question posed in this article, was this match a good example of storytelling in a death match setting? Yes. It's simple, yet effective and objectively good storytelling, even if slightly flawed with blood appearing for no real reason. You don't have to like it, and personally I don't, but in the metrics set by the standards of storytelling, it's not half bad.
Does it live up to the standards of Gage vs Matt Cardona or Kenny Omega vs Sami Callihan? No. It doesn't have the scale or the aims to compete with those matches. Gage vs Cardona simply had much more to it as a match in itself, whilst Omega vs Callihan was a masterclass in escalating tension. But for the purposes of the larger story and a match as itself, this was functional at worst and exhilarating at best, depending on your personal tastes.
Match Star Ratings (out of 5):
Grappl: 3.49 stars.
Wrestling Observer Newsletter: 4 stars.
Cagematch: 3.4 stars.
PWM Writer's Opinion: 3.25 stars.