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For AEW, 2024 Will Be Defined By Retirements

Enough words have been spilled wondering where AEW is right now, that I don’t feel like I need to reiterate it. Ratings! Signings! Restore the feeling! I’m sure you’re tired of reading about it and I certainly don’t want to write about it.  

But one interesting thing that you can see from a thousand foot view is that while this company has built its brand around showcasing young new talent, they’ve currently got a sizable number of older legends likely close to retirement. And while I think in the long term, giving new opportunities to largely unknown names will remain their bread and butter, the next few years could be a great opportunity to make some special moments for ends of careers. It’s not a new concept for AEW. They’ve done a great job of it with Sting (more on that later) and while it was not a retirement, the best produced episode of AEW Dynamite was the one where we said goodbye to Brodie Lee. 

If you want to paint this reductively, it’s an advantage they have over WWE. The overproduced sterility of the modern WWE broadcasts will not leave viewers with the same warmth in a  tender moment AEW can create, and AEW’s willingness to acknowledge longer histories that expand beyond their existence can make for better career retrospectives. While WWE certainly has a few aging stars themselves that they can create retirement stories for in the next few years, their recent history on the subject shows they often times are not prioritized (Kurt Angle) or mistimed (The Undertaker) or simply don’t turn out to be real retirements (too many to name.)

But here is a list of wrestlers who I think it’s possible that we see either retire or start a retirement tour within the next few years. Most of this should be taken as pure guessing with the caveat that if the money is right you never know who might pop back up for One Last Match. 

The Announced:

Sting (64)

Thanks to the great words of many other writers, we can run through this whole thing really quick: we have Sting making a surprise arrival at 2020’s Winter Is Coming, and then we all went “huh!” when he was listed as a wrestler on the roster page. “Oh okay he’s going to have some cinematic matches that makes sense” we said with a sigh of relief, and no he was just getting tuned up so that he could compete in real tag matches and jump off stuff and beat his chest and the crowd would lose their minds each and every time. While in the past we’ve seen over-the-hill wrestlers suck up the spotlight and saturate the title picture, Sting has avoided doing this, and has even transcended the need to vie for titles, until very recently when he and Darby became tag team champions. They are set to defend those belts in Sting’s final match at Revolution. 

In a lot of ways the Sting run has been the vision of a wrestling retirement tour. He’s treated as important, but nothing that he does is at the expense of anyone else or the show (in fact, losing to Sting is one of the most honorable things you can do on an AEW show.) Compare that to his WWE run, where the highlights were losing his biggest match and also being forced into retirement unceremoniously. He made AEW look like a place where comparatively you could ride into the sunset with dignity intact, in front of crowds who were legitimately enthused to see you.

And then… well someone invited the skeletal remains of a sexual predator into the fold to reminisce semi-lucidly about the times he and Sting had way back when, and to hock a very gross looking energy drink. To put it mildly, that kind of soured an otherwise errorless final chapter of Sting’s career. But to the credit of AEW, they’ve been able to see the criticism and give us significantly less Ric Flair than they originally planned, and then more recently gave hints he may be portrayed on screen as the vile creature he is.  

The obvious distraction aside, this whole Sting run has been so wonderful that there’s no result that they can go wrong with. If Sting and Darby win, we get a triumphant end to an unmatchable career. Sting can retire as a champion like NFL quarterback John Elway in 1998 (for the record Sting is 1 year older than Elway). If they decide to have him lose to the Young Bucks, he can go out on his back like a real old school worker, and the Bucks will reach their peak as heels. The most credulous doofuses on the web will say that Matthew and Nicholas abused their power as VPs to bury a legend, but I will implore them to be serious for one second in their life. Sting is still Sting, and there’s no executive title important enough to decide how Sting’s matches go more than being Sting.   

Of course, there is also the question of “will they ruin it with too much Ric Flair?” to which I’d say “Ruin is a strong word but it will make it less fun.” Unless of course, in the course of celebrating and saying goodbye, Sting handcuffs himself to Flair and says “No Ric, you’re done too.” Then he can attach himself to a harness and fly up to the rafters with Flair dangling from his wrist the whole time. This is an acceptable conclusion to me. 

Bryan Danielson (42) 

What we know here is certainly not as much as we think. Ever the professional, Danielson is letting Sting get his retirement angle in before his ramps up. He’s also too busy fighting every Mexican and Japanese talent he can to think about his own longevity. What he’s said in the past is that he would retire when his daughter was 7, which happens in 2024. But the wording of this could indicate he has anywhere from 2 months to a year and a half left (not Googling Birdie Danielson’s birthday because I am normal.) But then also we know that it’s not going to be a complete retirement, it will be a retirement from being a full time wrestler. So now we just have to get a sense for what Daneilson considers part time or semi-retired. Further muddling the retirement is that Danielson admittedly loves to lie. 

The first question worth speculating on  is will he get to hold the big title before he starts to wind down. The obvious answer is no, because that’s not how he’s been used for his AEW run (though he’s come close a few times) but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see them add him to the list of reigns just to give more gravitas to every subsequent champion.

The second is, what does retiring from full time wrestling actually mean? Well for one I have to assume it’s a lighter schedule. Like if you’re on the road nearly as much as you were previously I’m sure it doesn’t mean much to your daughter that at least you’re taking less dangerous bumps, she wants you home. That means we’re probably going to see the Blackpool Combat Club become a 3 person team more often than not (which is probably for the best, they haven’t felt very unified recently and that would help.) It also theoretically means that he’s only going to be brought back out for special event matches. This is another thing I wonder about Danielson’s ability to gauge. For what the general public would consider “dream matches” there’s probably only a handful left for Danielson. But from him, there are wrestlers I’ve never seen in any context that he likely considers dream matches. So will he get back out there for a “dream match” at any chance he gets? I have no way of knowing, but my assumption is yes. 

As Danielson goes part time, there’s also a question of whether that will be a thing he can best do in AEW. WWE has far more precedent with “Legends deals” to work something out for uncommon appearances. They also have the wrestling show that gets the most eyes on them, though I don’t think that matters as much for Danielson, who’d wrestle in a VFW if that’s how he checked another opponent off his dream list. But there is also the question of where he’d be used correctly. WWE is less worried about ratings right now (and once the Netflix deal starts, extremely unworried) so that might mean more restraint about only using Danielson when there’s good reason, rather than needing a ratings boost. There’s also the question of whether WWE has done a good job of using legends in the past, or whether he wants to give a second retirement speech at a place where it wasn't his idea to give a first one.

The Predictable

The Hardyz (49, 46)

A lot of these entries are pure conjectures about retirements. For Matt and Jeff Hardy I am not merely predicting but I am insisting. The run for both of them has been bumpy to say the least. Matt showed up with his “broken” gimmick, and to his credit quickly realized it wasn’t going to get over in an empty arena. So then we saw “Big Money” Matt Hardy, a hit-or-miss gimmick that got some more screentime for enhancement talent and an interesting rebuilding feud for Hangman Page, but otherwise felt like out of place for what the rest of AEW was doing at that moment. 

Jeff’s run makes Matt look significantly better in comparison. At the time of his arrival, the worst of the IWC was insincerely speculating on his health, and his DUI arrest months later fueled their self righteous concern trolling. In between, there was not very much to talk about. His match with Darby Allin was cool in a sort of old guard/new guard type of way. His match with Adam Cole was one of my least favorite televised matches in AEW history. And yet somehow, in the last month or so I’ve been surprisingly enjoying Jeff Hardy’s matches. He’s been the MVP of Rampage for the last 4 months, which some people would take as an insult but is valuable for the company that wants people to watch their Friday night show and feels like a blessing that we are at a place where we can actually feel good about Jeff being on our TVs right now. Which is all the more reason why now is the time to start looking to retire. 

Jeff is on the shelf right now with an injury but it shouldn’t be a particularly long one. Now is the time to make plans to end on a high note. They could follow in Sting’s footsteps and also go out battling the Young Bucks. They could elevate their rival-proteges in Private Party one last time. They could do some of that Broken Matt and Brother Nero thing one last time in a finale that is inherently low stakes, but at least everyone will be having fun. One thing is for certain is that we will absolutely see a ladder used.

Dustin Rhodes (54) 

In terms of “range of outcomes” Dustin probably has the widest one. It’s not out of the question that he will continue to be there to pop crowds and be an always reliable extra hand in multi-man matches until decides to walk away. He could also have a big feud based around the white whale of a major title that has eluded him in his long career (presumably one he would lose in a title vs. retirement match, but you never know.) Many are speculating he might hop back over to WWE to join his brother as The Story Finishes. 

Personally I think going over to work with your brother loses its luster the second time you do it, but I am not a member of a wrestling dynasty approaching my twilight performance years, so I cannot judge. More than anything the Dustin Rhodes retirement is similar to Sting’s in that doing right by the wrestler is the most important aspect. Whatever Dustin thinks is the appropriate way to wind down, the best thing you can do is honor it. Within reason of course, but I think Dustin is a reasonable guy. I don’t have anything to prove that but I see him on TV and think “hey there’s a guy with his head on his shoulders.” Would I think this if he was still doing Goldust type of gimmicks on TV? Maybe not, but here’s the thing: I am a big dumb mark. 

Adam Copeland (50) and Christian Cage (50)

These two guys are getting grouped together not only because they are former tag team partners, but they are also both formerly retired from neck injuries, and I think it’s likely to say they are on their final in-ring contracts. But the more I think about them, that’s sort of where the similarities start to end. 

Adam Copeland has made a career out of carrying himself like a leading man. He has a lot of titles and a money plane to show for it. As long as he’s healthy, he’s going to be in the orbit of some kind of title picture or PPV-worthy feud. But if he’s got to take a step back? It’s hard to see him doing a series of Rampage appearances. His best promo work is fairly egocentric, so it’s hard to see him as a mouthpiece to put someone else over, especially if that person is shorter and less ruggedly handsome than him which is the case for nearly everyone to ever exist. 

Christian Cage, on the other hand, has really done something with this Patriarchy that makes me think there’s a future where he continues to build feuds for others while only taking a few bumps a year personally. I don’t think it would hurt the credibility of his stable if in a few years the title holders are the Nick Wayne types while Father Cage continues to build upon his Adult Boy Orphanage by using his words to dump gasoline of the feuds. The same malleability that kept him from being a consistent presence on the top of the card like Edge was, will also give Christian a different type of longevity.

There is also a question of will these two ever tag together one more time. To this I say, if it can be done without adding sentimentality to the joyously unsentimental Christian Cage figure we have now, I’m all for it. 

The Speculative:

Christopher Daniels (53

Daniels has been open about both not wanting to retire, but also recognizing that it’s coming soon. Yeah man, time comes for us all! It’s like one of the foundational emotions from which all art derives!  Obviously Christopher Daniels has a pretty big backstage role, (and then more recently he’s been the elusive “on-screen backstage persona” during some skirmishes) and this will keep him more than active in the wrestling business. And it’s probably very useful from an operations standpoint to have a guy in the back that can be inserted onto a card at a moment's notice and the fans will go “Oh, the Fallen Angel! Nice!” It’s not dissimilar from the role Pat Buck has now as a mostly backstage guy who occasionally shows up on non-TV matches (obviously Buck doesn’t have the TV history Daniels does that makes him more TV-ready). If Daniels is happy with his in-ring career ending slowly rather than with fanfare, then I’m happy for him. But if he wanted to have a good old fashioned retirement match that is promoted and televised well he’s certainly earned that too. 

Chris Jericho (53)

Well on WTF With Marc Maron, Jericho said he would would require when he “went out there and two, three, four times in a row [he] felt like, 'Oof, I'm starting to f***ing phone this in,'" which is a reasonable response to the question, but also a way to get your biggest haters to start counting your bad matches. We also know he has a pact with Lance Storm to retire one another, although Storm has not wrestled in 7 years at this point, but there’s no saying that couldn’t take place in AEW, just on the recognition of the fact that Lance Storm would’ve probably killed it in AEW if that was an option. 

In some ways, the entirety of AEW heretofore has been a Chris Jericho retirement track. He got to be the inaugural AEW champion. He’s gotten to tag with Sting and Kenny Omega. He’s gotten to revive all his David Bowie-like personas. He helped make MJF and Orange Cassidy top of the card guys.  He got put through the MJF gauntlet while it still felt fresh and had some throwback experiences (Juventud Guerrera) and some groundbreaking experiences (Nick Gage) and some other experiences (whatever else happened there). He teased a forced retirement only to be saved by Aubrey Edwards. He built a stable around making fun of his former employer. For crying out loud, he got to be an ROH champion! 

Recently everything he’s done has been feuding with the Don Callis family and the results are decidedly mixed, and this is before we even talk about the rumors and speculation around how he behaves backstage. Even the low points of the too long feud with Eddie Kingston felt like a misstep in a way that this feels like an anchor weighing down the shows, a pure vanity project that he doesn't need at the expense of someone like, say, Daniel Garcia who could stand to benefit from a Jericho feud. It’s hard to say how many more dream scenarios Jericho has in his mind before he’s ready to call it for real, but I hope he realizes more than any other finite resource, there’s only a few more chances for him to be a storyline babyface and if he exhausts them with overcooked feuds and Judas singing crowds, the fans might go sour by the time he’s ready to really be cheered in the grand finale his career justifies. If I'm Jericho, I am carefully studying the line between Goodbye and Good Riddance.

Jeff Jarrett (56) 

Another WCW alum with a long and winding career that brings him to AEW and although he’s find himself in an interesting niche certainly the years are catching up to him and hahahahahaha I’m sorry. I can’t. Are you kidding me? Jeff Jarrett is not retiring. Jeff Jarrett will be working forever. Ninety year old Jeff Jarrett will take a bump. He will be a computer body and a floating Futurama head still smashing people with the guitar. He will sign himself away to some kind of AI company that makes wrestling androids so that there will be a Jeff Jarrett approximation working the territories throughout the solar system. Mecha Double J will be working until the sun explodes (and if he gets to run the promotion he might even book himself to go over that supernova.)

Billy Gunn (60)

Well we know that when he put his boots in the ring over the summer that was a complete work. Not only did he not actually retire, he came back to become Trios champion, and with no obvious competition on the near horizon, he could be holding that title for a while. 

After Sting retires, Daddy Ass will be the oldest member of the AEW locker room, which should set him up to be a retirement candidate. The previously mentioned retirement angle does complicate this a bit, though. In the interest of getting the best out of people’s emotions, I think if you do a fake retirement, you should wait at least 2 years before you really retire. I know that’s a lot to ask of a sexegenarian, but Billy Gunn has had such a tremendous renaissance in AEW that it would only seem fair to give him as most emotionally felt of a swan song as possible, and that might mean waiting until he can officially start collecting social security before he retires. 

Paul Wight (51) and Mark Henry (52)

These two are grouped together because neither was brought in primarily to wrestle. Sure, the Show Formerly Known As Big has had some matches but mostly as a special feature, beating up a bunch of (relatively) smaller guys to pop the crowd or as a big bag of cement for Powerhouse Hobbs to throw. But mostly they are backstage presences and it is impossible for me to evaluate. Their work on commentary was not great, but Mark made for some great Rampage segments and Paul’s enthusiasm on the headset could work well with a talented enough play by play guy. 

Paul White has looked his age when he’s been in the ring in AEW. Hobbs slamming him into a car could’ve been a good way to end it, but they haven’t really capitalized on that for Hobbs so it’s not a great use. Someone actually beating him for real and gloating about it would be a more useful end. Maybe he can request one last match where it’s him against 50 local talents. With that many opponents he can even rapidly turn face and heel in the middle of the match and then wink at the camera. 

Mark Henry’s last match was in the Saudiest Royal Rumble six yearago. Before that it was a battle royal. Is that a fitting tone for his career to end on? Maybe. It was an odd career for what seems to be an odd dude. But if he wanted to lace up the boots one last time, I think he’s got enough good will that you let him. Maybe he wants to get thrown by Powerhouse Hobbs too. Maybe we are all discounting how fun that really is. 

The Worth Mentioning Quickly: 

Jim Ross (71): I think everyone would rather he has a real retirement than slowly get phased out. A generally well liked figure that I think could be nice to get a good send off. Of course a career retrospective is hard to do with just his AEW material. In a perfect world he’d be the kind of uniting figure that could get AEW and WWE to work together and commemorate with a whole JR Week. 

Rob Van Dam (52): Maybe not officially an AEW member, but he’s been wrestling on Turner networks a lot this year, and most importantly he got a Hey! EW episode, so he basically counts. People have long talked about how AEW has some spiritual ECW elements, and it might be fitting to put his final match on a highly anticipated Dynamite.

Samoa Joe (44): Has an injury history that made a lot of people think he might retire after his most recent WWE cut. I’m rooting for him to stick around for as long as possible, but there are certainly worse ways to go out than at the conclusion of a title run. 

Goldberg (56): HEAR ME OUT HEAR ME OUT. Sure, he hasn’t even shown up in AEW and his recent matches in WWE weren’t “good”. But he’s been on the record about wanting to run a retirement angle, and the Sting one has been so overwhelmingly successful that I wouldn’t be surprised to see them close the door on one WCW Legend and open it for another. Instead of 2 years, you do this one in 3-6 months and it never has to threaten to break into the top of the card. If Tony Khan announced that next Friday we could see Goldberg vs. Serpentico don’t lie and pretend like that doesn’t immediately triple the odds that you watch Rampage. 

Emi Sakura (47): The oldest woman on the AEW roster. I don’t think she’s going to retire, and if she was going to retire I don’t she would center her retirement around AEW. But I would’ve felt bad if for this thought experiment I didn’t put at least as much thought into the women’s division as Tony Khan has, historically. 


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