Resurrect. Celebrate. Flatline? A Look at The Creeping Problems of AEW's Tag Team Division.
Thirty years ago, when John Connor ran rampant at the box office in Terminator 2 and Sinead O’Connor topped the charts with a tear cascading down her cheek, you would need to search high and low whilst travelling far and wide to create the perfect tag team division: Generous lashings of Road Warriors, a pinch of The Brain Busters, a smidgen of The Rock’n’Roll Express, a spoonful of Hart Foundation, a splash of The Midnight Express, the tiniest of touches of The Steiner Brothers. You get the picture. And while it could be argued that this was a veritable golden era for tag-team wrestling, the fractured and fissured industry landscape of 1991 prevented us from seeing these teams lock horns on a regular basis. However, if we indulge in some Skynet-funded chrono displacement and find ourselves in 2021, we are lucky enough to have the world’s greatest duos hothoused all in one place. Indeed, nothing compares to the tag team roster of All Elite Wrestling.
AEW was launched with the idea of ‘bringing back the lost art of tag team wrestling’ as a credo of sorts, which is understandable given that The Young Bucks were such an integral ingredient in the company’s inception. Two irresistible barnburners where the EVPs shared the ring with Rey Fenix and Pentagon Jr. showed they weren’t bluffing, either, weaving adroit stories amidst the most thrilling four-man action many had seen in decades.
Early episodes of Dynamite also seemed to deliver on such a promise, with a tournament established for the newly-minted tag team titles forming a focal point of each broadcast. The final bracket saw SCU take on those same Lucha Brothers at Full Gear, a card which also saw the culmination of an embittered angle between the aforementioned Bucks and Proud ‘n’ Powerful. So far, so good, right?
If this were the norm, where we had high-stakes matches and red-hot feuds between established teams at every pay-per-view, then you would think that AEW were delivering on their promise of resurrecting tag team wrestling.
Double or Nothing 2021 provides sobering evidence to the contrary, though. While there were indeed two tag team matches on the card (The Young Bucks defending their titles against Jon Moxley and Eddie Kingston as well as Darby Allin and Sting teaming up to face Scorpio Sky and Ethan Page), only one of the four duos featured can lay claim to having any sort of heritage or history as a tag team. The event served as a microcosm of the failings within the division, whereby makeshift teams are thrown together from the singles roster for short runs at the expense of pushing more established pairs.
In isolation or even intermittently, this wouldn’t betray the company philosophy of shining a spotlight on tag teams. Unfortunately, though, this is becoming standard operating procedure for the division. Since the Young Bucks took the titles from FTR, their pay-per-view defences have exclusively been against duos of this ilk. Before Kingston and Moxley, it was Chris Jericho and MJF who challenged for the titles at Revolution. What’s more, in between these two feuds, the mishmash outfit of Pac and Rey Fenix challenged for the gold. Bell-to-bell, it’s impossible to feel bored by a Bucks tag match. They have mastered the machinations of the cocaine spot-fest and can seemingly deliver rip-roaring variations on this formula in their sleep, much like they did in each of these defences. But the highs were fleeting, the sugar rush left a cloying aftertaste; this did not deliver on the promise to exhume and extol a long-forgotten art form. The tag team division under the Bucks’ stewardship, then, has largely been guilty of serving as a stepping stone to launch singles feuds (Jericho/MJF) or as a pissed-in pond in which stars like Moxley can tread water in between their own singles programs. The Bucks’ reign has also seen them tangle with younger and newly-forged pairs such as Varsity Blondes, The Acclaimed and Top Flight. A discerning fan would argue that none of these teams were ready for such an opportunity when it fell into their laps. The Blondes coincidentally found themselves at the top of the rankings when Brian Pillman’s Dark Side Of The Ring episode was aired, Caster and Bowens needed to be explicitly introduced to the TV audience whilst their match graphic flashed on screen and Top Flight’s wet-behind-the-ears exuberance was marketed as their calling card. Once again, while it was impossible not to be roused by the in-ring action on display, it didn’t take long to come down from the saccharine sugar rush. The commitment to investing in youth is an admirable booking decision on one hand, yes, but these opportunities have come at the expense of outfits such as The Lucha Bros, Santana and Ortiz, The Dark Order, Jurassic Express and even FTR, who faded into mystifying obscurity following their surrender of the straps.
Bouts between any combination of these outfits are surely the most productive use of such a glittering roster and yet all five have been miles away from the title picture. Could this be because AEW wanted to preserve the most hotly anticipated encounters for sell-out crowds and packed arenas? Or maybe wins and losses matter too much and these teams are being protected from high-profile losses? Ultimately, the thought process is irrelevant when such a decision means we are being served jelly and ice cream to our table whilst the filet mignon is growing mould in the pantry. Alarmingly, at the time of writing, Varsity Blondes and The Acclaimed are currently the top two ranked tag teams in the same week that Evil Uno and Stu Grayson were emphatically denied their chance to challenge for the gold. The erstwhile Super Smash Brothers are undeniably over, piggybacking off the groundswell of support for Adam Page and enchanting fans with their endlessly endearing charm. Now is the perfect time to capitalise on audience investment and give this underdog story a final chapter (even if the tale does end in tears). There is of course still time for us to reach that destination before All Out, perhaps with Uno and Grayson taking the IMPACT! straps from The Good Brothers, setting up a title-for-title extravaganza in Chicago, or maybe just good old fashioned conceit and vanity and hubris will have the Jacksons licking their lips at the prospect of pooping The Dark Order’s party on such a seismic stage.
It feels like we have been fishing in the shallows for too long and now is the time to don our snorkels and explore the depths. Almost two years have passed since the series of exhilarating encounters between Lucha Bros and The Young Bucks, let’s run those back. We’ve only seen one meeting between FTR and the brothers Jackson despite years of trolling and teasing, let’s see it again. Alternatively, let’s reintroduce some prestige to the belts themselves by throwing fuel onto feuds between any of the roster’s established teams as they chase title opportunities. There have been some encouraging signs of late as The Pinnacle and The Inner Circle’s baleful quarrel gave birth to an equally envenomed program with FTR and Proud ‘n’ Powerful. This is an assured move in the right direction for AEW’s tag division, baby-steps on a road on which they will hopefully send every horse, cart, trebuchet and ballista in their arsenal. This whole discussion may feel slightly old-maidish, finding fault in a division that produced arguably the greatest tag team match of all time at Revolution last year when The Young Bucks took on Omega and Page (yes, I know, two singles acts: shock, horror). But while this bleating, bemoaning and bewailing may be excessive, it’s most certainly not unjust. AEW should be held to far stricter standards than their North American competition, such is the incommodity of setting the bar higher than the continent has seen elsewhere in thirty years and then some. Photo Credit: All Elite Wrestling