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You Bet Your Life | AEWeekly #119

Welcome to the #AEWeekly review discussion where PWM contributors reflect on the highlights of the last week in AEW. The eligibility week always includes the most recent episode of Dynamite, but is more flexible in terms of Collision and Rampage, to account for busy folks not always being 100% caught up, so can include this week OR last week’s episode.

This week’s contributors are Tim [@TimmayMan] covering match of the week, Sergei [@SergeiAlderman] covering promos, Saul [@SaulKiloh] exploring a key story beat, Peter [@PeterEdge7] with the moment of the week, Sam P. [@BigBadaBruce] with Throwback of the week, and Joe [@GoodVsBadGuys] giving us the MVP of the week.

 A page of links to prior installments may be found here: #AEWeekly

Anarchy in the Arena

"An Unprecedented, Adrenalized Spectacle..."

by Tim.

Pondering the match of the week after Double or Nothing really made me aware of what an embarrassment of riches we got from AEW in the last few days. I considered Swerve’s successful title defense against Christian Cage, Mercedes Moné’s title win against Willow, and Ospreay’s first title win in AEW over Roderick Strong. Yet the match of the week for me wasn’t one that featured classic mat work, or even the strongest storyline, what it did feature was an adrenaline shot to a show that was already getting long in the tooth. Anarchy in the Arena was a spectacle unlike any other.

I wasn’t even all that thrilled about another Anarchy in the Arena. “We’ve seen it before”, I said and how wrong I was. I’ve never seen a performer lit on fire via a flamethrower. I’ve never seen a competitor taken out of a match via being hung from the rafters like a side of beef (and then superkicked in the face with thumbtack-embedded shoes). I’ve never seen another worker desperately try to silence entrance music because it cost the company too much.

Like any art form, pro wrestling evolves with the times. For a generation that grew up not only watching wrestling, but playing wrestling video games, Anarchy in the Arena feels like the natural progression of the form. Darby’s fit looks like a CAW I would have created in No Mercy back in the day. If I could have equipped a flamethrower in WrestleMania 2000, you bet I would have. This match was clearly put together by minds that are familiar with similar media, but also spent time in Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and watched Chikara and Lucha Underground. Ridiculous doesn’t even cover it—ludicrous maybe: it flirted with being farcical while never veering into the inane. It was the most talked about match coming out of the PPV, and if it only succeeded at this—getting people talking—then it was a tremendous success.

Will Ospreay

"A Bond of Blood..."

by Sergei.

On Dynamite last week, Will Ospreay received a bloody beatdown from the Undisputed Kingdom. Later that night cameras found him backstage, and—with blood pouring down his face—he delivered what many are calling the interview of his career. Now, I am not one to claim that Ospreay wasn't already one of the best interviews out there: I gave his debut interview Promo otW honors and it remains one of the most memorable of the year, and every week since then he's had some kind of strong speaking segment to showcase his incandescent personality, but "many" might be quite right, this one was—to coin a phrase—on another level. ICYMI:

The blood-soaked promo is something of a subgenre in AEW interviews. Moxley got a Promo otW with one and so has Adam Copeland, just to name two that immediately come to mind. And there's good reason for that: the visual evidence of having been through battle adds something ineffable to the intensity and gravitas of the performer's delivery. And this interview has that intensity and gravitas in spades, and if that was all that was going on, it would be enough to earn this week's honors. But there's more going on here. It's Ospreay's effective and logical use of metaphor and wordplay that brings this one to "another level."

Ospreay starts by asking if Strong expects this beatdown to be enough to make him "believe in him," a really neat play on the fact that Roddy's nickname is "the Messiah of the Backbreaker". He goes on to explain the mistake Roderick made in spilling Will's blood specifically onto the title belt he would be challenging for:

And now what you've just done, Roderick… What you've just done, is you've just bonded me with that Championship. MY BLOOD is on that Championship, so now: it is my duty, it is my spirit that is bonded with that Championship, so Sunday—in the perfect city to do it in—bet it all, gamble your life on it, son. Because now it is my life's mission to take the International Championship away from you, come Hell or high water, nobody—NOBODY!... is better than Will Ospreay… 'cause I AM!... ON!... ANOTHER!... LEVEL!

The use of the blood that we see pouring down his face as a metaphorical bond with the title it is now his mission to take is an absolutely perfect bit of business. And then using the fact that the match would be happening in the gambling mecca of Las Vegas to smoothly segue into suggesting they would be gambling their lives over this championship: that's just the icing on the cake of an interview that I would describe as a tour de force in the effective use of the English language.

Kris Statlander

"Statlander’s Dark Side is Stoked..."

by Saul

Another one of the best friends has been corrupted, and turned their back on the very idea of friendship. I would be hard pressed to think of a more heelish action than attacking Willow Nightingale, who is the best babyface in the whole promotion. To add insult to injury, she threw a friendship bracelet at her prone body, showcasing the total success of Stokely Hathaway at changing Kris’ attitude.

In terms of storytelling structure, you could relate this relationship to that of a love triangle. A common trope in sitcoms, which is constantly effective as it places our characters in conflict, represents a clear choice between two different paths that they can take and when that final decision has been made, it’s a clear signifier of what they most value and tells us about their true desire.

In terms of the fallout for Willow, not only has she lost the title but also a close friend. A truly terrible day at the office for her, but that’s the life of the wrestling babyface. She had just recently reached the peak of her career, winning the TBS championship and feeling like a million bucks. But she’s been knocked back down and will have to pick herself up and dust herself off. Something tells me she won’t be taking this disrespect lying down and will only become more loved as she fights for vengeance against this betrayal.

However, I'm also excited for what this new attitude will do for Kris Statlander. I think it’ll suit her well and the heelish duo of her and Stokley will make for good TV. One can only hope this program is given the proper TV time to shine as brightly as it can and further propel two of the most promising women in the division.

Maxwell Jacob Friedman

"Speak of the Devil..."

by Peter.

Even as someone who has been into the story of MJF, the feeling after Worlds End and the feeling that with his injuries that had mounted up and the talk of Maxwell going away post betrayal from Adam Cole was that the AEW viewer and MJF needed to go on a break. Quite simply, MJFism did not work and in retrospect, we were left with the feeling of being somewhat relieved - that the chaos and insanity would finally be behind us.

When Max would be back was not known, the odd tweet from MJF escaped including a pointing out of the similarities between the Rock/Cody weightlifting belt angle that WWE fans saw as a sign that the Attitude Era was back (how has that worked out?) to the famous 10 lashes angle from 2020 and a photo from meet and greet which might have hit many a group chat that I'm on (to the bemusement of my non-wrestling fans) but Max's quietness was loud— so when reports of Max being spotted on a plane heading to Arizona got people talking and with Adam Cole in the ring during Double or Nothing with a devil's mask in his hand, it was perfect timing for a return of the Max 

Clad in a denim leather jacket which some saw as a tribute to a certain CCO of a another wrestling company and others saw as a pointed reference to what that person is missing out on, Max being Max couldn't be nuanced in his next reference to the opposition, I guess V**** M****** references aren't totally banned from AEW like it is in WWE.

With vows of no more comedy, no more Kangaroo Kicks and no more friendships (which legally needs to be said in the Inbetweeners voice), it feels on first reimpression that the MJF of the second half of 2023 is dead. Hopefully, the workhorse MJF that we saw in 2023 isn't and until we see the Adam Cole issue resolved, those who pine for the heel MJF will have to wait a bit longer because the fans as a whole aren't ready to jeer Maxwell just yet.

With a new moniker, the Wolf of Wrestling (not sure on the t-shirt) also did bury one thing that has been holding him back the last few years. 

The free agency story had become an anchor 'round his neck, even when a babyface, MJF couldn't get rid of wanting to talk about committing to AEW—but he made his commitment clear, talking about betting on himself and unveiling a new tattoo of the AEW logo on a gambling chip. But the truth is that he is taking the safe bet, playing up to his "not giving a care what anyone thinks about him" persona… the gambles he took last year are behind him now, it looks like we must just have the old MJF back, and to quote the former champ, he isn't f***** leaving

Double Or Nothing Sleeper Matches

"Dozen or Nothing..."

by Sam P.

With the five year anniversary of Double Or Nothing this year, it seemed appropriate for us to look back and remember some of the hidden gems from previous years. I can confirm that there will be no Stadium Stampedes or Anarchy In The Arenas, as to be fair, they aren’t exactly hidden for appreciation.

The 2019 edition was infamous for two major events, the debut of Jon Moxley and the emotional and bloody battle between Cody and his brother Dustin. But sandwiched in between was the first ever title match at an AEW PPV, a tag team match for the AAA Tag Team Titles between champions The Young Bucks and their perennial rivals for the inaugural years of the AEW roster, the Lucha Brothers. Unsurprisingly, it was extremely fast paced with crisp interplay between four competitors with unquestionable chemistry that had the crowd rocking. The Young Bucks would retain their tag-team titles on the night, but the bigger impact was undoubtedly the attention and focus on the tag team division, demonstrating the importance it would go on to have over the next five years.

In 2020, as the world dealt with an unparalleled pandemic and wrestling played out to empty arenas, AEW continued to rise to the challenge, and featured two of their best young talents in a singles match. MJF and Jungle Boy were already gaining attention for their work as the undefeated loudmouth heel and plucky underdog respectively, but on a night when attention was expected for the crowning of the first ever TNT Champion, an unprecedented Stadium Stampede extravaganza, and a war over the AEW World Title between Moxley and Mr Brodie Lee, the young lions impressed with a wrestling clinic. Psychologically adept, both men demonstrated that behind their youth and agility was intelligence and star power, and unsurprisingly, both are now major players on the AEW roster.

In comparison, 2021 had the wrestling world opening back up to the fans, as the AEW faithful were rocking in Daily’s Place prior to the opening match. As a reward to the ever-loyal, the show kicked off with the Anxious Millennial Cowboy, ‘Hangman’ Adam Page, continuing his journey to the AEW World Title as he took on the Machine, Brian Cage. Akin to a hoss battle, these two physical battlers went hammer and tongs as Page attempted to avenge his unexpected and devastating loss to the centrepiece of Team Taz. But more than just a cracking bout to get the audiences cheering, this was one step in the long term storytelling of Page that engrossed fans for the previous two years, and would continue to have fans invested as he moved on to becoming the heart of AEW.

There are several hidden gems on the 2022 edition, but our focus is on a division that had suffered ebbs and flows over the previous four years, that of the Women’s Division. This division has had criticisms previously for some of the storytelling and focus given, but impressive title reigns from Hikaru Shida (a massive unsung MVP of the pandemic years) and Dr Britt Baker had audiences hoping the worse was behind them. Tonight, Thunder Rosa defended her AEW Women’s Title against ‘The Professor’, Serena Deeb, two former NWA Women’s Champions who had become integral parts of the Women’s Division, helping elevate the quality of matches and programmes. A combination of the champion’s competitive nature with the technical brilliance of the challenger, this was heart versus science as both women by sheer willpower had the crowd revitalised and invested, in one of the best and most underrated women’s matches in AEW history.

And finally, last year, after having looked at AEW’s tag team division, women’s division, their long-term storytelling and their dedication to building young talent, we look at the depth and strength of their roster. In a 21-Man Blackjack Battle Royal, Orange Cassidy defended his prestigious International Championship against twenty other men, including terrifying hosses such as Brian Cage and Big Bill, excellent international talents such as Bandido and the Lucha Brothers, solid veteran originals such as the Best Friends and Dustin Rhodes, and some of the best new signed talents formerly of WWE (Keith Lee, Swerve Strickland) and NJPW (Jay White, Juice Robinson). For twenty plus minutes, the roster impressed as rivalries were continued or called back to, new stories began, and through it all was the story of the fighting champion in Orange and the devious villain in Swerve, culminating in an awesome final battle. The match would contain future and former AEW International Champions, ROH World Champions, AEW Tag Team Champions, ROH Six-Man Tag Team Champions, AEW Six-Man Tag Team Champions, and in Swerve, the current AEW World Champion. A fun-filled Battle Royal that not only added to the prestige of the AEW International Championship, but told several great mini-stories that still reverberate throughout AEW and ROH events today.

Willow Nightingale

"An Unconventional MVP..."

by Joe

Willow Nightingale is the most valuable player in AEW right now

In a recent promo on Dynamite, Willow said “This place [All Elite Wrestling] told me that a weird, quirky, unconventional, chubby, curly haired girl could make it in the wrestling industry." In that one sentence, Willow covered a lot of different key reasons wrestling fans engage with her so easily. By virtue of being a wrestling fan, you are into something that is quirky and unconventional. By being a fan of any promotion other than WWE, you can probably double those factors. I will say that I am someone who has always held onto “weird (in a good way)” as part of my identity, and part of what I look for in my friends in life. I was a chubby kid growing up and into young adulthood, and some potential body dysmorphia has me clinging onto that as part of my current identity as well, and during the much beloved Attitude Era and Monday Night Wars, there weren’t a lot of top acts that you would classify as chubby, and if they were, they tended to be heels or comedy acts. Willow also highlighted being curly haired and a girl. I’ll admit I haven’t noticed that having curly hair wasn’t the ideal being pushed and presented in pro wrestling, but that seems to check out. Take that one step further, and if you are a female wrestling fan - I would imagine having a champion to champion who doesn’t have the mainstream media idealized physique is a breath of fresh air. This is all to set up that Willow has arrived at some rarified air: a wrestling act that is relatable and inspirational. Past acts that fit that mold: Dusty Rhodes, Mick Foley. 

Now, Willow is paired up against a wrestling star coming from the most mainstream of companies: WWE, who has starred in a TV show for maybe the most mainstream sci-fi franchise: Star Wars, for the media company that is maybe the most mainstream in the world: Disney. Mercedes Moné, formerly known as Sasha Banks, represents so much of what is mainstream and accepted and conventional. So much of what Willow described herself as, doesn’t fit Mercedes. That shouldn’t be held against Mercedes, but it’s worth highlighting to show what Willow is up against.

That brings us to the contract signing segment that built to Double Or Nothing. AEW and Willow were faced with an interesting problem. AEW is still introducing their version of Mercedes Moné to their fanbase, and Mercedes is bringing a potentially massive built-in fanbase with her. How do you position Willow so that she leaves these segments and these feuds with fans behind her and focus on her? 

Willow started by shifting the focus off of her, and onto the TBS Championship. This might seem like a strange choice, especially since one criticism of this feud has been skepticism over why Mercedes would pursue the TBS Title instead of the AEW Women’s WORLD Championship. However, Willow played into that. Willow began by first acknowledging Mercedes, mentioning her respect for Ms. Mone and then questioning Mercedes’ respect for the Title. Just from saying “THIS …. Is the T-B-S Championship”, Willow got a crowd pop! She positioned it as something that celebrates the legacy of pro wrestling, positioning Willow as a fan of wrestling. She put over the previous title holders, specifically focusing on her friend. That humility of putting others first and sharing the spotlight is likable! That’s babyface! She then said that she is now the “smiling” face of TBS, showing confidence. She highlighted her catchphrase “Nothing Matters, Smile ANYWAY!”, which she said means that “even through all the doom and gloom” she “looks for something to smile for”, and her “smile is [her] strength”, highlighting her personality, her point of view, and her positive personality. She then said she won’t let Mercedes take that away, showing integrity. That’s when the “Willow” chants kicked in. 

Mercedes responded not by first acknowledging Willow, but by acknowledging the city of Everett Washington, and asking them to say hello to their CEO, while looking away from Willow and at the crowd. Almost always a good choice to drop the name of the crowd for a cheap pop, and this did get a loud pop, but it was a mixed one, where the boos were the last sound lingering. Maybe fans were picking up on the timing of the name drop. Imagine your co-parent is talking to you about how they respect you but they need you to know that they value something and they feel like they need to protect it from you, and your response to them is “Faaaaammmmiiiiiiiillllllyyyyyy, say hi to your king of the castle!”. I don’t think my wife would love it.

Mercedes asked, in disbelief, if Willow wanted to talk about legacy TO HER? She then laughed at her. Instead of talking about her respect for the title, or past champions, or legacy, Moné talked about money, which I’m sure Big Poppa Punk Phil would be so proud of, based on that Ariel Helwani interview. Mercedes said she was creating and changing the game when Willow was still just training. She countered Willow’s self-concept of dedication by boasting about breaking down doors and kicking down glass ceilings. To me, it would seem easier to kick the doors and break the glass, but that’s why I’m not a trailblazer. She told Willow that she wouldn’t be here without Mercedes. I want to say at this point that Mercedes is doing an excellent job of positioning herself as the heel in some ways that are blatant and other ways subtle. Good choices and execution. She then softens and says she really does respect Willow and thinks she is a GREAT champion, but, and we knew there would be a but, right? But, “there is a difference between great, and being the greatest of all time”. 

Mercedes then leaned into her mainstream status. She said Willow should be looking at The New Face of TBS, and started gesturing towards her face and hair and body as well. She said she knows Willow sees her at the red carpets, throwing out first pitches, sitting courtside. She then said that losing to Mercedes (at Double Or Nothing) would be the best thing to ever happen to Willow. When she brought the conversation back to legacy, it wasn’t about the legacy of the TBS Title, or the previous champions, or AEW it was about her. She said her legacy is all about winning. 

This clearly ruffled Nightingale’s feathers, because she resorted to less babyface rhetoric. She said the last time they wrestled, Willow walked away champion, while Mercedes didn’t walk away at all, using Mercedes’ real life injury as part of a clapback punchline. Would the fans stay with Willow here?

Mercedes responded to that clapback with a slapback. 

Willow responded with an impressive powerbomb through the negotiation table. Once again, Willow was the only one walking away from a confrontation with Moné.

More impressively, she walked away with the fans behind her and the focus on her. She took that fan support with her to the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and you could hear it when the competitors' names were announced. Mercedes got big pops and sing-along chants for her big budget entrance, however, when it came time to cheer for names and identities, the fans chose Willow. Willow captured their hearts, and their attention. Willow not only caught my attention, but she motivated me to bother my wife to check in on this match. My wife is not a wrestling fan, per se, but she has attended 9 live events with me, including an 8 hour WrestleMania (WM 34) followed up by a 4 hour RAW the night after. Long story short, she has seen a decent amount of wrestling, but is not a fan. She could immediately tell that there was something different about her. That uniqueness and rarity is part of what makes Willow so valuable. She represents the opportunity to bring new fans into AEW. 

Beyond the personality, Willow has the pro wrestling skills in the ring to back it up. Particularly considering the amount of ring rust that needed to be removed from Mercedes, this match delivered. You had an engaged audience, big moves, and memorable moments, which extended to the post match. The match ends after Willow has Mercedes pinned, but the ref is distracted by Statlander and Stokely and doesn’t see it. This buys Mercedes extra time, and time is "Moné." Mercedes was able to hit her finisher, and take her first title in her first match in AEW. After Willow lost her title, the next thing she lost was her friends. Statlander attacked Willow and walked out with Stokely. A sad development, but one that fits Willow’s character. Willow probably shouldn’t have let Stokely into her inner circle, but that’s a common flaw of kind people. 

Willow walked out of the biggest wrestling weekend of her life without her title, without her manager, and without her best friend, but she did leave Las Vegas with the support of the fans. The ability to gain support in defeat is just one more reason Willow is AEW’s Most Valuable Player. 


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