Monday, September 6, 2021

The Best Wrestling Pay-Per-View, Ever: An All Out 2021 Conceptual Review

He's here

The last time I did one of these "conceptual reviews," I called Double or Nothing earlier this year the "best show since WrestleMania XXX." I thought it would be hard to top, especially with such a rushed build and the lack of All Elite Wrestling's rising star and possible Most Valuable Wrestler, Hangman Page. With his desire to be present for the birth of his first child, a desire that I understand, support, and think AEW was absolutely correct to accommodate, the presumed tension point at the top of the card was out the window. They replaced him with Christian Cage, which I thought was something you'd do for one of those heretofore unnamed Clash of the Champion-tribute shows they're going to start running next year, not for their biggest show of the year.

My premonition was wrong. Dead wrong.

They ramped up the build, throwing marquee match after marquee match into the fray, matches that on paper appealed to viewers at large, a group in which I include myself, with great power. The Young Bucks vs. the Lucha Brothers. Britt Baker, DMD vs. Kris Statlander. Miro vs. Eddie Kingston. Jon Moxley vs. Satoshi Kojima. PAC vs. Andrade El Idolo. Then they went out and signed the biggest possible free agent name that they could, CM Punk, a man who had become a rallying cry for the disaffected wrestling fan watching the other company's slop. Then the other rumors started to swirl around of other names, like Ruby Soho, who was callously thrown out the damn door in the name of "budget cuts," or Adam Cole, a prize NXT name whom Vince McMahon chased out the door with a stubborn desire to control all outside income (in his case, streaming), or the top prize, Bryan Danielson, who made his money and maybe wanted to go out on his own terms and not like a Stan Chera putting over Roman Reigns every week.

Matches on paper, however, can remain pipe dreams. In fact, the lead-up to All Out saw PAC/Andrade taken off the card because of the former's "travel issues." Debuts can be nice, but they can't paper over bad angles or matches that don't work. A show needs execution, top to bottom. All Out 2021 had execution in addition to the excitement and the returns and debuts and the hype. Let's get into it, match by match.

Miro vs. Eddie Kingston - AEW has always been a "strong opener" promotion, and you can look at the various shows they've run for the proof, even back to the first Dynamite where Cody Rhodes took to mat with a spry and frisky youngster named Sammy Guevara. I thought Miro and Kingston had the juice to have the best match on the card, which lines up with AEW's philosophy, but man, they really did go out and just try to kick the shit out of each other with that first spot on the main show. Tony Khan can tell me that the pre-show is the same as the main show all he wants, but you and I both know he's just trying to sell something.

Anyway, the best matches in wrestling occur when the stakes are personal and the competitors look like they're kicking the shit out of each other. These two roughnecks didn't have much time to put kindle on the fire, but I think Kingston telling Miro that he didn't believe in his God and to redeem deez nuts (a top two moment in AEW history, and I'm not sure it's number two) sprayed lighter fluid on the flame they sparked. There was absolutely no question Miro, who has made his name on brutalizing anyone he's gotten into the ring with since arriving in AEW, and Kingston, a guy who has made his name walking the King's Road and respecting the joshis in his career, would deliver on the latter. This match was brutal and set a tone that the next three matches would build upon. The finish left room open for a return match, probably in Queens in a few weeks with an extra added stipulation for fun. Miro actually did "redeem deez nuts" with a mule kick to them, so if you're a fan of testicular puns like I am, strap in. It's gonna get even better.

Jon Moxley vs. Satoshi Kojima - Mox got a taste of the New Japan oldheads when he defended his IWGP United States Championship against Yuji Nagata a few months back and wanted more. Luckily for everyone else, the old guys still have, to paraphrase Mark Henry, a lot left in the tank. Kojima was the next on the docket, and despite some protestations from the less learned on Twitter, this match invariably delivered in ways that Jon Moxley throwing hands with guys who may or may not value their own self-preservation tend to do. Kojima built a reputation throwing a nasty right arm at the heads of his opponents, the perfect foe for post-Championship Moxley. This one didn't have the personal stakes the opening match did, but what it lacked in invitations to redeem deez nuts (sorry, I can't get over that, I love it so much), it made up for in snug brutality.

You could tell Kojima was trying to win over a crowd that probably didn't regard him as highly as some of New Japan's other, bigger names, and his methods worked. Whether it was clubbing on Mox like he was a bongo drum or shaking his pecs like Narcissist-era Lex Luger, Kojima won over the crowd in short order. The match was worked incredibly smartly around Mox avoiding the lariat, and it didn't overstay its welcome too long. Two Death Riders, one normal and one brainbuster-style, took Kojima out, and afterwards, Moxley showed respect to his elder.

And then "Kaze Ni Nare" hit on the speakers.

On one hand, I would've preferred Moxley's next New Japan Grandpa Tour date to be against Kojima's partner, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, mainly because Mox/Minoru Suzuki has happened before. On the other, Suzuki, even in his 50s, is still one of the most vicious and intelligent workers on the planet. There will always be time to run Mox/Tenzan. Suzuki, however, is already in the states, and he has a bloodlust that can never, ever be satiated, not until he's dead. Even then, I assume he will breaking the arms of incorporeal beings in whatever afterlife to which he's assigned.

Britt Baker, DMD vs. Kris Statlander - A lot is made of Baker's transformation into a stage-ready wrestlers in her time between turn and ascension, but Statlander, who was one of the finest wrestlers on the indie scene before she signed with AEW, had a bit of a feeling out process she had to go through. Her growing pains were noticeable; I didn't get the same pop from her in the big rings that I did when she was dominating the field for Beyond Wrestling et al. This match was where she looked the most comfortable since signing, and once again, perhaps the key was getting into a feud with an opponent where they felt comfortable beating the piss out of each other.

Violence and snugness continued to be the theme of the night through main match three, as Statlander's kicks landed with a bit more oomph, and Baker's orneriness shone through just a bit more than it had. Even though the build did feel a bit truncated and might have been overshadowed with AEW's horrendous booking of Red Velvet as a babyface against Baker in her hometown of Pittsburgh on the first airing of Rampage, the end result felt every bit the title fight that it needed to be. The crowd recognized it too, because after two hard-hitting matches with the dudes to start the main show, Baker and Statlander garnered the first "This Is Awesome" chant of the night. It was more than earned. The ending sequence with the counters ending into the Lockjaw fit the bill, and Baker's first PPV title defense was a rousing success.

The Young Bucks vs. the Lucha Brothers - When I saw the Lucha Brothers beat out Jurassic Express for the right to get a title shot inside a cage, I reduced it down to Rey Fenix doing something absolutely bonkers inside a cage. That did happen; boy, did it happen. I didn't think this particular feud had enough recent momentum to carry a gimmick match, especially when Luchasaurus and Jungle Boy had just been screwed out of their title opportunity a few shows prior. The thing about true rivals, however, is that you don't need to throw a lot of wood on the fire to make the blaze burn with the intensity of the effigy at Burning Man. Two years ago, the Bucks and the Bros tore the house down at the first All Out. Penta El Cero Miedo and Fenix aren't two guys who shy away from spotlight. The Brothers Jackson have developed into stunning dickheads to the point where their very presence in a match will set a crowd ablaze. The recipe was perfect for something perfect to evolve inside of that cage.

As much as Fenix was the star of the match, just as he's the star of nearly any match he sets his foot into, the real story was the burgeoning inhumanity of the Bucks. It wasn't just the infamous Thumbtack Jordan, although the spots centered around that shoe were gory and brutal, the kind of wrestling violence I revel in. It was the use of their athleticism and their tendency to do, as their most ardent haters call, gymnastics to set up counters that showed they were mostly two steps ahead of their opponents the whole match. They were the most able villains in the company, a role they relish, but also one they're obviously quite good at.

Still, sometimes, you know the outcome of a match before the entrances are over. Entrances, after all, are the first impression you get from an act when they come into an arena, and the Lucha Bros getting a live rapper and the ornate Aztec-inspired headgear as they swaggered down the aisle towards the cage portended a triumph for them. Anything short would be McMahon-levels of contempt for his crowd. They earned it, too, all punctuated with Fenix's stage dive from the top of the cage. Honestly, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a match in AEW's history that is clearly better than this one. You could have discussions. Matches like the Thunder Rosa/Britt Baker Lights Out match or the Bucks/Omega and Hangman match or even the bloody Rhodes Family Brawl from the first Double or Nothing (Which I haven't seen and am, for the sake of this comparison, only going by reputation for) might make compelling arguments, but I'm not sure I can see them and automatically say "yes, YES" as to whether they're better.

Casino Battle Royale - I've always been a huge fan of the Casino Battle Royale because no matter what the conceit is, it's a match that gets everyone exposure on the pay-per-view. This time, it was the women's turn. AEW has had a checkered reputation with their women's roster, and even though they had to be cajoled into putting it on the roster as a replacement for Andrade and PAC being bumped, the competitors made the match pop. I'm not sure I've seen a bad Casino Battle Royale, so the baseline was always high. Still, you're not getting the 1992 Royal Rumble every time out. Each one is going to be punctuated by moments, more so than any other match archetype.

There were some questionable eliminations, sure. I'm not sure why the longest-reigning Women's Champion, Hikaru Shida, got dumped so early and unceremoniously. Red Velvet and Emi Sakura spent comparatively little time in the match too. But the big spots, like Abadon scaring the shit out of Sakura and Shida, or Nyla Rose betraying Jade Cargill and dumping her on her ass, or the reunion of Tay Conti and Anna Jay to team up against Penelope Ford and The Bunny were all nice moments. All of them paled in comparison to the debut of Ruby Soho, obviously. The former Ruby Riott/Heidi Lovelace entered in the final position and won the match, but how she won was notable because it provided a glimpse into a better future for a division that kinda needs it right now. The first glimpse saw her interacting with Cargill. If you want the statuesque wrestler of the future to get good quick, a few matches with Soho will get her there. Secondly, the finishing sequence with Thunder Rosa was tense and brutal, especially their whole joust on the apron to finish completely. It wasn't just the moves or how hard they looked, but the timing. All in all, it was a successful battle royale.

MJF vs. Chris Jericho - The build for this match felt compacted, and I had to wonder what it was that had them go from the fifth labor and a third, relatively clean victory for MJF to this match two weeks later. I don't know if it was the compression, or the utter front-loading of the card before this match, or the fact that there hasn't been a successful retirement stip implemented north of the Rio Grande since Ric Flair, but the crowd didn't get into things until the end. I don't like to pretend that an arbitrary measure of quality cajoles the crowd to react commensurately, but man, there were more than a few rough stretches in the early going of that match. Specifically, the stretch where they went outside that ended in an awkward-looking apron powerbomb from Jericho.

The other thing to take home is that for a promotion that was founded by one of Dusty Rhodes' kids, the fact that it took two years and change to use the Dusty Finish. I wasn't sure it was the way to go, but then again, the crowd loved it. They were happy to see Jericho finally prevail, I suppose. It was kinda like the Juventud Guerrera match from Dynamite a few weeks back. It was sloppy as hell, and neither wrestler looked good in it, but the crowd appreciated it so it was a success, I suppose? Either way, the important thing here is that MJF and Jericho should probably never interact with each other again. MJF, actually, should probably start getting heated up for a title run sometime after the new year. But I'm getting too far ahead of myself.

CM Punk vs. Darby Allin - It's so hard to write anything substantive around Darby Allin because the accusations around him are so pervasive, and no one seems to care. People who will rightfully grill WWE for having Matt Riddle around or signing Gable Steveson or even for the fact that that company is owned by an accused rapist who may have covered up a murder will hand-wave Allin because he showed some texts to Tony Khan or whatever. Being a wrestling fan is almost like being force-fed spoonfuls of shit on the reg, whether or not those spoonfuls are the main course like with WWE or whether they're interstitials between feelgood moments like with nearly every other promotion on the planet. With AEW, that spoonful of shit is Allin, who is a good wrestler, but one you have to feel dirty rightfully pointing out how good he is because he's such a creep who constantly has gotten away with being a creep.

It's almost immaterial to write about this match after going through that mental rigor (and it's something I have to do EVERY FUCKING TIME THAT LITTLE TWERP WRESTLES), but CM Punk only returns to the ring after seven years once. The first thing Punk did in the ring was throw some respect the way of the guy whose t-shirt he wore Friday night on Rampage:

Punk isn't the most athletic guy, but what he is is cerebral. Intelligence will get you so much further in wrestling than it will in any other athletic endeavor, mainly because the results are predetermined, obviously. Still, the yin of Punk's brains with the yang of Allin's visceral desire to put himself in harm's way with bumps few people would ever dream of taking made this, for better or worse, the ideal comeback match for Punk. As Maxwell (formerly of the RBR Wrestling Show) pointed out during his watch, the match was methodical, but not plodding. That was the subtle foreshadowing of a future Punk turn. The not-so-subtle foreshadowing, to me at least, occurred when Punk hit the first GTS that sent Allin careening out of the ring. He was content to take a countout, which is classic heel behavior. I don't know if this turn is coming sooner rather than later, (and an Allin turn might be in the cards too if his post-match demeanor was any indication) but one thing is certain. Punk is back. And I don't think he's going to take long to shake the rest of his ring rust off.

"No More BS" Paul Wight vs. QT Marshall - The piss-break match at Double or Nothing was a self-absorbed, self-indulgent wankfest between Cody Rhodes and one of his pupils. This one was the exact opposite. They promised you NO MORE BS, and Paul Wight cleared out the BS in short order. He punched Nick Cormorato in the face. He threw Aaron Solow halfway to Des Moines. He chokeslammed QT Marshall to a realm lower than hell. Bing, bang, boom, done, and if that's not your thing, well, you had a chance to gas up before the main event. It wasn't a "great" match, but really, it was fun, and it served a purpose.

Kenny Omega vs. Christian Cage - The all-Canadian main event was put in a rough spot, partially because Cage isn't Hangman Page, and partially, through no fault of their own, they were victims of what was going to happen after the match. It was the same sort of thing AEW set itself up for for The First Dance. Rumors and hearsay pinned big debuts for the end of the match may have kept the crowd silent. Perhaps it was the fact that Cage already pinned Omega on the first Rampage, and no one believed they would have him pin him a second time.

The mark of a great match though is pulling a crowd into your thrall even when they don't buy the result or they're preoccupied. It took them a little bit, but Omega and Cage had the fans eating out of the palms of their hands with big spots, big bumps, and creative use of tables. The first one, a more unorthodox use, felt fresh and innovative even if it was just Omega stomping Cage while he was on the ground through one. The more traditional table spot later, when Cage speared Omega through a set-up one from the apron, looked even more vicious than normal because of the way it broke, with the metal leg bursting through. Through all those big spots and everything else, all the way up to the avalanche One Winged Angel, these two guys busted their ass, surpassed their Pittsburgh match, and proved that in a normal wrestling company, crowds will appreciate hard work even if it's not what they were expecting.

But then they got what they wanted afterwards, because if you eat your vegetables, Papa Tony will reward you with dessert. Then again, calling a match like this main event "vegetables" might be a bit trite, or accurate if you're like me and enjoy eating them. Seriously, roast some brussels sprouts with olive oil and balsamic, or grill some asparagus. Your life will change. But I digress. The original fakeout with Adam Cole debuting only to continue the beatdown on Cage and his reinforcements, Jurassic Express, almost made the standard Elite Standing Tall trope palatable. But then Bryan Danielson came out, evened the odds, and everything was golden again. There was hope, and it was in the form of the greatest professional wrestler ever to live or breathe on this planet entering a company that is better equipped to handle him in his post-WrestleMania XXX stardom than any company ever to exist.

Overall - All Elite Wrestling is arguably one fireworks mishap and a Cody Rhodes wankfest from having three all-time perfect pay-per-view events in the calendar year of 2021. Maybe it's years of having WWE and TNA being the only game in town on PPV that has wrecked expectation of a modern supercard being as much a grab-bag as they were in the days when the matches were never nearly as robust in quality as the talking about them beforehand was. For a few years there, I was starting to feel my wrestling fandom wane into something like a habit I couldn't kick. I'm not going to lie and say All Out was the only show that sparked me back into hyperdrive. AAA's TripleMania from a few weeks ago was tremendous, and not surprisingly, more than a few of the same players worked both shows.

But for as much of a quality wrestling show as Double or Nothing was, All Out took the next steps, even if the match quality was roughly the same on either event. With All Out and the debuts of Soho, Cole, and Danielson (as well as the revelation of Suzuki as the next one through the Forbidden Door and that Punk still has it), it was a pay-per-view that captured the certain elan of wrestling when World Championship Wrestling was still active, and there were still opportunities to jump between promotions of similar stature. It was a show that appealed to every facet, every generation of my wrestling fandom that I can't help but say that it is the best mainstream wrestling show that I have ever seen. There were no utterly indefensible booking decisions. There were no matches that would be embarrasing to show on a theoretical "full developmental" version of NXT. There were moments, oh man, were there moments. I would be shocked if history was unkind to this show. I fully recommend you go back and watch it if you weren't fortunate enough to be there or view it live.