The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
What makes a wrestler feel like a big star? That is the fundamental question bookers should ask themselves when it comes to creating personalities and performers that they hope will drive business upward. If a wrestler feels like a big star, the viewers at home are much more likely to act like they are a big star. Wrestling fans want to feel like the performers they are watching are important and significant, but they won't just naturally react to everyone like that. The wrestler has to prove to the fans that they matter, and while there are numerous ways to do that, this best way is for the wrestler to appear to be very popular with the live audience.
When Jon Moxley made his debut in AEW, appearing at the end of Double or Nothing and attacking Kenny Omega, he immediately established himself as a big star. What made him look like a star? It wasn't that he came out and attacked Omega, or that the announcers sold his appearance as an incredible surprise. It was that as soon as the crowd in Las Vegas realized that Moxley was in the building, they lost their minds, giving Moxley one of the biggest pops of the decade. It was obvious to anyone watching the event at home that Moxley was a big star, and that what he was doing really mattered.
Flash forward to 2020, and Moxley and every other wrestler in the business is faced with a new, unheard of problem. The live audience is either non-existent or extremely limited. The natural way to showcase star power is gone. In a lot of ways, the pandemic has exposed talent that may have been able to get by thanks to a special connection with the crowd that has been lost. I'm not just talking about mid-card talent either; even someone like Kazuchika Okada has been significantly hurt by the lack of lively crowds.
When Moxley first envisioned his run with the AEW World Championship, I doubt he anticipated that it would take place in front of empty arenas. However, Moxley has absolutely given it his all throughout his entire reign, which has encapsulated almost the entire year. Working without the benefit of the live audience, the very thing that thrust him into the spotlight in AEW, Moxley has adjusted and refined his character and kept to his strengths to ensure that he remains entertaining, and continues to feel like a big star even as circumstances have cut off the most vibrant part of his character.
What defines Moxley in 2020 is that he has always delivered. Every program that he has been in has managed to be interesting; every promo he had to do has been very good, and each time he has been asked to be in the main event and have a big match, he has delivered entertaining performances. All of this was done without the live audience, which typically would make his work stand out even more.
Something going under the radar about Moxley's 2020 that was pointed out to me on Twitter following Full Gear was that he has done all of this while largely avoiding the other top names in the company. After beating Chris Jericho for the title in February, he has worked successful programs with the likes of Brodie Lee, Brian Cage, MJF, Lance Archer and Eddie Kingston. Those guys are all pretty talented, but there is a big difference between feuding with those guys, many of whom were relatively new to the company, and working with Jericho, Cody or Kenny Omega.
Moxley has been asked not only to come across as an important star himself, but he has also been tasked with enhancing the credibility of his opponents, which relies on his selling and his promos, where he has consistently been able to put over his opponents as serious contenders, but also remaining confident in his own abilities. Eddie Kingston got a lot of credit for his work leading up to his match with Moxley at Full Gear, and rightfully so. However, Kingston doesn't come across as well as he did if Moxley isn't playing his role perfectly.
Moxley, as the confident champion that could snap back at Kingston's verbal jabs, drove Kingston further than any other opponent could. Reports after Full Gear said that Moxley talked to Tony Khan about putting together a program with Kingston, which shows Moxley's sharp mind for what would work on television during the pandemic. Moxley was the perfect foil for Kingston. During the match at Full Gear, Moxley was believable as someone that could match Kingston's intensity, which inherently brought Kingston up a level. Even as Moxley forced Kingston to quit, it felt Kingston hadn't lost much, since Moxley has been presented as such a formidable opponent.
After Moxley had beaten Kingston, he leaned towards the camera, held up the title belt, and screamed about how everything he had, blood, guts, sweat and tears went into defending the title. Everything had been poured into the championship, which further establishes the title as the preeminent prize in the company, the thing every performer should be striving for. Moxley has been a tremendous champion, and he has set the stage so that whoever does eventually dethrone him will have really earned it.
That is what a champion should be. The champion should be able to not only come across as a star, but also be able to elevate their opponents. In wrestling, the wrestler makes the title belt and not the other way around. We have seen it all too much in recent years, from Jinder Mahal's "let's never talk about this again" run with the WWE Championship in 2017, to EVIL's horrible IWGP World Heavyweight Championship run earlier this year, simply putting the belt on somebody does not make them or the title feel important. It is up to the performer to do that, and throughout 2020 under difficult circumstances, Moxley has done just that and has emerged as probably the most consistent performer in the entire world.
There is still time left in 2020, but it is hard for me to think of someone more deserving of any wrestler of the year awards than Moxley. Roman Reigns has been great since returning to SmackDown, but he also missed six months of the year. Drew McIntyre never quite got going as the face of RAW, even though he worked extremely hard. Okada has taken a step backward this year, and Naito has been trapped in the horrible EVIL program, while Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi worked as a mid-card tag team for a large portion of the year. Randy Orton has had a vintage year, but he also had a complete disaster of a match at WrestleMania, which has to be factored in somewhere. Moxley to me is the obvious choice and I don't think I am going to be changing my mind over the next six weeks.
Full Gear Review
AEW's Full Gear was a show that probably had the most loaded car in the history of AEW, with a collection of matches that had either very long builds (Hangman Adam Page vs Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks vs FTR) or in the case of Eddie Kingston vs Jon Moxley, short but extremely effective builds. That set the stage for what many fans expected to be the best PPV in AEW history.
I didn't quite think it lived up to expectations, as I would probably rate Revolution and the first Double or Nothing as higher than Full Gear. The main difference might be that those shows took place in front of sold-out, extremely hot crowds while this show took place in an outdoor arena with 20% capacity. However, Full Gear was still a very entertaining show and the best of the three AEW PPVs that have taken place during the pandemic. The matches that were hyped up delivered, and the undercard wasn't too bad either. At the end of the day, I feel like you always get your money's worth with AEW PPVs. With ALL OUT being a disappointment, I think there was some anxiety that AEW was losing some momentum, but Full Gear was a clear return to form, and sets the stage for what should be an interesting next few months.
Eddie Kingston vs Jon Moxley: ****
This match had one of the best builds in recent memory, thanks to amazing promos by both men, and especially Kingston who went from unsigned talent a few months ago into someone that felt like they actually could (and perhaps should) win the world title. I was actually somewhat concerned, given both men's CZW background, that this match would be even more insane than it was, with fire and all sorts of crazy stunts being used. Instead they had a violent, but not over-the-top style of match and I dug the ending, with Kingston locked in the barbed-wire choke and gasping for breath, while his two good friends in Moxley and referee Bryce Remsburg begged him to give up. Kingston didn't win the match but he still felt like a star.
Another thing I liked about the match was that they did not do the tired spot of the referee holding the microphone up to the wrestler every time they took a bump and asked if they wanted to quit. This felt more like an organic fight without the microphone involved, and it avoided some of the stupid near-falls that nobody buys. I thought it was funny at Hell in a Cell when Jey Uso hit a splash from the top rope and the referee asked Roman Reigns if he wanted to quit. Has there been a more unconvincing "near-fall" in wrestling this year? In this match they cut out that kind of spot and relied on the audience to understand the parameters of the match.
Chris Jericho vs MJF: ***1/4
This match was decent, but not either man's best work. I will say that while people like to make fun of Jericho's body, the guy just turned 50 and he still goes out there with a guy half his age and takes a lot of bumps and tries to work a real match. I think what hurt this match a bit was that it went on second-to-last and the show was very long, so I was kind of ready for the main event. If the match went on first I probably would have enjoyed it more.
I did enjoy the finish, with MJF doing a version of the old Eddie Guerrero spot to steal the win. Psychologically, I liked that Jericho was impressed by MJF for pulling one over on him instead of being pissed that he lost. The story in the match was that Jericho actually likes MJF, and he challenged him to this match because he wanted MJF to impress him. By pulling off a sneaky-heel win, Jericho was proud of him. That is good storytelling and execution by both performers.
The Young Bucks vs FTR: ****1/4
A match three years in the making, both teams had a lot riding on this match being good and it ended up being pretty close to great. It was a long match, largely wrestled at FTR's pace, with the idea being that Matt Jackson was compromised due to his ankle injury, and that he did most of the selling while Nick Jackson carried the team, which plays into both men's strengths. Cash Wheeler ended up being the star of the match from the working perspective, and the finish with him going for the springboard 450 and Matt avoiding it and nailing him with a boot-less superkick was very well done and fit the story perfectly.
The build to this match was not as good as it should have been. Given all the banter about these two teams, it felt like a layup. FTR come in as the heels, taunt the Bucks about winning the tag titles, and the Bucks play the roles of heroic babyfaces, beating the odds to finally win the tag titles. By pulling of a pseudo-heel turn in a clumsy attempt to show that The Young Bucks were getting more aggressive, I thought it killed some of the easy momentum this feud should have had. Over the last two weeks, with FTR doing the angle where they Pillmanized Matt's ankle, things got back on track, but they could have done the build much better.
Kenny Omega vs Adam Page: ****1/4
This was my favorite match on the show. To me, this felt like a good G1 match between two very good wrestlers. This was just two great athletes having a physical, intense match with the high reward of being the #1 contender for the world title. Everything in the match was a struggle, right up until Omega was able to cradle Page's head down for the One Winged Angel to pick up the win. The best part about the match was that it felt like they left plenty of meat on the bone for future matches; they didn't pull out all the stops; they whetted our appetites for what is going to come down the road.
Darby Allin vs Cody Rhodes: ***3/4
This was a match with a simple story told very well over the course of the match. Cody was the arrogant champion, coming to the ring with a parade of supporters including his coach, his wife, his brother, and a bunch of students and followers. Darby came to the ring driving a crappy car that he had spray painted and sat in the corner, alone while Cody paraded to the ring. The entrances alone told the entire story of the match; Cody was the arrogant high school quarterback and Allin was the dark and mysterious loner. By having Allin go over Cody, it was a necessary key win for a guy that has come close in several title matches but has always come up short. Cody will be fine because he has star power, and the match helped pull Darby upwards.
Sammy Guevara vs Matt Hardy: **1/4
I have kind of had it with cinematic matches. I laughed at some of the spots in this match (Matt running over the golf cart in a monster truck and then saying "Now that is what I call A SQUASH MATCH!" was particularly funny) but I'm done with all of these goofy spots and odd camera angles. At least this match was somewhat like a real wrestling match, with a referee counting pinfalls and a clear winner, so I did give it a rating. Nobody got eaten by an alligator or anything like that. What also bugged me was that Matt Hardy went over. If WWE had a veteran in their 40s beat a young up-and-comer in their 20s, and then roll their lifeless body into a trash can and dispose of them, the outrage machine would be in high gear. I get that it is Matt Hardy's special match at his house and everything, but they shouldn't haven beaten Guevara.
Hikaru Shida vs Nyla Rose: **1/2
This match was okay, but so much of the women's title picture feels directionless. I'm not sure if it is a language barrier thing, but AEW has struggled to put Shida in storylines outside of her quick feud with Thunder Rosa. I respect her work as a wrestler, but I was rooting for Nyla Rose here just because I think her act with Vickie Guerrero would be a more dynamic performance week-to-week and allow the division to shine with the different personalities that they do have.
Orange Cassidy vs John Silver: ***
Unless you watch Being the Elite each week, you probably wouldn't know that John Silver's stock is on the rise in AEW. On BTE, Silver has tremendous charisma and comedic timing, and AEW is trying to use more of that on their actual programming. He's also pretty good in the ring, and this match started slow with the general comedy bits that all Orange Cassidy matches have to have, but at the end it picked up with both guys pulling out complicated spots. This match was about getting Cassidy a win on PPV and giving Silver more of a traditional spotlight, so it did its job.
On the latest episode of The Gentlemen's Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings and Jason Ounpraseuth discuss all things Roman Reigns. The guys go over his recent heel turn, and then go back in time to his early days as a member of The Shield and discuss what went wrong with his babyface push and how soon WWE will want him to be a babyface once again. It's just 90 minutes talking all about The Tribal Chief!