AEW champion Jon Moxley talks authenticity, adaptivity and accessibility of All Elite Wrestling

What a difference a year makes for Jon Moxley.

The current AEW World Champion is gearing up (no pun intended) for what should be a hard-hitting showdown with Eddie Kingston at Full Gear this Saturday. But long before the two trash-talking rivals heated up their rivalry on “Dynamite,” Moxley made waves by punching faces and breaking arms through his first year-plus with the company.

After making his debut at Double or Nothing in May 2019 in front of 11,000 screaming fans, Moxley will defend the AEW World Championship — which he has held since February — in front of nearly nobody. But the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been the only thing that’s changed AEW: a consistently evolving roster and limiting the show to tapings at their headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla., have also thrown a monkey wrench into the fledgling company’s best-laid plans.

Sporting News  spoke with Moxley about his paradigm shift with AEW, what separates it from the other company he used to work at and how he manages to find the one barren, moody area of Daly’s Place for any promo he runs.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Sporting News: Watching AEW and seeing the characters and gimmicks, and the way that you guys have embraced different ways of accomplishing each, there seems to be a lot of authenticity there between you and Eddie Kingston. Can you talk a little bit about just what it’s like to cultivate that persona? Since being in AEW, you’ve just coming across as very real.

Jon Moxley: For me, it’s very easy, and Eddie would be the same way. Because guys like me and him, we don’t put on the pro wrestling uniform in the morning and take it off at night. What you see on TV is basically who me and him are in real life.

Depending on the situation and what kind of story you’re trying to tell, and where you’re at, you go through different phases and different characters and different iterations and results from your career. And in this particular scenario over the last year, you know, I ended up being a good guy. When I first came to AEW I was just murdering people and it was all about that violence and aggression and taking people out. And once I kinda became the standard-bearer good guy in the company, then it became like real easy for me to just treat every situation the same way I would treat it if it was real life. If somebody really did this to me or said this to me in this situation, this is how I’d react. You take little inspirations, or you might steal a line from a John Wayne movie or a Jack Reacher book or something that sounds cool.

Generally, I just talk the way I talk in real life, I act the way I act in real life, I take every situation as if it was real, and how I would really act. It’s pretty easy for me. Other people have real, actual characters, getting into a role like an Orange Cassidy or something like that. When you see Eddie on TV and he’s talking, that’s literally him. If you gave him a parking ticket that he felt was undeserved, he would yell at the cop in the exact fashion that he would yell at me, or Cody Rhodes or whoever was wrestling with him on a wrestling show. If you got his pizza delivery order wrong, he would yell at you and slap you around in the same manner that he would yell at me if I was wrestling him. It’s really no difference between what you would see in real life.

SN: And to that end, character and authenticity plays into it: Just the way you guys interact with fans, and how AEW doesn’t treat them like they’re stupid, like they don’t know what’s going on. Wrestling fans now are smart, they understand. When you see the way AEW is engaging and delivering to its fans, do you think that speaks to a just a general shift in the way wrestling is viewed worldwide, or is it an aberration when it comes to the other company that you had worked for?

JM: I think the aberration now, when you look at all of the world of pro wrestling as a whole, the one who’s different and the outlier, and does everything differently in its own way and treats the fans in its own way and has their own buzzwords — they’re not the “fans,” they’re the “universe.” It’s not a “belt,” it’s a “championship.” It’s not a “shot,” it’s an “opportunity.” They kind of live in their own little world.

I think AEW is indicative of the way wrestling is all over the world on the indies, in Japan, fans of all different styles of wrestling and wrestling companies. The business is totally different now than it was like 50 years ago, when we were keeping everything secretive, babyfaces and heels can’t ride together. And now people know, they understand and appreciate, whether you want to call it a sport or an art form whatever — that’s all debatable. For me, it’s wrestling.

SN: And what is pro wrestling to you?

JM: It’s a bunch of different things all rolled into one. And it can be anything. A lot of different ways, like different genres this thing can be. I’m a fan of all of them. To me, wrestling in 2020, the fans are smarter and more educated. I don’t like when I’m in the locker room and some guy’s going, “Oh the marks on Twitter are saying this, bunch of stupid marks” or whatever and treating fans like they’re idiots. That pisses me off. The old-school wrestling mentality was that this is a work, and we’re carnies and we’re trying to cheat people out of money — we’re trying to present this thing, tricking them into thinking it’s real, and taking their money from them. That’s the origins of carny wrestling a century ago. That’s not what it is today.

Wrestling fans, to me, are the most passionate, educated, some of the smartest fans in the world. And they really appreciate, not only the effort, they appreciate the passion of the wrestlers for their craft, they appreciate the effort, they appreciate how we’re putting our bodies on the line. Especially AEW fans, appreciate little details and storytelling and long-term storytelling. The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega are very big into small, little details in their work — they’ll drop little thing on BTE that won’t come into play for months and months later, but at the end it all ties together and makes sense.

SN: I think wrestling fans have wanted not to be treated like idiots for a while, and it feels like AEW is delivering that. What have you noticed about the AEW fan base?

JM: I think we have some of the sharpest, most studious fans in the game, and actually pushes us up to where we have to put on better stories and more authentic stories and add more detail. It’s a much more discerning audience than it’s ever been before. And it’s great for us.

I think we’re kind of on the cusp of where wrestling is in 2020. We’re at the forefront of how to engage with our fans, how to tell stories, even the matches in the ring. And we try a lot of different stuff out there, different types of matches. I don’t know if we’ll stay in a smorgasbord kind of variety forever. Maybe over time we’ll evolve into more of a singular identity. I don’t know. But I think we’re right on the forefront of where pro wrestling is in 2020 and beyond, whereas other companies might be stuck in their own little world.

SN: I don’t want to talk too much about the other company, but when you hear the words “sports entertainment,” what does that mean to you?

JM: It makes me think of WWE. It makes me think of standard: Guy comes out on the ramp to start the show, cuts a promo, another guy comes out on the ramp, his music hits, he cuts another promo, then the authority figure’s music hits, then they come out, they make the main event for tonight, and the standard guys standing in a ring, talking on mics, having run-in finishes. It brings to mind just the standard, same-old formula of TV wrestling.

But it can also be, sports entertainment could be like MJF and Jericho singing a song and dance — that’s entertainment. But you can’t really put wrestling in a box. I have no problem calling wrestling “sports entertainment.” I’ve done some segments in the ring that are kind of sports entertainment-type things, a contract signing or whatever, and I’m really good at them because I have a lot of experience.

I think over the last 18 months and going forward, I consider myself a pro wrestler and it’s “pro wrestling.”

The whole buildup to me and Eddie Kingston has been a lot of talking, but we haven’t had any crazy segments. I hate when dudes are just like, in the ring, and two dudes have a mic and they’re just out there talking for 10 minutes. And nobody’s throwing a punch, and they’re trying to get their insults and their lines back and forth. But for me it’s like, if you said that to me, and I was a foot in front of you, I would just slap the s— out of you. Why am I just standing here with a microphone? We look like f—in’ jackasses. I try to avoid that at all costs.

SN: I’m gonna ask this half-jokingly, but it’s something that I’ve noticed: Anytime you have a video package or a promo package, how do you manage to find the one completely barren, dark, gloomy corner of the building, or a chain-link fence? How does that come together?

JM: Usually, they find it for me. I love the way promos are done in AEW, because it’s not like in other places, you show up to a building where a writer comes up to me with a two-page script you have to memorize. In AEW they just say, “We have a 90-second, two-minute promo or whatever.” After that they’ll send me a text message: “When do you want to do it?” I’ll be like, “Ah, maybe 4:30?” And they’re like “OK, we’ll find you, we’ll find a location.” Then they’ll find a little location, and they’ll light it.

Luckily, in Daly’s Place, there’s a big stadium. So we’ve got plenty of room to find different moody-lighting kind of places.

They’re always trying to film me in the desert, too, for some reason, which is cool. I’m surrounded by desert where I live in Vegas so I’m like, well, that’s easy. I’m always wandering in the desert aimlessly for some reason.

SN: You’ve gone from wrestling in front of the biggest crowds and the most hyped crowds to wrestling in front of nobody during a pandemic. How difficult has that been for you?

JM: Same as everybody else. Mainly, it’s a bummer. But there are far worse things that have happened this year as a result of this pandemic, so I’m not gonna complain for one minute that like — “We can’t wrestling in front of fans.” Hey, it is what it is.

Luckily we have been able to find a building that’s outdoors, and a place to camp. We’ve been able to find a way to do this safely and created a little bubble system and been able to keep everybody safe and find a way to even get a few hundred fans in. They’re up in the upper decks, socially distanced, you know they follow the rules, and wear masks and stuff. So we’ve been able to have a few fans in there, which makes a pretty, pretty big difference. But you still feel like you’re in an empty building. It’s a bummer, for sure.

Like, especially me, my entrance is kind of a big part of my deal — or at least it was — you know the coming-out-of-the-crowd thing really always hyped people up; you know they liked it. I can’t do that anymore.

As a good guy, as a champion, you want to have the arena going up for you. If they weren’t going up for me before, I wouldn’t have ever become a champion. The fans are such a big part of my whole thing; now I’m just a guy in an empty building. It is a bummer. I miss that electricity. I’m literally the definition of a champion that can’t put asses in seats, and that sucks.

SN: You’ve said it on podcasts and you’ve had various interviews on your past at the other company, but when you look at just your journey in AEW so far, has it been everything you had imagined it would be? Was there anything you would change, or has everything gone exactly according to plan?

JM: I didn’t really have a plan, so to speak. When I first met with Tony (Khan), and he was telling this top-secret stuff about, you know, TV deals and this and that, we just talked about wrestling, and I consider Tony one of my friends now, not even necessarily my boss. He’s just like my friend who likes wrestling too, and we just work together.

So we sat down at a table and we talked wrestling for a couple hours, about what I see for myself, what I want to be involved in, how I see wrestling, how he sees it, yada, yada. And we are all on the same page. And all this s— is allegedly real, that we’re gonna do this thing called AEW, and it’s gonna be awesome. And I said on that day, “OK, if all that’s true and this is real, I’m in.” Not knowing, not having any idea what the future holds.

Before the first show we’re like — it’s exciting because we’re like, “we have no idea what’s gonna happen.” We’re just barreling down the river on a raft. There could be rapids, there could be a waterfall, there could be rain, there could be nothing. There could be people with spears trying to kill us, we have no idea, we’re just going down the river, and we have no idea. That’s what made it exciting. It was like Lewis and Clark’s expedition, man, we’re just, like, going. We have no idea. I didn’t really have any expectations necessarily — except doing great business, bringing in great crowds and different markets, have all these great fans, doing good television ratings or whatever. Everyone seems to be happy about those. I’m not smart enough to understand that, but I think that’s good. We got re-upped for another four years, with TNT, so they’re thrilled with us, which is really good because that was right before the pandemic.

I’m proud of us that we’re vital to the industry as a whole, that AEW be successful. It’s helped the industry in so many ways — it gets more people, more money in other places. It gives people options.

Eventually, hopefully, it’ll be like the days where, you know, people will jump back and forth. Guys from WWE might come over here and guys from here might go to WWE, vice versa and go to Japan and back and vice versa. Now there’s like more options and places to work. People have leverage. It’s just vital for the industry that AEW be successful. I’ve done everything I could to help with that.

‘Cause this pandemic could have f—ing killed us, dead. TNT could have been like, “Hey, s—’s down, they can’t run shows, let’s just cut that wrestling show out.” We got that new contract and everything. 

I guess what I’m saying is, everything is as much as I could have hoped for. I didn’t even know if fans would even want to f—ing see me when I came here. So for fans to really get behind me and push me to the top and have a chance to have a championship run and create, and foster the value of this title and water it like a plant — with every title defense it becomes more and more prestigious. And then I’ll pass that energy on to somebody else, and they’ll do an even better job with it.

Hopefully, it becomes to where it’s the biggest championship. Hopefully, kids are gonna grow up one day dreaming of being AEW World Champion, more specifically. That’s the goal.

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