Mick Foley jumped off a 20-foot cage and survived. Ric Flair was in a plane crash and lived. Mae Young gave birth to a hand.
But what All Elite Wrestling did on Wednesday night was somewhat more astounding than those feats.
With the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the nation, sports fans are scrambling for some sense of normalcy. In a typical year, this would be the time that baseball fans are getting ready for Opening Day, and NHL and NBA fans eagerly await the end of the season to get their playoff fix. But 2020 is anything but a normal year — and AEW is anything but a normal promotion.
On Wednesday night’s “Dynamite” the rookie promotion ran one of its better shows in recent months. And they did this with no fans in attendance, in a sport where a crowd can make or break an event, and a lack of a crowd can be a death sentence.
In wrestling, as we’ve seen time and time again through the decades, the show must go on. Lather yourself in baby oil and get limber, ’cause this train ain’t stopping. Cody Rhodes, one of the company’s figureheads and stars, set the tone early, delivering an epic promo that started the momentum that carried through the show.
“I have never thought of my world as small before,” Rhodes opened, somberly. “But recent events have really put into perspective how small we all are. It has also clarified for me, how big and how important the service we provide is.
“And the irony of what I’m about to ask is not lost on me, because I am about to ask three of the best athletes in the world to discard their petty differences, to put aside those squabbles and to stand together. The irony, it being March 18, 2020, and us as human beings need to stand together. And for many of us, that will mean standing at a distance.”
The camera panned over, revealing empty seats, with a single spotlight concentrated on Rhodes, as his words echoed through an empty arena.
No one there to react. No one there to cheer or boo. Just one guy with a microphone, doing his job, conveying a message to ears at home, likely wondering if those ears are listening or paying attention.
It was harrowing. It was chill-inducing. It was captivating. But more than all that, it was professional wrestling at its finest — blurring the lines between the reality of the scary, dumb, frightening world that we’re currently in and the fictionalized galaxy of dudes and dames in stretchy pants slapping each other in the chest.
For a fledgling company that has been a bit less than perfect, Rhodes’ promo was as close to perfection as it’s got. It weaved in and out of kayfabe while keeping it real; Rhodes went on to extoll the virtue and values of science while not living in a world of fear, then suddenly diving back into the hype for his forthcoming matches. It was a masterclass in how to mangle a person’s reactions, keeping them trained on you, while delivering several messages at once.
The show went on to have excellent matches across the board, with AEW wrestlers sitting ringside offering hilarious commentary during, between and after matches. They showcased their personalities. They still had full entrances and pyro. J.R., Taz and Excalibur still offered commentary.
Later in the show, Sammy Guevara kept custom and belted out Inner Circle stablemate Chris Jericho’s theme song on the microphone — the singing of Jericho’s theme has become something of a tradition in the promotion.
No crowd? No problem for @sammyguevara 😂 #aewdynamite
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The show delivered. The production, the wrestling, all of it, top to bottom. Even on a night where the show was forced to broadcast from an empty arena, two of its latest signees debuted — Brodie Lee and Matt Hardy, formerly of the other company — and had an immediate impact on the programming, now and in the future. While we’re all left to wonder “What if?” either guy made their first AEW appearance in a crowded arena as opposed to an empty one, both had their opportunity to shine. Hardy brought in Vanguard One of “Broken Universe” fame, while Lee’s promo showed he has more to offer the promotion than his former employer allowed.
For the uninitiated — the ones that are going to go on Facebook and post “SINCE WHEN IS WRESTLING A SPORT?” and “I THOUT DIS WAS THE SPORTING NEWS” — they might not understand all this (or bother to read before commenting).
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Wrestling is storytelling. When it’s right, it imitates life, much like art — and much like every other TV show folks watch, it’s scripted and mirrors real-life events. But the catch is, you screw up in front of a live, studio audience, they’ll notice. They won’t forget. And with eyes on the product at home, not even given the opportunity to perform in front of a sold-out arena, that balancing act is a little more dangerous. Now, you know you might not have everyone’s attention for two hours, while paying customers might be a few Nattie Lights deep enough to stay the whole show.
Even in an empty arena, AEW offered a sense of normalcy for two hours. They put on a show that said “screw this” and offered an escape for a small, primetime window, doing something nearly impossible in a world stricken by coronavirus.
While there was some uncertainty in the show’s broadcast — numerous references were made to “our next ‘Dynamite'” and not “next week on ‘Dynamite'” — as to when they’ll next be on the air, the promotion shouldn’t have anything to worry about if it chooses to hold empty arena shows. Ticket sales will suffer, the company will take a financial hit — as all of these companies will — but they showed there’s a path that can be taken in an unsure sports world.
For two hours, on one night, everything was right in the world again.
Except for MJF. That guy’s still a jerk.
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