Front row, section D. In the late ’80s, a group of young men including John Hitchcock and Bruce Mitchell would occupy this space in the Greensboro Coliseum, famously cheering the heels and booing the faces at Jim Crockett Promotions shows. They’d go on to coin the term “the Four Horsemen” for the often celebrated and endlessly imitated stable led by Ric Flair. But apart from vocally enhancing the product, they’d contribute visually, too. Mirroring the stylin’ and profilin’ of the Horsemen’s flagship star, they’d wear their best suits, shoes, and shades, a less-than-subtle show of appreciation and worship for the worst actor in the most crucial conflict of the production.
In 2022, the visual sign of appreciation for your favorite promotion’s stylish villain has been replaced by a single accessory: Burberry’s Classic Check Cashmere Scarf. Maxwell Jacob Friedman—better known as MJF, reigning AEW World Champion—tells you exactly who he is. He doesn’t like you, he doesn’t need you. He wants you to know the gap between all of you and him isn’t a crack, it’s a valley. And the people love him for it. If it’s not love, it’s the damnedest showing of irony via retail to ever exist. You’re playing Starship Enterprise tridimensional chess if you’re dropping $520 for a heating accessory you’ve decided to adorn in 75-degree weather.
The live crowd at Wednesday night’s AEW Dynamite gets a treat: the biggest villain in the business tells you EXACTLY how he feels about your locale. There’s an implicit ignorance towards Texas that you have if you aren’t from Texas. It’s pretty simple if you ask anyone here: Austin is not Dallas is not Houston is not San Antonio. Everything south of San Antonio, and everything west of Austin, is what people think Texas is. Appropriately, MJF is shown on the big screen about 20 minutes prior to the start of the TBS broadcast, saying exactly what he thinks of Austin. “You’ve got two types of Texans” he starts, aggressively matter-of-fact but with just a hint of the desire to educate. “You’ve got the one type of Texan that marries their cousin… then you’ve got the ones that wear shades and smoke weed and marry their cousins!” A cruel, but poignant assessment. He then reaches off-screen not once, but twice, for Texas Longhorns apparel. The first time, he grabs a black shirt, then begins detailing the greatest college on Earth’s decade of less-than-stellar football play. With the second, this time burnt orange with “Hook ‘Em Horns” in white lettering, he continues to chronicle, but then blows his nose into said shirt. It can vary by location, but twisting the knife that is the struggle of Texas football elicits the proper reaction in the central region of the great state. Texas, with all her great qualities, has been a regular target in MJF’s crosshairs:
Cedar Park is a small suburb northwest of Austin, Texas, probably best known for being out of the way. You either live in Cedar Park or need to get to Lake Austin. It’s the home of the H-E-B Center, where the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and the NHL’s Dallas Stars minor league affiliates are housed. It’s the only Austin venue AEW’s ran so far. The Frank Erwin Center, long-time home to Texas men’s and women’s basketball as well as any large tours that come to the city (it’s where I found out how much Drake’s show borrows from Jay-Z’s show) closed earlier this year; WWE only recently started running the campus’ larger Moody Center. The building itself is intimate, with 8,000 seats and 20 suites along its upper rim. You’ll look to one side and see a family with the adults toward the rear of the suite, and the kids in one of the four rows of spaced seats. On the other, you’ll see a team of QA reps for EA Sports celebrating hitting a benchmark with a company night out. Every seat in the house is a good one, regardless of the event. Wrestling allows it to be a bit more packed in, requiring less space than that of a court or rink. In the parking lot, one of the AEW trucks is emblazoned with giant portraits of CM Punk, the Young Bucks, and Jade Cargill. Jon Moxley and Adam Page are featured facing one another on the rear doors. Inside, there’s a single merchandise line with four vendors; the line stayed steady at about 30 people but moved along quickly. People with AEW polos and card scanners are roaming the general area. Leva Bates is signing people up for AEW Heels, the promotion’s female-focused fan club. A woman that’s admittedly never been to a wrestling show spots the FTR “Living Legends” t-shirt, telling the man she’s with, “I want that one, it looks cool!” A man goes to the front of the line to ensure they have a XXXL shirt in their inventory, or else the wait would be pointless. One of the vendors does the smart thing and grabs the few pieces they have in that size for the man to choose from. He goes with the brightest option, the Acclaimed’s pink “The People’s Choice” tee.
The first match on Dynamite is the Dynamite Diamond Ring Battle Royale; AEW World Champion MJF was also the last person to win the Dynamite Diamond Ring. While not an official championship, it’s served as a distinction similar to WWE’s King of the Ring, something the winner can claim yearly, but not have to actually defend between the annual assignment. MJF has won the Dynamite Diamond Ring three times already, with 2022 being the first year he wasn’t actually in the match. Live, you saw a parade of wrestlers come out, with actual entrances being reserved for a select few just before and at the start of Dynamite. Ricky Starks won the Battle Royale, outlasting the likes of former Ring of Honor World Champion Dalton Castle, former stablemate/rival/Eliminator Tournament opponent Brian Cage, and MJF Kryptonite Captain Shawn Dean. The Battle Royale saw some budding stories advance, like Matt Hardy’s begrudging 360 deal with Stokely Hathaway’s stable the Firm, and the start of a new rivalry between Jungle Boy Jack Perry (who got the “hey, he looks like somebody!” comment) and W. Morrissey. Outmaneuvering the two-on-one advantage held by Firm frontman Ethan Page and Matt Hardy, Starks earned the right to challenge MJF for not only the AEW Championship but the Dynamite Diamond Ring as well. Whether through long-term planning or really, really good luck, having the go-home show for next week’s Winter Is Coming edition of AEW Dynamite both three hours up Interstate Highway 35 and in your no. 1 contender’s hometown is an amazing barometer for interest. “Are you going?” was asked by many to others in many forms, signaling that those in attendance have already purchased or plan to purchase tickets to see their local babyface challenge the company’s top heel for its richest prize next week in the Dallas suburb of Garland. AEW’s branding of non-pay-per-view events as big deals works, and produces lasting moments in a short period, juxtaposed against the decades WWE’s had to build up a library. There isn’t only a buzz, there’s a commitment, in dollars, that the crowd’s made to this match.
I can’t recall a more perfectly timed interruption: seconds after Ricky Starks and Ethan Page remix the Royal Rumble 2000 Rock/Big Show finish leading to Starks’s win, MJF’s music hits, and he interrupts what should be a celebration. The kid in the suite next to us lets out an audible “Aw man!” and gives the Kenan and Kel “Aw here it goes!” arm swing. You knew it was coming: MJF is one of the very best talkers in wrestling, and no one wants to hear MJF talk more than MJF. He’s got a way of making the truth feel brutal and lies feel vital. He’s an exercise in patience; you know he’s going to do something deplorable, you just never know when it’s coming. Starks and MJF were in similar positions not too long ago—Starks with Team Taz and MJF with the Pinnacle. They smartly teased confrontation, but shied away and attacked a common opponent. So those who pay attention to those kinds of things also noted that since Starks won the Eliminator tournament at Full Gear, the two of them had not interacted on screen.
Immediately, the crowd is on MJF. He invokes Bryan Danielson’s name, referencing the strange case of William Regal we’ll get to a bit later. “These people seem to like you…” is where MJF starts in on Starks, getting the crowd to chant his name. Outside of Dustin Rhodes, he’s the local talent. He’s got friends in different pockets of the arena. Some of the talent that worked Dark: Elevation saw him at a local show on Sunday, outdoors, in the rain, supporting them. His mother made the hour drive up Highway 183 to sit in the front row. MJF then goes directly to the two things you can’t avoid about Ricky Starks: there are people who think he deserves more, and people who think he thinks he’s the Rock. “In comparison to me, you’re the drizzling shits,” MJF barks, adding “or should I say, you’re a roody poo, candy ass!” There is one audible gasp from the crowd, then it gets QUIET. You see people turn to each other as if to say “ooohhhhh, I see where this is going.” He calls Starks “the Pebble,” and says he’s sending him back to NWA (who could really use a Ricky Starks right now). Having taken all of this in from the corner, Starks walks directly towards MJF, swinging through him like an edge rusher to get his own microphone. Pebble, Rock, Stone, whoever, he hasn’t said a word and the “Ri-cky” chants are ringing out. “Well, Maxi pad…” Starks began, immediately stopping to smile, because now he’s initiated the next chant. MJF is actively fighting the chant off through expression and gesture, which makes the crowd chant it even harder. What follows is probably the finest dressing down of an opponent to happen in the promotion’s existence. For the next four and a half minutes, Starks gets surgical in his assessment of the champ, calling his attire cheap, his motivations selfish, and his number up. Watching it back on TV, the biggest thing that’s lost is NOW YOU KNOW THERE’S NO RETORT. The crowd just kept going UP. Normally, it’s “I like this part, this part’s OK, now I think I like,” but there are ebbs and flows. Ricky Starks didn’t “flow.” He was a tidal wave. Outside of the night Powerhouse Hobbs turned on Starks, it’s the longest promo Starks has had in AEW. MJF’s frustrated disbelief the entire time really sold the barrage of insults that may have been stored up for a solid stretch of time. The camera cut the full scene (the suites also show the live Dynamite broadcast on a 10-second delay), but seeing a pair of custom Burberry loafers shoot into the air from the ring to the arena floor after Starks hit MJF with a gigantic Spear was the icing on the cake. Ricky Starks, aided by hometown support and the desire to produce when called upon, gave MJF his first true contemporary and hopefully long-term rival.
The conversation surrounding the promo that’s shocked the online wrestling community would have you believe that there wasn’t an entire Dynamite that went down. For instance, you’ve never seen AEW TBS Champion Jade Cargill. Sure, you’ve watched Jade Cargill on TV, maybe you’ve even looked at pictures of Jade Cargill on Instagram, but you’ve never seen Jade Cargill. At Walemania (the annual party/concert/podcast put on by Wale during WrestleMania weekend), wrestlers from different companies come together to hang out, take pictures, unload, and show a bit of personality outside of what’s shown by their respective employers. The most recent was in Dallas, and Wale invited Jade and her friends to the show. In a story that’s been told on this site, I’m helping the organizers get talent in the building. The issue is, there’s too much talent in the building. Stars from WWE, AEW, MLW, and Impact, are both physically large and numerous, and the police at the event won’t let new people in. As I made my way through the sea of wrestlers, podcasters, and fans, I walk out to the loading dock and see Wale, who was flanked by fellow wrestling enthusiasts Smoke DZA and Westside Gunn. I walked right past three famous rappers to shake Jade Cargill’s hand. She’s not 7 feet tall, but she FEELS 7 feet tall. She’s both kind and brief as if to say the Jade show can only accommodate so many breaks.
Where Max and Ricky are the warring parties, Jade Cargill’s an event. “Who is that?” is the thing I kept hearing. She’s tall, she’s fit, she’s gorgeous, she’s stylish. In a world that used to struggle to house a woman’s physique and appeal in the same building, Jade’s the neighborhood. When she walks out of the tunnel, flanked by Leila Grey and Red Velvet, doing the pivot/fireworks combo, it’s awe, then it’s cheering, then it’s awe again. The crowd simply does not care that Jade Cargill is a heel. Everything she did was applauded, including her crew decisively taking out the recently dismissed Keira Hogan’s team. To the left of the entranceway, a contingent of fans with Jade signs were saluted on her way out, not with a “thank you” or “you’re so sweet.” They would get a point, a nod, and the chance to say you were acknowledged. There’s simply no way around it: Even in a match where she’s involved in less than 10 percent of the action, her being part of the action makes it big-budget.
The last time AEW came to the H-E-B Center, the Acclaimed were part of the tapings for Dark: Elevation, which consists of the dark matches that AEW tapes for YouTube prior to Dynamite going live on air. Regional independent talents like Danni Bee and tag team Fly Def are featured, albeit in quick squash matches. Willow Nightingale, maybe the company’s most can’t-miss white-meat babyface, is in the final match prior to going live, getting a great reaction the entire time. Last show, when the Acclaimed’s music hit, I thought to myself, “Well, Max Caster’s gonna drop some corny lines and they’re gonna hate it.” THEY ATE IT UP. Every bar, every reference, they loved it. (I’m convinced he could recite One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and they’d go ballistic .) Fast forward to Wednesday, and this iteration of the team that added about 300 pounds (Billy Gunn and the two tag belts, respectively) is fully formed, and what was once a “great” reaction is now electric.
Directly across the arena were two pairs of cardboard cutout scissors, which frantically engaged one another during their entire entrance. Max Caster becomes the best rapper on the planet from walkway to turnbuckle, and Anthony Bowens’s short-yet-sweet shtick (shout out the name of the city, announce you are in said city) is the stuff of hype man legend. There may not be a better location outside of Georgia to drop a Herschel Walker joke, with Austin being both locked in politically and connoisseurs of Doak Walker Legends Award-winning college running backs. A thrown-together unit, now mentored by a veteran they split fingers with, is the most popular pure babyface act in the company. Watching what felt like everyone—of both similarity and difference to their direct neighbors in the audience—“scissor” one another is just professional being magic in a way few other things are.
They were defending their titles against FTR, ranked the no. 2 tag team of 2022 by Pro Wrestling Illustrated earlier this week. The two most prominent names adorning people’s merch outside of the general AEW shirts were the Acclaimed and FTR. The house that the Elite built does not look at tag-team wrestling as secondary. For reasons Tony Khan attributed to both injury and timing on a conference call the afternoon of the show, FTR hasn’t really been in AEW’s tag-team title picture. They just happen to have the titles from every other promotion to ever exist around their waists and shoulders right now. FTR is such a strong contender that this year’s PWI Tag Team 100 was moved up two days just in case they won the AEW World Tag Team titles, which would give cause to make FTR the no. 1 team, forcing editor Kevin McElvaney to bust a U-turn back to the print shop. The conversation in the arena, outside of just two top-tier face teams going at one another, circled around who fans in attendance were picking to win the tag title match—either because FTR didn’t need more titles or FTR going into ROH’s Final Battle PPV with all of the titles would be an even bigger endorsement. Even with AEW wisely stretching out the Death Triangle vs. Elite best of seven series by not booking match four on Wednesday, the Acclaimed and FTR gave their rendition of the hard-hitting, fast-paced, near-fall-laden style AEW fans cherish, complete with a show of respect after Max Caster leverage-pinned Cash Wheeler to retain. Billy Gunn’s sons, Colten and Austin, appeared on screen after the match to inform FTR that they’ll be facing the Briscoes (who are the no. 3 tag team according to PWI) in a Double Dog Collar match at Final Battle. The crowd isn’t really sure how to react, unaware that the Briscoes aren’t currently allowed on AEW TV.
This signals the end of the show, with Khan coming out after to thank the crowd for being one of the strongest they’ve visited multiple times. It’s 9 p.m. locally, and the traffic is being directed one way out of the lot. Most of the crowd sticks around for this week’s Rampage taping, which featured Jon Moxley, Konosuke Takeshita, and a surprise or two. Most of the parties in the suites had small kids with them and didn’t get the chance to hang out that long. People are leaving in AEW merch, with shirts and hoodies draped over their shoulders. The most common thing you hear leaving is “Man, Ricky Starks” and a small, small “Texas Fight!” chant, very late considering MJF’s targeted attack almost three hours earlier. Claudio Castagnoli’s Giant Swing (Austin got 10 rotations) is still one of the most over moves in all of wrestling, but the live crowd doesn’t really know how to feel about William Regal. His explanation to Castagnoli, Jon Moxley, and Wheeler Yuta for turning on the Blackpool Combat Club was straight Mishima Zaibatsu-level stuff, but no one seemed to be talking about him in relation to WWE in person. Darby Allin had the night’s “turn your back because you can’t believe that just happened” moment when Samoa Joe delivered a Muscle Buster to Allin on his own skateboard, wheels first. Emi Sakura’s “kick the ref’s leg out so I can sit on his knee” spot is clearly going to travel well, as the initial confusion of her hitting a ref, then posing with them saw the appropriate roller coaster of emotion from shock to joy. People are talking about Final Battle, both in terms of ordering the PPV Saturday afternoon and attending, as well as discussing if Starks did enough to be in consideration for a title run. Whatever the gate, whatever the rating, All Elite Wrestling seems to have made a new star in the best way possible: maximize their confidence, put them in position to succeed, and let them give their people exactly what they want.
Cameron Hawkins writes about pro wrestling, Blade II, and obscure ’90s sitcoms for Pro Wrestling Torch, Pro Wrestling Illustrated, and FanSided DDT. You can follow him on Twitter at @CeeHawk.