“It’s not when you realise that nothing can help you—religion, pride, anything—it’s when you realise that you don’t need any aid.” —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Ricky Starks has no doubt about Ricky Starks. Success, adoration, championships, fame … all those things are simply part of his process. The self-appointed moniker of “Absolute” is something that extends far beyond arenas, appearances, interviews, and anything else job-related. You can hear it in conversation; he’s both thoughtful and assertive, stern but smiling, and always ready to throw a joke or two at you if you get too familiar. Don’t talk with long pauses or too many “ums,” or he’ll do the same until you notice what’s put a grin on his face. You’ve watched him on screen, mocking a certain evil coworker’s drawl by only saying his name.
When he talks about where this confidence comes from, you see he’s really responding to the world around him. He’s part of All Elite Wrestling, a traveling circus with strongmen, acrobats, jesters, and beasts, but he doesn’t identify as one of these. He can fly with the flyers, lift with the lifters, and when called upon, can make the audience laugh, smile, or look on in disgust. He’s a Renaissance man, fully understanding what makes people react, while meticulously carving his own path.
“Father said it used to be a gentleman was known by his books; nowadays he is known by the ones he has not returned.” —Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
“They’re waiting in line for these?” Starks asks, seeing a pair of “Panda” Nike Dunks for the first time. “I don’t get it, they’re just black and white.” It almost seems like a put-on until you see his face, with equal parts shock and disgust. It’s not that the world’s leading athletic brand is beneath him; he’s looking for a pair of new trainers to lift in. It simply falls in line with his refusal to be stagnant, to operate within everyone else’s expectations. If we all can do something, he really doesn’t find it worth doing. He’s dedicated; he’ll show up to a social event, remove himself for two hours to go train, and come back. Wrestlers are the size of linebackers in a 4-3 defense less and less often now, so his 200-pound frame falls in line with today’s aesthetic, but maintaining that aspect is just the beginning of what goes into the totality of what he strives to present.
He prides himself as a man of style. An hour before the “Panda” incident, he spent a typical car note at the Gucci store. He sat down to a nice lunch, paid for by a female admirer. His go-to cologne is Le Labo. He covets Takashi Murakami’s “Superflatism” and Brian Donnelly’s KAWS figurines. He’ll wander for ages around high-end furniture stores, looking for the right end table, the right loveseat. Everything outside of the ring is precise, calculated; an exercise in control and presentation. But once that camera is on, everything’s a feeling, everything’s an urge, it’s about what’s right for the moment.
Starks speaks highly of his time with the National Wrestling Alliance and gives that platform credit for helping to hone his style. “That was all me!” he exclaims, reflecting on his time on the throwback soundstage format of the NWA. “None of that was written for me, none of that was presented to me.” He acknowledges what that time did for guys like him, coworker Eddie Kingston, WWE’s Max Dupri, and others. “I enjoyed that crowd,” he says. “You go to see up close what worked, what made people react, what got them interested.” It’s been a valuable stepping stone for the aforementioned wrestlers, a literal and figurative podium and be as loud, as brash, and as opinionated as possible with very little direction. Now, Starks has carried that over to a larger audience. “Nothing’s put down for me, everything you’re hearing is me,” he says. “There are some things that are workshopped or approved, but every word is mine.”
Those words meant something, as he acknowledges that even though his actions weren’t always favorable, the reaction was. “I don’t think people ever really wanted to boo me,” Starks says. “My interactions with people they liked always had a bit of a reaction, and attacking someone they liked, they wouldn’t cheer, but when it was just me talking? That was almost always favorable. They like my energy, they know I mean what I’m saying and that it’s coming directly from me.”
The appreciation of his style, his authenticity, as well as his acknowledgment of time spent and friends lost, came to a head on the Aug. 24, 2022, edition of AEW Dynamite when Starks was given a live mic, a dedicated audience, and the time to express his feelings. He doesn’t talk much about his career-threatening neck injury from April 2021 anymore. Of the incident, the other party, and the fallout, he simply says, “Once we talked about it, we understood where each other were coming from, and that was it.” While mature in a window where others have fallen apart, you can still see the winces, the teeth-gritting, and the overall sense of dread whenever he takes a suplex, a DDT, and most recently, a club to the back of the neck, courtesy of his now-AEW All Out opponent—and former Team Taz stablemate and tag team partner—Powerhouse Hobbs. Moved to actual tears, Starks said he treated Hobbs as an equal, not just a heavy to protect him, and he couldn’t forgive his former partner for attacking his neck.
This ability to be wholly vulnerable in the moment, while also maintaining an edge, is that superpower Starks used as both a Southern-territory-style grappler from yesteryear and as a young, in-tune act who can set social media ablaze with a sub-three-minute promo. He’s seen the outcry on the timeline over his declaration of facing Hobbs. It’s not just from the late-20s guy or the “headed to senior year” girl. It’s not just the Fortnite kids or their moms, closely guarding their Apple Store accounts. Starks has noticed that he’s getting a positive reaction from everyone—young and old, new and seasoned, the informed and willfully aloof. He attributes it to retaining his past while living in his now. He grew up in a household that played Anita Baker and Luther Vandross when it was time to clean on the weekends. So when it’s time for the pain, when it’s time to push out that genuine emotion, that’s “Caught Up in the Rapture,” that’s “Talk to Me,” that’s “Here and Now.” He understands the duality, and how that not only makes him stand out as an act, but also makes him relatable in a way that can’t always be specified.
“I can stand on my own feet; I don’t need any man’s mahogany desk to prop me up.” —Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
When asked about Team Taz, Ricky speaks like the fun cousin that “takes you for a walk” at the cookouts. It’s an interesting space: Mentored by Taz, the Extreme Championship Wrestling legend/WWE veteran who’s been successful both in the ring and across from it, Team Taz featured Brian Cage (who already had national TV exposure with both Lucha Underground and Impact Wrestling) alongside Starks, the aforementioned Hobbs (who has been wrestling since 2009 but got his first real notoriety with AEW), and Hook, Taz’s enigmatic son who says little and tolerates less.
The others possess some of the same traits Starks does, but those traits combined to make him the frontman more often than not. Like Cage, Ricky’s had some broad exposure before AEW, with the previously mentioned NWA, and some on-air spots with WWE between 2013 and 2018 (including a Ryback segment we don’t talk about, and a Roman Reigns segment he loves to talk about). Like Hobbs, he spent lots of time honing his talent on the indies (Hobbs started wrestling three years before Starks, who hit the decade mark this year) with promotions like WrestleCircus and Inspire Pro Wrestling. And like Hook, there’s more you don’t know about him than you do, and he’s avoided any bad runs/booking with previous promotions—both in front of and behind the cameras—to put any type of stain on his future. Starks respects and acknowledges each person’s contributions to the group, but doesn’t necessarily feel like anyone was the “leader.”
“Obviously Cage had some TV experience with Lucha Underground and Impact, and at the time he was the more experienced one between me and him. With the addition of Hobbs, I think that was just a case of Hobbs’s attitude fit with the group,” he says. “The only person that really was the oddball in that whole thing was me, and I think a lot of people from day one really didn’t see how I could mesh within that group, just based on who we had in there. So in my opinion, I think with the different types of personalities we had, it still worked out. And it was going to work out either way because I was adamant about it working out.”
Then there’s the matter of the FTW title, Team Taz’s version of the good controller when the fellas come over to play (ambulance on the field after an injury-era) Madden. Created by Taz in 1998, the “Fuck the World Championship” was Taz’s response to then-ECW Champion Shane Douglas’ nagging injury (his elbow was dust at this point) preventing Taz from challenging him for the title for six months. He’d introduce the gold-plated, orange leather belt as a de facto world title, losing it only once in the seven months before he unified it with the ECW Championship and no longer used it, or even acknowledged it. It was revived in AEW in 2020, and awarded to Brian Cage. Instability in the group’s direction put Cage on the outs, and after 377 days, Starks defeated Cage (and would go on to hold the title for 378 days, the exact level of petty Starks aspires to). While not the menacing, cursing, ultraviolent wrecking ball that was Taz, the FTW title still fit Starks from an attitude standpoint. His Dynamite promo after losing the belt wasn’t just talk; he really believes in what he accomplished during his run, and noticed the similarities in his work in AEW to what Taz was doing back in 1998. “I’m not saying I embodied exactly Taz’s frustrations … at ECW,” he says. “But my frustrations and whatnot were a little bit more up-to-date, especially for a title that is unsanctioned, and especially for a title that people really didn’t look at as much of anything. But I held the title and it was something, and it is something.”
“You will find that even injustice is scarcely worthy of what you believe yourself to be.” —Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Or better yet, the Brahma bull in the china shop. Ricky Starks is stylish, fit, and ethnically ambiguous, with a dark tuft of hair on top of a fade. He can’t escape a show, signing, or even the timeline without someone comparing him to, or in some cases even suggesting he is, in fact, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. He’d like to clear one thing up: “I really don’t [hate the comparison]. In fact, it’s a huge compliment to have. I think there’s a misconception that I hate the comparison; I actually don’t. What I hate about the comparison sometimes is people say, ‘You steal the Rock. You try to be just like …’ And it’s like, I actually don’t. The Rock was never ... the Rock was no. 3 on my list of favorite wrestlers; Undertaker was no. 1. So when people try to discredit my talents because they think I’m trying to be someone else, that’s when I have an issue with it. Yesterday, I went to this event and people are like, ‘You remind me of …’ They always have to put an era of Rock on it for some reason, like ‘the Nation of Domination Rock’ or something like that. But then I get people who say, ‘You just remind me of a young Rock.’ And I go, ‘That’s really nice. That’s really cool,’ because at least that’s a connection that you have.”
Probably the biggest difference you’ll see between a young Rock and what the Absolute presents is the firm attachment to his interests. While a fan of the singers of his mother’s early Saturday mornings, the more contemporary artists he’s into shed a lot of light on the Ricky Starks he presents to the world. He won’t stop playing Kanye West’s Donda, and continues to rotate British songstress Cleo Sol’s two albums, Rose in the Dark and Mother. But his favorite currently: former Sonder frontman Brent Faiyaz’s Wasteland, equal parts harsh and concrete in his lyrics. It’s a fun coincidence that the EP Faiyaz released before the album was appropriately titled Fuck the World. This very much mirrors Ricky’s personality, passion with purpose, and being succinct when called on to get serious.
He doesn’t say things to be mean, he says them because of what he’s thinking. “If that’s how they feel, why shouldn’t they say it?” he asks about a now infamous past dispute in his company’s ranks. He genuinely feels that if what you have to say isn’t meant to hurt, it’s fair game, and that even if it hurts a little, it’s better to hear the truth early instead of catching it too late. Much more like his favorite Deadman than the People’s Champ, he’s not one to attach a lot of words to a very specific point, but he’ll do his damndest to get a reaction as long as it’s in line with how he’s feeling at the time. The inherent selfishness of being a one-of-one isn’t a negative, but a selling point to solidify yourself as something special, something unique. Faiyaz and Starks are both fully aware of who they are, with no intentions of doing anything different, but doing what they’ve been doing to the best of their ability. Lyrics like “I know that I’ve been the worst / But I’ll love you better / If you let me / Let’s catch a flight, change the weather / And I promise forever / All mine, all mine, yeah” could be about a woman, or that orange-and-gold prize Ricky Starks made matter again, 20 years after the fact.
“Man the sum of his climatic experiences.” —Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
“It was the Jay Lethal match, that was the one that let me know I could be a big contributor, I could stand on my own.” Ricky’s referring to his FTW title defense in February, when he realized the crowd was into his moves, his mannerisms, and his attitude. It was the first time he’d sat square across from a long legacy act that had been world champion elsewhere, but he was also the more established one in the promotion. When asked about competition between himself and newer acts (Swerve Strickland, Keith Lee, Malakai Black, and a few others come to mind), Starks says that hasn’t influenced any change, nor lit any fire that wasn’t already there. “I don’t approach it like someone’s out to take my spot—I’m doing great work, that’s my spot,” he says. “I like working with different people because I get to show more of what I can do, but I’m not playing up any jealousy or rivalry that’s there, I’m showcasing myself each time.”
When asked about that concept of time, he’s slow to answer. “I don’t have a six-month plan, a one-year plan, or a three-year plan,” Starks says. “I’ve done that before and watched everything around me change. I’m going to keep doing the things I do right, and let the rest fall into place.” The question adjusts to “where should you be?” and that’s when his eyes light up. “I’m there with Punk, I’m there with Moxley, and that’s very much something I believe,” he says. “I should be featured every week because I can do all the things anyone else can do—not some of them, all of them. I should be featured because I’m that good, and I know I’m that good. I told myself I’m not getting left off a pay-per-view going forward.”
Ricky Starks doesn’t look forward, but in the moment, and rarely wastes that moment doing something that won’t help, that won’t allow him to grow, that won’t allow him to be more, that won’t further his quest to be at the top of his game. The sound is easy to create, whether it be the noise of the crowd reacting to his facepalm/lean pose, the announcers exclaiming his name in victory, his boots stomping the mat in frustration. But the fury? The wild expression on his face when challenged, that extra gear he hits when a match is his for the taking, his desire to be the best every time he comes out of the tunnel? The fury is real, the fury is televised, and the fury is Absolute.
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.