Dax Harwood reads your tweets. He’s also having the best year of his career: As one half of FTR along with tag team partner Cash Wheeler, he’s currently the most decorated wrestler on the planet, holding tag team championships in three major promotions around the world (Ring of Honor, AAA, and New Japan Pro-Wrestling). FTR’s matches with the Briscoes are on a few shortlists for the best matches of the year, and they are presented as the standard for tag team wrestling by their home promotion, All Elite Wrestling. But he’s seen variations of “FTR is the best” for years, whether it’s at a show, a signing, or just a short conversation on social media, dating back to his time in WWE’s developmental brand, NXT. Now he’s processing a new claim, one he both never expected and won’t refute: Dax Harwood might be the best wrestler of 2022.
We talk about athletes being “students of the game” as a way to make up for the things they can’t do: Guy isn’t strong, so he works on leverage. Guy isn’t fast, so he zeroes in on technique. The “student” tag compliments the mind but tends to discount everything else. Harwood is a wrestling connoisseur. When he starts to talk about the matches that got him interested in wrestling, he’s not talking about the wins and losses; he’s going into detail about what you’re supposed to feel in the moment. His recent run of stellar singles matches are what’s really shifted the narrative on his stature in the industry, and he’s credited a few wrestlers from yesteryear for the style he’s adapted.
“Ricky Steamboat,” Hardwood begins while investigating a single loose strand on his impeccable red Bret Hart zip-up hoodie. “Obviously, everyone says he’s the greatest babyface; him or Ricky Morton tied for first. But you watch those two, Ricky Steamboat and Ricky Morton, the difference between them and a babyface who is hitting all of his moves and getting all of his stuff in, is when it’s time to get their stuff in. And I stole this and used it in the match with Claudio (Castagnoli, current Ring of Honor world champion). When it’s time for Steamboat to make his comeback again, you use this analogy: the hands are here.” He starts with both hands level. “People understand this, they can see this is equal.”
Here’s where that dedication to the art comes in. I’m sure if you had some sort of 1982 wrestling combine, Ricky Steamboat would earn high honors; it wasn’t but 13 years ago he was still able to turn in good matches with much younger talent. But the beauty of Steamboat was that he would allow his opponent to dominate much of the match, stage a small comeback, and get shot down just when it looked like he would break through. Sometimes this would happen four times in 20 minutes, sometimes 15 times in an hour. But the hope—the faith that he would overcome—put money in his pocket, the opponents’ and the promoter’s pockets, and smiles on the fan’s faces. Harwood starts dropping his right hand down ever so slightly as he gushes over the tactic. “But Steamboat,” he explains, “he stayed just under. Even if he made a small comeback with the chops, he would always chop but go back down and then chop and go back down. And then he’d start to flurry and then he’d have that heel cut him back down. That’s the true babyface. He fights back valiantly but gets cut down.”
Harwood’s championship match with Castagnoli has a background story you’ll miss if you got up to check the thermostat. Castagnoli is currently being managed/mentored by William Regal, a long-respected British wrestler, and Harwood’s former on-screen boss in NXT. At Harwood’s request, their relationship was touched on prior to the match. Again, it’s the details he’s adding that are almost “secret show” clues for the most dedicated of fans. “It was surreal. We were talking about the promo beforehand, and I said, ‘Mr. Regal, I would like for you to talk and touch on the personal relationship we have. Twelve or 13 years ago, you got me my job, and I would like for you to talk about that as we’re taping with Mark Henry.’ He’s saying these things for 30 seconds or whatever, and man, I’m having all these flashbacks. And that sounds cliche, but I’m being honest. I have all these flashbacks, like not having enough money to drive to the tryout again at a time [when] they weren’t hiring good wrestlers. Him having enough confidence in a 5-foot-10 nobody, and I mean nobody as a person, but also [having] no body.” And this is part of the reason you previously hadn’t heard of David/Dax Harwood/Scott Dawson unless you knew the distance between UNC and Duke; he couldn’t afford the trip to appear at shows.
Harwood is a proud graduate of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where he majored in Business Communications and minored in English (he’s quite literally run through a brick wall for fair wages for teachers). If he were a Power Rangers guy in his youth, he’d describe himself as an Ultra Mega senior by the time he had enough credits to earn his degree. “I’m so glad that I took the path that I have taken because it’s got me to where I’ve gotten, and I’m so blessed to have the life that I have, the family that I have, the job that I have. But, man, maybe at the time, I wish it was a little easier than what it was.” Harwood’s parents were both assisting him with his college tuition and he was working part-time while also training to wrestle. Like most American college students in the early 2000s, Harwood and his family were affected by the looming recession. Both of his parents lost their jobs in the same year and were unable to assist with tuition going forward. To pay for school and training, Dax would hold three jobs at once, often sleeping in his car near or on campus between shifts to fulfill all of his responsibilities.
It’s this fight, this desire to succeed, that caught Regal’s eye. Harwood had a brief stint in the Carolinas, then got a chance to wrestle for ZERO1 in Japan. Regal, working at the time in a scouting role for WWE, contacted Harwood while he was wrestling in Japan to participate in NXT’s 2012 tryouts. He was signed almost immediately, with “I’ve never seen you” being both understood and appreciated as Regal’s initial vote of confidence. The tryout was also his first meeting with Cash Wheeler. The two formed a tag team called the Revival, and almost immediately Harwood adopted the role of big brother to some of the other teams in their class, most notably Chad Gable and Jason Jordan, known as American Alpha. Harwood speaks glowingly about Gable in particular, as the two have maintained a close friendship despite working for different companies. “Obviously I have the utmost respect for those two guys. And me and Chad Gable, we’re best friends now. If you ask [Gable and Jordan], that period that we worked with them, we were working on house shows for 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour every night. I’m talking about Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, sometimes Sundays, too. We put together their offense for them because they trusted us and they allowed us to teach them, because they knew, ‘OK, this is a whole different environment for us. And now we’re going to let these guys take the reins.’” This sense of pride in taking the lead in matches is a recurring theme, and can be seen in 2022 singles wrestler Dax Harwood. “People said, ‘Holy shit, those guys are the ones bumping around for them. They’re the ones putting themselves in positions for these moves. They’re the ones sacrificing their stature as men to make these babyfaces look good.’ Because we know, as heels, to make a babyface look good. The better we make the babyface look, the more that people will get behind that babyface, which in turn will allow them to dislike us more.”
A pitfall you can face being able to help others is being typecast as “the help,” which hindered the Revival after they eventually graduated to WWE’s main roster. “But yeah, man, I don’t know,” Dax reflects as he slowly takes in a sip of brown liquor from his glass. “We got to the main roster, and things happened on the main roster, but Vince [McMahon] never saw [us] as anything [other than] helping teach the guys. For example, Heavy Machinery (the team of Otis and Tucker); we were working with them on all the house shows, and teaching them. They were very young, but very good. They had great potential, both of them, but we were tasked with teaching them tag team wrestling. And when you get stuck in that, you never move from that position. That, in turn, is the reason we asked for a release after a year and a half.”
The release from WWE was both a blessing and a curse to Harwood’s professional aspirations. It gave Wheeler and Harwood the ability to explore new opponents across the world, but also stopped them from having the highest level of what Harwood now describes as his dream match. American wrestling is in somewhat of a tag team boom, mostly credited to FTR’s on-screen bizarro brethren, the Young Bucks. (The name FTR is a play on the fourth-wall-breaking tirades that the Bucks would give on their YouTube series Being the Elite that would include things like “Fuck the Revival” prior to Harwood and Wheeler signing with AEW.) The Young Bucks, the Lucha Bros, and the Briscoes lead the pack, with other teams also providing great matches and compelling feuds. But there’s a team in WWE that’s still an itch Harwood needs to scratch. “I’m asking you to include that. I’m not saying I want to go back to WWE to wrestle, [but] I think they’ll go down as the greatest team in WWE history.” He’s referring to the Usos, WWE’s current, reigning, undisputed tag team champions. Harwood and Wheeler had a brief run against the Usos before their release, their biggest match being less than 10 minutes. The feud was built on the Revival being very serious, while the Usos played sophomoric jokes on them, the most egregious being “Ucey Hot” pain ointment (which Harwood expressed he did not mind). “But man, could you imagine 2022 Usos and 2022 FTR? That’s my dream match right now. And maybe one day it can happen, and if not, it’s just a pipe dream.”
As far as pipe dreams go, one of Harwood’s would find its way to fruition in line at a Starbucks. He happened to be there at the same time as CM Punk, former WWE champion and the biggest signing (and possibly biggest obstacle) in AEW history to date. They’d been cordial at that point, but weren’t talking about much in the way of the actual on-screen product. Punk, who had been all things in wrestling—from upstart to indie darling, cult leader to fiery truth teller—was transitioning into maybe his most important role: living legend trying to overcome time and find glory once more. Punk’s matches to date had been close by design, with him trying to figure out how to survive a game reserved for the young and hungry. So it makes sense that, given Harwood’s ability to make those across from him shine, a CM Punk still trying to find his footing in 2022 would look to him for help.
“He just happened to walk in at the same time,” Harwood remembers. “We sat together and we drank coffee and he said, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ I said, ‘Man, I have no idea. I don’t know what I’m doing.’ He said, ‘Me either. You want to have a match?’ And we had talked about it, and I was like, ‘Yeah, of course. I’d love to have a match.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I think I want to have a match with you.’ And I said, ‘well, let’s do it.’” While Harwood figured he’d hear back in a couple of weeks, Punk works quickly. “He texted me about an hour later while I’m at the gym like, ‘Hey, man, we’re going to have a match.’”
The fast track to the match didn’t leave much room for planning and prep, and Punk having the eye for talent that he does, he let talent take the wheel. “The whole day I’m thinking, OK, this is CM Punk. Right now he and I are peers,” Harwood says. “In my mind, we’re looking face to face. He’s not any better than me. Nobody is any better than me.” Harwood stops, his excitement turning to understanding and reflection. “In my mind, I’m also thinking, this is a legit Hall of Fame act. This is a man who is going to go down as one of the greatest of all time. And as long as I’m in the ring with him and I can keep up with him and the people can think that Dax Hardwood can keep up with him, that elevates my stock.
“Punk said, ‘Hey, I’m just going to listen to you,’” Harwood continues. “I’m like, holy shit. This is the guy who’s been doing it since , former world heavyweight champion and Hall of Fame-level talent, incredible matches, and he’s going to listen to me.”
Punk clearly has a great ear, as this bout is one of the more beloved AEW TV matches of the year, praised by critics and fans alike. Punk himself said that match is “the dragon I’m now chasing. I’m trying to replicate that feeling I had after that match,” giving it the distinction of being “the most perfect match” that he’s had. Harwood is quick to mention that he’s done something similar with Sting, the biggest babyface act to come out of WCW. Sting is AEW’s most celebrated legend for his career success, his ties with Turner Broadcasting System networks, and his brief WWE run a few years prior. While once supremely athletic, both age and injuries have changed Sting’s in-ring style. Harwood saw this as a challenge more than a limitation, and going into the tag match pitting FTR against Sting and Darby Allin at New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium, told the legend how he could add to his legacy. “I went to [Sting] a week before Arthur Ashe and I said, ‘If you’ve ever wanted to have a 30-minute match, Arthur Ashe was the match.’ I said ‘I know Sting better than Sting. I promise you that I’ll do my best to make you look better than you ever have.’ And he trusted me, and allowed me and Cash to call that match.”
In the midst of these great matches, Harwood is winning while not actually winning. He’s the one losing these highly-rated matches, and losing them in what some call the worst way: by submission. He’s 2-7 in singles matches in 2022, losing three by submission, but what some people see as a weakness, he sees as a long-term plan, which he explains best through his match with Punk. “I told him, ‘I want to tap out to you.’ And the reason was because I felt the shift of change with the fans and I felt them starting to get sympathy for [FTR] and starting to like us. If I tapped out to him, I knew I could do it in a way that would make the fans feel even more sympathetic to me. [I] tapped out to Claudio. I tapped out to Adam Cole. Jungle Boy. I tapped out to Punk, I tapped out all my singles matches. Some guys are apprehensive about tapping out because they think it makes them look weak, but I know I can build myself around the tapout and make the people feel even more sorry for me and more sympathetic for me.”
As Harwood covers his career, newfound appreciation as a singles act, and the matches he’s looking forward to, he stops mid-thought. “I gotta tell my wife something real quick.” He stops, looks up, and gives her his full attention while they discuss dinner plans. He looks back at me, and I let him know I’d need about 15 more minutes of his time. He nods, thanks her, tells her he loves her, and comes back to the interview. It’s not just what’s happening between the bells that’s drawing people to Dax Harwood, it’s the channeling of his real-life appreciation for his people that’s made him the talk of the community. When asked what he’d want Wheeler to say about him at a potential Hall of Fame induction, his wishes are simple: an incredible husband, an incredible father, and a man who stands for what he believes in.
To say the Harwoods are tough would be like calling trigonometry “tough.” Trigonometry has formulas you can follow, calculators you can use, and people that will just give you the answers. Harwood doesn’t say it at first, but as he starts to talk about support and relationships, he makes it known that his parents were separated for most of his life. Their desire to still support his dreams even though they were apart stuck with him and influenced his devotion to his wife and daughter, respectively. His daughter Finley previously suffered from a congenital heart defect, which no longer ails her. In a heartfelt speech en route to their pay-per-view match against the Briscoes at Ring of Honor’s Death Before Dishonor, he coined the phrase “fight like an eight-year-old girl” to celebrate her clean bill of health. Putting action to audacity, they put the phrase on a t-shirt and donated 100 percent of the proceeds to the American Heart Association.
When talking about his wife, Dax speaks with an appreciative concreteness, almost as if not knowing her is a surprise to him. “Her and I were just standing and we were moving from our old house to a new house, and we’re staying in our old house, standing in our old house while moving things, and her and I were hugging and we were talking, and I was like, ‘Babe, I’m so glad 10 years later, I love you more than I loved you when I married you.’ My mom and dad didn’t have a great relationship at all, and they divorced. Her mom and dad, same thing.” Dax began dating Maria Nickopoulos in college, and the two were married in 2012. Her support through both college and his career puts a smile under Dax’s mustache every time he looks back on those times. Depending on the company you work for, you can be on the road anywhere for three to six days out of the week, leaving very little time for things like homework, dates, even simple check-ins about how you feel. “She had to have this unique trust in me to be around all these beautiful women, but also travel the world, meet new people,” Harwood says. “She had to have this trust in me, and that’s never been lost on me. And then on top of that, I had my perfect daughter. My wife stays home all the time while I have to travel the world and she has to stay home and do all the work. And I get to live my dream. She teaches our daughter. She takes care of the house, she takes care of the bills, she takes care of all the hard stuff. Why would I not be indebted to her? And so, being able to talk about that, how could I not tell the truth? Every morning I’m trying to preach and I say [a bunch of words too hot for even AEW TV].”
What he’s actually saying is more than just the words he’s using; it’s in his actions. Dax Harwood shows more wrestling skill through vulnerability and the acceptance of imperfection than most show arguing with their employers about “looking strong” en route to money, fame, and titles. “I’m just a wrestling nerd,” he says. “I’ve watched it my whole life, and I’ve seen what works and I’ve seen what doesn’t work, and what works is watching Bret Hart just sell. He’s working with Diesel, and he starts selling, and the people start to turn a little bit and start cheering for Bret. And in my mind, I’m like, holy shit, that’s it. That’s the key, is selling. So that match with Punk, there were times where I just started to sell and the people started to get with me after the match. I sat on my ass, looked at the hard cam in the corner, and shook my head because I wanted the people to feel sorry for me because I busted my ass, almost beat one of the greatest of all time, but I didn’t. Because how many people in this world have not succeeded at something? Everybody.”
This is the key—he’s not preaching, he’s living it. Through his medium, his way, he’s actively showing you that being the very best doesn’t always mean coming out on top, but it means giving everything when you receive the call. “They don’t know what a fucking 450 feels like. They don’t know what a Go To Sleep feels like, or a Sharpshooter or whatever. But they know what failure feels like, and they know what frustration feels like. If I can get that emotion out of them, man, I got them. That, to me, is—I don’t want to say Wrestler of the Year, because that’s too much patting on the back. But that, to me, is what is special about professional wrestling and being a wrestler.”
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.