AEW: Double or Nothing Pre Show

AEW: Double or Nothing Pre Show

Like a lot of single, unemployed 36-year-old men, I am a big fan of the art of Professional Wrestling, and in 2019, it has never been a better time to be an art buff. New promotions are hardly news, nobody even bothered to read the press release for my one based around stop-motion teddy bears, but when one has the backing of a billionaire and several of the saner sounding performers, the world takes notice. And so it was that Double or Nothing, from the newly minted All Elite Wrestling, burst into life. Technically their second stab at it, this one serves as a kind of pilot for what will be a series proper, and, as this is a rare opportunity, I decided to write about it. If for no other reason than nobody else I know pays attention to wrestling and there’s only so much a bus stranger is willing to tolerate.

As it is new, I am going into this fairly raw. While it’s impossible not to be aware of a lot of the roster, I have consciously avoided doing any research on anyone, as I want to receive the performance as AEW’s new creative world intends. Additionally, except the battle royal, this will not be a strict blow-by-blow recount of events. This is closer to critique than news, so it is expected that you’ll have a working knowledge of the work being discussed.

I’ll also be discussing my expectations of things going into them. I tend to only see this in discussions around wrestling (and other media besides) when something has failed terribly or succeeded wildly, but it’s an important thing to discuss in general. This is because it gives readers a way to frame their understanding of a critical point.

What I mean by this last bit is that when someone says something is Great and you say it’s Good, they’ll only see the relative difference between those two points and not the fact that the thing being discussed is still of a high quality. Basically, if you jump up and down, telling me something is the best thing ever, that’s the bar set, so even something very good is going to fall below that. I’ve been through this dozens of times with dozens of things, most notably with Breaking Bad and Bioshock: Infinite, and I don’t expect it to work but I’ll go to my grave trying.

The Name

I am already not a big fan of the All Elite Wrestling moniker. As a standalone, it’s overdone. Nobody would expect Partially Elite Wrestling or Frequently Elite Wrestling, so All is an odd determiner to use. As a reference to the name of the core group of wrestle-friends who are producing it, it’s a tad on the nose and brings up minor concerns regarding a dominant group both booking and wrestling for a promotion. All this said, AE-Dub is a fairly innocuous initialism so these are minor points.

The Buy-In

Having some basic shit going on to keep the early arrivals busy is one thing, but I’m finding the increasing complexity and plot relevance of pre-shows to be counter to the idea. If it were a series of single matches, or even a battle royal, that just introduced some potential hires to an audience who may never have seen them, that’s one thing, but that there’s a stipulation (winner gets a shot at the belt) means this is critical to AEW’s fledgling narrative world and so having it exist as a diminished, separate pre-show is a mistake.

My expectations for this are just a bit above average. A battle royal is not the format for deeper narrative expression, and the chaos of that many people lends itself toward sloppy spots, so they’re always a mixed bag. I expect a bit more than say, the WWE, though, as this is a new fed with a less restricted move set and many young up-and-comers all trying to make a good impression. I am predicting this will lead to some fun spots that will elevate it above the somewhat messy nature of the match type. Otherwise, this will be thoughts-as-I-go with a little pausing for an idea or two.

And we’re off.

I like Excalibur from about go, never heard of him before this but he has a good voice for this and seems to know what he’s talking about. Alex Marvez looks and talks like the audience is the principal and he’s explaining why the school dress code doesn’t apply to him. I’m giving them some leeway, though, as things like commentary chemistry can’t be forced. Dryness or some quiet moments will be largely ignored, but anything worse is cause for concern.

TOO MANY RULES. Fucking hell, this feels like Wrestlers of Catan and all to fit the casino motif is absolutely not worth it. Why are there groups? Are these functioning as teams? I don’t feel like any of this will be meaningfully relevant to the way the match flows either so the whole thing is like taking 2 minutes to explain Uno to the audience before Avengers starts.

Starting with guys in the ring already is a bit of a bummer too, but one I’ll let slide. The roster is hardly set yet so having fully organised entrance themes/videos to bind them to is beyond fair expectation.

Okay, so the clubs are in the ring, oh and Excalibur is explaining that yes, the rules are needlessly complicated and this is a basic battle royal. Of the clubs there’s Sid Haig fresh of a Simpsons cameo, my Christopher Daniels CAW, my Akira Tozawa CAW, a guy with no legs, and MJF who looks like the anime main character in a crowd shot already. Michael Nakazawa gets a good reaction from the audience, but I’ve otherwise little to go on.

MJF reminds me of a rich lady’s corgi with that scarf and he is absolutely a guy who had a trollface pic as his avi on a message board somewhere.

Marvez is talking and I realize I haven’t understood a word of it. He’s the perfect white noise, I have achieved Buddha nature and returned only to finish this article and be a bodhisattva.

LOOKS LIKE IT’S TIME TO OIL UP! Excalibur helpfully telling me that the man using baby oil uses baby oil. Nakazawa and MJF both conduct themselves with a very strong sense of character so they’re standing out already. Actual Hakan reference from Excalibur so his stock is only getting higher.

The battle royal problem is already emerging. When there’s not a lot of guys in the ring, it’s everybody taking a nap while the spot happens. This puts a lot on the spot to be enough to distract me from this fact but starting with the funny stuff is a good plan as it gives the violence somewhere to go.

MJF looks like Colt Cabana fucked Matt Striker.

Nothing is happening for a long time and it’s boring. They need to be filling the ring at this point. Pacing means you can’t have these guys doing the fun shit yet, but that means I’m watching MJF and Simp Haig coordinate stomping. There’s neither character nor athleticism and there’s not much left of wrestling if you take those two away.

Hey more people.

Brian Pillman Jr with a mullet that makes him look like Ricky Morton Jr, a guy called Isiah Cassidy who is swiftly kicked over by Brian, and Jimmy Havoc. Havoc looks exactly like this emo guy I met in Melbourne who kept trying to talk me into a threesome with him and a girl that I was 100% sure didn’t exist. Oh, and Joey Janela, who looks like a last-minute Macho Man costume. Clustered entrances like this are novel, and at least they’re doing something with it, but this is still change for its own sake as opposed to whether it meaningfully benefits the format.

Hey, it’s Stan, or Sean Spears, another WWE refugee. He hits the ring and the wrestlers are allowed to start being interesting again. There is a very good argument to be made that AEW can’t just absorb every underused WWE guy, but it is nice to see the audience getting into Spears.

Man, they’re making up for it being empty earlier. Another minute and now another full pile-o-dudes heading down. Jungle Boy is the son of the recently deceased Luke Perry, which is odd for people of my age bracket because Luke Perry was the name synonymous with hot dudes for ages. His kid looks like a Tarzan twink in a gay escort catalogue. This isn’t a bad thing, though, as it’s nice to see genuine youth on a roster. It’s particularly helpful here as he’s countering the age of Billy Gunn and, of all people, fucking Glacier. As a huge Mortal Kombat fan, I was so into Glacier back in the day, so this is nice.

An orange guy who seems to care about Isiah emerges with them along with oh my fucking god what is that!

Acey looks like Kirby swallowed Samoa Joe. I hope he’s athletic fat and not just one of the barely-ambulatory physical oddities that promotions like to add to the roster. What a mighty Chungus! I bet he’s the athletic fat so I’m looking forward to him pulling out a moonsault or something.

Joey Janela sells a Jungle Boy headscissor take down like RVD sells a piledriver and things are picking up a little.

I know the rules are “over the top rope” but I still feel that letting anyone on the outside for too long clutters the match visual. Outside the ring is where the losers are, having to keep track of who went out but not the bad way is poor storytelling. The most we can get out of it is the “guy sneaks back in” bit which is the kind of shitty cliché AEW said they were avoiding.

Nak is out and GLACIER HAS ICE MIST! It should have been blue or something, right now it looks like he’s just HHH spitting in people’s faces. AEW’s reality level is veering more toward the mixed variety, with New Japan as the sport and Lucha Underground as the comic book as poles. I like this blend, and it can be managed perfectly well as Undertaker demonstrates.

Okay. In the space of 3 seconds we have: a plot relevant event of Glacier being tossed and a confrontation between MJF and Billy Gunn; and a novelty spot of Janela having a lit cigarette stapled to his head. The camera doesn’t catch that second one which is staggeringly bad production. If someone stapled something to my head to get attention, I’d want people to see it. Also, it should have been something else. Janela lighting a cigarette in the middle of a battle royal is dumb unless nicotine is his spinach. They’re still looking at Billy Gunn’s foreskin-y head when I hear the staple gun go off again and a woman scream.

Here come the spade – HOLY SHIT THE ORANGE BLACK GUYS DID A LEAPING TOP ROPE HURRICANRANA TO CUTTER! Again, this happens in the bottom right corner. This is a good example of fault within structure and not fault inherent to structure. Napping wrestlers while stuff happens is effectively inevitable. Not being organised enough to have your cameras on major spots isn’t.

I’m a fan of Luchasaurus from his Lucha Underground days so it’s nice to see him. I—okay someone’s angry aunty is barrelling down the ramp like they’ve just seen someone in the ring attempt to vaccinate a child.

Apparently that’s Marko Stunt and he’s 5’2. Sonny Kiss looks like the kind of guy who makes being gay their whole character while simultaneously railing against having characters defined by their sexuality. Like if Russel T Davies wrote a Bayard Rustin biopic. And everyone’s favourite brain damaged uncle, Tommy Dreamer. Neat-o.

Stunt is a fascinating height and weight combo. Like, clearly not a midget, but doesn’t look like an adult at all. It’s legitimately like watching someone bash a child from the outer suburbs.

Acey had been standing still for so long he blended into the horizon, but the suicide dive was nice. Luchasaurus rolls into the ring and literally lays there. This doesn’t stand out enough to look like anything deliberate, as though he were playing possum or something, it just looks like he edits a later spot into a part where it makes no sense.

Tommy Dreamer lobbing bin parts into the ring and hitting Luchasaurus is fun, gives a sense of genuine chaos as opposed to a bunch of separate theatre sports groups trying not to bump into each other. Now everyone lines up for their concussion syndrome.

As someone who loathes Vince McMahon’s bodybuilder fetish, it’s good to see a lot of smaller guys running around AEW. That said, Luchasaurus is a good and necessary counterpoint. No behemoths can be as dull as only behemoths, and some of my favourite matches are between different sizes. Case in point, the double choke slam on Private Party, watching a big guy try to do that to two also big guys is always sloppy.

Adam Page looks like if Tumblr drew Stone Cold. I know very little of him, aside from some NJPW work, and nothing has really stood out. Knowing that AEW intends to make him something big ups the expectation. His run to the ring and immediate dominance are a good opportunity to explore the difference between a story demonstrating something using its tools and storytellers relying on external tropes.

The two main tools wrestling has are the wrestlers and the commentators, what one does the other can elaborate on. Page comes down and starts beating people left-right-and-centre, why? He is not visually different, he’s not huge or anything that would otherwise set him apart and explain this, even Dreamer had his bin lid. Page even has a limiting factor, an injury, so we need to know why he can do so well.

Is it because he is the last guy out? Makes perfect sense, but the commentary doesn’t mention this to confirm it as part of the narrative, so we’re left with a guy doing the Top Tier battle royal clean-out just because. The audience never sees a reason why Page is this big deal, and the commentary never supplements our ignorance. He doesn’t even have the external record, like Moxley, to lean on. AEW hasn’t told us why Page is the new IT guy, there just has to be one and we know he’s been picked. This is narrative structure, trope, doing work that storytelling tools should be doing.

Conversely, Moxley and Juice Robinson have an upcoming match in NJPW and the first thing that fed did was address the fact that the pair fought when their new big guy, Juice, was an NXT jobber. Juice addressed this himself, via NJPW’s more sport like interview narrative tool, and stressed that prior jobbings were irrelevant, as he has trained very hard and changed a lot since then. This is using established narrative elements to explain why someone who was a jobber in one fed is a high tier guy in another, and why an upcoming match will be more competitive than prior ones.

This Page thing stands out a little more as he’s a friend of the people who run everything, and so far, that’s my biggest alarm going into AEW. Anything even veering in the direction of All Elite Wrestling being All About the Elite Wrestling is a concern.

Jungle Boy is trying to choke Chungus and it reminds me of the time I RNCd a huge Samoan neighbour.

Marko Stunt’s whole career is going to be getting thrown very long distances and I hope he makes tonnes of money doing it.

There’s gotta be a no-armed wrestler we can tape the no leg guy to. Dustin Thomas does a 619 and a neat slingshot 450, but the fact remains that there’s no viable way to have him be more than a novelty act.

Another storytelling thing, how does Brandon Cutler have the wherewithal to reverse Gunn AFTER he’s eaten a finisher? No-sells are okay in the tiniest of doses and for very specific narrative reasons. Cutler’s just some guy and he’s fine so I suppose the Assman’s ass ain’t what it used to be.

Per the Page point, Sleepy the Zen Commentator emphasises that MJF is doing well because he is a crafty opportunist. This fits with his dickbag persona and so now we have a meshing of personality and combat tactics which leaves us with a well-rounded wrestling character. I know what sort of things to expect from MJF, how he may structure situations and matches, or which ones may benefit him. These are proper storytelling tools.

Janela goes through a table in the best way possible. It looks like it was head first but I think he’s okay so it’s fine. While I’m on them, these tables are great. Wrestling tables run the gamut from Lucha Underground’s gimmicked and delicate ones to any rando indy fed using a veteran hall’s slab of oak that doubles as a bomb shelter. These are a great mix, solid looking but they break well.

Sonny Kiss gets Dreamer in a move I can only describe as the “Ha Ha, You’re Gay”, so I may have been wrong about some aspect of my earlier impression of him.

WRESTLING CANON ADDITION! Gay guy butts are the butt equivalent of Samoan guy heads. If you are hit by one, you lose, and even a straight butt user like Taguchi loses if his butt connects with gay butt.

I don’t know what an Orange Cassidy is or why he’s even in this match, but he amused me. Commentary explained him and his character better than they did Page.

Havoc bites fingers like the Melbourne emo tried to suck mine and we’re down to the meaty end of the royal, the characters who matter. See, this is how a battle royal can be used to create that upper tier, I now see these 4 guys –MJF, Luchasaurus, Havoc, and Page—as being the logical better guys by virtue of having fought their way to the most attention. Page still hasn’t leapt out though, as MJF has been in this thing from the start while he’s been napping for most of the 5 minutes he’s been in the ring.

Havoc busting out a shoryuken is neat. Luchasaurus’s low bridge was slow and lame.

Page’s buckshot lariat is a great move and something that would work better without a supposed knee injury. I want to emphasise, I have no issue with Page or his push. This is about me watching AEW and trying to learn about what it is and who is in it via what is presented. Page won with an injured leg, so I suppose he is pretty tough and has a lot of willpower. But he was the last entrant so he kind of had it easy. I know more about the character and wrestling styles of the not-quite-midgets, Twinkzans, gays, and various hardcore legends than I do the guy who won the thing.

Overall, the battle royal lived up to expectations. The modified rules are pointless and should be jettisoned. Change is only worthwhile if it adds anything and entrance interference is the sum gain from a needlessly complicated rule change so it’s not worth it. The match itself was the standard mix of fun spots and naptimes, but the overall plot arc of making Page the next title challenger was stunted by very poor characterisation.

Up next, Sammy Guevara and Kip Sabin. I have no idea who these two are so I’m looking forward to it. But that’s a tomorrow story.

By Gabe.

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