Relatability in wrestling can be a hard thing to capture.
I don’t just mean a connection with the audience. A wrestler’s entire momentum often hinges on their connection to the audience. Do they feel sympathy, love, anger, nonchalance? Do they care about the good guy rising above it all, do they care about the bad guy getting their just desserts? Sometimes that connection happens organically, by ways of a wrestler’s charisma or good storytelling. Other times, the hand has to be forced by, say, a well timed chair shot. Other times, the connection with the audience just doesn’t happen. But with a relatable wrestler, and a relatable story, that connection is there from the get-go.
Relatability does not need connection in order to exist, but an audience’s connection with a wrestler is often at its strongest when a wrestler and their story is innately relatable to the audience. And that’s a hard nut to crack in wrestling.
It’s more than an one-off gimmick, it’s more than just being an underdog, it’s more than just being a lovable good guy that the audience loves to cheer for: it’s being a person that the audience can relate to. A person that someone can find themselves in, see their own plight and their own struggles, their own hopes and dreams- not seeing someone else’s, but seeing their own, reflected in a wrestling ring. How do you begin to capture that process – begin to form a character that both translates well into the sheer absurdity of professional wrestling but is also grounded enough to be relatable to the audience?
Hangman Adam Page has, I believe, conquered this task.
I know what some of you are thinking, if you clicked on this article: oh God, not another personal essay about Hangman. There are floods of them, many different thoughts and opinions about one of All Elite Wrestling’s top babyfaces, but there seems to be a consensus amongst them: that we are witnessing something special unfold. We are witnessing the rise of, potentially, one of the greatest and most relatable professional wrestlers to step foot in a ring.
It wasn’t always like that. Hangman was the youngest member of the Elite; the one with the least amount of experience and accolades. His biggest accomplishment in the Bullet Club was winning a trios belt with the Young Bucks. His attempt at stepping forward and challenging Jay White- his moment in the spotlight- was cut short by Kenny Omega. Hangman faded into the background of the rich tapestry that was the Elite.
Initially, AEW shot Hangman straight to the top. Fresh off of NJPW, where he was Cody Rhodes’ attack dog, split firmly on the American Nightmare’s side during the fabled Bullet Club Civil War. Then, one of the first talent signed to the budding promotion. And then, All Out 2019. The big stage, the big moment. Hangman Adam Page, riding in on a horse, ready to become the inaugural champion of the company. A history maker, a history definer.
Only to come up short. Painfully short. The inciting moment that leads into one the greatest kayfabe spirals we’ve seen on television.
How do you deal with feeling unimportant, feel untalented- feeling unworthy? When you feel like your family, your closest friends, the people you love the most are all more successful than you are, are more talented than you? A classic tale of imposter syndrome.
And so, Hangman struggles. Sure, he wins the tag team championship belts with Kenny – but the Bucks also want those belts and are not afraid to push where it hurts in order to get them. After all, aren’t you just a failed singles star, pushed into a tag team with one of the greatest active wrestlers in the world? Isn’t he carrying you to victory?
And so, Hangman devolves into alcoholism. The fans are more than happy to fuel his addiction, handing him beers as he walks away from the ring. In fact, they cheer for it. And as the anxiety grows, as the insecurity grows, as Matt and Nick Jackson fight with him and Kenny can’t look at him, so does the drinking. So does the depression. So does the crippling anxiety.
And so, Hangman gets manipulated. FTR twist their claws into his brain, convince him that he needs to betray his friends in order to maintain the thing keeping him relevant. Convince him that his friends do not care about him- only about glory. And he falls for it. And then FTR take the belts, and the audience watches as Hangman’s only friend left in the world lets him fall on his face in the middle of a wrestling ring. Of course, all of this was, ultimately, the result of Hangman’s own actions, his own anxieties, his own inability to talk to his friends; his inability to confront and overcome his demons.
And so, Hangman hits rock bottom. Kenny tosses him aside and ignores him, and Hangman fights through a tournament in order to make Kenny see him. He loses, and then watches as his friends celebrate in the ring.
Once again, you have come up short. Once again, you are nothing in the grand scheme of things.
And sure, you can find new friends in the Dark Order, who lavish praise upon you, and you can slowly climb your way up in the rankings. You stand on the precipice of a match against your former partner, your former best friend, a man you loved, and suddenly you realize – you can’t. You can’t do it. You couldn’t do it before, you can’t do it now. Three people you loved most in the entire world, snarls on their faces, so different from the people you used to know, and you freeze.
You were never worthy. You have been lying to yourself.
At least, that’s what an anxiety ridden brain will tell you.
Right now, Hangman Page is inches away from challenging his former tag team partner, and former leader, for the World Title. He knows it, knows that this moment is do or die. But he’s failed before, come up short before, and in this moment, anxiety and uncertainty holds him captive. Can he face humiliation and failure again, against the people he once called family, and deal with the final confirmation of what his brain is telling him – that he’s not good enough?
The struggles of Hangman Adam Page are common and relatable because this is something so many people resonate with. Anxiety, depression, substance abuse issues – things portrayed realistically and sympathetically. It’s painful to watch a man as talented and charismatic as Adam Page fall short every time, weighed down by his own demons. And there lies the genius and the beauty of his story, of his journey to the title: If we, the audience, don’t think he deserves to feel like this – then we don’t deserve to feel like this either. If we want Hangman to succeed, overcome his demons, get his friends back, and then take the gold and achieve his dreams- then that means we should want the same things for ourselves.
I’ve suffered with anxiety and depression for a long long time. It’s a horrible illness that can consume you and your every thought, your every movement, your every waking moment. You can try and numb the feelings with alcohol, but it will always rear its ugly head in the morning. It’s the nature of the beast; to make you feel like you are nothing but a black hole, sucking the joy and the goodness out of everything. It makes you doubt everything, and it makes you think that everyone else feels the same way about you too. It eats at your heart, your soul, and your life.
There is something deeply cathartic about seeing this reflected back to me in wrestling. To understand and relate to the struggle of this character, to know that he can be the best, can overcome his demons. And if Hangman can do it – if Hangman can overcome all the things thrown at him, even if he falls down most of the time – then I can too.
It’s hard to watch Hangman push everyone away. It’s hard to watch him fall on his own sword, watch him reap what he has sown. It’s hard watching him take one step forward, two steps back, constantly a victim of his own flaws and the sheer morbid absurdity of life. But it’s realistic. It’s relatable. It’s exactly what it needs to be. Hangman is as human as they get in wrestling.
Whilst Kenny is becoming one of the most intolerable and arrogant supervillains, Hangman is becoming one of the most beloved and gritty superheroes. He falls down, and he stays down, wallowing in his own depression but, eventually, he will pick himself back up, and he will conquer. He is, ultimately, the heroic cowboy facing down the villain on a desolate desert road. He is flawed and he has struggled, but beneath that he has never stopped being good. As Hangman’s lower third once proudly proclaimed, “You don’t need a hat to be a cowboy.” And it’s true: you don’t need to be perfect to be a hero.
At the end of the road- whenever that may be, Hangman Adam Page will stand in that squared circle and raise Big Platinum over his head, having defeated the villain, having overcome his own demons – and it will be beautiful. It will be cathartic, a massive release of emotions building for over two years, hell, for longer than that. It will be so worth it, and it will be one of the most memorable moments in wrestling history. Hangman will be the face of everyone who has felt as he has: unworthy, scared, insecure. Hangman’s journey, I think, will be up there with Daniel Bryan’s Yes Movement; with Shawn Michaels’ War against the Undertaker.
Emotional, beautiful, relatable, wrestling.
And that, really, is what it’s all about.