Revenge for PWG: Revisiting a Dark History

“You know, psychologically speaking, vengeance rarely brings the catharsis we hope for.” – Harley Quinn, Birds of Prey (2020)

If I could have been said to have an anti-Dream Match – a Nightmare Match, if you will – it would have been Nick Jackson vs. Bryan Danielson.

Not because I didn’t think it would be good, because obviously it would be good, but because I had seen what happened the last time those two had been in the ring together and, to put it very mildly, I did not enjoy the experience. Shortly before Bryan Danielson went to WWE he formed a tag team with Roderick Strong in 2009 in order to take on PWG’s yearly one-night tag team tournament. They made it all the way to the final round at which point they faced the Young Bucks – in a match which the Young Bucks went into some detail about in their autobiography Killing the Business. I’m a little fascinated by that match and a lot disquieted by it. It’s a formative moment in the careers of my very favorite wrestlers, but I believe fundamentally that it should never have happened, at least not in the form it did.

I’ve struggled a long time over writing about this. I’ve always felt compelled to, because I love wrestling, analyzing wrestling, and the Young Bucks in particular. This is a critical moment in their growth as performers and characters that I’ve wanted to share my read on, even after their book came out and this incident became somewhat more common knowledge. “That night changed our career,” Matt Jackson noted in a 2016 interview for RF Videos. It was their first heel turn, and the formative moment for the characters they’ve played ever since. But it’s an uncomfortable watch, and a genuinely distressing moment for the real people involved, not just their characters. I’ve known that if I want to do critical readings on The Elite and the Young Bucks in particular – and I very much do – I’d need to lay this ground work as the foundation of my analysis. But this is not just a text to be peeled apart and analyzed so… it’s tricky.

On October 1st, 2021 my Nightmare Match aired on national television. Just before it did, The Young Bucks updated their bio to “Revenge for PWG” which was just… exquisitely crafted to hit me right where it hurts most. But it also reinforced that this incident was very much a live issue, not just a terrible memory but an active component of their current story that is worth paying attention to and weaving into the larger tapestry of their body of work. 

Let’s discuss.

The Dynamic Duumvir – I regret asking what “DDT4” stands for.

The year is 2009. The event is DDT4, a grueling one-night tag team tournament the grand prize of which is the PWG Tag Team Championships. Nick Jackson is 19, Matt Jackson is 23, and together as the Young Bucks they have been tag champs for the past 264 days. No tag team in PWG history to this point has retained their titles through all three rounds of the tournament, and the Young Bucks are determined to be the first. Through their reign they’ve been babyfaces – young, athletic, and earnestly colorful in the style of the tag teams of their childhood. Marty Jannetty himself had personally given his blessing for them to carry on the neon and tassels gimmick, and they wore it with pride.

In this house we love and appreciate the rave carrot gear

There wasn’t a whole lot else to them at this point though, character-wise, and while they were by no means bad babyfaces, a somewhat bland good guy getting a win too many over opponent the audience is more invested in can spell disaster. Spoiler alert, I guess.

The Bucks’ first round match against their childhood friends Brandon and Dustin Cutler (cleverly named The Cutler Brothers), went perfectly well. The match was reasonably fun and dynamic and the crowd was reasonably into it, and the Young Bucks were cheered on through their first victory in the tournament. It was a good start for the reigning tag champs, but in their second match it would all start to fall apart.

The Men of Low Moral Fiber were the team of Kenny Omega and Chuck Taylor, singles wrestlers and ostensibly heels who had never tagged with one another before, but were charismatic and dynamic and beloved by the crowd anyway. The Bucks hadn’t really found their artistic voice quite yet, so they perhaps looked a little flat when put up against these colorful, beloved characters. The crowd were reasonably supportive of the Bucks, to start at least, but they gave the impression of enjoying the Men of Low Moral Fiber more.

Beloved or not, the Bucks were determined to advance to the next round and maintain their titles. As the match built, so did the excitement of the crowd as the competition became fierce and the fans in attendance got swept along for the ride, fully invested. Investment is good, obviously. It sells tickets, and great crowd reactions are a fundamental part of wrestling presentation. Many people, the Young Bucks included, have credited the Reseda crowd as being the key to PWG’s success. They add a unique, unmatchable energy that sells better than probably any crowd in the world just how fantastic everything on screen is.

But, that fan engagement can turn out to be something of a double-edged sword. About midway or three-quarters into into the second round match there is a frenzied exchange that builds to Kenny getting a near fall on Matt, so close that for one electric moment the crowd is convinced that the Men of Low Moral Fiber were victorious and would advance to the final round of the tournament. When Matt kicked out at the last possible fraction of a moment and Referee Rick Knox insisted that the count was only two, the crowd’s elation turned ugly.

The Reseda crowd jubilant at Kenny’s victory in the bare moments before it is snatched away from them

The Young Bucks may have been the babyfaces and the Men of Low Moral Fiber the heels, but at the end of the day wrestling audiences like what they like, and the heel/face distinction is much less important to them than their own feelings about whomever is in the ring. Heel or not, the Reseda crowd loved Chuck and Kenny, and while they may have gone into this liking the Young Bucks just fine, to have the victory they really wanted dangled so close only to be yanked away at the last moment enraged them.

When the Bucks ultimately got the victory to advance in the final round of the tournament, one step closer to the biggest accomplishment in their careers to date, the backlash was intense, vicious, and unanimous. The Young Bucks, plucky babyfaces fighting against the odds to achieve a moment of ultimate triumph, were booed out of the ring.

Yet Another Tale of a Genius Plan to Convince the Audience that Their Chosen Babyfaces Are Good, Actually Hatched By People Who Really Should Have Known Better.

Once a wrestling crowd has rejected a babyface that has been chosen for them, there is no power on heaven or earth that can change its mind. Not to say that the wrestler in question can never be a face again, only that there is always a reason they went sour to begin with and they need an overhaul of some sort in order to get back into the audience’s good graces. A long absence might do it, a successful heel run that reengages the audience helps a lot, but whatever the reason the fact is that at that point, plans are going to have to change. Attempting to force an audience to cheer someone that they have already decided they do not want to cheer is only ever going to inspire contempt and spite.

And yet, people continue to insist on trying.

The Young Bucks go to the back serenaded by the crowd’s vocal displeasure with the very sensible understanding that they need to be heels. But the plan was for the Bucks to be the babyface champions surmounting impossible odds to ultimately achieve victory and send the crowd home happy. Super Dragon, indie legend and PWG’s booker was not, for whatever reason, fond of the idea of turning the Bucks heel. However the Bucks’ next and final opponents, Roderick Strong and Bryan Danielson as the Hybrid Dolphins, had a brilliant plan to fix things.

Both men were more established indie names – particularly Bryan Danielson, who was the most popular independent wrestler in the world at the time – with shoot fighting backgrounds. They figured that if they legit beat the stuffing out of the Young Bucks, eventually the crowd would become more sympathetic to them and turn back on their side. 

As plans go, there’s room for improvement

Maybe the Bucks had misgivings about this plan, but what could they say? They’d already suffered a severe career setback due to a minor breach of etiquette Matt committed in front of Super Dragon when he was eighteen. Their second show after they had finally managed to get booked on Southern California’s largest (read: only) indie promotion had already gotten them to Japan, and they knew they needed to be in good standing in PWG if they were to ever have a hope of establishing careers outside of the west coast – a deserted island as far as wrestling was concerned.

And these were people they liked and respected. In 2021, we are still in an era where veterans of the business will say with their whole chests how soft and weak the kids these days are, and how if they’re not willing to put up with bullying and abuse they don’t belong in wrestling. I’m not going to go so far as to declare without evidence that these sorts of sentiments were worse in 2009, but they certainly weren’t better. How would it have looked for them to refuse to get roughed up a little? And it wasn’t as if they hadn’t taken beatings before, especially Matt, so how bad could it be?

Really Bad, As It Turns Out, Much Worse Than They Could Have Reasonably Anticipated.

We were used to getting our asses beat, but this was next level. This was like nothing I ever even – I don’t think I’ve ever seen since. And like Nick said I haven’t even watched the tape back since like. I don’t know its weird, I feel like, I’ve seen a clip before and I get kind of angry again? And it’s like, why would I wanna relive that?

Matt Jackson, Talk is Jericho 2020

This match, if one could call it such, is a grim watch. It starts with Matt fully committing to a dive only for Bryan to casually step out of the way of the catch and let him take a nasty-looking fall on the chairs outside the ring, and it goes downhill from there. There’s no structure present, no psychology,  just two guys slowly and methodically grinding down a couple of young people to the delight of the crowd. At one point Bryan Danielson has Matt trapped in the corner and slaps him repeatedly across the chest and face so hard that Matt tries to drop down and signal that he can’t take any more; he gets kicked in the head (…hmm…) and knocked out for his trouble. The crowd cheers. Later, audience members hastily vacate their chairs just in time for Nick to get thrown into them, and they cheer every subsequent slap and chop with delight. The Young Bucks are pushed to the point of exhaustion, obviously in pain and visibly getting increasingly upset. The more Roddy and Danielson beat the Bucks down the more it whips the crowd into a bloodthirsty frenzy, and yet they refuse to admit the futility of the situation and accept defeat.

“The thing I regret is hitting back,” Matt Jackson said on Talk is Jericho, completely breaking my heart. “I probably should have just taken it and then like, it would have been easier on me. But like I think maybe they thought like “Oh, okay, they-these guys are into it” you know what I mean? Like no I really wasn’t. Maybe we made the mistake of doing that and fighting back.” Staying calm and meekly taking a beating exactly as one is ordered is not a reasonable standard to hold any human being to, and someone inflicting more damage on a person because they’ve decided to interpret a response to distress they themselves have created as “asking for it”? Ugh, the thought of it it makes my skin crawl.

Without getting too personal, I spend a lot of time in spaces where the only line between a good, fun time and literal assault is consent. As a result, myself and other people in these spaces think deeply about the nature and importance of consent, what constitutes meaningful consent, and how to protect consent in tricky situations. People are trained specifically to identify when things are wandering into unsafe territory and to put a stop to it before it goes too far, and such people are present at all times to ensure everyone’s safety. Maybe it’s this perspective that gives me an inflated sense of discomfort when I watch this match. From my lofty age of [redacted] the Bucks just look so very young to me here, and the degree of irresponsibility at play to allow this not only to happen but to continue for twenty grueling minutes is abhorrent to me.

There are chunks in this match that are burned in my head; Matt slumping unconscious over the apron (haha you’re gonna get your fucking head kicked in, get it, hahaha fun chant, super cute), Nick’s face twisted with pain and rage as he sits on a chair and doggedly endures his punishment while fans scream their delight from six inches away, Bryan Danielson standing over the teenager he’s been torturing for twenty minutes who has been ordered not to fight back, slapping him repeatedly across the face. The Cattle Mutilation.

I googled “calming gif” for something to put here instead of ripping something from the match to illustrate my point because its a real bummer guys – so enjoy this nice fish. You’re welcome go check out the artist

I don’t mean to cast aspersions on anyone’s character here, or lay specific accusations against any individual. I do believe that the people who had more power in this situation acted irresponsibly and people who held less power were hurt as a result, but people make mistakes and it doesn’t mean that they are bad or malicious. The Bucks have made it very clear that amends were made and they’ve been on good terms since this happened. A few years down the road they would even form a stable with Roderick Strong and Super Dragon (Bryan Danielson had long since left for WWE). And certainly this latest storyline on AEW signals that bygones are most certainly bygones; the Young Bucks do not, to my knowledge, make a habit of working with people they have legit heat with, and they have the power now to enforce that line. I’m not trying to act as White Knight for two grown men, who spend more than I make in a year on shoes and certainly are in no need of my protection, when I express my feelings about this. But I do have my own feelings on this; that’s just what art does.

And yes, I do still consider this match art. Complicated art – messy, upsetting, and deeply unethical art – but art all the same.

So it was with great trepidation that I watched the buzz of speculation surrounding Daniel Bryan Bryan Danielson when his contract with WWE came up this year. I was more or less alone in this, along with my very small handful of fellow Scholars of the Young Bucks Deep Lore. I knew everything was fine, I knew the water was all under the bridge, but I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to see a figure I was experiencing such profound discomfort with come in as a massively over babyface and target my personal favorite heels that people love to hate and send me spinning right back to this horrible match I haven’t been able to look away from since I learned of it’s existence.

But we can’t always get what we want so let’s do an analysis of Nick Jackson vs. Bryan Danielson and how it compares to DDT4.

Man oh Man do I hate that “you’re gonna get your fucking head kicked in chant” though.

My first watch of Nick vs. Bryan was a very anxious experience. I didn’t truly think anything bad was going to happen, but I had been dreading this match for so long that at first all I could see was the similarities. Every kick and chop had me wincing, every painful-looking hold reminded me of similar ones from back in 2009, and hearing the audience cheering Danielson’s every blow felt a lot like that bloodthirsty crowd in Reseda that night. But after watching both matches again back-to-back the association fades somewhat. Danielson hits with a reasonable amount of force, and there’s a structure to this match that was not present in 2009. 

The 2021 match is much more back and forth than it felt to me on first watch. Nick is show-offy and playfully obnoxious and he displays the canniness that he’s developed since he and Bryan last faced off against each other. I really liked the point where Nick distracted Rick Knox with complaints about his chest, giving Matt the opportunity to spear Danielson on the side and get his own hits in. Knox was also the referee in the 2009 match, so there’s an interesting implication in the story that he might be extra cautious and more easily distracted this time around.

There is one sequence that feels like a callback to DDT4 with the roles reversed, when Nick starts kicking Danielson repeatedly in the chest. Danielson had done the same to him in DDT4, only for Nick to get to his feet and spit right in Danielson’s face. That had been one of the final moments before the Bucks took back control of the match and went straight for the win, but here the match continues for a good deal longer after Bryan spits in Nick’s face, including a fun exchange on the apron where Nick baited Bryan into kicking the ring post.

The finish to the Rampage match does also feel like a bit of a callback as well. In 2009 Nick would not tap to the Cattle Mutilation, enduring until Bryan released the hold and Matt came to the rescue with a Superkick; a couple superkicks and More Bang For Your Buck later, the Bucks were victorious. Years later, there were no titles or bragging rights on the line and Matt wasn’t going to be able to come in for the save, so Nick tapped.

On a second watch, Nick Jackson vs. Bryan Danielson was a much more pleasant viewing experience for me. I was less tense and more able to appreciate it for what it was, rather than what it reminded me of. Both of these men have changed a lot in the past twelve years, and the kind of match they put on reflected that.

In a way, I’m grateful. There’s something healing about going back to a such an awful experience and be able to face it head on, do something different and bleed some of the poison out of the memory. Sometimes talking about the nightmare can make some of the distress and fear fade away.

I’m not suddenly cured of all the resentment I came into this match with. Everything I’ve said above is still a real part of my experience and a genuine reaction to this particular piece of art. But it’s maybe helped file some of the edges off, and I appreciate that a lot.

You know, psychologically speaking, vengeance rarely brings the catharsis we hope for.

I’m not even upset with him anymore about it, like why would I at this point, I’m still buddies with these guys. But I still look back at that and it was a learning lesson for me: because I don’t think I’ll ever do that to anybody, because I don’t ever want to make a younger talent feel the way that I felt that night, and continue to kinda feel, you know what I mean?

Matt Jackson, Talk is Jericho 2020

When my friends first started showing me older Young Buck’s matches, I was immediately drawn to their feral, chaotic energy. The were absolutely incorrigible brats taking every possible opportunity to mess with people, but that’s what I liked most about them. Part of their appeal was how much fun they were clearly having, but part of it was also the chip on their shoulder, and their brazen refusal to bend to other people’s idea of what they should be doing, or what they should look like, or how they should present themselves. If you’re a person who has been told your whole life, implicitly or explicitly, that you have to be or look or act a certain way in order to be respected and have a right to control your own body and your own circumstances, it is very easy to feel a connection to the Bucks. There is a catharsis to seeing people who are told to stop doing whatever they are doing and watching them cheerfully fucking increase the fucking thing.

Words to live by by Kate Beaton

What Matt said on Talk is Jericho really sticks with me, that he didn’t want to make anyone feel the way that he feels about this match. It’s a refusal to perpetuate a cycle that has a long history of being brutally enforced, and I think it’s in part this kind of attitude that contributes to consistent reports of high backstage moral in AEW. Workplace culture flows from the top, and I think it’s a real shame when older wrestling legends like the Undertaker and Mark Henry complain about a lack of interest in violence in todays locker rooms and mock young people who refuse to be bullied and abused, because those attitudes trickle down as well. People simply do not create good work when they’re stressed out and fighting each other all the time, so worried about protecting their own spot that they’ll gleefully tear others down on their way to the top. I hope eventually wrestling can phase out that sort of thinking, that it can grow in a direction led by the kind of people who will book a fresh up an coming tag team in a shock victory over themselves, who will see another team who reminds them of their younger selves and raise them up on the national stage. I hope the new locker room culture is lead by people who, instead of pining for the glory old days when guys packed guns in their gear and slapped young people around for being “disrespectful”, choose not to dish out the same treatment they experienced when they were younger

A big part of why I keep coming back to DDT4 2009 even though I find it so distressing is that it’s a turning point in their career that informs the qualities I like the very best about The Young Bucks. Not only their kindness and positivity in ways that I feel are so important, but because of the kind of characters they crafted. Their defiance, their cockiness, the way they take everything the crowd hates about them, turn it up to 11, and fling it back in their faces. If you’ve ever struggled with confidence, or self acceptance, or letting go of bad faith criticism, the way the Young Bucks have absorbed so much nastiness and put it into their art and made it fun is a display of true strength that I find really inspiring and even comforting. Its a through line that runs through all of their work from that moment until now, with the Bucks constantly throwing how good they are in the faces of their detractors because they refuse to make themselves smaller, even under the deluge of unhinged fan hatred. All that toxic waste gets run through a story and at the end it turns into something less potent and easier to live with.

They will never retire in that case

It’s because of that I think that my Nightmare Match turned out not to be so much of a nightmare after all. They did what they always do and transformed painful real-life circumstances into something they could use in their work, bleeding some of the poison out in the process. It’s one of the great powers of art, that it can take something terrible and turn it into a source of healing and growth.

Still, though, I wouldn’t mind getting the opportunity to see the Bucks kick Danielson’s fucking head in, one of these days.

How ’bout that, huh?