To restate the obvious, for most of its existence pro-wrestling sold itself as a legit battle between actual fighters who hated and wanted to conquer each other (be it for money, a title belt, personal grudges, or what have you). In a time without internet this was seen as the way to drive fans into the building: get people invested in each blood feud as legit and keep them wanting the hero to vanquish the bad guy. This manufactured reality developed the name “Kayfabe”, which came out of the carnival sideshows – whether it’s pig latin or just backwards for “be fake” is disputed – and stuck right up through the Gotch and territory eras. Wrestlers stayed in character in public, hanging out and traveling only with others whose face/heel alignment matched their own, while keeping their personal lives hidden as much as possible. Mistakes happened (both on and off screen) over the decades, but were punished as taking away from the collective ongoing effort to keep “kayfabe” alive and wrestling feeling “real.”
In modern times, it’s become en vogue to wink and nod at or flat-out address “the business” being a business of people working together under character names. Internet sites cover wrestlers’ actual contract status, personal developments, and the rumors about what booking has happened behind the scenes. Fans debate what wrestlers should be doing on-screen while consuming “shoot” content of current and former stars being their real selves.
In recent months, AEW added some of the most well-known and popular figures in those debate circles: Bryan Danielson and CM Punk. In addition to their classic ring work, both men have made famous moments out of puncturing the veneer of kayfabe. Ever since their arrival, the company has begun adopting a similar edge that is worth examining. It’s not a specific match, or a list of moments, as these posts have typically been. But it’s a very clear tone shift, and it’s building towards being possibly the most engaging and effective dose of reality modern wrestling has seen in quite some time. In this case, they’re not creating a reality as much as embracing the actual shared reality the audience already exists in.
The entire point of wrestling is to build and establish a world of stories, histories, and a web of relationships that drive the action we see on our screens every week. That inherently takes us out of the world of current events and our own arguments with our in-laws, instead remembering all the reasons why the Wyatt Family hated the Shield. This escape is a lot of wrestling’s appeal, but it’s also why something like the first appearance of Scott Hall on WCW Monday Nitro felt revolutionary – it felt like, for the first time, WWF events were acknowledged on a non-WWF TV set.
AEW is now taking this further. As part of Bryan Danielson’s masterfully quick heel turn on AEW Champion Hangman Page, he called up his own resume in referencing his storybook triumph at WrestleMania 30. In context, it was less a brag and more big-timing a younger performer. On top of castigating Page for not being ready to wrestle the very next show, as Bryan himself had done, it came with a tone and implication that it was done in a bigger company, on a bigger stage, and thus meant more. Nothing turned the loyal AEW crowd off faster – because they got it. These kinds of comparisons are the ones we make daily in a world with multiple competing wrestling companies: Who is best? What should be recognized more? What’s your favorite? AEW’s promos are going past acknowledging what things are and were, but using what they mean to great effect. Unsurprisingly, it was Punk and MJF who then truly lit this fuse.
In the most engrossing promo segment of recent years, both men traded the usual wrestling barbs (MJF calling Punk ugly, Punk threatening to put him “in the obituaries”), but then went far deeper. Punk didn’t just go for the shock value of mentioning a non-AEW performer, he was being very specific when calling MJF a “less famous Miz.” No matter your personal thoughts on The Miz, there is still a perception among many fans (certainly in AEW crowds) of him as the consummate “WWE-style” performer: a less in-ring focused, more hammy-bullshit-for-fame kind of performer (unpopular opinion: I think he’s underrated). Since MJF’s entire thing is being superior and pumping his tires about his money, fame, and cachet, everyone watching immediately understood the searing burn of failing to match up with someone seen as a passé secondary belt-holder.
MJF didn’t even have to say the name he referred to in order to make his point. In pointing out Punk doing the usual big-name babyface duties (showing the crowd love, being happy to be here, expressing excitement about the young guys) he contrasted it with the angst, truth-at-all-costs mentality of Punk’s successful years in WWE. Then came the right cross:
“You might as well be coming out here preachin’ HUSTLE, LOYALTY, & RESPECT.“
The WWE’s overuse of John Cena as the ever-noble, generically genial “goody two-shoes superman” (his own words) saving the day and the WWE title over the years is a matter of record. That record then gets interpreted and held up by many fans as a symbol of the management and product that just doesn’t get it; given corporeal form by the goddamn towels the man himself holds up during his each and every entrance in recent years. Those three words, which may well be on more t-shirts than Nike’s Swoosh at this point, again locked everyone’s mind on a shared understanding: Scared money – predictability run amok – complacency.
The instant reaction to the line, a dull roar like something you might hear after a savage battle rap or roast line, tells you just how much that stung the fans by proxy and how little time it took to process. Tying their hometown hero to everything the same city drowned out when Punk faced Big Match John years earlier? Tying him to everything they profess to hate? It made them angry, but also (deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties) made them a little nervous because this common shorthand meant they all knew right away that they’d seen what MJF was talking about. They may disagree over where it was going, but nobody could yet say he was completely wrong with Punk a beloved babyface winning 100% of his matches so far. The concerns Friedman raised in fact weren’t novel – every Twitter thread or message board discussion about AEW has had it raised at least once since Punk arrived. It’s likely more people in the building had debated Punk’s being babyface from one side or the other than hadn’t. So by placing themselves firmly in our world where other companies exist and reality is shared with the fans, the two men teed up Punk to respond to those same fans’ conversations in real time without breaking from his scheduled program for the night, and shut them down so they could move on. The mind boggles with all the ways this could be tweaked to deliver content and drive the discourse around it at the same time.
Of course not every effect is so dramatic. On the December 29th edition of Dynamite, Kyle O’Reilly explicitly acknowledged that everything hadn’t been alright between himself and Adam Cole, even going so far to use ANOTHER classic wrestling term in describing “heat” between them. By putting this transparently out front on TV, the two men implicitly acknowledged they were not bound to tell the same story again and pretend we hadn’t seen it once. They confirmed that this was the world as it is, where they had spent much of the past year feuding, and thus made whatever happens next feel instantly earned (even though it will have been earned somewhere else).
By tearing down any pretend territory-style walls and embracing the greater world as wrestling fans already see it (or at least are aware of it), AEW’s talent are more effective and efficient in what they say, while we as fans have one less barrier keeping us from feeling like part of the action.