May 27, 2020 – Jacksonville, FL
While the Young Bucks are having the boots put to them by the Butcher and the Blade, a badass black truck comes roaring into Daily’s Place. Out of it steps Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler, then most recently known as The Revival in WWE. They storm the ring, confront the Bucks (their long-time dream match opponents), stare them dead in the eyes… and tee off on the other guys instead. Such a switch-up could be seen as simply a swerve, making good TV and saving the big-money fight for pay-per-view. Nobody really gave it much thought, but we should have known better. The duo who would soon be managed by (the recently fired) Tully Blanchard and hit his classic tag team finisher, rather than their own, in hindsight sending a message to all who were paying close enough attention: nothing we do is a coincidence. Dive in, live every detail, and you’ll get more out of it than you possibly think. They have honed their move-set, style, and their very essence as performers to drive this home in every way.
The dynamics of tag team performing allows for a unique experience of its own even within the context of wrestling. The interplay and psychology amongst each team, on top of doubling the number of competitors involved in a match or story, allows for layered emotions to unfold. FTR begin that narrative the moment they walk into an arena or onto a screen in how they present and interact with each other. They’re not random singles wrestlers paired up, not a gimmicky combination of odd couple characters or physical specimens (like the classic giant/cruiserweight or mammoth/beanpole teams wrestling has loved so often). Quite simply, they’re two guys who think alike and fight hard for their shared goals – something we all experience and to which we can relate, or at least aspire. They have forever been forged together by the road, coming out dedicated to each other and their passion, a passion for the very thing they do itself. Performing amazing wrestling, as a duo, is the ends for them, not the means.
While Harwood and Wheeler have been compared to the Midnight Express for years (including by their current entrance theme), in this way they’ve always struck me as similar to that team’s eternal arch-rivals. Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson wore colorful tights, sure, but underneath it all they had few frills. Rather, they truly were showing up to enjoy themselves by having a helluva match and doing it together. You could feel it, and be part of the party too, which was a key piece in making the Rock ‘N Roll Express building-shakingly popular. FTR have studied how that team bond can make and enhance great moments, whether adding sacrifice to a hard-won triumph or tragedy to their karmic downfall (think of their grabbing each other’s hands to stop from tapping to double submissions in their incredible 2-of-3 Falls match in Toronto, before eventually giving in).
This ever-present connection is something one man facing off against one opponent just cannot take advantage of, a difference that was crystal clear during FTR’s recent stone cold classic against The Briscoes at Supercard Of Honor, for the Ring Of Honor tag team titles. No matter who you found yourself rooting for, the sight of Wheeler crawling to Harwood, giving him a literal boost back into the ring, and then both re-engaging with perfectly in-sync forearm shots was riveting. It showed the two parts of FTR working with one mind to dig down deep and come back, but simultaneously sent a clear message of just how high the stakes were to the competitors. Moments like this made the match feel like it truly was the most important thing in the world that night. As a viewer, I couldn’t help but get even further invested; I NEEDED to see just who would come out on top in what felt like a titanic showdown.
FTR are very open about that being their goal – sucking you in, taking you as high (or low) as possible, making you feel something no matter how you feel about them. They expounded upon it in their post-victory press conference, as close to a thesis statement on their approach to their career as we’ve gotten from them. They communicated in the same no-frills, full-blooded approach in which they’d just captured the Ring Of Honor belts. Their talk about how, short of family and faith, there’s “nothing more beautiful than professional wrestling” and getting to do it with their best friend, and that hearing the crowd’s anticipation of their match made them want to “feel that energy every single night”, just backs up their walking the walk. As a fan, be they heel or face at any moment, it’s always reassuring to know that the people you spend your time on are just as dedicated to this crazy art form as you are. Matches won’t be tossed off in a flurry of unrelated moves, swerved for the sake of it, or simply half-assed. In that sense, I always feel free to throw myself fully into an FTR match and feud, and they have never let me down. That’s something I treasure, and hopefully more fans are realizing (or remembering) the same.
FTR’s dedication to tag team wrestling as an art, passed down from those before them, goes beyond themselves, their presentation, or their naming convention tipping a hat to Demolition. As I mentioned at the top, it bleeds directly into what they do every night. Like the spike piledriver to the Butcher, every move of a muscle that FTR make in the ring is planned out and purposeful. At times there are plenty of full-on references to the greats of the past; a Hart Attack here, a Brain Buster homage there. But, keep your eyes trained on them and what you get is an even more joyous marriage of the present and past that is unique to when they’re on the screen.
Before their time in WWE went completely sideways, they got to write a main roster story that put their own spin on an oft-forgotten classic match. During the the WrestleMania 35 tag team title match with Brian Myers and Matt Cardona (then Curt Hawkins & Zack Ryder), Myers was driven down onto the floor, leaving him limp and even collapsing once brought into the ring. Dax (then called Scott Dawson) sold his imminent win perfectly, cackling through loud taunts of his fallen opponent, only to be rolled up for a huge babyface triumph. It worked on its own merits, a shocking “WrestleMania moment” that put a great capper onto the story of The Hawkins Losing Streak. Students of the game, though, would recognize the sequence from nearly 25 years earlier, when Bret “Hitman” Hart played possum after going through a table and then rolled up Diesel to recapture the then-WWF title at Survivor Series ’95.
Watching the WrestleMania match live, I yelped at the screen in a moment of both shock and joy. Given both members’ outspoken love for the Calgary legend, it was clear that FTR loved that 1995 match as much as I did and left an Easter egg for people just like me to spot. The rush of feeling like you’re on the inside, that your hours and hours spent watching this strange niche of pop culture were truly worth something, goes beyond someone simply executing a Doomsday Device or pulling tag-less switch-outs behind the ref’s back (both things FTR does exceptionally well). It’s adding a layer of feeling onto an already compelling package to communicate without words that they’re just like us, they eat and breathe this stuff, and if you continue to it won’t be in vain.
They’ve brought that same attitude and payoff to their work in AEW. Their recent rematch with the Young Bucks on Dynamite saw the teams trade hitting each other’s finishers in a manner reminiscent of similar spots in FTR’s classic matches with #DIY. More pointedly, Dax and Cash survived a near-pinfall loss thanks to a foot on a rope and went on to battle back and triumph in a subtle callout to… themselves, of all people. It echoed of their conquering Ciampa and Gargano at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II. This Dynamite came just days after Tomasso Ciampa wrestled his final match in NXT, the last man standing of the foursome that brought tag team wrestling (and each other) to the highest of highs. A coincidence? It’s possible, but given the track record here I’ll just keep smiling, with full faith they were nodding to someone they respect while putting on a second straight show-stealer in less than a calendar week. If you missed that throwback, and only saw the match in front of your eyeballs, it didn’t hurt you at all as you still got to watch a compelling clinic.
Back to back classics, making call-backs to legendary work that’s also your own, and more – this AEW run and their newly won ROH title belts are further fulfilling what we already thought we knew about Dax and Cash. FTR set out to transcend all other tag teams and achieved it by consciously transcending their era, and the moments their skill and hard work create has made that matter a whole lot to me. If you let them, they’ll not only thrill you but pass on an all new appreciation for the craft to which they and their idols have committed their lives. The only people to whom that might matter more than me is FTR themselves, and that just makes it all the sweeter. With these Top Guys – it pays to be all IN.