This Vintage Wrestling Format is Having a Renaissance

AEW dusted off the format on its latest PPV. But a new dilemma arises.

jon moxley universal
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Whatever your thoughts are on All Elite Wrestling, one thing became very clear during Saturday’s Full Gear pay-per-view: This is a company that is not afraid to go for broke. While the entirety of the show is worth your time, the main event was something that wrestling fans haven’t seen on mainstream television for some time now. What was billed as a "Lights Out" match between Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley turned very quickly into something less euphemistic: a good old-fashioned deathmatch, violent and uncomfortable in equal parts.

First, a quick primer: A deathmatch is a match with no rules in the storyline, where anything and everything goes. Well, that’s a hardcore match—it evolves into a deathmatch when the performers are more willing to risk life and limb in order to entertain. WWE hardcore matches have become a placated version of that in the last decade or so. You’ll see some creative weapons but nothing that looks or feels actually dangerous. What Moxley and Omega did was take that template and throw barbed wire, broken glasses, and mousetraps at it. Oh, and lots of blood.

That type of match is not for everyone. In fact, the reaction to that main event has been as polarized and split as anything AEW has done in its short lifespan. The main critique is also what made it viscerally fascinating: It was just too realistically violent. When Moxley hit Omega with a barbed-wired-covered bat, you could feel it, because barbed wire is something everyone knows. Ditto when the two went through a barbed wire platform of sorts.

And this was especially true when Moxley, in the best moment of the match, had to crawl through broken glass to break Omega’s submission hold on him. (Omega also shoved broken glass in Moxley’s mouth; let’s ignore the fact that the glass was almost surely “worked” to be safe, likely by being made from sugar. That shit is still gnarly.) 

Wrestling at its core is a contradiction: The performers have to sell you on there being real danger without actually hurting each other beyond the limits of what they are used to. A deathmatch’s sole purpose is to shatter that illusion by putting the wrestlers in dangerous real-life situations. Or, at the very least, to make it seem like we should fear for the wrestlers’ livelihoods. But Omega and, especially, Moxley are professionals at this. The latter made his name on the independent scene with promotions like Combat Zone Wrestling, who specialize in deathmatches. 

While throwing someone on a piece of cardboard covered in mousetraps seems cruel and unsafe, they know that it is within their limits to get some minor pain from that in order to heighten the drama. Ditto the barbed wire, or the glass. Hilariously, the most dangerous spot is also the one that WWE has done recently: There was less safety in the grand finale, which involved Moxley tearing open the ring padding to expose the planks of plywood under it before Omega took two big bumps directly onto the wood. Weirdly, though, this was a more common form of violence; in the much more traditional NXT—WWE’s developmental brand—Johnny Gargano did the same thing in one of his matches against friend-turned-nemesis Tomasso Ciampa. 

And yet, because there were no pointy objects or gushes of blood, no one really had any objections to that ending in NXT, and no one really had any objections to that ending at Full Gear. Wrestling is built on a certain set of parameters, and as long as you stick by the edges of that, the audience can be comfortable in knowing all of this, if not fake, choreographed. But when two wrestlers do what Moxley and Omega did and throw a barbed-wire broom straight through the illusion, then the fans become as much a part of the show as the performers. 

Their worried faces and groans of empathy heighten the drama, because the contract that we enter with wrestling companies—one that says that these guys are professionals who are not in real danger—becomes murkier. That doesn’t happen so often these days, but now that it has, it will be hard to fall back under that spell. Some viewers were turned off by that breach of wrestling etiquette, but there’s nothing more vital than remembering why we partake in this objectively silly pastime: to see something we can’t see elsewhere.

Wrestling is unique in how it blends soap opera drama with feats of athleticism, and that combination allows the medium to do things you have never seen before. WWE has long shied away from the unexpected, but as AEW showed at Full Gear, there’s still plenty of room to leave wrestling fans in shock and awe. You just have to be willing to push the envelope.

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