AEW Dynamite “Where Punks Collide”

The NOW Arena, Hoffman Estates, IL

Sept. 1, 2021

By Dr. Abner Mality

It’s been so long since I’ve seen a major league wrestling card, I can barely remember what the experience is like. When wrestling was hot in the late 90’s, there were tons of TV tapings and pay per view extravaganzas near my hometown. Then once mighty WCW collapsed and the WWE, then known more rightfully as the WWF, fell into boredom and banality without a major competitor. TNA Wrestling tried to fill the gap and almost made it in the 2008-2010 period and then collapsed itself, although it still exists as Impact Wrestling in a more stripped down state.

So this grappling hungry mad doctor, brought up on a steady diet of AWA wrestling for years, was dying of starvation. Thank All Elite Wrestling for providing food to a starving man. This upstart promotion has recaptured a lot of the fire that WCW had in its hot period, landing high profile TV on the same network that WCW once called home, TNT. In the summer of 2021, AEW has provided a lot of the fun, edginess and high profile matches that have been missing in McMahonland.

Nothing has lit more of a fire than the return of Chicago’s own prodigal son, C.M. Punk, to the mat wars after a sabbatical of seven years. Punk, a product of local Lockport High School, became a kind of rebel messiah in the WWE of the early 2010’s, becoming hugely popular due to his scrappy personality and refusal to fit in the typical cookie-cutter mold of WWE “superstars” who read from carefully prepared scripts and had little input on their in-ring style. When Punk quit the WWE machine in 2014, it only added to his mystique and for years WWE cards were plagued by fans chanting “C.M. Punk” when the action in the ring lagged or became too predictable.

Punk stayed out of the game for seven long years, dabbling in an unsuccessful MMA career and even writing comic books for Marvel. Somehow Tony Khan, the young wunderkind CEO of AEW, found the magic key that brought Punk back to wrestling. On August 20, Punk officially made his return in front of an insanely rabid crowd at a sold out United Center in downtown Chicago. The merest hint that he’d be there caused the building to sell out easily and give AEW its largest ever live audience. When the first chords of Punk’s anthem, LIVING COLOUR’S “Cult of Personality”, hit the PA, it created a moment of authentic hero worship that is almost unknown not only in pro wrestling, but in sports of any kind.

Confession time from the Doctor: I was never a Punk fanboy. I found a lot of his rabid support somewhat baffling. But that moment at the United Center, which I saw live on TV, kind of made a believer out of me. The guy has the ability to create a connection with his audience that is almost unprecedented. And the ratings and media chatter about Punk’s return poured gas on the fire that is AEW.

How hot is AEW and C.M. Punk in the Chicago market? On August 20, they sold out the United Center, home of the Bulls and Blackhawks. Less than 2 weeks later, they lined up not one, not two, but three dates in one week at the NOW Arena in suburban Chicago, including the All Out PPV that featured Punk’s first match in seven years, against the red hot Darby Allin, a young star who made his name in AEW. All Out sold out almost instantly, leaving two TV tapings, one for the flagship show Dynamite on Wednesday and one for the Friday night show Rampage.

So it was time to make my move. I grabbed tickets for Dynamite...the first really major wrestling show I’ve seen since 2008, when I caught TNA’s Bound for Glory at the very same building, when it was called the Sears Centre. Believe me, I was more than ready. The biggest anxiety: would I actually be able to see the show before Covid-19 pulled the plug on it? Believe me, it came down to the wire. Just two days before the actual show, the mask mandate in the state of Illinois was announced again. Masks were mandatory even if you had already been vaccinated, like I was. Living in world of a numbskulls who find a coffin more comfortable than a mask and who add bleach and horse dewormer to their morning java puts one in constant danger of events being canceled.

But no, the show went on, happily, so I hit the road for the NOW Arena with plenty of time to spare. The weather was just perfect and getting in and out of this suburban joint was a breeze, although the $20 parking charge was ridiculous. I spent about 20 minutes in line before the doors opened. Tons of AEW and other wrestling merch was on display...the new C.M. Punk shirts were already flying out the door. A little 10 year old guy in front of me was dressed in the jeans and glasses uniform of popular wrestling slob Orange Cassidy, who had plenty of fans in the crowd.

One thing that surprised me was that the show was not the sellout I expected. The crowd was really robust, but the section I was in was curiously empty. My reputation precedes me, it seems. That didn’t exactly break my heart in this disease-ridden age and I was able to stretch my legs out all night long. I’d say the venue was about 1500 to 2000 short of capacity. Well, considering there was a soldout United Center show a couple of weeks earlier and that there were two more NOW Arena shows later in the week, it makes sense. The crowd was loud and rowdy all night long and I loved it. Haven’t been in this kind of wrestling atmosphere for years!

First thing I noticed was the huge cage hanging suspended over the ring. There was no cage match scheduled for the show...were they just getting a jump on the one set for Sunday night? It turns out that the cage would play a very significant part in the night’s festivities…

The actual Dynamite broadcast is live between 7 and 9 PM, but there’s a lot more to the taping than just that. AEW’s popular Youtube show “Dark:Elevation” is taped both before and after the actual Dynamite broadcast. It’s a great way to get the crowd in the mood for the main show and also to feature some talent that doesn’t make it onto Dynamite. Most of these Dark matches were of short duration and followed the “squash” pattern of a well-known star quickly beating preliminary competition. Most of the prelim wrestlers were actually pretty well known in the Chicago area.

It’s all very efficiently done, wth ring announcer Justin Roberts doing a good job of firing up the crowd and letting them know when things are being taped. The lighting and pyro is super impressive and seemed to me to be better than the RAWs and Nitros I attended years ago. It has to be said the Chicago crowd’s responses were for the most part spot on and just what Tony Khan would have wanted.

I won’t bother going in detail through all the early “Dark: Elevation” matches, but instead will list the results here in brief, with remarks where called for.

Bear Country beat Ryan Nemeth and Pretty Peter Avalon of The Wingmen. Crowd really enjoyed Bear County, who are 2 huge guys who can MOVE!

Emi Sakura beat Missa Kate, who got a pop when it was mentioned she was from nearby Elgin, IL

Lance Archer beat the living hell out of GPA. I didn’t see Lance’s manager Jake the Snake, but he might have been on commentary.

Kiera Hogan topped Blair Onyx. First AEW win for the former Impact star.

The Dark Order’s John Silver and #10 beat Isaiah Moore and Travis Titan. Silver and 10 were really over with the crowd.

Nyla Rose beat popular Chicago indy star Laynie Luck. Nyla’s fire pyro is impressive.

Anthony Bowens of The Acclaimed got a surprise win over Griff Garrison from the Varsity Blondes when his partner Max Caster made a surprise appearance and helped him out. Caster had been in the AEW doghouse and off TV when one of his patented “diss raps” went too far. Brian Pillman Jr, whose resemblance to his late dad is uncanny, made the save for his partner Griff.

Red Velvet beat Queen Aminata. Pretty good match and Aminata showed fire before getting pinned.

That brought an end to the “Dark:Elevation” tapings. These matches show up on Youtube the Monday after they are taped. Three more bouts were taped for the show after the Dynamite tapings concluded...more on those later.

There was about a 10 minute gap between the Red Velvet match and the actual beginning of Dynamite. Justin Roberts introduced each of the announcers separately...Excalibur, Tony Schiavone and especially Jim Ross all got big pops from the crowd. There was a countdown on the big screen to get people good and loud for when the live broadcast starts. A ton of pyro, lasers and lights announced we were worldwide on TNT! It’s been a long, LONG time since I’ve been in this kind of experience...felt good to be part of something big and loud after what felt like years stuck in not only Covid purgatory, but a general absence of good wrestling.

Unlike WWE which usually begins their programs with a 20 minute long “revolving door” promo segment of talking heads, AEW dives right into a match. And what a match it was...the best of the night beyond the shadow of a doubt. Santana and Ortiz, once known as L.A.X. in Impact, cracked heads with their longtime rivals, F.T.R. from the Pinnacle faction. The last clash between these two almost ended in bloody disaster when Cash Wheeler of F.T.R. ripped his arm wide open on a steel ring attachment. Despite the gruesome (and totally unplanned) injury, F.T.R. decisively won that contest.

It’s a real pleasure to see athletes on this level butting heads. Santana and Ortiz hit a lot of crowd-pleasing high flying movies, including some dives that looked insanely dangerous, but the more grounded and traditional F.T.R. were able to hit their own high impact offense. Dax Harwood to me is simply one of the all around best wrestlers in the business today, tag team specialist or not. His offense is incredibly crisp and powerful and he can also sell a move like nobody’s business.

After a thrilling back and forth contest, the young team from the streets of New York got the win this time around with a flurry of impressive offensive moves. That evens the rivalry between the two teams at a win apiece. I am absolutely sure there will be a rubber match, probably with some kind of stipulation. I could watch these two teams go at it every night of the week. The bout started the show with a furious blast of wrestling intensity.

Well, next up was the Messiah himself, C.M. Punk and in 40 plus years of watching wrestling, I’ve seen few, if any, stars get the response that Punk does. Especially in his hometown area. It is really something to see. When the first notes of entrance song “Cult of Personality” hit, the place goes apeshit. As for Punk himself, he alluded to the transitory nature of fame during his speech to the fans. He said something to the effect of “I don’t know how long you will keep liking me before you get tired of it all, but let’s enjoy it while it lasts”. That’s a true statement because no matter how big of a star you are in wrestling, there will come a day when that shine dims.

For Daniel Garcia and his tag team henchmen 2point0, that day couldn’t come fast enough. These young newcomers to the AEW scene have decided to increase their stock by sneak attacking the hottest man in wrestling. Garcia is an impressive young man with great technical skill and an ice cold demeanor that reminds me of a young Dean Malenko. He and his friends jumped Punk, who gamely tried to fight them off. But the numbers game was too much. So that heralded the arrival of Sting and Darby Allin to help even the odds.

Let me now say something about Sting. This guy is the ageless wonder of pro wrestling. He is 62 years old but looks about 40 and fights like he could go another 10 or 15 years easy. I first saw him on TV in 1987, when he was managed by the late Eddie Gilbert and was in a heel tag team with Rick Steiner. That’s when he had his colorful “surfer” look. I saw him in Boylan High School when he teamed with Ric Flair to battle Terry Funk and Great Muta. Then he became the grim face painted “Crow” version of Sting and his popularity blew up to enormous proportions. I was at the United Center when he rappelled down from the ceiling on a rope for the first blew my mind. That was 1997, I think. In 2008, he was in the very same building he was at tonight, when it was called the Sears Center. He beat Samoa Joe for the TNA World title. And now, in 2021, he’s still in there battling and he’s as hot as ever. Teaming him with the glum face-painted Darby Allin is a stroke of genius that keeps Sting relevant and helps Darby learn from a veteran superstar.

Sting and Darby soon ran off the young punks, but it wasn’t long before C.M. Punk and Allin went nose to nose ahead of their upcoming bout at the All Out PPV. Sting played the voice of reason that calmed things down and announced that he would not be in Darby’s corner for his match with Punk. He knows Darby wants to do it himself with no outside help. Things were still tense, but this segment masterfully set up the upcoming PPV match between two of the hottest wrestlers in the world.

The next match gave us another hot AEW rivalry, between shifty veteran Jack Evans and the slowest, laziest wrestler in the world, Orange Cassidy. Cassidy is another guy that the crowd is always happy to see. In case you didn’t know, he plays a super laid-back slacker perpetually dressed in denim and sporting sunglasses. I was not a big fan of Orange for a long time and still have to say he’s not my favorite. But his shtick has slowly grown on me. He’s also shown that he can really wrestle when he wants to and he understands psychology pretty well. Plus, he really seems to live his gimmick. He doesn’t go on endless podcasts saying “I play a slacker as my wrestling persona and am nothing like that in real life”. He does few interviews and never lets down his guard as far as his character goes. In a strange way, he’s like the Undertaker used to be...a guy who kept “kayfabe” until the end.

Cassidy had a nice little match with the obnoxious Evans, who is part of the TH2 tag team managed by Matt Hardy. The veteran Hardy is more of a manager these days and he hates Orange and his mates in the “Best Friends” clique with a passion. After some high flying derring do, Orange got the best of Jack with a simple roll-up, which was unexpected. After the win, Orange was jumped by all the goons managed by Hardy, until the Best Friends and the Jurassic Express ran in for the save. This was foreshadowing another bout at All Out where all these combatants would meet.

Next out was venerable Jim Ross for an in-ring interview segment with Chris Jericho. Black-hatted J.R., a living legend in the business, got a nice hand from the crowd. Jericho is another one of the veterans who has thrived in AEW after a long WWE run. The crowd singing along to his entrance song “Judas” has become perhaps the defining statement for crowd participation in modern wrestling. The aging Jericho is probably not at the same physical level as he was 10 years ago, but he can still go and his interview skills are legendary. He put his career on the line for his upcoming All Out match with the despised MJF, who in my forty plus years of watching pro wrestling may be the most obnoxious and despicable heel ever. That is really saying something. Jericho gave a fiery and inspirational speech saying he was not yet ready to roll over and retire from wrestling. He lost three previous matches with MJF but guaranteed he would not be losing this one because he still has more to give the wrestling business. It takes a lot of charisma to get a crowd fired up with verbal fireworks alone, but Jericho has that to spare.

Next match was a meeting of two muscular colossi, Brian Cage and his former Team Taz mate Powerhouse Hobbs. I’ve been a big fan of Cage since the first time I saw him years ago in Championship Wrestling from Hollywood. For a guy his size, he’s capable of amazing feats of agility. But for some reason, he just doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere in AEW. He was betrayed by the other members of Team Taz a few weeks prior and should easily be getting the babyface reaction. But more people were cheering for heelish Hobbs by a significant margin. In fact, a big “beat his ass” chant started in my section of the arena and it was directed against Cage. These two bruisers went at it hard and heavy, but the match was decided when FTW Champion Ricky Starks, who basically stole the title from Cage, snuck in to ringside and blasted Cage in the head with the belt when the ref wasn’t looking, leading to a pinfall victory for Powerhouse. Don’t know what it will take to revive Cage’s momentum, but they need to figure it out fast.

We next got a segment where despised heel Q.T. Marshall and his Factory goons called out the former Big Show, Paul Wight, who now primarily functions as an announcer for AEW. Wight was scheduled to meet the much smaller Marshall at the All Out PPV. Taunted past endurance, Wight came down to the ring to try and settle Marshall and his boys, which set off a fight. Down to the ring rushed Billy Gunn and his two boys, Austin and Colton, who cleared house. But in one of the biggest surprises of the night, the Gunns turned on Wight. Billy whacked the big guy’s oft-damaged hip with a steel chair and then clobbered him in the skull with it for good measure. That led to Q.T. coming back and putting a diamond cutter on Wight. The Gunn Club’s turn came out of nowhere and while I don’t know if there’s much demand for a Paul Wight/Billy Gunn feud in 2021, I do think it’s good to turn Gunn & sons. Austin Gunn was almost more obnoxious as a face than MJF was as a heel, so that fits him better.

The women were up next, as Brazillian beauty Tay Conti, another NXT castoff who became popular in AEW, squared off against Penelope Ford. I would have paid good money to be the referee in this match between two of the hottest women in wrestling. Penelope Ford...ay yi yi! She is the Pamela Anderson of wrestling for sure. The match started a bit awkwardly in terms of flow but picked up nicely towards the end, which saw Tay win with a bridge. That was the signal for Penelope’s pal The Bunny (another blonde psycho chick) to rush the ring and put the boots to Conti. Tay was saved by her best friend, Anna Jay, who...better believe it...was yet another young blonde wrestler hot enough to melt plastic.

We had the last official match of the live Dynamite taping next, a huge 8 man tag that pitted AEW Tag Champs the Young Bucks and their buddies The Good Brothers (who are tag champs for Impact Wrestling) against Mexican hotshots The Lucha Brothers and super popular Jurassic Express with Jungle Boy and Luchasaurus. It looked like half the crowd was in the ring with all the teams, their associate stooges, and allies milling about. You can expect a ton of chaos in a match like this, with lots of acrobatic spots and killer moves that should end matches but seem to be only momentary distractions. The Young Bucks are well known as a “spot monkey” team and at least now I don’t have to hold back on hating them because they are finally heels. The match was crazy as expected, with Rey Fenix of the Lucha Brothers pulling off insane lucha libre moves. This guy might be the best high flyer on planet Earth, although crowd fave Jungle Boy isn’t too far behind.

I digress again, but Jungle Boy’s entrance music “Teenage Tarzan” gives the crowd another chance to sing along and do Tarzan yells. This is part of the fun of an AEW show that other promotions lack. It’s hard to imagine anybody even remembering the bland music for WWE and ROH, much less singing with it.

If you’re as sick of superkicks as I am, this was not the match for you, as I lost count of them somewhere around 35. How “super” is a superkick if it never puts anybody down for the count? It gets really ridiculous. The Bucks finally managed to grab Fenix and put him away cleanly, which surprised me. Going into a cage match on the All Out PPV with the belts on the line, I would have thought one of the Luchas would have got a pin to make things interesting. But that’s not the way it worked out, so I guess the unexpected is the route to go.

The actual pin was just the beginning of the fun, as heel group The Elite arrived in full force, including douchebag champion Kenny Omega and his mouthpiece Don Callis. His opponent at the PPV, Christian Cage, came down to the ring to make his presence known but was overwhelmed by the enemy. The Good Brothers wound up putting big Luchasaurus, one of my fave AEW characters, through a table at ringside. Omega and the Elite unleashed a full scale onslaught on the Luchas and Christian Cage. Kenny Omega is one hell of a wrestler beyond a doubt, but his verbal abilities leave much to be desired, hence the presence of golden-tongued Callis as his mouthpiece. To me, Kenny sounds like the high school nerd who has finally gotten one up on the jocks.

Now the cage which had been hanging ominously over the entire night’s proceedings came into play. It seems Kenny managed to pinch the remote control to the cage from promoter Tony Khan during a conference earlier in the day. Now with the control in his hands, Omega slowly lowered the cage over the ring, trapping the Luchas and Cage on the inside. This led to a pretty brutal beatdown with canes which actually probably dragged on a little too long. After the babyfaces were pretty much beaten to a pulp, the cage went back up, leaving the Elite triumphant. This whole sequence reminded me of how WCW used to end their shows before a big PPV. It sure set the table for the upcoming cage match between the Bucks and the Luchas for the tag titles as well as Omega’s bout with Christian.

This actually did not mark the end of the night’s action. After scolding the Elite, Khan came out to tell us that there were 3 more matches coming up that would be added to the Dark: Elevation taping. Some fans did take off during this period, but not many.

After some quick set up by the ring crew, the final 3 matches took place. Young aerial phenom Dante Martin (who used to wrestle under a mask as Airwolf) took on portly J.D. Drake from the Wingmen. Drake is one of my favorite lower card characters in wrestling. Wearing suspenders, white shirt and black slacks, he has a kind of Big Bubba Rogers look to him and his smash mouth style is a throwback to guys like Dick Murdoch. I think he’d make a great face down the road, but for now, he’s pretty much taking his lumps as a member of the heel jobbers The Wingmen. He gave Dante a good run for his money, but the kid’s amazing acrobatic moves were just too much for him.

Women’s action was next, as diminutive Japanese star Riho, who looks like an anime character come to life, took on local favorite Skye Blue. Skye is from nearby Crystal Lake and has really been turning heads lately. She did just that with one of the night’s best technical bouts against the high flying Riho, who probably doesn’t even weigh 90 pounds. Skye actually got some sizable chants from the crowd and after a good hard fought bout, finally lost to the Asian pixie, which some of the crowd were vocally unhappy about. Well, Skye wound up getting a contract from Tony Khan at the Friday night Rampage taping and actually made her way into the big women’s battle royal at the PPV. This is the sort of cool spontaneous moment that makes AEW stand out.

It was now time for the last match of the taping and they sent us out with a good one. Three of the biggest stars in AEW, Darby Allin, Jon Moxley and Eddie Kingston teamed up to battle Chaos Project and RSP. A noticeable amount of the crowd had departed by now, but a very sizable contingent remained. Moxley and Kingston, brawling buddies who seem to fight each other as well as their opponents, did their usual entrance coming right through the crowd. Eddie Kingston has got to be one of the most heartwarming stories in AEW. A longtime fixture on the independent scene, he was so depressed over his future a few years back that he struggled with suicidal thoughts. He got a big break in AEW and made the most of it and has become an improbable hero and star. He kinda reminds me of a modern gangsta version of The Crusher. Moxley’s arrival in AEW really kickstarted the promotion into high gear. He is very much a revamped Stone Cold Steve Austin for the modern day.

Darby Allin came down the ramp to meet his partners. The slightly built punk rocker with the Misfits style makeup has become a homegrown sensation and probably the biggest star that AEW built from the ground up.

The battle was short, chaotic and the outcome was never really in doubt. Chaos Project, the weird duo of maniacal creep Luther and masked cruiserweight Serpentico, very rarely win a match, but to me, they are one of the best comedy acts in wrestling. Luther’s constant misuse of Serpentico as a weapon has become a running gag and you keep waiting for the masked man to rebel against his partner. Luther’s high pitched shrieks are also notable. I hear he is quite an authority on the paranormal outside of wrestling, which I find easy to believe. Their partner RSP is actually Ricky Shane Page who is a top heel in the rogue GCW promotion. He shows some real flashes of fire in his AEW bouts but has yet to win a match. As expected, he took the pin in this match, bringing the card to an end.

Moxley, Kingston and Sting stuck around to talk to the crowd after the end of the match, which is a cool touch that endears them to the fans. The taping started like clockwork at 6:00 PM and finally finished about a quarter to 10. It flew by in what felt like half the time...extremely well organized and well run.

So that was the Doctor’s first real wrestling card in a long time. I very much enjoyed it and the fact it was held after the long drought of the Covid lockdown made it a very poignant event. The real card was the All Out PPV held in the same building just a few days later. It emerged as a historical wrestling event that was almost universally praised. It saw C.M. Punk’s return to the ring after a 7 year absence as well as the debut of 3 former WWE superstars: Bryan Danielson aka Daniel Bryan, Ruby Soho aka Ruby Riott and Adam Cole. The arrival of these 3 names marked a seismic shift in the wrestling business and set up a huge wave of positive momentum for AEW.

Has the WWE finally met its match? It’s very premature to say so, but for this space in time, AEW is the talk of the wrestling world and that’s nothing but a good thing for the business.