“Starksdom?” I will show myself.
For the die-hard AEW fan, the current state of the company has gone from a little fearful to very exciting. The company continues to focus on its younger stars, recreating a foundation for what it will be for years to come, rather than being explosively in the now week-to-week (which was also a lot of fun, to be fair) . This came after everything was clearly in flux at best, chaos at worst, where the show had no other center than Jon Moxley. The boys were either injured or suspended or fired or lost in their creativity and it felt like the tablecloth had been ripped but all the glasses and cutlery were thrown into the air, their landing spot unknown and unsecured.
It was another big step last night as MJF faced its first title challenger, one Ricky Starks. Starks has been a huge silo of potential since his debut. He has the looks, his in-ring consistently plus. But he’d mostly been on the fringes of the main event scene at best. He was very good on Team Taz, although he let Taz ride as much as he did. His feud with Powerhouse Hobbs when that faction disbanded seemed a bit paint by numbers, with Tony Khan seemingly afraid to choose between the two and give each a win.
Starks’ rise began as the tournament progressed to determine MJF’s first challenger, culminating in a smash of a match with another young (similar) star in Ethan Page, whom AEW is trying to push into a fundamental play.
Still, Starks hasn’t had “the moment” to solidify himself as a main event player. Right after he won the Battle Royale, arranging a second match with MJF for the Dynamite Diamond Ring seemed like the perfect moment. Aside from giving Starks what might be the toughest job in the company, getting on the mic and doing promo-off with MJF, the company’s best speaker and arguably the best in the biz. MJF has wrecked a few wrestlers on the mic in recent history. Wheeler Yuta will need months of rehabilitation for his character after MJF verbally shoved him in a locker ahead of their match. Darby Allin and Sammy Guevara are two others who have been joined by MJF on mics in boat races, which only softens the in-ring climax a little but is still a necessary step.
Starks, on the other hand, went Bo Jackson-on-Brian Bosworth:
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I would never pretend that speaking impromptu in front of 8,000 to 10,000 people and especially after a wrestling match is always easy. The elements that make a great ad are simple on paper but difficult in practice. You need to sound like you believe every word you say, sound like the character is actually speaking rather than playing with something written down, and give them a bit of personality. It just has to be honest. Again, it’s easy to demonstrate that backstage or here, and quite another to do it live. Starks nailed it
Also, a quick note: I find a spear to be pretty lame as a finisher, especially for a guy like Starks who isn’t that tall. But if you do it with that kind of flourish… (He speared MJF out of his shoes!)
It was further proof that the things that really bang on AEW are usually done over the mic. Or rather:
And it’s true. AEW is packed with guys who can put in a 15-20 minute match, which is hardly a bad thing. This is what has made the company so popular with its fans. You are guaranteed two, three or even four great games every week. But they can tend to mix. It becomes the baseline, and the next big match doesn’t get the EKG going as much as the last big match. We should never lose appreciation for the ridiculous quality that AEW has consistently thrown away throughout its existence, but that’s the landscape it created.
AEW’s best moments are those accentuated by a great promo. Perhaps his best story yet, Hangman Page, who overcame his insecurities and lack of confidence over three to four years and multiple companies to beat Kenny Omega and win the AEW World Heavyweight Championship, was thrown into fifth gear Page’s “Cowboy Shit” promo. Britt Baker’s rise to the top of the women’s division was based on her video and interview work during the pandemic when she had a broken leg and wasn’t even wrestling. Whatever CM Punk’s final influence on the whole thing was, everything he did felt great because of his promotional work. Orange Cassidy’s current run as All-Atlantic Champion has been a complete kick-your-feet-in-the-air-with-luck not only because he’s so good in the ring, but because of all his backstage work, though he played with and poke holes in the normal title defense promotion. Miro remains TNT’s top champion because of his video promos, which were either in the service of God, defied him, or downright threatened (think about it), while never losing sight of who was really in charge, his wife . Eddie Kingston is one of the most popular wrestlers on the list because everything he does when he speaks is so real. The praised are the praised.
Stark’s ability to elevate themselves to the same level as MJF immediately established AEW as a feud that can be returned to for years and is the linchpin of the main event scene. They’ve already set two matches and you can easily see them split the pair and run away from the rubber match from MJF for months if not longer. It will always be hanging out there when they need it. It’s a continuation of AEW’s focus on new and younger stars. Punk is gone, Bryan Danielson has said his full-time wrestling days are ending very soon. Kenny Omega always suggests not to do this for too long. Chris Jericho is in his 50s.
There’s still time for AEW to build mostly around the names it always has been, but that makes right now the perfect time to prepare for next-gen being able to pick up the torch without that she ever touches the ground. It has taken Starks a little time to transition from being part of a faction at the top to the backstage and video packs to live promos and the biggest games. Ethan Page is on the same path, just behind Starks. MJF is self-explanatory. Hangman Page is back. Jamie Hayter on the women’s side hasn’t gotten all that much live ad time and they’re obviously slowly building that up for her, but she’s at the top of the women’s division now because organically she’s just great in the ring (not something she has unfortunately done too much with the women’s department). Willow Nightingale seems to be starting a subtle push.
It’s not that the road to big debuts and surprise performances is closed and artists always come and go. AEW has racked up a ton of mileage as a healing center for wayward wrestlers, but that can’t last forever. It only has to be one component.
AEW is finding itself again through its younger generation. This feels a lot more stable than what came before, as exciting as it was.