Preface

When I wrote about the expectations for All Elite Wrestling in 2019, not a single episode of Dynamite had aired. I have hesitated coming back to the topic, because I didn’t want to end up writing a point-by-point list of what they have become and what they have not in the past three years of their existence. There is so much minute detail that one could get into, and yet since so much time has passed, it may be better to look at the bigger picture.

Early on in AEW’s existence, there was a focus on being the promotion that would elevate the next generation of stars, while relying on the star power of its first big signings – namely, The Elite, Cody Rhodes, Jon Moxley and Chris Jericho. Four names seemed to always be mentioned in that conversation about who the next generation was: Maxwell Jacob Friedman, Darby Allin, Sammy Guevara and Jungle Boy.

Part of the lingo MJF referenced in a November 2021 promo, the Four Pillars moniker harkens back to the 1990’s All Japan Pro Wrestling, and its four major stars. Some may feel that the name is either insulting to the legends who came before, or that it puts too much of a burden on the younger wrestlers, trying to carve out their own place in the American side of the industry. But the name has stuck.

The four have all received a continued, multi-year push, all with their own distinct paths and stories that are far from being finished. It’s an interesting case study of how AEW has been booked, meticulously and long-term. This is the promotion at its finest, the type of booking that I had hoped for. It’s not the full story, of course, there have been plenty of mishaps and bad decisions and boring booking along the way, too, but it’s a part of the story, and one that deserves some focus. The pace of all these pushes has been methodical, and perhaps even a bit too slow for some people’s liking. They have all become stars within the universe of the promotion, but not the very absolute top echelon of star. At least not yet.

Let’s start with Darby Allin.

Darby Allin

I had never seen Darby Allin before AEW featured him. I had seen about half a show of EVOLVE, and witnessed a crowd unable to make any noise even with no global pandemic going on, and for that reason, had never watched more EVOLVE. So my first brush with him was on the Fight for the Fallen card in summer 2019 in a match against Cody Rhodes, the chosen flagbearer for all that AEW was to become (during a much simpler time). The match impressed me, as Cody matches routinely did back then, and the draw result was also refreshing. It was the first beat in the long-term feud with Darby and Cody, which would reach a conclusion when Darby won the TNT championship from Cody in late 2020.

If forced to describe the company’s first year, I would use the word “uneven.” Everything was still finding its rhythm and identity. It was the year of booking by committee, when Dynamite was overall good, but had some very odd segments and some production snafus. But one of the early real successes was Darby Allin’s incredible popularity among the fans, both old and new. He was just undeniably over in every building they went to. In my first language, there is a term that means every demographic, “from baby to grandpa”, and that was essentially Darby Allin’s fan base. Apparently, a surprising amount of kids also feel dead inside and therefore want to indulge in face paint.

One of the most definitive and interesting feuds he had was against Jon Moxley. Their Dynamite main event match in the promotion’s first year was my match of the year and their second bout during Moxley’s pandemic reign was just as good. The matches highlighted the way in which Allin has developed and adjusted his in-ring work. Everything he does has more meaning, more purpose now, and he seems to have really zeroed in on the moves that he does best, making the most of them, such as the absolutely vicious-looking suicide dive, that never fails to look like the opponent got hit with a human-sized bullet. If Darby has adjusted his in-ring style, he has not extended that to being more careful with bumps. He will still bump in absolutely ludicrous ways and fall off things no human being should ever fall off. He will coffin drop on a coffin, in a coffin match, which he has already won.

He is not great on the mic, and in a promotion where promo skills easily propel you to the top of the card, this should by all logic be a huge hindrance. But something very strange has happened with his instant popularity – it has allowed his character to be defined within the in-ring, the presence and entrance, rather than anything he’s said. And his in-ring very much speaks for the whole character, since there aren’t really any inconsistencies with how he presents himself and how he wrestles, which I find can be typical with younger wrestlers, who haven’t fully understood their character just yet. This is an aspect that, to me, separates a great wrestler from a good one, and it’s why Darby Allin is one of my favorite wrestlers to watch in the entire promotion.

The TNT title run and alliance with Sting seemed to both push Darby to a new level in 2021. The series of the title matches would often main event Dynamite at a time, and almost without fail, they delivered. Each match was brutal and took its toll, the champion looking more spent every time out, leading to the final defense against Miro, where Darby had nothing more left to give. During this match, there was also a very simple but touching moment, where a meaningful look toward Sting led Allin to a final flurry of offense, that ultimately was for naught.

Another key aspect of the TNT title reign was how Allin spoke about the title and what it meant to him. Both him and Cody Rhodes really made the title feel primary, the title they wanted the most in the company, and it seems like that is still the case for Darby.

Nowadays, Sting and Darby Allin seem to be a package deal; where one is, the other is never far behind. What is truly remarkable about the pairing is how equal it is. Sting even said in the post-Revolution press scrum that as much as he was mentoring Allin, he was also learning a lot himself from the younger man. Darby has used the Scorpion Death Drop as homage but then here is The Icon, going through tables at an age when most sane men would refrain from such bumps. We can conclude the influence has gone both ways and in my opinion has been very fun to watch.

For a moment, Allin was the only one of the pillars who had won a title (until Sammy Guevara eventually won the TNT title). The push has only really been marred by feuds with entire stables that go on for a punishingly long time, such as the one with Team Taz and the current one against A(H)FO. The inevitable, hopeful conclusion to the latter should be a singles match against Andrade, who seems to be under the mistaken, amusing impression that Darby is an actual child employed by “Mr” Sting. So while lengthy, the feud hasn’t been without its bright spots, including the car crash match at AEW Revolution 2022 and two days prior, the terrific TNT title threeway with Andrade, Allin and Guevara.

Darby in my eyes is a perennial babyface, although he frequently does desperation moves in matches, such as biting or eye-gouging, that resemble heel tactics. He could ostensibly turn and adjust his style accordingly, but I don’t think the crowd would let him, at least not very easily. From day one he has been, and remains, their guy.

The brief but significant feud against MJF in late 2021 brought the concept of the four pillars into the promotion’s canon. There was, of course, a t-shirt made for the phrase, and later a dig at MJF where he was removed from the pillars’ shirt and replaced with the good doctor Bitt Baker, DMD. The feud led to a match at Full Gear, where I thought MJF and Allin stole the show, and that was most surely their intent. A statement on a card filled with the new marquee signees, from Bryan Danielson, Adam Cole and CM Punk, that the day one younger generation could still outdo them with ease.

MJF

At 26 years of age, MJF has undoubtedly been given the strongest, fastest push out of all of the pillars. He could win the world title tomorrow and while the win would not be clean, the result would feel appropriate to the level he has been pushed. MJF has carried his own against the best promos in the entire company and been greatly elevated by feuds with Cody, Jericho and CM Punk. He has been in top programs and virtually undefeated in the promotion from the very first shows. He calls himself the fastest rising star in professional wrestling, and when the evidence is examined, it’s hard to deny. In one of the early Dynamites he and Jericho did a promo segment where they teased MJF joining the Inner Circle, a story that was later paid off when he did join, and subsequently betray the group and Jericho. But even from that early promo, where he more than held his own against Jericho, it was clear that this guy would go on to do bigger and bigger things. He is now at the stage where he is the one elevating somebody, with the anticipated Wardlow face turn and the push for him that is coming just around the corner.

I watched my first MJF match on YouTube when he was stupid young at 21 and wrestling Lio Rush at Wrestle Circus. Characteristically the match began with him grabbing the microphone and cutting a promo, and the effect was felt instantly. I just knew this guy had “it”. The in-ring work wasn’t quite there yet,  and I figured, like many others did at the time, that he would remain an amazing promo and an okay, middle-of-the-road worker. Not bad, just not great, and certainly not exceptional.

Well, that prediction did not hold true. MJF has consistently improved in the ring by developing a methodical, heel style that isn’t boring but instead very purposeful, and also allows the babyfaces to shine when they need to. His selling has become better and better, and his work is full of little details that are a lot of fun to watch. Like one reasoned and well-explained man once said, what he does, he does really well.

This is perhaps the best showcase for what the whole idea of the four pillars is: that by working against these very talented veterans, the younger generation will be able to hone their craft to the point where they too become very consistent, great wrestlers, in all aspects of the sport. Max has been able to get to a different level with his in-ring work and it has all happened very quietly because he has never abandoned the character, but continued adding to it.

MJF never needed the confidence on the microphone, he had it in spades, but he has now gained even more, and the end result is that he can hold the audience in the palm of his hand, take them on a journey. The segment where he touches on his childhood fandom of Punk, and subsequent feeling of being abandoned by him, is rightly already being praised as an all-time great promo. The Punk feud overall has really pushed him to a new level, and while the feud felt a bit too meandering at times, in retrospect I think it was worth the length. It’s one that deserves a re-visit at some point, should Punk stick around, and I don’t doubt he will.

Like Darby, I think Max wrestles in a way that completely embodies his character. He is a solid heel, who doesn’t do things to excess but also doesn’t get too ground down in keeping the pace of the match slow. The two have great chemistry as result, and I don’t think it’s by accident. Great character work always supports great in-ring work.

Max’s best matches have been against the other pillars and his idol, CM Punk. The latter makes sense, as the two poured so much of themselves into the feud and the matches shone because of that. But the matches against the other pillars being his most memorable ones is curious. It can’t surely be by design, because you can’t plan out how chemistry works (if you could, wrestling booking would be much easier). Maybe it’s simply a case of complementary styles. The three other pillars all work as babyfaces, with high spots and other typical crowd-pleasers, to such an extent that matching them with MJF just makes sense. Maybe there is an unspoken sense of camaraderie, of wanting to do their best not just on their own, but being elevated together, as a class.

It’s also a way for all four to participate in the kind of myth-making that pro wrestling thrives on. Four pillars, three musketeers, the aces and the faces of companies – if you can attach yourself to one of these concepts why wouldn’t you? It gives an instant story to what would otherwise be an ordinary match, and makes it one about the struggle between two peers, to see who can get on the next step of the ladder.

In his hometown, MJF received an untypical babyface reaction, although he still acted like a little shit. I’m of the mind that Max should not turn face, not because he couldn’t hack it, but because the time is not yet ripe for it. I think it will come, though, when he has worked too long at such a high level that the fans’ appreciation for him can organically turn him face. We are, after all, talking about a guy whose prime years could be nearly a decade away.

Sammy Guevara

To me, Sammy walked into the company with the best independent wrestling resume out of the four. He was industrious with his vlog, somewhat of a name already and had wrestled all over the world. He was featured heavily on the first Dynamite, starting the historic show with a match against Cody Rhodes and later joining Chris Jericho’s new stable, The Inner Circle. This association has largely defined Sammy’s AEW run until very recently. He has started out as a heel with the faction, aided by what some might describe as a “punchable” face, then turned babyface with them and only now is truly on his own, seeing where the journey takes him.

Working with Jericho has no doubt gotten Sammy more over than he would otherwise have been, and helped him develop a character and improved his promo skills. He is now more confident on the microphone and seems to generally be better regarded by the fans than at the beginning of the promotion. But it has also confined him to playing sidekick or tag team partner in Jericho’s feuds and lead to the ill-fated, cursed Matt Hardy feud during the pandemic which frankly halted much of Sammy’s momentum. The same feud was also close to souring the reputation of the company as it resulted in some very public injuries, and at the time people were very critical about the way the company handled those injuries. This was one of the most unfortunate feuds in the company’s history, without a doubt.

Perhaps the slow simmer approach of teaming with Jericho has been a good thing, but as somebody who always liked Sammy, even when he was rough on the mic and had not much of a discernible character, it did at times feel like he was always busy with the Inner Circle storylines and had no room to have his own. He has done well in whatever spot he has been in, but I would say that his push has been the most up and down of the four.

In the ring, Guevara is often great, not afraid to put his life on the line and often wrestling at a breakneck pace. His best feud has probably been the one with Cody Rhodes. While there have just been the Dynamite debut match and a series in the end of 2021, beginning of 2022, it feels like the feud that finally established Sammy as a singles star, outside of any faction, including a five-star ladder match where he captured the TNT Championship. Cody and Sammy didn’t have extraordinary chemistry, but the matches always succeeded in showing the best of both wrestlers.

The TNT title run was shaping up to be a great string of matches, much like Darby’s run with the same championship, but was unfortunately cut way too short for my liking. It’s clear that Guevara is liked and there is effort put toward his story and push in the company, but the path has been the most inconsistent out of the four pillars. He has been a highlight in a lot of these faction feuds that the Inner Circle has been involved in, and has always pulled out the wildest spot of the night in many of the multi-man matches. Another great strength of his is that he can play face, heel or tweener effortlessly.

I think for my money, Sammy could still use more defining rivalries and singles feuds that develop him further and push him toward the potential I know he has. I’m not sure where the on-screen pairing with his real-life girlfriend Tay Conti is headed, but it could be what he needs to gain more fan empathy or antipathy down the line, too.

Sammy could undoubtedly be a top star but the journey to get there is more foggy and uncertain when I try to picture it. Maybe now that he is not in a faction, things can develop towards that organically. I would certainly love to see him get there, because I don’t think it’s his effort level that’s the problem, it’s just the booking and circumstances. Or perhaps this is just my own impatience with the slow pace of building Guevara to be the star he can be.

Then we have the youngest of the group, Jungle Boy aka Jack Perry.

Jungle Boy

When the promotion began, Jungle Boy was all 20 years of age, skinny as a stick and rather unknown, having mostly worked local Californian indies. His tag team act with Luchasaurus was on the right side of pro wrestling goofy, in my opinion, and became quickly popular, particularly among kids. I always liked the team, and though they have never been the most compelling tag team in the promotion, they have rounded their game in

Three years later, Jungle Boy has filled out and is a tag team champion, and therefore in a very different place than the three other pillars who all primarily work as singles wrestlers. But the seeds for an eventual singles push for Jungle Boy are so clear to see, you would have to be willfully ignorant not to see it being prepared. He is aligned with Christian Cage, both to spin off into a singles feud eventually but also to help work on his lack of promo skills. Christian can talk for him,  and help him develop in the ring, both as a tag team wrestler and a singles wrestler. And so far, it seems he is improving, growing more natural and confident when cutting promos, although very much not there yet.

The singles matches he has had point to an increasingly competent wrestler, who effortlessly has the crowd on his side. He’s good looking and draws sympathy, and while he is far from an elite worker just yet, there is so much time on his side at 24 years old that I could see him develop into one, down the line. He doesn’t yet have the level of character work inside the ring that someone like Darby Allin or MJF has, and I think his personality is also still developing.

His most memorable singles matches have been against Kenny Omega and the other pillars, apart from Sammy Guevara, with whom he hasn’t had a match yet (as far as I can tell, anyway). Again, coincidence or by design, it’s impossible to know. It’s clear that there is a pattern to these matches, an undercurrent of trying to prove not just that they are promising, young talents but also that they are future stars. The matches are saying, “Pay attention to this now, because this could be your main event of a pay per view in 5 years’ time.”

Jungle Boy’s push is in its infancy. We don’t know when it will happen, just that the groundwork is being laid out. He could fizzle out, turn heel, change gimmicks, have a scandal that kills his momentum, it’s impossible to tell. But I hope he continues his steady climb to greater heights. He is a very easy wrestler to like. He also has a kind face.

Conclusion

There are no givens in pro wrestling, and what can happen with these four young talents isn’t necessarily what will happen. A gun to my head, I could make a prediction or two, but I don’t want to jinx it, I just want to enjoy the ride. My track record with predictions on who will be an enormous star isn’t admittedly great, as I was a hard yes on the man now known as Master Wato and a hard no on one Adam Page.

The good news is also that these aren’t the only four wrestlers who are being primed for top spots in the company. Maybe HOOK will lap all of these guys, maybe Ricky Starks will get an enormous push (so let’s pray harder, people), maybe a new independent star emerges ahead of all the rest, or maybe WWE makes an offer to one or two of the four that they can’t refuse and their careers in AEW come to a close.

But so far so good. The table is definitely being set to take advantage of the talent and potential that exists here and that’s exciting to me. The other exciting prospect is the way that the four wrestlers are already weaving little notes in matches with one another that can be paid off at a later date. They seem to really care about these rivalries continuing and therefore we, too, should care.

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