I was in Chicago on Sunday night, and I saw the most impressive pro wrestling match of my life.
It wasn’t a matter of crazy acrobatics or insane personal chemistry, it wasn’t even a matter of in-ring proficiency, at least not in the traditional sense. You’ll hear a lot of old-time wrestling personalities talk about the psychology of something, they’ll talk all kinds of shit about how today’s wrestlers can’t work and they’re just doing moves and there’s no psychology to it and for the most part, they’re right. The same of course was said by their predecessors who were also correct, and so on and so forth. I think a true understanding of wrestling psychology is rare, it is seldom captured by more than those select few truly elite wrestlers of every generation who just, simply put, get it.
Hiroshi Tanahashi is, by all accounts, a man at his wit’s end. He has an injury list a mile long, his body is broken and battered and selling for him has become a matter of being in actual agony as opposed to whimsically pretending to be hurt.
Every bump, every movement in the ring made by the one-time Ace makes it exceptionally clear that he is working on a timer. That perhaps the greatest New Japan star of all time, is approaching the end of his career.
The match he had last weekend at the United Center was no different, but athleticism and smoothness were never the chief calling cards of the Ace. What Hiroshi Tanahashi has mastered is the ability to emotionally drag you into whatever he is doing, no matter how familiar you may or may not be with him as a wrestler it simply doesn’t matter. There’s a passion and heart that resonates with everyone, that makes you want to see him prevail even when, in the back of your mind, you know it won’t happen.
I had no illusions going into AEWxNJPW Forbidden Door about Tanahashi winning in the main event, my real goal was getting to see the Ace of New Japan in one of his last true main events. When his music hit and he began to make his way to the ring, I was actually taken aback by how tepid the response was. The crowd was certainly happy to see him, but they were very heavily favoring Jon Moxley, one of the top babyfaces of their own home promotion and this of course makes sense. Jon Moxley is one of the most popular wrestlers in the world, and expecting the crowd to take to Tanahashi after a few minutes on US television would have been stupidly optimistic at best.
— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) June 27, 2022
Tanahashi wasn’t ever going to be presented as a heel, but he wasn’t meant to be the favorite and so he wasn’t.
This is all well and good, but the magic of pro wrestling as all true fans would know happens when the bell rings. As the match began there were dueling chants throughout and a seemingly molten crowd. Moxley was clearly receiving the loudest of the chants, and as the match progressed it was clear that he would be the one on the offensive for most of it.
Tanahashi never physically outmatched Jon Moxley, he simply weathered him. He found unique ways to incorporate his increasingly limited offensive arsenal, and with every move, he mustered you could almost feel another small pocket of fans shift in his direction.
— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) June 27, 2022
The sounds from the crowd shifted from dueling chants leaning towards Moxley, then to dueling chants leaning towards Tanahashi, all the way into 16,000 people in attendance yelling “Go Ace” in the hopes that their voices could help him to continue on.
Everyone in the arena wanted one more comeback from the Ace, so much so that when it became apparent they may not get it, they booed the ever-popular Jon Moxley.
Jon Moxley isn’t a babyface who receives boos. There aren’t any instances of this happening prior to this match, and I’d wager that it won’t ever happen again. Jon Moxley is at worst a top 2 babyface in AEW, and at many points in the company’s history was firmly entrenched as the number one guy. To say that AEW crowds love Jon Moxley is an understatement, it borders on pure adoration under almost any and all circumstances but, not against the Ace.
Over the course of nearly 30 minutes, this crowd flipped on their heels and cast their love for Moxley to the wind. They, like thousands of NJPW fans before them, decided they would spend the remainder of the night breathlessly willing the Ace to victory, no matter how futile it might seem.
It’s easy to be jaded and not get absorbed in the stories of pro wrestling now. It’s easy to find yourself playing the role of a less-than-involved bystander, too cool to get wrapped up in what’s going on since we all know the score. When people ask me who the greatest wrestler of all time is, my usual answer is Terry Funk and I believe that will be a hard answer to change.
If one were to ask me who the greatest babyface in wrestling history is, however, there’s only one answer I would even begin to entertain.