Saturday at AEW Battle of the Belts III, Konosuke Takeshita challenged Claudio Castagnoli for the Ring of Honor World Championship.
The story was the same as it has been for many of Takeshita’s matches in AEW: Commentary sang his praises, he had an impressive performance, he had the crowd’s support, and he almost won.
After nearly 20 minutes, Takeshita once again fell to one of the best that AEW has to offer. Despite the losses, fans are sticking with Takeshita. He hasn’t lost any momentum. If anything, he has gained momentum, and fans are more eager than ever to see him get that first big win in AEW.
In 2022, AEW is the home of the underdog, Takeshita sharing this distinction with Eddie Kingston and Wheeler Yuta. What makes these wrestlers different from the many wrestlers that fans have given up on in the past few years?
The underdog archetype is a historical staple in wrestling. Wrestlers like Dusty Rhodes, DDP, Rey Mysterio, and Mick Foley spent much of their careers looking for big wins that only came sparingly. The investment from fans kept these men in drawing positions, willing to part with their money in order to be there when the big win finally came. In recent years, the underdog has become a lost art, especially in WWE. Kofi Kingston, Big E, Nikki A.S.H. and most recently Liv Morgan are all examples of where WWE has come short in the transition from underdog fan favorite to star. Big E, Morgan, and Nikki all won the Money in the Bank ladder match, WWE’s favorite way to have their cake and eat it too. Money in the Bank is treated as a big win, but this treatment rarely extends past pulling down the briefcase. The briefcase holder often falls victim to one of the calling cards of the WWE underdog, the losing streak.
In a prime example of WWE’s priority on shock rather than competent storytelling, the underdog can expect to be stripped of all momentum just in time to have their moment and win the title. The WWE underdog usually wins the title by taking advantage of a champion who has just finished a match, starting their reign without a definitive victory. The title win provides another reset point where, with minor tweaks, the underdog can still make the transition to star. Unfortunately, this usually isn’t the case. The WWE underdog is not only on a level below the top stars, they are several rungs below. Big E and Kofi both had their reigns ended by Brock Lesnar, Nikki A.S.H. had her reign ended by Charlotte, and Liv has already tapped out to Ronda Rousey, although she still has the title.
For the WWE underdog, almost doesn’t exist. The top tier of WWE is a small club that doesn’t accept applications.
AEW’s shorter lifespan and previous successful booking has given them the benefit of the doubt, a luxury that WWE has robbed themselves of. There has been at least one Money in the Bank match every year since 2005, and the playbook isn’t that deep. The Money in the Bank winner is almost always an underutilized midcarder who earns a golden opportunity. “Money in the Bank winner” is a character template, and the rest of your character stays on hold until you lose the briefcase. AEW’s lack of a Money in the Bank-type of stipulation means that they don’t have that trope to rely on every year, so they need to build compelling characters independent of a stipulation match.
Eddie Kingston is a journeyman who has spent a career looking for his breakthrough. Takeshita is the ace from a smaller company outside of the United States (DDT) who has come to AEW to test his skill. Wheeler is a younger wrestler sitting under the learning tree of some of AEW’s top talents. Kingston, Takeshita, and Yuta are nestled in a different spot on the card than their WWE counterparts. They are above most of the roster, but just under the very top tier of AEW talent. AEW’s top tier is a bigger group, but they are well protected. They don’t trade wins back and forth over a few months. They win and then move on. They rarely lose; when they do, it’s to welcome someone new into the top tier. Takeshita, Kingston, and Yuta would win most matches outside of AEW’s top ten, but they struggle with the best. The drama in their story is that if they were to beat one of the top stars in AEW, it would be believable, but they haven’t been able to do it. They’ve almost done it.
The transition from underdog to top star is possible, and Hangman Page has made it. Page was always protected but couldn’t beat the top tier in singles competition. He almost beat Chris Jericho in 2019. He almost beat Kenny Omega in 2020.
When he did get his 2021 rematch with Omega, it was because he had continued to win. He did win a ladder match to become number one contender, but this set up a match at the next pay-per-view instead of letting the winner challenge at any time. Hangman didn’t beat Omega for the title after he had been through another match. He beat Omega one on one, and he beat Omega clean.
Once he won, the story wasn’t that Hangman was out of place. Hangman continued to win, beating Bryan Danielson, Adam Cole, and others in his over six-month title reign. It remains to be seen if AEW can replicate this success with others. For some underdogs, the win comes too late. For some, the win never comes.
The question is if AEW can master the timing of turning almost to absolutely, and when they do, can they make it stick?