There are a lot of people today who don’t seem to understand the point of storylines in pro wrestling. You can find them easily, they’re the people who were complaining about there being “no reason” to care about Bryan Danielson vs. Kazuchika Okada at this year’s Forbidden Door. They’re the people who will grouse about any random midcard bout on a random episode of a TV show not having a feud tied to it, simply existing “to have a good match.” These people have forgotten, if they ever truly knew, what storylines are even for.
You see, the point of storylines is the point of every single thing in pro wrestling: to get you to be interested in seeing specific matches, and to care about the wrestlers having them. But not every match needs a traditional wrestling storyline to have fan investment. Danielson vs. Okada did not need an extensive program full of promos and angles and twists and turns to draw a nice PPV number because it already had its hook without any of that. It was a first-time dream match between two men who each have a legitimate case for being the best wrestler of the last 20 years. You didn’t need a story to sell that match because their entire careers were the story. It was the rare case of two mega stars who had spent their entire careers in different worlds finally colliding. That’s a match that sells itself because it has a story that tells itself.
Storylines are there to get you to care about matches that don’t sell themselves. The matches between people you like but don’t love. The ones that you’ve seen a few times already and need an extra reason to be invested in seeing it rehashed. If the Rock agreed to wrestle Roman Reigns for next year’s WrestleMania, that is a match that would not need a single shred of story beyond the reality of two huge megastars, with a family connection, having a dream match. If you don’t believe me, look at the build to another Rock match, him versus Steve Austin at WrestleMania 17. People remember that match as a huge event, the last blast of the hottest era in pro wrestling history. And it was. People tend to forget how god-awful the storyline was for that match, centered around Austin’s wife, Debra. People only remember the match itself and possibly one great hype music video, because that was all it needed.
Now that I’ve walked you this far, I’ll take you a step further: if storylines are simply there to get you to care about matches, not only do not all matches need storylines, not every match even needs fans to really care about it to any major extent. It’s funny that some of AEW’s biggest critics are veterans of peak WCW, because WCW is the promotion that more than any other proved this.
During WCW’s absolute hottest period, their TV, even their PPVs, had many matches that were completely random, between midcard or lower talents, that were building to nothing and simply there to fill time. And it didn’t matter, because the things that needed to have storylines and promos and character work, stuff like the nWo angle, had plenty of it. Fans tuned in for the nWo, but they were more than happy to watch Psicosis vs.Villano IV while they were there. Look at the ratings during WCW’s peak period, and you might be shocked to see random Nitro matches like Harlem Heat vs. Ciclope and Damien beating stuff like Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels vs. the Road Warriors on Raw in head-to-head quarter-hour numbers.
In fact, trying to give every match an extensive storyline is almost impossible. TV time is a precious and limited commodity, and if you try to evenly divide it to give every wrestler and feud in a promotion an equal amount of time, you usually get a promotion where every match technically has a reason for happening, but not a single one actually has been given enough resources to truly invest you in it. The truth is that your stars and the people you think are on the cusp of becoming stars need extensive storylines and promo time, unless they’re currently working towards a dream match, in which case sometimes they don’t even necessarily need that. If you have a few really good storylines going with the right people, the ones the fans are most interested in, their rising tide lifts the boats of every other match and wrestler that doesn’t have one.
Yet on the other end of this spectrum, there’s another misconception, and if the last misconception is largely held by WWE fans, then this one is more prevalent among people who not just watch AEW, but also by some who work in that company itself: that a compelling storyline is as simple as two wrestlers having literally any reason to wrestle each other, no matter how tenuous or minor or threadbare.
How many times in all of modern wrestling, but especially in AEW, is a storyline nothing but one wrestler interrupting another wrestler’s promo, often within the opening seconds, and attacking them, with almost no real character motivation or unique aspect to it? How many times have we seen Tony Khan at media calls at press conferences spend a solid eight minutes running down every match on a recent or future card, making clear that every single one of them has a history and a reason, except when you look at the reason for those matches, so many of them are something on the level of, “These two had a match two months ago and we just kind of remembered it, and we had the loser attack the winner backstage?” How many times do you actually care more about the match than you already would’ve without that angle?
Again, the point of storylines in wrestling is not simply to have them just to have them. The most important thing a storyline does is not give a match a kayfabe reason that it’s happening, it’s to give you a reason to CARE that it’s happening. Despite what critics of AEW often say, the company is not low on the former. Despite what some fans and people within AEW often say, the company is often low on the latter.
If you don’t believe me, simply look at the discourse around this year’s All In.
A lot of people, myself included, are mildly to majorly disappointed in the card and build. Yet, on paper, it looks like a standard AEW PPV, one that is likely to be full of great matches but has a lot of storylines that only come together in the final two or three weeks and don’t have particularly compelling reasons for you to be excited about them OTHER than them likely being great bell to bell. For many AEW PPVs, that’s enough, but because of the nature of All In, that it’s a monumental record-setting event billed as the biggest show of all time, some people expect more.
Sometimes AEW has been able to paper over this weakness in crafting programs with the staggering level talent they have. They’ve been able to book more than their fair share of Danielson/Okada dream matches that don’t require any real creative heavy lifting to sell themselves. But due to injuries and they’ve already run through many of them, AEW doesn’t have a Danielson/Okada level dream match card to play for All In.
The only way this show was going to seem more special than a normal AEW PPV is if they built two or three feuds that were bigger than normal, ones that elevated a few matches from ones fans might like to see to ones they needed to see. AEW didn’t have a Roman/Rock match available to them for All In, but if they had dug in for the last few months, they could’ve possibly had a couple more matches closer to a Roman/Sami Zayn, matches that once would’ve been seen as standard TV fodder that were transformed into major PPV draws after months of development.
Maybe I’m being a little harsh. How about we break down this All In card, match by match, and give each one a review and letter grade based on its build? Granted, at the time I’m writing this, we’re still several days from the show, with presumably more matches to be announced and go-home promos to be cut on the final TV, but I don’t think this is a particularly unfair time to judge what we’ve been presented. Let me reiterate: the letter grades are going to be for storyline build, not for the quality of the matches themselves.
MJF vs. Adam Cole
This match is a great example of what a storyline can do to add interest.
When these two wrestled for the first time in June on an episode of Dynamite, it felt about at the level you’d expect: it was a first-time match between two of the bigger stars in the promotion. It was big, but did it feel like a match that would be worthy of selling out a packed Wembley Stadium? Not quite.
Just two months later, this match doesn’t just feel worthy of main eventing All In, it’s undoubtedly the hottest match on the show and one of the hottest programs the promotion has ever had. Is the storyline for everyone? No, as it’s pushed AEW further into WWE-style territory than it’s ever been, frustrating people who come to the promotion to see an alternative rather than another take on the same thing. It’s got big broad corny humor that doesn’t hit all the time (Some would say it never does). It feels like a storyline pulled directly from the Attitude Era.
No matter how you personally feel though, you can’t deny its business success. It’s pulling ratings, getting big reactions, and building real momentum. It’s also led to one of the only matches on this card that feels like it has stakes. A lot of the other matches on this show I’m only interested in because I know they’ll be great matches. This match has that element, but I also am invested in who wins and how. They’ve done an excellent job of creating a match where not only could either guy win, but you could plausibly see the night end with a Cole heel turn, an MJF heel turn, or both men remaining friends.
It’s not a flawless storyline. In addition to the humor that isn’t for everybody, it has seen MJF continue to do something he’s done for his entire AEW career, which is try to wear 18 different hats, character-wise. We’ve seen MJF as the comedy figure and the sinister serious heel, the disingenuous heel and the sympathetic figure revealing personal life trauma. He’s good at playing every one of these roles, but the fact that he tries to do them all at times creates a bit of tonal whiplash. Take last week’s Dynamite, wherein the same promo Max went from hyping up the promise of a future Kangaroo Kick, to a vulnerable “Look how far I’ve come” life recap, to a growly hard sell finish about how much the title meant to him. In a lot of ways, Max is like AEW as a whole: he tries to do a million things at the same time and is talented enough to succeed at doing it, but you’re left wondering if they could be even bigger if they picked one lane and focused on it.
There’s also the nagging feeling that if this match does in fact end with a heel turn as many are expecting, it’s ending the Cole/MJF partnership too soon. I’ll go as far as to say as big as this match feels, I think it could feel even bigger if it came at the end of a four, five, six-month partnership and even a tag title run. Still, that they’ve been able to heat up a rematch so much in a single PPV cycle is something everyone involved should be proud of. It’s made two top stars hotter, and in terms of intrigue, it’s carrying the load for All In, so despite its flaws, I can’t give it anything else but: Rating: A
MJF & Adam Cole vs. Aussie Open
I’m going to simply toss this in as part of the prior match, as its entire intrigue at this point, especially after the way Aussie Open quickly got dismissed on Dynamite, is how the booking of the match will impact the booking of the main event.
FTR vs. The Young Bucks
The rumors are this match is a change from an original plan of the Bucks wrestling The Righteous, and the build for it has thusly reflected what this new match likely is: a sudden veering, of course, to bolster the “Wow” factor of this card. It started with a random challenge out of the blue from FTR, who now, over a year after their last match with the Jacksons, suddenly really care that they’re 1-1 in matches against them. Since then, we’ve gotten some generic promos, hype videos, and one physical confrontation. It’s been…fine.
I will say this, I’m not going to give the build for this match a high rating, but I think this is the rare match on this card that doesn’t need much build. It’s not quite Danielson/Okada for the first time ever, but it is two teams that you can argue are the best of their generation, wrestling each other for only the third time. It’s a match that feels big without you having to do much, and AEW hasn’t.
If they had a few more “In case of needing a big match on short notice, break glass” freebies like this, I probably would not be writing this column. Rating: C
Chris Jericho vs. Will Ospreay
This is a hard match to judge the build. On one hand, it’s one of the rare matches on this card to have a reasonably long, somewhat meaty feeling storyline leading up to it. On the other hand, almost all of that build has been centered around Don Callis and drama within the Jericho Appreciation Society, rather than the match we’re getting. The way it’s been built, this match is focused more on Jericho vs. Don rather than Jericho vs. Ospreay, with Will simply being an extension of the man.
How you feel about this build likely hedges a lot on how you felt about the Jericho/Callis angle on last week’s Dynamite. For me, it was one of those angles that was very entertaining and satisfying in the moment, but breaks down the more you think about it. We have Chris Jericho, after weeks of deliberation, choosing to sell out his friends and join the evil manager, only for said manager to completely misread the situation and make dramatic plans for being rebuffed. It feels like with the painting, Jericho wanted to recreate his famous List of Jericho betrayal moment and worked backwards to get it. Which is cute, but it now leaves us with a Jericho that I guess is supposed to be a face even though he was willing to turn against his own stable, and in Will Ospreay, the biggest name from Britain now working as the heel against him. Rating: B-
The Golden Elite (Kenny Omega, Hangman Page, Kota Ibushi) vs. Konosuke Takeshita and Bullet Club Gold
Let’s start with the good, Takeshita turning on the Elite was a cool moment and a nice way to kick off this storyline. Unfortunately, with the Jericho/Callis feud running concurrently, we have now had two simultaneous “Don Callis turns on his best friend from Winnipeg” storylines, and the Jericho one feels like it’s had a lot more time and thought put into it, with a more consistent focus.
This one comes down to Kenny Omega, on the second last Dynamite before All In, doing that sitdown promo. Omega is an amazing talent, a guy with great charisma, but in trying to do a serious “Let me talk to you Jim Ross” somber promo, Omega showed off some of his biggest weaknesses. Nothing about it was compelling or felt genuine. Then Bullet Club Gold comes out of nowhere to insert themselves into the feud. When the takeaway from your big angle for All In is people green-screening JR’s awkward reactions into other media, you know you whiffed.
Then we get a Jay White promo on Collision that doesn’t explain why Bullet Club Gold is doing Callis’ dirty work, or if they’re full-time aligned. Instead, it references the Elite and Jay and Juice’s shared history as members of the original Bullet Club. That’s a subject that you could build a genuinely compelling feud from, but it’s not such a huge story that it tells itself. It’s something you dwell on and explain over a period of weeks. Here it feels like it’s retroactively being pulled out to justify a six-man tag that came out of nowhere. There is some novelty to Omega simultaneously teaming with his best friend/partner from Japan and his pal/partner from AEW, but apart from that novelty and the initial Takeshita turn, there’s nothing here. Rating: D-
Hikaru Shida vs. Toni Storm vs. Britt Baker vs. Saraya
Remember earlier when I talked about AEW matches that Tony Khan can go into great detail about the “story” of, but no one actually cares? This is a chief example. Yes, technically the “AEW Originals” and the Outcasts have been feuding for months and have had tons of interactions during that time. But how many of them have been memorable? Do you care about this match to any extent greater than how you feel about these four as performers? Hell, we even got the classic AEW trope of the thrown-together TV tournament to get here.
This match is a way to get four top female stars on the show without burning two match slots, and to have Saraya in a title match in her home country without exposing her in a singles bout. That’s it. The only interesting character work we’ve seen from any of these four recently is Storm’s rapid decent into psychosis, but does that make you more interested to see this match, or more interested to see her next promo?
You know the answer to that. Rating: D-
Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk
The IWA-MS referencing angle on the most recent Collision where Punk dressed up as a Golden Vampire to take out Joe encapsulates this whole feud. It’s referencing and playing off the history of the amazing stuff these guys did almost twenty years ago. If you’re a mid-00s indie nerd like me, seeing stuff like that or Punk bringing back the headlocks against Joe in a recent match are these super fun little nods. But in terms of making that rich history come alive for people that weren’t buying ROH DVDs in 2004, what have we really gotten?
We got a good TV match between the two. A couple of angles where Joe was angry he lost, and Punk largely ignored him to focus on the Ricky Starks feud, which, along with controlling the velvet rope of who gets to attend ROH tapings, has really been Punk’s driving force the last month, not this match for THE BIGGEST CARD IN WRESTLING HISTORY. CM Punk is one of the greatest promo men of all time, Samoa Joe is a great one himself. These two can talk you into the building, can make their history come alive. I think if they had a few weeks to build this match on the mic, they would have. Instead, it’s announced a week before the show, and Joe feels like Punk’s 8th most immediate concern. Rating: C-
Darby Allin and Sting vs. Swerve Strickland and AR Fox
In my mind, this is the second best-told story on the card. I think, ideally you’d want a show this big to have a few storylines at this level or above, but beggars can’t be choosers. What makes this feud different? It’s actually about something. Darby Allin calls in a favor for longtime friend AR Fox, only for Fox to soon betray him, asking why Allin didn’t try to get him an opportunity sooner. Both guys cut quality promos laying out their motivations.
The cherry on top was the Strickland angle, where he attacked Allin’s other friend, Nick Wayne, in his own garage. It was brutal in the best way, with Strickland oozing menace and charisma. Really, that angle was the exact opposite of the recent Kenny Omega beatdown, it made you instantly more interested in the match it was building and kicked the intensity up a whole level. This whole feud is a nice example that you don’t need to act out a school play to have a story amplify a match, nor do you need to reinvent the wrestling wheel. Every match is about “Two guys are fighting because they want to win matches and make money” but all you need to layer on a second compelling reason to fight each other. This one has. Rating: B+
Eddie Kingston, Best Friends, and The Lucha Bros vs. BCC (Jon Moxley, Claudio Castagnoli, Wheeler Yuta) & ??? & ??? & ???
The BCC started feuding with Best Friends and Lucha Bros weeks ago, and I couldn’t tell you why if you put a gun to my head. I know it has something to do with the ROH PPV, which was great. I know Jon Moxley has had some really fun matches this month against these guys. Again, this is another Spreadsheet Tony Khan special. There are technical reasons why these guys are fighting, the matches are really good, but the story is so thin it’s see-through.
Eddie Kingston returning helps, as he and Moxley were percolating something fun in terms of story before Eddie left for the G1 Climax. Unfortunately missing a month means this is another match where there could’ve been a story to tell if these guys had a few weeks of promos, but instead, it has to be rushed and compacted into a couple weeks of run-ins and challenges. Rating: D
The House of Black vs. The Acclaimed and Billy Gunn
This match hasn’t been announced, but come on. It actually has told a little simple little common wrestling story over a few weeks. The aging vet thinks he no longer has it, but must find it within himself to come back to beat some assholes. The execution has been solid, but I think my problem is that while it’s been logical storytelling, it just hasn’t been that entertaining to see the Acclaimed somberly act like Billy Gunn is dead as they carry his boots with them everywhere they go.
This is a match where the basic build will be justified by the payoff, except that payoff is…a 59-year-old Billy Gunn winning the AEW Trios Titles. This is a perfectly fine story for a match with its likely place on this card. It’s only easy to pick on it as part of a show that could use more storyline oomph as a whole, but this story is about as much as you should probably expect from a lower on the card trios match. Rating: C+
Final Thoughts on AEW’s Build to All In London at Wembley Stadium
So that’s All In.
Pretty much every match on this show has a shot at being good action, and many have a shot at being great. But that’s something you can say about so many AEW shows. If you expected All In just to be another AEW PPV (And that is all some fans are expecting), this meets that bar.
But if you’re expecting a show as big as the building it’s running in, this show has exposed so many of AEW’s largest problems. Long-term stories that aren’t told with a consistent focus and emphasis. Matches are thrown together last second with bland basic beatdowns at the center of too many feuds.
AEW continues to be what it’s always been: a promotion that is packed with talent in front of the cameras and behind the scenes, that tries to do too much and focus on too many, one that seems to constantly be trying to finish its homework at the last second. Occasionally the company finds its focus for a second, and we see glimpses of the promotion it could consistently be: one of the greatest wrestling companies of all time. You might think this is an unfair standard, that some of these critiques are nitpicks. But AEW has shown they can hit that mark. They have the talent. They have the resources. More is expected from those who have more. All In, from a sheer attendance standpoint will possibly be the biggest wrestling show in history. I just wish it felt like it.