It’s not often that professional wrestling can shock me more. Of the four horsemen brutally attacking Ricky Morton in the locker room to Mick Foley throwing himself from the top of a steel cage, to the not so surprised betrayal of Cody Rhodes by the bad guy Maxwell Jacob Friedman, I have seen him everywhere over the years , always delighted with the foreseeable unpredictability of the fight.
But when I looked up at the clock on the wall as Jake Hager made his way to the ring for a title match in an empty arena with Jon Moxley and more than 30 minutes of television time remained, my jaw fell to the proverbial ground.
It is a long game for anyone to succeed, especially without the benefit of an enthusiastic crowd to help provide spiritual support. Without an audience to help guide the emotional beating of the game, fighting in empty arenas can feel sterile and devoid of spirit. There is a void that extends beyond the vacant chairs, an absence of life that hides everything that hums the struggle.
There are a handful of AEW wrestlers who could make a match like this, charismatic technicians capable of flying in artistic wonder – but Moxley and Hager are not these men.
You could see what the two were trying to accomplish. And my goodness have they ever tried. No one could pretend that the effort was not there to make it a memorable moment for fans who could enjoy a respite from the real world right now.
Unfortunately, he just didn’t click.
The opening section, a display of slow, heavy wrestling of carpet, never quite gelled. Either way, the match got even more winding as they took it outside, the opportunity for hardcore spots to appear and disappear, endless 10 minutes without end nothing violent from a distance.
It resumed on arrival, unsurprisingly, when the two returned to what they know best: direct professional wrestling. Moxley nailed Hager with a hard clothesline and won a stiff knee as a receipt. Business, as they say, resumed from there, and ended with a satisfactorily clean finish.
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Absolutely vicious clothesline of the champion @JonMoxley ? #AEWDynamite https://t.co/K23TrwHJFV
He stood out as a failure, in part, because until the main event, the show had been a constant delight, another triumph for a promotion that brought him out of the park week after week, meeting the pandemic of coronavirus head-on and consistently deliver fantastic television no matter what challenges it has faced.
Dynamite had previously delivered several entertaining games, each made special by the incredible impromptu ad team of Chris Jericho and Tony Schiavone. The already emblematic duo is played like the best broadcasting partners, showing the chemistry that made Jesse Ventura and Vince McMahon or Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon such immortal couples.
That energy was lost when the main event moved to a one person stand with Jim Ross, an industry legend who doesn’t have the style to lead a long solo game. No one really does, but the contrast between Ross and the comedic duo that preceded him was shocking. It’s as if we’re watching a light, airy fun show with Pineapple Pete and Orange Cassidy and the whole gang, before being plunged into a dark and apocalyptic hell landscape for the main event.
AEW, like everyone in sports and entertainment, learns what works and what doesn’t in this new world, tests the limits and tries to find out what the public wants to see in this unusually dark time for the nation and the world.
AEW has relied heavily on two of its strengths, comedy and incredible video packages that humanize performers – and it works. And the promotion will continue to improve, as it will have more opportunities to try and sometimes fail.
Hager and Moxley performed their best swing on a moving target – and they missed. It happens, even for a promotion as consistent as AEW. These rare failures are not fatal, and having the courage to dust yourself off, stand up and try again is the way AEW will perfect a formula it is about to create.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.