By Jeff Lutz, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@JLutz82)
Jon Moxley already proved whatever he was trying to prove on Saturday night.
I get it, though. In WWE, Moxley was stifled by inconsistent creative direction that turned him from the enforcer of The Shield into a screw-loose character whose closest relationship was with a potted plant. We’ve learned in subsequent interviews that Moxley, then known as Dean Ambrose, did everything he could to influence the presentation of his character, but there wasn’t enough of a link to his days as a hardcore wrestler for Moxley to ever find fulfillment.
His most notable attempt to rediscover his identity came at WrestleMania 32 in a street fight against Brock Lesnar. Finally, a chance for Moxley to unleash on an opponent who could withstand the punishment and who may also thrive in an unhinged environment. Except Lesnar, with an MMA fight looming and secure in his status as the pro wrestling industry’s highest-profile and probably highest-paid star, rejected ideas that could have turned their confrontation into a bloodbath. Instead, they had a safe, uninteresting match that did nothing to further either’s career.
Maybe Moxley could have learned something from Lesnar. As an established star on a main-event trajectory, Moxley could have taken a significant salary from AEW when he signed there this year and become Lesnar Lite, a performer whose matches were intense and physical but never dangerous enough to damage the investment the company made in him.
Moxley left WWE for AEW for the exact opposite reason. Refusing to rest on his reputation, Moxley aimed to rebuild it, to take the creative freedom granted by AEW and present the truest version of himself on the biggest stage that would allow it. To take the frustration from his final unsatisfying, injury-plagued months in WWE and show a larger audience exactly who he believes he is.
The embodiment of that took place in a Lights Out, unsanctioned match against Kenny Omega at Saturday’s AEW Full Gear pay-per-view. Following footage of some of his most unsightly beatings – given and received – during his pre-WWE independent years, Moxley went about recreating many of them. He was brutalized by barbed wire, gashed with shattered glass, and he and Omega put on a show that evoked peak ECW.
The match was captivating the way a bus crash is captivating; I dare say it was even entertaining, at least until it became too much. Aiming for visual un-comfortability is one thing – attaching it to severe injury risk is quite another. Moxley and Omega easily pulled off the visual effect, but some of their spots crossed the line from aesthetically pleasing to forcing fans to worry about their safety and long-term well-being.
Again, though, I get it. This was Moxley shedding himself of months, if not years, of bitterness. The creative suffocation in WWE that kept him from truly flourishing. The elbow injury that forced him to miss a year of his prime in WWE and the related MRSA infection that kept him from an anticipated match against Omega this summer. This was finally Moxley’s chance to show a wide audience what he could do, and he wasn’t going to waste it.
I’m just not sure it worked. Peak ECW could only get so big because its affinity for savagery kept it firmly inside the alternative wrestling genre. AEW is well on its way to mastering storytelling, in-ring drama, fan investment, and the establishment of new stars. The level of violence in Saturday’s Moxley vs. Omega match, while working toward those initiatives, could slow AEW’s progress if potential new fans determine it to be outside their comfort zone.
Saturday’s slugfest also makes it difficult to imagine Moxley in a “regular” match in AEW. How will he perform, for example, against a slowed-down, aging Chris Jericho in a championship match that relies upon subtlety and can’t fall back on the use of barbed wire, screwdrivers or, somehow, mousetraps?
We were excited to see Moxley in AEW because of his raw promo ability that was never captured on, strangely enough, WWE Monday Night Raw. We’ve already known, or at least we learned through the old footage of Moxley on Saturday, that Moxley is tough, genuine, unfiltered. He doesn’t need to prove this through the resumption of self-inflicted physical punishment. Moxley is so good at talking fans into the arena that the matches can be secondary to the promotion he gives them just by being himself.
Apparently Moxley doesn’t see it that way.