By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer
“Support wrestling. Screw coronavirus.”
Those were the words on the front of a black t-shirt donned by a fellow spectator at AEW’s second-annual “Full Gear,” which went down last Saturday (Nov. 7, 2020, for those reading this 45 years from now on something called The Super Internet). I say “fellow” because yes, I was one of the approximately 1,000 fans allowed into Daily’s Place in Jacksonville, Florida, for the company’s final pay-per-view of the year.
There were so many questions going in. Would Daily’s Place look as desolate in person as it did on my television screen each week? What’s the protocol for purchasing merchandise in The Pandemic Era? Would other spectators adhere to social distancing and mask wearing? Does the lack of a proper crowd take away from the live wrestling experience? And, perhaps most importantly, why in the name of Duke “The Dumpster” Droese does the cost of two beers at this venue add up to $23.54?
I mean, honestly. Why?
Anyway, those questions (and more!) were answered Saturday, after about 16 hours in the car, an awfully sketchy hotel room (complete with bugs in the bathtub!) and one particularly angry Uber driver. But hey: Nobody ever said working the territories was easy.
To simplify things, I thought I’d break the experience down into five parts for you, the tremendously studious Dot Net Reader, in the name of both conciseness and simplicity. Because it’s not every day you get to see one of the best tag-team matches in the history of the business go down right before your eyes.
And nor is it every day that you are shown on Bleacher Report Live singing along to a Fozzy song, but we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s look at the week — or, in this case, the night — that was.
WRESTLING IN THE AGE OF COVID-19
That whole “Support wrestling, screw coronavirus” thing stuck with me throughout the night, not only because I couldn’t decide if it was telling me to ignore public safety or to hate the coronavirus, but also because it was one of the first things I saw on a shirt after stepping through the doors of Daily’s Place. In all, that kind of set the mood for the night.
The operative phrase there? “Kind of.”
That’s because everybody sitting socially-distanced around me, as well as anyone I walked past while traveling to and from concessions, seemed overly respectful of everyone else’s space. So, even if the message on the shirt was aimed at demanding spectators throw caution to the wind, in practice, everybody seemed on the same page. Even the guy sitting a handful of seats down from me, incessantly yelling at Justin Roberts, incessantly yelled at Justin Roberts with a mask on.
Even so, there was no amount of hand sanitizer, electronic-only sales or social distancing that could plausibly make up for the empty seats during a card like this. No matter how great the action got — and it got great — and no matter how much fun everyone was having, it was hard not to wonder how much more electric things would be if 10,000 more people were packed into that amphitheater.
Such is the cost of safety, of course. The same goes for any other limited-attendance athletic event happening these days (not to mention the Florida/Georgia football game going on next door): If you’re at these things, you’ve more than likely already come to peace with the decision you’ve made. Either the pandemic is enough to keep you home or it isn’t. There’s no real middle ground.
That said, it felt like everyone there, from spectators to staff, was more than cognizant of their surroundings, which was an encouraging sign. Plus, you know all those times you went to a concert, or saw some live wrestling, and you just wished nobody was sitting next to you? Yeah, this set-up was made for you.
WELCOME TO DAILY’S PLACE
Presumably because of the Florida/Georgia football game going down in the adjacent stadium, the process of entering Daily’s Place was noteworthy if only because all of us were shuttled through the Jacksonville Jaguars’ indoor practice field to get there. And hey: How many NFL practice fields have you been on? Until Saturday, my answer was somewhere between “zero” and “I quit the eighth-grade football team.”
To get in, of course, temperatures were taken — and it wasn’t from a gun-looking device, either. Instead, you looked into something akin to an oversized cell phone (or an undersized iPad), and not only did the thing take your temperature, but it took your picture, too. From there, it was across the practice field and through the doors to find … not that many people.
That’s the thing. Anyone who’s been to events like these before all knows the rush of entering the gate and finding way more people than you want to find milling about, searching for merchandise, standing in lines for Bud Light Limes and trying to convince their children that a $15 chicken tender isn’t a good investment.
Not so at Full Gear. There was only one merchandise table and to purchase anything from it, you had to visit an exclusive website to place and pay for the order. Then, once it was zipped up into a plastic bag, you received a text to come pick up the order at the stand. This, of course, voided one of my favorite traditions: perusing the merchandise table. Even worse, the shirts they did offer were limited to a couple Full Gear themed items and one or two generic AEW things like hoodies and pins (and a signed turnbuckle for $500). Alas, no Orange Cassidy shirt for me.
The most surprising thing? Daily’s Place is great. For whatever reason, the vibrancy of the venue doesn’t translate into television rasslin’ all that well, but in person, it’s not too big, it’s not too small, you can get anywhere you need to be in less than five minutes, and the skyline overlooking Jacksonville (one of the least interesting cities in all of America) was beautiful.
Who knew an outdoor shed typically reserved for concerts could be considered a Mecca for pro wrestling? What? You don’t think it is? Just wait 20 years, after the world is back to normal and we reflect on the pandemic era. This thing will be placed right next to the ECW Arena in wrestling folklore.
TOO HOT FOR TV
You know what the weirdest element of the night was? Seeing the other wrestlers interact off camera. Not only are the ringside seats reserved for talent, which we already knew, but the entire lower bowl is as well. When the Elite Deletion match was projected onto the video screen, I saw Rick Knox and Joey Janela take it in from the front row of seats below me. I also think I saw Scorpio Sky come and go for a handful of matches. And then there was Brit Baker, who ran in front of me right after the show ended to grab a selfie from the second level of the venue.
And all of that’s well and good, of course. The aura of being up close and personal to wrestlers has long been gone since the advent of things like Axxess during WrestleMania weekend and Starrcast, which, with the exception of MJF making kids cry, ruined whatever remnants of kayfabe that still might be out there.
But, even with all that considered — and even with my fair share of being backstage at a whole lot of concerts, meeting and writing about a bunch of famous people, and having the ability to walk around venues like Daily’s Place hours before gates open many times in my life — I didn’t much care for the loose vibe. I mean, you wouldn’t want to see Keith Richards grabbing a White Claw from the front-of-house soundboard cooler while Foo Fighters rock through “Everlong” as they open the show, do you?
I say that, why? Because of the many things that nobody sees regularly on TV was a cooler on the floor for the spectator wrestlers. Sure, it might have been filled with only water, but move it 30 feet behind the curtain, and we can all suspend our disbelief a little easier. Also, the wayward nature of the wrestlers provided a tiny distraction, too. Why did Sonny Kiss disappear for a few minutes? Why did some wrestlers seem happy to be there while others looked like they could care less? Why did Jurassic Express watch only one or two matches?
Finally, the cheers and chants. I understand that 1,000 people in an outdoor amphitheater aren’t going to offer earth-rattling chants in the open air, but do we really need Austin Gunn yelling his ass off every 15 seconds with another round of the tired “This is awesome!” trope? Yes, the wrestlers are there to be cheerleaders, and that’s great. But at least leave some room for something organic … please?
‘A GREAT SHOW ON PAPER’
Leading up to the night, my editor here, Jason Powell, used that phrase a lot, and at the end of his live review Saturday night, he noted how it mostly lived up to his expectations. For my money, it over-delivered. Kenny Omega vs. Hangman Page was as hot an opening match as a pay-per-view will see all year, The Young Bucks and FTR provided one of the best tag-team matches of all-time, and while I concede I may be biased, I’m willing to say this was the best all-around AEW pay-per-view to date.
I was at the first Full Gear, and though that drive was only about 45 minutes for me, I can confidently say that this installment far out-performed the first one — and that’s even adding in a 12-hour drive to boot. I even thought the Buy-In match was very good, as Serena Deeb and Allysin Kay worked very well together. Oh, and that Elite Deletion thing?
Don’t believe what you read. There are some areas of The Wrestling Internet that claim the live crowd wasn’t that into it, and those areas of The Wrestling Internet are wrong. Think about it: How up for a cinematic match can a live crowd get, anyway? By the end of it, the whole thing had people laughing, chanting, and applauding the winner. Was it the best part of the evening? No. But was it a fun let-me-up moment on a night when not a single match missed the mark in the ring? Absolutely.
My only issue? The finish to the Jon Moxley vs. Eddie Kingston match. An “I Quit” stip is tough for the live crowd if there’s no microphone in the hand of the referee. By the time Kingston ultimately said those magic words, hardly any of us could tell what had happened and for a second in the venue, it almost felt like they had to rush the finish and go home early for reasons none of us could understand. It was a wet blanket of an ending to an utterly explosive night.
THE EXPERIENCE, MAN
You ever watch these limited-attendance shows and always think to yourself about the one guy you see without a mask on, “What an idiot; just wear the mask, dude”? Welp. I now know what it’s like to be that idiot.
You can’t go to an AEW show and not sing along to Chris Jericho’s “Judas.” In fact, it’s not just encouraged, it should be made mandatory. So, naturally, as one does, I unhooked my mask on one ear for approximately five seconds to belt out one of my favorite parts (because who wants to sing/scream into a mask that is already gagging you?) and, well, the camera caught me.
“I’m pretty sure I just saw you jamming out to ‘Judas,'” one friend texted me.
Lo and behold, he was right, and within a few hours, he took a screenshot, sent it to me and I was equally amused and horrified. Because for one, it looks like I have absolutely no mask in sight, which is simply irresponsible, and two, well, that whole thing about the camera adding 10 pounds has never done me any favors in the past, so why would it start now?
Either way, it turns out that the three-second clip pretty much encapsulated my experience: Fun, reckless, tough-to-stomach and loud. Would I drive the combined 1,496 miles to do it all again? Without question. Would I do it for next week’s Dynamite? Probably not (though if I lived anywhere near Jacksonville, I’d most likely try and get to as many tapings as possible, if only for how easy everything turned out to be).
I applaud AEW and Daily’s Place for providing a safe space to see live wrestling in these uncertain days. The ThunderDome, it is not, but if WWE were smart, they’d take a page out of the AEW playbook and figure out a way to make something like this happen in this way. And no, that doesn’t mean cramming plexiglass and enhancement talent into a gym and ignoring COVID-19 outbreaks every three weeks.
Yes, I missed a full crowd. Yes, I could do without the flippancy of the spectator wrestlers. Yes, my body hurts from the car time. And yes, $23.54 for two beers seems weird to me. But was it worth it? Undoubtedly.
So, screw coronavirus? Yes. But support wrestling? Always.