By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
He had opinions on matches. As the tag team title cage match between the Young Bucks and the Lucha Bros. began, I asked him who he thought would win (Lucha Bros., and he was right). He trumped my best guess when it came to MJF facing off against Chris Jericho for Jericho’s career. “I think Chris Jericho will win,” he said correctly, “because or else he’ll have to retire.” Smart kid.
Most of all, though, Matthew was there to see CM Punk — a wrestler whose most previous match before Sunday happened when Matthew was most likely in diapers. No matter. That didn’t stop Matthew and his dad from picking up a pair of the now-legendary ice cream sandwiches that were being sold in the concourse. That didn’t stop him from donning the now-legendary CM Punk shirt.
And, of course, that didn’t stop him from giving me one of the most enthusiastic high-fives I’ve ever received right after Punk got the 1-2-3 against Darby Allin. Matthew was there for one reason, and that one reason didn’t disappoint.
HOW GOOD WAS IT?
What can you say about All Out that hasn’t already been said? Superlatives have been launched left and right about the event as a whole — “best American pay-per-view ever,” “most game-changing moment in wrestling in at least 20 years.” The same goes for some of the matches — “that cage match might be the best tag-team cage match ever;” “CM Punk’s return might be the best in-ring return ever.” Debate if you must.
Me? I don’t even know what to say to argue against those things. I mean … yeah. It was certainly the best pro wrestling show I’ve ever attended. It was certainly the hottest crowd I’ve ever been in (including the prior night, but we’ll get to that in a second). All the surprises, even if they felt inevitable, were presented perfectly. It’s going to go down as one of, if not the, hallmark moment for a wrestling company that seemingly has hallmark moments on a regular basis in its short history.
All Out was an event I will never forget attending for as long as I live. But, at the end of the day, part of that memory doesn’t even have anything to do with All Out. Instead, it has to do with …
THE ART OF WAR
… the weekend itself. Because in addition to AEW’s tentpole production, I took it upon myself to check out the GCW show on Saturday night as well.
The Art Of War Games. The Grand Sports Arena. Hoffman Estates, Illinois. Have you ever been to an indoor soccer facility? Or, well, any place that has turf, really?
That’s what this place was like — with the added caveat that its facilities came from 1982, which for an event like GCW’s biggest weekend show, was perfect. The evening centered around a War Games match between Nick Gage’s increasingly prevalent MDK group and Rickey Shane Page’s 44OH! stable. It was everything anybody would want it to be. Enough light tubes to provide glow for a small town were broken over everyone’s heads. Glass panes were shattered. And, of course, there was a pizza cutter sighting.
MDK won and that’s because they had to. If they didn’t, every inch of that turf would have been ripped up and the poor ladies at the lone concession stand would have had to run for their lives. But that wasn’t all. Because then my most anticipated moment of the night emanated: Matt Cardona’s mystery opponent.
While I was driving across the country, I actually considered the very booking scenario that played out on Saturday to close the loop on Cardona’s GCW title run. When the druids made their way to the ring after Cardona’s squash against Frank The Clown, it felt all but inevitable. When Jon Moxley hit the Death Rider — before even taking the druid outfit off — the pop was as loud as anything I’ve ever heard in a place that has turf for its floor.
It was electric enough to make up for all the light tubes that had been robbed of the ability to provide illumination.
The comparisons are there because they’re accurate: GCW is 2021’s ECW. Everybody always said, however, that ECW always had a ceiling; is that the case with GCW? Perhaps time will answer that, but for now, it’s fun to be engrossed with such an alternative to what we see on television every week — even if that alternative is unapologetically politically incorrect sometimes.
Walking back to my hotel, I struck up conversation with two people from Louisville, who made the trip and had attended Dynamite, Rampage and were, at the time, a day away from All Out. We briefly fantasy-booked Sunday’s slate all while acknowledging how much fun GCW’s show was. It felt like leaving a rock show where the band had played everybody’s favorite songs.
A PERFECT ROOM
And if Saturday was like seeing a great band in a great club, Sunday was the part when the arena-sized sold-out crowd sang along to every note.
Chicago is one of the best wrestling cities in America, and lest we not forget that Chicago is also where all of this AEW stuff kicked off in earnest. The NOW Arena, however, is an odd space, kind of/sort of half-located in a business park and the type of facility that sends emails out a day before the event essentially saying the lines for concessions would be long because they were understaffed.
So, in other words, yeah, the United Center’s appeal is real.
Still, the arena is one of those tweener spaces that I actually love. Big enough to let you know you’re in an arena; small enough to make everyone feel connected. Such is why I wonder if AEW will continue to go back to the NOW Arena or if next year try their hand at bigger, more modern rooms. Either way, it turned out to be the secret sauce for Sunday night’s immaculate meal. Places like that beg you to connect with your fellow patrons and this was a group of people beyond ready to engage.
It’s useless trying to pinpoint who had the biggest pop. It’s also useless trying to identify the best moment of the night (conversely, I can tell that for what had to be 99.9 to 150 percent of the people, their least favorite moment came when the QT Marshall vs. Paul Wight match hit the ring, but I digress). It’s also useless to speculate on where everything goes from here, now that AEW has a roster that features, among others, Bryan Danielson, Adam Cole, CM Punk, Kenny Omega, Cody, Jon Moxley, and the list goes on and on and on and on.
Instead, the only real thing to take away from this past weekend’s events …
ONE OF A KIND
… Is that there’s nothing like professional wrestling when it hits all the right notes.
I know I’m not breaking news with that, and all things told, I’m admittedly growing a little tired of everyone saying similar things (before ultimately lecturing us that we don’t have to pick sides). But even knowing that there was an awful great chance that Ruby Soho and Bryan Danielson would be showing up in some capacity — and also knowing that Adam Cole might not be far behind — their appearances mattered more than any other debut has mattered in quite some time (outside of CM Punk, of course).
And that’s a hard thing to do in such a cynical world filled with skeptics, doubters and … dare we say … haters. But the emotion felt by every single screaming person in that place Sunday night was not tainted for even a millisecond by the notion that something was predictable. Nor was it tainted by those who wanted to find something bad in any of it. These were people who either had tickets they could have sold for thousands of dollars profit or people who actually paid thousands of dollars just to get in the building.
You don’t get things like this all that often anymore. The pro wrestling communal contract that goes unwritten, yet is obeyed, is unparalleled in popular culture — with the possible exception of music, but even then, you don’t have “You still got it” or “This is awesome” chants randomly breaking out every five minutes. Sure, the crowd as a whole might know all the words to two or three songs, but there are lulls in every rock and roll show. When pro wrestling is firing on all cylinders, there’s nary a dull moment to be found.
Such is precisely what made All Out so special: There will be good wrestling events, there will be great wrestling events, and there will be legendary wrestling events, but there will not be another All Out 2021, a singular moment when everything in the AEW stratosphere connected and combined to produce something impossibly unique and undeniably unforgettable. And don’t take it from me …
Take it from Matthew.
When Danielson appeared at the top of the stage for his debut, we exchanged what would be our final high-five of the night. The same went for his dad (yes, I know, nobody is allowed to high-five due to the pandemic, but we had our masks on, and, well, if there’s a time to high-five, it’s probably going to be during the best wrestling show you’re ever going to see in person. Hand sanitizer is your friend).
After Danielson cut his off-air promo and the crowd began to make its way out of the building, I said goodbye to my new friends, gave them a thumbs up and headed out toward the parking lot, hoping to grab an Uber. The place was buzzing. The ice cream was sold out. And questions about what happens next wove their way through groups of friends.
While I was waiting for the Uber to show up, I couldn’t help but think of Matthew and his dad. Wrestling is the best when you’re his age. The belief in everything is so passionate, so honest, so pure. When I was his age, and we couldn’t afford to go to the wrestling matches the two times they came around a year, I’d sit on the floor with my grandfather, who sat in his rocking chair, and we’d watch any and everything we could find. I was enthralled. I needed more information on everything I saw, but I never found it. My curiosity was piqued. My emotions were heightened.