“Starksdom?” I’ll show myself out.
For the core AEW fan, the current state of the company has gone from a little anxious to very exciting. The company continues to pivot to its younger stars, resetting a foundation for what it will be for the next few years instead of being explosively in the now from week-to-week (which was also a lot of fun too, to be fair). This came after everything was clearly in flux at best, chaos at worst, where the show didn’t really have a center other than Jon Moxley. Guys were either hurt or suspended or fired or lost in creative, and it felt like the tablecloth had been yanked, but all the glasses and silverware were flung into the air, their landing spot unknown and unsecured.
It took another big step last night, when MJF came face to face with his first title challenger, one Ricky Starks. Starks has been a giant silo of potential ever since he debuted. He has the look, his in-ring consistently plus. But he had mostly just been on the periphery of the main event scene at best. He was very good amongst Team Taz, though letting Taz drive that as much as he did. His feud with Powerhouse Hobbs when that faction broke up seemed a bit paint-by-numbers, with Tony Khan seemingly afraid to choose between the two and giving each a win.
Starks’ climb began through the tournament to decide MJF’s first challenger, culminating in a banger of a match with another young(ish) star in Ethan Page that AEW is trying to push into a foundational piece.
Still, Starks hadn’t quite had “the moment” where he cemented himself as a main event player. Right after he’d won the battle royale to set up a second match with MJF for the Dynamite Diamond Ring would seem the perfect moment. Except Starks had been assigned perhaps the toughest task in the company, which is to get on the mic and promo-off with MJF, the best talker the company has and maybe the best in the business. MJF has destroyed a couple wrestlers on the mic in recent history. Wheeler Yuta is going to need months of rehabilitation for his character after MJF kept stuffing him in a locker verbally in the lead-up to their match. Darby Allin and Sammy Guevara are two others who have been boat-raced by MJF on the mic, which lessens the culmination in the ring just a bit but is still a necessary step.
Starks, on the other hand, went Bo Jackson-on-Brian Bosworth:
I wouldn’t ever pretend that speaking live in front of an audience of 8,000-10,000, off the cuff, and especially after actually wrestling a match is ever easy. The elements that make a great promo are simple on paper, tough in practice. You have to sound like you believe every word you’re saying, sound like how the character would actually talk instead of playing at something written down, and give it a little personality. It simply has to be honest. Again, it’s easy to lay that out backstage or here, and quite another to do it live. Starks nailed it
Also a quick note: I think a spear as a finisher is pretty lame, especially for a guy like Starks who isn’t all that big. But when you do it with this kind of flourish… (He speared MJF out of his shoes!)
It was further proof of how the things that really pop on AEW are usually done so through the mic. Or to put it better:
And it’s true. AEW is loaded with guys who can provide a blast of a 15-20 minute match, which is hardly a bad thing. It’s what has endeared the company to its fans. You’re guaranteed two, three, or even four great matches every week. But they can tend to blend together. It becomes the baseline, and the next great match doesn’t spike the EKG that much from the last great match. We should never lose appreciation for the ridiculous quality that AEW has tossed out consistently for its entire existence, but that is the scenery it has created.
AEW’s best moments are those accentuated by a great promo. Perhaps it’s best storyline to date, Hangman Page overcoming his insecurities and lack of confidence over three to four years and several companies to beat Kenny Omega and win the AEW World Heavyweight Championship, was kicked into fifth gear by Page’s “Cowboy Shit” promo. Britt Baker’s rise to the top of the women’s division was built on her video and interview work during the pandemic when she had a broken leg and wasn’t even wrestling. Whatever CM Punk’s final impact on the whole thing, everything he did felt big because of his promo work. Orange Cassidy’s current run as All-Atlantic champion has been a complete kick-your-feet-in-the-air-with-glee not just because he’s so good in the ring, but all of his backstage work when he’s been playing with and poking holes in the normal title-defense promotion. Miro remains the best TNT champion because of his video promos that were either in service of, in defiance of, or outright threatening God (think about that) while never losing sight of who really was in charge, his wife. Eddie Kingston is one of the most popular wrestlers on the roster because everything he does when he talks is so genuine. The Acclaimed are The Acclaimed.
Starks being able to lift himself onto the same level as MJF instantly provided AEW with a feud that can be returned to for years and be the pivot point for the main event scene. They already have two matches set, and you can easily see them splitting the pair and having MJF running from the rubber match for months if not longer. It will always be hanging out there when they need it. It’s a continuation of AEW having to recenter on new and younger stars. Punk is gone, Bryan Danielson has said his full-time wrestling days are coming to a close very soon. Kenny Omega always hints at not doing this too much longer. Chris Jericho is in his 50s.
There’s still time for AEW to still be mostly built around the names it always has been, but that’s what makes right now the perfect time to start preparing for the next generation to be in position to pick up the torch without it ever hitting the floor. Starks has needed a little time, moving from part of a faction to the head of it to backstage and video packages to live promos and the biggest matches. Ethan Page is on the same trajectory, just a little behind Starks. MJF is self-explanatory. Hangman Page is back. Jamie Hayter on the women’s side hasn’t gotten too much live promo time, and they’re clearly slowly building that for her, but she’s now the top of the women’s division through organically just being great in the ring (not something they’ve done too much of with the women’s division, sadly). There’s seemingly a subtle push beginning on Willow Nightingale.
It’s not that the avenue of big debuts and surprise appearances is closed, and performers will always come and go. AEW got a ton of mileage being the salvation center for wayward wrestlers, but that can’t last forever. It has to just be one component.
AEW is finding itself again, through its younger generation. That feels a lot more stable than what came before, as exciting as it was.