Having had the chance to mull this over for months, I have come to the realization that one of the many hearts beating at the center of the Hangman chapter (itself a part of the wider Elite saga) is a story about the difference in respect. When I started chewing on these threads, out came at first only a hazy mist born from watching the metamorphosis of the Dark Order take place at the same time as their feud with the Elite, but now it’s grown into a broader look at what, to me, makes this contrast so interesting to follow.

Sure, you might say, but isn’t everything in wrestling about respect? And granted, grandiose, sometimes egotistical art form that it is, it seems like playing with and telling stories of respect is baked into its very foundational structure. But as we’ll see, the true meaning of respect is revealed when it’s not just signifying recognition and appreciation, when it doesn’t just mean bending the knee. Holistically, it means awareness of another person’s worth outside of merit, outside of metrics, removed from one’s own measuring tapes and expectations.

Lately, all Kenny as the Collector has been hammering on about are accolades, quantifiable or widely recognized accomplishments. But he doesn’t truly respect the Bucks, or the Good Brothers, or Nakazawa, or anyone else outside of this. Least of all he respects himself, and it’s mutated into an ugly hatred of the self, and thus, others as well. I said “lately” at the beginning of this paragraph, and truly there is an older, longer thread here in Kenny’s story about a focus on lists and achievements and ego, but that’s a story for another essay. The important part is, the Dark Order members do respect Hangman’s boundaries. They do respect him as a person, they do respect him, failures and insecurities and all.

The contrast is obvious just from the segment and pretapes of the two groups from the Dynamite episode on 8/4 21. In it, Hangman asks the Dark Order not to intervene when he seeks out the Elite on peaceful terms. Of course, things eventually break down, and some members try to save Hangman from the inevitable beating, held back at the last second. But their reactions in the initial scene stuck with me long after the episode was over, because the Dark Order members don’t grow bitter or petty when Hangman makes his own decisions. In fact, they respected those decisions back when he rejected their proposal, and they will after this episode respect them once more when Hangman has to take time away just before Full Gear.

“The Elite does not have any losers in our group. We don’t have failures in our group, we don’t have people that play second fiddle in our group.”

Kenny, 8/4 21

Obviously they love him and want to help, but his growth as a person means more to them than satisfying their own temporary egos, even as the emotions rising from this inciting incident threaten to tear the Dark Order apart. Comparing that to the Elite, Hangman received only negative reactions when he begged Matt and Nick for some space. Conversely, during that Dynamite segment, Kenny barges in before the threat of an honest apology could ever possibly jeopardize his grip on the Bucks, giving them no space either. He doesn’t respect their boundaries. These days, he mostly orders them around like dogs every time they’re on screen together.

I’ve been brooding over what exactly Kenny was trying to convey with all the emphasis on “real sports backgrounds” and “legitimate athletes”in the months surrounding Double or Nothing (like in this promo from AEW’s own Unrestricted podcast), and I really feel like these phrases feed into the thread about lack of true respect (I’m well aware this is also the “character” of Kenny shooting on basically everyone else he doesn’t consider to be on an Elite level). Since he has lost a perspective that operates outside of merit-tied worth, what else is he going to measure respect in, if not physical prowess and records?

Which makes it clear exactly why he attacks Hangman’s fear of failure so much, of losing, of being considered a loser. To the Collector, since he doesn’t really respect aside from a superficial, almost materialistic level, he thinks that you only deserve respect if you don’t fail, if you don’t lose. It’s tied to merit, not to love. The night before the eliminator tag match, Kenny asked Hangman to forfeit his challenge and walk away, citing his fear of failure. It’s both a sadistic taunt and a laying open of Kenny’s own insecurities, of his own fear to fail, of his own fear of Hangman as the man who could take away his most prized possession.

“And isn’t that what you’re really afraid of, Page? In front of all these people? In front of all the world? Aren’t you really just afraid to fail in front of them all?”

Kenny, 7/14 21

Kenny’s streak of attacking his own weaknesses and insecurities in his opponents has been propping up all over his stories in AEW (Orange Cassidy’s unwavering stoicism and comedic aspect, Jungle Boy’s youthful athleticism and hair, to name a few), especially since winning the belt in the winter of last year, but due to the nature of his story with Hangman it’s particularly pronounced here. It’s not a stretch to say then that what Kenny’s really talking about in all of these promos is himself, and that gets driven home again the last time Kenny and Hangman come face to face for a verbal confrontation before Full Gear, when Hangman cuts right through Kenny’s bullshit and makes it clear he can no longer hurt him with calling out his fear. Fear and anxiety are what makes us human.

(Orange Cassidy and PAC and Jungle Boy got away from Kenny, so to speak, before his aggressiveness towards them faced any further consequences for himself, whereas Hangman is still standing right there, taunting Kenny with his mere presence. In the string of events of the Elite feuding with Jurassic Express, Kenny would later hone in on Jungle Boy again, making it clear once more what, aside from athletic ability, he found so enraging about him, and maybe that will get picked up again at a later date, but for now I consider Kenny’s fights with the mirrors held up by Orange, PAC and Jungle Boy sidelined.)

After the losses and failures that Kenny fears so much, Hangman grew. He took the bitter outcome of the elimination tag match as an opportunity to reflect and readjust, come to terms with issues he had been pushing away. No one in the Elite has come even close to meaningful reflection and growth in this specific sense since the founding of the company. Hangman, on the other hand, was ready to jump over his own shadow and apologize just before Kenny cut him off. Kenny has not shown an intention for meaningful apology, not for years at this point. It’s strikes me as so ironic he specifically mentions “second fiddle” in his promo on Hangman from the aforementioned segment (on top of this being the straw that breaks the camel’s back and what makes Hangman attack Kenny), because boy, is that one of his worst and most bitter fears that sits deep within his heart.

“I know the man behind those skintight jeans, and I know your insecurities. I know that you can’t sleep at night because you’re afraid of failure.”

Kenny, 10/23 21

And truly, everything he touches on in that promo is like stripping off another article of clothing from him, not from Hangman. He mocks him for trying to find self-worth because his is in shambles, below the surface of shiny shoes and expensive brand jewelry. He mocks him for crawling back and wishing to make amends, but I’m not convinced he truly considers that weakness and failure. Instead, he does it because deep down he realizes that this vulnerability is exactly what makes people strong and trustworthy in the first place, and that in turn makes him realize he could never achieve that wearing the clunky armor of the Collector.

Regardless though, as long he keeps twisting it that way—seeing reflection and growth as failure—he’s once again missing out on true respect. He doesn’t give it, so he gets none in return either. Hangman is at this point incapable of “playing second fiddle”, because he has, among other things, allowed himself to be part of something larger than himself, contribute without fear of personal diminishing to something larger than the sum of its parts, and that has earned him respect. The fact that he isn’t even officially a member of the Dark Order only emphasizes the chasm between these two groups, because the Elite is a group (or stable, or faction, or however you want to call it) as much as the Dark Order is, but in this specific instance they couldn’t be more different.

The Dark Order underwent a complete political restructuring throughout Hangman’s absence, transforming the vestiges of the late Brodie Lee’s strict hierarchy into a communal circle of friends. And that was largely about respect as well: then de facto leader Evil Uno had his own insecurities about stepping into the footsteps of the Exalted One and fitting in, of being appropriate, and those anxieties mirrored Hangman’s while he was still in the Elite.

And just like a twisted alternate dimension version of that, the Elite has become a sad, dark caricature of what it once was, Super-sized and on the verge of fracturing, often led by a single person’s needs and wishes. In 2016, Kenny told the Bucks in private that “there is no leader” in the Elite. At that time, it was an obvious dig at the heartless rule of AJ Styles under which him and Matt and Nick had suffocated, but it rings hollow now that he does exactly as AJ did: order and orchestrate, and have his goons take the blows for him.

“But the one thing that it felt like, that for whatever reason I never seemed to lose, the one thing that grew week after week, that got just a little bit louder, was these people chanting cowboy shit.”

Hangman, 10/16 21

Paradoxically (the Collector is one big paradox, and lives on paradoxes), being a part of a team is one of the things Kenny desires the most. The tragedy of such a wish in the face of what happened the last time he gave his everything to someone else and the team he was hoping to have with him doesn’t need another explanation (in this essay, at least). Suffice it to say, a lot of time has passed since the Golden days, and now, after twice the heartbreak, Kenny delights in making it look like he despises the very notion of being in a team, preferring to let Don Callis call himself and Kenny family right there in front of the Bucks. Additionally, in a team, everyone has equal status, equal rights, is deserving of the same respect. But that would threaten his position too much. The existence of the Belt Collector relies on never budging an inch, and clinging to the gold at all costs. For that, he is willing to be a heartless, tyrannical leader, the very sort he once so vehemently ridiculed.

That’s why he said in a confrontation with the Bucks, he would have “liked to call that [friendship] family”, erasing all the times he, wholeheartedly, did call it a family. It’s why he drones on and on about athletic ability and trophies. It’s why he points to the belts when he talks about the difference between the old Elite and the new. It’s what best exemplifies, in his mind, the difference between him and Hangman as well. Oh, will you look at that? I have the belt you coveted so much since day one, and it will forever stay so. This harks back to Kenny being in truth afraid of Hangman, which Hangman himself will vocalize rightfully so in their contract signing promo.

He showered the Bucks with praise and attention when they won the belts a year ago at another Full Gear, but that’s where it started and ended. Ironically, this was also the moment Hangman referenced in the little sizzle clip on the 11/10 episode of Dynamite, tying the stories together. The wording in “I had to watch as my friends were crowned champions” is interesting in that it reminds fans that Hangman’s absence has only fostered his desire to prove himself, a passion that for so long lay dormant but that has sparked a fire in him now. They both need the belt, but in fundamentally different ways. Back in 2019 and 2020, losing and thus failing was the worst of Hangman’s fears. But where he stands right now, proud and tall, he could fail, and it wouldn’t matter; he would simply try again. At the same time, it feels like an inevitability. He’s more than ready to face his friend, Dark Order in his corner or not.

To this day, Kenny has never seconded the Bucks, not even for their most important matches. Yet, while in New Japan, they were there for three of Kenny’s four bouts with Okada, they were there for him and Ibushi during their G1 Climax match, and they were there with him at the final, bitter end against Tanahashi. This continued in AEW where they would be in his corner for a select handful of matches (such as the iron man match against PAC) until broom girls and the greasy smirk of Don Callis replaced them. In the grand scheme of things, it feels like such a small complaint at first, and the subject seemingly gets muddier when adding multi-man matches and run-ins and post-match celebrations (like the one from Full Gear 2020) and such, but seconding is a very distinct storytelling method in wrestling from all of those things (and it’s also distinct from having a valet, which I feel carries way too many negative connotations to have a place in this discussion). Aside from a brief mention in the announcement (and even that is sometimes omitted), most seconding scenes do not provide the seconding party with any sort of exposure or attention, and that’s the whole point: put your own needs and egos beneath those of the wrestler you are seconding. The act in itself is what matters, not the brandished presentation of the person doing the act. It’s an act of humbleness. It’s an act of respect.

“‘It was ‘No, no, I’m Kenny Omega, this is the Kenny Omega show‘. We second him and watch him tear the house down […] Even my wife pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, is Kenny ever gonna second you guys out to the ring?'”

Matt Jackson, March 2018

Once upon a time, AJ made Kenny second for him in his match against Ibushi, the very match that saw Kenny interfere, for however ethereally, and thus cost Ibushi his potential win of a belt he had wanted to hold ever since he began wrestling as a child. The act of dragging Kenny out there to watch as AJ demolished Ibushi was deliberate and cruel, and I can’t help but feel that the experience traumatized Kenny more than he lets on, aside from the whole Golden Lovers drama bubbling underneath it all like a volatile concoction.

The more egregious point, though, is that Kenny also doesn’t come to the Bucks’ aid. This specific imbalance comes through the most in two moments from this year, once when the Inner Circle assaults the Bucks after a match that had already taken a lot out of them. Kenny, Don and the Good Brothers watch backstage, hesitant, waiting far too long before Kenny finally decides to run out, but lets himself be held back by Don. In the end the Good Brothers run out alone. It’s important the goons for hire are the ones who actually save the Bucks here, because this is picked up a month later when Inner Circle assaults the Bucks’ father, and after the show the Bucks bring their grievances to Kenny. Kenny is enraged and incredulous at their accusations more than anything (going so far as to tell them they did this themselves once before), and any meaningful progress in their talks is ultimately prevented once again by Don Callis.

I feel like this entire thread of lack of willing submission to those who have stood by your side is one of the contributing factors in the emergence of the two-faced Elite we are seeing. Which is to say, we are seeing the Elite and the SuperKliq be two different entities, just as they always were (even though technically the SuperKliq is a sub-faction of the Elite now) but the story being told here seems to be chiefly about respect as well, instead of jealousy. The Bucks seconded Adam Cole on the 11/5 episode of Rampage, and I cannot overstate how massive that statement was, both in Kenny’s face and in the face of those watching around the world. To my knowledge, this is the first time they have seconded anyone but Kenny since coming out for Karl Anderson on an episode of Dark Elevation while Kenny was ignoring them on his quest for more gold.

“And rather than sit in the high school cafeteria, with the cool kids and the captain of the football team, you chose Brandon Cutler. I chose you, and you never chose me back.”

Kenny “Awful Liar” Omega, 3/24 21

It’s a poignant statement by the Bucks, considering that it’s been so long since we have seen them ringside in a seconding capacity for Kenny. Yes, they did come out and help him put Moose away for good, yes, they were there to celebrate with him after winning the three-way at Double or Nothing, yes, they tried and help him cheat against Christian, but as I mentioned, those are different narrative beats that serve a different purpose. And remember, this story is not as black and white as the medium sometimes conditions fans to think in. Seconding Adam doesn’t automatically mean the Bucks consider him a better friend or more respectful than Kenny, just as not seconding Kenny doesn’t automatically mean their friendship has been on ice ever since Kenny turned heel. I don’t wish to speculate on the long-term effects of this (I have a…notorious track record of being wrong in regards to the Elite), and at any rate, that isn’t the purpose of this piece. Will there be a further divide in the Elite than there already is? Maybe. Will this lead to some sort of reckoning between Matt, Nick and Kenny (and Adam)? Maybe. But I don’t doubt they have a longer, more nuanced story in store for us this time around as well.

It’s crucial that respect is a two-way street, and that it’s always born out of acceptance (I touched on this above when I traced the origins of the Collector’s “respect”). Back in the dark times of the Civil War, Cody, still trying to tuck on the arms of the Bucks, screamed at them backstage after the infamous night in Sapporo that he didn’t get their devotion to Kenny. And as true as some of the things he touches on in here are, as much as this was part manipulation, part candid perplexity, above all else it laid bare one of the reasons why his usurpation was doomed to fail: he didn’t get it. He didn’t get them.

“‘Oh, you’re my second, you’re my second‘. Who the fuck are you seconds for?! You’re the best tag team in the world!”

Cody, 1/29 18

He didn’t understand that the Young Bucks don’t follow Kenny out of a sense of duty, or because he holds a position of authority over them. He didn’t understand that this isn’t about Kenny’s qualities as a leader, or about any leader’s qualities, really. He couldn’t accept that there was more to this than he had to offer the Bucks. And it feels like, throughout all the years, there were always a handful of characters who maybe became close with the Elite, but always failed at this particular test, who could never quite permeate the delicate membrane at the heart of the Elite, could never quite understand the bond between Kenny and the Bucks. After all, despite everything I have talked about, they are still here, willing to give each other a chance.

Closing this off, I will dare to make a single prediction. Saturday will be a lot about seconds too, as the backdrop of this larger tale. Hangman has fought for the luxury he can now reap the rewards of: being on the journey to healing and at peace with a lot of the pain in the past. Kenny is nowhere near yet to having taken even a single step in that direction. That’s why Hangman’s reference to Kenny’s past can sting him so deeply, and leave him rattled for, quite frankly, the rest of the segment. As I hinted at above, pragmatically, it doesn’t matter who or even if Hangman has someone in his corner, because he knows they’ll have his back anyway. He could wish for them to not come out, and it would only strengthen the story of difference in respect already told. Kenny, on the other hand, is unlikely to have the Bucks, or anyone else from the Super Elite, and it will hurt him, even if all the pomp and circumstance will make it seem otherwise. He might have Don Callis, but that’s shadow puppetry at best: Don harbors no love or respect for Kenny in the way the friends he’s treated so poorly do, and he’s only fed him lies. His corner might as well be empty.

Mentioned reading:
NJPW Invasion Attack 2015, 4/5 15
ROH Global Wars ’16, 5/8 16
NJPW Documentary: Brothers in Arms…Brothers at War, March 18
NJPW The New Beginning in Sapporo, 1/28 18
BTE 90, 1/29 18
BTE 180, 11/18 19
AEW Full Gear 2020, 11/7 20
AEW Dynamite #77, 3/24 21
BTE 251, 4/12 21
AEW Dark Elevation #16, 5/28 21
BTE 261, 6/21 21
AEW Dynamite #93: Fyter Fest Night 1, 7/14 21
AEW Dynamite #96: Homecoming, 8/4 21
AEW Dynamite #106, 10/16 21
AEW Dynamite #107, 10/23 21
AEW Rampage #13, 11/5 21
AEW Dynamite #110, 11/10 21