Once upon a time, there were two guys from California. No, seriously, this is the beginning of everything.
Without going into unnecessary detail, these two guys, Matt and Nick Jackson, are a pair of very athletic and zippy brothers who wish to bring tag team wrestling, and by association, the lost art of the multiman in general, to the marquee forefront it deserves to be at. They have high ambitions, and their dreams lead them to Japan, into the dark heart of the blossoming heel faction Bullet Club, and soon, they’re engaging in the very lucrative pyramid scheme and bringing more and more of their friends into it.
The star-studded lineup serves as a neat way to introduce all our other important players: Kenny “my biggest enemy are the consequences of my own actions” Omega, Adam “this sandbox is mine and no one else can play in it” Cole, Adam “I would rather not” Page, and Cody “really should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque” Rhodes. One day, Kenny and the Young Bucks will be known as the Elite, and sometimes that name includes the other two Adams (or not, depending on who you ask). In whatever configuration it was used, however, it always denoted not just a pride in their wrestling ability and tenaciousness that put them head and shoulders above the competition, but a grand saga that spanned multiple promotions, decades and a multitude of characters, with various stories interwoven with each other, crisscrossing, like the threads of a luxurious tapestry.
I want to take the opportunity of this essay to look back on some of the turns these stories have taken over the years, especially as they relate to the current arc that is in the middle of unfolding within AEW. All the characters mentioned are wonderfully flawed, failing, aspiring, miserable little stinkboys, and there is a lot of story to cover and a lot of narrative I want to dig into, so let’s get going. It’s a look back on some of the beats that really resonate with me, and I did my best to pepper the reflection with light analysis that’s not too dragging, but be warned that this is a longer tour. So, get yourself a can of Monster and indulge me for a while, if you weel.
GIFs might cause the site to load slowly, especially on mobile. Use the table below to navigate through the different chapters of this essay.
- Pirates in a Dream
- Bullet Club: Civil War
- Hashtag the Elite is Fine
- Breaking Point
- Man Behind the Skintight Jeans
- Hashtag the Undisputed Elite is Fine
- The Chariot
Pirates in a Dream
I was lying about California. Our story, or the part that interests us, anyway, really begins in the fabled lands Ring of Honor, because it’s here where two significant things happen while Kenny Omega is busy doing Kenny Omega things over in Japan: the rise of the Hung Bucks, and the fall of Cole. The latter isn’t necessarily caused by the former, but the two are nonetheless entangled so closely that it’s impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other.
Whereas Kenny would later reveal he had merely bode his time underneath then de facto leader AJ Styles to eventually usurp him, and Cole likewise is a conspirator with ever evolving lofty aspirations, Adam Page never tried to take anyone’s position for himself, at least not in the fashion his comrades did. Still somewhat green when he was brought in by the Bucks in late 2016, Hangman quickly established himself nonetheless as a force to be reckoned with. It’s made explicit that he is under the tutelage of Matt and Nick, who teach him the ways of the Club (whatever exactly that means). They are his friends and brothers in arms, as much as they are a rung above him in the pecking order. A veritable mentor protege relationship, if you will. Just in this case, Obi Wan is two people.
More importantly, though, the chemistry with the Young Bucks was there from right from the start. And once Cole was…forcefully ejected from the Bullet Club life pod and hurled into
the cold depths of space WWE, Hung Bucks became the hot new thing, so to speak. In early 2017, he’s usually the one to do a run-in to save them from attackers or sticky situations. He’s also the one who will try his hardest in matches to make the save. Clearly, Hangman cares about his fellow Bullet Club ruffians, and in a way, he especially cares about the Bucks, whom he is simultaneously indebted to and inspired by.
At the same time, the Young Bucks’ selfless priority lies with Kenny. There’s barely a big match of his in 2017 and onward where they can not be found ringside, cheering him on or plaguing his opponents with foreign objects or taunts, if necessary. So all in all, they’re pretty busy hopping around the world and dancing with everyone at the same time. And though they try their best, there is someone who also wants them and the comradery they represent for himself, and grows pretty disappointed when they don’t prioritize him above all else.
On the 15th Anniversary show, Cole loses his ROH World Championship to Christopher Daniels, and brutally so. It’s a match full of anguish that drains Cole of all the spunk and swagger he walked into the ring with. How much he had really counted on the (perhaps illegal) support of the Young Bucks is revealed when he calls them into the ring some time later, voicing his anger and disappointment. “You kicked me in the face and cost me the match,” he adds, as though they didn’t just fight in a tag match together. His frustrations over the lack of a monopoly over them is such that he tries to fire them from Bullet Club, but Matt spits back that the only person who can do that is their friend and the leader of Bullet Club—Kenny.
I cannot imagine a more humiliating end to this segment for Cole. The Bucks leave him standing there alone as they huff off with the cursed name of Kenny hanging in the air like a threat. Nevermind that he was egoistical and hurtful, how dare they not fall in line when he needs them the most? All those years of friendship, and for what? Though he makes amends afterwards, sending multiple apologetic voicemails and videos that the Bucks eventually accept, the scar remains visible, even after they reunite.
Still intent on winning their love back, Cole gifts Matt and Nick jewellery as testaments to their relationship and overall makes great efforts to integrate himself into the Elite,. But Kenny grows increasingly jealous of the time and intimacy he shares with the Bucks. If Cole is binding them to him with pretty trinkets, fine, then he’ll bind them to him by sending them pictures of his dick. Same thing, right? But it’s not enough. Sensing perhaps that Cole would one day try and attack his position within Bullet Club, he sets a long plan in motion that culminates in the cold-blooded murder of Cole via poisoned energy drink. Yes, dear reader, you read that right, dick pics were sent and a man was murdered, and now AEW exists. This order of events is important, trust me.
Anyway, coming back to Hung Bucks, they really start to make a name for themselves when they challenge for the brand new ROH World 6 Man Tag Team Championships (ain’t that a mouthful) and win them in the second half of 2017. Being one third of the Six Man Tag Champions was the first time Hangman ever called a a major belt his own (he had also mainly held tag team championships in his time before ROH). So in a way, the Young Bucks not only initiated him into the Club, but also opened the gate for him into the wider, often treacherous but often rewarding world of wrestling. Oh, and the gear they are wearing during their entrance for this historic match? Make a note of that, it’s coming back, I promise.
And as 2017 draws to a close, tensions arise between Cody and Kenny, though the former had seemed like such a phenomenal asset and friend after being brought into the Club in 2016. The Bucks sigh and roll their eyes, having just left the alpha wolf dickery of Cole vs Kenny behind, only to trade it for the alpha wolf dickery of Cody vs Kenny. And though the last cock fight ended with a murder, things are about to get much, much worse than murder.
Bullet Club: Civil War
Notably, during the mess that takes a hold of everyone within Bullet Club (and some outsiders as well), Hangman stands on Cody’s side. Perhaps it was Cody’s authoritative and charismatic attitude that had a grip on his psyche, perhaps it was that any other option simply seemed like too much trouble. Whatever the reason for his allegiance was, however, Hangman could always be found dogging Cody, until the very moment his loyalty was tested to its utmost limit and he assisted in holding Kenny in place for a chair shot. But, as the stars would have it that fateful night, Kenny’s light in the darkness came running down the entrance ramp and prevented any such chair shots from happening.
The same card that saw Ibushi hash it out with Hangman was also the battlefield for Cody vs Kenny. When both combatants lie in the ring, unable to move, the Young Bucks make an appearance, with Matt still wearing Cody’s weight belt as he hobbles towards the apron. Once in the ring, it looks like they are trying to decide on whose side they’re going to stand, almost teasing a fracture as they butt foreheads and Nick nudges Matt slightly, in the direction of Kenny’s corner. On BTE episodes, it was always Nick who warned his older brother that they couldn’t trust Cody. And so, with Matt listening intently for the reaction of the crowd as they turn towards Cody, seemingly readying a double Superkick, the dice fall. In a reversal of the tragic shove Kenny gave Matt in Sapporo, this time, Cody sinks to the ground, and their boots meet Kenny’s face instead, enabling Cody to score the win.
Once again, Kenny squirms on the ground, crying, dragging himself away from a helping hand, just how he did on the eve of the Golden Lovers’ reunion. Once again, he forces himself up by the ropes, hangs there, shaking his head in bitterness. Once again a lover (don’t look at me, Kenny called him that) turns him around, and spreads his arms as if he’s expecting the same hug he gave Ibushi. But the happy ending Matt wants never comes. Whatever words the three exchange can’t be heard over the hollow blaring of Cody’s theme. Kenny pushes Matt away and leaves, alone.
The Bucks try to bridge things backstage in Kenny and Ibushi’s locker room, with Matt confessing Cody got into his head. That, before he knew it, he had been caught in his web of lies. “We’re team Kenny,” he swears, while Kenny shakes his head. It was never about the Elite. Things have changed (and boy, will this statement come back later). Kenny declares their friendship over, and Matt’s voice breaks when he pleads with him to look at him, to just give him a couple seconds, clawing at him desperately. Ibushi jumps out of his chair once they touch Kenny, and forcefully shoves them out of the room amidst their dying yells.
And on the other side of the fence, after the show, drunken on the idea of new merchandise and a “reunited” Bullet Club under his absolute and indubitable leadership, Cody has only himself to party with. Hangman leaves, then Nick. His brother leaving gives Matt the courage to do the same, opposing Cody directly. The room is empty, sad piano music plays (watch out for that one to come back, too), and Cody takes off his heavy diamond ring as if it just hit him how worthless it is.
I write this down in detail here because I feel like the themes and character traits presented therein will be picked up again in a part of the story that is, at the time of me writing this essay, yet to be told. But there is also a much more immediate reason. I think today it’s widely known through interviews and such that Adam Cole was originally meant to play the role in the story that Cody ended up playing. And while there are no doubt sizable differences between their styles and the minute story beats a hypothetical Cole would have struck versus the ones Cody did strike, there are also a lot of parallels between Cody’s vices and the vices of Cole, in 2017 as well as in 2021 and onward.
To me, episode 106 really drives home the point of how much Cody’s obsession with power had blinded him (and how that can be read as an iteration on the themes Cole’s story carried with it). “Empire of Dirt” marks the end of chapter and the beginning of a new one. The pact of the Golden Elite is formed in hotel room 710, and Cody, bearing the gift of congratulations (as well as a personalized weight belt) to Kenny as the “true leader of Bullet Club”, is unable to jump over his ego’s shadow in the end, throwing the card on the ground. “You’re someone else, but I’m still right here,” he recites from Johnny Cash’s Hurt as he walks down the corridor and we the fade to black. Cody failed in his quest, and there are many reasons why, but to me, one of the most important ones was that he mistook loyalty and dominance for the things that are most important in a successful stable, and in doing so, was inevitably baffled by why he couldn’t seize Bullet Club, and most importantly, the Young Bucks, from Kenny, even after beating him.
Soon after, All In is held, the monumental event that in more than one way served as the incubator for what would later grow into All Elite Wrestling. Kenny triumphs over Okada at Dominion in June to take part in the event as the IWGP Heavyweight champion (rest in peace, you beautiful belt you), while in the main event, Ibushi teams with the Bucks, who likewise left Dominion as newly crowned IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team champions, a first in their career. And as we creep closer and closer to Wrestle Kingdom 13, the clock begins to tick. Literally. A mysterious ticking noise has the cast members o BTE confused, and the distinct premonition of something big happening hangs in the air like a thick fog. In January, the mystery is solved when, after losing all their championships and titles at Wrestle Kingdom, the Elite reveal on their phones the logo of a new company, and the graphic of the first, inaugural event, a name Cody had nonchalantly teased a while ago, and that fits the Las Vegas theme quite well: Double or Nothing.
The Elite say goodbye to NJPW and ROH, and build a new kingdom to call their own. Page is among the fabled day-one signees of AEW, and for the first time in the story, it feels like he’s truly a member at the forefront of the stable, and though he doesn’t count himself among the walls that made the construction of the house possible to begin with, this is his stage to shine, under the generous wings of his friends. But until we get there, we need to wade through a river of mud first.
Hashtag the Elite is Fine
In the beginning, things were looking so good. Despite the heartbreak of leaving a second home and the people and fans they loved behind, Kenny and the Bucks brimmed with eagerness to change the world once more, together. There’s excited chatter at press conferences and conventions, hype build up for the first feuds in the new canon, and a sold out MGM Grand Garden Arena looms on the horizon of Las Vegas’ dancing neon lights. In the main event of Double or Nothing, Kenny and Jericho are set to duke it out to decide who will be crowned the very first AEW World Champion. The Bucks face long-time rivals and wrestling soulmates the Lucha Bros, while Hangman participates in the Casino Battle Royale. The last man standing in that one will in turn face either Kenny or Jericho for the top belt. The world is buzzing with excitement. Lights go out, music plays. A new stage is set.
Alas, it’s fiction; so after the high-flying must come the painful fall back down. Despite the fact that both the Bucks and Hangman win their respective matches, earning themselves an impressive amount of momentum heading towards the first TV episode of AEW a couple months later, we’re indeed on the peak of the ascent, just seconds before the rollercoaster is about to crash down. And it all starts here, with Kenny losing to Chris Jericho. In Kenny’s own words, he had all the expectations placed upon him to become the megastar and ace of the company. Instead, he fails on his first step on this new stage, and will fail many times after, each hitting him harder than the one before. He becomes obsessed with the man who threw him down a stack of oversized poker chips after he already took a beating from Jericho. He becomes so obsessed he lose his grip on reality, and eventually, his self.
I’ve talked in another essay about how the first Dynamite episode set the tone for the months and years to come, and how it foreshadowed the wild ride we were awaiting, but the very abbreviated version is: Cleaner dead, old Elite dead, try emulate old, results very bad.
So, moving on, the first All Out was a landmark shift in the dynamics of the Elite. All members lose their matches that night. Chief among them, Hangman, who’d asked the Bucks to second him for the biggest match of his career, just how they’d always seconded Kenny, is soured greatly by the defeat (and the rejection). It feels like he took it personally that they weren’t immediately eager to second him, and some of his motivations for later actions may be interpreted as still coming from the, on his part, presumed lack of respect and acknowledgement. But as they will reflect back at him later, it wasn’t their respect he lacked. They loved and respected him, always. It was his own respect he was lacking.
At any rate, the first couple of Dynamite episodes mark the first few meters of the rollercoaster’s descent. In the main event of the first one, the Elite lose humiliatingly against a proto-Inner Circle while Kenny goes crashing through a glass coffee table, and Hangman is nowhere to be seen.
Bucks vent their anger at Hangman (while at the same time dealing with an also distraught and downtrodden Kenny, so you know things are rough), with Matt uttering the famous “Are you angry with us, or are you angry at yourself?” line. Certainly, many strands in Hangman’s story can be traced back to feelings of inadequacy, dejection and anxiety in the face of accepting his own talent and worth, something that would later be used as ammunition by a frightened Collector. In this sense, Matt hit absolute bullseye when he questioned the source of Hangman’s anger, as is evidenced by the fact that half a year later, the cowboy was still chewing on the rhetorical question. He will say in a future interview that he feels like head to toe he’s full of poison, and aside from alcohol, self-hatred makes for the best lethal poison. Speaking from experience.
But you know what’s a great way to resolve all these nasty personal issues? Slapping each other in the face while half naked and drenched in sweat. Jokes aside though, with everyone headed for the steep side of the cliff, things were going to get nasty sooner rather than later. It was just a question of how, not when. This time, the inevitable comes in the form of a tag match for the titles that Hangman and Kenny are now holding, at Revolution 2020. Much has been said about this match already, so I’m going to try and focus only on the aspects that are relevant for this essay.
To me, the story of the Elite is always accompanied by a running theme of time, specifically the past, which makes its poignant appearance in this match. Kenny’s tag run with Hangman immediately drew up blurry images of the only other long-time tag partner he ever teamed with, once upon a Golden time, and this specter of the Elite’s shared past floated over the Revolution match as well. It manifested near its climax in the form of the Golden Trigger the Young Bucks perform on Kenny. He shoots out of the pinfall attempt with such rage that he looks like a breaching dolphin for a moment, and beats his fists so hard on the mat that it actually breaks his hand in kayfabe. Interestingly enough, as soon as the Bucks start to telegraph the move, they are met with boos that are loud enough to drown out commentary for a second. I’m reminded of the tragic moment their Superkicks landed on Kenny back in 2018, only this time it will not cause a heartbreaking falling apart. Not yet, anyway.
Replacing Ibushi with Hangman (in and outside this match) was an unfair, rigged gamble from the start—he has big shoes to fill from an emotional standpoint, shoes Kenny thought he could simply yank from one pair of feet and shove onto another, expecting them to fit perfectly. But, as Hangman will express in the press conference for Full Gear almost two years later, there are parallels in here as well, between a younger and blonder Kenny who became hatefully fueled by his frustration that he could never quite measure up to Ibushi, and a younger and more anxious cowboy who often felt like he could never quite measure up to the rest of the Elite.
After the match, it looks for a brief moment like Hangman is contemplating hitting a Buckshot Lariat on Kenny, so speculates even commentary. But whatever swayed his heart for that brief moment leaves as quickly as it came, and he exits the stage alone, contrasted with the huddle of the Elite. It was not the first time that things between him and the rest of the group were starting to break down, but it was one of the more visually striking ones. Not long after this match, the pandemic hits the world, and Hangman sequesters himself away in a little hut in the woods, ignoring calls from Matt and trying to run away from what he fears the most: accepting himself of being worthy to win the title. And even after he makes the choice to come back, things are anything but easy. Quite the opposite, they have only gotten harder.
The grass is always greener on the other side. Finding fellow drinkers in FTR, Hangman believes himself to be in benign company. He slips from thanking them for helping him out in a match to expecting their company at the bar, to knowing their injuries and aches, to excusing the repeated ways they embarrass Kenny, his tag team partner. Whenever he is with the Bucks and even Kenny, it’s awkward and uncomfortable, and no one knows quite how to move on. In their current state, they can’t. As they will realize very soon, put into words by Matt, they are trying to hold on to something that no longer exists.
Hangman slips further and further into drinking, into self-disgust and anxiety that alienates him from his friends. At the very bottom of this downward spiral, he holds Nick’s leg as he’s getting ready for the Indytaker (or Meltzer Driver) against Best Friends in a tag team gauntlet, and thus costs the Bucks the win . Matt is heartbroken before spilling into rage, and Nick is just as angry and confused. Off the apron, leaning against the guardrails as though he can barely stand on his feet, Hangman looks like he in part can’t even believe what he just did, and there’s a subtle, slimy streak of the precursor to guilt and fear mixing into his expression. To the repeated questions bathed in disbelief of “Why? Why did you do that?” he has nothing to offer. One begins to wonder if he himself even knows the answer.
He crawls into the only place that has brought him any kind of comfort during the last couple of months. Sitting at the bar, with bags under his eyes as purple as his lips and two empty glasses waiting for FTR, he knows what’s coming, even though he’s kidding himself into thinking it won’t. Matt and Nick storm into the bar to confront him. But anger is not the main driving force behind their harsh words; it’s heartbreak. Matt voice breaks when he says, “You were good enough the entire time”. All they wanted, and needed, was a friend.
While All Out 2019 had been a show of shifts, revealing the first cracks in the walls of the house, All Out 2020 reveals how deep the fissures truly run in the foundation. Kenny and Hangman lose their titles to FTR in a gruesome, hard battle full of agonizing hope and miscommunications. While not a shameful defeat without any resistance from the champions, it was clear from the start that they had no true chance of winning.
Hangman himself says in an interview after the match that everyone “knew” it was inevitable and was just holding their breath until it was over. The tag team that never had a shared entrance or name is too out of sync, too distracted by the interpersonal drama that has the Elite and their understanding of themselves slowly falling apart. All the enthusiasm and magic from the golden days are gone with the wind. Juxtaposed with Hangman’s interview portion, Kenny notes in his how he felt so compelled with Hangman because he thought they shared said magic (a rare word that he had previously used to describe the
marriage tag team partnership he desired with Ibushi), but now he’s seen who Hangman truly is, and he doesn’t like that truth very much (ouch).
After FTR leave, Kenny deliberates whether to hit a still down and struggling Hangman with a sign, muttering to himself. He thinks better of it, but the expression on his face is a tired, frazzled grimace of hurt and bitterness. The weak attempt by Hangman to lean on him as he stumbles forward is met with desolate resignation by Kenny, and he lets him faceplant into the mat. It’s the point of no return.
His patience with Hangman has run out, and so has his patience with himself. I believe in the moment he sat in the car, alone, Bucks growing smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror, he took the old familiar Ray-Bans out of his pocket and resolved to handle things a little differently going forward. The glasses, after all, had been teased for a while, with varying tones of sinister foreboding hanging over their appearance.
Such foreboding was apt, as it turns out, and Kenny’s resolve manifests itself in the eliminator tournament that will decide the next challenger for Moxley’s throne. In an interview before the tournament, Kenny is shown to have already slipped back into the armor of the Cleaner, mannerisms, cadence and all, even calling the AEW World Championship the Heavyweight Championship (unlike New Japan, AEW does not have weight classes). But something is off. It’s like he’s trying on clothes he’s already outgrown, and it’s uncomfortable to watch. That discomfort would only grow in the months after the tournament.
Kenny goes on to win the tournament, besting Hangman in the finals, and takes the belt from Moxley with the assistance of Don Callis. He’ll abscond into the limousine waiting for him, grinning maniacally, and wear the glasses once more, killing in one fell swoop the funny, innocent angel that was DDT Kenny and the naive caricature of the Best Bout Machine he had been masquerading as so far.
Matt and Nick take everything about as well as Kenny (that is to say, not well at all). They’re forced to go through some serious self-reflection following the course of these events, an important point I want to touch on later, but for now, this means that not just goals need to be re-evaluated, but also their relationships with those closest to them. Cutler asks them if they don’t want to talk about any of this, but Matt closes the door of the trunk of their car with muted anger, stating that it’s time they started worrying about themselves. “Maybe you don’t need to wear that shirt anymore,” he says to his little brother, who’s wearing the same shirt he wore in their confrontation with Hangman in the bar. It’s a Golden Elite shirt, a relic from a time long, long ago.
But of course, the anger and hurt don’t just evaporate overnight because they put a full stop at the end of the sentence. So Matt and Nick vent their frustrations within the limitations of their, for the time being, tweener personas, meaning innocent bystanders, other wrestlers and their phones and laptops will be their targets as they slowly walk a slippery slope, eventually, after a brief falling out, following Kenny into the abyss.
As Cutler notes, the Bucks aren’t the only ones who deal with the pain by breaking things. Hangman shatters a glass on the ground in a tipsy rage in episode 224, which reveals he’s still carrying the feelings from over a year ago with him, berating Cutler for being naive enough to think the Bucks really cared about his success. When he yells at him, telling him he’s a prop to them, he’s talking about Cutler as much as he is talking about himself. He’s full of snide bitterness, as he thinks they will never let anyone have a moment that could outshine their own. It’s a strange quirk that he’s now forgotten all about the selfless ways they had supported Kenny in all of his big matches over on the other side of the ocean, but as we have seen and shall see many times, revisionist history is a plague within the Elite.
For now, nobody gets to move on. Because only one week later, in an effort to mend things, Matt sends Hangman a text message asking if they can’t just put this past year behind them and start over. In a cruel twist of fate, Matt Hardy, having gotten Hangman drunk, intercepts the text and sends insulting replies from his phone, effectively burning down what little hope there was.
Later, Hardy, almost proud of his act, confesses to Matt that Hangman never even saw his text, and that he was the one to send the insulting replies. The confession doesn’t spark anger or disbelief in Matt. It simply causes his eyes to immediately glaze over as he thinks back to all the things that went wrong, the times when Hangman’s insecurities were so unbearable all he wanted to do was to shake him and tell him they were always going to have his back. He puts the shiny, sparkly thing of leather and gold he was carrying down without a second thought, leaving it behind as the mere prop that it is, and marches through the overlit hallway to the place he knows he’ll find Hangman in.
But just like with the text message, he’s unable to take that final step. He lingers outside the bar for a moment, watching Hangman in the midst of this new band of friends he has made. There’s an uncomfortable, gloomy finality in the way he slowly slides the door shut, staring at the ground with unseeing eyes. The confrontation in the bar in August had not been the final sign on the dotted line; this was. After this, there are no more attempts at reconciliation, no more lingering, mournful or yearning stares (except one) or sighs. For a long time, this was truly end. Until the Bucks were once more at their loneliest, left alone by everyone, Kenny included.
Man Behind the Skintight Jeans
But I’m getting ahead of myself. A month after Matt contemplated reaching out to Hangman once more, Kenny sits down with the Bucks for one of his most famous promos on BTE, referencing at least in composition the end of episode 173. Where once the mood was vulnerable and hopeful though, the colors warm, it has now pivoted to something darker, harder. The Elite has changed, according to Kenny, and it’s time to leave the outdated frillies and tassels behind, time to stop playing the disneyfied versions of themselves to try and appease fans who have already betrayed and forsaken them. There’s a lot of pain here, not just at themselves or the loss of a friend or the outsiders who do not understand.
Hangman and the Elite, bolstered now by two bodyguard goons, Callis and loyal stooges Nakazawa and Cutler, come into contact again during the peak of Kenny’s Collector frenzy. Kenny, having correctly sniffed out that Hangman is about to pose a very real threat for him, sets a plan in motion to intimidate and, if necessary, incapacitate his friend turned rival so he never dares to challenge in the first place. I touched on this in my other essay, but one could interpret this as Kenny knowing that if Hangman ever achieved full confidence, he would be able to take him down easily. In another layer underneath this, the weeks leading up to Full Gear will reveal that the real Kenny, not the noxious molded zombie of the Collector, is actually hoping to set Hangman up as his successor, which seems paradoxical, but makes him so much more three-dimensional than he would be, were he just an evil villain for Hangman to overcome. He is afraid of the very thing he secretly desires, and I think that’s a very human trait to weave into his character.
But in order for his plan to work, Kenny has to not only keep Hangman in check, he has to keep the Bucks in check as well. Much in contrast with the determined strife of the Cleaner who knew his real strength stemmed from those at his side, the Collector barks orders at Matt and Nick, yells at them when they shave their mustaches without his permission, and forces himself between them and any emotional spark that could fly from Hangman over to them. He knows that if Page ever got the chance to say what he wanted to say, they would waver in their undivided attention. I touched on this at length in my other essay, so I’m not going to beat this dead horse (…) more, but there are a lot of nice compare and contrast moments between the experiences Hangman made in the Elite versus those he made with Dark Order, so go read that here if you’re interested in a deeper analysis.
Anyway, I think the elimination match is the perfect representation of everything going on in the story at this time, visuals, themes, and narrative connections. The Space Jam-inspired entrance by the Elite has become legendary by this point, but aside from the special moment it created, it also reminded me a lot of the cosplaying entrance two years prior, when Kenny and the Bucks would make their way to the ring as characters from Street Fighter. Both times seemed designed to trick us into thinking everything was light-hearted and a-okay within the group, reminiscent of the simpler times, all while the drama was already bubbling and brewing underneath. And they will try a third time to wish back that spirit once Cole re-enters the picture, this time with the literal costumes they once wore for a Halloween match in New Japan. It, uh, doesn’t end particularly well.
Then, days before Full Gear, Hangman finally gets out what he wanted to say months ago: I’m sorry. He apologizes to the Bucks—and more specifically, to Matt—for being a shitty friend. For being so caught up in his insecurities that he forgot they just wanted someone at their side, instead of someone who defines himself by wins and losses. I cannot overstate how much of a big deal this is. It might seem like the barest minimum he ought to do after what he did, but for the story at this point, it is monumental. It shifts the entire mood surrounding Kenny’s title match, and the mood between Hangman and the Young Bucks (and, as we will see, between Hangman and Kenny as well).
For one, it felt like the event had been set up as the metaphorical gallows looming over the Collector’s head right from the start. Kenny says in his last promo before the show that people should be worried about him, not Hangman (and shortly thereafter, fans found out in painful detail just how apt that hint was), and even in the contract signing, he states that the fans never knew half the truth. That behind the facade of the beer-chugging, swaggering, swashbuckling cowboy stood a very, very insecure man who would have given up on himself a million times over if the Elite hadn’t forced him back into the saddle every time.
And two, since its first installment, the Full Gear pay-per-view was always Hangman’s pay-per-view. His off-color arc involving the “Full Gear Challenge” is a play on the name of the event, and the argument could be made that Hangman had many of his important matches in this series: in 2019, he won his match against PAC resulting from their feud that had been set up since the first AEW show was announced, in 2020 he lost to Kenny in the finals of the No 1 contender tournament, and in 2021, well, he took the belt from the grasps of the nightmare that was the Collector. In the promo package for the historic match five years in the making, he says that he knows he can win, and that is enough. And just by the gentle timbre in his voice, such a far cry from the self-hatred, poison-filled shadow of himself he used to be, even the uninitiated know there’s not a doubt he’s correct.
He doesn’t win by himself. But it’s not cheating or unfair disadvantages that bring him the victory, either. He tries to put Kenny away with another borrowed One Winged Angel, calling back to the time during the Revolution match when he did the same to Matt, but Kenny kicks out (make that Lover number two who has accomplished this feat). The Bucks, clad in ice packs that bear witness to their brutal street fight with Cole against Jurassic Express earlier on the same card, come stumbling down the ramp. Nick walks around the ring to the side Kenny is currently closer to, while Matt remains at the front, near Hangman.
And then, when Hangman gets ready on the apron for his signature move, Matt looks at him with a heartbreaking mixture of sadness and resolve, in one of my favorite shots in all of wrestling storytelling ever. He nods, briefly, but with all the weight of five years behind it. This moment makes me tear up every time I merely think about it, and I think what hits me hardest here is that it’s more than a moment. It’s the culmination of a story that began years ago, taken through the valleys and mountains of evolving relationships and heel and face turns, told through the lens of stumbling, failing, hoping people.
He and Nick knew what needed to be done. The monster known as the Collector needed to be put down. As long as it lives, Kenny cannot, and neither can they, or Hangman. Thus, with the power of the Young Bucks aiding him like the spirits of the Sailor Senshi aided Usagi in her banishing of Queen Beryl, Hangman throws his entire being into the last Buckshot Lariat Kenny will ever take. His opponent clashes with his forearm and falls to the mat like he’s going to sleep, relieved, almost happy. And once he holds the belt in his arms and the Bucks carry Kenny’s limp body backstage, Dark Order storm into the ring. They bring an offering of beer to celebrate, but Hangman’s character arc has already eclipsed the crutches of such beverages. He throws his can of beer away in favor of embracing his merry band of friends. They carry him on their shoulders as the Golden Elite once did Kenny. Completing the arc and solving the paradox of fearing what he wishes to create, Kenny admits to feeling freedom upon losing the belt, happiness, even, and makes it clear he wishes for Hangman to stay champion.
All’s well that ends well. End of a chapter, beginning of a new one. The wheel turns.
Hashtag the Undisputed Elite is Fine
Except, all was not well. Before Full Gear, a resurrected Cole had been brought back into the fold, completing the Elite, as the shirts proudly announced, but immediately the peaceful coexistence of SuperKliq and Elite was put into question. And now Punished Kenny has to leave, recuperate, somewhere else that’s not AEW. In the meantime, he counts on the Young Bucks to hold down the fort. The tension between him and Adam Cole is still there clear as day, and once again, Matt and Nick are caught in the middle of their butting of heads. And although it was at the time a rather harmless little “misunderstanding” that was only mediated by Matt’s desire to maintain harmony, it set the tone for much of the story to follow, even in absence of Kenny himself.
On the other side of the locker room, things weren’t looking too rosy, either. For as much as Hangman had coveted the belt as a manifestation of his growth and self-acceptance, and for as much as it gave him that moment he had dreamed of, surrounded by droves of fans and friends who loved and supported him, it now came back as the very thing to haunt him, just as it had haunted Kenny before him. There’s a theory among me and my friends that the men’s world championship belt is a cursed object within AEW canon, and this theory only grows and festers every time Jericho’s Bane changes from bloody hand to bloody hand. Had it brought out some of Kenny’s worst qualities, fears and vices, so it brought out Page’s worst side for a little while, even though he was less vulnerable to its tempting siren call and thus didn’t spiral out of control quite as badly.
What matters here, however, are the parallels both between Hangman and Kenny, and Hangman and the Young Bucks. Obviously, accumulating belts like accessories did nothing for Kenny other than to make the hole in his chest he was hoping to fill even bigger. Similarly, it was never gold that Hangman needed. It could be argued that he had already completed his character arc before he even won the belt off Kenny. He had come to understand himself and his desires, he had confronted his worst fears, looked at himself in the mirror, apologized to the Bucks, and so on. The moment the three-count rang, he was more than ready. The belt was merely a physical manifestation of the change that had already taken place.
Similarly, the Bucks seem to struggle once more with finding themselves, and they also seemingly have the worst luck in choosing their bedfellows. In a callback to how the Collector treated them, Cole subverts their trust and brings in his posse from long ago: Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Riley, collectively known as reDRagon and once part of the Cole-lead Undisputed Era. With them, he hopes to import his save game from another canon far, far away, and promptly declares that the stable, supposedly including the Bucks, is now called the Undisputed Elite. I say supposedly, because as demonstrated later, their allegiance seemed to lie always more with Cole himself than with the banner under which he hoped to rally his troops, and a BTE description from a later episode makes the distinction clear: it was always the Young Bucks and the Undisputed Elite, never a united whole.
The shirts are almost printed as fast as Cody’s Bullet Club shirts were back in the day. Only this time, the Bucks don’t get an email asking for approval of the designs. Cole shoves them in their faces and expects them to wear them with a smile and a thank you. For the moment, they do, perhaps driven by the hope that maybe things were going to work out after all, that maybe everyone would just forget they once humiliated and then murdered Cole. Kiss and make up. They play along with Cole’s little spiel despite being anything but amused, and in turn Cole develops bigger and bigger delusions of grandeur, seizing the credit for the Forbidden Door event and thinking himself untouchable, out of reach of the only person who could ever pose a serious threat to him.
And then the Bucks win the tag titles in yet another grueling ladder match against their childhood heroes, and become the first two-time champions in the history of the company. Yet the victory, a far cry from the celebration a year ago when they were surrounded by friends, facetiming their families on their phones, and doused in alcohol-free champagne, served only to amplify the glum feeling of isolation that had already festered inside of them for several months. It’s perhaps not as poignant as Cody’s empty victory party in 2018, but nonetheless they make it clear in a promo just how alone they are. Matt almost mentions Hangman, before Nick reminds the camera, and himself, that they do have friends—the belts.
Likewise, Hangman had hoped that finally holding the object of his desire would make him the man he thought he deserved to be, for himself and for the fans, but it only put him through a draining gauntlet of long and often bloody matches. He parted the curtain to the backstage area feeling less like himself, if anything. The cowboy magic of the underdog that the audience had fallen in love with was beginning to fade, ever so subtly.
Time and memory are big, recurring themes within the greater narrative of the Elite. Due to a decade of work with one another, the group has a rich history within several different promotions on which they can draw and build new layers upon, and often these strings are pulled on in specific reference to time. The Cleaner, as well as the Collector after him, was notorious for twisting history in his image, for simultaneously revising it and living painfully in it, unable to truly move on. The Bucks seem to live in a perpetual, swirling cycle as well, continuously pulled by the same strings as in previous years. And as if to illustrate the point that their belts will not help them, they lose them swiftly on the first defense, stumbling backstage in directionless defeat, where Hangman waits for them.
As I mentioned earlier, Hangman was shown to still live with the frustration of never earning the Bucks’ true respect and same devotion they showed to Kenny for over a year after they refused to second him. Paralleling that, Matt was shown in BTE episode 313 to still live with the regret and hope he had expressed nearly two years ago in his text message to Page. Though this time around he never sends the message, the fact that he began writing it and chose the exact same words he had chosen back then, was enough to settle his emotions into place, to reflect back at him what a part of him had already known.
Matt and Nick had never fully given up on Hangman, and Matt specifically had kept the door he thought shut always just a tiny bit ajar, in case the cowboy wanted to extend a hand through it. As an aside, my personal interpretation of why the message has twice now failed to reach its recipient—once through malicious intervention of a third party and once through Matt’s own doing—is because it represents the “stuck in the past” aspect I was touching on earlier. Speaking of the past…
Remember when I mentioned the gear the Young Bucks wore when they won the 6 man tag belts with Hangman back in 2017 was going to make a comeback? Well, here we are, in 2022, and in a deliberate move, the Young Bucks clad themselves in Bullet Club gear for their tag match against Sting, Takagi and Darby on the Forbidden Door show. It wasn’t just any old nostalgic gear, however: the combination of tights and iron on patch-riddled, frayed jeans jackets was precisely the combination they wore when they were teaming with Hangman all those years ago.
In a way, this wordless indulgence of the past reminds me of the increasingly obvious ways the late Cleaner would incorporate designs and colors reminiscent of Ibushi’s gear and colors as he tried to communicate with his lost tag team partner. During those times, he displayed the same traits the Bucks were displaying in the first half of 2022: a wish for reconciliation that exists on the same plane as a fear and reluctance to do so. Remember, the Cleaner was a man who, whilst wearing a necklace with the initial letter of his Lover, mocked his name and pretended he was a nobody who definitely never had any emotional impact on him whatsoever. I’m probably going to sound like a broken record, but I find that to be a refreshingly relatable way to talk about feelings and relationships. We all want to love and be loved, but it’s never as easy as that. The pain is real, as is the desire to overcome it and return to our most truthful state.
Anyway, the comparisons between a pining Cleaner and a pining pair of Bucks run deeper than they appear to at first glance. Because as much as Kenny was destined to head for the deep end once he used Hangman as a replacement to reckon with the past that was still haunting him, for the Bucks, and especially for Matt, Hangman represents Ibushi in a different way. The story is showing us us very clearly that the themes that ran through Kenny’s story with Ibushi run through the Bucks’ story with Hangman as well.
But I don’t think the parallels are all just thematic, either. It would reduce the takeaway to a simple “Hangman is Ibushi 2.0”, and that is both degrading and really, really boring. Rather, I think that one of the reasons these parallels crop up is because both stories are at their core stories about humanity (or “human stories”, as Kenny has called both)—in all the ugly shades of grey and black that that entails. So naturally, there are going to be misunderstandings, fractures, the drifting apart and the convergence of people, just how there would be in real life (due to the murky nature of kayfabe, a lot of real life was poured into this as well, so the comparison is also bred into the material).
True Friendship is true love, but it’s not simply a pretty little bow that everyone puts on, wears forever, and everything is fine. It has to laboriously endure whatever hardships fall upon it, which takes effort and willingness from all those involved. Sometimes the hammer strikes the steel, and sometimes it misses and strikes the anvil.
Despite how things very much seem to be in disarray, we are on a highway chase to restoration and healing. Now, careful, quiet birthday wishes are exchanged, where a year ago the Bucks belittled Hangman’s alcoholism via their bio gimmick. They maintain their distance from him yet, but are vulnerable and awkward when they do so, not full of snide. Just because things changed and people changed, doesn’t mean the yearning ever went away. At the end of the day, what the wider Elite saga has always been about for me, is hope. Hope for oneself, but also hope for the other. The bringing back of the door motif means exactly that: even if it was once closed for a time, that doesn’t mean it can never be opened again. There’s always hope, as long as people change and grow.
And in the end, that represents the perfected antithesis to the “stuck in time” syndrome the Elite once collectively suffered from (and will, until the very end of the story, probably still occasionally suffer from). Starting with the rising through the ranks towards No 1 Contender and then the negotiations about agency with Dark Order and himself, Hangman began a journey of real growth. He did the same thing the Best Bout Machine did leading into the reunion with his Lover: he looked at the ugliest parts of himself (an act that takes enormous courage, take my word for it), confronted them, and worked on them, little by little. He didn’t come out the other end of AEW’s birthing tunnels clean and perfect, but the mere willingness to do so lent him truthfulness when he apologized to Matt and Nick, and later when he knocked on their door. The past is not forgotten, we’re not moving on without reflecting, but we’re healing. Which, much like the forging of friendship, takes a lot of time, and a lot of ugly, ugly effort.
Remember earlier when I talked about the reasons Cody failed to take over Bullet Club even after beating Kenny? I don’t like to extend my hand too far for fear of being bitten, but the one sneaking suspicion I have is that we’re going to see an interpretation on that theme in the (most likely) upcoming arc of Elite versus Undisputed. Because even though life choices meant the original plan to have Adam Cole be the usurper back in New Japan had to be scrapped, there is one thing that remains unresolved from those days, even though the role was ultimately fulfilled to “completion” by someone else: growth.
What we saw after 2018 were very few and fleeting droplets of that; and by and large, the character of Cody as it existed in the story (until he, uh, left the company) stopped any references and interactions with the pre-AEW past completely, never changing or reiterating on it like the other characters were. But now, Cole has already begun addressing the past in the role of an antagonist (one example being screaming into Matt’s face that he never forgot what they did to him before kicking him in the head), and there is an opportunity for rich, multifaceted storytelling here, one that doesn’t stop with an Empire of Dirt, one where the story doesn’t end when Cole looks at the diamond ring on his finger and throws it away.
No matter how the Elite get us there—and no matter what happens in the upcoming weeks, I personally am more than excited to see the unique ways they will take us there. And I hope that the passion I have for this entire saga came through with this essay and was contagious enough to make you at least a little bit excited for it as well.
Now, how about those damn trios belts?
Thank you for reading.
All GIFs mine, unless otherwise noted.
Title mimicking that one Golden Lovers essay with permission from the author.