I’m Mad About How Badly I Want This Frickin’ Wrestling Cowboy To Win This Frickin’ Made-Up Championship
9:48 AM EDT on August 3, 2021
It's taking every ounce of my self-control to not open this blog with a mile-long paragraph detailing the pro wrestling storyline history of Kenny Omega, the Young Bucks, and "Hangman" Adam Page. Instead, I'll just try and begin with Page's ring entrance last Wednesday night on AEW's Dynamite, at the start of a high-stakes 5-on-5 elimination match between Hangman's new friends and his former friends-turned-enemies. If I wanted to, I guess I could step outside myself and point out what others might find potentially campy and dorky about it—the very serious narration, the overuse of purple, the choreographed ringside gestures. But I actually love all of that, as evidenced by the sheer number of times I've rewatched this opening since it aired last week. Really, I just want to get excited about a hot cowboy and his pyro and the live crowd that loves him, and that's exactly what we have here.
Hangman and his misfit band of underdogs didn't win this match, which qualifies as a surprise for a wrestling promotion whose booking is usually so logical and calculated that outcomes are easy to predict. They made Page look like a dang superhero, putting him in a 3-on-1 situation against the Bucks and Omega where he kicked out of every big move except The One Move Nobody Kicks Out Of. But the loss, nevertheless, means that Hangman in storyline has to relinquish his No. 1 contendership for Omega's world title, and with it a main-event match at AEW's Labor Day weekend pay-per-view All Out that most people already had penciled in on the card.
AEW's helped a lot of talented wrestlers become American TV stars since Dynamite launched in 2019, but few if any have seen as drastic a rise as the Hangman. Formerly a side character in the hugely popular Japanese stable known as Bullet Club—and also the subgroup The Elite with the Bucks and Omega—Page's journey through AEW has been an intricate, slow-burning tale. Unlike your prototypical Cena-esque wrestling good guy, Hangman is a complicated hero. He's had a paralyzing fear of failure ever since he came up short in the first-ever AEW title match against Chris Jericho two years ago. He's heavily implied to be an alcoholic. He can get prickly and shut himself down when he feels disrespected. One his most endearing moments came in May 2020, when he grappled with his decision to return to AEW after two months of quarantine in a way that felt about as real as any wrestling promo can be. And, in a crucial moment last year, his anxiety about losing his tag-team title led him to be manipulated into sabotaging the Young Bucks' pursuit of his gold. This segment with Jim Ross, from November of last year, is as good an introduction to Hangman at his worst:
And yet, in that first pre-pandemic era of AEW, the fans grew to love Page. Instead of chanting his name, they shouted and still shout "Cowboy shit!" after what I think was just meant to be a throwaway line he said once. People in the front row, pre-COVID, would jockey to give him a victory beer after a match. And in one of the greatest tag-team matches of all-time—Page and Omega vs. the Bucks in February 2020—the former "little brother" of this quartet got the biggest crowd reaction and the pinfall win.
In the COVID era, Page burned his bridges with The Elite and got beaten by Omega en route to Omega turning full-on heel and winning the world title, but he didn't lose his connection with the fans, who on their TV screens got to watch him run practically the entire length of a football field to hit a clothesline or chase down a bad guy on a horse or help a kid who legitimately just lost his dad have a good time at a wrestling match. At their first packed-house show in over a year, back on Memorial Day weekend, Hangman opened the PPV to a deafening ovation.
The tropes of pro wrestling demand that Page eventually face his former friend and partner Omega for the world title, as a way to finally escape the shadow of one of wrestling's all-time greats. But AEW did a decent job of keeping the two separated for most of this year. When it looked as though the pair were on a collision course around Memorial Day, the promotion booked a rare loss for Hangman that erased his claim to a title shot. As he started gaining momentum again, it became clear that Page himself wasn't mentally ready to face Omega, until the Dark Order—it would take me way too long to explain the Dark Order—gave him some much-needed encouragement. But Page, again, made the tragic mistake of putting his title shot on the line in order to attempt to also win a tag title shot for his friends, and now, according to wrestling guru Dave Meltzer, he may not be scheduled for any match at the next PPV.
I'm so freaking ready to see Adam Page beat Kenny Omega that I'm honestly a little pissed at myself—the investment I'm feeling here is just a bit more than professional wrestling deserves. But it's also plainly evident that this match isn't just around the corner, and could very well still be months and months away. There are a few logical reasons why that'd be the case. For one, Page's failure on Wednesday night fits pretty snugly into the classic hero's journey arc. For two, Page—or more accurately, Stephen Woltz—is expecting his first child and might not want to commit to a champion's busy schedule right now. And maybe more than anything else, there are the almost-confirmed rumors that former WWE megastars CM Punk and Daniel Bryan are imminently debuting in AEW, and the buzz they'll generate could overshadow a big title win if Hangman got it next month.
But the huge names coming in also pose a potential dilemma for the future. Given that Page's celebrity is still so much less than Punk's or Bryan's, their presence could suck all the interest out of Hangman's own storyline. Page is the guy whose chase everyone is invested in right now, but if AEW doesn't manage him carefully, parts of his fanbase could slowly drift towards other names on the card. A wrestling audience's tastes can be very fickle, and its interest finite, and if AEW doesn't manage to strike while the iron is hot, they'll have squandered literal years of buildup.
That doesn't mean Hangman necessarily needs a title shot right this moment—only that Page's story is a delicate thing that could be ruined with just one misstep. Timing is everything here, but booking Page's seemingly inevitable title win is much easier said than done. The mythology around the pro wrestling business is full of historical examples of storylines that should have been either shorter or longer. Conventional wisdom says Sting should have won the title clean at Starrcade '97, instead of dragging his feud with Hogan into '98. Goldberg's undefeated streak, on the other hand, should have kept going instead of meeting an abrupt end against Kevin Nash and a cattle prod. When CM Punk kayfabe left the WWE while holding their championship, he should have stayed away for longer than a week.
Managing a fanbase's anticipation and presenting the payoff at the exact moment right when interest peaks is a difficult art to master. Only in retrospect will we know if Hangman losing his All Out title shot was the smart choice to make. Right now, Wednesday's match was a success in that I'm more excited than before to see him challenge for the belt, whether it happens in the fall or winter or ... well, that uncertainty's still making me nervous.