There was a lot to like about AEW’s third annual Double Or Nothing pay-per-view on Sunday. By my count, more than half the matches saw a young, popular, more-or-less homegrown star pick up the win. The Young Bucks added to their run of PPV classics with their tag team title defense against Jon Moxley and Eddie Kingston. And Sting—frickin’ Sting—wrestled his first live match in almost six years and I swear to god he looked good doing it.
But overshadowing everything that happened in storyline—both the high points and the show’s weaker moments—was the fact that, for the first time in over a year, pro wrestling was happening before a packed house. Since March 2020, WWE has completely closed their shows to all but a small handful of NXT fans, except for a socially distanced Wrestlemania in the Buccaneers’ massive stadium. Indie shows have struggled to put together small-scale events outdoors in the most permissive states. And over in Japan, there have been large crowds (most notably at the Tokyo Dome in January) but they’ve been capacity-limited and instructed not to make any noise besides clapping and stomping.
On Sunday, however, the amphitheater in Jacksonville that has been AEW’s home base for the vast majority of the pandemic welcomed over 5,000 rowdy attendees to create a scene that looked no different than something out of February of last year. With fewer than 39 percent of Floridians fully vaccinated, you can absolutely debate the wisdom and hastiness of this move. But I can’t deny that it looked amazing.
You pony up for a pay-per-view to see something that you wouldn’t be able to see on regular television, and more than any of the actual matches on the card, this time that was the crowd itself. Every good guy seemed even cooler, and every bad guy more despicable, because of the noise made by the audience. Moxley and Kingston coming out through the fans to “Wild Thing” would have qualified as a great entrance even in the before times, but after so many bad months, it felt downright surreal.
Plenty of AEW’s young talents got a huge lift since the last time they were playing full houses—Jungle Boy, Darby Allin, Britt Baker. But nobody deserved this reaction more than Kingston, whose path to stardom in AEW was the best (legit) story of wrestling’s pandemic era. The 39-year-old Kingston, to hear him to tell it, was ready to quit the business when all his indie gigs dried up because of COVID. But a one-off appearance on AEW’s Dynamite in July of 2020—specifically the promo he cut before his match—made such an impression on viewers and the company that it led to a contract. From there, Kingston’s natural charisma forced him into more and more prominent spots in the promotion, and finally, on Sunday, he was rewarded for years and years of thankless, obscure work with this massive ovation.
For their empty-arena/limited-fans shows, WWE has piped in fake crowd noise not unlike what you’d hear during other sports since the pandemic began, and it’s been awful. While in soccer, hockey, etc. fans have predictable reactions to pretty much any event—boos for a foul against their team, cheers for a goal, groans for a near-miss—in wrestling the organic, often surprising reactions of the crowd casts wrestlers into their roles more than any script ever could. Fans turn mid-carders into superstars and heroes into villains in a way that can’t be faked. In comparison, hearing a bunch of ghosts chant “you suck” at Roman Reigns just felt manipulative and dumb.
AEW somewhat escaped this problem by using extras at ringside for their Daily’s Place shows. Though they, of course, reacted in the way their bosses said they were “supposed” to react, these typically unknown wrestlers were at least real human voices and not just awful sound effects matched to uncannily large panels of webcam screens. Double or Nothing, however, put real fans in the extras’ old spots right by ringside, and it massively enhanced the product in a way I used to take for granted. In the main title match, the entire crowd for a few seconds completely believed that the ultimate underdog Orange Cassidy was going to steal the win, and no amount of money or effects can convincingly replicate their shock.
The main event of the show was not, in fact, that world title match. It was instead a 10-man “Stadium Stampede” between rival factions that was mostly pre-taped in the Jacksonville Jaguars’ home next door. At last year’s Double or Nothing, with no crowd whatsoever, this gimmicky match was the closest you’ll ever get to live-action Looney Tunes, and it worked as a hilarious salve in a dark moment. Here, the stated aim was to film that match more like an action movie, and it was fine, but again, it didn’t fully hit until the crowd became part of the scene once more. As the competitors brawled back into the live amphitheater, 27-year-old Sammy Guevara got the triumphant pin for the good guys, and the show went off the air in the only way it could have—with the fans joining together in a massive singalong.
There are still a few more weeks until this becomes more like the norm for wrestling again. AEW’s “Welcome Back Tour” begins on July 7 after another month of tapings in Jacksonville, while WWE is still in the empty “Thunderdome” until July 16, when their live events will return with a series of shows in Texas arenas. But I think the sheer appeal of this AEW PPV dispels any notion that, for most vaccinated adults, there’s going to be a period of tentative adjustment before things feel “normal” again. I don’t speak for everyone, but I know I do speak for a lot of people when I say I want to get back to this kind of stuff—live theater, big sports crowds, huge concerts and festivals—as soon as possible. Double or Nothing made all that feel closer than ever.