It was a great night for the goth boys of wrestling on Wednesday’s edition of AEW Dynamite. Darby Allin, the face-painted street-rat skateboarder who’s been the breakout star of this company since its inception two years ago, further cemented his position as a main eventer by winning a coffin match against Ethan Page and then hurling himself through the closed lid of the coffin. And earlier on in the show, Malakai Black—known as Aleister Black in WWE and Tommy End on the indies—followed up an emphatic arrival to the promotion by further promoting what already looks set to be his hottest feud in years. And, wholly inexplicably, WWE provided most of Black’s hype.
Black made a shock debut—rare in this day and age—last week in an inspired fashion. In the middle of Cody Rhodes’s show-opening match on Dynamite, the lights in the Miami venue briefly went out. In wrestling, this almost always signals that somebody big is about to hit the ring, but in this case, nothing happened, and the AEW announcers did a great job of selling the blackout as technical difficulties brought on by the aftereffects of Hurricane Elsa. The match continued, and ended, without incident. But later on in the show, during an in-ring segment with Cody’s “coach,” Arn Anderson, darkness fell once again, and this time, the lights went on to reveal Black in the ring. Black took out Anderson with his reverse roundhouse kick that in WWE was called Black Mass, and then he took out Cody with the same, and despite these unquestionably villainous acts, the crowd absolutely loved seeing him unleashed.
This week, Black returned and made just as much of an impression. After a frustrated Rhodes called him out in front of the Texas crowd, Black appeared on screen to tell a lengthy story about a man who killed a past-his-prime racehorse. This didn’t click for everybody, but when darkness fell again and Black appeared live, the place ignited as the two went at it. The crowd booed the pull-apart and chanted “Let them fight!”—a sure sign that this match is going to be a big draw whenever it happens.
Your mileage may vary on Black’s affinity for parables or his collage of tattoos or his gimmick, which comes from what seems to be a real personal fascination with cults and conspiracies. But as an avowed fan of theatrical goth boys I’ve always wanted big things for him. Particularly when his imagination is allowed to run wild—see the maximalism of his latest t-shirt or the video he shot upon his WWE release that shows him violently escaping a mental health institution—Black’s Hot Topic Satanist character is over the top in a way that sometimes veers into camp but never actually steps outside itself to wink at the audience. If you’re going to do something this silly, you have to be dead serious about it. Add in a unique fighting style that includes his legit kickboxing experience and, to me, you have one of the more compelling television presences of the last several years.
Plenty of others—not just in the AEW crowd, but in WWE too—have seen this appeal. Black was champion of the WWE developmental brand NXT in 2018, which essentially amounts to a seal of approval from Triple H, who runs that show. And after moving to the main roster in 2019, Black was reportedly one of the guys in the running to beat Brock Lesnar for the title at 2020’s Wrestlemania. That role went to Drew McIntyre instead, because the one guy that matters in WWE—Vince McMahon—didn’t seem to get it.
The writing was on the wall for Black afterward, as he got demoted further and further down the card to a guy that gets beat up all the time, and then a guy who doesn’t appear on TV at all. His release from the company, one of many in the last few months, was a long time coming. But the wildest thing about Black’s move to AEW is that WWE, thanks to the chaotic and nonsensical way they treat their wrestlers, gave their upstart competitors all the hype they needed for it.
First of all, Black’s debut was so big and surprising thanks to an apparent error in his WWE contract that gave him only a 30-day non-compete clause instead of the usual 90-day one. The real shock wasn’t seeing Black in AEW, but seeing it happen two months earlier than anybody expected he legally could.
But that wasn’t the only unwitting favor that Vince did for Tony Khan’s promotion. You see, it wasn’t long ago at all that WWE had plans for Black. His last match with the promotion—or anywhere—was in October of last year. But in April, he started appearing in vignettes on Smackdown that teased his return. Those videos paid off on May 21 in the closing segment of WWE’s most-watched TV show, as Black interfered in a match to apparently set up a feud with Big E. Watch this and try to process the fact that this is the last time Black appeared on WWE TV. Black was released as part of a round of cuts by the company less than two weeks later.
Even newish or casual fans should easily understand this, but let me just type the ridiculously obvious point real quick: You don’t give a prime spot on television to a guy that you’re literally days away from cutting, and even if you do, you certainly don’t make him look like anything other than an ineffective loser. With this move, WWE essentially reintroduced the wrestling world to Black, built up new interest in seeing him wrestle again, and then handed him off to a rival company. Black has a solid following that would have cheered his AEW signing even if he hadn’t been seen or heard from in months, but WWE gave him the running start.