For most of my adult life, there’s something kind of funny about pop culture and media in general that has emerged as a trend – really bad endings that mar people’s perceptions of the rest of the product.
Last night was All Elite Wrestling’s 2021 edition of their Revolution pay per view. Last year, the first such event was a landmark in wrestling – one of the last major pre-pandemic, live-audience shows, and it saw major story developments for the promotion, with an epic tag team match telling the story of Hangman Adam Page’s fallout from the Elite stable alongside the rise of Jon Moxley (formerly WWE’s Dean Ambrose) as he captured the AEW World Championship from excellent all-around wrestler (and notably shitty person) Chris Jericho. It has been a much-discussed show for wrestling fans and one that will likely stand out in years as an excellent overall night of wrestling.
This year’s show was actually still really good. Maybe not quite to the same standard as the 2020 version, but still really damn good. There was a legitimately well produced women’s title match (a weak spot in AEW as the company does not put their women’s division on the best footing despite the outstanding talent involved), a great tag-team match to open the show, and excellent storyline developments – Hangman Adam Page continuing a year’s long storyline about learning to find friends and when to lean on them versus when he has to stand apart and be self-sustaining, the continuing self-destruction of Chris Jericho’s Inner Circle faction, a setup for a future feud between Miro and his current “friend” Kip Sabian, and the main event, which is why we’re here today.
The main event for the show was a legitimate curiosity in its own right. The match was a showdown between current AEW World Champ Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley, whom Omega defeated in December for the title through nefarious means, turning heel and becoming an interesting part of a cross-promotional storyline that has so far brought in talent from Impact Wrestling and New Japan Pro Wrestling. The match type is something of a first for a major, mainstream American wrestling promotion – an exploding barbed wire deathmatch. This match made so much sense for the story, the direction of both characters, and the real life circumstances surrounding the match – Kenny Omega’s first match against Jon Moxley was a loss in a lights-out hardcore match, which Moxley won through heavy use of barbed wire props and hardcore wrestling, while Jon Moxley cites infamous Japanese deathmatch wrestlers like Atsushi Onita as influences, whose most famous matches are all exploding ring and/or barbed-wire matches of some sort. On the real life side, Moxley’s wife is pregnant and he is likely to head off on a paternity leave of some sort soonish (the baby is due in the summer, so maybe not immediately, but giving him an in-universe exit for now makes sense) and Kenny Omega will likely have new feuds to move on to, especially once the NJPW partnership is fully open and he can face storied rivals from his time in Japan.
So the match was set and the intrigue was pretty high. The match was announced right before the show to have a key set of stipulations – 3 sides of the ring would have their ropes wrapped in barbed-wire, with explosives wired to them. Any impact on the ropes would detonate an explosive. Then, those same 3 sides would have exploding barbed-wire boards on the floor at ringside, so if the two wrestlers took to the outside of the ring, there is an inherent risk. Lastly, regardless of whether or not the match was over, after 30 minutes, the ring was wired to explode.
So first, let’s dive into making sure this is clear. Wrestling fans know that obviously, you’re not putting C4 or an actual explosive on the ring. It will be a pyrotechnic effect, one that can safely (albeit painfully) hit the wrestlers without actually endangering their lives in any meaningful way. The myriad Japanese versions of this match in multiple promotions there all use gerbs with high amounts of sparks – looks really cool, can hit people with only a burning tingle of pain, not terribly expensive, and directional, so you can keep the crowd from being blasted. Great, use those! The whole point is the spectacle – we want these performers to live, but if the show is going to create a fiction where we fear for their safety, it must do so convincingly enough that we can suspend our disbelief and enjoy the show.
The match itself was actually quite good – both men are excellent wrestlers and storytellers in the ring, and they did something really cool for most of the match. Kenny Omega, the more technical of the two, used holds, headlocks, etc to control the bodies of both men, but showed more fear of the match as his image as a character is one of a pure technician with artist’s flair – he didn’t want to be stuck in the barbed wire or have explosions near him if it could be helped. Moxley, on the other hand, is a gritty character, so he’d brawl, pushing Omega around in a reckless manner to try and get him on the ropes, even willing to endanger himself, when he hit his Paradigm Shift DDT from the ring apron onto an exploding board outside the ring, causing both men to get entangled in barbed wire and explosions. He also showed more comfort in the setting, like when he purposefully hit the ropes during a pinfall from Omega to cause an explosion to interrupt the count. All of this was great – excellent storytelling, using the history of both characters individually and their shared history to weave a story – wrestling is at its best when this is done. Great!
The match ends short of the 30 minute timer, with Omega’s friends the Good Brothers from Impact Wrestling coming to the ring, beating on Moxley with an exploding barbed wire baseball bat so Omega can score the pinfall and win. They then wail on Moxley some more after the win, and handcuff him while he lies on the mat as the commentators explain that the ring explosion has no failsafe and once the 30 minutes pass, it will explode. Okay, fine – the stipulation being added was an obvious plot point, cool – let’s see what happens.
As the last minute counts down, Eddie Kingston, a former friend of Moxley who spent the fall feuding with Moxley for the AEW World Title, makes an attempt at a save to redeem himself – again, great storytelling, bringing things back and showing a depth and continuity to what happens on the show, no objections here. Kingston can’t get his friend to rally, he’s too beaten down and the handcuffs impede his ability to post up and get off the mat. The timer reaches 8 seconds, and Kingston does the only thing he can do – covers Moxley with his body and braces for the ring to explode.
This video is the cleanest I could find on YouTube, but it might get taken down, so let’s describe what happens first.
When the countdown hits zero, sparklers erupt from the ring posts, as a few small sparking bursts emerge around the turnbuckles at the corners of the ring. The finale of the “explosion” is a few mortars outside the ring, which erupt in a tiny flash and small puffs of smoke, also very close to the corners, leaving the two performers at center ring completely unobstructed from camera view, as not even the smoke is enough to cover them. Kingston does what the plan clearly was, and remains over Moxley, selling the planned gravity of this spot, but…he obviously drops his arms in frustration at one point because the audience is audibly booing (AEW uses an outdoor venue in COVID-times and has CDC compliant seating pods in arrangement, so they are able to have fans in attendance). As the PPV goes off the air, Kingston is rolled off of Moxley, still selling like he saved his friend from a terrible explosion.
And…fade to black. Yikes.
In the aftermath of the show, Moxley cut a promo for the live audience about how Kenny Omega can’t build an exploding ring “worth a shit,” which, in the canon of the show, makes sense as there was a pre-Revolution episode of Dynamite where Omega was shown building elements of the exploding ring. However, it is also clearly not what the plan was – Omega and crew bail well before the explosion, and Kingston’s selling makes clear that there was some sort of failure – either some additional pyro didn’t go off, wasn’t properly placed, or the like, because him being stunned and selling like he was out makes literally no sense if the ring didn’t actually explode or if the bomb was purposefully a dud. Sure, if Omega’s bomb was a dud and he didn’t know it, Omega and crew fleeing makes sense, but then Kingston’s selling doesn’t. So either it was supposed to be a dud without Omega knowing, in which case Kingston’s sell is the continuity-breaker, or Omega pranked Moxley, in which case, both the fleeing and Kingston’s reaction are revelatory.
Either way, after the show, the ending did what bad endings do – people could only talk about the dud explosion, the selljob that made it look like a mistake, and the ways in which the post-show media scrum from AEW tried to sell it as the plan – the whole thing was done purposefully, the claim is, and that seems to be where the story will ultimately go.
Now, on its own, it isn’t really that bad. Wrestling is a series of events, and one really bad ending doesn’t invalidate everything. There will be weeks of TV that will attempt to explain it and move forward, and since the story conclusion for the feud of Moxley and Omega is likely this match, there isn’t much left to say there. It does mean the next point in the Kingston/Moxley story is a bit of a dud, and that is what they’ll have to work around, but both men involved are excellent promos – Kingston had a segment on the YouTube show Being the Elite for a few weeks where he cut promos on inanimate objects, like booking himself into a feud with a chocolate chip cookie, and Moxley is a world-class promo who knows how to salvage things. If you’re going to have a laughingstock finish to a match, you couldn’t have possibly found better performers to clean up the mess.
But it fits something I notice a lot in pop culture – bad endings that often overshadow everything that came before. The Game of Thrones TV series was a highmark in television and hotly discussed until the ending, and now it is just another show that ended poorly. Dexter had a similar fate, and while The Walking Dead isn’t over yet, it had what I’ve observed from the outside is a clear jumping the shark moment, where the remaining viewers are in varying degrees of Stockholm Syndrome to the show. WoW expansions are vastly more remembered for their ending patch than their beginning – most of us discuss BfA in terms of Corruption, Ny’alotha, the Black Empire assaults, and the like. Mists of Pandaria’s legacy seems focused on the year of Siege of Orgrimmar.
A bad ending can spoil an entertainment product, and I would argue that nearly everyone has some example of the exploding ring in their pop culture consumption.
Okay, maybe not literally, but wrestling is cooler than the things you like.