Welcome to Hard Time Blues: The World of Pro Wrestling from Merry-Go-Round Magazine! It’s a great time to get into professional wrestling. In each Hard Time Blues feature, MGRM contributors Luke Phillips and Max Flynn will be exploring the wild, weird, and wooly world of the squared circle, and all of the angles, feuds, gossip, and evil wizards therein.
This week, Luke and Max are joined by contributor and Detroit native Paul Sebastian to discuss the WWE and AEW pay-per-view events this weekend—WWE Night of Champions and AEW Double or Nothing.
Luke Phillips: It’s Hard Time Blues’ State of Wrestling for May 2023. It feels like we’re in Bizarro World. We’re getting a WWE pay-per-view with several matches that help pay off or build on storylines that have been ongoing for months or years, while also throwing in some “fan-favorite” matches in Gunther/Walter vs. Mustafa Ali. Meanwhile, the AEW pay-per-view is mostly blowoffs for bad angles that have been festering for the past month. Angles that I have not particularly given a fuck about. It feels like their most WWE-esque build and execution of a PPV yet.
AEW DOUBLE OR NOTHING 2023
Maxwell Flynn: If this is the last “AEW Classic” pay-per-view before the brand split, I think DOUBLE OR NOTHING 2023 will pay off as the “end of the season.” They’re dealing with the Four Pillars right now, but once Collision airs and Punk comes back, it’s gonna be a whole different ballpark and I think a brand new AEW.
Paul Sebastian: I don’t see the WWE DNA in what AEW is doing with Double or Nothing, I disagree with you on that. In the Four Pillars storyline, AEW is setting out to really establish their brand of superstar. Even when people think “This is a brand that needs CM Punk to survive”—I don’t think they necessarily need him, but he helps them tremendously. I don’t necessarily blame AEW or their creative on some of the failures of the Four Pillars storylin… I blame the talent.
LP: Oh, totally!
MF: Yeah. Agreed.
PS: I’ve given my thoughts on MJF—I do think he’s one of the best wrestlers on the planet, in any thought and in any capacity, I think he’s great. I do think if those are your Four Pillars, perhaps you need to strengthen your foundation. I don’t think the other three have panned out quite the way they’ve wanted them to. Jungle Boy Jack Perry is going to get there, I think he has the highest ceiling still, and as soon as they start figuring out what to do with him and his character, I think he’s learning and growing and starting to do something different. I don’t know how different Darby Allin or Sammy Guevara can become as wrestlers.
LP: I’ve always felt that way about the Pillars—they’re almost kind of mirrors of each other in a way, babyface/heel mirrors of each other. Like, MJF and Jack Perry are obviously guys who are very young, or when they debuted in AEW they were very young and seemed like they had a lot of ceiling. MJF has obviously completely blown past a lot of expectations and really lived up to how they had been building him over the last several years. Jack Perry, I mean, he’s got a lot of issues he has to surmount. He can’t fucking talk, for one thing. I fucking despise his promos.
PS: Does he have to talk? Look at him.
LP: YEAH! Yeah. Of course! There’s nothing compelling about his character! “Dad sad—dad dead. I’m sad Dad dead. I’m sad. Dad died! Wrestling.” THAT’S ALL HE FUCKING TALKS ABOUT. THAT’S ALL HE DOES!
PS: That has a lot to do with our expectations of the characters, though, right? That’s part of the evolution of wrestling. Pro wrestling has fail safes for guys like Jack Perry. They’re called managers. They’re called mouthpieces. AEW is good at doing this! They’ve shown they’re good to find people to fill in those gaps when they’re needed. That’s probably something they’re going to need for Jack long term. Just hide him, let him wrestle. If he can talk, great, but if he can’t—you still have a guy who looks like Luke Perry’s son. And you can trot him out every Wednesday, and you can play his awesome song, and it’s entertaining for a large part of fans.
LP: Like we were saying, he has a lot of upside. But much like Sammy, I think he’s struggling and there’s been a lot of misdevelopment in his character and where he’s at in his career. With Sammy—every single week—I’m like “What the fuck are you doing??” What justifies Sammy Guevara’s presence onscreen? He’s ostensibly a good heel and gets over for doing high spots in the ring and shit. All I see is some asshole with go away heat every single week. When is the last time Sammy has done a cool bump or like done any of the things that made people give a fuck about Sammy Guevara. He cut a babyface promo the other week! WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE?! Why are we giving these guys mics when they’re not saying anything worth anything?
PS: That’s a great point. MJF of the four is really the only one of the four that ever has anything to say week-to-week.
LP: DARBY ALLIN DOES THE SAME THING!! Every Darby Allin promo is the exact fucking same! “I slept in my car for one night! I LIVED IN A VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER!” Who cares?? He’s only cool when Sting comes out! Otherwise do your fucking bumps and go be a pest for all I care!
PS: There is a lack of dimensions to some of these guys, and I think Jack is the one of the three who has the potential to overcome it. Darby has already shown who he is. I think we’ve seen its ceiling, that’s where I’m at. Here’s my question with Sammy—I’m starting to worry—has he become a victim rather than a beneficiary of his proximity to Chris Jericho…
LP: I think so! They’ve already gone through the cycles of him leaving the Inner Circle and then coming back to the Jericho Appreciation Society. It totally feels like he’s resting on his laurels. He went back to his old character for a cheap pop, but now like, oh—you are saddled to Jericho. He had Cody before, right? Now they don’t have Cody anymore. Sammy needs a Daddy.
PS: Sammy Guevara is not the only AEW wrestler who suffered after Cody left. A couple of “Cody’s wrestlers” lost their shine a bit after they left.
MF: Double or Nothing is really weird, if we’re looking at the card. We’re doing Hardys vs. The Firm. I guess they’re doing it again?
LP: The Firm got deleted!
PS: To your point about wrapping up storylines, Max, it’s funny you say that and then you see some of these storylines that refuse to be wrapped up. I think some of this stuff we’re going to keep seeing more of.
MF: That’s been the problem with AEW for the past year or so. The Jungle Boy/Christian Cage feud would just not end. Now we’re getting yet another iteration on the Ethan Page and Matt Hardy contract feud. It’s still about the contract! Why do we keep having to do contract shit?
PS: Matt Hardy is a very litigious man. He loves signing contracts. He loves making contracts. He’s got Reby at home in a teddy going over contract law. Wolfgang is watching SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK DVDs so they can all learn all the legality.
LP: I did enjoy the Firm Deletion Hardy Compound match enough. It was mostly a rehash of the other Hardy Compound matches, but at least they did one. Whatever.
MF: Fun still! I think the Hardys are gonna win obviously. I guess they’re building them up to their Final For Real This Time run.
PS: Does Jeff Hardy make it out of Las Vegas?
LP: Fingers crossed. Godspeed.
PS: Jeff! Make the town, make the date.
MF: I thought the Firm Deletion was going to be his farewell—it seemed that way at the end, almost. God bless. Hopefully he’ll get in and out of Vegas quickly.
PS: Jeff Hardy is one of those guys who you are going to have to kill in the ring to get him out of it. I think he’ll still be wrestling at 75 with a pacemaker while doing Swanton Bombs.
LP: One thing I’m really excited about on the Double or Nothing card is the 21 person Blackjack Battle Royale for the AEW International Championship featuring Orange Cassidy. I’ve been talking a lot of shit about AEW and their angles out of love, but if I’m going to be completely honest I think Orange has been a shining beacon on the roster and in every match and program he’s been in. He’s been on such a fucking tear, doing the fighting champion weekly TV matches open challenge with the International title. I kind of miss that the belt isn’t being defended internationally as much as was intended, but that’s ultimately what they can focus on when someone takes the belt off Orange.
MF: This is rivaling Cody’s TNT championship run. I think it’s surpassed it.
LP: Definitely rivaling or surpassing it. Orange seems like such a fucking awesome dude and just… this match is going to fuck, I can feel it. I think Orange is going to go the distance. He’s Bugs Bunny man. Twenty other guys is nothing.
PS: He definitely is the IDEAL television champion. He brings television star power and drawing power to the show. There are non-wrestling fans or quote-unquote “casuals” who will tune into the program to watch Orange Cassidy specifically. He has that kind of name recognition and draw power. Even if we have issues with angles and storylines, he is an anchor where we can tune in and say “Well, at least Orange Cassidy’s part was great!”—whatever. To the Battle Royale point, this is something AEW has a pretty good success rate, comparatively. Battle royales are not easy, and battle royales are very rarely good. One Royal Rumble in five is probably, right?
LP: …and AEW’s are consistently fun!
PS: They do five or six a year, and at least half to three quarters are good?
MF: I think we can probably anticipate some surprise faces, some Ring of Honor guys…
PS: I would expect this as a way to re-introduce a lot of the Collision regulars…
LP: Miro, Andrade…
MF: Maybe some NJPW wrestlers too, to set up for FORBIDDEN DOOR 2023!
LP: We’ve got Blackpool Combat Club vs. The Elite in the second Anarchy in the Arena match. I mean, I see the vision… I don’t know how much I’ve cared about the week-to-week build.
PS: Kenny looks incredible
LP: Kenny is getting cool again. I get what they’re doing. They’re going to have a fucking sick match.
MF: Do you think they’re going to capitalize on the magic of playing “Wild Thing” on repeat again?
LP: I don’t think they’re gonna do it.
PS: That’s a Chris Jericho move, not a Jon Moxley move.
LP: Speaking of that, I suppose I must bring up Chris Jericho vs. Adam Cole. Even as a Chris Jericho Enjoyer, even I gotta admit he’s been having a slump of a year so far. I haven’t really loved or been compelled by any program he’s put together this year. And that’s coupled with my absolute and complete ambivalence about Adam Cole. A wrestler I don’t care about in the slightest. Mini Shawn Michaels. I just start short circuiting and go Zzt Zzt Zzt when I start trying to think about that match.
PS: I do think this will be a great vehicle for reintroducing Kyle O’Reilly. That matters to me. As an “unsanctioned match”—when the sanctions go away, the overbooking arrives. An overbooked, unsanctioned Chris Jericho match on a pay-per-view is exactly something I will sit my ass down and pay attention for, regardless of opponents.
MF: Maybe we’ll see The Painmaker! That’s enjoyable!
LP: That’s really the thing—no matter how shitty the angles or booking gets, AEW always manages to pull it out for the PPV and pull off a decent wrestling show every single time. Like, match is gonna fuck—we all know it’s gonna fuck!
PS: The one thing AEW understands about professional wrestling that WWE has seemed to completely forget—it’s telling your stories in the ring, from bell-to-bell. WWE’s storytelling is television as narrative device and then paying it off with a wrestling match, but then the action of the wrestling match sometimes doesn’t actually translate to the storyline being told, Bloodline stuff aside. Either subtly or implicitly, AEW remembers to keep telling the story when the bell rings, or even during the entrance or exit. The narrative continuity matters. Even if every beat doesn’t hit on the way there, you can still come away from it satisfied just like a lot of TV or movies or things you consumed that you may not 100% love or enjoy, but in the end if they told you a satisfying narrative, that’s all that matters.
LP: Exactly. AEW is usually able to condense the narratives into the PPV matches themselves, so even if some people watching don’t even have a prior exposure to the angle or build, they can still suss out the storyline and understand the nuances of the angle itself, and you still get all the blow offs and payoffs for the build in the match as well.
MF: A couple more matches on the Double or Nothing card. We’ve got Wardlow vs. Christian in that ladder match—I mean, Christian is great at ladder matches. It’s gonna be cool.
PS: Violence and sexiness. All handsome. All violent.
MF: Demonic Luchasaurus is cool.
LP: I still hate Luchasaurus. I don’t get it. If he sets up some ladders, who cares? That’s his job. He can do that.
PS: Okay, DOCTOR GRANT.
LP: I’m very excited for another iteration in the coveted Jamie Hayter vs. Toni Storm ASS VS. ASS series.
PS: Hip Attack is still the funniest name for a wrestling move. Part one will be awesome, Part two will also be awesome.
MF: Yeah. Jade vs. Taya II as well.
LP: That’s gonna fuck. Who will get to their finisher first?
PS: I think Taya Valkyrie is a great opponent for Jade right now. Jade continues to learn and download and absorb from all of her opponents in ring. Taya, with her incredible lucha base abilities and… I don’t want to say STRONG style, but strongER style than most AEW talent she’s faced against. That will help Jade get more well rounded. I know people want these great Jade matches, but pay attention these next couple of years—you WILL get those matches. If she continues to get matches like this under her belt, she is going to be exactly what we want her to be. It does require fan patience.
LP: That’s kind of how they’ve treated the entire women’s division at AEW—setting up very green women, and women who maybe weren’t necessarily ready to be featured on TV every week, with more seasoned, veteran opponents who made them better and credible and got everyone over.
PS: Madison Rayne has been incredible for them.
LP: Totally, and maybe a similar thing happened when they hired the NWA women the first time—Deeb and Rosa. Their first year or two at the company, they made the whole women’s division look so much better. They were able to elevate the entire division. Regardless of all the backstage fuckery, it helped the division ultimately, I think.
PS: Wrestling better brings everyone’s game up. I think Serena Deeb is probably one of the most influential and most important linchpins in bringing the quality of the division and women’s wrestling up. Those 6-8 months she was on TV, you could see elevation of the entire division. It’s been there since.
LP: 100%. And Taya was such a great get for them. I think she’s a real good blue chip signing.
PS: Invaluable to have that experience and that style on your roster.
MF: For sure.
LP: And also Ember—or sorry—ATHENA. They are letting her do her thing in Ring of Honor and it’s so sick.
PS: Athena is straight up in Best Wrestler in the World conversations right now. She’s crushing so hard at Ring of Honor, it’s outrageous. She’s on dark matches blowing away some TV matches, and she’s been keeping up that level of quality since they gave her the keys and let her run as champion. She’s been unbelievable.
LP: Let her fly! Very exciting. Two exciting women’s matches that will fuck on the AEW card—you love to see it!
MF: Last one! TNA guys vs. FTR.
PS: I’ll say it—it’s highly unlikely, but I’ll say it. There is a non-zero chance that Jeff Jarrett and Jay Lethal win this match?
LP: I think there is a chance they win this!!
PS: I think it’s probably “too much” to turn Mark Briscoe heel right now, but I can also see a path to it that would be very entertaining. I have my eye on that as something they might do.
LP: I trust Jeff Jarrett! Talk about good AEW signings—Jeff Jarrett is making me like goddamn Jay Lethal!
PS: Okay, slow down, let’s not go too far…
MF: I feel the exact same way! I don’t hate seeing Jay Lethal on my TV anymore because of Jeff Jarrett.
LP: Jeff Jarrett and Orange Cassidy are the most entertaining guys in AEW right now.
PS: Jeff Jarrett is doing incredible work, and I think it’s going to permeate throughout their roster. Similar to Taya Valkyrie, when you have people like Jeff Jarrett to sort of fill these gaps as heels and bring FTR back front and center. Number two—you set an example for young heels on the roster. You see this work a guy in his mid-50s is doing—you show people what you have to do to be a great heel is connect with an audience, and do it in a different way.
WWE NIGHT OF CHAMPIONS 2023
PS: I’d like to apologize to the Kingdom of Riyadh and the glorious nation of Saudi Arabia for not taking enough time to discuss his event. If you want me to say any other nice things about your great country, please follow the links in my bio and send me money.
LP: Same, please hire us to blog or podcast about wrestling for your great nation. Inshallah. Hey—Seth Freakin’ Rollins vs. AJ Styles for the NEW WWE World Heavyweight Championship!
MF: THE FREAK MAN!
LP: THE ACES OF THE WWE!
PS: I don’t see Cody Rhodes in this match, Luke…was there a typo? Is there a mistake?
LP: WHAT’S GOING ON?? Seth FREAKIN’ Rollins?? C’mon!!
PS: This is the thing—this is the marquee of WWE cutting off their nose to spite their face, and they just cannot stop doing it. Their story was built in, it was right there in front of them. They blew it once, and we already gave them a do-over a night later. All was forgiven when they introduced the second belt, and everyone said “Okay, fine. It’s not what we wanted, but I guess we’ll let you give Cody that belt and we’ll do our consolation cheer at Summerslam,” but NO. We can’t even be given that much because Vince McMahon hates you and everything you ever loved and stood for. Vince is standing behind Gorilla going “HA HA HA—I GOT THOSE BASTARDS AGAIN!”
LP: “THOSE FUCKING MARKS! THOSE STUPID FUCKING MARKS! THAT’S GOOD SHIT”
PS: He’s got the cool mustache in a Sheik hat.
LP: He looks like Brak’s dad! Anyway, I fully expect Seth to win this match. It will be perfectly cromulent for the WWE piggies. There’s gonna be a lot of top rope spots and shit. Superman punches and Phenomenal Forearms and shit.
PS: AJ Styles vs. Jungle Boy in AEW in 2025 is gonna be so sick.
MF: AJ Styles vs. Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk for the Ring of Honor Championship.
LP: Cody vs. Brock II … obviously, give it to me. Both those crazy bastards. Let’s see the American Nightmare in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
PS: Overbook me, daddy. I’ve fully settled into who Cody Rhodes is and what Cody Rhodes is going to get in WWE. It’s not what I wanted, and I have to accept it’s never going to be.
LP: Hey, maybe he’ll win Money in the Bank!
MF: Kevin Owens and Sami Zyn vs. Roman and Solo Sikoa for the tag belts… what I really wanna see out of this is a definitive loss for Roman.
LP: I want Roman to have five belts. I acknowledge my Tribal Chief!! Roman is going to look so sick in Saudi with five belts draped around him.
PS: It is pretty awesome.
LP: I love Sami and KO, and I’m happy for Sami and KO, but they got the Mania win already.
MF: Let me have some hope that Sami will get that win over Roman and defend the belts. It’s the reigns the WWE Universe wants—I know it’s not going to be what we’re going to get, but I wanna hope they at least just keep a good thing going just this once.
PS: Max you made one critical mistake and that’s having hope.
LP: Walter vs. Mustafa Ali is going to fuck.
PS: I like that Mustafa Ali fought the power for as long as he did just so they could do a syllabic change to his name.
MF: “Say my name right, please.”
PS: He seems to have done the whole Fight the Power thing only to come back and be doing the exact same shit. He’s going to get his ass whopped by Gunther in about 6 ½ minutes in Saudi Arabia—I hope that was worth it! He could’ve been back in Freelance in Irving Square right now with Kylie Rae or whatever, but have fun with Gunther in Saudi Araba, bud.
LP: Unfortunately, Asuka and Bianca Belair will be wrestling in jumpsuits.
PS: Like MC Hammer.
MF: They should do the Missy Elliott jumpsuits!
LP: What a great match that Saudi Arabia doesn’t deserve!
PS: Watch Asuka’s YouTube channel instead.
LP: Fuck! Trish Stratus vs. Becky Lynch in jumpsuits as well! Fully clothed.
MF: Honestly kind of funny to make Trish Stratus wrestle in Saudi Arabia of all places.
PS: This weekend is another microcosm of the two directions that both fan and popular perception is leading in terms of these companies. Regardless of what you think about the storylines or what your taste is, they’re having an incredible moment in their business. They just got a brand new TV deal and show, they just sold $60,000 tickets in an arena in a country they’ve never been to before. They’re launching a tour in Canada on the heels of a sell-out co-promoted show. They are growing. They are making moves into the industry faster and against the odds of a lot of people’s expectations, and that trend is continuing. Whether storytelling is up or down, they continue to make an incredible splash in the business of wrestling and are planting their flag—I think they’re here to stay.
LP: I think they’re about to get BETTER. I think with the return of Punk…
PS: We haven’t even talked AT ALL about Punk. I think we can say with confidence… He’s coming back.
MF: He’s coming back.
LP: He is coming back. Once he does come back, and once Collision starts up—we are going to have a very HEALTHY wrestling environment going on. Hopefully it’ll be another boom period.
PS: Hopefully ratings will spike. Wrestling is just more fun with more people watching it. If there’s one thing CM Punk can do, it’s get people talking about wrestling. This is what he does and what he brings to wrestling and AEW.
MF: He’s actually just gaslighting everybody, though.
PS: You’re right, he and Tony Khan have actually hired a legion of Russian bots to flood the IWC with pro-Punk sentiment.
MF: To reiterate for final thoughts, as I said before, we’re going into a new ‘season’ of AEW as it were. It’s so crazy to see the old clips of Daly’s Place and how small the pandemic crowds were for AEW, and then fast-forward to now and all the success they’ve had. It’s exciting! With WWE, it’s just to be expected. They’re disappointing like they always disappoint.
LP: Inshallah, CM Punk is coming back to wrestling. Inshallah!
MF: Ace Steel is coming back too!
PS: Ace never left—he sunk his teeth into all of our souls.
LP: Well, I’m excited for both pay-per-views—obviously one more than the other. I’ll have you guess which one!! In any case, it sure is a great time to get into pro wrestling!