After spiraling for months now, one of wrestling’s most popular factions could finally self-destruct in spectacular fashion at All Elite Wrestling’s All Out this Saturday. But in order to understand why that matters, first we have to talk about how it all started.
In 2016 the tag team of brothers Matt and Nick Jackson, aka the Young Bucks, formed The Elite together with men’s singles star, bisexual wrestling terminator, and best bout machine Kenny Omega “The Cleaner.” They became a trio who stood atop of The Bullet Club, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s villainous faction of foreigner heels.
With Kenny leading and The Bucks as his right-hand men, The Elite blazed a trail through NJPW with Bullet Club in tow. Kenny lived his gimmick of The Cleaner, the ruthless and cold hearted leader of the Bullet Club who prioritized winning above everything and through him, Bullet Club reached both its greatest heights before dovetailing into its lowest lows. The Cleaner’s path as relentless executioner was met with the unwavering devotion and love shown by his estranged tag team partner, Kota Ibushi. So, consumed by guilt, Kenny Omega sacrificed Bullet Club on a pyre. He shed his ambition and cutthroat will to win, and traded it in for a chance at redemption.
(Kenny vibing with his boyfriend Kota Ibushi)
The Bucks, feeling slighted at first, rejected Kenny’s new-found clarity. Their dissension was stoked by Cody Rhodes, a driven businessman with an eye on Bullet Club’s throne, and his own right hand, Hangman Adam Page, a lawless cowboy. These Bullet Club members viewed Kenny’s change of heart as bad for business. Thankfully, the friendship between The Elite couldn’t be broken so easily by meddling forces, and The Bucks rejoined Kenny in his biggest moment of triumph; embracing as he finally stood atop the mountain of NJPW as its IWGP Heavyweight champion. They had all been cleansed of their sins—at least for one moment.
(BFE. Big Friend Energy)
In 2020, things are different, but as the world is so rudely reminding us: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Brought together by the formation of then-new US-based promotion All Elite Wrestling, The Elite along with Cody Rhodes and Hangman Adam Page had seemingly reconciled from previous disagreements. Their fellowship from NJPW metamorphosed into the early cornerstone of the fledgling company. Ironic then, that they are on the precipice of crumbling all together.
Kenny Omega has been on the straight and narrow since 2018. After reuniting with Kota Ibushi, a switch had seemingly been flipped. Kenny ditched his callous demeanor and embraced softheartedness. The Bucks, after initial resistance, followed his lead. Cody, the most ruthless of the bunch, even seemed to see the light. And Hangman, who was always just looking for a place to fit in, joined along as well. They have been the quintessential good guys since AEW’s inception—pitted against aging rockstar Chris Jericho’s evil Inner Circle faction. Unfortunately, some wounds just don’t heal so easily.
Last Labor Day weekend at the inaugural All Out, Hangman faced Chris Jericho for the right to be called AEW’s first world champion. The week before, Adam had asked The Bucks to “second” for him, to accompany him to the ring for moral support, on the biggest night of his wrestling life. They declined, placing their faith in him, and telling him that due to commitments on the same night, they wouldn’t be able to. Shaken, but not deterred, he barreled into the match and… lost.
(Depressed bolo tie hours)
Hangman lost his confidence that night. Not only in himself, but in his friends. The weeks and months that followed were not kind to the cowboy. Burnt to his very core, he let his growing anxiety, obvious imposter syndrome, and depression fuel him. It became increasingly clear that Adam felt like he never belonged in The Elite.
In November of 2019, he told Matt and Nick exactly this. They didn’t hear him. Guided by pride, ego, and their own inability to listen to their friend, The Bucks’ stated confidence in Adam became sneering. Adam wanted space, but The Bucks wouldn’t give it. He symbolically left The Elite, but he was still glued in place, stuck together by shared history and a vague idea of what that group was supposed to stand for.
Enter an equally-lost Kenny Omega. Kenny had been having his own issues. Leaving Japan had meant leaving his beloved Kota, who had a genuine shot at becoming NJPW’s next star champion. So half of Kenny’s heart stayed in Japan. In the beginning months of AEW, it was clear Kenny didn’t know how to move forward outside of his Tokyo Dome bubble.
With no partner to protect him, the hunter became the hunted. A snarling avatar of violence with a chip on his shoulder named Jon Moxley set his sights on Kenny, determined to make an example out of the so-called best wrestler in the world. After months of menacing him, he drug Kenny through a bloody deathmatch, forcing him to once again flirt with his previous persona of The Cleaner just to survive. It was a failed effort almost before it began.
(hey fellas is it gay if…)
The next month would see Adam Page and Kenny Omega’s cross paths. Although they were theoretically brothers in arms, Kenny and Adam had never had a true relationship.. At worst, Kenny had been Adam’s overbearing and oftentimes-unhinged boss. At best, they were work acquaintances with mutual friends. The Bucks provided the two men a bridge, and they were thrust together as an unlikely tag team. Kenny who couldn’t commit his full heart to anything, and Adam who was looking for a place to fit in… just clicked in the ring. Adam was still spiraling, but Kenny was winning again. Adam used his new partnership and success against The Bucks, letting his bravado and anxiety push him towards a more antagonistic relationship with his erstwhile friends.
When Hangman and Kenny won the tag team championships—titles that had eluded The Bucks despite widely being considered one of today’s best tag teams—that was the final straw. The Bucks became outright hostile, falling into old patterns as the drive to win no matter what took over them. Their ire remained strangely focused on Hangman, Kenny left as the go-between to placate all sides.
They finally collided one frigid February night in Chicago. The match was the paragon of tag team wrestling, but it was UGLY. Fueled by anger, loss, regret and guilt, the 4 men fought as if they had never been friends at all. Old wounds and scars left by the Bullet Club civil war years ago opened back up, easily.
In the end Adam and Kenny were triumphant, and after coming back to their senses, The Bucks seemed willing to patch things up as well. Kenny’s usually good nature pushed him toward reconcile, but Adam stayed aloof—even giving a small tease of what insidious emotions like jealousy could lead to if left unchecked. He sauntered up the ramp: beer in hand, Kenny at his side, arm wrapped around the other man protectively. He’d carved out a notch for himself. Proved to himself, Kenny, Matt and Nick that he could hang with them at the top.
In the subsequent 6 months, I regret to inform you that nothing has gotten better. After a brief-yet-heartfelt reunion to defeat the Inner Circle for the soul of AEW, things between The Elite seem worse than they have ever been. The arrival of FTR, The Elite’s oldest, handsomest, and maybe most-personal rivals, poured gasoline on a fire that was still smouldering. Devoted to winning and showing their dominance, FTR set their sights on the most fractured member of The Elite, winning Adam over with easy friendship and booze to further drive a wedge between the cowboy and the avowed sober Bucks.
With Adam’s eyes elsewhere, Kenny’s underlying abandonment issues flared up again. In the weeks preceding this write up, he’s grown increasingly unhinged. Kenny is slipping back to old, familiar territory as the darkness of isolation and fear of being left behind takes hold. The Bucks know the old Kenny well, and thankfully have intervened at crucial points to make sure Kenny doesn’t fall too far over the edge. They have been taking care of this man for years; they sense a chill in the air.
(florida man slips slowly closer to a mental break)
With the rest of the Elite’s attention on maintaining their oldest friend’s stability, Adam’s betrayal was impossible to see coming. A gauntlet match of AEW tag teams would determine who would get a chance at Adam and Kenny’s tag team title. Manipulated and gaslit by FTR’s professional handsome men Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler, Adam blatantly stopped Nick Jackson from hitting the finisher, keeping the Young Bucks from both victory and a title shot. A guilt-ridden Hangman shuffled away slowly in the aftermath—leaving his friends baffled and angry.
Later that night they confronted him in the bar. Without words to defend himself, he let the brothers tear into him. They screamed that he’d “always been good enough,” that “all [they] had wanted was a friend” and for months they’d been clinging onto a friendship that wasn’t there anymore. They announced they were done pretending, and formally threw him out of The Elite before slamming the door behind them. Adam stood in silence, looking at his cracked reflection in the broken glass left in their wake.
(sad cowboy emoji)
Kenny Omega was absent for the fallout, but addressed it a week later in his first solo in-ring interview since joining AEW. He explained that he understood that people make mistakes and that when you do, you must live with the consequences. He’d been on to FTR the whole time and spoke his peace, only to be interrupted by first them and then Adam. The cowboy was full of sadness and anger, but there would be no reconciliation between tag team partners this time. The damage had been done. There was no taking it back.
(oh no. adam’s got his anxiety on. he can’t hear you)
All of that leaves us in a rather interesting predicament. The righteously angry Bucks seem hell-bent on winning their match this Saturday, a loss could truly push them over the edge. Kenny and Adam’s relationship seems tenuous as ever and FTR understands just how to exploit it. Will Kenny turn back into The Cleaner without the Bucks there as his keepers? We will have to wait for most of these answers, but we seem destined to get back to where it all started: the terrifying trio known as The Elite, the menace of NJPW, finally wreaking havoc on the AEW roster. Cody, the last bastion of hope, absent.
Listeners, this is our main event of the evening! The following contest is a triple threat bonus episode set for one match. In this corner are our challengers, hailing from WMQ Comics (@wmqcomics), weighing in at a combined total of 9,626 tweets, the dynamic duo of Dan Grote (@danielpgrote) and Matttt Laz (@mattlaz1013)! Next up is the reigning champion. They are the Death Rider, the Editor-in-Chief, the Shatterstarologist, Charlieeeee DAAAAvis (@geneticghost)! Time to discuss what makes wrestling entertaining, AEW’s Inner Circle and The Elite groups, and the Double or Nothing Stadium Stampede.
Before they were best friends, they were the bitterest of rivals. A legit boss and a girl with a dream. Together, they make history.
Charlie Davis (@geneticghost) and Mikey Zee (@quantumdotdot) chronicle the 2015 two-part saga of Bayley and Sasha Banks dueling for the NXT Women’s Championship. We also answer some listener questions!
Once upon a time there was a wrestling brotherhood called The Shield. Then greed in the form of Seth Rollins and the Authority shattered it.
Charlie Davis (@geneticghost) and Mikey Zee (@quantumdotdot) chronicle the 2014 feud between Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, answering questions like: Who is the Shield? What is a lumberjack match? And how did the 2014 Hell in a Cell rate as the feud-culminating match?
It was stated by Dean Ambrose in the address delivered on the Monday Night Raw episode immediately after the Shield split, “We will go down in history books as one of the greatest groups in sports entertainment ever.” And they have. Undoubtedly on paper, match by match, the Shield dominated in a way that few stables have. It was full of talented performers who grasped every element of professional wrestling.
But in the split the art of storytelling in professional wrestling was elevated, redefined.
On June 1st, 2014 The Shield defeated Evolution in yet another breathtaking match. The feud between The Shield and Evolution had reached a fever pitch over the last year. The Shield was also contending with The Wyatt family during this time, wreaking havoc on their brotherhood and sanity, leading to bickering, occasional aggression, and a few suspicious disappearances of Dean Ambrose. But that night Bray Wyatt had other things to contend with and the Shield closed out the show with an awe inspiring unified front. It seemed any wounds had been healed. The Shield was united and ready to dominate.
On the following Raw, however, Seth Rollins would betray them. While Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose took the occasional swing at one another and Ambrose was groomed by Wyatt, Seth Rollins had been spending time with Triple H. He had been groomed to be Triple H’s “Plan B” if Evolution still couldn’t topple them.
One week later, Ambrose and Reigns would address Rollins’ betrayal and the remaining brothers would set out on different paths of retaliation and retribution.
Reigns pointed himself towards Triple H and Randy Orton, the men responsible for breaking Rollins and so breaking the Shield.
But for Ambrose, there was only one move: to pursue Seth Rollins.
“We want you to stand out here in the middle of this ring in front of the whole world and we want them to hear Triple H’s words coming out of your mouth. We’re going to listen to every word of it, and then we’re going to beat the hell out of you.”
– Dean Ambrose, June 2, 2014
Later that night, Rollins was interviewed by Michael Cole, and claimed the glory entirely for himself. He had created the Shield. Ambrose was all heart, a grunt. Reigns was motivated by rage and rule. They would be nothing without Seth. When Cole responded with, “The Shield was about three individuals who came together, not just about one man,” Seth faced the crowd sternly and lied, “They were just business partners.”
Ambrose was everywhere. In matches against Rollins, he was hard hitting, emotional, constantly dragging Rollins back to the center of the ring to face what he’d done. He wanted Rollins to pay, but still spoke of the situation as thing done to Rollins too.
“You know what was a bad decision by Triple H? Getting on my bad side and making an enemy for life. [….] Your life changes when I am your enemy and it’s just going to get worse.
– Dean Ambrose, Monday Night Raw Fallout interview after hearing word Rollins demanded he be put in the Money in the Bank match. June 23, 2014.
At Money in the Bank, Ambrose’s opening promo made it clear that he would play the game- seek honor, glory, a title- but it was only to get to Rollins and to hurt him. Rollins won, with interference from Kane, but the next night he cuts Rollins victory over RVD short with a Titantron cut in, “From one scumbag to another, you don’t really think this is over do ya?”
Addressing the WWE Universe, facing the likes of John Cena, being interviewed, it didn’t matter. Rollins could not escape Ambrose. Rollins could not escape what he had done and who he used to be. Rollins’ Money in the Bank win only gave Ambrose more reason to pursue him. Not just to punish him, but to become a barrier to further success, less of the Shield Seth he knew.
“Ambrose, Ambrose, Ambrose. You’re so talented but you just can’t seem to figure it out. Without me you are nothing. Without me you are just some babbling, out of control lunatic destined for an insane asylum. And I’ll give you this. You got guts. But clearly, after Monday, you’ve got more guts than brains.”
– Seth Rollins, interrupting Dean Ambrose on Monday Night Raw, July 18, 2014
Reigns’ stepped in as he could when two, three, or even four men came after Ambrose at once, but Ambrose didn’t ask for assistance. The point was never to win. The concern was never his own safety. At Battleground, Ambrose attacked Rollins before the match, was ejected from the building, and still returned to take on Rollins once again even after the match was declared a win by forfeit.
August saw a Beat The Clock challenge as a means to keep the two separate and for the winner to be allowed to name the stipulation for one final match. Ambrose distracts Rollins to make sure it’s his choice.
Summerslam. Lumberjack. Rollins can’t run. In theory.
This match made the emotional pursuit of it physical. They fight all across the arena, but it’s in the ring where they shine. After chasing one another, being chased by the lumberjacks, beaten by any number of men, they make it back to the center. Even commentary notes at how dizzying it is to watch two men who know each other so well hit and reverse, hit and reverse. It’s less a fight and more a dance.
It’s a peak theatrical performance as well. Even when they aren’t touching one another, they don’t drop character. Their exhaustion and the high stakes and their heavy breathing make it that much harder to keep up machismo and so they’re both incredibly vulnerable and expressive.
Regardless of the men ringside who had good reason to pummel the former Shield or lackeys or Big Red Machines that were sent to spare Rollins, Ambrose is relentless.
Because of the interference from Kane, Ambrose and Rollins are given another match up with a fan voted stipulation. The following Falls Count Anywhere match functioned as a midseason finale for an intoxicating and almost flirtatious feud. All this time Ambrose has been performing an exorcism. If he can hit Rollins hard enough, trap him in the ring, on the ramp, backstage, in catering… if he has the ability to catch him anywhere, stop him from running, stop him from getting surrounded by Triple H or Kane, he could save his soul. Rollins betrayed the Shield, but he didn’t go on his own. He was lured by a predator.
Rollins has been on the run, being caught up again because Ambrose’s chivalry feels inevitable, or because he wants to get it over with. Until this match, the it he wants over with is a little unclear. Rollins wants to rewrite history. To deny the Shield as a brotherhood or a code of honor. He wants to dispense with his moral compass and leave no witnesses. Ambrose is living, breathing proof of all of it.
And without the Shield, without titles, without a fair fight, Ambrose continues to carry all of that. He won’t stop. He’s got nothing to lose.
Ringside, Kane’s face is one of horror as he slowly realizes that Ambrose will not balk.
And it is this, an outside source, realizing what Dean Ambrose IS and how impossible it is to stop him or for Seth Rollins to leave him, that takes this feud from fun to fatal.
Kane reveals a stack of cement blocks and slams Ambrose into them. Rollins tells Kane to handle it but Kane demands that he be the one to do it. He hesitates. He waits.
Kane keeps his eyes on him.
Rollins stomps Ambrose. He stands victorious but unable to look at Ambrose. Unable to really look anywhere.
On commentary, Cole says, “we’ve gotta get these two lunatics out of here,” but Dean Ambrose isn’t one of those lunatics. Seth Rollins, Kane and by extension the Authority… those are mad men among them.
Rollins follows this by staging a Eulogy for Dean Ambrose.
“Pain was never a factor for Dean. Fear was never a factor for Dean Ambrose. Dean Ambrose was a courageous fighter but last week I had to prove at his expense again that the Authority always wins. And now, with a heavy heart, I’d like to take a look back at the match that you, that you the WWE Universe chose, as the demise of Dean Ambrose.”
– Seth Rollins, Monday Night Raw Eulogy of Dean Ambrose, August 25, 2014
It is unequivocally performative but Rollins can’t manage to brag. His cackle is at its most dramatic. Rollins switches into his Future persona to the point of shaking a little, Kane still there, the watchful eye of the Authority. Even the celebration turns to a speech about “what ifs”.
And just as it hits the tipping point, Roman Reigns shows up, momentarily leaving his pursuit of the biggest predators to put Seth Rollins in his place. Reaffirming Dean Ambrose’s position as the heart of the Shield and of professional wrestling.
Seth Rollins cannot escape him.
At Night of Champions, Ambrose returns from the grave via a taxi to answer Seth Rollins’ open challenge after Reigns is not medically cleared. This time the Authority enlist the help of an entire security detail and J & J and still… Ambrose won’t be stopped.
Without Kane to guide his hand, Rollins runs.
At Hell in a Cell, Ambrose finally gets what he wants. Rollins in a cage. Ambrose is at his most unhinged, climbing the cage, weilding a kendo stick, his energy electric for the audience in attendance and the audience at home.
Rollins is flanked by J & J security. He doesn’t believe in himself. He fears Ambrose or at least what Ambrose represents. The Authority won’t let him enter his battles on his own any longer.
During the match both men are nearly taken away on stretchers, but Ambrose fights his way out and pulls Rollins back into the hell of his own making.
Every spot is a thing of beauty in the technical and psychological sense. But perhaps most symbolic is Ambrose covering the ring in steel chairs, just like the one Rollins wielded to end their brotherhood.
“Now you pay for it, Seth. Now you pay for it. You stabbed me in the back, you son of a bitch.”
– Dean Ambrose, Hell in a Cell, October 2014
Rollins later takes the steel chairs to Ambrose. Again. This time it is not calculated. It is not stealth, not a choice for security or his future. It is harder, he takes more shots, he grunts and screams, like maybe he’s mad he didn’t do this to begin with. End Dean Ambrose the day he ended the Shield.
Ambrose digs cinder blocks from under the ring when he finds his feet again.
Ambrose places Rollins’ face onto the blocks almost lovingly, strokes his hair, mumbles something along the lines of I didn’t want this.
He backs up, ready to run into the curb stomp that Rollins nearly ended him with.
In the end it took a ghost following Dean Ambrose for Seth Rollins to escape the ghost of Dean. Bray Wyatt appears as a vision made flesh and takes Ambrose out. Rollins grabs the pin and runs as the man who tried to take Ambrose from the Shield mere weeks before Rollins is taken by Triple H, stands over the so called Lunatic.
The yin and yang of Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins is apparent from the jump. Ambrose is stable on the inside but not the outside, Rollins is a performance piece in the vice versa. In retrospect, it was apparent in the Shield, even before the chair shot heard round the WWE Universe. The unspooling of it in the fallout has given us perhaps the best feud in pro wrestling. In mere months these two performers gave emotion in and out of the ring and connected with fans in ways that take some years.
Mira Adama has been ringside since the womb. She is passionate about fake fighting and its potential for representation and catharsis in wrestling, television, and film. She is the host of Be Seeing You: A John Wick podcast and can be found on Twitter, @LostWolfling.