EDITOR’S NOTE: This report may contain spoilers for upcoming AEW shows.
PITTSBURGH — AEW Ring Announcer Dasha Gonzalez introduced promotion owner Tony Khan as “The Man Who Saved Wrestling” prior to the launch of “Rampage” Friday Night at the Peterson Event Center on the University of Pittsburgh campus. And the organization’s top brass received a thunderous, appreciative response from the near-capacity crowd. The crowd in Pittsburgh wanted to enjoy a night of wrestling action and the break-neck pace of AEW’s three-hour exhibition was simply a pre-cursor to the admittedly hometown-“Brittburgh” flavored main event.
Bell time was to start at 8 p.m., but believe it or not, 2.0 (Shane Matthews and Scott Parker) took on a couple of guys no one was able to identify starting at 7:56, and ending three minutes later. The night was off to an unbelievable start, and the crowd of about 12,000 was dressed almost entirely of black or gray t-shirts. There weren’t as many replica championship belts as a WWE event at PPG Paints, but at least one custom kid’s belt was spotted.
Matt Hardy received an incredible welcome from the masses, who clearly have followed him throughout his entire career. The “Best Friends” of Wheeler Yuta and Chuck, had a great pop, very similar to the one they received when AEW made its October, 2019 debut in Pittsburgh. Yuta took on Hardy in singles competition and Steel City fans chanted for babyface and heel equally. Both receptions paled in comparison to the explosive greeting Orange Cassidy earned when he walked out to save the Best Friends during a beat down. His “Orange Punch,” which floored Hardy, is objectively far more effective than the Roman Reigns “Superman Punch” which is anything but. Hardy powdered, no one fears the Reigns slap.
The Dark Order match included some Pittsburgh independent talent on the other side of the ring. Andrew Palace from Pittsburgh and Johnstown’s Bill Collier have wrestled in various promotions for several years, and the crowd in attendance were familiar with both men. Palace had a rooting section. AEW fans were way into John Silver, who seemingly was on the verge of a single’s push before injury kicked him sideways.
Someone in the crowd noted that while AEW was zipping through several matches in 4-5 minute spans of time, the televised competition broadcasted an elongated discussion between their champion and a former 16-time titleholder.
Now was the time for Gonzalez’s “Man Who Saved Wrestling caveat and the fans erupted. “Tony” chants flooded the airspace as the owner introduced Thunder Rosa as the Special Guest Commentator for the next “Dark” matches. The former NWA Women’s Champion, who has inked an All-Elite contract but has vanished from both AEW and NWA title contention, joined Excalibur and Taz for commentary.
Ref Aubrey Edwards made her first appearance and the crowd blew up once she appeared. She enjoyed the acknowledgement, but soon started to tamp down the attention. It should be noted here that both Aubrey and Gonzalez enjoyed the crowd and made an attempt to personalize the experience. They simply reacted and had a good time.
Arn Anderson lead his son Brock and Lee Johnson to the ring for a tag team match that included another Pittsburgh-area talent in Spencer Slade. Slade, like Collier and Palace, look good against their foes. Brock Anderson got a small hot-tag pop before getting the win. After the match, Arn Anderson played up to the crowd, who never forgot that he is one of the Four Horsemen.
Gonzalez started a quick countdown to pump the crowd up before each of the introductions, which is something unusual. Next up was Penelope Ford vs. Russian Masha Slamovich. After Ford wins, she starts to take liberties with her fallen foe. That forces a heroic, bare-footed (she must have rushed out of her footwear at the broadcast table) Thunder Rosa to interfere. Thunder Rosa chases off Ford, possibly setting up a storyline for both women.
Ricky Starks is announced as a new color commentator and he joins Excalibur and Taz. They settle in just before the lid bubbles on the event center for Tay Conti. Once the dancing blonde in introduced, the collective mood is electrified. She is to take on Rebecca Scott. Like most of the other matches, this contest is over in four minutes and Conti is wildly over. Wildly.
The Chaos Project with Luther is up next and the biggest pop of the night is for their opponents, Death Triangle. The crowd is especially into Ray Fenix and to a lesser extent, Pac. Andrade El Idolo, Chavo Guerrero Jr. (and another gentleman who I have never once seen identified or referred to) interrupt on camera for approximately one minute before inexplicably disappearing from the scene. The appearance only surprised the babyface competitors and the cameo did absolutely nothing to make an impression on the match or outcome.
Vickie Guerrero accompanies Nyla Rose, who squashes Tina San Antonio is one minute. Guerrero takes the house microphone and scores “nuclear” heat points for screaming into the microphone about how Rose is going to defeat the AEW Women’s Champion, no matter who it is.
Kris Statlander takes on Kiera Hogan. Statlander worked on the Independent scene—like Nyla Rose—in West Central Pennsylvania (Altoona and Johnstown) so many of the fans in attendance have known them for a long time. Statlander is impressive in victory.
The Brandon Cutler and Frankie Kazarian has the most comedy of the night, with Michael Nakazawa getting launched into the crowd at some point. The fans even cheered for Cutler’s zaniness.
One of the wildest, most impressive crowd reactions of the night was for Jurassic Express. With Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy” blaring over the public address speakers, the crowd stood on their feet, waved their arms and sang along. At one point Jungle Boy Jack Perry just looked around in amazement. They teamed with the Varsity Blonds to face off against the Wing Men. Brian Pillman Jr., who wrestled locally right before joining AEW, received a nice pop, but the fans wanted to see Luchasaurus in the ring. When he did enter eight minutes into the night’s first longer match, the fans approved.
Another, probably unexpected, portion of the night happened when Dante Martin, who took a star-turn Wednesday night on Dynamite, wrestled Pittsburgh star Lee Moriarty. In fact, when Moriarty approached the ring, there was an audible gasp. The bell rang and fans chanted more loudly for Lee. Dante Martin recognized the moment and shook Moriarty’s hand. That good-will gesture went over well. “Let’s Go Lee” chants only got louder. Martin pinned his opponent, and Moriarty rushed back, allowing Dante to shine.
Before Rampage began, Tony Khan re-emerged to introduce Eddie Kingston. Kingston put over the Rampage card and other bided time during a late intermission. Rampage announcers Mark Henry and Chris Jericho came out to join Taz and Excalibur. Pittsburgh has always been a Chris Jericho town and some observers wondered if there have been any bigger crowds that those this week for Fozzy’s “Judas” intro song. Pittsburghers sang the lyrics full-throated.
Rampage’s first-ever match, Season One, Episode One, featured Christian Cage challenging Kenny Omega for the Impact Wrestling Heavyweight Championship. The match, introduced by Gonzalez, had a wonderful, “big match” feel. Both Cage and Omega performed well, and perfectly played the crowd. When the challenger upset the champion, the house exploded. Jurassic Express raced to the ring to celebrate with the new titleholder, and Impact’s Scott D’Amore appeared to extend his approval.
Fuego Del Sol challenged the former Bulgarian Brute, now “God’s Favorite Champion” Miro for the TNT title. The much larger and stronger Miro successfully fought off Fuego’s early offense and finished him off in three minutes. The crowd didn’t boo or cheer Miro, but the mixture of both was loud. Louder yet was Sammy Guevara’s emergence to give an AEW contract to “my best friend” Fuego Del Sol.
The still-pumped crowd was indeed ready for the main event between Punxsutawney-born, Pittsburgh-schooled Britt Baker and “Straight From Your Mama’s Kitchen” Red Velvet. Nearly two years ago a fan-favorite Baker walked to the ring with Steelers mascot “Steely McBeam.” Here, she was flooded with fire and fireworks. Interestingly, the Pittsburgh crowd refused to boo the heel Baker, and instead hissed toward babyface Red Velvet. Here, the two slightly reversed roles. Baker remained sassy, but didn’t alienate. Meanwhile, Red Velvet took short-cuts and was more aggressive. When Baker’s handler Rebel, Not Reba, choked Red Velvet with a Terrible Towel, fans cheered. That’s not permitted in Pittsburgh legend. The same fans cheered moments later when Rebel jammed her bejeweled crutch into Red Velvet’s throat. The match was based in ground-game and Baker retained. Following the verdict, Baker and Rebel attacked Red Velvet, spurring Kris Statlander to make a short-lived rescue. She was beat by Rebel and a mysterious newcomer that left 12,500 fans in utter silence. Ninety percent of fans had no idea who the interloper was, while 10 assuredly thought the look-alike was the missing Becky Lynch. Instead, Baker took a house mic and explained that English brawler Jamie Hayter was her new muscle. Baker returned to classic heel form and left.
Tony Khan returned one last time, perhaps emotional, in thanking the Wednesday and Friday crowds. He said he can’t wait to return and exit music played.
This was the anti-WWE with perpetual excitement, nearly no talking, fast-paced matches and no frequent, drawn-out commercial breaks.
TOP PHOTO: Tony Khan and Sammy Guevara arrive during the debut of AEW Rampage. Photo by Joe Hrycych, www.hrycychphotography.com