LEXINGTON, KY – Show of hands: who would believe me if I told you AEW would deliver one of the most emotional, memorable shows in its brief history with no Bucks, no Moxley, and no Kenny Omega?
Hands down, Cult of Cornette fans, I see you.
I’m talking to the die hards, to the people who spent part of their week shaping poster board into scissors, to the ones who knew every “extra” that stepped into the ring by name and reputation, to the ones who never miss a minute of Dynamite, Rampage, Dark, or Elevation.
Truth be told, the January 25, 2023, edition of AEW in Lexington, Kentucky, delivered exactly that: a night filled with action, drama, laughter, and tears.
Oh brother, were there tears.
This was an evening a week overdue and yet perfect in its timing. On what would have been Jamin Pugh’s 39th birthday, AEW paid tribute to the man known to wrestling fans as Jay Briscoe with a tear-filled main event featuring long time Briscoe rival Jay Lethal and the brother left to carry the legacy of Dem Boys, Mark Briscoe.
The fans in Rupp Arena had already been moved to tears twice by a video package paying tribute to the wrestler, husband, and father lost in a tragic car accident last week. When Jay Lethal made his entrance for the main event of Dynamite, he was choking back tears all the way to the ring and even into the first minutes of the match.
Mark Briscoe entered to the loudest ovation of the night, but it wasn’t Mark the fans were cheering. This moment, standing on the turnbuckle and lifting both Ring of Honor tag belts over his head, was all about Jay.
As soon as the bell rang, fans started a “Thank you Tony!” chant, acknowledging Tony Khan for setting up the tribute match. Lethal and Briscoe quickly went to work, taking fans on an emotional roller coaster filled with hard hits, a broken table, close calls, and false finishes. I know it’s a cliché, but in this case, the two competitors literally left it all in the ring. When all was said and done, Dem Boys came out the victor, and the tears of sorrow and joy flowed freely.
The stage quickly filled as men and women from backstage emerged to join the standing ovation. Fans got their only look at Matt and Nick Jackson of the night in that moment when they and other AEW and ROH stars greeted Lethal and Briscoe. It was clear in that moment a decision was made to step back and put the spotlight where it belonged. Samoa Joe, Adam Cole, Dalton Castle, and many more shared tearful hugs with Lethal and Briscoe. You could sense this moment was as much for them as it was for the fans, an opportunity to come together, to mourn, and to celebrate the life of a dear friend and brother lost.
Briscoe versus Lethal put an emotional cap on the live broadcast, but it was hardly the only memorable moment of the night. This was AEW’s first foray into the Bluegrass State, and the fans were definitely ready for it.
The upper deck of Rupp Arena was closed off, but from where I sat, the lower bowl was about 95% full by the start of Dynamite. The crowd was lit from the very start, when Kentucky sweetheart Billie Starkz made her second appearance before an AEW crowd wrestling Red Velvet, and it didn’t let up until the very end, even after the cameras shut off.
I won’t get into spoiling matches for AEW Dark, but suffice to say I was happy to see a few familiar faces during that opening hour. In addition to Billie Starkz, OVW fan favorites The Outrunners, Turbo Floyd and Truth Magnum, made an appearance. The Florida boys churned up some cheers from fans in the know, and they definitely caught the attention of fans who weren’t familiar with them. Here’s hoping Tony Khan took note of the “Let’s go Truth!” and “Let’s go Turbo!” chants. I’d love to see them signed.
Top Flight got a big pop from the crowd as did Claudio Castagnoli, who appears to be in great shape and having a ball. And as much as this will bug her detractors, Aubrey Edwards gets as big a pop as anyone every time she slides onto the ring apron. They cheer for her, they chant her name. They absolutely adore her.
Before we leave Dark, I have to give kudos to Yuka Sakazaki, who is just plain fun to watch in the ring. She’s a tremendous storyteller who hits hard and sells like a rag doll. And I know it’s been noted elsewhere, but I love hearing Plush’s “Athena” used as Athena’s entrance.
Just before air time, the opening chords of “Judas” shook the building, and the Jericho Appreciation Society kicked off the show. It was amusing to see the fans shift from singing along with Fozzy at the top of their lungs to booing Jericho and tag partner Sammy Guevara. The fans definitely hate Sammy and have no hesitation about booing heel Jericho, but even after Sammy’s dastardly actions sealed the victory, the crowd switched gears and resumed their sing along.
Darby Allin got a nice pop with his entrance that was quickly dwarfed when Sting joined him on the ramp. The fans in Lexington have a special connection with the Stinger, as a few fans behind me discussed:
“His son played football for the Wildcats.”
“I know. I went to three crappy games trying to see him.”
Incidentally, both Darby Allin and Sammy Guevara look bigger in person than they do on TV. Also, Buddy Matthews looked fantastic. he’s never really caught my eye watching on television, but the match with Darby made me a fan.
It’s worth noting here that by the time Tony Schiavone entered the ring to speak with Darby after the match, we’d witnessed two matches in 36 minutes with no promos, no interviews. I like my wrestling shows with more wrestling and less talking, and AEW always delivers in this regard.
The crowd lit up when the classic Hardy Boyz theme hit and Matt took to the stage. Their joy was short lived when his current allies demanded the music be cut in favor of Ethan Page’s song. The arrival of Jungle Boy picked the fans back up and set off the second loudest sing along of the night. Jungle Boy and Hook were very over with the Kentucky crowd, and the tag match had some of the best storytelling of the night.
It’s worth acknowledging that one of the main criticisms of AEW style is the emphasis on style and spots versus storytelling. It’s a valid point, and very noticeable in person, especially compared to the more story-driven programming I’m used to seeing live every week at Ohio Valley Wrestling in Louisville. That said, it is entertaining, and the core AEW faithful don’t seem to mind. It’ll be interesting to see how many of these performers are still going full speed bell to bell in five to ten years, but for now, the majority seem content to carry on full tilt.
Hour two began with Bryan Danielson and Brian Cage. The two put on a great match, but truth be told, many of the smart marks around me were keeping an eye on the ramp, anticipating the inevitable arrival of MJF. The champ’s arrival received one of the biggest pops of the night despite his ill intentions. Danielson looked great, by the way. It’s always scary seeing him get dropped on his head, but he absolutely delivered.
The lone women’s match during the live show featured Toni Storm and Ruby Soho. Both ladies received cheers, but Ruby was clearly the fan favorite. The cameo by Britt Baker brought the fans to their feet for an even larger pop, one of the biggest of the night.
Following the emotional ending to the main event, the ring crew went to work changing the set over for Rampage. I took the opportunity to hit the restroom and visit the merchandise table that was nearly sold out. The only items left were a few hats, a hoodie, a flag, an AEW shirt, an Adam Cole shirt, and an Acclaimed shirt. Fans were clearly bummed earlier in the evening when the Gunn Family Therapy Session featuring The Acclaimed turned out to be a video taped segment.
Shout out to Tiffany Nieves for her turn as the family therapist. I thought the face looked familiar, and she later confirmed it on Twitter.
— Tiffany Nieves | Wrestler (@tiffanynieves_) January 26, 2023
Seventeen minutes later cameras were rolling again. I won’t give finish spoilers here, but I will share a few notes about what took place.
The match made during Dynamite between “Hangman” Adam Page and Wheeler Yuta was one of the best of the night. Fans popped when the match was made during the live broadcast, and the young stars lived up to the hype. Page’s Lariat the meanest looking thing this side of JBL’s Clothesline from Hell.
The second match was an unannounced six man tag and a crowd pleaser: Jeff Jarrett, Satnam Singh, and Jay Lethal versus Best Friends and Danhausen. Accompanied by Orange Cassidy, the babyfaces received a monster pop, but Double J got his own huge ovation in his return to Kentucky. He also got a big laugh while taunting the fans as Satnam Singh took to the ring: “Y’all ain’t seen a good big man in Kentucky in 30 years!”
“OVW!” chants rang out again briefly as “Shotgun” Tony Gunn slipped into the ring. Gunn was the unannounced opponent for Powerhouse Hobbs. Incidentally, the two were joined in the ring by another OVW alum, referee Stephon Smith. Where were you on that pop, OVW faithful?
The main event belonged to the ladies, and Jamie Hayer and Emi Sakura delivered. Again, no spoilers, but Hayter and Sakura delivered as many hard knocks in their bout as Hangman Page and Wheeler Yuta. Britt Baker was ringside and spied a fan who had made a “Hayterade” sign, one of the best of the night. She took the sign from the fan and made sure it got some TV time.
Incidentally, the other two signs I noted as most memorable were brought by a duo dressed like The Blues Brothers. One said, “Cowboy Bob’s Country Bunker.” The other said, “AEW refs are better than SEC refs.” I see you, Kentucky Wildcat fans.
It was 11:17 p.m. by the time Rampage was through, and while about a quarter of the crowd had already left, the remaining fans were no less enthusiastic than when Red Velvet kicked things off nearly four and a half hours earlier.
But we weren’t done just yet! Tony Khan came out once again to thank the fans and promise them AEW would return to Kentucky. Then he gave the fans something they thought they were going to go without: he introduced The Acclaimed.
Cardboard, poster board, and foam scissors went into the air as Billy Gunn and The Acclaimed entered Rupp Arena. Max Caster presented a Bluegrass-tilted rap that drew a huge pop with lurid diss on former Louisville (and Kentucky) basketball coach Rick Pitino. I had to laugh when I spied an elderly usher near the top of the arena shakin’ her bootie.
Billy Gunn talked for a few minutes, confessing to the fans that he was just plain tired and ready to go to bed. He cued the remaining fans up for a boisterous, “Suck it!” but before he could escape to his hotel, Justin Roberts entered the ring.
“There’s a young man standing in the crowd right now,” said Roberts as the big screen flashed on a fan in the floor seats. “But he’s not going to be standing for much longer.”
With a bashful smile, the young man got one one knee and proposed to his girlfriend. Once again, tears of joy were shed, and the crowd popped for the newly engaged couple.
Billy Gunn invited the couple into the ring. The young woman was shaking and crying as Gunn, Roberts, and The Acclaimed congratulated the couple. He then sent the newlyweds, Max, and Anthony each to a corner, and they all joined up in the middle of the ring to scissor with Daddy Ass.
Only in Kentucky, folks!
AEW’s debut in the Bluegrass state was certainly a hit. It was one of the most emotional evenings of wrestling I’ve ever experienced, and one of the most memorable events I’ve ever attended. The fans were red hot from start to finish, and I’m sure that wasn’t lost on AEW management.
Hey Tony, next time come to Louisville. Oh and please, sign The Outrunners.