It’s been a busy and emotionally heavy few weeks to be a pro wrestling fan.
Plenty of developments including AEW’s hugely successful All In pay per view, with the usual backstage shenanigans, and the untimely death of Windham ‘Bray Wyatt’ Rotunda. I promise that I will get to both subjects in turn, but to be honest I’m still processing them for obviously different reasons.
I write this column at the start of the new school year. Even at my advanced age this always feels like the real end of one year and beginning of the next (the calendar flip in January matters less; all it’s good for is forcing me to double-check the dates on cheques or TPS reports at work).
On Friday, August 18, WWE Superstar Adam ‘Edge’ Copeland wrestled the last match on his current contract at a SmackDown broadcast live from his hometown (and mine) Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Edge defeated Sheamus, whom he had somehow never fought before. It was a very good match; the kind that makes fans chant “you still got it” and “one more run”. The real stakes were heightened by the presence of Edge’s wife Beth Phoenix at ringside, along with his two daughters. Also present was Edge’s original trainer — Toronto legend Ron Hutchison, who took Edge on when as a high school kid Edge won a newspaper essay contest, and then continued to train Edge for free until he was ready-seeing the potential and desire of a kid from a single-parent household. In wrestling and outside, Edge’s story has always been worth telling.
Edge and Sheamus brought their usual intensity to their bout despite a lack of build. In lieu of weeks of promos we got a few minutes of mic time the previous week, highlighted by video packages drawn from Edge’s social media accounts and Sheamus’ ‘Celtic Warrior Workouts’ YouTube channel, which I highly recommend if you like watching other people exercise.
Together, they stitched together a compelling story worthy of a short program. Sheamus spoke about his early days in the wrestling business, how Edge was one of the first to welcome him and give him encouragement when it might have been easier for Sheamus to retreat to his IT job. For his part, Edge told the story of how had retired following a neck injury nine years prior, and after a pair of surgeries was finally feeling well enough to test himself physically. A visit from Sheamus and a mountain bike ride taped for YouTube led Edge to believe that maybe he could take a bit more punishment, and his comeback began in earnest. Although unacknowledged until now, it was Edge’s interactions with his backstage friend that led to his outstanding comeback at the 2020 Men’s Royal Rumble — giving the Ultimate Opportunist the opportunity to close out his career on his own terms.
As a perpetually unsatisfied fan, I think Edge’s comeback could have been more. But then, how could it be? Edge announced his retirement on the April 11, 2011, episode of Raw, a week after successfully defending his World Heavyweight Championship against Alberto Del Rio at WrestleMania XXVII. He was diagnosed with cervical spinal stenosis, and neither his doctors nor WWE would allow him to keep wrestling citing the risks of paralysis or death if he took a bad bump. As seems to happen when a contracted wrestler retires suddenly (or worse) Edge was swiftly inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame. He would make several non-wrestling appearances over the next few years and would work with WWE on a series of projects outside the ring.
In his excellent podcast alongside former tag team partner and real-life friend, Jay ‘Christian’ Reso Edge would regularly field questions from fans asking when he might come back. Each time, he let his audience down gently, saying the damage to his spine was too severe. Christian would echo Edge’s remarks, although he was quick to remind his fans that he’d been put out of wrestling due to concussion issues. Funny how that works — both men would wind up coming back in different Royal Rumbles, and week-to-week it’s arguable who’s had the more fun second act.
And the world moved on.
Except for one thing.
At the Toronto-based SummerSlam in 2019, Edge would appear in-ring as one of many superstars to interrupt musical heel Elias’ performance. By this point the very talented Elias had become something of a running joke, so having a hometown favorite insult him wasn’t a stretch. But Edge went a step further and speared Elias out of his boots. Apart from being concerned about the possible effects of any move on Edge’s surgically repaired neck, the prospect of physicality caught fans’ attention. WWE had authoritatively closed the book on Edge’s in-ring career. Performing a head-first tackle on WWE’s biggest show of the summer suggested that maybe, just maybe a new chapter might yet be written, even as Edge downplayed the possibility.
That next chapter would be written at the pre-pandemic 2020 Royal Rumble. Edge would return to action for the first time in nine years, entering the Rumble at number 21 to a stadium-shaking ovation. On his entrance, Edge seemed visibly moved, and as a fan since he started his WWF/E career, I admit I was too. I was also a little scared; the Rumble often features plenty of bodies flying around the ring, and unless Edge was going to win, at some point he would need to take an over-the-top-rope bump to be eliminated. This seemed like a risky proposition for his first public match back. To be honest, I never lost that feeling of unease during an Edge match. However much confidence Edge’s doctors and WWE might have had, the seriousness of his earlier injuries combined with the fact that he now had a family to look after always made me question whether the risks (and let’s face it, the money and fame that come with pro wrestling at a high level) were worthwhile. For what it’s worth, I feel the same way about many wrestlers who attempt to come back from serious injuries, including Bryan Danielson and Christian.
Edge had clearly trained hard for his comeback. Despite the effects of age he looked to be in better shape than any point in his career. He would have a notable encounter with AJ Styles and eliminate three other wrestlers including Randy Orton, before being eliminated by Roman Reigns. In hindsight, these would be some of the key story arcs of his comeback.
The next night on RAW, Edge would be attacked by Orton, leading to his first extended singles program. Edge would beat Orton at a pandemic-challenged WrestleMania in a cinematic Last Man Standing match, and lose to Orton in June at Backlash in a very good match that was desperately overhyped as ‘the best wrestling match ever’. Unfortunately, this match would hurt Edge’s second run, and in my view might have limited how far he would go in his comeback. Edge suffered a torn triceps which would keep him out of action for seven months.
I was still glad Edge came back, but after this injury I never quite shook the idea that maybe his return wasn’t such a great idea. Edge was already closer to 50 than 40, and while some wrestlers can perform at a high level well past the sell-by dates of other athletes, they hadn’t faced the same layoff that Edge did. Edge also didn’t have the luxury (yet) of working a style that could be easily camouflaged by a capable opponent or as Dusty Rhodes would say ‘plunder’. It was clear from the beginning that while Edge would be working a limited schedule aimed at goosing pay per view cards, he would be a full participant in building his programs and wrestling his matches. This would demand at least a bit of the old daredevilry that put him on the map with feuds against the likes of the Dudleys, Hardys, Kurt Angle or Mick Foley.
Edge would return from his triceps injury at the 2021 Royal Rumble match. He would enter at number one and improbably win the battle royal, becoming the eighth two-time Rumble winner, the third to win it after entering in first position (joining Chris Benoit and Shawn Michaels — both of whom had also come back from serious neck/back injuries, and whose stories had wildly different endings) and the first active Hall of Famer to win. This Rumble victory would be the high-water mark of Edge’s second run. I was incredulous when it happened; between Edge’s part-time status and a necessarily limited career horizon, it seemed like an odd choice to propel him to a WrestleMania main event. But as a fan, I was happy to see one of my longtime favorites get another kick at the world championship can. He would fight Reigns at WrestleMania 37 with the asterisk that Daniel Bryan had been added to make it a triple threat match. Bryan, who had come back from his own injury-fueled retirement a few years prior, and Edge would wind up smashed, stacked, pinned and put on a t shirt in silhouette form by Reigns, then in the early days of his dominant Universal Championship reign. Bryan would leave WWE for AEW shortly thereafter, but Edge — who was justifiably put off that his solo main event spot had been taken away (and I’m with him on that; if a WrestleMania title shot is the prize for winning the Royal Rumble, that should be the story, full stop) would get his solo opportunity against Reigns at July’s Money in the Bank pay per view. He would lose to Reigns again following interference from Seth Rollins.
From that point, Edge would slowly make his way down the card. He seemed to be booked with less emphasis on consistent storytelling or a championship chase, and more emphasis on checking off a bucket list of wrestlers with whom he could have compelling, safe matches. Rollins and Edge would feud through the Fall of 2021, producing a series of fun matches and at times creepy storylines. Although Edge would be drafted to Raw, he would defeat Rollins in a Hell in a Cell match at the Crown Jewel pay per view in October. He would then be moved to a feud alongside Beth Phoenix against the Miz and his returning wife, Maryse. Perhaps as a way of writing Edge out of a Royal Rumble performance that could only disappoint and keeping Miz out of the title picture after his own recent transitional reign, Edge and Phoenix would beat Miz and Maryse in a mixed tag team match. Weirdly, I preferred Edge’s program against the Miz to his feud with Rollins. His matches against Rollins were the usual barnburners, but while Rollins seems stuck in a goofy evil good guy persona, Miz on the microphone is guaranteed to make his opponent as a hero.
As an aside, early retirements seem more common in the women’s division, where an emphasis on appearance and for those who want children, biological realities, can move them out of the ring closer to the height of their careers. Edge’s partner, Beth Phoenix, retired back in 2012 before the Women’s (R)evolution took flight, citing her frustrations with the WWE’s women’s division and her desire to raise a family. She has made several returns to the ring since, starting in 2017 and coinciding with her induction into the WWE Hall of Fame. Phoenix has also worked as a color analyst in NXT and was an equal part of Edge’s feud with the Miz and Maryse. Maryse herself was a fixture in the women’s division between 2008 and 2010. Following her release in 2011 after a series of injuries, she had effectively retired and pursued a career in real estate (total heel move) until 2016, when she started making intermittent appearances, usually alongside the Miz as the “It Couple”. Maryse has since wrestled, primarily in mixed tag team matches. Her biggest recent match probably took place at WrestleMania 33 against fellow reality tv couple John Cena and Nikki Bella (Cena and Bella would win. John would propose. Nikki would say ‘yes’ and they would break up for real shortly thereafter). Maryse would leave TV in 2018 after getting pregnant and would return to the ring at the aforementioned 2022 Royal Rumble against Edge and Phoenix.
Fellow Canadian Trish Stratus similarly ran roughshod over the women’s division from 2001-06 including multiple championship reigns. The Women’s division was different back then-for the most part it emphasized appearance over in-ring talent (and often seemed like an excuse to feature WWF-contracted talent nude in Playboy Magazine, which wouldn’t fly today). Nevertheless, Stratus and the likes of Amy ‘Lita’ Dumas, Nora ‘Molly Holly’ Greenwald, Lisa ‘Ivory’ Moretti and Carlene ‘Jazz’ Begnaud worked hard to give it credibility. Stratus formally retired in September 2006, when she beat Lita for her seventh Women’s Championship. Stratus married her high school sweetheart shortly thereafter and had two children. Stratus made a series of guest appearances in the following years, was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013, and has found her way into several groundbreaking WWE moments including the first Women’s Royal Rumble and the all-female Evolution pay-per-view. Stratus would tease another ‘retirement’ at SummerSlam 2019, where she lost to Charlotte Flair in 2019. She would return full-time in the run up to this year’s WrestleMania-first assisting Lita in her own comeback teaming with Becky Lynch, and later turning on Lynch to start a feud which did little more than introduce Zoey Stark to the RAW audience.
But I digress.
In February 2022 Edge would return for his next round of matches leading up to WrestleMania 38. He would challenge AJ Styles, whom he had accidentally injured a blown spot during his initial Royal Rumble comeback. Edge would turn heel, dropping his metalhead dad persona in favor of a darker, more sinister character. He would strip away each element of the “Rated R Superstar” we’d known and loved: He got a haircut and started wearing suits. He spoke quietly and used polysyllabic verbiage in his promos. He developed an affinity for black and purple ring gear and even swapped out his incredibly catchy “Metalingus” theme music for a slower track, “The Other Side” by the same band, Alter Bridge. In other words, he turned into a taller, older version of late-1990s Chris Jericho. I hated it, and not in the constructive way that I hated Edge as a villain. I hated the shift to a more boring, played out trope of a bad guy that I had seen done many times better. To me, Edge worked as a sleazeball “lewd, crude, tattooed” heel. As a borderline supernatural incarnation of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” he just fell flat.
Edge would get his win over AJ Styles, and in a series of long-winded promos would introduce a new faction: the Judgment Day. If he’d found a way to make this abrupt shift work, Edge might have extended his career, relying on younger and more athletic talent to carry matches as he transitioned to more of a player-coach. Something about the group just never seemed to click and Edge would be beaten out of his own faction by its new leader Finn Balor within months — a rare misstep perhaps caused by the fact that Edge’s return and redemption story just made him impossible to hate.
For what it’s worth, I see any face or heel turn lasting less than a year as a failure; it speaks to a lack of confidence by management, since it can take time to convince fans that a longstanding hero or villain has truly switched sides. Ultimately quick turns can damage a wrestler’s credibility, as they did with Paul Orndorff when these switches were less common, or more recently with the Big Show, whose changing allegiances became a running joke across multiple companies.
The Judgment Day post-Edge has boosted all involved and become a key part of whatever show they’re on. It breathed new life into current WWE tag team champions Damien Priest and Finn Balor, launched WWE Women’s Champion Rhea Ripley into superstardom and ‘made’ Dominik Mysterio as a legitimate heel… but Edge’s initial version seemed drawn from the Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness playbook. While Ripley was an inspired choice it seemed at the time that drawing Priest and Balor — both of whom aren’t that much younger than Edge and thus had more limited ceilings — was a lost opportunity. I’m not saying that he should have been a middle-aged Michael P.S. Hayes leading the brand new Hardy Boys to the ring wearing his own matching tight t shirt and JNCO jeans, but Edge’s comeback might have more value if he’d been used to consistently elevate younger talent. Ironically, Edge would accomplish this over the next while by feuding with the Judgment Day, particularly in supporting Rey Mysterio as his son Dominik joined the dark side under Balor’s tutelage.
By October 2022 Edge would be engaged in a full feud with the Judgment Day. He would lose to Balor in an “I Quit” match at Extreme Rules when Ripley and Mysterio threatened Beth Phoenix — then attacked her after the match. Three months later, at the 2023 Royal Rumble Edge would come back to target the Judgment Day in the Rumble match itself. He would gain a measure of revenge by eliminating Balor and Priest but would be taken out by them and Dominik. The tide would turn at February’s Elimination Chamber pay per view, when Edge and Phoenix would beat Balor and Ripley in another mixed tag match. Edge would gain his ultimate revenge at WrestleMania 39 when he beat Balor in a Hell in a Cell match which had to be cut short due to a severe laceration to Balor’s scalp.
Apart from his creation of and feud with the Judgment Day, Edge spent the last few months of his remarkable second run challenging then-United States Champion Austin Theory and beating SmackDown gadfly Grayson Waller in matches that elevated those two young stars.
Which brings us to his match with Sheamus, the last on his current deal.
Addressing the Toronto crowd after his match with Sheamus, and in media appearances before and after, Edge has seemed ambivalent about retiring. From one appearance to the next it feels like he hasn’t fully landed on a decision whether or not to hang up his boots. Unlike the Undertaker after fighting Roman Reigns, Edge never left his robe or shoes in the ring. He has commented several times about whether he can physically perform up to his standards, even as he acknowledges that he would miss doing what he loves. Edge is deeply invested in his career. The tattoos he wears on his arms were chosen to reflect different stages of his in-ring persona. Edge’s body is a roadmap of injuries. Apart from the neck surgeries that ended and revived his career, in interviews he has mentioned everything from a skull fracture to arm injuries to two pectoral tears to a torn groin and ACL.
Arguably, there’s no reason for him to announce a full retirement if he doesn’t want to. Retirement in wrestling ain’t what it used to be… or maybe they have always come with asterisks. Going back to the WWF’s early days, stalwarts Gorilla Monsoon and Bruno Sammartino would regularly come out of retirement to challenge particularly dastardly heels — often losing in order to build said heels up to face the current popular champion. This trick worked in other promotions as well. Verne Gagne in the AWA and Bill Watts in Mid-South Wrestling would feel compelled to teach some brash youngster a lesson, and often get plenty of offence in despite their advanced ages since they signed the cheques. World Class Championship Wrestling put a particularly tasteless spin on this trope when promoter/retired wrestler Fritz von Erich booked himself into a kayfabe heart attack as part of an angle.
I’ve mentioned the ‘temporary’ retirements of the likes of Rick Martel and Roddy Piper before. Both men would come back for further lengthy runs, still in their primes. Shawn Michaels had an enviable second act that lasted four years and rehabilitated his toxic backstage image. Until his recent passing, Terry Funk first ‘retired’ in 1983 and never stopped retiring. Jerry Lawler did the same as far back as 1977. More recently, Goldberg was effectively retired for over a decade after his disastrous WrestleMania XX exit against Brock Lesnar. He came back to a hero’s welcome and with WWE having finally figured out how to book him in shorter, dominating matches for limited runs, won a few more world championships along the way (and did a better job of putting others over). Batista came back for his own short-term WrestleMania retirement angle. So did Kurt Angle. If Edge feels the creative or financial need, a shorter program with WWE is likely on the table.
Edge doesn’t have to retire from competition at all. As the internet forum saying goes, “this isn’t an airport. You don’t need to announce your departure”. That said, his potential second retirement merits coverage because of the improbability of his second run and, given the length of his layoff he’s performed admirably in-ring. He looks and acts the part of a championship contender at 50 in a business that can dramatically age one.
Contrast Edge to another recent retirement: over in the NWA, fellow 50 year old Tyrus effectively retired himself by announcing then losing a stipulation bullrope match to EC3. I’ve been hard on Tyrus as champ like many wrestling fans, but an excellent interview by Tom Leturgy here on SlamWrestling.net explained a lot of his thinking as a performer, and the NWA’s reasoning in giving him an extended run with their biggest prize.
Crowning EC3 was a great call. I may disagree with his politics, but I admired his attempt to start the Control Your Narrative promotion in the wake of WWE’s pandemic-fueled mass releases. I support anyone who wants to create more places for wrestlers to work, including outfits like the NWA and CYN… especially if it gives wrestlers whom I don’t feel pressed to watch a place where others can enjoy them while I catch up on Only Murders in the Building. Love him or hate him, EC3 is more in line with the modern picture of a pro wrestling champion.
But let’s face facts. Tyrus was an entertaining wrestler in his WWE run as Brodus Clay and in TNA as, well, Tyrus, but he wasn’t a workhorse in his 30s and didn’t develop into one in his late 40s. Tyrus’ NWA title reign lasted 283 days. He defended the belt four times, and acknowledged one reason for stepping aside was pressure to be more of a touring champ. With utmost respect, that last match with EC3 just wasn’t good. You may have seen a clip online. Tyrus totters his way to grab a rope before a zero-elevation splash. He doesn’t so much run the ropes as waves at them, and at one point EC3 takes up a folding chair just to wait while Tyrus catches his breath. Unless this is the best sell job of being out of shape since The Wrestler, this is probably not how one would want to go out. I can understand why Edge would prefer to avoid this outcome.
Even a successful career like Edge’s belies the notion that a pro wrestler ever really ‘finishes the story’ on his or her own terms. Edge’s first run ended prematurely as the result of injury. His second run, if it is ending, will finish because he doubts his surgically repaired body can continue performing according to his standards. Edge has been candid in interviews leading up to his match with Sheamus (and in addressing the Scotiabank crowd directly a year ago, as well as after his match with Sheamus) that his performances are taking a greater physical toll. Despite his more limited schedule it takes longer between each match to recover. These admissions would have been unthinkable during the days of kayfabe, but since the Undertaker voiced them during his own protracted retirement tour, it seems like wrestlers have been more open to discussing the effects of age. John Cena hasn’t officially retired and just started a fresh residency on SmackDown but has openly mused about performance concerns since before he turned 40. Roman Reigns is 38 and has stated his plans to stick around until he’s 45 — he is already working a limited schedule. Seth Rollins has incorporated concerns about his longevity into a recent program with Shinsuke Nakamura. Rollins has his own back issues which may one day require surgery. AJ Styles is 46 and Chris Jericho is 52. Like many wrestlers, both suggested that they would quit wrestling by the time they turned 40. That birthday came and went, and whether they’re fueled by the need for an audience or money or the mere fact that they can still look and act the part (occasional Grecian Formula overdoses notwithstanding), they can still work effectively…. but that’s a story for another column.
All of these wrestlers, along with Trish Stratus, Lita, Mickie James, Natalya (and I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch) are helping redefine perceptions of aging in a sport that is consumed with appearance and athleticism. When wrestlers talk about working into their 40s or 50s today we can still see them as close to their prime. I don’t think you could say the same about the likes of Verne Gagne or Bruno Sammartino or even Ric Flair — all of whom looked and wrestled ‘old’ before their time. Today’s wrestlers take advantage of developments in training and diet and… well, I don’t know what else. For now, it looks like it’s working. If 40 seems like a lifetime away to a wrestler in their 20s, then 45 or 50 or beyond might not seem like that much of a stretch… if only that wrestler’s body holds out.
If Edge is really struggling with what to do next, I appreciate his candor. No sooner did he mention the current state of his contract than rumors started flying that AEW might be interested.
I’m sure the prospect of a reunion with Christian (who’s own Royal Rumble return from injury was sadly short-lived, but who’s now an alpha stepdad heel in AEW) and the Hardys appeals to some; to me it’s too similar to Mick Foley’s or Ric Flair’s post WWE ‘retirement’ runs in TNA, where they wrestled at half speed before an audience conditioned to acrobatic homegrown stars like Styles, Bobby Roode, Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin. Edge and Christian are still in great shape and have shown that they can pull off credible matches. The Hardys’ AEW stint hasn’t shown the same. While Matt and Jeff haven’t had the long layoffs of Edge or Christian, they’re reaching a point of in-ring and out-of-ring abuse where walking to the ring looks painful. Ditto for the Dudleys, who suited up one more time for Impact’s 1000th show. In their prime, these six men had some of the wildest matches I’ve seen. Even if they could match that level of extreme, between concussions and neck surgeries and substance abuse fallout I just don’t want to see it. The Hardys are both former world champions, as is Bully Ray. Mixing six 50-year-old wrestlers together in a tables, ladders and chairs match would be regressive to the point of silliness.
Edge can certainly still wrestle, but his value to a promotion other than WWE at this point seems to lie in taking a prominent WWE talent off their board or having him lose to establish AEW talents’ superiority. AEW has lots of older talent in mentorship roles on and off-screen. As good as Edge is, he is wasted outside of a meaningful program or the title picture — and the window for him to be taken seriously as a championship contender is closing fast. Former world champions like Jeff Jarrett, Dalton Castle and Jay Lethal are already underused. Former AEW World champion Adam Page has been drifting for a year, although a program with Swerve Strickland might perk things up imminently. Christian has made himself relevant by leaning in to a creepy, turtleneck-wearing glory hog persona — he’s one of the best parts of AEW. Edge, who has been portrayed more seriously, would likely get lost in the shuffle.
My biggest complaint about Edge’s second WWE run is that while he factored into a bunch of main events, WWE’s booking made clear that they lacked the confidence needed to give him one more substantial title reign. Admittedly Edge’s run coincided with Reign’s juggernaut, but surely he could have factored in to the hopscotch we got on RAW, among fellow 40 plus champions like Bobby Lashley or the Miz. Crowning a 50 year old Edge as champion at the expense of super-over AEW titlist MJF or ROH champ Claudio Castagnoli would diminish both of those titles and Edge’s accomplishments with WWE. If Edge has an in-ring future, he should keep dancing with the one who brought him to wrestling’s biggest stage.
Last I heard, Edge has downplayed the prospects of him wrestling anywhere other than WWE. Of course, he also denied the comeback about which I’ve now written almost 5,000 words, so only time will tell. He has stated that a new WWE contract awaits him in his inbox, but he wants to think about his next move.
If this is the last we’ve seen of Edge in a WWE or other wrestling ring, he’s had a truly great career and the kind of second act few would have expected. He was already a Hall of Famer and used his first retirement to build his family and pursue interests outside of wrestling.
Whatever he decides, I’ll still be a fan.
TOP PHOTO: Edge after his bout in Toronto at the Scotiabank Arena on Friday, August 18, 2023. WWE photo