Tuesday, August 29, 2023

AEW All In 2023 Review: A WrestleMania-Sized Spectacle

AEW's biggest show of all time is in the history books, and it was a doozy of a PPV.  While not quite on the level of their greatest shows for me (Full Gear 2021, Revolution 2023), this show was pretty spectacular overall.  By my count seven of the nine main card bouts reached **** or better, which is a new record.  We had rock-solid old-school wrestling, we had wild, chaotic multi-man matches, we had a couple bouts full of intense violence, and above all we had an epic, story-driven main event that kept the company's most successful angle going a little longer.  This was a WrestleMania-sized spectacle in front of a white-hot live crowd.

After a pair of pre-show matches, the latter of which apparently led to yet another backstage altercation involving CM Punk (less serious and may not have been Punk-instigated this time), Punk himself opened the show with a "real" World Title defense against his old rival Samoa Joe.  These two had a fine opening match that fell somewhere between their classic ROH encounters and their rather forgettable Collision one.  It only went 14 minutes but they packed a lot into it, including homages to Hulk Hogan and Terry Funk.  At one point Joe swung Punk through the bottom half of the announce table, breaking the front of it apart and causing Punk to bleed.  Late in the match Joe did his sequence of submission holds, softening Punk up for the Muscle Buster, but Punk escaped and hit his old finish, the Pepsi Plunge, to retain his fake title.  Very good opener in front of a pro-Joe crowd.  ****

Next up was the Golden Elite vs. Bullet Club Gold/Takeshita trios match.  This got twenty minutes and was a lot of fun, with tons of athletic exchanges, building to a strong peak and a logical finish meant to set up a singles match (Why I didn't see such a finish coming when I did my predictions, I'm sure I don't know).  Kota Ibushi was sadly still the weak link here, as he has more ring rust to shake off.  There was a moment where Ibushi and Omega did their stereo springboard moonsaults and Ibushi slipped off the second turnbuckle and had to do the move from the bottom one, and another moment where he seemed unsure where he was supposed to be.  Hopefully with time he'll come close to the quality of work he was putting in two years ago.  Anyway this match built to a tremendous peak, with Page and Omega hitting big moves on the heels, but suddenly out of nowhere Takeshita scored a rollup pin on Omega to win the match.  It was announced after the show that Kenny Omega vs. Konosuke Takeshita is official for All Out, and man is that gonna be a good one.  ****1/4 for the trios bout.

Falling shockingly early on the card was the long-awaited FTR-Young Bucks rubber match, and it delivered as expected.  The two teams started off with fundamentals but gradually built to a fever pitch with false finishes galore, each one getting a bigger crowd pop than the last.  Both teams began stealing each other's moves and the bout turned into a real nailbiter.  After nearly 22 minutes and a slew of close nearfalls (including a callback to their first match where Cash Wheeler missed a 450 splash and walked into a Matt Jackson superkick), FTR countered a Meltzer Driver attempt into their second Shatter Machine to get the pin and retain the belts.  FTR offered the Bucks a handshake after the match but Matt and Nick refused and walked away.  I think we'll see this match again at some point.  Great stuff as we all knew it would be.  ****1/2

If anything was going to follow the tag title match it was the Stadium Stampede, which as I suspected was a combination of the COVID-era Stampedes and the uber-violent Anarchy in the Arena matches.  These ten guys took sadism to new levels at times, with barbed wire, broken glass, table spots, broken bottles, forks, and kabob skewers (I'm not sure how Jon Moxley gets those stuck in his scalp without tearing it apart, but it's a grotesque visual).  Like the earlier trios match this melee was partly used to set up a singles match at All Out, that being Orange Cassidy vs. Jon Moxley.  To that end it would've made more sense to me for Mox to pin Cassidy here, but maybe Mox is winning the title next week.  Anyway everyone here played their roles well, although Santana and Ortiz both looked rusty at times, flubbing little things here and there.  The scariest moment happened when Penta and Santana were setting up a sunset flip powerbomb off a ladder and the ladder collapsed; I was sure someone broke an ankle or something, but apparently they were both fine.  The match came to a head when Moxley and Eddie finally met center-ring, and Eddie hit a spinning backfist and tackled Mox through a table, leaving Claudio open for Cassidy to hit an Orange Punch (assisted with shards of glass taped to his fist), for the win.  Just an insane war.  ****1/2

One of the two weakest matches of the night was given this unenviable slot, but the four women vying for the Women's Title worked hard and pulled off a solid piece of business.  Saraya entered to a hero's reception, her family in tow, to the tune of Queen's "We Will Rock You," and at that point I knew she was capturing the title in her home country.  This match didn't get a lot of time but they packed a lot into it, the main story being the apparent dissolution of The Outcasts.  At numerous points Toni Storm and Saraya were at odds; early in the match they both tried to pin Britt Baker at the same time, later Saraya's mother held Baker for Storm to hit her, but Baker moved and Storm accidentally hit Saraya Sr., and near the end of the match Baker knocked Storm loopy with a kick, causing her to fall on top of Saraya for a cover.  Finally at the end Baker had Shida locked in the Lockjaw, while Saraya sprayed Outcast paint in Storm's eyes and hit her with the Knight Cap to win the title.  The crowd loved the finish.  I'm not sure how long Saraya will hold onto the title as she likely can't work the schedule of the other three, but I get why they had her win here.  The announce team mentioned Mercedes Mone being in attendance, so I wonder when she'll get to wrestle in an AEW ring.  *** for the match.

Maybe the most unexpected hit of the night for me (although I should've expected it given the track record of everyone involved) was the Sting & Darby Allin vs. Swerve Strickland & Christian Cage Coffin Match, another violent and chaotic affair.  Instead of being bloody though, this match was about crazy bumps.  Darby took multiple bumps on top of the casket, Swerve took a brutal-looking senton from Sting through a table, which only broke on the second attempt, Nick Wayne got chokeslammed onto a skateboard by Luchasaurus, Swerve did a 450 onto the coffin after Sting moved, it was wild stuff.  And a whole lotta fun.  Sting finally hit a death drop to Swerve on top of the coffin and stuffed him in, but he got his arms out before the babyfaces could close it, so Darby flatted him with a Coffin Drop on the coffin lid.  Game over.  Another very fun garbage match from Darby and friends.  ****

The de facto semi-main event slot (meaning the match BEFORE the match before the main event), went to Chris Jericho vs. Will Ospreay, which at fifteen minutes got less time than I would've expected but definitely delivered.  Ospreay was superhuman as usual and Jericho at almost 53 years old managed to keep up with him.  This felt like a really good G1 Climax match with no wasted motion.  Both guys got in all their stuff and we were treated to more stolen finishers, like Jericho's OsCutter (which seemingly resulted in the two of them bumping heads - fortunately it didn't slow them down much), and Ospreay's Judas Effect.  The finish came when Ospreay hit a Stormbreaker, Jericho kicked out and then, exhausted, dared Ospreay to knock him out with Hidden Blade.  Ospreay obliged before hitting another Stormbreaker to win the match.  Afterwards Sammy Guevara tried to help Jericho up but Jericho shoved him aside and left him in the ring.  Fine stuff here.  ****1/4

The death spot went to the Trios Championship match as House of Black (paying homage to Bray Wyatt via a lantern) defended against The Acclaimed and Bad Ass Billy Gunn under No Holds Barred rules.  The crowd was fairly subdued for a lot of this but came alive by the end, and the match was on the short side but perfectly serviceable.  The action was fast and furious.  Julia Hart tried to interfere early on but Max and Anthony took her out with Scissor Me Timbers.  Brody King was booked as nigh invincible for a lot of the match, kicking out at one after The Acclaimed each hit their finishers on him.  But a trio of finishers from all three opponents sealed the deal and earned the good guys the hard-fought win.  Post-match House of Black personally handed over their belts to Max, Anthony and Billy.  This was one of the two weakest matches on the show but still very solid.  ***1/2

At long last came the main event centered around the greatest bromance in wrestling today, MJF vs. Adam Cole (who on the pre-show won the ROH Tag Team Titles together).  These two put on a storytelling clinic as two best friends, each wanting to be the champion, pulled out all the stops while at the same time trying not to damage their friendship with their natural heelish tendencies.  And the crowd was nuclear for the whole match.  The contest began in gentlemanly fashion (complete with both guys calling timeout so they could put on their Better Than You Bay Bay T-shirts) but that treaty was broken early when MJF shook Cole's hand before poking him in the eye (This moment got a belly laugh from me).  Now that the gloves were off, both men reached into their bag of underhanded tricks throughout the match, MJF reluctantly so, Cole more eagerly, case in point a moment where MJF had the chance to Tombstone Cole on the announce table but couldn't bring himself to do it, and it cost him with Cole did to Max instead.  This occurred shortly after Cole brainbustered Max on the ring steps which led to the closest countout tease of all time.  Back in the ring Cole hit a Panama Sunrise, Max answered with a kick to the face, and both men were down.  As they got to their feet they shouted in unison "DOUBLE CLOTHESLINE!" and after two misses, actually clotheslined each other, landing in such a way that referee Bryce Remsburg counted both of their shoulders down and declared the match a draw.  The crowd wasn't having it and neither was Cole, who asked for five more minutes, echoing the time limit draw they had in June.  Max said no......this match will go until there's a winner.  After each attempting a rollup Cole accidentally knocked out Bryce, Max grabbed a chair and tried the Eddie Guerrero DQ spot, but Cole was too smart for that and they played hot potato with the chair as Bryce recovered.  Cole fell to the mat as MJF held the chair, but Max wrapped it around his head and fell to the mat himself.  As Cole argued with Bryce, MJF rolled him up for another nearfall.  A few minutes later Cole went for another Panama Sunrise but MJF pulled Bryce in the way of it, then teased using his Dynamite diamond ring but again couldn't do it.  Roderick Strong ran in and hit a low blow on MJF and told Cole to finish him, but after another Sunrise and The Boom, Bryce's count was too slow and Max kicked out.  Strong gave Cole the AEW belt and told him to use it but Cole refused, only for Max to roll him up in a small package for the win.  Post-match Cole was fuming that he let his compassion get in the way of his ambition.  Max tried to comfort him by reminding him they were still ROH Tag Champs and the people still loved him.  Cole threw the ROH belt aside and Max accused him of just using their friendship to get to the AEW Title.  Max handed Cole the Triple B and turned his back, telling Cole to betray him.  Cole threw the belt aside and the two best friends hugged it out once again, and the crowd became unglued.  This match was epic storytelling on a grand scale, exactly the type of match people wanted from these two, and they found a way to advance the story without prematurely ending it.  I had predicted a Cole heel turn and I still think that's coming, but for now the bromance lives on.  Excellent, super-engaging main event and for me the best match on the show.  ****3/4

So yeah, seven matches at **** or better, two in the *** range, that's a pretty fuckin' great PPV.  Like I said I'd rate it just a hair below AEW's all-time best shows, as it was missing that automatic MOTY candidate, but this was a great night that felt like a WrestleMania.  And good news, they're doing it again next year!

Best Match: MJF vs. Adam Cole
Worst Match: The Women's 4-way, which was fine but didn't get enough time to be great
What I'd Change: Not much, other than giving the Saraya match more time.  But the show was already four hours with very little fat on it.
Most Disappointing Match: Women's match
Most Pleasant Surprise: The coffin match exceeded my expectations
Overall Rating: 9.5/10

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