Wednesday, November 22, 2023

AEW Full Gear 2023: The Texas Death Match from Hell

AEW Full Gear 2023 was another strong entry in the company's banner PPV year, definitely not on the level of their best output but a highly enjoyable show nonetheless.  Like all AEW PPVs the matches were all very different and most of them were hits.  The biggest issue with Full Gear had nothing to do with the in-ring, but rather with the booking of the evening-long storyline leading to the main event.

Yes, in order to create some suspense over whether or not MJF would survive the night as AEW Champion, they booked a rather convoluted, logic-defying angle wherein it was doubtful MJF would even be able to compete.  His pre-show tag team partner did indeed turn out to be Samoa Joe, and the duo made pretty short work of the Gunns to retain the ROH Tag belts.  But post-match the Gunns attacked MJF, Pillmanizing his knee and sending him to the hospital on a stretcher.  What followed was an early-show announcement that MJF would be unable to wrestle, and just as Tony Schiavone was about to declare Jay White the new Champion by forfeit, Adam Cole interrupted to say that he would defend the title in Max's stead.  Hold up though, how can a man with a just-repaired shattered ankle get cleared for a title match if Max couldn't?  That part didn't make sense and it cast a bit of a pall over the rest of the show until MJF of course returned to the arena at the last minute.  It reminded me of Attitude Era Vince Russo booking.  What should've happened was simply numerous announcements of "We don't know Max's status," followed by Jay White coming down for his match and announcing himself as the new champion, only to be interrupted by MJF's entrance.  Keep things simple.

Anyway, aside from that mess there was a lot to like about this show, including one of the most brutal Texas Death matches you'll ever see, plus the announced signing of Will Ospreay when his NJPW contract expires in February (Holy shit, the matches this guy can have with everyone on the AEW roster...).

The show opened with the big trios bout, pitting Sting, Darby Allin and Adam Copeland against Christian Cage, Luchasaurus and Nick Wayne.  This was a very fun, energetic six-man, with the main story being Copeland's varied attempts to get his hands on his old partner, which of course never materialized.  The two squads waged a war of attrition that ultimately left Luchasaurus and Wayne incapacitated, and just when it looked like Copeland would get some payback against Cage, Christian ran like a coward into the crowd, ditching his partners.  The three babyfaces then hit Luchasaurus with multiple finishers, capped off by Darby's Coffin Drop.  Copeland covered him for the win, and during the celebration Darby alerted the fans that this was Sting's last-ever match in the state of California.  Good stuff to kick things off.  ***3/4

Next up was the first of three rematches, Orange Cassidy vs. Jon Moxley for the International Title.  This wasn't quite on par with their superb All Out main event but was a very fine 12-minute match, with Moxley bullying his smaller opponent once again.  This time though Cassidy opened up an existing cut on Moxley's forehead with a series of headbutts and turned the tide.  Mox removed a turnbuckle pad but found himself rammed into it, and Cassidy then hit him with five Orange Punches in a row, each one closer to knocking the brute off his feet.  Finally after a Beach Break Cassidy scored the hard-fought pin to retain.  Another very good match that leaves things open for a tiebreaker.  ***3/4

The weakest match of the night, though it wasn't exactly bad, was Toni Storm challenging Hikaru Shida for the Women's Title.  Storm's "Timeless" gimmick is super over but I feel like during her matches it needs to be toned down a bit, as Storm is a fantastic worker without it.  Both women worked hard in this match but it wasn't as good as their previous bout, and unfortunately the finish demanded too big a suspension of disbelief.  After almost winning the title with a shoe attack, Storm slipped a small metal pan into her tights to set up her hip attack.  The problem was the pan kept sliding so far down it was clearly visible to referee Aubrey Edwards, who had to pretend she didn't see it.  Either Toni should've hidden the pan *just before* the finish or she should've positioned herself so Aubrey couldn't see her backside.  Anyway she hit the hip attack and got the pin to regain the championship in an okay match that should've been excellent.  **1/2

The first great match of the night was the four-way ladder match for the tag titles, with Ricky Starks and Big Bill defending against FTR, Kings of the Black Throne, and La Faccion Ingobernables.  This was a wild, stunt-filled battle as expected, and everyone got time to shine.  My favorite spot of the match was a moment where Cash Wheeler charged at Malakai Black, who was standing next to a ladder that was leaning against the ropes.  Black simply yanked the rope toward him, causing the ladder to careen toward Wheeler.  Very clever.  There was also a pair of brutal-looking spots on a bridged ladder outside the ring - Brody King powerbombed Dralistico onto it, then Wheeler dove onto Black, breaking the ladder.  Big Bill proved the difference maker in the end, running interference on Wheeler as he and Starks raced up toward the belts, allowing Ricky to retrieve them.  Excellent schmozz.  ****1/4

The TBS Title match was put in a tough spot following that, but Kris Statlander, Julia Hart and Skye Blue won over the crowd with a very hard-hitting triple threat.  The story was Statlander's powerful dominance proving too much for either opponent, thus Hart and Blue had to work together to try and gain an advantage.  They built to a great sequence involving Statlander repeatedly suplexing both opponents, but Hart managed to steal a pin on Skye after Statlander hit Saturday Night Fever, winning the title and getting a big pop from the crowd.  I've been really impressed with Julia's rapid improvement and she'll be a very different type of TBS Champion from her two powerhouse predecessors.  ***1/2

Then, sweet merciful crap, we were treated to one of the most violent battles in recent memory, as Hangman Page and Swerve Strickland attempted to dismember each other in a Texas Death match.  Page wasted no time, attacking Swerve during his own entrance, and hit a Buckshot Lariat for the bout's first ten-count attempt.  Swerve recovered but Page brutalized him with a staple gun, cutting Swerve's forehead open for an absolute gusher before stapling his son's artwork to Swerve's face.  Page then stuck his head below Swerve's, catching Strickland's blood in his mouth.  This spot was met with much backlash, and it was in fact gross, but to me it absolutely fit the tone of the match and this feud.  Page is so beyond the pale after Swerve broke into his house and threatened his young son, these are the lengths to which he'll go for revenge.  The two men battled on with barbwire-wrapped chairs, cinderblocks, a piledriver on the ring barricade (for fuck's sake!), broken glass, and finally a chain.  Late in the match Brian Cage ran in but Page dispatched him with a rolling forearm (wrapped in barbwire), and then put Prince Nana through a ringside table.  But Swerve broke the cinderblock on Page's head and then hung him from a ring post with the chain to get the ten-count and win the match.  Another incredible showing from these two and another huge win for Swerve Strickland, who absolutely should be the one to dethrone MJF next year.  This was fantastically violent.  *****

Somehow Chris Jericho apparently volunteered to follow the Page-Swerve match, simply as a way to challenge himself, and while its position on the card hurt the crowd response early on, Jericho, Omega and the Bucks did manage a pretty great tag team war.  Things started out on the slow side with Omega reluctant to engage his best friends, but the match built excellently and featured all the high spots, nearfalls and crazy reversals you'd expect.  Late in the match Matt Jackson used both opponents' finishers on them, but Jericho escaped the Walls and Omega kicked out of the One-Winged Angel.  Omega teased turning on Jericho as both Chris and Nick lay draped over opposite ropes.  But Omega chose to hit Nick with a V-Trigger, and after a series of big moves on everyone, Omega hit another V-Trigger on Matt, followed by the OWA to win the match and the #1 contenders' spot.  The Jacksons threw a temper tantrum after the match, cementing their heel turn, and I wonder if we'll see them join the Callis Family (Don himself was on guest commentary).  Takeshita/Hobbs/Sammy/Bucks vs. Omega/Jericho/Ibushi/?? anyone?  Anyway, not as good as the Revolution 2020 tag match certainly, but a really good tag match.  ****1/4

The main event finally took place after Jay White vs. one-legged Adam Cole was teased, which was of course a ridiculous thing to tease.  But MJF finally commandeered an ambulance and made his way to the ring for the planned main event.  And it was an expertly told story, MJF the injured babyface in peril, White the sadistic opportunist who worked over the leg.  Every time Max attempted a comeback, Jay would cut it short with a chopblock or a Dragon Screw or what-have-you.  The live crowd ate up all thirty minutes of this match and the two combatants called their big spots to punctuate the storytelling.  MJF at one point hit a cutter over the top rope to the floor, White hit a urinage slam off the top rope, MJF went to set up a spot on the announce table but the structure collapsed and Max was forced to hit a much more dangerous top-rope elbow to the floor instead.  Late in the match White locked in a figure four and Adam Cole teased throwing in the towel, but Max at long last reversed the hold.  Cole played cheerleader throughout the match and twice tried to help MJF with objects, only for his help to backfire, first with his ROH Tag belt and then with the Dynamite diamond ring.  But as White went to hit Max with the ring, Max hit a low blow, stole the ring back, and knocked White out with it to retain the title.  The finish felt a bit overbooked to me, a la early 2000s WWE main events, but this was a dramatic, really well-worked match and both guys looked great.  Another excellent title defense for the company's top star.  No further developments in the Devil mask mystery though.  ****1/2

So Full Gear had a five-star match and a handful of four-plusses, no bad matches, and an overly complicated show-long angle.  Not an all-time great PPV but still a damn worthy way to spend four hours.  We have a likely MJF-Joe main event set up for World's End next month, plus the Continental Classic (which will apparently involve merging the ROH Title into a new belt?).  I'm interested to see what's next.

Best Match: Hangman Page vs. Swerve Strickland
Worst Match: Hikaru Shida vs. Toni Storm
What I'd Change: As I said, simplify the MJF injury thing so the same level of doubt can be drawn from it but it still holds up to logical scrutiny.  Also tone down Toni Storm's character when she wrestles.
Most Disappointing Match: Shida vs. Storm
Most Pleasant Surprise: How great the main event was even with the first act missing.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10

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