We’re now deep into the second week of “MJF: Hamlet or Veruca Salt?” Maxwell Jaxwell didn’t appear on Dynamite this week, wasn’t mentioned, and there were stories that Turner execs wanted any mention of him scrubbed from AEW production. He isn’t even on the opening video package at the moment.
What is real and what isn’t is the whole point of this, and seemingly there isn’t anyone on the planet who knows the answers other than MJF. Which is the way most want it for now, as frolicking about in the mysterious gray area is the most fun. But this approach has a distinct shelf life, where fans (and probably MJF’s coworkers) tire pretty quickly of not knowing where the lines are, and begin to feel like they’re being jerked around instead of delightfully fooled. A magic trick is cool, a con is not.
But we’re not there yet, and so we’re still trying to parse what MJF was talking about exactly. And a bell was rung on last night’s Dynamite after Hangman Adam Page’s return to TV after losing the title to CM Punk. After his win, Page cut a promo calling out NJPW champion and global legend Kazuchika Okada for a match at Forbidden Door. At that moment, wrestling social media went supernova at the thought, even though they do have a little established history from Page’s time in NJPW. Or maybe that’s what makes it better for fans, the security of knowing that these two would put on an absolute humper of a match that would actually have some story to call on, instead of the toy-mashing that Forbidden Door is going to be at times (though delightful toy-mashing).
But that inflamed excitement at the thought of Page and Okada was seemingly snuffed out in an instant, and replaced with a deflation on par with a heavily pierced blimp, as soon as Adam Cole opened his mouth from the commentary desk, claiming he had first call on a match with Okada. The general reaction was, “Cole again?” And it’s not a completely unexpected complaint.
Obviously, MJF was spraying to all fields with his flamethrower promo last week, and there may not have been any specific intended targets, other than everyone within a 50-mile radius. It is most likely folly to try and find nuance in the wreckage caused by MJF’s flamethrower. But hey, I’m crazy.
Certainly no one reasonable (which MJF almost assuredly isn’t, in character or out, if there’s a difference) would blanch about whatever it is CM Punk and Bryan Danielson are making or their place on the card. Punk is perhaps the most beloved wrestler of all time amongst AEW fans, even when they were WWE fans, and Danielson has at several times been the best wrestler in the world. These are legends who also just happen to still be active, and you move heaven and Earth to slot them properly. And neither has done anything to make anyone think they don’t belong exactly where they are — they’ve thrown themselves fully into the company, their matches, their stories, and everything else.
But Adam Cole… that’s a different story. Certainly Cole hasn’t mailed anything in, and has been very much Adam Cole since he arrived in AEW… which was five minutes before Danielson. But what does that entail, exactly?
While Cole was immensely popular in his time in NXT, it was only NXT. And even toward the end, when it became clear that NXT was going to change greatly from where it was in Cole’s and Undisputed Era’s heyday, there was Cole fatigue. His blowoff with Kyle O’Reilly felt forced, though a lot of that has to do with the dying embers of the black-and-gold version of NXT.
Cole was another victory for AEW, given that he actually shunned a role on the main roster to move to AEW. This wasn’t just someone released and underused, but someone New York actually wanted to keep (in a completely terrible role, but still) that couldn’t resist the siren song and freedom of AEW. No question that fans love that.
Cole had a streak of basically kicking off Rampage or the odd Dynamite, mostly because fans love to hear and sing along to his theme (and I won’t disclose how many times I’ve put it on my headphones at the grocery store and strutted down the aisles). It gets a crowd hot in a second, which is exactly what you need at the top of any show, especially for Rampage, which is usually filmed three hours into a show and where the crowd’s energy may dip.
And it’s not that Cole’s been bad. His matches are fine, if not good. His promos are fine, if not good. But in neither category is he anywhere close to the best AEW has to offer. You could probably name 10 wrestlers who put on consistently better matches, and at least five who are better promos. That’s a testament to the depth AEW has, which isn’t Cole’s fault, but when you start weighing those factors against his place on the card every week, the “imbalance” light starts flashing.
Cole has never really been off the top of the card since arrival. He got two matches with Page when Page was champ, even though he’d lost the first one clean (while coming to the ring looking like a Ninja Turtle?). He got the second one simply by asking for it, which is a main complaint about WWE booking. He gets a segment every week. He won the Owen Hart tournament, which is a spot that any number of wrestlers could have used to rise up higher than they were. It seemed like AEW wanted to position him and his real-life girlfriend Britt Baker as a power couple after that tourney, but thankfully that impulse seems to have passed in the following weeks (couple angles in wrestling almost always make the woman seem weaker or an accessory, and Baker has built far too big of a role to ever be that).
The complaint is that Cole came to AEW with a recent resume no stronger than, say, Malakai Black or Andrade. Both of them got Cody’d, have been on and off TV, and certainly aren’t anywhere near title shots or matches with Okada. Miro had to eat shit with Kip Sabian for a while before becoming the popular and pushed character he is now. And Miro has a Mania match with John Cena in his past. Certainly none of them are worse in the ring than Cole, and all are probably better.
It felt like last night that Cole passed from being the entitled heel that he plays so well into just a guy who’s being given everything, which also blurs the line from kayfabe to not. The former is the character, the second is what is happening to the individual. When it’s not intentional, or part of the story, fans don’t come along.
Cole is good, and a useful part of the roster, and apparently off screen one of the nicest people in the world. But when MJF wonders aloud how those “ex-WWE guys” seem to get a trampoline up the roster and on the payment chart, it’s not hard to see what the specific targets might be. Especially when you consider how much lighter Cole’s resume is than others. Perhaps Tony Khan has to keep Cole around the top of the card for whenever Kenny Omega returns and that epic feud begins. Khan has been known to hold things he wants to do instead of moving on when circumstances dictate, i.e. House of Black v. Death Triangle through myriad injuries.
But there comes a time when it’s untenable, and if last night wasn’t it, it certainly came into view.