Wardlow, a performer that had many touting him as one of the future major stars of All Elite Wrestling upon its launch in 2019, recently returned to television after an unexplained few months on the sidelines. Make no mistake about it, the upside of Wardlow is still there, as he has all the physical gifts of a prospective main event talent, but more than four years into his tenure at AEW and the argument could be made that he’s more or less in the same position he was before Dynamite debuted on TNT.
Sure, he’s a three-time TNT champion, but you must ask yourself, how much progress was truly made in the time that he was a part of the roster?
Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a knock on him, but rather the management or lack thereof with his persona on television. As we know, he was initially paired with MJF as a bodyguard, and given his size and presence, that role served a dual purpose. It added something to Friedman as the sleazy heel that had the hired bodyguard do his dirty work, and it helped establish Wardlow as a dominate character on All Elite programming. Plus, with someone that has the size, speed, and agility of Wardlow, it makes sense to pace his involvement on the shows for him to develop as much as possible as a TV performer to be able to maximize his theoretically run as a main event star.
Even though it was somewhat of a retread of the Chris Jericho feud with the weekly hurdles to get an eventual match with MJF, the Friedman/Wardlow showdown was built well. Wardlow established the power bomb symphony gimmick and it was something that became anticipated by the crowd. The bottom line is, everyone knew that Wardlow was paired with MJF so that he would eventually turn baby face, and the fans were ready to see Friedman get power bombed out of his shoes. In the modern era, the concept of long-term storytelling is often overlooked or missed completely when the opportunity is there, but MJF/Wardlow had more than a two-year build up behind it. Simply put , in an era with monthly pay-per-views, the featured angles for next month as usually the focus, not the major payoff down the road that could really propel a talent. All Elite had a rare chance to use the long-term angle to elevate Wardlow to the next level in the company.
Instead, MJF no-showed an afternoon autograph signing the day before Double or Nothing last year and the story became if Friedman would show up at all or if he was willing to do business in the midst of a contract dispute with Tony Khan. Make no mistake about it, MJF knew exactly what he was doing when he decided to imply the threat of a walk out before a key match at a pay-per-view. Some might still claim that it was a work, but there wasn’t a major payoff for it at the time, and if anything, it was the first indication of a major management problem that surfaced multiple times with different stories around different talent since that time. In fact, in retrospect, the argument could be made that the whole debacle set a negative precedent, as sometimes if a talent causes enough of a hassle then they get what they asked for instead of working toward a compromise. A side note, it’s still somewhat surprising that Khan trusted Friedman enough to put the belt on him after such a public dispute, especially when, if his interviews with media outlets are accurate, MJF’s contract expires at the start of next year. Will MJF be willing to drop the title before the “bidding war of 2024” in a few months? Clearly, MJF got the hefty contract that he wanted because he showed up and took the power bomb as scheduled, but the damage was done in terms of the chance to push Wardlow.
The story was if Friedman, one of those that the company was going to be built around, was going to go on a real-life strike for a new contract, not if a scripted angle was going to elevate Wardlow’s character. The MJF walk out overshadowed what should’ve been a key victory in the career path of Wardlow. He won the TNT title not long after that, but dropped it to Samoa Joe a few months later. He added two more title reigns this year, but they were rather brief and undistinguished. Furthermore, he was paired with the legendary Arn Anderson, which was a way to try to rejuvenate his run in All Elite, and it worked to some extent until Wardlow abruptly disappeared from television more than three months ago.
When he resurfaced recently, Arn isn’t anywhere to be found so the sum total of the Double A association was moot, especially given Wardlow’s current direction. Don’t get me wrong, I understand what they are going for with the referee stoppages in the past two weeks. Wardlow is a laser-focused wrecking machine that hits the ring, knocks out his opponent, and leaves from ringside. It’s a scenario that gets the point across quickly and impactful, while spotlighting his strengths and camouflaging any potential weakness. The major problem is, that’s a booking strategy for a new project, not someone with a four-year tenure in the organization and three championship reigns.
Essentially, Wardlow is back at square one because he’s doing the same gimmick that he was doing with the power bomb symphony almost two years ago, and that was based on the feud with MJF, not an extended run. For example, if he’s going to reach the main event potential, he must be able to work a main event match, you can’t conclude a pay-per-view with a one-sided referee stoppage so what exactly is being accomplished with the retread of the power bomb gimmick?
The bottom line is, from a character prospective, Wardlow was not only completely stagnant, he made almost no progress in the grand scheme of things because he’s back to squashing enhancement talent again. The talent and the ability of Wardlow the athlete is still there, but the mismanagement of the Wardlow character is a direct result of the lack of booking skills of Tony Khan. Again, Wardlow has all the gifts that you can ask for with a prototype for a main event guy, and after four years on the roster, he’s still squashing Griff Garrison instead of in the main event scene.
It’s somewhat of a harsh reality, but it would be wise for Wardlow to at least consider his options for WWE when his All Elite contract expires, considering that WWE management made Jade Cargill a bigger star in two weeks than AEW did in two years. If Wardlow eventually makes the jump to WWE, he will probably have a bright future in the company.
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Until next week
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