It hits me like some sort of tidal wave of inevitability. After months of gaslighting, manipulation and underhanded tactics, I see the Young Bucks resolve quiver and then dissolve. I see Matt, so reluctant to hit Kenny and carry on with the match that the anger seeps out of him, out onto the mat where Jon Moxley is on his knees. It’s a car crash in slow motion, it’s the bad guy putting the dagger into the hero’s hand and telling him to do what needs to be done. It’s something that was so inevitable I couldn’t see it coming, but it was there all along. Of course this was the end game.
The Good Brothers pull Mox up, Nick looks at Matt for the next move, ever the younger brother. Matt shrugs, some sort of sad defeated thing backed by something cold and they superkick Mox. A man who had been reluctant to team with them in the first place, but felt that same sting of betrayal in the past and empathized with what had been their current plight.
Kenny celebrates in the background, manically unwound, knowing all the pieces had finally fallen into place. He’d meticulously crafted the Buck’s turn, after all. I’m whispering into my hands, my friends’ voices from the group chat we’d all been in to watch almost static in my ears. Matt says he’s sorry to Kenny. He says HE’S sorry for everything that Kenny put them through. For not siding with him, for not being there. He shouldn’t apologize, but he does. It makes my heart sink into my stomach. Together again, but the well is poisoned. Seeing them as a team again brings me some sort of weird satisfaction that I have a hard time articulating even now. The heel Elite at last, but at what cost?
The Elite had been a unit since the beginning of Dynamite, since before the dawn of AEW, but I hadn’t been aware at the time, too sucked in by Jon Moxley’s radiating and wholly enveloping charisma to see past to the men who had founded the company and sacrificed something almost invisible in doing so. The company’s success riding on their shoulders and suffocating them slowly. Watching that first episode of AEW Dynamite I didn’t know it at the time, but The Elite would all drown eventually, agonizingly slowly.
I sat down with designs to write about Hangman and Kenny. So, why am I talking about the moment the Buck’s turned heel? Why this? Well, it’s nearly impossible to talk about Hangman and Kenny without talking about The Elite and certainly not without talking about the Young Bucks who at this point in writing this (The week before Full Gear 2021) are my favorite characters in wrestling. The Elite, all still intrinsically tied together even after the ties had been severed, pulled apart, and cut with scissors. The thing hardly anyone will talk about when they talk about Hangman’s rise to the man who is currently vying for the AEW Championship is that this thing, that slow drowning, the turn to villany, the rise of The Collector Kenny Omega and Hangman’s own imposter syndrome was a group effort. The Elite dissolved because of The Elite. The collective. Not the individual. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Let’s take this back for a moment. Away from the precipice. Let’s take this back to the closing moments of AEW Revolution 2020. I was lucky enough to be in the audience for this show, the last thing I ever did before the pandemic swallowed wrestling and the world whole. I’d come to see Jon Moxley win the world title and hadn’t expected to be emotionally wrung out by the middle of the show by a tag match that I’d hardly known the background of. Kenny Omega stands in the ring with a broken hand, Matt is panting, his chest heaving as he and Nick press their hands to Kenny’s back trying to smooth over the last 30 minutes of emotional baggage that they had thrown at each other. Kenny winces, but looks over at Hangman who has his belt. Adam hesitates on the outside, inches closer toward the rope and leans, staring as the three men stand in a line in what almost seems like a defensive maneuver. Everyone is bracing for something, but it doesn’t happen. The Elite don’t superkick Hangman and Hangman doesn’t go through with the Buckshot Lariat. Kenny leaves his oldest friends’ sides and hobles up the ramp with Hangman, side by side.
The world turns off after that and the boy’s put the story in their pocket for safe keeping. They keep feuding with the Inner Circle while Hangman and The Bucks are away, quarantined in different parts of the country, Kenny endears himself to everyone in the meantime flexing his comedy muscles more in the absence of the rest of his stable. Cody vanishes into thin air. I can’t really say I miss him.
I watch every episode of Being the Elite now and with all the extra time I have on my hands, I decide to go back and watch from the beginning.
It’s like someone gives me a key that unlocks something.
I see the past in everything the Elite do now and it sticks out to me everywhere. Hangman and the Bucks come back, swooping in to save Kenny in his hour of need. Together, they all give us the Stadium Stampede and over a whiskey and milk toast, Kenny and Hangman finally, finally seem like they are on the same page. I cried watching that night, I think a lot of us did, but friendship and the power it holds felt palpable. Like it could touch you.
It’s so tragic that finding the past let’s me see through everything.
When I learn more about Kenny in Japan, it quickly exposes the story he’s been telling all along. He and Hangman’s move set as a tag team features some borrowed items. The Golden Lovers, Kenny’s former tag team and former partner Kota Ibushi are written all over everything. I’ve never seen wrestling as a form of pinning before and even when Kenny and Hangman are firing on all cylinders, even when they get a bespoke tag team finisher, the gap is too wide. Kenny uses Hangman as a replacement for the gaping hole Kota left in his life, Hangman uses Kenny as a crutch as his anxiety about being less than, especially in the face of the other members of The Elite, stares to pull him under again. FTR who are old rivals but technically new rivals worm their way into the heart of the Elite. Hangman finds he can relate to them, more than he can the Bucks and Kenny who have always been a unit stuck together with glue. Always too close to let anyone else in.
Over the summer as the story twists and turns, Hangman openly leaves Kenny out to dry in situations with FTR. I remember him laughing as they pour beer all over Kenny in the ring. He’ll tell Kenny backstage that he deserved it for being standoffish, but I remember all that time ago on BTE, how Adam was just as responsible for saying “Fuck the Revival.” as anyone else. He owns that too. FTR are manipulating him, but I realize then that this story was never black and white. There are devils in his ear and when those suggestions mix with Hangman’s own insecurity it creates a toxic soup. He tells Matt and Nick when the Bucks try and reconcile with him that as much as he loves them, he doesn’t like them and he thinks they dont like him either. I watch Matt’s face fall as Adam walks out of the room.
The next few weeks are an emotional whirlwind.
Poisoned by FTR’s lies, Hangman stops Matt and Nick from winning the gauntlet match that will give them another shot at he and Kenny’s titles. Matt and Nick in kind, finally kick him out of the Elite. The segment makes me cry. Hangman looks devastated, but it’s the wobble in Matt’s voice as he screams that gets to me. The next week, Hangman looks humiliated as Dax and Cash lay out the plan they used to trap him.
Kenny meanwhile is starting to walk down his own dark path again, spurred on by the fact that Hangman has spent the last few months walking away from him. Alienating him. I know, now that I’ve visited Kenny’s past, that nothing torments him more than being abandoned. The responsibilities of being The Best Bout Machine for his new company and not being able to achieve what he set out to do are finally taking their toll. The Cleaner we’ve all heard about wakes up, but he doesn’t emerge right away, just waits under the surface, mutated now to fit Kenny’s needs. Created by isolation and disappointment.
Losing the tag belts is the last straw. The tag match against FTR is brutal. It’s nearly 100 degrees that night and the miscommunication between Kenny and Hangman is as strong as if it’s the first time they are tagging. Kenny accidentally V-Triggers Hangman, he looks devastated after he collapses, like the last vestiges of his hope is finally peeling away after it had been hanging on by a thread. Kenny grabs onto Hangman’s leg, the fringe on his pants and begs him to get up.
They lose the match, but Kenny doesn’t turn. He lets Hangman fall to the mat and walks off. Backstage, Matt and Nick wait for him, Kenny mutters about wanting to go back to the way things used to be, but the Bucks attempt to stop him from falling into old patterns. Kenny, torn open at the loss and now the rebuff from his oldest friends tells them that they can either leave the arena with him or that there is no going back. They stare as Kenny slams the door of the black SUV and drives away. I don’t know it at the time, but this is a breaking point for Kenny. A point of no return. Everything that happens after, will hinge on this moment in time.
And it does.
Kenny says he’s ready to be a singles star again. Adam has decided that he doesn’t want to let go. He tells Tony Schivone in an interview that I won’t ever forget that he’s full of poison. He hides how much drink he’s indulging in, embarrassed. He comes out to see Kenny’s matches and tells commentary that he wouldn’t be a good friend if he didn’t at least try and patch it up between them. It’s funny that Hangman wants to try now when it’s too late and never tried to care when Kenny was trying. They are a missed connection in the truest sense, but it’s over now. They get placed in the tournament on different sides of the bracket and it’s inevitable that they meet. Meanwhile, The Bucks languish, The Elite ruined by FTR’s medaling. They want a match and they want the titles and they flirt with being heel just a little bit, but they are just lashing out because of what they’ve lost. I understand that part of the story even if no one else seems to at the time.
Kenny becomes a parody of the Cleaner. It’s cruel. Broom girls, overblown entrances…watching it makes my skin feel like it’s falling off. I know The Cleaner and that’s not him.
Hangman loses to Kenny in that finals match at Full Gear. They give us a taste of what’s to come, enough to leave us wanting. Kenny puts his hand on Hangman’s chest after he pins him. A small, final farewell. Where Kenny is going, Hangman can’t follow. No one really can and he prefers it that way. Leave everyone before they can leave you. It’s always worked for him in the past. He’s committed. Kenny hatches a plan. Replace the loneliness he feels inside, the fear of failing, the realization he left a part of himself behind in Japan with gold. With things. He cheats to win the belt from Jon Moxley, steals it with the help of a familiar devil in Don Callis, the slimiest man you’ll ever meet. He installs himself as Kenny’s manager and after a bait and switch, absconds away with him and the belt. They are taking it to Impact. The Collector is born.
I hate him.
He spens that last month of the year and all of January rewriting his history. He cuts The Buck’s out and when Matt and Nick try to reach him, he’s pulled away by Don.
“You’re brainwashed!” Nick says as Don drags Kenny away by his arm. Matt just stares, his anger bubbling away inside. The months they spend estranged, Kenny working overtime to cut Matt and Nick out and haphazardly try to stitch them back into his life in a way that fits is difficult for me to watch. I’ve become invested in the bond the three of them have. As it dissolves and Kenny’s ulterior motive is discovered (burn them down to build them back up in the image he wants them) Hangman spends time becoming easy friends with the Dark Order who suffer their own loss. It’s hard for him, but he finds they support him even if he’s not the best, even if he struggles. They are there for him when he fails and even if he’s not sure if he’s ready to have friends again or even be in a group, they understand even if it’s a little rocky along the way. They help the cowboy and he helps them. What friends are for. I smile when I see the good it’s doing him.
As Matt, Nick and Kenny’s relationship breaks down and mutates, Hangman’s bond with the Dark Order strengthens. They are on a road diverged.
Truths are found in Kenny’s lies: “I didn’t choose AEW, I chose the Young Bucks, but you guys never chose me back.” Matt looks like he wants to cry, Nick doesn’t know what to say. This segment in the ring makes me tear up. Kenny is pulling everyone down with him and he doesn’t care what it takes.
On an episode of BTE Matt stands outside the Dark Order’s room at Daily’s Place, wanting to say he’s sorry and ultimately decides Hangman is better off without him.
In my bones I know this is what informs what happens next.
It’s that inevitable feeling again. Back in April when the Elite finally reunited but fundamentally changed by the creation of AEW. Desperate to be reunited, but unable to capture the past. The Buck’s cut the fringe off their pants spurred on by Kenny about needing to change. Real hurt and venom is wrapped up inside of this heel turn. Matt’s anxiety, anger and hurt made manifest. It’s sad that Kenny’s done this to them, but it feels weirdly like a power fantasy to me. Them getting back at everyone who desparged them for the incredible body of work. The people that said The Elite didn’t have it anymore. Something about the way they start dressing makes me feel powerful but that’s another essay for another day.
Some call the reformed Super Elite having all the belts and always winning a reign of terror. I delight in it, even if I know everyone is suffering inside.
Hangman’s easy friendship with The Dark Order gives him the confidence to win. He becomes number one contender and when Kenny say’s all of his competition is gone, that he has no one else left to fight in AEW, The Dark Order emerge and tell him that Hangman is ready to challenge for the belt. Kenny scoffs.
Hangman enters panic mode. He’s avoided his old friends this long, what’s avoiding them some more? Except…he can’t. His friends push him, they know he can win, they know he wants the belt and is too afraid of Kenny and confronting the past to go after it. They lay it all on the line and perhaps the most important thing they tell him is that even if he loses, they will still be there after because they are friends.
He pushes past his anxiety and ends up on the wrong side of The Elite again. Matt cuts a sneering promo on him.
“Oh Hangman, remember us? The friends you abandoned?” I can’t help but feel like he’s not wrong. Hangman’s anxiety didn’t just affect him, it affected everyone around him. Pushed The Bucks away when maybe they would have actually listened to him.
Hangman still isn’t ready. As much as he tries to fire himself up. He and the Dark Order lose the shot they get to take on The Elite. It makes Hangman refocus. He comes to the ring the next week and says he wants to talk to Matt and Nick. That he has something to tell them.
I’ve waited months for Hangman to own up to his part of this. He seems ready to confront that he’s also done something wrong. I lean closer to the TV from my couch and then I see Kenny insert himself in between the three of them like he knows. Like he knows that kind words, an apology, might set the Bucks back off on a path away from him. Hangman never gets to finish his apology.
He goes away for 2 months after the Elite BTE Triggers his brain out of his skull in the middle of the ring.
Kenny pulls the Bucks closer after that. He dyes his hair black. He starts to unwind even more and I wasn’t sure that was even possible.
I’m in the audience at All Out when he dispatches with Christian.
The Elite welcome an old friend back into the fold. And a new enemy.
I wait and wait and wait to see when Hangman might come back. We all know why he’s out, but that doesn’t stop us from missing him.
They announce a Casino Ladder Match on a random Dynamite to set up a new contender for the belt. It has a mystery Joker entrant.
It has to be Hangman.
And it is.
His music hits and the crowd has missed him so much. Even if we knew he had to be away. He comes out and wrecks shop, climbs that ladder and gets his shot. It makes me cry even when I thought it wouldn’t. He tells Tony Shivone again, the same man that interviewed him at his lowest, that he feels good, that he welcomed a baby into the world and that he has to reconnect with some friends and find some words for some others. Those last words stick with me more than anything.
Hangman still has to make it right. He needs to. He’s found his confidence, but the pieces are still missing. As I am writing this, we have yet to see what transpires on the go home show for Full Gear. What Kenny and Hangman have to say to each other right on the cusp of their big fight. I might be alone here, but I believe if Hangman can get his apology out. Can tell Kenny what he’s seen him go through this entire time. That will rock Kenny harder than any fist fight they could get into over a contract signing.
Some Cowboys ride into town to cause chaos, some come back to restore order. I really hope this one does the latter. For my and The Elite’s sake.