On Saturday, November 18th, and over the course of five swift hours (including the Zero Hour pre-show), more than 13,000 attendees inside Inglewood, Calif.’s Kia Forum enjoyed a collection of gladiatorial matches, the participants of which saw their respective story-fueled chapters enthrallingly culminate at All Elite Wrestling’s annual November spectacular: Full Gear.
Although the nascent wrestling organization — led intrepidly by owner, CEO, and creative head Tony Khan — has hitherto weaved drama with a sports-based presentation, Full Gear stood out for being infused with additional theatrics that were heartily welcomed by the live fans. As a result, with a central through line running for the duration of the extravaganza about whether defending AEW World Champion Maxwell Jacob Friedman (MJF) would be medically cleared in time for the main event, alongside an indelibly brutish Texas Death Match that took the audience on a roller coaster ride for the ages, there was significant intrigue and contentment in the arena in tandem with the favorably received otherworldly athleticism that viewers have come to expect from the underdog promotion.
The sometimes elusive “big event” feel was in full force for Full Gear, amplified by a compelling uncertainty that MJF, who suffered a devastating leg injury at the hands of the dastardly Austin and Colten Gunn (sons of D-Generation X’s Billy Gunn) in the closing minutes of Zero Hour, would return to face his Auckland, New Zealand-nemesis in the “Switchblade” Jay White who had ignominiously commandeered Friedman’s belt for himself six weeks prior. With the surprise appearance of MJF’s convalescing best friend, Adam Cole, who waddled out on crutches, to witnessing MJF be stretchered into the back of an ambulance, and Cole courageously stepping in as a proxy for his confidant in the finale to come, attention spans were augmented by an intoxicating wonderment that transfixed with each new development. Besides, the question of how the “Devil” — an inscrutable character who was previously attributed to MJF and has waylaid others in the shadows of AEW’s backstage area — would fit into the equation loomed largely.
The opening match pitted the patriarchal and conceitedly despicable Christian Cage, along with 18-year-old Nick Wayne and the 65-million-year-old Luchasaurus against a trio of heroes in Adam Copeland (formerly Edge in WWE), the fearless Darby Allin, and the legendary Sting, all of whom collectively arrived in noir-reminiscent black-and-white trench coats, with the transcendent icon, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, trailing behind. The narrative here was that Christian was trepidatious about getting in the ring with his former tag partner, Copeland. Still, despite Christian abruptly absconding the premises, the good guys won in the end, prompting a fervid “Thank You, Sting” chant for the longtime grappler whose illustrious run will bittersweetly conclude in March 2024 at AEW Revolution.
Subsequently, Jon Moxley (Dean Ambrose in WWE) went head-to-head with the comically nonchalant Orange Cassidy who has been equipped with the preternatural ability to pummel his foes while having his hands ensconced in his pockets. Nonetheless, after Moxley defeated Cassidy in the main event of All Out in September, Cassidy had to dig deep and uncover an austere side of himself. His redemption arc was in full swing for the sequel against the unapologetically violent Moxley as Cassidy delivered six of his patented Orange Punches to finally climb the mountainous hurdle. More importantly, the spectators in attendance, who repeatedly bellowed “Freshly Squeezed” in support, couldn’t be more thrilled to see Orange’s coronation as an unmistakable headliner.
The rise of “Timeless” Toni Storm, a female wrestler who has convinced herself she is a Golden Age Hollywood starlet with mannerisms in the vein of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, is a testament to Khan’s keen willingness to collaborate with his ambitious talent. Storm faced off against AEW Women’s Champion Hikaru Shida, a Japanese sensation, who, despite chopping the No. 1 contender’s chest into a beet-red color, ultimately fell to Storm’s trademark butt barge (this time silver tray-assisted) in the corner as her proud butler, Lutha, nodded approvingly as did the fans who melodiously shouted for “Timeless Toni,” the new AEW Women’s Champion.
Similar to Storm, the 22-year-old Julia Hart, who shed her bubbly cheerleader image for a morose, dark-hatted persona, also saw her ascendance to the upper echelon of the women’s division when she defeated reigning champion Kris Statlander and the gloomily transformed Skye Blue in a triple-threat match for the TBS Championship. Hart, who again demonstrated a precise and majestically picturesque moonsault, pilfered the pin from Statlander who had just finished driving Blue’s head into the mat. The raucous cheers for Hart’s victory, which had been overdue since her failing to win at last month’s WrestleDream pay-per-view, confirmed that the right woman left the Kia Forum as TBS Champion.
The four-way ladder match for the AEW Tag Team Championship between champs “Absolute” Ricky Starks and Big Bill, La Facción Ingobernable (brothers Rush and Dralístico), FTR (Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler) as well as Malakai Black and Brody King unanimously became one of AEW’s best ladder matches in the company’s short history after 20 hard-hitting minutes. Highlights included Dax Harwood suplexing Starks into the other competitors, the gargantuan wrestlers Bill and Brody squaring off to “meat” chants, Dax Harwood getting back-body dropped onto a ladder, and Brody piledriving Dralístico onto the unforgiving steel rungs. The decibel meter ran amok with oohs and aahs by an entranced crowd who were in starry-eyed disbelief about how much torture their favorite wrestlers were putting their bodies through. As the ladder falls became increasingly calamitous, Starks and Bill overcame staggering odds to retain in what most thought, up until that point, would be the standout match of the evening; however, that notion would soon be shattered by the Texas Death Match.
Following their first meeting at WrestleDream when the antagonistic Swerve Strickland won in a classic encounter against “Hangman” Adam Page, only to ratchet up his wickedness by breaking into Page’s home and subtly threatening his family, there was no other recourse to be had but unmitigated carnage for this personal affair, which gloriously peaked with a 30-minute foray into hell and back.
And what a journey it was for the arrested onlookers who found themselves initially dancing with the virally popular Prince Nana (manager to Strickland) only to find themselves in utter shock mere minutes later at the grisly sights of the feral “Hangman” crunching staples into Strickland’s chest and face. The Washington-born wrestler/rapper bled so profusely that, at one juncture, blood droplets cascaded into the mouth of “Hangman,” who was so rabidly replenished by it that he summarily rose and misted his adversary’s blood into the air as fans roared with a testosterone-powered battle cry like it were 81 A.D. inside the Roman Colosseum. As if that wasn’t enough, the barbaric utilization of barbed wire, broken glass, a cinderblock, and chain upped the ante even more en route to Strickland finally rendering his unceasing rival incapacitated for a back-to-back conquest against the indignantly righteous cowboy. Certainly, for all the match’s vicious weapons, the half-hour predominantly resonated with the fans because of the poetic consonance between the bloodletting and the intense storyline stakes at play; in the end, this proved to be a fever-pitched fight that will unquestionably stand the test of time.
With the unenviable task of having to follow the match of the year, The Golden Jets (Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega) and the Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) applaudingly recaptured the attention of the drained audience who discovered their second wind. Moreover, despite German suplexes galore, senton splashes, and a recurring reversal of moves, it was particularly Omega’s consternation about hurting his “Elite” friends, the Bucks, which took the drama, unfurling with terrific effect, to the next level. The Golden Jets prevailed, usurping the Bucks’ title shot for the AEW Tag Team Titles at a future date, and settled a bet amongst friends so convincingly that the Bucks responded with a shoe-throwing tantrum that would have made the quirky Toni Storm — whose catchphrase is “Chin up, tits out, and watch out for the shoe” — deliriously proud.
Last, but not least, with Adam Cole slowly inching himself towards the ring to honorably represent his fallen “brochacho,” sirens astonishingly signaled the reemergence of MJF who was, in fact, behind the wheel of the same hurtling ambulance that transported him to a local medical facility. Needless to say, this earned a boisterous applause from the audience who, for the next 30 minutes, furiously bit their nails as Friedman continually crumbled in agonizing pain as challenger White sadistically focused on irreparably harming the leg of his opponent.
Be that as it may, Cole, who cheered on MJF with bated breath at ringside, oftentimes tapped the ring apron to inspire clapping and “He’s Our Scumbag” chants on behalf of his best bud. Just as Max seemed like he couldn’t hold on much longer, he delivered a thump of an elbow drop onto White who lay prostrate on the debris of the announcers’ table. A few minutes later, MJF repressed the burning pangs percolating through his body and dropped White from the ring to the merciless floor beneath. But when White thwarted an onslaught and seized momentum again, Cole dramatically deliberated over throwing in the towel to save his friend — a decision that would have also cost MJF his beloved title. Rebelliously spitting in the face of probability, MJF grabbed his trusty diamond ring to knock White out and retake his most prized possession. In the remaining seconds of the show, the ominous “Devil” was nowhere to be found, but the denouement of MJF’s tumultuous trek through the evening proved to be more than fulfilling for the throngs of enthusiasts at the Kia Forum.
Overall, on a night that ceremoniously announced the signing of top-ranking free agent Will Ospreay — a breathtaking phenomenon in the ring — and featured the usual mind-blowing physical feats and extraordinary tolerance for anguish, it was the pugnacious melodrama months leading up to the bouts, the MJF conflict captivatingly introduced and resolved within a four-hour span, and the narratives told within the individual confrontations themselves that made AEW Full Gear 2023 as historic as it was. Best of all, the greater emphasis on storytelling was accepted passionately by an impressive turnout of AEW aficionados from Greater Los Angeles.
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