When CM Punk was suspended indefinitely last year, following the events of Brawl Out, a vast, inescapable shadow loomed over AEW.
It just wasn't the same. AEW produced some excellent work in that period. Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley, MJF and Bryan Danielson were bound and determined to deliver quality action and storytelling, but virtually everything peaked at bittersweet, even some of the best TV matches of the year.
Plainly, the vibe was screwed.
Uncertainty prevailed. The idea that neither CM Punk nor the Elite may have returned was brutal. AEW was trapped, through its own making, in a dystopian alternate reality. The best part of Peak AEW Dynamite is those Excalibur run-downs, the idea that a surreal combination can appear on a match graphic out of nowhere and blow your head off into smithereens. In that awful moment, nothing AEW could Photoshop was as good or as thrilling as what was, after three dreamlike years, actually impossible.
Things immediately felt different now that CM Punk is gone for good, not that he isn't a wrestling genius. The Chicago crowd sprinted through every stage of grief, if they even grieved at all. Closure has been attained at long last, and this elusive acceptance stage finally allowed the promotion to become the best, unqualified version of itself.
Whether Tony Khan can maintain this week-to-week remains unclear. The power might not be back, but on the strength of All Out 2023, the vibe most certainly is.
10. Better Than You Bay-Bay Vs. Dark Order - ROH World Tag Team Title Match
This was as fun as a lot of people weirdly didn't anticipate it to be - and a very astute old-fashioned PPV opener. Too often, a long, great match just happens to open the show and isn't an "opener" proper. This was a proper opener, and allowed the rest of the card to unfold without exhausting the crowd.
Once again, MJF is so gifted and so over that he can somehow navigate house show opener material and never not appear like the biggest deal in the company.
In and of itself, this bit is hugely entertaining, but it's even more compelling when you consider the bigger picture of his character arc. He's an expert manipulator, hence why he is able to get massive arenas rocking for his new, basic babyface move-set - but is that the point?
Is he doing an uncanny emulation of a babyface as part of a long con? Is this what the full babyface MJF will actually wrestle like, or will he play it more seriously when the unqualified turn actually happens?
As it turns out, the Dark Order pairing of John Silver and Alex Reynolds were ideal in this slot: while nobody bought a title switch, when MJF was carried to the back after a worked neck injury, Silver and Reynolds were so rapid and explosive with their double team handicap spots that the crowd didn't have time to think about their less-than-credible title credentials.
Star Rating: ★★★½