As we usher in post-pandemic live entertainment, next week marks the return of televised live pro wrestling in Charlotte: All Elite Wrestling’s weekly TV series “AEW Dynamite! Fight For the Fallen” airs on TNT live from Bojangles Coliseum on Wednesday.
Much to the roster’s relief, AEW hit the road again earlier this month after filming in Jacksonville for 15 months.
“It was so hard doing pro wrestling in front of no audience,” says North Carolina native and industry veteran Matt Hardy. “It’s basically athletic stunt man theater. We feed off the audience. You can tell how good your match is based on the oohs and aahs.”
Current AEW Women’s Champion Dr. Britt Baker, DMD, agrees: “Without the fans during the pandemic, everything hurt a little more. I broke my nose in front of no fans. It felt like my brain was on fire. I’m thankful that my time (as champion) coincides with us heading back out into the live crowds.”
The relaxed pandemic schedule did have its upsides.
Hardy was able to spend longer stretches at home in Cameron, N.C. (about 100 miles east of Charlotte) with his wife/former wrestler Reby Hardy, three sons and, as of last week, daughter.
“AEW is very mindful,” Hardy says. “They want people to have as much time with their families as they can.”
Baker, meanwhile, took the time to develop her cocky inner villain.
“It made me grow in ways I don’t know that I would have had we not had the pandemic,” she says. “Becoming a heel character came very naturally, but you have to be comfortable with being unlikable, which goes against everything social norms tell you.”
Baker has been juggling wrestling with her dental career since she started training during her first year of dental school. The doctor tag isn’t a gimmick. She works at a private practice near Orlando.
“A lot of time I get off the plane on Thursday morning and work until 8 o’clock at night,” she says.
Baker was the first woman signed to AEW and has become hugely popular. Her first action figure was last week’s best seller at Ringside Collectibles (the online hub for wrestling figures). She and former NWA Women’s Champion Thunder Rosa also pushed the boundaries of what’s considered typical women’s wrestling by employing tables, ladders, and thumbtacks in an Unsanctioned Lights Out match that left Baker looking like Carrie at the prom.
“I have mixed feelings about it, but with any opportunity you have to further women’s wrestling you have to know what you’re signing up for,” she says. “It definitely hurt.”
All Elite Wrestling is the first company to give Vince McMahon’s mammoth WWE a run for its ratings since the late ’90s Monday Night Wars with Ted Turner’s WCW. “Dynamite!” managed to dust WWE’s “NXT” in the ratings. The latter’s since moved to Tuesday nights. AEW also runs two nights’ worth of YouTube content each week and debuts its new TBS series, “Rampage,” on Aug. 13.
Hardy has a unique perspective having spent 29 years working for not only WWE — for which he and his brother Jeff held the tag team titles nine times as The Hardy Boyz — but also at Impact Wrestling and Ring of Honor.
“AEW is the most modern, positive, talent-friendly and family-friendly company I’ve worked with,” he says, giving a nod to promotion owner Tony Khan, the 38-year-old son of Shahid Khan, owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
“The most immediate thing is that if you have an idea where you want your career to go, you’ll be listened to. Tony Khan works hard to put the entire roster in a position where they can be successful. Last week (younger wrestlers) Darby Allin and Ethan Page were in the main event. That wouldn’t have happened two years ago. So many guys can go on last and get over (well with the crowd). The audience wants to see everyone.”
The veteran wrestlers like the 46-year-old Hardy and his recent opponent Christian Cage, who is 47, aren’t the ones driving the fandom.
“AEW fans are younger and based in reality,” Hardy says. “AEW fans like their homegrown stars. The Sammy Guevaras, the Jungle Boys, the Orange Cassidys.”
Hardy wouldn’t mind his outrageous Broken Matt character butting heads with Cassidy, but for now another alter ego, Big Money Matt, mentors a stable of up-and-comers — part of his role is to help establish new stars.
“The casual fan might not know MJF or Jungle Boy, but they probably know Matt Hardy,” he said. “If this younger guy beats Matt Hardy, the casual fan thinks, ‘Oh this guy must be something.’”
If you go
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Bojangles Coliseum, 2700 E. Independence Blvd.