It’s been a while since I’ve written about wrestling, and no better juncture exists to return to it than now.
Wrestling biggest, era-defining talents have often been based around everyman characters that appeal to society at a moment in time. Arguably, within wrestling, the biggest star to have ever existed was Stone Cold Steve Austin. While he was coming into his own at the same time as the Rock, who has had a much-bigger career since leaving wrestling, Stone Cold was typically the bigger draw of the two within the industry. The biggest thing Stone Cold had going for him was a certain 90s’-era appeal to the common man – he hated his boss, he just wanted a simple life of drinking beer and kicking ass, and while he was a well-trained athlete, he wasn’t the giant of striated muscles and veins of the wrestling past, but a more common, attainable physique. He came to the ring multiple times a night on WWE’s weekly Raw television show, and his music had a simple opening that got your attention – glass shattering (it was actually the fusion of multiple glass and explosion sound effects!). When the glass shattered, you knew someone was going to get hit with a Stone Cold Stunner, beer was going to be consumed and sprayed all over the ring, and the fans would leave their seats in uproarious cheers.
Wrestling has had many standard-bearers since then, but few that have approached that level of unanimous fan consent that Stone Cold did. That alone is part of the reason why wrestling has felt stagnant and dull in many ways in the 2000s – no major promotion has built a star as easy to support as Stone Cold Steve Austin.
I would argue that this has changed.
Where wrestling in the 80s and 90s was a show built around a few flagship stars, wrestling since then has been an ensemble act – WWE likes it this way because they want the brand, more than an individual talent, to be the name out in the pop culture zeitgeist, while most other promotions just tend to build up a roster of tiers, with a lot of talent on equal levels of popularity and featured about the same. In the foreground throughout, however, AEW has been building a star that has quietly (and not so quietly) risen to a rank none would have really thought of a few years ago.
Hangman Adam Page was a high school teacher from Virginia who was working the independent scene of wrestling and trying to make a name for himself. He appears to have been a great teacher – his students posed for a class photo with him when he learned he was signed for a tour with New Japan Pro Wrestling – but his calling is pro wrestling. His gimmick was a cowboy – wearing a noose as he entered the ring, his moves had Western-infused names like the “Buckshot Lariat” and the “Deadeye” and over time, he refined his character further into a cowboy, escaping the indie scene where he had largely played a redneck in trunks and a trucker hat. Page’s big break at that stage was being brought into the Bullet Club, a group of foreigner wrestlers rampaging through New Japan, where his gimmick fit like a glove. He specifically found himself in the Elite, a subgroup of the Bullet Club (originally at least) where he had a chance to flourish. At shows, he was a man of few words who wrestled a strong, hard-hitting style, but on the travel vlog/backstage peek show Being The Elite, he was a funny, soft-spoken guy with clear charisma. Many of his skits from his initial run on BTE are the best parts of that show, mostly the murder of Joey Ryan, where they played a different reading of Hangman’s nickname against Ryan, whose gimmick at that point was “penis wrestler.” (Ryan was later found to have several credible allegations of sexual harassment, which sort of taints this era slightly.)
To make this era’s story short, the Elite saw something big in Hangman and when they ran their indie show All In, Page had a featured match against Joey Janela. Moving from that, Page was also one of the first announced signings for their new company, All Elite Wrestling, and was in the video on BTE that unveiled the new promotion. In the early press conferences and promotion of the company, Page was highlighted by most members of the Elite as the future star of the promotion, the likely first world champion, and an asset worth having around at any cost. It was both promotional but also genuine (Hangman was indeed a part of that initial Elite group that started the company, and critically the only one who was not part of the business operations behind the scenes, so promoting him big seemed like a no-brainer). The sell was needed, too – because while wrestling fans liked Hangman, there wasn’t as strong of an appreciation for him in the ring or as a fully-rounded performer yet.
The first AEW show featured a battle royal with the winner getting entry as one-half of the first match for the AEW World Championship, facing the winner of that night’s main event – Kenny Omega versus Chris Jericho. Page won the battle royal and Jericho the main event, and thus AEW’s first All Out event in September 2019 was Page versus Jericho for the AEW Championship. It was time for Page to rise to the level of promotion his friends had put him up to, right? Right?
His character arc after that saw something rather fascinating. Rather than write off the loss and move on, as many wrestlers would, this one match defined the two years and change that followed. It saw Hangman picking up a drinking problem, but unlike the Stone Cold beer bashes of the past, Page was presented as having a problem. It was good at skirting that line too – tongue-in-cheek enough (he’s obviously not drunk, the seriousness of alcoholism was respected) but also presented as a clear sign of a problem. His friends in the Elite grew distant, save for one – Kenny Omega, who overlooked his problems (and was having some problems of his own to live up to expectations) to form a tag team, winning the AEW Tag Team championship. This led them to one of AEW’s best-ever matches, against fellow Elite members the Young Bucks, at Revolution 2020, where Page and Omega retained the titles. However, the friction in the group was shown – Page didn’t trust that Omega was going to stay with him, as he felt the distance with his friends and the match created more distance between Page and the Bucks, built around the fact that the Bucks are IRL straight-edge while Page was drinking on-camera a lot, taking fan beers (ah, pre-COVID) and was also showing them up while doing it.
The tension never went away, as even in victory, Page teased turning on all of them, including Omega. He didn’t, however, and things settled into a tenuous and fictional peace leading into the pandemic. Page, or rather the person behind the character, took the pandemic very seriously, and he did not perform with AEW for a few months, adhering strictly to stay-at-home orders and using his Twitter to promote such efforts with a fictional press release. With AEW implementing fairly stringent COVID protocol at shows including testing talent prior to backstage entry, Page came back for Double or Nothing 2020 and participated in the first Stadium Stampede match alongside the other members of the Elite. The tension between the members of the group continued to mount, now focused on Omega, who was fearing that a friendship between Page and AEW newcomers FTR (a tag team) would threaten their reign. In the end, Omega was right, as the team lacked cohesion for their defense against FTR at All Out 2020, and lost the titles, largely due to Page’s misplaced trust in FTR. FTR being in that match was itself a result of Page’s misplaced trust, as Page grabbed the leg of one of the Young Bucks in a tournament match to determine the number 1 contenders to the tag team titles, further pushing the tension within the Elite and leading to the Young Bucks ejecting Page from the group.
With the loss, Page was no longer a champion, and spent the fall in singles competition in the AEW World Title eliminator tournament, a bracket that would eventually lead to a final match at the Full Gear event in November 2020. The finals were down to Hangman and his former tag team partner Kenny Omega. He lost.
His confidence was lower than ever, his friends gone, and his partner doing better without him, as Omega moved on to win the AEW World Championship, a title he holds to this day. Hangman’s drinking problem continued, but he found some friends in unlikely places.
The Dark Order are a cult. In wrestling, what that functionally means is that when they are heels on-camera, they are forcefully trying to recruit wrestlers to pull in cronies to do their dirty work, and when they are faces (a good guy cult? It’s more likely than you’d believe!) they are a group of friends who seek to enable everyone to be at their best. The Dark Order, dealing with the absence of their leader Brodie Lee (who sadly died of non-COVID lung problems on December 26th, 2020) was trying to find a new figure to rally around. Since Hangman’s descent, they’d been teasing him joining the Dark Order – first, when the group were heels, as them trying to pull him into the group and use him against the Elite, and as faces, because they liked him as a person and wanted to be his friends. This actually perfectly played up Page’s insecurities as a character – being in groups always led to him being ostracized and cast out, he was always the odd man out, he always dragged down the groups he was in and his departure always led to the group being better off. The Elite kicked him out, and after that, pulled in the World Championship and the Tag Team titles. Hangman was insecure and couldn’t put them through that – he’d just be a burden, and so he would hang out with them sometimes, but always declined their offers of membership.
But something curious happened.
Over time, while Hangman never officially became a part of the Dark Order, he continued to hang out with them, and would occasionally join them for matches. They helped him in matches – the best example, at Revolution 2021, literally catching him when he was going to fall out of the ring and launching him into his signature Buckshot Lariat on Matt Hardy, his opponent – and while he kept them at arms’ length, they kept digging their way in to his heart. By the summer and the leadup to the now-legendary All Out 2021, the group appeared to be unified – Hangman speaking about the way Dark Order did things as though he was one of them, and the whole group made a wager – with Hangman now ranked number 1 in the men’s division, he was due a shot at Omega and the AEW title, and the Dark Order’s main tag team of Evil Uno and Stu Grayson was also ranked highly in the tag team division. There would be a Dark Order versus Elite match – if the Dark Order won, Page got his earned World Title match and the Dark Order could put a tag team against the Young Bucks for the tag titles. If they lost, however, the Dark Order would not get the tag title shot, and Hangman would drop in the rankings and thus be unable to challenge Omega at All Out for the title.
The Dark Order, with Hangman, lost. It was an elimination match, and a damn good one, with Hangman putting down multiple members of the Elite himself, but the odds were too great and Hangman had failed again. There would be no Omega versus Page title match and Page disappeared from AEW television again, this time to be at home with his wife as she gave birth to their first child. All Out 2021 happened, and the entire scene in AEW was upended, as while Page was gone, AEW saw the return to wrestling of CM Punk, the WWE-defections of Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole, and industry veteran Christian Cage took Page’s place in wrestling Omega to close out All Out 2021 in a great matchup. It was difficult to see how Page would fit in, and some even suspected that the story might just end up dropped, with the new arrivals being obviously high-stakes matchups for Kenny Omega.
But the thing AEW does, more than anything, that makes me respect them as a promotion and as worthwhile of my time and PPV money, is that they always pay off their storylines.
On October 6th 2021, AEW hosted a “Casino Ladder Match” which is a simple concept – wrestlers enter at intervals and have to fight to retrieve a poker chip hanging above the ring (AEW’s first show was in Las Vegas so the “casino” thing has been insistently stuck in their branding forever) which gives the winner a shot at the AEW World Title. Hangman returned as the “Joker” (surprise entrant and more gambling theme!) and won the match, putting him on a guaranteed collision course for Omega, who is still the AEW World Champion. After over two years and multiple failures to live up to the initial hype around him, Page is now poised for the match that most of us expect will be his coronation – at Full Gear in November, finally facing Omega again at the same event where he lost the chance to challenge for the title to Omega last year.
So all of that gets you up to speed on what the deal is with Page in storyline terms. Why is Page such a big deal that fans come unglued cheering for him almost more than the big-name WWE imports?
The easiest thing to say is that he is Stone Cold for the modern era.
Hangman is presented as the “Anxious Millennial Cowboy,” he talks a big game and has quietly amassed a good wrestling career with a lot of solid and well-built matches and his time in AEW and on BTE has sharpened him as a high-quality promo who is able to sell his matches with talk and raw emotion.
Where he differs from Stone Cold is the way in which he speaks to a modern audience. Stone Cold had all the bluster of a boomer, the complete and total self-confidence one needed to be a badass in the late 90s, and when Stone Cold as a character had moments of self-doubt, he turned to cheating and was turned heel (arguably in the move which began WWE’s descent as a force in entertainment). Hangman embodies people of my generation well – he’s got talent and feels like he can be more, but frequently is told he could be so much more, fails to reach it, and has a moment where he internalizes that and feels that failure immensely. He keeps coming back and making his efforts but it wasn’t good enough, and trying to live up to this vision painted for him by others leads him to bitterness, to being rejected by the very people that used to talk him up and sold him this fiction that he was a sure-fire success waiting to happen. However, through his lived experiences, he cast aside the Elite’s version of the narrative and found the desire and will within himself, taking his own road to get to what many saw and presented as his destiny.
I personally feel so much connection to Hangman’s story because it feels like the shared experience of millions of us in the millennial generation. We were sold an American Dream that was always fiction, given a crumbling world and told we could still have the gilded hills of the past if just we tried, and then told that our effort wasn’t good enough as those who came before us looted the vision they painted for us down to the foundation and worse while they blamed us for the decay that came as a result of that looting. Hangman’s character arc is the same basic idea in microcosm – his friends used him to build their foundation, discarded him when he couldn’t be controlled, and then told him that his failure was always inevitable because he was too lazy, too unfocused, and didn’t try hard enough. No matter how much Hangman put into that loss, it was always a loss in the record books, and to the veteran wrestlers that came before, that was all that mattered – you lost, we won, suck it up.
Hangman’s ascension, likewise, mirrors the ways in which many of my generational cohort have found their way forward in this stripped-down hellworld. He found friends that genuinely care and like him, who prop him up in victory and defeat, and who offer him their shared resources to enrich him and see his enrichment as being to the value of the whole group. He forged his own path through his career, both in kayfabe on-screen by making choices about who to associate with and being careful to avoid another Elite situation, and in shoot off-screen by taking time off for the pandemic, taking it seriously when some performers (Chris Jericho notably, who performed at Sturgis 2020 with his shit-rock band Fozzy maskless and whose wife was at the capital on January 6th) weren’t, and by opting to forego what was the logical conclusion to the biggest run and moment of his career in order to be at home with his wife when she gave birth to their first child. In WWE, such a thing would be unheard of, and certainly, a wrestler who opted to do that would return and be punished. This was literally the case for Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat in the 80s, who opted to leave in the midst of his run with the Intercontinental title in that promotion and was punished by having to lose it embarrassingly, rebranded when he returned as just “The Dragon” and was made to look like a fool until he left in frustration.
Hangman Adam Page, as a character and the person behind that character, has taken an enviable life path where he has always opted to be present for those he cares about even if his career is benched momentarily for it, and I am glad for the person that an AEW exists where he gets that choice without punitive action. As a character, he embodies a modern male archetype that I wish was more common – he feels things, he knows things, he’s not afraid to be smart or sensitive and he takes pride in being a good person, thinking of the common good, and acting in accordance with his own values and morals while not being moralizing or judgmental. He’s a tough guy who works out and beats people up for a living but he’s also a role model, who had a literal alcoholism into recovery arc that was quietly baked into his character story! He has nuance, unlike Stone Cold – the modern era needed a wrestler who has shades of grey built in and who isn’t always the toughest guy in the room or a careless automaton who only wants his own advancement. Hangman’s success and the audience’s insistence that he be the next top guy in AEW is built on that foundation – we want him to succeed because he’s us, the millennial-aged audience that is foundational to AEW’s success. We want him to succeed because his friends in the Dark Order do, because the audience cheering him on do, and because it seems like he’s just a fucking good person in a business that so often doesn’t have someone like that in the top spots. We want him to prove the Elite wrong, to prove the older generation wrong, and to show that failure doesn’t have to be a permanent label and that there’s always another way around from the fictional primrose path presented to those of us in the younger generations.
He is what wrestling can be at its best – a simple narrative driven through strong character interactions on the microphone and in the ring that speaks deeply to what the audience wants and desires more than anything. Hangman wants to be champion, but he wants validation – of his life path, his career, and the decisions he’s made, and he’s gotten that internally and from his friends in the Dark Order now. The only thing that remains is the championship match at Full Gear, and given that AEW knows to take the slam dunks when they can, I suspect he’ll win and everyone will erupt in cheers at the Target Center in Minneapolis that night. (If they choose not to do that, boy will I have egg on my face.)
Now that is some good cowboy shit.
I’m going to close this with two videos I think you should watch if you found this interesting. The first one, much shorter, is a recent promo that Hangman cut on AEW Dynamite, which perfectly encapsulates the story and gives you a sense of direction for where things are heading. It is also one of the best promos in AEW and feels like this generation’s “Hard Times.” The second fills in a good chunk of the early story that I glossed over here for the sake of brevity (I know, but it could have been much longer). If you liked this post, I highly encourage you to watch both!