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Wardlow Is on the Precipice of a Breakout Moment

The usually voiceless enforcer speaks about his big opportunity in Wednesday night’s match vs. CM Punk.

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Wardlow

Wardlow: “I’m an AEW original”

Wrestling’s next breakout star shares the ring Wednesday night with CM Punk on Dynamite.

For more than two years, Wardlow has stood patiently and quietly in the enormous shadow of wrestling prodigy Maxwell J. Friedman. His role is to serve as MJF’s muscle, allowing the charismatic villain to speak freely, offensively and extemporaneously without reason for concern.

The puzzle fits best with MJF talking—and talking and talking—while receiving protection from a silent Wardlow, who remains voiceless to keep the focus on MJF. But that doesn’t mean that Wardlow lacks substance when he does speak.

“If I ever speak, I think people will say, ‘Oh s---, this guy can talk, too,’” said Wardlow. “Maybe there will come a point where I get some things off my chest, but my focus is on my presence and my facials. That’s how I tell my story. My actions speak for me. That’s how I am inside and out of the ring.”

Wardlow is Michael Wardlow, the 33-year-old Ohio-raised talent. Largely unknown before signing with AEW in 2019, he has been a part of a couple of key moments in AEW, either beside MJF or in the ring. Wardlow wrestled Chris Jericho as part of the “Five Labors of Jericho,” as well as wrestled Cody Rhodes on a Dynamite in Atlanta two years ago in a steel cage match. Yet he has never encountered a match like the one he is stepping into Wednesday evening against CM Punk.

“A match against Punk is surreal,” said Wardlow. “The match against Cody was more realistic. With the way that built between him and Max, I knew we were eventually going to cross paths. A match against Jericho, I thought that might happen, too. But CM Punk? I never thought I’d get in the ring with him. Just to see the graphic, CM Punk vs. Wardlow, it’s a completely different feel. I can’t believe it’s happening.

“I usually get very intense leading up to my matches, but I’ve been very calm here. Maybe that’s a good thing. CM Punk is a living legend. I’m excited to show the world what I’m capable of.”

Wardlow

The story line between Punk and MJF continues to develop, with MJF delivering the best work of his career against the wrestling icon. The match against Punk marks the seventh straight week that Wardlow will be wrestling on Dynamite. Outside of the “Dynamite Diamond Battle Royale,” he has been victorious in the five other matches.

Wardlow is generating momentum by the week, and if he ever turns on MJF and fellow Pinnacle member Shawn Spears, the response from the crowd should be electric. And there could be further dissension if MJF causes Punk to lose by disqualification as payback after Punk did that to MJF last week. Wardlow’s role is understated yet critical. It appears he is reaching his breaking point with MJF, so it will be fascinating to see how Wardlow factors into the story.

Standing 6’3”, Wardlow brings legitimate size to his persona. He is perfecting his on-screen presence on a weekly basis, and inevitably, there will come a time when he is a standalone talent no longer paired with MJF.

“I’m very happy and proud to say I’m an AEW original, born and raised,” said Wardlow, who worked the indies for five years before signing with AEW. “It’s where I started. AEW is going to be the beginning and end for me.”

Wardlow’s first-ever televised match was the one in the cage against Rhodes, a remarkable stage to make an in-ring debut.

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“That was my first televised match and it was the first time Cody and I ever touched,” said Wardlow. “I wasn’t well known. AEW took a chance on me. They threw me in the deep end, and I’m happy they did because it gave me a chance to do the backstroke. That will always be one of the greatest nights of my entire career.”

Wardlow’s strength comes from a far deeper source than solely brawn. The youngest of three, he was first drawn to pro wrestling as a child after his oldest sister returned from a WWE show with an 8-by-10 booklet that featured colorful images of Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior and the “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Wardlow carries his family with him every time he steps into the ring, particularly his parents, Bruce and Ramona. While his mom watches every moment of his work on-screen, his father passed away from cancer five years ago.

“Not everyone realizes that Wardlow is my real last name,” said Wardlow. “That’s my dad’s name, and I wish every day he could be here. I know he’s watching from somewhere.

“And my mother is experiencing this all with me. My dreams are just as important, if not more important, to her than they are to me. She doesn’t like to fly, but she did come to my matches against Cody and Chris Jericho. She is my No. 1 fan, forever and always.”

A combination of size, athleticism and power help make Wardlow stand out in the ring, but it is his work ethic and eagerness to learn that allows him to excel.

“It is mind blowing how many people backstage care about building the next generation and building this company,” said Wardlow. “I have an overwhelming amount of people that have given me so much insight and time.

“Arn Anderson has been phenomenal. Jerry Lynn goes out of his way to help me; he’s one of the greatest people on this earth. I get so much knowledge and advice from Shawn, Dax [Harwood] and Cash [Wheeler]. I’m so grateful for them. And Billy Gunn has really taken me under his wing. Every week he gives me a new focus. I look forward every week to nailing whatever it is he wants me to do on-screen or in the ring.”

This week’s Dynamite offers another chance for Wardlow to speak loudly through his actions. Operating under the bright spotlight that Punk projects, Wardlow is ready to seize the moment.

“I’m excited,” said Wardlow. “Punk has put on bangers with a large portion of our roster. But this isn’t going to be a banger. This is going to be me powerbombing him repeatedly.

“It’s going to be wild. And even if I don’t say a word, I do plan on getting my point across.”

Wardlow

AEW making its claim as the greatest version of NXT 2.0

Paul “Triple H” Levesque put together a roster that delivered an old-school, every-segment-counts wrestling show while building and overseeing NXT.

There was a stretch where the NXT brand was synonymous with excitement, and it had a place of its own as the industry’s most cutting-edge product. Seven years ago, during the TakeOver: Brooklyn card that featured a glass-ceiling shattering industry moment when Bayley wrestled Sasha Banks in an all-time classic, there was also a real electricity to open the show as Jushin Thunder Liger wrestled Tyler Breeze.

Bringing in a star like Liger for a one-off, which AEW has added to its repertoire, brought another layer to an already compelling NXT product. At that time, Finn Balor was the NXT champion, and the roster featured the likes of Kevin Owens, Samoa Joe, Sami Zayn, and later Asuka and Shinsuke Nakamura. By 2018, NXT was largely defined by Tommaso Ciampa, Adam Cole, Johnny Gargano, Ember Moon, Aleister Black, Andrade, Kyle O’Reilly and Shayna Baszler. The majority of that collection of talent is no longer with WWE, or, in the case of Baszler, badly misused. And so many of the former NXT stars—like Cole, O’Reilly, Andrade, Black, Bobby Fish, Mercedes Martinez—are all employed now by All Elite Wrestling.

WWE had another round of gut-wrenching cuts last week aimed specifically at the NXT brand. The timing was particularly gnawing—Bronson “Bron Breakker” Rechsteiner climbed to new heights on Tuesday, defeating Ciampa to become the new NXT champion, and Carmelo Hayes won an outstanding match against Roderick Strong. Just a day later, that wave of positivity was replaced with disappointment and angst as beloved wrestling personalities, most notably William Regal, were dismissed from WWE. It was another reminder that it is a terrible time to be a “Triple H guy,” as Vince McMahon and his team cut ties with anyone closely associated with Levesque.

AEW will continue to reap the rewards of Levesque’s system. Former NXT champion Keith Lee would fit perfectly in AEW’s main event scene, and free agent Gargano would also be a massive addition to the roster. It now feels like ancient history when NXT went head-to-head on Wednesday nights against AEW, and part of the reason for that is so many of those former NXT stars now wrestle on Dynamite for AEW.

The real NXT 2.0 doesn’t air on Tuesday nights; it is now at its best every Wednesday on TBS.

The (online) week in wrestling

• Hangman Adam Page and Bryan Danielson worked an absolute classic of a title match last week on Dynamite.

• With the addition of Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins, the card for the Royal Rumble is loaded.

• Sasha Banks, who was part of the open for the College Football Playoff national championship game intro on ESPN, will not be part of this year’s Royal Rumble.

• But, as announced by Pat McAfee during SmackDown, the Rumble will include Impact Wrestling’s reigning Knockouts champion Mickie James.

• Grayson Waller has a bright future, but AJ Styles should be back in the world title picture.

• WALTER is now coming full-time to NXT—and he would also be a great fit for the Royal Rumble.

• Big E lost this week on Raw, but it was an outstanding match with Seth Rollins.

• Doudrop, Liv Morgan and Bianca Belair worked a creative and entertaining triple threat on Raw (which was one of its better episodes in some time), and I loved the old-school feel of Alpha Academy taking the next step in the trajectory by winning the Raw tag titles.

• AEW crowned new champions last week, including Jurassic Express… 

… where, thankfully, Fenix’s injury was not as bad as it originally appeared. Fenix shared that, remarkably, he suffered no broken bones.

• With Cody Rhodes unable to compete, Sammy Guevara became the new interim TNT champion in an entertaining match against Dustin Rhodes (who would be a perfect champ for the National Wrestling Alliance).

• And Jade Cargill is now the first-ever TBS champion.

• Impact Wrestling’s Hard to Kill pay-per-view had its share of highlights, none greater than the debut of “Speedball” Mike Bailey.

• Johnny Knoxville in the Royal Rumble has the potential to be really fun.

• Eddie Kingston fans: Orange Crush: The Journal of Art and Wrestling has a new volume coming out, which features an in-depth profile on the AEW star by PWInsider’s Mike Johnson.

Keiji Muto: “I am enjoying myself as the man who I am now in the ring”

New Japan Pro-Wrestling and Pro Wrestling NOAH celebrated the inaugural third night of Wrestle Kingdom with an inter-promotional battle at Yokohama Arena.

There were 11 matches on the card. Entering the final two bouts, it was even, 4-4-1, until New Japan won the final two, including the main event, which saw Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi team up to defeat Keiji Muto and Kaito Kiyomiya.

This was the past, present and future all sharing the ring at once. And it further justified Muto’s decision to return to pro wrestling in 2021.

“I joined and made a full-time contract with Pro Wrestling NOAH in February 2021,” said Muto, 59, speaking through an interpreter. “The reason why I made this decision is because I felt positivity for the future of this promotion. NOAH has captivating content, a streaming platform and an environment that makes me want to perform here.

“The pandemic made everything difficult around the whole world. Especially in such circumstances, I am hoping the fans, not only in Japan but the fans around the world, can watch me doing my best. I know NOAH can make it possible.”

Muto and Naomichi Marufuji are the reigning GHC tag team champions. They successfully defended the titles at NOAH’s The New Year event on Jan. 1, defeating M’s Alliance partners Masaaki Mochizuki and Masato Tanaka. No longer the dynamic force he once was in the ring, Muto can still deliver in his matches—but in a much different style than before.

“I got older, and all the NOAH wrestlers are younger than me,” said Muto. “It is hard both before and after each and every one of my matches, but I can’t complain about it. So, I have my routine to work out at the gym and keep up with who I am now. It is hard, but I’d rather say I am enjoying myself as the man who I am now in the ring.”

Marufuji shares recent history with Muto, defeating him for the coveted GHC heavyweight title in June. Muto had won that title by defeating NOAH staple Go Shiozaki last February, a match that will likely be his defining moment in NOAH.

“My proudest moment since my return is the fact that I won the GHC heavyweight championship from Go Shiozaki,” said Muto. “I was honored to win a ‘Best Bout Award’ from this year’s Tokyo Sports Pro Wrestling Awards for that GHC heavyweight championship match.”

Tweet of the Week

There is a real Orange Cassidy vibe here from Trevor Lawrence.

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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.