ALBANY – On Feb. 19 2020 in Atlanta, Wardlow officially lived his dream when he had his first-ever televised wrestling match, taking on Cody Rhodes inside a steel cage in the main event of an episode of All Elite Wrestling Dynamite.
It would be the last match he’d have in front of an arena full of fans for nearly a year-and-a-half.
Less than a month later, the COVID-19 pandemic forced AEW to operate behind closed doors — first at a gym in Norcross, Georgia, then for more than a year at the Daily’s Place amphitheater in Jacksonville, Florida — until July 2021.
“I had just made my dreams come true,” Wardlow said in a recent phone interview. “I’m finally a professional wrestler on TV, traveling the United States city to city. And then it was taken away from me so quickly. And I remember thinking, ‘Is this really my luck? I finally make my dreams come true, and now the world is over.’”
When he finally got back in front of a crowd that was more than the few hundred socially-distanced fans who could get into Daily’s Place, Wardlow began to notice something.
The 270-pound Cleveland native, who’d been the silent enforcer for one of AEW’s archvillians — Maxwell Jacob Friedman, better known as MJF — since his 2019 debut with the fledgling company, was starting to feel the crowd in his corner.
“It was in Austin, Texas. That’ll be burned in my memory forever,” he said. “I just had one of my normal squash matches that I had been having, and for the first time, I heard a decent portion of the crowd chanting ‘Wardlow.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Countless powerbombs later and free from his role as MJF’s muscle, Wardlow — full name Michael Wardlow — is one of AEW’s most popular performers and will carry the promotion’s TNT title into MVP Arena on Wednesday night when the promotion makes its Albany debut.
AEW’s Albany debut — part of a three-week swing through the Empire State that started last Wednesday in Buffalo and will conclude Sept. 21 with the company’s Grand Slam event at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens — comes at an auspicious time for the company.
The promotion, headed by Tony Khan — son of Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan — has established itself in nearly three years airing on TNT and TBS as the most viable competitor to the pro wrestling monolith of World Wrestling Entertainment since World Championship Wrestling was shuttered in 2001.
But, in recent months, the company’s had its fair share of backstage turmoil, including a much-publicized backstage spat following the All Out event in Chicago on Labor Day weekend between top stars CM Punk, Kenny Omega and the tag team of the Young Bucks — Matt and Nick Jackson — that resulted in multiple titles being vacated and suspensions doled out.
Last Wednesday’s show in Buffalo brought with it a wave of uncertainty. In the middle of that came Wardlow, who quickly defended his TNT championship by decimating Tony Nese before cutting an impassioned speech to the crowd that served as a statement of purpose moving forward.
“Absolutely. There’s some changes,” he said. “I’m just entering a new era in my life. I’m evolving, things are changing. I’ve just become a hungrier, more intense version of myself, and I’m ready to display that and I’m ready to let the rest of the world feel that.”
He’s grown in popularity by conducting his Powerbomb Symphony, repeatedly slamming hapless opponents into the mat while the crowd implores him for more.
“It’s powerful, man,” he said. “As a fan my whole entire life of pro wrestling, I know what it meant for me anytime I got to feel like a part of the show. …. That’s what it’s really about, getting the crowd involved and making them feel close to what I get to feel. Making them a part of that is what it’s really about.”
A lifelong pro wrestling fan, Wardlow was an unknown quantity before he signed with AEW around the time of the company’s 2019 inception.
He’s a late starter — he debuted in 2014 at 26 and didn’t make his TV debut until he was 31 — but as a self-proclaimed survivor of plenty of adversity during his 20s, Wardlow is committed to making his dream stick.
“I have to, on a daily basis, truly remind myself that this is my life,” he said. “I got started very late. I’m 34, and AEW’s only been around for three years. I went through a lot of negatives in life to get to this point. After 13 years of struggling and depression, drugs, alcohol, everything you could throw at me, only three years of your dreams isn’t enough to reverse all that.
“There’s days I have to remind myself that, ‘Hey, you’re living your dreams. This is your life now. Everything’s OK.’ It’s powerful, and it’s overwhelming at times, but I thank God multiple times a day, every day, for what my life is today.”
ALL ELITE WRESTLING: DYNAMITE AND RAMPAGE
Where: MVP Arena, Albany
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Tickets: Start at $29
On the card: Bryan Danielson vs. Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley vs. Sammy Guevara, Samoa Joe vs. Josh Woods, Toni Storm and Hikaru Shida vs. Dr. Britt Baker, D.M.D. and Serena Deeb
More: All News
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