FTR isn’t afraid of a styles clash.
As the current AAA World Tag Team Champions prepare for a rematch against the team they took those titles from, the Lucha Bros. (Rey Fenix and Penta El Zero Miedo), at All Elite Wrestling’s Full Gear pay-per-view on Saturday night, this time for the AEW World Tag Team Championships, David “Dax” Harwood and Daniel “Cash” Wheeler welcome the challenge of putting their “No flips, just fists” ethos up against the high-flying luchadores.
For the duo who has been teaming together since 2014, the onus is on them to make sure a match works.
“For us, our whole goal all the time is to figure out what’s best for our opponents, what they’re good at and what they’re not and try to play to their strengths instead of ours,” Wheeler told TSN.ca, “because I feel like so many people nowadays come into a match thinking, ‘This is what I do’ or ‘This is what I have to get in,’ instead of saying, ‘Hey, what do you guys do well? What do you enjoy? What’s something you think could fit here?’ We build ours around the story of the match and I think that’s way more important than just saying ‘I don’t care if you guys are 300 pounds each or 150 pounds each, we’re doing the same match.’ I think that is a lot of what happens when there’s a real styles clash now. It’s because people don’t adapt to styles well. They just do what they think they need to do and that’s it.”
It’s FTR’s ability to tell a story through believable match psychology and tapping into a crowd’s emotions that sets them apart from other teams, Harwood explains.
“I say all the time, wrestlers today are the most athletically gifted wrestlers of all-time, yet the fans sitting at home, my daughter, my wife, my neighbour, they have no idea what a 450 [splash] feels like or what a hurricanrana feels like or even a dropkick,” Harwood said. “But they know what happiness feels like. They know sadness and frustration and anger and what that feels like. So, we try to base our matches around those emotions. Then we use the moves to put an exclamation point on those emotions, whereas a lot of guys now – and it’s only because they don’t know – they want to get the ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ out of the audience, but the ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ isn’t what sells tickets, isn’t what draws and isn’t what makes the fans emotionally connected to you. It’s those feelings they have and that’s what we try to do.”
A throwback to the dominant, no-nonsense tag teams of the 1980s like the Midnight Express (Bobby Eaton and Dennis Condrey) and the Brain Busters (Arn Anderson and FTR’s on-screen manager, Tully Blanchard), FTR recently added to that feel with new theme music reminiscent of the Giorgio Moroder song made famous by Eaton and Condrey.
“Honestly, it was [AEW president and booker] Tony Khan’s idea,” Harwood said. “He had texted us and told us he had a great idea for new music, and he was excited about us listening to it. He called Cash and I into his office and he was so excited about it. He played it and he was dancing around in his office, that’s how much he liked it. Obviously, we loved it, too, because my favourite tag team is Dennis and Bobby and always will be. They’re the greatest tag team, in my opinion, to ever wrestle and to be able to come out to music that is very, very similar to theirs, it means a lot to me.”
Using the music as an homage to Eaton, who died in August, Wheeler was surprised how well it suited the duo.
“I’ve never pictured myself coming out to anything other than the songs we’ve come out to – [something] a little bit harder, a little bit edgier, because it’s what we do,” Wheeler said. “But when he played that for us, it was like, ‘Wait, this is actually going to work.’ And when we went out to it was like, ‘Yeah, this is going to be really cool’ and, luckily, people have loved it so far.”
After Full Gear, FTR will get the opportunity to be true world champions and head to Mexico to defend their AAA titles at the promotion’s Dec. 4 Triplemania Regia II pay-per-view in Monterrey, once again versus Penta and Fenix.
“The pandemic, obviously, slowed things down and shut things down for a year and this is the first time where we’ve kinda had the chance to go to Mexico, to go to Japan, if there’s ever a chance there sometime down the line,” Wheeler said. “Now that these Forbidden Doors are open, we want the forbidden borders to open up a little more, too. Mexico is going to be great for us and, hopefully, it’s the first step on a long world trip for us.”
As heel gringos holding Mexico’s most prestigious tag titles, FTR is unlikely to be warmly received south of the border, but Harwood says they’re ready to have some fun with the crowd’s vitriol.
“I think a lot of wrestlers today are afraid of actual [crowd] heat,” Harwood said. “And not the ‘Hey, sit down, fat boy heat.’ I think they’re afraid of the heat because they like the fans complimenting them online. But we are two of the wrestlers in the world who are not afraid of heat at all, and I think [AAA booker] Konnan is giving us a great opportunity to get real heat.”
The pair hopes the trip to Mexico will be the first of many outside the United States. As the only team in history to have held the WWE NXT, RAW, SmackDown, AEW and AAA tag-team titles, FTR knows there is one more set of belts they need to complete the set – the IWGP Tag Team Championship in New Japan Pro-Wrestling.
“That’s just a life-long dream for both of us to do those things like so many of our idols before us and legends before us that have done these things and conquered the world on their own and kind of went from promotion to promotion and built their legacy, match by match and night by night,” Wheeler said. “We say that so much because it means so much to us and it’s something that we’re really passionate about. Mexico, hopefully, that’s the first stop of a very long tour for us. Saturday, we’re going to walk out of Full Gear with the AEW world tag team titles, walk out of TripleMania still the AAA World Tag Team Champions and then, hopefully, we’re going to go to Japan and complete what really is us becoming the greatest tag team of all-time.”
With the so-called “Forbidden Door” open and promotions across the world working together in an unprecedented manner not seen since the territorial days, the chance for more dream matches for FTR have grown exponentially, but there’s one team that Harwood and Wheeler want to face off against more than any other – Jay and Mark Briscoe.
“I’ll do whatever I have to to make that match happen,” Harwood said. “We’ve faced every tag team that is considered great in our modern era. We’ve faced the Usos [Jimmy and Jey Uso], we’ve faced the New Day [Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods], we’ve faced the Hardy Boyz [Matt and Jeff Hardy], we’ve faced SCU [Christopher Daniels and Frankie Kazarian], the Young Bucks [Nick and Matt Jackson], Proud-N-Powerful [Santana and Ortiz], Lucha Bros. All the teams that are considered the greatest teams of the last 10 years, we’ve faced and that includes DIY [Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa] and American Alpha [Chad Gable and Jason Jordan]. To top that list, we have to face the Briscoes. Again, that’s going to be something that will be a mark on our legacy because we’re the only team to face that calibre of worldwide-known tag teams. We have to face them…I’m going to speak it into existence."
But new competition for the team might not only come from outside of AEW. In recent months, superstars Adam Cole, CM Punk and Bryan Danielson have signed with the promotion. While the trio hit stardom in WWE, Wheeler and Harwood don’t agree with the perception that AEW shouldn't be signing "ex-WWE" wrestlers because it will muddy the company's identity.
“There are a lot of fans, and it boggles my mind, who are upset by this,” Harwood said. “They’re upset by seeing a lot of former WWE talent [in AEW]. They’ve got to understand AEW cannot just hire independent wrestlers because if they only hire independent wrestlers for a television product, it’s almost like the blind leading the blind. You have to have people who are experienced in television wrestling because it’s a completely different beast from just professional wrestling.”
Wheeler concurs with his partner’s assessment.
“The people we’ve signed, they’re all signed for a reason – because they’re so good at what they do and they’re going to help everybody else in the process,” Wheeler said. So, the company gets better by signing these people. And I hate when people call them ‘ex-WWE this’ or ‘ex-WWE that’ because yeah, we’ve worked there. We’ve all worked there at some point, but that doesn’t make us their property or like we didn’t learn these things some time before that, also. We’ve all learned these things from decades of hard work, decades of putting in the grind and going all over to get good enough to where we can get jobs with the best wrestling companies in the world and it just so happens that now there’s another huge, great wrestling company and that hasn’t been around for 20-plus years. So now there’s options and there are going to be people coming over and that’s just how it’s going to be, but that doesn’t mean the company is going to be the next whatever. They’re killing it right now. They’re signing the people that need to be signed and wrestling is better because of it.”
As for whether seeing this calibre of competitor signing with AEW helped to prove to FTR that the duo made the right choice in joining the promotion, it’s a firm no.
“We knew we made the right call before we even signed the contract,” Harwood said. “We had been trying to leave that place for a year and a half. That’s not anything against them. We knew what our potential was, and our potential wasn’t being met there. And that does sound egotistical, but oh, well. We knew our potential wasn’t being met there and outside of WWE was where we could actually break through the glass ceiling and become the greatest tag team ever. We could have stayed there and made a ton of money, but that wasn’t our goal. Our goal was to become the greatest tag team in the history of professional wrestling.”
Though Harwood and Wheeler’s exit from the WWE was by their own accord, for many others, it’s not. Last Friday, the company released 18 performers in the latest mass culling of contracts, something that has become a regular occurrence in recent years. Since the onset of the pandemic, the WWE has released over 120 performers with “budget cuts” cited as the reasoning.
Wheeler hopes his peers can turn this professional setback into a springboard for something greater.
“It’s hard to see the positives in a moment like this, but some of the people, I’m sure, are actually pretty relieved because I know they were ready,” Wheeler said. “But some of these people were blindsided by it. Regardless of it, you’re going to be great. You’re going to do great. There’s so many options out there right now, so many opportunities and now it’s an adjustment because you don’t understand how much [freedom] you have in your own life right now. You don’t understand that you don’t have to get permission to do a certain thing, or you don’t have to wait for this or that. You can decide in that moment, yes or no, and you can take whatever opportunities you want. You can reach out and really discover what makes you happy and what doesn’t."
Harwood believes that losing that job doesn’t define who you are as a professional wrestler, or as a person.
“That place, whether it’s intentional or unintentional, it makes you think, it makes you believe that it’s the be-all, end-all, not just in professional wrestling, but in the world,” Harwood said. “It makes you feel like there’s nothing else you can be successful at, nothing else you can do and that’s just not the case. Wrestling is so popular right now, around the world. The indies are huge, AEW is obviously huge, AAA is huge, New Japan is huge. There are so many opportunities for wrestlers to wrestle. But if you don’t want to wrestle anymore or if wrestling is not calling to you, just understand you’ve got something special that a lot of people don’t have. You have drive and determination and you made it. You made your dreams come true and made it to a goal.”
As FTR continues towards its goal of becoming the greatest tag-team of all-time, Wheeler and Harwood already have an idea of how they’d like to be remembered when their pro wrestling journey is over.
“I want to change wrestling for the better and leave tag-team wrestling better than we found it because there was a time when it wasn’t true tag-team wrestling,” Wheeler said. “It was huge singles stars in marquee tag matches where it was furthering a singles angle…Traditional tag teams began making a comeback because there were so many passionate teams pushing for it to the point now where I think it’s thriving, more so than it has in a long time. I want to keep doing that, but I also want people to remember that we were a positive influence on the younger generation, that we helped out younger talent, that we were able to teach whatever that we’ve been taught by so many guys who were better than us and doing it for longer than us. To pass along that knowledge and even if it helps a handful of people and anybody takes anything of it and it betters them, then we can be really proud of it when we hang up our boots.”
But with another title match on Saturday and a busy schedule on the horizon, it appears it will be a while before the Top Guys are out.