When the cages are lowered on Wednesday night and the Inner Circle and Pinnacle stand face to face in the dual rings on AEW Dynamite in the “Blood and Guts” grudge match, things are going to get ugly.
But for Santana and Ortiz, that’s where they shine.
Excelling in wild spectacle matches has become one of the mononymous duo’s calling cards over their two years in All Elite Wrestling. The pair competed alongside the other three members of Inner Circle – Chris Jericho, Jake Hager and Sammy Guevara – in the “Stadium Stampede” match, a chaotic brawl that saw the quintet battle The Elite (Kenny Omega, Matt Jackson, Nick Jackson and Adam Page) and Matt Hardy all throughout the Jacksonville Jaguars’ TIAA Bank Field at last May’s Double or Nothing pay-per-view. Then, on the Sept. 16 edition of Dynamite, Santana and Ortiz took on Best Friends (Trent? and Chuck Taylor) in a brutal parking lot fight that Dave Meltzer gave a five-star rating, the first ever network TV match to receive that honour.
You can catch AEW Dynamite: Blood and Guts LIVE on Wednesday night at 8pm et/5pm pt on TSN2, the TSN app, streaming on TSN Direct and on TSN.ca.
The pair believes their ability to perform in matches like these comes down to their decade of experience as a team and is a reflection of the trust that company management has in their capabilities.
“I think it’s just a testament to our work ethic, a testament to our experience and the values we’ve harnessed along the way,” Santana told TSN.ca. “We told ourselves this coming into wrestling that we’re here to be the absolute best and we strive for nothing less than that. The fact that we’ve been able to be a part of these huge moments and huge matches is, again, a testament to our work and the company trusting us to be in these positions. It’s something great that we’re definitely going to look back on like ‘Man, we were part of some really historic things in the infancy of this company.’ There’s still so much more to go and so much time to make some more memories and more moments.”
Still, the duo realizes that prior performance creates future expectations. There is a great deal of excitement surrounding the Blood and Guts match. For some fans, it’s fuelled by the nostalgia for the great WarGames matches from Jim Crockett Promotions, while for others, it’s simply due to AEW’s past history of delivering on these spectacle matches. In any event, it means that fans and critics alike forecast a particular calibre of match. For Santana and Ortiz, that’s just fine because their biggest critics can be found in the mirror.
“We just hold ourselves to a certain standard and we’re our own worst enemies,” Ortiz said. Like me and Santana go back and forth all the time and we just have a certain standard that we like to meet. There will be people all the time saying, ‘Oh, you guys did great’ [after a match], but Santana and I will be in the back and we’re just like ‘No, we can do better.’ We always have that in the back of our heads. We always feel like we can do better. That’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it keeps us not complacent. It doesn’t keep us in a comfortable place, which allows us to keep progressing. But at the same time, you have to understand there has to be a fine balance in between both those worlds. The pressure really is more from ourselves than it is from the company and the fans. But we’re not ignorant to that. We know that [pressure from them] exists, but I think we beat ourselves up more than anything else.”
Santana concurs with his partner’s assessment.
“There’s always pressure any time we step out from that tunnel and in front of cameras and the crowd but, thankfully for guys like us, we’ve thrived on pressure,” Santana said. “We’ve embraced pressure our entire career because honestly it’s what allowed us to get better. It’s what’s allowed us to progress and it’s what’s allowed others to have confidence in us to make these things happen. We embrace that pressure. It’s going to be no different on Wednesday and it’s going to be no different going forward with everything that we do. And it’s not just pressure from fans or pressure from work or the company or anything like that, but we honestly put that pressure on ourselves. We thrive off of that and I feel like everybody should embrace pressure because pressure creates diamonds.”
Ortiz explains that their ethos comes from their very earliest days in wrestling.
“There’s something we learned in wrestling school on Day 1,” Ortiz said. “You wrestle like there’s 50,000 people in attendance, always, even when there’s only five or 10. That’s just kinda how we did it. In training sessions, me and Santana, very early on when we first started tag-team wrestling, we would be in a really crappy place in Brooklyn with mold growing on the walls. You barely had any room and we would wrestle like we were in front of 10,000 people with no camera on and just going in because we were taught – and we’re firm believers – that in training, you’re going to perform that way in the ring. So if you have bad habits in training, those bad habits are going to come out when the camera is on. So it’s engrained in us to always wrestle like there’s a million people watching.
“From that aspect, like Santana was saying, the pressure is always on us. We just hold ourselves to a certain standard and when we don’t meet that standard, we’re going to beat ourselves up about it. I think, more than anything, I’m afraid to deal with myself and the torture that I’ll put myself through because it’ll bother me until the next match. I’ll keep thinking about it until the next match happens and I can correct whatever I thought that I did wrong or I could do better. And vice versa with Santana because I know he’s the same way.”
For the pair, Blood and Guts is the inflection point of a months-long storyline in which Maxwell Jacob Friedman infiltrated the Inner Circle to sow discord among the group and tear it apart. While the five members of the faction were able to snuff out MJF’s scheme, they were caught unawares by Friedman forming his own faction – The Pinnacle – in secret with bodyguard Wardlow, Shawn Spears, FTR (Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler) and advisor Tully Blanchard.
The pair says the twists and turns in the angle have been fun to watch transpire.
“I think the storyline itself is awesome because fans these days feel like they can predict so much and that comes with fans being programmed to the usual structure of a storyline, but I think what we did well was that it was something that was long term,” Santana said. “We told the story across multiple months, almost like a whole year, and we threw in those swerves to keep the fans on their toes and go left when they thought we were going to go right. I think it’s just been the perfect storm. When you have talent and the mindset we have in putting this thing together, it’s bound to be a home run. It’s definitely been something cool to see play out.”
As part of the angle, Santana and Ortiz find themselves as babyfaces for the first time in their AEW careers, something the latter says is just fine by them.
“It’s very comfortable for us to be babyfaces,” Ortiz said. “Really, our whole career on television for the most part [prior to AEW] has been as babyfaces. On the independents, we’ve worked as heels before, but it was a challenge to actually work as a heel when we first came into AEW and it was a challenge that we gladly accepted. We’ve loved being challenged at every point of our careers and that’s how we’ve progressed as in-ring performers. But for us, it’s not that much of an adjustment. I think we just play the babyface role a lot more naturally especially with ‘Proud ‘N’ Powerful’ [the duo’s informal team name] as our creed and our motto. It’s a very babyface-esque creed and motto. We preach being proud of who you are – who you are as an individual – and to accept that and to go with it. So for us, it’s a very easy transition.”
He does concede that a face turn requires a tweak of the team’s in-ring repertoire. Just as a heel turn means performers are likely to incorporate more stalling, rest holds and less crowd-pleasing moves into their matches, a face turn calls for recalibration, as well.
"As far as in-ring work and style, there is an adjustment to what we would normally do,” Ortiz said. “I would say as a heel, you’re more tasked with taking full control of the match whereas as a babyface, you’re tasked with selling and gaining that sympathy, which is a role that we’re very comfortable in. So there’s maybe a slight adjustment in – I wouldn’t say aggression, but as far as the choices of moves that we decide to perform.”
After years of plying their trade in major indie promotions like Game Changer Wrestling, Combat Zone Wrestling and Beyond Wrestling, Santana and Ortiz broke out on the national scene in 2017 when they joined Impact Wresting as members of Konnan’s Latin America Xchange (LAX). Eventually becoming Impact Tag Team Champions on four occasions, the duo worked with well-regarded teams like Lucha Bros. (Rey Fenix and Penta El Zero M), The North (Ethan Page and Josh Alexander) and Rascalz (Dezmond Xavier and Zachary Wentz) before making their jump to AEW in the summer of 2019.
Just as they were in Impact with Konnan, Santana and Ortiz have found themselves able to rely on the mentorship of another legend of the business while in AEW with Jericho. The duo says they’ve been able to glean a lot from working alongside the two icons whose combined experience in the business spans over six decades.
“There’s just such a wealth of knowledge between the two and the fact that we get to be right there and soak it all in and learn from their different experiences – it’s been an amazing journey and I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Santana said. “We’ve learned so much, not just wrestling-wise, but as people. I always like to take away a little bit of everything from everyone that I work with. With those two, what more can you say? They’ve travelled the entire world, they’ve made money, they’ve been huge draws. What better guys to learn from than two guys like that?”
Ortiz says Konnan and Jericho have helped enhance different aspects of their work.
“We’ve learned so much by just watching both of [them], how they interact in the back, how they deal with backstage business, how they structure a promo or advice they have in matches,” Ortiz said. “Konnan, I would say, would nitpick more at our in-ring work and Chris will focus more on our aura and what we’re putting out and little nuances and details or how we’re setting up an angle or promo. They’re different, but the same. We’re getting different types of advice and picking up on certain things. They’re teaching us by saying, ‘Hey, focus on this.’ By just watching those men work, we learn so much and it’s been an awesome experience.”
In a business where continued success can be elusive, Santana says Konnan and Jericho offer a model for longevity.
“Guys like Chris and Konnan, they understand the fact that wrestling evolves,” Santana said. “You can’t stay in the past. You have to evolve with it. That’s what they’ve done their whole careers. They’ve evolved with the times, they’ve progressed as performers and they’re hip to every era that they’re in. That’s also been a big plus for both of them and what’s helped them out in their careers.”
The early months of 2021 have brought with it sweeping changes to AEW and the industry on the whole with a level of co-operation among top promotions not seen in decades. Already the AEW World Champion and AAA Mega Champion, Kenny Omega won the Impact World Championship earlier this month. Impact’s Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows are regulars on Dynamite. Months after New Japan star KENTA wrestled on Dynamite, the legendary Yuji Nagata faces Jon Moxley on the May 12 edition of the show for Moxley’s IWGP United States Championship.
With the “Forbidden Door” seemingly knocked down, Santana and Ortiz hope that this new reality means some dream matches for the pair can come to fruition.
“For me, it’s plain and simple – [Impact’s] Motor City Machine Guns [Chris Sabin and Alex Shelley],” Ortiz said. "I think about it all the time and I’m like, ‘Damn, why did they come back when we left?’ We just missed them, but now with things being open, it’s very much a possibility. And [IWGP Tag Team Champions] Guerrillas of Destiny [Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa], man. I’d love to wrestle them, too. They’re great. I love the intensity they bring. I think there would be something there.”
Santana hopes to cross paths again with another of the great tag teams of the past several years and one he considers to be tag-team wrestling’s cream of the crop.
“Another team that we actually had the privilege to wrestle back in Germany for the World Tag Team League with wXw [in 2017] and we’d love to do it again now with the experience we’ve gained since then is [Ring of Honor’s] the Briscoe Brothers,” Santana said. “To us, they are tag team wrestling. We’ve said this in numerous interviews and we’ll say it again and have no issues saying it – they are the best tag team in the world. I don’t care what anybody says. Those dudes don’t take it easy. Mark and Jay are dudes who if they’re not going to go all in in a match, then why bother? The fact that they’ve been going hard for so long, you have to respect it and we hope we get to mix it up with those dudes again.”
But before any of that, there is the matter of Blood and Guts. The pair is chomping at the bit for action, even if that means they’ll come out worse for wear from it.
“We’re ready to go, man,” Ortiz said. “We’ve been standing at that starting line and waiting for that pistol to go off and we’re going to take off like a bat out of hell. I hate, hate doing matches like this, but if we’re going to this, I have to take it to that level. I have to go to a place I don’t like going to. Mentally, we’re going to go to a place that we have to go to very few times in our lives. We’ve done it before with the barbed wire death match [in Impact], with the parking lot match. We just go somewhere mentally and it’s going to make for great TV, but it’s going to be really dangerous.”
Santana is even more blunt in his assessment.
“We’re not calling it Blood and Guts for no reason,” Santana said. “You’re going to see a level of violence and a level of savagery that people haven’t seen in a while and that’s exactly how we’re all feeling… You’re gonna see some pretty violent s---.”