Brian Cage has gotten used to waiting in his short time with All Elite Wrestling.
Signing with AEW in January, the 36-year-old Cage's arrival in the company was delayed due to surgery to repair a torn bicep. On the sidelines for months recuperating, Cage finally made his presence felt at May's Double or Nothing pay-per-view in which he earned a shot at the AEW World Championship with his victory at the Casino Ladder Match.
Scheduled to face champion Jon Moxley for the title at Fyter Fest, Cage once again found himself forced to wait when Moxley's wife - World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) announcer Renee Young - tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19), putting Moxley into quarantine and delaying the title match.
But all of that waiting will come to an end on Wednesday night when "The Machine" gets his shot at Mox and his AEW World Championship at Fight for the Fallen.
While not his first singles match with the company, Cage's bout with Moxley will easily be his most important - perhaps the biggest match of his entire career - and it was for opportunities like this one that Cage opted to join AEW. Following a two-year run with Impact Wrestling in which he won both the X Division Title and the Impact World Championship, Cage became a free agent at the end of 2019 with no shortage of offers to consider.
"There were multiple factors," Cage told TSN.ca of his decision to sign with AEW. "I think just overall, it was the cool, new thing that everybody wants to be a part of, obviously, but to be able to break through the reach I'd already done - the Ring of Honor crowd, the Impact crowd and so on - and I felt like I needed to go to a bigger, national scene like an AEW. And another big thing was AEW had the most unique, cooler [potential] matches, if you will, and all of them would be first-time ever matches, whereas everywhere else would have been repeats and not as exciting. And if I were to go to WWE, I wouldn't have as much creative control. That, artistically speaking, was a big reason why. I'm going to go to a place where I can showcase my abilities and have the most fun, intriguing matches and I had more personal desire to go to AEW than anywhere else."
Before he could make his impact - pardon the pun - in AEW, there was the matter of that bicep injury that occurred late last year. Anxious to get started with AEW, the 36-year-old Cage considered forgoing surgery and continuing on his career without it, despite the downsides of not undergoing a procedure.
"You don't have to get surgery on your bicep," Cage, a 15-year pro out of Chico, CA, said. "But aesthetically, and I'm a body guy, it would have messed up my arm. You could also lose up to 40 per cent of your strength in that arm, which would not be great as far as lifting-wise and move set-wise. I was too eager and impatient and I didn't want to be sidelined. Plus, I was thinking well, if I can't work, then I'm going to get my contract rescinded and be SOL. But [AEW president] Tony [Khan] was great. He said, 'We'll take care of you, don't worry about it. We want you here. Don't stress.' That really made me think, okay, I'll get it. So not only was that the better decision to make, had I rushed back, it would have been for no reason because the pandemic hit anyway."
Because of COVID-19, there were no fans at his first PPV, but that didn't dampen Cage's enthusiasm for the ladder match.
"I was way more excited than I thought I would be," Cage said. "I didn't think I would have the same level of adrenaline with no crowd, but it was so great to debut there. And the way AEW does it, too, with the crowd at ringside [mostly made up of other wrestlers on the roster and preliminary talent] - it's such a little thing, but it goes such a long way."
While Cage was the surprise final entrant in a match that also featured Darby Allin, Colt Cabana, Orange Cassidy, Joey Janela, Scorpio Sky, Kip Sabian, Frankie Kazarian and Luchasaurus, there was also a surprise in Cage's corner - Taz. The Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) icon debuted in the role of Cage's manager and has since bestowed upon him the FTW (F--- the World) Championship that he carried in ECW.
Cage says he learned of the partnership only a short while before Double or Nothing, but has enjoyed working with "The Human Suplex Machine," thus far, and was pleasantly surprised by Taz's mic work.
"I think Taz is great and I think he's a phenomenal commentator and, obviously, a great wrestler," Cage said. "When you think of Taz, you think of him suplexing people and choking people out, but his promos weren't the first thing that jumped out at me. And until I was standing next to him for our very first promo did it hit me like, 'Oh dude, Taz is great at promos!' I knew he was a great commentator and he could cut promos, but I didn't really think of him as a promo guy. That's not the first thing that jumps out at you. But dude, he can kill it on the promos."
Though their heel tandem is still in its early days, Cage hopes that it won't limit him from doing his own work on the mic.
"I want to talk more," Cage said. "I don't wanna be the guy who just stands around. And, actually, I'm not the biggest fan of being a heel. Almost every wrestler likes to be a heel more than [a] face, but I prefer to be a face than a heel, which is, I think, more of a rarity. I think it's more so because if you think of bigger heels, they often get painted in these big bully meathead roles. I just think that's very one-dimensional and a little meh - a little vanilla to me. I'd much rather get over as a face and then turn heel."
For Cage, the best characters are ones that can serve as face or heel, transitioning seamlessly, pointing to the likes of a "Stone Cold" Steve Austin or The Rock.
"When they're a heel or face, they're not really doing anything differently," Cage said. "They're the same exact person...like when The Rock was super heel and then turned face, all his catchphrases and everything were exactly the same, but now he's getting cheered for them instead of booed for them. And I don't mind being a heel, I just feel like there's less versatility. I'm the high school bully, that's the go-to [for muscular heels]. And it's fine, but the substance there to work with is very limited. So thank God that I actually have Taz because that gives some more versatility to work with. But I haven't been there long. I haven't done a whole lot. I haven't even technically had a really real match - I've just been killing guys. I think we have plenty of things to work with going forward that we haven't even begun to open up yet."
As he embarks on his AEW career, Cage finds himself among familiar faces from Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG), an independent company out of the Los Angeles-area that has become one of the industry's tastemakers since its inception in 2003. Appearing in PWG has become a benchmark for many in the business and a springboard to the very top of the industry. Despite not offering any of their monthly shows on a streaming platform, PWG's reputation for quality has spread all over the world. Along with Cage, AEW stars like the Young Bucks (Nick and Matt Jackson), Kenny Omega, Chuck Taylor, Rey Fenix and Pentagon Jr. were all regulars with the promotion.
Cage, having worked in PWG for much of the past decade, credits the company with giving him a platform for his career that not even the WWE, where Cage worked for its developmental territory Florida Championship Wrestling (the precursor to NXT) from 2008 to 2009, could give him.
"I think it was the first really over super indie and then a lot of them started popping up afterwards, but it's crazy how its launched so many people's careers," Cage said. "I was in WWE developmental and I had been wrestling for a little while, but it wasn't until I got to PWG that I really broke through and it had me start doing international dates and flying around all over the place. It'd be crazy. I'm working this indie show outside of Los Angeles and then I'm going to the upper northeast of Canada or over to England or what have you. It's crazy that these shows, just via DVDs, had this great reach. It's just the best of the best. You look at everyone that's come through during my tenure there, almost everyone is signed and are top guys all over the place. It was where every indie guy would strive to go because it was almost like your stamp of approval. 'Oh, Cage made it.' Once you leave there, it's like okay, you're going to go be a star somewhere. It's on a lot of people's bucket lists to get to."
One of the places that Cage grabbed the attention of during his time at PWG was Lucha Underground, a promotion where he would spend four televised seasons. Both a wrestling federation and a serialized drama for the El Rey Network in the United States, Lucha Underground was unlike any other modern wrestling promotion. While the likes of AEW, WWE and New Japan Pro-Wrestling all feature storyline components, Lucha Underground leaned heavily on cinematics and delved into the supernatural on a regular basis. With AJ Styles and The Undertaker's widely praised "Boneyard Match" and Edge and Randy Orton's wild brawl at WrestleMania 36 this past spring, Lucha Underground's influence on the industry can still be felt despite its ceasing of operations in 2018.
"A lot of people will give the first cinematic match credit to the [Broken] Matt Hardy Universe, which is great, but Lucha was before that," Cage said. "I think Lucha was such a fantastic product. And I think if we had only one cook in charge of it all - that was the big problem it had - there were so many people in charge of it. If there were five people in charge of it, four of the five didn't know anything about wrestling. I think that was a big part of why it didn't go where it should have. But if there was [only] one person in charge of it and you would have had it fully funded - if MGM (one of the two companies that produced the show) would have had complete control from the get go, because Eric [Van Wagenen], the showrunner there, was a guy who really did a lot for it...if it were 100 per cent MGM, I think it would still be around - it would have been great, man."
It was with Lucha Underground that Cage truly felt like he was living out his childhood fantasy.
"Seasons 2 and 3 are probably my favourite thing I've done in wrestling," Cage said. "And the only thing I can compare to Lucha Underground is AEW. Lucha was great. There were so many firsts. It was so different. It was a TV show about wrestling, not a wrestling show on TV. Even after having signed with WWE and having crossed that off my bucket list, it wasn't until Lucha Underground that I felt like a pro wrestler. I've wanted to be a pro wrestler since I was 10 years old. And it wasn't until Lucha Underground that I felt like how I thought I would feel at 10 years old to be a pro wrestler. It was like 'This is it.'"
Though a self-professed "super WWF mark" as a kid, it took inspiration from an actual WWE wrestler to get his start in the business. Cage credits the support and encouragement of the late Chris Kanyon, who he met as a fan at a WWE event in Sacramento, for getting him into the industry. Nicknamed "The Innovator of Offence," Kanyon became known for his understanding of ring psychology and his unique move set, utilizing maneuvers - now adopted by wrestlers in companies the world over - that were, at the time, brand new to the mainstream. A featured performer in World Championship Wrestling with memorable feuds and partnerships with Raven and Diamond Dallas Page and later in the WWE, where he was United States Champion, Kanyon achieved acclaim in his professional life, but struggled mightily in his personal life. Hiding his sexuality for a majority of his career from those outside of a few close friends, Kanyon became one of the few performers in the industry to publicly come out as gay in 2006 after his departure from WWE. In 2010, Kanyon died by suicide.
Cage can't help but wonder how things would have changed today for his friend and mentor in an industry that still has its challenges in embracing the gay community, but one where a growing number of performers - including AEW's own Sonny Kiss - are out.
"Not only was he so underutilized and underrated and even though he's influential in today's style, I still don't think he gets the credit for it," Cage said of Kanyon. "He did so much and if he was around now and doing what he was doing, I think he'd be super over. And as far as how the world has changed, too, when he came out as gay, now he could be even more influential [as an out wrestler] at this stage versus 14 years ago. So it sucks, because I feel if he was around now, things would be incredibly different for him."
As Cage looks back, he also looks forward. Asked where he sees his AEW career in five years, his vision is clear.
"In five years, I definitely imagine we're looking back at a world champion - I would assume more than one time over," Cage said. "Hopefully, I'll have broken into more things outside of wrestling, as well. And I don't mean I want to be some kind of big movie star like The Rock...maybe it's narcissistic for me to say, but I feel like it's taken me longer to get to this point than I thought it would have or should have. But better late than never and I'm here and I'm ready to take the ball and run with it and make the most of it."
Cage gets his first opportunity to run with that ball on Wednesday night against Jon Moxley.