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In AEW tag team matches, 'referee's discretion' is taken to its limit

Pro Wrestling

In AEW tag team matches, ‘referee’s discretion’ is taken to its limit

AEW’s tag matches are fun, but chaotic and sometimes lawless. How can it be fixed?

One of the biggest and most valid complaints I think I have heard concerning AEW is what seems to be their lack of rules. It is mentioned time and time again that the refs are given discretion for when to call something. However, that discretion has lead to almost no actual rules being enforced. This breaks down the internal consistency and logic of the show, so what exactly are the problems and how can they be fixed them, specifically when discussing the tag team division?

I spent the weekend going through a fair amount of the AEW tag matches and the infractions regarding tag teams are not as bad as people have believed (including myself). That is not to say that rules are not being broken more than they should be, even for “ref’s discretion” but it’s not quite as bad as I thought. This happens due to the confusion and fast pace of the match.

Often times in tag matches, fighting goes on outside of the ring between the two who are not currently legal. This usually leads to the legal people joining in the brawl going on outside for a while. Finally they all hop back in and the still legal man tags out, but then stays in for that long five count from the ref. There are no rules being broken here; however, without paying close attention, it FEELS like there is. Furthermore, who is legal for both teams is hard to track for this sort of thing. Even while paying close attention for the purpose of this article I had to go back occasionally to figure out who was legal. This can all lead to a what feels like meaningless tags and/or cheating when no actual rules have been broken. A good example of this is the early and middle of Private Party vs Angelico and Jack Evans at All Out.

In AEW tag team matches, 'referee's discretion' is taken to its limit
Angelico and Jack Evans

This can in part be remedied by just not having as many big spots outside of the ring. Make sure to separate what is happening between the legal people and the other ones who are waiting to be tagged. This would make things more clear, although may not be ideal.

This also may be in part a problem on our end. Many American viewers just are not used to tag matches more commonly seen in lucha libre promotions like AAA. However, I would argue it is still on AEW to ensure that they help train people on how to be able to follow who is legal and other things which may be confusing to an untrained eye. This can be anything from specific camera work to constant reminders from the announce team. They could even have the in ring announcer declare who the legal man is for the live audience as well. Or if they really wanted to get fancy, they could have a small window at the bottom of the screen with who the legal man is. This has the additional benefit of feeling like something you’d see on a legit sport.

The refs could also play a part in all this. They could always acknowledge tags with a certain gesture and then point to the legal man. Refs could also be more obvious about their count. Shouting it out and holding their fingers high above their head to let everyone know how far they are into the count. This way if there is a slow counting ref you could at least know he’s actually counting. 

The real reason for the leniency of rules, of course, is for cool spots. People don’t roll out of the ring when it’s time, they roll out when their spot is done. The spot dictates the time, essentially. Which, sure it looks cool, but leads to the problems with the tag matches. What needs to be done is for the ref to sometimes to tell someone to get out of the ring while they’re doing a spot. Maybe as they’re winding up for a big hit. This would give more of a sense of realness and that the rules were being followed. It would solidify their existence.

However, all of this is not to say that there is no rule breaking in tag matches, that this is all just perceived. Take for example Jericho, Santana and Ortiz all running in the ring during the end of their match against The Elite (Dynamite, 10/2/2019). Moxley runs in while Pac and Omega are fighting with no tag in sight; the ref does absolutely nothing to try to get Moxley out of the ring but instead just reacts to the bumps (Dynamite, 10/16/19). The aforementioned Private Party vs. Angelico and Jack Evans match has multiple instances of people coming in without a tag or overstaying their tag in the later parts of the match. I could go on.

Granted, credit is due with some of the times the rules are actually enforced, usually by Aubrey. One of the many great examples of her enforcing rules that it seems other refs don’t is SCU vs. Dark Order (Dynamite, 10/23/19). She physically gets in their way and yells when they enter the ring without a tag. However, Aubrey is the exception — no other referee shows any sort of character.  If the rules are up to the ref’s discretion, we should see a mix of personalities among the refs. Instead we have Aubrey and then everyone else who just ignores all of the rules at their discretion. 

In AEW tag team matches, 'referee's discretion' is taken to its limit
Aubrey actually enforcing the rules.

The answer to this issue of just outright rule breaking has some other solutions as well. The first being, just don’t do it. Don’t have wrestlers break rules. This may be hard for AEW though, as AEW obviously loves these kinds of hectic tag matches. So what else can be done?

The second solution would be to have the refs respond to these rule infractions. It doesn’t have to be a DQ, it can be just a good old chewing out like the Aubrey has become known for.  One of the many great examples of her enforcing rules that it seems other refs don’t is SCU vs. Dark Order (Dynamite, 10/23/19). She physically gets in their way and yells when they enter the ring without a tag.

Another similar option could be to introduce some sort of ‘three strikes’ rule which would let people break rules only so much and would gameify it. They could use such infractions strategically. It could lead to that person being disqualified and the match ending up as a 2 on 1. All these things would have the side benefit of having possible storytelling thooks in matches.

Finally, AEW could simply have different tag match types and/or change the rules. They could have more tornado style matches while regular ones would be a lot more strict rule wise. Perhaps they could change the rules of tag matches to fit with the lucha tag match rule where if a competitor’s feet hits outside the ring it can be considered a tag. Perhaps this itself could be made into a different style of tag match, so there would be tornado tag matches, lucha-style matches, and your standard American style matches.

Whether or not AEW does any of these things, they need to at least do something about this issue. Currently people are left confused during matches. The internal logic of the show is on a little bit of shaky ground when it comes to the small, but still important rules. So far this has not been a problem as the matches are new, fresh, and exciting to watch. But they need to establish something soon in order to not have any issues down the road.

One last quick note: I have decided not to discuss interferences within this article, the main reason being DQs are more a narrative device in the overall story of wrestling. I feel like this issue can better be addressed in an article more focused on narrative structure; and not so much in an article looking at the more mechanical parts of a match. But, just for the sake of it, AEW refs ignoring DQable actions needs a lot of work as well.

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