On July 6, All Elite Wrestling’s “Dynamite” rolled into Rochester, New York. Wardlow powerbombed Scorpio Sky into oblivion and in the process captured his first gold with the TNT Championship. Later in the night, Interim AEW World Champion Jon Moxley outlasted challenger Brody King in a bruising battle of unorthodox fighters. But the biggest pop of the night went to the guys not even on the show — “Top Guys.”
New tag team Keith Lee and Swerve Strickland had just laid waste to The Butcher and The Blade when they were confronted by a fiery and irate Powerhouse Hobbs and Ricky Starks. They were promptly interrupted by then-AEW Tag Team Champions, The Young Bucks. “How about next week, a three-way, tag team title match …” said the Bucks’ Matt Jackson. Before he could finish, a chant erupted — “FTR, FTR, FTR.” The packed house of the Blue Cross Arena didn’t get their wish. Jackson went on to announce a match featuring Lee and Strickland, Starks and Hobbs, and the Bucks, which was met with a chorus of boos and then more FTR chants before Keith Lee’s music drowned out the crowd.
Backstage, Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler heard the proceedings, and they’re still processing how they went from career-long heels to beloved babyfaces. Hard-hitting, fundamentally sound tag team wrestling not only got FTR over, it arguably made them the most popular tag team of any wrestling company in the world.
“I’m not gonna lie,” Harwood said as he collected his thoughts in a recent interview for Web Is Jericho. “I’ll tell you right here, and I’ll fight whoever if they got a problem with it, but I got really emotional.” Wheeler was in a different area backstage than his tag partner. Harwood immediately sent him a text while simultaneously fielding numerous incoming messages making sure he had heard what just happened. “And now we’ve heard everybody refer to it as the ‘FTR pop,’” Harwood continued. “It’s really cool. I think we all at some point as human beings want to be accepted and want to be liked. For so long in my life, I didn’t have that. I didn’t feel that, and I don’t even mean in wrestling. I mean in life. To have millions of people now love and like me, it’s pretty f*cking cool.”
Like Harwood, Wheeler has always been something of an introvert, too. “My circle of friends and people I talk to was always a little smaller,” he said. “We got into wrestling, and we wanted to be the best bad guys. So I had legitimately told multiple people, ‘We’ll probably never be good guys.’ My mom would say, ‘When are you guys gonna be good guys?’ I’m like, ‘Mom, probably never.’ To see it start to slowly change without us even trying to get it to change, it just kept getting more and more surreal — to the point the match with The Briscoes was insane. The match with The Bucks the following week was insane. And to have them start showing and vocalizing that much support when we’re not even on the screen or being talked about or anything like that … I was in the locker room watching on the TV we have in there, and I’m like, ‘Oh. Are they chanting for us?’ To see it back was just really wild. I don’t understand what’s going on right now.”
Oh, and about The Young Bucks, who also serve as Executive Vice Presidents of AEW — “If you notice, we haven’t been on TV since that happened,” Harwood said on July 19 of the crowd interrupting Jackson. “We got the biggest reaction and weren’t even on the show. And since then, we haven’t made it in. Maybe I need to talk to The Bucks about that.”
Another battle with The Young Bucks aside, FTR will first focus on defending their Ring of Honor World Tag Team Championships in a rematch, a best two-out-of-three-falls affair, with The Briscoes on Saturday, July 23 at “Death Before Dishonor.” Their first meeting in April was an all-time classic that Harwood cites as his favorite match ever. Initially, when AEW/Ring of Honor owner Tony Khan pitched the idea for the re-match, Harwood wasn’t convinced it was the right move.
“I wasn’t sold on it,” Harwood said. “I told him, ‘I don’t think I ever want to re-visit that match again, because it holds such a special place in my heart and in my memory, as corny as that sounds. That match is my favorite match I’ve ever had. I didn’t want to touch it.” What changed his mind was FTR’s never-ending desire to be the best tag team in the history of the sport. “Ring of Honor needs a spark, especially for this pay-per-view,” Harwood said. “That spark, and this is me speaking humbly, would be FTR vs. Briscoes 2. I started thinking more about it, and we thrive on that pressure of wanting to be the best.”
Being the best, however, has nothing to do with star ratings, according to Harwood. “I’ve been in the business for 18 years, and I have never once thought about, ‘Will this get a 5-star rating?’” he said in an obvious reference to wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer’s decades-running “Wrestling Observer Newsletter.” It was also another dig toward The Young Bucks who nicknamed one of their maneuvers the “Meltzer Driver.” “Some of our bosses might disagree and might not like this, but I’ve never wrestled for that,” Harwood continued. “I’ve wrestled for what I feel is right. And I wrestled for what I feel the fans are going to feel, and that’s it. In that moment, I want them to feel, and then two months down the road, I want them to watch that match again and have that same feeling.”
They also want fans to have a new feeling with the second go-round. FTR isn’t necessarily looking to top their first bout with “Dem Boys,” but they are looking for another hard-hitting battle that the audience can get invested in. “We’re gonna go out there, and whatever we give you is gonna be real,” Wheeler said. “We just want to take you on a completely different ride, and it’s gonna be a fight. Now, more than ever, I’m confident in wrestling our style and not trying to toe the line in what we think fans want and what we actually need to do, because they’ve shown they care about our style. I’m more confident and more comfortable that we can do what we do, and the people are gonna respect that.”
Harwood is geared up for the next chapter. “There is pressure to have a great match that people are going to enjoy, but we have confidence in ourselves, and I have confidence in The Briscoes’ ability as well,” he said. “They’re not gonna give us an inch. We’re not gonna give them an inch, and I thrive on that.”
Great wrestling wins the day
Since wrestling on the independent circuit and throughout their tenure with the WWE, Harwood and Wheeler have prided themselves on using the lessons learned from their heroes. Known as The Revival in NXT and WWE, the pair’s superb fundamentals and top tier ring psychology drew comparisons to tag team legends like The Midnight Express, The Hart Foundation and The Brain Busters. Those correlations remain now that they’re in AEW, but for a long time, FTR wondered if there was room for their throwback style within the modern business. The storylines continued to get more wild. Rulebooks went out the window. Comedy routines became more prevalent, and sports entertainment seemed to firmly occupy the spot that professional wrestling once held.
“There are times still now where I think maybe wrestling has passed me by,” Wheeler admitted. “Because I see something, a clip online somewhere, and it’s getting rave reviews. I’m just like, ‘Man, I don’t get it. I don’t understand it.’ I’m not saying it has to be the 1980s again, but I think there are ways to make these spectacular things make sense, and so many people are lazy about that and they just care about getting the spectacular pop, so they neglect the in-between and the fundamentals. So I start thinking, ‘Man, has it passed us by? Are we just too serious about it? Do we want it to be respected too much?’”
Turns out wrestling well still gets over. Hard work and hard hits pays off. “And then things like what’s happening right now happen where the fans are showing us an unbelievable amount of love,” Wheeler continued. “And it’s because of the fact that we’ve put in the hard work, and they respect what we do, and we don’t take the fundamentals for granted. They respect the professional wrestling aspect of what we do.” For Harwood, it’s about confidence and making the fans feel. “Great wresting does win at the end of the day, but with great wrestling you also have to make those people care about you and feel a certain way about you. I think that was the biggest thing. We made them feel for us.”
An homage to The Midnight Express
FTR arrived to AEW in 2020, and their entrance music at the time was a southern-inspired tune that proved fitting for a pair of North Carolina heels. At a September 2021 match in Chicago against Santana & Ortiz, FTR wore tribute gear honoring tag team legends, The Midnight Express. The iconic team featured “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton, “Loverboy” Dennis Condrey, manager Jim Cornette, and later included “Sweet” Stan Lane. Eaton sadly passed away on Aug. 4, 2021.
The gear gave Khan an idea. “I remember Tony saying, ‘When I saw you guys in that gear, I had this idea,’” Wheeler said. “Pretty much he wanted to go in a babyface direction, change the music, and like he said on some interviews, give us a bit of a makeover.” The music, “Darkside of TR,” was a direct homage to The Midnight Express theme, Giorgio Moroder’s “Chase.”
At first, Harwood was not on board. “Tony brought us into the office,” he said. “He had this great idea. Cash was in the office first, and he played it for Cash who sent me a text: ‘Hey, I just heard the music. I don’t know if it’s us. But when you come in, just see what you think.’ I walked in, Tony hit play, and he started dancing around the room like a kid.” Harwood was not only worried about the direct comparisons fans might make between FTR and The Midnight Express, but also in how upbeat the song was. “Bobby and Dennis are the greatest, and The Midnight Express is my favorite tag team of all time. So the comparison would be there, and I never want to be super compared to The Midnight Express, because I’m afraid we can’t measure up to them. And cause we’re Southerners, we don’t do a lot of flashy stuff, and that music is very flashy, so I was worried it wasn’t gonna work.”
Turns out, though, Tony Khan was right. The song is almost universally loved by fans, and the re-imagined take on “Chase” served as a fresh sound that also paid tribute to the past. “He knew it would work and trusted in it, and the fans took to it and loved it,” Harwood said. “And if they love it, I love it, too.”
While FTR has done some obvious tributes to The Midnight Express, Cornette has often had high praise for FTR, too. That’s not something the legendary manager and wrestling personality doles out lightly, and he’s never shied away from being unfiltered in his opinions of modern wrestling and aspects of AEW that he doesn’t like.
“I’m sure it gets us heat,” Wheeler said of Cornette liking FTR. “Nobody will tell us it gets us heat, but you can add that to the list of things — I’m sure this interview will get us heat. I’m sure the next interview will get us heat. I’m sure Wednesday, we’ll probably get a little bit of heat. I’m sure there’s a little bit of blowback from certain people, but Jim likes what he likes.”
Harwood explained further. “Here’s the thing. The reason that a lot of these people don’t like Cornette is because he doesn’t like their work,” he said. “That’s it. He’s Jim Cornette. He can have whatever opinion he wants. If there’s one day — and there has been — where he’s like, ‘Oh my God, I watched the FTR match, and woah it was the sh*ts,’ that’s fine. And you know why? Because he’s Jim Cornette, and he’s been very successful in professional wrestling. Same thing with Bret Hart. Same thing with Steve Austin, with Edge, Christian, Randy Orton, Dennis Condrey, Arn Anderson and all these people that have put us over. If they want to dislike something about wrestling, that’s OK, because they’ve earned that right. I think now the generation of wrestlers, they can’t accept that not everyone is gonna like their work. Anybody can dislike my work, and that’s fine. Same thing with Cash, I’m sure. You can dislike it all you want. But those guys that I named, and the thousands of other wrestlers who made a living and paved the road for us to make an incredible living today, if they don’t like somebody’s work, accept it. Maybe listen to it and say, ‘Oh, maybe I can improve on that.’”
“I’m sure it does get us heat,” Harwood said. “And behind the scenes they’re calling us ‘Cornette’s boys’ or something like that, but who gives a f*ck? You know what I mean? If you’ve got heat with us, that’s fine. Come tell us to our face, but I promise you that’s not gonna happen.”
Bumps and bruises
Wrestling as physically as FTR does is not without its drawbacks. Their “no flips, just fists” mantra from their time in WWE echoed their no-nonsense approach in the ring. It looks great, but that’s because it’s as real as it can get. Repeatedly during the interview, Harwood adjusted how he sat, which he revealed is due to a torn labrum that wraps from his groin to his hip. “I got that right before the match with The Briscoes,” he said. “I took a suplex on the floor, and it’s still very uncomfortable just to sit down. To walk or to run it doesn’t bother me, but to sit down, it just kills me. Every match you have, I don’t care how old you are or how young you are, every match is gonna take a toll on your body.”
Harwood said there’s a misconception among wrestling fans that the moves don’t hurt. They do. He also said that perception is down to wrestlers no-selling in the ring. “We’ll take a move, even just a shoulder tackle — a shoulder tackle hurts so bad,” he said. “We’ll take this move, and you’ll watch guys get right back up and smile and laugh. And in my mind, I’m like, ‘I gotta go home to my daughter, and that one tackle, that one bump hurt so bad that I can’t play with her.’ So why are we telling these fans this doesn’t hurt? ‘Watch. The ring is springy, it’s like a trampoline.’ It’s the complete opposite. Everything hurts.”
Harwood and Wheeler rattled off their list of ailments like a badge of honor. Dax has a torn bicep and torn labrum. Cash has a torn labrum, bad right elbow, two banged-up shoulders and suffered nerve damage last year when his arm got caught in the turnbuckle in a freak incident during a match against Santana & Ortiz. They both have “matching chips in our elbow that lock up and hurt,” Harwood said, and they’ve suffered concussions and have sustained more bruises in their career than most people will suffer in their entire lifetime. “I don’t know if you ever recover from matches, you just get used to the pain and being uncomfortable,” Harwood said.
“When you enjoy what you do and you’re having fun, it’s hard to take that time away unless it’s not an option,” Wheeler added. “There’s different matches and different high-level matches, especially like one with The Briscoes, that you can use as injury markers when you’re telling stories down the line. Like, ‘I remember the match with The Briscoes in Dallas, and that’s how I got this with my shoulder.’ They kind of become like chapters in your injury book. They still kind of linger years on. They get better over time. You rehab them a little more. You learn how to train around them and be more functional to take the pressure off of it. A lot of the times, you just carry them with you.”
Does the pair ever plan to take an extended break to heal? There’s probably not a tag team more deserving of some time off, but as red hot as FTR is at the moment, that’s likely not happening anytime soon. “We’ve been talking about that since 2019,” Harwood admitted. “If you go back to 2019, there was no other wrestler in the WWE that wrestled more matches than me and Cash. And I have respect for all these guys — but Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Seamus — all these top guys in WWE, they didn’t wrestle the amount of matches we did. Because the guys booking the house shows knew that if we were on the show, we were gonna bust our *ss and give the live event fans their money’s worth. So we were on more than any other wrestler in the company at the time. So since 2019, me and Cash say, ‘After this period, we should take this time off and get things fixed,’ or ‘We should take some time off and let our bodies heal.’ It just never happens.”
The state of tag team wrestling in AEW and looking ahead
Since their arrival, FTR has had memorable matches with most of the AEW tag team roster. They also see a bright future in the division and hope to soon challenge recently-crowned champions, Keith Lee and Swerve Strickland. “I would love to work with Swerve and Lee at some point, but we’re No. 1 contenders, so that probably can’t happen,” Wheeler said, again throwing a dig at AEW EVPs, The Young Bucks. “When we drop down from there, maybe we’ll cash in.”
“In all seriousness, The Acclaimed and The Gunn Club in particular, I think both of those teams have a world of potential,” Wheeler continued. “I think The Gunn Club are gonna be one of the best tag teams that everybody’s talking about in the next couple of years, because they have great natural ability and charisma, but they also have the great base with their dad (Billy Gunn) making sure they don’t skip the fundamentals and they don’t take anything for granted, so they cover all the bases. When they get a little more seasoned and they keep finding themselves like they’ve been doing, the skies the limit for those guys.”
The sky still appears to be the limit for FTR, too. Having recently added the IWGP World Tag Titles to their hardware case, the duo currently sport three championships (IWGP, AAA and Ring of Honor). Obviously, retaining their Ring of Honor belts Saturday and then setting their sights on the AEW Tag Titles are immediate goals, but there are still mountains to climb. “We want to go to Japan and defend the IWGP Tag Team Championship as well and continue to write a legacy,” Harwood said. “Long term, we’ve only got a few more years left in us. We’ve both been doing this for half of our lives. I think ultimately — and I know some fans are gonna get upset about it and some are gonna love it — but ultimately long term I want us to be considered the greatest tag team there ever was.”
Wheeler doubled down on the sentiment. “I want to go down in history as the best that’s ever done this,” he said. “I don’t care who that offends. If you go back from the beginning to where we are now and where we’re gonna go, the body of work we’re gonna leave hopefully is gonna be all the proof we’re gonna need. I want to go to Japan and defend the IWGP tag team titles multiple times. I want to do it in the Tokyo Dome. I want to keep going to Mexico and defending the AAA titles. There’s a couple more stars we want to add. I don’t know where we get them from, maybe some AEW trios titles will come into play soon. Maybe we can win a couple others from wherever else. But the end goal is to be at least 10-star FTR.”
Ring of Honor’s “Death Before Dishonor” is available Saturday via pay-per-view. For event info and to order, click here.
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