In a world where undead wizards, battle rappers and luchador-dinosaur hybrids meet in overdramatic battles, you wouldn’t be blamed for pigeonholing professional wrestling as a childish soap opera for the ridiculous. But in a society grappling with internet addictions, conspiracy theories and an abundance of negativity, professional wrestling is currently the platform of one of the most nuanced, long-term character arcs in years. And at its core is an anxious millennial cowboy struggling to find his place in a world stacked against him.
Millennials and Gen-Z alike have been brought into a world where our parents' lives look straight out of a dream. Often happy to satirise real-life, it wouldn’t be unrealistic to imagine a Vince McMahon-fueled WWE pro-wrestler bursting onto televisions in the near future, dollars in hand, nicknamed something like “Johnny ‘The Landlord’ Stephenson.” Late-stage capitalism has made the act of building wealth into a perverse act of privilege and luck. The world over, people struggle to cope with a system that is fundamentally broken. And while for most of us this realisation can result in hopelessness followed by acceptance, the story of All Elite Wrestling’s “Hangman” Adam Page is a lifeline; a character who just might overcome the systemic problems put in front of him.
Within the realms of AEW, Adam Page is a drink-guzzling, meme-making, self-conscious mess of a man facing off against a traditional power structure that holds him back. At just 30-years-old, he has been wrestling for 12 years – ten of which were spent as a background character and a lackey to a group of villains. He is a character who personifies the dreaded “unrealised potential” young people reckon with daily.
In a past era of professional wrestling, Page would’ve been your stereotypical cowboy character, complete with a cheesy hat and a yeehaw. But Hangman is modern – an anxious young man pushing through familiar disillusionment – and his story represents a character arc previously unseen in the world of professional wrestling. For all of wrestling’s predetermined fighting and machismo, the evolution of Adam Page - a millennial rising up to claim what should be his - has shone bright to an audience living in a reality surrounded with missed opportunity and unreachable brass rings.
Tied to the relatively new promotion AEW, Page is arguably the brand’s longest gestating story, having kicked off at the very start of the company with his failure to become the first ever AEW World Heavyweight Champion.
What followed was regression. Having somehow found himself facing his One Big Opportunity in life, Page saw it snatched away just as dramatically. Instead, he fell into his familiar role as a side character in a larger conglomerate known as The Elite (a group composed of the storyline and real-world Executive Vice Presidents of AEW). In Adam Page, viewers were faced with another representation of a young person struggling to live up to their lofty dreams. Raised on the mantra that success means playing nice with higher-ups and waiting for your one shot at glory, a reputation for failure can follow you through your entire career.
Here was a far-reaching familiar experience, playing out with a likeable character, that younger generations could see themselves in.
Rather than dwindle, Page’s character split open and shared a level of vulnerability rarely seen in the world of wrestling. Honestly, and openly, Page questioned his value in a series of televised breakdowns and emotional contemplations over an 18-month period. He began openly drinking, became a tag-team champion, saw his relationship with his partner disintegrate to the point of devastation, and was somewhat accosted by a cult (remember, this is still professional wrestling). All of this included a lengthy spell on the sidelines, off of TV, after he bet it all on a match he would go on to lose, committing himself to falling back down the card.
In a string of failures that included losing the respect of his friends, losing matches, and losing confidence in himself, his disappointment was palpable and real. His peers had already lived successful careers. They were - and are - literal multimillionaires. And Page had just proven that he couldn’t step out from their shadows. The status quo was set, and Page’s place was to be a supporting player.
Meanwhile, Hangman’s former friend and tag team partner, Kenny Omega, would find himself wearing the AEW World Championship that Page himself had coveted. Omega was no stranger to success, frequently described as the best wrestler in the world. He came into AEW on the heels of a bidding war between the WWE, AEW and the Japanese promotion where he made his name, NJPW. From his signing, it was a matter of when, not if, he won the World Championship. With the team of Page and Omega disintegrating, Kenny quickly pivoted to his promised place at the top of the company ladder. Hangman was only a dead weight who had delayed Kenny’s destined rise to glory.
Adam Page is a character who personifies the dreaded “unrealised potential” young people reckon with daily.
Truly, though, it is in the actions of Adam Page that a young audience is reminded of itself: When Hangman is caught sculling a beer after a match, we see a young man trying to take the edge off a stressful work environment, where success feels impossible. When Hangman openly mocks his own anxiety and lack of self-worth, it’s easy to relate to him – taking the piss out of yourself makes for a great defence mechanism. Page consumes outside stimulants and devalues his own emotions as a form of coping. These are things that he can control when it comes to his situation. His own failure, and the crushing weight of a system ill-designed for characters with mental health issues, are challenges near impossible to overcome without assistance.
By confronting his issues on-screen, Page pulled a disenfranchised audience behind him. Brought up by a generation that often looked at mental health as an overdramatic grab for attention, it’s a deflating feeling to have your struggles minimised and overlooked by those you respect. As Hangman’s obvious struggles were shrugged off by his powerful friends, viewers across the world latched onto the cowboy’s plight. Here was a far-reaching familiar experience, playing out with a likeable character, that younger generations could see themselves in.
When AEW began, Adam Page praised the EVP’s of AEW for doing some “real cowboy shit”. They had, after all, figured out how to compete against the WWE’s huge, ever-growing, and somehow creatively dry monopoly. But over the course of these past two years, the audience has used “cowboy shit” as a rallying cry - both for themselves and for a man they see as too trapped in his own mental battles to recognise that his struggles are relevant, real, and worthy.
On November 14th (13th in the US), Hangman Adam Page challenges for the AEW World Championship against his former friend, and tag-team partner, Kenny Omega. It is the culmination of a storyline that has played out through AEW’s entire existence.
When this anxious millennial cowboy makes his way to the ring for this match, he may be walking out on his own, but he won’t be alone. Representing a raw and real side of humanity – rarely seen in such an over-the-top odd world – Page has millions of fans all over the world behind him, cheering him on to finally conquer his demon.
Because if Hangman can do it, maybe we all can.
That’s “cowboy shit”.