Austin Theory and Mustafa Ali came into my wrestling life the same way at about the same time.
Chicago indie Freelance Wrestling started doing grainy single-cam streams of their shows via YouTube around the fall of 2015 and I, hungry for quality live indie content in a world before IWTV was streaming six to seven shows on any given weekend, tuned into each and every one of them.
In early 2016, Mustafa Ali started getting booked by Freelance and immediately made an impression on me, being so crisp, so quick, so much heart, and always, always violent. His rise to and reign with the Freelance Championship was quality content that I’ll recommend to anybody, especially his title defenses against Jonathan Gresham, GPA, and Lio Rush.
Meanwhile, that summer at Freelance vs. CZW, a young man from Georgia made his debut into Freelance’s trademark scramble match. By the name of Austin Theory, he didn’t get a lot in the match (such is the nature of scrambles) but he threw such crisp German suplexes that he commanded my attention even on a grainy single camera YouTube stream, and even moreso as commentary put him over as being less than a dozen matches into his career.
These were men to watch, dear friends.
Both men’s stars were rising, but things slowly diverged.
Ali started 2016 looking at it as a retirement tour and ended it signed to WWE as part of its shiny new cruiserweight division, and while he never won that particular title, he got a bunch of high profile matches for it, including a WrestleMania match against Cedric Alexander. He shifted to the main roster with aplomb, seemingly cruising for a series of WWE Championship matches against Daniel Bryan in 2019 when injury struck and he was replaced by Kofi Kingston, and history was made.
Cut off at the apex of his career, Ali spiraled, taking charge of anti-WWE faction Retribution, who went nowhere, forming a tag team with Mansoor that went nowhere, and folks, if you go nowhere long enough, eventually you get to nowhere.
And once you’re nowhere, it’s hard to get out.
Theory, meanwhile, took a slower and steadier road. Working for WWE’s indie affiliate Evolve, he rose steadily up the ranks from the FIP World Heavyweight Championship to the WWN Championship, to the Evolve World Championship itself. But while he came in with all the potential in the world and he remained as crisp in the ring as ever, something happened to his work.
Trained by AR Fox, one of the most exciting men in pro wrestling, and bless with athleticism and power, Austin should have been a slam dunk best-in-the-world level star. But in WWE’s feeder system at a time when Evolve’s focus shifted away from presenting the best technical wrestling in the world and towards developing stars from WWE, he started looking less like the next AR Fox and more like the next Randy Orton.
And Randy Orton is a great wrestler and a star to be sure, but it meant that Theory’s matches very quickly stopped being something to look forward to and started dragging the shows down, especially given how strongly he was featured. And of course that didn’t change when he got signed to NXT and it didn’t change when he got moved to the main roster.
On the main roster, while Ali found himself down and out and sitting at home hoping to be released, Theory found himself taken under Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s wing and learning how to cut corners (including how to cut his first name from his chyrons) and act with ruthless aggression from the meanest carny bastard in the business, and was shepherded to the United States Championship.
Two incredibly talented men with all the potential in the world, two very different roads to get here.
The two have only met in televised singles action once, on the go-home Raw to this show, whereupon Theory pounced on an injured Ali after weeks of dangling a title match in front of him and yanking it away, and beat him in short order. This match is only even happening on pay-per-view because of Mr. McMahon’s capricious whim, delivering the message through Adam Pearce moments after Austin’s hand was raised.
In an even fight, I can’t help but think that Ali’s heart and precision and fighting spirit win out, but then there’s no way this will be a fair fight, will it?
Can Mr. McMahon’s protege keep the gold against a determined Mustafa Ali?
Who will win?
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