Dear AEW Fans

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

Dear AEW fans,

Originally I was going to use this Players’ Tribune opportunity to write a letter to my younger self. Seemed like a cool idea — talk to Kid Anthony about everything that’s in store for him in the future, and share some of the perspective I’ve gained as an adult. But then I sat down to do it … and I realized something: That letter would make no sense. Because wrestling is insane.

No, seriously. It’s insane. Like where would I even begin???

Dear 7-year-old Anthony,

O.K. — in 1999 Billy Gunn is going to leave DX and change his name to “Mr. Ass” Billy Gunn, which will start as this ironic play on the name “Bad Ass” Billy Gunn but will eventually become a gimmick about his literal ass. Twenty years later, a nice but evil demon will call Billy’s two sons “The Ass Boys” and you’ll (you’re a professional wrestler now) start referring to Billy (he’s 59 now) as “Daddy Ass.” After that, the three Gunns will partner with The Acclaimed, a tag team you’re in with Max Caster, this amazing rapper. You and Max will have a signature handshake where you’ll scissor each other’s fingers, which is a nod both to the “A” in Acclaimed and to your own queerness. One night on live TV, you’ll turn to Billy and scream, “SCISSOR ME, DADDY ASS!!!!” People will love it and your life will never be the same.

Good luck with everything, see you in 25 years.

—32-year-old Anthony

…………….annnnnnnnd that’s when I decided a letter to my younger self wasn’t the way to go. Like I said: There’s just no making sense of some of this stuff, looking back on it. Even having lived through it. And with tonight being our annual Grand Slam show at Arthur Ashe, which is both a homecoming for me and an anniversary that means a lot to me, I realized that who I’d actually like to write a letter to right now is you all — AEW fans. Because when I think about where I’ve gotten to over these last several years, and over this last year in particular, one thing I keep coming back to is that I’ve been able to get there while staying true to myself. I’ve been able to succeed in wrestling as a Black gay man while still being me. And I don’t take for granted the role you’ve all played in making that possible.

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

One of the reasons why it’s so important to me to be myself in this business, I think, is that for such a long time I struggled to figure out who that was. Not just as a wrestler, but also as a person in the world.

I’ll never forget my first shot at a big break. It was in 2014 (yup! that long ago) and I was 23, about two years into my career. Back then the way it worked was that WWE would come to a town, and they’d book a bunch of indie guys from the area as extras on the show. Then they’d have those guys wrestle before the show in front of their agents and scouts and stuff. I got booked when they came to New York, and I won’t lie: I killed it. I got feedback like, “You did some things in there we’ll train guys 10 years before they know how to do.” I got introduced to Triple H at Raw the next night. I was texting people after, like, Damn. They’re introducing me to Hunter? This is really happening. I might have actually done it. I impressed them enough to get invited to a tryout a few months later in Ohio, then impressed them enough at that tryout to get invited to the Performance Center for a few days. At the Performance Center, I killed it again. I’m not even bragging — I’ve just always been a good athlete, and the in-ring stuff always felt natural to me.

But then I had to cut a promo.

And as comfortable as I was when it came to wrestling, I was the exact opposite when it came to talking. They put a mic in my hand … and it’s hard to explain. But if you know our business, you know that cutting a promo is more complicated than just “being a good public speaker” or whatever. It’s deeper than just acting, too. Not only are you giving a speech and building a character, you’re also trying to connect on a human level. It’s like you’re amplifying some part of yourself. And in order to amplify yourself, first you kind of have to know yourself. You have to be comfortable in your own skin. And I just wasn’t.

So I botched my tryout promos pretty badly. I remember William Regal telling me I had “four out of five” traits they’re looking for in a prospect. The only trait where I was falling short was “personality.” Which is funny to think about on some level — like, only in wrestling could a potential employer turn you down by saying, Come back when you have a personality!! But that’s more or less what happened. An hour after getting a no from WWE in an email, I found out that my grandmother (I called her Nana) had passed away. She was one of the most important people in my world, and that still ranks as the worst day of my life.

I guess I have this athlete’s mentality on things, though, where I’m good at turning negatives into positives. So when life kicked me square in the balls like that, my instinct was to see it less as a setback and more as an opportunity — to prove WWE wrong and to make Nana proud. I took acting classes, I did improv at UCB, I did live black box theater, I did commercial acting … I was just very determined about it. And in a lot of ways it worked! Those experiences were really amazing, and they helped me to become a better performer.

But at the same time, I think I knew the truth: As long as I was closeted as a wrestler, I wasn’t going to reach my full potential. Because I wasn’t going to be able to tap into everything that makes me me.

My journey out of the closet kind of happened in stages. Before high school, I hadn’t thought about liking guys — but that was probably less of a “liking girls” situation and more of a “being a big dork” situation. I was just very focused on friends and sports and stuff. Then one night in high school I had a dream about one of my guy friends. And afterwards, I definitely started to find myself having these thoughts of, like, “Hmm. I wonder what that would be like.” For a while, as time went on, I thought I was bi. I’d notice some girl was attractive, but then I’d also notice her boyfriend was equally attractive?? And those types of experiences inside my head just sort of grew and grew (and my “failure” with women felt less and less like a coincidence), to the point where I wanted to explore them in a real way, outside my head. And when I finally did begin to explore, it felt so right … but also so wrong. I just had this overwhelming sense of dread about it. Like if I told anyone, my world would come crashing down.

It took me two or three years of dealing with my sexuality alone before I finally came out to my best friend, Greg Seremba. This was in college, and I hadn’t told anybody before, so of course I made it so dramatic. We were hanging in his basement and it was the end of the night and I’d given this elaborate windup of a speech about how “I have something important to tell you.” I’m sure he thought I was dying of cancer. But when I told him? Oh my god. He didn’t care, in the way you’d want someone to not care, and he cared in the way you’d want someone to care. That moment was huge for me — it was such a relief. And the confidence I gained from it became a lifeline to other huge moments.

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

Eventually I went from telling Greg to telling the rest of my best friends and my family. Then a few years later, I met my boyfriend, Michael Pavano, which changed everything. With Michael, I felt I had all that I needed and wanted. And it made me realize that I had this unique chance: to help make wrestling a better place for future performers who might be struggling like I’d been. So with his (and my friends’ and family’s) love and support, combined with the acceptance of my fellow wrestlers, I finally came out publicly.

But I think the last stage for me of coming out was just … being out, if that makes sense. It was figuring out what my life could be like, and what I was capable of, and what was possible. There is this thing that sometimes happens, when people from marginalized groups open up about themselves, where the response in the moment will mostly be positive and supportive. Thank you for your bravery, and so on. And that’s great — it matters a lot. But it also has this way of making a moment like coming out feel like the happy ending of the story. When the truth is, for the person who’s living the story, it’s only the beginning. They still have the whole rest of their life ahead of them.

So for me, I was so lucky. I got so much support when I came out. But I also didn’t just want to be known as “the wrestler who came out,” or “the gay wrestler.” I wanted to be known as this successful wrestler … who happens to be gay and out and proud. And the history of wrestling (and sports in general) isn’t exactly filled with people who’ve been able to have that.

And I guess that’s where AEW fans come in — and why I wanted to write this letter.

What you guys have let me and Max and Billy be a part of in the Acclaimed … this ride you’ve gone on with us over the last year … it means everything to me.

It’s funny, because when the Acclaimed first started, we were insane levels of hated. And not just as Wrestling Bad Guys. I’m talking, like, mobs of people in AEW’s Twitter mentions when we’d have a segment, begging them to get us off their TV. We just rolled with it, though. It’s a good example honestly of me becoming comfortable in my own skin. Like if I’d seen some of those tweets in the beginning of my career, it would have rattled the hell out of me. But I had a much better sense now of who I was as a person — and who Max and I were trying to be as performers. So I leaned into it. I was brainstorming one day and I thought, We’re playing delusional assholes. What would these guys think about all the hate they get?? Oh, right: they’d be FLATTERED. And they’d think it means that everyone secretly loves them.

A few minutes later, we had our catchphrase.

Everyone loves the Acclaimed.

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

The irony of our catchphrase, of course, is that there ended up being no irony to it at all. Once the COVID era was over and we were wrestling in front of live crowds again, we started to get these unbelievable reactions. It’s like it was somehow gradual and sudden: People went from hating us, to “hating” us, to respecting us, to loving us. Max’s raps became a big deal. Scissoring caught on. We found our third member with Daddy Ass. We lost a heartbreaker in Chicago, but stole the show. Then we won the rematch (and the belts!) in New York. And from there we were off and running.

A year later — as AEW trios champs — we still are.

When I scream EVERYONE LOVES THE ACCLAIMED now, though, what I’m most proud of isn’t the LOVES part — it’s the EVERYONE part. It’s how every night we do this, we’re walking out there, we’re being outrageous and debaucherous and f*cking ridiculous, we’re having the best time, the most fun … and EVERYONE is invited. Everyone. That’s what the Acclaimed is truly about to me at the end of the day. 

So I wanted to put a few words down and say that.

Thanks for giving us a chance / sticking with us through the pandemic / going crazy for Max’s bars / scissoring until your fingers bleed / singing “OHHHHHH SCISSOR ME DADDYYYY” / buying foam fingers / hating Billy’s sons so much that he decided he’d rather spend time with us.

Thanks for letting a queer Black kid from New Jersey live out his wrestling dream. 

Thanks for coming to this party just as you are.

We’re glad you’re here.