Much of this month has been a blur to me in general but I do remember one thing: HOOK making his highly anticipated in-ring debut on AEW Rampage and setting the internet wrestling world on fire. Coincidentally enough, another up-and-coming young star made his debut recently on the opposite channel with NXT’s Parker Boudreaux, now known as Harland. Both men are the same age with limited pro-wrestling experience, both came in with massive amounts of hype, both have a collegiate sports background, and yet one stands out head-and-shoulders above the other despite his smaller stature.
I first remember hearing about Harland at the start of 2021, and I give the big man credit for knowing exactly how to promote himself online. His imposing size and look are an easy sell, and for a while it felt like I couldn’t search Twitter or Instagram without seeing his mean mug on my screen. From the striking blonde hair with the purple lightning bolts branded on the sides to his menacing stare and tattoos, the presentation he was setting up for himself was a homerun and he was almost instantly labeled as “The Next Brock Lesnar.” Keep in mind, this was all before he ever even made an appearance on WWE or NXT television, but fans wanted to know more about this guy, myself included.
And while Harland shot himself out of a cannon to the public as this incredible force, HOOK came onto the scene in a much more subdued light. Almost literally actually, as he just kind of started appearing in the shadows of Team Taz segments in late 2020. I remember my first impression being that he looked like someone who would sell cigarettes to middle school kids in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven. As the weeks went by though, what really stood out was that while he didn’t speak, you could still feel his presence. Quite impressive when you consider he was flanked by the loud and charismatic Ricky Starks on one side and a mass of muscles in Brian Cage and Powerhouse Hobbs on the other. Not to mention his dad and wrestling legend, Taz.
Then the memes started. Almost overnight it appeared HOOK was everyone’s favorite wrestler. He hadn’t so much as applied a headlock, but AEW fans - jokingly or not - loved HOOK. And looking back, I applaud AEW for not giving in to the hype right away. They could have very easily thrown him out there in a match to start getting televised reps under his belt, but they stayed the course and let HOOK do HOOK things. Like eating potato chips. And the people loved it even more.
In hindsight, and as ridiculous as this sounds, HOOK was presented much in the same vein as the original WCW Crow Sting back in 1997. He literally did not speak or wrestle for a full year, but he was massively over with the audience. By the time he did wrestle his first match, it was a must-see event. Add to that the pitch-perfect entrance theme, the no-frills presentation, and an impressive dominating win. Somehow, HOOK surpassed the hype.
And whereas the rise of HOOK was slow and steady, Harland’s was a bit more abrupt. He instantly went from being this mysterious enigma straight out of a Marvel movie to a bald-headed, run-of-the-mill “bad guy” minion upon his on-screen NXT debut. Gone was the blonde hair and loud “drip” as he called it, and in its place was a Michael Myers-like jumpsuit. Gone was the villainous personality that shone through in his social media posts, now replaced by your average WWE-style monster mannerisms. It was yet another example of a legitimate potential money-making superstar being scooped up by the WWE machine and molded in their own vision. A new vision which was lesser-than the original.
Now we are obviously still in the very early stages of each man’s career. But the build-up of each respective character is a great analogy for the main differences between WWE and AEW. One side finds itself trying to fix what isn’t broken, whereas the other side rides the hot hand organically. One approach leads to an anticlimactic, dime-a-dozen squash match debut on NXT, and the other leads to the hottest selling new t-shirt on Pro Wrestling Tees. I hope they one day let Harland be Harland, like they let HOOK be HOOK.