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AEW’s Anthony Bowens on coming out, defying haters and becoming wrestling’s first gay world champ

Ryan Butcher February 4, 2022
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Sting. Bryan Danielson. Jon Moxley. These are not only some of the biggest names in AEW – arguably the hottest and fastest-growing pro-wrestling company in the world – but they’re some of the biggest names in the sport, period. And in the past few weeks, Anthony Bowens has gone toe-to-toe with them all.

OK, sure, he didn’t exactly win any of those matches. And Bowens would be the first to tell you that Sting and his partner, AEW darling Darby Allin, almost definitely cheated in their tag team match back in January.

But in Anthony Bowens’ line of work, it’s not so much the winner at the end of the match that matters, but the story that’s told inside the ropes of the squared circle. And as one of the fastest rising stars in all of professional wrestling, Anthony Bowens has quite the story to tell.

It seems almost fate that Bowens and his tag team partner Max Caster, better known as The Acclaimed, headlined All Elite Wrestling’s flagship show Dynamite against Sting and Darby on the nine-year anniversary of his very first match.

Especially when you consider that Sting, known as The Icon of pro-wrestling, was the man who first snared a young Anthony Bowens into the world of pro-wrestling to begin with. While his dad may have been a big Bruno Sammartino guy, it was Sting’s flamboyant theatrics and face paint that first drew in Bowens.

“I remember seeing Sting and, after that, it was complete fandom,” he laughs when he catches up with PinkNews in the aftermath of his historic headline match. “I’ve had every action figure and I was in love with professional wrestling since I was six-years-old.”

Now aged 31, Bowens is rubbing shoulders with some true powerhouses of the business. And, better yet, he’s doing so as a proud, openly gay man.

All Elite Wrestling star Anthony Bowens (All Elite Wrestling)

Yes, yes, we’re in 2022 now and it shouldn’t be such a big deal being openly gay in your line of work. It shouldn’t, but quite often it is. And ask any pro-wrestling fan and they’ll tell you that wrestling and the LGBT+ community haven’t always had the best of relationships in the past.

There’s WWE’s infamous Billy and Chuck storyline from back in the early 00s, of course, in which two heterosexual men pretended to be in a same-sex relationship for jokes and cheap pops, complete with every offensive stereotype you could possibly imagine.

Then there’s the allegations that former champion Chris Kanyon, a closeted gay man, was released from his WWE contract on account of his sexuality – Kanyon would later die by suicide in 2010, aged 40-years-old. Sprinkle in some good old-fashioned locker room homophobia to boot and you don’t exactly have the most welcoming environment for us queer folk.

At least, that’s how it used to be. Things are certainly changing in pro-wrestling and it’s AEW that’s emerging as the destination for elite LGBT+ pro-wrestlers with a deep and diverse roster made up of athletes from all walks of life. Nyla Rose, for example, made history as the first-ever trans women’s pro-wrestling champion on TV. Jake Atlas, who retired from the sport citing mental health reasons, recently returned to the business after signing a contract with AEW.

And then there’s Anthony Bowens. Now a mainstay of AEW and a crown jewel in the company’s tag team division as one half of The Acclaimed, Bowens is quietly grabbing the preverbal brass ring and smashing the rainbow ceiling in the ring, while acting as a role model and inspiration for countless queer wrestling fans outside of the ropes, too.

In the aftermath of his momentous match against Sting, PinkNews caught up with Anthony Bowens to talk his love of pro-wrestling, laying smackdown on haters and homophobes, and his inevitable journey to one day becoming the first ever openly gay world heavyweight champion of a major promotion.

Because The Acclaimed – and Anthony Bowens – have arrived. And, after all, everybody loves The Acclaimed.

PinkNews: Anthony Bowens! We’re speaking to you just a handful of days after you and Max Caster main-evented AEW Dynamite against the legend, the icon, Sting and Darby Allin. And what a match, too. Have you even recovered from that yet? How’re you feeling?

Anthony Bowens: [Laughs] I haven’t really fully processed it yet. It might take a few weeks, because it was such a massive match, and it’s going to take a while to let it all soak in. It’s so crazy! Sting was the first thing that drew me into professional wrestling. I saw a commercial for [WCW PPV] Starrcade 97 and it was Sting walking through a warehouse or something, stepping on Hulk Hogan’s face and I saw him and was like, “Who is this guy?! He’s so mysterious.” I ended up becoming a big WCW fan – and Sting was my guy for years.

I found out that he was going to be in AEW the night he debuted when he walked past Max Caster and I, and I was like [huge gasp]. Never did I think that a little more than a year later we’d be main-eventing Dynamite together on the ninth anniversary of my very first match.

Wrestler Anthony Bowen is seen in a ring

Does it get anymore poetic than that? On the anniversary of your very first match. What was your first match like? Do you recall back then?

I do! It was a battle royal on January 19 2013. It was Tony Nese versus some other kid and he beat the crap out of him, and so all the new students came out and made the save, and it turned into this big battle royal. I made the final four and then I got eliminated. [Laughs] A very, very stressful day actually and it was a day that I didn’t think was going to happen because I had severe performance anxiety and was having panic attacks the day of the show to the point where I didn’t even know if I could show up. To go from that to performing in front of millions of people every single week is quite the transformation.

And now you’re headlining AEW’s flagship show Dynamite against one of the biggest icons – no pun intended – in the entire industry. 

At this point I’m so comfortable with my environment and I’m comfortable within myself and as a member of The Acclaimed. I’m itching to get back out there as quickly as possible. Funnily enough, I was more nervous during the pandemic shows when there was no audience than I am when I’m performing in front of full arenas. It could be that it’s wrestling in front of your fellow wrestlers and you feel like everybody’s judging you on how entertaining your performance is. Because you want the respect from the locker room and the respect of your peers. But nowadays, even with matches against someone like Sting, there’s a nervous energy, but it’s positive; it’s more about excitement to get back out there and perform.

It’s incredible to see considering you haven’t even been performing in AEW for that long…

I think it was early 2020s or late 2019. I was still struggling on the indies trying to gain some momentum. There was an independent company in New Jersey and I was going to defend their belt around the country… and a week before I got told I was going to be making my AEW debut, the pandemic hit and everything shut down. I understood there was more important things going on in the world but, from a very selfish standpoint, it felt like it was never gong to work out for me. It felt like I kept getting so close and the rug kept getting pulled out from underneath me. But eventually, I found myself with an AEW contract.

An All Elite Wrestling graphic shows Anthony Bowens and “Platinum” Max Caster. (

So how did you get involved with Max Caster? As The Acclaimed, you two just seem like such a perfect fit together. 

The Acclaimed have amazing, amazing chemistry. I don’t know how Tony Khan [founder, co-owner, president and CEO of AEW] does it. He’s a visionary. He just sees these things and they spring up like a flower. But yeah, Max and I. He’s from Create A Pro Wrestling, which is a school where we both trained. There’s one in Long Island, New York, and the other is in New Jersey. And I’m from the New Jersey school and Caster is from the New York school. We never really crossed paths all that much – I think we maybe wrestled once or twice. I didn’t really know much about him and he didn’t really know much about me. At the time, we were fielding offers from the other company and eventually Tony found out, so he invited us to come meet him in Jacksonville.

I’m in the elevator and the door opens and Caster steps in. We find out we’re both going to meet Tony together. We get to his office and he’s like, “Hey, I’ve got this idea. You guys are going to be The Acclaimed.” OK, well, what is that? Who are we? What do we say? What does our gear look like? We had to make a lot of decisions because if the owner of the company has a vision for us and believes in us, then let’s go out there and make it happen. We ended up wrestling Best Friends [AEW tag team] and there was no audience due to the pandemic, so it was completely quiet, and I had no idea what I was doing. We had a great match though, and we started working on our craft every single week and we went to those guys who had no idea who The Acclaimed were to one of the best tag teams in the best tag team division in the world.

And not only have you had great tag team success but you’ve had so much solo success as well. A match with Bryan Danielson [AEW star and widely considered to be one of the best pro-wrestlers in the world], for example. How amazing was it being in the ring with someone like that?

To be on the shortlist of people that both Sting and Bryan Danielson have wrestled so far in AEW, or even just in general, is mind-blowing. That match in particular was a turning point for me as a performer. I was always very confident in myself and my abilities but you don’t truly know until you get in the wring with someone who I consider to be one of the best wrestlers in the world right now, if not the best. It was such a big confidence boost to go out there and know that I not only hung with Danielson, but I beat his ass… and then he actually got me at the end, but that’s not the point of the story! [Laughs] Everyone cheats against The Acclaimed, it’s very unfair! [Laughs]

I don’t know if I’m supposed to go into the insider stuff, but Bryan personally requested that match with me, which made me even more confident. And I stepped up and hit it out of the ballpark. It unlocked this side of me where I’m so confident out there now. I thought, ‘If this guy believes in me just like Tony does, I can literally do anything.’

All I’m thinking now is we need Anthony Bowens as the first-ever openly gay world heavyweight champion of any major promotion. 

I think that sounds great. [Laughs]

Gay AEW star Anthony Bowens is quietly making wrestling history
Openly gay All Elite Wrestling star Anthony Bowens shares a kiss with boyfriend, Michael Pavano. (Instagram/@bowens_official)

But it just goes to show how far we’ve come in pro-wrestling for LGBT+ athletes from, say Billy and Chuck [a WWE tag team from the early 00s made up of two straight men pretending to be in a gay relationship which was widely condemned by GLAAD and other LGBT+ organisations] to where we are with AEW and stars like yourself today. 

Society itself was very weird back then and so obviously we had a long way to go, but wrestling is in such a better place now in terms of representation. Especially with the AEW roster where we have myself, Sonny Kiss, Nyla Rose, and we just signed Jake Atlas. So the representation is ever-growing. And we’re all prominently featured on television, too! Nyla Rose was the first trans woman to be a champion on television and I’m in the main event of Dynamite. We’re not afraid at AEW to let our performers go out there and be themselves and be successful by being present and being visible on television.

It just goes to show the importance of representation and visibility, doesn’t it? For example, your gimmick is something that has nothing to do with your sexuality, which is so much more progressive than it used to be in wrestling. Fans can just see you as a proud gay man who’s doing your thing. 

My form of activism has always been to lead by example. I’ve played baseball all my life and while I was never a captain of a team, I was always a go-to leader on the team. Honestly, outside of being a performer, I’m a pretty quiet person. I show up, I work really hard and I do my job as best as I can. And then I go home. So when I do speak up, it means so much more as opposed to constantly drilling somebody. I tend to notice that the more you try to drill thing into people the more they want to push it away. I like to just go out and be as successful and visible as possible and hopefully that leads to people turning heads and facilitating chance. And then, when I really need to speak up, I’ll definitely say something. But I try and do things a little differently than others.

You mentioned before about the diversity of the AEW locker room and that’s been a big part in people falling in love with AEW and falling in love with wrestling again. It must be so refreshing to be in an environment where you know you can bring your true self to work?

You see people online saying stuff about how we’re not a very diverse roster. But when AEW opened up, that’s when my focus shifted from, “Hey, I really want to be in WWE,” to, “I really want to be in AEW.” The product itself was hot but then, when I got down there, the locker room was so relaxed and you weren’t walking on eggshells and everyone was very friendly. I saw Nyla and Sonny walking around just openly being themselves and there was no judgement there. They encourage you to be your best self, and I thought that was very cool. It made AEW more appealing to me; knowing that I didn’t have to put up any walls or any fronts or be wondering, like, who here is against me and who here is my friend. I look forward to coming to work every single week, seeing my friends and putting on a good show.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Anthony Bowens (@bowens_official)

So not that long ago, you and your boyfriend [YouTube star Michael Pavano] went viral for sharing a kiss in front of Christian homophobes holding pro-Trump and anti-gay signs. It was so incredible to see something as simple as a kissing between two men being so defiant, even at the tail end of 2021. Can you talk us through what’s happening there? 

That was during a Pride parade in New York City. We were walking and there’s this sectioned off area, and it was full of people screaming and being clearly very hateful. I’m not exactly the most aggressive person in terms of my personal life but I walked past them and though, “I kinda want to mess with them. Let’s kiss in their face and show them what love is!” Someone happened to snap the picture and then [back in December], I’m scrolling through my phone and I think, this is something that needs to be seen. You have to stand up against hate and show people what love is, and that love exists in all kinds of forms. I posted it not thinking anything other than it’s a really great picture and within a couple of days, it was everywhere. It’s a testament to where the world is goign that so many people supported our message.

I think you summed it up best there when you said: “Let’s show them what love is!” Such a beautiful sentiment. 

Why is it so hard to just love each other, you know? It boggles my mind. This is why my job outside of being a professional wrestler is to just be as visible as possible, get that message out there and hopefully create some positive change.

Like a lot of people still trying to figure themselves out, you came out as bisexual first and then later came out as gay. What’s that journey been like with your sexuality and discovering yourself?

At the time I said I was bisexual, that’s who I was, you know? I hate it when people say “it was a phase”, because it was nothing like that. It was who I was. But then when I met Michael in May of 2016, I started to understand myself more. I was still very new to coming out and still trying to figure out who I was as a person and what I liked. It’s an ever-evolving journey and things aren’t always like this static, concrete thing. You can change as an individual and as a person. As time went on, even though I hate labels, I felt like I related more to being gay. I know that to be a fact now because I’m more grounded and more comfortable with who Anthony Bowens is as a person. As time goes on, I’m still going to be evolving and changing as a person, but that was my journey. And nobody can tell me otherwise because you don’t live in here [Anthony points to his head].

Shortly after your viral kiss, you were performing on AEW Dynamite and there was some d**khead in the crowd shouting a homophobic slur at you. But although that was clearly awful, what I loved about that is how much the wrestling community seemed to rally behind you. 

Max and I have done a tonne of meet-and-greets and I’ve always, always had positive interactions with the AEW fans. Granted, I don’t think anyone is going to mess with us or Max and I will throw them 10 feet across the room. [Laughs] But we’re not the typical tag team, we’re kind of flamboyant with what we do, and everything has always been very, very positive. And as I’ve said before, I think that’s indicative of our fanbase. There’s always one idiot that tries to come out and get a rise out of things but it’s cool to see, like you said, people rally behind us against that kind of stuff. From a wrestling perspective, [racism, homophobia and transphobia] it’s not heel heat, it’s just bad. You can come to the show, you can yell about my mom, I don’t care. You know, The Acclaimed are bad guys and you want to yell at us. But don’t bring racism, don’t bring homophobia and don’t bring transphobia. Keep that stuff elsewhere. If that’s who you are as a human being, go do it somewhere else.

Well, with the fans and the locker room and the big man himself Tony Khan so clearly behind you, and just a little after nine years after your in-ring debut, what’s next for Anthony Bowens?

Well, it’s baby steps but Max and I are intent on making sure that we continue to stay on top of the tag division. We want some tag team gold in 2022. But long term, obviously I’d love to be the first gay champion as part of a tag team, but also a champion as a solo competitor too. Once The Acclaimed maybe aren’t a thing anymore – or maybe The Acclaimed will be something forever, you never know – first it would be the TNT championship and then, you know, to be a gay AEW heavyweight champion. I have so many goals [laughs] but it’s one step at a time. Right now, it’s just getting in the ring and going match by match and making sure we win. And, of course, no more cheating from Sting.

You can catch Anthony Bowens wrestle on AEW Dynamite and AEW Rampage, Wednesday and Friday night on TBS and TNT respectively. Check out Anthony and his boyfriend Michael’s YouTube channel here and, of course, you can follow the future gay AEW world heavyweight champion on Twitter and Instagram

More: AEW, Anthony Bowens, Nyla Rose, wrestling, WWE

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