How AEW Could Spark the Realest Pro Wrestling Feud in Decades (and Why You Should Pay Attention)

     October 2, 2019

The modern pro wrestling revolution, like most revolutions in the 21st century, began with a Tweet. In 2017, journalist Dave Meltzer responded to a question asking if the promotion Ring of Honor could sell out a 10,000-seat arena with a simple answer: “not any time soon.” Cody Rhodes, fresh off a self-requested release from World Wrestling Entertainment and working his way through the thriving independent scene in both America and Japan, responded: “I’ll take that bet Dave. I already gave them their biggest buyrate…put [Matt and Nick Jackson] & I on the card & 3-months to promote.”

Just over a year later, the Jackson brothers—who perform as a tag team, The Young Bucks—and Rhodes promoted “All In”, an independent show inside Chicago’s Sears Centre Arena. It sold out in 30 minutes, an announced 11,263 attendees, the largest pro wrestling show in America not put on by WWE or the now-defunct WCW since 1983. More importantly, “All In” caught the eye of Tony Khan, a life-long wrestling fan who also happens to be the billionaire co-owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and the EFL’s Fulham F.C.

Flash-forward a bit: Contracts were signed. Rhodes and the Young Bucks used their popular Youtube series Being the Elite to announce an official new promotion, All Elite Wrestling. On May 15, 2019, the company—backed by Tony Khan and his co-investor father, Shahid Khan—revealed it had struck a deal with TNT to put on a weekly two-hour show, AEW: Dynamite.

Why should you care? Personally, I think pro wrestling is the purest form of entertainment on the planet, a potent mix of live theater, athleticism, stuntwork, and comic book storytelling. But still, the biggest criticism I hear as a wrestling fan is that it’s “fake”. Friends, when Dynamite premieres on Wednesday, October 2, shit is going to get very, very real.

World Wrestling Entertainment is, in every way, a monolith. Vince McMahon—a genuinely baffling enigma of a human being who once literally booked himself to beat God—took the company over from his father Vincent McMahon Sr. in the 1980s and proceeded to efficiently put America’s pro wrestling “territories” out of business one by one. By the 1990s, the only two major names in town were McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner‘s World Championship Wrestling, two promotions with flagship shows airing side-by-side on Monday nights, ruthlessly competing for ratings. The “Monday Night Wars” marked a massive boom period for pro wrestling, sparking the meteoric rise of names like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin while ushering in an era of car-crash on-screen vulgarity; thanks to the WWF’s “Attitude Era”, you couldn’t walk through a middle school in 1999 without getting at least two middle fingers and a “suck it” from an actual child. But the violence in the ring couldn’t hold a candle to the real-life feud between WWF and WCW, a time of back-stabbing, company-hopping, and extreme pettiness that peaked when WCW broadcaster Tony Schiavone straight-up spoiled the results of a pre-taped WWF show live on air. (The tactic, hilariously, back-fired. Those results were so must-see that audiences changed the channel in droves.)

Eventually, the WWF—now branded WWE thanks to a devastating loss to a panda bear—won the war in 2001, and boy did McMahon and Co. never forget it. If you need the purest example of “history is written by the victors”, direct your attention to 2014, when Sting—arguably the biggest WCW name to never compete in the competitor’s company—finally showed up in WWE, where he…was promptly smashed in the face with a sledgehammer, pinned at WrestleMania, and written to shake his opponent’s hand and thank him for the opportunity. No one but Vince McMahon will ever fully understand Vince McMahon—there is a well-collaborated rumor that he hates sneezing because it’s something he can’t control—but it’s fair to say he enjoys stamping out competition, whether it’s a rival company or literal. Christian. God. I cannot stress enough how that actually happened.

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Image via NBCUniversal

Without competition on U.S. television, WWE has thrived financially. In recent years, the company expanded into a multi-pronged, billion-dollar enterprise with its own streaming service. Last year, the company signed a mammoth deal with Fox that moves the two-hour show Smackdown to the network and straight-up flushes WWE with cash. It’s been a good time to be a WWE stockholder…and, honestly, an infuriating time to be a fan more often than not. In 2008, WWE programming officially became PG, and while the shift to more family-friendly storytelling didn’t directly cause a drop in quality—a lot of late-90s/early-aughts WWE belongs in the past. Do not Google “Katie Vick”—it did begin a long period where WWE rested on its laurels as the only show in town. The face of the company was John Cena, whose schtick was “following the rules is dope” and “t-shirts should be neon as hell and under no circumstance fit an adult.” After Cena came Roman Reigns, a statuesque Samoan with permanently wet hair who WWE desperately wanted you to love despite arenas booing him out of the building. A staleness permeated every inch of the overly-corporate product, buzzwords replaced passion, and anything truly great that took place, like the unlikely rise of bearded vegan mega-hero Daniel Bryan, happened because crowds literally hijacked segments, begging for a change of pace. “Vince McMahon Out of Excuses for WWE Woes,” read a Variety headline in July 2019, after the Fox deal had been inked, at perhaps the height of a creative lull so punishingly dull the McMahon family appeared on television to admit their show sucked and had for a good while.

At the same time, AEW picked up steam, smartly branding itself as everything WWE is not. Young, fast, cool. Founded by some of the most electric names from the indie circuit—Kenny Omega, arguably the best in-ring performer alive, has been on-board since the start—along with Cody Rhodes, son of the icon Dusty Rhodes, with a personal score to settle against his former employer. Chris Jericho, a bonafide legend and WWE mainstay, hopped ship to AEW. Dean Ambrose, one of the most popular modern-day performers on WWE’s roster, quietly finished out his obligations and at exactly 12:01 AM on the morning his contract ended, Ambrose announced he’d left the company and would once again appear under his former indie name, Jon Moxley. A month later, Moxley showed up unannounced at an AEW show.

AEW says its promos won’t be scripted corporate-speak. Wins and losses will matter. Stories and characters will matter. And making WWE look like even more of a fossil, AEW immediately put a focus on diversity. The promotion’s May 2019 event “Double or Nothing” was the first sensory-inclusive wrestling event in history, followed closely by a partnership with autism-awareness non-profit KultureCity. The premiere of Dynamite will see a Women’s Championship match featuring Nyla Rose, the first openly transgender wrestler to compete in a major U.S. company. Brandi Rhodes, AEW’s Chief Branding Officer, speaks often about the company’s mission to diversify not just in the ring but behind the scenes as well.

“One thing that I’ve wanted to see change in wrestling, because wrestling seems to be slower than everything else that I know in entertainment, as far as progressive — and I’m not sure why that is — but women behind the scenes in wrestling don’t really exist,” Brandi told Collider’s bro-site Pro Wrestling Sheet. “So this role is paramount for that reason in that that showcases that there’s another one of us that are existing, and making decisions, and being pinnacle parts of the building of a company.” 

For a certain type of wrestling fan, AEW is a no-brainer, a serious, adult-skewing mix of exciting newcomers and ring legends that’s hard-hitting but also isn’t afraid to throw full-on wacky stuff at you, either. (See: the pro wrestling dinosaur, Luchasaurus, and his pal Jungle Boy. Wrestling rules.) Once Dynamite premieres that’d probably be the end of the story for a lot of disgruntled fans…if WWE hadn’t so clearly gotten a whiff of the ol’ competition hanging in the air.

A combination of the massive Fox deal and AEW’s emergence has lit a fire right under the ass of Vince McMahon and company. Eric Bischoff and Paul Heyman—the executives who ran the only two companies that ever really challenged WWE: WCW and ECW—were brought on as “Executive Director” of Smackdown LIVE! and Monday Night Raw, respectively. (Those are real positions of authority, a clarification that’s important to make in the pro wrestling world.) The company deemed the September 30th Raw and October 4th Smackdown as “season premieres”, complete with new sets, logos, rosters, and—by far most importantly—the return of pyro after years of budget-mandated cutbacks.

Even before that, the shows have just felt different. More cohesive, more alive, just a tad bit edgier; announcer Corey Graves even got a “holy shit” on air just a few weeks ago. The performers themselves have clearly been given a little more freedom to break out. Becky Lynch has become something of a household name thanks to sheer perseverance and a nasty in-ring accident that turned into an undeniably iconic image. After spending months on the shelf because of injury, Bray Wyatt returned with leeway to get bonkers with a new persona, “The Fiend“, which has buzzed its way to becoming some of the most effective horror on television.

Basically, two sides are gearing up for a whole new war, and the first actual shots—for now—will be fired on a Wednesday. Casual as can be, WWE recently slotted its third brand, NXT, into Wednesday nights on the USA Network, where it’ll air directly against AEW’s Dynamite. (The last company to compete head-to-head on the same night with WWE was Spike TV’s TNA in 2009. The move lasted less than two months.) NXT has almost as unlikely a story as AEW; originally the developmental training stop-gap for all incoming talent, the show grew under the leadership Paul “HHH” Levesque into the company’s “pure” wrestling show, focused on highly technical, hard-hitting in-ring storytelling, to the point where WWE has been advertising its own third show as the “No B.S.” option. Strange marketing indeed, but the message is clear: “You want that fast-paced flippy shit? We got it, too.”

Boiled down, this is by far the most interesting story happening on television right now. It’s David vs. Goliath in sequined spandex. It’s personal. It’s real. It is a billion-dollar giant getting kicked in the shins and actually feeling it for the first time in almost 20 years. It’s the type of story that pro wrestling writers have been trying to script since the carnival days. AEW’s Dynamite debuts on Wednesday, October 2, at 8PM ET. WWE’s weekly NXT show continues on Wednesday, October 2, at 8PM ET. You don’t have to choose a side. But for the first time since 2001…you could.

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