Not even a year removed from the debut of AEW Dynamite — the weekly 2 hour wrestling program from All Elite Wrestling — I consider myself a full-blown convert. Each week, WWE’s stranglehold on the pro-wrestling (ahem… “Sports Entertainment”) industry slips further and further down. In fact, just this past week, their ratings continued to plummet. And while all TV ratings right now are not-great? The WWE has less of an excuse. They are still producing weekly entertainment. It’s just that in comparison to Tony Khan’s black-white-and-gold brand… WWE is looking a lot less shiny. So much so I’m not even watching DVR’ed episodes with any zeal. At best, I listen to results (and complaints) from YouTube reviewers a few days after episodes air. While the WWE is literally too big to fail for now? As AEW Champion (and former WWE staple) Jon Moxley might say… it’s time for a paradigm shift.
As I’ve detailed a few times before… AEW was built from the ground-up to be everything WWE wasn’t. But with the pandemic continuing to prevent live-crowds from being capable of enhancing the product, I was personally worried that their on-air show would become unwatchable. Keep in mind much of what sold me on AEW to begin with was their ridiculously enthusiastic crowds. With a roster of veritable no-names — specifically to me, as one who doesn’t know the “indies” well — hearing thousands of roaring fans knowingly hang their hat on the antics of the Best Friends, Orange Cassady, or the Lucha Bros, helped sell to me that AEW truly assembled an elite roster.
Cut to just this past week. Dynamite boasted a championship main event, a six-on-six opening match, and a ridiculously announced “Super Wednesday Debate” between Chris “The Demo-God” Jericho and Orange “Doesn’t Actually Talk” Cassady. In my mind, this episode was the start-to-finish nail in the coffin for my waning WWE fandom. Upon finishing the episode, I left myself a reminder on my phone: “If (WWE) RAW is unwatchable on Monday, axe it from the DVR schedule.”
So, in spite of a paltry dozen or so “audience” members comprised of unused talent occupying the ringside area in an otherwise empty amphitheater, how did AEW snuff the flickering light of love waning in my smart-mark-heart for Vinny Mac’s wrestle-shows? Here are five nails for you:
- Slow-building storylines
AEW understands that sometimes you need a quick-and-dirty feud to keep things spicy. But wrestling fans have steel-trap memories. Cody, the Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega know this, and are clearly building slow-and-steady storylines that can payoff in weeks, months, or dare I say… years. Every match counts for something. And as a fan, seeing the pot slowly come to boil because it makes sense is damn refreshing. This versus WWE’s NXT that purposefully plods along because it’s clear that it’s the only thing that’s worked, or RAW and Smackdown’s preference to “hurl it at the wall and see what sticks” feels dutifully cheap by comparison.
As a prime example: everyone knows that tension is right under the surface between AEW’s Hangman Adam Page and Kenny Omega. And while they continue to hold on to AEW’s Tag Team Championships… every stolen glance and story-beat is ratcheting the tension until the belts are lost and then the spring will be at full pressure. What comes after that will be an instant classic match between the two. Until then? We’re still getting amazing tag team bouts in the best assembled division in all of pro wrestling. Which leads to…
- In-ring story variety
The other evening, good ole’ Jim Ross said on commentary… “this will be won by style.”, referring to the clashing in-ring repertoire of then combatants Jon Moxley and Darby Allin. AEW’s in-ring product from the get-go has been a veritable buffet of style; allowing Japanese Strong Style, lucha libre, British catch, hardcore/extreme, and good old fashioned American brawling all to co-exist. It’s created matches that have threaded the needle from “spot-monkey high spot fests” — where high impact moves are followed one-after-another —through slow-and-plodding submission matches. It allows each AEW roster member to set themselves apart based on their in-ring abilities.
This is in stark contrast to WWE; whose house style purposefully reduces amazing in-ring competitors into homogenized clones. Every WWE match (save very few of them) all follow the same formula — heel gets cheap heat, the heroic comeback, the dastardly cutoff, a fire-up, and then the finish. It’s exhausting when the only “off ramp” the WWE producers have are schoolboy roll-up pins, and needless DQ finishes. To date? AEW has never had a single match end in disqualification. Case closed.
- Actual comedy — not aimed at children
When Chris Jericho challenged the more-often-than-not-mute Orange Cassady to a “debate”, we all knew what we’d get. Jericho going ham on the indie-darling — save of course, we assume, the moment Orange might care enough to speak. Well. What did we get? Jericho going ham before Orange Cassidy whipped out an answer on the issue of global warming, before going mute again. And rather than lean into this any harder? They perfectly landed the plane with a heartful retort by Cassady before he got pummeled (dat babyface heat kids…).
Elsewhere on the show, Dr. Brit Baker forced her gal Friday (Reba) into a match with her rival Big Swole. While the match itself was lackluster… Reba cheering for herself when she strung together 2 moves that connected? I was laughing as much as she was (before being knocked silly).
All this, with not a single fart, poop, or burp joke in sight. Funny, that.
- Veterans clearly elevating younger / new talent
Cody’s turned the TNT title around his waist into an industry-wide talent-search. And he’s been making stars of his opponents (most of which are either on-loan from other indie promotions, or newly signed AEW talent). Matt Hardy boldly told the audience he knew his place was to transition to a mentor at the same time he’s allowing Sammie Guevarra (the same idiot now working on bettering himself…ish… I spoke on the last time I wrote here on PCS) a spot akin to Randy Orton ala Mankind a decade and change ago. Simply put, AEW is making clear it wants new stars. And those who have recognized name value aren’t needlessly given wins and clout at the cost of losing on potential future stars now.
Contrast this to Stanford, I dare you. There, after one’s bubble is burst outside of NXT, the main roster eats new stars alive and buries them for years as Vince tosses elder talent up the card to spike ratings. Seriously. We need MVP to sign a multi-year contract to head a stable with never-charismatic Bobby Lashley and wait, he’s still a thing Shelton Benjamin? All the while Ricochet (Prince Puma), Cedric Alexander, Mohammad Ali, and current US Champion Apollo Crews (Uhaa Nation) essentially trade the same curtain-jerking babyface spot. Seriously.
- Remembering the pandemic isn’t an excuse for sloppy productions
WWE RAW last Monday was a veritable shitshow — with line flubs, plot holes (a broken box!), piss-poor matches, and a multi-segment angle regarding a new “Fight Club-inspired” feature called RAW Underground. The segment — which was featured no less that 4 times across the 3 hour show — had no setup or explanation (Shane McMahon was last “ousted” from the company having lost a specific match to wasted-talent Kevin Owens forcing him to “leave” the company). It had no rules presented… with matches being “called” by a referee not unlike UFC — but this time after in-ring performers took the exact same moves they would on the normal WWE set. The whole show-within-a-show reeked of desperation; and was seemingly cribbed from a filmed promo piece for AEW’s Lance Archer (where he battled a plethora of jobbers in a backyard wrestling ring setup on some remote campsite).
Whereas AEW has decided to dig its heels in at the Daley Place amphitheater and treat the production as if it had the Place packed with fans. Storylines and in-ring segments are given opportunities to breathe… but the production is still slick. Pyro is used to emphasize specific wrestlers and matches. Continuity is followed to the letter (save perhaps a rare few instances where things were ended quickly and written off because it was clear they didn’t get over). It is respecting the fans (like me), while not losing a drop of excitement for fans younger and older.
Can you hear that, Vince? It’s the sound of the casket lid closing. And this time, it’s not a Boneyard Match.
Rest. In. Peace.