Warning: Spoilers contained to the results of the AEW Women’s Eliminator Tournament finals.
The March 3 episode of Dynamite saw the conclusion to All Elite Wrestling’s Women’s Eliminator Tournament to determine who will face Hikaru Shida for the Women’s Championship at Revolution. From Jacksonville to Saitama and back, the tournament has given us a great sprawling look at the state of the women’s division, in terms of both in-ring quality and where it stands in the greater vision for the company going forward. There has been a great degree of discourse on several aspects of the tournament, most of it in good faith with exceptions, and it is with that in mind we can break down the tournament and see what soared and what can be improved upon if (and it really should be when) they want to do another.
Planning, Timing, Bumped & the Balance Between Fan and Patron
Before we start to talk about the real highs, we need to address the biggest criticism of the tournament: the utterly annoying need to have this tournament play out over three different viewing platforms: Dynamite on tv/fite, Youtube and Bleacher Report. I have to balance out the very understandable criticisms that we’ll discuss alongside my thoughts of “Yeah, I will have an hour-ish of at-worst good women’s wrestling that doesn’t have to work around commercial breaks with the best commentary pairing (Excalibur/Taz) in this company.”
I have mixed feelings on the Japanese bracket being held on Youtube. The one thing I am not brokering arguments with is that they should’ve had all eight of the women come to Jacksonville. No. We may have vaccines being distributed, but COVID-19 is still a massive part of our lives and the fact is the majority of those women are contracted with other promotions that also need them. In the normal world, it would be a lot easier for Yuka Sakazaki to come over for a few days instead of missing half a month of Tokyo Joshi Pro shows because of quarantine procedures.
As to the argument that the Ice Ribbon dojo that the Japan bracket took place wouldn’t gel well if spliced in with recorded episodes at Daily’s Place. I am not so convinced about this argument considering there was little problem using the Nightmare Factory last year for series of tapings. Maybe it was the inclusion of Emi Sakura’s students to provide ambience, but I never got this sense of dread like I do with an Impact. I think it is possible, but I also hope that when they do another tournament like this, they won’t need to.
The complaints were often countered with the idea of Youtube and such being more accessible but that misses a big point: Dynamite is the standard. It is the critically acclaimed flagship that gets the majority of the attention and news. Dark may have some stealth bangers every now and again but it isn’t must see and while I was glad that the first night of the Japanese bracket topped at about 18,500 viewers on the live stream, that is still a fraction of the average 700,000-ish that Dynamite gets.
This hit critical mass when it was announced that the Riho vs Thunder Rosa quaterfinal match would be hosted on Bleacher Report, a third platform. This was a straw that broke a lot of people’s patience. Riho and Thunder Rosa are probably the biggest draws of the women’s division that are available for live shows, critically and statistically. They are genuine stars you can associate with this brand. So I get the idea that, in a way to reinforce the relationship with TNT/Warner Media you would try to give them a match that is a draw to promote their streaming service.
The thing is, the question is always going to remain: Would you have done this with a Men’s tournament? Would you have done this with a Jon Moxley match? Or Young Bucks? Or Chris Jericho? The continuing mis-trust with this company in regards to their presentation of this division and in this case time/location allotment did pound some shots into this tournament, and it’s a valid criticism.
What could be done next time to improve this? Well, provided all restrictions are gone for next year: Start the tournament of the first Dynamite of the new year. Sixteen competitors would require a month of shows if you did two matches a show. That would be a near perfect lead up to Revolution. Maybe even have the announced competitors in December and video packages to get some of the lesser known entrants some exposure.
The Bookings of a Beast and Beastslayer
Let’s be honest: Not a lot of people would have picked the finals to be Nyla Rose vs Ryo Mizunami. With the bracket announcement, the general consensus was that it would be Britt Baker vs Yuka Sakazaki with Britt going over on the road for the most evil heel in this roster to finally rule over it. So when Rose beat Baker in the quarterfinals, it basically burnt a bunch of our brackets to the ground. However, when you look at the paths the Beast and Aniki took to the finals, this tournament was impeccably booked.
Starting with the American side, the top half of that bracket took a great deal of focus with performers such as Riho, Serena Deeb and Thunder Rosa all in contention. A lot of people thought that Tay Conti would score the surprise of the tournament by getting a big win over Nyla Rose. It wasn’t meant to be, with Rose finishing her off in a competitive match, who then went on to defeat Baker and then Thunder Rosa in the American finals. Taking down both the expected winner and a massively established star in Rosa re-heated Nyla into the powerhouse she was and can be.
Meanwhile, on the Japanese side we had a similar thematic path going on with Mizunami: A path that tore through a massive breakout (Maki Itoh), the biggest legend in the tournament (Aja Kong) and then finish off with the odds on favorite (Yuka Sakazaki) all for the lead up to the finals. The path also gave the fans a variety of ways to see Mizunami as well: from arrogant vet to underdog to an evenly matched competitor.
The finals of the tournament being a certifiable Hoss Match was tinged with just enough anxiety that we would get Shida/Rosa III at the pay-per view. While there’s nothing wrong with Nyla and she was great in the tournament, there seemed to be a tinge of annoyance among the fanbase that the booking would be lazy to just repeat. Nyla and the booking of this tournament could not do more to rei-introduce and put Mizunami over and all the better for it.
Probably an understated but appreciated aspect of this tournament: Hikaru Shida’s presence, specifically on the Japanese side. Apart from the behind the scenes information crediting Shida with a great chunk of putting this tournament together, how she carried herself in this tournament story with her awesome white suit and championship was fantastic. When she ran in to stop Emi Sakura and the Killer Queens from beating up Yuka after Sakura lost made her look cooler than her being in the Jacksonville crowd watching matches or singing along to “Judas.” Combining that with the final staredown between Shida and Mizunami just leathering each other with forearms of respect, that Shida hasn’t been booked like this since last year’s Double or Nothing is insane.
Plots Within Plots
While Nyla and Mizunami were the central plotline, a tournament provides opportunities for subplots to invigorate the division and this happened here. While she ended up falling short, Riho beat the NWA Women’s Champion in the first match of the tournament. It’s a simple, but perfect setup for a rematch for the title. Thunder Rosa will always be sniffing around the title scene and could make an argument to be amongst the contenders. And of course, there’s the circling Britt Baker who could sneak her way into contention.
On the opposite side, there’s the stories of Maki Itoh, VENY, Yuka Sakazaki and what could be the building of the women’s division’s first faction with Emi Sakura and her Gatoh Move students. Itoh made herself -to pull a term from Cody- undeniable in the joshi wrestling fandom for a while now and her ring work is only getting better in-ring when she can make her way over. VENY made herself a breakout even more than Itoh with her match with Emi Sakura, the best match of the tournament in my opinion, and furthered that with the six-person tag.
Then there is Emi Sakura and the potential behind her storyline in this tournament. While I knew of Sakura prior to her introduction in AEW, I totally understand why the gimmick she went with wasn’t as effective as possible and even led to a deal of confusion with the Freddie Mercury stuff. However, with more people seeing ChocoPro, the wrestling show she produces with her Gatoh Move students and this move from the Freddie Mercury cosplay to Veteran Legend Queen is much more understandable and having fellow tournament competitor Mei Suruga and student Yuna Mizumori (Yunamon) as her disciples/henchmen/goblins, this “Killer Queens” faction could be a great idea when the world gets a bit more normal.
The Dream Needs to Stop Being a Dream
I titled this article “A Dream of Greatness” for a very specific reason. This tournament, despite it’s distribution annoyances, was booked and fought to near perfection. When the only flat out bad match happened on very short notice due to injury, the in-ring did its job well. As we discussed, the plotlines are here as well. But a dream is a dream because you’re asleep. It needs to become reality.
Even with the success of this tournament, there is still a degree of mistrust in All Elite Wrestling’s women’s division booking and time. They need to capitalize on the good will they bought and hard. Enough of this one women’s segment or match on a show, especially in that death slot 7th quarter for 10 minutes. Yes the pandemic and contract might also put some dampeners on the short/medium term with the joshi but you have story threads (should also shout out the fantastic work they did presenting Jade Cargill on the 3.3 Dynamite). Use. Them.
We are hard on AEW with the handling of the women’s division because we want it to be good and they have shown with this tournament that they have the talent. I’ll be honest with you: I don’t think NXT books it’s women’s division well either but gets away with it from hoovering up so much of the great talent that broke through the incredibly sexist indie scene. But now the ladies on AEW are breaking through. Capitalize on it.