I don’t know if it’s because we spend most of our time being told that everything is ‘ELECTRIFYING!’ or ‘SPECTACULAR!’ or ‘OTHER THINGS THAT MICHAEL COLE SAYS WHEN VINCE TELLS HIM TO!’, but wrestling fans are prone to the odd outbreak of hyperbole.
With that caveat established….the 2nd October 2019 saw a genuinely seismic shift in the landscape of the American wrestling scene (because remember Americans….other countries have been known to exist). On that night AEW Dynamite debuted on the TNT Network and announced itself formally as the new player in the great game of wrestling.
With apologies to fans of TNA/IMPACT, this was the first time since 2001 that a company had come along with a viable alternative to the monopoly that Vince McMahon had spent his life trying to establish and maintain through various Machiavelian means. This was a show with a major TV deal. It was a show that came with established international stars in Chris Jericho, Kenny Omega, the Young Bucks and Jon Moxley. And perhaps most importantly, it was a show that had the financial backing of Tony Khan that meant it could properly big a fight with the biggest bully in the grappling playground.
As that first show went off the air, having seen the formation of the Inner Circle and Moxley DDTing Kenny through a glass table, it did feel like something big was happening, and since that night AEW has gone from strength to strength.
They have added further stars such as FTR, Miro and Brian Cage. They have continued to put on superb PPVs and rack up five-star match ratings (if that’s the sort of thing that floats your boat). And with 12 months worth of episodes in the bag, it is very clear that AEW are not just winning the ‘Wednesday Night War’ with NXT….it’s a contest that is already well and truly over.
Of course AEW is not a perfect promotion, and to be honest it is unrealistic to expect any company to reach a place where nobody can complain at all (and let’s be fair, where would the fun be in that anyway?) There have been many stumbles in the fledgling brand’s first year on TV. The Nightmare Collective was rightly seen as a nepotistic disaster, and it has taken a lot of hard work to get the Dark Order over following some fairly woeful early booking decisions.
Most notably perhaps, the AEW women’s division continues to receive pelters from all sides, and whilst the recent Hikaru Shida v Thunder Rosa feud has started to move things in the right direction, it still feels like a bit of an after-thought. Some will say that a lot of this is out of AEW’s hands, but you only have to look at IMPACT’s current women’s division to see that AEW could be doing a whole lot better. Similarly the Matt Hardy injury in his match with Sammy Guevara at Double or Nothing, and the way it was handled by officials, was a sobering reminder that AEW needs to focus on wrestler safety over insane spots, and that, as with any company, they need to learn from their mistakes.
Overall though the opening year of AEW Dynamite has been an exhilarating experience for most of those who tune in, and has been a refreshing presence in an industry that had been allowed to become increasingly stale under the not very watchful eye of WWE.
In fact it has been more than just refreshing. At times it has been educational. Ever since the collapse of WCW, wrestling and WWE have often been treated as synonyms, and therefore whatever Vince says is right, is right. The hugely dwindling viewer figures over that period show that fans felt beaten down by the relentless drudgery of what the McMahons put on offer, but there was also very little else on offer. AEW has therefore had to try and work with fans to reignite that passion for weekly episodic wrestling, and convince people that there was another way.
Here then are the first two of five things that AEW have taught the WWE-dominated wrestling industry in their first 12 months. Advanced warning….if you are a WWE ‘mark’ you are not going to like this.
Tag Team Wrestling Is Brilliant
“Kenny Omega is being booked as a mid-carder.” This opinion, which has been bandied about left right and centre in 2020, highlights exactly what WWE has done to fans in terms of their views on tag team wrestling. Apparently, because Kenny is working in the tag-team division, this means he cannot be a star, and desperately needs to move to singles action as soon as possible to realise his potential.
If Kenny Omega was being booked in the WWE’s tag-team division this would undoubtedly be true. Vince McMahon famously doesn’t give two wrinkly hoots about tag-teams, and this is underlined by the lack of care that is given to the division on the main roster in WWE and, increasingly and upsettingly, in NXT. When your singles push has failed, it’s into the tag-team division with you never to be seen again.
In the last 6 months alone, current Raw Tag-Team Champions the Street Profits have had 14 matches in one form or another with Zelina Vega’s stable of numpties. Just think about the lack of imagination that shows from the WWE ‘creative’ team. Just think what else could have been done over the course of those 14 weeks. Or better yet….go and watch AEW Dynamite.
Because AEW have not accepted the WWE narrative that tag-team wrestling is second tier wrestling. Instead it is placed on the same pedestal as the singles divisions, and from that vaunted position it has delivered some of the show’s greatest moments.
In large part this is down to the sheer talent that AEW has invested in for tag-team wrestling. The Young Bucks obviously lead the way, but they are merely one part of a stacked division that includes Santana & Ortiz, Jurassic Express, Lucha Brothers, Butcher & Blade, Best Friends, SCU and the exciting prospects Private Party. With this sort of ability at their disposal, it is hardly surprising that AEW can put on a mesmerising tag-team exhibition whenever they want.
There is more to it than that however. The reason the AEW tag division feels special is because it is given the care and attention that is given to the singles division (well the men’s singles division at least). If teams are not in the title picture, they are invariably given other stories to work with, and where the titles themselves are concerned AEW have in 2020 put together one of the most fascinating storylines in recent memory.
Kenny Omega and Adam Page’s friendship and impending rivalry has been a thing of beauty, and throughout their interactions AEW have woven in various other tag teams, most notably reaching a crescendo in the incredible match that they had with the Young Bucks at Revolution. I can absolutely guarantee this now….WWE will NEVER put on a tag-match as good as this as long as they are in existence.
But perhaps the greatest example of where AEW are teaching the old WWE dog some new tricks is with the current AEW champions FTR. As The Revival in WWE, Dash and Dawson were never given a spotlight, and in fact were relegated to ‘funny’ stories about them shaving each other’s backs and having hot sauce in their tights. It was laughably awful stuff. In AEW they have been built as the dominant, manipulative tag-team that now sits atop the packed division. They have worked their role in the Page and Kenny story magnificently, and continue to tease the match that everyone wants to see with the Bucks.
In short, they are stars. And that is because AEW has created an arena where tag-team wrestlers can actually be stars. WWE should really take note.
Unscripted Promos Are Just Better
This is an issue that has annoyed the majority of WWE fans seemingly ever since the demise of the Attitude Era. Wrestling is supposed to be a brilliant half-real, half-fantasy world where you are able to get invested in, and excited for, characters who you love, and where you want to rip the arms off characters that you hate.
What WWE have instead created is a world full of robots who simply read the lines they are given and then trample to the backstage area where they will yet again stare glassy-eyed into the cameras as they reel off the words of their overlords and masters.
The fact that these lines are more often than not lame and terrible is only half the problem. Even if WWE had the greatest writing team in the world, and didn’t have a maniacal boss who then ignored such a writing team, memorising lines and repeating forced catch-phrases strips the wrestlers of any of their own character. Why should I really care about what Apollo Crews is saying when I know it’s Vince McMahon actually saying it? “Sufferin Succotash” anyone?
Now AEW don’t just let their performers off the leash completely. There are clearly certain things that they are told to say, and a structure of how each promo should progress. But what AEW clearly don’t do is script each promo word-for-word, and this alone creates more in terms of wrestling character than any 50-strong writing team in Connecticut can do.
Jon Moxley is the personification of this phenomenon. Shortly before leaving WWE he was cutting promos about how the crowd were smelly and how he needed injections to protect himself from their….I dunno….smelliness. Yes the writing was at the same standard as a Daily Star front page article, but more than that you could simply tell that the then Dean Ambrose was not interested or invested in a word he was saying, presumably because it was simply something he had been told to repeat like a trained parrot. In AEW, he is often given a microphone and simply told to fill 2-3 minutes. And he does. Wonderfully. It comes from MOX himself and it shows, and as a result you want to go with him wherever he may go.
Of course not everyone is a naturally good promo performer, but do you know what WWE? That’s okay! People are not the homogenous lump that Vince McMahon would prefer them to be. Some can spit fire on the spot, and others prefer to do their talking in the ring. And even if a promo does go awry, that can also lend some personality to the wrestler at hand. Britt Baker’s (sorry….DOCTOR Britt Baker’s) brilliant current gimmick stemmed from a fairly woeful promo that she delivered on the Jericho Cruise. She used that to help create her character, and thus a star was born.
There are plenty of people within WWE who would thrive if they were given the opportunity to inject a bit of their own personality into their work. Unfortunately they are ‘employed’ in an environment that seems exclusively designed to stifle, and at times even punish individuality.
AEW trust their wrestlers. It’s a lesson WWE needs to learn.
Tune in later this week for the final three entries. Unless you didn’t enjoy this one of course….in which case you should probably go and read an NXT article instead.