By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – November 11, 2019)
The pro wrestling landscape has changed. For the first time in nearly two decades, there’s a definite “number two” group that has legit challenger potential to Vince McMahon’s throne. With hardcore fan malaise surrounding World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), mixed with the critiques of blood money in Saudi Arabia and a stubborn mindset that is anything but progressive, the atmosphere was right for a storm.
Enter Tony Khan, a superfan with family NFL money. Sometimes, it’s not just the right time, it’s the perfect time. At a moment when he was in position to commit, a group of guys with international recognition and a hunger to matter on a grander scale in North America chose to bet on themselves. That’s the Cliff’s Notes version of what we’ve seen from Cody Rhodes, Matt and Nick Jackson, Kenny Omega, and Adam Page (also Cody’s wife Brandi), and now over a year into the existence of the promotion, there’s staying power.
Although the television ratings have dropped from the initial curiosity factor that brought in an audience that was inevitably going to dissipate to some degree, although the cable competition is fierce from Paul Levesque’s NXT brand on Wednesday nights on the USA Network, AEW has been a success by every metric, including at one point tripling the other guys in the coveted key male 18-49 demographic.
However, not everything has been flawless. There are questions as to content choices, match lengths, and attempting to be “equal” in time when it isn’t earned. Thus, with AEW Full Gear in the rear view and the group bringing its Wednesday night AEW Dynamite show to Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium in a few days, now feels like a perfect occasion to look at the good, the bad, and the ugly. Bear in mind opinions are, inherently, subjective, and this is merely one person’s assessment, after working in the industry for ten years and writing and talking about it for nearly half a century.
But you may see things differently.
The reason for “First” in the title is everything that happened prior to the start of the weekly TNT show really shouldn’t count anymore. This thing BEGAN on October 2 for many people. We may have been watching for much longer, but what matters now is television numbers and attendance figures driven by AEW Dynamite on Wednesday nights. For the purposes of this article, all the shows prior, which were in effect spot shows, are excluded. They were all good to great, but this is a new era.
PRO: CODY IS THE BIGGEST BABYFACE IN PRO WRESTLING
This one might be the most surprising development, if only because of the level to which Cody has gotten over on television. He may have three of the top four matches in the short history of the promotion, despite not being reliant on the high spots and death-defying sequences other performers routinely use to stand out. We watched him in WWE for several years and we knew the pedigree, the son of Dusty Rhodes, and with a mindset that was very much a chip off the old block.
He was also the brother of Dustin, someone who knew how to make an outlandish character work and simply work solid bouts. He could take almost anything and turn it into “something,” with very few exceptions. But, Cody was mired in the low to mid card throughout his run with Vince. We knew he was better than that. So did he. He bet on himself, put together a bucket list of things he wanted to accomplish, left WWE, and has become a megastar on his own. It took real guts to do it, but in every possible way, he’s a main event performer.
His promos and his angles are appointment television. His matches are as well, because they have a big fight feel, whether it’s working Nick Aldis for the NWA Championship, his brother in a personal war, or an icon like Chris Jericho in the best World Title storyline in America since Daniel Bryan’s original chase to glory, he is MONEY.
CON: KENNY OMEGA IS A STAR, BUT YOU HAVE TO KNOW WHO HE IS FIRST
This isn’t just for Omega, but he’s the biggest example of it. Kenny Omega is the “guy” in this promotion, in terms of the one expected to break out as the draw. Considering he’s been widely regarded as one of, if not the best wrestler on the planet for the past three years, AEW landing him was enormous.
If there’s one thing AEW has done poorly above all else thus far, it’s in attracting the casual fan that no one seems to know how to cater to anymore. The people watching these shows are the hardcore fans that buy all the merch and study the business and watch all the Being the Elite features on YouTube and live and die this business, watching New Japan Pro Wrestling and all the British promotions and trying to score tickets to PWG in California.
But, from around 1.5 million people watching in week one to last week, around 825 thousand, if you didn’t already know Kenny Omega was a big deal, AEW hasn’t given you a reason to have learned it, other than just telling you so. He hasn’t cut an in-ring promo, he’s been in weird tags or sort of randomized segments and has separated off with Jon Moxley in brawls. We’re told he’s special, but that’s not enough. They’ve blown the early opportunity to make him count (also the Young Bucks, who have lost too often), as he should have been a tentpole star right out of the gate. Now they have to rehab him… or at least convince the audience that didn’t follow his international career as to who the guy is.
PRO: SAMMY GUEVARA AND MAXWELL JACOB FRIEDMAN
The latter doesn’t stun me at all, because MJF is one of the brightest young talents in the business. He can talk, his work is improving, and he’s smart. Some of his methods to generate heat are a little low rent, but he knows how to get a rise out of people. He still wants us to talk about how great a villain he is instead of just being a great villain, but that’s more youth than anything. I was summarily impressed with him at Full Gear because as he stood in Cody’s corner, he involved the crowd and got them energized WITHOUT stealing heat from the match. There are a lot of guys that can detract and distract, but MJF was all in relative to making the match the focus.
MJF turned on Cody on Saturday, which may have been too soon, but what won’t be is the angle we’re about to see between the two. Many fans didn’t know MJF enough to have an opinion on him, which is a shame. He had one match on Dynamite against Brandon Cutler, which he won quickly as a heel, but outside of that, he’s just been by Cody’s side as a friend. If you already knew Friedman’s gimmick, you knew what was coming, but a lot of people probably didn’t.
That said, by the end of this Cody feud, Friedman may well be a main eventer from that point forward. He has a little bit of early Dwayne Johnson in him. I couldn’t issue a higher compliment to a guy with a Burberry scarf.
The former came from nowhere. When AEW announced the first Dynamite on TNT would kick off with Cody against some young guy named Sammy, some questioned why you wouldn’t open with something bigger. Why not a Jon Moxley promo, considering what he COULD have said about WWE after just balking at resigning with them? Why not a red hot tag match with the Young Bucks and the Lucha Bros? Why not just a Cody promo laying out the promotion’s mission statement?
Because AEW had a plan. By the end of that two hours, that dude named Sammy would be part of the main heel faction in the group, underneath Chris Jericho, and from that second on, we would KNOW who Sammy Guevara was. And here’s what he is. He’s incredibly young, but incredibly talented. He’s another great heel. And he reminds me so much of Sean Waltman. While the Inner Circle has plenty of good workers, Guevara is just scratching the surface of what he can be. He’s a perfect heel…and he’s aligned with one of the greatest minds the business has ever seen. Guevara is THE success story of the first five weeks of AEW’s television era.
CON: TOO MUCH WRESTLING
It sounds insane, but it’s not. Most AEW matches are running 14 minutes on TV, if not a little longer, and there’s very little to break up the action. Yes, WWE has too LITTLE in-ring action and then usually ends much of it with unsatisfactory finishes, but AEW is developing the opposite problem. One of Ring of Honor’s biggest problems was in its tendency to exhaust its audience with relentless pro wrestling and no opportunities to exhale.
Ultimately, pro wrestling is about creating stars, and you do that by making the audience want to pay, in either time or money, to see X fight Y. The way you do that can sometimes be by the “dream match” philosophy of seeing two uber talented workers placed together, but the way you draw money is by generating personal issues. Outside of what’s been done for the Inner Circle and portions of the Elite, it’s been sparse, so again, new fans have nothing to sink their teeth into. The Young Bucks, Lucha Bros (Ray Fenix in particular), and much of this tag division are outstanding…but it’s all just a bunch of matches. Wrestling has to be more or the audience is going to be fractured.
The truth and reality is there is a plethora of great wrestling around the world, so you’re not going to stand out simply because you have great matches. AEW has a ton of talent, but it’s making more Sammy G’s while building around the established guys you know are your possible draws that makes the difference.
Right now these shows are loaded with wrestling matches, some of which should be going 7 minutes and instead are going 14-15, when those bouts haven’t earned the time for the right reason. And that time could be used letting guys talk on the microphone and introduce themselves to an audience that wants to latch onto them as characters. Those matches would mean so much more if people actually cared about the stories of the performers. There have GOT to be more promos in this company, more video packages aired to showcase why these wrestlers are stars.
Wednesday night, MJF should OPEN Dynamite in the ring with a heel promo for the ages. If he doesn’t, it’s a missed opportunity. That guy can keep people on TNT and not flipping to USA. If they open with a match, even a great one, they risk losing to NXT, who will benefit from WWE main roster talent being there as part of the build to Survivor Series.
PRO: TONY SCHIAVONE
Here’s a guy that took a lot of flak for his final few years working for World Championship Wrestling, then bailed on the industry because it wasn’t fun for him when he visited Impact Wrestling. He lost his smile, but what some forgot was he was really good in the 1980s and much of the 90s. When WCW needed the right voice during the nWo angle in 1996 and 1997, even in 1998, Schiavone was that guy.
While no one would confuse him and Jim Ross, he was right for WCW in much the same way JR was for the Attitude Era next to Jerry Lawler in WWE. Speaking of Ross, the biggest pro about Schiavone’s return to the business as the third voice in the AEW booth is in how much more comfortable and conversational Ole’ JR sounds when he has Tony there alongside Excalibur. That booth as a trio works. On Saturday at Full Gear, with Schiavone working the Georgia/Missouri game for UGA radio, Ross was nowhere near as effective and seemed to lack much of his newfound energy.
Excalibur calls the moves and knows the histories and the talent, JR is the big voice, but Tony is the bridge, and he comes across as someone happy to be there and enjoying the new gig. Moving him into that booth was such a smart move. I love listening to his enthusiasm and the way he complements the other two announcers.
CON: THIN WOMEN
Not physically…but the division is thin, it’s largely inexperienced, and right now AEW seems driven to push the division seemingly because they think they SHOULD, rather than because it’s good for the show. But, there’s a problem in that the only way some of this green talent gets better is by getting reps in the ring. They have to keep working. For example, Britt Baker, arguably the biggest name in the division, has barely had 150 professional matches, and she still needs a lot of polish. She’d likely be the first one to tell you so.
Riho, the current AEW Women’s Champion, has gotten over and although she’s not without some regular sloppiness in her work, her small frame and easy to tell comeback underdog story works for the fans and she ends up getting more over than just about anybody else on the shows. So, they’re absolutely right to push her, although there’s no challenger to care about, so it’s just about seeing her keep triumphing.
Eventually, that will wear off. The same in-ring story can work for decades – just ask Bret Hart or Ric Flair – and it can always be entertaining, but you still need opponents that matter. Riho is fun to watch. But there’s no feud she can have in AEW right now that matters. Sakura is talented, but that will not work in America to actually peak fan interest.
PRO: CHRIS FREAKING JERICHO
He’s as good as it gets, even as a guy who turned 49 this past weekend. For AEW to work, there has to be somebody with legit star power to help bring everyone else along. While it ended up going south, WCW needed the Hulk Hogan metamorphosis into “Hollywood” in order to make the nWo work and lead to the biggest box office and television numbers that company would ever see.
Chris Jericho, similarly much older than many of his colleagues in AEW, is not similar to Hogan in many other respects, including and most importantly the fact that we know how great he is in the ring. We know full well how talented he is and we’ve watched him since the mid-1990s first in Japan, then in ECW for a short time, and of course the WCW run that really put him on the map. In WWE he became “Y2J,” but as the business evolved, Chris changed with it, and somehow managed to be ahead of the shifts.
He can get anything over. He can get anyone over. He got a freaking LIST over to the masses, and right now he’s the best heel on planet earth. He knows how to manipulate a crowd and his brain for how to entertain is light years ahead of virtually everybody else in the wrestling industry. He should hold the AEW Championship for a long time, just as Hogan did, as the “Sting” is built up, and then, he should put that guy over like a million bucks.
And, he will. That’s the biggest difference. Sure, Jericho has a huge ego, but he knows how this game should be played. And he knows the future of AEW, including his own legacy, rests on him playing both mentor and eventually kingmaker. As great as he’s been throughout the vast majority of his career, he’s never been better than he is now. That is a staggering statement, but it’s completely accurate.
CON: GARBAGE WRESTLING
Personal preference, but I don’t like too much Jigsaw in my professional wrestling. The blood and guts and gore doesn’t add intensity to a match unless its done sparingly and at the right time with the right people. While Jon Moxley and Kenny Omega had a six month rivalry that culminated in a Lights Out match on Saturday at Full Gear, it was also the FIRST singles match the two have had with one another in AEW.
Once television started, everything had to be done again. Defenders of that 40 minutes of trash and guys taking bumps on exposed boards, barbed wire mattresses, and broken glass (even if it was sugar) say you had to be watching all these events for six months and then you’d realize what a next level story this was. Well, I’ve seen almost all of AEW since the original All In, but never on TNT did the promotion get across why these two guys had such disdain for one another.
Again, TV changes everything. If you didn’t see the early shows and simply began watching in early October when Dynamite launched, you’d have no clue why any of this was happening, and you certainly wouldn’t be invested in it. But the larger issue is why THESE two superstars that don’t need smoke, mirrors, or gimmickry of any kind, would resort (even if they like it themselves) to such a backyard-inspired spectacle.
It’s not just them, we’ve also got Jimmy Havoc and Joey Janela and even Darby Allin at times treads into it, and AEW doesn’t need it. I get that they want a variety and not the monotony that defines WWE in the ring. But, variety for the sake of variety doesn’t work, especially with the business as exposed as it is today. These guys are too valuable to be wasted in this way, and AEW should be better than this.
If you liked it, cool. I despised it. And I hope we don’t see it again. I also hope it doesn’t become the calling card of Jon Moxley, because that dude is so much more than a guy that breaks light tubes over people’s heads.
I’m @JMartZone. Time for a little bit of the bubbly.