2019 Mid-Year Pro-Wrestling Update
All Elite Wrestling has been the biggest news in professional wrestling ever since the venture was announced last year. More than their roster and the backing of Tony Khan, their television deal and their unbelievable PPV success in recent months have been among the most important developments in years. Not only are they bringing pro wrestling back to TNT, but they’re also doing so with more momentum built up than any other promotion in years. They’re pretty much guaranteed to be the U.S. promotion with the all-time greatest in-ring product. WWE should be worried, having the threat of WCW-like competition, but they clearly are not. With their recent TV deals with FOX and USA, not to mention the piles of money from the Saudi government, WWE will not be in any financial trouble for the next decade at least. Unfortunately, fans don’t want wrestling promotions that are monetarily soluble yet insist on shitting on their audiences’ expectations.
Next to their television deal, AEW’s inaugural PPV, Double or Nothing, is their first notable success story as an organization. While we won’t know until fall how they’ll do on television, DoN did fantastic numbers, selling out the arena and doing the highest PPV buy for a non-WWE promotion in twenty years. It was also a hell of a show, with no bad matches, and several guaranteed classics. It was the kind of major PPV show that hardcore fans have dreamed of, and with folks like Kenny Omega, the Young Bucks, and others on the card, the in-ring portion aspect was leagues ahead of anything WWE has put on recently, save NXT. And the fact that wins and losses and believable athletic competition are to play a greater role in the promotion’s overall goals is an even more promising departure from WWE’s jumbled mess of a product.
But there’s always the question of the casual fans, the ones who tune into RAW weekly, but don’t subscribe to the WWE Network for PPVs. They don’t have a clue who Kenny Omega or The Young Bucks are, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll see any reason to change the channel to TNT and watch people they’ve never seen when something more familiar and comfortable is available. Then again, back in the days leading up to the Monday Night War, WCW was largely an unproven commodity, one that catered to Southern audiences with little of the mainstream flash of 1980s WWF. So there’s a good chance that the more curious fans will do some investigating and check this new promotion out for themselves. The idea that wrestling fans are dumb and uncultured should have died long ago. Fans know what they want, and are certainly smart enough to realize when they’re being given crap, and are bound to get fed up at a certain point and make a change.
The bolder part of AEW’s plan is their direct challenges to WWE, particularly the fact that they’ll be running their TV program against RAW on Monday nights. If there were any doubts that the group had WWE in their sights, Cody made his feelings pretty clear when he destroyed a mock-throne at DoN in a jab at Triple H’s ego. That whole thing was a little too on the nose and cartoonish for my tastes, but it got a huge reaction from the live crowd, which was the point. Obviously, AEW poses no real threat to WWE’s financial security and place on top of the wrestling heap. But they do exist as a serious alternative for the fans who want to watch wrestling, not sports entertainment, and they represent the first mainstream example of this in nearly twenty years (we’re not getting into TNA/Impact today). The company’s long-term success almost seems secondary at this point in time, simply because everything else is going so right for them and things are finally exciting for fans once again.
Success does seem likely for AEW, however, as their All Out PPV coming this summer sold out in a matter of minutes, with over 150,000 fans in the queue to order at the time. Sure, a 10,000 sell-out for All In last year was huge, as was 11,000 for DoN. Now 12,000 for All Out proves that the company isn’t just a flash in the pan, but are catering to an established audience. AEW’s production style thus far has been just as smooth and polished as WWE’s, and given the fact that there’s no Vince McMahon calling the shots and directing cutaways, I have no doubts that AEW will even surpass their rival on this front. I’ve watched plenty of terrible-looking wrestling shows, both independent and major, and it really does make a difference in how enjoyable the overall product is. It may seem like a minor aspect of AEW’s overall presentation and success, but I really do believe that their polished aesthetics will work hand-in-hand with their in-ring and storyline strategies to give their brand a much wider appeal.
AEW may be the promotion Jon Moxley is most associated with at this point in time, but New Japan Pro Wrestling is where his career revitalization really began. It’s also going to be the place where he has to prove himself in the coming months, as he’s been booked for their annual G1 Climax tournament, which is hands-down the best wrestling series in the world quality-wise each year. Moxley stepped out of WWE ready to show the world not only how much he had been held back, but also how passionate he still is about wrestling. His debut at AEW’s Double or Nothing proved that the wrestling audience hasn’t abandoned their support despite his abysmal recent run in WWE, and also demonstrated that his brawling style has only improved since he’s bulked up and refined his goals. Then, just a week or so later, Moxley won NJPW’s North American title in a fantastic first match during their Best of the Super Juniors tournament final. He proved that he can not only hang with the promotion’s stiffer, more grueling in-ring style, but also that there are big plans in place for him.
The only other success story along these lines I can think of is Cody, who was the first person to step away from WWE, express honest frustration with their system, and find considerable success in the wrestling world. I may not be a huge fan of Cody’s, but his DoN clash with brother Dustin was every bit the five-star classic it was made out to be, and he seems to have found his place in AEW. There’s also something to be said in just how successful Cody has been at making me hate him as a character, and he’s tapped into some classic, old-school heel psychology. Moxley, as Dean Ambrose, was one of my favorites in WWE, and it was pretty damn obvious as a fan that he was being restricted. So I’m thrilled to see him so well-received and eager to prove he’s capable of more than he got to show in WWE. His title win from former NXT talent Juice Robinson was fairly brutal, and Moxley showed that he’s willing to tap into his hardcore roots once again. But there’s still a lot up in the air, and the G1 is just about the most grueling stretch in professional wrestling, with even world-class talent wearing down over the month of shows. So that, more than any AEW or indie shows will prove just what tier Moxley is at, and the number of dream matches in the tournament’s brackets is impressive. Likewise his upcoming match Kenny Omega. His match with Joey Janela at Fyter Fest was a bloody weapons spectacular, and Moxley made it clear he’s willing to do what it takes to get the job done.
Regardless of how Moxley holds up against today’s crop of in-ring talent, the biggest takeaway from his new path is how he represents the solidification of AEW’s challenge to WWE. Not only did he walk away on his own and into a hugely successful position, but he also did so while openly acknowledging the many issues within the company itself. His Talk is Jericho appearance and other interviews reveal an intelligent, thoughtful man who was not only discouraged, but disgusted by what Vince McMahon was ordering him to do. That anyone would doubt scores of other main roster talent are just as miserable as Moxley was recently is foolish, and as far as the fans I know personally, they’ve all just about had their fill as well. People know things are wrong with WWE’s way of doing things, and now that we have an alternative, things will be more interesting.
NJPW has always been the high watermark of wrestling in mine and many others’ eyes, and it still holds true. Watching the BOSJ final that included the Moxley-Robinson match was one of the shows recently, along with Double or Nothing, that made me actually, truly excited about wrestling again. The promotion is doing fantastic, even with the loss of key players Omega, the Young Bucks, and more to Ring of Honor and AEW. They’re actually developing new stars, while established performers have been given opportunities to shine anew. The only major issue is the fact that things are getting out of hand as far as spots and injuries, which only distracts from how tremendous the matches themselves are.
For as much as this column started as a WWE-centric outlet, I honestly don’t keep up with them much anymore. Sure, I’ll watch PPVs when I get the chance, but I’m certainly not calling off work to catch any shows at this point. And I’ll admit that a good amount of matches actually make a solid impression, but the overall process of WWE fandom has just become too much of a grind for me to really maintain an interest. Let's briefly go over some of the things that have happened since I last checked in. I don't have the energy to delve into things too much, and so much has actually occurred that there isn’t space here to touch on everything anyway:
-Brock Lesnar, who was unannounced for the show and not in the match, ran out to win an otherwise excellent Money in the Bank match. Somehow, this qualified him to hold the briefcase, and he's teased cashing in several times, but nothing has happened yet. Guess we just have to wait and see if he's booked for another title run at the cost of a younger, more talented and deserving wrestler. Or maybe he'll lose his cash-in. Sure.
-Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff have been put in charge of RAW and SmackDown, respectively, and not as characters, but actual creative forces behind the scenes. Bischoff I have a lot of doubts about, but everyone knows how brilliant Heyman can be when kept on the booking side of the equation. So I think this is an interesting, if not necessarily smart move.
-WWE returned to Saudi Arabia for the third of ten arranged PPVS. This one, Superstar Showdown, may not have been bogged down with all of the immediate baggage that last year's Crown Jewel had coming right after the execution of Jamal Koshoggi, but that doesn't mean it was an apolitical event either. Alexa Bliss and Natalya were actually flown out to Saudi Arabia with the potential promise of a women's match on the show, but were told the day of the PPV that it wasn't going to happen. So there were still no women booked, and the company's affiliation with Saudi Arabia is just as troubling as ever. Also, the show was an absolute trainwreck, with some calling it the worst company PPV in years. Of particular note was an abysmal Undertaker-Goldberg match ("First time ever!") that showed just how out of shape and beyond their prime both men were.
-Plenty of talent has walked away from the company: Tye Dillinger (Shawn Spears), Hideo Itami (KENTA), Dustin Rhodes/Goldust. Several others have asked for or hinted at requesting their release but have been denied, including Luke Harper and The Revival, all of whom are capable of so much more than they’re being allowed to do.
As far as the good things happening right now, there are still a few saving graces that keep me coming back to the shows. Kofi Kingston is still World Champion, and has had a fairly solid run up to this point, so at least his title win wasn’t just a transitional fluke to cash in on his Elimination Chamber popularity. Kevin Owens continues to do just about everything right despite the cards creative have been dealing him. AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan, and apart from his embarrassing Stomping Ground match with Baron Corbin, Seth Rollins all continue to be top-notch workers. Ricochet seems to have finally found his place on the main roster, winning the US Title from Samoa Joe. Even if he lost the very next night in a non-title match.
NXT, meanwhile, has been consistently, unfathomably good since the middle of last year. The booking has been almost perfect (save in the women’s division, it’s about time Shayna Baszler lost the title), and the roster is incredible, stacked with some of the best former indie talents of the last few years. Johnny Gargano and Adam Cole have had two of the best matches in WWE history on the last two takeovers, and other breakout stars like Matt Riddle, Velveteen Dream and so many others continue to demonstrate just why NXT is on a tier approaching NJPW for quality wrestling.
What it basically comes down to, is that the rest of the wrestling world continues to evolve and challenge the form while WWE remains as stubbornly behind the times as ever. Not that it’s ever been a secret or question, but it’s more apparent than ever that Vince McMahon’s dated, unique sensibilities are holding back the company’s writers, workers, and everyone in between. For god’s sake, there was a tug-of-war match on RAW between Bobby Lashley and Braun Strowman. Who in the hell asked for that? Moxley’s various podcast interviews have made clear just how unhappy he, and by extension, other members of the roster are with the current system. Sasha Banks has hinted at her frustrations for some time now, and several writers have quit in the last few months. These aren’t the signs of a healthy company, and there’s no aspect save financial in which WWE isn’t struggling right now. Again, they aren’t risking the casual fans who only watch cable, but as far as their long-term and hardcore audience, things are looking too promising elsewhere to really expect them to stick with such a mess of a promotion.