The Wrestling Gods watch on with Amusement, Incredulity, Popcorn

Long term prognostication in the arena of professional wrestling is the ultimate fool’s errand, not least because of the speed, shock, and sense of thudding finality with which change tends to happen on the ground. I grew up on WWF Tuesday Night Titans and WCW Saturday Night throughout the 1980s and early ‘90s, and came of age as a fan during the legendary pre-millennium “Monday Night Wars” period where those two ancient rivals battered each other senseless for our entertainment before the former finally emerged, enemy scalps and pink slips in hand, as the industry’s de facto kingpin. It was, of course, a time of unprecedented turmoil and animus within the industry, well-documented and much-mythologized, with high profile talent defections and dramatic debuts across enemy lines a regular occurrence and the emergence and strategic deployment of game-changing personalities that made Monday nights into appointment viewing well beyond football. Yet what we’re currently witnessing some twenty not unconnected years later with the evolving bloodsport between entrenched capo regime World Wrestling Entertainment and upstart rival promotion (and, in many ways, WCW’s spiritual successor) All Elite Wrestling is, in some respects, far more fascinating and unpredictable. Under unimaginable existential pressure, beset by unstable management and unhinged booking, increasingly erratic and desperate in the face of advances made by its competition, latter-day WCW was and remains a combination punchline and cautionary tale. Twenty years later, have the tables now somehow turned, neatly and conclusively? “No” on all counts, but give it time yet. The next news cycle doubtless holds untold intrigue, and, with it, all the fun of the fair.

The foibles and eccentricities of WWE owner/commentator/player/coach/fascist dictator Vince McMahon are legion, an inescapable fact of life for all who have ever labored under his watchful eye. In time, he has not just employed but outlasted them, by and large. His bold choices, cutthroat practices, and business acumen have been justly lauded as the foundation of the modern wrestling industry, and yet the sword with which he wields them is not just double-edged but razor sharp, brutal and decisive, often inflicting just as much damage within as without. WWE has no union, no retirement plan, no sustainable source of comfort for its many expats beyond occasional employment as a brand ambassador or selection to its dubious, industry-appropriating Hall of Fame. Any and all such favor offered is done at Vince’s whim, and the landscape is littered with bodies beyond count, bruised, broken, or otherwise used up, that were ejected from WWE’s moving car over their unforgivable loss of commercial viability. Vince’s position as the lone and final word on all WWE decisions of consequence was more harmless during the staid, comparatively bland “Ruthless Aggression” era that immediately followed the conclusion of the Monday Night Wars. He could take big risks and make stupid or short-sighted decisions without paying for them inordinately, for no other reason than he was he was the only game in town. Independent American promotions like TNA Wrestling (later rebranded as Impact) and Ring of Honor eventually attempted to fill the void as counterpoints if not overt competition, cultivating their own restless niche audiences and outstanding talent. WWE, which is always to say McMahon, remained ensconced in its high tower overlooking vast, undisputed territory, and was patently unmoved.  

The Independent Wrestling movement did not rise overnight, but by the time WWE became aware of not just its existence but the tacit threat it posed – racing to snatch up the scene’s biggest ascendant stars and mimic its attitude and aesthetic in the admittedly excellent offshoot developmental brand NXT – it was perhaps already too late. Meanwhile, I lived with some contentment in the WWE information bubble, and thus couldn’t fully appreciate the potential of legitimate competition at the time All Elite Wrestling was formed in 2019. Those were heady and exciting, if confusing, days. The brightest stars of then-current Ring of Honor – Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks, “Hangman” Adam Page – converged on this new promotion (the first two with ownership stakes) much the same way that ROH’s foundational talent – Seth Rollins (formerly Tyler Black), Samoa Joe, Kevin Owens (formerly Kevin Steen), and Sami Zayn (formerly El Generico) – was largely spirited away to populate the first two graduating classes of NXT. All world New Japan champion Kenny Omega joined former WWE standouts such as Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley (formerly Dean Ambrose), and The Bastard Pac (formerly Neville) to offer immediate sizzle for the common fan, while Jacksonville Jaguars owner Tony Khan provided what has since seemed like an unlimited bankroll. The roster was filled out with a cavalcade of independent risers (uber-heel Maxwell Jacob Friedman, goth crash test dummy Darby Allin, terrific tag teams like Lucha Bros and Santana and Ortiz) and the product was marketed as “for wrestling fans by wrestling fans”. Said wrestling fans, always craving a name check, were galvanized. Vince McMahon was clearly unnerved. 

Confronted with a significant challenger for the first time in decades, WWE took drastic action, overpaying its own prodigious roster to accept ironclad contracts – often just to sit at home – while continuing to scour the Earth for new stars. Some, such as throwback tag team FTR (formerly The Revival) and the late Brodie Lee (formerly Luke Harper) cared enough about fulfilling regular work to refuse those entreaties and run out the clock, eventually surfacing in AEW as high profile defectors, while the curtain of silence that once insulated McMahon’s workplace even against the internal criticism of stars that unambiguously wanted to work there finally began to slip. Complaints of inflexible or tone deaf management have become more commonplace in recent years, and the war stories of various escapees finally free of WWE’s gravity sometimes feel like they’re being read from a common script. It has been impossible since 1984 to discount the cache of wrestling for WWE, which helps explain why Impact immortal A.J. Styles decided to finish his career there, or what attracted established, far-flung talent like Japanese icon Shinshuke Nakamura, Mexican gangster Andrade Cien Almas, and Impact cornerstone Bobby Lashley to the foamy shores of Connecticut. With the exception of its industry-changing and still elevated women’s division, very few of WWE’s recent success stories – once and current champ Roman Reigns, galloping goliath Braun Strowman, cartoon Soviet Bloc villain turned fan fave Rusev, and shape-shifting enigma Bray Wyatt spring to mind – have been purely homegrown. Most were imported from somewhere else, and, now that misused, underused, or otherwise disgruntled workers can perceive of greener pastures, many seem in an inordinate hurry to flee there. 

AEW has not exactly been strategic in its talent acquisitions as yet, serving as a sort of all-inclusive Ellis Island to free agents with even the slightest name recognition*, but that may by necessity be about to change. The degree to which the tables have seemingly turned in just the last couple of months, if not yet the measurable balance of power, has been nothing short of astonishing. Flush with cash from seismic broadcasting deals with the Fox television network and Peacock streaming platform and still the unquestioned brand name worldwide, WWE has nevertheless lately embarked on a campaign of cost-cutting self-sabotage by subtraction, purging its once-sacrosanct roster of talent at literally all levels, both in front of and behind the camera. Of the names I’ve already casually dropped, now inexplicably gone are the giant Strowman, who once seemed a future bell cow, the brutish Rusev, since renamed Miro and already a secondary champion in AEW, the underrated Andrade, currently fighting for oxygen and airtime in AEW, and, as announced just today, the ungovernable but indomitable Wyatt, who, in his successive incarnations as, first, a sinister backwoods cult leader, and, following one of the most thoughtful character reboots in wrestling history, a glib children’s show host whose unfailingly sunny disposition hid a literal horror movie demon, proved himself arguably the most creative individual force in the business since hardcore icon and WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley at the height of his vaunted “Three Faces” period. I was stunned at the news, but somehow not surprised. Nothing WWE does surprises me lately.

*Did I really care about or need to see seasoned former WWE hands like Christian, or Mark Henry, or The Big Show, or Vickie Guerrero, or Chavo Guerrero again, just on a different channel? Or, frankly, beloved WCW relics like Sting, Arn Anderson, plus Konnan? Am I that much of a slathering, unquestioning mark for the business? I do not, and I am not. I mean, I think. Even the fairly inspired pairings of manager and client, like FTR with childhood idol, former Horseman, and WWE Hall of Famer Tully Blanchard, or New Japan monster Lance Archer with pioneering psychological terrorist and WWE Hall of Famer Jake “The Snake” Roberts, feel a little forced. It’s smart of AEW to want to marry past, present, and future in a way more tangible than WWE can accomplish with its kinda lame and increasingly lean broadcast intro montage – lean because they keep having to remove stars – and I understand the desire to want to stick it to the competition every chance they get. I’m just saying that soon they won’t need to. And then, whatever AEW’s workplace reputation, don’t be surprised when some of those names start fading into the background and then away altogether.

You could sense that WWE grudgingly gave its platform to Wyatt, who would never again fit a comfortable mold after his disastrous, easily forgotten debut as an unremarkable member of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them heel faction The Nexus, and that any prominence he would subsequently achieve was disproportionately the product of his work and ingenuity over the company’s starmaking prowess. Strange that a character with such force of personality should ever feel as if he’d been handcuffed by management, but both versions of Wyatt seemed destined to function as carnival special attractions tucked away from the bulk of the roster. The man himself would only ever legitimately advance so far – winning two titles, one per incarnation, and losing them both in ignominious fashion – and no more. Like him or not – and I was an instant fan both times – Wyatt put every ounce of himself into his rambling, hypnotic promos and built up his own hulking physicality to a point where donning a Halloween mask designed by Tom Savini (?!) and unironically billing himself as “The Fiend” could be almost entirely plausible. The Fiend’s unforgettable slow burn reveal was a shot of adrenaline into the WWE’s bloodstream, and stands as arguably the latest/last time the company had such a level of positive, self-generated buzz.** If WWE had invested half as much in Wyatt as it has in Roman Reigns – who, despite his heel turn coming years too late, is currently doing yeoman’s work carrying the company on his back – the possibilities would’ve been endless. Discounted and misunderstood, practically as much artist as performer, I have no doubt that Wyatt could be difficult to work with. Doesn’t make the summary dismissal of such boundless talent and potential – as Vince and lever-pulling CRO Nick “Can’t Call Me Tony” Khan apparently plead poverty – any easier to swallow.

**It’s been hard to consistently gauge fan reaction throughout the course of the pandemic, given the paucity of actual, you know, fans in any given building. Farewell for now, “award winning” WWE Thunderdome. You were an imperfect if elegant solution to an impossible problem. I sincerely hope we never (have to) see you again. 

Toward the end of its inaugural pay-per-view, AEW co-founder and figurehead Cody Rhodes, a man with as much historic enmity against WWE as anyone presently walking, took a symbolic sledgehammer to an equally symbolic prop throne, demolishing it utterly. The over-choreographed outburst was a clear dig at WWE’s perceived supremacy, as well as a personal shot at Paul “HHH” Levesque, the company’s Executive Vice President in addition to being the Executive Producer of NXT and Vince’s son-in-law, who often brandished a sledgehammer throughout his soon-to-be Hall of Fame career. WWE answered AEW’s debut on TNT television with a typical over-reactive power play, moving NXT’s weekly show off of the WWE Network streaming platform and counterprogramming it on USA in direct competition with AEW’s flagship program, Dynamite. The experiment lasted less than a year of dispiriting ratings reports until NXT quietly moved to Tuesday nights, where it could run unopposed. Independent sensibilities animate and permeate both promotions, which share a common ideal audience member whose attention it was unwise to ever divide. McMahon has rarely had to answer for his hubris in recent years, but the mistake of matching NXT, a consistently awesome studio show pre-recorded in an intimate but raucous auditorium, against Dynamite, a pyrotechnic-heavy full scale production aired live on location from an inevitably sold out arena, as if the WWE developmental league, however accomplished, was somehow AEW’s clear better, proved a harbinger of darker times to come. Relevant from its introductory press conference and still barely two-and-a-half years into its existence, AEW may have already reached a tipping point in its quest for primacy. 

NXT has earned every accolade of the many it’s received, though many result from the stark comparison in quality and feel between it and its parent company. This perceived dip in the overall WWE product has many symptoms, but only one author. The pandemic made WWE timid, goes conventional wisdom. The Fox money made Vince irretrievably fat and happy, say other sources, even leading to persistent rumors that McMahon’s legacy and life’s work was being actively shopped. The truth is that, though money helps, Vince can never be truly happy unless he is either the unquestioned cock of the walk, or has a path toward crushing or co-opting his enemies. AEW complicates matters by its very existence, its ambition and to date bottomless checkbook, and the fact that its version of business as usual is appreciably preferable to that of WWE’s as of press time, gifts of the next news cycle notwithstanding. To be fair, WWE is visibly stirring anew now that it is back in front of a live audience, though I’m kinda nonplussed at the idea that Vince’s grand plan forward should apparently boil down to the return of part-time wrestler turned actor John Cena for a SummerSlam main event, augmented by the unwelcome return of never-should-wrestle again grunter Bill Goldberg, plus persistent rumours touting the imminent return of part-time wrestlers The Rock and Brock Lesnar. All this at a time when, citing absurd budgetary concerns, the company has released two of its top five performers among numerous others – and let the contract of another, Daniel Bryan, expire – over the course of, what, three months? So many sadly self-inflicted wounds.

Once upon a time, flush with a bounty of personnel riches that made it difficult to shoehorn sufficient advanceable storylines into five hours of weekly television, WWE announced its latest, and so far permanent, brand split, creating separate rosters for its weekly Raw and Smackdown programs. In a suitably bold move, AEW, which already boasted a B-show of sorts in the web-only Dark, will soon echo history by launching a full-fledged second broadcast show, called Rampage, in direct competition with WWE’s Smackdown. Since the Monday Night Wars began, this has been attempted three times, by WCW, WWE, and NXT respectively, but only succeeded once, when Smackdown itself debuted by landing on WCW’s infamous B-show Thunder like a Monty Python foot and then quickly eclipsed it. Whether Rampage will follow that example or immediately fade like NXT did is hardly a settled point, or, indeed, the only option. Much more likely in my view is the story of WCW Nitro, which debuted against WWE’s established flagship, Raw, and rode the white hot NWO storyline and Goldberg’s rise to 83 weeks of ratings wins before receding and finally collapsing under the combined weight of WWE’s 8-cylinder “Attitude” era and WCW’s creeping ineptitude. AEW, whose roster of active wrestlers will soon rival Spinal Tap’s roster of former drummers, can certainly use the extra airtime, though I will be interested when economic reality finally pays Tony Khan a house call, and how effectively Cody and his bookers are able to juggle all those assets in the interim. For now, it’s full speed ahead. Nobody knows Rampage’s fate long term, of course, but were I a gambling man, I’d bet on either Daniel Bryan or CM Punk, both former WWE/ROH champions, to make their official AEW debut during that premiere episode. AEW’s track record suggests we may even see both, as their Hall of Fame chances at least temporarily stall hard in the process.

These are indeed heady and exciting, if confusing, days to be a fan. At our current rate of accumulated acquisition and loss, HHH may well be headlining the HOF stage during Wrestlemania weekend as early as next year. There’ll be no other solo A-listers left. Backed into that kind of corner, Vince should but obviously won’t make a far more consequential, and beneficial, decision, for both his beloved company and the industry it once supercharged…and just hand him the reins entirely. Go ahead and scoff, next news cycle. Stranger things have happened on your watch.

CORRECTION: After analyzing the upcoming listings (i.e. setting my own DVR), I see that “AEW Rampage” will not in fact be scheduled directly opposite “WWE Smackdown, but, rather, follow it at 10pm on Fridays. In a rather canny move, these 13th and 14th hours of wrestling I record each week (ye gods) seem uniquely positioned to serve as a real time critique on the bloat and sameness (lately) of the WWE product that immediately proceeded it. And so, instead of victory in single combat – which would of course satisfy the bloodthirsty and may yet come – you get a Greek chorus poisoning the plebes incrementally week after week until they revolt against the established gladiator and demand his death. Golf clap, Cody. You’ll know AEW has crossed the Rubicon when “Rampage” finally does make the move to 8pm, big frigging rock in hand. This is a strategic swerve, nothing more, a
temporary pre-emption of the inevitable. Wow.

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