Ok, so to be clear, this article is not about AEW, at least not directly. But it’s an absolute necessity to frame this discussion about WWE’s recent run in the looming shadow of All Elite Wrestling.
Since the fall of WCW in 2001 World Wrestling Entertainment has not had anything that they’ve considered real competition in the USA. While they certainly kept their eye on the independent wrestling scene – as evidenced by their acquisition of talent like Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Cesaro, Kevin Owens, Shinsuke Nakamura, Finn Balor and others – WWE never considered any of those promotions as competitors. Try as they might, WWE never considered TNA as competition either.
When you look at what is considered the biggest boom in wrestling history, The Attitude Era in WWE, much of it stems from their battle with WCW and the famed 84 week run of WCW beating WWE in ratings – this is all fondly remembered as the Monday Night Wars.
Vince K. McMahon grew his father’s territorial company into a national and eventually international behemoth. But when a few key members of his company left to go to WCW in the mid 90s Vince’s stranglehold on the industry started to weaken. Kevin Nash (fka Diesel), Scott Hall (fka Razor Ramon) and Hulk Hogan’s arrival and ascension as the NWO in WCW caused a seismic shift in the Monday Night Wars. This is mostly evidenced by the 84 week ratings losses but even more so by WWE’s frequent mentions of WCW on their programming. Mockingly referred to as “down south”, WWE dumped on WCW in every which way they could. For as much as they did this though, Vince clearly saw that he had a fight on his hands and adjusted accordingly.
The dawn of the attitude era Attitude Era with defiant stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, DX, and others was Vince’s answer to everything NWO and WCW. But competition led to more than just a flashy slogan or name, Vince categorically altered what he was doing to battle with WCW.
He began stealing borrowing heavily from Paul Heyman’s ECW style. He began leaning into more risky content with nudity, obscene violence and blood, and in some instance some really out there storylines and angles – Ministry of Darkness anyone? Vince saw that he was losing the war and pulled out all of the stops to compete. Gone were the 80s inspired paint by numbers wrestlers and in came guys like Kane, Undertaker, and midcarders like Val Venis (whose backstory was that he was a former porn star, I kid you not). In came the light heavyweight division to compete against WCW’s cruiserweights. In came Vince McMahon, onscreen character and egomaniacal supervillain. In came the 24/7 hardcore championship. People tend to forget that all of these moves were made as a result of competition.
Here and Now
Why does any of this matter? Well a few months ago, the son of the son of a plumber, one Cody Rhodes announced a brand new wrestling federation with a few of his Bullet Club/Elite buddies Matt and Nick Jackson (aka the Young Bucks) and Kenny Omega and longtime WCW and WWE stalwarts Chris Jericho and good ol’ JR Jim Ross. This federation, dubbed AEW was built off of the success of All In which was held a year ago – prior to any mention of starting a full on promotion.
AEW quickly made a name for itself by hosting its first pay per view event, Double or Nothing earlier this year in which they debuted former WWE and independent standout Dean Ambrose Jon Moxley, determined the competitors for their AEW World Championship and basically sent a big middle finger to the WWE.
Changes in WWE
Before we get to the discussion of what AEW is and isn’t at this point, let’s call a spade a spade and discuss the truth of the matter, which is the fact that one some level Vince sees them as competition. That being said, we are already seeing the seeds of change in Vince McMahon’s WWE. Here’s a quick recap.
Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff
About a month ago it was announced that Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff would both be signing on to lead Monday Night Raw and Smackdown Live respectively as Executive Directors. Given the amount of heat that Vince McMahon has taken from the IWC and the general wrestling fanbase this seemed like almost a necessity, even if this is just to setup their inevitable dismissal for ratings woes.
In the interim however, fans have some semblance of hope for a brighter tomorrow via WWE’s looking at its history and its former rivals as shepherds for a new, better way forward.
For the absolute embarrassment of riches that WWE has had in in-ring talent in the last few years, their misuse of said talent and a litany of underwhelming stories has held the overall product back. This is all slowly starting to turn around. While this is not the newest development, it has so far been the largest change and the most important one.
Dating back to the outcomes of the most important matches at Wrestlemania (unfortunately only the build for Kofi vs Bryan deserves credit so we can’t include the overall build to Mania here) WWE began to get their stories right.
Seth vs Brock opening the show because, according to Heyman, Brock wasn’t waiting around for longer than he had to if he was not main eventing. Seth taking a world class beatdown prior to the start of the match. Seth battling back with a nut shot and three curb stomps to end the reign of Brock as Universal Champion. Pitch perfect.
Becky Lynch ending the night as “Becky two belts” after besting Ronda Rousey (WWE’s most prized addition to the roster in at least 5 years) and Charlotte “I’m gonna match my dad’s championships number one day” Flair. The match wasn’t the greatest, but the right woman walked out holding the two belts.
Kofi triumphing after 11 years in WWE and earning the WWE championship. This was an absolute masterpiece. The build, the storytelling in and out of the ring, the character development, the juxtaposition of the Daniel Bryan story leading into Wrestlemania 30 five years ago. This entire thing was a masterclass in WWE storytelling.
Yes, WWE did then muddy a lot of this up by having Seth and Becky team up to take on Baron Corbin and Lacey “where are you now” Evans with their two championships on the line. They muddied it further by having Brock cash in. They let Kofi mess around with Dolph Ziggler and Samoa Joe. Yes, they got lost in the post Mania shuffle, but man do they have their game face on now.
As we approach the fall and the launch of AEW’s weekly show, WWE seems to be mostly firing on all cylinders. Let’s look at what they have cooking/have cooked – King of the Ring (because we love tournaments), the Roman Reigns whodunit (and all of the excellent matches that are stemming from it), Kofi vs Randy Orton (can you say rich history to draw from), the budding Seth/Braun frenemy situation (in which they can seriously repair Braun’s position and reestablish his potential dominance), Lynch vs Sasha Banks (which needs its own article cus once again, masterful), the Street Profits showing up on Raw (which is a perfect way to introduce NXT talent to the main roster fans), The Fiend (which also needs its own article), The Club (of which we eagerly anticipate Finn’s addition to upon his return from sabbatical), Brock losing clean to Seth (quick note Seth is 3-1-1 against Brock with two wins at Mania, one at SummerSlam, one cash in loss at Extreme Rules and a no contest at SummerSlam), Baron hitting Becky with an End of Days at Extreme Rules, The New Day holding the WWE championship and SDL Tag Team titles at the same time. Add in that NXT’s weekly show is rumored to be moving to USA (should be announced officially in a matter of days) and you can see that WWE is taking this upstart promotion at least a little seriously. They are not out to lose a ratings war for 84 straight weeks again.
Is AEW Even Competition?
Short answer, no, AEW, at this stage is not actually competition for WWE. First off, their live show won’t be going head to head with any of the main roster shows on Monday or Friday (when SDL moves).
They have a significantly smaller roster which leaves them far more susceptible to level of turmoil that an injury to a superstar can cause. They have not yet run a weekly live televised show. They don’t yet have any titles. We don’t know officially what their show will be called,
There are, quite simply, far too many unanswered questions about AEW right now.
But, for all that uncertainty, Vince is certainly rallying his troops and readying his army for a war.
In this humble writer’s opinion, the reason Vince is taking AEW seriously is because of four of the principals in the business.
One must always start with the money. The son of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars’ owner Shad Khan, Tony Khan is the money behind AEW. And in this day and age if you have NFL ownership money, then you have deep pockets. Not only is he the money, from every angle Tony appears to be a true fan of professional wrestling. He seems to know just where and how to be and not be. He has just the right balance of being the money while not being overly concerned about money. In other words, at the moment, he is everything that Ted Turner was not for WCW. He seems invested in the product both financially and emotionally.
Jim Ross while known for his announcing was also a revered talent scout for WWE. Many of the guys who came in around during the Attitude and Ruthless Aggression Eras were discovered in some part by Ross. What does it say about what he thinks AEW can be if he is willing to join them after decades of loyalty to Vince and the WWE.
Chris Jericho has succeeded in ways and at levels that should have been unattainable given his rise came during a time when smaller wrestlers were generally considered “vanilla midgets” (Kevin Nash wasn’t alone in his assessment). His mind for theatrics, the sheer name recognition and the value that brings are undeniable. Jericho’s involvement in AEW is a critical reason why they have garnered the attention that they have.
Cody may really be the linchpin of it all though. As Dusty’s son, Cody has literally sat at the feet of wrestling royalty. Dusty Rhodes is regarded as one of the greatest wrestling bookers of all time. His name is as synonymous with the rise of NXT as HHH’s. Go back and listen to all of the main roster guys talk about their time in NXT and being taken under Dusty’s wing in the aftermath of his passing. These were Dusty’s figurative sons and daughters. How much more of an impact do you think he had on Cody? How much more of a mind for what makes great wrestling stories do you think Cody has as a result? This is Dusty’s kid defiantly setting out on his own because he got sick and tired of the WWE not knowing what to do with a potentially transcendent talent in their employ, a problem that still lingers, even with their preparations for war.
The Wrap Up
As long as Vince continues to act as though AEW poses a legitimate threat, we all should act accordingly. Vince has been around the business a long time. He has seen companies rise and fall around him. He has seen his own company rise, plateau, rise again and plateau again. If there is one person who can say with almost 100% surety that he has seen it all in the world of professional wrestling and sports entertainment it is Vince. So if he is acting like AEW is competition then they are.
For as much as AEW has attempted to downplay the notion that they are competition to WWE; for as much as they position themselves as an alternative rather than a direct competitor, AEW has certainly made Vince take notice. And for the benefit of wrestling fans around the world that means one thing…