When AEW came onto the scene about a year ago, it promised a lot of things. It promised a lot of things that would be different than the other wrestling/TV company, WWE. It would feature a bigger variety of styles and performers, it would have an actual tag-team division, it wouldn’t be afraid to be international, it would be inclusive, it wouldn’t be afraid to try things, and on and on. And for the most part, it has come through on those promises.
The tag-team division is simply bonkers and stacked. It has run a variety of matches, from actual death-matches to lucha-libre, high-flying spot-fests to Southern pathos, pints-of-blood-spilling-everywhere encounters (these always involve a Rhodes of some variety). It has found a home for a pretty wonderful array of characters like Orange Cassidy to Matt Hardy to Chris Jericho to Nyla Rose. Whatever you like about wrestling, chances are you can find it in AEW.
But it has fallen way short of one of its bigger promises. That’s creating a robust women’s division, something to counter WWE’s often limited or one star-focused ways. Almost a year into its TNT days, AEW is still a long way from what it said it would be.
There certainly have been some obstacles that have nothing to do with them preventing them from achieving their stated vision. Thanks to Kenny Omega, the division was going to be strongly buffeted by Joshi Japan wrestlers. Riho was the company’s first women’s champ, and Emi Sakura, Yuka Sakazaki, and Ryo Mizunami wowed audiences on their occasional appearances. The current champ, Hikaru Shida, is also from that setting. But visa problems kept many of those women from appearing regularly, and now with COVID-19 they’re an impossibility at the moment.
AEW had a major defection before it ever got on TV, with Kylie Rae asking out of the company right on the eve of their TNT debut. She was clearly pegged for a major role in the division, as she was featured on the company’s first official show “Double Or Nothing,” and has become one on Impact Wrestling in recent weeks.
Injuries haven’t helped. Britt Baker broke a leg and has been out since the spring and won’t be back until the fall. Kris Statlander suffered a major knee injury. But should two injuries render the division to almost nothing?
AEW will also tell you that they only have two hours of TV programming per week, unlike WWE which has seven. There’s only so much time to go around.
The coronavirus clearly has limited the amount of performers that AEW can draw from. But the more you list out the reasons for the women’s division lagging behind the others, the more it feels like you get into “doth protest too much” territory.
That doesn’t mean AEW hasn’t had its successes. Shida has become a star. Nyla Rose was the second champion, and the idea of a first nation trans-woman winning a title in WWE would be somewhere on the level of an alien landing and winning the Royal Rumble. Oh, and the AEW women’s division has an alien. Britt Baker, despite being injured, has become a highlight of TNT’s weekly show “Dynamite,” thanks to incredible promo work. It’s not barren.
But it’s hardly enough. Take Cody Rhodes’ creation of the TNT Championship, a mid-card belt, and then using it to have an open challenge every week on TV. While the matches have been mostly great, there’s something that causes your brow to furrow when the VP of the company gets to create a title for himself and use it to be on TV every week when the women’s champ, Shida, gets maybe seven minutes every two weeks. Why didn’t Shida get to issue an open challenge and invite various independent performers or underused contracted wrestlers onto TV every week? There is certainly no shortage of candidates. She hinted at it in a promo a few weeks back, and like everything else in the women’s division, we haven’t heard about it since.
The distribution of matches has been another sticking point, with generally one match per week on TNT and rarely getting anywhere near ten minutes. On the company’s PPVs, there’s only been one match per show routinely, and they’ve been oddly slotted. Rose and Statlander were put after The Young Bucks vs. Kenny Omega and Adam Page, widely considered the best match of the year and maybe several years. That’s a “cool-down” spot. During their two-night “Fyter Fest,” Shida was on Night 1 and Rose got a two-minute squash on Night 2, and that’s it.
Perhaps the biggest insult came in the past couple of weeks. One, AEW created a women’s tag-team tournament, even though it has no women’s tag-team title. Still, it felt like a great way to introduce some unknown and underused talent to a wider audience. And yet AEW stuck it on their YouTube channel every Monday. That might as well be the closet.
Second, Brandi Rhodes has been pushing the pay-service of AEW Heels, a community for female-fans where they can pay $50 a year for exclusive merch, facetime and Q&As with performers, and various other trinkets.
But women’s wrestling fans don’t want a secret club. They want their favorite performers on TV like everyone else. This is an “extra,” but you can’t really offer an “extra” when you’re barely offering the main course. It’s yet another place off to the side for both women wrestlers and their fans. Brandi’s beach-glamor shot championing the initial sign-up for Heels also seemed to miss the point.
While the AEW women’s division hasn’t had a big name defect from WWE like the men’s division has had (Jon Moxley, FTR, Brodie Lee, etc.), that shouldn’t be an excuse either. AEW has proven it can create a star with no more than indie rep. Orange Cassidy, Darby Allin, MJF, Private Party have all become big parts of shows at times. If the company wants to push someone into the wrestling consciousness, it has shown it can.
It just hasn’t with its women’s division. There certainly are some there who can be much bigger names. Big Swole is clearly dynamite in and out of the ring. They’ve put her into a program with Baker, but Baker can’t wrestle due to injury at the moment, putting Swole’s momentum on pause until she can. Penelope Ford got a title shot when Statlander got hurt, and then was banished back to the YouTube shows. They debuted Abadon weeks ago, and this is the type of character that gets people talking (and perhaps running away in terror) yet she hasn’t been seen again. It made Anna Jay part of its Dark Order faction, and having factions cross gender-lines is a step forward, but again she hasn’t been seen on TV in the ring since. YouTube only for her.
What AEW’s counter to all this might be, no matter how callous, is that a lacking women’s division hasn’t kept it from topping WWE NXT in the ratings, at times soundly, even with NXT’s large and dynamic women’s division. After the promises the company made though, that would seem truly heartless.
AEW has delivered a lot in its brief existence, but the excuse of “brief existence” only lasts so long.