Admittedly, the term “high ground” would rarely find a working relationship with pro wrestling. The point of the whole enterprise, or at least a good portion of it, is that it’s not the high ground. It’s supposed to be ridiculous, silly, edgy, and not cause your brain to breathe all that hard if you don’t want it to. But there is still a strata to this, especially when you’re competing with the WWE.
Since its inception, AEW has been seen, and billed itself, as the people’s company (cue Rock’s eyebrow). That applies to the fans, the talent, and everyone in between. This was a company essentially started on a bar bet against the establishment, run by people who actually loved wrestling and wanted to put out stories, content, performances for the fans who also loved wrestling. This marked it in stark contrast of the only company at the time, WWE, which is seen as being run by an increasingly senile and aloof billionaire who might actively hate wrestling for fans who had forgotten how to feel long ago.
That meant stories would make sense, wrestlers would be given free reign to do what they wanted in order to entertain fans who wanted to see new talent blossom. It would be a home for multiple styles and forms of storytelling, as well a haven for escapees from WWE who both fans and the performers themselves felt were being underutilized or even screwed over (Jon Moxley and Brodie Lee being the prime examples). It would cultivate a full women’s division as well as a tag team one, and both would be given the attention they weren’t getting in WWE. Perhaps, most of all, it would seek to provide healthcare for its performers.
AEW has hit on some of this, probably even a good portion. A wide variety of wrestlers have gotten time at the top and become names like Darby Allin or Orange Cassidy who never would have seen the light of day in WWE. AEW hasn’t shied away from performers who don’t have English as a first language. Tag teams definitely have gotten way more time and attention than they do in WWE. Moxley and Lee have become instant stars doing the things and getting the time they never got with McMahon’s company. Wrestlers have been allowed to try stories and gimmicks, and if they didn’t work they’ve also been allowed to scrap them and go a different direction quickly. It has put on a pretty impressive product for over six months now.
And it does feel like they care more about the performers. AEW doesn’t have a house show schedule, one which used to keep WWE wrestlers on the road for four to five days a week performing three or four times or more, which led to build-up of injuries and fatigue (which has led to much worse than that). AEW wrestlers are free to take as many or as few indie bookings as they want, even allowing upper-card mainstays like Chris Jericho and Moxley to participate in Japan’s NJPW at times.
That doesn’t mean everything has hit. The women’s division has lagged severely behind the rest in the company, only partly accentuated by the Coronavirus shutdown. It was still thin and underused before it. Wrestlers haven’t been provided healthcare other than the ones who work in the offices of AEW like Cody Rhodes or The Young Bucks and the like. Shahid Kahn has tried to outline the difficulties in insuring everyone, however much worth you want to put into a billionaire’s claim about insuring those who make far less.
But for the most part, AEW has been what it promised. While it certainly wasn’t perfect at the beginning of the shutdown, fleeing from Florida to Georgia to film as the latter still didn’t have a shelter-at-home order, it did enough to provide headroom for fans and the company alike to justify sticking with it. It filmed weeks worth of matches at once and sent everyone home for nearly a month and a half, which was certainly better than WWE managed. It at least was aware of the situation in the wider world and at least put on the appearances of trying to work within those confines.
That changed last night as AEW flew in under the “essential” label that the McMahon family had granted wrestling through in-no-way shady donations, and went live last night from Jacksonville’s Daily’s Place. AEW claimed it had some pretty stiff testing for everyone involved, from talent to broadcasters to crew. But even that raises some questions. How was this company able to procure rapid-testing for its employees so easily? Is it going to be able to keep doing that? Is it taking tests away from a sector that could use them far more?
Even with the news that everyone had tested negative, it still made for some uncomfortable viewing watching Jim Ross and Jake “The Snake” Roberts in the arena given their ages and past health problems (Roberts paid lip service to the current time by wearing a mask for a brief time but then took it off to place a snake not named Damien on Brandi Rhodes, which is definitely a sentence I just wrote. Also kind of made the point of wearing the mask moot). It felt like AEW had gotten away with something more than being on the forefront of protecting its employees.
And AEW had done far better with its taped shows than WWE, even if that wasn’t reflected in the ratings (though AEW has topped WWE’s NXT for three straight weeks and is holding steady in the 18-49 male demographic, which is the one they pay real attention to). Having other wrestlers in “the crowd” at least provided some energy. Chris Jericho’s commentary might have been the best thing going during THESE UNCERTAIN TIMES. Their video packages and bits filmed from various homes of the wrestlers were immaculate.
While it has portrayed itself as a company born from and for the people, last night was the first time it felt like the same callous wrestling company it’s supposed to stand against. And maybe they have all the precautions right and maybe they’re not depriving anyone who needs a test far more from getting one. But given what we know about Florida, it’s hard to get there in one’s mind. “Florida - Always Assume The Worst.” And these wrestlers will still be flying home between shows, exposing themselves to whatever else, before flying back the following week. How long is AEW going to go unscathed?
That said, I giggled to near asphyxiation as Kenny Omega and Matt Hardy chased down Sammy Guevera in a golf cart mid-match. That’s probably what both AEW and WWE are banking on.