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AEW's Double Or Nothing Delivered As Both A Mission Statement And A Wrestling Show

Dean Ambrose is dead. Long live Jon Moxley.
Photo: Ricky Havlik/All Elite Wrestling

LAS VEGAS — All Elite Wrestling’s inaugural event on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas gave fans a lot to digest, but more importantly it delivered a well-balanced and suitably fulfilling feast. What was supposed to be a taste of what’s to come from AEW, both in the ring and outside of it, delivered on those terms. But as a one-off meal, it was also both delicious and generously portioned.

Fans already suspected that Dean Ambrose would be a part of AEW under his pre-WWE name of Jon Moxley. They did not know that he’d make an unannounced debut at the end of the show by attacking main eventers Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega. The presence of untouchable wrestling legend Bret Hart was another surprise, but he too showed up to unveil the AEW World Heavyweight Championship Belt and trigger a promo from Maxwell Jacob Friedman. Given how excited fans were about the stuff they knew about, these unexpected walk-ons were gravy.

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The rest was meat. In the most obviously symbolic move possible, Cody Rhodes used the trademark sledgehammer of WWE wrestler turned executive Paul “Triple H” Levesque to destroy a throne emblazoned in skulls and iron crosses that referenced Triple H’s WrestleMania entrances. The crowd in the building was impossibly hot, and would have willed a great show out of almost nothing if they had to. They didn’t have to. The show was fantastic, to the point that numerous WWE wrestlers were tweeting about it, even those you wouldn’t be expecting to do so. It was that good. It was really, really good.

More than anything else, Double Or Nothing felt like major league pro wrestling while not also feeling like either WWE or a rough approximation of WWE. The event’s matches covered multiple different styles, from the breakneck pace of the six-man tag team matches made famous by Japan’s Dragon Gate promotion, to the emotional, story-heavy bloodbath of Dustin Rhodes vs. Cody Rhodes. That’s a wide range on its own, but the card also included the idiosyncratic Japanese women’s style, Kenny Omega and Chris Jericho’s weird hybrid of the WWE and NJPW main-event styles, two matches showcasing creative tag team wrestling, and strong positioning for their own key female roster talent. The six-woman tag-team joshi match was so under-hyped—even being left out of the show-opening rundown—that some fans feared it was canceled, but they still won over the crowd in the ring. Most of these things were very different from what WWE delivers on a given pay-per-view, to the point that the only way any of the above felt like WWE, at any point, was that the television production relied too heavily on quick cuts. Overall, though, the event delivered on its implied mission statement. It’s a call to fans hardcore and just simply frustrated with the status quo: for anyone disillusioned with WWE, this show offered a lot to like both in terms of style and star power.

And it sure seems like there’s an audience for it. Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer, who’s covered the pay-per-view industry as long as anyone, said on his post-show podcast for subscribers that the broadcast of the show “[did] better than it makes any sense to do.” He based this on various personal metrics and acknowledged that he’d not yet heard from within the PPV industry itself, but he added that the show should easily beat what its Labor Day weekend pseudo-pilot—All In, a show produced by the key AEW talent and Ring of Honor—did on pay-per-view. In his January 14 issue, he reported that event’s numbers as being in the 50,000-to-55,000 buys range; about 20,000 of those had come from streaming, he reported, a figure that didn’t include viewers on ROH and NJPW’s streaming services. That’s a lot.

For AEW and Double Or Nothing to beat that figure easily, especially without TV hyping it up as Ring Of Honor did for All In, would be a massive achievement. It would also be a strong sign that there are more fans willing to watch these matches on TNT and ITV4 come October who didn’t want to or couldn’t spend $50-$60 to watch on Saturday.

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Meltzer’s prognostications aside, the show was a close number two in Google searches on Saturday behind the Barcelona vs. Valencia game; both events each more than doubling the next most searched topic, which was...Sasha Obama.

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Leaving aside the implications of the Sasha Obama bit, there was a lot to be optimistic about, here. A high concentration of those searches came from strong wrestling fan states—West Virginia topped the list, ahead even of Nevada, with Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Ohio showing strongly atop a slew of other northeast and midwest states. On the most popular pro wrestling torrent site, which admittedly may not be the best barometer, interest was near-WrestleMania level, and about double that of WWE’s Money In The Bank show the previous Sunday. Mainstream torrent sites showed high interest as of Monday, as well. On top of that, Google Trends shows search interest in Double Or Nothing coming in nearly 29 percent higher than that of Money In The Bank.

After the show, both management and talent couldn’t hide how thrilled they were with how Double Or Nothing came off. “It’s still my job, I’m still working with talent, just different talent,” producer Dean “Malenko” Simon, a recent WWE transplant, told Deadspin in the media room after the show. That calm demeanor couldn’t hide that he was visibly adrenalized from the show going so well; he fidgeted vigorously with the folder in his right hand the whole time he was in front of the assembled media. Ring announcer Justin Roberts was beaming all night, as was company president Tony Khan; Dustin Rhodes seemed calm and resolute, if clearly emotional, about a night that saw both him and his brother visibly in tears at different points.

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“I cannot top tonight,” he told the press. “I put everything into it. I hope it was good enough. But it was good enough for me.” Asked by Deadspin how the match fits into a career—most of which was spent in WWE, in costume or in character and seldom given credit for his immense talent—he didn’t hold back. “Listen, man: I got out of Papillon,” Rhodes said. “I made it out of prison. And it feels good to know there’s a life outside of WWE. It feels good, man! New life for everybody. [WWE] better be on its toes.”

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This is wrestling, and so everything that everyone says or does needs to be read along those strange and stagy lines. But here is something that can be written more or less objectively: AEW and its wrestlers put on a hell of a wrestling show.

Sure, the opening battle royal was overly convoluted; the special rules for the match were clearly a failed experiment. The other pre-show match, with high-flyers Sammy Guevara and Kip Sabian doing battle, ably showcased the type of match fans will see in AEW and mostly won’t see in WWE, which was kind of a pattern throughout. Nothing on the menu really felt like WWE-style wrestling at all, even Cody’s match, which is notable given that he was trained in the WWE system and spent the first decade of his career there. His match with his brother was dramatic and visceral where WWE can be sterile and lifeless, thanks in large part to Dustin’s copious bleeding. (Even if you’re understandably opposed to wrestlers cutting themselves, the visual can add a lot in the right setting, which this surely was.)

The overall style was equally different from the WWE norm. It was more outwardly athletic and mobile, with perpetual motion generally being the default. The live crowd, as on any good indie show or at WCW shows back in the day, showed up for wrestlers they didn’t know, as with the Japanese women’s match; they reacted respectfully at first, and eventually got louder and louder as the action and personalities won them over. WWE crowds, historically, have been the opposite, refusing to give unknown wrestlers a chance no matter how good their work.

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Another way in which AEW sets itself apart from WWE was most palpable after the wrestling was done. The new promotion is clearly looking to have a relationship with the media—whether that means correspondents from wrestling websites, mainstream sports outlets, British newspapers, or whatever Deadspin is—that’s more akin to what a more typical sports or entertainment company might have. This wasn’t a reinvention of the wheel by any means; the UFC does similar scrums, for example, even as it treats media as existing only to promote them. But here as in the ring, the contrast was a reminder that WWE is the outlier, and of how weird it is that, even as the promotion has attempted to go mainstream, WWE has eschewed any kind of traditional relationship with mainstream or wrestling media. Frank Deford called them out for wanting special treatment in 1991, and nothing has changed. If anything does, AEW’s refusal to be just as strange will be a big part of why.

Wrestling fans are suspicious about media co-option, and justly so. But from an exposure perspective, AEW’s refusal to adhere to WWE’s default omerta is clearly the right move. It wouldn’t be surprising if, come October, every weekly AEW show was accompanied by media scrums of some kind. It wouldn’t hurt, either: those would generate stories that could get the new company in front of eyeballs that might otherwise be locked on WWE. This is nothing new—this is the only reason why pro sports teams have ever talked to the press—but it would represent a breakthrough given how dedicated WWE is to controlling every aspect of its media coverage.

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It also probably won’t hurt that Bleacher Report, one of the biggest purveyors of wrestling content online, is a sister company of both AEW’s domestic TV partner TNT and its online partner B/R Live. If the PPV plug from Marv Albert during TNT’s NBA playoff coverage is any indication, TNT is going to be doing a lot to get AEW in front of the right eyeballs, regardless.

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While Double Or Nothing got the big things right, it’s the little ones that suggest AEW might just be able to scratch the itch of a fanbase begging for a major league alternative. Everything just looked right. There were no timing issues from the use of a 20-foot-square ring. Nobody seemed nervous working in front of an arena-size crowd for the first—or, for those on All In, a second—time. Maxwell Jacob Friedman wrestled on All In, but didn’t get to talk. He still didn’t miss a beat in interrupting Bret Fucking Hart so that he could cut his standard promo.

The end result was a very wrestling-centric show, but non-wrestling segments like Friedman’s mic-grab all hit the right note. The comedy never dragged and always had an internal logic that both made sense in a pro wrestling context and didn’t require heroic suspension of disbelief. The in-ring comedy worked—Michael Nakazawa loves baby oil and ended up being slippery as a result; Orange Cassidy’s lazy offense didn’t work and resulted in him being quickly dispatched—and non-wrestling segments were endearingly weird and subtle. An argument between the male and female “Librarian” characters, for instance, found its humor in the reactions of Kylie Ray instead of broad jokes.

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But the thing that most convinced me that all this is going in the right direction was mostly a matter of logistics. I’m referring to the separate entrance tunnels leading to the stage, one for good guys and one for bad guys. This sort of thing sounds trivial, and it mostly is. And yet those different tunnels being there greatly adds to suspension of disbelief. This is a show, after all, and AEW delivered in ways big and small to make sure it worked as such.

“Symbolism? What symbolism?”
Photo: Ricky Havlik/All Elite Wrestling
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Of course it could all go off the rails at some point, maybe even soon. There’s not as much wrestling front office experience in the company as there could be. Tony Khan is easily the most hardcore wrestling fan ever to be put in this kind of spot, and while that experience does give him significantly more insight than that afforded to the non-wrestling people that have led other doomed startup promotions, he’s also still untested in this role. And, at least for now, the company is built on far fewer established names than its big-ticket predecessors.

The rest is small potatoes, if still real enough. The tag team division, which is going to be pushed at the main-event level, needs more contrast; every team we’ve seen wrestles the same basic style, which could get repetitive. And Cody’s sledgehammer moment, a shot at WWE’s lack of competition for the past two decades, might well have been too big a swing. But this is nitpicking, and I’m doing it because it’s all there is to do, really. It felt like AEW had arrived as WWE’s new rival on Saturday night. If Double Or Nothing didn’t convince you, the forced reference to AEW 48 hours later on Monday Night Raw probably did. AEW is here, and WWE has noticed. If they seem worried about losing their now decades-long stranglehold on the broader western wrestling fan base, it’s because they probably should be.

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David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.

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