WASHINGTON, D.C. — All Elite Wrestling, WWE’s stiffest challenge since the Monday Night War years around the turn of the millennium, made its cable television debut on Wednesday night, kicking off a new era in professional wrestling that has already been dubbed the Wednesday Night War. The head-to-head competition between Dynamite, AEW’s flagship weekly show on TNT, and WWE’s newly-live, two-hour NXT, which now airs on USA Network, won’t be the deciding factor between which promotion gets to claim top dog status. For the foreseeable future, that’s still WWE. But that war’s outcome will likely decide whether WWE will see its monopolistic hold on mainstream North American “sports entertainment” begin to loosen.
For AEW to become the challenger fans have been waiting for since World Championship Wrestling folded in 2001, the promotion is going to need to look hard at their debut show. They’ll need to look unsentimentally at what worked and what didn’t, and figure out fixes on the fly. The challenge for AEW is not just to succeed on its own terms, but to succeed in a way that stands out from the seven hours of live programming WWE is now offering across Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights. The two are related, but neither will be easy.
The good news for AEW is that the first episode of Dynamite was largely a success in terms of both its production and its violent contents. The former, especially, was a worry heading into Wednesday. Not only is AEW new to this as a company, but their earlier pay-per-view efforts were plagued with awkward blips and downright errors. The company had four shows before launching its weekly TV show, and all four were marred by glitches and awkward moments of silence or inactivity. The wrestling was always going to be good, because AEW has built a killer roster and generally used it in an intelligent way. My main worry about Dynamite was whether the show itself would live up to the action in the ring.
The company’s partnership with TNT, and the steadying influence of veterans of live event production and television rigging, appears to have smoothed that out. Though I was in the arena on Wednesday night, a re-watch of the show makes it pretty clear that the sound mixing and general editing was done by either different people than the ones that handled the first four shows, or by that same team working with more care and oversight. Dynamite’s debut offering was, in a word, professional, and it felt like it was done on a budget befitting its scale.
More to the point, Dynamite felt like a damn good episode of weekly television. Most of the company’s biggest storylines were advanced cleanly over the course of a brisk two hours, and the night advanced the promotion’s admirably diverse collection of virtuosos and weirdos. A brawl between the Lucha Bros. and SoCal Uncensored, two of the company’s biggest teams, gave the tag team division a push ahead of the official kick-off of the tournament next week. MJF continued his mid-card shithead heel shtick with a quick victory over a Dungeons and Dragons nerd named Brandon Cutler. And AEW crowned its first women’s champion in a hard-fought, if occasionally sloppy, title match between Nyla Rose and Riho, with the latter finally winning the title over the much-stronger Rose.
Perhaps most notably, a new heel stable was seemingly created in the main event, a star-studded six-man tag team match of the kind that gives everyone something they want. Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks took on Chris Jericho and the debuting team of Santana and Ortiz—formerly LAX in the indies—with a Jon Moxley run-in serving to further his feud with Omega. There was even a gnarly glass table spot between the latter pair backstage, the kind of wild move that seemed created specifically to give fans something to talk about:
But the biggest moment of the main event was also the most surprising. That would be the debut of Jake Hager, the former Jack Swagger in WWE. Hager ran in to attack the babyface team, alongside Jericho, Santana, Ortiz, and Sammy Guevara, who was continuing his own feud with Cody (Rhodes). It was messy and sloppy—and, at least in the arena, totally enthralling.
It was not what I would have expected from a debuting Jack Swagger, but the shock of that moment also points to the best thing AEW has going for it right now, which is also the most nebulous and fragile. The wrestling is excellent, the production is improving, but what AEW has that WWE does not is something more ambient—it’s a vibe, a sense of not just novelty but real invention and discovery. I have been to many wrestling shows in my life, but the only time I can remember a crowd so unanimously excited for an event was at 2015's NXT TakeOver Brooklyn. That show feels like the harbinger of a new era in retrospect; it was the first time WWE’s developmental franchise had hosted a big event outside of the cozy confines of its home base at Florida’s Full Sail University. TakeOvers happen all over the United States now, but in August of 2015, it was all new. That energy was in the room in D.C., too. AEW’s debut Dynamite episode was billed as the start of something monumental, and the fans treated it as such.
Not only were the fans in the building ready to lose their minds from the pre-show dark match between Cima and Darby Allin, but they mostly kept that energy through the two-hour runtime. I asked fans around me why they were in D.C. for this, and the diversity of answers spoke volumes about the early success of AEW’s hype machine.
Some were there for The Elite, Omega and the Young Bucks’ stable that is one of the reasons AEW even exists. Some were there just to watch wrestling matches, as opposed to the promo trains they’ve been force-fed by WWE for years. Philip and Brandy, a couple from Toronto who refused to give me their last names because they had skipped work to come to the capital, drove nine hours to see Chris Jericho. (Who’s from Winnipeg, you idiots.) Most of all, though, what brought these fans to Dynamite and kept them loud throughout was the sense that there was finally a change happening in professional wrestling after two decades of WWE dominance.
And it really may be that AEW, which is a new company with seemingly fresher ideas than wrestling’s bloated colossus has shown in many years, can deliver on that heavy promise. But what was on display in D.C. on Wednesday wasn’t that, at least not yet. It was a very well-done professional wrestling program, but not a paradigm shift. Sure, the matches featured more “flippy shit” throughout, but the pacing and content was not especially unlike what WWE has been doing so competently for years.
You already know what this means, and what it doesn’t. There were well-worn wrestling tropes employed throughout: A dastardly heel pushes a face’s wife in front of him so she gets hit by her husband (Guevara, Cody, and his wife Brandi, respectively); an interview ends in a brawl (the aforementioned Lucha Bros/SCU segment); a dumb bit with some celebrities in attendance (Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes got into it with the tag team of Jack Evans and Angelico); multiple run-ins and post-match attacks (Jericho attacked Cody after his match; Nyla Rose attacked Riho after losing; the aforementioned Moxley and Hager run-ins).
All this adds up to a show that was a must-see because of its circumstance and context, but not for what it actually was. A promotion that delivers, as its biggest surprise on its most important show to date, a former WWE mid-carder who gets the crowd to chant his old WWE catchphrase—“We The People,” a nationalistic heel phrase that hews distressingly close to Hager’s real-life politics—is a promotion that still has work to do.
Production-wise, already AEW looks different enough from NXT to stand out; whereas WWE’s Wednesday night offering is still running out of Full Sail and so looks identical to its previous life as a taped WWE Network show, AEW is running out of full arenas, with TNT’s production might behind it. But there are still flaws in how the show is put together. That was most notable during the Hangman Adam Page and PAC match, my personal most-anticipated bout and the only match on the card that had the potential to be an all-timer.
That potential was cut off at the knees by some weird commercial-based stalling; after the entrances, with the crowd ready to lose its collective mind, the show had to cut to a break, forcing PAC to stall outside the ring for what felt like an eternity. Sure, it’s funny to see all 5-foot-8 of the former Neville yelling at fans like an angry goblin, but a better-produced show would have gotten the commercials out of the way before the wrestlers came out. Watching Page just stand around in the ring while PAC did his bit was excruciating.
These are not minor complaints, although the crowd was so superheated that it seemed not to matter much. But they’re not disqualifying, either. This was a first show, with months of planning behind it, and a generally successful one at that. The trick now is fixing what didn’t work, leveraging the real uniqueness of the promotion’s style and roster, and incorporating their vast store of talent into storylines beyond their current level of star power. To AEW’s credit, it did just that with Guevara, who went from a non-factor to part of what could be the company’s most important faction of evildoers over the course of one show.
So no, Dynamite did not bring the revolution, but that was never going to happen in one show. There is still time for AEW to differentiate itself and become the true WWE alternative that it has to be in order to succeed, but WWE has made it clear that it will not allow AEW to get any breathing room to build something up. AEW’s founders seem to understand that, and to appreciate the challenge ahead, but they’re going to have to take more risks than they did during Dynamite’s first show if they’re going to make all this promise into a reality. To get there, they’ll need this kind of commitment from its fans week in and week out, even after the initial shine and hype wears off. The pieces are all in place for this to work, although for the moment they’re arranged in a way that feels a bit too familiar. Shuffle that puzzle up, piece by bright piece, and AEW really might be able to earn what it has been selling since its first moments—true competition in a sport that has desperately needed it for years.