On Friday night, Athena and Willow Nightingale had one of the best matches, not just women’s matches, of 2023 on Ring of Honor’s Death Before Dishonor PPV. Not only was it the culmination of a three-match trilogy through both ROH and AEW, or the budding of a rivalry that will probably last years, but it contained many callbacks to the history of women’s wrestling, with each pulling off moves known from those who came before them:
If you could distill not only the history of women’s wrestling but also its present and future into one match, Nightingale and Athena did it. Sadly, this is the exact type of match that AEW fans have been begging to see on Dynamite or now Collision, and have never gotten. And for most, they’ve probably given up on ever getting it on cable TV.
What makes that statement so frustrating, and confusing, is that the Athena-Nightingale match took place under Tony Khan’s canopy, just at ROH. It’s clear that Khan knows how to book a woman’s program, and has the patience to build something as he did with this match. Certainly, he’s paying attention, as Athena’s run to the top of the ROH card started with a simple squash match on AEW Dark: Elevation that showed a violent streak that completely transformed her character. It continued an incredible year for Nightingale that saw her wrestle Mercedes Mone and Giulia of Stardom and become one of the biggest babyfaces in the whole company. Khan certainly was sharp enough to get out of the way of each’s momentum and to harness it ROH’s weekly streaming show contains two or three women’s matches per week consistently. He can do it. He does do it. So why not on AEW?
There has always been a bubbling rumor that Warner Brothers Discovery has limited AEW to one women’s match per show, though Fightful debunked that in the past. But the disconnect between Khan putting on multiple women’s matches on ROH that is completely his baby and the limited outings of his AEW women’s roster that has higher-ups to answer to is curious.
Whatever the reasons, the frustration is real. There have been opportunities to run something more meaty than the women have been given before, and it all just fades into the background. The latest was the opportunity for a women’s Blood & Guts match, one that Khan never really pushed for after Jamie Hayter’s injury at Double Or Nothing. But an injury to Bryan Danielson didn’t derail the men’s match, as PAC was just substituted in. Certainly the numbers were there, even if such a match is incredibly hard to pull off even with the most experienced competitors.
Khan has been known to hit pause on stories when injuries happen, waiting for the match he wanted in the first place. CM Punk or Malakai Black, the Lucha Bros., or Andrade El Idolo have all been put in stasis either when they were injured or waiting for someone else to recover. But that’s easier to digest when there’s so much to take its place on Dynamite or Collision.
When one women’s program goes on hold, the whole division seems stuck in the mud. Last Dynamite saw simply a Britt Baker squash match, which didn’t move anything forward. Toni Storm, the women’s champion, hasn’t done anything of note in weeks other than a quickly thrown-together title match against Nightingale at Forbidden Door. Kris Statlander, after a galvanizing win at DoN over Jade Cargill for the TBS championship, has been relegated to open challenge matches on Rampage and seemingly lost a good deal of the buzz her return generated.
Maybe Khan is waiting for Hayter to be healthy, or for Thunder Rosa to be cleared, or for Mercedes Mone (fka Sasha Banks) to recover from her ankle injury to set up some kind of big one-off match at All In or All Out or farther down the line. But when it comes to the women’s division, Khan has lost the leeway he gets with every other part of his companies.
Too many opportunities have been lost. There was the buzz from Statlander’s return. There was the organic rise of Hayter to winning the title, and then her run was mostly about Britt Baker. Saraya’s arrival and setting up factions promised much and delivered little. Hikaru Shida, Emi Sakura, Riho — Joshi wrestlers immensely popular among fans — are used sparingly little. Rarely is there anything more than “just a match” for all of them. Stardom wrestlers weren’t available for Forbidden Door thanks to their schedule, but that feels like something that could have been worked out if they really wanted to. There’s always an excuse for Khan when it comes to the women’s division.
There’s rarely if ever some kind of story that lasts weeks, other than the formation of the Outcasts who are now just kind of around. We haven’t seen something that just grabs people in the women’s division like the random partnership of MJF and Adam Cole has. They’re never given the chance.
Khan has referenced that few of the women on the roster are capable of carrying a promo segment, and that’s not necessarily wrong. But who gets the reps to improve other than Baker? They keep handing Jungle Boy a mic and he’s got the personality of paste.
Khan has accomplished so much in less than four years with AEW. He certainly has built a rabid fanbase that seems pretty entrenched. Maybe that’s enough, and it got him a second show on Saturday nights and what sounds like a pretty fat new TV deal on the way. That wouldn’t exactly create urgency.
He’s leaving having more fans on the table by having the women’s division as an afterthought. If you can find it, listen to the roar that merely greets the opening bell of Mercedes Mone-Nightingale. Khan could have that in his own company, and consistently eschews it. It’s not like WWE’s women’s division is white hot right now, and there’s an opportunity. But there have been plenty of opportunities before, and they’ve all been bypassed. At this point, Khan has to prove that he’s interested in taking any of them. The fear is that he never will.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @Felsgate.bsky.social