This ended up being one heck of a week for All Elite Wrestling to have their second show.
That event, Fyter Fest, takes place Saturday night at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, Florida, and will run alongside the annual CEO video game tournament. It will air live on WarnerMedia’s Bleacher Report Live streaming service—it’s free, but signup is required—in the U.S. and as a $10 pay-per-view on the FITE TV platform internationally. It’s doesn’t look like it’s designed to be the blow-away mission statement that Memorial Day weekend’s Double Or Nothing in Las Vegas was, but AEW doesn’t need it to be that. It’s still a really good show on paper, and will be significant in connecting the baby deer of a promotion to something other than the hardcore pay-per-view audience as they work towards their television debut on TNT in October. AEW should be plenty busy before then: they’ve also got Fight For The Fallen, a streaming show in Jacksonville, on July 13, and then the All Out pay-per-view in suburban Chicago during Labor Day weekend.
AEW’s growth from big idea to an actual going concern has been the biggest wrestling story of the year, and WWE has clearly noticed. After another weird and wobbly week for WWE, even AEW putting on a humble streaming show that fans are excited about stands out as the kind of success that has eluded WWE of late. This is what WWE’s last week has looked like:
- Sunday: WWE runs Stomping Grounds at the Tacoma Dome in front of what was likely the smallest pay-per-view crowd in recent memory—about 6,000 fans in an 18,000 seat building. At most 80 percent of those in attendance paid to get in, and there were widespread “two for one” discounts available late. Particularly worrisome was that, going in, the usual quickest-moving seats—those on the floor and also opposite the “hard camera”—had largely gone unsold.
- Monday: WWE runs the post-PPV edition of Monday Night Raw in Everett, Washington, this time drawing one of the smallest Raw crowds in recent memory, somewhere in the 3,000 to 3,500 fan range.
- Tuesday: The following night’s edition of SmackDown Live drew, wait for it, one of the smallest crowds period for an arena-sized WWE show in recent memory. This one was estimated at 1,500 to 2,000 fans in the building.
- Wednesday: WWE tells The Wrap that the July 13 card from Evolve, an independently owned feeder promotion that serves a similar role to WWE’s affiliates in the United Kingdom and Germany, will air live on WWE Network. That Evolve show would be the first non-WWE special ever on the service—airing on the same July 13 as AEW’s Fight For The Fallen, a benefit show for victims of gun violence. (AEW wrestler/executive Tyson “Kenny Omega” Smith tweeted and deleted a shot at WWE for the timing after the news broke.)
- Thursday: WWE announces that Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff, the former promoter/creative head of Extreme Championship Wrestling and executive producer/president/a lot of other titles of World Championship Wrestling, respectively, will be starting as “Executive Directors” behind the scenes of Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live, also respectively.
All of these stumbles can be related to AEW in some way or another. The ticket sales are in sharp contrast with both of AEW’s scheduled pay-per-views—both destination shows, in fairness—briskly selling out the near-NBA-size MGM Grand Garden Arena and Sears Centre, and with the promotion’s smaller shows on pace to do at least 90 percent of capacity in mid-sized arenas. How the promotion will do on a weekly basis come October is still a big question mark, but the trends are currently as good for AEW as they are bad for a WWE that has lost money on its live event division in two of the three last quarters. (In the archived WWE financials I can find, which go back to 2005, that division losing money appears to be unprecedented in the company’s public era, at least before Q3 2018.)
Whether WWE’s Fight For The Fallen counter-programming is deliberate or not, it’s certainly easy to see it that way, even with the Evolve show’s own anniversary peg. It’s still the first non-WWE show ever to premiere on WWE Network, after years in which Vince McMahon kept refusing to greenlight such content in spite of having deals in place to air the feeder promotions. (According to Dave Meltzer in the July 1, 2019 Wrestling Observer Newsletter, the WWE side is insistent that production logistics—the Evolve show is in Philadelphia, the same city as the next night’s WWE pay-per-view—was a primary factor.)
There’s a great deal less guesswork involved when it comes to connecting AEW’s rise with McMahon’s decision to bring in Heyman and Bischoff as a creative tandem on WWE’s two weekly shows. If you know how McMahon thinks, you can totally see how this all tracks. McMahon’s in a promotional war, and under pressure in a way he hasn’t been since buying the assets of WCW in March of 2001. Yes, Bischoff mostly washed out of wrestling over the seven years since he was sent home from running Impact Wrestling; Heyman has been working on WWE’s creative team, albeit in a somewhat limited role. Neither is a hot name at this moment, but both are familiar ones—mainly because of the prominent roles they played the last time WWE was in a promotional war. It’s not the first time McMahon has hired a formal rival when under this kind of stress, either—in late 1983, when starting his national expansion and went to war with damn near every promoter in the United States and Canada, he turned to veteran Georgia promoter Jim Barnett as his VP of Operations. A decade earlier, Barnett had been drafted to by the monopolistic governing body that was the National Wrestling Alliance to win a war for their Georgia terriory against a rival upstart promotion that poached most of the NWA incumbent’s roster. McMahon’s actions suggest that he’s once again on that footing.
In that context, Fyter Fest is a good demonstration of what McMahon is up against, but even minus the pro-wrestling geopolitics it’s a promising show on its own merits. With six matches on the main card and two on the pre-show, it’s not overly dense, and the matches are nicely varied, as well. The opener, with AEW international talent liaison Michael Nakazawa vs. CEO promoter Alex Jebailey in a hardcore match, sure looks like a weird vanity throwaway match with no business being on the show, but it’s also the only one that looks remotely lame. The rest of the show prominently features several intriguing wrestlers who either weren’t on the Double Or Nothing card or were relegated to the pre-show battle royal.
The main event is a case in point. Jon Moxley, previously Dean Ambrose in WWE, cut the promo of the year around Double Or Nothing, but still hasn’t wrestled with AEW. That will change when he faces “Bad Boy” Joey Janela, a battle royal casualty at Double Or Nothing, on Saturday night. With Moxley’s past doing “death match” style wrestling and Janela a daredevil who’s dabbled in the same, this was always one of AEW’s most tantalizing fantasy matchups. The promos hyping up the match, while simple and short, have been incredibly effective, as well. As with so much of AEW’s best work so far, it’s all been slightly offbeat—think of Moxley aggressively bumming a cigarette off Janela after Double Or Nothing, or the trademark Moxley intensity to his challenge, which included the phrase “Amazon Prime for head trauma.” Or think of Janela bragging about his own work while dismissing Moxley as “a bootleg, watered-down, PG, SUPERVISED version of [his] former self” in WWE. The two wrestlers’ styles match up well, but their personalities make for an equally volatile pair. It’s exciting because it’s Moxley’s debut and Janela’s major league coming out party against the hottest star in pro wrestling, but it’s also exciting because of the work the two have done to make it that way.
Oh, and one important note on that last video: AEW has announced that this would be an “unsanctioned,” no-rules match. That suggests that it’s going to be exactly the match everyone wanted from Moxley and Janela.
The co-feature, which marks the debut of the high-flying Laredo Kid in a match-up pitting the Lucha Brothers against The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega, is interesting in its own right, but the number two singles match is more interesting in terms of its newly spotlighted talent. Cody Rhodes, who has emerged as the face of the company alongside fellow wrestler/executive hybrids like the Bucks and Omega, will face the debuting Darby Allin. Unlike Janela or the wrestlers in the four-way attraction on the undercard, Allin wasn’t relegated to the pre-show battle royal at Double Or Nothing. He wasn’t on the card at all. That makes this a heck of debut slot, especially for someone who’s not exactly a huge name. Like Janela, with whom he’s paired for some spectacular matches, Allin is something of a daredevil, but they’re very different wrestlers in other ways. What makes Allin a uniquely magnetic performer in the ring is that the insane risks he takes are contrasted with his preternaturally smooth, graceful technical work. He’s one of the most easy-to-root for underdogs in the genre right now, and this match should make for a fitting introduction.
Cody’s character is a deliberately gray one in AEW so far, which allows him to slip easily between babyface and heel. He’s found his niche as a performer along the way, which turns out to be crafting story-heavy epics. His Double Or Nothing battle with his older brother, Dustin Rhodes, was the most emotional American match in recent memory, and his win over Nick Aldis at All In—September 2018’s AEW prequel, essentially—was a brilliant spectacle in spite of Aldis’s comparatively shallow in-ring ability. An underdog like Darby, in his major league debut no less, should help Cody sustain his streak of matches that elicit thermonuclear levels of crowd engagement.
AEW’s instinct to mix things up is evident up and down the card. Riho and Yuka Sakazaki who were in a trio tag team match in Vegas, join Nyla Rose in a three-way match that should help them get their individual personalities over more*. The “serious” pre-show match meanwhile, though marred by confusing stipulations, looks like a showcase for Private Party (Isiah Kassidy and Marq Quen), who were part of the Vegas battle royal.
The Brooklyn-bred team faces Best Friends (Chuck Taylor and Trent Baretta) and SCU (Scorpio Sky and Frankie Kazarian) in what could be a show-stealer; both sets of opponents are great bases for the other’s innovative double teams and high flying moves. If you don’t follow the New York or New England independent scenes, you’ve probably never heard of either team before AEW signed them, but the fact that AEW brought them in all the same stands as both a pretty good indication that the new promotion was scouting far past the buzziest indie names and an indicator of its priorities. AEW is going to put a heavy focus on their tag team division, which meant that they needed existing, in-sync teams that match up well the spectacular style of the group’s big four: The Bucks, Best Friends, SCU, and the Lucha Bros. They’ve got two such teams facing off in this one, and it could be a pleasant surprise for fans that are unfamiliar with their work.
After a week of consuming chaos in WWE, most of it having little to do with the in-ring wrestling, it’s something of a relief to have an honest-to-god wrestling show to look forward to. Promotional war may well be coming, and WWE may well straighten things out—the first half of Stomping Grounds, especially Samoa Joe vs. Ricochet, was quite strong—but wrestling will always be more fun than business. Fyter Fest may wind up being important in the unfolding drama between WWE and AEW, but more important, at least for now, is that it looks pretty freaking good.
* Correction (4:11 p.m.): This post originally misidentified the wrestlers in this tag team match. Yuka Sakazaki, not Emi Sakura, is wrestling in this match.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.