It’s strange to say that a company that has been around almost two years still was trying to find something of an identity. And it’s always had one, but until Sunday it still had some nebulous quality, after Sunday’s All Out pay-per-view, we know exactly what AEW is, what it’s going to be, and where it’s going.
Perhaps the problem is that AEW has spent a good portion of its existence in lockdown just like the rest of us. It’s hard to show what you are in empty or barely-attended arenas, which the company had to do at Daily’s Place in Jacksonville. Returning to live crowds has allowed AEW to once again settle into its identity, because wrestling needs crowds. And All Out was its first PPV in front of a crowd outside of Jacksonville again. It’s also their biggest show of the year.
I have to laugh at my fears of AEW trying to pack too much into their signature show. One, this is wrestling, and is always defined by its bombast. Two, if this is essentially their WrestleMania, well, ’Mania is always about being as big as can be and not holding back anything. If there’s one show you’re going to stuff until it bursts, it’s this one. This is the one that everyone is supposed to notice, after all. It’s the one that has to generate buzz that anyone in the world can hear.
And AEW nailed it. Because it wasn’t just a show about debuts and surprises. While wrestling fans are used to three-and-a-half to four-hour PPVs from WWE, those always have lulls and drag waiting for the main event to roll around. Most of the crowd and viewers at home are charred husks when it’s over. AEW was able to make three and a half hours feel like half of that, with brilliant matches, pacing, and variety. By the time everything was over, the crowd would have happily accepted more.
It had everything. An absolute brawl between Miro and Eddie Kingston. A nod to Japanese wrestling with Jon Moxley besting one Japanese legend (Satoshi Kojima) and then having to deal with THE Japanese legend in Minoru Suzuki. A true star-making women’s match for Kris Statlander in her loss to Britt Baker. Simply a masterpiece of a tag title match between the Young Bucks and The Lucha Bros that not only was full of brain-rattling spots, but callbacks and storytelling that the Bucks get labeled as being unable or unwilling to do (also didn’t hurt that the match included one of the best entrances of all time). And basically two main events that delivered everything you’d want, either CM Punk’s return or Kenny Omega showing why he was considered the best in the world himself at the formation of AEW. I could go on, but it would look and sound like gushing. Because it would be.
Focusing on just the matches, and leaving out the debuts for a minute, it was a perfect showcase of all the things that AEW can and will offer. It’s just so different from “the other guys.” It obviously has to be to attract fans, but that’s also how it will attract new ones. As I’ve said before, AEW is basically aiming to be the biggest cult following on the block, getting back to all the things fans loved about wrestling in the first place. Which is offering just about every type of the art. Small high-flyers, tag teams, mobile brawlers, straight street brawlers, character-driven heels that can have an audience boiling, brutality, whatever. It’s all the things fans have been watching in bingo halls and dingy theaters on the indie scene. It’s just on TV now.
Which didn’t really have a definition until Danielson’s speech to close the show. “I’m a wrestler. I never left wrestling. I took wrestling wherever I went. I said ‘wrestling’ when I wasn’t supposed to say ‘wrestling,’ and I’m here to goddamn wrestle.”
And that’s it right there. And it’s not even a criticism of WWE, though most will take it as such, or at least where WWE has taken itself. There are considerations and complications for WWE in booking their shows and writing their stories that are unique to them. They have shareholders, multiple TV and streaming contracts, and a need to appeal to the mainstream. They have to sell toys to kids, along with their own or connections to movie studios. They have to be aware of how things will play on Main St. That’s their thing. That’s why Danielson stresses “wrestling,” because WWE always stresses sports-entertainment, which encompasses everything mentioned above. The word “wrestling” is seen as turning off Madison Avenue (I know, I’m mixing my street metaphors, just go with it).
But what Danielson and Adam Cole have come for is wrestling without any of those complications. Back to the base that the fans love. None of the bullshit. They just want to do what they want to do without having to pass it through a filter or six to see how the execs feel about it and how it relates to their other interests.
Danielson and Cole are AEW’s biggest gets (and I’ll have a whole thing about Ruby Soho tomorrow, don’t you worry), because they aren’t castoffs or releases that WWE didn’t feel a need for anymore (though the reported offer to Cole of being a manager on SmackDown shows just how little Vince McMahon knows about NXT or what his vision is). WWE wanted these guys to stick around, even offering Danielson the chance to wrestle elsewhere, which is unheard of for them. And yet they both chose to go to the place where they can do exactly what they want without having it mangled. There’s little chance that AEW was offering either more money than WWE could. Money just wasn’t enough to keep them.
And perhaps the important part, and one AEW’s executives could do with listening to intently, is that neither Cole (in his post-show interview) or Danielson (in his show-closing speech) were upset about it. They loved being part of WWE, but now just want to do something different. Something more true to them. There’s certainly room for both. Being the underdog, as AEW is, certainly calls for the occasional shot at the big boy on the block, which AEW has never hesitated to take. But Cole and Danielson made it pretty clear those shots are not needed too much now, if at all.
AEW is offering what wrestling fans want. WWE offers what WWE fans want. You can pick either or both. It’s just now so clear what you get from each.