Only when “The Wednesday Night Wars” end, if they’re even a thing, will we know which were the seminal moments, the turning points. It’s the kind of thing you need hindsight for. And with wrestling, any decision one week can be explained or reversed or changed the following week (or, if you’re Vince McMahon, in the very next segment). This always leads to people arguing over booking decisions with, “Well, let’s see where it goes first.” Except you can do that into perpetuity with this industry.
Sometimes you go by feel, because after all the endgame of all of this is to make you feel. Last night felt like a big night for AEW even before their show started. They had billed this week’s episode of “Dynamite” as a pay-per-view level show on TNT, essentially. It had its own title, “Winter Is Coming.” (which ended up referring to something else, but we’ll get to that). Not only did it have a mouth-waterin’….no, mouth-slobberin’ title match as its main event, between Kenny Omega and champion Jon Moxley, but it had a PPV-like build. Weeks of promos and plots and contract-signings and shenanigans, with each playing their role perfectly. It felt like the biggest match any company had run on normal TV in years. It’s hard to even know what to compare it to.
AEW seemed to recognize the enormity of the night by unveiling one of the biggest surprises in recent memory, and probably the biggest in the company’s short history, with the appearance of Sting in the middle of the show. Yes, that Sting. Turns out, he was “Winter,” with a white-walker like video intro.
It’s another moment where the disappointment of not taking place in a packed arena is palpable, as whatever building it was in would have likely collapsed. But that didn’t stop the sparse live crowd, and especially the social media following, from popping to borderline cardiac arrest. And of course, the debate raged immediately afterward whether this was a good thing or not.
Thing is, both sides are right. It is absolutely fair to be wary of yet another aged star in the company and whether or not he will take time from younger men and women who could use the exposure to build into being the next star. Maybe even the next Sting. It is also correct to point out that wrestling storytelling relies heavily on callbacks and history — to previous matches, previous feuds, tropes made familiar by others. Sometimes that history is embodied in a person, and sometimes it’s OK to feel like a kid again. I have no real connection to Sting, and yet I was kicking my heels out of my chair like I was seven and got my first Nintendo. Feeling like a kid is partly why anyone watches wrestling, assuming any of us have aged out of it at all.
Sure, that only applies to part of the fandom, and it’s a tough needle to thread to link both of these sides together. But AEW, for the most part, has done that well in its year-plus existence. No one really wants to see Sting actually in the ring again, as last time he wrestled he was nearly paralyzed or worse in a match with Seth Rollins. He’s 61, after all. But if he can use his glow and teach the ways of being a reverse Quasimodo to someone like Darby Allin and turn him into a genuine superstar, everyone wins. This is another, “Let’s wait and see” moment.
Somehow, the return of Sting wasn’t the biggest talking point of the night. The match between Moxley and Omega was everything fans could have asked for. Because of the build, and the reputations and magnetism of both performers, their intros and entrances gave it not just the feel of a PPV main event, but a Wrestlemania main event. These two are on the shortlist of best in the world right now, and seeing them in the ring together turned everyone’s TV into a tesla coil. It felt BIG in a way matches on cable TV rarely, if ever, do.
And the match itself lived up to all of that. It was given 35 minutes to breathe, even through commercial breaks. It had all kinds of phases, told all kinds of stories, played on their interactions and histories with others (Omega’s channeling of blood rival Kazuchika Okada from NJPW a particular highlight). It was a brilliant example of why these two are at the top of the mountain, with Omega showing off his rare athleticism and variety while Moxley was the emotional ass-kicker boiled down to his essence. It was perhaps as good as AEW has ever been.
Until the end. Having a screwy finish to the match itself is fine, with Omega taking the shortcut behind the ref’s back and hitting Mox with a microphone “accidentally” in the ring. It completes Omega’s heel-turn, and Moxley has spent nine months as the champion and has been built to be an unscalable ascent for any challenger. Perhaps he can only be beaten through nefarious means.
That’s not the problem. The problem is what came next. Don Callis, a “guest” of Omega’s on commentary and also the executive VP of Impact Wrestling, aided Omega’s heel ending and then quickly hustled Omega out of the arena to a waiting limo. There, he told the AEW audience that in order to find out what was going on with Omega and himself, they would have to tune into Impact on Tuesday night.
On what felt like the company’s biggest night, they ended it by telling their audience to watch a different company? Imagine if after Jon Snow discovers that dragon fire wouldn’t kill the Night King, the Night King turned to the camera and said, “If you want to know what happens next, tune into Epix on Thursday!” Why are you stringing out your company’s biggest story elsewhere?
This is only a guess, but AEW has made a big deal of being “open.” As in, their performers can work anywhere else along with AEW, and that AEW is open to working relationships with any company. We’ve already seen Serena Deeb and Thunder Rosa bounce between NWA and AEW. This is important to them, and marks out a huge difference between them and WWE, which is very much “closed.”
But to highlight that at this point? At perhaps the pinnacle of interest? There’s nothing about Impact that’s big-time, which is why it’s on AXS-TV. It’s nice to have, but it doesn’t propel AEW forward in a way that anyone can see. At best, it was just a very odd decision. How do you promote your product when your champion and now face of the company is running to a different show? How does that help?
It’s probably a bump AEW can ride out. Omega will spend months putting on great matches and programs as champ, which is what everyone wants in the end. Maybe there’s something interesting to be gleaned from Impact. But on a night when it felt like AEW could really separate itself and throw down a marker, it asked everyone to look somewhere else.