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Even When AEW Fucks Up, It Still Feels Like It's Doing The Right Thing

Photo: WWE

All Elite Wrestling’s debut pay-per-view Double or Nothing has stood out since it was announced as something new and fun amid the ongoing stagnation in WWE. Now that it has hit its first high-profile speed bump just days before kicking off, it feels official—a wrestling promotion isn’t a wrestling promotion unless there’s something for people to get upset about. Over the weekend, Dave Meltzer—pro wrestling’s presiding oracle and AEW’s biggest stan, simultaneously—reported that the scheduled Double or Nothing bout between PAC and Adam “Hangman” Page was cancelled due to the dreaded “creative differences.” PAC, who was known as Neville in WWE, will now not feature on the show at all, while Page will do...something else. It is believed that his match, whatever it winds up being, will not be announced before the show.

Creative Differences generally serves as a catchall for disagreements about how a match should go, but in this instance it means and refers to a specific thing—another promotion’s title belt, and PAC’s loyalty to it. PAC currently holds the extremely well-named Open The Dream Gate championship in Dragon Gate, a Japanese promotion that specializes in high-flying action. PAC has reportedly made it clear that he will not lose a match cleanly in another promotion while he holds that belt, because he thinks it will make the championship look weaker. And though PAC was meant to beat Page at Double or Nothing, that victory was reported to be in service of building him up for a future loss, in this case to the promotion’s big boss, Kenny Omega. PAC wouldn’t go for that, and so the match was called off a week before the show.

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PAC is a big name on the indies, and big enough that he can do pretty much what he pleases with little consequence for his cred or drawing power. This conflict isn’t about him so much as it is about AEW’s handling of the situation. Instead of giving fans the “card subject to change” excuse, the promotion flew Page to England to confront and wrestle Neville at a Wrestle Gate Pro show.

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The match ended in a DQ finish that protected everyone involved, but the fact that the match existed at all after the initial change of plans works as a mea culpa from AEW to its burgeoning fan base—a way to say, yeah, we fucked up booking this one, but we’re trying to make the best of it. The promotion put the match up on its YouTube channel on Tuesday, and it’s a good one until the DQ finish:

So why not do a DQ finish at Double or Nothing, then? After all, the England match is being called an AEW official match, and Meltzer says that the wrestlers will also be paid as if it were on the show on Saturday night. The promotion could have just chosen to do the DQ finish at Double or Nothing, let PAC go off to do his own thing until he drops the Dragon Gate belt, and hammered out a new story for Page.

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The answer to this one is a bit more complicated. Hardcore fans were always going to be drawn to AEW, both because that’s how hardcore fans are and because AEW’s roster is custom-built to appeal to the sensibilities of wrestling nerds. But the promotion’s appeal to non-hardcore fans hinges on its ability to become a different kind of mainstream promotion than WWE. From calling back to WCW in its announcement that its weekly TV show will air on TNT, to reports that the company will take wins and losses into account when deciding title matches, AEW wants to make their shows feel more like a proper sports promotion—nothing stodgily major league, but something more akin to UFC—than WWE’s “sports entertainment” approach does.

Which, it seems safe to assume, is why AEW did not want to do the same old DQ bit wrestling fans would expect on its first-ever show. Having PAC win and then not face Omega would have made Page’s loss look worse; having a DQ finish would just devalue the entire match, particularly if PAC wouldn’t be around for the rematch. The best decision they could have made would be to have a time limit draw—PAC has already had two of those with high-profile wrestlers Zack Sabre Jr. and Will Ospreay since becoming the Open the Dream Gate champion, though both decisions were poorly received—but that would require more time than the show wanted to devote to a match with likely no follow-up. Deferring to the wrestlers’ wishes wasn’t just the honorable thing to do here. It was the practical one as well.

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In the end, the company took the hit, admitted that the match should have never been booked without a plan in place for PAC’s refusal to lose while champ, and consented to giving fans at least a small chunk of it for free before Double or Nothing. WWE has it easier when it comes to things like this due to its exclusivity contracts and the lack of creative control afforded to its wrestlers, but AEW has to contend with the fact that they are but a part—a big and promising part, but a part nonetheless—of a larger independent wrestling ecosystem. Though AEW’s ambitions and philosophies have all hit the right marks, they also require that the promotion doesn’t have full control of its product in the way that a more tyrannical institution like WWE does.

How AEW squares its professed values and ambitions with the greasy realities of the wrestling business has already emerged as a compelling subplot to its launch. Like WWE, AEW is also struggling with providing wrestlers healthcare, which shows how much work still needs doing—and how much commitment is required—when it comes to building a promotion that doesn’t treat its wrestlers like cattle. At least AEW has finally said publicly that it plans to eventually offer healthcare to its wrestlers, to go along with their previously-announced policy that the promotion would pay for medical bills incurred from injuries in the ring.

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This isn’t a win for AEW, obviously. But if the promotion has to lose what was likely going to be one of the best matches on its inaugural card to show that it’s serious about its professed principles, there’s at least some honor in it. There’s no go-to excuse for a non-injury cancellation of a match that has been hyped for months on the week of, but also there’s no significant history of it—this just isn’t how things are done in mainstream wrestling. For AEW to succeed, it has to be a worthwhile alternative to WWE, and that holds for better and, in this case, for worse. And once the initial sting wears off, and Hangman Page is off doing something else that will also likely be super fun to watch, AEW might be able to look back on its decision to prioritize its own rules and guidelines fondly. Being different is more important than being perfect, especially when “different” is what you’re selling.

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