If a newcomer to the wrestling world wanted an exhibition on why AEW makes so much noise for such a new company in the industry, this past week would be it. It has showcased everything the company does well, as well as exemplified the problems it has, and more importantly how it addresses those problems. You really couldn’t get a clearer view of it all.
While AEW has become wildly popular, considering where they’ve come from and how fast they’ve done it, because president Tony Khan runs the company like a wrestling fan, that also means he can lean into the worst tendencies of wrestling fans, and in particular AEW fans.
One aspect of AEW that has turned some off is the “AEW exceptionalism” among its fanbase. Because AEW does so much right — and they do, considering the matches they’ve put on, the stories they’ve told, the stars they’ve made — there is a feeling amongst their most ardent followers that they can’t do anything wrong. Criticism of AEW has always been met with vociferous defensiveness, if not outright lashing out. Yes, this is a symptom of fandom of sports and politics overall everywhere, and whether AEW is better or worse than others is a discussion for another day. We can say safely that it’s there.
It all started when Big Swole, aka Aerial Hull, who recently left the company, outlayed some of her complaints with AEW and some of the reasons she decided to leave. And none of what Swole had to say was unreasonable, or even incorrect. Swole pointed out the lack of TV time for the women’s division, which is absolutely the case, even as the roster continues to grow. She continued, saying that though AEW puts a lot of trust in the wrestlers as far as their creative direction, not every wrestler has a great handle on their character and their direction. And there’s no one around, such as a writer, to help them do things that can get them noticed and eventually get them on TV. The executives’ irritation at any criticism of how things are run also bothered Swole, which comes back around in a big way as we’ll soon see.
Swole’s biggest criticism, and yet another that was completely correct, was the lack of diversity on the roster. She’s hardly the first. Especially on the men’s side, Swole was quick to point out “there’s no one that looks like her. ” And that is so. As far as Black wrestlers who are around either the AEW title or TNT title scene, there’s…no one? Powerhouse Hobbs got a match with CM Punk, but hasn’t really been seen since. The tag division is a little better, with The Acclaimed or Private Party, and certainly there’s a fair amount of Latino representation, but it’s still not great. The women’s division just crowned Jade Cargill as TBS champion, but again…that’s about it. Red Velvet has come up for air on TV briefly at times, and that’s the extent of it. Certainly Nyla Rose as the only transgender wrestler on any mainstream TV is worthy of esteem, but that doesn’t mean the road has been traveled.
Still, what’s important to remember as we delve into Tony Khan’s reaction to all this is that Swole was saying this as a discussion-opener. Here’s the kicker:
“I believe that the company is making better strides than before, but a couple of things need to be fixed. You have to be able to call people out because not everything is perfect,” she said. “I hope they listen to this with an open heart and not just, ‘Ah, she’s just saying this because of XYZ.’ I genuinely want them to succeed. I love this art form. I love wrestling and I want it to succeed and I want the people in it to succeed if they are genuine people.”
Tony Khan did exactly what Swole said she didn’t want.
Khan opted for the “I have many black friends!” defense, which is never a defense. Fans don’t see the execs that Khan references. Mentioning wrestlers who got “a” win on TV, or YouTube, isn’t really the problem. It’s what we see at the top of the roster. It’s not really listening to what Swole was saying, but batting away criticism merely because it’s criticism, and then trying to discredit her by trying to paint her as bitter and not good enough in the ring. It’s denial, not discussion, which is exactly what Swole said she was after.
Swole wasn’t calling Khan a racist, but Khan reacted as if she did, which has been the apparatus that has crippled any discussion of racism anywhere for a couple centuries. Swole is basically saying, “You’re not aware of this, but this is how we see it, and we’d like to talk about it.” Khan’s reaction was, “I’m not racist!” Which isn’t really what Swole was saying at all.
And yet, AEW does what it always does, which buys it all the runway possible despite the problems it does have, by putting on two great shows over the past week. Last night, Hangman Page and Bryan Danielson somehow topped their first match with their second. Cargill won the TBS title in a very good match with Ruby Soho, AEW’s biggest pickup from WWE on the women’s side. The show ended with a great tag match between Jurassic Express and the Lucha Brothers that was sadly tainted by a gruesome injury to Rey Fenix. Last Friday, Anna Jay and Tay Conit vs. Penelope Ford and The Bunny was a chaotic, violent, heavy metal bloodbath that is the best match any of the four have put on (both the women’s streetfight and last night’s title match showcased AEW’s glee in bleeding, which is another best/worst debate on a much lower level).
At the end of the day, Khan gives fans what they want, which is just great wrestling.
Or mostly what they want. There are some who want to see more women’s matches on TV, better representation at the top of every division, etc. And just because Khan does so much well, it doesn’t mean he does everything well. It’s disappointing that he’s decided to use the former as an excuse to not even listen to the latter. But because of the former, he still has plenty of time to change his ways and listen to what people have to say about what is missing. He didn’t use it this time, hopefully next time he will.