It would be healthier to not use WWE as a comparison point for AEW, or vice versa. One shouldn’t need the other to prove why it’s good and worthy of fanship. And you can enjoy both equally, which should make this time the best it’s ever been to be a fan (and it is!). These are the tenets I’m trying to hold onto, even if I’ve failed at not using WWE’s faults to point out what AEW does well and why its star is rising so fast.
But, man, when you get things like last night...
So to try and weed this out, one of the challenges WWE faces that no other company has or will face is its monthly PPV schedule. This is something WWE chose to do a long time ago, but now wouldn’t be able to get away from even if it wanted to, thanks to its deal with Peacock. There’s no way NBC would ever let that volume of WWE-produced content drop, and the height of that content is the PPVs. They want, and need, fans tuning in en masse once a month, at least. So, fine, we accept that as a unique hurdle.
But that limits what WWE can do with its PPV shows. Whereas AEW’s quarterly PPV schedule makes each event a definitive point on the calendar, where we know every storyline will come to a head and then finish (and the company will basically reset afterwards) WWE has no such flexibility. Stories have to keep going, because to constantly engineer new stories and feuds every month would get exhausting. Maybe they should try it sometime anyway, just to change the pace, but it’s not something they could do constantly. On the flipside of that, when we know bigger and more important PPVs are coming up in a month, the one right in front of you gets watered down, because we pretty much know there won’t be any huge changes as far as new champions or wild twists. Some PPVs are just setups, which is disappointing because all the shows on TV have been setups to those PPVs, and rarely do you ever feel like anything comes to a climax. The road never ends, but the party never really starts.
And it’s a shame, because last night’s Extreme Rules did start out showcasing what WWE has done well over the past year or so. There were three women’s matches on the card, if you include Liv Morgan and Carmella on the pre-show. The first two tag matches, featuring 10 total performers, had nine wrestlers of color. Diversity was certainly apparent and celebrated. The triple threat between Jeff Hardy, Sheamus, and Damian Priest featured two old vets who can still help make a new arrival (Priest) look like a star, while keeping themselves relevant. It was a good start!
But sadly, the boxes that WWE puts itself in, combined with its overwhelming urge to protect everyone while also not really solving anything on the storyline front, basically resulted in the company dropping its food on the floor.
I’ve discussed Becky Lynch’s wonky heel turn before, but always acknowledged that it would work out in the end because Lynch and Bianca Belair would put on a banger of a match. And they did! At least for 95 percent of it. Then Sasha Banks, a tried and true heel, ran in at the end, caused a DQ finish, and now everything’s a mess. WWE backed itself into this corner by chumping out Belair at SummerSlam, and couldn’t really afford to have her eat a pin here and further chip away at her status. But it couldn’t just hotshot the title back onto her without looking silly. Sasha getting involved sets up a triple threat somewhere down the road, but does that mean they’re pumping the brakes on Becky’s heel turn now? They don’t have to, as they certainly can play off the shared past of Lynch and Banks as partners in crime, but as we know, anything that happened in NXT didn’t actually happen in the world of WWE. Lynch doesn’t really get a push in the heel direction, as she didn’t really cheat or get help, because Banks attacked her as well. What had been a great match ended without anyone looking good. You can’t help but feel like the time you put in as a viewer was pointless.
Vince McMahon wasn’t done with the silliness either. We all know that Roman Reigns is facing Brock Lesnar at WWE’s blood-money grab in Saudi Arabia next month. So we knew going into the main event that Finn Bálor has next to no chance of winning. That doesn’t mean that Bálor and Reigns couldn’t have a great match and tell a great story anyway, which they almost did. Bálor was in his “Demon” alter-ego, which is supposed to be unbeatable in the rare event he brings it out. It needs to be unbeatable to give it meaning. And WWE was clearly afraid of diminishing the glow of that character, but not so afraid that it would go as far as letting The Demon beat Reigns. So the match ended with the top rope “breaking” (I’m guessing here) while Bálor stood atop it preparing for his finisher. This, for some reason, brought him out of his supernatural alter-ego and turned the lights back on.
And now Reigns doesn’t look any stronger. Bálor’s character is just confusing. And all that in the service of a Reigns-Lesnar match on a Thursday afternoon next month, halfway across the world, where a lot of fans can’t or won’t watch live. It got from Point A to Point B, but simply getting to the destination without any feeling or catharsis isn’t really the point of storytelling. WWE didn’t want to make anyone look bad, so they just decided to not make anyone look good.
Again, I especially have to get out of the habit of using one company as a measuring stick for the other, because they operate on totally different planes. However, you can’t help but consider how AEW’s clear stories — where angles have logic, stakes, and clearly defined narrative beats — and then look that what-have-ya last night without seeing why AEW is gaining fans and energy at a blistering rate.
I really will try to stop using them both at the same time. Promise.