AEW and TNT have both always said they’re in it for the long haul. But if you had told them before they started their weekly cable show a year ago that they’d have to hit pause on the promotion just six months in, they might have hedged their bets a bit. But, with some secret locations, a pretty full pre-taping schedule for a while, and then a decamp to Jacksonville, AEW has battled through the pandemic so far, and the natural growing pains of any new company, to celebrate its one-year anniversary last night.
AEW’s anniversary show included all of their championships being put on the line, with none of them changing hands. Seems a little conservative for a company that strutted onto the scene on a bar bet and promised to do things differently than the big bad bear in the room, WWE.
That has been one of the complaints about AEW in its inaugural year: It hasn’t really delivered on its promises to be wild and out there. It said wins and losses were going to matter, but they haven’t really. It said it would have a robust women’s division, which, as we’ve gone over, it really hasn’t. It said that it would be something of a land of opportunity where it would feature every and all kinds of matches and performers. It’s that last point that has some people raising an eyebrow as well, and not the People’s eyebrow. But it might not be as it seems to the critical faction.
On the surface, four of the five championships in AEW are held by WWE refugees — Jon Moxley (World Title), Cody Rhodes (TNT Championship), and FTR (formerly the Revival, Tag Team). At a glance, it’s an odd look for a company that was supposedly going to give every underdog every chance in the world and wanted to be seen as something wholly different. Along with that, imports like Brodie Lee, formerly Luke Harper in WWE, Miro, formerly Rusev in WWE, and Matt Hardy, have been celebrated arrivals. Chris Jericho has been either holding the top title or at the top of the show for the company’s entire existence. But that’s kind of Jericho’s thing, and anyone who saw him cut not one but two promos on a drone would likely not question his exalted place. It can feel like it’s just an alternate WWE, keeping indie stars down in the same way that WWE has been heavily criticized for doing.
But everything in wrestling is cyclical. Look a little deeper, and you’ll see what’s happening here is the reverse of what happened with WWE and WCW, and one of the main reasons WCW bit the dust.
Aside from Moxley and Jericho, all the WWE stars to jump ship were misused or underused or both, and had fans begging for more of them. Even Moxley, then Dean Ambrose, was kneecapped creatively, which is why he left. Jericho had already left WWE behind for a couple of years to have main event matches in Japan with Kenny Omega and Tetsuya Naito. WWE never understood Matt Hardy’s “broken” character and never really let him do much with it. Miro was comically shafted by Vince McMahon, even though fans adored him. Brodie Lee didn’t amount to much more than Bray Wyatt’s henchman. Cody toiled basically in the mid-card. FTR got its name from the hashtag #FTR, which stood for “Free The Revival” as fans were heartbroken to see them pushed to the back of the line or degraded in comedy matches after they were just about the best thing in NXT for years.
It’s not unlike WCW criminally ignoring the likes of Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, and Dean Malenko until those wrestlers saw no choice but to jump ship to WWE, where their careers flourished, if sadly all too briefly. WCW was too determined to keep feeding fans the same meal over and over of nWo Hulk Hogan and Kevin Nash (or more to the point, simply let Nash and Hogan book themselves to do so). Smaller performers like Guerrero and Benoit, and a host of other cruiserweights — such Rey Mysterio (or Jushin Goddamn Thunder Liger!) were given short shrift and either jumped ship or left.
Most of the crew of WWE alumni now with AEW are in the same boat. Fantastic performers who were never appreciated or just lost in the deep seas of the WWE roster and left to show what they could do when given a chance. They were never getting to stick their heads up above the surface amongst Roman Reigns or Brock Lesnar or Randy Orton. This isn’t WCW importing Scott Hall and Bret Hart and Macho Man and Ric Flair (again) after their primes for simply name value. All of the AEW converts are in their prime or close to it aside from Hardy (Jericho will never be out of his prime, it seems). The flow’s reversed.
And they haven’t kept it a closed cabal at the top of the card like the WCW contingent back in the day. Darby Allin, Orange Cassidy, MJF, Pac (another underused WWE alumnus, to be fair), Adam Page, Ray Fenix, Pentagon Jr (now Penta El Zero M), Eddie Kingston, Jurassic Express, Private Party, Best Friends, Santana and Ortiz have had the chance to have matches that have left the industry buzzing for days and weeks after. And that’s only a partial list.
There is certainly an element of AEW going with more established and known names simply to lay a foundation in its first year. It needed to attract viewers, it needed to gain a base. Perhaps in its second year, it’ll be freer to move others to the top of the card. But for the most part, it has used those WWE-established names to bring other performers up with them. It should pay major dividends in the near future.
AEW certainly has issues to solve as it moves forward. But its ex-pat class isn’t near the top of that list.