There’s panic in the streets of Stamford, Connecticut. Or, anyway, there’s a sense that change is coming for the famously change-averse WWE after a ten-day period that could signal the start of a new era in professional wrestling. All it took to rattle WWE was for a new promotion—in this case, All Elite Wrestling—to have a dazzling debut show that was different enough from the WWE norm in ways that couldn’t help but stand out.
AEW’s debut show, Double or Nothing, was one of the very best shows of the year, and peaked with the outlandish debut of Jon Moxley, who previously wrestled in WWE as Dean Ambrose. With that kind of legit star power in hand and as good a start as any promotion could have asked for now on the record, AEW seems to be in position to challenge WWE’s monopolistic hold on North American wrestling, although whether they will manage that feat or not is hard to know right now. But WWE sure seems to be worried about it, and that might be just as important as whatever happens next.
Moxley jumping from WWE to AEW is the biggest story in wrestling right now. A former world champion and an obscenely popular wrestler escaping the WWE bubble for the indies would be one thing, and a big story on its own. But all reports point to Moxley being on a full-time, multi-year contract with AEW; that deal will apparently let him wrestle for other promotions outside of the US, and he already has a United States title match in New Japan Pro Wrestling scheduled for this week’s Best of the Super Juniors final. Moxley’s also booked for the next AEW streaming special, Fyter Fest, later this month. He will likely go into a program with Kenny Omega, after attacking him at the end of Double or Nothing. It’s hard to think of a more promising rivalry pairing than that anywhere in the sport.
Moxley brings some significant stuff both to the ring and to AEW, but his appearance on Chris Jericho’s podcast Talk Is Jericho might have altered pro wrestling’s landscape more than anything else. In a 90-minute interview, Moxley essentially buried WWE’s creative direction—something we’ve covered here recently—and pointed out a variety of instances when Vince McMahon pushed through a terrible idea over complaints from writers and performers. Moxley also says that his bad guy promos about real life friend Roman Reigns’s leukemia were pushed through by McMahon, despite Moxley’s initial refusal to bring it up on air. He was at least successful in cutting one particularly offensive line from the promo, which was bad enough that he wouldn’t even say it on the podcast.
The whole appearance is worth a listen, but the main takeaway is that every report, every rumor, every bit of speculation about the corroded, sludgy inner workings of WWE is vindicated. Trusted reporters have described the dire morale at WWE in the past, and loyalists have denied them. Those reports are a lot harder to dismiss when they’re coming from inside the house, though. In the same way that CM Punk’s podcast with Colt Cabana laid bare the medical hardships to which WWE subjects its performers, Moxley’s airing of grievances shines a spotlight on how wrestlers are crippled by one man’s tyrannical, oafish creative direction.
While Moxley leaving for AEW may not have the industry-shattering repercussions of Hulk Hogan or Bret Hart moving to WCW during the 1990s, AEW can now trot out two former WWE champions in Moxley and Chris Jericho, a former WWE golden child and his brother (Cody and Dustin Rhodes), as well as some of the top talent on the planet not signed to WWE—the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega are just the start, there. Their TNT TV deal, which will put AEW in as many households as Monday Night Raw starting in October, is another point in the new promotion’s favor. Backed by real money and seemingly strong wrestling fandom at the top, AEW is more than just another indie promotion. If the creative and in-ring performances continue to be at Double or Nothing levels, it could evolve into a real alternative to WWE, and the kind of challenge that McMahon hasn’t seen in a generation.
For now and for the foreseeable future, though, the reality is that WWE is still the top dog. They have a 35-year head start on AEW, and the successes of the Attitude Era bonded many fans to the promotion for life. That’s a good thing to have, but it also points to the problem facing WWE. The promotion hasn’t been pushed creatively by a rival since WCW’s dying days, and while one great show from one new rival won’t set WWE’s decision-makers off into a panic, there are a number of compelling reasons why they might be feeling some heat.
The first of those is one we’ve covered before: WWE’s talent really is unhappy, and Moxley has proven that there’s a decent alternative out there if they want to explore other ways of being a professional wrestler in 2019. After Double or Nothing, Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer reported that a handful of wrestlers in WWE have inquired about getting out of their contracts; Meltzer does not link this directly with the success of Double or Nothing, but the timing fits. Given how draconian WWE contracts are, there’s a decent chance that nothing comes of this. As Meltzer also points out, there is job security in staying with the monopoly:
But most people are signed to three-year deals and top people are signed up even longer. And some may not be ready to risk the sure thing since in WWE if you have a job these days you almost never get fired.
Perhaps more worrying in the short-term is the fact that WWE’s stock price has tanked ever since it hit a peak of $99.25 following the announcement of the Fox TV deal to move SmackDown to network television. While the current price ($74.29) is still higher than it was before the deal, the momentum from the Fox announcement has petered all the way out.
WWE seems to have noticed. The company announced two wildly different moves recently, both of which have a strong whiff of desperation about them. First, they announced that Brock Lesnar would be on Monday’s show to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase against Seth Rollins; then they revealed that an NXT TakeOver show will take place in the United Kingdom on August 31... on the same day as both a New Japan UK show that has long been in the works and to which thousands of tickets have already been sold and AEW’s All In 2: All Out In Chicago.
The Lesnar gambit is not out of the ordinary for WWE; they often announce bigger part-time names ahead of time to get eyeballs on the shows. Lesnar is essentially a “break glass in case of emergency” option for the company now, and using one of his expensive dates on an otherwise ordinary Monday sure looks like ratings thirst at its finest. The UK show is more difficult to figure out. The feeling is that WWE is basically trying to stick it to New Japan and AEW, though they might have even botched that. August 31 is the day of Wales vs. Ireland in a Rugby World Cup warm-up, and that will likely soak up a big portion of British attention. WWE apparently also tried some light corporate espionage in assessing the New Japan show’s ticketing situation, only to get it wrong.
These moves, along with the portraits of internal discontent laid out by both Moxley and Meltzer, point to WWE being in its most precarious position in decades. It’s unlikely that any of this leads to a Monday Night Wars redux, but a successful, well-funded, and beloved competitor could at least force WWE to reckon with the stagnation that has set in during recent years. Vince McMahon has traditionally not responded well to criticism, but something that impact his promotion’s bottom line might be just the thing to get him to change things up. Either that, or they will just keep doing Saudi Arabia shows until their coffers are competitor-resistant.