Wrestling has been here before. Everything is cyclical in the business — everyone comes back, stories pop up again and reference what came before, it’s a never-ending soap opera. So the idea of being on the precipice of something at least resembling a sea change in the world of big-time professional wrestling is familiar. Some 20 years ago WCW took its run at WWE, and for a brief moment, actually stood atop the hill.
What AEW’s aims exactly are, or the barometers they will use to judge those aims, are never going to be crystal clear. But what is clear is that over the next few weeks, very big things will happen, and by the time it’s over, AEW very well could stand as more than just the alternative. Or maybe just being such a flashing, screaming alternative will be enough. That’s one of the things we’ll find out!
It starts tonight when AEW launches its second TV show, Rampage. They’ll obviously have something planned for the first show, but the very fact that in just about a year-and-a-half, Turner thought so much of the company and its first show, Dynamite, that it granted them a second is a level of legitimacy that was hard to picture when this all started. It also says something that while Rampage won’t be on directly against SmackDown, the confidence to schedule it on the same night is noticeable.
Also the 10 p.m. ET start time gives it something of an aftershow quality at some club after the big arena show, which we all know ends up being the better concert anyway.
But next week is where things really get interesting. WWE will be running its go-home shows for both SummerSlam and the NXT Takeover the following night. SummerSlam is being billed and run as a second WrestleMania, and was supposed to be something of a celebration of getting out of the pandemic. Hasn’t really worked out that way thanks to the knuckle-draggers amongst us, but it’s still on a bigger scale than most every SummerSlam before it. The upcoming Takeover might be the last we see of NXT as we know it.
But simultaneously, AEW will be kicking into fifth gear for a run into its biggest PPV, All Out, capped off by whatever is going to happen on August 20th at the United Center, the second Rampage, being labeled “The First Dance.”
Let me set a possible scenario for next Friday. SmackDown goes off the air with the big Roman Reigns-John Cena staredown or something adjacent. Fans eagerly flip the channel. And the first thing they hear, over what is assuredly going to be a ravenous crowd that might actually be frothing at the mouth, is the opening riff to “Cult of Personality.” I don’t know that AEW will do it that way, and I don’t know that they’ll have much choice given the expectations, teases, and outcomes if they don’t debut CM Punk not just that night, but at that very second. And it would shake any discussion of SummerSlam clean off the Etch-a-Sketch.
And should it go down like that, or even if Punk just is revealed next Friday, it will be one of the bigger shots fired at WWE in some time. Here will be the top dog on the eve of what’s supposed to be their biggest show of the year (attendance wise at least), and AEW will be the talk of the industry. WWE will be rolling out Cena and Goldberg and all the bells, whistles, CGI, and pyro for SummerSlam, and most of the conversation will be about another company. If that’s not a glove-slap in expectation of a duel, I don’t know what is.
(It is here I must note that it is a little funny how WWE is derided in some circles for bringing back Cena to face Reigns and not being able to move on from its past, while AEW is being widely lauded for bringing in Punk, who is all of two years younger than Cena. But such is the way things work in this business).
From there, it’s only another two weeks until All Out, when conceivably Punk will actually make his in-ring debut, and there’s a chance that Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson might as well. What the wrestling world will look like on September 6th... it could be anything (or after AEW’s show at Arthur Ashe Stadium on September 22nd, when Bryan is widely rumored to be debuting).
Will AEW be pulling in bigger numbers than WWE, ratings-wise? Certainly Raw is within its range already, and the fall is when Raw generally goes in the tank anyway, thanks to Monday Night Football and WWE’s reluctance to put much effort into it only to have everyone watching football. In certain demographics, Dynamite was already scoring in the same neighborhood, maybe just town, of SmackDown, though in overall numbers it’s nearly impossible to compete with a show on network TV. What will fans do about Fridays with two shows on the same night but not at the same time? Is Rampage on too late?
There’s also the question of saturation. As long as NXT stays on USA Network, that’s five shows per week on cable TV. That’s a lot for anyone. Perhaps that’s one reason WWE wants to gear-change NXT, but will fans get burned out? What will they turn away from if they do? (Raw, obviously.)
AEW can’t afford any more slip-ups like the Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch or Matt Hardy being clearly concussed and continuing the match. But WWE can’t look as staid and complacent and lazy as it usually has either when such a vibrant choice is just down the dial, especially these next few weeks. And it’ll look more acute whenever Daniel Bryan shows up, because all he’s looking to do with the end of his career is have cool matches and tell good stories, and flipping to AEW is him stating that’s where he felt he could do that better than WWE. That’s an awfully big piece of street cred.
There is no slaying WWE. It is too ubiquitous, too much of a global brand. It will always be, no matter how plain and boring and predictable it can get. It is the Foo Fighters. AEW will always be the cult band, always doing the more interesting things, with a legion of dedicated fans who will follow it to the ends of the Earth. But it won’t play Wembley Stadium.
That’s ok. Tool sells out arenas. But if there was ever going to be a true change, the next month will see it.