Barring a disaster next week and beyond, everything in pro wrestling has changed. All Elite Wrestling, the biggest competitor to World Wrestling Entertainment’s stranglehold on the American and broader international pro wrestling scenes, made its television debut on Wednesday night, directly opposite WWE’s NXT. While NXT has been streaming on WWE Network and Hulu for years, two weeks ago marked the cable television debut for WWE’s developmental league turned in-house alternative brand for hardcore fans; this week it expanded to two hours. Just by its nature, NXT seemed like better counter-programming against AEW than even Raw or SmackDown would have been.
As it turned out, both promotions turned in notably strong shows on Wednesday night. NXT arguably delivered the superior in-ring wrestling action, while AEW Dynamite felt by far like the fresher and more confident overall production, but in all the first battle of wrestling’s new Wednesday Night War seemed promising. Within 24 hours, though, the larger news story wasn’t about anything that happened in the ring. It was about the TV ratings. Nobody was quite sure to expect, there—AEW is new and was thus expected in some circles to get enough of a curiosity bump to win the ratings battle, but anything past that was hard to predict. Brand new promotions don’t normally start with plum time slots on major cable networks with tons of promotion.
The verdict came in on Thursday afternoon, and the specifics were legitimately shocking. Not only did Dynamite win the ratings battle on all fronts other than the adults aged 50+ demographic, but it was TNT’s biggest premiere in five years, with just under 1.41 million total viewers live and a rating doubling NXT in the key adults 18-49 demographic. (Total viewers is still a useful metric for pro wrestling shows, because the promotions have other revenue streams through which to monetize viewers, but networks and advertisers now use the 18-49 figures exclusively.) Perhaps more impressively, Dynamite beat last week’s SmackDown—the final episode on USA Network—in that demo, as well as the third hour of last week’s Raw; the ratings were just under that Raw’s for each of the first two hours. But what makes that number even more interesting is that NXT barely suffered compared to last week: The total viewers were only down 11 percent, or 115,000 viewers, and the key demo number was up by a percentage point. We don’t have the data yet, and it’s unclear if we’ll ever get it, that would let us know if AEW’s viewers have been watching Raw and SmackDown. But it sure looks like they weren’t watching NXT last week.
So where did all these viewers come from? Are they the people who stopped watching wrestling in 2001 when WCW, whose flagship show also aired on TNT, folded up and sold its assets to WWE? Are they the more recently lapsed fans that bailed on WWE programming over the last five years, when the promotion’s audience fell almost by half? Or, most tantalizingly, are they brand new fans who came to the sport through some combination of the key AEW stars’ YouTube shows, Twitter GIFs, and the heavy promotion for the debut? We’ll probably have a better idea over time, there. We’ll certainly learn, over the next few weeks, whether they’ll stick around.
When it came to AEW’s on-screen and in-ring product, there was a lot to like, both in comparison to NXT and on its own merits. NXT’s more intimate setting at Full Sail University’s event space, Full Sail Live, is a strength for that promotion and their show, even if the venue maxes out at about 400 fans. But the production flourish of dimming the house lights and obscuring the screaming fans works a lot better for major shows in large arenas than it does at this scale, where it looks low-rent and feels faintly depressing. It’s not disqualifying on its own by any stretch, but compared to Dynamite, which was held in a brightly lit, colorful, medium-to-large arena, NXT’s presentation looked woefully low-rent. Full Sail itself may not be the problem, but the lighting choices amplified the differences between the two much more jarringly than the disparate crowd sizes in similarly lit buildings would have.
AEW’s commentary had been a mixed bag on its pre-TV events, but the new show was a home run even compared to the usually strong NXT crew. Former WWE and WCW voice Jim Ross has had an iffy run over the last several years, but he and masked wrestler turned co-host Excalibur (his real name is Marc Letzmann) had at least developed a friendly rapport. Ross’s longtime colleague Tony Schiavone, making his live AEW debut, turned out to be the missing ingredient when it came to making this a cohesive broadcast, and Schiavone turned in one of the best performances of his decades-long career. He was the glue of the program, and his stint in the venture capital-funded mid-level promotion MLW—his return to wrestling 16 years after WCW closed—clearly prepared him well for calling a show that featured the faster and flippier in-ring style that’s currently in vogue. All three announcers were firing on all cylinders, Schiavone’s enthusiasm was infectious, and their back and forth lacked the rehearsed quality of WWE announcers. They elevated what was already a very strong show.
When it came to the wrestling and the storytelling, it was harder to pick a winner. NXT had the consensus best matches of the night in the Adam Cole vs. Matt Riddle bout for the main singles title and Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly’s tag title defense against the Street Profits, but nothing was close to bad on either show. AEW, for its part, had the most purely interesting wrestling of the night, in part because every match ended in a way that diverged notably from the patterns that pervade WWE and many other promotions. It never felt like anyone won solely because they hit the equivalent of a special move in a fighting game. Cody Rhodes beat Sammy Guevara because Cody countered Guevera’s shooting star press and immediately capitalized; MJF managed to hook Brandon Cutler with an out of nowhere submission; Riho downed Nyla Rose by unloading a rapid barrage of strikes. The in-ring storytelling made sense, but most importantly it was different enough to feel fresh.
Rhodes-Guevara opened the show, which was a choice that had been questioned in the weeks since it was announced. Rhodes works best in storytelling-heavy epics, while Guevara is a brash, young, hyper-athletic high-flyer arguably best showcased to a new national TV audience in a fast-paced exhibition. If the goal was something explosive to hook the fans immediately, though, this was the right matchup, and it soon became clear that the naysaying was wildly misguided. Rhodes is the most popular wrestler on the roster, the face in the company, and the best at engaging fans, which meant getting him out there immediately to heat up the crowd made perfect sense. In the ring, the more experienced Rhodes did a brilliant job laying out a match that milked its big moves for everything they were worth; it hit all the familiar beats of A Cody Rhodes Match while making sure that Guevara got to show what a uniquely gifted athlete he is. It really was the perfect opening statement for a promotion looking to show that it was for real.
The show wasn’t perfect: While making sure that the non-wrestling segments were around the ringside area and generally prompted by an interviewer was a welcome change from the tightly-scripted WWE formula, it wasn’t quite as un-WWE as expected, thanks in part to a weird skit with Scorpio Sky as Barack Obama as well as the involvement of Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes in a separate segment. In general, the show ran together a bit too much in the same way that AEW’s pre-TNT shows could feel like match after match after match with little to break it up. That’s a problem that NXT had, too, so we can call this one a push.
AEW also hit some confusing notes throughout. Jon Moxley’s blatant interference didn’t end the main event but should have, which was also an issue in multiple matches during AEW’s third show, Fight for the Fallen. The surprise debut of Jake Hager (Jack Swagger in WWE) at the end of the show, while executed competently, wasn’t as dramatic as it might have been mostly because of what a non-entity Hager was in the latter part of his WWE run and beyond. (It was also soured by the ways in which his politics don’t comport with AEW’s stated goals of inclusion and the strong push of trans wrestler Nyla Rose on the same show.)
But these are largely small things, and ones that can be fixed pretty easily. Right now, the biggest open question is this: If AEW is able to more or less maintain its opening week success, what does that mean for NXT? NXT got an injection of star power from the return of WWE main roster wrestler Finn Balor, and future shows may see similar cameos; it’s also possible that Vince McMahon might start meddling in what had been son-in-law Paul “Triple H” Levesque’s fiefdom. That wouldn’t be unlike Vince in the least, but it would also fit with WWE’s ambitions for NXT; on Wednesday afternoon, Levesque made a point of saying that NXT should no longer be considered a “developmental” brand. That was meant to be a flex at the time, but it also removed an easy excuse for why AEW Dynamite might do better head to head. WWE is surely trying to figure out why the fans who tuned in for AEW weren’t watching NXT, and how and how well they respond will have a lot to say about the future of this rivalry. All of which is to say that this war has just begun.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.