By Jeff Lutz, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@JLutz82)
NXT has WWE Chairman Vince McMahon’s money but none of his creative input. AEW had national television essentially before it existed and boasts a pair of former WWE headliners and a group of wrestling executives that its core fans adore.
Those are the starting points for the two promotions which have traded ratings victories for the last three months on Wednesday night television. All other praise or criticism has been earned on merit, and the recent ratings success of NXT has reflected the creative certainty of showrunner Triple H and the unsteadiness of AEW’s booking decisions.
AEW was an inherent underdog because of the blank slate with which it began 12 weeks ago and the willingness of longtime WWE star Chris Jericho to abandon comfort and work with wrestlers who have never received the spotlight he basked in for two decades. NXT is climbing uphill because, before it was put on USA Network for two hours opposite TNT’s AEW Dynamite, its most polished stars were poached by McMahon to the main roster.
NXT’s ratings improvement is indicative not just of the fact that it has produced better television than AEW in recent weeks, but also because Triple H is positioning his stars and the company more effectively into the underdog role, in spite of NXT’s Survivor Series success. In an era where somehow company pride has been the mantra of many fans, NXT is succeeding more on the grassroots level from which both promotions strive to operate.
Last week’s television was the clearest example yet. AEW went off the air with Dark Order, a non-distinct faction of masked men and under-defined characters, physically overpowering most of the top babyfaces, including Cody Rhodes, who is in danger of becoming overexposed. Meanwhile, on NXT, Rhea Ripley captured the NXT Women’s Championship from Shayna Baszler, who had dominated the division for more than a year.
The match and the in-ring celebration that followed were feel-good moments, which AEW has yet to produce on television. Last week’s show seemed set up to culminate with fan favorites the Young Bucks winning the AEW Tag Titles. Instead, Dark Order became the main talking point and left many fans frustrated before AEW takes a week off from TV.
Last week was the perfect opportunity for AEW to provide a happy moment before it resets creatively for 2020 and builds toward its next pay-per-view in late February. Instead, it attempted to shoehorn another act into a main event picture that is overcrowded and blurry. Rhodes himself apparently has at least three feuds ongoing, the Young Bucks are similarly ungrounded, and most shows end with or are focused on heel dominance.
NXT has no such issues, though it was established long before AEW and has had its look and feel figured out for years. That consistency is paramount considering the frequent roster turnover that is the reason the brand exists in the first place. But hardly anyone now clamors for NXT stars to jump to the main roster, where history has told us they’ll be criminally misused and under-utilized. The exact opposite is happening, actually – Finn Balor’s move from Raw to NXT has hardly been seen as a demotion, while NXT seemed a logical destination to get more creative juice from Kevin Owens when he was spinning his wheels on the main roster this fall.
AEW, much like WCW in the mid-1990s, is already being seen as a haven for unhappy and/or underpaid WWE stars, or those, like Jericho, looking for more energizing storytelling for their final years in the business. NXT features performers who might struggle to earn solid footing on the main roster because of their lack of size, such as Adam Cole, their relative inexperience, or because they’ve already been there and didn’t earn a fair chance to connect with fans.
AEW spent the summer and fall before its official launch insisting that it wasn’t competition for WWE. Thankfully for fans of quality wrestling, WWE made that decision for AEW and put NXT in the same time slot on Wednesday nights. Now, NXT is winning the battle in areas we thought – or at least we hoped – AEW would flourish, such as more genuine promos and characters, more well-rounded storytelling, and an underdog mentality that has forced many fans to change the channel to NXT.