By Jeff Lutz, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@JLutz82)
WWE copyright might be the best thing that ever happened to Jon Moxley.
Without it, Moxley or AEW might have been tempted to keep the more recognized Dean Ambrose name he used in WWE. Without that as an option since WWE owns the Ambrose name, Moxley underwent a much-needed rebranding and if he hasn’t been the best version of himself in AEW he has at least been the most motivated.
Moxley’s isn’t the only story of an unhappy WWE performer who turned to AEW for more freedom and creative fulfillment. Two of the company’s other major stars, Chris Jericho and Cody, have also settled into characters that fit them more comfortably while building from the recognition they earned in WWE.
AEW should continue to construct its roster with WWE wrestlers who have either been released or who allowed their contracts to expire. As we’ve seen with the top three singles wrestlers on the card, a WWE past doesn’t have to be a negative and shouldn’t be perceived that way by fans. Instead, AEW can be a safe haven for under-utilized WWE talents to share and carry out grand ideas for their characters after learning some tricks of the business at the highest level.
Name changes might be the most important element of that endeavor. One company, Impact Wrestling, already attempted to build a roster around former WWE and WCW stars to mixed results at best. But TNA was an outlet for nostalgia, billing and using Kurt Angle, Booker T, Sting, Jeff Hardy, Kevin Nash and others the same ways they had been utilized for years.
In most ways, that makes sense. Those wrestlers had established brands and identities that were familiar to the audience and changing them even slightly was a risk that a company often on the verge of collapse wasn’t in a position to take. AEW seemingly has more solid financial footing and can explore new aspects, or even untapped personality traits, of established characters such as Jericho, Moxley and Cody.
That can begin with a different name, even one previously used on the independent scene like Moxley’s. That version of Moxley wasn’t widely known, so this version can be whatever Moxley wants it to be, namely a more refined and experienced performer who is true to the unhinged personality he built pre-WWE but wasn’t free to explore much at his previous stop.
The last several weeks of AEW television have exposed talents who simply aren’t ready for primetime television on a major network. It’s admirable that AEW is providing opportunities for acts such as The Dark Order, Darby Allin, Orange Cassidy, Private Party and Marko Stunt to refine their presentation and become more polished and more familiar to a wider audience.
And yes, many of those unrefined performers are popular in front of live crowds who followed their independent exploits. On television, though, AEW’s worst moments have come from performers who haven’t built significant followings from more casual fans.
AEW can sharpen its product with more stars who have wrestled in front of 2 million or 3 million pairs of eyes and have a greater understanding of how to present a character on television. Brodie Lee, who wrestled as Luke Harper in WWE before his recent release, would add depth to the roster and increase its credibility. AEW has boasted a strong tag-team division, but adding The Revival, who seem destined to leave WWE at the earliest opportunity, would create several dream-match scenarios.
AEW is in an unenviable spot. The last successful wrestling iteration on TNT featured the prime years of Hulk Hogan, Goldberg, Sting, Ric Flair, and many other wrestling legends. No roster AEW can build can stack up to that. And it’s not as if any former WWE performer is an immediate fix; for every Jericho and Moxley there are Trent (Baretta) and Shawn Spears, who have yet to find their niche in AEW.
Attempting to solidify former independent wrestlers can take months or years. AEW still hasn’t shed the worst “indie” tendencies of many wrestlers without experience on TV. WWE, for all of its faults, most often presents its characters in ways that are television-ready, even if their creative direction is misguided.
Signing more ex-WWE wrestlers means AEW will spend less time searching for wrestlers’ strengths, and it will give younger, less experienced wrestlers chances to work with performers who can help bring them along. Jericho, Moxley and Cody have made the WWE-to-AEW transition smoothly, and hopefully there are more to come.