By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
Last week, at the end of AEW Dynamite, a masked man appeared out of nowhere to attack Jon Moxley right before the show was set to go off the air. Before long, the man under the hood took it off to reveal not just purple hair, but also the fact that it was New Japan Pro Wrestling star Kenta, who was putting the boots to the Moxley, who is the IWGP U.S. Heavyweight Champion.
There it was. After well over a year of clamoring from fans for there to be a working relationship between AEW and NJPW, and tease after tease, rumor after rumor, and even the Young Bucks going out of their way on last week’s edition of BTE to say the two companies would never work together and those words were a shoot … well, it happened. Finally.
And the reaction?
LOOKS LIKE THE DOORS ARE OPEN
Let’s back up. The thing about writing one thing once a week is that once you know what you want to write about, you can allow perspective to sink in. When Kenny Omega won the AEW World Title, raced to the car and Don Callis told people they could figure out what was happening if they tuned into Impact Wrestling, my initial reaction was adrenaline-fueled excitement, complete with tweets I later regretted writing and a piece on this very website about how skeptical I was in regards to the AEW/Impact union. Part of what I wrote went a little like this:
“Furthermore, if AEW becomes the hub for all wrestling companies to work a deal with, at what point do these things become less special?”
Those words came after making the argument that a working relationship with NJPW would be the only relationship they could forge that would hold weight and become a major success. But you want to know what? I’m not so sure about that anymore.
As many people pointed out, last week’s Dynamite featured wrestlers from AEW, NWA, Impact and NJPW. When Cody said their doors were open and the bridges were laid for people to walk on, I guess he meant it. In the process, though, he, along with his fellow EVPs (and to be fair, most likely Tony Khan), didn’t appear to think through the consequences of that statement.
At first, it felt like a mouth-watering proposition for a very specific type of wrestling fan. Here are all your favorite wrestlers from the best companies not named WWE, and they are all coming together to create some type of mega-group that will change the landscape of wrestling forever. Those are grand thoughts, and even grander expectations. Perhaps they were unrealistic, premature or simply overstated.
But they also painted any pairings into a corner. Which is why …
… I don’t know. I’m over it?
OK, that’s harsh. I’m sorry. I don’t really mean it. Maybe. Either way, it’s hard not to wonder about the one key thing in all of these instances: timing.
Now, a quick recap. As the story has been told in the days since Kenta’s appearance on Dynamite, NJPW didn’t want to strip Moxley of the IWGP U.S. Title, and Kenta lives in Orlando, which is two hours from Jacksonville. So, really, setting this thing up was about as convenient as it could be, save for the backstage drama and NJPW feeling slighted that Tony Khan didn’t show up for a meeting a few years ago. NJPW also went through a change in leadership along the way, so perhaps that helped the ice thaw as well. In any case, New Japan Strong is taped in California. Moxley lives in Vegas. If everybody wanted it to happen, it could happen with relative ease.
Here’s the thing, though: For all the stuff AEW has done right since its inception, the one Achilles heel it seems to have is how to maximize a moment. If NJPW really wanted to make a splash in the U.S., and if AEW was going to change the business forever, then whatever that first angle between the two companies would be would involve the Young Bucks, the Bullet Club, Omega, Chris Jericho, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Cody, Kota Ibushi, the list goes on and on.
That’s no slight to Kenta or Moxley, both of whom’s work I enjoy very much. But the people who have the lineage and have been central players to the whole NJPW/AEW saga aren’t involved, and one has to wonder if maybe someone could have suggested to hold off on Kenta and Moxley for another three months or so and launch a huge angle between the two companies. You get a full-fledged, all-in commitment from both sides and immediately heads are turned because the possibilities would be endless.
Former Bullet Club vs. current Bullet Club. Omega vs. Okada (again). Tanahashi vs. Cody. Now, granted, the travel restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic obviously makes this harder, and waiting three months could be of no value at all because it’s not like we’re going to be done with this virus tomorrow. But, still, if you wanted to fully shake things up, you could have figured out a way to be more precious with it.
Which, of course, leads me to my biggest point …
DON’T GIVE US PIECES, GIVE US THE PUZZLE
… The reason these AEW working relationships don’t feel bigger than they should is because they aren’t all-encompassing. WCW and the NWO had the most successful run in America when it came to an invasion angle. Why was that? Because both sides were all in. The NWO wanted to take down WCW, and WCW wanted to save its castle from burning down. The lines were clear, defined and enforced (until after a while, when there were 49 NWOs and different colors and the biggest recruit anyone could get was Disco Inferno).
What’s wrong with these invasion pieces are that they are just that — pieces. Unorganized, even, at times. OK, so Kenny Omega took the AEW World Title to Impact and buddied up with his old pals Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows. They had a six-man tag match and Omega pinned Impact World Champion Rich Swann, but it’s not like we ever see Swann on AEW television. And now, for reasons that haven’t entirely been defined, Matt Hardy and Private Party are working their way through Impact, too.
As for the rest of the Impact roster, though? There still isn’t much of which to speak. It’s not like you hear the chants for Eddie Edwards to show up and lay out Scorpio Sky — not that Scorpio Sky even gets any TV time anymore because those minutes now go to stars from other companies (more on that in a minute). And when The Good Brothers dance their way to the ring, it’s not like you have a ton of AEW tag teams chomping at the bit (in storyline) to execute a run-in.
If anything, the whole angle is starting to feel like it’s little more than a vehicle for Gallows and Anderson to be involved with AEW and reunite with Omega and (I guess?) the Young Bucks. It’s not like we hear promos from AEW wrestlers other than Moxley saying they want to get their hands on any of them. It’s not really an invasion; it’s just old friends reuniting.
And now there’s NJPW, where the feud is relegated to one single person and one other single person. Sure, the main event this week might be neat in its own way, seeing Kenta and Omega tag together, but beyond this short run, will there even be any talent sharing for months? Years? The only way I can see it setting up the future in any way is if Moxley retains the IWGP U.S. Title in a couple weeks on NJPW Strong. My guess is he doesn’t. But if he does, perhaps that would pave the way for a fuller working relationship between the two companies.
Either way, hey: It’s not like Jungle Boy ran out for the save or cut a promo on Kenta last week. Actually, speaking of Jungle Boy …
GIVE YOUR GUYS A CHANCE
… Everyone keeps telling me he’s the next big star. Wait. Everyone has been telling me he’s the next big star for, like, three years now. But you want to know who we don’t see nearly as much as we should on AEW television? You guessed it.
Without having a larger scope for a quasi-invasion angle, you inevitably exclude deserving wrestlers from the possibility of gaining relevance from it. You also, as I stated earlier, take very valuable television time away from wrestlers in need of television time. AEW doesn’t run house shows. And Dark — minus the absurdity of a 17-match card that runs over two-and-a-half hours — at this point is reserved for names we don’t even know all that well. Plus, you don’t have to be a genius to know that 80 percent of the matches on that thing will be squashes.
So, where do the very good wrestlers go, then? If you want to use Dark as a makeshift tryout process, and a quarter of Dynamite is reserved for people in other companies, where does a Scorpio Sky go? How about that announcement that the next time the SCU duo of Christopher Daniels and Frankie Kazarian lose, they’re done forever as a tag team? Where’d that go? Are we only going to get one great Jungle Boy match a month or something? Pac is back. Kind of. Wait. Is he? I can’t say for sure because I have to watch another Young Bucks and Don Callis vignette.
While I understand the novelty and value in bringing together all these wrestling companies, you’d be remiss if you ignored the inherent arrested development it applies to each company involved. Or, well, in this case, it’s only really AEW. NJPW has been around for ages and Impact is impossible to kill. Both companies have had decades to fill out rosters, stars, etc. AEW is still in its infancy, especially considering how it’s been running for nearly a year during a pandemic.
I despise the “if WWE did X, AEW fans would kill it, but if AEW does X, it’s cool” arguments, but it’s only fair to point out how much ridicule WWE receives for under-using wrestlers who deserve better. In fact, that’s why some of the people in AEW today are there in the first place. But it’s not like Miro is racing up the rankings and in line for a title shot soon. And hell, at least in WWE, he got to work with his wife.
Either way, the working relationships between all these companies hurts AEW at this stage in its evolution more than it helps it, if only because the people that have been with the company the longest aren’t given an adequate opportunities to grow. Case in point?
When was the last time it felt like Santana and Ortiz had a meaningful tag team match with someone not in the Inner Circle? I couldn’t tell you. But I can tell you that they are ranked fifth in AEW’s latest tag team rankings.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
So, now what? Well, there’s a very good chance that I’ll be writing something on a Monday in six months from now saying I was completely wrong about everything I just said. But if that happens, it happens, and in fact, I hope I’m wrong. I hope all the companies involved flourish in this setting. I hope everyone has success. I hope we, as wrestling fans, are treated to some amazing work in the interim.
It just doesn’t look like we’re on that road quite yet and I’m scared to wonder if we ever will be because if the relationship between AEW and Impact was supposed to be a preview of how this is going to go, I can’t say I’m convinced anything with NJPW will be much better. Impact’s champion took a loss. The AEW Tag Champs feel like they’re playing second fiddle to the Impact Tag Champs. And for some reason, Private Party is in the mix.
The same goes for AEW’s relationship with the NWA. If you offered to pay me $100 to outline which woman is with which company whenever some of these matches take place, I’d lose out on $100. So many come for one appearance and leave. Oftentimes, I feel like we see more of the NWA Women’s Champion than we do the AEW Women’s Champion on AEW television.
And now NJPW enters the mix. Is this only a vehicle for Moxley to drop the IWGP U.S. Title or should we plan on seeing Hikuleo on a future episode of Dark? Will this feud involve the companies as a whole or is this specific to only Moxley and Kenta? Will Darby Allin show up on NJPW Strong to stare down TJP? Doubtful, but you never know with this stuff.
Which, in the end, is all I’m trying to say: If it only felt like the fullest potential was being realized with these mashups, then I’d be thrilled to have no reservations about all I see. But the reality is that it doesn’t feel like we are getting the full aura of what this could be. Shoot, in some respects, it doesn’t even feel like we’re getting half of what we could be getting.
That’s not to say I’ll dismiss the long game, if the long game is where the true fun lies in this. It’s only to say that for now, the best I can offer is a shoulder shrug.
So, yes, as I said at the beginning of this piece, it happened. What happens next, however, will determine if it happening was worth it.