By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
Expectation is a futile game in the modern era of pro wrestling. In fact, I’d wager to say it’s worse than it’s ever been in the history of the genre. Everyone has a keyboard and capital-T “Thoughts.” Opinions abound. Platforms exist for those opinions to be heard. Arguments that begin as bonfires rage into blazes impossible to put out.
And so that’s why it feels like an impossible task these days — living up to expectations. In some ways, WWE doesn’t know how good it has it. So many fans have ceded all ability to believe in expectations for the company that Vince McMahon and his merry band of acolytes have very little to live up to anymore. If an episode of a television show is merely passable, it’s a victory in exceeding expectations.
LOVE AND LIKE ARE DIFFERENT THINGS
AEW doesn’t have that luxury. By in large, the company has been lauded for its shows, its booking, its wrestling, its presentation. There’s very little that they’ve done that’s missed the mark. Or, well, at least in the eyes of those who swear by the company. Again. Remember capital-T “Thoughts?” They drive the inability for nuance when it comes to an AEW discussion. Failures are forgiven even while expectations run high.
This, of course, brings us to Sunday night’s “Revolution,” the first AEW pay-per-view of 2021, and the first in the company’s history that landed on a Sunday night. If there is one thing that Tony Khan’s passion project should be proud of, it’s the hype that generated around the walk-up to the night. With the promise of a huge signing, a mystery wrestler competing in a ladder match and an exploding barbed-wire death match all congregating to form a night of wrestling, it was must-see TV for any wrestling fan.
But did it deliver? Beauty is in eye of the beholder, as we all know, so my guess is some will say it did, some will say it didn’t, and everyone will focus on that embarrassing Bang Snap Popper finish to the four-and-a-half-hour show. As for me?
Oh, I don’t know. I wanted to love the show. I didn’t love the show. And when you set out for “love,” we all know that “like” feels worse than it should. But then again, that response runs directly parallel with why we’re here in the first place: Expectation. Mine was high, but I think fairly so. AEW set this up for us to be at the top of Intrigue Mountain by the time 8 p.m. EST came around Sunday night. Shoot. They didn’t even ask us to climb up there; they air-lifted us to make sure we had every opportunity to view the proceedings with positivity.
And it’s because of that approach that AEW deserves more criticism than it’s going to get.
While expectation is a thankless, fruitless task these days, it’s imperative for those who wade in those waters to not be reckless with it. Like I said, WWE is in an underdog position — from a popularity and/or belief standpoint, at least — and that ensures them that outside of NXT, one good match on a pay-per-view will make you feel like it’s worth wasting your 10 bucks a month on the WWE Network. The bar is low and the back-handed phrase “pleasantly surprised,” is always in play.
With the way AEW built up the card for Sunday night’s show, however, it felt that before the thing even started, it would be impossible to live up to whatever lofty expectations the company created for itself. But here’s where Tony Khan has to be careful. This is a product founded on its ability to be modern. Different. Healthy. Everything the wrestling business has not been. It’s supposed to be as far away from the Carnyland moniker off of which the wrestling business thrived for decades. Nobody’s wrestling a bear here. There isn’t an emcee with a top hat (though to be fair, Justin Roberts looked like he could have worn one and it would have worked).
Yet while we are supposed to believe that we are in a new era of the genre, the hype for Revolution recalled the days when you’d say anything you could to get butts in seats. “Oh, we have a hall-of-fame signing, but we aren’t telling you until Sunday!” “Oh, a barbed wire, exploding death match has never been done in the United States!” “Oh, here’s a ladder match trolling the brass ring idea!” These were only parts of the expectation puzzle that had been glorified for weeks leading up to this thing.
Which is fine, really. Who can’t understand the desire to want to sell as many pay-per-views or tickets to a show as you possibly can? The problem, though, lies within trust. As wrestling fans, we can be forgiving of some things, and despite how brash and cruel we can be to one another, we are loyal above all else. I mean, how the hell else could anyone justify spending three hours on Monday nights sitting in front a television these days?
But ask yourself this question …
TRUST IS KEY
The next time AEW says it’s going to make a huge announcement regarding a top-tier talent, is that going to play into your desire to spend $50 on a pay-per-view? Because, at least speaking for myself, I’ll raise my hand and say, yes. Yes, it did play into my desire to want to watch this show. Sure, that’s a little silly, because once the announcement is made and the Internet gets its hands on it, there’s no more news to break.
But will I do it again, should AEW try to sell something like that somewhere down the line? I don’t think so. All due respect to Christian Cage — a guy who has by all accounts had put in a marathon worth of work just to get back into the ring and accomplished what he needed to do to get there — but I only had three letters going through my head when I watched him walk to the ring.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why TNA didn’t work better than it did. You had Matt Hardy. You had Sting. You had Taz. You had the Young Bucks. You had Christopher Daniels. You had Frankie Kazarian. You had Christian Cage. You had … oh, wait. Hmmm.
Isn’t that something.
Now, look. I know that categorization isn’t entirely fair, and you can poke holes in the amount of time those wrestlers spent there, and the company was never run properly and yada, yada. But to reiterate, I truly don’t know why that brand wasn’t more successful than it was. You had all those guys, and Hogan and Flair and a young AJ Styles and a plethora of recognizable names, some of which were iconic in the history of wrestling. But it didn’t work, and for my money, a part of the reason why it didn’t work was because of that lack of trust I mentioned earlier. Dumb angles. Dumb gimmicks. No real indication that anyone was going to right the ship.
Obviously, AEW isn’t there right now. Nor does it look like it will be there anytime soon. But with the arrival of Christian Cage and the signing of Paul Wight, AEW runs the risk of becoming WWE Lite in the same way TNA did. Sting is a legend, no doubt. But if we’re being honest, it hardly even registers to me when I see him come out on Wednesday nights anymore. The stuff with Darby Allin is fine enough, but we know Sting can’t have a live match. And his promos are little more than a minute or two of yelling. So, what do we really have? Two or three cinematic matches a year? Maybe. But even so. A legend shouldn’t be an afterthought. A legend should be a legend.
Speaking of legends …
DON’T FORGET THE YOUTH
… I guess this means that moment between Christian and Edge at the Royal Rumble was a bit more poignant than we knew it was going to be. It also takes off the table any of the many matches a lot of fans wanted to see if Christian were to ever return to the WWE. So, then … well, who does he work with now in AEW?
I’ve been rattling my brain for something he could do that would interest me, and I just can’t get there. Maybe Cody Rhodes? Are they going to launch him into the world title picture? It doesn’t seem like Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley are moving on quite yet. So, then what? He gets in the TNT Title mix? Really? A guy who you openly hyped as hall of famer worthy and Tony Khan said multiple times while doing media leading up to Sunday that he’s one of his all-time favorite wrestlers … and you’re going have him chase the only secondary title the company has? Jeez. I guess that means Omega and Moxley are the two greatest wrestlers to ever live and we know that before their careers are even over.
Such is my point: AEW felt so great and so fresh when it began, why? Because it was so great and so fresh. The main players all had a new, shiny coat of paint on them, and the company did a really nice job building people like Darby Allin and Orange Cassidy, among others. Unless if you were a hardcore independent wrestling fan that could somehow make shows in Philadelphia and Chicago one day apart every weekend, this felt new and it felt like people who were never given a chance were now finally given the opportunity to break through into the mainstream.
Well. Is it fair to say that might be slipping away now? Sting. Miro. Paul Wight. Christian Cage. FTR. Matt Hardy. And that’s not even counting Pac or Chris Jericho, who still feel like they are more associated with AEW than they were with anywhere else. Those aren’t new faces. Those, to so many people, are WWE or WCW faces.
I just don’t know how fair it is, when you have the best tag-team division in the world, and you dedicate 18 minutes of a pay-per-view to a cinematic tag-team match that has to cater to a legend in his sixties and has significant health trauma history when you could have … I don’t know — booked Jurassic Express vs. Alex Reynolds and John Silver, and got rid of that crowded, “let’s get everyone on the show” tag team battle royal? And I know I mentioned them before, but where the hell was FTR in all of this?
My fear is that bringing in these established names that will forever be associated with WWE no matter what they do in AEW is only going to pull the AEW product down to a level at which it can’t afford to be. Paul Wight decided he wants to be an announcer? Cool. But it seems like a waste of money if all he’s primarily call a YouTube show and work only occasionally on the Wednesday night show. And again, with Christian, where, exactly, does he fit in? If I’m going to get 12 minutes of a back-and-forth between him and Cody for a month of Wednesdays, I’m going to miss the days of old when NXT was running in direct competition.
It’s sad because Christian’s case is one of the few where I think a good portion of people would have actually liked to see him get another run in WWE. If not for all the new guys he’s never worked with there, but also to cap a legacy that’s always been underrated and overlooked in a lot of ways. Will he ever get back there? Maybe. But will this detour help him get further along down the road? I can’t see it — even if I’ll openly admit that I hope I’m wrong.
Then again, hope ties well with expectation, and expectation, lest we forget, is the issue at hand. It’s also what drew everybody in as the words “barbed,” “wire,” “exploding,” and “death” were used to describe the main event of Sunday’s show. This piqued my interest because a million years ago, I was one of those weirdos who traded tapes and I have a good amount of VHS Japanese Death Match tournaments collecting dust at the bottom of my book case. Some of those didn’t live up to the hype either sometimes, but then again, sometimes … wow, they were wild.
Anyway, I bring this up because I actually take exception to something Tony Khan said in the post-show media scrum. When asked about the lame way the show ended, he said something to the effect of “What? You didn’t think we’d actually blow up two guys and a wrestling ring, did you?”
Well, no. We didn’t. But we also didn’t think we’d get a reasonable facsimile of my four-year-old niece playing with sparklers on a summer night in the backyard. Maybe this is part of a story regarding Omega’s “inability to construct a ring,” but I’m not buying that, either. If anything, I think Moxley saved the entire situation with the promo he cut after the show went off the air, and I’m not so sure that wasn’t done on the fly. Tell me I’m wrong, but even if I am, I have little to no interest in seeing how brilliant of a story it’s going to be that Omega is a bad carpenter.
No matter what, though, you can’t deny that the end result was nowhere near what the hype said it would be. That gets us back to trust. That gets us back to TNA. That gets us back to a trend in a direction that is far from enviable. I don’t know that there’s any one person to blame, and far be it from me to cast stones, but Khan’s response to that question felt more defiant than anything I think I’ve heard him say (when he’s not in that Impact paid advertisement role). It’s a departure from previous mix-ups when he would address things earnestly, sometimes apologize, and continue to build his reputation as The Good Guy in pro wrestling. It kind of makes you wonder if there are cracks starting to appear in the veneer of his winning streak.
Only time will tell. For now, though, it might be an idea to be a little more precious about expectation when it comes to promoting professional wrestling cards. Or, well, at the very least, take into account that when people pay money for your product — and in this case, $50 feels like a lot now that all WWE pay-per-views are included in its network — they aren’t just giving you dollars and cents; they are giving you their confidence. Confidence that you’ll come through with what you promise, confidence that you won’t let them down.
Were people let down by Sunday’s show? It’s impossible to think that the answer is a universal no. All that matters, though, as AEW moves forward, is that when it’s all said and done, the number of yeses to that question don’t mimic that of a Daniel Bryan entrance.