By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
They do. And so, with that in mind, it’s now time to examine the dirty little unspoken AEW secret that is never addressed enough at times like these …
TOO MANY STARS
… What the hell does that company do with all these wrestlers?
You’d be a fool to say that a wrestling company in 2021 signing CM Punk and Daniel Bryan is a bad thing, of course. The groundswell for fans begging Punk to come back to the business began approximately five seconds after he declared he was leaving it, and since then, he’s played those cards perfectly. To say he’s the hottest commodity on the market who hasn’t actually had a match in years is an understatement.
Bryan, meanwhile, is the hottest commodity on the market who actually has had a match in years. He became a superstar in spite of the norms established by WWE and through all of it, he did so while somehow maintaining his credibility as an in-ring performer. For a lot of indie stars, WWE is the place to go to watch your career wilt away; not so for Bryan. Everyone still roots for him and everyone still acknowledges him as one of the best in the world.
So, yes. To argue that signing either guy would be detrimental to a company is nonsense. The box offices will be big, the march sales will increase, and since we’ve all become so obsessed with television ratings … yeah, you’d have to think this would pump those numbers up a bit, too. There’s “can’t miss,” and then there’s “we just signed Daniel Bryan and CM Punk.” So, what’s the problem?
PUSHING TALENT DOWN
If Vince McMahon has the reputation of being someone who extinguishes stars that NXT creates, and the WWE doesn’t have much by way of a homegrown superstar-in-the-making these days, what do we say about AEW?
Well, a couple things. One, in the beginning, AEW took the most promising talent on the independent wrestling scene, combined that with a handful of established names and have, for the most part, made all the right moves. Orange Cassidy became a star, Darby Allin became a star, Britt Baker became a star. There are others, of course, but those three names rose to the top as quick as any other name in the company, and though they did put their time in elsewhere before AEW began, they are now firmly in the wrestling mainstream.
But then there’s number two. The more talent that AEW signs, the more the talent that AEW helped build takes a back seat. Everyone keeps telling me that Jungle Boy is going to be a star, and sure, he was the first wrestler to get to 50 wins in the company (which was a phony-baloney accolade designed to turn attention away from the fact that he keeps losing title matches), but how often does it feel like he’s in a meaningful program? Chris Jericho worked an entire summer with Orange Cassidy, ultimately putting him over, and outside of being randomly thrown into a three-way title match with Pac and Kenny Omega, has anything else Cassidy’s been a part of stuck with you? To say he’s cooled off a little wouldn’t be unfair.
And that’s the thing. One week, Andrade comes in. The next week, Malakai Black makes a debut. Oh, and don’t forget that Christian Cage is here, too, even though it hardly ever feels like it. Wait, there’s also Sting, who’s an icon, and should have all the star-wattage in the universe, but he’s working something in the middle of the card. Hold on, remember Miro? It took AEW almost a year to get it right with him.
You don’t want to say it’s an embarrassment of riches, but …
MOVING DOWN THE CARD
… It’s an embarrassment of riches.
So, what happens when the rich get richer, then? The middle class becomes defined down. Hypothetically, let’s just say the Bryan and Punk stuff is 100 percent true and those contracts are actually signed. So, here are all the people fans and pundits alike would and could argue be in the main event picture: Kenny Omega. Cody Rhodes. Adam Page. Andrade El Idolo. Christian Cage. Malakai Black. Daniel Bryan. CM Punk. MJF. Mrio. Chris Jericho. Darby Allin. Jon Moxley. Jungle Boy. Matt Hardy. Sting.
Sure, disagree with some of those if you want, but that’s 16 names that could be in that conversation. So, even if you can’t get on board with some of them, my guess is we could find at least 10 that we agree upon. Shoot, there could even be more when you think of Orange Cassidy, Pac, Sammy Guevara, Penta El Zero Miedo, and … wait, are Mark Henry or Paul Wight ever going to wrestle? Because from what I understand, that was supposed to be a distinct possibility at some point.
So, whose development gets sacrificed while the upper part of the card becomes increasingly crowded? It’s great that another show on TNT is about to kick off in a few weeks, and yeah, bring in all the enhancement talent in the world for the YouTube shows, but if you’re booking a Dynamite, you’re going to have a whole lot of names that need to be on the card consistently and that’s going to ultimately push down those who might be in need of being pushed up.
That’s where the conflict comes in. When AEW began, it rode the shoulders of Chris Jericho, The Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, and Kenny Omega. If you were watching, you were watching to see them and a bunch of other people you may or may not have previously known. But then you saw the Orange Cassidy gimmick and you fell in love with him. Or you saw Luchasaurus and thought, “Oh, that’s kind of neat.” Or maybe you hate-watched the origin of the Dark Order. Whatever it was, the rub those initial stars gave the rest of the roster worked because the rest of the roster was given the platform to shine on Wednesday nights.
And make no mistake about it: Wednesday nights and Dynamite are forever and always going to be AEW’s Monday Night Raw. You didn’t tune into Sunday Night Heat to see “Stone Cold” Steve Austin flip off Vince McMahon; that was reserved for Monday nights. Conversely, you really think you can pull up “AEW Dark” and see Bryan Danielson land some Yes! kicks?
Actually, speaking of WWE …
SACRIFICING THE YOUNG
The critical narrative surrounding that company always deals with its inability to let new, young talent get over. Need ratings? Call Goldberg. It’s easy to look at someone like Ricochet and say, “How does this guy get relegated to WWE Main Event three weeks a month? They’re not using him correctly!” Those have been the prevailing thoughts from a lot of skeptics who spend their days and nights watching pro wrestling.
Well, what’s going to happen when the only time you can see Ethan Page is when you fire up the YouTube and look up “AEW Dark Elevation?” Or one of the best talkers in the game, Eddie Kingston, is cutting a promo on Brian Cage … but it’s on “AEW Dark?” Meanwhile, Brian Pillman Jr., who’s a star in the making, can’t even land a two-minute match on an Internet-only program because the guys who once headlined Dynamite now have to headline whatever other shows are out there because the guys now headlining Dynamite just came in — and they are bigger stars.
It’s a tightrope to walk and from an outsider’s perspective, and it doesn’t appear to be an easy one to walk on, either. What made (and to some degree, still makes) AEW so much fun is the ability to connect with different personalities, fresh faces, and a new energy that’s been missing from the wrestling world for quite some time. Those fresh faces are going to be sliding out of our purview ever so slowly as the company brings in more established names.
Which then leads me to this question: Let’s say you were part of those recent WWE cuts and everyone is salivating for you to go to AEW for one reason or another. At this point, why would you do it? If Buddy Murphy was frustrated being held down in WWE, and he never quite made it out of the mid-card … what makes him or anyone else think he’d be elevated into the main event at AEW if you have people like Bryan and Punk coming in? Why not go be a world champion somewhere? In AEW, he’d be just another guy.
All of it makes me wonder about when AEW will stop being perceived as the paradise everyone says it is. I’m sure the creative freedom is great, and I have no reason to believe that Tony Khan hasn’t established one of the best working environments in all of wrestling. But once the wrestlers get restless, I want to see how both company and talent respond. What do I think will ultimately happen?
AN INDIE RESURGENCE
I think we’re destined to reestablish a thriving independent wrestling scene. And this, of course, is where the benefits of AEW come into play.
GCW has never had more eyes on it than it does now, thanks in part to a Dark Side Of The Ring episode, as well as Nick Gage’s appearance on last week’s Dynamite. Turn on any episode of “Dark” or “Dark Elevation,” and you’ll quickly acquaint yourself with talent and names of which you’ve never heard, and in some cases, those performances lead to bigger and better things for the up-and-coming talent, be it in AEW or not.
Tony Khan has established that he has no problem bringing independent wrestlers in, and he has no problem allowing his talent to work independent wrestling events. That’s a good, healthy thing for those still trying to break into the business and those still trying to learn how to navigate the business. It’s impossible to not view it as a win-win for everyone involved.
But what happens when Pac or Cassidy or Sammy or Starks or Wardlow or Jungle Boy can’t find a spot on TV and they want to be the face of a company? Well, they could go do just that. You mean to tell me a Ring of Honor or Impact or MLW or even New Japan Strong wouldn’t love to put a major title belt on any of those wrestlers sometime in the next five years? Shoot, even if you hate Cassidy’s gimmick, he’d bring a hell of a following with him.
I’ve heard people say that AEW has kind of killed the indie model in a handful of ways, not the least of which being that the company gobbled up a lot of the scene’s biggest stars. But if the wrestlers they gobbled up are being replaced by better known marquee names, and therefore, the gobbled up wrestlers don’t have as much opportunity to become a household name, why wouldn’t they go find a different way to be that household name? AEW isn’t the end-all, be-all for a lot of this talent, even if it feels that way sometimes.
Which, naturally, is the biggest point here: I understand the seduction of the stars, but hopefully, AEW will continue to find ways to make lesser lights shine. Because if not, there’s no guarantee that those stars will continue to exist in that universe.
And I’ll be damned if I end up one day seeing a WWE Main Event graphic depicting Mustafa Ali going up against Jack Perry. But if AEW doesn’t take care of their own, who’s to say it’s not possible?