By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
The day was March 18, 2020. There was this thing happening around the world that few people were taking all that seriously. It was a virus. Coronavirus. COVID-19. Whatever it went by at that point, nobody really cared because nobody really knew what was going on.
But then the NHL canceled some games because of it. The NBA followed suit. Limitations on grocery shopping and eating out swept the nation. And uncertainty crippled every aspect of life, be it sports, popular culture, entertainment, politics, business and everything else in between.
Still, on that day, AEW took to the TNT airwaves for its usual Dynamite television show on Wednesdays. To begin the episode, the company’s biggest stars came together to essentially give a speech that said everything was going to be OK and AEW was going to continue to run shows each week. Those shows would, for the most part, be at Daily’s Place in Jacksonville, Florida, and in their own way, they would get fans and wrestlers through the pandemic.
This Wednesday, the final Wednesday of 2021, AEW will hold its final Dynamite on TNT, and where will it be? At Daily’s Place. It’s both poetic and poignant that the company would visit that venue for the final regularly scheduled Dynamite on TNT. As I’ve said a million times before, I’m of the thought that Daily’s Place serves as a sort of ECW Arena for the modern day. One way or another, it will be tied to AEW, TNT, and Wednesdays forever and this coming Wednesday kind of/sort of marks the end of yet another era when it comes to that building, that network and that company.
So, as we prepare for that final dance, I thought it might be fun to look at the five best AEW Dynamite episodes on TNT through its initial run. And while this list will be according to … well … me, I shall welcome the post-Christmas debate to intensify. Or, well, you could just take another nap because you’re still recovering from all that holiday food. Either way, let’s go.
IN THE BEGINNING …
Oct. 2, 2019, marked the first-ever AEW Dynamite and you can’t make a list of the five most important Dynamites on TNT without including the mothership. The city was Washington, D.C. I was there. It was beyond electric. Nobody really knew what to expect from anything — the production, the matches, the stories — anything. We knew the bulk of the main players, but we knew little beyond that.
Yet on the back of Chris Jericho and the berth of the Inner Circle, the episode left everyone on their toes, eager to see what would happen next. The ratings were good — Dynamite averaged a number of 1.4 million viewers that night, which was good enough to beat the now-two-hour NXT program on USA, and it was the most-watched television debut on TNT in about five years.
In hindsight, that first Dynamite on TNT featured everything the show would come to represent. It was chaotic in a fun way, an alternative to the polished product WWE had settled into for years beforehand (and yes, that includes NXT). It was also unpredictable. The arrival of Jake Hager wasn’t much of a shock — and it also didn’t carry the name recognition that a lot of us were hoping for that night — but it also established the reality that AEW wouldn’t always need A-list names to make a splash when a debut or surprise occurs.
From here on out, it was clear that NXT had its work cut out for it. Not only was the wrestling on the AEW program as good or better than the WWE C-show, but AEW also provided the feel of a big-deal production. NXT was stuck in Florida with no announced intentions of taking its show on the road. AEW, meanwhile, was going to be in a different city each week, with different energy, a different crowd, and different expectations. Everyone leaving the Capital One Arena in Washington D.C. that night felt every bit of those things as they crowded the subway chanting “AEW!” after the lights went out.
THE EXALTED ONE
The anniversary of Brodie Lee’s death will forever be one of those wrestling anniversaries that reminds us of how tight-knit the wrestling world can be. If you looked at Twitter on Sunday, you saw how wrestlers from what felt like every possible company in the world came together to remember their friend, who passed away one year and one day ago as I write this. His death in 2020 shot ripples through the wrestling world in ways most deaths before and since haven’t.
That’s why the Dec. 30, 2020, episode of Dynamite on TNT from Daily’s Place will go down as perhaps the greatest wrestling tribute show that’s ever been produced. You couldn’t have walked away from those two hours with a single dry eye — especially after Brodie’s on-screen running partner Erick Redbeard ended the episode with a written message, holding it up on a cue card while wiping the tears from his own eyes.
Word had it that Tony Khan ripped up his initial episode of Dynamite in favor of putting the tribute show together, and putting it together kept him up all night. True or not, there wasn’t a single note missed as Amanda Huber, Jon/Brodie’s widow, left Brodie’s boots in the ring, and the Dark Order took home victories in one way or another during each match on the card that night.
The fans responded, too, as the t-shirt dedicated to Brodie turned out to be the highest-selling shirt on Pro Wrestling Tees in 2020, setting a new record for most shirts sold in 24 hours. It was a testament not just to how popular Brodie was both internally and externally within the pro wrestling lexicon, but it also showed how much of a fan favorite Brodie was for those watching at home.
Perhaps above all else, though, was AEW’s effort. You simply don’t see tribute shows like this in professional wrestling, pretty much ever. WWE will put up a graphic and if Vince McMahon likes you enough, you’ll get a video package and a 10-bell salute, but tradition within the televised wrestling business has programmed us to expect little more than what amounts to a hat-tip to those who’ve left us.
AEW bucked that tradition by going all out for a man who, by all accounts, deserved a two-hour wrestling show tribute. In short, the company redefined the business’s response to death by confronting it with warmth, honesty, and humanity. AEW is not a company without flaws, but on this night, the plan and subsequent execution was, indeed, flawless.
WINTER IS COMING
It might not seem particularly fair to put together a top five list of the best Dynamite episodes on TNT and have two of the five of them land within a month of one another, but them’s the breaks. Dec. 2, 2020, was the date and Daily’s Place, yet again, was the venue. Going into the event, my expectations were low for what I perceived to be little more than a themed television show.
But, as is usually the case, I was wrong. Often lost in the shuffle of the memories of that night is Sting’s AEW debut, which turned out to be a bigger moment than most anyone thought. For one, the announcement was a bit of a surprise — or, at least by today’s standards — and it caught the bulk of the wrestling fan world off guard. And for two … well, my God, the presentation was fantastic. The snow. Tony Schiavone’s announcement. The dramatics. It all came together in unexpectedly perfect fashion.
Still, that’s not the most prominent reason this episode lands on this list. Instead, that award goes to the main event, which saw Kenny Omega finally take the AEW World Championship from Jon Moxley. And while that, in and of itself, was a memory not to be taken lightly, what happened afterwards was what truly cemented this episode of Dynamite as one of the most celebrated during its TNT history.
That’s because after Don Callis helped Omega win the belt, we saw the two run off into a car and … tell everyone to tune into Impact to see what’s next? Yeah, that’s right. The advent of The Forbidden Door being part of a casual wrestling fan’s vernacular commenced and AEW, Impact Wrestling, and even New Japan Pro Wrestling never really looked back.
In fact, the notion of The Forbidden Door continues to find its way into wrestling programming each week, even if Impact and AEW have supposedly ended their working relationship. Tune into NJPW Strong every now and then, and you’ll hear it. Shoot, even on the various AEW programming, be it online or traditional television, the phrase can be heard. The night kicked off a strange, if not somewhat fun, era of televised pro wrestling, right when us wrestling fans needed a kick in the pants after being cooped up due to the COVID-19 pandemic for nine months. That end-of-show promo would set the table for all of 2021 wrestling and then some.
THIS MEANS WAR
Or, well, if not war, it at least means blood and guts.
May 5, 2021, marked AEW’s attempt at War Games — even if WWE trademarked the match’s most famous name and stole all the fun. The site was Daily’s Place again and the scene was as dramatic as you’d think. Double rings. A red cage. No real place to put it all, what with Daily’s Place being an amphitheater designed for concerts.
But, so it went. With the Blood and Guts match taking up the entire second hour of Dynamite, a spectacle was had. The Inner Circle took on The Pinnacle. The match was centered around the Chris Jericho/MJF feud that maybe, kind of, sort of wore out its welcome by the time the blow-off occurred at this year’s All Out. But that’s beside the point.
If I’m not mistaken, each wrestler involved in the match bled, including MJF, who embraced the crimson mask nicely, posing at the top of the structure to end the night in memorable fashion. That, of course, came after he threw Chris Jericho (or, um, Chris Jericho fell?) from the top of the cage onto about 15 pounds of cardboard boxes that weren’t all that disguised and became the center of consternation for wrestling fans far and wide.
As I wrote in the aftermath of the event, I didn’t quite see the use for pulling a stunt like that, especially if the stunt wasn’t going have the effect it was most likely desired to have for the audience, but it at least gave AEW the visual of Jericho falling from the top of a tall thing before creative editing made the sequence usable for quick-cut commercials.
Plus, let’s be honest: Blood and Guts or War Games or whatever you want to call it is best suited for AEW anyway. God bless NXT, but the more WWE tries it, the more watered down it becomes, with the PG textures and the lack of a top for the cages. AEW doesn’t have the no-blood mandate, and this match was made for violence, like it or not. I don’t know if it needs the furniture some of these companies use during their iterations of it, but even so, it’s supposed to be violent nonetheless. AEW allows for violence, for better or for worse.
Either way, this was a lot of fun for those who remember the classic War Games matches. The finish was a little clunky and Jericho didn’t see his best moments as he wandered around calling out spots on the top of the cage, but it was still something to see, and if nothing else, it was a predominant memory in Dynamite’s TNT run.
The night had been marked on the calendar for months: AEW was going to attempt to run a stadium for the first time, and wouldn’t you know it, but in doing so, the company would even be as brazen as to put it on TNT on a Wednesday night. That’s what happened in Queens on Sept. 22, 2021, at Arthur Ashe Stadium as the first-ever Grand Slam took place.
Considering how this night warranted two, two-hour shows for TNT (Dynamite and Friday night’s Rampage), it has to be on a list like this, if only for its star power. Sting and Darby Allin beat FTR. Britt Baker got the win over Ruby Soho. Malakai Black was victorious over Cody Rhodes.
And that was just Dynamite.
When you consider the Rampage tapings, with CM Punk beating Powerhouse Hobbs, the Lucha Bros retaining their tag titles, and the team of Jon Moxley and Eddie Kingston defeating Minoru Suzuki and Lance Archer, you’ve got yourself a hell of a night of wrestling. And speaking of wrestling, that’s just what Bryan Danielson and Kenny Omega did for 30 minutes to open the whole thing on Wednesday night.
Whine about time limit draws all you want, but for years now, no wrestling company has used them as much as they could, as smart as AEW has over the last quarter of 2021. The Omega/Danielson draw was a television classic, complete with a red-hot crowd, a red-hot moment and two red-hot wrestlers. It set the tone for the next wave of AEW as it lives life without Kenny Omega, who is recouping from injuries for an indefinite amount of time, and embraces life with the likes of the former Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, and Malakai Black, among others.
More than 20,000 fans packed the place and it solidified AEW as a wrestling company that continues to redefine what its ceiling could be. It’s ironic, because the last time one could say that about AEW would be when it kicked off its run on TNT, which is why we are here in List Land in the first place. If the company’s initial announcement was Act 1 and debuting on TNT announced the arrival of Act 2, then perhaps selling out a stadium on cable television means we are right in the middle of the beginning of Act 3.
The best part? This is a production that isn’t anywhere close to its conclusion. And with the move to TBS, AEW Dynamite’s star is poised to shine brighter than it ever has before.