By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
So, Triple H took over WWE’s creative forces. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already knew that. He received the keys because Vince McMahon is no longer there anymore, and no, I’m not going to rehash any of that because that’s all I’ve been doing for a month’s worth of Mondays here.
It was the dawn of a new day, was the argument. You can’t forget: People hold Paul Levesque’s time leading NXT in high regard. Some believe that those were the best days of the black and gold brand, and there is even a contingent that would argue they were the best WWE days, period, over the last couple decades.
Therefore, all the nonsense, all the dumb rules, all the sports entertainment silliness was going to dissipate under Levesque’s guidance, people asserted. The countdown to change began and fans, writers and viewers alike began putting together a laundry list of things they hoped to see Levesque do after taking over the reins.
“Now bring back The Fiend!” some shouted. “Johnny Gargano has to be next!”
Well, instead, we got Karrion Kross.
OK. To be fair, first we got Dakota Kai. And we got an Iyo Sky call-up. But the Kross move is one that feels like the first decision Levesque made that said, “I am the captain now,” if only because reports have said in the past that Levesque loves himself some Kross, and we all know how bungled Kross’s initial run was on the main roster. No reasonable human being could look at his time wearing a mask and BDSM gear and think the guy was given an actual, true, honest-to-goodness shot at succeeding. At the very least, this time, we’ll know if he can hang up there with the A-team. As for last time, it was a wash.
Kross’s re-arrival in WWE ignited the predictable debate between those who pay attention to this stuff. “Kross is boring,” some shouted. “Yes! He’s back! And with Scarlett, too!” others proclaimed. To some, Levesque could have gotten the Undisputed Era back together on the spot and they wouldn’t be happy. To others, Levesque could book Bastion Booger to beat Bron Breakker for the NXT Title and they’d shout from the mountaintops about how brilliant of a booking mind he is.
But that’s not the point here. Some will give Levesque a chance while others won’t. Some will believe in change while others will dismiss it. WWE has lost scores of fans in recent years for a laundry list of reasons while other fans have established that they will stand by that product through thick and thin, no matter what, and they will believe wholeheartedly in each and every detail of each and every revisionist WWE documentary that airs on Peacock.
OK, that last part was a pot shot, but I don’t apologize
Anyway, the point here is …
What does this mean for the current wrestling war?
And sure. Correct me on this being a wrestling war. Listen to any Conrad Thompson podcast with any of the elder statesmen of the business and a good chunk of them will halfheartedly argue there is no such thing as a wrestling war because everyone wants everyone to succeed because if everyone succeeds, everyone wins. Shoot. That doesn’t just apply to the veterans; you can also hear that at post-event scrums or even on social media. Whether or not they believe it, it’s easy to find wrestling personalities who argue that the term “wrestling war” is little more than a made up concept by fans.
Well, whatever. Call it what you want; competition is there. And even if the actual performers don’t publicly admit it, you can find a whole gaggle of fans on social media who draw strong lines in the sand, most prominently between AEW and WWE – but other companies as well (the second I say a sideways word about Impact, for instance, I know I’m going to be hearing it from some readers). So, it’s an arms race. There’s a lot of great talent in the wrestling business these days and no matter what company you love most, we can all find a list of people anywhere who we think are being under-used or under-appreciated. What if they got more love somewhere else? Could they finally become the stars we always knew they’d be?
That’s not an uncommon train of thought in 2022 pro wrestling fandom. There is more wrestling available to more people now more than ever. It’s just the reality. If AEW or WWE is too mainstream for you, there are the MLWs and Impacts of the world. If those seem a little off, the popularity of independent wrestling is running wild (brother) and it’s also more accessible now than ever thanks to Fite TV, IWTV or even YouTube. And then, if you don’t like any of that, more Japanese/foreign wrestling than ever is at your fingertips as long as you have an Internet connection. If you’re a fan of someone in one company and it isn’t working out, you can’t tell me you haven’t fantasized about how they’d work out in another company. That’s just the way this world is these days.
Which leads me back to this …
A CHANGE IN SCENERY
What does Paul Levesque’s promotion mean to the rest of the wrestling world? And, because you’re lying if you didn’t think of this already anyway, more specifically, what does it mean to AEW?
In the nearly two years I’ve been writing this Monday column for this website, I’ve wondered aloud about some of the questionable decisions that AEW has made regarding some of the talent that migrated from WWE over to Tony Khan’s world. To this day, I continue to have similar questions. What exactly is going on with Ruby Soho? Athena debuted to a nice reaction, and it looked like she was going to work with TBS Champion Jade Cargill, but how many times have we seen her since she arrived in the company?
Mark Henry got his Rampage interview bit over, and good on him for it, but … that’s it? And Paul Wight, where have you been? Lio Rush came and went in a hurry (though that’s obviously not specific to AEW). Malakai Black and Buddy Matthews look awfully neat and mysterious and dark, and they have a fun presentation, but has either of them been in a title picture? Swerve Strickland and Keith Lee felt like they were going to be lost in the shuffle until they captured the tag titles, but even that doesn’t feel like it has “long term” written on it. And let’s not even start with Andrade El Idolo.
So, AEW proved long ago that it isn’t the land of criminally under-used wrestlers who become immediately adequately used. It’s a wrestling company and just like all other wrestling companies, there’s only so much TV time in a week and there are only so many title belts to go around (though, with Ring Of Honor, AEW really is redefining that notion, too). You can’t stress that the 2.0 tag team was getting the shaft by being featured on 205 Live and then expect them to walk into AEW and win the tag titles three weeks after joining the Jericho Appreciation Society. Things don’t work like that, and it’s an idiom that doesn’t extend to only AEW; it extends to any wrestling promotion in existence.
Still, that reality didn’t quite matter in the overall picture of the AEW/WWE dynamic. The perception from so many people has been, “Get out of the throes of WWE hell and get to AEW, where you can truly shine.” Has that been rooted in reality? Well, if we’re being honest, the results have varied. Those results don’t always matter, though, because perception is reality – and especially in the wrestling world, perception is reality. So if your perception is that your favorite wrestlers are treated better in AEW than they are in WWE, I can’t argue that. Belief is currency in today’s world.
That said, there’s been one thing that clouds my mind as I’ve considered these things throughout AEW’s short history …
A BETTER WWE
What if WWE improves?
I know the inclination is to argue that we’ve already seen what would happen if a good WWE product went up against AEW and that happened in the form of NXT 1.0. AEW ostensibly “won,” (whatever that means) and NXT had to change course and become … well, whatever the hell it is now. Levesque had his chance. He didn’t get the job done. And then, because of the growing popularity of AEW, revisionist history started to cloud people’s judgment, like there wasn’t actually a point in time when NXT was the coolest thing in wrestling and the guy running it actually made a Super Indie work on a mainstream scale. Instead, so many people focused on how WWE once wanted to make Thunder Rosa a referee and in the trash NXT went.
Me? I don’t buy the narrative that AEW already beat out its biggest competition and therefore will dominate WWE in the cool category for the rest of time. Things have changed since then and AEW has a few scars on it. WWE, meanwhile, is coming off a complete knockout blow with the Vince McMahon mess and has very little to lose from a fair-weather fan’s perspective. By and large, AEW got most to all of the talent the fans wanted that company to get. What they do with it, even if it has to be in the long term (if they can keep some of that talent for the long term), will answer a lot of questions about if, say, someone like Buddy Matthews was really being shunned by the WWE, or if Matthews just isn’t going to get to the top of a card no matter where he goes.
Meanwhile, there’s still one guy I’ve left out of this discussion so far because I’ve been waiting to get to him, and in my mind, he represents the core of where this dilemma formulates. That guy?
We all knew that he was tight with a lot of important people in AEW before he got there and we all knew his life partner Britt Baker was breaking out as a star in that company. But we also knew that Cole had a strong relationship with Shawn Michaels and Paul Levesque and to this day, he’ll stick up for them and reflect on his time in NXT glowingly. Don’t forget how people on the main roster wanted to present him: With a haircut and as a manager. How could you blame him for bailing and heading across the street to hang with his boys?
But now that those managerial haircut obstacles are out of the way, and the WWE guy who believes in him the most is the guy in charge … let me ask you this: If you leave a job because you’re a mid-level manager and the super boss makes it clear you’ll never be more than a mid-level manager. But then your direct boss one day gets promoted to super boss and he always saw you as more than a mid-level manager anyway. Would you go back to that job, if only to prove yourself something?
Or, in other words, if someone tells you you’re going to headline WrestleMania and win the World Heavyweight Title while doing so, and you could do that or just stay on a carousel running similar programs with your friends that might not even have belts attached to them … my guess is you’re probably going to go headline WrestleMania because I don’t care who you are; if you’re a wrestler, that’s The Dream. And with Levesque in charge, don’t tell me it’s not possible he gives people like Adam Cole a speech like that someday.
Tony Khan stated that Cole is signed to AEW until some point in 2027. The thing is, though, Adam Cole represents more than Adam Cole in this equation. He represents the dozens of wrestlers who were energized and appreciated under a Levesque regime who left (or were fired) and had reasons to go to AEW (those reasons being friends, fun, etc.). What happens when the rules change and all the creativity and opportunity that’s been stifled for you suddenly becomes available at the company you grew up watching, loving and idolizing?
Case in point: Cody Rhodes. That was a guy who was an EVP of AEW. He was a boss, boss. Like, a real boss. And when it came down to it, be it through the fault of his own or not, he felt like he had a chance to go be the star he wanted to be, but was never given the opportunity to be, in WWE, and he took that chance. As evidenced by his WrestleMania debut, as well as his constant wins against one of WWE’s top guys in Seth Rollins, he went there because someone told him he’d have the ability to accomplish things he wasn’t able to accomplish during his previous run.
Now, you mean to tell me Levesque wouldn’t do that with Adam Cole someday? Or, take it a few steps further, and insert a name other than Cole that hasn’t had all that much success in AEW. As in, Andrade, whose wife Charlotte Flair works for WWE and whose character was at its best when he was paired with one of WWE’s women as his manager. “Come back over here,” you can practically hear Levesque say. “You won’t have to wear business slacks to wrestle anymore and yeah, let’s insert you into the title picture right away.”
Regardless of when Andrade’ deal is up, when that time comes and you’re Andrade, is that not appealing?
Naturally, these aren’t things that happen overnight. Or even in a year’s time (again, these people did sign contracts with AEW, and you can’t just come and go as you please). But to think that WWE has, in some ways, become an underdog when it comes to accruing world class, beloved talent is A) crazy, and B) a door through which Levesque can right a bunch of wrongs that he reportedly had little to do with anyway. The future of who wrestles where hasn’t been this interesting since Nitro debuted and Lex Luger appeared out of nowhere. Which is good … right?
Either way, it’s all to say that no matter what you think of Karrion Kross and his return on Smackdown last Friday, it’s inevitable that before long, the wrestling talent arms race between the two most important wrestling companies in America is only now about to kick into a gear we haven’t seen in quite some time. Tick-Tock, indeed.