By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
“And I promise, Rampage isn’t going to be a secondary show. Rampage is going to be the partner of Dynamite, the equivalent to Dynamite. We have these two strong franchises, Dynamite and Rampage, and they are our weekly core properties.”
May 19, 2021. That was the date. The platform was Busted Open Radio. AEW owner Tony Khan went onto the show to talk about this brand new hour of programming AEW was set to offer. The show’s name would be Rampage and as you can see, there was hype around it. Fast-forward a handful of months to the beginning of August, and Khan told Sports Illustrated’s Justin Barrasso, “This was one of the biggest nights in the history of the company,” while basking in the glory of not Keith Lee, but Rampage’s debut on August 13, 2021.
One year later …
TIMES HAVE CHANGED
… and this was the card going into this past Friday night on TNT.
Orange Cassidy vs. Ari Daivari. Sammy Guevara and Tay Melo vs. Dante Martin and Skye Blue for the AAA Mixed Tag Titles. Austin Gunn and Colten Gunn vs. Erick Redbeard and Danhausen. Parker Boudreaux vs. Sonny Kiss. Bryan Danielson was supposed to speak. FTW Champion Hook was supposed to speak. AEW Tag Champions Swerve Strickland and Keith Lee were supposed to speak.
Just typing that made me lose breath.
That’s a lot for a one-hour show, sure, but AEW isn’t necessarily known for its brevity. Sometimes, it feels like before a referee has his or her hand hit the mat for a three count, Excalibur is already throwing it to Tony Schiavone backstage. The quality vs. quantity debate is eternal, but it’s also one that happens to be central to the AEW debate these days. “Slow down,” some people say. “I love this pace,” others counter.
Prefer whatever you’d like, but that specific debate isn’t at the core of this Monday’s diatribe. Instead, that goes to the card. Read it again, just in case you skipped over something. Orange Cassidy in the main event against someone who’s been working opening bouts of New Japan Strong episodes. Sammy and Tay against a thrown-together tag-team, even if Dante and Skye are real-life flames. The Gunn Club, who’ve been the beneficiary of some entertaining personalities around them, but haven’t quite proven they can swim on their own yet. And Parker Boudreaux, who is either going to be scarred from his first professional run in WWE or is going to make everyone go, “How did they get that wrong?” in five years.
On paper, you can call it a lot of different things, good or bad. The one thing you can’t call it?
ON THE SAME LEVEL?
“The partner of Dynamite, the equivalent to Dynamite.”
Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. That’s just a fact. Wednesdays are reserved for AEW Interim World Title matches, matches with shark cages suspended from the ceiling, huge announcements, and Sting returns while Friday is reserved for … a random Erick Redbeard match. Oh, and a Sonny Kiss heel turn, which may or may not be the best creative thing for her (but hey, any TV time is good TV time, right?).
I get it. We all do. If you run a company and you’re producing two television shows a week, that means you have to sell advertising for two television shows a week and if you come right out and say, “This show is the lesser of the two, but please still give us all your money,” chances are, you aren’t going to get all their money. And then there’s the perception component. You want people to watch, right? How many non-dire-hards are going to do that if you’re actively telling people this is the show they can afford to miss?
But I also didn’t come out and say this show was going to be the equivalent to the company’s flagship program, either. And, mind you, that was said merely a year ago. As recently as April, Khan noted that he was going to go “back to his ruthless roots” for the booking of an episode of Rampage, as though the program has such a storied history, it can reach back to its glory days when starting the show five minutes after the top of the hour reminded people of that sweet nostalgic feeling they miss so much.
That sounds harsh, but for as much as Khan appears to enjoy speeding up time (and/or cramming in as much as he can into an allotted amount of time), he has to face reality that time doesn’t do jobs for anybody and it currently enjoys an undefeated record. It might feel a little like Rampage has been around for a lot longer than a year, but the truth is, it hasn’t. In fact, it’s still a show that has every right to use the excuse that it’s finding its footing. The problem?
LISTENING TO THE FANS?
The problem is that nobody with any authority at AEW would say something like that out loud. So, let’s take it for what it is: A one-hour television show that Khan promised would be worthy of our time and, again, be the equivalent to Dynamite. But after a hot start, it has since wilted under the sun like an orchid in August. And you want to know what? That’s fine. Failure to meet expectations is part of the job – especially in the wrestling world. If everyone held everyone else’s feet to the fire each time they let someone down, very few of us would have feet.
But AEW insists it prides itself on being The Company That Listens To Its Fans, and, as I’ve said in this space before, the fans view that company as such, too. Yet if that’s the case, and AEW wants to make sure it doesn’t let its lifeblood down … well, then why do the people in power sometimes pretend like its fans are gullible at best and downright stupid at worst?
Khan had a plan when Rampage launched. He had a handful of hot cards and the biggest ace of them all, CM Punk’s return to professional wrestling. Attaching that moment to that show gave it a very specific blend of clout that could not be matched anywhere else in the wrestling business. And, to be fair, it was a brilliant move for Khan to do that. Rather than throw that return on another episode of Dynamite, that moment was designed to define Rampage as something so much more than a B-show for years to come.
Or, at least, so he thought. Such is where the frustration settles in. It’s one thing to come out and make promises you can’t keep; it’s another to look at the promise less than a year after you make it and say … “Eh, well we did that one thing, so the fans know it’s not a B-show all these months later, right?” If you say you love the fans and you say you want to give them what they want, maybe give them a little more credit than thinking they’d be appeased for the rest of forever because CM Punk came back in 2021 and you helped facilitate it.
More frustrating is the lack of consistency. Remember that quote from April I cited earlier? Khan does that from time to time. He’ll let Rampage go for a few weeks – maybe even a couple months – and then someone, somewhere will say something about it to him and he’ll stack a card or two for a Friday night and then that’s supposed to be enough to prove that Rampage is more than a B-show. That’s not keeping promises. That’s being lazy.
Speaking of lazy, I haven’t even gotten to the most prominent frustration yet.
AN EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES
Some of us have been addressing it for months, wondering what the solution could be, while others have dismissed the concern, saying it doesn’t matter. But these days, it seems like the conversation is bubbling up now more than ever: When you amass a roster as deep and talented as the one AEW has, how do you A) keep them all happy and B) use them adequately? It seems like every two weeks or so, someone is running a backstage report that someone else isn’t thrilled with the way the company is portraying them.
Andrade El Idolo and Miro are two recent names that popped up in the discussion and rightfully so. Both are major talents, and both have reason beyond being injured to be frustrated with their usage. As for names that don’t make those reports, Adam Page was just the world champion a handful of seconds ago, but why does it feel like he’s hardly a presence on AEW programming anymore? Ethan Page is worth so much more than a YouTube series about toys. Samoa Joe and Brian Cage are reportedly earmarked for Ring Of Honor, but … oh, forget it. Let’s not go down that road.
My point is, you have a hell of a roster at your disposal and yet we’re going to give Zack Clayton, whose biggest claim to fame is JWoww and Jersey Shore, mic time on national TV? Eddie Kingston didn’t feel like making the trip to Minneapolis? Claudio Castagnoli didn’t want to lug the ROH Title belt to the midwest? And let’s not even start with the women’s discrepancy. Jade Cargill retained her TBS Title on Wednesday, so that’s enough female vs. female in-ring action for the week when it comes to AEW … or, at least so says the company’s booking history.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the fact that both shows are taped on the same night plays into it. There was a fun match between Penta Oscuro, Rey Fenix, Andrade El Idolo, and Rush that aired Wednesday night, so the most we’re going to get out of Andrade on the ensuing Friday is a backstage segment. I understand the inclination to not overexpose wrestlers to the live crowd, but you also have to think about the viewers at home who couldn’t care less about when what was taped. Besides, Pac wasn’t on either show, and I don’t care if that guy only wants to wrestle once every three months in the U.S., two Pac-heavy segments sure do beat the hell out of two Parker Boudreaux segments, no matter how you cut it.
Still, to be fair, here’s the thing …
CALL IT WHAT IT IS
Boudreaux needs space to learn and NXT 2.0 wasn’t going to be that space because NXT 2.0 is, well, NXT 2.0. So, if Tony Khan wants to throw him out there and try to build him into the second coming of Brock Lesnar, like so many people, including Paul Heyman, suggested he could be, then by all means, go ahead and do it. Let’s see if he’ll sink or swim and let’s see how much patience Khan will have as a potential star evolves.
But if you’re going to do that on Rampage – and make no mistake about it, the most recent episode of Rampage was all about Boudreaux and his faction, the Trustbusters – lean into it. Embrace what the perception of Rampage has become and be honest about reserving the most interesting stories, matches, and bookings for Wednesday nights. There’s a space between AEW Dark and AEW Dynamite. Carve that space into Rampage in an honest way and it’ll find its identity.
Case in point: AEW Dark and AEW Dark: Elevation. Be it the Taz/Excalibur commentary team or the abundance of mindless squashes each week, both those YouTube shows have garnered their own audiences. Why couldn’t Rampage do that if it just didn’t make promises it can’t keep? I don’t mind the Trustbusters taking over a Friday night if we’re going to establish that Friday nights are reserved for factions and wrestlers that aren’t quite as far along as they need to be in order to appear on Dynamite. If you’re serious about making Rampage matter, find that sweet spot and live in it.
Otherwise, you’ll be caught in wrestling television purgatory. Identity is everything, and right now AEW’s Friday night show doesn’t have one as it’s caught between a message of what some hoped it would be and the reality of what it’s actually turned out to be. Shoot, at this point, unless that Ring of Honor TV plan is coming sooner than any of us think, why not consider giving this hour of television to ROH? At least we’d have solutions to two problems under the Tony Khan tree.
But we all know that’s not going to happen because that’s just not how things work in AEW land. We’ll continue to get a smattering of high level episodes of Rampage thrown in along with the majority of throwaway Friday nights. Whenever Khan is asked about it, he’ll insist Rampage stands on equal footing with Dynamite and if anyone dare question the over-abundance of talent on his roster, he or she will be punished accordingly.
Yet the next time that happens – the next time someone sticks up for Rampage as an A-level show, and the next time Khan grants an interview where he tries to justify a 10-minute Gunn Club segment, acting like it’s akin to the Young Bucks being out there for a quarter of the show – just remember that quote, a quote from no less than a year and a half ago.
“And I promise,” he said. “Rampage isn’t going to be a secondary show. Rampage is going to be the partner of Dynamite, the equivalent to Dynamite.”
And then remember that sometimes, it’s the liars who make the best promises.