By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
And the end was one hell of an end. After Kenny Omega retained his AEW World Championship against Christian Cage, the lights went out and Adam Cole showed up. After Adam Cole hit a few super-kicks, the lights went out again and Bryan Danielson showed up. Concerts, wrestling, family arguments – I had never been in a room as loud as that room was that night just outside of Chicago as these half-surprise debuts went down.
The arrival of Danielson and Cole to AEW, coupled with the return to pro wrestling of CM Punk, made that company and that pay-per-view feel bigger than life. In retrospect, it was perhaps the pinnacle of the mountain AEW had been climbing since it began operations a few years beforehand. For such a long time, the company felt like it was on a roll. It could do no wrong and it would somehow continue to make the rights even righter. The better, better-er. The perfect, perfect-er.
It was the most exciting wrestling organization on the planet and with good reason. After All Out, AEW laid claim to some of the absolute best wrestlers in the world. It was led by an owner in Tony Khan, who somehow did the impossible and talked CM Punk back into wrestling again. Sure, there were some booking snafus, and yeah, no business is perfect, right? But the blemishes didn’t matter because the product was so hot. The company won the hearts of a truckload of die-hard pro wrestling fans tired of the tepid WWE product and more importantly, it won the trust of so many who were ready to never trust again in the wacky world of pro wrestling.
Now, here we are, exactly one year later and …
NOT WORTH IT
Well, the Party Prius has a crack on its windshield, a few lights on the dash won’t stop blinking and I am most certainly not headed to Chicago in a couple days for All Out 2022.
Not that I matter, of course. I’m just one wrestling follower among many drowning in a sea of Twitter accounts and podcasts. But the reality that I had never even considered going back to Chicago for the event this year stuck out to me recently as I was covering Rampage for this very website. Not only had I not considered making plans to head to the Midwest, but I also, almost one week out, barely had an idea of what the card would be.
This, of course, underscores where AEW is now, merely one year later. Amidst an injury-plagued 2022, it turns out running a wrestling company isn’t quite as easy as Khan made it look and maybe – just maybe – AEW’s growing pains were stifled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which ostensibly dictated the first two years of its existence. Had the pandemic never happened, would we have heard about backstage fighting a year and a half ago? We’ll never know.
What we do know is that with all the backstage reports, works, shoots, interviews, anonymous quotes, and talent meetings, AEW is most certainly a different company than what it was 12 months ago. Whereas last year, we had monthslong programs between Chris Jericho and MJF – and the Lucha Brothers and the Young Bucks – culminating at All Out, this year, we have a weirdly placed six-man tag match in Wardlow and FTR vs. Jay Lethal and Motor City Machine Guns and Swerve In Our Glory vs. The Acclaimed just … because?
Hey, man. Last time I checked, FTR have been the No. 1 contenders for the tag belts that SWOG currently own. Don’t have rankings if you aren’t going to actually utilize the rankings, guys. But I digress.
Actually, I don’t digress. The ranking system is just one in a series of problems that AEW has right now. Granted, the ranking system is probably No. 482 on a list of 500, but it’s a problem nonetheless, and one that feels easy enough to fix. Instead, the company continues to act like these gripes don’t exist, which would be fine if it didn’t fancy itself a company that pays attention to the fans. And fans recognize this stuff. They also read the backstage reports. In fact, that’s written into the AEW fan rulebook: Be a diehard fan or don’t even bother.
On the other side of the street – and I can’t even believe I’m typing this – WWE is thriving.
Or, well, kind of. That’s because in order to thrive, it turns out everyone was right: Remove the bad apple and tasty fruits can come your way. The bad apple in this instance, of course, was Vince McMahon. Not only had the world argued over and over and over again that he was the single force behind WWE’s torturous television product in recent years, but it also just so happened that he was not the greatest real-life person, either.
It wasn’t that the Chairman quit his beloved WWE; it’s that he was forced out because the embarrassingly bad reports kept coming and for the first time ever, the public knew precisely how much his pocketbook had been hit over the years while paying off women to keep their sides of the stories they share with him to themselves. For a six week period, it felt like new details were emerging by the minute until finally, McMahon said that’s enough, I’ll go away.
Somewhat remarkably, overshadowing his ouster, since he was ousted, has been the turnaround in quality of the WWE product. With Paul Levesque taking the helm of the creative duties, we knew things might get a little better, but we also knew any change would have to take time, right? WWE is such a monster of a machine; there’s no way a simple switch at the top could pave the way for considerably better results so soon, you know?
Nope. Those changes came quickly. And whether or not it’s just a bunch of people looking at the company with a more forgiving eye that’s filled with hope now that McMahon isn’t running the show, we’ll never know. What we do know, though, is that Raw and Smackdown have been better shows to watch, the stories the company is telling have been more intriguing to follow and it feels like there’s more variety and more … well … wrestling when it comes to the company’s programming.
And speaking of the company’s programming …
A STRONG CARD
WWE Clash At The Castle is Saturday. One year and one week ago to the day this column publishes, WWE ran SummerSlam in Las Vegas. It was a bloated show and a whole bunch of eye-rolls ensued. The biggest headline was Becky Lynch’s return, though it did spark outrage that she beat Bianca Belair in 27 seconds to win the Smackdown Women’s Championship. Elsewhere, Alexa Bliss beat Eva Marie for no real reason, Nikki ASH came into the show as Raw Women’s Champion, Bobby Lashley sent Goldberg home, and Brock Lesnar returned to stare at Roman Reigns after Roman Reigns defeated John Cena.
Just reading that back now makes my head swivel a bit. There’s the predictable (let’s go back to Brock/Roman!). There’s the baffling (what happened to Nikki Cross again?). There’s the irrelevant (Eva Marie isn’t in the company anymore and Alexa is starting to be a little loud when it comes to her frustrations about not being involved in important stories in WWE these days). Throw those things together, and you, at the time, simply had The Recipe for the WWE cookbook.
These days, not so much. Because one year and two weeks later, we have a massive event in Wales that has the same people who dismissed that aforementioned WWE meal talking about how potentially good dinner might be this weekend. Not only is the card refreshing because of its brevity (as of this writing, we only have five matches officially announced), but the predictability isn’t quite there anymore. With all the hell Drew McIntyre has been put through, do we really think he walks out of his home country without a title? It sure would be something to see Roman Reigns take a loss for the first time in what feels like light-years.
Then there’s Gunther and Sheamus, who legitimately have the ability to steal the show when it comes to the entire weekend’s worth of wrestling, no matter the company. If you like tough dudes being tough, that’ll be the match for you. Riddle vs. Seth Rollins has been brewing for more than a month and while it might feel a little cold at this point, there’s no denying both guys have the ability to have a great wrestling match. Plus, Shayna Baszler is finally getting some love, being in a title match spot on a premium live event, and who doesn’t love to see that?
All told, it’s the tale of two companies. And also …
THE BEAUTY OF A YEAR
It’s the tale of one year.
More specifically, it’s the tale of one year and how much of a difference one year can make. AEW was the hot shot rookie point guard that came in, recorded 10 triple-doubles in the first 15 games and had the high school buzzing. But then the shots stopped falling, the turnovers mounted up and all the while, the senior big man in the middle kept racking up double-doubles, even after the rookie’s season started taking a turn in productivity. The good news is, the team still made the playoffs. The bad news is the rookie has to figure out how to sustain his play during his sophomore year.
That’s where AEW is right now. It’s the company’s first unique test (everyone had to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, no matter who you were), and the solutions aren’t coming today or tomorrow. In fact, even if they put on a great show at All Out, it’ll be hard to completely forget all that’s transpired over the last few weeks. Where will CM Punk stand with everyone in the company? Where will Thunder Rosa stand? Will more talent feel overlooked and under-appreciated? Could an inevitable MJF return actually help right the ship in any significant way?
None of this is to say it can’t be done. AEW did a lot of things right through its first few years and the things they got wrong, they did a good job of mitigating, hiding or correcting. Some of those things are catching up with them now and the announcement of new positions within the infrastructure a few weeks ago is obviously a good first step. Regardless of how much of the backstage strife is real, it’s obvious there are holes in places. If Punk and Rosa turn out to have adverse effects on the locker room, will the juice be worth the squeeze to keep them around? Not even Orange Cassidy could answer that right now.
And so, we wait. We wait to see how this weekend turns out for both companies. We wait to see if AEW can bounce back from its turmoil and we wait to see if WWE can sustain the good graces it’s earned in the ring throughout the last handful of weeks. The best part?
If the last year in wrestling has taught us anything, it’s taught us that no matter what we think those immediate answers might be one week from now, we’re going to have a whole new set of questions once September 2023 rolls around.
Dax Harwood was recently interviewed, and a recap of what he said about Punk is printed here on this site. When he was asked about RUMORS that Punk is an issue backstage, he said, “.. But I’ll tell you this, what’s the better headline? ‘CM Punk goes into business for himself and shoots on somebody?’ Or, ‘CM Punk invites Will Hobbs into his locker room and explains to him for 30 minutes what he could have done to better himself for the match earlier?’ Or if the headline says, ‘CM Punk goes to Danhausen, who came to him and asked for advice, watched his match, and CM Punk gave him notes of advice on what he could do to better the match next time?’ Or if Brock Anderson says, ‘Hey, do you mind watching our tag match tonight?’ CM Punk sits there even though he’s got a busy night and watches it and says, ‘Hey, come into my locker room. Anybody else want to come into my locker room? Let’s talk about this.’ What’s the better headline? The more juicy headline is the one of him going into business for himself.<<
BUt I understand why Mcguire, and people like him, choose to believe what they wan't and choose to believe they dont' want to believe, despite proof, or lack thereof, of either….other than dirtsheets.
AEW was a bad indie show last year. AEW is a bad indie show this year with lower ratings and a complete clown show in the locker room now that they don’t have an adult like Cody in power.
WWE was starting their first upturn in years last year as Vince finally went back to what has always worked for him, big dudes who look and act like they can fight and hot chicks that don’t mind flaunting it. Now we’ve got HHHRaw and it’s mostly a longer version of his terrible version of NXT.
” big dudes who look and act like they can fight and hot chicks that don’t mind flaunting it”
You have alluded to this platform before however it is the same thing that WCW did in the 90’s and eventually and over time they were upended by the underdog WWF who absorbed many of the medium sized and smaller guys, and at the time less marquee names. So no that direction doesn’t always pay dividends.
Secondly chicks who don’t mind flaunting it was what TNA Impact was mostly about for much of its time and it didn’t help them. Or how about this; Miss Elizabeth or Candace Michelle? Which of the two was more compelling and is more likely to make you tune into a wrestling program? It doesn’t hurt if the ladies happen to be attractive of course but there has to be more substance than that.
Stone Cold and Rock were why WWE upended WCW and they weren’t smaller guys. The smaller guys they absorbed were guys like Eddie Guerrero who was the worst drawing champ WWE has ever seen.
Trish Stratus and Lita would flaunt it at every turn and they’re HOFers who get huge pops to this day. Neither of them looked like an eating disorder with a bad wig the way Dakota Kai does.
Stone Cold is a good example; a medium sized guy (in pro wrestling terms) who WCW wasn’t going to elevate for that reason. Rock is jacked now but in his early years had much less of an Adonis like physique. Both of those guys got viewership based on their personalities and direction.
The engine that started WWF on the road back was Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, and Steve Austin, and eventually Triple H (another castoff), Mick Foley, and Rock. Diesel, Sid, and Vader were there at one point or another but didn’t do all that much for them. The only big guy really who was a constant was Undertaker.
WCW had most of the large “top shelf” guys in the mid and later nineties (Hogan, Goldberg, Nash, Giant, Luger, Sting, and then big established names like Flair, Warrior, Piper, and Savage) Among all of those guys losing an up and coming medium sized wrestler like Chris Jericho was another huge swing in momentum towards the favor of WWF. WCW in turn gets Sid Vicious from WWF and he is relegated to being just another monster who destroys cruiser-weights for fun and not much more.