McGuire’s Mondays: AEW lost to NXT… Now what?


By Colin McGuire, Staffer (@McGMondays)

Well. So, now what?

We’re nearly a week removed from the ballyhooed Tuesday Night War between AEW and WWE. For those who missed it, the former had its Dynamite television show, which typically airs on Wednesday, bumped to Tuesday for Warner Bros. Discovery’s sports coverage last week. The latter, which airs its NXT show on Tuesday nights, decided to take that head-to-head opportunity, load up its show with legends, and (unsurprisingly) defeat AEW in the ratings war, if only for a night.

Finger-pointing, debating, arguing and everything in between then commenced between fan bases. “NXT filled their show with established legends, so this battle doesn’t even really count,” some fans argued. “This proves AEW isn’t even remotely in WWE’s league, despite what so many fans try to claim,” others retorted.

The pettiness in debates didn’t have any favors done for it when AEW owner Tony Khan dusted off his Twitter machine to provide one of his now-patented social media meltdowns. Rather than rehash that here, I’d recommend giving Jason Powell’s piece from last week on this very website a read. He ran through it much more eloquently than I ever could, and on top of that, he kind of/sort of offered quite the premise for a barstool argument: What would the wrestling world look like if Tony Khan chose grace instead of defiance?

It’s a question I batted around my head for a few days. Part of me wonders if Khan is knowingly being publicly petulant as a means to adhere to the old carny promoter days (anyone want to even try mapping out how Twitter would have worked in the territory era? Bill Watts would have been canceled quicker than a Kanye West shoe deal). Another part of me worries of Khan is actually that unlikeable and he’s a rich kid responding in rich kid ways to certain adversities.

Whichever it is, it’s not fun anymore.

And that’s why I asked what I asked at the beginning. So, now what? AEW didn’t just lose the ratings battle last Tuesday; it got categorically crushed by most every metric. And that’s OK. In fact, if I was Khan or anybody in the AEW locker room, I wouldn’t hang my head in shame for last week. The mere announcement of the company will turn five years old on January 1. There isn’t a single industry in this world where you can walk into the room, take on the biggest competitor – a competitor who has had a decades-long head start, mind you – and realistically expect to eclipse them within half a decade. I would never begrudge aiming for the stars, but if you miss and take up residence on some clouds for a while, that’s a fine place to lay your head, too.

Still, AEW feels like it’s searching for the lowest pillow in the sky rather than figuring out a way to hitch a ride with a rocket. It wasn’t always like this, of course. AEW was a company that came along at a time when WWE really kind of sucked. Khan’s pet project didn’t just feel like an alternative; it felt like a lifeline. A brand new product with some of the coolest names in wrestling not attached to The WWE Machine spearheading it? Awesome. Let’s give it a shot. Good graces were high. The Little Engine That Could became an entity so easy to root for, you almost felt dirty watching the drudge that WWE was coming up with each week.

It’s not like that anymore. WWE feels like it’s out from underneath the shadow of Vince McMahon and the Bloodline saga has become the biggest draw in all of pro wrestling. AEW, meanwhile, feels like a company struggling to get its groove back. Need some examples? OK:

– Adam Copeland coming into AEW should have felt – and should still continue to feel – bigger than it actually does. Love him, hate him, or don’t care about him, Edge’s reception in WWE rings felt top-of-the-card level. Now, no matter how you cut it, seeing still photos of him talking to half-empty undersized arenas makes his presence feel underwhelming. It wasn’t until this past Saturday on Collision, when he laid into Ricky Starks on the microphone, that anything he’s done thus far has felt meaningful. Jade Cargill, meanwhile, is making quite an impression on the other channel without saying a word.

– MJF serves the company better as a heel than he does as a babyface. I’m sorry, but them’s the facts. I applaud his work outside of the wrestling world standing up against antisemitism, and there’s no way he’ll ever be not entertaining, but his ruthlessness is part of what makes him shine. The Adam Cole friendship has been fun in doses (though I may be in the minority when I say that it ran its course for me weeks ago), but now that Cole is out with an injury that will keep him sidelined for a long while, it feels like MJF has cooled off, and there isn’t much in front of him that will heat him up. I’m a big fan of Jay White and Juice Robinson, and I have even come around on Austin Gunn and Colten Gunn, but nothing about that program right now feels like it’s must-see. Kudos to AEW for announcing a world title match more than a month before the next pay-per-view, but when the company’s main protagonist (and world champion) doesn’t feel as effective as he once was, things feel more disappointing than they do thriving.

– Does everybody still love The Acclaimed? Like, really? Do they? Max Caster’s raps were some of the highlights of AEW television shows for months. They felt fresh, unpredictable, occasionally smart, and always at least somewhat edgy. These days … eh. Now that the weird stalker-like angle he’s been working with MJF on social media has spilled onto actual programming, things feel more confusing than they do intriguing. Plus, of all the AEW titles that have been defined by at least one reign and established as meaningful by at least one act (Orange Cassidy with the International title, Cargill with the TBS belt, Christian Cage, Brodie Lee or even Cody Rhodes with the TNT strap, etc.), the trios titles have yet to get that boost from anyone. The closest has probably been the House of Black, but Malakai Black never seems to stick around long enough for any of what he does to feel relevant. My hopes were high when The Acclaimed won them, but things haven’t quite worked out in a way that’s elevated either the team or the titles.

Now, these were just issues that came to the top of my mind after a quick audit of where some things in AEW stand today. There are more, of course, but at the end of the day, did you notice what so many of those issues included? Feel. Nothing in AEW feels like it has a bunch of momentum behind it (with the possible exception of Toni Storm, but that’s a conversation for another day). It’s hard to place blame on any one person or any single thing; it’s just that you see a company with dwindling viewership and live event attendance hoping to find something that will take it to the next level and always coming up short. You can’t say they aren’t trying. You can’t say they don’t care. You can’t say it’s hopeless. It just feels static, no matter how many times someone tries to tell me that the place is so much better without CM Punk in it.

Ahhh, yes. The CM Punk discourse. Divorce yourself from all the nonsense that’s been surrounding him over the past year, and zoom in on this one little reality: Even before he came back to pro wrestling, he was always the trump card that sat out in the ether for any company to pull. So many people clamored to see him wrestle again and so much anticipation was built, it got to the point where if there was a company that could actually lure him back in, that company would be lauded and forever-loved by at least a sizable amount of the pro wrestling fan base because that sizable amount includes CM Punk loyalists.

AEW won that lottery. To know that they did so at a time when both Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson were also going to make the jump from WWE … it’s the textbook definition of “when the stars align.” It feels like forever ago now, but AEW was actually living in peaceful harmony, collecting the most beloved wrestling names in the business, seemingly growing its infrastructure with each expiring WWE contract. Now that the CM Punk trump card has been pulled, played and disposed of, what’s left for AEW to do in order to generate a similar amount of buzz? Nobody could probably ever replicate the amount of anticipation Punk built throughout his absence from pro wrestling, but there should be someone or something out there that could respectfully come kind of close to that type of hype and be a genuine needle-mover for Khan’s company … right?

Maybe not. That’s what I keep going back to when I think about the options AEW has left to grow. Outside of Roman Reigns jumping – and that’s never going to happen – what is there left? Perhaps the silent trickier side of mashing up pro wrestling companies on a whim (like AEW has done with NJPW, AAA, CMLL, etc.) is that when you invite everyone to the party, the party doesn’t feel exclusive anymore. Imagine if AEW and New Japan Pro Wrestling never opened that forbidden door and Will Ospreay quietly jumped to AEW full-time. Buzz would be had. Heads would be turned. Anticipation would be built. But because we’ve been in video game mode for so long, it simply doesn’t feel like there are a lot of options left for AEW to spark a flame and gain some notoriety beyond the AEW die-hard fanbase. It all adds up to one big …

Well. So, now what?

I don’t have those answers. I’m just a lowly wrestling fan who writes some things sometimes. What I do know, however, is that it would be a shame to see AEW fade into Impact Land or late-era WCW Land and never quite kick into the type of game-changing gear it once felt was so obtainable. With any luck, the drubbing the company received at the hands of WWE last Tuesday will inspire some of AEW’s decision-makers to take a hard look at where they can improve and somehow develop a plan to make things interesting again. The time for publicly taking pot shots at WWE on social media should be laid to rest for good and instead of worrying about whatever their competition is doing, it might be a valuable idea to simply try to make better what they already have in front of them.

Suffice to say, John Cena and the Undertaker appearing on a show that holds less than a million viewers on a Tuesday night in October should be the least of Tony Khan’s worries. And I, for one, hope, for the sake of all that’s good in professional wrestling, the AEW owner can finally put his phone down long enough to realize that.


Readers Comments (1)

  1. Really good article with some great insight. I’m in this weird spot right now with everything…

    WWE – for over a decade – basically just trained me to not trust them, not get overly excited for any character that seemed to be growing (because their push would inevitably be tanked or stopped or just mis-handled). I mean, shoot, I popped huge for everything that was happening with The Man – I thought it was going to change everything and it happened out of nowhere. And then it just fizzled. I know part of that was her leave of absence but still… I don’t know that may not be the best example.

    Point is, while I’ve DEFINITELY seen a change in WWE over the past year or two, and I’m really excited about guys like L.A. Knight, it’s going to take another 5-10 years before I can ever really trust WWE enough to invest in it on a weekly basis like I used to.

    Sometimes I think (and this is actually general for all pro wrestling) it all looks too extravagant – too many lights, overproduction… it all looks slick but to me it takes away from what really made things like the Attitude Era special. All of that overproduction just overshadows the talent, IMHO. So much so that it seems like the most important thing is, for instance, WWE itself, as opposed to any of the talent. None of the talent will ever be allowed to “get that big”. Cena did, but that was 15-20 years ago. I just don’t see that happening again any time soon, which means no matter how popular any one talent gets, there’s a ceiling. And WWE will implement it.

    I dunno… maybe that has something to do with WWE being a publicly traded company with a board.

    As for AEW… I agree with everything pretty much that’s being said. I’m very disappointed in Tony. I’m disappointed in his booking. I’m disappointed in how he runs the ship. I’m disappointed that he doesn’t get help. I’m disappointed that there doesn’t seem to be a “focus”.

    In a lot of ways Tony is becoming everything we didn’t like about Vince in the last decade… but without Vince’s experience. Vince at least had that going for him.

    Yet, I still watch AEW religiously. Maybe that’s because it’s just an alternative I’m willing to invest in. Maybe that’s because I just love that there’s an alternative… Maybe in the end it’s because while I’m feeling meh about them right now, that only started recently… they haven’t had ten years+ to burn me.

    At the end of the day I think the biggest part of that disappointment comes from the fact that they have ALL the tools, money and talent… but somehow still can’t get it together. To me, that’s largely on Tony – shooting himself in the foot. It’s almost like no one over there is thinking “smart”.

    And for Fs sake get those exec talents wrangled!

    I really want AEW to be a viable alternative. And we have a TON of time and potential for that to happen. I don’t need them to win ratings wars, or anything like that. But if they go the way Impact went… I dunno… I haven’t taken Impact seriously in YEARS… probably since 2010 or 2011. I understand they have a decent product now… but my point here is that if AEW goes the way Impact did… I won’t really have any hope for any new product to come along. In my mind it’ll start hot and then fizzle and not be worth my time. That’s what I’m hoping doesn’t happen because it’ll be hard for me to invest in anything wrestling at that point.

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