“This cross-promotional match-up reset the tone for the division, changing the optics of what a match could be in the company. More importantly, it highlights what professional wrestling companies can accomplish when they decide to work together for the pedestrian, all-too simple goal of putting on the best possible product that puts fans ahead of ego in honour of showcasing the best of pro wrestling. At its core, that’s what All In stood for, what its spiritual successor showcased, and in the vein of Cody Rhodes and Nick Aldis, what Rosa and Shida excellently executed.” —Between The Flips & Fists, AEW All Out Shida, Rosa World Title Bout One of 2020’s Most Important Matches, Sept. 7, 2020.
Crossovers and dream scenarios paint images of what we hope for, and looking back, what could have been had the cards been dealt differently.
The NWA and WWF never crossed over when it mattered, and why would WWF at the time when Vince McMahon was leading his company into the promotional promised land upon the wave of Hulkamania. Because of that, we never got a true-to-form Ric Flair vs. Hulk Hogan match until it was under the McMahon umbrella. We can only presume that despite what he might say now, Hogan got his way and pinned Flair in their first meeting in November ’91 before taking several more countout victories over the Nature Boy; hilariously, also including the night after Flair claimed the WWF title in the 1992 Royal Rumble.
Dictating the rules of the game, and ultimately how it’s played, comes with the territory of running the only wrestling game in “town” aside from that handful of years WCW really, truly had the McMahon dynasty on the verge of verbally tapping out. We know how that story played out. Fault Vince McMahon all you like, but he knows how to run his business and he knows how to cash in his content and transform it into billion dollar deals whether the product is actually worth watching or not. That’s a no-win, moot discussion.
Part of that comes down to protecting the brand itself, which the McMahons have done almost flawlessly in combination with cashing in on the right people at the right time, be it Steve Austin, Brock Lesnar, the Rock, HHH, Randy Orton or John Cena. And if you subscribe to the “WWE-or-bust narrative,” that’s the end all and be all of professional wrestling, sports entertainment or however else you’d like to brand its makeup. However, that’s always resulted in alienating segments of fans caught in the crossfire.
Now there’s no doubt that isn’t universal. Much like today where we seemingly see a few hundred thousand crossover fans between AEW and NXT every week, there surely have been fans over the years who, regardless of whether the target promotion was WCW or ECW, or even that NWA crossover in the late ’90s, that many will simply watch a given product because they like pro wrestling.
Over the years, notably in the late ’90s, WWE did run crossover-style angles with the NWA stable story anchored by the likes of Jeff Jarrett, Barry Windham, Dan Severn, the Rock ‘n Roll Express and Jim Cornette. They also certainly did their part in helping ECW promote their forthcoming Barely Legal PPV in early 1997 right in the thick of the Monday Night Wars, with WCW firmly ahead in the ratings. I’m sure you’d find additional examples in the past, but even McMahon himself was open to working with other promotions either overtly or behind the scenes if the means are justified by the ends. They’re simply interesting stories, and when executed well, they capture your imagination in their capitalizing on dream scenarios such as yearning for “world champion A” to challenge “world champion B” with both titles on the line.
Whatever McMahon’s motives, which you can only speculate, WWF and ECW history are very much intertwined. For a time, regardless, they worked together to a mutual benefit much in the same way WCW and NJPW worked together prior to Vince Russo’s arrival in the company. It opens doors or avenues otherwise left unexplored.
Brave New World Primed For An Invasion
The 2001 Invasion angle was a colossal disappointment, let’s get that out in the open as there can’t be many who can defend it as a whole. In contrast to the NWA and ECW narratives WWE ran in 1997 and 1998, this invasion story was the culmination of WCW and ECW’s demise in early 2001 which led to McMahon buying WCW outright and purchasing ECW’s assets. By May, Lance Storm debuted on Raw and over the next several weeks various WCW talents debuted, wrestled and were ultimately joined by former ECW talents to form the Alliance (headed by the McMahon children). Suffice to say the angle derailed fairly quickly after the Invasion pay-per-view.
Former WCW wrestlers now employed by WWF took the central roles in the story, not the actual WCW workers themselves who were with the company as it nosedived (albeit given many sat out the duration of their AOL contracts and didn’t make themselves available). Nonetheless, WWF stars dominated the story, WWF stars won WCW titles left and right and by the end of the arc it was clear McMahon’s primary goal was to bury the myth of WCW.
Over the years we did see Eric Bischoff and a reincarnation of the nWo in WWE, but the real punctuating moment came when Sting finally signed a WWE deal in 2014 and worked a WrestleMania match against HHH the following year. It’s no grand stretch to call their bout an overbooked mess like the Invasion angle that preceded it 14 years prior, with members of DX and the nWo getting involved. As we know, HHH took the win in what was deemed by some fans as a final battle between WWE and WCW. It simply felt deliberate, and unfortunately the match most fans seemingly wanted — Sting vs. Undertaker — never came to fruition.
Taking A Step Forward
This is all important because it sets two narratives out, two versions of Vince McMahon in terms of cross promotion or collaboration. We know his ruthlessness in the ’80s all too well, but the dichotomy here between Vince in 1997-98 and Vince post-2001 is very stark in contrast. In the former example, we saw someone willing to stretch ideas out, to involve other promotions or feature other company titles such as the NWA or ECW world titles; who can forget Taz being sent back to ECW to reclaim the world title from Mike Awesome? Even if Taz did get beaten by HHH in a WWE world title match in a WWE ring days later. The crux here is there was a point where Vince McMahon was less rigid with how he did business, his company for lack of better phrasing was less insular and it simply became no longer the case once “he’d won.”
The reason we’re establishing this is because for all the criticism and naysaying from some corners of the Internet Wrestling Community since the Impact-AEW partnership first materialized on camera, AEW is retreading the exact ground WWF was in the late ’90s as they worked other companies or promotions into their stories and helped buoy companies less well off (with NWA and ECW ironically somewhat in the same boat). That criticism is exponentially hypocritical, if we’re calling a spade a spade.
Where this current cross-promotion, “working agreement” scenario between AEW, NJPW and Impact (and NWA to whatever degree they’re involved at this point) is concerned, the three companies have graduated McMahon’s insular notion of an Invasion story and seemingly, for now, are actively working with their partners to bring segmented wrestling fans together to provide fresh ideas, fresh match-ups and something professional wrestling has not had for quite some time: an open landscape where any one wrestler can appear on any one show at any given time. Just last week, AEW Dynamite featured its own talent in combination with contracted wrestlers from NJPW, NWA and Impact. This week KENTA will be on Dynamite again, and a few weeks from now, Moxley will be defending his IWGP US title against him on NJPW Strong. Later this week Private Party will be on Impact PPV with Matt Hardy contesting the Impact Tag Team titles.
This is all happening with AEW as the hub for others to come in and showcase their talent, their promotions, and even if the majority of fans crossover between all three, the end result is a landscape that acknowledges “the other” and doesn’t insult fans’ intelligence by presuming other promotions don’t exist unless they’re in jest as putdowns as WWE has done in the past with both Impact and ECW. And unfortunately we have to face a reality that, while WWE is still inking billion dollar deals that do have potential to grow their fanbase, that in terms of cultivating the health of its actual content (not the quantity of it) the WWE creative and philosophical model is floundering.
Going All In
“While you may dismiss this as fan service, the counterpoint rests in the reality that as consumers of this product the idea of dream matches always intrigues and prevails; that possibility that two world champions can compete for supremacy with one left standing at the end with their head and belts held high. This is the new frontier wrestling needs to shift towards, a move set into motion two years ago. It need not be frequent, as its shine would diminish, but imagine for a moment a landscape where once a year the major companies came together and put on a supershow featuring the industry’s best in a modern, true showcase of the immortals. One akin to All In or the MSG supershow last year.” —Between The Flips & Fists, AEW All Out Shida, Rosa World Title Bout One of 2020’s Most Important Matches, Sept. 7, 2020.
All credit due to Vince McMahon; pro wrestling simply wouldn’t have risen to the heights we’ve known without him. We wouldn’t have the memories we have without him. That notwithstanding, his influence and ego have also been a bane on the perception of wrestling amongst segments of fans who followed it religiously or who fell off and lost interest over time. In that, while he and his company have the capacity to build a brighter future for all fans, such as through its Peacock deal and fledgling youth attraction efforts, collectively they are also the nexus of how we’ve arrived at this eroding point in wrestling’s history.
The declining numbers over the last decade outlines that story, it is what it is and there’s no real argument against it — generally speaking less fans watch wrestling now than 20 years ago. Who knows why. It could be Vince, it could be poor development or creative, or it could be the rise of the UFC since 2005 considering their PPV numbers dwarf WWE’s best prior to the Network. It could also simply be that no competition has satisfactorily risen for any length of time worth mentioning. It could just be a combination of factors, but one conclusion to draw is wrestling as a whole has staled in terms of its ability to draw widespread interest.
Even if you want to use Brock Lesnar as an example, his highest WWE buyrates were often roughly tripled by UFC PPV buyrates with him featured in a co-main or main event. Lesnar may have very well helped boost Network subscribers, but it also isn’t directly quantifiable. This potential reality of the business is something that demands to be entertained. So the next question is what comes next. In lieu of the next big star coming along to set the business ablaze for WWE, AEW and its partners have the right idea for now where working relationships are concerned. It’s an admission wrestling can’t be moved forward unless collaboration is a central plank of that foundation to make the business seem grander than it is.
That’s what All In illustrated, coupled with bold steps to enable ROH, NJPW, Impact, NWA and a host of independent wrestlers to work together for one night to celebrate professional wrestling. The truth of the matter is All In was necessary, and what’s happening now is the product of the work the Elite laid down in 2018 off Dave Meltzer’s hapless, off-base meanderings. That show was the spark that set everything we have before us right now into motion; it’s the push wrestling needs not only just for those involved but WWE as well as it’s evident they’re static.
As they did in September, Mox’s proclamation weeks ago that all roads of wrestling lead through him adds gravity to his admission, while those comments he made after All Out regarding working with other promotions have turned from a pipedream into reality. And as it is, there was some truth in this very column back in September where it was stated plainly that the Hikaru Shida-Thunder Rosa match from All Out was the catalyst for what’s no longer just over yesterday’s horizon, but rather, is the dawn of a fresh, new day.
What lays ahead is an opportunity for a true invasion story, true cross promotion and matchups we wouldn’t have thought possible a year ago. That may not break new ground for any one promotion, it won’t create new superstars or manias, but it’s going to help pull each individual promotion up to a new level. It helps companies break ground on new ventures. It helps give fans something to get excited over, it gets fans talking as it has all over social media regardless of whether it’s to fully support or detract from the phenomenon. Buzz in wrestling has always been critical to its success, and it’s something the last 20 years with few exceptions has accomplished; instead cultivating utter malaise.
The time is now, as it was then in 1997-98, for wrestling companies and fans to come together for this unique moment in time. The wrestling landscape is no different now than it was then, it’s just that the players and their roles have changed. Companies working together. Wrestlers appearing on a competitor’s programming. The potential for title vs. title dream matches. The potential for something buzz-creating to affect the landscape. The door is open to a new wrestling kingdom — its creaking hinges mark the paradigm shifting.