Two weeks ago AEW’s Tony Khan proclaimed that there was going to be a shift in the wrestling landscape, a comment many across the Internet Wrestling Community took at face value to mean that particular night. Imagine the surprise, especially among AEW detractors when nothing happened. Those people were not wrong necessarily then; as one good turn deserves another, if WWE doesn’t follow through on their pledges and gets scorned, so should AEW.
Here’s the thing though. That was two weeks ago, and now we’re in the aftermath of only the dawn of what’s coming over the horizon of the professional wrestling landscape. Not only did AEW deliver an excellent night of wrestling, they did something this column challenged them to do not two days ago; something they have utterly failed to do in nearly a year and that’s execute a plan to create a moment in time that ever-so briefly forces you to forget you know better. And they did it twice within a single hour.
Thinking back to what we remember most about 2020, or even any year really where wrestling is concerned, there are iconic moments or incidents that reshape the landscape on the smaller end of the spectrum as much as it does on the higher end. They make the child-like fan in you pop, or send your mind spiraling out of control with the scenarios that become possible when the unforeseen actually happens. Think Edge returning at this year’s Royal Rumble. Brock destroying everyone that same show, only to be obliterated by Drew McIntyre and eliminated. Think Nick Aldis and Cody Rhodes at All In. Hogan and Andre, or Hogan and Warrior. Hell, Hogan and Rock. Think Cody smashing that throne, or the raw emotion of his match with his brother that same show. Finally, there are those wonderful moments where you’re caught by surprise, like when Lance Storm burst into a WWE ring to (literally) kick off the WCW invasion angle, or when during part of that storyline (before it became absurd) when ECW was revived.
There’s so much more to professional wrestling than the technical side of it. You could watch Angelico or Zack Sabre Jr. all day, but in the end they’re both just dicks and that’s frankly the end of it. And that’s the difference between promoting wrestling based just on its spellcasting technical wizardry, and promoting wrestling as something that is combat-based, ripe with personality and creates moments that take you back to your starting point as a fan before the cynicism and tribalized bullshit set in. Sting returning Wednesday night, much like the first time you see him, or during his returns as the Crow in WCW, Impact, or WWE, captivates. Those reactions from the fans that were able to be there were genuine, that’s what being a fan is, what it’s supposed to be regardless of brand or promotion. And that was only the beginning.
The same hour Sting debuted in AEW, Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley went toe-to-toe for over a half-hour over the AEW World Championship. In the previous column we talked about how critical this title match was for AEW as a company, why that was, and in conjunction with Sting, why it needed to be impactful and something that got people talking.
Kenny Omega’s ascension as AEW Champion was a slow burn any goof could have seen coming, but it still mattered how we got there. Moreover, why we’re even doing it… what’s the purpose? The “how” and “why” is always what matters, and it’s frankly where WWE stumbles more than they should because they’re capable of so much more than just “whos” and “whens” to sell you on them.
Those questions have simple answers.
Jon Moxley was the reigning and defending AEW champion, who defeated Omega over a year ago and broke him; but did not “finish him.” Omega, being an egocentric character, couldn’t handle that so he retooled, prepared, and when the time was right, returned to soothe his wounded ego with a title victory. No real gimmicks. No bells, maybe some microphones, but certainly no whistles. Their story ran its course from the night Moxley debuted in AEW in 2019, and through the twists and turns of their story, if you were watching closely you always knew the time would come where they would have their rematch. As the threads were woven closer and closer together these last few weeks, their paths narrowed to the point where they were walking in step with each other. It was an excellent dance. Nothing mind-blowing, but it told its story and was complemented by great action that ticked off all the boxes that AEW needed the match to be. The company spent barely three weeks truly reigniting the feud and building towards this encounter, and the match itself on its own proved that Moxley and Omega are drawing cards for the company.
The second piece of the main event puzzle were the plot threads that were paid off from several weeks ago at Full Gear when Don Callis appeared at the AEW announce desk to commentate Omega’s title eliminator match with Hangman Page. This was a completely pedestrian event if you knew their history, as Callis had called many of Omega’s big matches prior to AEW. So it was no shock that he appeared once again as his old friend contested the world title.
Much like Omega’s match with Page, Callis remained in the booth and performed his guest duties. However, unlike the previous bout, in the closing moments with Mox in control he interjected into the match; under the guise of checking on his friend who had just been dumped on his head. For his troubles he got decked by Mox, but classically rolled in a microphone he’d been holding, like any old heel manager would. Omega grabbed it, smacked Mox, kneed him into oblivion and suddenly the unconquerable champion had been robbed of his crown. Kenny Omega is the new AEW Champion, in his heel “Cleaner” persona. That wasn’t the news, that was expected. The real twist came as Callis hurriedly escorted Omega out of the building not too dissimilarly to how HBK was escorted away from ringside at Survivor Series ’97. Then as they left, Callis, the Impact Wrestling EVP, told viewers to tune into Impact on Tuesday to find out “why” Kenny cheated, turned and took the AEW title to Impact television.
Their story was established in 2019, part of it was told and left to gestate, and then was paid off in spades 19 months later in a swift, shrewd Invasion-style, inter-promotional world title heist the WCW Invasion, for all its hopefulness, failed to become. What’s even more noteworthy is that it was a true inter-promotional agreement, not the mirage, nepotism-infused wreck of 2001. Previously we talked about how important cross promotion has become in 2020 and how it’s the path forward, especially now with the realities of the pandemic leaving most promotions short on revenue streams. Where we find ourselves now, on the back of Thunder Rosa and Serena Deeb shifting back and forth between UWN, NWA and AEW television, is a point where AEW are actively working with Impact and the NWA. We have rumours of NJPW working with Impact. UWN is a haven for indie promoters and wrestlers from places such as MLW and now ROH. And even beyond those, many of those promotions’ wrestlers are appearing on NJPW Strong on NJPW World every Friday night. The shift towards collaboration is very real, it is happening now right in front of us and that is something to be truly excited about if you’re full stop a fan of professional wrestling as a whole. It’s one of the most promising moves for the business in recent memory.
There’s a running theme here. “Why.” Why now, why these promotions and what will it accomplish? Some have rightly pointed out online that AEW really doesn’t gain much from this Impact-AEW partnership, beyond bolstering the women’s division a bit. When you look at Impact’s weekly numbers on AXS, it’s a fraction of Dynamite’s numbers. Some weeks Dark surely beats it. And it’s the same as well with NWA. What does AEW get from that arrangement, other than opening the door to a trilogy match between Rhodes and Aldis, and access to Rosa? Can’t be much financially. Maybe a slight increase to viewership if they’re advertised. So, what then?
It comes back to the simple act of working together under the pretense of celebrating professional wrestling in the spirit of All In. It’s the inter-promotional pipedreams and bonafide dream matches. It’s the Young Bucks vs. MCG, or #FTR vs. the North. It’s Omega becoming a tri-world champion and becoming belligerently insufferable as a heel. It’s about AEW, Impact and their partners creating moments, hype, buzz and most importantly dragging the business back to a time where we couldn’t predict what was going to happen absolutely every day. It’s about making it unpredictable again, and about being surprised and genuinely thrilled. That’s what the closing Dynamite angle means, that’s what Sting’s return represents. And if this all works and it forces WWE to step up its game to meet that challenge as we know they can, then everyone wins in the end. Not the least of which, are the fans.
One more for… us. Not AEW, not NXT or by extension WWE. Collectively, “us,” the fans.
More is made out of this Wednesday night squabble than is worth debating. Whoever wins from week to week is irrelevant; who cares? AEW winning most of the weeks forced NXT to dust off the old WCW PPV names and in those weeks NXT outright beat AEW regardless of what “Money Mark Khan” booked. But the more important number we should be looking at is the combined viewership, which for that week was 1.657M, far above the rolling average of 1.472M since Sept. 30. That number is worth pointing out, as it’s followed by AEW and NXT combining for 1.598M on Sept. 30, and this past week where tweener fans largely chose to watch AEW with a strong 913K audience, with both shows combining for 1.571M viewership.
The more recent examples show us that when promotions plan their booking out and map out a strategy, and then market it competently, fans respond regardless of whether it’s a nostalgic PPV name and gimmicks or something as simple as Mox and Omega’s boiling feud. It indicates there’s a thirst for it, a desire for what people watch to matter and for there to be a payoff. Both shows deliver that. Whichever show has the edge from one week to the next doesn’t matter. What does matter, however, is that combined viewership increased by 149,000 from last week, and about 80,000 from two weeks ago. There’s a strong argument to be made that those increases are largely a result of the Omega-Mox feud and the build up to War Games this weekend. Plan, execute, payoff. That’s what matters, not who had more viewers, or who had the higher percentage of the average viewership baseline. That isn’t constructive, and it accomplishes nothing other than further tribalizing fans into pockets of brand-centric lunacy. And when it comes to TV deals, take care of the product and the deals settle themselves.
Once is a Fluke, Twice is a Trend
Viewership increases are nice, but unlike WWE-proper, which either drops or fluctuates within a very thin margin, the Wednesday night shows are all over the place with average numbers ranging from 1.327M up to 1.657M for the week of Halloween Havoc. Those combined totals are made up of an erratic combination of fans watching one or the other depending on what’s booked with an underlying contingent of die hard loyalists (I’d assume). When it’s all tabulated by the end of most Thursdays, all that matters in my view from a non-business perspective is whether they surpassed the previous week’s totals, whether they beat the rolling average, and based on who won the previous week, how the other group responds. So what does that mean now, as we head off into this brave new inter-promotional world? AEW’s 913K mark means nothing if they don’t capitalize on the buzz, and it’s NXT’s job to respond and spur competition.
Presently AEW has already announced or booked most of its next show, a chunk of which builds off this past Wednesday with both Sting and Omega set to speak on the episode. In addition, a handful of matches were already announced, like the Dynamite Diamond match and the return of #FTR. How that show performs, and how NXT comes out of War Games will paint a more detailed image of what this week’s numbers actually mean. However, what we also need to take note of is how Impact performs this week off the back of the Callis-Omega caper on Dynamite. Their numbers are typically fairly low, so the questions that we’ll be looking to have answered are how much of Impact’s base watches AEW, as we can assume right now they’re one and the same. More importantly, what we’re going to be looking at is whether or not there’s an increase in their viewers and ratings because that will be an indicator of what sort of traction this entire inter-promotional concept has early on in its development. If Impact’s ratings go up, that’s a win. If AEW numbers go up, AND NXT overperforms out of War Games, that’s a win. Ratings don’t mean everything, but as we’ve seen with WWE proper, they’re a barometer of how the product is perceived by fans who either choose to watch it live, recorded or clipped/streamed on social platforms.
So much of what we watch, or have watched over the last 20 years or so has been more or less a single note. Every so often an ROH will gain steam, but stumble. TNA rose, yet faceplanted. Meanwhile, NJPW still struggles to forge a base in North America. WCW and ECW in their truest forms are long dead, and for a reason. AEW coming to fruition, and now self-actualization (as much as an entity can) is the product of a small group of people who believed, with or without the Khans, that they could maybe not shift the balance of power in the wrestling sphere, but at least expand the platform as a whole to offer more of what has been missing.
There’s still a lot WWE does well. Its wrestlers are talented, yet there’s also a ceiling on the company’s potential. We don’t really know with any degree of certainty. Yet, direction and scope have been issues, and with its near aimlessness outside a small percentage of the product, there’s scarcely a satisfying payoff for our time. And if we’re investing our time in a promotion, regardless of which one it is, we deserve that. I don’t think we as fans, or as consumers, should expect less than that. Nothing less than the best wrestling possible, the most interesting products possible that force you up and out of your chairs with a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. Maybe both, if it’s done right. And if makes you feel something, no matter where it comes from, shouldn’t that be the point?