Professional wrestling fans know what they want, although it often changes from generation to generation, for better or worse; whether that be flips, fists, psychology, basic “boring” mat wrestling or a million unanswered kendo stick shots to Tommy Dreamer’s cranium.
As wrestling fans we all have our preferences. You might like the hold-you-by-the-hand WWE method, or maybe you prefer the more free-flowing nature of AEW, faults and all. Or maybe you like both. (That’s possible, right?) There are many different takes on what wrestling is and can be even beyond those, such as the sport-focused NJPW or the back-to-basics approach of the NWA. The constant across all these, as well as promotions left unmentioned, is that when something clicks with fans it’s like lightning in a bottle. However, unless it’s capitalized on it’s a missed opportunity for the promotion, the wrestler and above all the fans. The spark that could have been simply fizzles out and dies.
Rusev Day, Every Day
Rusev/Miro is one example. There’s no sense in fully retreading this territory, because we know the story of how it was organically successful with fans, got over and stayed that way, and ultimately Miro was never any hotter than he was during summer 2018. Paired with Aiden English, they got the concept of a 365-day holiday completely over. And then it died. We know the rest of the story and its accounts from those involved.
There are a plethora of other examples, such as Daniel Bryan, Kofi Kingston, AJ Styles and so on, but the running theme across each is that they got over on their own and forced WWE brass to pay attention to them because fans called for it. Their successes were not company directives outright.
Unfortunately, they are the exception to the rule, and it’s a fair point to argue that Vince McMahon has been trying to force Steve Austin’s lightning rod of a soul back into the bottle since his retirement. And because few have been allowed to get over and stay unburied on the cards, what we commonly see is management dictating to fans who and what they like, whom they should and shouldn’t cheer for, or outright they will bludgeon wrestler support into oblivion and hotshot stories where it doesn’t make sense (see: Bray Wyatt).
The other half of this reality boasts Roman Reigns as its poster child; his experience with WWE and its fans over the last several years exemplifies the WWE philosophy. From roughly 2015 onward Reigns was booked as the face of the company, going as far as pseudo-retiring Undertaker at Wrestlemania 33. All the while WWE has been trying to sell fans on the notion that he was the simultaneous successor to John Cena and Undertaker. Therein rests their mistake, and what makes them different from AEW, and vice versa.
Bottled Lightning 3:16
Fans are the centrepiece of the wrestling experience, that hasn’t been any more clear than during the pandemic era where you begin to understand the role fans play in live shows. You see it by comparing empty arena shows to Thunderdome to AEW’s sparsely attended shows. Something as simple as the crowd singing “Judas” accounts for a lot and is completely organic while complementing the program. A collective of screens? Less so, but that’s better than silence.
The critical error that’s made is when the organic evolution of wrestling products are cast away in favour of something sanitary and manufactured, which is a clear distinction between how we can perceive the Reigns push of old and someone like Miro/Rusev; it’s the difference between being a big deal and being told someone is a big deal. It’s the difference between Steve Austin taking his spot, and staying over, and being told Seth Rollins (for example) is “the guy,” and whining when fans turn against him.
Where wrestling and unwavering, rhetorical contrivance meet is where WWE has failed and lost its base over the years. At some point, they became more focused on forcing the next big thing to succeed Cena and Lesnar before him, than letting that ilk develop naturally. In some odd way they’ve sabotaged themselves, while one of their staples (Randy Orton) should be a bigger deal than he is and should be their alpha.
There have been exceptions, such as Becky Lynch, Bryan, Kingston, Orton (when he’s on), or letting Styles breathe as champion, etc. Yet, for as many positive instances as there are, perception dominates and it continually feels as though we can run off a hundred names of those who deserve more — not just because they work hard or are good if not great — but because they have the fans behind them completely. It’s foregone then without fan consent, you can market a Big Dog all you like, but he’ll always be viewed as a stray.
Credit where it’s due, WWE has let Roman morph into “Joe” since returning from his cancer diagnosis, and that does a couple of things. First, it humanizes him while keeping kayfabe. Allowing him to be himself and act like himself, not just solely a forced character; this falls in line with success stories of the past. Secondly, his recent work freshens his character and, with Heyman by his side, gives him the edge he lacked and sorely needed.
All of these revelations, in tandem with simply becoming better in-ring and on the microphone put him in a better spot than 5 years ago. Why? Because he’s been allowed to breathe in the WWE ecosystem, where others have not. How it ends is yet to be written, but the dangerous move would be to force another face turn down the road (a current, unsubstantiated rumour), which would just set us back to square one if all that occurs is a Lesnar reemergence with a Heyman heel turn. The former took some courage, but if fans so much as sniff anything in the vein of a forced face turn, it’ll be for naught.
Moxy Shift on a Para-Dime
The true success of All Elite Wrestling, where the shift in wrestling’s North American paradigm has been no more evident, is in the so-called Wednesday war between NXT and Dynamite; the reason why AEW dominates is fairly transparent. Despite its growing pains and faults, they dominate the demos, dominate wrestling viewership, and unopposed, garnered more viewers than NXT these last two weeks. That isn’t a fluke, it’s consistent.
That consistency derives from the model they’ve fostered, and even more importantly, how the movement grew at a grassroots level out of All In; founded by a creatively stifled legend, a “mid-card act for life” turned undeniable draw and three of the best in the world, anchored by a champion with a chip on his shoulder.
The paradigm shift isn’t an accident, nor is it contrived. AEW’s success comes from its willingness to grow, change and thrive. From a passion that fans sense, show off and feed back into the wrestlers. It’s what WWE was in the past when its back was against the wall, and much like what it isn’t now yet sorely needs to be. WWE isn’t going away, nor is it in good standing as we walk into a future where AEW is present. However, what’s clear is WWE has stunted its own growth by manufacturing its champions rather than building them.
One of those potential champions was Rusev, who could have had his day. Instead, his future is looking brighter, the air cleaner in AEW; it’s a prime opportunity for Miro to reign.