The back end of AEW’s quartet of pay-per-views will be remembered for a number of moments, not the least of which being the ones that didn’t deliver the promised “carnage” of an “exploding” ring.
Amid the hoopla of the barbwire deathmatch between Jon Moxley and Kenny Omega, an array of grudge matches ranging from normal to cinematic, or gimmick matches with title implications, under the radar this past weekend was the AEW Women’s World Title match between champion Hikaru Shida and Ryo Mizunami.
That may seem shocking — or not — considering the company’s unbelievably poor track record of booking its women’s division. Most believe it’s a huge crack in the company’s foundation, and a substantial one at that. For far too long, especially since the pandemic began last spring, the ladies of AEW have been lucky to have any spot on the TNT-based show; more often than not they have been featured in the “9:30 death slot,” and typically were anchored by the much beloved (at least by JR) picture-in-picture commercial breaks.
Despite a roster filled with women, notwithstanding some unable to travel from Japan up until recently, it’s been shockingly uncommon to see more than one segment featuring the female athletes; oftentimes excluding Shida herself from the shows in favour of the “women’s match of the week,” which on any random week could have been something like Penelope Ford vs. Leva Bates for no narrative or logistical reason.
While many of the criticisms levied onto AEW are very subjective, the inalienable reality of the women’s division is there’s no arguing against the position that AEW’s women have been underutilized or even undervalued by the company. While Tony Khan and Kenny Omega may publicly say otherwise, and they are likely telling the truth, the problem is historically there has been a disconnect between what AEW communicates through its braintrust and how that translates to the product as it develops.
Although it has to be conceded the majority of the division has been, until recently, either fairly green or flat out inexperienced with respect to wrestling for television, that doesn’t excuse the company’s track record or presumed lack of consideration for building a division that has lagged behind the much more stacked and talent-rich WWE roster. Over the last several weeks since the AEW women’s tournament began in earnest the tides of that company’s division have been shifting, indicating they’re beginning to finally take the division with moderate seriousness.
The WWE divisions are the standard-bearers at the moment with talent in spades and the platforms to complement them. Rhetorically and in practice WWE has taken their divisions seriously from the moment they’ve decided they were going to, whereas AEW has been historically caught somewhere Impact and WOH; there is no excuse for it especially when the formerly-less-experienced women on the AEW roster have steadily improved as they’ve gotten their reps in on AEW Dark. Foremost, the issue with that is not everyone watches Dark, or notably prior to a few weeks ago, even knew who Red Velvet was leading into her mixed tag team match with Shaq, Jade Cargill and Cody Rhodes.
Problematically so the women of the company have been mostly hidden away on YouTube as they’ve developed, which is a double-edged sword. On one hand you wouldn’t want someone like an Anna Jay or Alex Gracia on live television until they were ready. Conversely, it literally looks like you don’t care as a company and are fine with your show featuring 80% males from week to week, even when the choice is featuring someone like Peter Avalon over Tay Conti, Red Velvet, Anna Jay or any other better option on a given episode.
“Champion in Waiting” Britt Baker famously encouraged fans not to tune away from the show when the women came on, that if you want to see more women on the programs akin to WWE’s output, that fans need to watch and show that support for women. Otherwise the vicious cycle reciprocates and AEW continues its trek away from its supposed mission statements of equality and diversity. Moreover, during the last several weeks with NXT and AEW going head-to-head it was the women’s matches on Dynamite that drew the most attention, and substantially more so as the tournament wore on.
The reason why is simple.
Especially with — but not limited to — the return of the Joshis to the United States, the roster has been putting on great matches for months. If you’re going to contend the point that the AEW women have improved, then ask why on two different year-end polls why they had two different winners (Dom Mysterio and Pat McAfee), yet on both AEW’s Anna Jay was in second place on both lists. That isn’t an accident or misjudgment, it’s a reflection of where she’s come from in less than 30 matches and is also indicative of how far along the division has come. They’re certainly behind WWE, but in their own right the talents have been matched up with renewed purpose.
The issue, however, is most of the tournament played out away from Dynamite, a reality that even amid their successes has plagued the division. Moreover, with Shida in Japan to help produce the Japanese bracket, the champion — the objective of the whole tournament — was relatively invisible. Despite match quality having improved, despite great matches and despite a good idea, the tournament execution was poor and rings sharply reminiscent of the company’s haphazard approach to date.
Looking just at the American side of the bracket, giving credit where it’s due first, it was well-booked, featured great matches and reestablished and revived Nyla Rose as a monster-type character and a threat to the division. This was highlighted by her running through the bracket with fantastic matches against Tay Conti, Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa before losing in the finals. Most predicted Baker would win it all and assume Shida’s throne this past weekend, which is seemingly much of the reason it appears to underwhelm. That flatly comes down to the women on the American bracket being better known commodities in wrestling. Conversely, the only women viewers MIGHT know would be the ones who had previously appeared on AEW shows, namely Yuka Sakazaki, Emi Sakura, Aja Kong and eventual winner Ryo Mizunami.
Once more sticking with the positives, one of the criticisms handed down on the tournament was that so much of it, like everything else the women do, is booked for spots on YouTube shows and specials. The entirety of the Japanese bracket was on YouTube, supplemented further as weeks went on by the American bracket to pad out the hour as the brackets narrowed. Specifically with the Monday shows, it demonstrated that if AEW committed to showcasing the women, as has been the case on their TV segments, that viewers will watch in a “Field of Dreams” scenario. Much like the American side the matches were well executed, albeit with the polarizing Joshi flavour you either love or hate. Subjectively you could find fault in some of them across the board, but overall there wasn’t anything overtly wrong or offensive about the matches.
We know all too well that wrestling hinges on making you care as a fan. On the surface, unless you were invested in Shida, or any one of the other competitors on both sides of the bracket, you had no reason to care about this tournament. Great matches only take the product so far, but without the hook what’s the point? That was this tournament’s problem, and given that this is all predetermined and Shida, Itoh and Mizunami have clearly been back in the United States for weeks, appropriate video packages should have been ready Thursday morning and they were not; the women’s title match wasn’t even featured in the initial Countdown show that aired on Fite TV.
With so many unknown participants in the tournament on both sides of the bracket, AEW needed to properly introduce or reintroduce who each was, why they were competing, what the title and opportunities meant to them and ultimately what their wrestling stories are. That didn’t happen, and therefore, what urgency as someone who might be turned away from the division would you have to tune in and watch or learn about these people, their styles and their journeys? In this regard, AEW completely failed in actively promoting its women’s division.
Let’s use Ryo Mizunami as an example.
Throughout the tournament there were two narratives on the American side: When was Baker going to win the title, and moreover why hasn’t she won it yet? Secondly, Rose is running through everyone, every upstart, every champion-in-waiting and ex-champions alike. On the Japanese side, unless you’re fully immersed into the variety of Joshi promotions you wouldn’t know half the participants. Ryo specifically, once she defeated tournament MVP Rose last Wednesday, we got one segment a few seconds long of Shida and Ryo going “Strong Style” on each other, and that was it. It wasn’t until days later when the preview package for their match was released that we understood who Ryo was, what her history was and that she and Shida had their own story; these are things we needed to know up front to create tournament drama. Additionally, unless you recalled what is at this point a throwaway comment from two years ago regarding Ryo being on the edge of retirement prior to her AEW debut (I had forgotten), Ryo winning falls flat because the connection hasn’t been set in stone between you and her, or any other wrestler for that matter. It’s what detracts from their otherwise great match this past Sunday.
It’s impossible to take AEW seriously right now with respect to the division, despite recent upswings in booking quality; when your women’s title match featuring the “longest reigning champion in AEW history” has her title match summed up in under 4 minutes when other segments get 8-15 minutes, that isn’t a good look. Optics are everything with AEW, and all-too-often they don’t match up with the talking points. Time-slotting can be overlooked, as can the condensed format in how it was all executed over a few weeks when it could have definitely benefitted from additional build. It could have used short 3-5-minute video packages on each wrestler just to tell their stories. Otherwise, it’s just people fighting. And what’s the point if parity isn’t paramount?
B/R Live Blunder
Speaking of parity between the men’s and women’s divisions, a few weeks back AEW scheduled a special showcase on B/R Live featuring one of the premier matches in the tournament in Thunder Rosa and Riho. Now, if you so happened to be interested in watching this hour-long special, there was scarcely any information that directed viewers and fans to the precise location to find the stream. No indications on the site, no indications in the apps, just confusion for the better part of the day.
Coincidentally…. SHOCKINGLY, even, 7 p.m. rolled around and no one outside the United States could find where the stream was. While Tony Khan says he received several assurances that everything would be available regardless of one’s region, that very clearly wasn’t actually the case. More confusion, an aborted full-show upload, a retraction, several “shared” links of “dubious character” from some “associates” later and finally a large group of us were watching the show 20 minutes late. By then Khan just uploaded the video to YouTube when it was clear most couldn’t access it on Bleacher Report, which he should have just done in the first place as opposed to gambling with the first substantial, legitimate company effort to get its division over. It was not a risk worth taking; the matches delivered, AEW did not. Why this is important is simple. Were this the men’s tournament for the TNT title or the world title, each match would have been on Dynamite. Not Dark. Not a special Monday showcase, nor a risky attempt to garner more viewers through Bleacher Report.
Every step of the division’s evolution the company has been undercutting it indirectly. These last few weeks have highlighted the company’s poor divisional planning, whether it’s placing the women’s match in the pre-main event death slot, setting them up on a less-than-sure thing in B/R Live, not explaining where their champion was for a month, or not even featuring the preview to the final match set for Revolution on the Countdown show. It isn’t gender bias, it isn’t devaluing the division in an active fashion, but it’s often treated carelessly which almost dovetails into the former points with passive-aggressive recklessness, and it’s arguably worse. They need to do better.
Getting Their Due
Following Revolution, during Khan’s post-event scrum with media he was asked when the women would main event an episode of Dynamite, to which he replied with a “soon” answer, likely in the next several weeks. We can assume from this that one of the other five women in the planned six-woman tag match scheduled this Wednesday will be Shida’s challenger, and it’s a safe presumption that woman will be Baker who should finally be crowned AEW Women’s World Champion to end Shida’s title reign. The time has come, and it’s the only fair thing to do for the division — give Shida the main event she has more than earned as she does the honours for Baker.
The question to ask however is whether or not irreparable damage has been done. Although a stretch despite the mountain of acts and evidence to the contrary, given everything we’ve seen, even if you’re one to routinely give AEW benefits of the doubt, their long-term capacity to shepherd the division is questionable. Their track record simply doesn’t support it. The roster itself is better than it ever has been. The younger women especially have great teachers at the ready, such as Dustin Rhodes, Serena Deeb and Jerry Lynn, in addition to the wide range of veterans on the roster. But all the well-trained, well-developed talent in the world can’t save great wrestlers from booking missteps or organizational mishaps.
The division has a ways to go before it reaches WWE’s completeness, but it’s also come a long way during the pandemic following its forced retooling and revamp due to absences that required filling it out with local talent. There are a handful of future standouts on the roster, they just need the opportunity to be taken seriously; to not be taken for granted and overlooked. They deserve the main event slots; not because they deserve it outright, but rather in spite of being put behind the 8-ball all too often, because they’ve earned it.