Wrestling should be a thing of joy. As much as we love to critique it, dive deeply into the details of the matches, business and stories ultimately for us fans it should be something to delight in. It is after all entertainment so inherent in the name is that it should entertain,
For a touch over a year AEW has pretty much exclusively done that.
Over at least the last ten years, possibly longer, no other big wrestling organisation has managed to present such a complete and consistent product for a year straight. Most have had patches of great week to week TV but none have managed that level of consistency for so long. This while launching a new promotion with many unknown names and then having to survive through the challenges brought on by the COVID19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. It hasn’t been perfect of course but it is remarkable that over an entire year there hasn’t been a single important decision, angle or result that I haven’t got immense enjoyment from.
For too many years watching wrestling came with concessions where we had to sit through countless bad segments, silly characters and baffling long term directions to get to the few nuggets of gold on the card. I absolutely enjoyed what I enjoyed and it was enough to build a strong fandom, however, the last year of excellence has shown me it was no way to truly live.
For me, the two elements to AEW’s secret sauce, how it trusts its performers to shape their character, direction and presentation and how they tell continuous narratives that you can track and follow.
It is no small feat how AEW has managed to straddle the fine line between putting on entertaining and engaging matches every week, while still ensuring each match means something and fits with the ongoing narratives up and down the card. There is a constant progression of cause and effect in the stories it tells. Up and down the card characters develop and you can track their logical progression as the go from program to program.
Just take MJF as an example, one of the company’s upper midcarders. He started off under the wing of Cody, eventually betrayed his mentor and had to prove himself apart from Cody in the Dynamite Dimond ring tournament. Having succeeded there he threw down the challenge to his old mentor, won, set his sights on the bigger goal of the AEW Championship, worked his way up the rankings, into the title picture. To give himself what he felt was championship level importance he launched a sham campaign but eventually lost because his arrogance saw him underestimate his opponent. Having lost his biggest opportunity he has now sought out the assistance of a veteran who he sees as being most similar to himself and who also beat his former mentor.
That is just one character, hardly even the most heavily featured guy and certainly not the most detailed story they have attempted to tell but it. all. makes. sense. And because it makes sense you can invest in characters knowing their stories are going to get the payoff they deserve.
It is that kind of ongoing dedication to character development and narrative progression that has always unpinned wrestling’s most successful eras. Be it the 80s wrestling boom that saw the colourful comic book characters engaged in the battle of good and evil, mid-90s WCW where the NWA ran rampant or the WWF Attitude Era that drew people in with the story of Steve Austin trying every week to get his hands on Vince McMahon.
I’m not saying AEW is obviously not on the same level popularity-wise as those era’s of wrestling, it is unlikely we will ever see anything as culturally impactful as those times in wrestling again. However, AEW has applied that same kind of logical progression to its booking and as a result, have created the most compelling wrestling TV in years.
Along with this overarching booking philosophy, every performer is trusted with their own creative direction and has a hand in their own presentation. These wrestlers have been plying their craft for many years and know what works for them. When they get the chance to unleash their own vision it means they are more passionate about what they are doing and are more believable in their delivery
This is particularly evident at the top of the card where the likes of Jon Moxley, Cody Rhodes and Chris Jericho are in career-best form, delivering their own vision for pro wrestling week in week out. Moxley a Jon MacLeanesq hard talking, hard walking badass who will take on anyone, anytime, Cody a bleeding heart hero who is proud of everything he has accomplished and who goes above and beyond for the fans who have got him to where he is and Jericho a washed-up, egotistical rockstar. All three produced fantastic work while in the WWE, however, removed from the creative constraints imposed by WWE and they have all been able to double down on the best elements of their characters, creating far more compelling versions of themselves. All of them have had iconic moment after iconic moment, from Le Champion’s constant self-aggrandising as champion and even after losing the AEW Championship, to Moxley’s grit facing down monster after monster or how he wasn’t afraid to get personal against Darby Allin and now Eddie Kingston, to Cody’s spine-tingling speeches and blood and guts in the ring as he fought challenger after challenger as TNT Champion before coming back in a brutal Dog Collar match.
AEW’s trust extends beyond the top of the card too, they reward instead of punishing performers that go above and beyond to build their own popularity outside of AEW’s defined plans. The most recent example of this John Silver earning a singles match against Orange Cassidy on the pre-show for Full Gear after of his scene-stealing performances on BTE and Dynamite. Before Silver, it was Eddie Kingston, Ricky Starks and Pineapple Pete coming out of nowhere and through pure strength of performance earning positions that weren’t originally planned out for them.
This dynamic adds a nice touch of unpredictability to every TV show because you never know when someone might come out of nowhere, steal the show and elevate themselves to a position the company can’t deny.
AEW is not a perfect organisation however for a year it has produced the best wrestling TV show that pro wrestling has seen in many years. A show you can invest in, a show you can trust won’t book to spite you, a show that aims to bring joy to its fans every week. For that, it should be celebrated.