As much as All Elite Wrestling has been built on the notoriety of The Elite: Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes as well as Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley, one of the biggest features in AEW’s first year as a company has been how much focus it has given to new talent.
Not only have they taken well known up and comers like Adam Page to the next level, they have brought in a number of wrestlers who had never appeared on major wrestling shows and given them a chance in the spotlight.
So with nearly six months of TV under their belt, let’s run the ruler over the AEW rookie crop, the wrestlers who came in with little to no name and have been able to sink or swim.
Darby Allin has been one of the most prominent rookies since AEW kicked off, getting a match against Cody in his AEW debut, a championship match against Chris Jericho on Dynamite and two matches with Jon Moxley. While he is still yet to pick up a win against any them, he has maximised every second he has got bumping shoulders with the biggest names in the company, building his nihilist character, showing off his high impact, high flying arsenal of moves and a surprising level of in-ring psychology.
Allin’s early success was evident just last week where he had the crowd exploding at every near fall in his handicap tag match against Chris Jericho and Sammy Guvera. A common feature in AEW crowds since the earliest weeks of the show has been younger fans painting their face to mimic Allin’s half skeleton look, just as fans would for Jeff Hardy in the 00s, a sure fire sign of just how much his act is catching on.
It is hard not to be too excited about Allin’s prospect as he possesses a rare kind of charisma and magnetism that immediately elevates him above so many of the other rookies on the roster. There are plenty of other acts that can pull off the same moves he does but very few that look as good doing it. His next big test is maintaining the level of popularity he currently has while facing fellow midcarders instead of the cream of AEW’s crop.
For now though he has been the gold standard for AEW’s rookie crop and earns a perfect mark from me.
Chris Jericho’s sidekick was handed a huge opportunity to be the ‘young up and comer’ in the Inner Circle and he has grabbed the ball with both hands. In his first match at Double or Nothing Guvera could have been replaced with any number of athletic indy high flyers, however since getting under the wing of Jericho, Guvera has quickly learnt the importance of character in everything a wrestler does.
He has now made a trademark of his Bob Dylan inspired silent promos during picture in picture and features in high profile segments every week, at times more than holding his own on the mic next to one of the greatest to ever do it. In the ring he has shown exactly why Jericho wanted to mentor him, seamlessly blending his cocky frat-boy persona with his high-flying style, making him one of the most reliable hands in the AEW midcard, capable of exciting work opposite wrestlers from Jon Moxley to Marko Stunt and everyone in between.
Guvera is a wrestler who immediately looked at home on a big stage but his improvement in such a short time has been stunning. For his work he earns second place on my list.
Coming into AEW MJF was perhaps the highest profile name that hadn’t wrestled for a major company. Despite the hype he was actually fairly slow to come out the gate in AEW, spending a lot of time early on acting as Cody’s sidekick, still in a prominent position but hardly dominating the midcard as many thought he would. That quickly changed when he threw in the towel on Cody and turned on his mentor at Full Gear and since then he hasn’t looked back.
MJF’s biggest strength is undeniably his skills on the mic, there are few even amongst the veterans on the roster who can handle the mic as well as MJF. Add to that a willingness to appear completely dislikeable and take his comeuppance in the most cathartic way (as we saw on the Jericho-Cruise) and you have potentially one of the biggest heels in the business.
However what I will point out is two things: MJF is yet to really show he can get the job done at the highest level in the ring. While I don’t expect every wrestler to be Kenny Omega, ultimately this game is about putting on engaging matches and MJF is yet to wow me in any way in the ring, even against Cody Rhodes at Revolution. I would also say his much vaunted mic skills still need to add the ability to truly tell a story beyond just insulting the crowd and the wrestler across from him.
All that said, this guy is only 23 years old, he has years to add both of those to strings to his bow. He will be a star and AEW should do everything they can to keep him.
Jurassic Express: Jungle Boy, Luchasaurus & Marko Stunt
For me these guys have been the surprise package of AEW. While everyone knew MJF was going to be a star and at least management had huge plans for Allin and Guvera, Jurassic Express have managed to get over completely organically. AEW jumped on the initial cheers Jungle Boy and Luchasaurus were getting, added Mark Stunt and they immediately became the ultimate underdogs of the tag division, an act the crowd has consistently been behind in a big way.
The exciting thing about Jungle Boy and Luchasaurus is that they can become so much more than just a tag team down the line. Jungle Boy inherited movie star good looks from his father and despite not being totally comfortable on the mic, has shown enough charisma that I’m confident he will pick it up in time. Luchasaurus has been booked incredibly strongly and with his great look could potentially occupy an Undertaker/Kane like role on the roster if AEW want to push him there. For his part Mark Stunt has played his role to perfection and while he remains one of the most divisive acts in wrestling, the AEW faithful always get behind him.
The inaugural champion for the women’s division, Riho has been somewhat of a divisive act, a stumbling block for those not buying wholeheartedly into AEW’s presentation but an important piece of the tapestry for its fans.
No doubt her inability to cut promos in English and limited schedule hurt her ability to truly launch the women’s division as its first champion. However when Riho gets in the ring, she has made a habit of turning an initially apathetic crowd around and getting them completely invested by the final act of her matches. Her match with Nyla Rose on the first Dynamite remains my top women’s match in the company so far and generated a huge crowd reaction at the time. Since that initial title win her tenacity in the ring and cheery persona outside it has really won over the AEW faithful.
Now she has lost the championship and left for a hiatus we will hopefully get a chance to see her return to chase the gold she lost, giving her an even bigger opportunity to win the remaining doubters over.
The Native Beast came into AEW as an absolute no name but with a very distinct look and backstory to go with her character. Early on she seemed a little overawed by the bigger size of the stage and crowd, particularly when opposite the likes of Awesome Kong. However after some initial stutters she has improved at a rapid pace, learning the body language and mannerisms needed to portray ‘The Beast’ her character needs her to be.
Her rivalry with Riho is already something special for both performers to build on and on AEW Dark she had an absolutely terrific series of matches with Shanna culminating in a tables match in late January. Now she is women’s champion it is make or break but there are a few great contenders already lining up that should be able to help her continue on the roughshod run she is currently on.
Hikaru Shida has perhaps been the quietest achiever of the AEW women’s division, putting on a string of entertaining matches and slowly building up her following. The charismatic former actor has all of the tools to become a genuine star in the industry: a great look,extremely solid technical wrestling skills, (I swear her suplexes remind me of Bret Hart), a decent ability on the mic and importantly the ability to get the crowd on her side and. Never was that more evident than this week where she was the undoubted star of the multi-woman tag match on Dynamite.
Of all of the joshis AEW has brought across from Japan, she is the one I am most confident will be able to crossover long term. While she hasn’t done anything spectacular yet, you can see she is simply biding her time until its her moment to shine.
Big Swole has been one of the surprise packages of the first six months of AEW TV. Coming in with hardly any buzz whatsoever, she has shown off more charisma than nearly anyone on the roster. While Swole is still working out how to string things together seamlessly in the ring, she oozes enough character and charisma that she can get away with being a little rough around the edges.
She is a natural opponent for Nyla Rose down the line and while I don’t think she will win at first, with her character the sky’s the limit for her long term. For the moment a program with Britt Baker will be a fantastic way to ensure the crowd is well and truly behind her.
The Dark Order
For me The Dark Order are the poster boys for how AEW creative can turn around ideas that don’t initially hit their mark. Let’s be frank, the Dark Order’s debut was a huge failure, with the repackaged long term rivals of The Young Bucks getting “who are you?” and “boring” chants from the most supportive crowd in wrestling.
However since those initial creative blows, the minds behind the concept took a step back, tweaked the act, gave it a much clearer direction and began presenting a much slicker and far more engaging cult, looking to recruit perpetual losers. The triumph of the reset has been the speculation around who will join the Dark Order and the identity of ‘The Exalted One’ which has engaged the AEW fanbase like few other angles in wrestler. When you have fans taking time to download photos and alter the hue, contrast and brightness of them to reveal secret messages, you know you are onto a winner.
The next challenge for The Dark Order will be to remain relevant once the mystery of The Exalted One is revealed but for now they earn good marks from me for how they have turned things around.
If this had been written last month Wardlow probably would have received a D, however since his in-ring debut I am bullish on the man introduced as MJF’s bodyguard.
Wardlow obviously has a physique to kill for and power and strength for days, but what impressed me most about him is the presence he has in the ring. Even this early in his in-ring career Wardlow knows how to look and move like a powerful monster: he absorbs punishment with contempt and his moves hit like high impact cannon blasts. Even with very limited experience he managed to play his part perfectly opposite Cody in the company’s first ever Cage Match, arguably outdoing his more experienced counterpart MJF opposite The American Nightmare.
Even with the signing of Lance Archer AEW still remains low on big guys, so if they can’t sign Joff Cobb or Brodie Lee full time then they need look no further than this man-beast as a replacement.
Private Party were hot out of the gate in the tag division, winning a whole host of fans in their early appearances and truly blowing the roof off the arena when they upset The Young Bucks on the first ever Dynamite.
However since then the initial rush of adrenaline they haven’t really done anything of note or featured in any big storylines in the tag division. Their initially pop inducing moveset has also suffered from a case of diminishing returns as the audience has become accustomed to their presence.
Don’t get me wrong, these guys have an exciting moveset and charisma to burn, they just haven’t really done anything to truly set themselves apart or develop since those amazing early appearances.
Portugal’s Perfect Athlete has had limited opportunities since joining AEW. However even in her role as enhancement talent to the top of the women’s division she has really impressed me with her work. Every roster needs great losers and when they needed to ready Nyla Rose for her title run, they did so by putting her in a banger feud with Shanna, when they wanted to prep Kris Statlander for her championship match with Rose, they gave her a match with Shanna. To me that says something powerful.
She is crisp in the ring and has a knack for getting the crowd behind her despite getting very little mic time so far. It is a package that will prepare her very well for if they decide to flip the switch and start letting her win.
Superbad Kip Sabian is a big name waiting to happen. Despite existing almost solely on AEW Dark, he has shown enough character and charisma to convince me he has the tools to be a really strong contributor to AEW for many years.
Like just about every wrestler on the AEW roster Sabian is extremely adept in the ring however he has come along in leaps and bounds since adopting his Superbad character alongside Penelope Ford. His ongoing feud with Joey Janella has been so much fun and him and Ford seem to be at the cutting edge of intergender wrestling in AEW, wrestling against Kenny Omega and Riho in January and seemingly setting up another intergender match on AEW Dark this week.
Sabian hasn’t got the spotlight of some of the other acts on this list but has well and truly impressed with what he has done so far.
Turns out The Buck’s long time cameraman can actually wrestle! Brandon Cutler has been the most valiant of jobbers and has actually started to get the audience on his side as his losing streak continues to build up. One day he is going to get a win and the crowd is going to absolutely lose it.
In the meantime he earns bonus points for some really interesting interplay with The Dark Order as he seeks to get his first ever win and also for having possibly the coolest robe in AEW.
Emi Sakura seems to have disappeared from AEW TV of late however it is easy to forget she played a big role in the early days of the women’s division.
I have given her a bit of a mixed grade, while she put on some great matches with the champ Riho, her Freddy Mercury inspired gimmick really didn’t work so well with the crowd, especially as she was supposedly playing a heel. For the record I think it could have worked even as a heel move if it had been given more time to be established and been more clearly explained.
Overall though she was a very steady hand in a time when the women’s division was still finding its feet so doesn’t fall down the list too far.
Kris Statlander came into the AEW as perhaps the biggest name in the women’s division and while she hasn’t done anything completely unforgivable she has very much failed to live up to the hype.
In the ring she has only looked at all good against top level workers like Hikaru Shida and Shanna. Her moveset looks sloppy and while I don’t expect Japanese Strong Style from everyone, Statlander has made a bad habit of very clear air swings and loose connections on a number of her biggest moves.
The biggest problem for Statlander though has been the lack of clarity around her character. She says she is an alien from the Andromeda Galaxy but how does this sci-fi gimmick exist in AEW? Is she just playing mind games, is she cRaZy or are we supposed to believe she is really an alien? The answer still isn’t clear over three months after her debut. I’m all for not being spoon fed every detail but in this case the lack of clarity has made it impossible for the crowd to properly buy into her character.
On the plus side she has a great look and if she can tighten up her moveset and character she could be a big player in the AEW women’s division. Right now though she has a lot of work to do.
The Butcher, The Blade & The Bunny
AEW has not been kind to this trio. Not only did the commentary team completely botch their debut, they have very quickly become one of the most bland teams in a roster of wildly fun combinations.
These guys are very solid and do have a good look but have not been able to impress in any way since their debut. With the right kind of booking they could look like absolute killers but right now I don’t even believe they could run a profitable butcher’s shop.
Britt Baker D.M.D.
AEW has had a handful of creative failures since they kicked things off last year but perhaps the biggest one has been the positioning of Britt Baker as the ‘western ace’ of the women’s division. I completely understand why they singled her out to be the face of the division, she has a great look, has an inspirational backstory and is obviously incredibly intelligent and well presented.
However except for a few instances she has fallen completely flat both in the ring or on the mic. She hasn’t been helped by a number of factors beyond her control such as commentary’s decision to repeat the fact she is a dentist so often it became a meme or on the Jericho cruise giving her a mic on a windy night, in front of a drunk crowd, before cutting the cameras away from her.
However that doesn’t completely excuse the fact that she has looked completely out of her depth when she was meant to be one of the pillars of the women’s division.
Baker avoids the F grade for her recent soft reset that seems to be somewhat righting the wrongs done to her earlier in her run. However Baker has a lot of ground to recover if AEW ever want her to take the position management positioned her in when she signed with them.
The Librarians: Peter Avalon & Leva Bates
I’m not sure how much of their fault it is that this pair were saddled with the god awful librarian gimmick but here we are. Thankfully they have mostly been kept to BTE & AEW Dark since Dynamite started and they barely avoid F terrirotiry for their BTE skitts. Overall though this joke has long since played out and hopefully will be dropped completely in the coming months. For those who don’t know Avalon can actually work, maybe he will get a chance to show us down the line.
That wraps it up for this week, how would you rank the AEW Rookie class? Let me know in the comments below. You can also chat to me further on Twitter @Sir_Samuel or in the AEW section on the LOP Forums.
Missed last week’s AEW column? Check it out here.
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