Since All Elite Wrestling kicked off with its first pay-per-view last year, the critical consensus around the product it produced has been generally positive. However since it launched the women’s division has continuously been used as a stick to beat the new company with by those looking for something to criticise fairly or unfairly.
I am not here today to say that the AEW Women’s Division is without fault and is a perfect product. In fact I would tend to agree that it has lagged a little behind the men’s singles and tag divisions but the idea that this division has been a failure from the word go or a black mark against the company is either short sighted or intentionally disingenuous.
Typically criticism of the division tends to center around one of two areas, either criticism of the wrestlers themselves or the supposedly poor creative direction for the division.
When AEW kicked off, the men’s singles and tag team divisions got an immediate injection of life from the big name signings of Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley and The Lucha Brothers joining the already established Elite, Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks and Cody Rhodes. So far the women’s division has missed out on any kind of marquee, attention drawing signing. Their biggest names are Awesome Kong, a legend who may be the company’s biggest mainstream name after her work on Netflix’s Glow but has slowed down considerably from her peak and Brandi Rhodes who is well known from her WWE days and time managing her husband Cody.
Unfortunately the biggest weakness for both Kong and Brandi at this point of each of their careers is their ability to perform in the ring. As a result the division has had to build around an eclectic assortment of american indy talent such as Kris Statlander, Big Swole and Britt Baker, the japanese joshi Rhio, Emi Sakura and Hikaru Shida and relative unknowns Nyla Rose and Shanya, all of whom are great wrestlers but none of whom are drawing attention on name value alone.
It would have been ideal for AEW to snag a more established name however true female stars are still thin on the ground in pro wrestling and for better or worse the stars didn’t align when contracts went on the table. A pissed off Sasha Banks post her Wresltemania walkout would have been a godsend for AEW and could have arguably been their biggest star male or female and they even missed wrestlers they thought they would get like Mercedes Martinez.
However initial failure means AEW has the opportunity to build a division completely from the ground up. Instead of having one established big name everything revolves around, someone who could potentially outshine the rest of the division, AEW is free to build its own women’s wrestling legacy. It reminds me of another newly minted women’s division from 2012/13 that featured a similar grouping of ‘no names’ hungry to prove themselves, ‘no names’ like Paige, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Bayley and Charlotte Flair. Seven years later Becky Lynch is the biggest star on the WWE’s full time roster but if you had asked just about anyone who she was in 2012 they wouldn’t have known.
No doubt there is hard work to do but the good news is they may already have one key ingredient, the Ace of the division, Riho. Analysis of the quarter hour rise and fall of ratings around her segments have shown that she not only holds viewers attention but has been able to gain AEW young and female viewers, two demographics that AEW have not traditionally performed as strongly in. While Riho’s english appears to be limited, when she gets in the ring she has been able to consistently get initially apathetic crowds to engage in her matches. It is not a conventional approach in western wrestling but at the moment her actions speak as loudly as any promo could.
With a three year television deal now penned AEW has time to build up these unknown names and make them stars. However that brings me to my second point of criticism because they will have little chance to succeed if they don’t get their creative direction of the division right.
This is one aspect of the AEW Women’s Division that has come under quite justified criticism. Early on in the show’s tenure it has oscillated wildly between the very enjoyable workrate heavy matches that have dominated the championship scene and the frankly confusing, largely unexplained Nightmare Collective storyline. All of it crashed unceremoniously together a month ago when the Riho v Kris Statlander Women’s Title match was invaded by The Nightmare Collective and japanese deathmatch legend Luther debuted as part of Brandi Rhodes’ stable.
I’m not even going to attempt to defend that particular segment or the broader Brandi Rhodes and Nightmare Collective angle that has largely fallen flat so far. What I will say is that even in their short time as a company, AEW have built a track record of being able to adjust flailing angles on the fly and successfully turn them around.
It is easy to forget that their initial championship program was thrown into chaos on the eve of Double or Nothing when PAC was pulled from the card and his match with Adam Page shelved. At the time it was widely reported that Kenny Omega was the planned winner of the Double or Nothing main event setting him, not Chris Jericho, up to be in the first ever championship match. The mess of PAC being unable to wrestle threw those plans out the window but the company was able to change course on the fly and who can argue with the astounding success that Chris Jericho has had as the company’s first champion?
Perhaps an even better program to point to as an example is The Dark Order storyline. When The Dark Order first debuted at Double or Nothing they received almost universal scorn, however by pumping the brakes, testing a few different possibilities and ultimately changing the tone and focus of the group, AEW has turned the angle into one of the more intriguing and speculated about midcard plotlines in wrestling.
None of this has been a fluke. The brains trust in AEW have years of experience at getting things over in front of crowds around the world, in different companies, on the internet and on TV. With The Nightmare Collective they have already started to change tact with Brandi Rhodes presentation, giving her segments on social media and AEW Dark that show her mental instability and bringing her back to Cody’s side at the climax of the ‘Ten Lashes’ segment this week.
It’s a smaller example but they have also started to make these moves with Britt Baker who was previously floundering as the American face of the division but is now starting to find her way as a sadistic and jealous heel.
Once again all of this will take time to bear fruit but while the AEWs Womens’ Division no doubt had a mixed start, the company has a strong foundation to build on and if they can keep tinkering until they find what works they will find success.
That wraps it up for this week, let me know what you think of the AEW Women’s division 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 weeks column? Check it out here.
Who Will Be The Next AEW Champion?