This week on AEW Dynamite Matt Cardona, the former Zack Ryder, made his All Elite Wrestling debut, appearing to save Cody Rhodes from a post-match attack and set up a tag match for next week’s Dynamite. Seeing Cardona make his debut was hardly the biggest surprise in wrestling history given his well-documented friendship with Rhodes. However, Cardona’s appearance should be a giant red flag for both the AEW fan base and wrestling locker room, that the company’s recruitment strategy could be heading into the kind of nepotistic territory so many of their haters accuse it of having because Zack Ryder just doesn’t fit in with the rest of AEW.
All Elite Wrestling has been built on the attitude of wrestlers like Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley, wrestlers who rejected seven, even eight-figure contracts with the WWE, because they wanted to build something excellent, they wanted to create a place where they could express themselves fully as performers in a way WWE wouldn’t let them. The company has so far been also been filled with other wrestlers who also fit that bill, PAC, MJF, Adam Page, SCU and The Lucha Bros, all wrestlers who decided to reject the WWE to instead be part of the alternative. Even the recently recruited former WWE performers FTR, Brodie Lee and Matt Hardy came across to AEW after seeking their release or deciding on their own terms not to re-sign with the WWE.
Matt Cardona is not like that. For years Cardona was happy to stay safe in the WWE’s corporate bubble, wrestling average matches and performing in mostly untelevised, average angles. It took WWE rejecting him to push him away from that place of happy mediocrity. To put it bluntly, if Zack Ryder had his way he would still be WOO WOOING on Main Event to the applause of no one.
That may sound elitist and by no means do I begrudge wrestlers a paycheck, however, AEW says they stand for excellence in pro wrestling, ‘elite’ is the operative word in their company name, and as such should not be signing wrestlers like Cardona who are happy with being average and have done nothing, at least in the last few years, to prove otherwise. What little star value Zack Ryder had died years ago, he has never been a great in-ring worker and has only ever shown himself to be passable on the mic.
The signal this sends to the AEW lockerroom is quite frankly atrocious. Former Lords of Pain columnist Rich Latta compared the former Hype Bro to Scorpio Sky, who has been quietly racking up a string of singles wins on AEW Dark but hasn’t seen action on the flagship show for weeks. If you were to put Cardona and Sky in a video game there would not be a single category that Cardona would score higher than Sky, yet in the era where every minute of screen time is valuable, this WWE reject is offered a featured position ahead of one of the company’s original signings. Sky is just one wrestler as well, AEW has wrestlers like Kip Sabian and Joey Janella, both of whom I would pick to be staples of the AEW midcard well before Cardona but also haven’t been on Dynamite for weeks.
It also sends a bad message to AEW fans and potential fans as to where the company sees themselves in the pro wrestling hierarchy. To me, there was nothing more embarrassing than this picture that EC3, Karl Anderson, Luke Gallows, Eric Young and Heath Slater took with Tommy Dreamer backstage at IMPACT and posted on social media.
They wanted it to look like they were giving the WWE a ‘good riddance’ but the reality is that all six of them were absolutely happy to wallow in mediocrity until WWE gave them the shove out the door. They are jilted lovers desperately trying to prove they won the breakup after being brutally dumped. It is the kind of tone that kills hype around a wrestling show because nothing says ‘minor league’ like immediately featuring a group of wrestlers who the WWE saw no value in.
As I said at the start, one of the reasons behind AEW’s early success has been that, at least up until now, they have seen themselves as the best in pro wrestling, not just on par with the WWE but superior to them. To back up this talk they have only featured wrestlers who rejected the WWE system in favour of coming to AEW, not wrestlers who were fired and saw AEW as a second-best option. Take their current champion Jon Moxley, WWE wanted him on the roster so much they offered him a multi-million dollar contract and until the final day of his contract featured him heavily alongside Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins, their two biggest full-time male stars at the time. Having such a big star, who had rejected the WWE show up on AEW’s first PPV gave the company instant buzz and credibility. On the other end of the spectrum, the former Zack Ryder gains far more relevancy from being featured on AEW than AEW gets for featuring such a low-value talent.
It’s not to say Matt Cardona should never appear on AEW TV but if he wants to be part of the company that calls itself elite, he should have to prove he is no longer the guy who happily accepted mediocrity in exchange for a paycheck at his former workplace. The last two wrestlers to feature with Cody, Eddie Kingston and War Horse, have been grinding for years to earn their shot in this company.
Of course, this is not the end of AEW as we know it, Cardona is apparently only signed for five appearances so his stint could easily be very short-lived and you had better believe he needs to deliver and deliver quickly. However, with AEW currently firing on so many cylinders creatively, the pessimistic side of me can’t help but worry that decisions like this could quickly undo the good work they have done to set themselves apart from the rest of the industry and turn it into just another wrestling company living in the shadow of the WWE.
Missed my last AEW column? Check it out here.
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