The Brand Extension #7: How Elite is AEW?

The Brand Extension #7: How Elite is AEW?

AEW Under Scrutiny

By former Lords of Pain 205 Live reviewer, “205 Clive”.
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All Elite Wrestling. A company whose very name elicits strong emotions in wrestling fans. Irrespective of whether in support of or not. The wording alone brings to mind a collective superior than society’s lessers. Before AEW came to be, however, “The Elite” was a stable in itself, comprised of individuals who considered themselves above all others. Better than everyone else. 

As a rule, I have no issue with such a mindset if presented within the confines of a wrestler’s character. It’s the most commonly used trope in the business, after all. And probably rightfully so, for it poses an adversity so easy to wish a protagonist or underdog to overcome. It transcends wrestling and is found in countless genres, so easy is it to tell that story. The issue I have is when that infallibility bleeds into the person behind the persona. To the point that it becomes arrogance more than confidence. When the rivalries these revered performers have aren’t with their fictional adversaries, but with fans or even peers who don’t adhere to their ideals. When humility is replaced by a hunt for worship from those who wear an antiquated rating system as both sword and shield in their role as gatekeeper, subjectivity be damned.

That elitist mindset found full form in a shiny new wrestling company. One whose edict was, essentially, “anything you can do, we can do better”. Promises were made behind a podium for equal pay, better healthcare and opportunities, and several more positives other companies are forced to mark down in their negatives column. What was left out of the call to arms, though, was the company’s name who AEW was really describing themselves more favourably than. World Wrestling Entertainment. 

Several fans sick to their back teeth with what WWE had offered for years lapped up Cody and Company’s words. Those fans latched onto the AEW wagon as 2019 rolled by. They even played a pivotal role in helping push it along at the unprecedented pace it did.. It’s something they should be proud of, to be honest. That they are in some way responsible for such a sudden rise that, on the surface at least, AEW can present itself as genuine competition against WWE. Perhaps that is why AEW’s fans are so vocal in their appreciation. A company whose mission statement was moulded from the voices of those who wanted something different? The fans got exactly that. 

It just so happens, though, that AEW’s loudest fanbase is still equally audible in its disdain for WWE. It thrives off criticising its ex, while simultaneously holding its current beau above reproach. From creative direction, to those handpicked (or not) by Vince McMahon, and everything and everyone else in between. All is fair game when it comes to painting WWE in a bad light. Even NXT is now regularly found in the cross hairs, when once it was the IWC darling that could do no wrong. What gives the collective critique more volume, unfortunately, is when certain narratives, whether true or not, are given seals of approval by AEW talent themselves. 

It seems like Dynamite can hardly go a single week without several attention grabbing posts making the rounds on social media. Videos that show subtle or even blatant potshots meant for its competition. In which, by the way, several current AEW stars had found varying and, in some cases, wanting levels of success. 

Those wrestlers in question, unhappy with their lot in WWE to the point that they jump ship, are well within their rights to do so. An unfulfilling career is a genuine gripe they should use as bargaining power to ensure such treatment doesn’t befall them a second time around. Of course, dragging WWE’s name through the mud will win you an immediate warm welcome from the crowd. It gets you “over” almost by default. Yet, how much longer will the disgruntled ex-employee routine have the same appeal it currently does? How many more Jon Moxleys, Matt Hardys, and Brodie Lees will there be before AEW is branded as another WWE Lite? More worryingly, how many more will march towards Cody’s cupped and outstretched ear before the same struggles for opportunities are just as plentiful as they are in WWE?

There is an irony behind that now infamous Cody GIF. Or at least what it has come to represent.  That the invitation to a new land of opportunity could still see you in the same place you were before. Struggling for airtime. Struggling for relevance, even. Playing second fiddle to the big guns. Basically, sitting at the kids’ table while the grown ups dine on the luxuries. On a smaller, more sought after table, where a certain EVP feasts from a significant portion of the pie

In all honesty, Cody Rhodes has done a masterful job in portraying himself as arguably today’s most over baby-face. He puts to bed any doubt over whether or not he could have been a main event star for WWE. He delivers the most passionate promos. Contributes to the most memorable segments or moments in matches. Faces the most notable foes whose actions are so despicable, one can’t help but root for him. There is simply no denying his popularity, especially in the internet arena. The American Nightmare has the AEW fanbase in the palm of his hand.

It’s easy to be in such an influential position when booking and screen time are in your favour. It’s an absolute cakewalk when you hold the booker’s pen. Yes, he has lost some marquee matches. Yes, he is currently unable to challenge for the AEW Championship. Despite this, though, Cody is still something of a linchpin as it pertains to the AEW roster and its hierarchy. Debuts, heel turns, and other pivotal turning points go through him more often than not. Triple H tier Wrestlemania entrances are par for the course, with runtimes that might even rival The Undertaker’s. Overall, his screen time surely surpasses that of several, if not all, upper mid-card acts in any wrestling company presently.

I do try to stay on the fence when it comes AEW. To put aside my groans when fans and wrestlers alike praise AEW for one thing and criticise WWE for the same. Having said that, and with all of the above in mind regarding Cody Rhodes, it’s hard for me to not be cynical. To not see, in some small part at least, AEW as a vanity project. A venture for a select few with delusions of grandeur. That’s not to say they aren’t outstanding in their field. More that they still have some way to go in becoming as mainstream an attraction as WWE. 

Because, truth be told, AEW still has some work to do on that front. Yes, NXT bows down to Dynamite every week in the ratings war. Jericho himself has said, however, that AEW isn’t concerned with NXT. Rather, it looks to challenge those Raws and Smackdowns that have set such a huge target for AEW to shoot through. 

Now, tragically, any possible immediate growth is uncertain due to the current Coronavirus issues. Although a problem in all walks of life, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for AEW. The ability to even function as a wrestling promotion is being clamped down upon more and more by the day. WWE itself has taken drastic measures to ensure Wrestlemania Week goes ahead in some capacity before being wholly locked down. For the foreseeable, then, AEW is still a pretender in contrast to WWE’s flagships as far as global reach is concerned. There’s no telling AEW that, however, as the company’s brief history tells us it will refuse to stay in its lane.  

I should confirm that that is not a bad thing. There’s only so much you can do differently in professional wrestling to stand out in the crowd. To gain traction. Moreover, there are some things you simply have to do, such are the business’ ways and traditions. When that happens, though, the number of differences you can boast in comparison to your competition are limited. It’s only a matter of time before your company’s foundations are different in name and clientele only. With that being said, this is where I take most umbridge when told the grass is greener elsewhere.

If I am frustrated with WWE’s insistence on dusting off history’s relics time and again, why would I be content with a new home that houses the likes of DDP, Jake The Snake Roberts, and The Rock and Roll Express? If at my wit’s end with female X being held back, either creatively or from a plaudit standpoint, why would I rally behind a woman in a division lacking any foresight or direction at all? If my Indie darlings are struggling for relevance upon main roster callup, why, then, would I be content for the same fate to befall them once they head to pastures new?

These questions are why when Jon Moxley beats his chest and yells that AEW and its fans brought back professional wrestling, it personally falls on deaf ears. The similarities the product has with the big bad Sports Entertainment are too numerous and too obvious for me to give Moxley’s rallying cry any real merit. Especially when you take into account the recent oh so hammy segments featuring Brodie Lee and Matt “Damascus” Hardy. In AEW’s race to become something different from WWE, it has thrown so much at the wall so quickly. The result is not too dissimilar to that which its figureheads vowed not to be. 

AEW may claim to have brought professional wrestling back, but the truth is it never left. Granted, WWE dressing it up as Sports Entertainment may have gone some way in distancing the stereotypes from a mainstream audience. When all is said and done, however, we’re still left with the bells, whistles, smoke, and mirrors that we all fell in love with in the first place. AEW should own this fact. They shouldn’t feel the need to bend over backwards to label itself as something WWE isn’t. Because, really, it is. 

Maybe, then, by embracing WWE’s ideals instead of shunning them, AEW can gain new eyes and keep them. Maybe by shaking off its baby brother syndrome, sported so unabashedly by Cody Rhodes himself, maturity can manifest and respect can be built upon. Who knows, maybe in a few years’ time, this company can eventually rub shoulders with the elite.

Let me know your thoughts on the above column in the comments below, or @RickyandClive on Twitter.

Read my previous Brand Extension columns here.

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