As WWE prepares to present its biggest show of the year this weekend, WrestleMania, its strongest competitor in more than 20 years, All Elite Wrestling, or AEW, has major aspirations of its own.
The foundation of AEW in 2019 changed the professional wrestling business. WWE hasn’t had a real competitor since it bought WCW in 2001. With monopoly power, WWE’s product quality steadily declined and its fan base dwindled. Its programming was often shaped not by the wishes of the fan base, but by the personal whims and quirks of its longtime chief Vince McMahon. It was not uncommon for fans to boo wrestlers who were presented as good guys or the teen comedy segments that McMahon liked to present. This was most evident with Roman Reigns, who was presented as the company’s top hero but disliked by a significant portion of the fans.
Many wrestlers were also put off by the nature of the product and longed to work for a company with a more serious presentation, where they would have more freedom to talk and wrestle the way they wanted. Pro wrestling has historically used an extracurricular presentation, while WWE turned to scripts to tell wrestlers how to act and speak rather than having the flexibility to craft individual characters. As such, both in front of and behind the camera, WWE was up for a challenge.
Enter AEW and its founder Tony Khan, a lifelong wrestling fan with a deep understanding of the business and an impeccable memory for its history. AEW as well as WWE fans disillusioned with that company’s product and smaller wrestling promotions such as Ring of Honor (later purchased by Khan and running their annual Supercard of Honor event this Friday at the Gallen Center) and international wrestling promotions was able to appeal to fans of as New Japan Pro Wrestling. AEW also greatly benefited from the wrestlers’ interest in the project as it was able to sign a host of extremely talented wrestlers who were major WWE stars such as Jon Moxley, Bryan Danielson, and CM Punk.
With the burgeoning demand for WWE alternatives and a supremely talented roster, AEW’s first few years presented one success after another. AEW’s quarterly pay-per-view events equaled or exceeded their year-over-year buyout every time for more than two years. Its flagship “Dynamite” show consistently became one of the top-rated cable shows on Wednesday nights, with a strong following in the coveted 18-49 demographic. As WWE’s signature “Raw” program continued to decline in key demos, insiders began predicting that “Dynamite” could eventually surpass “Raw” as the top-rated cable wrestling program.
Critically, the promotion was celebrated for the high standard of its in-ring presentation. More than anything else, AEW is defined by the high quality of its matches. AEW’s other major strength relative to WWE is that more of its performers are speaking in their authentic voices.
Khan said, “The best thing about AEW is you hear the wrestlers speak in their own words and I’m not trying to put words in their mouth.” “I don’t write scripts word for word for anyone and we have some of the best talkers in pro wrestling.”
If AEW is the Rebel Alliance in the “Star Wars” universe, then in WWE an underdog crew fighting against the mighty Galactic Empire, the 2019-2021 period was “A New Hope,” a happy tale of triumph that ended in a medal ceremony. Was. Unfortunately for AEW, 2022 is closer to “The Empire Strikes Back”.
WWE has rested on its past popularity over the years, but in 2022 it presented some of its most compelling storylines in a generation, perhaps due in part to the competition. The centerpiece story revolves around Bloodline, a week-to-week drama starring Roman Reigns. WWE finally turned Reigns into the villain he was supposed to be in 2020 and now plays a character that is a cross between Logan Roy and Vito Corleone, his real-life cousin in an effort to retain power. Manipulates brother and other characters. He has retained control of a title for almost three years. In the process, Reigns has become pro wrestling’s biggest drawing card and most compelling character of the past decade.
WWE was also excited by the creative change. McMahon, following the public disclosure of secret money payments for alleged sexual misconduct involving women working for him, handed over creative control to former superstar wrestler Paul Levesque, better known as Triple H. The more isolated McMahon in the long run, the more patience he has to see through story lines and give them a satisfying resolution.
With last Monday’s “Raw” drawing 1.7 million viewers, WWE saw a year-over-year ratings increase for the first time in several years. It recorded its Peacock live event special (aided by a growing subscriber base for the Peacock service) with 2 million of Peacock’s approximately 20 million subscribers tuned in to watch the 2023 Royal Rumble. Its live event ticket sales have increased and have performed particularly well in the last few months. In short, WWE is a stronger competitor to AEW now than it was two years ago. The success of the Red Sox will ultimately depend most of all on what the Red Sox do as an organization, but that’s certainly a lot easier to do when the Yankees are in a rut.
AEW had its internal challengers last year as well. Arguably its most high-profile acquisition was CM Punk, the outspoken star who walked away from wrestling nine years ago to try to fight in the UFC. Khan lured Punk out of retirement and Punk helped boost ratings, but the relationship soured last September.
After winning the AEW World Title, Punk denounced the way the company was run at the post-event news conference and then fought with three of the company’s founding wrestlers and executive vice presidents. Since Punk’s departure, ratings have declined, though they still remain formidable. Last week’s “Dynamite” was fourth on cable for the night and beat Fox, ABC and CBS by at least an hour.
There are other positive signs, such as AEW nearly selling out the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto for its Forbidden Door show with New Japan Pro Wrestling when tickets officially went on sale Friday. However, on balance, it is an open question how Khan would respond to a major counter-attack in a war that is only just beginning.
To answer back, AEW turned to 27-year-old Long Islander Max Friedman, better known as the treacherous villain Maxwell Jacob Friedman or simply MJF (catch phrase: “I’m better than you and you know it”). . A generational gift of gab that believes in understated athleticism and in-ring prowess, MJF’s talents as a performer are unmistakable. Khan shrewdly targeted Friedman as an early signing for AEW and since that time MJF has consistently stood out among talented veterans with over decades of experience.
A recurring challenge for today’s wrestling villains is that fans view wrestling as more of a show than ever before and thus the best antagonists often find themselves cheering. The same had started happening with MJF last year, but Khan eventually agreed to keep MJF as a villain, a role he apparently relishes.
“I listen to the fans,” says Khan. “When the responses were so widespread, I had to think at least [making MJF a good guy], but MJF is the best young pro wrestler in the world and one of the best pro wrestling heels of any age I have ever seen and I think his ability to antagonize other wrestlers and the crowd is unparalleled. AEW is at its strongest when MJF is at its worst as a villain.”
Of course, every villain needs a hero in opposition. AEW is currently focusing on a few homegrown stars in that role, skateboarder and daredevil Darby Allin and actor Luke Perry’s handsome and athletic son, “Jungle Boy” Jack Perry. “AEW Dynamite” returned to action on Wednesday after a nine-month absence, returning from a serious injury, exciting charismatic persona and in-ring performer Adam Cole.
Cole’s return to a new AEW series called “All Access” that will debut after Dynamite will also be a selling point. Like “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” “Ultimate Fighter” or the more recent tennis series “Break Point,” “All Access” will attempt to create new wrestling fans by showing the wrestlers’ behind-the-scenes lives. Cole’s story will be front and center.
Khan said, “It wasn’t certain that Adam would ever wrestle again.” “I told Adam, I will support you and stand by you, even if you never want to wrestle again. You are part of this family. But he worked so hard, never left home except for brain therapy, and his story Will be told on ‘All Access’. We have really missed him and having him back will give us a big boost.”
AEW can use all the boosts it can get, as it is in the midst of a wrestling battle and both sides are gathering reinforcements.