I love wrestling. I consider it to be the pinnacle of postmodern storytelling. The ultimate amalgamation of over-the-top theatrics, inhuman athleticism, deranged creativity, and simulated violence. All in its own self-contained semi-fictitious world. While modern life tries its hardest to outdo it, there is rarely anything as over the top and ridiculous as wrestling.
Wrestling is fake, don’t you know?
Some people try to act like they’re better than you by telling you that it’s fake or scripted. As if we didn’t all know. While there was a time where people thought they were watching genuine athletic contests, the matches being “worked” is something that we’re all very much aware of these days. If wrestling was real, it would be psychotic.
The thing is, those stories aren’t exactly scripted. It’s somewhere in between improv with stunts, contemporary dance, and an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Some marks need to be hit and there’s an outline of where the match is meant to go, but the best wrestling matches are often called on the fly with wrestlers feeling out the crowd and responding to each other. The greatest wrestlers have always been the ones who know how to draw you into the world they’re creating. They make you suspend your disbelief to the point you become a meme.
Just watch this highly entertaining match between two invisible men (yes, you read that right) if you wanna see just how far that suspension can go.
Monopoly: WWE Edition
Unfortunately, if you’ve kept up with WWE over the last decade (at least), there’s very little they’ve done that fits the bill above. While many of us grew up being enthralled by the larger-than-life antics of The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mick Foley, The Undertaker, and Shawn Michaels, watching WWE in the modern era is like watching the 2016 Suicide Squad- painfully disappointing. There’s a ton of talent and an interesting roster of characters, but constant interference from up top (Vince McMahon/WB studio execs) means you never get to see them fully develop or deliver performances that truly showcase their skills.
What depresses me about the WWE these days is despite how over-scripted everything is, the stories rarely make any sense. It’s all show and no substance. Without any real competition, since they bought out WCW and ECW, WWE became “too big to fail”. Yet they’ve been on a constant viewership decline for most of my adult life. Turns out monopolies are bad. Who knew?
A challenger appears
Enter AEW. AEW is 2021’s The Suicide Squad- just, you know, without John Cena. It’s what happens when you trust your team and give them creative freedom. That, along with intriguing character development and (mostly) logical storytelling, makes AEW such a refreshing change from what’s been established as the norm in mainstream wrestling.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with AEW, it’s a wrestling company that was founded in 2019. Tony Khan, a wrestling nerd who used to fantasy book his own shows as a kid– and also happens to be the son of billionaire Shahid Khan and co-owner of the Florida Jaguars and Fulham Football Club- approached Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, and The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) after they organised All In– an independent wrestling show that sold 10 000 tickets in 30 minutes. A show that only came together because Dave Meltzer tweeted that it couldn’t be done.
It’s an event that could have only happened due to the consistent growth of independent wrestling that was evolving outside of the “WWE Universe”. It’s remarkable when you track the popularity of The Bullet Club in NJPW and ROH, and how they managed to slingshot that into something so monumental. The Bullet Club, and its offshoot of The Elite, were essentially the NWO of the “indies”. They were EVERYWHERE. Even paying homage by adopting the legendary WCW faction’s “Too Sweet” hand sign. They created hype through consistently great matches, long-term storytelling across wrestling promotions, and a BTS vlog called Being The Elite. They created their own mythos and cannon and had a ton of fun along the way. It all culminated in the biggest independent show of all time. A stacked card of the best wrestlers in the world who weren’t under contract with the WWE.
All In proved that there’s an audience that wants more from wrestling than WWE can provide. There’s also a deep well of talent to draw from. AEW owes a ton to promotions like ROH, NJPW, AAA, and Impact, and smaller, more niche companies like PWG, Wrestle Circus, and Chikara. Hell, WWE would be nothing except ex-football players if it wasn’t for them. Wrestling has steadily developed as an art form outside of the mainstream whilst WWE stagnated. Granted, WWE has regularly hired the top indie darlings. They’ve just as regularly squandered the talent they spent so much to acquire.
The return of CM Punk
On the 21st of August 2021, CM Punk returned to professional wrestling after a 7-year hiatus. Although, as he sees it, he really left pro wrestling in 2005 when he left ROH for the WWE. Punk may have created iconic moments with the WWE, but he always felt that they never used him to his fullest potential and that the product that they offered wasn’t really professional wrestling.
WWE turned wrestlers into Superstars, fans into the WWE Universe, and wrestling into Sports Entertainment. They took the fun and the joy out of wrestling to produce bland, branded content. He also felt that the WWE didn’t have the health of wrestlers as a priority. So, after losing his passion for the art form that he loved, and feeling his health was at risk, he decided to not go to work after the 2014 Royal Rumble. A move that was similar to Steve Austin’s “Taking his ball and going home” moment in 2002. Although Steve Austin never got his termination papers on his wedding day, which is what the WWE did to Punk. Needless to say, there’s some bad blood there.
After years of saying he’d never return, CM Punk finally found a wrestling company to call home again.
AEW: Home of Professional Wrestling
Then, on 5 September 2021 at All Out in Chicago, the night CM Punk had his first match back against young, nihilistic daredevil Darby Allin, the show ended with Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson both coming out to rapturous applause. Adam Cole was arguably the biggest star in NXT (WWE’s developmental brand) before leaving. “Daniel Bryan” was in the main event of Wrestlemania just a few short months ago. Two of the WWE’s biggest stars had defected to a company that the ‘E refused to acknowledge as competition. While both of them spoke highly of the WWE, Danielson touched on a similar point to Punk- he’s there to wrestle. The wrestling company that essentially started with a bet has become the premier destination for professional wrestling.
If you want to know where you’re going, you have to know where you come from
To me, AEW is the best parts of WWF, WCW, and ECW, with a modern indie wrestling heart. It understands that wrestling can be incredibly silly and extraordinarily violent. They give their wrestlers creative freedom but not at expense of the show. WCW was brought down because it let egos get in the way. AEW seems to be run by people who understand what the modern wrestling fan wants to see whilst building on the expansive heritage that’s come before them.
They’re people who grew up watching Shawn Michaels and imagined making their own boyhood (or girlhood) dream come true. People who would put their friends in The Walls of Jericho on the playground at school and went on to put on backyard shows using build homebuilt rings. They have ideas born of a deep love of the art form and unique perspectives to offer. They cater to an audience that knows what’s up and they don’t treat them like children. If you don’t get all the references, there’s YouTube. I have learned so much more about the history of wrestling around the world since AEW started. They openly acknowledge the histories of their wrestlers in other companies and have had a plethora of cross-promotional matches.
AEW has been very intentional in working with other wrestling promotions. Most notably NJPW, AAA, and Impact. They’ve had ties to these companies before they even existed, so it makes sense to dance with who brung ya. We’ve been treated to crossover events that 90’s comic fans would be jealous of. Wrestling has now become its own extended universe.
From undesirable to undeniable
During the peak of the pandemic, WWE let go of a whole host of wrestlers whilst recording record profits (they did it again recently). A move that was both greedy and stupid. AEW’s ranks were bolstered with wrestlers who were eager to prove themselves after being rejected. The Women’s Division especially picked up a few key talents. Considering that she’s primed to be a babyface megastar, it’s insane to me that WWE let Tay Conti go. Serena Deeb, who was mostly used as a trainer in the WWE, has used her veteran status to position herself as a threat.
And then there’s Ruby Soho. She never held a title in WWE, yet the crowd erupted when Rancid’s 1995 singalong classic dropped, and out came the woman whose ring name was inspired by the anthem. Turns out AEW fans like outcasts and punks. And punks like AEW as Rancid’s Lars Fredricksen was the one who suggested she use the song. It makes sense for a company built by people who were often overlooked despite their talents. As Cody Rhodes puts it, they went from undesirable to undeniable.
Welcome to Brittsburgh
Although they’ve been accused of being a company of WWE rejects, AEW has been diligently building their own stars. Dr. Britt Baker is the breakout star of the women’s division. The dentist has gone from relative obscurity to an icon in just two years. When AEW started, she didn’t exactly seem like someone you could build a women’s division around. Granted, she was the first woman signed to AEW so obviously they knew something we didn’t. She’s taken every opportunity she’s been given and used it to elevate herself and the women around her, and she’s shown herself to be a legit badass. The brutal “Lights Out” match between Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa is easily one of the best matches of the year. I suspect it will rank highly on many best matches lists for years to come.
Building towards the future
AEW’s women’s division had a rocky start. While they had some top-tier talent for Japan and a handful of promising prospects from the American and British indies, they weren’t given the most compelling storylines, and newer talent barely got any time in the ring to really improve. Lately, AEW has put a lot more effort into their women’s division and even created a second title for it. They’ve steadily been building up new stars through YouTube exclusive shows like Dark, and Elevation, which give them a slightly lower stakes environment to grow than on live international television. We’ve seen wrestlers like Red Velvet and Anna Jay grow from week to week, despite still occasionally making mistakes due to inexperience and youth. That being said, the women’s division still isn’t quite where it should be and AEW has some work to do to get it there.
As MJF, the perennial dickhead, explained in a recent promo, the company has been intentional in building towards the future. He considers himself, Sammy Guevara, Darby Allin, and Jungle Boy as the pillars of AEW’s future. Four guys who aren’t exactly the meathead monsters that WWE likes to build their company around. “Vanilla midgets” as Kevin Nash would say. Yet their undeniable talent is being nurtured in AEW. Personally, I’d also throw names like Ricky Starks, Daniel Garcia, Private Party, The Acclaimed, and Dante Martin in the mix as names that will become synonymous with AEW in the future (contract disputes always depending).
Even cowboys get the blues
And then there’s Hangman Adam Page. Before AEW, Page had some decent success in ROH and NJPW with The Elite, but now he’s a true main event player who is on the cusp of stardom. His story arc since losing the first-ever Wold Title match to Jericho has been riveting. His path of self-destruction, paranoia, and isolation is relatable to many and has been carefully built to the point that we’re all eagerly awaiting his moment of redemption. He’s Stone Cold Steve Austin for a modern audience. The Anxious Millenial Cowboy- as one of his T-shirts states. It’s character-driven storytelling alongside some of the most bonkers athleticism that’s drawn so many people to AEW in only two years.
If that’s what you’re into
The old concept of working a crowd was getting them to believe what you’re doing is real. These days, it’s so much more than that. It’s about making audiences trust in you to tell a good story and reward them for joining you on some truly insane journeys.
There are so many levels to modern wrestling that there really is something for everyone. Whether it’s hyper-violent deathmatches with glass light tubes and barbed wire, technical mat classics, vanilla midget flippy shit, cinematic silliness, self-aware comedy matches, Japanese strong style, or just good ol’ fashioned ‘rasslin, there are so many weird and wonderful ways to be entertained by people pretending to fight.
Adapt or die
The art of wrestling is ever-evolving and we’re entering into an era where competition forces adaptation or leads to death. WWE has certainly stepped their game up in recent months. Their Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns program is compelling and they did right by long-time fan favourites Big E and Xavier Woods. Big E is well-deserved in his current role as WWE Champion and Xavier Woods achieved his lifelong dream of becoming King of the Ring this year. All of which likely came about due to finally having some competition. WWE can no longer afford to coast by on brand recognition alone.
Unfortunately, smaller companies have suffered due to the pandemic, and even the legendary ROH faces an uncertain future at the moment. It’s tragic since they helped birth AEW and so much of modern wrestling. Wrestling companies are known to never die though, just look at Impact and NWA, so I’m sure their legacy will live on one way or another.
That being said, with travel restrictions steadily being lifted, the modern extended wrestling universe is set to explode. There’s never been a better time to be a professional wrestling fan.