This was the first AEW event that I had time to sit down and watch. I am hoping that this promotion will provide competition and force the WWE out of its extended creative malaise. As I watched this event, I learned that I had a two major biases that must be the result of decades of watching the AWA, NWA, WWF, WCW, and WWE.
Bias #1 - It became clear that I really need to watch wrestlers that in my mind can clearly kick my butt if I want maximum enjoyment in my wrestling entertainment. For your clarity, I’m an out of shape 6’1”, 230 pound man that is a couple of years over 50. I say this only to let readers know that “being able to kick my butt” isn’t really a high bar to clear. This feeling crystalized when watching Darby Allin. Don’t get me wrong, he moves well, the kid is creative, and he does have an interesting character, but at 173 pounds, I felt like someone could’ve requested my high school librarian to jump into the ring and corral him. Whoa – based on the show – no one wants me to get started on librarians! To be transparent, I also felt the same way about Jimmy Havoc. The only difference was his hair was worse.
After reflecting on Bias #1, I have come to the conclusion that I have been brainwashed into the “big guy myth” that Vince McMahon has done such a great job of building over the years. Looking back some of my old heroes – Superstar Billy Graham, Hulk Hogan (who McMahon stole from the AWA), The Road Warriors, Lex Luger, Sting, and Scott Steiner (to name a few) – it’s clear my bias is going to need to be overcome if I am ever to thoroughly enjoy AEW. In my defense, any of those guys mentioned could kick my butt without even sweating. Heck, even the “little guys” that I liked such as Flair, Hennig/Perfect, Rollins, and Jericho would have zero issues whupping me, either. Fairly or unfairly, Allin and Havoc do not have the physical presence that works for me. Obviously, I am still embracing my brainwashing. I suspect it’s not going to change easily or quickly.
Bias #2 – I am very clearly biased towards heels with great microphone skills. I spent my youth waiting for Nick Bockwinkel to deliver a cutting promo when I watched with my grandfather. Later in my high school days, it was Ric Flair. And who reading this didn’t want to watch the Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, or KO on the microphone? On this AEW broadcast, I found the next great voice on the microphone – MJF (Maxwell Jacob Friedman). At only 23 years old, the only obstacle to his success might be his youth. He is marvelous on the microphone. He has a good look. He stays in good shape. He delivers fantastic insults. He possesses excellent comedic timing and he clearly is able to read a crowd. This kid is going to be a star. A massive star.
Overall, I enjoyed the show. Moxley has proven himself to be the current superstar of the promotion (see my past column apologizing to him if you want more of my thoughts on Moxley). He may very well outshine even Kenny Omega in year one of the promotion. This is partly due to the fact of Omega spending years in Japan. Conversely, Moxley has years of WWE exposure in the US and was a part of the most popular faction in the promotion, the Shield. Moxley is a huge asset for AEW on day one. After Omega gains more US exposure, their order might change, but for now Moxley is the wrestler I’d build around.
Hangman Page had a solid match, but at times, I felt like he was actually holding back so he didn’t accidentally crush Jungle Boy and Jimmy Havoc (see Bias #1). What stood out for me in regards to Page was the way he moved in the ring. His stride and shoulder movements reminded me of Stone Cold Steve Austin. I’m not saying his character is the same, but he moves like Austin did. That was strangely reassuring. I am very much looking forward to future matches with Page versus Jericho and Page versus Moxley.
Cody Rhodes is clearly more of an old style wrestler in the mode of his father. I enjoy his vision for a match, his match pacing, and I think his tastes are similar to mine. Normally that wouldn’t be very important to me, but in this case, when he is a key leader of the federation’s Creative Department; this bodes well for my future enjoyment.
Omega is clearly a talent. I enjoyed his style in Japan, though Okada was and is my favorite New Japan wrestler. Omega’s style has a tendency to rely on more complicated spots in his matches for my tastes, but Omega will be a rising star that can really propel AEW upwards. Conversely, I’m less impressed with the Young Bucks. They fall into my bias as being a bit too small and a bit too overly choreographed in their match presentation. There’s no doubt they’re really good businessmen at developing a niche, but now they’re moving to television and that’s going to force them to learn how to run an ongoing storyline to a mass audience. My assumption is that they’ll adapt.
All in all, the AEW roster and creative will face a huge test in producing two hours of live programming per week. They will have the funding that is key to competing to the WWE. I am hopeful that they’ll be successful enough to put pressure on the WWE. Which is where I’m heading to next...
WWE – Heyman and Bischoff Take Over
With great fanfare, the WWE announced Paul Heyman will be the Executive Director for RAW and Eric Bischoff will be the Executive Director for SmackDown. Both men were able to put pressure on the WWE back in the 90s and both men essentially ran out of funds to continue their battles against the WWE before their rival promotions were absorbed by the victorious and deeper pocketed WWE.
I have been a fan of Heyman since his Dangerous Alliance days. ECW was innovative and fun, though I’ve never been a huge fan of the hardcore style. He was excellent in developing intriguing plot lines and he has a real knack for pacing his shows and delivering payoffs for the crowd. I have no doubt he’ll do well on RAW. But the word “if” comes into play. Why do I say this? The big “if” is if Vince McMahon truly lets go of the reigns of Creative. Listening to many interviews of former WWE Creative personnel on Wade Keller’s PW Torch website clearly demonstrates a pattern of Vince interfering and literally sinking the hard work of professional writers and wrestlers with ideas for their characters in favor of his own preferences. Vince has accumulated the best roster in wrestling but doesn’t use the majority of these wrestlers on the air, doesn’t care about continuity, and doesn’t mind pushing his personal favorites and pursuing his own agenda regardless of fan responses. If Vince steps back, Heyman will be successful. If Vince keeps meddling, Heyman will not. It’s as simple as can be.
The first RAW under Heyman had some high water marks – the Lashley/Strowman fireworks, the AJ Styles heel turn, and the formation of the Club. The low water mark for me has been the Rollins-Becky romance. This is surprising for those who know me, as I am a huge Rollins fan. In this scenario, I haven’t liked how they have portrayed Seth’s character so far. But, since Heyman is in control, I’m willing to see what happens. If it was Vince, I’d have a feeling of impending doom.
When it comes to Bischoff, I’m a bit conflicted. His NWO storyline in the late 90s resulted in 83 weeks of beating RAW in the ratings. The contracts signed that allowed creative control to slip out of the hands of the company and into the hands of egomaniacal wrestlers didn’t work out well. There needs to be a better balance between creative and the wrestlers. Since Vince will be signing the wrestlers, that should clear a major stumbling block out of Bischoff’s way. Vince won’t cede control and seems to be focused on locking up wrestlers to keep them from AEW. Now all Bischoff and Heyman need to do is use more of them on the air. And keep Vince away from the writers and wrestlers. He's the CEO, he should have other duties to attend to.
Bischoff understands dealing with TV/network executives. He will be a major buffer between Fox and Vince, especially if Vince is focused on the XFL. While I’m thinking the XFL will not last through the entire first season, McMahon doesn’t go into a new venture with plans on failing. Since Vince will be busy, Bischoff will have to strike ratings gold that he hasn’t really hit in 20 years (in fairness Vince hasn’t either and AEW hasn’t ever done anything similar). Fox will not accept mediocre ratings for very long. This is network television, not cable television. Bischoff will have to deliver.
Bischoff’s first SmackDown episode is in the books. We’ll have to see how the ratings look – even though he probably had very little actual input in the show. Unlike Heyman, Bischoff hasn’t been around the product or the roster, so it's hard to expect him to pick things up immediately. The show had good moments from the KO/Ziggler Alliance that quickly turned into a feud, Kofi and Joe clashing dramatically (including Kofi’s middle finger salute demonstrating that times are a changing), and we had Shane McMahon (who really needs less television time) on for more heel promo time. How Bischoff moves forward is anyone’s guess but I’m willing to bet he’ll make it more interesting than what McMahon was booking.
So in the end, AEW may have already begun to pay off for wrestling fans. With a little luck, they’ll be successful in the fall and we’ll be treated to consistently excellent wrestling shows by the end of the year. I’m cautiously optimistic.