Now, that I’ve caught up with AEW and familiarized myself with their product and a few of their shows, I wanted to put some thoughts down as someone who has watched pro-wrestling most of his life (since 1985) and offer a critique of what they’re attempting to accomplish. While my reviews may come off as being scathing, bombastic tirades, the truth is that I want a promotion like this to succeed but am purely frustrated at what I see. Hopefully, this post clarifies my position on my overall views of AEW.
I’m going to start with the bad first to get that out of the way.
- Schizophrenic booking – This is probably my worst complaint about the company. I feel that these shows don’t really have much build, there’s not a lot of follow through, they don’t do a good job piecing together things and that it feels there’s too many cooks in the kitchen, many of who either are too inexperienced or not very good in knowing how to assemble a compelling program.While they may create a program that last over a year such as the Inner Circle vs Pinnacle, it doesn’t mean the way they do it makes sense nor is it any good. There is no sense of a build within the program and they end up hot shotting matches all the time with far too many stipulations, too many run-ins, post match brawls and general chaos to lead towards anything meaningful. It feels as though someone watched Nitro and saw all the run-ins where Nitro would get these ratings boosts from an NWO segment because it seemed exciting. The problem is that it worked very well initially since the people involved were meaningful and were trying to prove a point. After a while, it made no sense and got stale quickly.
Here, they don’t give people the chance to build momentum nor anticipation. They just drop the match they want to do then maybe have an interview the week before or something on one of their YouTube channels and expect people to tune in. There is no time to allow angles to breathe nor live because there is no long term thought process put in. It is absolutely frustrating to watch. I feel like they have an inkling of people they think will be break outs but if they’re trying to lead them towards that point, they end up pulling the rug right before they’re allowed to get super hot. Hence, I don’t feel real stars are born here.
- Terrible finishes – Way too many of their matches especially the main events have overbooked finishes with too many false finishes or overused moves that end up making the match seem anti-climatical. Worse yet they might have interference or duds in execution which makes the product seem 3rd rate/indy (which it is considering who they’ve hired). Your finish is the exclamation mark you need to make for your audience because it is the thing you want them remembering at the end of a show. If a champion wins, let them soak it in. No after births/burns especially on big matches on PPVs. Use your major follow up show (Dynamite) to set up the next thing. No matter what though, give me a good impression of AEW and that I can trust you will be doing the right thing going forward and target that mind set at the casual fan. You need to hook those people so that they stay and help grow the business.
- Really bad matches – Most of the matches in “modern” wrestling look awful. I don’t care how many moonsaults, power bombs or crazy moves you can pull off per second. It just looks like shit if there’s no flow, no sense of a build, the execution looks suspect, the hits are either too hard or too weak (sloppy) and seem generic. There’s barely any real “wrasslin'” anymore in matches since everyone is moving at a hundred miles an hour. The selling is atrocious because there’s no drama that make me want to cheer anyone. People don’t know how to get heat spots because the opponent is too eager to get in their offense. Heels and faces wrestle interchangeably due to all their offense looking similar. Most of all, it’s a clusterfuck of motion that looks meaningless where people do crazy moves in order to avoid boring or “you fucked up!” chants.What’s really missing from pro-wrestling is the drama in matches. I don’t care about what moves are pulled off if I don’t detect a sense of a struggle. Why are you fighting? Take MJF vs Sammy Guevara a few weeks ago. The opening was a cruiserweight match. But these guys are supposed to hate each other. The opening was heatless outside of the spots because people expected aggressive pounding from the start. Why wasn’t that given the minute MJF entered the ring?
- Too many interview segments especially on Dynamite. I hated when the WWE and eventually WCW started doing this. Worse yet, I hate when an interview segment meanders and loses the point because the people involved shouldn’t be near a mic. I use the rule of thumb that if you can’t get your point across in 30 seconds or less, you shouldn’t be talking. Old WWF and NWA interview segments usually didn’t meander this badly.If you really need a long interview segment, reserve it for your main eventers heading for the PPV or a mega feud that you’re building. Don’t give every chucklehead an interview segment because you feel that each person needs some storyline to get over. More importantly, don’t even bother putting people like Alex Marvez, who add absolutely nothing to a segment, because you treat them like some prop. Less is more.
- Too many factions – You can tell Tony Khan was a big fan of the NWO growing up. The NWO, Horsemen, Freebirds and Heenan Family worked because they were stables. But why so many factions? What do these factions provide to the individual wrestlers involved? It’s like the Los Boricuas in the WWF where you had a bunch of heatless job guys supporting one dude.The problem with factions is that they more often stripped the individual wrestler of their sense of identity than provide one. Take Matt Hardy’s groups. He’s got two unrelated tag teams under him right now. One tag team had something kinda going for a while. The other just seem like random people they’ve paired up so that he’s got henchmen. If you’re trying to break one of these groups out, then why put them under Hardy?
- Poor TV structure – For a 2 hour program, Dynamite has on average 7 matches. Most of these matches aren’t worth a damn in my book because they’re filler that lead nowhere. Some people don’t belong on TV because that program, as your flagship program, should be used to focus on your main stars that are being prepped for your PPVs or linked between shows.These shows lack any consistency in booking, have too many after-births, too many interview segments strewn in random order throughout the show and no sense of timing. Some matches have PPV level stipulations that get tossed in for no good reason. And Tony Khan has admitted that PPVs and TV would be the same. So why should anyone buy a PPV over watching the TV show? Does that mean we get to see someone killed on PPV because of how nutty these stipulations are on TV and they need a way to top those in order to entice people?
The TV show needs to cut down on stupid segments. Pick a major interview segment for your main events or a major segment to help lead towards your main events. For the smaller interviews, use the picture-in-picture style where someone is given 30 seconds in a small box to get their point across. Keep the rest in the ring. You’ve made it a point that Dynamite matters in such a way that the fans pay good money and treat it like a near PPV quality event. So eliminate the useless backstage segments that people can’t see live because it’s your live audience that will make the show far more interesting.
- Re-think the moves in matches – Way too much dangerous stuff going on. I’ve heard that quite a few people are injured or close to being injured (like Red Velvet). I feel that once some of these kids get their shot on TV, they take way too much of a chance to make an impression. So rather than making the match good, they do whatever it takes to get a spot over. Wrong thinking. These people won’t have much of a career span or life span for that matter in a few years at this rate. Look at Paul Orndorff recently or what’s happened to Terry Funk. The body holds up when it’s young but once you get to your 40’s, things break down fast and they deteriorate faster every year. You can still do a good move or two for a match to give a good impression but that should never be the focus if everything else is failing.
- Too much goofiness – I’m getting to the point where I get a bit mad when I hear “oh, but it’s no longer fun for me” in wrestling. And it feels like what’s going on is that the wrestlers are trying to entertain each other rather than the audience. Or more importantly, they focus on entertainment rather than what wrestling is supposed to be: wrestling. The best example of what really happens in modern wrestling as a social satire comes from the South Park episode where they ridicule the WWE. I mean, any true long time fan of pro-wrestling will find the acumen of the South Park creators very poignant.
- What happened to “the pay window?” – This is where Cody should remember his father’s famous phrase as an announcer on the smaller TV shows. You have matches because people want to get paid. You want to go after titles because there are bigger pay days. Why isn’t this a thing anymore? There’s no emphasis on winning/losing that leads to “the pay window.” Everyone cheats and does things to the point where the rules don’t matter and nothing does except to get spots in and create visual chaos that people believe is pro-wrestling.
- Targeting the perceived hardcore audience – After hearing the Dan Lambert rant (which I’m assuming mostly was directed towards Jim Cornette and those with Jim Cornette’s mind set like myself), one thing that I came to realize is that AEW is specifically targeting a mixture of ECW, WCW and ROH audience. This reminds me of how Path of Exile targets hardcore ARPG people in their philosophy for designing encounters. But it also reminds me of why the MMORPG Wildstar failed.Hardcores are some of the worst people to target if you want to build a serious product. Hardcores are the ones that are overly protective, white knight everything and defend things at the expense of alienating others who dare to speak ill of something, which in turn disallows constructive and often times necessary discourse to occur which provides a positive feedback loop in product development.
Instead, targeting the hardcore audience creates a situation like ECW where you have one deluded person who managed to convince all the underlings and the local people that he was a messiah but failed to create a real business. After that, you had a bunch of these rabid types that perpetuate a massive reality deflection shield that instead has made the business worse for wear because goofs like Nick Gage become a reality as well as the promotions that realize there are suckers willing to pay for this garbage like GCW.
The other problem with this “hardcore” audience is that they generally believe they are the “smart” ones because of how loyal they are but they are the problem in making things worse for everyone else. Look at World of Warcraft at this point and Blizzard and how they cater to Method, who aren’t even the top raiding guild anymore. They lost too much of their audience because the bozos in charge put too much faith in esports and the novel idea that a bunch of no-life jackoffs are what make the game. Yes, they’ve stuck around and pay for their subscriptions because they’ve figured out how to con other people in paying their $5 per month for some shitty stream. But the game itself is in a wretched state since the general public realized that it was a cancer in their life and abandoned it, especially after the hardcores demanded more for themselves and less for everyone else while ridiculing the casual audience that helped make up a tremendous amount of revenue to keep that business afloat.
- Losing the real fantasy narrative – I like Bobby Heenan’s perception of pro-wrestling where he blamed the people inside of the business rather than the fans for exposing it and causing the chaos. But it is true where wrestling has become more self-indulgent for the people inside where they attempt to entertain each other or a certain person or the hardcore people who will follow them to the grave. But they have failed to understand what makes pro-wrestling great: the fantasy narrative and value of a true catharsis.Wrestling works best when the figures represent the average person, except that the wrestlers themselves are a superset of that average person. They are the embodiment of the every man in a certain niche market, audience, ethnicity, religion, job type, demographic, or what have you. They represent the things that those people normally can’t do in a physical, violent manner in the best conditions. If you’ve ever read George Orwell’s 1984, pro-wrestling would be the equivalent of the “two minute hate.”
Wrestling right now has very little fantasy element for the fans in my opinion. The way they are portrayed does not connect with me at any level. Like when I would watch Hulk Hogan take on King Kong Bundy in the cage at Wrestlemania 2, my fantasy would be being able to tag with Hulk because he was cool and the super hero and I wanted to save him or have him save me after my skull got bashed in against the cage. Ricky Steamboat represented my father’s ethnicity and other Asian Americans who wanted a Bruce Lee-like character and his selling was him being vulnerable against devious foes like Muraco, Fuji and Jake the Snake. Macho Man was the ultimate alpha male type with the sweet, southern belle in Elizabeth, who, despite his verbal treatment of her, would always stand by her man.
Instead, we have these people who do impossible moves, that look like nothing that are just jokes because they think that adding some random, outlandish gimmick will suddenly make them popular. Because of how the idea of how the crazy spot in a match overtook the fantasy, wrestling feels blander than ever. While the move itself might be a critical part in wrestling, it’s a supporting element to the emotional conflict of these struggles, which should reflect contemporary issues and people.
Like Nyla Rose has an actual great story but the way she’s portrayed does little for me. Or Brian Pillman Jr. coming from an abusive stepfather. Maybe his dad was famous but his mother left them with nothing. Shouldn’t he be fighting for people who had abusive relationships with alcoholic relatives? And why isn’t Cody a heel? He should represent white, nepotism where he’s unaware of his own privilege and being a cancer in corporate America.
You then take a type like that and place them against the anti-thesis of their belief system. Then at that point, the match means that much more to that particular demographic. You don’t need a complex story. You just have to understand a basic type. And you can tell contemporary stories by looking around you for what’s going on without having to insult anyone (except for what the protagonist in the story represents). That’s how you truly build heat.
- Tony Khan – He shouldn’t be the booker. He needs someone who has the experience to produce the TV and handle the long term vision in terms of the product. My impression of him is that he never had to earn a dime in his life and he treats the business as having unlimited funds. That’s not good. He needs to be in the mentality with getting the business over, make money and helping the talent make money on their own. The AEW chants are stupid just like people screaming “EC-Dub!” It just makes the product seem barbaric, primal and low in catering to people with small intelligence rather than elevating the product to the masses and making it feel like a sport.
Positives of AEW
Again, despite my criticisms, I also can see a variety of positives that AEW is doing and should continue to do.
- Being an alternative – This is an obvious but it’s good to see another place where people can work and watch beyond the WWE. Not just an alternative but a well financed one and by someone who seems to care about the product.
- Hungry fans – Despite bashing the hardcore fans, I will admit that having the support of the hardcore fans is a good thing too. The real question is how big this fan base is. Will they go beyond Florida? They did sell out Chicago and Las Vegas. But will this continue? Can they maintain the support of these fans for the next 4-5 years?
- Desire to push young people – Although they have hired a lot of ex-WWE veterans, the people they managed to get seem willing to help the young kids besides trying to get themselves over. If they can see the big picture where they realize how people like Hogan, Nash, etc. only took and ended up sucking the life out of the pro-wrestling landscape, they’ll realize what their role should be, which is to help pro-wrestling through not only getting themselves over but the next generations. But they have put some focus on people like Darby Allin, Brian Pillman Jr., Jungle Boy, MJF, Sammy Guevara, etc.
- Willing to give everyone a chance – Why I don’t agree with how they portray people, they do give as many people as possible the ability to showcase themselves.
- Taking advantage of YouTube – AEW produces a lot of content. A LOT. Maybe too much. But they have two free shows to get people interested in unknowns and not all of those matches are squashes. The one show I really like though is Unrestricted. Getting to know the person behind the wrestler is critical. I would probably have worse criticism for certain people if they didn’t allow each of these people a voice.
- Heart – If there’s one thing that I will absolutely credit AEW for is that they have heart. I think they have purpose too in trying to make it and the talent look enthused as well as the fans. Hopefully, this attribute will allow them to go far (but I think you need brains to make this part work well)
- Backstage Environment – I read or hear from other wrestlers from interviews that the backstage environment is good. That’s important because it seems that WWE is run more like Goldman Sachs or some other soulless bank rather than a place where people can fulfill their dreams. And this aspect comes off from both sides.
- Tony Khan – I will list him as a negative and a positive. The most obvious thing is that he does have deep pockets and has been instrumental in putting together deals that other promotions that tried to be a WWE alternative could not. More importantly, he was able to put those deals together fast and it’s something that has skyrocketed. It’s the implementation/execution that I’ve complained about the entire time not the intention nor desire.
- The thrill of a 2nd chance – When Aleister Black showed up and he got that pop, it demonstrated to me the importance of where a talented guy who was over but not used elsewhere can make a big impact immediately. People were genuinely excited as was I because I enjoy the guy from his Twitch channel. I thought he seemed like a decent dude and only recently I started to educate myself on his matches. So I am eager to see these people blossom whereas in the WWE just might have been stagnating for too long.
I really hope that AEW can correct many of their flaws, especially the booking and the matches. There’s a lot of heart that’s inside the promotion but not enough brains. That’s my basic summary of the situation and it’s something they need to work on and correct quickly.