Running a wrestling promotion is hard work. Just ask Cody Rhodes. All Elite Wrestling was brainstormed last fall among executive vice president Rhodes, his wife and chief brand officer Brandi, co-EVPs the Young Bucks, and billionaire businessman and Jacksonville Jaguars co-owner Tony Khan. (Kenny Omega would eventually become the fourth EVP of record.) On New Year’s Day, they officially announced their formation. Their first-ever televised event, the PPV blowout Double or Nothing, was immediately scheduled for May 25, with two more broadcasts—Fyter Fest and Fight for the Fallen, both of which streamed free via B/R Live—queued up for June and July, respectively. And all this before their weekly prime-time show on TNT, set to debut this October, even rolled film.
That’s a heavy lift for any company, let alone one that was ideated during the most recent football season. That’s also precisely why wrestling’s notoriously restless fan base allowed AEW a tacit grace period to muscle through its growing pains in real time. But just over half a year into this well-funded experiment in industry subversion, the time has come for AEW to flex its creative might and step into the light. To that end, we thought some pointed feedback—and well-earned flattery—might help put the inaugural six-months-and-change in perspective and offer a road map of how to stick the landing ahead of August 31’s All Out PPV and their aforementioned cable coming out. So, without further delay, here is The Ringer’s Six(ish)-Month AEW Performance Review, with categories evaluated on a highly scientific scale of “Not Great” to “Great.”
Event Promotion: Not Great
Elder Young Buck Matt Jackson has said he initially wanted to get ducks in a row and unveil AEW in May. Hindsight suggests they might have heeded his instinct. Double or Nothing was playing with house money, but still went above and beyond to satisfy the expectations of viewers plunking down more than one-third the cost of an annual WWE Network subscription for a single event from a fledgling promotion. The only problem was that AEW issued press releases for Fyter Fest and Fight for the Fallen in mid-April, several weeks before getting its feet wet with Double or Nothing, not to mention before sealing their partnership with B/R Live and making clear (sort of) that Fest and Fallen would be available for free via the streaming platform. By that point, some fans had presumed they’d need to shell out another $100 to catch both shows and decided to wait to spend their dough until at least All Out (which, confusingly, wasn’t made official until a teaser during Double or Nothing). And among those who did get the memo, a fair share tuned into Fyter Fest and Fight for the Fallen anticipating a production that rivaled Double or Nothing in bell-to-bell quality and significance. Fest was very good, and Fallen overcame some timing quirks and more than satisfied the threshold for a better-than-good gratis affair (not to mention raised more than $150,000 for victims of gun violence, its real raison d’être). Still, some folks misconstrued that the sum total of Fest and Fallen would be more story oriented and less of a win-win scrimmage, and that’s due less to a failure of imagination than disciplined disseminating of information. On the one hand, that’s the kind of thing that will be easy to message with a weekly TV show. On the other hand, well, AEW still needs to get its ducks in a row.
Delegation of Talent: So-So
One major function of AEW’s three live events to this point has been to showcase its wares. We’ve all gotten a (mostly free) first look at the variety and versatility of its roster, from bounding cruiserweights like Jungle Boy and internationally reputed indie stars such as Jimmy Havoc to familiar indie-scene allies including SoCal Uncensored and genuine box office attractions à la Chris Jericho (who continues to merit debate about whether he is the sport’s all-time-greatest all-around performer). And, not insignificantly, we’ve borne witness to the fact that absolute inclusivity (see: transgender women’s conqueror Nyla Rose, openly gay male signee Sonny Kiss, and double amputee and Double or Nothing competitor Dustin “No Legs” Thomas) can and should be part of every major wrestling company’s mandate. But there’s also the reality that AEW has used these baby PPVS (to borrow my colleague David Shoemaker’s turn of phrase) as live tryouts, and not everyone can make the cut for All Out or the TNT show’s formative stages. The contrast between July 13’s Fight for the Fallen and WWE’s Extreme Rules hot on its heels the following night was fairly stark. It’s easy to take the depth of Vince McMahon’s talent pool for granted, but a lot less so when he can kick off a major PPV with two world-class names like Shinsuke Nakamura and Finn Bálor battling for Intercontinental gold. (Nakamura won, btw.) AEW, despite a preponderance of cult up-and-comers, has struggled so far to fill the void when its marquee main eventers—i.e., Pac, who’s been a holdout due to “creative differences”, and Jon Moxley, who skipped Fallen in favor of New Japan’s G1 Climax—go AWOL. Cody has been reticent to anoint himself onscreen as top guy in his own promotion, having been booked more like a mid-to-upper-mid-card special attraction while making way for Hangman Page (who takes on Jericho for the heavyweight title at All Out) to shine. But he and his co-EVPs may need to make themselves the clear force of gravity in the early going if they’re going to bring WWE—no matter its insistence that it’s ambivalent about that “other” product—down to earth.
Quality of Wrestling: Great
Regardless of whether they’re all ready for actual prime time, AEW’s guys and gals can uniformly go. Some matches have run overlong, and not every five-star spot has hit its mark (nor has every steel chair landed as intended), but there’s no doubt that the combination of experienced professionals representing myriad fighting styles and AEW’s commitment to polished production has already begat a highlight reel that runs longer than a month’s worth of CVS receipts. Angélico and Jack Evans lack size and, arguably, good wardrobe sense, but from Double or Nothing onward they’ve dazzled with gymnastic theatrics and grounded technique. Britt Baker, Bea Priestley, Riho and Shoko Nakajima collectively demonstrated what the next generation of hybrid female athletes has in store at Fight for the Fallen. The Jackson brothers, Rhodes boys, and Jericho, Moxley, and Omega have done what they’re paid the big bucks for, putting on bloody and beatific bouts with an eye on building narrative momentum for All Out. The daredevil lot of Joey Janela, Darby Allin, et al. have already raised the bar for balletic extremes. And the Lucha Brothers, Pentagón Jr. and Fénix, put it all together (including the ever-paramount charisma) every time they’re in that ring—and might be the company’s secret weapons. As noted in the previous entry, sheer ability is half the battle, but AEW’s dedication to wrestling in its most virtuous forms may help it win the war.
Overall Live-Event Presentation: Very Good
All things considered (which could well be the name of an upcoming AEW PPV), the promotion’s principals are way ahead of schedule when it comes to following through on what was promised. The business of messaging its rollout hasn’t always been smooth, but anyone who’s tuned in to any or all of the three events would readily acknowledge AEW looks and feels more streamlined in its infancy than WCW TV did at its apex. Jim Ross is semirejuvenated in his role as lead play-by-play man, and gradually refining colleague Alex Marvez’s exuberance. Everything is presented in high-definition, all camera angles are covered, entrance packages are highly personalized, and even the ring mat’s logo imprint—as with all of AEW’s graphics and merch—is already signature. Amphitheaters don’t lend themselves naturally to wrestling shows, and the subsequent, ad hoc set design for Fallen kept the crew on their toes. And it might be time to stop bookending shows with kayfabe-breaking introductions and farewells from Cody, Brandi, Omega and Co. It’s disingenuous to declare AEW’s first three outings on par with WWE’s slick aesthetics and simple grandeur (attributes, again, that we often take for granted), but also unfair to compare. All we can do is wait to see what they have in store for Chicago’s Sears Centre on August 31 and on October 2 for TNT. We’ll see you there.
Kenny Herzog has covered everything from wrestling and television to politics and pop music for outlets including Rolling Stone, New York magazine, Esquire, Paste, Bleacher Report, Slate, ESPN, Nylon, Mic, and many more for nearly 20 years. You can find him on Twitter @kennyherzog.