The shifting currents in pro wrestling this past year represented more than a sea change. They were tidal and seismic in both scope and subversion of conventional order. Ever since World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon acquired his closest competition—Ted Turner’s WCW and Paul Heyman’s ECW—at the turn of the aughts, WWE has had a stranglehold on the industry’s mainstream gaze. But since Cody Rhodes and billionaire backer Tony Khan announced the incorporation of All Elite Wrestling on January 1 (and premiered the weekly TNT series Dynamite in October), AEW has crystallized a renewed wave of attention on competing and less established promotions that—poetically—evokes the very territorial network McMahon vanquished and consolidated during Hulkamania days of yore.
It seems as if overnight, wrestling blogs and podcasts were poring over the backstage transactional gossip and in-ring match and/or televised results of New Japan Pro Wrestling, Major League Wrestling, Game Changer Wrestling, Championship Wrestling, Billy Corgan’s resurrected NWA, Women of Wrestling, and more, alongside comprehensive coverage of WWE (itself fragmented into distinct properties—Raw, SmackDown, and NXT—on competing networks) and a few select mini-majors like Ring of Honor or Impact. And the latter, newly hosted for broadcast by AXS TV (and anchored by third-generation phenom Tessa Blanchard), has a golden opportunity to be buoyed by the rising tide—even though its place as the defacto no. 2 promotion may have blocked other AEW-style challengers for the past decade-plus.
This has been a tremendous development for wrestling talent—who finally have bargaining power and a measure of creative freedom—and executives—who stand to make money, obviously—and alerted lapsed and lay viewers in equal measures that the sport is thriving and evolving as a vital component of contemporary culture. However, with that has arrived an almost instantaneous whiplash—if not backlash—among diehards, who’ve been overwhelmed with options and dragged into a factional war for a fraction of their time.
So, what can one say about the Year of Too Much Wrestling? Perhaps that, in fact, it wasn’t nearly enough. It’s likely too soon to zoom out and assess the broader condition. It has, after all, been a scant 52 weeks within the business’s century-plus tradition—and less than that of dueling TV products. But as the year draws to a close, it is certainly worth homing in on some of what we could plainly observe with our eyes and ears as we toggled from NXT to AEW Dynamite to NJPW to MLW Fusion to SmackDown to ROH, and to Twitter reactions and dirt-sheet digging and downright dizzying accounting of all the overlapping personnel and on- and off-screen story lines. Here are, then—and in ascending order—our top five takeaways from the year in wrestling, 2019, a year like no other.
5. What’s With the Attitude?
The mode of wrestling on display in every promotion is pointedly contemporary. Emblematic of macro-societal trends, skill sets have become more fluid. Cruiserweights strike and kick like combat veterans, while men made of mountain rock like Viking Raider Ivar cartwheel and suicide-dive as if oblivious to their mass. But once most of today’s wrestlers get on the microphone to spit game, their style is decidedly retro. Live S- and F-bombs during Chris Jericho’s Dynamite promos and Jon Moxley’s mid-match banter have become routine, with WWE responding to the call. (Actually, it may have fired the first shot this summer when then–Raw color man Corey Graves bellowed, “Holy shit!” as Braun Strowman plowed Bobby Lashley through the ramp entrance’s LED display.) But big deal. An average Sunday-night installment of Mr. Robot, which shares a network with Raw, rivals Martin Scorsese movies in sheer density of dirty words. Even your typical mic’d-up Major League Baseball game is good for one or two inadvertently broadcast four-letter words. All this walking up to safe harbor’s edge (a long-held misnomer, as no governing body forbids cable stations from airing profanity) and fourth-wall-breaking barbs between companies merely papers over the fact that there are only so many stories to tell in two or three hours’ time, week after week. (Looking at you, love triangulators Lana/Lashley/Rusev, or estranged mentor/mentee Cody Rhodes and MJF, etc.) Nor is there anything novel about ginning up conflict among parallel businesses, as any student of the Attitude Era and Paul Heyman’s influential period running ECW (which concluded in 2001) understands.
New Japan’s been staging unfiltered post-bout pressers for several years, its longtime U.S. partner ROH has run afoul of censorious standards since inception, and MLW pushed the envelope of passable prime-time language upon debuting Fusion in 2017.
Which is why it’s almost quaint to see that former ROH star Kevin Owens calling “bullshit” on his adversaries on Raw (a show that Heyman, incidentally, currently oversees) or Adam Page promising AEW fans real “cowboy shit” at an upcoming PPV can elicit collective blushes and OMGs. Mainstream wrestling in particular has merely caught up with not just its own industry’s brasher upstarts but larger cable-TV trends, and in some sense circled the wagons back to its Attitude Era forebears. But something about WWE and AEW, in particular, vying for the naughtiest invective feels patronizing at best. If their stabs at supremacy come down to who can finish an episode with the most elite flurry of epithets, we might be witnessing a race to the middle.
4. Peace in Wartime
The so-called Wednesday Night Wars—the catchphrase hastily applied by fans and media once WWE graduated its developmental NXT brand from WWE Network to USA on Wednesday nights, in direct opposition to AEW’s premiering Dynamite—have been, thus far, fairly cold. Some of that owes to the sheer unwieldiness of today’s media-and-TV landscape compared with 20-plus years earlier. Finding a broad audience for content is more challenging than ever before, let alone manufacturing or sowing the seeds for widespread fascination with the relative supremacy of rival entities. The brass tacks of things is that record-setting ratings for Dynamite and rapidly sold-out PPVs have had to fight for headlines with NXT nudging back even or ahead in side-by-side viewership comparables and reports of underwhelming overall live attendance. (Perhaps prompted by persistent chatter about the latter, AEW put out a statement just this week boasting of more than 5,700 tickets sold on average per event in 2019.) Makes you want to go and pledge allegiance to one or the other, right? (It doesn’t.) Wrestling has its niche following, and that following is savvy and sleuthy and more interested in behind-the-scenes machinations and wonky stats than sitting with bated breath for each combatant’s next scripted move. And when it comes down to it, NXT has creatively outmuscled Dynamite to this point by maxing out all the resources at its disposal—reassigning big names like Finn Balor to the brand, having premium Raw main-eventers such as AJ Styles make cameos, seeing each melodramatic AEW character turn and raising it—and making clear that rather than refuse to go down without a fight, it won’t stand for one in the first place. No one said toppling a monopoly would be easy, and for all the deserved criticism leveled at Raw and SmackDown’s dearth of good ideas and vulnerability to being outwitted, there’s serious reason to question whether they can ever truly be outmaneuvered or outgunned.
3. The Fatigue Is Real
At one point recently, my DVR spilled over with nearly a dozen unwatched hours of wrestling from virtually as many promotions—from the preceding week. It’s unclear what would motivate any less compelled individual to tally that much time tuning into, recording, and streaming the slightest majority of it. From the looks of things on Reddit, to name one forum, not too many are even sure where to start. This boom period, which had been brewing before AEW but was undeniably intensified the moment Dynamite detonated on our screens, has made plenty of onlookers wonder when competition curdles into compromised returns. Wrestling fans consume content at an insatiable clip, but they’re being forced more than ever to consider the source, which can be challenging when nearly every televised show cross-pollinates talent and cross-references the other. For whatever it’s worth, I removed at least one of those weekly wrestling shows from my DVR, which, as someone who writes about wrestling in 2019, either makes me enlightened or mere impostor.
2. Fear Not: There Is an Action Plan
Piggybacking off the previous entry, I am here to help. First, set MLW’s Fusion to record on Saturdays at 9 p.m. via beIN Sports. (It’s the network that otherwise carries a lot of international soccer.) Owner Court Bauer revived his dormant franchise in 2017 following a 13-year hiatus and quickly leveraged short- and long-term deals with performers including Low Ki, Pentagon Jr., Austin Aries, the Hart Foundation, MJF, Tom Lawlor, Ross and Marshall Von Erich (yes, those Von Erichs), Jimmy Havoc, Mance Warner, and present-day champion and Samoan dynasty scion Jacob Fatu. Fusion is a tight hour of studio-era storytelling elevated by a more-than-modest budget and grounded in the reliable rolling out of several matches featuring modern and time-honored fighting styles alike.
Ring of Honor TV has remained slippery on the cable guide and coy with the match content it even airs, imploring fans instead to enroll in its streaming Honor Club. It’s been a weird year for those guys. New Japan’s weekly AXS spot is steady as she goes, but with its top stables in states of transition and overall roster regrouping after so many high-profile defections to WWE and AEW, you can get away with checking back in once the road to January’s Wrestle Kingdom has run its course. Championship Wrestling From Hollywood is a true outlier, scattered across syndication partners. Its action is more quirky than consequential, and it just lost its biggest name in Scorpio Sky, but Joey Ryan still pops by on occasion to put lollipops in his pants.
Elsewhere, I’ll be frank that I haven’t streamed enough of NWA Power or AEW Dark to determine whether it’s worth cutting the cable cord and limiting myself to online-exclusive goodies, but people are really digging Power, another program that harkens back to studio intimacy and piss and vinegar. (A pattern, perhaps?) But my sincere advice would be to give Impact another go. It’s been rejuvenated since relocating to AXS, and continues putting talent in the pipeline that get thanklessly poached by WWE and now AEW (hello, Santana and Ortiz). I even enjoyed their shticky bits in 2019. The Rascalz, for one, are a huge step forward from the good ol’ boy creative that gave us Aces & Eights. I realize that doesn’t quite cover it, but what I’m suggesting is that if you have no more than 10 hours or 10 percent left to spare in your calendar or recording software once WWE and AEW’s flagships have had their way with you, fill up on some Fusion, don’t fight the Power, and consider that at least one wobbly stalwart is still making an Impact.
1. The Stars Are Aligned
And they are visible under an all-time brightest sky. Pro wrestling is far from totally democratized, but individual performers have a better shot at exposure than ever before, without having to log 10,000 miles in vans and popping pills to stay upright and sane. (Although for those that have, they’re getting a fair shake at the big time before it’s too late.) In turn, fans who’ve yet to see some hotly tipped daredevil on the VFW circuit have been empowered to judge a wide range of talent for themselves without waiting for them to be vetted by WWE brass. To be sure, those cryptic protocols still exist, but for every exclusively bound big name—from AEW’s Elite to WWE faceplates like Becky Lynch and Roman Reigns—there are dozens of workers across promotions reveling in self-determination and dealing their own hand as they build powerful brands by way of strategic booking and social media manipulation. But however scattered the players, the field is utterly astonishing at times. Bray Wyatt, Ricochet, Kenny Omega, Tessa Blanchard, Keith Lee, Will Ospreay, Kairi Sane, Penelope Ford, Nick Aldis, Bianca Belair, Velveteen Dream, Jon Moxley, Bea Priestley, Jacob Fatu, Alexander Hammerstone, Jungle Boy, and Britt Baker (and on and on) ... all young, hungry, and hellaciously distinct and dynamic, and all given a spotlight to reach anywhere from several thousand to multiple millions of eyeballs week in and week out at venues and on flat screens, phones, and laptops here and abroad. Monitoring their comings and goings from one destination to another, not to mention speculating on their next moves and sparring over Twitter about merits and misfires, is wearying. But fear not: The chaos of wrestling programming writ large simply can’t endure, but the now-and-future stars all this upheaval has erected a platform for most assuredly will.
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.