The world of professional wrestling is being disrupted by the first challenger that has WWE legitimately scared for the first time in 20 years. All Elite Wrestling (AEW) held its first press conference on Tuesday announcing plans for its first event in May. While a lot of questions remain, one thing is clear — WWE is worried.
AEW fired a shot across WWE’s bow by holding its press conference in Jacksonville on the same day WWE was holding SmackDown Live in the city. The result was dozens of wrestling fans attending the AEW rally, then heading to WWE’s show, which was reportedly not received well.
WWE is turning away people from buying tickets who are wearing AEW merchandise— Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful.com (@SeanRossSapp) January 8, 2019
Why is WWE worried about AEW?
Upstart wrestling circuits competing against WWE isn’t anything new. There have been numerous operations over the years that have tried to come for the crown, but AEW represents the first time since WCW in the mid-90s that wrestling fans believe Vince McMahon’s monolith could legitimately be pushed and hurt by a competitor.
It starts with money. WCW was scary for one major reason: Ted Turner. The media magnate represented a near-limitless amount of funds to try and starve out WWE. However, it’s been well documented that Turner had no interest in the wrestling business, instead viewing it as a feather in his cap and programming for his cable networks.
AEW is being funded by Jaguars’ owner Shahid Khan and co-founded with his son, Tony Khan — an established wrestling fan. The Khans represent a $6.4B net worth entering the world of wrestling, dwarfing Vince McMahon’s $2.9B and coming at a time that McMahon is getting ready to invest significant amounts of money in his new version of the XFL.
It isn’t just that AEW is competing, but how they’re competing.
Every major wrestling organization that has tried to compete with WWE in the past has fallen into one of two categories: Independent organizations trying to build grassroots followings, or larger-scale promotions using past WWE superstars as its base.
WWE has always had an answer to these two paths. They can simply ignore the independent promotions and poach their best talent, and larger scale promotions never really scared them by trotting out their own talent.
AEW is doing something very different. They got out ahead of WWE and caught the organization being slow to sign talent from Japan. Now they’ve already announced the signing of the Young Bucks, arguably the best tag team in the world, Hangman Page — as well as the return of Cody Rhodes who found new life in Japan after leaving WWE and if rumors are true that AEW will announce the signing of Kenny Omega later this month, well, WWE has every right to be concerned.
It all starts with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
In many ways, WWE is still working to correct mistakes it made in the mid-late 2000s where their product became entirely kid-focused. This era created superstars like John Cena and Randy Orton, but has been often branded as stale and boring by long-time fans in older demographics who remember the Attitude Era when the company pushed adult-focused storylines, which were often hamfisted — but still felt more realistic than what would follow.
It’s here where New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) filled a mammoth void. Running counter to WWE’s meat grinder of stars being put on TV over and over again until their matches lose impact, NJPW elected to run their promotion more akin to UFC than WWE. This meant slower build up between matches, promotion on a prize fight level and giving its stars creative freedom to build their own brands. This meant that talented independent wrestlers were given room to flourish, and the promotion’s structure meant there was more time between matches. Instead of seeing the same faces every week there would sometimes be 2-3 months between superstars competing. This meant their appearances were must-see matches, built to and able to reach a crescendo in a way WWE programming hasn’t managed.
These stars would return to the U.S. and compete for independent promotions like Ring of Honor or Dragon Gate, but really their NJPW matches have been consistently regarded as the best in wrestling, period. In recent years, more and more WWE fans have turned to NJPW, either as a second program or made it their primary. Japan was a bastion away from the WWE machine that fans viewed as purer and more organic, and that’s the ethos AEW is tapping into now.
It also helps that NJPW had the power of the Bullet Club, regarded as the coolest and most charismatic stable in wrestling since the nWo — and now they’re almost all coming over.
There’s a lot more to AEW than just competing
This isn’t just about launching a competitor to WWE, it’s about disrupting the entire wrestling industry with changes and innovations athletes have been wanting for years. The organization has announced equal pay for men and women’s wrestlers, which is unheard of in WWE.
In addition they’re rejecting the WWE method of superstars being independent contractors. Tony Khan has already said he plans for AEW wrestlers to be full-time employees of the company, complete with healthcare and benefits.
Who has AEW signed so far?
- Cody Rhodes
- Brandi Rhodes
- The Young Bucks
- Hangman Page
- Chris Jericho
- PAC (known as Neville in WWE)
- Joey Janela
- Penelope Ford
- Britt Baker
- Christopher Daniels
- Frankie Kazarian
- Scorpio Sky
The Kenny Omega effect.
Speculation is that Omega will announce that he’s signing with AEW after his contract with New Japan is up at the end of January. Omega has already announced he’s leaving NJPW, and until the announcement of AEW it was assumed he would be going to WWE.
If rumors are true and Omega joins AEW it positions him to join his Bullet Club friends in AEW, an unthinkable move just a few months ago — but it shows how quickly the new promotion is working to shock and awe WWE in its expediency.
Omega, a 35-year-old Winnipeg native who made his debut for Premier Championship Wrestling in 2001, is regarded as the best wrestler on the planet — period. An unparalleled star with the ability not only to perform at the highest level, but the charisma to make anyone in the ring with him immediately better. In 2018, he worked alongside Chris Jericho, who was 47-years old and looked completely washed up in bad WWE matches and the pair turned in one of the best matches of Jericho’s career.
The enigmatic Omega has always valued the art of wrestling more than the paycheck, which kept him out of WWE until now. However, there was always a belief that sooner or later reality would set in and he’d need to earn his big-time career paycheck. AEW is an opportunity to give him the creative freedom he craves, and get paid more than NJPW could likely offer.
Now we have not only the biggest draw in wrestling going to a WWE competitor, but a wrestler others will want to work with so badly he could be a draw on his own to take talent from WWE — and that’s before we talk about the better working conditions the new promotion is offering.
What happens next?
AEW has called its shot and now has four months to pull together its show in Las Vegas. There will likely be dozens of announcements, big and small before the event, making it a critical time for the promotion to prove its more than a plucky upstart.
There’s been no mention of a TV or streaming deal yet, they need more superstars on the roster — but if WWE’s early reception is an example they’re not excited about a new challenger entering the ring.