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AEW is shaking up professional wrestling and fans are ready for it

Anyone who used to love wrestling but stopped watching is bound to love AEW.

It took one night to change the landscape of professional wrestling and bring it back from the dark ages. This is what thousands of wrestling fans believe after All Elite Wrestling’s (AEW) inaugural pay per view Double or Nothing on May 25, and I’m one of them.

The show reportedly garnered 98,000 pay per view buys, for a gross of almost $5 million in sales. This makes it roughly 2.2 times as successful as WWE’s May show, Money in the Bank according to Dave Meltzer of Pro Wrestling Observer. AEW fired a shot across the bow of WWE, which has been comfortably in control of the business since 2001 and put legitimate pressure on the industry leader to either change its course, or potentially get run over by its future. In the 10 days following Double or Nothing rumors flew left and right about disgruntled WWE wrestlers asking for their contract releases, others who aren’t re-signing with the largest company in professional wrestling and dozens of backstage sources detailing management, furious with its talent for veiled compliments posted on Twitter, clearly shouting out AEW for an amazing show.

In January when AEW was announced I detailed how their promotion could disrupt the entire industry with its positive business practices, financing and roster. Five months later it’s happened. Now that we’ve seen the product in the ring we can talk more at length about how AEW is different from WWE, and why its poised to succeed where so many competitors have failed in the past.

AEW is a love letter to anyone who has ever been a fan of wrestling.

As a teenager growing up during WWE’s “Attitude Era” I have immense fondness for the grand spectacle of wrestling. The Rock’s swagger, Mick Foley’s refusal to adhere to norms, Stone Cold Steve Austin’s rejection of authority and Degeneration X’s rebellion were the coolest things on TV for a teenager at a time dominated by the birth of reality TV.

Pangs of nostalgia have brought me back since, and always faded after a month or two in the realization that wrestling in the 2010s simply wasn’t like what I remember. It didn’t have the same emotion, reliability or storytelling that it did in the late 90s. There are many fans like me, who’ve experienced the feeling that maybe they’d out grown wrestling, and others who kept seeking something better, whether it was watching independent promotions, or turning to New Japan Pro Wrestling. Great options to be sure, but always with a sense of inevitability: The stars you love would, more often than not, eventually wind up in WWE and likely get ground up in its machine.

Whereas WWE constantly straddles the line between the realistic and the absurd, everything AEW works to extremes. It’s a world where Cody and Dustin Rhodes (the real-life sons of wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes) can put on an emotional, psychology-rich match that conveys utter believability — but also allows someone to thrive like comedy wrestler Orange Cassidy, whose entire gimmick is couched in being bored, and moving like a literal sloth in the ring.

AEW knows what it is. It isn’t trying blend everything in every match. It’s wrestling, for wrestling fans — with full knowledge that fans watching can appreciate the serious and the silly, compartmentalizing different styles in a variety of matches. Double or Nothing showcased serious western-style emotional wrestling, Japanese strong style, comedy and acrobatic spot-fest wrestling, and fans loved it.

WWE has fallen into a tendency of every match looking and feeling identical. The pacing is rote, the ebbs and flows of a match have become predictable and the product has felt stale as a result. What AEW is doing isn’t anything new, but it’s the blending of these different styles — paired with billionaire backing, and run by modern star wrestlers that makes the entire company feel authentic and authored by wrestling fans themselves, rather than handed down from a corporation for the consumption of the masses.

What does this all mean for WWE?

The idea that AEW will spell the end for WWE is ludicrous, at best. We’re talking about a billion dollar company that won’t simply disappear. However, the AEW model, the business relationships already developed by the upstart promotion with promotions in Mexico, Japan, China and the indies, and the mind share it’s taking can’t be ignored.

For now everything remains very much in a “wait and see” mode. Rumors are swirling about wrestlers asking for contract releases or choosing not to re-sign (presumably so they can go to AEW), but for now very little is solid.

What we do know, however, is that AEW is being noticed by current and former WWE stars who have been vocal about how good the new promotion is. This puts WWE in a difficult situation. Allowing its stars to leave is tantamount to handing the competition an edge, but choosing to keep these stars under contract and pulling them from TV furthers the narrative that WWE are the bad guys in this exchange.

This was all exacerbated in the week following Double or Nothing when AEW superstar John Moxley (known as Dean Ambrose when he was in WWE) went on Chris Jericho’s podcast and burned WWE to the ground while detailing why he asked for his release before deciding to sign with AEW.

“One thing that I want to do is cause like, if I have something to prove, it’s that I want to prove that your creative process, the WWE’s creative process sucks. It does not work. It’s absolutely terrible. And I’ve said that to Vince. I’ve said that to Hunter. I’ve said that to Michael Hayes. I think that - I can’t even tell you how their system works. It’s some kind of system of meetings that take place in Stamford with the home team, it’s writers and producers and production meetings and nobody knows what’s approved and what’s not and like the bureaucratic red tape you have to go through to get anything approved is just - it’s crazy. It doesn’t work. It’s killing the company. I think Vince is the problem. And not so much Vince, but Vince and whatever the structure that he built around himself, probably starting I’d imagine like 2002 after the sale of WCW, and he started building this infrastructure around himself - this team of writers and whatever and producers and however he does it, and this is how WWE is and this is what the product is, the product sucks.”

Nothing Moxley said is revelatory to wrestling fans — particularly those who have been critical of WWE in recent years, but it still represents a beloved, respected wrestler at the top of his game, explaining why he felt he had to get out of the biggest company in the world. Moreover, it can be argued that Moxley left and somehow became even more famous than he was when he exited WWE. That is unheard of, and it’s something other wrestlers will notice too. They won’t simply leave and fall into obscurity.

There remains one bastion of hope for WWE, assuming AEW continues its trajectory and truly shakes up the industry: NXT. What started as the Florida-based training promotion for WWE, NXT has become a legitimate draw in its own right, and depending on who you ask has far exceeded the main brand. This is largely because as a “minor league” NXT is allowed to take more risks, give wrestlers more time and the freedom to explore their gimmicks. Away from Vince McMahon’s ever-watchful eye, NXT wrestlers are often former stars from independent promotions and the entire concept was the brainchild of WWE superstar (and McMahon’s real-life son in law) Paul Levesque, better known by his ring name “Triple H.” NXT is everything fans want WWE to be, and if AEW’s pressure leads to the main brand adopting some of NXT’s principals then everything could end up better than its ever been.

That said, it can’t be overstated what atrocious timing AEW’s success was for WWE. McMahon’s company is witnessing tumbling ratings for its weekly shows, which doesn’t bode well for WWE’s upcoming network TV contract with FOX. Couple this with a PR disaster which is Super Showdown, an event taking place in Saudi Arabia this weekend which is being slammed and booed so vociferously by fans (for obvious political reasons) that WWE is refusing to even say “Saudi Arabia” on TV, instead opting to just use the city name of Jeddah. AEW is also unexpected competition in an area McMahon never thought he’d need to play defense on, all while he is trying to sink time, energy and funds into getting the XFL off the ground in 2020.

That said ...

AEW’s success is good for the entire industry.

There are myriad reasons why Double or Nothing was such a critically important proof of concept for AEW. Firstly, it put some much-needed heat under WWE, and that could lead to an improved product. Secondly, it proved that wrestling can still be relevant and breathtaking at a time where so much felt forced and obvious.

Finally, and most importantly, it showcased non-traditional wrestlers who wouldn’t be looked at twice by WWE because of their size, stature or demeanor. Talented performers whose lot was cast to either work hundreds of dates a year independently to cobble together a living, or go to Japan. AEW gave these people a home, all while sending a clear message that wrestling is for everyone, typified by vice president (and wrestler) Matt Jackson banning a transphobic fan from future AEW events after he was heckling wrestler Nyla Rose, the first transgender wrestler signed to a full-time contract by a major promotion.

AEW isn’t just a breath of fresh air for wrestling. It’s a promise of what wrestling can be when it’s run not by a corporation, but by performers. What happens when decisions are made by people who truly love the business. Every single second of the company’s existence has felt tailored to the fans, in a way that feels like it’s speaking directly to them for the first time.

It’s difficult not to get caught up and wax poetic about AEW. One week (and several viewings) of Double or Nothing later, I can’t stop thinking about how 20 years of my professional wrestling apathy were cast aside in a single night by the promise of something new. For the first time in years I felt the same electricity and excitement watching wrestling that I did when I was a kid, and it’s impossible to shake that feeling.