Three and a half years ago, I wrote about a match that I predicted would shape the future of professional wrestling. That match took place in Tokyo, Japan, for New Japan Pro Wrestling and featured Chris Jericho against Kenny Omega. Since I wrote that, the pro wrestling world has changed more than anyone could have imagined. In early 2018, WWE was the only major player in the pro wrestling landscape in the United States, but, for those paying attention, one could sense a change was on the horizon. As I wrote back in January of 2018:
This year, with Wrestle Kingdom 12 and Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega, New Japan is set for the biggest show of their 45 year existence. These three separate but glorious things (Jericho, Omega, and Wrestle Kingdom) are coming together to, potentially, shape the next few years of professional wrestling.
At the end of the day, this match will prove, at the very least, one thing: Wrestlers no longer need the WWE to have a successful career. There is money to be made all over the world if you’re creative enough. You don’t have to sign with the WWE and be forced to trade wins with Elias or Jason Jordan or Jinder Mahal. You can rise up, stand out, and get paid.
If wrestling fans begin to see that, the WWE will begin to see that, and, as hard-headed as Vince McMahon can be, there’s two things that he cares about: Money and winning. Eventually, if Kenny Omega and New Japan are successful enough, he’ll be forced to pay attention and realize that the way to make money isn’t to make everyone good. It’s to make a few people, the right people, truly great. One way or another, whether the product comes from WWE or elsewhere, wrestling fans are about to win again very soon.
Obviously, I wasn’t the only one to foresee this. Tony Khan is the son of Shad Khan, a man who came to the United States from Pakistan in 1967 at the age of 16 with next to nothing and ended up the NFL’s first minority owner (Jacksonville Jaguars). The younger Khan was also a fervent wrestling fan, posting on early internet wrestling message boards, fantasy booking tv shows in his junior high notebook, and begging his dad to take him to the famed ECW arena at the age of 13 to see a company that was, what Tony Khan would call, “a mix between an underground rock show and a cult.” In other words, Tony Khan is one of us. He loves professional wrestling. And drawing inspiration from that Jericho vs. Omega match, Khan saw the same thing I did: An opportunity for an alternative.
So, Khan started All Elite Wrestling in early 2019 with several of the top pro wrestlers in the world, people that were not under contract with WWE but who had expertly brokered side deals for their merchandise to be sold in Hot Topic and were well known by the hardcore wrestling fans. With wrestlers like Chris Jericho, Kenny Omega, and the tag team of The Young Bucks (among others), AEW was born and found a home on TNT, the former home of WCW nearly two decades prior.
The first AEW television show (branded Dynamite) debuted to 1.4 million viewers on TNT, evidence to me that, while WWE is the billion dollar market leader in the world of wrestling, viewers were hungry for something different, something not necessarily “sports entertainment.” An alternative to a product that had, to put it nicely, grown stale under the direction of Vince McMahon, relying heavily on stars of the past rather than developing talent.
For nearly two decades, WWE had gone unchallenged in pro wrestling. And for nearly two decades, I didn’t watch. I’ve talked about my history with pro wrestling before, but here’s the short version, as I wrote in my recap of the very first AEW Dynamite:
It’s been nearly two decades since I’ve watched a full episode of a weekly professional wrestling show. I broke that streak with this Wednesday’s debut of All Elite Wrestling’s Dynamite on TNT….I was a huge WCW fan, never missing a Nitro or a pay-per-view. I recorded EVERYTHING. Yes, even episodes of WCW Thunder. I bonded with my dad, an old school NWA and Jim Crockett Promotions fan, over all this wrestling and became obsessed. I read the “dirt sheets,” and eventually, when I was still in high school, I joined up with two guys in 1999 to create a show called Saturday Night Slam, one of the first professional wrestling radio shows in the nation. We went backstage at house shows and pay-per-views, meeting a ton of great people in the business along the way. Hell, I even took my senior pictures in a Monday Night Jericho t-shirt.
I didn’t disregard WWF. It just wasn’t what I grew up with, so when I watched, it didn’t carry the same weight for me personally as WCW did, even when it put on a superior product. So, when Vince McMahon bought WCW, I checked out. Immediately and completely. Since it coincided with me going off to college, it was a good time to get out….I’m here to say that AEW has reignited a wrestling flame that I thought long, long extinguished. I want AEW to succeed because I think it will boost the pro wrestling product across all companies, big and small, and pro wrestling is still something that I love, all these years later. I want it to do well, and I’m rooting for it.
Now, almost two years later, AEW should, for all intents and purposes, be dead. Five months into its existence, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Other pro wrestling companies have come and subsequently gone over the years with far less serious impediments. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a television deal and as much money as Khan does, but Vince McMahon’s XFL failed under the weight of the pandemic and he had both those things as well. No, AEW lived through the pandemic (and gained a new tv extension in the process) because it continued to, even in the worst of circumstances, put on a show that made it fun to be a pro wrestling fan.
And who is the AEW wrestling fan? There’s no doubt that the “lapsed fan” like me is a huge part of their audience. The product harkens back, sometimes explicitly, to companies and angles of yesteryear, just as likely to draw inspiration from the exploding barbed wire death matches of Japan’s FMW promotion as it is to replay the Bobby Heenan-Nick Bockwinkel pairing from the 1970s AWA (with Don Callis and Kenny Omega being the modern equivalent).
However, one of the most impressive things about AEW is that they’ve done what WWE has been trying and failing to do for years: Draw in the young viewer. WWE’s product is not often booked with a discerning adult in mind, yet the age of their median viewer is 55-57 (with Raw on the low side of that and NXT on the high side). AEW, on the other hand, consistently has one of the youngest audiences in all of televised sports.
Now, there’s more eyeballs than ever on the product. In addition to the weekly two hour AEW Dynamite (Wednesdays, 7 p.m. CST on TNT), AEW is now three weeks in to a new Friday show, AEW Rampage (9 p.m. CST on TNT). In its first three weeks, Rampage has been the most watched show on cable two out of its first three weeks. Dynamite, the more established of the two shows, is consistently in the top five most watched cable shows on Wednesdays.
The trend continued this week:
When compared to other wrestling shows, AEW’s growth from one year ago to now is pretty damn remarkable.
While ratings are a pretty good metric to see what your audience responds to, ticket sales for live events are the prime indicator of whether the company is hot or not. WCW ticket sales divebombed long before their ratings did, and vice versa with their rise in the Monday Night Wars. In the case of AEW, tickets to their major shows range from hard to come by to damn near impossible to get. Our ringleader here at The Tailgate Society, Ted Flint, was lucky enough to score tickets to the upcoming All Out pay-per-view in Chicago, but he just barely made it in, as tickets were gone within minutes.
In late September, AEW is running Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, a show that will be the most attended in the history of the company. In the first day of sales for that show, AEW sold 15,000 tickets. When all is said and done, they’ll have sold almost 19,000 tickets, which will make it the largest non-WWE, non-WCW pro wrestling show in the United States in 35 long years, when Ricky Morton challenged Ric Flair at the 1986 Great American Bash.
Of course, there’s also something else sort of big that I haven’t mentioned yet. If you’re a wrestling fan, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the news: The great white whale of wrestling free agents, CM Punk, is back, debuting on the August 23rd episode of Rampage in one of the truly great moments in pro wrestling history.
What made Punk’s return to the ring on that night so special is the emotion that coursed through Punk and the entire United Center in Chicago, Punk’s hometown. It was a celebration of Punk, yes, but it was also a celebration of pro wrestling and AEW, not one of sanitized sports entertainment. It was a reminder of what pro wrestling can be, if we let it, and that is what’s at the heart of AEW’s emergence and sustained success in the face of challenges.
AEW makes it fun to be a wrestling fan.
Punk said as much in his first promo for the company:
Can I tell you a story? You see, I felt before like I had to leave. I didn’t want to, but I knew I couldn’t stay, and that was when I used to work for a place called Ring of Honor. August 13th, 2005 was my last match in Ring of Honor, and I famously came out with tears in my eyes, and walking out here today, I now know why I was crying. And it was a lot of reasons. But what it boiled down to was, I had made a place where people could come work, get paid, learn their craft, and love professional wrestling. And I cried because I knew I was leaving a place that I love, and it was a home, and I knew where I was going, wasn’t going to be easy for a guy like me. Because I’m one of you. So I look at it like this: August 13th, 2005, I left professional wrestling.
August 20th, 2021. I’m back. And I’m back for you. I’m not gonna lie, I’m back for me too, and I’m back because there’s a hell of a lot of young talent that I wish I was surrounded by 10 years ago. So insane that I sit back and I say, well, hell, they’re here now, so why aren’t you? Here I am. I’m back, because I want to work with that young talent that had the same passion that I had stamped out. I’m back because there’s a couple of scores to settle in that locker room. I’m back for the young guys.
In a lot of ways, CM Punk is a walking embodiment of the ethos of AEW. He is an alternative. He is not for everyone. He will push the envelopment. Most importantly, though, he loves pro wrestling, he will not be embarrassed by that love of our great sport, and he will not treat fans as idiots.
This is not meant to be a hit piece on WWE, but sometimes it seems as though that company does the least logical thing just to show their fans who is in charge. Instead of running the same matches week after week, making it seem like you’re watching reruns of old shows rather than a live broadcast, or consistently having top stars lose in their hometowns, the biggest selling point that I can come up with for AEW is this:
They do logical and obvious things that make people happy.
I’m often amazed when people use the “pro wrestling is scripted or fake” as an excuse as to why it’s bad. That it is scripted is, in my opinion, it’s greatest strength. That is only the case, though, if that power is wielded intelligently. The point of the business is to give people what they want, and, more often than not, AEW does just that. That, more than any other reason, is what has made AEW one of the top shows on cable, a success where myriad other wrestling companies have failed. CM Punk could have joined AEW at the outset. He had an offer and declined. Why? He thought the company would fail. Why wouldn’t it? Others have. Why should AEW be any different?
AEW is different because of Tony Khan, first and foremost, a true fan of pro wrestling, and I agree with the general sentiment that the guys over at Voices of Wrestling expressed on the night of Punk’s debut:
Say what you want about Vince McMahon. He’s a tremendous business man and one of the most successful promoters in entertainment history. But I can’t claim with a straight face that loves pro wrestling. They’re WWE Superstars after all, not wrestlers.
AEW is different because it has one of the best talent rosters in history and understands that not everyone has to fit into a box. On the heels of WWE deciding that they will focus on aesthetics over experience and will train people with the right “look” to wrestle in the WWE style, Khan said, “Professional wrestling is an art form. You don’t create great artists by training them all to paint by numbers in the same way.”
It’s not just talk, either. Whether it’s been indie darlings or wrestlers that have defected from WWE, Khan has ceded an extraordinary amount of control over the wrestler’s characters, giving them freedom in their promos to get their character across the way they envision it. Malakai Black, the former Aleister Black from WWE, has praised the freedom that AEW provides its wrestlers: “My creative input is almost 100 percent. I will send my ideas to Tony [Khan], and he will either give his thoughts on it or sign off on it. The locker room itself is absolutely great. It’s a group of people who will fight tooth and nail to get things done.” As a result, Black and other creatives, especially Jon Moxley (the former Dean Ambrose) have thrived under the less restrictive atmosphere in AEW.
Finally, as far as Vince is concerned, no other wrestling companies exist outside of WWE. Khan, on the other hand, has opened the so-called “Forbidden Door,” working with nearly every company imaginable aside from WWE, creating partnerships and talent crossovers with New Japan Pro Wrestling, Impact, NWA, and Mexico’s AAA. This is something that used to be fairly commonplace before WWE monopolized the American business. So far, we’ve only seen the beginning of it in AEW, but it holds huge potential for the future.
So why now? Why am I telling you to watch AEW now, nearly two years in?
Because I think that this month, September 2021, is going to be one of the more interesting points in wrestling since probably the mid-to-late 1990s. It’s a moment in time that I pointed to in early July on the AEW on TGS podcast.
AEW is hot, no two ways about it. They’ve consistently hit a million viewers on their flagship Dynamite show since mid-July, but with the addition of Punk a few weeks ago, they’ve reached a level of mainstream buzz that simply was not there before. Now, in just a few short days, CM Punk will be making his first pay-per-view appearance for AEW against one of the company’s brightest young stars, Darby Allin, in Punk’s hometown of Chicago. The pay-per-view, All Out, will almost certainly set a new ppv buy record for a company that has seen buy-levels increase with each major show they’ve done. Punk, however, is only one part of the equation.
Bryan Danielson, the former Daniel Bryan, is set to make his debut appearance for the company at All Out. While this, like Punk’s debut, will not be confirmed by AEW prior to it happening, it’s being reported by a reputable source in Bodyslam.net’s Cassidy Haynes. It seems likely that Danielson will be inserted into a world title program with current champion Kenny Omega.
There’s also almost certainly going to be a few more roster additions in the coming months as well (cough, Adam Cole, cough) to fortify the roster heading into 2022.
Bundle those things in AEW’s favor and also consider that football is about to be back, eating into WWE’s audience on Monday nights. If AEW’s ratings continue to rise and Monday Night Raw’s ratings dip (as they usually do) during football season, we could well be looking at a two year old product pulling even with a show that had a 26 year head start.
It’d certainly be easy for an outsider to look at some of the previous few paragraphs and conclude that AEW is set up as the home where ex-WWE guys go after being released to collect a paycheck and get a few digs in on their old employer. This isn’t 1997 WCW, though, where the talented younger guys get buried and the veterans with political power backstage run roughshod. Punk alluded to this in his debut promo, and everyone associated with the company would agree: The young guys and how they’re treated are what makes AEW special.
Enter Punk’s match with Darby Allin.
Allin is 28 years old and maybe 170 pounds. There’s literally a zero percent chance that he would be on the WWE main roster, yet he is one of the top ratings draws in AEW, often anchoring the company’s main event slot during the pandemic. Even if he ends up on the losing end in his match with Punk (the most likely scenario, all things considered), he’s getting “the rub” of being in there with one of the biggest stars in the sport in front of one of the largest audiences the company has had.
Imagine turning on WCW in 1998 and seeing a young Chris Jericho or Eddie Guerrero wrestling Hogan for the title. No freaking chance. Imagine Johnny Gargano, rather than spending an eternity in NXT, headlining WrestleMania against Roman Reigns. It’s such a pie-in-the-sky idea that it’s laughable because of what WWE envisions their “superstars” to be and how they book their programs. In AEW, it’s a whole different world with regards to who the stars of the company are.
This is why now is the time to jump on board. The matchup of CM Punk and Darby Allin match is the perfect intertwining of wrestling past and future that AEW has tried so hard to embrace from the outset. Darby Allin, like AEW, is the alternative, the new way of doing things in a wrestling world that has changed considerably over the last decade. Punk is that veteran presence, the embodiment of the time-tested yet edgy storyline or angle, the love of old Mid-South and WCW-era ideas, butting his way in to see if he’s still relevant. To see if he still works in a world that belongs to Darby Allin and MJF and Jungle Boy and Ricky Starks and countless others on the AEW roster that are the future. It’s a match that it feels like AEW has been building towards from the outset.
From the beginning, AEW began as a company with question marks. Questions of whether or not they could succeed. Questions of whether there was a market for yet another rich guy trying to start his own promotions. But they were a company founded on questions of their own as well. Namely, what if?
What if wrestlers were allowed to be the best version of themselves?
What if storylines developed over months and even years instead of changing directions every few weeks?
What if promos weren’t so heavily scripted so as to devolve into meaningless drivel?
What if a company was built around young and unique talent supported and supplemented by veterans with something prove?
What if CM Punk, one of the most beloved wrestlers of the last decade, wrestled Darby Allin, the man who would have been a 15 year old Punk’s favorite wrestler?
What if that match was the beginning of a new boom period for professional wrestling?
If anything has become clear to me over the past couple of weeks, it’s that AEW might just be the answer to CM Punk’s very own “what if.” What if there was a company who treated wrestling not as something to run from but as something to embrace?
Pro wrestling doesn’t have to be a drag. Look how much fun CM Punk is having after the tv cameras stopped rolling after the latest Rampage. Tell me he doesn’t love pro wrestling. Tell me that AEW isn’t the place for someone like that.
On September 5th, 2021, at AEW All Out, CM Punk and Darby Allin will wrestle a match that will attempt to answer those questions in a way that proves wrestling is an art form and something that it’s ok to enjoy with a smile on your face, reminding the viewer, whether lapsed fan, first time watcher, or someone who has seen it all, why we fell in love with pro wrestling in the first place.