It’s been nearly two decades since TNT left the pro wrestling business, folding its hallmark World Championship Wrestling show at the hands of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation and its renegade star Stone Cold Steve Austin. But the network is jumping back in the ring: Elite Wrestling: Dynamite premieres this week, after nearly a year of build up.
Driven by a similar anti-establishment attitude, All Elite Wrestling (AEW) is a promotion made up of in-ring performers who either walked away from World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly the WWF) or turned down contracts from the behemoth entertainment company, which has held a monopoly over the wrestling industry for the last eighteen years since purchasing WCW from TNT in 2001. The new Wednesday night series marks the first time in nearly two decades that a wrestling show will air up against the WWE with both high profile wrestlers and significant financial backing. Fans and critics are watching closely, many believing the upstart company can change the landscape of the billion dollar industry.
“Nothing like this has happened in eighteen years,” says Cody Rhodes, a former WWE star who helped found AEW and wrestles on the show. “An alternative product [from the WWE] hasn’t been on a network or television broad enough to be considered a true alternative.”
Rhodes and a pair of popular independent wrestlers, Matt and Nick Jackson, spearheaded AEW last year on a Twitter bet that they couldn’t sell out an independent wrestling show on their own. The group announced a show called All In at the ten-thousand-seat Sears Centre near Chicago last year, which sold out in minutes, and got the attention of billionaire Tony Khan, who agreed to fund the promotion and helped turn it into a weekly TNT program.
“I believe there are a lot more wrestling fans that are not watching wrestling in the last few years than there are wrestling fans that have been actively watching wrestling,” Khan told me at All Out in August, the promotion’s last individual pay-per-view event before the weekly show premiere. “I really hope that we can spread the virus and get more people to embrace watching wrestling again every week.”
Wrestling fans have been searching for an alternative for the better part of the last decade, since former WWE star CM Punk went off script on a live broadcast in mid-2011 (while donning a Stone Cold shirt himself) and publicly aired his grievances about both the company and the way the show operates in what’s now known as “The Pipebomb” promo, or on-screen monologue. That moment, coupled with the social media boom of the 2010s, was the catalyst for increased awareness about the inner-workings of the pro wrestling world and led to multiple public movements against what many fans saw as lackluster storytelling, regressive and offensive segments, and even the company’s political ties to both the Trump Administration and business partnerships with a conservative Saudi Arabian government. AEW responded throughout 2019 with promises to promote progressiveness, through being vocal about social issues and issues plaguing the pro wrestling industry, like worker’s rights—much to the chagrin of fans.
“I really hope that we can spread the virus and get more people to embrace watching wrestling again every week.” — Tony Khan
“Everything is fresh—you’re not stuck with the same-old, same-old,” says Nyla Rose, who’s fighting for the AEW Women’s Championship on the series premiere. “It’s not the same people you’ve been seeing on TV all this time. It’s not the same storylines rehashed. Everything is new.”
Rose is the first transgender woman to sign with a major U.S. wrestling company and will be the first to fight for a championship on a national broadcast Wednesday night. The title contender told me that opportunities for transgender wrestlers are few, especially within major companies, and noted the importance of her identity not being trivialized on the show or used as a plot point in the storyline.
“Society as a whole kind of sees people like myself to be so different and so outside the box and outside the norm,” Rose explains. “But in normalizing it, eventually everybody will hopefully come to see that despite all the differences, we’re exactly the same. We want exactly the same things as someone who’s cis-gendered and heteronormative. We want families. We want long-lasting careers.”
AEW executives like Cody and Brandi Rhodes have been vocal about the promotion’s goal to give more match time and representation to women—a long lingering issue in the pro wrestling industry, and one that fans have been vocal about, even sparking a major upheaval in the WWE in 2015, which pushed the company to change its belittling branding of the “Divas division” to what’s now simply known as the “women’s division.” The young company has heavily promoted its women’s division early on, though only two women’s matches took place out of ten at All Out in August.
Rose joins a women’s division that’s anchored by a young core of wrestlers from around the world like Britt Baker and Japense star Riho, who’s fighting Rose for the women’s championship this week. GLOW star Kia Stevens, who’s played one of the most feared wrestling characters across the world over the past two decades as “Awesome Kong,” is also part of the AEW roster. Multiple WWE stars also jumped ship to AEW over the past year. Dean Ambrose (now known as “Jon Moxley” in AEW) and Chris Jericho, who were both high-profile characters and former world champions in the WWE, elected not to renew their contracts with the company and signed on for the new TNT show. Ambrose even joined Jericho on his podcast shortly after leaving the WWE to criticize their shows’ writing process, which goes through a staff of television writers before getting a sign-off from executives like owner Vince McMahon, which echoed fans’ complaints.
Both Rhodes say that AEW: Dynamite’s writing process takes individual wrestlers’ thoughts into account, something Rose said was unlike anything she’s ever experienced in her thirteen years wrestling around the world. Cody, who left the WWE in 2016 after citing creative differences, said the WWE’s issue with their writing staff is the reason AEW exists now. “I don’t mean to be mean, and I’m positive someone will think this is a knock on WWE, but this is just a reality check: The fourth floor there in Stamford has about forty writers when they should have absolutely none,” Rhodes says. “Those forty writers right now are looking at the formula AEW has and what are they going to do, how can we counter it? They don’t need to look far. The formula is what the fans have been complaining about for eighteen years. There’s tons that has been done right, but the things that have been complained about is what set this up.”
AEW is also hoping to right what it looks at as other wrongs within the wrestling industry. While WWE performers travel year-round and fight multiple matches a week at both televised and non-televised live events, Rhodes said AEW will only require its wrestlers to perform one night a week. At All Out in Chicago, Matt and Nick Jackson said the show will cycle its roster as well, meaning wrestlers won’t be expected to fight each week on TV, especially with a two-hour window and a roster that’s already grown to nearly fifty full-time wrestlers before even airing.
AEW is hoping to right what it looks at as other wrongs within the wrestling industry.
Rhodes tells me he hopes all AEW wrestlers will also receive a healthcare plan through the company within the next three to five years. Professional wrestlers, even those under contract at a multi-billion dollar company like the WWE, are independent contractors who need to provide their own health care—an industry-wide issue that’s been widely criticized for years. It was even the focus of an entire episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight earlier this year.
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“Wrestling is seen worldwide, and we have fame comparable to some of those in television and film, yet the treatment is typically so less than,” Rhodes admits. The new company’s other main goal is to raise the pay floor across the industry—something both Rhodes and the Jackson brothers, who have made careers fighting for small promotions across the world, are hoping they can do by example. “This is the healthiest the wrestling economy has been in years,” Matt Jackson claims. “This is a new boom we’re going through, and if people say that we haven’t helped that, then come on.”
AEW’s new pro wrestling boom has already been loud enough to scare the WWE, which moved one of its main weekly shows, NXT, to an identical Wednesday night slot on the USA Network in order to compete for ratings against AEW: Dynamite’s two-hour, 8 p.m. ET slot. Legions of fans have already sold out multiple AEW events this summer leading up to the premiere—one of the most anticipated debuts in the history of pro wrestling. Wednesday’s first show could be the first sign of a shift in pro wrestling’s landscape, with many fans and critics anticipating a significant rise in popularity for the sport outside the WWE.
“I’ll remember this week forever,” Rhodes figures. “I want Wednesday nights to be must-see TV for wrestling fans. I want it to be the most important thing.” FL