AEW have had a full year now. A full year to convince people that they can challenge WWE and put out a product as accomplished and refined. A full year to silence the doubters and critics. A full year to prove that they are more than what people feared they'd be - a trimmed down version of WWE with their closest competitors ex employees serving as the top stars.
The answer? For this writer - no. I'm glad that AEW has it's loyal fans and I'm glad that WWE have stepped up their game. But for me there are too many similarities with another #2 company that once tried to dethrone WWE... and that was TNA.
TNA are of course still in business, currently under the name of Impact Wrestling, but for a long time there was a real concern that then were always a moment away from going bust. Why? Well one of the major criticisms that we all had about TNA for many years was that they had this nasty habit of signing everybody that left WWE and pushing them right into their world title picture regardless of whether or not they were the right fit. It was as though TNA thought "They're ex WWE, they must be great!". Despite a sustained period where TNA was one of the best promotions out there, the fans grew tired of the company's obsession with former WWE talent, highlighted perfectly by the years dedicated to the Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair rivalry with both men already pensioners.
Let's compare this to AEW. A quick look at their official roster shows that a whopping 24 of their staff, both on screen and backstage, are ex WWE talent. Cody Rhodes went on record saying that he wouldn't simply sign all of his WWE friends and certainly wouldn't have them be the faces of the company. However, looking back over the last year only shows that Cody may well have been disingenuous in that claim.
With that being said, it’s fair to look at certain booking patterns.
Any promotion that wants wrestling fans to take them seriously needs to have a solid heavyweight championship scene. They need to be able to present compelling contenders that look like they could be a viable champion at any given time. If you don’t have that, you have a gigantic hole at the top of your card. That’s not a hole that’s easy to cover up.
Fortunately, AEW had the perfect person to be their very first champion. Le Champion. Sure, he was ex WWE, but Chris Jericho is more than worthy of holding any title that pro wrestling has to offer. He’s already held most of them and he adds tremendous value to any belt that he holds. If you’re looking to launch a championship with a big name, Chris Jericho is a damn good one to go with. As much as we all love “Hangman” Adam Page these days and wouldn’t mind him winning a singles championship, Jericho was the obvious choice to get the strap back in August 2019.
So who did Jericho defend the championship against after beating the Hangman to win it?
• Darby Allin
• Cody Rhodes
• Scorpio Sky
• Jon Moxley
That’s an interesting mixture of wrestlers with different styles & backgrounds. Allin’s biggest exposure prior to AEW was EVOLVE, while Sky made it to ROH eventually after having a nice little WSX stint many eons ago. Cody & Moxley were somewhat proven commodities, but Allin & Sky were guys that AEW built up to get a title shot, as they promised they would do, and both provided entertaining matches & mini-feuds with Jericho.
Speaking of Moxley, the decision to make him AEW Champion was a baffling one to be quite honest. As Dean Ambrose in WWE he had one of the most uninspiring WWE Championship reigns in recent memory. What exactly was he going to do in AEW that was any different? His drawing power as champion has been underwhelming and is certainly a contributor to AEW's declining ratings.
Moxley winning the title seemed like the right move at the right time to a lot of people. Unfortunately the world changed drastically right afterwards. However, this should not be used as an excuse for his failings. We can safely assume that the general booking plan wouldn’t have been too different had things proceeded as planned. Maybe a Jericho rematch would have been mixed in, Instead, we saw one Moxley title defense and the build for the next one at Double or Nothing. Who were they against?
• Jake Hager
• Brodie Lee
Two guys that we know almost entirely from their time in WWE. Sure, Hager has some MMA credentials and Brodie wrestled all over the indies back in the day, but most people watching AEW shows know them as Jack Swagger & Luke Harper. All that AEW have done is repeatedly bring in guys that WWE mis-used and claimed they can use them better. I think that Hager works well as Jericho’s heavy in The Inner Circle but the jury is still very much out on Brodie’s embarrassingly bad Vince McMahon parody. It was just far too soon for either man to be the hunt for the AEW Championship. Pandemic or no pandemic, there's no excusing bad booking.
So following on from his victory over Lee, who challenges Moxley next? Outside of MJF and Kenny Omega, the pickings are slim. PAC? Spears? Dustin? All ex WWE. Even if Cody could challenge, he falls into the same category. The lack of credible challengers is going to sorely hurt AEW in the long term and eventually we will find ourselves with a Moxley vs Nakazawa feud. Something that nobody wants to see...
Going back to TNA, let's compare my previous thoughts with what AEW are doing right now. Over a number of years, here is a selection of their former World Champions.
• Ken Shamrock
• Ron “The Truth” Killings
• Jeff Jarrett
• Kurt Angle
• Samoa Joe
• AJ Styles
• Drew Galloway
• Christian Cage
• Jeff Hardy
I'm stopping the list there, but there are another 8 ex WWE guys who won the world title in TNA after their WWE stints ended. Styles, Joe & Abyss were the only three that didn’t get their first major exposure in WWE or WCW, and i only included WCW because of Sting.
WWE have a horrible habit of signing every name under the sun to castrate their competition, and by the time they're released and free to go where they plesse it must be difficult to sign someone who hasn't been there at some point. Featuring their former wrestlers in title matches isn’t a terrible idea… just as long as you are planning on building up other guys around them for when they eventually need to step up and take the mantle. Impact have made great strides to change this in recent years, transitioning away from the ex WWE talent and making vikd decisions such as Tessa Blanchard winning the company's World Championship - a historic first for all of wrestling.
AEW are dangerously close to reaching that point already, and we shouldn't be saying that after only one year. That doesn’t mean they’re a failure by any means, but it's starting to become a concern for even their most dedicated fans. If we’re still talking about this type of thing years down the road, it’s a massive problem. AEW certainly have some names on the roster who are destined for greatness. MJF could be there pretty soon. Sammy Guevara, Jungle Boy and the aforementioned pair of Allin and Sky are all guys that stand to be top contenders in the future.
Hopefully that future comes sooner rather than later. If not, AEW risks becoming the latest promotion to live off of WWE’s leftovers. That’s that's obviously the last thing the they want to happen, but they need to take action now to keep it from happening.