AEW x NJPW: Forbidden Door was a classic, matching the hype of expectations that had hit incredibly high levels given the names and matches involved.
And in a funny twist, it couldn't have happened without WWE.
In a sense, at least. While the well-named special event given the collaborations between promotions didn't have anything to do with WWE, that company's pervasive presence hung over the entire night's proceedings.
That's a good thing, and a nod to AEW for, like the Forbidden Door itself, creating major opportunities in the pro wrestling industry for former WWE Superstars.
Those stars shined in a massive way all night. Chris Jericho got his spotlight multiple times. Keith Lee was involved in a fun tag match early. Pac got a downright huge win in a four-way match for the inaugural AEW All-Atlantic Championship, in the process besting superb performances from fellow former WWErs Miro and Malakai Black. Adam Cole went on second-to-last and played a prominent role.
Then there was FTR, with Cash Wheeler and Dax Harwood's stunning, organic rise to the top of the hearts and minds of the entire AEW fanbase getting capped off by a triumph in a Three-way Winner Takes All tag team match for the ROH and IWGP tag titles.
Jon Moxley, a former top AEW champion already and one of the first major names to come over from WWE, stood tall in the main event, too. It wasn't just finally seeing the long-requested Moxley vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, it was the fact Moxley was the guy AEW anointed as the interim AEW world champion while laying the groundwork for a feud with CM Punk—yet another WWE guy.
And if all that weren't enough, the debut of a former WWE Superstar took center stage late in the card, then was the absolute center of attention after Moxley's title win.
We're talking, of course, about Claudio Castagnoli, the man formerly known as Cesaro. He was the surprise fill-in for Daniel Bryan in a showdown against Zack Sabre Jr. and, as well-versed fans know, one can read the card and just know it stole the show given the talents involved.
All Elite Wrestling @AEW
<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ZSJ?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ZSJ</a>'s opponent is none other than Claudio Castagnoli <a href="https://twitter.com/ClaudioCSRO?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ClaudioCSRO</a>, the newest member of the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BlackpoolCombatClub?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#BlackpoolCombatClub</a>, here at <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ForbiddenDoor?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ForbiddenDoor</a>! Order the PPV right now! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/AEWxNJPW?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#AEWxNJPW</a> <a href="https://t.co/uZdC9x5eFG">pic.twitter.com/uZdC9x5eFG</a>
Claudio was then the main run-in after the show's main event, where he delivered a beatdown to Jericho and Co. and one of his iconic swings to the tune of a 20 count before the show faded to black.
Fitting, given that Claudio's a prime example of the type of former WWE talent fans were just up and begging to see in other promotions. He was rarely booked well in WWE despite it being clear he had top guy potential and like many, he was lost in tag-team purgatory before splitting from the company.
It's a similar story for most of the former WWE guys who shined on Sunday night. Pac was doing much of the same while his cruiserweight division focused on Enzo Amore. Keith Lee got a weird repackage right before leaving. Malakai Black mostly sat brooding in a room without direction. Miro was all over the place. In a company desperate for good tag teams, FTR wasted away. Heck, even Moxley spent his final days as Dean Ambrose in goofy, shocking segments, such as when they made him cut a promo while he was getting prepped to take a needle in his rear end.
Granted, not all of these guys will go on to do jaw-dropping things in amazing feuds that headline shows. But Sunday night was a good example of what they can do when given a chance. It was an obvious display from them given their respective talents, and a surprisingly good showing from an AEW company that has felt a bit bloated and flirting with not having enough screentime for everyone lately.
Also impressive is AEW not letting the former WWE guys overwhelm things, either. There's a precarious history for that sort of thing in pro wrestling (sorry, WCW fans), and Sunday night saw AEW simply flex its ability to balance many things at once, including the former WWE guys spread throughout the card.
We'd be remiss not to mention that WWE should see this performance from all involved and be kicking itself a bit. The guys listed were all under their guidance at one point and the company had had ample opportunity to open forbidden doors of its own.
Either way, for fans, it has to be nice to know that AEW can and will balance these things so well, that the company really will respect the talents that hop aboard the ship regardless of past promotions and savvily deploy them in interesting ways that keep fans coming back for more.
That AEW pulled it off during a collab with NJPW, no less, makes the feat all the more impressive.
There will come a time when we stop thinking about guys like Moxley and even Claudio as former WWE guys and just straight-up AEW guys. But we're not there yet, not with a name like Cody Rhodes swimming back in the other direction and looking like a guy about to main event a WrestleMania once healthy.
Until then, though, it's a win for all—including Superstars in the industry potentially looking at their options—to know that AEW will do right by them, even at an inaugural international-focused super show. Not only that, the show, top to bottom, incorporated those former WWE guys while putting on what will justifiably sit as the first or second pay-per-view put on by AEW so far in the minds of fans.