Sometimes, in any competitive fight, a combatant takes a shot that would wobble just about anyone. They stagger around, trying desperately to regain their bearing, attempting to downplay the severity of the blow.
That's what happened last week to All Elite Wrestling.
After establishing a small but firm lead in the Wednesday Night Wars, they lost badly last week, falling short both aesthetically and in the ratings when coup was finally counted after the Thanksgiving turkey was digested.
It was the widest round yet and the brand's first real setback. How would they respond? While it's too early to know whether AEW rebounded in the ratings, it's not for lack of trying.
Dynamite, in a homecoming for owner Tony Khan, opened hot and never really lost momentum, delivering two great hours of television from the State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois.
It was a mix of fantastic wrestling—especially the opening and closing matches—and mic work from the two very best in the industry.
NXT, likewise, was solidifying its next set of rivalries and providing its now customary blend of old-style narrative and contemporary wrestling action. The difference between the two only came into focus when the fighting stopped and the talking began.
AEW's Cody Rhodes is the most compelling hero in the entire sport, somehow both an underdog overcoming the odds and a modern Ric Flair type, complete with Christian Louboutin shoes and a briefcase filled with cash. It's not clear exactly how those things work together, but the audience response tells me they do.
Across the aisle is "Le Champion" Chris Jericho. He's the heel people want to love, willing to poke gentle fun at himself while delivering more fresh material than anyone in the business has ever seen.
Most wrestlers find a gimmick that works and ride it for a decade. Jericho reinvents himself so routinely that we've almost grown accustomed to it. Fans should appreciate greatness like this while in its presence. It's the difference between a winning round and a losing one.
Let's take a closer look at each show before rendering a final verdict on another super night of professional wrestling.
Where: Champaign, Illinois
Main Event: Jon Moxley vs. Joey Janela
Match of the Night: Young Bucks/Dustin Rhodes vs. Inner Circle
Moment We'll Remember: Cody Rhodes, confused by his wife's bizarre behavior, abandoned by his partners in crime and betrayed by his closest friend, let it all out during an interview with Tony Schiavone. Standing tall in the middle of the ring, he desperately tried to goad MJF into a match, offering up his car, his watch and a briefcase full of cash. Young Maxwell was conspicuous by his absence.
- The show opened with a spectacular sprint between the promotion's top babyface faction and its leading heel group. Grizzled veteran Dustin Rhodes caught the Young Bucks' infectious spirit, morphing into a 50-year-old spot machine to amazing effect.
A lot of times, matches worked at this pace end up being a little sloppy. It's hard to do dozens of spots without blowing a few. This, instead, hit the mark again and again. Excellent wrestling for fans of the modern style.
- The women's division was also featured prominently and, for the first time, outshined the competition on the USA Network. Newly signed Kris Statlander shocked No. 1 contender Hikaru Shida in the best televised women's match in the promotion's short history. The two women have great physical chemistry, and Statlander is among the best prospects in the entire sport.
Just two years into her career, this is Statlander's first opportunity on the national stage. After the match, Brandi Rhodes and Awesome Kong offered her a spot in their family, called "The Nightmare Collective." It remains to be seen whether she will join the forces of darkness or stand strong against them. Either way, just having an angle on television is an exciting development for a division looking to find its way.
- Joey Janela, one of the most polarizing wrestlers in the entire organization thanks to his online blood feud with Hall of Famer Jim Cornette, once again proved he's capable of much more than leaping through tables and getting hit by a variety of foreign objects. Like he did against Kenny Omega on AEW Dark, Janela went toe-to-toe with former WWE superstar Jon Moxley and absolutely looked like he belongs in the big leagues.
Missed the Mark
- With just two hours per week to work with, it's tough to make room for all of the promotion's top talent. But it's been more than two months, and Kenny Omega remains an enigma to anyone being introduced to him for the first time on AEW television.
Before AEW launched, most observers assumed he would be the promotion's leading light. Instead, he's lost every major match and seems very much like an afterthought. At 36, he's still physically capable of putting on the best bouts in the entire world. That may not be the case forever—and it's a shame to see him take a secondary role when finally given an opportunity to burst into the American mainstream.
- Audio problems plagued the early portions of this show. They were persistent and a little irksome. No doubt several channels were changed while AEW got its act together. In a battle this close, sending anyone over to the competition is a bad thing. The other show is good enough that there's a risk you might not get them back.
Where: Orlando, Florida
Main Event: Undisputed Era vs. Keith Lee/Tomasso Ciampa/Dominik Dijakovic
Match of the Night: Main Event
Moment We'll Remember: Keith Lee emerged from nowhere to stand ominously over Finn Balor's shoulder. Lee, in just the last couple of weeks, has staked his claim as NXT's hottest act. He'll compete next week for a shot at Cole's NXT title. It's an opportunity he's more than earned.
- Mauro Ranallo was back on play-by-play commentary and led the team through a very solid broadcast. While AEW struggled, seemingly forever, to fix the audio mix on its show, NXT chugged ever forward, supplying the world with his signature brand of wordplay.
My favorite? His description of the newly viral Lee as "the GIF that keeps on giving."
- Shayna Baszler remains one of the most compelling acts in all of WWE. There's just something different about her. She doesn't look or wrestle like anyone else in the promotion—and in a sport that can often feel similar to the point of ubiquity, that's a pretty big deal.
There's no detached irony present in Baszler's act. This is an old-school heel of the kind you just don't see much anymore. She's mean, tough and her mixed martial arts background gives her an air of credibility and danger that doesn't exist much in wrestling anymore.
When she said she was looking forward to fighting Rhea Ripley, the latest rising star in the women's division, I believed her.
- It was great seeing Kushida back at Full Sail after an extended absence with injury. He looked great in the ring, as always, but also had the opportunity to test his developing video skills in a simple but effective promotional package.
There's nothing avant garde about a man driven to provide his cute-as-a-button baby a better life. That's the American dream, and Kushida is now its latest avatar. Sometimes, the classics still slap.
- The main event was exactly what I want my professional wrestling to look and feel like. Even the run-in from Finn Balor worked for me, partly because it's Finn Balor and he's amazing, but partly because it moved the narrative forward.
I don't mind a little extracurricular tomfoolery and will even allow a shenanigan here and there if it's in service of a narrative I care about and, just as importantly, it comes after we've seen a really good and compelling match.
Missed the Mark
- I loved seeing Kassius Ohno back. He and Matt Riddle work well together, and the match they put together was a solid bit of wrestling television. But Nigel McGuinness' insistence that Ohno was the best of contemporary British wrestling rang a bit hollow.
There's a maxim in the entertainment world: show don't tell. A few video clips of Ohno's work in NXT UK would have gone a long way toward establishing that premise. That's especially true in a case like this where the bulk of the audience, at least based on my timeline, isn't overly familiar with the NXT UK product.
I'm sure there's more to follow, but Ohno falling short yet again to Riddle can't have done much to get WWE fans excited for the Worlds Collide special on January 25, 2020.
Now that NXT has found a home on the USA Network, the matchup between it and its cousin in the United Kingdom doesn't feel particularly even. WWE will have to work overtime to convince anyone these brands are equals.
Overall: Both these promotions present fans with an embarrassment of riches. It's no secret that I think Wednesday night is now the evening when the heart of wrestling beats the loudest.
More fans may tune in on Mondays and Fridays, but that gap continues to shrink and will only get smaller as the artistry in the ring turns skeptics into believers. Hardcore fans used to consider NXT the future of the business. Now, alongside their opponent in these Wednesday night wars, it's made its style of wrestling the present.
That's good for all of us.
The difference between the two promotions isn't in the ring. Both do a wonderful job there, mixing the occasional squash with hard-hitting, fast-paced competitive bouts. The difference-maker, instead, is on the microphone.
For all its considerable talent, NXT doesn't have anyone who can approach the mastery of Jericho or Rhodes. That's the difference between two otherwise very similar broadcasts.
Overall: AEW (7), NXT (3)