Reviewing AEW's Historic 2019 and How It Changed Wrestling Forever

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2019

Reviewing AEW's Historic 2019 and How It Changed Wrestling Forever

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    Credit: James Musselwhite/AEW

    All Elite Wrestling captured the headlines from day one of 2019, announcing its formation and immediately providing Vince McMahon's WWE with the first competition it had experienced in two decades.

    Owned and operated by Tony Khan, Cody, Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks, the promotion was brazen, in-your-face and unapologetic in its determination to provide fans a true alternative in the wrestling industry.

    For the most part, it succeeded.

    From its first pay-per-view, Double or Nothing, to its debut episode of Dynamite on TNT, the company captivated fans and created a genuine excitement about the industry.

    Read on to relive the explosive, historic first year for AEW and its stars, as well as what it must do to retain its momentum in 2020.

A Paradigm Shift

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    For All Elite Wrestling in 2019, "paradigm shift" referred to more than just Jon Moxley's finishing move. Tony Khan, Cody, The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega changed the course of wrestling history on January 1 with the formation of the company and then again on February 8 with the announcement of the company's first pay-per-view extravaganza, Double or Nothing.

    Those two occurrences shook the industry to its core, providing WWE with the first legitimate competition to its professional wrestling dominance since WCW's demise in March 2001.

    The aforementioned PPV gave fans a taste of what the product would look like, with dynamic in-ring action, unfiltered storytelling, some blood and a star-studded main event featuring the first huge, free-agent signee, Chris Jericho. It was the conclusion of the extravaganza, though, that demonstrated the impact AEW would have on the industry over the course of 2019.

    Just moments after Jericho vanquished Omega in a rematch of their Wrestle Kingdom 12 classic, Moxley made a shocking debut that saw him lay waste to both men and announce his arrival in the company in unforgettable fashion.

    Moxley's appearance at Double or Nothing allowed AEW to continue building momentum for itself before it even had a television deal. The former Dean Ambrose had willingly left WWE and the creative frustration that had plagued his career there and opted to sign with the upstart company, proving the hottest and highest-profile free agents would view the promotion as a legitimate destination.

    No longer was WWE the be-all, end-all in the industry. Moxley lent credibility to the promotion and, along with the aforementioned members of The Elite and Jericho, formed a nucleus atop the company that would make it a force in the industry from night one.

New Faces, New Opportunities

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    To be a true alternative, AEW recognized how important it was to provide fans a roster full of fresh faces never-before-seen on a national stage. Using The Elite, Jericho and Moxley to draw in fans, the company became a breeding ground for new stars plucked from indy promotions across the globe, who were given the opportunity to showcase their abilities on a stage they had once thought unattainable.

    One of the first competitors to benefit from the increased spotlight was "The Bad Boy" Joey Janela, who battled Moxley in an unsanctioned, Lights Out match at Fyter Fest in June. The match, brutal and violent, housed the unforgettable moment of Janela launching himself off a ladder with an elbow drop that drove his opponent through a table.

    The Dark Order, formerly known to California-based indy fans as Super Smash Bros, made an immediate impact upon their arrival and set themselves up as one of the unstoppable forces in the tag team division.

    The arrival of AEW's television show, Dynamite, brought with it the formation of Jericho's Inner Circle faction, which included young Sammy Guevara. The self-proclaimed "Best Ever" and, later, "Spanish God" took Cody to the limit in the first match in the show's history and then stood alongside the AEW world champion to close out the broadcast.

    Perhaps no star represented the breakout mentality than Luchasaurus, whose size and athleticism combined to make a compelling performer who immediately captured fans' attention. Along with Jungle Boy and Marko Stunt, two other young stars seizing an opportunity to showcase themselves to a new audience, he formed Jurassic Express, an immensely popular trio of competitors looking to make an even bigger jump in 2020.

    As the year came to a close, though, it was Maxwell Jacob Friedman, known simply as MJF, who had the wrestling world buzzing. A virtuoso heel whose devotion to his character is something straight out of the 1970s, he set himself up for long-term success via a heel turn on friend Cody and a rivalry that is likely to culminate in a high-profile pay-per-view showdown that will only keep his star burning bright.

    Santana and Ortiz, Darby Allin, Jimmy Havoc and the dynamic Private Party are other young stars who saw exposure in significant matches and segments as AEW sought to present as many fresh faces as possible to its welcoming audience.

It's Dynamite

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    October 2 marked the beginning of the Wednesday Night War, a battle for sports entertainment supremacy, as AEW introduced the world to its weekly broadcast, Dynamite, and WWE counter-programmed with NXT on the same night at the same time. The first shots in the proverbial war created excitement among fans across social media.

    Dynamite demolished NXT on night one, drawing 1.4 million viewers to its opposition's 891,000, per Tony Maglio of The Wrap. It was a monumental victory for the upstart company and evidence that there was a fanbase eager for something different than the WWE product it had been force-fed over the past 18 years.

    As the year came to an end, NXT drew closer with AEW before handily defeating the company on December 18, per Showbuzz Daily. While that would seem to indicate fans have navigated back to the WWE-owned program, that show featured two high-profile title bouts while AEW closed out the broadcast with one of its less star-studded efforts.

    Competition has historically created a hotter, more must-see product and greater creativity from both sides. Hopefully the back-and-forth nature of the ratings war as the year drew to a close will spark greater consistency from both shows and even more fun for fans seeking the very best in professional wrestling.

Blood and Guts Wrestling

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    One thing AEW brought back to the national spotlight was a renewed emphasis on so-called "blood and guts" wrestling.

    Beginning with the brotherly battle between Cody and Dustin Rhodes at Double or Nothing and then moving on to the aforementioned battle between Janela and Moxley at Fyter Fest, the company showed no hesitation in providing fans a bloody, violent product when the situation called for it. At All Out on August 31, Havoc, Darby and Janela competed in a Cracker Barrel Clash that was as fun and creative as it was violent and barbaric.

    The company set the bar even higher with a match that split the audience and left some uncomfortable. At Full Gear in November, Moxley and Omega brought their rivalry to a close with an unsanctioned Lights Out match that included glass, tables, chairs and an abundance of barbed wire, including a bed of the weapon that inflicted pain on both competitors.

    Moxley won that match, but the reaction differed depending on who was asked. Some looked at it as a hardcore classic; others were turned off by the sheer brutality involved.

    As 2020 approaches, it will be important for AEW to emphasize that particular style of wrestling only when the story calls for it. Overexposing it or crossing the line too much will lessen the effect or turn off the audience, neither of which can be afforded as the company continues to establish itself.

An Inconsistent Women's Division

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    If there is one issue with the AEW product that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later, it is the inconsistency within the women's division. Rankings and rules appear to change on a whim. As do pushes for individual talent.

    Riho, the AEW women's champion, has been the only real consistent force. The Japanese competitor upset Nyla Rose to win the title and successfully defended against the likes of Britt Baker and Emi Sakura before disappearing from television to honor commitments in her home country.

    That led to AEW officials introducing the likes of Shanna, Jamie Hayter and Kris Statlander. It brought back Hikaru Shida for a series of broadcasts and heated up Baker in time for her to sit atop the AEW rankings.

    Unfortunately, the division proved messy, with no rhyme or reason for anything to happen. Sakura jumped the line and received a pay-per-view title opportunity at Full Gear on the strength of one victory on an obscure episode of AEW Dark. Baker and Shida traded the top spot in the rankings despite the latter missing months of ring time with the company. Statlander signed with AEW and immediately picked up a few wins, including those over Shida and Baker, to earn the top spot in the rankings.

    Instead of her championship opportunity occurring on the January 1 episode of Dynamite, as advertised, company owner Tony Khan revealed on Twitter that prior commitments would keep Statlander out of the match. Instead, Shida, Baker and Rose will challenge Riho for the title in a four-way, with the winner facing Statlander a week later.

    Why even announce the match if Statlander was known to have prior commitments that would keep her from competing? And how badly does that title look when the top contender would rather compete somewhere else than fight for it?

    Those inconsistencies, coupled with a lack of character development, have hurt a division that has a ton of talent but not enough continuity for fans to buy into it in the manner they have the singles and tag team divisions on the men's side of things.

    Fix that, and the company's product would be even more engaging.

Looking Forward

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    In 2019, AEW exploded on to the wrestling landscape, forever changing the industry by providing fans and wrestlers alike an alternative to the watered-down and, at times, passionless WWE product. The hard work and dedication of a management team made up primarily of wrestlers have made for a show that fans can invest in featuring stars they genuinely care about.

    Late in the year, Dynamite felt as though it went off the rails one more than one occasion, with unfocused rivalries or too many competitors doing too many things, resulting in messy and frantic shows rather than the focused broadcasts AEW produced earlier in the run.

    Shoring that up and figuring out exactly what it wants its women's division to look like—and who should star in it—are the two biggest tasks facing AEW management as the new year arrives.

    While the fanbase enjoys them, and social media gets a kick out of them as well, lessening the little jabs at WWE and NXT and focusing on its own show, its own stars and its own storylines would benefit the company too. After all, why waste the breath reminding fans there is another product they could be watching at the same time?

    The AEW product provided the complacent wrestling industry a much-needed punch in the gut, proving that McMahon is not the only billionaire with the means to provide fans a take on the art form. Now, it must take the next step by looking at things in the long term, making plans months in advance and providing that coherent storytelling fans are not always getting elsewhere.

    If it can do that, AEW Dynamite should be back on top of the Wednesday night ratings war in no time and force greater urgency from WWE as the battle for the hearts of wrestling fans rages on.