Breaking Down the Wrestling War of WWE vs. AEW and What's Next
Is there a competition brewing in professional wrestling? That question might have seemed ridiculous a year ago when All Elite Wrestling was just starting to build and was nowhere near the viewership levels of Raw and SmackDown for WWE.
Even now, AEW Dynamite does not compete at that level for overall ratings, but recent events have hinted at the possibility that the newer promotion might be more than just an alternative. It may just be a competitor.
At AEW All Out on Sunday night, the game changed as CM Punk had his first wrestling match in seven years, and Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole jumped ship from WWE.
AEW President Tony Khan said the event was the most-viewed show in the company's history. While it may not compete with WWE in terms of numbers, it does feel like the tide is turning.
The younger promotion is standing out more and more to fans and wrestlers alike. It may take months or even years to see what that means in terms of true competition, but there is an underlying feeling that something is happening.
We are on the precipice of a wrestling war, a competition for the hearts and minds of fans. Honestly, that should be exciting for everyone because there is no greater motivator for quality than competition.
What AEW Seeks to be to WWE
Ahead of AEW Double or Nothing in 2019, the company's first big event, The Young Bucks sat down with Justin Barrasso of Sports Illustrated to discuss the evolution of the new promotion.
When asked about WWE competing with AEW Dynamite, Nick Jackson said: "I love it. That's exactly what wrestling needs right now, competition. They've been so comfortable for the last two decades that they need something like this. This only helps the whole landscape of wrestling."
This is the fundamental that AEW was built on. To The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, Cody Rhodes, Khan and more, wrestling had changed and not all for the better. WWE had become complacent without a real competitor.
AEW was not expected to be the next WCW, but it did want to be the alternative product for professional wrestling.
Many assumed they knew what that meant, but AEW quickly proved all expectations wrong. AEW Dynamite was a weekly product built on the back of a wide array of talented wrestlers with different styles and stories to tell.
The roster ranges from veterans such as Chris Jericho and Christian Cage to stalwart stars like Jon Moxley and "Hangman" Adam Page to newcomers like Jungle Boy and MJF. AEW wanted to establish that you could tell good stories, show off a complete product and have great wrestling matches without sacrifices.
WWE was the competition from the outset, even if taking down the largest wrestling company in history was a near-impossible task. The point was to make an impression, which AEW certainly has.
The arrival of disgruntled and rejuvenated veterans has led to WCW and TNA comparisons, but neither truly quantifies what AEW is accomplishing. Instead of pushing other companies down, Khan has opened a door to New Japan Pro-Wrestling, Impact Wrestling, NWA and others to get involved.
AEW's agenda comes off as a quiet revolution, an attempt by the companies that WWE long pilfered and held down to rise back up. The emphasis is shifting to allow more talent more opportunities.
What WWE Sees in AEW
AEW was not even a blip on WWE's radar for a while, but recent events have begun to shift the narrative.
In July, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon played down the threat posed by the newer company, per Marc Middleton of Wrestling Inc.
"AEW is where they are," he said. "I don't really know what their plans are; all I know is what our plans are. I don't consider them competition in the way that I would consider WCW back in the day, not anywhere near close to that."
It was a fair assertion at that time. AEW is certainly not WCW. The brand does not have the resources of Ted Turner to take WWE's top talent away and has not outshone the pro wrestling juggernaut in the ratings game.
However, McMahon is also missing the point. The resources are not the primary concern. What AEW has been able to do is win the hearts of fans and not just those who have always been against WWE.
Many promotions have attempted to sell the line that they are the true professional wrestling company while WWE parades around the label of "sports entertainment." WWE wants to compete with the entertainment industry, while AEW wants to compete within the sport.
Wrestling as a whole is a valuable resource to many television companies. It is built on a loyal fanbase that tunes in every week for the soap opera-style storytelling and the wild athletic moves that come with it. It is not going to be sold the same way as Game of Thrones or even NFL coverage.
These are different mediums that WWE has failed to overlap. AEW is coming for WWE in a way WWE does not feel comfortable matching, which is why it has doubled down on its own strategy since losing ground to the newer promotion.
After WWE NXT was moved to Tuesday nights and avoided competing with AEW, the company began a slow shift. Many top names were released and a brand-new NXT is on the horizon, moving toward size over experience.
If WWE is attempting to rebrand itself in response to AEW's success, that is in a way an acknowledgement of the newer company. It shows WWE is aware there is a threat, but it is unclear if the biggest wrestling company in the world knows how to respond.
The Future of AEW
AEW should not try to outshine WWE. What has often left most companies in disarray is the need to be better.
Dynamite and Rampage have worked because they are just wrestling shows, showcasing the talent and pulling off surprises at the right moments.
It is refreshing to watch a show end with hometown favorites standing tall and fun matches getting the time they deserve. It is important to focus on reinforcing the product and the talent that defines the show while not worrying about the competition.
AEW certainly still has room for growth. The women's division needs a greater focus, and the company could use more championships to keep more of the roster relevant. AEW must remain focused on the future as much as the present with its key stars.
Remember MJF, Jungle Boy and Darby Allin. Keep building Powerhouse Hobbs, Wardlow, Dante Martin and Daniel Garcia. Keep alliances clear so that stars can easily shift between singles and tag team action to remain relevant.
Dynamite and Rampage must continue to fly on a weekly basis, focusing on strong pacing and never spending too much time on any one segment. AEW Dark and AEW Dark: Elevation should remain a showcase of the talent that are just waiting for the right angle to get back on the main shows.
If all that lines up, word of mouth will continue to spread for this WWE alternative that is not afraid to go outside conventions to deliver a quality product. AEW won't need to rely on CM Punk and Bryan Danielson to pop a rating because the attention on the product will naturally increase.
What AEW has done so right is to simply be a good product. It is a well-made show at a time when WWE, and notably Raw, is floundering. The newer promotion must maintain its focus and keep up the great storytelling.
The Future of WWE
WWE is still the king of the industry, but the product has struggled. This is not due to the talent, though. Roman Reigns remains arguably the best character in pro wrestling, and every show includes some great wrestling from the likes of Sheamus, Seth Rollins, Bianca Belair and Rhea Ripley.
Everyone plays their part. However, WWE has lost its focus on the role talent plays in shaping a story. This is a company that once hoarded names to starve competition but now fires that same talent without warning.
What WWE needed was a slap in the face to refresh its direction. AEW may be able to provide that with time. However, early results seem to indicate that WWE is making more of the same mistakes.
What this company needs is not more stars but more booking to create stars. There is an argument to be made that The Rock would have never become The Rock in this era, while "Stone Cold" Steve Austin may have never even gotten a chance to cut the promo that shaped his career.
Reigns may be the best thing going in WWE, but that is only after the company spent years trying to make him the next John Cena until his heel turn a year ago.
Pure wrestling fans want to see the business as a whole succeed. We want options. We want the chance to tune in to watch the best of the best do their thing every week. WWE can provide so much more for the business by taking AEW seriously.
Instead, the most the company has done is let talent go, which may ultimately cause AEW to run out of money with its current rate of spending on former WWE names.
The future of WWE must be a fresh take that does not begin with NXT. It needs to come on Raw and SmackDown. Fans on all sides deserve to watch a product built to be the best it can be every week.