The 10 Moments That Have Defined AEW Ahead of Third Anniversary

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2022

The 10 Moments That Have Defined AEW Ahead of Third Anniversary

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    Credit: All Elite Wrestling

    All Elite Wrestling changed the landscape of the industry on May 25, 2019 with its Double or Nothing pay-per-view debut. And in the three years since, it has asserted itself as one of the biggest promotions in the game.

    Since its inception, the company has acquired high-profile free agents, delivered unforgettable matches and produced some of the most creative moments of any wrestling promotion.

    Its impact on wrestling is really only now being recognized for its enormity, and there will be countless  more unforgettable moments in the future.

    For now, though, enjoy these 10 that helped defined AEW's first three years and establish it as a premier destination for professional wrestling and wrestlers. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa Go Lights Out (Dynamite, March 18, 2021)

    AEW's oft-maligned women's division sent the wrestling world a clear message when Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa tore the house down on a special St. Patty's Day Slam edition of Dynamite in a special Lights Out match. With no rules to speak of, they beat the life out of each other, culminating with Rosa driving The Good Doctor through a table at ringside for the win.


    An Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch Dud (Revolution 2021)

    Advertised as an Exploding Barbed Wire deathmatch the like of which fans in Japan have watched for decades, the AEW world title bout between Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley was less explosive and proved to be a rare misfire (literally and figuratively) for the company.


    Kenny Omega and Don Callis Screw Jon Moxley (Dynamite, December 2, 2020)

    The inaugural Winter Is Coming edition of Dynamite featured one of the most controversial conclusions in AEW history when Omega and Don Callis conspired to screw Moxley out of the world title before absconding with the gold. It was a heel turn for Omega and the first chapter in a banner year for the man who would become known as The Belt Collector. 


    Chris Jericho and MJF Perform 'Me and My Shadow' (Dynamite, October 21, 2020)

    AEW allows its wrestlers to be creative and participate in segments you may not see elsewhere in wrestling. While Le Dinner Debonair may not have been everyone's cup of tea, the visual (and audio) of Chris Jericho and MJF performing Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.'s "Me and My Shadow" is unforgettable and made for one of the most unique viewing experiences in modern wrestling history.


    The First Pandemic Broadcast (March 18, 2020)

    There was something haunting about watching Cody Rhodes open Dynamite, addressing an empty Daily's Place in Jacksonville as AEW was forced to end live touring, regroup and figure out how to advance in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. A show that was supposed to deliver significant storyline developments still did, with the debuts of Brodie Lee and Matt Hardy.

10. Stadium Stampede (Double or Nothing 2020)

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    The COVID-19 pandemic forced AEW to reconfigure several key matches and storylines, including the major blowoff to the feud between The Elite and The Inner Circle.

    Originally scheduled to occur in a Blood and Guts match, the program-closing battle instead took place at the TIAA Bank Field in the first Stadium Stampede match.

    Fans did not know what to expect entering the 2020 Double or Nothing PPV, and what they got was unlike anything they had witnessed before.

    A creative masterpiece and prime example of the benefits of cinematic wrestling, the contest featured a ton of comedy, with storyline developments sprinkled in throughout. 

    There were three variations of Matt Hardy's on-screen persona, Hangman Page and Kenny Omega rediscovering their tag team bond over whiskey and milk, and Chris Jericho knocking out the Jacksonville Jaguars mascot.

    In the end, the babyface team won, defeating Jericho and Co. in a fantastic match that earned its fair share of Match of the Year awards.

    At a time of great uncertainty, when both AEW and WWE turned to cinematic wrestling while trying to figure out the best way to continue producing content, Stadium Stampede was one of the shining examples of making the best of a bad situation. 

9. It's Stiiiiiiinnnnng! (Dynamite, December 2, 2020)

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    AEW has become synonymous with massive debuts but convincing a genuine icon of the industry to trust the process and bring their name to the brand is a totally different beast.

    After weeks of speculation, the Winter Is Coming episode of Dynamite featured the arrival of Sting, to the shock of the AEW fans. The Hall of Famer and multi-time world champion emerged from the shadows and came to the aid of Cody and Dustin Rhodes and Darby Allin.

    The moment inspired goosebumps and brought about Tony Schiavone's trademark, "It's Stiiiiiiing!" call on commentary, a throwback to the Monday Night Wars, when the face-painted avenger descended from the rafters to unleash hell on the New World Order.

    It also put The Icon's stamp of approval on AEW. He carried a certain level of credibility and by joining an AEW still relatively in its infancy, he announced to the world that it was legit destination for all free agents and industry giants to consider continuing their careers.

    Since then, he has been an integral part of the show, an ally for young Allin. Best yet? His inspiring in-ring performances, which are often physical love letters to the industry. 

8. Hangman's Triumph (Full Gear 2021)

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    From day one in AEW, Tony Khan and the creative forces at play told the story of "Hangman" Adam Page and his journey to the world title.

    It started at the inaugural New Year's Day 2019 press conference in which he vowed to win the world title, continued to Double or Nothing and his victory in the Casino Battle Royale. It encompassed his defeat at the hands of Chris Jericho at All Out that August and the downward spiral that followed.

    It featured his tag title-winning team with Kenny Omega, their breakup, his friendship with Dark Order, and his victory in the Casino ladder match to earn another shot at the championship that had consumed him. 

    At Full Gear in November 2021, that story finally reached its climax when Page challenged Omega, the man he once stood side-by-side with in battle. An emotionally charged contest saw Hangman overcome everything The Belt Collector threw at him before rocking him with the Buckshot Lariat and achieving the goal he set for himself at the outset of the company.

    The match and moment served as the culmination of AEW's best storyline and proof of the value of long-term storytelling. Khan and Co. invested in Page from the beginning and saw his story through.

    As a result, the fans were emotionally invested and Hangman was a bigger, more beloved star.

7. Dynamite Grand Slam (September 22, 2021)

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    Over 20,000 fans packed Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, New York for the biggest episode of AEW Dynamite ever on September 22, 2021.

    The show, headlined by the first meeting of Bryan Danielson and world champion Kenny Omega, was an enormous production and unlike anything AEW had shown on free television.

    With a card that also featured appearances from CM Punk, Sting and a women's title main event between  Britt Baker and Ruby Soho, it earned rave reviews from those both in attendance and watching at home.

    It was the next step in AEW asserting its place in the industry, not just as a true alternative to WWE but also as competition. 

    It remains the highest-attended show in company history and evidence of its fans' willingness to travel, show up and show out for its most significant events.

6. Bryan Danielson, Adam Cole Debut (All Out 2021)

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    Tony Khan promised massive surprises in August 2021 and delivered, beginning with one star we will get to later and concluding at the All Out PPV with the debuts of Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson.

    The buzz surrounding All Out last September was enormous, and there was no better way to close out the show than by welcoming two major free-agent signings.

    Moments after Kenny Omega successfully defended the AEW world title against Impact Wrestling world champion Christian Cage, Cole entered the Now Arena in Chicago to a thunderous ovation and pledged his allegiance to The Elite.

    Just minutes later, Danielson interrupted proceedings and stood alongside Cage and Jurassic Express, establishing himself as a foe of the heel faction.

    Two massive debuts dominated the headlines and further established AEW as the destination for free agents who wanted to make money, perform without the restrictions of WWE, and have the opportunities they may not have gotten elsewhere.

    Danielson and Cole were both significant members of the WWE roster, enjoying major success during their time there, making their jump to the opposition that much more meaningful to the mounting credibility of the promotion. 

5. Cody Rhodes vs. Dustin Rhodes (Double or Nothing 2019)

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    The best match in AEW history occurred at its first PPV when Cody and Dustin Rhodes settled their sibling rivalry in a bloody and emotional battle.

    The American Nightmare made headlines before the match even began, taking a sledgehammer and destroying a throne eerily similar to that on which WWE's Triple H had once sat. It was an emphatic message to the wrestling world that AEW was there to smash the establishment.

    After that, the Rhodes brothers went on to produce a phenomenal piece of storytelling that captivated the fans, setting the bar at a level that even the best wrestlers in the world are still trying to eclipse.

    The match set the tone for the company but also proved that its executive vice president and his older brother were both elite in-ring performers and storytellers.

    There have been extraordinary matches throughout AEW's history, including a Steel Cage match between The Young Bucks and Lucha Bros that so nearly made this list, but none had the raw effect Cody vs. Dustin did.

    Add in the fact that it was AEW's first classic encounter as a promotion, and its place in history is undeniable.

4. RIP Brodie Lee (Dynamite, December 30, 2020)

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    The passing of Brodie Lee in December 2020 shook the industry, with figures from across the industry remembering their friend and one of the good guys in professional wrestling.

    A member of AEW at the time of his passing, Lee was remembered on a special December 30, 2020 episode of Dynamite. 

    Tears and tributes flowed for The Dark Order's Exalted One and former TNT champion. No moment was more emotional or unforgettable than Cody Rhodes and Tony Khan presenting Lee's son with the TNT Championship while Pres10 Vance comforted Lee's widow, Amanda. 

    There is never an easy way to handle a broadcast like this, but the company managed to do so with grace and dignity to honor one of its top stars. 

    Most importantly, it demonstrated how much the AEW locker room is like a family as it came together under the toughest circumstances to produce a show that did justice to Lee's memory.

3. The Debut of AEW Dynamite (October 2, 2019)

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    The debut episode of AEW Dynamite was monumental.

    First, the young company scored a television deal with TNT, a major get on a premier cable TV network. Second, it set the stage for several major stories to come.

    From the outset, AEW announced Sammy Guevara was one of its stars of the future as he wrestled the first match in Dynamite history against Cody Rhodes. From there, the company crowned its first women's champion in Riho, highlighted the likes of MJF, PAC and "Hangman" Adam Page and introduced Jon Moxley.

    It was the debut of Jake Hager and the formation of The Inner Circle that proved most important, though.

    The faction would go on to participate in the biggest matches, angles and moments in AEW in its two-plus years of existence. Chris Jericho may have been the biggest star, but Guevara was highlighted, Santana and Ortiz were legitimized and Hager provided the muscle for all four men.

    The episode left fans buzzing for the next week and soundly defeated NXT in the first Wednesday night ratings battle.

    Not bad for a first impression. 

2. A Paradigm Shift (Double or Nothing 2019)

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    The world knew AEW would produce something memorable at its first PPV, Double or Nothing, on May 25, 2019.

    Most even expected Moxley would make his debut for the company, but that did not diminish the moment he rushed through the crowd, hit the ring and came face-to-face with Chris Jericho.

    The fans inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas erupted as the man known as Dean Ambrose in WWE dropped Jericho with a DDT, then turned his attention to Kenny Omega, leaving him lying before standing tall to close the show.

    There have been other declarative statements to the wrestling world in the form of massively important AEW debuts, but none set the tone for the three years that followed like Moxley's arrival. 

    He was intense, aggressive and preached about a paradigm shift occurring in professional wrestling. He was responsible for igniting it as the first major free agent to walk away from a place where he was unhappy and embrace the new excitement of AEW. 

    That show-closing moment not only put a bow on a fantastic night of wrestling, but it also served as a warning to anyone doubting the company that the landscape of professional wrestling was about to change. 

    Without it and everything that followed, the No. 1 moment on this countdown would not have happened.

1. CM Punk Returns (Rampage, August 20, 2021)

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    In 2014, a disenfranchised CM Punk walked away from millions of dollars and worldwide acclaim in WWE to go home and rediscover both passion and happiness. For seven years, he focused on acting, mixed martial arts, comics and other outlets as he healed his body and mind. 

    He also watched from a distance as AEW debuted and began changing the wrestling landscape. Every major move, every significant match and PPV it produced built up equity and trust, not only with the fans but also with The Straight Edge Superstar. 

    The man most figured would never return to pro wrestling following his bitter divorce from it nearly a decade earlier began to rediscover the itch and on the August 20, 2021 debut episode of AEW Rampage, in front of his hometown fans, friends and family, Punk finally reentered the squared circle.

    The fans greeted Punk with one of the loudest ovations in pro wrestling history. Emotion painted not just his face, but also those of the fans in the stands, driving home the enormity of the moment.

    Love or hate Punk, there was never any denying the unbreakable connection he had with the audience.

    He discussed his absence from the ring, his quest to get happy and healthy, and the reason AEW was able to reel him back in. The promo was real and raw, and it set the stage for one of the most improbable comebacks in modern history. 

    All because Tony Khan and Co. had created a company that earned his trust and reignited a fire in him that had long ago been extinguished.

    More than any Dave Meltzer-rated six-star match, huge stadium show or television debut, that is the greatest compliment that can be paid to AEW over its first three years.