AEW Is Finally Back in Vegas, and Boy Have Things Changed

Double or Nothing, AEW’s annual Memorial Day weekend pay-per-view event, was supposed to be in Las Vegas every year, just as it was for their debut show in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that, with the 2020 (in front of wrestlers serving as the crowd) and 2021 (in front of AEW’s first capacity crowd in over a year) shows being held at Daily’s Place in Jacksonville, Florida. Now, finally, three years later and ten months into AEW’s return to live touring, they’re back in Las Vegas for Double or Nothing 2022.

And a lot has changed since then.

As AEW’s first show, Double or Nothing 2019 was clearly intended as a mission statement and a taster of what the new company had to offer, particularly in ways that made them different from WWE. In broad strokes, a lot of those things are still a big part of AEW: bloody matches, spectacularly athletic matches featuring all sorts of international talent, a strong focus on tag teams, the biggest western showcase of female talent from Japan in years, surprise debuts, weird comedy being mixed in, etc. Looking closer, though, really shines a light on what’s changed over the past three years.

The Buy-in

The first match in AEW history, a battle royal on the pre-show to determine one of the two wrestler competing for the AEW World Heavyweight Championship three months later, was not the best note to start on, especially on a mission statement show. The AEW roster had not exactly been fully assembled as of yet, so the match featured multiple wrestlers who would never appear in AEW again. Some were established names, like Tommy Dreamer and Glacier, but they were also joined by Dustin Thomas and Sunny Daze.

Thomas is the amputee who lost his legs to a spinal issue as a child and had broken out at Joey Janela’s Spring Break weeks earlier, so he had some buzz. As much of an inspiration and a genuinely impressive athlete as Thomas is, he may not have been a wise choice to make a first impression with. Daze, meanwhile, is a fairly obscure indie wrestler whose main role with AEW was in video editing, and who had particularly indie-looking gear and face paint. At that time there were still a lot of questions about AEW’s recruiting, and if the battle royal felt like it was providing answers, they weren’t the right ones.

Double or Nothing

It was the main pay-per-view card where AEW really began to shine, opening with an excellent trios match between SCU and Stronghearts, with the latter team representing China’s OWE promotion. That kind of fast-paced, highly athletic, Dragon Gate-style trios match was absolutely not being shown on American television at the time, so it was a great way to kick off the main show and differentiate AEW. In theory, it was also a sign of things to come, both in the way of Stronghearts matches and the arrival of other OWE talents, like the various Chinese acrobats who CIMA had been training to wrestle. OWE would soon implode, though, and Stronghearts would be featured less and less once AEW’s weekly TV show started. (And even if OWE stuck around, getting U.S. work visas for rookies from a somewhat hostile foreign country would have been difficult at best.)

The biggest difference between then and now is arguably with regards to the women’s division. As much as AEW’s handling of the division has been criticized, and sometimes rightfully so, a glance at who was being pushed on this card is a good reminder of why the division took a sharp turn.

A three-way between Britt Baker, Kylie Rae, and Nyla Rose had Awesome Kong added as a surprise; it seemingly sent a message about who would be the most pushed female talent. However, Kong would eventually go on a hiatus to film GLOW and never return, while Rae would disappear from the company before having a second match there. (Officially, she requested her release.) Hikaru Shida, Riho, and Ryo Mizunami defeating Aja Kong, Emi Sakura, and Yuka Sakazaki in a trios match was a fine showcase for the Japanese women’s style, but with Shida being the only one to move to the U.S. full-time, plans to heavily feature that style went to the wayside with the pandemic decimating international travel.

(This is all to say nothing of others, like Bea Priestley, Jamie Hayter, and Sadie Gibbs being COVID travel casualties, as well, with Priestly in particular suffering, being in the middle of a title program when lockdown hit.)

There are still issues with how the women’s division is booked, regardless, but I just named ten different female wrestlers who were wiped off the board early in Dynamite’s run. With the Kong and the Japanese talent expected to fill the veteran presence role, AEW was suddenly left with a much greener and less well-rounded crew than anyone involved could have expected in 2019. That’s bound to have an impact.

The View Never Changes

Nothing on the debut show made a bigger impact, though, than the long-awaited Cody Rhodes vs. Dustin Rhodes match. For such a mission statement show, it made perfect sense to book: Dustin clearly still had a lot left to offer in the ring, and the brothers had lobbied for a WrestleMania program for years in WWE, but it never happened. Not only that, but it was the perfect match to showcase what Cody would bring to a big league TV wrestling setting away from WWE: lots of blood and melodrama.

Dustin bladed, hitting an all-time level gusher, and it greatly elevated an already delightfully dramatic, old-school wrestling match. While the crowd that night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena was hot throughout the whole card, this match was the emotional peak, with many fans noticeably in tears after it was over.

Three years later, a lot has changed. Cody’s storylines ended up on their own weird island for much of his AEW run, only for him to leave for WWE when his contract was up. At his best, his stuff was a nice change of pace from the more “modern” AEW style up and down the card. At his worst, he missed the mark in bizarre ways. By the time 2022 hit, he badly needed a change of scenery, to the point that, as much as he increasingly felt “too WWE” in AEW, he feels like a breath of very un-WWE fresh air … while back in WWE.

As for Dustin, he’s mainly been a coach behind the scenes, but when he wrestles, he delivers in a big way, to the point that he’s almost surely cemented his legacy. Before, he was the guy who was underrated because hardcore fans hated his dad, who didn’t live up to expectations in his athletic prime because of an offbeat gimmick and addiction issues. Now? He’s a legend who shows up from time to time to have absolute bangers with multiple generations of younger talent, including Bryan Danielson and Sammy Guevara.

Not the Same AEW

Across the rest of the main card, less has changed. The Young Bucks and the Lucha Brothers are still established top tag teams, with their 2021 cage match topping the very high standards set by their multiple strong efforts in 2019. Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega are still pushed as top talent, albeit with Jericho being used mainly to help make new stars with Omega currently on the disabled list.

This Sunday night, the planned Las Vegas tradition finally continues, and it’s easy to see what else has changed.

There are three women’s matches, with Britt Baker being the only wrestler in those matches who was around when Dynamite launched in 2019. The others feature fully home-grown talent (in Jade Cargill vs. Anna Jay) and free agent signings who moved to AEW during the pandemic (Thunder Rosa vs. Serena Deeb).

Recent former WWE talent are all over the card, like Samoa Joe, Adam Cole, Keith Lee, Shane Strickland, 2.0, Bryan Danielson, Malakai Black, Buddy Matthews, and the Hardys. And CM Punk, nine months removed from returning to wrestling in AEW, is challenging for Hangman Page’s world title in the main event. And with Jeff Cobb and The Great-O-Khan shooting an angle on the go-home edition of Dynamite, there’s at least a hint of NJPW involvement, something that was unfathomable in 2019 when the Japanese company had plenty of ill will for the brand new startup.

That’s not the same AEW that debuted three years ago. Not by a longshot.