Wrestling and Christmas—they go together like legs and feet. Holidays are kind to wrestling in general. They’re days when American families eat heavy meals at 2:00 in the afternoon and stagger out into the bleak grey afternoon looking for something to do. Movie theaters are open on Christmas. Companies like WWE run a loop of Christmas house shows, now taken over by their overly ambitious television schedule. NXT was on last night, the actual day of Christmas, running against the NBA’s slate of Christmas games and marathons of Law and Order. AEW, by contrast, took the night off, presumably so the roster could see Star Wars or hang out with their family or whatever.
While we’re waiting for Brian Alvarez to post something like “NXT: 743,000; AEW: 0,” I figured that, rather than run down a show that looked and felt like an early episode of that show, that I could look at both brands and check in on how I feel about both in a general sense. Let’s start with NXT.
How NXT won the war: Knowing what it does best and doing that every week.
NXT is a show of remarkable consistency. At its worst this year, it was still watchable, the kind of thing you can have on in the background like a 10-hour yule log video, neither helping nor harming anybody. That’s a good baseline to work from, and, at its best, NXT was, on a segment by segment basis, frequently better than its competition. Bolstered by the last round of major signings the company did prior to AEW’s debut, I’ve enjoyed watching Keith Lee and Matt Riddle figure out how they work in the WWE system, appreciate everything the Undisputed Era bring to the table, and am legitimately thankful for the brand’s strong, unwavering focus on women’s wrestling.
The wallpaper-effect is real though, and at two hours, the middle sections of the show that aren’t a direct response to the opening and closing bell across the dial are sometimes a chore to get through, and the gridlock at the top of the card means I’m being asked to care about riveting stories like Pete Dunne bending somebody’s fingers back a bit too much. Luckily (imagine that word in massive scare-quotes), Mauro Ranallo is there to inform me that such issues are just as life and death as Angel Garza ripping his pants off in front of Lio Rush’s wife.
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Mauro gets bagged on a lot, even by his fellow (equally insufferable) co-workers, but he’s not alone in diminishing NXT’s in-ring theatrics. While Mauro’s sins are obvious, I’ve often found Nigel McGuinness just as bad. While Mauro loves his two-sentence comparisons to buzzbin rap and moderately sexist phrases like “distaff division,” Nigel spits out the same anecdote over and over and over again, like an announcer in one of 2Ks’ WWE games. Not to harp on Pete Dunne, but Nigel’s constant comparison of his NXT UK Championship reign to Hulk Hogan’s 1984-1988 WWF Championship reign is hilarious, and not just because it’s less than half as long as Hogan’s title. The difference is that his hyperbole isn’t spiking the levels on his microphone.
On the subject of NXT UK, the specter of the brand’s expansion and assimilation of other scenes in wrestling looms large as a story to look out for in 2020. I’ve written in the past about how WWE is stockpiling American wrestlers, enabled, in part, by entities like Evolve, but the company kicked the tires on Stardom and Pro Wrestling NOAH and has established offices across the globe. Like NXT’s move to Wednesday nights, WWE’s attempt to buy into Japan felt more motivated by pressure from an outside entity than any serious interest in Japanese wrestling. But NXT Japan and NXT Mexico and NXT Lichtenstein are all very distinct possibilities in the future, and towards what end? Do people feel anything resembling fondness for the NXT UK brand, or is the feeling more akin to sadness at the way it Trojan Horsed the indie scene in the UK into obsolescence?
Regardless, NXT remains WWE’s strongest, most exciting brand. It’s a show capable of classic wrestling storytelling (see the UE and Shayna Baszler’s dominance) and giving wrestlers like KUSHIDA and Walter time to put on a banger without a cause. The Undisputed Era can’t hang onto all of the gold forever, not given the number of wrestlers at or near the top of the card hunting them. With the return of Finn Bálor, the teased but undelivered return of Kevin Owens, visits from main roster superstars, and the addition of the Cruiserweight Championship, NXT truly feels like the major brand WWE has promoted it as being. How that plays out in the future remains to be seen, but it’s an exciting time to watch Triple H’s vision of professional wrestling, so long as you’re able to shrug off the gloom of WWE’s continuing Disneyfication of the scene in general.
How AEW won the war: Unpredictability, having something to prove, and Chris Jericho.
AEW “loses” the Wednesday Night War more often than not, but that’s because the brand is extremely comfortable with risk. AEW Dynamite takes a home run swing at something, and more often than not they connect. It takes guts to book a tag team championship tournament with the Young Bucks and have them lose in the first round to Private Party, an unknown team by comparison. It’s also a risk to book SoCal Uncensored as your first champions.
SCU’s win and ongoing semi-dominance of their division is emblematic of a problem I’ve had with AEW programming, which is that the wrestlers on TV the most have some connection to the promotion’s myriad collection of Executive Vice Presidents, and that being an EVP is either public knowledge or kept hush-hush based on who’s fighting who. I don’t think wrestlers like Brandon Cutler are ready for TV, but there he is. I don’t like how many WWE wrestlers who were “underutilized” during the same stretch of time Cody Rhodes was underutilized have found airtime on Dynamite, but there’s Shawn Spears and Jake Hager with the same goddamn chip on their shoulder as Cody, Jon Moxley, and everybody else the WWE looked at or used or didn’t use. Sometimes I just want to see wrestling without the angst of dudes who make more in a month than I’ve made in my entire working life.
And sometimes that’s what I get. AEW is a melting pot of styles and backgrounds, to the point that some things have been rough in their transition to a televised major league (see Chris Jericho’s anecdote about a meeting called to address how the Lucha Brothers didn’t tag in or out), but there’s something thrilling about that clash, even when the notes are unintentionally flat. It’s because of that clash that we get people like Darby Allin, Riho, Private Party, and Orange Cassidy on television. And while the company has been slow to capitalize on wrestlers like Allin, Cassidy, and Joey Janella, there is a sense, week to week, that just about anybody can have a star-making performance on Dynamite.
The company is still finding its legs across its various divisions—at the moment, the only title firing on all cylinders is the men’s singles division. While it has the most interesting roster in mainstream wrestling, AEW’s women’s division often feels like an afterthought, and the tag team division feels dedicated to informing you that Scorpio Sky is one of the most underrated wrestlers in the universe. Both divisions feel like they’re on the verge of breaking out, but so much of the spotlight is on wrestlers like Cody Rhodes, Chris Jericho, and Kenny Omega that it’s worth wondering if AEW’s system of player-coaches is tenable in the long term, especially when the EVPs are at the top of the card.
But AEW has been a thrilling watch, a promotion that isn’t afraid to push wrestlers like Luchasaurus, or rebuild wrestlers like Awesome Kong. Seeing Chris Jericho every week has been a reminder of just how good he is. He was my favorite wrestler when I was nine years old, and his run as AEW’s inaugural champion puts him pretty high on the list now that I’m 31. Jericho has been consistently excellent over that 22 year stretch, and he’s capably shouldered the weight the promotion has asked him to carry. There is no championship in the country whose fate feels more important— outside of losing the belt at a Longhorn Steakhouse, his grip on the title is iron-strong, his every defense an event.
Despite my issues with the company (I didn’t even mention Jim Ross), I love Dynamite. I’m not worried about its ratings or for what the future portends for this weird artistic medium that’s taken up so much space in my life— when I’m watching Dynamite, I’m able to let go a little and enjoy what it has to offer, whether it’s an over-the-top lights out match between Moxley and Omega that structured several death match tropes like a game of Mouse Trap, or Kris Statlander booping Tony Schiavone on the nose. I love it when wrestling chooses to take risks, and despite the consequences for failure being so high, AEW is not afraid to take them. That’s good for everybody. Even the competition.