The Deadly Draw and the AEW Women’s Division’s Slow Start

This week, women’s wrestling promises to feature on AEW Dynamite in a major way, as the finals of its month long Deadly Draw tournament will be held on a special Saturday edition of the show. The tournament, an old wrestling chestnut where teams are randomly put together by the luck of the draw, has taken place exclusively on AEW’s YouTube channel to this point, a special presentation featuring the debuts of several new women to the patchwork roster of women they’ve assembled amidst injury and pandemic-related travel restrictions, as well as the addition of Veda Scott to the commentary booth.

I like the concept and its presentation (which I’ll delve into later), but its introduction and separation from AEW’s terrestrial television project has exacerbated an issue that fans and detractors of the company alike have been pointing out in growing number: the general lack of women’s wrestling on Dynamite. In an era of wrestling where women have never been more central to the fortunes of its chief rival—the WWE in general and NXT in specific—it certainly feels strange, and not entirely the fault of the aforementioned injury and pandemic issues, that the women’s division continues to exist in a state of arrested development, without the same clarity of purpose as the World, Tag Team, or TNT Championship divisions. Almost totally reliant upon the win/loss system to justify last-minute competitors to the AEW Women’s Championship, the division has fewer active feuds than wrestlers like Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega have as individuals.

Though I called the roster patchwork, it is a talented one. It’s just been frustrating watching the division stall out despite that talent. From Kylie Rae’s early departure from AEW to Britt Baker showing up early to cut a promo she wasn’t scheduled for to give context to her pre-show match against Bea Priestley at Full Gear to the quickly aborted Nightmare Collective angle derailing the early momentum of Kris Statlander to Emi Sakura having to infodump her history against Riho so that match had some actual spice to it to now, where current champion Hikaru Shida is floating on Dynamite having five minute squashes of variable quality and cutting brief promos about being open to any challenger, the division has been an afterthought, no matter how much development is happening right now on Dark and during the Deadly Draw tournament. Whether it’s the rumored see-sawing of responsibility between Omega and Brandi Rhodes, AEW’s continued ratings growth making the development of the division a backburner issue, the lack of marquee names on the roster coupled with the difficulty of building stars through a language barrier in a company that places a ton of emphasis on promos, the company has needed a course correction for a long time. The Deadly Draw may be that correction, but before looking towards it and the future, let’s go back to the beginning.

AEW

The Promise of AEW

Before All Elite Wrestling, there was just The Elite, a subgroup of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s long-running Bullet Club stable consisting of its members largely known for their ability between the ropes. The core three were Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks, who added on members like Kota Ibushi, Adam Cole, and Marty Scurll through their various alliances and lost them to contract signings with other companies, and settled into its current formation by adding Cody Rhodes and “Hangman” Adam Page. Four of the five current members of The Elite are now EVPs of AEW, each of them having a hand on one aspect of the company’s booking or another. Pre-AEW, Being the Elite was a hybrid documentary/variety show about life on the road for these men, in their travels for NJPW, Ring of Honor, PWG, and other independent wrestling promotions. Beyond the extremely high level at which they wrestled, the (kayfabed) radical openness of the show in presenting The Elite as people built the brand that eventually became the promotion. They were, despite their successes, a group of outsiders and castaways, wrestlers too talented for anything less than superstardom who wouldn’t settle for or weren’t wanted by WWE. A lot of NJPW’s success in the United States has been placed at the feet of Omega and the Bucks. Given ROH’s downturn after their departure from the promotion, it’s arguable that most of their recent success was due to their popularity. When they bet on themselves at All In and sold out a Monday Night Raw sized arena in minutes, a new wrestling promotion seemed inevitable. When they promised that AEW would be an altogether different wrestling promotion, it was easy to believe.

It’s not that they haven’t delivered on that promise—in a lot of ways, AEW has done exactly what it set out to do. The issue at hand, the women’s division, is one whose genesis, I believe, was in that promise. The four men at the forefront of AEW, who did their talent scouting on the road and based on friendships, never had much reason to care about women’s wrestling until starting a promotion that needed to feature it. Omega’s fidelity for independent Joshi promotions notwithstanding, AEW’s four EVPs were building something with an eye towards the high-impact matches of New Japan and the flashy-but-intimate stylings of Pro Wrestling Guerrilla.  New Japan, as fans who don’t know that you can subscribe to any number of Joshi streaming services will point out, doesn’t have a women’s division. PWG, as anybody who has seen a PWG card can attest to, has booked fewer than five women in its 17-year year history.

PWG is one of the most influential indie promotions of all time, and is certainly the one which wields the most influence over professional wrestling in the United States over the past decade. Before WWE started signing developmental deals with indie promotions like EVOLVE, William Regal would go to the annual Battle of Los Angeles tournament to scout the field. Indie promotions across the country borrow liberally from its Indie Supercard style, in which fans are treated to a barrage of dream matches featuring top talent that are loosely connected to anything resembling a storyline. Their utilization of Candice LeRae mainstreamed intergender wrestling on the independents at the same time CHIKARA was doing so with Sara Del Rey and Daizee Haze. But, as a rule, PWG did not book women’s matches. It’s not that they were alone in this, or even that they were ignoring fan demand—many PWG fans on Reddit and the official PWG forum are quick to claim, when anybody asks why there aren’t any women on the show, that women’s wrestling just isn’t up to the standards of your average Joey Ryan match—but when the promotion setting the pace for the rest of the country, one of the main influences on a company established as direct competition to a promotion whose saving grace over the past four years has been women’s wrestling, flat out ignores its existence, you end up with the wrestling scene we have right now, where many indie promotions are satisfied with one women’s match (or one intergender match), and the revolutionary televised wrestling company gives as much time to its Women’s Champion as the competition did before their fans revolted.

The Elite are not PWG impresario Super Dragon. None of them have said that they flat out don’t like women’s wrestling. But the world in which they came up was one that was (and is) incredibly dismissive towards it, and they built their roster in a wrestling ecology that had just seen WWE scoop up most available established names, none of whom would have been as established as the heavy hitters they were signing to the men’s singles and tag divisions. If their pulls from the indies for the men’s divisions seemed unique and well-scouted, it’s because the shows they were wrestling on during their time as indie wrestlers were heavy on that kind of talent and thin everywhere else. In live Q&As, when fans would ask if they thought any woman had what it took to join the Elite, or whether they had a favorite women’s wrestler it was not uncommon for the Young Bucks to respond “Candice LeRae” and everyone else to look blankly past the camera, and it’s hard not to understand why: Women weren’t on shows with them in any significant number, and they weren’t exactly interested. Which brings us here.

AEW

Fits and Starts

With fewer Names on the women’s roster, developing its identity was always going to be a slow process. I’m thinking back to the beginning of AEW, where both of its singles championships were determined in a match where the winner of a battle royal wrestled the winner of a singles match. When Chris Jericho beat Adam Page, you had the marquee star of the company wrestling its obvious future, Jericho’s issues with Page’s running buddies in the Elite serving as icing on the cake. When Riho beat Nyla Rose, the historical significance of a potential Rose victory going unsaid, you just had a match. I loved that match and have liked the Riho/Rose dynamic and hope to see much more of it in the future, but the disparity between the amount of thinking that went into Jericho/Page and Riho/Rose is obvious.

That inattention to the storytelling mechanics of the women’s division has been a consistent issue ever since. AEW has tried to establish itself as a promotion where wins and losses matter, but the women’s division is the only one where that’s consistently a factor in who receives title matches. When you book a promotion around wins and losses, the emphasis on movement up and down the card is on momentum, but momentum itself is not a storyline. MJF’s upcoming title match against Jon Moxley is happening because he feels he was ignored despite his great record, and the two have now spent a couple of weeks trading barbs. They’re building something. The women’s division, by contrast, has had two consistent projects: Britt Baker and Brandi Rhodes. Baker was obviously tagged to be one of the big successes of the women’s division out of the gate, but her presentation, where you could make a drinking game out of how often her being a dentist came up on commentary, torpedoed that. Her heel turn, where she is the one making a big deal out of being a dentist, abusing Tony Schiavone, and blowing an injury out of proportion, has been a revelation. It’s also something that gets an extremely limited amount of air time on a typical episode of Dynamite despite the fact that her rival, Big Swole, is one of the most engaging presences in the company.

Brandi’s character arc is the messiest in the company. Initially appearing as the manager of Awesome Kong, the pairing disappeared from television for awhile as Brandi seconded Cody to the ring. But then Kong reemerged, Brandi in tow, Kong as a monster destroyer and Rhodes as a cultish figure who liked to cut the hair of Kong’s opponents. From this, the Nightmare Collective was born. There were weird videos where Brandi daydreamed therapy sessions about why she was suddenly so sadistic. Deathmatch wrestler Dr. Luther and SHIMMER mainstay Melanie Cruise were signed to be part of it. Cruise shaved her head for the angle, in which Brandi pursued new signee Kris Statlander as a potential member. Then Awesome Kong left the promotion to begin production on the final season of GLOW and the angle just … ended. That happens all the time in wrestling, particularly when an angle is as harshly criticized as the Nightmare Collective was, but the angle killed Statlander’s momentum and spoiled a title match in a division that, if nothing else, has reliably delivered solid-to-spectacular title matches.

It’s in the presentation of Rhodes, arguably the face of the women’s division given that she’s the one with the action figure and the weight of AEW’s marketing division behind her, where it becomes clear that one of the issues with the division is that the people in charge of it are still learning how to book and don’t have the same safety net the men’s divisions have. The Nightmare Collective didn’t work, so she ran out to plead for Cody while he took his ten lashes and ended all of that. When Allie took an interest in Rhodes Family hanger-on QT Marshall, the two started an acrimonious partnership that began with Brandi’s uncertainty in Allie’s intentions towards QT and now looks to be about Brandi’s ego growing too large in the wake of her action figure’s release. All of this, including the Nightmare Collective, has hinged on her being a Rhodes, which would be fine if I were being asked to consider something deeper than a familial connection that, if I’m being honest, AEW has done a spectacular job of making unimportant. If they can’t write a compelling storyline for Brandi, what hope is there for anyone else on the roster?

AEW

The Deadly Draw

Which brings us to this weekend’s Dynamite and the finals of AEW’s Women’s Tag Team Cup Tournament. Like everything else about AEW’s Women’s Division, it’s had its fair share of good decisions and puzzling ones, moments of uplift and moments of frustration. Chief among the frustrations is this: Holding a three week tournament on YouTube doesn’t address the issue of not giving the women’s division time on Dynamite. There are arguments for presenting the Deadly Draw the way AEW did, like not putting talent like Dasha, Ariane Andrew, and Rachel Ellering on television after a year (or years) away from the ring. That I get. Another theory floated was that by putting the tournament on YouTube AEW was giving its division exposure without the limiting factor of cable television’s paywall, but there isn’t a single quarter hour of AEW Dynamite over the past few months that’s attracted fewer eyes than the first episode of the Deadly Draw, which has pulled a respectable 500K+ to date.

The thing is, the Deadly Draw wasn’t created to solve that problem. In building tournament separate from Dynamite and Dark, creating graphics, utilizing new music, and bringing in a well-respected female color commentator, the Deadly Draw’s purpose is to act as a statement that, yes, women’s wrestling matters to the company, but that they’re still figuring it out. The tournament is a smooth, easy watch at 90 minutes, and while there are no blowaway great matches on it, there are glimpses of potential that’ve been otherwise absent from the product for months now. Looking past curious booking decisions—Nyla Rose has no business losing her first match as Vickie Guerrero’s charge, and the positive fan reaction to the reunion of Big and Nicole “Lil’ Swole” Savoy called for an audible in their match against Rhodes and Allie—but the good has largely outweighed the bad, and a lot of the women in the tournament who aren’t under contract should be, especially Ellering, Scott, Savoy, and Tay Conti.

The key word here is “potential.” The Deadly Draw Tournament is the first time the company has plotted a women’s angle to a true conclusion, but tournaments are not an endgame, they’re a launching pad, and the problem with doing a women’s tag team tournament in a promotion that doesn’t have a tag team championship for women is that there’s no clear next move, regardless of who the winner is. AEW could choose to utilize this Saturday’s finals as an opportunity to establish a Women’s Tag Team Championship, but given the state of the women’s roster, the lack of time afforded the division already, and their continuing struggle to legitimize the Women’s Championship to the same level of its other titles let alone the women’s championships of its chief rival, shotgunning a new pair of belts onto the scene would be a mistake, and with Shida not involved in the tournament for reasons I can’t figure out, there’s no clear line from winning the Deadly Draw to getting a shot at the Women’s Championship at All Out that’s not just another “person with the best record gets the match” affair.

That’s what makes following AEW’s women’s division so frustrating—everything about it feels so shortsighted, and because characters are being developed, established, and radically changed on the fly, there’s nothing there to pick the division up when something falters. Sure, there have been spectacular matches, but where’s the build from them? Penelope Ford had a banger with Shida and has been on YouTube ever since. Rose should be chasing a rematch but is establishing her connection with Guerrero. Shida has wrestled five squash matches since winning the title in May, her only real thing at the moment being her willingness to take on all comers because there’s not a lot of women kicking around right now. The Deadly Draw addresses some of the broad structural issues that AEW has with its women’s division as it stands right now, but for it to matter, for it to be something more meaningful than bragging rights and a note on the victors’ entrance chyron, this has to mark the beginning of sustained focus on this aspect of AEW’s product. Give it more time on Dark. Give it two segments, at a minimum, on Dynamite. Develop the stories being hinted at so that Swole and Baker aren’t on their own and doing their best in minute-long intervals. As a fan of women’s wrestling, as a critic, I am tired of “potential.” I’d like to see some of it realized. I want to believe that AEW wants this division to succeed as much as I believe it can. That project doesn’t end this Saturday. That’s where the project begins.

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Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

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