As someone who has followed WWE weekly for the past two years, I feel confident enough in my absorption of the recent state of World Wrestling Entertainment to make the following statement: they’ve lost.
The figurative brand war, the debate between which millionaire you wanted to give money to, which promotion had the talent, the booking, the creative decisions. And AEW sealed their fate not with a Pepsi logo, but with an ecstatic “Bay bay.”
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Sunday night celebrated Labor Day and your local union by debuting two of WWE’s brightest talents over the past few years; Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole. Danielson just main-evented WrestleMania four months ago. Cole carried NXT on his back for the better part of three years. And now they are both All Elite. What a tangled web we weave.
After defeating Christian Cage in All Out’s main event, Kenny Omega and his blue hair took to the mic to make a bold statement: He was going to hold the AEW World Title forever. He claimed the only people who could defeat him were retired or dead—cue the spooky lights and the bass drop, because this brought out the recently resurrected Adam Cole.
Outside the dim Full Sail lights, Cole’s shit eating grin seemed to glimmer even brighter as he super kicked Jungle Boy and reunited with the men who had killed him. Maybe? I don’t know, I can’t watch 200+ episodes of BTE. Either way, the Elite is a nasty family once more, and Cole’s ready to fulfill the role of your absolute worst little brother.
The greatest question isn’t what’s next; the arrival of Danielson quickly answered that. Instead, there’s only one thing I’m wondering—where can WWE possibly go from here? There’s no doubt that they have the talent. Names like Roman Reigns, who is undoubtedly doing his finest work to date as SmackDown’s Tribal Chief. Bianca Belair, a genuine once in a lifetime talent who possess the skill and charisma to lead the company for years. Becky Lynch, recently returned to standing ovation as the new SmackDown Women’s Champion. And that’s just on one single brand.
The problem, the one that’s been plaguing this company for much of the past decade, is that even when things are handed to them on a silver platter, they still fumble the play m. The recent squash of Belair comes to mind; Lynch’s surprise return and the promise of a match between two incredible wrestlers who have yet to go one-on-one would have proven a solid challenge against CM Punk returning to the ring after 8 years away. If WWE wanted to give their rivals a run for their money, all they had to do was give us the match. Instead, we got a thirty second beat down and a single move to end Belair’s reign. Pair that with the recent series of flat TakeOvers and the same four matches Raw runs every week, and there’s just nothing there. Nothing substantial enough to step up to Adam Cole and the Elite going head to head with Bryan Danielson and his new jungle friends.
The Heart of NXT
Two years ago, NXT TakeOvers were the talk of the town. Running a short two hours, they never outstayed their welcome, and they provided banger after banger in title matches, without any of the excessive bloat of A list PPVs like SummerSlam. Sure, there were missteps—like the 17 Gargano/Ciampa matches we were forced to sit through—but when push came to shove, NXT usually turned out at least one fantastic match. Many of those featured Cole, alongside his Undisputed Era teammates and against other incredible talents like Finn Bálor, Keith Lee, and Pete Dunne. I’m racking my brain, and I can’t even tell you my favorite match from the last TakeOver. To be fair, that also included Cole vs O’Reilly, but they were another victim of NXT’s rehashing of feuds until you want to claw your eyes out.
This isn’t to name Cole the sole star of NXT; there are still many talented wrestlers there, just as there are on Raw and SmackDown. But all the skill in the world can’t always overcome, as a very unwise man once said, stupid decisions from dumb creative. And to see Cole in particular, the leader of NXT’s most dominant faction of all time, the man who scored some of the biggest crowd reactions Full Sail ever gave, waltz into an AEW ring and get kissed by his old friends, feels somehow like the biggest ship jumping we’ve seen yet. Punk was a great surprise overall, returning after several years to remind us it’s clobbering time. But given his history with WWE, it made sense that if he ever came back, he’d head to the other show. Danielson is a most welcome addition, but not too shocking when reminded how careful WWE played it with him. If he wanted to go out on his own terms, the switch adds up as well.
It is most surreal to me, as a fairly recent wrestling fan, to see Cole give us an elite Bay Bay after being the face of NXT for so many years. As someone who got into WWE alongside the formation of the Undisputed Era, this feels like when you see a teacher at the grocery store. Like, it makes sense, because everybody’s gotta eat, but it’s also not the place your brain always pictures them.
That being said, I am tuning into Dynamite this week for the first time since the show was created, and that’s the power of the kid from Lancaster. I can’t remember the last time I finished a WWE pay per view and genuinely couldn’t wait to see what the weekly show brought. I want to say it was the 2020 Royal Rumble, and Edge’s decade in the making return. The recent SummerSlam had its moments, but after the night was over, all I could remember was Lynch squashing Belair in an unfair 30 seconds. If something leaves such an unfortunate taste in my mouth, why would I be excited to see Lynch on Friday night? Why would I be excited to turn on the show at all?
As a wrestling fan, I’m well trained to hold onto every last sliver of hope I have that WWE will turn themselves around. Maybe this loss will be the kick in the pants they truly need. But the past several years haven’t exactly given me hope. And even with these new additions, there are plenty of things AEW still needs to improve upon in their own house. They’ve dropped the ball with their women’s division numerous times, and have frequently struggled to give non-white talent the chances they’ve undoubtedly deserved. They are far from a perfect promotion in any way. With those things in mind, and as someone who’s truthfully watched no wrestling aside from WWE for the past thirteen months, I can still see myself cancelling my Wednesday night plans from here on out.