This Could Have Worked On Television: AEW Women’s Eliminator Week 2

Last week’s YouTube exclusive portion of AEW’s Women’s Eliminator Tournament covered the whole of the Japanese half’s first round, introducing and reintroducing eight women to AEW audiences in an easily digestible one hour show that was intensely enjoyable. I liked it so much that I gave it the benefit of a doubt so far as AEW’s running a big chunk of this tournament on YouTube was concerned, so this week’s show, featuring the remainder of the American first round and the Japanese semi-finals, puts me in a position I am all too familiar with when it comes to AEW, which is to say that I am frustrated by how their women’s division is utilized on its broadcast television show.

Last night’s Eliminator show means that we’ve seen ten of this tournament’s fifteen matches. Eight of them have taken place on YouTube. Tomorrow’s Dynamite will see the tournament’s third of four television matches, the fourth being the finals, with the rest of the tournament split between YouTube and Bleacher Report. I’m going to be blunt here: That sucks.

There is no excuse for this. Not the artificially imposed crunch of needing to get Hikaru Shida a challenger in time for Revolution, not the “reach” of platforms like YouTube and Bleacher Report, and not the reduced amount of time a match would get on Dynamite. If YouTube and Bleacher Report have so much reach, why wasn’t the men’s Eliminator tournament relegated to it? What does match length have to do with quality?

Even if you think it’s important for there to be three or more segments a week featuring Kenny Omega dicking around with his friends, there’s plenty of fat that could have been trimmed or moved to Dark to make space for this tournament, different ways of utilizing the spaces the company has created for itself to fit their ambitious-on-paper tournament into the window of time they gave it. Instead, what AEW did was gather 16 of the most compelling wrestlers in its orbit together for a month of mostly-optional professional wrestling.

When that meant “watching new joshi without seeking it out,” I was into the idea enough that I wanted it as a regular feature of AEW programming. Now that the idea is split between the decidedly different vibes of the Japanese taping and an AEW Dark taping, I feel like it’s an idea for a different, better AEW that didn’t need tournaments or shows like this one in the first place, an AEW where more women’s wrestling felt like a treat as opposed to something as skippable as an episode of Being the Elite.

The Women’s Eliminator Tournament is the most fun I’ve had with AEW in a long time, but I’ve also never been more frustrated with the way AEW presents its women’s division. This is the frustration of a seeker, I suppose, of someone who believes that this women’s division is already more interesting than the majority of American broadcast wrestling. I’ll watch this tournament wherever it takes place. But I want to skip to the future where the women’s division is center stage on platforms non-seekers don’t have to hunt down, the future where AEW isn’t “brave” to feature this division on Dynamite more often, but worthy of it. The frustration of a seeker, y’all. Let’s dig into this hour long block.

 Nyla Rose def. Tay Conti

Tay Conti is my favorite wrestler on the AEW roster at the moment. There are a lot of “hybrid style” wrestlers on the scene at the moment, and while that normally means a heavy emphasis on big strikes mixed with one or two submission holds, with Conti the fusion of her MMA and pro-wrestling styles means a balance between targeted striking and gorgeous, flowing submissions and throws predicated on limb control. Most Nyla Rose matches are built around her size being an advantage, but Conti’s whole thing is leverage—if she pops her hips, you’re going over.

I liked this match a great deal through the first half, as Rose was in the odd position of wearing down her opponent’s legs so that they didn’t play a factor, which was a new look for her. About halfway through, as spots were greeted with the half-assed ohhhhs of AEW Dark wrestlers who were stuck in the front row for a marathon taping session, I felt the life ooze out of my body. I don’t think there should be fans at AEW tapings, but the whole “the wrestlers watch the show!” conceit didn’t work a year ago and it doesn’t work now—given a choice between their reconstructed mummy’s voice pops and the silence of the void, I choose the void. Conti put in a good showing, but Rose won with a Beast Bomb. Like I said, this was good, but it really felt optional.

Yuka Sakazaki def. Emi Sakura

Something I failed to mention in last week’s recap is just how good Emi Sakura’s literal interpretation of “Queen” is. In prior AEW showings, “Queen” meant Freddie Mercury—it still does, but the focus was on her Mercury gear, her love of Queen’s music, and so on. If she wrestled mean, it had more to do with her being a long-tenured veteran who trained a lot of her opponents than her being an outright heel. In this tournament, she’s full-on regal, with a red robe, big crown, and loyal escort, wrestling deliberately, laughing like the Final Boss in a video game. I have no idea how the AEW women’s division is going to look in the aftermath of this tournament, but it would be a shame for Sakura to disappear from view after thoroughly establishing herself as the best heel in the division.

This was one of the best matches of the tournament thus far, as that vibe matched Yuka Sakazaki’s perfectly. The more experienced Sakura worked a variety of dragon sleepers, double underhooks, and cradles, but Sakazaki managed to kick or counter out of all of them, even as they became more powerful. I really liked the flow of this match, as Sakazaki looked for whatever openings she could through Sakura’s oppressive attack. Sakazaki is so nimble and assured in the ring, and this tournament has done a better job of showing her off than her brief AEW appearances last year. After failing to hit the Magical Girl Splash, she countered Sakura’s Angel’s Wings attempt with a sliding lariat and a cradle for the win. Sakura and her students beat Sakazaki up after the match, prompting Hikaru Shida to make the save, wearing the all-time Illegal Underground Karate Tournament power outfit of a white blazer/trousers with a black croptop.

Rio Mizunami def. Aja Kong

Tony Khan bought the rights to “Tarzan Boy” for Jungle Boy, but not “Jungle Emperor” for Aja Kong? The disrespect! If last week’s Kong outing was an occasion for me to gush about her piledriver, this week’s match against Ryo Mizunami gave us two breathtaking backdrop drivers. This marks Kong’s 35th year in wrestling, and while she’s slowed down as a consequence, that thing still has more torque, more snap than anybody else’s variation. I feel like it’s somewhat cliche to make note of the debt modern wrestling owes to 1990s joshi, but its extremely hard to shake that in the moments when Kong, one of the biggest influencers of that generation, is at her most explosive, and those backdrop drivers were it. I screamed!

The beef battle aspect of this match didn’t work as well for me as Kong and Mizunami’s matches against smaller women last week, though I did get a rise out of Taz calling both women “ladies” throughout. I thought the match was fine for the most part, but working smaller opponents allows more time for Kong to breathe without it feeling like the match is on pause, and Mizunami working Kong’s leg in the early portion of the match didn’t really go anywhere, as she’s not an especially technical wrestler. I hated the finish of the match, as Kong was counted out after a contrived bit with Shida and Kong’s trash can, which saw Mizunami catch Kong with a leg drop on the apron and roll in. It felt anticlimactic, more a function of Mizunami being lucky than good, and a compromise between the five to eight minute matches Kong still excels at and the need for her to lose. Hardly required.

Brit Baker def. Madi Wrenkowski

This was bad, to the point that it nearly spoiled the conceit of the tournament. When Abadon wrestled Shida for the AEW Women’s Championship I said that one of that match’s failings was that it failed to create an environment in which Abadon could succeed, that it exposed her gimmick and weaknesses as a wrestler in a way that would be hard to recover from. The same is true here of Wrenkowski, who was a “last minute replacement” for Anna Jay. I’m not putting “last minute replacement” in quotation marks to dispute the very real nature of Jay’s shoulder injury, which puts a 6-12 month hold on one of the company’s fastest rising talents, but the idea of subbing in someone with an 0-3 record and less than 15 minutes of ringtime in AEW into a tournament to decide who will wrestle your champion on pay per view is a bad one when signed roster members like Shanna and Penelope Ford have wrestled recently.

But in terms of kayfabe, this match had some cover. Wrenkowski is a student of Thunder Rosa’s, Baker has beef with Rosa, so it makes sense that Baker would wear out a student of her’s. This would have been a standard issue squash—and it should have been, for that matter—but for a ton of miscommunication on a blocked vertical suplex spot. The first time, it looked like Wrenkowski went for a small package and was just powered up by Baker. The second and third time, it was clear that she was just supposed to block the suplex, but she kept going for a full hook like she wanted to go for a roll-up, then mistimed an X-Factor.

I never go into blown spots like this. I feel bad doing it because pointing out the mistakes of someone with a little over a year in the business is utterly joyless, but this truly is not on her, nor is it on Baker. This match was pre-taped, and at some point they could have watched it, determined that it wasn’t up to the “best in the world” standard this tournament was trying to set, and filmed angles around Baker gloating about Jay’s injury and her easy path to Revolution instead. That’s the privilege of pre-taping shows! Yes, the post-match beatdown continued to build towards another Baker/Rosa confrontation, and it’s nice that there’s one angle in the women’s division that’s not just “who among us will win enough to get a title match,” but how about more than one? Why do I have to keep asking for more than one?

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Colette Arrand

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

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