Two hours is a long time. I know that the last seven years of three hour Raws and six hour supershows have changed the perception of how time works within the boundaries of a wrestling event, but a lot can happen in 120 minutes, and between NXT and AEW, Wednesday night tends to be when a lot of business gets done in 120 minutes. It’s a lot to process, especially now that the actual action of a wrestling match often takes place in a tiny window next to commercials for garlic Parmesan meatball subs and dick pills and truck month and NBA basketball.
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This week, both NXT and AEW were overwhelming sensory experiences, shows that felt like they were rushing to tell more story than their timeslots can handle. Some of that is the work of introducing (or reintroducing) new wrestlers. Some of that is the work of continuing feuds that need to stretch out from now until the next TakeOver or Pay Per View. NXT and Dynamite were spinning a lot of plates this week, and it would have been great, at least for me, if both shows gave more time to their major matches to let them breathe a little. To that end, NXT was a lot more successful at accomplishing what they set out to do, even if the ramshackle way Dynamite lurches forward into the unknown is a little more exciting because of its sloppiness. This week, AEW’s penchant for throwing as much as they can at an audience was less charming than I usually find it, which is why NXT was the better show. Let’s get to the specifics.
How AEW lost the war: Cody Rhodes is Pepe Silva
You know that scene in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Charlie is trying to crack the case of Pepe Silva and has this wall-spanning spread of papers, pictures, and desperate notes connected haphazardly by red string and pushpins? That’s how watching AEW feels right now. Put someone at the center of the web and the way they connect to other wrestlers could occupy an entire room, if that someone is on Cody Rhodes. In the middle of Dynamite, Rhodes cut a promo to that effect. He’s dealing with, off the top of my head, the following:
- MJF’s betrayal.
- The shame of losing to Chris Jericho.
- The debuting Butcher, Blade, and Bunny trio who attacked him last week.
Just tracking what Cody’s up to is exhausting enough, but since his story has a lot to do with abandonment, you’ve also got to factor this stuff in:
- His wife is hanging out with Awesome Kong and giving women unasked for haircuts.
- His brother is hanging out with the Young Bucks, who apparently don’t have the bandwidth to help Cody out.
- Adam Page doesn’t want to be around the crew anymore because he lost some important matches.
- Kenny Omega is probably walking through a crowded city, looking forlornly into the distance as he wonders what Kota Ibushi is up to.
This is one guy. And while his promo was good and involved a briefcase full of money, unquestionably the greatest prop in the history of wrestling, I’m given to wonder why other members of the AEW roster have to go through him, Chris Jericho, or Jon Moxley for them to have some kind of purpose. The obvious answer is that they’re the stars of the show, but which engagement am I meant to care more about: Cody’s beef with MJF, or his seeking revenge against the Butcher, the Blade, and the Bunny?
It’s not that wrestling isn’t a medium capable of telling multiple stories through one vector, it’s just that I’d like some room to breathe. Like, Kris Statlander and Hikaru Shida had my favorite match of the week, an unranked wrestler beating the number one contender of the women’s division, and that is story enough for one segment. But rather than soak in the arrival of a talented upstart who now has a case to take on Riho, Brandi Rhodes hit the ring with Awesome Kong to introduce the concept of the Nightmare Collective, which is, I’m assuming, kind of like The Wing, but instead of paying $215 a month for access to a ladies-only coworking space that works a lot like a public library, you have to give Brandi Rhodes your hair in exchange for access to a ladies-only cult on a show that’s stuffed to the gills with cults.
The Nightmare Collective is just one of the ways in which AEW’s early focus on Cody, Jericho, and Moxley has forced them to build their wrestlers in reverse, as Awesome Kong seconded Brandi with no real explanation during a Buy In pre-show match several months ago, then got a gimmick. Similarly, Nyla Rose is being booked like an unstoppable force now as opposed to when she was in the match that decided the first ever AEW Women’s Champion, where she had a couple of weak wins to her name. Or take, for instance, The Dark Order, who are just now getting vignette videos that make their characters legitimately interesting after debuting out of nowhere and dying in front of live crowds for months. It’s a frustrating experience, like watching the first season of an old television show and hanging on while the writers figure out who the characters are because things will eventually be good on a consistent basis.
All of that juggling meant that Dynamite’s in-ring action, usually a strength of the show, washed over me the way the ocean washes over a beach. Chris Jericho is wrestling another tag team guy while avoiding his challenger. Jon Moxley is wrestling another hardcore guy who is proving himself to be more than a hardcore guy. Christopher Daniels is wrestling another match. And somehow, though I haven’t put my finger on how just yet, Cody Rhodes will be a factor in all of these things.
How NXT won the war: KUSHIDA IS A GOOD DAD
Look, they’re both very good, but man alive am I tired of Adam Cole’s thing with Tommaso Ciampa. Even complicated by Keith Lee’s Survivor Series breakout and Finn Bálor returning home, I’ve come to dread Ciampa’s unholy ear worm of a theme, which has been on blast in my head for the last 24 hours. Before AEW triggered NXT’s promotion to kayfabe equal status with Raw and SmackDown, it felt like wrestlers at the top of the heap in NXT had a clear progression: chase the title, win the title, lose the title, debut on the main roster and feud over the Intercontinental Championship until the day you die. It wasn’t satisfying, but it was neat, and it took a lot of pressure off of the situation WWE has created for its former developmental promotion by gobbling up as much indie talent as it could while still functioning as proving ground for wrestlers without the same level of seasoning.
Now that that’s not the case, how do you cycle someone like Ciampa out of the title picture when there are more interesting challengers for Adam Cole, like Lee and Bálor? Ciampa has been in or near NXT’s main event picture forever now, and having him (or Johnny Gargano) continue to concern himself with NXT’s championships feels like purgatory. Along with that, given that all roads to NXT gold run through members of the Undisputed Era, there’s almost nothing differentiating NXT’s titles from each other. There are no clear contenders for the Tag Team or North American Championships, and if those contenders are decided it will in all likelihood be a mix-and-match assortment of Keith Lee, Matt Riddle, and Dominik Dijakovic, which has been the standing situation on the show for months now.
It’s telling that I’m much more interested in NXT’s undercard, where Kassius Ohno and KUSHIDA made their returns, one from a stay in NXT UK and the other from a broken wrist. Ohno continues to be a talented guy who loses all of his matches, though his match against Riddle was excellent and made full use of the cravat, an all-time great wrestling hold. KUSHIDA’s in-ring return was preceded by a video about how he’s a really good dad with a really cute kid, and it made me cry. KUSHIDA’s opponent, Raul Mendoza, got taken out and replaced by Cameron Grimes, who is one of those dudes who is stuck in the hell of being a permanent breakout star due to the bottleneck at the top of the card. That meant that his role here was to be the foil in a showcase for KUSHIDA, who is maybe the best wrestler in the world. He did some outright gross stuff in this match, like turning an octopus stretch into an armbar, which makes any other wrestlers claims of being masters of joint manipulation laughable in his light.
Meanwhile, NXT’s women’s division continues to be the best thing about the company. Shayna Baszler and Rhea Ripley finally have a date for their title match, which means that it’s time to remind people why Baszler is dangerous after months of her getting punked by Ripley. In the ring, that meant giving Baszler a definitive win over Xia Li in the classic “Champion narrowly avoids an upset” way. Out of the ring, that meant freeing Ripley from the fallout of Dakota Kai’s heel turn by bringing Mia Yim back for revenge. She dominated Kai in their brawl, which makes a lot of sense given that Kai is being built as a plotter and opportunist. Here, she’s the one who got surprised. With that bit of business out of the way, Baszler and her MMA Horsewomen pals took Ripley out by overwhelming her with their numbers. Ripley fought out of the Kirifuda Clutch several times, but finally succumbed when Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir grabbed Ripley’s arms from outside the ring and used them to hang her over the middle rope while the clutch was locked on. This is the NXT match I’ve been looking forward to the most since its launch on network television, and it’s one that absolutely deserves the narrow focus it is now receiving with War Games and the battle for brand supremacy are in the past.