I’ve been to countless WWE Events at Capital One Arena. I’ve seen multiple Monday Night Raw and house shows. I’ve seen them set up the stage and the ring, I’ve seen them set up the merchandise table and paper the crowd to fill the seats. And for the most part, it’s all the same. Raw, Smackdown, house show, even a PPV—it’s basically one static experience. So I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the very first episode of AEW: Dynamite. But I had to go. A new pro wrestling company has their debut show in my hometown? There was no way I wasn’t going. DC is a pretty good wrestling market, but we’re not Chicago or Atlanta or Florida. When pro wrestling comes our way, we have to appreciate it while we have it.
By this time, you already know who won, who lost, and what the ratings were. The show was not without its hiccups, but it was awesome. Most everyone that was there thinks so. Instead, I want to talk about why AEW did exactly what they set out to do: they made themselves the preferred alternative. They didn’t try to be better. They tried to be different. There’s only so many ways you can stray from the formula that makes good wrestling. WWE still knows what it takes to get people to watch, like we saw when Smackdown premiered on FOX. They just don’t care about keeping them, like we saw at Hell in a Cell. Forget all of the haters, WWE loyalists, and the trash heap formerly known as Wrestling Twitter that hates anything that’s different. AEW didn’t need to be better than WWE, they needed to be different. And they accomplished that with flying colors. Here’s how:
Wrestling Above All, Even During Commercials
It’s a bit annoying when you’re in the middle of a big match and they cut to commercial. But do you know what’s really annoying? Being in an audience and having it cut to commercial, then having an announcer come down to the ring and try to sell you more crap. It’s a live commercial. And you can’t change the channel. I remember being at a “RAW before WrestleMania“ years ago and hearing Justin Roberts schill the WWE Network (it’s only $9.99!) at least five times. And that was when he wasn’t reminding us that WrestleMania was coming this Sunday! You know, because seeing a giant WrestleMania graphic on the screen for three hours and watching 10 different wrestlers point at the WrestleMania sign in the rafters didn’t quite get the point across, ya know?
But AEW? That’s a wrestling show. Nothing happened during the commercial break that wasn’t related to wrestling somehow. Even the Jay and Silent Bob promo didn’t drone on forever and it still included Jack Evans and Angelico (if that actually aired, I’m sorry, I haven’t actually watched the broadcast from that night). The only time Justin Roberts tried to sell us on anything was when he told us to stay after the last match for three dark matches. I’ve said before that RAW has a tendency to devolve into a three hour commercial. AEW brought us into that building to watch wrestling. Everything else was just an accessory.
And since I’m talking about dark matches:
Dark Matches Actually Worth Watching
If you’ve ever been to a RAW before 2016, you probably had to sit through a few SmackDown, SuperStars, and Main Event matches. That was always a weird feeling for me. They do a quick graphics change and you’re stuck watching several non-interesting matches with storylines you may or may not be able to follow. Especially if you end up watching Main Event. It was usually a parade of pointing and saying “He/She still works here?!” Yeah, sometimes RAW goes off the air and John Cena would do crowd work, or you’d get a special match with someone the caliber of an A.J. Styles or Samoa Joe. But for the most part, dark matches are the B-roll of the WWE world.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t initially want to stay for the dark matches. My wife was into it, but I was a full on old man. I had to work the next day! Do you know how much it sucks trying to catch a train out of the Chinatown station at 11pm?
Don’t let this fool you. It never looks this nice, it’s always crowded and it has a… unique odor.
But then Pentagon and Rey Fenix came out. These guys are in a dark match? Awesome! Okay, I’ll stick around. Then Britt Baker came out with Allie to fight Penelope Ford and Bea Priestly? Well, I don’t like Bea Priestly, but I like everyone else! Who else is coming out? SCU? And Jurassic Express?? I’m staying for the whole thing! You know how you make a dark match worth watching? Put in people that could be the main event at any other show. And knowing that the dark matches count against the AEW win-loss record makes a huge difference. Dark matches worth watching? Who knew?
The train ride home sucked and I ate gas station hot dogs for dinner at midnight. No evening is perfect.
Making The Matches Matter
Matches don’t matter in the WWE. People are rewarded with title shots seemingly at random. If you don’t think that’s true, you’re lying to yourself and whatever deity you believe in is ashamed of you. So are your parents. I don’t know that, but it’s a safe assumption. A long standing complaint about wrestling in general is that win/loss records don’t seem to matter. Guys lose over and over again and get rewarded for it the same way guys that win all the time never get rewarded. How many times did we watch Roman Reigns win every match forever, then, in an attempt to make him an underdog, lose every match forever? But when Vince wanted the belt on him, the record didnt matter. Give him the strap and screw everyone else, regardless of how hard they’ve worked. And WWE has had plenty of workhorses over the years that put on stellar matches night after night, but still took a decade or longer to get any respect, if they got it at all.
And I know I’ve talked about WWE a lot because they’re the easiest comparison. But to be clear, they are not the only offender. If you’re a fan of New Japan, you know that Tanahashi, at his worst, is no better than John Cena when it comes to demanding attention. How many times have we watched Tanahashi lose over the past few years. Yet, he always seems to find himself in a title match. Last year, he came off a losing streak, stumbled into the New Japan Cup, lost that, then still got a title match against Okada, even though more interesting opponents with no storylines had to sit and do nothing. So no, this is not a WWE problem, it’s a wrestling problem.
But every time an AEW wrestler comes to the ring, you can see the win/loss record immediately. Why is this important? Who pays attention to that? Well, there’s a few reasons. One, wrestling is supposed to mimic a fight. When you see an MMA fighter coming to the cage, looking at his win/loss record gives you an idea about him even if you’ve never seen him before. This isn’t always the right idea, but if you see a guy thats 7-0 with 5 submission victories, you can pretty easily guess the type of fighter he is. Second, it helps to build a story. You may not know who Pac is, or may think he’s just Adrian Neville, but when he’s calling himself ‘The Bastard’ and you see he’s undefeated in singles matches, you know he’s a beast. The same goes for Moxley. Now think of the flip side of that. Kenny Omega is the Cleaner. The One Winged Angel. The Best Bout Machine, 2018 PWI #1 Wrestler IN THE WORLD. And then you see how lopsided his win/loss record looks. You immediately know something is wrong. Every time he comes out, you’re thinking, “Is Kenny gonna turn it around?” That’s why it matters that the wins matter. It’s a way to simply tell the fans, “We know it’s a work and you know it’s a work. But this is supposed to be a sport, not a broadway play. So as long as we’re all in on the joke, let’s treat it like a sport.”
No Meaningless Talking
If you’ve been a fan of WWE for any length of time, you know that whenever something moderately important happens, the McMahons jump on the microphone. They love to hear themselves talk. Historic main event planned? RAW opens with a monologue. Underdog getting a title opportunity? RAW opens with a monologue. New show premiering on the E! Network? Oh, you better believe RAW opens with a monologue. I think I can confidently say that if you took five random Monday Night RAWs from the last 10 years, there would be a minimum of 10 minutes of just talking within the first 30 minutes.
I didn’t even have to try. Googled “McMahon Mic.” Didn’t even specify which McMahon. Ed McMahon was 6 pages down.
I didn’t realize how conditioned I was to this until Dynamite started. The show came on the air and the crowd went crazy, as expected. We saw the graphics for all the matches that night, then immediately went into a short video package for Sammy Guevara and Cody Rhodes. Then they came to the ring. Simple as that. Three minutes into the show, we saw wrestling. It’s crazy to cite this as a feature, right? But it was! I’ve sat through many a three hour RAW, both live and on TV, and I basically came to expect that there has to be an elongated period of microphone time before any actual wrestling happens. Dynamite runs their show almost like a Japanese promotion or a European promotion, or—God forbid—old WCW (although, to be fair, their guys got a lot of mic time too).
I know that promos are a staple of pro wrestling and I think they have their place and are amazingly effective when they’re done right. But if Jerry Jones took the mic before every Dallas Cowboys game and spent a half hour talking about how historic this game against the Philadelphia Eagles was going to be, people would be pissed. If he did it every game, there would be riots. I’m always willing to suspend my disbelief for pro wrestling, but at some point, you gotta just shut up and fight. AEW is really good at that.
In summary, my years of going to Monday Night Raw felt like going to a Shakespeare play that was directed by Michael Bay, and Michael Bay yells at me when I don’t like the show… And Shakespeare keeps asking me to buy things every time there’s an intermission. And the Globe Theater is in Chinatown.
OK, that analogy went too far and got weird. What I’m trying to say is, WWE makes live action movies. Very scripted, a bit sterile and predictable, with a lot of talking and a little bit of wrestling. That’s fine if that’s what you enjoy. AEW is not trying to appeal to those people. They’re presenting a sports broadcast. You know the fights are fixed, but you’re still interested in being a part of it. I imagine that’s what boxing was like back when people paid attention to boxing. My point is, maybe AEW isn’t the presentation that you want to see from your wrestling. Maybe you want the plot explained to you. Maybe you like the constant recaps. Maybe you like familiarity of WWE, which has done different versions of the same thing for 50 years. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I’m not here to tell you to turn off WWE and turn on AEW if that’s what you like. But everybody is so eager to take sides in this “Wrestling War!” Everybody is saying “You’re either AEW or WWE and there’s no other options! It’s just like the Monday Night Wars.” That couldn’t be more wrong. Those of us who actually lived through the Monday Night Wars will tell you that most of us watched Nitro and RAW. We didn’t choose, we watched both. Second. AEW is different. Whether that means better or not is up to the viewer. For me, it was better. You’re free to disagree, but you can’t deny that AEW presented a healthy alternative to the current situation in American pro wrestling. And a lot of people are going to make the switch.