AEW must shake stale run to remain true WWE ‘challenger’

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The Post’s Joseph Staszewski brings you around the world of professional wrestling every Tuesday in his weekly column, the Post Match Angle.

Company president Tony Khan has always seen AEW as a “challenger brand.” 

The Pepsi to WWE’s Coke, the Burger King to Endeavor’s McDonald’s.

It launched at the perfect time in 2019, with wrestling fans unhappy with Vince McMahon’s stale WWE creative, already embracing the alternatives of NXT, Ring of Honor and New Japan but wanting more.

AEW has road the wave to amazing levels of success, establishing itself as the world’s clear No. 2 pro wrestling brand that isn’t going anywhere. 

But the wrestling world of 2023 is a far different one.

WWE is as hot as it’s ever been, breaking its gate records weekly around the world on the backs of Roman Reigns and white-hot babyfaces led by Cody Rhodes, Seth Rollins, Bianca Belair, Becky Lynch and Jey Uso. 

There has been little for the customer to complain about. Instead, some want a deeper experience from AEW because of it.

AEW president Tony Khan.AEW

It makes it hard for AEW to grow at the rate they once were. 

Also consider two of AEW customers’ favorite things on the menu, Rhodes and CM Punk are now working for WWE and fired, respectively.

Brandon Thurston of Wrestlenomics posted data earlier this month on estimated tickets distributed year over year for both companies’ weekly shows.

For the second and third quarters of 2023, AEW was down 19 and 13 percent respectively. It’s up two percent so far in the fourth.

WWE’s shows – including non-televised live events – showed increases of between seven and 51 percent throughout the year. 

Dynamites went from distributing an average of 6.3K tickets for the second quarter of 2022 – on par with Raw and SmackDown at the time – to a 4.9K average by the third quarter of 2023.

SmackDown and Raw are currently in the 9-11K range. AEW Collision in Q3 2023 averaged 4.4K tickets, just less than the average WWE house show of 4.9K. 

So fans are spending money, just not on AEW shows.

Dynamite’s ratings are down 11 percent in both quarters, comparable to Raw’s decline, according to Wrestlenomics. But Rampage was down a whopping 26 percent in the fourth quarter so far as of this week. 

AEW clearly isn’t as hot as it once was as a week-to-week live event outside pay-per-views – including a very good Full Gear on Saturday.

So, what could be the problem? 

Jon Moxley enters through the AEW crowd.AEW

First, there have not been any big changes to the presentation of many of AEW’s top stars over the past two years or more outside of MJF’s babyface turn. Jon Moxley is still coming out to “Wild Thing”, Bryan Danielson and Claudio Castagnoli are just extensions of what we saw in WWE. 

Everything about Darby Allin and Sammy Guevara’s presentation is the same from the past few years. The audience is still singing “Judas”, but even Chris Jericho feels only a few wrinkles different from how he started with AEW. Wardlow, Malaki Black, Andrade, Miro, Samoa Joe, The Elite – all very similar to what we have seen from the start.

On the women’s side, Toni Storm has taken a huge leap with her “Timeless” character. Kris Stantlander has dropped her Alien gimmick. But Britt Baker is still a wrestling dentist from day one and Hikaru Shida hasn’t added much. What’s gone on with Skye Blue and Julia Hart is certainly encouraging.

Darby Allin rides in on a skateboard.AEW

The second area is the lack of chances for audience participation, outside cheering, booing or chanting, “This is awesome!” There are exceptions. The Acclaimed’s “scissoring” is still over, so is calling MJF “our scumbag” and yelling “Adam Cole, bay, bay!” among others.

But how many people in AEW have an entrance song, catchphrase, or even an object over that immediately gets an audience reaction? Daniel Garcia and Prince Nana do have dances, but those are much smaller players. AEW has done away with the “Tarzan Boy” and “Ruby Soho” songs that were easy to sing along with. 

Yes, all of this is more on the sports entertainment side that AEW doesn’t really lean into, but some simple, relatable-to-all fun is missing. 

Chris Jericho.AEW

Think about how crowds in WWE sing Rollins and Rhodes’ themes, how they bop and wave their hands in unison for Jey Uso, scream “Yeah!” along with LA Knight, or raise a finger for Reigns.

The lack of meaningful AEW in-ring promos that talent can catch lightning in a bottle with or fans can inject themselves into leaves them watching a lot of taped segments and match after match after match. It’s why more tournaments such as the Continental Classic are not the answer. Yes, there’s a point system and moderate prize at best for the winner. In the end, it’s just more singles matches  

AEW is in deeper water now, dealing with a larger portion of wrestling fans hungry to consume whatever WWE is offering and losing a bit of an appetite for its challenger.

Reunited … and it feels so good

Hopefully, WWE having Charlotte Flair make the call to bring in Becky Lynch for the babyface’s WarGames team means the two former best friends have found some form of real-life peace to their recently rocky relationship as they have a chance to tell quite the Four Horsewomen story with Bayley once Damage CTRL turns on her. They have always been magic working together whether they liked each other or not.  

Killer Crossover

WWE’s partnership with the Big 12 for merchandise and its branding at the conference’s football championship game is the first real sign of the power of the Endeavor merger. WWE’s logo will be on the field and a superstar will give a custom belt to the game’s MVP. Expect plenty of cross-promotion leading into the game as well. It’s a huge chance for visibility and to further intermingle WWE with big-time sports. It’s likely just the start of these types of opportunities for WWE under Endeavor. 

The 10 Count

Maybe the most important thing about Randy Orton returning from injury after more than 500 days to be the babyface’s fifth member at Survivor Series is it unlocks possibly one of the best stories WWE can tell with Cody Rhodes, who needs it. Loved the idea of waiting until Saturday for him to actually return.

Randy OrtonWWE

I would have preferred Jon Moxley pin Hook instead of Wheeler Yuta on Dynamite. Taz on commentary hinted at his son not forgetting things like that and having that reason to pay back Moxley is far more intriguing than Yuta.

After Santos Escobar’s scathing promo on Rey Mysterio, he really needs a power move to give his heel turn some weight. How about teaming him with Angel Garza and Humberto Carrillo and reuniting him with Elecktra Lopez to form a group to combat the LWO?

To me, Josh Alexander’s superb match with Will Ospreay in Impact this week is just a reminder the Walking Weapon is also one of the best pro wrestlers on the planet right now. 

Not sure why we needed consecutive weeks of squash matches from The Gunns and the same short promos on MJF afterward. Once, OK, but the second time could have been better used for other talent or a longer promo. Samoa Joe did it two of the last three weeks also.

I was skeptical of how Gunther vs. Miz was going to work, but the Intercontinental champion’s cold and biting degrading of The Miz as a wrestling “weirdo” actually made him a sympathetic figure. Gunther may be destined for bigger things than we ever imagined as a main eventer.

Is the Chase U “scandal” supposed to be NXT’s attempt to play off the Michigan sign-stealing scandal? Vic Joseph brought up Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh on commentary before Andre Chase and Duke Hudson dropped the tag team championships. If it is, the scandal better be a good one.  

Have to give it to MLW for turning Alex Hammerstone publicly asking for his release and believed contract dispute into an angle that blurs the lines.

The former world champion “signed with” the World Titan Federation (WTF) faction – a storyline rival promotion within MLW — and its “superstars” at Fightland.

Hammerstone granted release, joins WTF at MLW FIGHTLAND

FIGHTLAND on @FITETV+ ended in a shocking controversy: Alex Hammerstone, fresh off of being granted a release by #MLW, joined the World Titan Federation and its self-described “Superstars” and savagely attacked Alex Kane,…

— MLW (@MLW) November 19, 2023

Raw was a heck of a night for the women’s division. Becky Lynch made Xia Li look like a million bucks in their match, Zoey Stark looked like a comfortable, confident star in her faceoff with Rhea Ripley and Maxxine Dupri is the epitome of putting in the work and buying in.

One day, Baron Corbin is going to have to win one of these NXT championship matches, doesn’t he? He gets his second chance in five months against Ilja Dragunov at Deadline.

Extra: Did Drew McIntyre just have the most relatable, justified and logical heel turn ever?

Extra, Extra: Shinsuke Nakamura is not fans’ best hope of CM Punk actually showing up at Survivor Series

Wrestler of the Week

Swerve Stickland, AEW

Stickland, unlike some others who made the jump to AEW, is now seen as someone who was a big mistake for WWE to have let go. He has found himself in his menacing and cocky character enough to raise himself to a sure-fire main event player. Stickland’s bloody and innovative Texas Death Match with “Hangman” Adam Page was the signature moment he needed and will always be talked about.

Swerve Stickland kicks “Hangman” Adam Page at Full Gear.AEW

Social Media Post Of The Week

Match to Watch

Bianca Belair, Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair and Shotzi vs. Bayley, Iyo Sky, Asuka and Kairi Sane, Women’s WarGames at Survivor Series (Saturday, 8 p.m., Peacock)

Besides being one of the greatest collections of talent in a single match, there are plenty of fun stories at play. Are the former best friends in Flair and Lynch going to be able to get along after two years of turmoil? What kind of interaction with they have with fellow Four Horsewoman Bayley, whose time in Damage CTRL seems to be coming to an end soon? Will this match be the catalyst for the breakout?

Around the Ring

  • WWE Backlash will be held Saturday, May 4 at LDLC Arena in France, marking the third PLE outside the US next year.
  • Impact’s first pay-per-view of the TNA rebrand will be Hard to Kill on Jan. 13 from the Palms in Las Vegas.
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