AEW is doing everything right that the WWE is doing wrong. Look no further than the last two belt reveals.
On the RAW before AEW’s Double or Nothing, WWE released its 24/7 belt, wheeling the ambling Mick Foley out to give it some credibility, but countering that entirely with possibly the ugliest championship belt in the history of ever. It looks like a giant Fitbit (it even has numbers on its dial for godsakes). On Saturday Night at AEW’s Double or Nothing, AEW revealed its world title. And man, it’s an awesome strap.
Whether it’s a spinner or red leather or a pink butterfly or green bean color or even freaking hemp, the WWE can’t get out of its own way when it comes to belt design over the last decade or so. AEW decided for its title belt that rather than trying to cater to a current taste or subculture it would go old school. And it is perfect.
The unveiling was nearly perfect too. Originally, Ric Flair was set to reveal the new belt. This of course would have been the optimal choice. He’s the last of the able-bodied NWA legendary champions and the AEW belt is stylised in the vein of Flair’s glory days. In lieu of this, we got Bret Hart to make the reveal, and that pushes the AEW-WWE rivalry to a place that Flair’s presence probably would not have given Bret’s place in WWE lore.
In the lead up to Double or Nothing, AEW teased the inspiration for their coming belt when Brandi Rhodes made reference to the notoriously large Mid-South Wrestling North American Heavyweight Championship worn by legends from the 1960s through the 80s. We should have expected the retrograde look given Cody Rhodes’ love for the history of his sport.
Beyond Cody’s preferences, it’s the right move. All of the greatest belts—that big Mid-South strap, the Ten Pounds of Gold, the classic Intercontinental title, the winged eagle world title—have something in common. They all keep it simple with black and gold and silver (except when the Ultimate Warrior got his hands on a couple of them). And it works. Think about it: you (old school wrestling fans at least) can picture each of the belts I just listed in your mind. They set the standard for belt design in wrestling, rather than catering to style and taste beyond wrestling.
And that last part is so key. The new AEW belt does not attempt to be current, it doesn’t attempt to infuse “attitude” or subculture—be it skaters or hippie vegans or urban car culture or tramp stamp tattoos—onto its belt. Why the WWE has been so obsessed with this kind of design in recent years is beyond me. Think about it: was someone with a set of dub-dub spinners on his or her Buick Riviera going to start watching WWE or cheer Cena because the belt had a spinner? Was someone with a butterfly tattoo going to dig women’s wrestling more because the belt matched his or her fashion in ink? Were hippie vegans going to start watching wrestling because heel Daniel Bryan designed a meat friendly strap? Put in those terms, it’s really ludicrous pandering that diminishes the product itself. These designs scream that the product itself isn’t interesting enough, and so must be made to draw fans based on tastes outside wrestling.
AEW on the other hand is going with what makes good style in wrestling, and trusting that it will draw wrestling fans. They went with classic scroll plates and an organic shape to said plates on a black strap. By doing so, Cody and AEW are telling fans that there is something worthy about wrestling itself. It sets its own style, has its own style to draw from. It doesn’t need to try and cater to every aspect of pop culture as the WWE so whorishly has, to diminishing returns of late.
Here I come back to Flair. Absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, about Ric Flair’s wrestling persona in the last quarter century was about current taste. The high-flying, limousine riding, wheeling dealing Flair was outdated by the time he made his WWF debut in 1992. He was certainly looking like a retro model with his Farrah Fawcett hair and leather penny loafers and pastel jackets when he made his way back to WCW for its vaunted 90s run. Bookers treated him as such too.
He was run out of WCW for being too old before his WWF run. He was given the belt in the WWF at the greatest Royal Rumble match ever in 1992. Yet, Vince felt he was too old to make a cornerstone—the same as he felt with Randy Savage after 1992 despite Flair and Macho’s awesome Wrestlemania VIII matchup—so by 1993 he was out of the WWF headlining match-ups and back to WCW, where he headlined for five more years.
Then, then, he went back to WWF/E after the buyout in 2001 and was a show stealer with Evolution. Hell, he was a player in this year’s Wrestlemania! All of that, every bit of those runs, saw Flair, a relic of style from the late 70s and early 80s with brass buttons and pinky rings, as THE MAN.
Point being, wrestling and its key players DO NOT need to cater to current tastes to get over, to be bought, to be loved. It needs to do what it does well, just like Flair, and that gets over.
AEW seems to get this big time. Their title belt is only a tiny sliver of that mindset, but gosh it means everything in articulating the difference between AEW and WWE’s product at the moment. And it’s just one reason this old school wrestling fan is already converted.
IF THE HIGH HIGHS OF THE ATTITUDE ERA MARKED BY THE MOST LUCRATIVE CHAMPION OF ALL TIME, STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN, IS ANY INDICATION, VINCE NEEDS COMPETITION, PLAIN AND SIMPLE.
Okay, let’s say WWE. HHH, Stephanie, Shane, and the creative team undoubtedly get some decision making power, though rumor has it everything still runs by Vince for approval, down to the Titan Tower lunch menu. Point is, WWE was at its best when legitimate and distinct brands like WCW and ECW could push them for competition. Left to its own devices, the WWE product can become very, very stale (I’m looking at you, MITB winner Brock Lesnar).
The thing is, the WWE seems to know this on some level. It’s why they’ve done brand splits in the past and currently, it’s why NXT and 205 Live exist, to turn what would be part of a normal pecking order in a single wrestling company into three distinct levels. It’s a nice effort, but here’s the rub: it ain’t working.
In April, Monday Night Raw set not just one but two record lows in viewership for non-holiday, non-football season Raws. This came on the heels of a ten percent drop in WWE stock and a first quarter financial shortage for investors. With Smackdown set to move to Fox this fall, WWE is doing anything but riding high right now.
Why the loss of interest so quickly after Wrestlemania? I can’t help but think it has something to do with Cody and the coming of All Elite Wrestling. Is it a coincidence that Raw has hit its low points in the weeks leading up to Double or Nothing this Saturday? Maybe, but looking back at the history of the WWE’s competitors, I say not.
Compare ECW and TNA for example. ECW pushed WWE to the point that Vince had to acquire them (after trying for a couple of years to imitate them with the hardcore division). ECW and Paul Heyman had original ideas and style, and pushed underutilized wrestlers and home grown talent rather than just the WWE and WCW’s fallen stars. Mick Foley first caught on in ECW after a lackluster run as Cactus Jack in WCW. Stone Cold came out of ECW after switching from his WCW “Stunning Steve” persona. Rob Van Dam came out of ECW as homegrown talent.
On the other hand, TNA began as a rehash really. It was the Russo-Jarrett connection that ran WCW into he ground starting another promotion. Over the years they brought in Dusty Rhodes and Jim Cornette and Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff to run the show and have largely ignored the best of their own homegrown talent. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the hell out of Samoa Joe and AJ Styles and – no offense to the Young Bucks – the Motor City Machine Guns have been my favorite tag team in the last fifteen or twenty years. However, when it came time to put someone over for the championship, TNA/Impact largely elevated the old WWE and WCW guard: think Christian, think Kurt Angle, think Sting, think Matt and Jeff Hardy.
The point is when a company tries a distinct and entertaining approach, like ECW, it legitimately pushes WWE to be better through legitimate competition and all of pro wrestling benefits. For further proof, watch the Monday Night War documentary series on the Network about a time when a combined 8-10 million viewers tuned in weekly for Monday Night Wrestling on either Raw or Nitro (compared the dismal 2.16 million Dave Meltzer reported for the April 29th Raw last month). The most compelling point there again is how WCW’s switch to a “reality-based” approach of using “normal” names—Scott Hall instead of “Razor,” Kevin Nash instead of “Diesel”—with less gimmicks and more blue jeans again pushed the WWE to change radically it’s cartoon character approach in the Attitude era. Additionally, WCW’s brilliant launch of the cruiserweight division broke down barriers for size that persist to this day.
So, do we have reason to be hyped for AEW? Is it TNA or is it ECW?
At this point, I’m inclined to think it’s going to be the latter. Cody and AEW have been very smart in promoting wrestling talent and acquisition of work-rate over characters and gimmick. Cody’s response and promo to Dustin’s video after the announcement of the Cody vs. Dustin matchup of Dusty’s boys at Double or Nothing focused completely on distancing from the WWE:
“This match is generation vs. generation,” said Cody, “I’m not here to kill Dustin Rhodes. I’m here to kill the Attitude Era. My entire life, my whole class of peers has been compared to late 90’s to early 2000s for over a decade and it’s a sham. Sure, you’ve paved the roads for us, but you set the speed markers at 35 because you’re fucking terrified of any of us putting our foot down on the pedal… You mean to tell me some pissant bodybuilder making everything a no DQ, meandering around the crowd, throwing the jib cam at his opponent compares to a Kenny/Okada match? Or some bra & panties spectacular can match up with what the women did last September 1st (at All In). Even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, as electric as it was, was it really better than what [CM] Punk said sitting on that stage?”
He couldn’t be more clear in his intentions with AEW. He wants to reward quality in-ring action over soap opera and spectacle. He wants to bury the idea that gimmick is needed to get guys over.
No doubt this is why AEW is guaranteeing unscripted promos from the wrestlers. This is the way true talent, like Cody’s dad, used to get over. They won the crowd through personality and voice that was genuine to that wrestler. The WWE has become such a TV show that writers sit around a table and script nearly every word of promos. It creates inauthentic voice. Look at Roman Reigns—has that guy ever looked genuine or sounded authentic in a promo? Don’t look too hard—the answer is absolutely not. Stone Cold and the Rock got over in the late 90s because they were genuinely funny, and the only times they weren’t was after WWE realized how funny they were and tried to beat us over the head with it (I’m thinking that WWE music album with the Rock’s “Pie” song that blatantly referenced vaginas a lot). A couple of the most lauded promos of the last decade in WWE were CM Punk’s unscripted sit down on the stage, and the recent unscripted heel turn of Sami Zayn. They are lauded because the fans didn’t feel like they were eating a bowl of WWE creative’s bullshit. The fans ate it up because it was the wrestler getting his own voice over, not one being forced on the wrestler and the fans, like John Cena as Punk pointed out.
AEW has signed many of the best. Omega, Jericho, the Young Bucks, Christopher Daniels, and many more on the roster have been regarded as some of the best in-ring workers of this generation. In this respect, they are focusing on ring talent and not body type or hype. It genuinely feels like Cody and AEW are not going to force the Cena and Reigns cartoon bodies and characters down our throats, and that feels like the most refreshing approach since…well ever.
The biggest problem with wrestling has been, for a long time, the silliness of gimmicks. Remember when Hogan’s schtick started getting booed in 1995 in WCW because fans were just freaking over it? How many times did we have to watch another Hulk-up? It’s going to happen every time a generation of fans grows up. Think about it: the reason WCW went reality based and WWE went for sex appeal in the late 90s was because the kids wrestling had hooked in the 80s were growing up and didn’t want the kiddie content anymore. Of course, we reverted back to a PG era in WWE once it bottomed out in the early 2000s. And, in many ways that makes sense: the WWE was once again going after kids and a new generation of viewers.
Problem is, we’re coming up on 15 years past that and it is stale once again. The kids it hooked in 2005 are growing up, and, just as we 80s kids in the late 90s wanted more sex and violence, these kids don’t want big bodies or gimmick shoved down their throat anymore, they want unique and skilled wrestlers that put on a more realistic product. Well, I’m speculating there because I’m not one of those kids, but I’ll say fans that were driven away by the WWE monolith, like me, and looked to the indies and NJPW for the good stuff, would at this point rather watch good in-ring action than the gimmicked to death stuff. Roman Reigns vs. Elias at Money in the Bank is the height of that kind of no-talent dipshittery.
Enter All Elite Wrestling to fill the void. How big a deal is this? It’s everything. No doubt wrestling was at its peak, its most watched, its most beloved, when two or three major brands competed and pushed each other to be better and better.
I won’t say AEW is going to save wrestling because I think wrestling will always exist in some local and mainstream forms. But I am willing to wager (get it—Double or Nothing?) that AEW just might usher in the new wrestling boom period. And that is a big deal.
You can find the author of this article on Twitter @GritVanWinkle. Thanks for reading!