AEW Is Bringing 80,000 People To Wembley Stadium At The Weirdest Possible Time
2:14 PM EDT on August 25, 2023
All Elite Wrestling, now in its fifth year of existence, is starting to feel less like a pro wrestling company and more like two islands with separate governments. During its early days as a start-up challenger to WWE, the tightly knit band of performers who served as the face of AEW made it a charismatic underdog fueled by a close and mutually beneficial relationship with its fans. But with success, growth, and seemingly infinite new additions to the roster has come fragmentation, drama, and constant fires that have threatened the promotion even as it prepares to run an unthinkably massive show—almost definitely the biggest they'll ever manage—at Wembley Stadium, in front of over 80,000 people in London on Sunday.
Without getting into the minutiae of paid attendance vs. tickets distributed or how many people, exactly, were at the Pontiac Silverdome in 1987, suffice it to say that you can count on one hand the number of pro wrestling events that have ever rivaled the scale of what AEW is about to do with All In. That this all-time massive show is being done by the undeniable second-place promotion, far behind WWE, makes its box-office numbers that much more ridiculous. But years of pent-up demand in Europe for an AEW show, combined with the sheer audacity of running Wembley creating a sort of magnetic field for the event, made this a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the company to get a crowd four times as big as they've ever had before.
Judging solely by this day, it'd be logical to think that this is a boom time for AEW. But what makes Wembley extra strange is how much of an outlier it is for a company that has not shown all that many encouraging signs of late. To fully explain the situation, you have to go all the way back to Chicago during Labor Day weekend 2022. That's where, in a long-building explosion of tension in the company, the recently unretired superstar wrestler CM Punk used a press conference after winning the AEW title to publicly eviscerate the leadership of the day-one cornerstones of the company—Kenny Omega, "Hangman" Adam Page, and the tag team the Young Bucks, known together as The Elite. Punk's comments led directly to a real fight backstage between the Bucks and Omega on one side and Punk and his friend Ace Steel on the other. In the aftermath, everyone involved was legitimately suspended and stripped of their titles. Steel was let go from his role as producer (he's since been rehired in a remote capacity); the Bucks and Omega were kept off TV for two months; and Punk, who had been injured in the match before the press conference, stayed completely unmentioned by the company as many wondered if he would ever return.
But in June, AEW added a new two-hour show, Collision, that airs on Saturday nights as a counterpart to Wednesday's flagship show Dynamite. (There's also a throwaway pre-taped hour, Rampage, on Fridays.) After a ton of behind-the-scenes drama that included the hasty removal of his name from advertising for the announcement of the show, Punk returned to TV for the first time since the press conference on the premiere episode. "If you feel I owe you an apology," he said, "Here it is: I am sorry that the only people softer than you are the wrestlers you like."
The funny thing about Wednesday and Saturday is that they don't happen at the same time, and AEW president Tony Khan has tried to use this unavoidable truth to his advantage as he attempts to keep peace in his company. While taking known real-life feuds and selling them to an audience as pro-wrestling spectacle is a time-honored tradition in this business, in the case of Punk and The Elite, there's been no movement whatsoever on that front. With the parties involved in the fight bound to NDAs that permit them only to take the most passive-aggressive of shots at each other, they are sequestered in their own personal television universes. Punk is on Collision doing storylines with guys like Samoa Joe and Ricky Starks. The Elite are on Dynamite fighting the Blackpool Combat Club. There's been nothing on AEW's official TV to even indicate that they know of each other's existence.
But Punk, who really seems to get genuine pleasure out of just stirring shit up, is still the centerpiece of so much drama. "Hangman" Page, who had left the building by the time of the press conference and wasn't part of the fight, has served as a consistent target for his jabs. These two have had their own problems going back to last year, stemming from Page's perception that Punk was throwing his political weight around backstage and Punk's belief that Page was a dumb kid for thinking so and bringing it out into the open. Punk was critical of Page in an ESPN profile meant to promote his comeback. Then, in an untelevised speech to the crowd in Greensboro on a Saturday earlier this month, Punk made a crack, basically, that they call him "Hangman" because nobody buys his action figure and it's still hanging on store shelves.
Punk reportedly sent an apology text for what was characterized as a joke gone wrong, but after the video of his diss went around, there were some apparent revenge leaks about Punk effectively banning certain AEW employees from Collision—most notably Christopher Daniels, who should in theory hold power as AEW's head of talent relations. Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer also reported, amid confusion about who could be near Punk, "Page was actually sent to Greensboro last night to do a pre-tape interview backstage for Wednesday's Dynamite show and when he got there was told that they would have to do it away from the Coliseum and not to go to the show."
Congratulations if you followed most of that messiness. Obviously, the petty slights on display point to some extremely sloppy and lackadaisical management from Khan, whose inability to book a Punk vs. Omega match, especially on a stage like Wembley, has to stand out among the greatest failures in wrestling history. And it's not like what's being provided instead is up to that level. As Khan juggles the AEW shows as well as his niche streaming-only promotion Ring of Honor, the stories he books have become noticeably more repetitive and dull, including two separate storylines where Don Callis betrays a lifelong friend from Winnipeg and a whole bunch of bad-guy ambushes on good guys.
The main event of All In, pitting reformed heel MJF against his new best friend Adam Cole for the title, carries plenty of intrigue, but the rest of the card has been marked by mind-numbing or just plain baffling choices, like having the most prominent British wrestler on the card, Will Ospreay, needlessly play a villain, or stashing Omega, who's had some of the most legendary singles matches of all time, in a six-man tag. Contributing to the feeling that nobody in this company really knows what the other is doing, Punk has also been carrying around a belt on Collision that he calls the "real world championship," which AEW advertises as such, and he's defending it at Wembley. But this has gone completely unmentioned by the uh, actual real champ(?), MJF.
All in all, AEW's TV shows have not done a strong job of convincing you this will be the "biggest wrestling show ever." And especially when contrasted with the company's formative pandemic era in Jacksonville, in which the wrestlers really came across like a cohesive unit all together in one place, this past year has been defined by a detrimental lack of connection. But unbelievably, there are more problems that AEW is trying to grit its teeth through as it approaches All In. I'm getting exhausted, so here's just a list of a few:
- Most conventionally, there's the injury problem. Not only did Bryan Danielson mutilate his arm in the main event of the last AEW PPV, but notable injured British stars like Jamie Hayter and PAC both figured to factor tremendously into All In. (Hayter, who lost her championship as a consequence of her real injury, dealt a particularly wrenching blow to a women's division that's never been able to get its feet under itself.)
- The announcement of how, exactly, a fan could watch this show stayed mysterious for far too long. Khan's initial news emphasized that this was both the 100th anniversary of Warner Bros. and of Wembley Stadium, but that's gone mostly unremarked upon since. Most weirdly, for a long time Khan said he couldn't say where the show would be broadcast, but then it turned out to be ... just a normal pay-per-view.
- Last-minute changes to the card on Wednesday's Dynamite indicated a lack of organization from the company. AR Fox, the living definition of "paying your dues," had a planned appearance in a match also featuring Sting that was seen by many fans as a real behind-the-scenes feel-good story for AEW, but he was written off the show. And Rey Fenix did an injury angle ahead of his advertised match because he's trying to establish residency in the United States.
- The timing of this show clashes with AEW's traditional Labor Day weekend event, All Out, which is a second PPV they have had to simultaneously build and sell to people for 50 bucks just a week after the Wembley event.
- Oh, and one half of their tag team champs, Daniel "Cash" Wheeler, was arrested in Orlando last week and charged with aggravated assault with a firearm for allegedly pointing a gun at another driver during a road rage incident. Wheeler pleaded not guilty and is still being promoted for the London show.
Adding to these intercompany issues is the fact that WWE is absolutely blowing up right now, with two major attractions in Roman Reigns and former AEW star Cody Rhodes popping ratings, selling out arenas, and lifting all boats around them. AEW started at a perfect time to provide an alternative to a stagnant, lazy monopoly, but WWE's popularity resurgence, combined with their advantages in revenue and brand recognition, is making the gap much larger at least domestically, where AEW's ticket sales have taken a real dip while they're running more shows than ever.
None of AEW's gears feel interlocked at the moment. You have a company with major players who can't be in the same room together, forced to fill more TV hours per week than ever before, directly competing with a Goliath, and struggling to catch the lightning that made them such a formidable challenger in the first place. And also, Tony Khan's experience as Shahid Khan's son has gained him additional jobs with Fulham and the Jacksonville Jaguars, both of which his dad owns, so AEW is only one of several priorities for this sleepless one-percenter.
Its saving grace, however, is that the wrestling itself will probably still be really good. For as many distractions as they've inflicted upon themselves, AEW remains a company built on wrestling matches, whose ethos is signing as many talented wrestlers as possible and giving them the resources to showcase their personal creativity for a larger audience. That formula, which gave fans around the world a better run of weekly TV wrestling matches than any in history, is how they're getting 80,000 people to come to Wembley in the first place. Ultimately, the show will rise or fall based on its matches and the reaction that the wrestlers invoke from the tens of thousands in the building. Tony Khan has a mess on his hands that isn't going away anytime soon. But his workers still have the power to make everyone ignore it for a night.