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Pro Wrestling

For The First Time In Decades, WWE Might Be A Little Scared

Kenny Omega and Bryan Danielson

Luis called it last month when he said that CM Punk's long-awaited arrival would be a turning point for the upstart wrestling promotion AEW. A month later, not only has the company put on its most lucrative pay-per-view yet (featuring Punk's first match in over seven years), but it's also barreling toward a supershow next week in Queens in front of its largest crowd ever, headlined by a dream match between its world champion Kenny Omega and another huge new signing in Bryan Danielson.

But CM Punk's debut didn't just mark a potential new era for AEW. It may, in retrospect, also stand out as a turning point for the largest institution that pro wrestling has ever seen: Vince McMahon's WWE, which in the days and weeks following Punk's return and Danielson's defection has made moves that are both eye-catching and clearly panicky, setting up the closest thing this country has seen to a legit wrestling war since the late 1990s.

Let's start with AEW, though. Since its weekly TV show first aired on TNT in October 2019, it's been by all realistic measures a success. Its matches were fantastic; the tickets to its biggest events were hot commodities; and it didn't take long at all to establish itself as the "alternative" promotion for U.S. wrestling fans dissatisfied with Vince McMahon's bloated, inconsistent, PG-rated "sports entertainment" product. After a pandemic that easily could have ended the run of a weaker promotion, AEW emerged with its Memorial Day PPV Double or Nothing in front of its first packed house in over a year, convincingly asserting that it was solid and healthy as it geared up for its return to live touring.

It was still firmly an alternative, though, until CM Punk showed up in Chicago about a month ago, in what was easily the promotion's most mainstream head-turning moment to date. After scoring basically the holy grail of wrestling comebacks, AEW capitalized on all the interest gained by putting on a spectacular Labor Day PPV in All Out, which featured not only an all-time banger of a cage match between two of its original star tag teams, but also more debuts in the forms of Ruby Soho, Adam Cole, and the former Daniel Bryan, who was one-third of WrestleMania's main event earlier this year.

Soho is a great get for a women's division that's been a company weak point, and with the crowd behind him in his first match on Wednesday Cole asserted himself as a supernova who was totally misused by his old employer. But it's Danielson, most of all, whose popularity and ability to slot into instant mega-bouts almost at will might be the key to making AEW into legit competitors for the No. 1 spot. For the first time ever last week, after the buzz of All Out, Wednesday's Dynamite show pulled a higher rating than Monday Night Raw.

Vince didn't like that. Clearly. While AEW has been making landscape-changing moves, McMahon has done anything but sit idly by. In fact, he's pressed practically every button he could to keep his viewership up, at least in the short term. WWE brought back John Cena for a run of dates in the summer that climaxed with a SummerSlam main event against Roman Reigns—a match bigger than anything AEW is capable of just yet. That same show saw the return from maternity leave of WWE's biggest female star ever, Becky Lynch, who in an extremely short-sighted move beat the champion Bianca Belair for the title in half a minute. The company has also emptied its pockets for another expensive part-timer in Brock Lesnar, who had been absent for a year-and-a-half, as it uses him to promote a match with Reigns that, in theory, shouldn't happen until Mania next year. And on Monday, after the ratings loss and with the return of the NFL also on the schedule, Raw not only moved up a PPV match between Bobby Lashley and Randy Orton but also switched its world title onto Big E in a nice moment that, unfortunately, could have been better if it was part of a plan and not a knee-jerk reaction to recent events.

There's more. Tuesday saw the debut of WWE's completely revamped developmental show, NXT, which is now more closely under Vince's control. NXT was AEW's old competition on Wednesday nights but got beaten resoundingly in the ratings, and while it wasn't a failure based on match quality alone, it desperately needed retooling. Rather than make new stars for the big shows, NXT instead evolved into a safe haven for the smaller, indie-style WWE wrestlers Vince didn't particularly like, providing a place where they could do their thing for a small but devoted fanbase and avoid the humiliations that awaited them on Raw or Smackdown. NXT 2.0 is already very obviously a reflection of Vince's own tastes, both in its silliness—Rick Steiner's son is working under the name "Bron Breakker," and there's a new wrestler who's literally an Italian mob stereotype—but also in its newfound propensity for impressive muscles over in-ring work. However warped and misguided the plan might prove, WWE recognizes that it badly needs fresh main eventers.

To be clear: WWE is more successful right now than any wrestling company in the business's history, at least by the measure that matters most to executives. It's getting a billion dollars from NBC for streaming, hundreds of millions per year for its linear TV shows, hundreds of millions from Saudi Arabia for live events there, and that's before even accounting for merch and ticket sales. For the foreseeable future, AEW has no chance of matching that revenue. But based on real metrics like ratings and more general feelings like "how loud the crowds are," there's a gosh-dang war on, and it's pushing both companies to make their shows as appealing and eye-catching as possible, each in their own unique ways.

If this is indeed a war, it's probably a little obvious whose side I'm on here. I'm a total geek for the fast-paced, quirky smorgasbord that is AEW right now, and I'm a little bored with WWE's predictable tough guys and all the filler they have to put out to fill their time slots each week. But as beneficial as it is for both companies to sell you on the idea that they are good and the other is bad, you don't have to choose! The "war" can be totally irrelevant to you as you sit back and watch a couple of different rich guys while they give you what they think you really want to see.

A slightly younger version of CM Punk had the right idea. "You can watch all of the shit that’s out there," he said back in 2019. "Don’t let either company trick you into thinking it’s an us vs them thing, just enjoy the wrestling. Whether it’s WWE or AEW or NXT, you guys don’t have to choose. You can fucking watch it all. That’s rad.”

The options have only grown since Punk gave that quote. After a year without live events, suddenly, this is a good-ass time to be an American wrestling fan. There's not just a real rival to WWE, but also, still, more than enough talent in the wrestling business for Nos. 3 and 4, Impact and Ring of Honor. Beyond what's accessible on TV, New Japan Pro Wrestling is now running shows with some of its big stars, mainly out in California. Also in that state, the cult indie Pro Wrestling Guerrilla is back and putting together loaded cards. For the bloodthirsty hardcores, Game Changer Wrestling is hot as hell and gearing up for some big East Coast events. Warrior Wrestling in Chicago is picking up a lot of buzz. And I'm sure there are plenty more that I'm not quite in-the-know enough to mention.

All of these promotions provide their own particular flavor of this goofy little art form, and you, the fan, get to decide which of them you want to support with your money and attention. WWE may still be on top. But if the company's true goal is to be completely synonymous with wrestling in this country, it's finally starting to slip.

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