Just Business: The Sunday Column, on AEW’s Double or Nothing


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Just Business: The Sunday Column, on AEW’s Double or Nothing

July 7th, 1996 – the nWo is born.

November 9th, 1997 – the Montreal Screwjob.

March 26th, 2001 – Vince McMahon announces he owns World Championship Wrestling.

June 27th, 2011 – CM Punk drops the Pipebomb.

It is not always clear when the history of the professional wrestling industry has been changed irrevocably. I wonder, when people watched Hulk Hogan drop that leg on Randy Savage in 1996 whether they were truly aware of what was about to be unleashed? Could those who saw the Montreal Screwjob play out in real time have ever anticipated what was to follow in the years to come? I remember the haze of uncertainty in the days following the Pipebomb eight years ago as we asked what was real and what wasn’t, and where it might all go, or not.

Yet on the night of May 25th 2019, and in the hours that have followed, you’d struggle to find a wrestling fan anywhere who didn’t believe they just saw an irrevocable change in the history of professional wrestling.

All Elite Wrestling’s first official pay-per-view, Double or Nothing, certainly lived up to its name. With the symbolism of Cody’s assault on a familiar looking throne, with the surprise appearance of Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart to reveal the AEW World Championship and with the insurgency of an animated Jon Moxley to close out the night, it was clear that the Elite minds behind Saturday night’s pay-per-view were of the thinking that the time had come to double down on their gamble because, otherwise, they were really accomplishing nothing.

Double down they did. AEW’s Double or Nothing (DON) showcased an impressively wide roster of talent, some snatched up from a still thriving independent scene, some invited from foreign markets and others stolen from under the industry’s sleep walking behemoth, WWE. We had foul language, middle fingers and, sat right in the middle of the show, an emotional bloodbath of a bout – all of these offerings, which should never have needed to be offerings in the first place, providing strung out wrestling fans from other climes a taste of what they no longer have; and, more than that, a reminder of what they’ve lost.

“So this was what it felt like,” was the first thought that ran through my mind after I switched off DON from its replay this morning, and one that flashed through me without a jot of glib irony. I had, after all, just been given an electrifying reminder of what it feels like to not just be a professional wrestling fan, but to be a satisfied professional wrestling fan as well. Though not everything on AEW’s inaugural show was for me truth to be told, and though there were still nightmarish signs of some of the vast array of issues I harbour towards my life-long and, now, neglectful pro wrestling provider of choice, WWE, I nonetheless turned off AEW’s formal introduction to the world with a beaming smile on my face and a buzz in the pit of my soul about what happens next.

For WWE, a response is undoubtedly required, though we should expect none to be given. This was, after all, the inaugural outing of an organisation Triple H referred to, in jest or not, as “that piss-ant company” at this year’s Hall of Fame. Instead, we should expect WWE’s presumptively woeful creative to continue, the leashed talent to be reigned in, if anything, even further and the company’s same contempt for the essential truth of what the company is (a pro wrestling organisation) to remain. It was telling that, hours out from DON showcasing a match fans clamoured for but were never given in WWE when it was possible, being Cody vs. Dustin Rhodes, WWE were busy tweeting about Triple H wrestling Randy Orton in Saudi Arabia: a nutshell comparison that might yet define the early stages of this new ‘war.’

I do not use that term lightly. Though the executives in AEW have repeatedly claimed in the build up to last night’s event that they have no desire to compete with the industry leader, some of DON’s most memorable moments were unmistakable shots aimed at that same industry leader. The signing of Jon Moxley is a coup, make no mistake, and one that sends a far stronger statement than Lex Luger standing in a shopping mall ever did. Further, you didn’t need long to realise that Moxley himself was possessed of a vigour and zeal we hadn’t seen from him in years when he competed for ‘the other organisation.’ It is moments like that which tell me, though WWE may not necessarily need to worry too much about how many fans are currently watching AEW’s new product, they certainly need to worry about how many talents are. How long is it until they all want to remember what it was like to feel how Jon Moxley clearly felt in the closing stages of Saturday’s show?

Louder than even that, however, was the prelude to Cody vs. Dustin Rhodes. In a match billed as Cody’s effort not to slay a brother but, rather, the Attitude Era with which said brother is most closely associated, on a night in which Cody was fulfilling the potential another organisation repeatedly, inexplicably curtailed, the American Nightmare took a familiar looking sledgehammer to an even more familiar looking chair. The message was clear: if AEW was a “piss-ant company,” then he was all too happy to be the ant that broke a throne.

Alongside the acquisition of talent behind the cameras who, for so long, were synonymous with WWE in their own right – from producers like Arn Anderson and Dean Malenko to the legendary commentator Jim Ross – regardless of what the AEW executives are saying in interviews about not wanting to compete, it could not have been clearer that DON was very much the opening salvo in the wrestling war so many have been wanting for so long.

But I am not here to write about WWE. This is about All Elite Wrestling, and the question now is whether they set out their stall effectively or not.

The question might as well be rhetorical.

DON was not a show that I came out of harbouring no issues with. I made the decision last night to go to bed after the Buy In aired, less than enamoured with the Casino Battle Royal and the talent it showcased. I liked the stipulations of the battle royal on paper, and even more I admired the desire to genuinely innovate a new concept, but in execution I felt like it left a lot to be desired. While the contest that followed wrestled between Kip Sabian and Sammy Guevara was a lot of fun, the battle royal coupled with a noticeable number of production miscues were enough to resolve me to watch the event-proper fresh faced this morning as of writing. I am happy to call these criticisms teething problems though, because none of them lasted for long and, once the main show settled in, you’d be hard pressed to falter the production.

I will save more specific comment on the matches of the night themselves for my podcast (Sports Entertainment is Dead airs Wednesdays on Lords of Pain Radio), but I will say that the predominant in-ring style featured throughout DON’s undercard is not one that is necessarily to my tastes – I know this, because so many of the undercard bouts reminded me very much of the same ring styles we witness often in NXT. It is important to understand, however, that this is less a comment on quality and more a comment on fashion. Matches that emphasise content, that to my eyes lack a linearly progressive narrative and that often get carried away with their generosity of false finish are not matches that I warm to easily. They are, however, very much the in-ring fashion of the day and, while they are never quite able to hook me in like slower paced or what I would call more cerebral efforts might, they’re still enough to entertain me.

More importantly, the majority fan base are hooked by them, and one easily missed but deeply refreshing element coming out of DON as a WWE Lifer was witnessing a pay-per-view in which the crowd were both actively engaged and reticent to trample over the event with a relentless menagerie of ridiculous chants or self-aggrandising habits.

Was it this that lent DON that intangible quality of ‘Event’? That and other things too I am sure, but whatever it was I cannot deny how fresh it felt to be watching a wrestling pay-per-view that felt like a wrestling pay-per-view should feel – a happening, to quote the legendary Gorilla Monsoon, something special and unique.

Maybe it was because of how swiftly identity was established last night. AEW floated its own original concept in the Casino Battle Royal, no matter whether you thought the concept a success or not, and even saw fit to ensure their tag team wrestling is given room to feel different from the homogeneity felt elsewhere – this not only through the heavy presence of the format and the semi-main event presence of the Young Bucks and Lucha Bros, but also through the simple and surprisingly effective move to extend the usual count in which both partners can remain in the ring from five seconds to ten. Combine these creative elements with production elements, like the event-specific bespoke staging, the glorious absence of superfluous adverts and the linear focus on the matches booked, and what you ended up with was a show that felt specifically like an AEW show, despite the fact I have no frame of reference as to what an AEW show feels like.

I suppose I do now, and that’s rather the point.

It is worth stating at this juncture that many of the criticisms I harbour that drove me towards being as receptive to AEW’s first venture as I have been are ones that apply universally; for them not to would simply make me a hypocrite, and I’ve no desire to be that.

This means I was no fan of seeing so many veterans of the game featured across the card. I no more want to be watching the likes of Tommy Dreamer, Billy Gunn, Glacier and, yes, even Aja Kong in 2019 than I do Undertaker and Goldberg, and while I came to adore the match wrestled between the Rhodes brothers I would say the same about Dustin Rhodes too. I’m not sure what was achieved with Jim Ross being in the announce booth considering how brilliant Excalibur proved to be, and I can only hope that Chris Jericho doesn’t get anointed AEW’s first part-time headliner. This is not because I think these veterans have nothing left to offer, or that they’re incapable of putting on entertaining matches still, but rather because I’m now married to the idea that pro wrestling needs to leave the past behind. Given the theme behind the aforementioned Cody / Dustin bout, I hope AEW are married to that in practice as much as they are in theory as well. Time will tell, but as a fan I won’t give another company a free pass simply for virtue of being another company.

For now these are minor quibbles though. While I didn’t love everything about DON, what I did love I loved a lot. This included two of the evening’s three main event matches, more of my thoughts on which you can hear on this week’s Sports Entertainment is Dead podcast, and the swift, effortless manner in which AEW was able to establish its own identity – a phenomenon that extended to the ease with which they moulded their roster positioning, especially at the top of the organisation.

Ultimately All Elite Wrestling’s Double or Nothing pay-per-view was an event draped in history, and not just of an industrial scale. Professional wrestling is made up of promotions and events, of promoters and talents, but it is just as much made up of millions upon millions of the individual stories of those of us who call ourselves fans. For this fan’s story, last night’s event was history too. It marked the first time, I think perhaps in my life-long fandom, that I parted with my money so as to watch a non-WWE product, and I did so gladly, and was satisfied. I broke the habit of a lifetime, and that’s no small thing, and I know mine wasn’t the only story that evolved that way last night – a phenomenon for which Vince McMahon, who owned the world and let it slip because of dogmatic and inflexible ego, has only himself to blame.

So how perfect was it that Bret Hart, of all people, was the one to surprise the world and show up to reveal the newly minted World Championship of this new organisation – this new competitor – that McMahon’s own senility could yet help transform into a tsunami that will wash away his Ozymandian obelisk? Because if that does happen, all McMahon will have is the cutting truth that “Vince screwed Vince.”

But this was not the Las Vegas Screwjob. Nor was this a night about WWE’s failings. This was All Elite Wrestling’s Double or Nothing, and their success was their own and only their own, as was their agency when they decided to bet the house on themselves and change the landscape of this beast we all so love. No, it is not always clear when the history of the professional wrestling industry has been changed irrevocably, but I think that last night it probably was.

NOW, TELL ME…

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