Don’t look now, but professional wrestling is in danger of becoming wildly popular, again.
In my lifetime, pro wrestling has had two boom periods: the Golden Age of the 1980s, and the Monday Night Wars/Attitude Era of the mid-late 1990s & early 2000s. During those periods, pro wrestling went beyond a niche audience and garnered the ever so craved mainstream success.
During the 1980s, the expertly marketed Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection saw WWE (then WWF) bring in stars like Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper, and cross-promote Hulk Hogan into worldwide mega stardom. Competition fueled the resurgence in the mid-late 90s, as WCW’s rise begat the Monday Night Wars and pushed WWF/E into the Attitude Era. The common thread between these two eras was that wrestling became cool. It wasn’t just OK to watch wrestling, it was the thing to do.
If you were forced to pick one, sole reason for those periods of success (you can’t, but play along), you’d say this: simply put, the product was really good. And if the product is good, people want it. It starts with the appreciation of wrestling die-hards and spreads to the fringes, and then into the mainstream.
Now, in 2019, almost two decades removed from the last truly great era of pro wrestling – the 2000s saw the rise of the indies, and the 2010s has seen a golden age of Japanese puroresu, but neither has taken ahold of global mainstream success – we have the potential for another pro wrestling boom.
Unhappy wrestlers, craving a creative output beyond the control of Vince McMahon, paved the way for the creation of All Elite Wrestling, which will debut their weekly, live television show on TNT on October 2nd.
AEW is the brain child of Cody Rhodes (son of Dusty), the Young Bucks (the world’s most popular tag team), Kenny Omega (arguably the world’s best pro wrestler), and the Kahn family, who has the bank account and the willingness to spend.
AEW has already had a few big shows via pay-per-view, but the weekly show will give the brand an official home. This isn’t their official company motto, but it could very well be: By wrestlers, for wrestling. The promotion has incredible fan support, driven mostly by folks who have grown tired of WWE and its lackluster product of the last 15 or so years. It has a hungry roster, full of guys and gals eager to show that they are indeed stars, despite what WWE says, and flex their creative muscles. Despite their claims that they are not trying to war with WWE, they are still battling in the shadow of the behemoth, and everything they do will be compared to billion-dollar company, for better or worse.
Only time will tell if AEW can become a true competitor to WWE, but in the meantime it’s the most eagerly anticipated development in the past two decades of pro wrestling.
To answer, WWE decided to throw an extra hour onto NXT, move it to USA network (starting tonight, September 18th) and start taping it live.
NXT has grown from WWE’s developmental arm into a brand of its own. With the promotion to a weekly live show, that distinction is now official: NXT is WWE’s third brand. The baby of Triple H, aka Paul Levesque, NXT is akin to the NWA of WWE. It has a very old school, territorial feel to it (thanks in no small part to Dusty Rhodes, who worked with the brand from around 2010 until his death in 2015). It has become the sanctuary WWE fans who want a little less sports entertainment in their pro wrestling.
NXT has a deeper-than-you-think roster, led by some excellent wrestlers who made their name on the indies. Their Takeover events, akin to PPVs, have routinely been critically loved and thought of as better than their “main roster” counterparts. The promotion has been used as a breeding ground for current WWE stars, but with the move to USA and a live show, the label of “minor league” has been shed.
There are worries about the move, mostly revolving around the danger of fixing something that wasn’t broke. But WWE appears to be approaching the move in the right way: the show will stay at Full Sail University, meaning they’ll keep a built-in fan base that already knows and loves the promotion and will be absolutely 100% behind the brand. Triple H will still run things, easing worries of a McMahon takeover. NXT will never be the same, that’s for sure, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be great. A roster full of wrestlers who believe they are the best at what they do, fueled by finally getting a piece of the spotlight, is a pretty good foundation.
What’s lost in all the hype for the upcoming Wednesday Night Wars is the fact that WWE’s main shows, Raw and SmackDown Live, are undergoing transitions of their own. SDL will move to Friday nights, and more importantly, will move from USA to Fox. The move to Fox gives WWE the biggest spotlight it has ever had. Saturday Night’s Main Event was aired on NBC, but was never a weekly program. The first show will be October 4th, and in addition Fox will put a WWE-centric studio show on their FS1 channel. Eric Bischoff has also returned to help facilitate this move, in a shocking rehire that generated excitement among fans. By all accounts, Fox and WWE want to present SDL as a more sports-style brand, meaning the focus will be on in-ring action.
Raw will remain in the same time slot, but has given the reigns to Paul Heyman, who almost always has the backing of fans. This is not to say McMahon is hand off now, he still has the final word over everything, and will always have a heavy interest in what he views as his promotion’s flagship show. But, McMahon is reviving the XFL, and that’s sure to take some of his attention. Not to mention the fact that Vince is now 74 years old, and the opinion that he’s out of touch with modern wrestling fans gains steam with each passing year. Raw is still positioned to be the “sports entertainment” style of wrestling McMahon loves so much, and that’s not a bad thing, necessarily. There will always be room in pro wrestling for larger-than-life spectacle, and no one has done that better than Vinny Mac.
What will ultimately determine the success of all these brands/promotions will be whether they can give fans the content they crave, at the level they deserve. WWE has never had a deeper, more talented roster. AEW has almost limitless potential, and has already seemingly given WWE a wakeup call.
It is perhaps the best time ever to be a pro wrestling fan. You have an array of choices, and not just those I’ve mentioned. The indies are thriving, and the rise of streaming services will only give them more exposure. The in-ring talent is without a doubt the best it has ever been. All that’s left to do is sit back and watch it all unfold.