When jumping into wrestling fandom in my late twenties, I found myself in a world of anger, frustration and cynicism. At first, this all seemed silly to me. Here we were, angsting about muscled guys in spandex. Every podcast, every wrestling website, every Twitter discussion seemed so hopelessly negative and unappealing, I found myself annoyed as a relatively new fan (albeit one who had spent some time watching 2003-2005 SmackDowns as a teenager). I could not understand the cynicism because while yes, the main wrestling shows on the air were cheesy and illogical, it was not that bad, because wrestling was silly and inconsequential to begin with.
Lighten up, folks! It’s just entertainment! Fandangoing!
Then, slowly but surely, I got sucked in deeper, and the more I learned, the more I became one of those intellectually dissatisfied, cynical fans. I started to look more into the history of wrestling, unearthing this magnificent tale of territories, stars of the past, varying styles of wrestling, from different countries all having their separate but interesting traditions.
Suddenly the current, illogical shows I was watching seemed to clear the lowest bar possible, even compared to WWE’s own history. I was watching Bret Hart teach me how moves strung together became a dance, a story all on its own, and I was watching Jake “The Snake” Roberts deliver promos with the conviction that the modern television wrestling did not possess. I was watching matches from Japan, matches from Mexico, and even if they were just tiny glimpses, they provided me with more excitement. They showed me the full array of possibilities in professional wrestling.
The journey I went through, the one where enthusiasm gives way to cynicism, is familiar to wrestling fans. It’s one where we search for logic and continuity in a show that blatantly disregards such notions, where we grasp at straws, whether it’s of representation—divas storylines, back before the so-called Revolution—or of simple storytelling conventions. We get so disappointed by investing in these characters that ultimately don’t get satisfying character arcs, much less any character arcs, that we ultimately start seeking it in the backstage politics, which we at least know obeys some twisted logic of reality. Some fans will chastise others for following the gossip, but can you blame us? It’s the only layer that provides sufficient context to the goings-on on the screen. If you don’t know the person Vince McMahon is, then the ”story” of Monday Night Raw makes little to no sense. If you learn the meta-text, the text becomes somewhat legible, somewhat more engaging. Not more structurally sound, nor more satisfying in terms of emotional investment, but legible.
It clears the lowest bar possible.
At its core, every viewer just wants to be entertained so that logic no longer matters. Many movie enthusiasts these days hate the tendency to call out films for their tiniest failures in continuity because if the movie’s story holds your attention and engages you emotionally, one misplaced coffee cup in the back of a shot should not be held up as a sin committed. What WWE’s dominance in the wrestling business has done, however, is turn this kind of magnifying glass onto all forms of wrestling. When wrestling in the mainstream has not provided stories engaging enough to forget about the tiniest errors, the tiniest lapses in logic, people have learned to become very particular about wrestling. The modern wrestling fan demands logic to the utmost degree but is also highly tuned to the industry’s various backstage happenings. We live in a new reality where storyline is mixed with Twitter rumors, Observer updates and layers to be read in Instagram captions.
So this is the fandom All Elite Wrestling finds itself in, trying to both appeal to an existing audience and wake up the dormant once-fan populus into becoming a fan once more. That smart fans are looking at every wrestling promotion closely is not a bad thing, but I think the reasons are good to remind ourselves of. Yes, newsletters have been around for a long time, and yes, the internet made accessing them so much easier for the average fan. But I still believe that the investment that most fans have in these ”true” stories is that what they were watching was not satisfying them as fans. When the competition dried up or became obscure and underground, there was nothing but one thing out there to watch, and when underground organizations began rising in popularity, the behemoth showed its power by taking their stars and then, more or less buying them out, as we have seen in the United Kingdom. Dominance meant that if you were to consume wrestling, you had to do it under one company’s terms.
Breaking the understood monopoly is valuable, which meant that a section of fans was very eager and hopeful about AEW’s output, before they’d even run a single show. The promotion also started up in 2019, bringing with it all the modern conundrums of social media, representation and its politics and the culture wars. The early signings of Nyla Rose and Sonny Kiss, as well the announcement by Brandi Rhodes’ on the company’s equal pay policies bred some discussions online. Is it okay to highlight LGBTQ+ talent as a part of your diverse roster? Or is it better to keep quiet about it, focusing on the talent as talent, not as representatives of their individual identities? I strongly dislike the term virtue signaling, because it implies there is no virtue in expressing a virtuous thing, such as featuring diverse talent (insofar as I think it’s a virtuous thing, the great big internet leftie that I am). But there is also value in not shouting it from the rooftops, which is largely what AEW did in the early goings. Their production schedule, however, meant that there was a nearly six-month gap between their initial press rallies, and their first show, Double or Nothing. This meant that for six months, AEW was nothing but talk and promotional clips. They promised a lot of things, from logical storytelling to sports-like focus on numbers and stats, and had nothing to show for it just yet. This seemed to irritate some fans, burned one too many times by new promotions talking the talk but not being able to walk the walk when it came time.
Yet, even after Double or Nothing arrived and was regarded positively by audiences, the company has been under a constant microscope. This is not a bad thing, and no entertainment should be above critiques, whether malicious in intent and ludicrous or benign, rational and constructive. You can’t critique-proof a product meant for public consumption, because people will have opinions. With that said, it is astounding how much scrutiny the company has gained during its short run. There are of course those staunch defenders of The Other Place, who may deeply despise WWE, but hold on to their favoritism because of some deep-seated nostalgia. The ones who may go, ”yes, this is a creatively and morally bankrupt corporation, but they’re my creatively and morally bankrupt corporation”. These critics aren’t worth discussing at length.
Even the average fan looks at AEW closely. From lighting, camera, social media promotion, booking decisions, commentary and layout of events, every single thing has been micro-analyzed by the wrestling audience. Sometimes, the consensus is positive; people appreciate the in-ring action, from the over-the-top athletic action The Young Bucks and the Lucha Brothers are known for, to the old school, emotionally sound and captivating brawl between Cody and Dustin Rhodes. Other times, such as with the three-man booth commentary, the consensus has leaned towards the negative. I count myself in all this. I have been picking on things I like and dislike with each show I’ve watched. I’ve groaned and celebrated, pondered and dissected angles and future directions. I’ve been annoyed and I’ve been relaxed, knowing that I can just let the story unfold and enjoy it.
And I want more.
This is a point not to lose sight of in all of this analysis: people demand more out of wrestling these days, good or bad. All the world’s matches are at our fingertips, and we can compare and contrast the smallest indy to the biggest billion-dollar backed companies in the world. We can see what works for us, and what doesn’t, and we can call people out on public platforms, and get so loud they can’t ignore us. Wrestlers can put the blame on fans for being entitled, but again, this claim should account for the context where fans haven’t felt listened to in a long while. In fact, the biggest company out there has actively worked against fan sentiments in its storylines, which has created an adversarial environment. The fans at WWE shows will rebel against what they are shown and given, if they do not want it or like it.
AEW still has the fans’ goodwill on their side. People want to like what AEW gives them, which makes the things that fall flat even more awkward to critique. It’s a good position to be in, however. Being open to the stories and characters AEW is presenting makes the likelihood of something good catching fire all the larger. If it’s Luchasaurus, so be it. If the Dark Order continues to not gain steam, scrap it.
What the fans demand more than anything at this stage, is payoff – sorely lacking in that other place. And whether a storyline delivers and gets over, or doesn’t, I think AEW will deliver payoff.
On Being the Elite, things have paid off. As silly as it may seem to put the grounds of an industry-changing start-up on the back of a YouTube show, it’s worth mentioning all the same. Storylines start and conclude, the smallest things have mattered in the great scheme of things, and even seemingly meaningless skits have been slowly developed into bigger things down the line. Cody as the conniving, clever heel, working against Kenny and turning the Bucks against their best friend, was a long-term storyline that fans followed religiously, to see it paid off in two matches (one on ROH ground and the other in New Japan). The YouTube show has also incorporated elements of the backstage happenings, the meta-stories, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes in a winking, knowing fashion. This has helped their popularity, as wrestling is mostly post-modernism fine-tuned. They know we know, so they let us know what we already know, allowing us to think we know more. BTE, even at its most stupid, is knowingly stupid, and fans have embraced the ironic distance, even while the stories pull us in.
And while not everything down the line will end up paying off in AEW, so far things are looking good, whether it’s the hints dropped on Road To video clips leading to the reveal of Dustin as Cody’s Double or Nothing opponent, or Cody calling Shawn Spears a ‘good hand’, leading to that fateful chair shot. The potential for pay-off down the line is huge, because the free-range the performers have been given seems to mean there are little story nuggets left all over the place, in promos and exchanges. MJF could feud with every single babyface on the roster, and there would be cause and reason behind it, from the way he’s mouthed off in promos. Chris Jericho doesn’t like anybody, heel or face, in this promotion. They have adopted the post-match backstage interview to build whatever may come down the pike, and so far it’s worked, just like it’s worked in New Japan to supplement stories and characters. Not everybody gets an in-ring promo, but backstage they can work on whatever they need to.
Even against the history of cynicism and the context of granular analysis, I feel hopeful about this promotion, and I’m not alone.
AEW events are easy to watch, because even when there are things I do not enjoy or things that I feel could have been executed better, I can relax. I don’t have to strain my brain to think about the convoluted logic or lack thereof, I don’t have to worry about investing in characters who will change personalities week-to-week with no proper buildup. Yet the conundrum remains – my brain has been wired to watch wrestling a certain way, so I am especially tuned to lapses in logic, or especially annoyed by a lack of payoff. It’s these things that AEW has to wrestle with, going forward.
AEW has to appease this kind of viewer – the fan who has been disgruntled for a long time, the fan who demands more, the fan who is used to looking at the details.
I wish them luck with that mission.