Steve Austin debuted in the WWF as January 1996 as “The Ringmaster”, managed by retired professional wrestler Ted DiBiase. Ted DiBiase game him the Million Dollar Championship, a gimmick he once carried, and passed on his finishing move, The Million Dollar Dream. After dropping the gimmick, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin would go on to be one of the biggest superstars in wrestling history.
Dwayne Johnson debuted in the WWF in November 1996 as “The Blue Chipper,” Rocky Maivia, referencing the legacy of retired professional wrestlers in his family and was hyped as the first third-generation wrestler. After dropping the gimmick, “The Rock” would go on to be one of the biggest superstars in wrestling history.
These are extreme cases, but are examples of something important. Greatness needs room to grow. Personalities need space to stretch themselves and become interesting. Wrestling gimmicks can not be shackled to the past, to be copies of previous generations. Doing so promotes stagnation, a sense that anything new is worse than what has come before.
This has been a compounding problem in WWE for over a decade. Too much reverence for the past leads to the stars of yesteryear giving finishing moves to the stars of tomorrow. When this happens, no one looks good, future star power is diminished, and the reliance on wrestlers from 10, 15, or 20 years ago only becomes stronger.
But while the WWE is a lost cause in this regard, All Elite Wrestling doesn’t have to be this way.
To their credit, AEW has not reached the depth of WWE or TNA. Yet. Retired legends of the past have been mostly regulated to managers and special surprises. The line between using legends to enhance the product and using them to invalidate the product is a big, thick, unsubtle line with flashing neon lights and warning signs. But more than one wrestling company has tumbled over that line, so it behooves AEW to tread carefully.
AEW often sets itself up as a WCW nostalgia promotion. WWE may have the trademarks, but AEW has the spirit of Jim Crockett and early 90s WCW. Not having the trademarks to “The Clash of the Champions” or “Bash at the Beach” or “Starrcade” is to AEW’s advantage though. It forces them to innovate their nostalgia and not be stuck in a tired rut. It would be all to easy to just do “War Games,” but AEW is required to put their own spin on old ideas, and is healthier creatively for that.
But then Jake Roberts comes out with a snake in a bag. And Lance Archer, a terrifying presence on his own right, is forced to walk around with this old man carrying a bagged “snake” like it’s 1986. And people are supposed to be scared of this lumpy bag instead of the menacing mohawked murder monster next to it. This is nostalgia gone bad, old gimmicks replacing new talent.
FTR exudes a style of 80s tag team revival. They don’t need Tully Blanchard coaching them through old Brain Buster moves. Nyla Rose can cut her own promo, she doesn’t need Vickie Guerrero screeching terrible catchphrases from a decade ago. Brian Cage doesn’t need Taz and the FTW… actually, that’s the one example that is working out great so far. Taz took an old gimmick and re-imagined it for a new generation, and has built up the best faction in wrestling around it.
There is a line.
When the Young Bucks did a Hardy Boyz move, it was in homage to a team that inspired them. When Private Party does a Hardy Boyz move, with Matt Hardy cheering at ringside, it becomes a parody that pushes aside the authenticity of Marq Quen and Isiah Kassidy and replaces it with nostalgia for 20 years ago.
It’s an unsustainable trend, and needs to be carefully leashed.
AEW’s newest roster member, and his relationship to one of their first, brings the strongest concern of this trend so far. Long before Sting joined the roster, people were making connections between him and Darby Allin. They both go for the brooding loner trope, silently watching from up on high, all while wearing a stylish trench coat. But that’s where the comparison ends.
Darby Allin is not Sting. Darby Allin should not try to be Sting. Any attempt to make Darby Allin into the next Sting will be an utter failure. Sting and Sting’s presence have many uses. Sting will draw a certain set of eyes to Darby (though the long term value of that is debatable). But if he bequeaths his baseball bat to Darby, or Darby starts replacing his moves with Stinger Splashes and Scorpion Death Drops, it will not end well.
If Sting and Darby are going to be paired, the pairing has to be about the future, not the past. Wherever AEW goes with this, it needs to be about enhancing Darby’s future, not regulating him to a footnote in Sting’s past.