Despite being a considerable step down from the first three Rocky movies in terms of a story, Rocky IV is a memorable movie that has a certain charm to it. In that movie, Rocky’s friend Apollo Creed challenges the upstart Russian Champion Ivan Drago to an exhibition fight. Even though he’s been retired for years at this point, he still thinks he can get into the ring with the younger, stronger Drago and school him. At the press conference, he taunts Drago and calls him names. He enters the fight with big pomp and circumstance, getting James Brown to perform Living In America live as sparklers and dancers fill the stage. Everyone is cheering for him, and expecting to see Apollo Creed light up the night one more time.
If you don’t know how that ended…
On October 2, 2019, most wrestling fans and media believed that NXT would beat AEW Dynamite in the first week of the budding ratings war. All three titles would be on the line in well-built matches, including Adam Cole defending the NXT Title against Matt Riddle in the opener, with no commercial interruption. Not to mention that the show had done over a million viewers in the prior two weeks unopposed. AEW had a lot of hype behind it, but there wasn’t a major drawing match on the show. There were a lot of people unfamiliar to TV wrestling fans. The main event was a solid-looking trios match, but it certainly wasn’t considered a special match. NXT had the history as the cool brand of WWE. NXT had the established talent. NXT had the backing of the industry leader. As both shows went live, there was no reason to believe that NXT would lose.
If you don’t know how that ended, subscribe to the Voices of Wrestling Flagship Patreon page. Once you do that, look up the Thursday TV Review entitled “The Bloodbath,” which is one of the best pieces of audio ever put up on this site.
Dynamite won week one. They not only beat NXT in nearly every demographic, but they doubled, and in some cases, almost tripled some of NXT’s numbers.
Then, AEW won week two.
And week three.
And week four.
Of the 73 weeks that the two shows went head-to-head on Wednesday nights, AEW won the night SEVENTY-TWO times. NXT, which was backed by the juggernaut of pro wrestling, could only manage one victory over the fledgling new promotion. That one show was main-evented by Rhea Ripley beating Shayna Baszler for the NXT Women’s Championship, in a match built up after weeks of pushing Ripley on all three brands. (Both women were rewarded for their success by losing to Charlotte and Becky Lynch respectively at WrestleMania, and then quickly being shuffled down the card.)
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s become clear that NXT was never equipped to take on AEW in this war.
When they could have them, AEW had basketball arenas full of fans going wild for the stars that the company built up and made matter. The fans didn’t have to argue with the company to push their favorite guys. AEW was new and fresh and energetic and lively. AEW took NXT’s place in the wrestling world, and NXT couldn’t match up anymore. The longer-term storytelling in NXT was replaced with hotshot booking. Their big stars suddenly didn’t feel as big when put in direct comparison to AEW. The show veered toward more of a Raw and Smackdown feel, especially in the pandemic era. And now, with their tails firmly in between their legs, NXT waves the white flag on the war they chose to start. WWE confirmed on March 30 that the show would be moving to Tuesdays as part of a multi-year deal with the USA Network.
Now, instead of squashing their competition out of the gates, NXT and its fanbase has a lot of questions they need to be asking.
What is the company really getting out of the Performance Center, considering AEW has developed as many prospects in one year as the PC has in nearly eight?
Is NXT really popular enough to get people into full-size arenas like AEW?
And the most important one: if the NXT product devolved into main roster nonsense despite Vince McMahon’s non-involvement, how much better is the WWE product going to get overall if and when Triple H takes over?
Despite those long-term questions, both shows should benefit from this move. NXT has seen success when running unopposed in both total viewers and the key demos, even with a small sample size of two non-holiday weeks.
Meanwhile, AEW can get the older viewers that NXT has consistently sniped and got their overall viewership number closer to that elusive one million viewer mark. But despite whatever spin WWE may try to put on this, AEW officially won the Wednesday Night War.
They should put that on a banner too.