2022 was officially the year that modern pro wrestling fans lost their innocence.
This was due to major stories, backstage chaos, and not only the evolution of the business, but a reminder of how it used to be in the days of two major promotions.
It was a year that had Vince McMahon resigning in shame after sexual harassment allegations and payments, the endless Brawl Out story, fans started to see chaos in the AEW locker room, and AEW had to start improvising due to a litany of injuries. On the positive side, there were successful interpromotional events (Forbidden Door, Wrestle Kingdom in Yokohama, and CyberFight Festival having its second event), and wrestlers traveling more between promotions. Something that also happened were short stints of wrestlers in a promotion, an example being Jay White on Impact or JONAH/Bronson Reed on NJPW.
What’s curious about all of this has been the modern fan reaction to these events, ranging from having no idea what to think to being insulted and others taking a side. There is a feeling that pro wrestling is supposed to be better than this and the promoters are supposed to have everything under control. Sadly, fans following this since 2001 know the sad reality that this is not the case.
This outrage and surprise and jokes are amplified due to the state of the world we live in, where a lot of people online need to have a take, does not matter if it’s positive or negative or informed. Everyone has a voice and an opinion of the latest wrestling controversy or news. Many don’t realize that this is completely normal in a world with two major wrestling promotions in a war. The wrestling world has not changed: it returned to what it was.
This is why I call 2022 the year when the modern fans lost their innocence and got a better sense of what pro wrestling was in the past.
I understand the surprise and people taking sides. I started watching wrestling late in the year 2000 when I was ten years old with the WWF, and I lived in the world where the WWE was the only big game in town from 2001 until 2019. Fans have cycled in and out, promotions came and went, and even to idiots like me that stayed watching wrestling, there was no question that WWE was the leader in the field. There were other better promotions, but WWE was the king.
There is also the factor that WWE owns most of pro wrestling history, so they started rewriting the book, giving a dangerous and erroneous idea of this sport’s past. Sure, they did a good job telling the story of WCCW and ECW on their DVDs, but the rest is questionable. There are even podcasts and interviews that started supporting WWE’s narrative.
Due to them being the only game in town with a good and steady paycheck, fans did not hear that many controversies or contract disputes. People weren’t fighting to go wrestle in TNA. There were suspensions, but fights did not happen that much, and with the exception of Randy Orton shitting on bags and things of that nature, there wasn’t anything huge happening that could derail WWE. Wrestlers were fired and went to the indies or stopped wrestling. Contract disputes and backstage fights were a thing of the past.
Then AEW arrived on the scene in 2019.
Due to them being a new promotion and then having a year in 2020 where the fans and wrestlers were together due to what was happening in the world, the honeymoon lasted longer than they normally do. It took three years of everyone getting along, and then shit went down.
The honeymoon was over in 2022.
First, it was MJF’s contract drama, then Thunder Rosa vs. the women’s locker room, Sammy Guevara and Eddie Kingston, Sammy again and Andrade, Dax and Meltzer; it seemed like every week there was somebody pissed off at someone else. Then Brawl Out happened, and everything went to shit, and the hot takes came flying.
Then there are the AEW-released wrestlers “shooting” on the company, the Big Swole incident being one that blew up the most. There are wrestlers that are reported that had tried to leave the company (two rumors being Andrade and Aleister Black) and those not taking creative and not being on TV (Miro). Then, there was the biggest move: Cody Rhodes leaving AEW. Maybe this happened due to a mix of a huge money offer, hubris, and problems backstage at AEW.
This might seem like AEW is out of control, but it is more than that. This is the normal step for a pro wrestling company finding its footing in an open market and being at war. This is the year when AEW became a normal wrestling company, and those backstage got hit the hard way.
A pro wrestling promoter has the enviable task of balancing some of the most egotistical people in the world and making them happy. Deciding to be a pro wrestler is not normal, just like being any athlete or actor. These people really believe in themselves and want to prove their worth. Egos are part of this. The crux of the whole Brawl Out incident is ego-driven. The magic is balancing this and creating a compelling product.
One last note of the Brawl Out discourse: the problem was not the fight backstage, but Punk publicly shitting on the company and the executive presidents. Fights happen. This is normal in any workplace, even more in pro wrestling. It’s all part of the egos and having a bunch of hyped-up athletes backstage.
The reason why all this is happening is that there is competition. There was less of this in the 2000s and 2010s, and it was not because Vince McMahon had some secret power; it was being the market leader and the only option for so long. Now it helps that they are the most profitable pro wrestling company out there and can offer things that no other company will, hence people will be more under control. In an environment that promises more creative fulfillment, which is AEW’s case, I understand some of the frustrated talents. Having a wrestling war makes the wrestlers earn more wages, and if they aren’t getting the spot they want in a company, they can consider the other side.
Modern fans are responding to wrestlers changing companies like it’s a personal attack on one brand or the other. It’s not. It’s just the state of a healthy wrestling landscape and wrestlers having options. Fist fights sometimes happen, check out wrestling’s past. We had Sid Vicious stabbing Arn Anderson. Google Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart if you really have no idea what happened in the 90s. What happens now could be better, but at least they aren’t trying to kill each other. Wrestlers jumping ain’t personal; it’s just business.
Another moment of lost innocence was the Vince McMahon story.
For this generation, Vince was the old man that ran WWE, the guy with an awesome theme song that people bowed down to, and they did not care that he had lost it creatively. The controversies of this man weren’t told in a mainstream outlet. Obviously, WWE historians weren’t touching it, and in March, there was that awful Pat McAffe interview that had people freaking out about Vince working out at 3 a.m. Something modern fans learned is that this man has an awful history thanks to investigations of sexual harassment and payments. Then there was the documentary series “Dark Side of the Ring ” revealing some of the darker moments of Vince’s history. The modern fan finally had mainstream access and proof that the man was not a saint and was involved in sketchy and awful shit all of his life.
But the innocence lost is not all bad. Modern fans finally got to see a major league US promotion doing a joint show with a major league Japanese promotion in “Forbidden Door.” For over 20 years, WWE made their part of the wrestling world insular, never acknowledging the wide world out there, even though in their past they had joint shows and talent exchanges. AEW successfully opened that door again, acknowledged the rest of the world, and joined forces with NJPW. That union created the best show of 2022, a show many people were saying was doomed. It was a critical and financial success for both promotions. It proved that the wrestling world can easily coexist and that there is an interest in seeing this.
Then we had short stints like JONAH dominating the G1 Climax, beating Kazuchika Okada, and then Okada getting the win back against the big guy. Jay White had a really fun Impact run. Konosuke Takeshita had such a great short run that he is officially signed now by AEW. In the past, this was completely normal, and it’s great that it’s happening again. With the exception of WWE, finally, the doors opened (pun intended), and the wrestling world can work in partnership for the better of the fans and promotions.
2022 was a special year due to the mix of the downfall of Vince McMahon, wrestlers having options, fans finding out that some wrestlers do hate each other backstage, and promotions working together on a big scale. All of it is not positive, but this woke up the modern fans to the reality of the business, which is why this year was massive and why the discourse was so horrible.
Now that the innocence is definitely gone, the world might seem wilder, but it’s more fun. 2023 will probably still be wilder than calm; news story won’t stop, but we’ll have to see how everything evolves now.