Double or Nothing 2023 marks four years since AEW held its first show. Throughout these first four years of existence, AEW has been compared to previous major non-WWE promotions like WCW and TNA by fans and media members alike. These comparisons are sometimes favorable but frequently focus on avoiding mistakes made by the number two promotions from the past. One of the primary critiques leveled at TNA is that they were overly reliant on older talent from WWE or WCW and unable to create their own stars. This is often cited as the primary reason for TNA’s eventual downfall and is referenced whenever AEW signs or pushes high-profile talent with a long history in WWE.
There’s always something to learn from history. Now that AEW has existed for four full years, let’s definitively answer the question:
Has AEW repeated TNA’s mistake of over-pushing older talent at the expense of creating their own stars?
To answer this question, we’ll compare the type of talent each promotion utilized in prominent roles over a 4-year period. For AEW, this period is Double or Nothing 2019 through Double or Nothing 2023. For TNA, this period will be their debut episode of Impact on Spike TV in October 2005 through Bound for Glory 2009.
No role is more prominent than that of the World Champion. The champion represents the best a promotion has to offer and largely shapes its identity. Who have TNA and AEW promoted as the best they have to offer? Someone fresh without prior exposure to a national US audience? Or someone those audiences were familiar with from WWE or WCW?
Here’s the breakdown of TNA’s World Championship reigns during their first four years on Spike TV:
|Length of Reign in Days
*TNA Platformed Talent
**Length of reign at the time of Bound for Glory 2009
NOTE: Data for all tables above and below can be referenced HERE
- Total Number of Days with World Champion: 1470
- Days Former WWE/WCW Talent were NWA-TNA World Champion: 1,194 (81%)
- Days TNA Platformed Talent were NWA-TNA World Champion: 276 (19%)
A former WWE or WCW wrestler was TNA’s World Champion for 81% of their first four years on Spike. The first non-former WWE/WCW World Champion during this period was Abyss, who won the title via disqualification to begin a reign that lasted less than two months.
Their first long-term champion that wasn’t a former WWE or WCW wrestler was Samoa Joe. His title run started in April 2008, a full 17 months after he was in the main event of Genesis 2006 with Kurt Angle; an event that set TNA’s all-time PPV buys record (which still endures today). TNA was seemingly late on the draw to elevate one of their homegrown stars into becoming the focal point of their promotion, even one that had proven himself as capable as Samoa Joe.
AJ Styles became a Hall of Fame-level headliner for both WWE and New Japan Pro Wrestling in the 2010s. In the early years of TNA, he was their first breakout star and a multi-time NWA World Champion. However, once Impact began airing on Spike, AJ didn’t get the opportunity to be World Champion again until September 2009, almost four years after Impact’s debut episode on the network.
TNA’s World Champion strategy was clearly to rely on names that had been stars in WWE or WCW. In theory, that’s not automatically a bad thing. Couldn’t those established stars help elevate the next generation of headliners by working with them in main event programs, even if the younger talent weren’t immediately placed into the top spots? To see if that was the case, let’s analyze a breakdown of TNA’s monthly PPV main events from October 2005 through October 2009. The participation rate across 49 PPV main event matches breaks down as follows:
- Total PPV Main Event Participants: 166
- PPV Main Event Participants From WWE/WCW: 115 (69%)
- PPV Main Event Participants Elevated by TNA: 51 (31%)
This is where TNA’s main event booking criticism stems from. Not only was their top champion usually someone that made their name in WWE or WCW, but that top champion was working with former WWE/WCW challengers over two-thirds of the time. During their first four years on Spike, TNA didn’t have a single PPV main event without a former WWE or WCW wrestler involved.
While Impact was a show that introduced an entire generation of innovative young wrestlers to a national audience during their early years on Spike, that generation had a ceiling placed on them. They could be a champion in the tag division or X-Division, but they wouldn’t have an opportunity to lead the promotion as World Champion. Relatively few of them were allowed to enter the main event scene at all. These decisions communicated to TNA’s audience that as talented as these young guys were, the real top stars were the ones with a past in WWE or WCW. By limiting TNA homegrown wrestlers to being second tier on Impact, TNA inadvertently taught their fans that TNA itself was second tier within the greater wrestling landscape.
Was this a lesson that TNA learned from after this time period? Were they able to readjust and change course?
Here’s the makeup of their world champions for the entirety of their 9-years on Spike:
- Total Number of Days with World Champion: 3271
- Days Former WWE/WCW Talent were NWA-TNA World Champion: 2,123 (65%)
- Days TNA Platformed Talent were NWA-TNA World Champion: 1148 (35%)
For the duration of their Spike TV tenure, TNA primarily relied on former WWE and WCW talent to be their World Champion. Did they at least allow their homegrown wrestlers to headline more PPVs?
Let’s take a look at their PPV main event participation rate breakdown across 95 PPVs from October 2005 through 2014:
- Total PPV Main Event Participants: 285
- PPV Main Event Participants From WWE/WCW: 177 (62%)
- PPV Main Event Participants Elevated by TNA: 108 (38%)
TNA managed to increase their original talent’s participation rate in PPV main events by a scant 7% over the subsequent five years.
Now that we’ve established TNA’s mistakes, has AEW managed to learn from them? Or are they repeating them?
Here’s the breakdown of AEW’s World Champions and the length of their title reigns for their first four years of existence. (NOTE: Interim champions are considered the “active” champion based on the day their interim reign began. No days were duplicated.)
|Length of Reign in Days
*AEW Platformed Talent
**Length of reign at the time of Double or Nothing 2023
- Total Number of Days with Champion: 1352
- Days Former WWE Talent were World Champion: 619 (46%)
- Days AEW Platformed Talent were World Champion: 733 (54%)
Over their first four years, AEW’s world championship has been held by both names from WWE and talent AEW first platformed. Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley utilized their WWE fame to help establish Dynamite over its first year on TNT. The championship then transitioned to the “Elite” in All Elite Wrestling, where it was held for over 18 months combined by Kenny Omega and Hangman Page, neither of whom had ever been regularly featured on national TV prior to Dynamite’s creation. The latter half of 2022 was a tumultuous time for the championship due to CM Punk’s injuries, but Jon Moxley stepped in to lead the promotion once again. Now 27-year-old MJF has been world champion for over six months and counting. This balance communicates to the audience that the World Champion can be a big star from WWE, or someone introduced to them through AEW television.
While AEW’s World Champions may have been balanced, what about the headliners of their biggest shows? Are Omega, Hangman, and MJF exceptions to a main event scene that’s otherwise dominated by former WWE talent? Or do wrestlers with non-WWE backgrounds also get opportunities to headline, even if they don’t manage to win the world title?
To determine this, we’ll follow a similar methodology to identify who headlined AEW’s biggest shows and whether national audiences knew them from WWE or were introduced to them through Dynamite. For TNA, we simply looked at the PPV headlining match. We’ll have to take a slightly different approach with AEW to create a comparable sample population, as AEW only has four or five PPVs per year compared to TNA’s 12. However, many forget Impact was a one-hour show on Spike TV for its first two years. While Impact had twice as many PPVs as AEW during these four-year periods we’re measuring, AEW produced almost twice as much programming for national television between Dynamite’s 2 hours and Rampage’s introduction in August 2021. Given that variable, it would be comparable from an AEW perspective to include World Title matches that aired on Dynamite or Rampage, PPV main events, and World Title matches that aired on PPV but weren’t the main event or primary drawing card of that show. This approach gives us 20 PPV main events and 30 other World Title matches, which is similar to TNA’s 49 PPV headlining matches.
The participation rate breakdown across those 50 matches is:
- Total PPV Main Event/World Title Match Participants: 127
- Participants From WWE: 62 (49%)
- Participants Elevated by AEW: 65 (51%)
Once again, the split is almost dead even.
This strategy of featuring AEW homegrown talent at least as much as former WWE veterans isn’t limited to AEW’s main event scene. Their tag team division, women’s division, and secondary singles titles all display the same pattern in an even stronger fashion.
|Days Held by Former WWE Wrestler
|Days Held by an AEW Platformed Wrestler
|Tag Team Titles
AEW is continually teaching their audience that it’s worthwhile for a fan to invest their time and attention in a wrestler’s journey up the card whether they were previously in WWE or not, as someone from either background could become a headliner. This mix of talent working on top gives AEW its own identity since they’re not reliant on wrestlers from a larger promotion migrating to their main event scene. Fans can thus expect to see something new when they watch AEW main events instead of the same names they’ve followed for over a decade fighting each other yet again.
During AEW’s first four years of existence, they’ve elevated fresh talent at a rate TNA never managed to achieve during the entirety of their nine years on Spike TV. We can definitively conclude that AEW has learned from history and is not repeating TNA’s mistake of becoming overly reliant on older talent.
Powered by RedCircle