From day one, the obvious weakness in All Elite Wrestling was the women’s division. As a start-up company, the challenge of building a roster from scratch would always be difficult.

On the men’s side, the roster was at least boosted by several established names, including Jon Moxley, Kenny Omega, Cody Rhodes, and Chris Jericho–the same couldn’t be said for the women’s division.

The few women in wrestling that could be considered bedrocks for a division were firmly entrenched in WWE at the time, and the limited amount of available women on the free agent market really made AEW’s division look like that of an expansion team. There were older veterans, such as Awesome Kong and Mel, who ended up providing very little to the division, and unproven wrestlers, such as Britt Baker and Nyla Rose, who ended up being long-term assets to the division.

The result was a significant gap between the quality in the men’s and women’s divisions. While the men were having some of the best wrestling matches in the world, many women’s matches were struggling to be passable. This was an expected issue, and despite rational people understanding that the women’s division was a work in progress, it became an easy target to criticize AEW.

The COVID-19 pandemic further destabilized things. In the early days of the women’s division, imported talent from Japan, most notably Riho, was counted on to be the rock of the division while some of the less experienced talents had a chance to develop. COVID made it much more difficult for talent from outside the US to enter the country, pressing some of the younger wrestlers into the spotlight earlier than expected.

Tony Khan and AEW’s creative direction also seemed to lack focus on the women’s division. While one could argue that the women needed more storyline direction than the men, given their lack of experience and in-ring quality, the women were hardly given anything. Perhaps one storyline at a time, centered around the women’s title, would take place on AEW television. In addition to the other challenges, that indifference surely stunted some growth in the division.

The AEW women’s division was a black mark for AEW, almost a guaranteed location for the least-anticipated match on the PPV, or the lowest quarter hour on an episode of Dynamite. It was perhaps the only thing AEW was doing at the time that was significantly worse than WWE.

Over the last year, though, that conversation has largely disappeared. Through several achievements, AEW has shed the stigma associated with its women’s division. While some faults still exist, the division has been largely firing on all cylinders, and is no longer a significant weakness when evaluating the AEW product, and for the last year or so, the work in the division has undoubtedly been superior to the work being done in WWE.

Familiarity breeds respect

The first noticeable upgrade in the division is that since the company has now existed for five years, the AEW fanbase has familiarity with some of the longest-tenured wrestlers. Even if a wrestler has some deficiencies, fans will grow to like them if they are given enough time to appreciate their strengths.

Britt Baker, who is easily the most impactful wrestler from the original slate of AEW women wrestlers, is viewed as the cornerstone of the women’s division, even as countless other acts have been brought in and pushed. As the gigantic babyface pop for her return during Forbidden Door would suggest, Baker is a hot act in the company, coming back at just the right time to go into a feud with Mercedes Mone, which looks destined to be a major match at Wembley Stadium.

That familiarity goes beyond an interest in Baker, though. Hikaru Shida, who was a critical performer for AEW during the lean times of COVID-19, is a very popular wrestler who always gets strong reactions from the crowd. At this point, she may be more like an upper-mid-card wrestler than a champion, but Shida is a valuable piece in AEW.

Another original is Nyla Rose. Rose isn’t used frequently on television these days, and her work is not always up to par, but the fans recognize Rose for her commitment to AEW, her world-class social media game, and the overall good work she has done in AEW. Rose has limits as a performer, but years of hard work get recognized and respected by AEW fans, which helps bolster the division.

Aggressive recruiting

While Tony Khan can certainly be criticized for not giving the AEW women’s division as much creative attention as it deserved–it is hard to criticize him for not looking to open up the checkbook and try to improve the division. Whenever a free agent becomes available, Khan makes a play to bring them in.

In some ways, this has exacerbated the problem, as veteran wrestlers with limited upside, such as Madison Rayne, Taya Valkyrie, and Saraya, were brought in and ultimately helped contribute to the image that the division was not very good. It also pushed some focus away from potentially developing talents–in particular, Saraya, who, as a pricey veteran, almost assuredly gets more television time than less-heralded prospects with higher upside.

That aggression ultimately paid off and helped shape the women’s division into a quality of AEW. Landing Toni Storm was a major win for AEW after she crashed out of WWE. Bringing in Jamie Hayter full-time after using her here and there turned into being one of the shrewdest acquisitions Khan has made with AEW. Willow Nightingale was signed off of the indies and allowed to slowly matriculate up the card in AEW, growing as an organic babyface force.

Khan landed his biggest prize when he signed Mercedes Mone earlier this year.

After years of waiting, AEW finally had a female Jon Moxley, an established, recognized star who, if things went right, could elevate the women’s division and the entire company. Mone’s performances so far have been polarizing, but AEW has been very committed to utilizing her as a true top star.

Real creative direction

With the depth of the division increasing, the creative aspects behind the division have improved. Mone deserves a ton of credit for that, she is perceived as such a big star that the investment in her is massive, so AEW always has to find something for her to do and a reason to put her on television.

Outside of Mone, Toni Storm’s “Timeless” character has been a major game changer for the AEW’s women’s division. While the dramatic aspects of the character have been polarizing to some, there is no doubt that the character of “Timeless” Toni has been a major creative force within the women’s division. Not only setting up programs during Storm’s lengthy run as women’s world champion, but also in introducing Mariah May to AEW audiences.

The May/Storm dynamic has the potential to be one of the most prominent stories in the history of AEW. Khan has shown an interest in long-term stories about personal relationships, with Hangman Adam Page and The Elite and MJF and Cody Rhodes being two examples. May, who has major star potential, has been carefully brought along in a long and winding story, as her presence gets more and more involved with Storm’s title.

There is also the rise of Willow Nightingale, who shined in her feud with Mone earlier this year, and put real pressure on Mone to rise up to her level. Nightingale is very much a star of the present–a friendly badass who men, women and children can relate to. Nightingale has become so popular that it seems unlikely she will be left without any creative direction in the future.

The improved creative direction and popularity of the women’s division culminated in Forbidden Door, a PPV event that had never had more than two women’s matches on its card in the past, featuring four women’s matches on June 30.

Not only were there five matches, none of the matches, with the exception of May vs Saraya, which was basically a squash match, felt out of place on what was a loaded PPV card. The matches all were not just thrown together, but part of stories the company was looking to tell. May vs Saraya was a part of the bigger May/Storm dynamic; Storm vs Mina Shirakawa had been built for weeks around May’s allegiance to her two friends, Mone vs Stephanie Vaquer was built over the past month, with Mone looking to finally win the New Japan Strong Women’s Championship, and Willow Nightingale and Tam Nakano vs Kris Statlander and Momo Wantanabe was obviously a part of the Nightingale vs Statlander feud.

The show also highlighted AEW’s working relationships with other women’s promotions, with STARDOM providing Shirakawa, Nakano and Wantanabe, while Stephanie Vaquer came from CMLL. Forbidden Door highlighted that AEW’s international relationships are stronger than ever, which can only benefit the women’s division further as more talent is available to AEW.

For all the discussion about AEW as a whole being a company that has failed to progress wrestlers–there seems to be a lot of ignorance about the progression the entire women’s division has made in recent years. The division is no longer a significant issue for the company, and is slowly turning into a strength and a potential advantage it can one day have over WWE.

Listen to Jesse Collings’ podcast: The Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast! 

Powered by RedCircle