Enough time has passed since All Elite Wrestling rocked Las Vegas with its debut Pay Per View on May 25th. After all the hype, all the initial shock and awe of the event, and the benefit of several days to reflect on what we saw, now seems like the right time to reflect on what was likely the most momentous night professional wrestling has seen in the United States in years.
In the build-up to the event, several senior staff at AEW were keen to make it clear that they didn’t see themselves as direct competition to WWE. Cody Rhodes and Jim Ross spoke of wanting to start something new, and the absurdity of an upstart promotion being seen as an instant rival to Vince McMahon’s established ‘sports entertainment’ empire. Chris Jericho didn’t agree, of course, but he never does. He may be better at working fans through the medium of social media than anyone else who’s ever attempted it, and the value of the additional eyeballs he brought to the product through his presence and hyperbole cannot be overstated. By the end of the night though, nobody who was in attendance at the sold-out MGM Grand Garden, or watching live on Pay Per View, was in any doubt. A new wrestling war has begun, and WWE might already be on the back foot.
Claiming The Throne
The digs at WWE started right at the beginning of the night, with Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks deliberately overstating the attendance in the building to poke fun at the way WWE is known to inflate its own attendance figures – especially at WrestleMania. That was subtle and gentle. What Cody Rhodes did before his phenomenal match with his brother Dustin was neither of those things.
As part of Cody’s entrance, he walked past a throne decorated with skulls – precisely the kind that WWE CEO Paul’ Triple H’ Levesque has been known to use during his WrestleMania entrances. He then took a sledgehammer – another nod to Triple H – from his wife Brandi and used it to shatter the throne. The symbolism was loud, clear, and obvious. By the time the end of the event rolled around, and recently-departed WWE Main Eventer Dean Ambrose had invaded the show in his former persona of Jon Moxley, a statement had been sent. AEW is here to compete with WWE at the highest level, and even the mainstream media have caught on.
Risking It All
The name of this event – ‘Double Or Nothing’ was a reference to the independent wrestling show ‘All In’ organized by Rhodes and his business partners The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega in September 2018. Intended as a one-off, the event was an experiment to see whether sufficient interest could be generated in a large wrestling event outside of the WWE banner in America. It succeeded. It sold out the Sears Center in Chicago, and did strong Pay Per View numbers. Rhodes and company had proven that there was an audience out there tiring of the stale WWE presentation, and they were willing to spend money on something new.
From that experiment, All Elite Wrestling was born. All Rhodes and company needed was a friendly and well-connected billionaire to foot the bill to get things rolling, and they found one in Tony Khan. Khan is a lifelong wrestling fan, and comes from a family who’ve already invested heavily in sports; they’re the owners of the Jacksonville Jaguars and also Fulham Football Club in England. Khan covered the costs of hiring the talent and used his connections to secure the fledgling company a prime television slot on the Turner Network. Now AEW had the money, the platform, and the personnel to take a real run at it.
They still needed to prove lightning could strike twice, though. They’d lured eyeballs away from WWE once, but it could be argued that any promotion would have been capable of the same as a novelty. Doing so twice would be a real achievement, and so we come back once again to that name – ‘Double or Nothing.’ They either repeated the success, or they failed. That made Vegas, with its world-famous casinos, the perfect setting for their event. Khan, Rhodes, and the rest of the team were doing what many people do at both offline and online casinos and their sister sites when they’ve had a big win; showing the bravery to put the money back in the machine, in the belief that an even bigger prize would come out on the next spin of the reels. They were right.
The success of ‘Double or Nothing’ dwarfed that of ‘All In,’ and that statement covers far more than just what happened in the ring. We could wax lyrical for hours about the beauty and emotional effectiveness of the Cody Rhodes vs. Dustin Rhodes match. We were exhausted by the sheer energy that went into the Young Bucks vs. the Lucha Brothers. Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega beat each other to a pulp, and the arrival of Moxley at the end was the icing on the cake. Factor in those surprise appearances by Awesome Kong and Bret’ The Hitman’ Hart, and you’re talking about an almost perfectly booked show. But all that would have been for nothing if there hadn’t been a commercial success to go along with it.
At the time of writing, the show is approaching one hundred thousand buys on Pay Per View, with people still happy to shell out for repeat viewings. Given that it aired with a $50 price tag in America, that’s no mean feat. It’s a larger buy-in number than WWE has produced in years – although their events now also air on their own much-cheaper WWE Network. It’s over double what ‘All In’ did. The social media trends were also promising; during the time of its first broadcast, the event was the number one trending term in the whole world. Again, no wrestling company other than WWE has broken through to a mainstream audience in the same way.
Those kinds of numbers suggest that there will be a large audience who are willing to come and find AEW when it starts to air on TNT (and ITV in the UK) this October. TNT has the reach of the USA Network easily, and in the UK AEW will have far more significant reach than the pay-to-access Sky TV platform WWE currently airs on. Given that WWE’s ratings appear to be in steep and constant decline, it’s not inconceivable that they’ll eclipse WWE’s figures. If that happens, then Vince McMahon and his company will have been knocked off their perch for the first time in 20 years, and not even Fox’s billions and their Saudi touring money will compensate for the blow.
Change appears to be coming to the world of professional wrestling, and it may not be a moment too soon.