(originally published in PWInsider Xtra 2/16/21, with a couple of new small edits and an addendum update at the end)
Hey hey everyone? Remember Me? No? Well, you’re forgiven…my name is TC Kirkham and back in the day – around 2001-2009 or so – I had a regular commentary column here on PWInsider. During the latter part of the time I was writing, the column was called “Me Against The World”, for two reasons – 1) I love that song by Simple Plan and 2) I was often in an extreme minority where certain groups of fans were concerned with my opinions. Sometimes my take was proven right in the end, other times it was proven wrong. But as the 2000’s waned, I got out of writing, and got out of wrestling nearly completely. I kept a toe in, watching TNA/Impact for a while, and the various WWE PPV’s we got for free from the WWE Network sub we have. But by the later part of the decade, I was burnt out – not happy with storylines, the way my favorite wrestlers were being booked, sick of seeing death after death in the industry by either drug overdose or suicide, and I largely turned away from it.
My wife, however, who runs a podcast called “Ring Around The Rosie”, stayed in it more than I did. She would be watching Raw on Mondays, and I had become hooked on alternative programming, namely “Dancing With The Stars”, and she eventually joined me for about eight years as we did a podcast about it as well, called “Mirrorball Mayhem”, which launched during DWTS’ ninth season – the season snowboarder Louie Vito was part of the cast. It lasted for eight years and quite a few season of DWTS.
In 2019, Kim (that’s my wife, natch) started talking about this upstart organization that was doing to try and take on Vince McMahon. It was to be called All Elite Wrestling. It was to be headed up by Cody and Dustin Rhodes, Matt and Nick Jackson, Kenny Omega, and Christopher Daniels among others. They had shocked the shit out of the wrestling world in September 2018 by becoming the first independently run company to sell out a 10,000 seat arena with a proposed PPV called “All In”. OK, I’m intrigued. I’ve always been a huge fan of Daniels, I liked the Jacksons, who were now known as The Young Bucks (when I had been watching them nearly a decade earlier, they were still Generation Me), and I had seen Omega on New Japan Pro Wrestling when we occasionally watched it on AXS in 2016-17. So on May 25, 2019, Kim and I settled in and purchased the first official AEW Pay per view, “Double Or Nothing”. And the fire was lit again…it burned small at first, but as the night went along, I became hooked on the idea that AEW could be the answer to the malaise that is World Wrestling Entertainment these days. Their weekly series, AEW Wednesday Night Dynamite (usually shortened to just ‘Dynamite’) would become Must See TV in our household. The crowds were hot, the online fans loved them, they began making new stars with the help of the above performers, known for years as “the Elite” (hence the name of the fed, duh!) and a couple of huge names, Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley, formerly known as WWE’s Dean Ambrose. And they started forging their own stars as well, most of whom came from successful indie gigs – people like Joey Janela, Chuck Taylor, Orange Cassidy, and Nyla Rose – and more, including most of the ladies’ division, that came from Japan. It was AWESOME. And for me, as always I gravitated immediately towards the underdogs of the federation, a three man team known as Jurassic Express, comprised of Jungle Boy aka Jack Perry, the son of late actor Luke Perry; Luchasaurus, a wrestler who had used the same dinosaur-themed gimmick in AAA in Mexico; and an indie darling who launched himself with a huge buzz via Game Changer Wrestling, Black Label Pro and other indies, a 5’2” spitfire out of Mississippi named Marko Stunt.
For the first six months, it built and built into an incredible, fun promotion. You could tell from their antics both on the television series and on the Bucks’ YouTube series “Being The Elite” that everyone was having hella fun doing this show.
And then 2020 dealt it’s massive blow to the world – Coronavirus. The pandemic threatened to stop the livelihood of everything. But somehow, thanks to Florida declaring wrestling “essential programming” for the masses (believed to be thanks largely to political contributions by one Vincent Kennedy McMahon), all three major feds were able to continue because all were based out of Florida at least part of the time. AEW took up residence in Jacksonville at Daily’s Place, the massive entertainment complex connected to TIAA Bank Field, the stadium where the Jacksonville Jaguars football team played – team co-owner Tony Khan was the principal financier of AEW from the beginning.
They managed to hold on pretty well for a few months after Coronavirus hit, introducing Matt Hardy and Brodie Lee into the storylines not long after they returned to production completely audience free. But in the fall of 2020, the rot began to set in, and it’s been taking hold harder and harder every week since. There are several areas about AEW right now that are driving me nuts, and I’m going to bring some of them up below. And although the list itself may be short – my comments are NOT. And they are meant with good intentions.
To Tony Khan and the Elite, as well as EVERYONE associated with All Elite Wrestling – please know that this is coming from MY HEART. Your shows convinced me to come back to wrestling full-time after over a decade of just being on the fringes, and I desperately want AEW to be as successful as it could and should be. I’m going to be a bit blunt, even sarcastic in places, but it’s meant as constructive criticism – it’s truly because I desperately think the product needs to improve in these areas. So lets’ get started.
1 – Gravitating towards the vocal online “hardcore” crowd.
I’ve been in Tony Schiavone’s “Dynamite” post-show chats from time to time, and am blown away by the number of people praising the shows. There’s at least 100 people a week echoing Tony’s old “WCW Nitro” call “This is the BEST DYNAMITE EVER!!” And my wife and I are sitting there going, “Um, NO it was NOT!”. I know these fans are important to the lifeblood of any wrestling organization. They reflect the opinion of a very vocal but VERY MINOR part of the AEW demographic. The fact is, the people who AEW seem to be taking all their fan input from make up roughly just TWO TO THREE PERCENT of the total viewing audience. This would be VERY evident to the powers that be IF the company was still running full house shows for each taping, which they cannot do during the pandemic. The general fans – the fans that includes families and little kids, the ones buying the tickets to come to the live shows, the ones who loved AEW in the beginning, in other words, the average wrestling fan, need to have something to LOVE as well as someone to hate. Which brings me to point number two…
2 – Too many heels spoil the pot.
Why in the last six months has AEW continuously pushed towards a heel-heavy product? I mean the number of heel factions in the federation is getting ridiculous. You’ve got Death Triangle, you’ve got Eddie Kingston and the “family”, you’ve got FTR (more on them in a moment), you’ve got Team Taz, you’ve got Kenny Omega and his obnoxious mouthpiece, Impact Wrestling’s Don Callis (we’ll talk about this soon as well). you’ve got Sabian and Miro, you’ve got Hybrid II, you’ve got The Acclaimed, a few more smaller heel teams and people, and on the fringes, you’ve got the Young Bucks, who are Charlie Brown-ing all over the place lately, unsure if they’re heels, tweeners, or faces. And you’ve got the two original AEW heel factions, the Inner Circle, led by “Le Champion” Chris Jericho (who isn’t champion and hasn’t been for a year, at least), and which was saddled with the company’s biggest individual “classic” heel, MJF, a couple months back (and WHY in heaven did you do this? MJF was HUGELY over as a solo heel – it makes NO sense…), and you’ve got the original bad-ass group The Dark Order, who have been reduced from the truly-menacing heels they started as to total comic relief since the tragic passing of Brodie Lee on the day after Christmas, and even before, since Lee was unable to appear after losing the TNT belt back to Cody Rhodes in October. To counter them, you’ve got half the number of faces – there’s Cody Rhodes (if he’s really a face, as like the Young Bucks, you just can’t tell anymore WHAT he’s supposed to be) and the rest of the Nightmare Family, all of whom except Dustin Rhodes are pretty much second-tier players, you’ve got Best Friends and buddy Orange Cassidy, You’ve got Jurassic Express, You’ve got Darby Allin, Joey Janela, and Jon Moxley, and….that’s about it. There are minor players in the face or tweener department right now – Top Flight, SCU, Private Party (who have been reduced from immensely entertaining to an utter joke during the pandemic – no other team has suffered a worse fate since COVID reared its ugly head…), Varsity Blondes Griff Garrison and Brian Pillman Jr, and one or two others who seemingly might be on the way to the face department, including now-ex-Inner Circle member Sammy Guevara. So the heels outnumber the faces by more than two to one. Two others stand out as not quite knowing what they’re doing. Lance Archer, who suddenly became a tweener-leaning-hard-face after taking on a feud with Eddie Kingston, …and then…there’s one other person…
- IT’S STTTIIIIINNNNNNGGGGG!
Yes, Sting IS a face, or seems to be so far. He’s sided with Darby Allin for the last month. But talk about bringing in the guy and misusing him BADLY. WOW. Sting said himself he has one more go-round in him, and yet all you’ve done with him since he debuted is use him as an interview spot, so Schiavone can do his little intro schtick, or occasionally break out that bad ass baseball bat against someone in Team Taz. I mean, if I were Sting, and this is all the writers were going to have me do…I would have said “thanks but no thanks” to the offer, whatever it was. You have this man, this LEGEND under a new multi-year contract – for pete’s sake, USE HIM THAT WAY!!!
- Not knowing what to do with people.
AEW is falling into the WWE “creative doesn’t have anything for” people lately. The biggest faux-pas in this area has been with FTR. Dax and Cash are HUGE with the internet hardcore crowd. But they’re also known for being bad-asses in the ring. Everyone was super excited when they finally were able to come to AEW. (me, I didn’t know them that well and had to wait and see. Guess what?) So did the writers play off that bad-ass rep they had? Well, sort of. And then they got paired up with Tully Blanchard, and became a couple of whiny-ass, belly-aching heels that depend on their badboy mentor to help them cheat to win every match (this same thing has also happened with every single member of Team Taz, which is utterly preposterous – NONE of them, except possibly Taz’ son Hook, who’s still training – should need it either). These guys SHOULD NOT have to do that – in the wrestling department, they’re the GENUINE article. They don’t NEED to cheat to win, and they shouldn’t HAVE to do so, and yet that’s what the writers have come up with them. They ALMOST got elevated back to the bad-asses a couple weeks ago…but they botched that opportunity badly…which brings me to…
- Has anyone in AEW ever even heard of the word “continuity”?
Right now, of all the crap…um..STORIES that have been going on, and all the heavy heel horseshit, there’s only been one feud that has been keeping me really interested – the feud between Jurassic Express and FTR. This has been hella fun to watch for the most part, but again, there are some huge problems with it. It started off strong, with Tully Blanchard injuring Marko Stunt during a battle in mid-January; as noted above FTR seems incapable of winning without Blanchard’s interference, which is utterly ridiculous. On the January 27th edition of “Dynamite”, Jungle Boy was granted a one-on-one match with FTR’s Dax, with the stipulation that because they kept cheating to win, both Blanchard and FTR’s Cash Wheeler would have to be handcuffed to Luchasaurus at ringside, so that Luchasaurus could stop them from cheating. The match was hella fun, and topped off by Jungle Boy getting Dax caught in a submission hold and forcing him to TAP OUT. What a BRILLIANT match this was! A total home run. Jungle Boy came out victorious over the big bad Dax, but of course, didn’t get to celebrate their victory as Tully and Cash teamed up, flung Luchasaurus into the ring post on the outside, then slipped out of their handcuffs climbed into the ring and the three of them proceeded to beat the snot out of Jungle Boy and Marko Stunt, who came running from the back to help out, and later cut the horns off of the now- helpless Luchasaurus’ mask. This WAS FANTASTIC, although I would have liked a LITTLE more face happy time before the beatdown occurred, but still, a top notch match, and a top notch ending furthering their feud. The following Sunday, it was announced through Twitter that because of their actions against Jurassic Express, FTR had been barred from the Tag Team Battle Royale, the winners of whom would take on the Young Bucks for the tag titles at Revolution. OK, still good stuff.
BUT THEN…the ROT set in….
It all went off the rails on the “Dynamite” on February 3 2021. Jungle Boy and Luchasaurus got taken out early in that evening’s Tag Team Battle Royale for a title shot, so their chance to take on the Bucks was gone. But, late in the show, they aired one of the best promos the company has ever aired. It focused on FTR, who were supposedly barred from the building that day, and it looked like they were in a hotel room somewhere. Dax and Cash were seated on either side of Tully Blanchard, the three of them bitching and moaning about how they’d been suspended from the Battle Royale, denied their shot at the titles. and that “Jack” (Jungle Boy) had probably gone complaining like a school girl to Tony Khan after their beatdown on Jurassic Express the previous week, and got them suspended. In the background, you can hear some odd noises, much of which sounded like chains rattling, and a few muffled gasps and groans. Dax looks at the camera and said “We’re not bad men. But we have to start thinking…what would bad men do?” He leaned forward, grabbed something, and pulled a chair containing a helpless, bound and gagged Marko Stunt, into the frame. Marko fought like a tiger, trying to yell through his tightly taped mouth, and pulling furiously against the set of handcuffs around each wrist keeping his hands connected to the arms of the chair. Tully got up walked over and stepped between the struggling Marko’s legs, and Marko stopped, looking up at this man who was towering over him with a look of pure hatred mixed with fear. He started struggling again as Tully stepped back, then when Tully stepped forward again, Marko jerked his head back so far his hat went flying off his head.
WOW! What a FANTASTIC promo! And I thought “FINALLY! They’re taking this to the next level! YEAH!”
Hard cut back to the commentary booth – no shot of the team, but of the ring.
“Well, that’s not good”, Jim Ross said.
AND…that was it. Nothing else was said by the commentary team, there were no “we gotta go to the back!” moments to show Jungle Boy and/or Luchasaurus running around desperately trying to find the member of their team that was in serious jeopardy, and out for blood for what FTR had done to the young wrestler that Jungle Boy has always referred to as his best friend. Not even a single SHOT of either JB or Lucha. NOTHING. They were too busy getting over a surprise angle in yet another crossover, this one with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
And – except for putting the promo on the Twitter feed…nothing continued to be done. They were taking an angle that could have elevated both teams to the stratosphere in AEW…and SQUASHING IT. There was NO MENTION of it at all on the AEW feeds online save the single Twitter post; they didn’t even post it on their YouTube page, and neither did TNT. And Marko, Dax, and Cash were keeping Twitter silent – I have to assume THEY were either trying to save a great angle, as all three are rabid Twitter users, or were told by AEW to stay quiet for whatever reason.
Now, before I go on…I have to assume that someone in the back – Tony, Cody, the writers, the odd production assistant, SOMEBODY – obviously knew that this promo would be ELECTRIFYING. But I have a feeling it was put together on the fly, at the last minute, right before or during the broadcast, without calculating what the promo would actually mean to the long-term angle.
I can see the writers and others sitting back in the suites at Daily’s Place, high fiving each other, thinking how awesome the promo looked (it truly was one of the BEST promos in AEW history, IMHO). But then…I also imagine one of those people – whoever it may be – looking up with a sudden, horrible realization, just seconds after it aired…”Hey, wait a minute, didn’t Marko tape a match for Dark this afternoon?”, as a look of utter horror and astonishment suddenly crossed the faces in the room…
Because YES, Marko HAD filmed a “Dark” match for the YouTube show that afternoon – you could tell it was done the same day when it aired, because he’s wearing the same white “All Out” tee shirt he had worn out for that match during his “captivity”.
They dipped even farther away from sanity too –after three days of wrestling news sites, sheets, and YouTube vlogs roasting AEW for their total lack of sense in not following the promo up, and pointing out (as I did on Twitter moments after it aired) that kidnapping is a FEDERAL offense (even though it’s just a storyline, they should have thought of that too…), Marko broke his Twitter silence on Sunday afternoon, and I’m wondering if he did so on his own volition or whether AEW instructed him to do so. And for his part, he appeared like he was trying to save everything that was going wrong through no fault of his own, tweeting “If it hadn’t have been for the AEW officials, I would probably still be trapped in FTR’s locker room…Idk what I would’ve done…I’m going insane right now..” then followed that tweet with another one that said “And I just found out I’m wrestling on Tuesday. Alright, let’s clear my mind then. Gotta get focused”. Dax also tried to save it a bit, tweeting to Marko later on Sunday, “Lucky I didn’t let Tully beat the shit out of you.”, to which Marko replied, “With my hands cuffed to a chair? Explain to me again how y’all are “Top Guys, when you can’t handle “little ole marko” without restraints?” Their attempts to save what SHOULD have been a game-changing power promo that had been BADLY botched was brilliant, but it was all for naught, because at the beginning of Stunt’s match on “Dark” when it aired the following Tuesday (Feb 9), Excalibur immediately cut the rug out from the angle even further by indicating that Marko had told him that FTR “just let him go”, apparently because it was to show that FTR could grab any member of Jurassic Express they wanted whenever they wanted to. He didn’t even mention the idea that AEW officials had found and helped to free him from the clutches of the evil FTR and their Svengali, Tully Blanchard. OMG, REALLY?
OH, what this angle could have been elevated to had people truly thought out this promo and its aftermath. It could have been one of the true highlights of AEW this year. Killer promo, killer performances from Marko Stunt and FTR, It should have been a winner all the way around. Instead, because of what happened, it ended up a huge damper on the entire feud. It made the entire writing and production team look like they didn’t know what they were doing – that they didn’t follow the continuity of the angle at all.
And then, if it were even possible, they made matters WORSE on the following evening’s “Dynamite” (Feb 10) with a backstage interview with Schiavone and Jungle Boy (likely taped 2/4, the day after the original promo aired). Tony mentioned what happened to Marko the previous week, and that thank goodness Marko is OK, to which Jungle Boy merely says “Yes” with a nod of his mane of hair while not even looking at the camera, and then Tony gave the floor to JB, who looked into the camera, and instead of being contrite about what happened, something – ANYTHING – to get a diamond out of a piece of coal, did what he normally would do (or was told to do) and just cut his promo on FTR. Ok, fine. But….NO show of concern for Marko, and worse yet, no direct message to Marko along the lines of “Marko, I’m so sorry. We didn’t know. I’d already left the building. You KNOW I would have done everything I could to help you if I knew”…you know, something that you would normally say to your BEST FRIEND after he’s been KIDNAPPED by the heels….the promo was excellent in trying to salvage the future, but ended up making the botch even worse, and ended up making Jurassic Express’ number one face (and the ONLY member of the team in the Dynamite opening credits, what the fuck is up with that, AEW?) look like a colossal dick who didn’t seem the least bit concerned that Marko – supposedly his best friend – was rescued or is even ok beyond a curt nod to Tony’s comment. And that was it, presumably until Jurassic Express wrestle their match on “Dark” this week (Feb 16), where they are either going to forget it even happened or blow it even further. Oh Yeah….there was one other snarky appearance for the way the angle had been done at the beginning of Sammy Guevara’s always-hilarious YouTube vlog (I have to admit, I personally think Guevara’s blog was better BEFORE it became part of the official AEW online family), the day Dark aired that week – in the opening seconds after the credits, Sammy and Marko are in Sammy’s hotel room. Sammy says, with a smirk on his face, “So you’re not kidnapped, then?” to which Marko looks goofily into the camera and says “No, I’m not kidnapped anymore.” And you could sense his total frustration with what they’d done, how good it had been, and how TOTALLY WRONG it had gone since…for the love of GOD, guys, this feud has been excellent so far…how could you BOTCH THINGS THIS BADLY? You had a (pardon the pun) dynamite angle boosted by a first-class heel promo where the bad guys took the most vulnerable member of their rival team and put him in a situation he could not likely get out of on his own, and then just FLUSHED IT. WHAT THE HELL?
OK, enough for now. In part two, I’ll tackle a few other major annoyances, and the other GLARING problem with AEW right now – their joint crossover deal with Impact Wrestling.
ADDENDUM 3/2/21 – on the Dynamite that aired on 2/24, FTR and Jurassic Express had a nearly two-minute promo that showed off everything done in this angle the way it SHOULD have been done – they worked hard to salvage the earlier botched promo, and to set up the Jurassic Express v FTR and Tully match on this week’s show….maybe they actually HEARD what I was saying here? Someone must have, because this promo was as good as the FTR/Marko promo earlier in the month…let’s just hope that the match exceeds all expectations…fingers crossed…