Welcome to the first in a new series of AEW Roundtables on ProWrestlingMusings.com in which myself (Dan) and the PWM team will be looking at some wider issues in the world of AEW, and not specifically at the weekly helpings of Dynamite and Rampage.
This week sees the gang in the wrestling equivalent of 'transfer-window fever' (or 'draft fever' for all you Americans) as we discuss which members of the wrestling industry that are searching for a new home AEW should sign.
2021 has been a rough year for many companies, and Ring of Honor seeming to go under earlier this year seemed to underline that. On top of that Vince McMahon and his not so merry gang of ass-hats have released 80 people in 2021, all apparently due to 'budget-cuts' (seriously...ass-hats).
All of that means there is an unprecedented number of wrestlers currently available to AEW, not to mention those who we know are soon to come to the end of their contracts, and I expect the majority of them have reached out to Tony Khan in some capacity already.
So there are some big decisions for TK to make in the coming months, and we here at PWM are here to help him make the right calls. Give me a ring directly Tony for any further insights that might be required.
This week's contributors are Gareth (@Gareth_EW), Peter (@PeterEdge7), Joe (@ProWrestlingJoe), Andy (@AndyDCollier), the Big Dog himself, Craig (@CraigPWMusings), Sam (@BigBadaBruce), Brian (@AEWMetrics) and my good-self Dan (@WrestlingRhymes).
Q1 - Which current, or soon to be Free-Agent, must AEW sign as an absolute tippy-top priority? Why are they such a ‘must-get’?
[Gareth] There are a few and I’m sure we’ll cover most of the best in this article. But my absolute number one priority would be Keith Lee. He is full of untapped potential as a major star and he also fills in a role that AEW currently don’t have, two actually.
AEW don’t have a big beefy boi who could legitimately be world champion anytime soon. They have potential in Wardlow, they have a mid-card monster in Lance Archer and Miro who is on the cusp. He is also a legitimate black star. Not potential as with a lot of AEW’s black talent, he’s ready to go. He could be TNT Champion in 2022 and world champ within the next 2 years and it wouldn’t seem out of place.
Keith Lee has also teamed with Shane Strickland on the independent circuit, so if AEW wanted to start Lee off in the tag division with Strickland, I’d be far from against it. Keith Lee is an exceptional tag team wrestler and in a company that values tag wrestling, that wouldn’t feel like a demotion. And when the time is right to unleash him in singles action – he's been protected in tag matches and would feel fresh there.
[Peter] Like Gareth, I think Keith Lee is the can’t miss of the class of current free agents so I’ll look elsewhere and I’ll go for Kevin Owens or Kevin Steen as he'll be known as should he move to AEW.
The moment Sean Ross Sapp reported that Kevin’s contract was up on January 31 2022, Twitter exploded with the prospect of Kevin joining All Elite Wrestling and the potential of a reunion of Mount Rushmore with Steen, Adam Cole and The Young Bucks reforming PWG’s main stable in the early 00’s. But the playbook for Kevin’s return is much bigger than just intersecting him into The Elite’s story.
Steen in kayfabe has history with many of AEW’s biggest stars from Chris Jericho (I’m sure TK will be cool with a rematch between the pair) to PAC and Jon Moxley and the potential for dream matches is endless. I actually might sell a kidney to fund travel to see Steen face Eddie Kingston in person if that match arises.
One interesting play for Steen and his arrival to AEW could come in the shape of The Owen Hart Memorial Cup. What a perfect way to introduce Kevin, the man who named his son after The Rocket and of course his WWE name is in honor of the former IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion.
[Joe] The number one signing I feel AEW need to make in 2022 is Kevin Steen. Anyone who remembers anything from his career before WWE would see why he could become one of the hottest performers in wrestling again if he was under the AEW umbrella. Like Peter said, the feuds are already made for him, he has so much pre-existing history with this roster. The Owen is perfect for him, and yes, I would need to see him and Eddie Kingston go at it again on the big stage.
[Andy] It is very hard to disagree that the two biggest names coming available seem to be Keith Lee and Kevin Steen. But there are a couple of NXT contracts potentially expiring soon too. Both Jonny Gargano and Kyle O'Reilly are said to be coming to the end of their deals and either would be a tremendous signing for the AEW ranks.
If I had to pick one though, Jonny Wrestling would be my choice. With bags of experience as a babyface and a heel, the ability to work anywhere on the card and amazing technical ability, it's hard to deny he would be an asset to any brand.
[Craig] Kairi Sane/Hojo. AEW seemed to be prioritising integrating Joshi wrestling into their fledgling product in 2019. A smart choice with WWE having essentially signed 99% of the independent scene’s female wrestlers. However, 2 years later and the results of this are somewhat disappointing. It is true that Joshi wrestlers make up 50% of Women’s World Champions in AEW, including the longest one. However, the division has always been restricted to one match a week, pre-Rampage, and often scheduled in the worst TV slot.
Enter Kairi Sane... The former Stardom and NXT World Champion has American TV experience and exposure as well as being a top tier wrestler bringing the same Joshi expertise as Shida and Riho. Whether she would be able to transcend the language barrier that AEW never really solved when it came to their 2 previous Joshi World Champions is not a guarantee.
With all that in mind, if AEW can convince Sane to have a second bite of the American wrestling apple rather than return home to Stardom they will be signing the best in-ring wrestler potentially available to their most maligned division.
[Sam] While I completely agree with all the options suggested, one that has surprised me by not being mentioned is Taya Valkyrie. A proven and capable leader in Impact’s Women’s Division, she has had successful runs as both a babyface and a heel, offering a variety to the AEW Women’s Division. With both the AEW Women’s Championship and the TBS Championship now in play, an experienced hand like Taya would only benefit AEW.
[Brian] Kyle O’Reilly is a severely underrated talent that has unfinished business with many prominent members of the AEW Roster. The athletic Canadian has proven himself time and again on NXT near the top of the card but could work himself slowly up the AEW ranks in the years to come. Both as a Singles and in reDRagon, this man can go like few others.
[Dan] The biggest issue with AEW right now is their women’s division, so for me the person top of their list needs to be someone who can help rectify that. Ember Moon is the name many have bandied about, but for me the better option is Tegan Nox.
There are few more sympathetic characters in wrestling right now after her nightmare injuries followed up by her callous treatment from WWE. So who better to become the Hangman Page of the women’s division? She just absolutely screams top babyface for me, and I think that is something that AEW desperately need in their women’s division. Plus she’s a bloody good wrestler to-boot.
Q2 - Who else should Tony Khan be trying to snare for AEW and why? No repetitions here please…this isn’t an episode of Monday Night Raw.
[Gareth] AEW desperately need more good women’s wrestlers. They have a lot of green women’s talent and whilst they don’t necessarily need stars in that division, women who have some name value, are good in the ring and can take losses here and there would open that division up a lot.
Ember Moon is the obvious one. She’s a brilliant wrestler with an awesome finisher, particularly. She has previously failed to capture me as a character, but that’s a problem I’d be willing to bet was more of a WWE problem than her issue. I would also prioritise Tegan Nox for the same reasons.
[Peter] Of all the talk about the current in-ring talent that has been released or contracts that are about to expire, someone that is under the radar is Paige. Her contract is up in May 2022, a fact she was happy to disclose on her Twitch stream earlier in the year.
We have seen in the past few years' wrestlers like Edge, Christian and Bryan Danielson get medically cleared when it was thought that their bump card had expired and that they would never see action in the squared circle again so it is possible that we might see Paige back in the ring and with the lighter schedule that AEW offers, don’t be surprised if you see a Saraya Knight is All Elite banner come up on your Twitter timeline in the Spring of 2022.
[Joe] If Tony Khan doesn’t sign Shane “Swerve” Strickland there’s something wrong with the boss. Six years younger than Keith Lee, has the charisma, the experience, the promos hit, there’s so much potential in Swerve and he did not get the chance by Vince, if or when he gets the chance to do his thing in AEW, there will be no turning back. Here’s a new star on your TV.
[Andy] Let's not beat around the bush - the AEW women's division has never quite hit the heights it is capable of and there is plenty of talent available. Whilst Ember Moon, Tegan Nox and Paige have already been mentioned, let's not overlook the grossly mis-used in NXT Taya Valkyrie. Rather than using her experience and power, she was given a gimmick destined to flop from the outset and was never given the time to perform.