AEW Roundtable Special - Which Free-Agents Should AEW Sign?
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.
She is a vastly experienced wrestler and could follow in the steps of Serena Deeb, helping the younger and less experienced women whilst putting on matches far above the quality we have been used to seeing until recently. With a new title in the mix and maybe Tag Titles on the way, how could Tony Khan say no? And maybe she will bring her husband too...
[Craig] Gareth has already mentioned him in his 3rd pick, however my motivations for picking him are a little differently explained; Jonathon Gresham. He’s a non-WWE guy with huge potential and because of his style he immediately brings you tantalising potential matches. Gresham fits in perfectly to the current ‘dream match’ cycle; vs Garcia, vs Moriarty and of course vs Danielson. He also seems to be a highly motivated and ambitious guy as he tried to steer Ring of Honor in a different direction to the minutia of other wrestling companies. He doubled down on this post ROH demise(?) with his new company/show; Terminus.
[Brian] The priority for 2022 needs to be the women, plain and simple. Diversity within the women’s division with respect to background/ethnicity body type, fighting style, and any other category will be key in particular to help new talent stand apart. Entire Marina Shafir. With a legitimate MMA background combined with a fledgling professional wrestling career that has yet it hit its peak, And when AEW finally get around to those Women Tag Titles, she and Leyla Hirsch can win via double arm bars.
[Sam] Yet again, a tremendous range of names that I would agree with, especially Keith Lee, Jonathan Gresham, Ember Moon, Kevin Steen. But I’m also again surprised to not see any mention for Rush, whose contract with Ring of Honor will end soon and is a main event talent who could partner with or even supplant Andrade.
[Dan] All of the names mentioned above are tremendous talents, and I’d love to see them all in AEW. But for me, AEW really is in a situation now where anyone coming in has to be plugging a hole that nobody else on the roster already does. Whilst AEW is certainly not shy of using comedy characters such as Orange Cassidy, I think they do need a bit more variety in that area, therefore if I was Tony Khan I’d be picking up the phone-hausen to one man in particular.
Currently on the injury list, Danhausen should remain on TK’s list, mainly so that I can see Danhausen v OC at least once, but also because I think his antics could really help the pacing of some AEW shows.
Q3 - Finally, who would be your more ‘left-field’ signing from those currently not signed to a major promotion? This can be a relative unknown, or someone that most other AEW fans might steer clear of.
[Gareth] Maybe this doesn’t qualify as “left-field” but Jonathan Gresham would be great. Dream match with Bryan Danielson aside, imagine what he could do as a mentor for a guy like Lee Moriarty! I’d build a faction around him with the likes of Top Flight involved as well as Moriarty. Trish Adora isn’t signed, but she did appear on Dark: Elevation and I’d add her into the faction also – Gresham is her wrestling inspiration. Or, in the future when she’s free, Jordynne Grace, Gresham’s wife.
And in his own right, he’d be a shoo-in to be TNT Champion one day, potentially even world champion also down the line. He is only 33 years old, after all. He’ll likely be Ring of Honor champion soon, so he could even defend that on AEW TV like Serena Deeb did with the NWA title. Relations between the companies are up in the air, so that might not be realistic. But I imagine AEW would like to pay homage in some way to ROH, the company that effectively birthed AEW.
[Peter] For all the talk about the free agents from WWE coming into AEW and improving the women’s division, a signing like Session Moth Martina would really help the division.
Martina’s character would be an electricity volt to a division while with potential up and down the roster still has something lacking. Her few months in ROH before the pandemic hit were fun and currently she is one of the highlights of the British independent scene since the scene opened back up.
If Martina is willing to move to the US, TK should get in contact with the Irish star and get her signed up.
[Joe] I’ve seen enough of these kinds of replies to include her as someone who other AEW fans might steer clear of. Tegan Nox has had three major ACL injuries (among other injuries) in her relatively short career, and because of this I’ve seen some fans say she’s not someone they’d invest in. I think that’s really unfair in her case, considering she has great experience that the AEW roster is still lacking in numbers, she’s clearly a huge talent, she’d be another wrestler I could see Tony would trust with microphone time and she’s still only 27 years of age. Can’t miss for the roster imo, right next to Ember Moon who I feel everyone is in agreeance of signing. [Andy] First of all, I fully agree with the Gresham pick - he is an exceptionally underrated talent. But from a personal perspective there is one name I would love to see. Rockstar Spud (or Drake Maverick) shone in any role he was given in WWE. I'm not suggesting a main event push for him, but having a (in my opinion) better version of Fuego Del Sol or Marko Stunt won't hurt. Plus, he is able to work backstage with production teams and fit into multiple roles if needed.
[Craig] The major players from Stardom through the ‘Forbidden Door’. As previously mentioned, AEW tried to use Stardom to give its women’s division a different flavour in the early days of the promotion with Riho, Jamie Hayter and Bea Priestly featuring in pre-Dynamite shows. There are now more women available to AEW and the division has grown possibly as the original Joshi plan is moved on from.
I would not give up on the utilisation of Stardom. Yes, the AEW Women’s World Championship Contender Tournament featured 9 Japanese women (8 in Japan + Riho) but Stardom is arguably the best women’s wrestling on the planet. If they can present wrestlers like Utami Hayashishita, Giulia, Mayu Iwatani or Syuri as New Japan level stars swooping in for the odd big match with AEW-signed talent it would up the standard in-ring and add big prestige matches.
[Brian] I’m not just trying to increase the Canadian content here, I promise but we can all definitely sit through few Elevation and Dark matches out of the Bollywood Boyz, at least to see if this is a good fit for all involved. I saw them before a basically hometown crowd in Vancouver bumping for Jinder in 2017 (a title reign I’m sure many of us would like to forget) and it’s stuck with me every since.
[Sam] Based on the British wrestling scene, one who has made a good name for himself is Cara Noir, the current Progress Wrestling Champion. Based upon the ballet Black Swan, Noir has an elaborate look and appearance that then transcends into a fluid moveset based on his ballet experience. With previous matches against the likes of PAC (viewable on YouTube from Riptide Wrestling) and a trilogy with Ilja Dragunov (shameless plug: https://twitter.com/ThisIs_Progress/status/1302207348283326464) that gained critical acclaim, he offers something very different to the mid-card.
[DH] Cara Noir is an absolutely brilliant shout and I am annoyed that Sam got their first so…instead I will say Rok-C. The current Ring of Honor women’s champion has shot to the top of that promotion at just the age of 20, and both her current talent and her potential are undeniable. I would really love to see AEW properly investing in the women’s division, and to do so they need to be looking to get the best talent both for the here and now, and for the future. Signing Rok-C would be a statement of intent in relation to the future of the division, and I think she would be well placed to fit into some big stories straight away.