It's easy to forget, after many months of mediocrity and irrelevance, but when AEW Rampage debuted, it was widely acclaimed as the fastest and most fun hour of wrestling each week. Last night’s “Championship Friday” was a throwback to those days, and, with AEW’s YouTube shows canceled as a concession to exclusivity to broadcast partner TWD, and with the new 2-hour prime-time Collision arriving soon, now seems a good time to ask if last night was a fluke, or a harbinger of things to come?
Looking back on the quality decline of Rampage, we may remember the "golden age" as brief, but memories are very unreliable, so let's look at some data. Here is a graph of a six-week rolling average of viewer ratings of different AEW programs:
As you can see, AEW viewers' honeymoon with AEW Rampage lasted almost a full year! True, there was a brief moment of a few weeks after the debut when Rampage was in fact better-received than Dynamite, itself. But Rampage averaged solidly in the vicinity of a 7-rating all the way to July of 2022, almost a year after the debut,
A Blueprint for a Tenuous Future
My view on last night's Rampage is that it may or may not turn out to be a fluke, but it is a blueprint that could be used by AEW's braintrust to carve out a sustainable quality-level and uniqueness that would serve the wants of a loyal, if somewhat smaller, audience, even in a world with four hours of prime-time AEW programming that is necessarily going to have higher priority for attention, storylines, talent, and content in general.
There is no way that a show starting at 10 PM Eastern is ever going to be a ratings smash, so what could ever be a reason for existing and for maintaining a level of quality for Rampage as a part of the AEW line-up, especially with a new, two-hour, prime-time show being added? I think an answer to this can be found in another question being asked in the darker corners of the internet. While most of the fans I interact with regularly heard Excalibur announce the card for Friday night and were thrilled, and convinced to make a point to watch a show they’d fallen out of the habit of watching, other fans had the opposite reaction:
This may seem like a petty complaint: “So what if they aren’t AEW Championships? when we’re getting four on-paper amazing matchups in one night?” But there is more to it than that. If they were AEW title matches they would be involved in ongoing AEW storylines. And isn’t being connected to ongoing storylines normally pretty important for getting people engaged with pro wrestling?
It is true that story is an essential part of pro wrestling. But, for better or worse, every match has and/or is part of SOME kind of story. It's very important to building an audience for a serial program to have a story that carries forward from week to week, leaving the audience anxious to find out what happens next. But it's also something really special when, knowing only the skills and reputation of the competitors, many fans will already buy in, and be anxious to find out what happens in a very short, one-match story.
That kind of story has some negatives: that sort may not have as much mainstream appeal and it may not be as "sticky" in the sense of the ability to drag an audience on tenterhooks from one week to the next. But in this specific context, those negatives could be positives: Rampage, in its odd late-night timeslot probably can never maintain a massive audience, so if you had a great idea for a story to hook an audience in and draw them from week to week, you probably wouldn't want to waste it on Rampage! But great, simple self-contained stories like we saw last night could give it a purpose and a unique character to give it value in spite of that and draw a realistic-sized (for the time slot) but loyal audience.
Setting the (Announce) Table
One issue that Rampage had from the start, even in the early months when it was well-liked, was a substandard announce desk. The program started out with the unwieldy hydra of Excalibur, Taz, Chris Jericho, and Mark Henry. Jericho and Henry quickly proved that they just weren't ready to transition their careers to be broadcasters.
Meanwhile, Dynamite has lately developed into, imho, possibly the greatest commentary desk in pro wrestling history. Excalibur and Taz translated their loose-limbed, sometimes goofy, rapport they had developed on the YouTube shows to prime time. Combine that with the feel-good career-renaissance story of Tony Schiavone, and you have three perfect archetypes of the roles you'd want filled in a broadcast booth: a cerebral analyst, a crusty veteran athlete, with his inside perspective on why competitors make the choices they do, and an enthusiastic and energetic voice of the fans.
They achieved this perfection by addition through subtraction, and what was subtracted was good ol' Jim Ross. Which might make you think that, as least valuable player on Dynamite's desk, I might not think he adds much to Excalibur and Schiavone on Friday nights where he's been relegated to make room for Taz on Wednesdays.
The rap on JR is that he supposedly has very narrow tastes and can't talk up wrestling he doesn't personally enjoy. And that he can't keep up with, or gets frustrated with, matches with rules or stipulations to account for, that are different from what he's used to.
We got the exact opposite of that last night. Two of the championships on the line had special house rules that are genuinely potentially confusing, and the array of talent on tap spanned the globe. The old Cowboy did a fantastic job pointing out how the differing rules affected the competitors' strategies, and talking up the wide variety of skills on display from wrestlers from Mexican, British, Japanese, and US wrestling traditions, and drawing valuable parallels between the modern masters we saw in Shibata and Sabre, and old-school masters in their respective traditions in Antonio Inoki and Billy Robinson.
One of the things that made the atmosphere last night really unique was the location. San Diego is a sister-city with Tijuana, Mexico, really a single metropolitan area divided by an arbitrary borderline, and you could feel that not-in-Kansas atmosphere with the sounds of the lucha-tradition vuvuzela horns coming from the audience to cheer on the luchadors opening the show with a triple-threat defense of El Hijo del Vikingo's AAA Mega-Championship. This was, of course, a thrilling contest and the spot that really made the audience (and me) leap from our seats was Komander's rope-walk springboard dive. JR made the excellent call that we had just witnessed a piece of art.
The climax of the match saw Komander and Dralistico down on a table on the outside and Vikingo setting up for a move. The drama in this moment highlights the importance of having a marquee match like Vikingo did with Kenny Omega back in March, because of the impression the move had then, seeing this same set-up let the audience know to get hype! Sure enough, they were set up to take Vikingo's amazing inside-out 630 splash, crashing Vikingo through Komander and table, but Dralistico slipped out at the last minute, and as freshest man, pulled the Champion in with the intent to finish him off with a powerbomb, but Vikingo counters that into a winning pin with a head-scissors takedown, (essentially Rey Misterio's West Coast Pop.)
Where Bad Pitches Go to Die
How do some of the more ridiculous (or, in some fans' opinion, "fun") stories end up on Rampage? I picture a brainstorming session with all terrible ideas, TK doesn't want to shoot them ALL down and so he says "I'm not totally sold, but you can try it on Rampage, and we'll see how it goes over?"
That's how I see the origin of almost everything Jarrett going, especially his faction's current feud with, of all people, a referee.
Maybe I'm exaggerating for comedic effect, maybe not, but I have a tough time seeing where else stuff like this can go besides Rampage. It's the biggest obstacle I see to AEW making Rampage the "no-context bangers" show like I am hoping/theorizing here. So it looks like we have a big intergender tag match featuring Karen Jarrett and Aubrey Edwards to look forward to on a Friday night soon. Yay.
The second match of the night was a great example of a contrast of styles, with an exciting homegrown high-flying rookie taking on a punishing technical expert from out of town. In another taste of the international flavor of Almost-Tijuana, these two competitors get the exact opposite reaction you would probably expect based on those descriptions. Unlike his shocking upset of the Ocho, Chris Jericho, where, even though the fans didn’t even know his name yet, they supported him with chants of “Let’s Go, Jobber!” tonight when he tried to rally from Sabre’s punishment, Action Andretti was met with silence, while Sabre’s nastiest tortures prompted soccer chants of “Go, Zach Sabre, Jr.” to the tune of “Seven Nation Army”...
This was the only important thing I feel commentary missed tonight, it would’ve been a great point to mention how Andretti isn’t accustomed to trying to fight through without the support of the “sixth man” of the fans’ support.
Women Slapping Meat
The first big feud in AEW’s women’s division was between tiny giant-killer Riho and the Native Beast, Nyla Rose. So I think it’s awesome that, with the amazing rapid rise of Willow Nightingale and the return from injured reserve of the new TBS Champion Kris Statlander, that we have some big, tough women with some weight to throw around who are protagonists, so that we can have some real hoss fights in this division. This match was a classic example of that genre with the typical “I dare you to try to knock me down” spots. The match rises above simply generic mainly on the strength of Willow’s positively infectious enthusiasm and charisma.
A Worthy Main Event
On a show that runs as late as this one does, the opening slot is often the most marketable match, because they know it's the one more people are going to see. And, gun to head, if I had to pick my favorite match of the night (and of the week,) I would have to give it to the flying thrills of the lucha opener. But the ROH Pure Championship defense was absolutely worthy of the traditional featured slot, nonetheless, Shibata amazingly even outshining the technical prowess of the dazzling ZSJ earlier in the hour. Lee Moriarty was there as a foil, but was highly effective in his role. Like Sabre, the crowd was very into Shibata methodically taking his challenger apart, but unlike ZSJ, it wasn't just a case of "this is just a weird crowd," but that Shibata can make methodically destroying and "son"-ing his opponent seem like a natural thing to root for!
Well, that's a lot of words to describe and analyze a one-hour show, but the gist of my point is:
last night's show is a formula for quality for Rampage that I hope to see AEW make a regular thing, ideally (if not realistically,) every week.
if you haven't watched it, free up an hour for yourself and watch it, well worth the investment of time!