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We Need To Talk About AEW..... Part 3 (The Big Acquisitions Era)

It's nearly 3am on a Friday Night and I have work the next morning. I have just been speaking to a woman who I met on tinder the previous week on video call for three hours. The previous sentence tells you how well it's going in my love life. This feels great. Without wanting to bore you about my love life, the fact that I've met someone on tinder, been on a date and I'm now having conversations that last longer than a Bryan Danielson ROH match in 2005 is a bigger overachievement since Miz wrestled a ****½ match. 

But I have to stop this phone call because it's time for AEW Rampage but I'm not watching this new hour of AEW programme in the blind hope that Rampage is actually going to be a 1a show instead of being AEW’s answer to Worldwide. This is a live show from Chicago and it's called The First Dance and unless it's the biggest case of deception since an episode of The Americans, it's going to be the first time CM Punk has appeared on a wrestling television show since January 2014.

The man who reawakened my love of wrestling after the 2007 Chris Benoit tragedy with his run in the early 2010's joining a roster with my current favourites such as Jon Moxley, The Elite and Hangman Page was a recipe for the finest cuisine wrestling has to offer surely? 12 months later, it turned out to be a recipe for disaster. Oh, and the woman I was falling for told me she wasn't ready for a relationship and I haven't spoken to her since.

The First Dance

Watching The First Dance back and even as someone who knows how The Elite were in the right in the civil war that broke out in the backstage areas of AEW, this occasion, even tinged with the knowledge that this particular Straight-Edged leopard hadn't changed any spots, it's still an unreal occasion. The pop, the tracking camera shot of Punk in the aisle, the crying fan (and Mark Henry's saying wow probably seeing an organic moment in wrestling for the first time in his life) even if the speech with the apology and the “retired from wrestling in 2005” line sounding hollow with hindsight.

Dave Meltzer calling it “one of the greatest moments in wrestling history” holds true on a rewatch 3 years later even if the moment is sullied by what happens later. Also on this rewatch, it shows that for a company that prestiges themselves on Moments, comparing The First Dance to Punk's first week back to his “home” and how inauthentic that week felt, AEW actually do Moments better than the “Leader in Sports Entertainment”

But looking back, the debut in AEW of CM Punk, which was in the beginning of the Big Acquisition Era of All Elite Wrestling might have been the era where AEW actually lost their religion

24 men and 4 women have gone straight to AEW from WWE whilst in free agency. (4 of those would go back to the E) Of those acquisitions from WWE, whether it's from releases or free agency, five came from a 4 month period from Double or Nothing to AEW Grand Slam and only one hit the notes they were trying to achieve. 

Malakai finds his way out of solitary confinement 

Malakai Black’s debut in AEW was awesome. Yes, the timing was perfect with it happening on the second show back with a full arena at Road Rager but the kicks to Arn Anderson and Cody Rhodes and the presence of Malakai standing tall got those who felt TAFKA Aleister was squandered by the out of touch hierarchy at WWE excited about the future of TAFKA Tommy End.

In the months before the debut of the Netherlands greatest wrestler, the debuts of Andrade and Miro didn't live up to the wishes of those who felt the out of touch hierarchy of WWE didn't use them better but being managed by Vickie Guerrero and being Kip Sabian’s best mate respectively will do that. 

While Malakai Black’s defeat in the Steel Cage Match at Double or Nothing this past week saw the stat that the loss was his first since October 23, 2021 might have got even the  most casual AEW watcher to go “Malakai really doesn’t do jobs does he?”, it is a microscope on why Malakai won’t go down as a AEW great as his faction House of Black’s 36th place in Bleacher Report’s Top 40 Greatest AEW Wrestlers testifies. There are many reasons why Malakai hasn’t really worked out. From selling for Rosario Dawson during the Cody Rhodes feud to the lack of losing. You can blame the lack of interesting and fun associated with Malakai in his time in AEW. Even the two names I mentioned in the previous paragraph who are classified as busts had their fun moments with Miro’s TNT Title run and Andrade’s feud with Darby and his bewilderment that Darby wasn’t a child owned by Sting plus his run in the Continental Classic. 

Yes, House of Black has had some fun matches in the Trios division but with his head turned in the summer of 2022 (more on that in Part 4) and the lack of  progression in the story of Malakai, ‘Kai has been nothing but a bust.

All In 2021 was one of those nights. Those nights aren't forgotten by fans. From the 2021 MOTY between The Young Bucks and The Lucha Brothers, Punk vs Darby, Ruby Soho’s debut and Omega/Christian II, it would have been an all-timer PPV had the last few mins not happened. But the debuts of Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson was the icing on top. 

Cole’s first 9 months in AEW were really good. The perfect placement with The Elite, reforming the Supekliq with Matt and Nick Jackson with the tension with Kenny Omega obvious to see. The map was laid out for a Undisputed Era Vs Elite feud but then injuries happened. Kyle O’Reilly, one of the many signings from WWE in this period got put on the injury list, Bobby Fish not making CM Punk look great meant he was no more for Elite world and Adam Cole’s concussion issues meant that the Trios Titles marquee was never meant to be. Instead we got 8 months of The Acclaimed as champs but more on Tony’s weaknesses as a booker later. 

That amount of bad luck is an interesting comparison to WWE who have always felt like a company with a horseshoe permanently stuck on them throughout the years but sometimes you make your own luck as the seismic event of All Out 2022 showed.

The American Dragon awakens

The other big reveal of the finale of All Out 2021 has been the biggest success of the big acquisitions of the second half of 2021  (one day I will go into my theory that Christian Cage was the best signing of the whole of 2021). Bryan Danielson has featured in some of the greatest matches in AEW history. Of the nine matches above 9.50 on Cagematch that have taken place in an AEW ring, five of them have involved Bryan Danielson. When it comes to the USP that AEW offer, Danielson in a company that talks about being the place where “the best wrestle” is a manner of heaven and after shy of three years in AEW Danielson is a contender to be on AEW’s Rushmore as his 5th place in B/R’s Top 40 shows. But the question I ask is, who has (except MJF and Adam Page you could argue) has Danielson put over for the better? More on this in a later edition.

Before I upset all of you by pointing in greater detail about Danielson not getting anyone actually over, let's look at the type of opponents the big signings of 2021 had in their first years in AEW

While Punk, Cole and Malakai did face a plethora of new opponents in their first year in AEW, as seen above, Danielson in his first year retread a lot of his hits from his Best Of album from the days of ROH and WWE that would have made CD 3 but we got dream matches with Kenny Omega, who had progressed from the first meeting between the pair in 2009 and Minoru Suzuki. 

We got Danielson wrestling some of the best matches of his career in his time in AEW with 5 of his top 10 highest rated matches on Cagematch being in an AEW ring but a lot of the matches we have seen have been dream matches to satisfy Danielson. I mean, only a narcissist would say “I can get a 4 star match out of Satnam Singh” (he failed) This isn’t meant as a criticism. If more people would set themselves up for dream matches to satisfy their bucket list and curiosities, wrestling would be even better than it is currently. Hell, AEW was the unintentional consequence of a list made up by Cody Rhodes.

But as someone who lives by the mantra that the point of pro wrestling is to lose, Bryan Danielson’s willingness to lose has seen only two men benefit from that in Hangman Page and MJF. To be fair it is to bare no fault on Bryan that those two didn’t hit the stratosphere that Danielson looking at the lights intended them to do.

As previously mentioned in the first part of our AEW series, New Year's Day 2020 is a day that should be seen as one of their most important in their history with their rating of 0.36 after the disaster of 18/12/19 and if you don't believe me on how important that night is, Trish from the Trish & Sarah podcast, shouted out my take out on the most recent show (cheap plug sorted)

The deal with Time Warner that resulted gave AEW a steady foundation to work on and with the empty arena era that would follow, gave the company extra security in those months of uncertainty for the world. But New Years would also kickstart a story that would pay off 22 months later.

The Unsung Hero(es)

The story of Hangman feeling like he wasn't good enough for the all-star faction that is The Elite and using alcohol as a coping device, winning the tag titles with Kenny Omega, being the guy carrying the team in the tag title match against The Young Bucks, letting FTR get into his head and costing The Bucks in the gauntlet leading to the Page/Elite split, the numerous chances to be the No.1 contender only to fail and then taking his chance in the Casino Ladder Match and then overcoming Kenny Omega and ending his run as a heel champ at Full Gear is if not the best story has produced in its 5-year history, has to be everyone’s Rushmores of AEW feuds.

While the 5.5 stars that Dave Meltzer gave for Page vs Omega at Full Gear might be Evidence D that Daveflation is a thing, the moment of the crowning of Hangman as champ itself was rewarding with the nod from Matt Jackson which could still resonate with current storylines with the Elite and the group celebration that involved The Dark Order being one of the feel good moments that made AEW so beloved at this time. The fact Kenny vs Hangman won Best Feud in the Observer Awards with double the votes of second (with a 3rd place in 2020 also included) shows how highly rated the story of Hangman and Omega was but a look at the ratings of the summer of 2021 tells you how the Omega and Elite/Page rivalry captivated the fans.

With competition at it's highest in a non-NFL window with the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals in July because of the reconfiguration of both sports seasons due to the pandemic plus Big Brother which is still popular in the US, which might actually the final piece of evidence that America really isn't working out and the Olympics which is the Olympics, with Hangman and Omega/Elite as the main rivalry in the promotion, AEW were doing very good numbers.

But what about the quarters, you ask?

It's almost as if AEW was hot before the First Dance was announced.

The World Title reign of Hangman when it came to match quality is arguably one of the best in AEW so far with the pair of Danielson matches, the fun Texas Death Match and the pair of Adam Cole matches but it ended at Double or Nothing with that match against CM Punk.

Over the past weekend, you have read plenty of words on the internet writing about the 5th anniversary of AEW’s first event and while many people will point to All Out 2022 and THAT media scrum and while that is seen as a moment of infamy in the short of life of AEW and THAT “workers right” line seen as the trigger point that led to Brawl Out, the result of the Double or Nothing main event should be seen as the moment AEW lost its religion.

On First Dance day, the obvious endgame was that CM Punk would win Big Platinum (obviously with the improbable hypothetical that Punk wouldn’t have done CM Punk things) but in an company where struggle has been key to babyfaces on the road to their first title, Punk winning the World Title at his first try felt jarring in the grand scheme of the company. 

While Hangman overcame all the obstacles he needed to to climb Everest from losing to Jericho at All Out 2019 to losing the trust of his stablemates to losing to Brian Cage and his No.1 slot in the rankings in the week before the No.1 Contender was determined for Double or Nothing 2021 to losing valiantly in the Dark Order vs The Elite 10 man tag elimination match to determine if he could get a chance at Omega and his title at All Out 2021 and Darby Allin had to conquer his Everest that was Cody Rhodes to win the TNT Title, Punk got to the top of the AEW mountain via cable car.

With the first nine months in AEW having seen Punk wrestle guys (if you take Darby out of the equation) with a combined record of 22-38 on Dynamite/PPV appearances with the only guys out of the 16 Punk wrestled on the road to DoN with winning records in the 365 days before said match being Darby (15-1) MJF (4-1), Wardlow (6-3) and Penta (1-0) Things just felt too easy. Hell, the perfect redemption story moment in Punk's climb to gold would have come in Chicago at some point down the line maybe in 2023 after a loss to Hangman in Vegas (obviously with the improbable hypothetical that CM Punk wouldn’t have done CM Punk things) but it wasn’t to be.

As we all know the third Summer of Punk ended up being a worse threequel than Godfather Part III, AEW felt chaotic, the wrestling internet discourse got worse thanks to the PunkAnon section of wrestling twitter and the man who was presented as the game changer for AEW who did change the game but for the worse. But CM Punk wasn’t the only problem in the room.

Cody Island

While Punk was insisting that he was a changed man, Adam Cole was with his buddies from  The Elite and Bryan Danielson was back to being The American Dragon, one segment a week would emanate from Cody Island. Cody Rhodes, it could be argued was the biggest loser of the Empty Arena Era. From spending the first year of the company as a focal character in the company, heading out of Revolution as a part of the Elite, when Cody entered the Nightmare Factory Era of Dynamite, it was the moment he emancipated himself the group that reinvigorated the American Nightmare. While Cody’s TNT Title run is in the argument for the best ever TNT Title reign, the fact that Cody climbed his Mt. Logan in an empty Daily’s Place, won the TNT belt six months after he lost a match in which he forfeited  any future opportunity to contest for the World Title was the early signs that the man who it could be argued was the main character in the early days of AEW was getting stale already.

Add the missed chance to have Cody put Pentagon over, the QT Marshall feud, the Shaq feud and that speech where that spawned the GIF of sad Cody, by the time Malakai squashed Cody in Daily’s Place, the reaction Rhodes was getting felt very-Cenaesque and for the first time, a AEW talent was being fully rejected by its audience and like the days of Cena ruling WWE, the urge for Cena to turn heel was never acted on but unlike those days where the merch money that Cena made WWE made the decision to keep John babyface even if it artistically made WWE less fun (when I’ve run out of ideas, I’ll do a wrestling alternate history series with What If John Cena turned heel in 2006 as a beginning article) keeping Cody face made no financial sense with Cody not in the ten best sellers on by the time December of 2021 came. 

Despite Cody attempts to be loved like that flaming table spot against Andrade El Idolo (by the time you read this I will declare my love for my drinking buddy Tee by jumping through a table on fire on Memorial Day) the boos continued and then it felt like Cody started to embrace the hate with the Pedigree tease in his victory over Sammy Guevara to win the TNT belt but after a Covid scare, a title unification match and “What do you guys wanna talk about?” Cody went away and he never came back. 

While the reason why Tony Khan and Cody didn’t come to terms on the option of an extra year may never be fully known, the sight of Cody Rhodes turning up at WrestleMania as the end result of the “worst kept secret” booking trope that was so successful in the First Dance (WWE taking ideas from AEW I see) felt surreal. It also was the first meaningful blow WWE landed on AEW but while Cody actually didn’t feel missed on screen, his departure would change things backstage.

A vacuum in the power structure of AEW left by Cody would see people tussle to fill one of the vacancies of being in the ear of Tony Khan and you have to ask, had Cody Rhodes not left on Valentine’s Week 2022, would the tension between Punk and The Elite explode as it did? Would Cody have been the bridge of diplomacy between the two parties? Maybe, maybe not but with Phil from Chicago being Phil from Chicago, the explosion we saw at the All Out scrum probably would have been delayed, but at the end, it was one less EVP around which saw the developing tensions get out of control at a pace that Tony Khan couldn't control.

Punk has been named as someone who encouraged the thought process that the Rankings, an integral part of the sports-based presentation that was AEW’s USP, was not something that the company was to carry on investing in. Talents that were main features in 2021 were sidelined and demoted. By the time All Out 2022 came, even if you ignore the chaos associated with CM Punk, AEW just felt like a different company than the one that one that left Daily’s Place and its unintended 16-month residency, from the FTR-isation of the tag division, the bad habits WWE had developed that had now crept into AEW programming and it was evident at All Out with the screwy finish of the Ladder Match and a Jericho vs Danielson match that was symbolic of a Blackpool Combat Club vs Jericho Appreciation Society feud that should have ended at Blood and Guts. Babyfaces weren’t winning feuds (I’ve just reminded myself of the Kingston/Jericho Barbed Wire Match) and the inequality between the men’s roster and women’s roster became apparent when you compare the segment when CM Punk “vacated” the Men’s World Title due to a broken foot and and when Thunder Rosa had to “vacate” the women’s belt due to her back issues but the problems of AEW’s summer of discontent brought further focus on the man-management of AEW’s big boss.

Tony Khan would come across as the real life “Everything is fine while the room is on fire” meme. The Wrestling Observer Radio interview Tony Khan did on the eve of All Out with Dave Meltzer is a wild listen 2 years later with Dave warning Tony of the oncoming hurricane that was about to hit and TK insisting that this Punk/Elite drama had shades of the Shawn Michaels vs Bret Hart shenanigans of 1997 (because nothing went wrong there whatsoever) but when Punk dropped the Gripebomb, all those problems that had been hinted at in unprompted interviews and rumour and innuendo online came to the forefront.

The fallout would lead to a very different AEW even to the one that we were watching on the road to All Out and it couldn’t have come at a worst time with a power shift in WWE’s creative hierarchy.

In Part 4, we talk about the September 2022-December 2023 period of AEW which saw a tonal shift in AEW’s product, how WWE changed the conversation and how the Phil from Chicago problem re-emerged. 


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