Wins and Losses... Get in the Way of Good Matches!?
Wins and Losses Matter was one of the first slogans put out into the world by All Elite Wrestling. Almost nobody is questioning if wins and losses shouldn't matter. Years of WWE booking losses as precursors to title shots made this an obvious open goal. So AEW's presentation of winners gaining title shots seems like a simple and effective strategy. But is it hamstringing the company more than most realise?
Let us start at the beginning, wrestling fans have a complex when it comes to the very act of watching wrestling. It's such a niche interest and one that received ridicule from many non-fans. With the world's most well-known wrestling brand producing such low quality television for years, the standard of wrestling as a whole is has suffered.
It is because of this, optimistic wrestling fans accept a relatively low standard. When a wrestling story or series of matches, particularly in American television wrestling, is decent or even pretty great, fans treat it with a sigh of relief. This sigh of relief means that our hobby is worthwhile and we're not wasting out time on childish interests. We just don't want to feel like morons for continuing to follow this interest.
Enter AEW. It was easy for the EVPs to make grand promises. As intelligent adults, they were able to find many flaws in their potential competition; from their treatment of women to terrible booking. However, in practise these things haven't unfolded as gracefully as they may have expected.
Wins and Losses Matter is a catchy slogan and one that promises a system that makes sense. At its core, professional wrestling is a simulation of a sport. That's why we love it so much; it's sport plus fiction. AEW really pushed this as they started up for this very reason; it was even branded 'a new wrestling league coming to TNT'.
How do you get a title shot in professional combat sports? Well you beat all the other contenders in qualification bouts. This is how sports are organised; leagues and tournaments. Otherwise they would be corrupt and chaotic.
Therefore the premise of the AEW Rankings is that wrestlers climb the rankings by beating other AEW wrestlers. That way a wrestler has to earn a title shot by beating the other contenders; therefore proving their worthiness. In organising it this way they avoid problematic authority figures and the randomness of WWE programming.
The main problem with this system is the actual matches that make up the numbers. The top contenders often sport records of 11-1 or 7-0. However these records are often made up of matches, 90% or more of which are victories over wrestlers with heavily negative win/lose records. It's almost a test of who can get booked in the most Dark matches against local talent.
So this puts you in the position of feeling like you are watching a lazy fictional story that expects you to lap up stories in which the backstories are easily constructed without the appropriate sporting rigour. Manchester City and Liverpool don't fight over Premier League titles by racing around England amassing victories over non-league clubs. Advertisements of unbeaten Man City vs unbeaten Liverpool where neither had faced a host of strong challengers who be met with derision.
Even in the world of fiction on the big or small screen would follow this template. A story of boxers or MMA fighters would see fighters progress up the rankings fighting stronger and stronger opponents. Not just amassing victory after victory against low-level after low-level opponent.
Part of the issue with this is that this is in fact how things have always been. Squash matches are a huge part of wrestling. As are the use of long undefeated streaks where the numbers are the whole story; Asuka, Goldberg and even Andre the Giant.
AEW are clearly trying to avoid the endless unoriginal stream of content that has characterised American TV wrestling for the last 10 years. However are they creating a sub-optimal product themselves? The experiences of The Elite in Japan has really had an effect on how AEW is organised, just look at all those factions. However New Japan is characterised by another trope; rematches and big stars clashing on an almost yearly basis.
Many of AEW's fans, myself included, come to AEW following The Elite from New Japan. My wrestling viewing as an adult is sculpted by the golden era of NXT Takeovers and New Japan from 2017-2020. My favourite wrestling stories involve series of matches or wrestlers defeating other big names. New Japan in particular can do this without matches losing their lustre, American TV wrestling companies do not always manage this.
As you can see in the above image, big stars in New Japan lose matches regularly, whereas AEW do not afford their big stars as many losses. 2020's champions Jon Moxley and Tetsuya Naito are evidence of this. Moxley only lost when losing the belt in December whereas Naito dropped the belt and regained it as well as picking up losses in the G1. Due to the sporting nature of New Japan losses are part of any champion's run and they do not derail that champion's believability. However their is a difference between Tetsuya Naito losing in the G1 and Karrion Kross being beat on his debut in 2 minutes on Raw...
Just to underline this point... Kazuchika Okada and Kota Ibushi are not seen as lesser stars than Cody Rhodes and Adam Page despite losing significantly more matches in 2020. Just because wrestling fans have low standards due to the low average standard of story-telling does not mean AEW should coast on the ease at which it takes to outdo their thoroughly inept competition. HBO would not commission a drama with such plot holes!
So what's the solution? Wrestlers need to beat an increasing difficulty of opponents in order to rise through the rankings. AEW's intelligence in booking matches or feuds to climax at the most ideal time shows they are a company easily able of undertaking such a complex booking challenge, and so they should. Some of this could happen on Dark or the aptly named Elevation. I don't follow either show as i struggle with the quantity and lack of stories, however I would tune in to see 'fixtures' between ranked competitors that may lead to title matches.
I have also long wished to see number one contenders matches become a staple of PPVs or big shows. You don't need to load up the show with title match after tile match a la New Japan. A number one contenders match is the closest thing to a title match as fans are always excited to know what comes next. The losses that brings wrestler's records need not be detrimental if all wrestlers are presented as being capable of losing without becoming a loser!
Tracking and presenting Win and Losses is a vital and excellent part of AEW. With that brings challenge, there is no hiding. However a lot can be achieved with good commentary and well-presented Road To shows. I want more one on one matches between the top wrestlers. Yes, they should keep people apart, but not everyone!
AEW is an incredible wrestling product, the best around. I can't wait to see how it evolves and grows over the next few years!