“Really, the only gauge on what works is what you pop for. That’s the gauge,” said wrestler and All Elite Wrestling Executive Vice President Cody Rhodes on stage during a panel at the C2E2 pop culture convention in Chicago. “The only way to evaluate pro wrestling is whether you are happy,” Rhodes continued, singling out the role of fans in the upstart wrestling promotion.
AEW was officially founded just over a year ago on January 1, 2019. In the year since, the new company has become arguably the biggest threat to WWE’s hold over wrestling in about the last twenty years.
In collaboration with WarnerMedia, AEW launched the weekly television program Dynamite last October, airing it Wednesday nights on TNT opposite WWE’s NXT program on the USA Network.
Then Turner Broadcasting was long the home to WWE’s last major competitor World Championship Wrestling, airing its flagship program WCW Monday Nitro on TNT (opposite WWE’s Monday Night Raw) and its sister show Thunder on TBS until the promotion went out of business in 2001. Shortly thereafter, WWE purchased the WCW video library, intellectual property and more, signaling an end to what had become known in wrestling circles as “the Monday night war.”
While it’s aired for only about five months, Dynamite has frequently defeated NXT in cable television ratings, leading WarnerMedia to reward the show with a broadcast extension through 2023, with a second televised AEW program reportedly in the works.
Key to AEW’s success thus far has been its willingness to listen to fans, embrace nostalgia and empower the wrestlers themselves with a voice in creating their own personas, a creativity that’s taken a backseat to overly scripted story lines elsewhere in the televised wrestling sphere.
“Storytelling is the steak. The whistles and bells – the pyro, the graphics, the technical things – that’s the sizzle. It’s all about the steak,” said Dynamite commentator and legendary wrestling announcer Jim Ross of AEW’s focus on narrative. “What is the reality of these individuals? Who are they? I think that’s kind of what we’re looking at here in this deal – we want to deliver more steak than the others in the same field or genre. And I think that’s what we’re doing.”
Ross began his career calling National Wrestling Alliance matches in the late 70s, taking on his first full-time announcing position with Mid-South Wrestling prior to wrestling’s national explosion in the 80s during the sport’s territorial days.
As lead Monday Night Raw commentator, alongside wrestling legend Jerry “The King” Lawler, he had a front row seat for the Monday night war. During his WWE run, Ross was also involved behind the scenes in talent relations.
Like Rhodes, he sees that focus on the fan as critical.
“You have to listen to your consumer base. You have to have product knowledge. And part of having product knowledge is knowing how to recognize and find your target audience. Simple marketing: Marketing 101,” Ross explained. “Identifying your audience is imperative for any marketer. Who is my audience? Who am I going to sell to? Who is going to buy my product? Where are they? How do I communicate with them? And that’s kind of where we are: we have a blast and we listen to the audience.”
AEW partnered with C2E2 to present their latest pay-per-view event Revolution last month in Chicago. The event took place at Wintrust Arena on Saturday, February 29 while the pop culture convention took place across the street at the McCormick Place convention center.
The new promotion had a significant presence at the comic con, with a table on the convention floor where stars like Jon Moxley and Nyla Rose greeted fans throughout the weekend. A Friday afternoon panel featured wrestlers, and AEW Executive Vice Presidents, Cody Rhodes and Nick and Matt Jackson of tag team The Young Bucks.
AEW star Maxwell Jacob Friedman, who defeated fan favorite Rhodes at Revolution, was on hand too, making the local media rounds Friday morning and interacting with fans during C2E2. The Sporting News recently dubbed him “the most hated pro wrestler today” and MJF lived up to that billing throughout the weekend in Chicago.
“There’s just so many disgusting, nerdy sweat hogs dressed up as characters they only wish they could be. In reality, they’re not like me. These people have to put on a costume to feel important. All I have to do to feel important is get up out of bed. That’s it,” MJF told Forbes, surveying the comic con crowd as only wrestling’s consummate bad guy could. “It’s sad to see. It really is.”
Chicago has been one of AEW’s best markets since its inception. The promotion’s roots grew out of a 2018 pay-per-view event called All In which took place at the Sears Centre in the suburbs of Chicago. Featuring Rhodes and The Young Bucks, and future AEW stars like Kenny Omega, All In stands as one of the largest independent wrestling events in recent memory – the first non-WWE or WCW wrestling show to sell over 10,000 tickets since the early 90s.
All Out followed at Sears Centre in 2019 as an official AEW event and Dynamite tapings have taken place since at Sears Centre and in the downstate Illinois college town of Champaign.
“All In was the beta test,” said AEW announcer Excalibur Friday at C2E2. “The proof of concept that someone other than WWE could run a big show.”
Logistically, Chicago was an easy fit for a destination event like All In. But the Windy City has a history as a great wrestling town too, having hosted three Wrestlemania events, including the second installment in 1986.
“Chicago has always been such a big part of the wrestling business landscape. Buddy Rogers had a match at Comiskey Park that drew over 30,000 people,” said Ross, a WWE Hall of Famer, referencing a 1961 match against Pat O’Connor. “My best memory of Chicago is calling Wrestlemania 13. That featured the Bret Hart/Steve Austin match which was a piece of art. Because they both changed roles in one match,” he continued, noting a match where Hart went from good to bad and Austin became a fan favorite in under a half hour.
In utilizing stars like Rhodes and Chris Jericho, AEW has elevated talent that began to languish outside the main event picture in a crowded WWE despite fan reaction.
Jericho and former WWE superstar Jon Moxley headlined the world heavyweight championship match at Revolution, bringing the frenzied Chicago crowd to a boiling point.
“I promise you, the journey that Jericho and Moxley have been on – in their careers now – this is vindication for them,” said Ross. “To headline in a world title match and go on last in a major pay-per -view that’s going to be seen around the world is big. I know with Jericho and Moxley, they have agendas. And that’s to prove a lot of doubters wrong.”
Moxley emerged from Revolution as new world heavyweight champion, his first reign, more than verifying the jump from WWE to AEW.
“I’ve been on a mission for the last however many months – a mission of self-actualization. I know what I am and I know what I’m capable of,” said Moxley following Revolution, echoing the sentiments of Ross. “I feel like a totally different person than I did a year ago. I love wrestling more than I’ve ever loved it in my entire life. I’ve opened my mind up in so many different ways – whereas it had to be closed off for so long,” the champion continued, obliquely referencing the end of his run in WWE. “The AEW fans are the best fans in the world. There’s a synergy.”
While AEW has focused on storytelling and embraced nostalgia – bringing back legendary stars like Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard, “Diamond” Dallas Page and Jake “The Snake” Roberts – there are keys to its success behind the scenes too.
AEW President Tony Khan is co-owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and EFL soccer club Fulham F.C. At AEW, the 37-year-old does more than merely back the new company financially with the Khan family’s billions.
“I met him several years ago – long before he came up with this idea – and was just amazed at his recall and his history and respect for the business. It was as if he had been in it all his life. And I guess he had in a certain way – he had been in it as a fan,” said Ross of Khan. “He’s the difference in what we’re doing and how well we’re doing it as much as anybody on the team. Tony is the guy. He’s the old proverbial straw that stirs the drink. Because he’s young – and everybody feeds off him.”
Splitting time between London, Florida, the recent NFL combine in Indianapolis and AEW events, Khan, who was born in Champaign, has been more than a little busy. But his passion for the product and ability to relate to it on a fan level seems to be an integral part of AEW’s early success.
“I’m always here every Wednesday or at whatever show we’ve done. It’s changed my lifestyle a lot. I’m still travelling back and forth on the weekends to London when we don’t have pay-per-views and to Jacksonville. Just in the run up to this, I was in seven cities in fourteen days. But I love the work so it’s really fun,” Khan told Forbes following Revolution. “We’ve got a new world champion and a lot of great things ahead. I think we have a lot of really exciting wrestlers and I think tonight showcased that we’ve built new stars in less than a year. I think it’s great for our future.”
Prior to joining AEW, Jim Ross suffered a personal tragedy in 2017 when his wife of almost twenty-five years was killed in a car accident near the couple’s Oklahoma home.
While he’s busy today with AEW, marketing his barbecue line, co-hosting the Grilling J.R. podcast and touring a one man show, he’s quick to point out that he worked only two events for WWE in 2018. As he preps the March 31, 2020 release of his latest book Under the Black Hat, Ross, 68, is clear on what his role with AEW means to him.
“I’m loving it. I can’t tell you what it’s meant to my life. I was an empty guy. I was sitting around feeling sorry for myself wondering, ‘Why me?’ I had a big void I needed to fill and Tony Khan came along and did that for me. And I will always be indebted,” he said. “It’s so much fun to be around. The talent’s young and they’re wide-eyed. They’re enthusiastic. They love to learn and most of them are lifelong fans. So it’s really a cool thing for me. I’m blessed to be in the position I’m in.”