Article by Matthew Barnes
With barely time for the dust to settle after a spate of shows from WWE, wrapping around the excellent AEW Double or Nothing presentation, AEW’s Fyter Fest was a mixed bag. Already, All Elite has its ‘hardcore’ fans, to whom the group can do no wrong, where others such as Jim Cornette think the product is absolute trash. The reality at Fyter Fest was somewhere in-between. Loaded with nerdy in-jokes that no casual or first-time fan could hope to understand, and featuring several moments of self-indulgence and a number of average matches, it wasn’t a stand-out show by any stretch.
The simple reality is that, at this stage in AEW’s genesis, we need to be given a reason to care. “Who are these guys? Why are they here? Why are they rivals with X? Why is Y involved? And who the fuck is Z??!” This is why having gimmick matches at this early juncture struggles to make sense. The pre-show match between a guy who poured oil all over himself at the Double or Nothing Battle Royal and some non-wrestler most have never heard of should never, eeeever (sorry, watching ‘98-era Jericho in WCW as I type…) have been a hardcore match. There was no rationale, no explanation. It just made no sense. Certainly, an argument could be made for the Moxley/Janela match being hardcore, given both men’s desire to prove themselves and indie experience, but even then there was no underlying issue that made it easy to care about the result. All we got by way of storyline development was a series of pre-show vignettes about budget issues. It was confusing and, were I a casual fan, I wouldn’t have bought in.
But this column isn’t a critique of Fyter Fest. It was a solid wrestling show. A solid B show; which, in truth, is exactly what it was. It was a one-off event designed to continue the buzz and help the teams back and front of house to find their feet – albeit with the eyes of the wrestling world fixed firmly upon them. Following DoN was a gargantuan task, and maybe one that AEW shouldn’t have taken on at this point, but in this content-thirsty modern era, maintaining momentum is key. And that they did. Moxley, Janela, Lucha Bros, MJF and Spears all got over in a big way. Cody’s chairshot made news sites around the world. The hardcore main-event was unlike anything you’ll see in WWE today. The six-man tag match was on-point. There was plenty to love, and certainly enough to keep up the thirst for the product.
With the proliferation of TV tapings, live events, PPVs, online videos and the Network, the ball is without question in WWE’s court, and it’s clear that WWE is taking notice of AEW, regardless of what they want us to believe. From Sami Zayn’s casual reference during a live interview segment, to the ‘extreme’ impact of Braun Strowman driving Bobby Lashley through the Raw stage set this past week (replete with uncensored, “Holy shit!” from Corey Graves), via the dawn of the 24/7 title era and NXT call-ups, change is foot. The question is, does WWE have the self-efficacy to understand what needs to change?
On the one hand, there are some positive signs. The shift in focus to Kofi, Rollins, Daniel Bryan, Becky Lynch, Ali and others has freshened up the product somewhat, but the same schoolboy humour, poor booking and stale feel of the product in general remain. It’s a pattern that’s been rinse, wash, repeat for most of the last decade in some form or another, but there is an undeniable urgency right now that doesn’t give some of the positive changes time to bed-in before something else is rammed at the audience. Thus far, it’s been a “throw as much shit as possible at the wall and see what sticks” approach.
The shit, however, has hit the fan.
That AEW has so much buzz at such an early stage in the game is incredible, and WWE is under fire. Fyter Fest was a roll of the dice, and in some ways more of a test than Double or Nothing, but in reality it was a house show streamed live and it more than delivered in the ring. As noted, however, the storylines and rationale for what we were seeing just weren’t there. It’s a criticism often levelled at WWE, too, but the difference with WWE is that we are seeing established characters in situations we disagree with, not newcomers we may or may not know. AEW has to make us care.
In addition to AEW, we are also seeing the rebirth of Impact Wrestling and the rise of Major League Wrestling, both of whom have television and committed fanbases. Neither is creating seismic shifts in the industry at the moment, but with defined rosters, experienced hands in-ring and behind-the-scenes and decent presentation, the wrestling fanbase has more choice, and is more divided, than ever.
Which brings us to WWE’s response…
The shock appointment of Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff to executive roles on Raw and SmackDown respectively, however, was industry-shaking. This is WWE’s Hail Mary in a battle that many feel they are already losing – but will either man be given the freedom and tools to shake up their brand and make the difference? Or will WWE pull the plug on the appointments as a failed-experiment when things inevitably hit a rough patch, as it has so often in recent months? Does WWE even understand why the product needs to change, or just that it does? Is this the end for Bruce Wayne? Can Robin save McMahon’s company from impending doom?
Your move, AEW…
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