WWE Strikes Back

Big E Wins WWE Championship
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For a year and a half, World Wrestling Entertainment has insisted that it does not view All Elite Wrestling as serious competition,  in the same way that WCW dogged them throughout the 1990s. However, 2021 has seen a subtle but palpable shift in tactics and, presumably, perspective. When launching NXT on USA Network in 2019 failed to divert enough of the weekly television pro wrestling audience from AEW, the show was moved to Tuesday rather than Wednesday nights in March 2021. Still, the narrative persisted that WWE was not bothered about potential competition, and did not consider themselves to be engaged in a “TV War.”

Then, former WWE Superstar CM Punk, who has an ardent cult following and left WWE acrimoniously, made his return to pro wrestling with the rival brand, to a euphoric response from fans and the industry. He was followed by Bryan Danielson, who, like CM Punk, was one of WWE’s defining figures throughout the previous decade, and had a headlining match at WrestleMania 37 against Roman Reigns and Edge mere months before going “all elite”. Adam Cole, an indie and NJPW veteran who was one of NXTs’ most charismatic rising stars, as well as Ruby Soho and Malakai Black rounded out the crew of WWE dropouts debuting in summer 2021 for AEW.

As these losses, and the acclaim of AEW’s exciting pay-per-view events and well-staged weekly television matches, mounted, discerning viewers of WWE’s flagship television product Monday Night Raw can perhaps notice subtle changes in the weeks since these coups. Raw is trying to adapt to a world in which AEW is, in fact, a power player, by adapting some of its own tactics.

Backstage Promos vs Backstage Comic Segments-Especially during the “Pandemic Era” of the ThunderDome at Amway Center, Raw’s pacing was hobbled by filler comedy segments featuring lighthearted antics backstage. These have been eschewed for the sort of throwback promos that are a feature of AEW’s weekly Dynamite and Rampage, with the soliloquizing wrestler posed around backstage scenery and delivering their lines intensely to the camera. They’re utilized especially in the case of Karrion Kross, as his enigmatic character continues to be built, but also, on the September 27 episode, from Bobby Lashley.

Less Story Schilling, More Wrestling: AEW’s television shows pack a lot of action into their broadcast time, and Raw is trying to do the same. In recent weeks, Raw has relied heavily on its tag team division to deliver quality content. Releasing several performers throughout 2020 and 2021 severely limited the field of available talent, but September 27, 2021’s episode tried to utilize the mid-and lower cards to fill out the show: a semi-serious 24/7 championship match between Reginald and Ricochet, followed by Akira Tozawa’s match against Keith Lee; Kross’s bout against Jaxson Ryker, and Angel Garza and Humberto Carrillo liberated from the 24/7 championship fray and Main Event matches for a tag match against The Viking Raiders. Jeff Hardy’s fortunes have improved since fan outcry about his own 24/7 banishment. While he still has losses, like his triple threat against Damien Priest and Sheamus for the United States championship and his loss to Veer, Shanky, and Jinder Mahal alongside Mansoor and Mustafa Ali, but they have dignity and meaning.

Pay Per View Worthy Main Events: September 27’s steel cage match in which Big E retained the WWE Championship against Lashley, The New Day’s three-man tag match against Roman Reigns, Jimmy Uso, and Jey Uso, and Big E’s cash-in on Lashley the week prior to that have all been examples of Raw trying to create the sort of electrifying and meaningful content that Raw was, it could be said, created to feature.

However, imitation doesn’t create perfect copies, but rather an interpretation of what is being imitated through the perspective of the imitator. Raw has largely been a better viewing experience, but it still lacks the emphasis on realistic athleticism that makes AEW dynamic. Some of Raw’s matches have been deliberately short. While meant to emphasize the prowess of the victor, modern wrestling audiences would largely prefer a longer, more athletically credible contest.