Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

AEW, Vince McMahon and Giving AEW Fans What They Want

A photo of AEW president Tony Khan.

In this final of three articles, James unpacks how since Wrestlemania XL changes in the relationship between WWE and its founder Vince McMahon have impacted perceptions of the new era of wrestling. Since Vince put his remaining TKO Group Holdings stocks up for sale, the company is almost disconnected professionally from the man who made WWE a global cultural brand. This has impacted AEW and WWE both in terms of creative, business and its fanbases’ perceptions. 

In the first article, James unpacked how The Paul Levesque Era tried to move on from McMahonism while retaining key elements of Vince’s infrastructure (here). In the second, James discussed how WWE has fulfilled fans’ long-desired wishes.

Who Misses Vince? 

A meme with the sentiment that the folks who miss Vince most are AEW fans reveals a lot about the current wrestling culture war.

First, the implied jealousy AEW fans must feel for WWE’s business and creative success. Then there’s the acknowledgement that most WWE fans now have moved on from Vince. Things are better. It was a lifetime ago.

AEW was set up as an alternative. As a response to Vince McMahon’s booking style, philosophy, and ethics. For some, by that logic, it might mean that the AEW is now surplus to requirements.

The correlation between WWE’s growth and AEW’s drop in ratings, attendance and being “cold” and “uncool” (two things Dave Meltzer recently stated) become proof of this narrative. Yet, it’s oversimplifying a complex set of issues.

This tribalistic mindset also highlights this idea/fear that those other fans from the other company want our side to fail. Ironically is exactly what it seems some anti-AEW fans and pundits want to do: work the death of AEW into a shoot.

These factors impact the way both fans and haters of AEW experience the current product. Some AEW fans feel they must defend the product to the hills. AEW is fine. It’s not a meme reference. AEW’s house is not on fire. However, parts are being renovated. With change comes issues for fan expectations and wish fulfilment.

With Vince McMahon nearly gone from WWE and Triple H’s creative successes, the ability for Tony Khan to use sports entertainment like Japanese promotions used Gaijin (foreign, American wrestlers) as a convenient heelish threat is diminished. Yet it’s the re-opening of the CM Punk wound, that depending on your perspective, could be a pivot to course correct or go over the edge.

Response to Sports Entertainment 

AEW has never pretended as a wrestling company to exist in its galaxy, or to hold the universe alone. AEW exists and acknowledges the entire wrestling ecosystem. Its promises, implicit and explicit, were to be different.

For more than a decade, fans did not feel listened to. WWE seemed to be booked by and for an audience of one: Vince McMahon.

As Vince McMahon reportedly once said on fan’s displease: “F*** them.”

The creative approach at times seemed designed to hurt those dedicated fans. This neglectful and at times outright antagonistic or spiteful approach led to some rebellion. “Off-script” chanting. Beachballs were thrown across the hard cam. Crowds were belittled by wrestlers and pundits online for trying to “get themselves over”.

These voices disappeared before the ascension of Triple H. Some, like Whatculture’s Michael Sidgwick have argued that the reason these fans disappeared from WWE, before the resignation of Vince, may have been for one reason. They had somewhere else to go.

The Listening Company 

Part of AEW’s USP (unique selling point) was a product that differed from WWE in a sports-orientated presentation. The implication was also that fans would be listened to. Wish fulfilment would be taken on board.

Wins and losses would matter. Long-term and consistent storytelling. The latter has become a part of Triple H’s WWE booking. Yet whereas Triple H’s booking has often been more simplistic, AEW’s at times has been more complicated, mechanical, or too implicit.

The narrative that AEW doesn’t tell stories is as accurate as saying WWE doesn’t do subtlety. It can, but at times other beats or elements either get missed or overlooked or what could be said quietly is spoken loudly.

Dave Meltzer is often wrongly characterised as being a wrestling “good taste” gatekeeper. Also, a staunch AEW supporter. Perhaps the current discord linked to the five-star system implies favoritism? Yet this view obscures Meltzer’s open criticism of the “cold” AEW product.

“If you watch AEW, they do that much for almost every match and more for a ton. AEW does so many stories at once you can’t remember them which is the issue, not that they don’t do stories.”  Dave Meltzer, X.

AEW has and will never be utopian for fans or wrestlers. It never was designed and will never suit every wrestling fan. And that’s okay. Utopia itself means “no place”. It’s an idealised place that only exists in the mind. Yet promises were made.

Early in AEW’s history, there were plenty of hiccups. Factions like The Nightmare Collective and The Dark Order with their creepers were either disbanded or reinvented. Kinks were addressed. Tony Khan seemed to listen to his audience. This helped build trust for fans who previously had been belittled as “marks” for wanting more.

Sports Entertainment Villains

AEW in its booking borrows from various traditions and styles. AEW is often compared (unfavourably) to WCW. Although Khan’s booking is more parts ECW. It’s eclectic. AEW is a buffet offering lots of everything. That has included “sports entertainment”. Yet because of changes within WWE and the perimeters of AEW’s promise and style of wrestling, its effectiveness has varied.

AEW’s first world champion, Chris Jericho, based the core aspect of Le Champion on his name value and star power gained in WWE. It made Jericho easier to hate, while also putting the most recognizable man as the face of the company. Narratively, it made Jon Moxley’s win more impactful as a representative of the alternative.

Repetition with The Jericho Appreciation Society as a “sports entertainment” parody quickly became dated when Vince left creative. Also, the group’s feud with their antithesis faction, The Blackpool Combat Club, went long. A growing sense of disconnect becoming apparent. Particularly as the logic of the AEW storyteller the promotion promised faltered.

The JAS constantly interfered in matches with the babyfaces at times not smart enough to counter this. Also, sports entertainers were involved in many violent matches, conflicting with their group’s philosophical identity. Some, like Barbwire Everywhere, fell flat. The strongest long-term element involving Daniel Garcia’s dilemma of being a sports entertainer or pro wrestler had no satisfying payoff.

As for MJF, circumstances changed his world championship run from “Reign of Terror” to over-the-top babyface. In hindsight, Friedman deserves credit for having to do a 180-degree character turn so successfully.

From the “Bidding War of 2024” to company defender, the change was already taking place before Punk’s exit. Then with Punk gone, the need for MJF to be the company face was a necessity.

Creative Patterns 

2023 was a turbulent year from a creative, ethical, and business standpoint. Fan’s trust was tested in part due to how AEW neglected or moved away at times from its implicit and explicit promises.

The rankings disappeared. Repetitive patterns of booking occurred. The return of The Elite, AEW’s main characters, led to great matches, but lacklustre feuds with folks who weren’t CM Punk. In discussing The Elite’s “putrid” year, I pointed out that the issue was a lack of character direction and storyline development, that has since been addressed.

Not all of this can be attributed to the fallout with CM Punk. Some repetitive booking techniques, from tournaments to open challenges put more emphasis on the in-ring wrestling over storylines. This is an issue that some critics say persists into AEW now.

Yet, this ignores the storylines and character development that drove the Continental Classic, The Elite, Sting’s last match, changes in the women’s division, the introduction of Will Ospreay and Okada as characters as well as excellent wrestlers.

Since then, AEW has addressed these issues. The rankings have returned and play more of a feature in storylines. Yet, some creative issues still cause frustration. Ring of Honour championships are defended on AEW shows.

Or ROH champions like Kyle Fletcher take the loss to top AEW wrestlers. Some wrestlers, like Penta el Zero Meiro, may go 9 months without a win on Dynamite and still get title shots after a win or two on Rampage or Collision to pad stats.

Questions of Ethics

Tony Khan had publicly promised to try and promote a healthier approach to wrestling. There have been many successes. Whether it’s in the varied, modernised portrayal of masculinity, the support of wrestlers’ mental health and other opportunities and freedoms WWE would not give all its wrestling, AEW has done a lot to make the wrestling industry a more supportive environment.

And yet, there have been points where some decisions have felt similar to those that might have been made by WWE and Vince. Chris Jericho’s continual presence and persistence have felt Vince-like in the refusal to give the man of a thousand nicknames a rest.

Although allegations against him were vague and never substantiated, the use of tactics to disguise negative fan reactions frustrated some. Yet, Jericho might be beginning to find a way to subvert expectations. Reinvent and re-GOAT himself again.

Last year, the hiring of Ric Flair drew criticism. Although reports suggest the money from Flair’s energy drinks company covered the costs of hiring him, the idea that business trumps the moral issue around accusations made against Flair on an episode of Dark Side of the Ring again, felt like a WWE move.

Recently, the mass release of talent, including an injured Anthony Henry, again invoked criticism and comparisons. This change of policy, from allowing contracts to expire, replicates a WWE practice AEW had avoided. Information about some of the releases has since become public. Khan has said Henry will have a job on his return from injury. However, this decision feels contradictory to AEW’s original ethos.

Fan Fulfilment Opposed to WWE

In breaking down WWE’s fandom, I discussed how fans did not necessarily want much regarding change. With AEW, the stereotype online is that because of our focus on wrestling, makes us inherently snobbish, condescending, and ignorant of AEW’s current position. No group of fans are homogeneous. To declare WWE fans are all the same would be considered ludicrous also.

Yet differently, AEW fans generally have a higher set of expectations of the product because we were told to have high expectations. Unlike WWE, AEW has the disadvantage not only of time but also in promising things WWE has not had to promise.

Over time, things have changed, and trust has for some been dented or lost. Yet some AEW fans are fine and happy with the product. Some will argue it’s the best it’s been.

Honestly, I think with time it could be. Creatively, things are stabilising and getting better. Yet, pointing out the flaws of something subjective with fair criticism, logic, and a desire to be constructive, rather than dismissive, should be encouraged. For all of wrestling.

The nostalgia fans have for WWE and AEW is different. Nostalgia in many ways is helping WWE right now to be appealing again. It’s an old sports car with a new lick of paint.

Yet it’s a classic car. AEW has some nostalgia. With some wanting the promotion to be like they were from 2019-2021. That’s not going to happen because nostalgia, like utopia, is an idealised state of mind. But some elements are and may come back strong.

Right now, some want AEW to focus on their own house. To do their own thing away from WWE. Move on from CM Punk like WWE has moved on from Vince. Move on from the WWE competition. And yet…

The Elite’s Corporate WWE Parody   

Elsewhere, I have analysed The Elite going corporate (here). The most significant points that bear repeating is that this parody of WWE’s use of authority figures is designed to do two things.

First, address criticism from Punk and others of not putting long-term storytelling and character work ahead of just good wrestling while holding up a middle finger at them.

Second, to return to the past way of doing things. The Elite’s style of layered storytelling that over the years showed the progression of Kenny Omega and The Young Buck’s to being world champions and “Hangman” Pages prove them wrong.

From a business standpoint, I discussed in that analysis some of the positive shoots of growth from the manure heaved on the promotion for showing the All In footage. Many AEW detractors are never going to change their minds. However, there is a risk this trying to elevate a WWE-centric concept will alienate some AEW fans.

Authority figures and power struggles have created logical narrative gaps in WWE. WWE fans have been more forgiving of these lapses in detail. There are also issues of kayfabe not matching the reality of what we have fans know that will impact their ability to invest.

With some fans’ trust already dented, it will make it harder for them to engage with this storyline or attempt the head cannon or thought process to join the implied dots in Elite storytelling.

In short, the fact that AEW is playing with such a WWE trope is a dangerous line. It’s a tightrope The Elite have walked before while performing superkicks and selling the offense of children and blow-up dolls. It didn’t stop them from making names for themselves. Or building AEW, despite the hellish heat all around them.

More From LWOS Pro Wrestling

Header photo – AEW – Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world.


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