Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

How AEW’s “Timeless” Toni Storm Achieved What WWE’s Fiend Could Not

A photo of AEW superstar "Timeless" Toni Storm.

Needing Time 

Stewing, the concept of this appraisal has been on the backburner for months now. The reason: the gimmick could have gone either way. Ironically, AEW Women’s Champion, “Timeless” Toni Storm, needed time to work the gimmick into a character that fans could emotionally invest in. It could have been (and realistically with a few errors it could end like) a disaster movie.

The character has threatened at points to go t*ts up. When Toni Storm and Julia Hart captured their respective titles at Full Gear last year, I wrote optimistically about the future of the women’s division while also warning of the repetition of past mistakes.

Previous and notable championship reigns, like Britt Baker’s and Jade Cargill’s, relied on personality and character work over in-ring work. Eventually leading to stagnation. Alongside this, women’s storylines, card positioning, and match time were sub-optimal when compared to their male counterparts. Match time and card positioning remain unaddressed issues.

There were signs of this familiarity/repetition from week one, but also a new problem. Storm’s acceptance speech segment was an Oscar’s parody and it felt dislocated from AEW. It felt more like McMahonism “sports entertainment”, complete with an outdated pop-culture reference to Jennifer Lawrence tripping up the aisle in 2013.

The Chicago fans were clear in their disinterest. There was already a sense of detachment from reality lingering within the gimmick.

Although creative and intriguing, the Hollywood scarlet character made no sense in the context of a sports-orientated wrestling promotion. Although intentional, the character was mentally so removed from the reality of wrestling, that it dislodged Storm from the established framework of AEW’s brand of storytelling.

Things have changed. The “timeless” one has gone from a detached stock character to a defined fan favourite. AEW and Toni Storm succeeded whereas WWE failed with The Fiend/Bray Wyatt.

Boundaries of Comparison

I’ll be the first to admit comparisons are limited. I’ve pointed this out with tribalistic memes discussing WWE’s portrayal of masculinity in The Bloodline storyline. And yet we as human beings make comparisons naturally for everything. Why? To calibrate our ideas and experiences. To spot differences and patterns. Sometimes to assert one-sided arguments by spotlighting one thing and ignoring others.

This is a comparison of creative processes and fictional charactersNot about asserting a wrestler or their promotion’s superiority. The former, comparing vastly different human beings is incomparable. 

Windham Rotunda tragically passed away before his time. I loved and still admire Bray Wyatt as a wrestler, performer and creative. Likewise, I believe Toni Storm is the real driving force of the latest AEW women’s revolution.

What I’m comparing is narrow and hyper-focused on one aspect of these contrasting beauty and beast characters. How the promotion’s creative process dealt with the issue of trying to make these detached characters fit within the narrative framework of their wrestling TV shows.

Besides, WWE’s creative process for many fans seems night and day with Paul Levesque in charge. Although, I’ve argued elsewhere McMahonism is still the foundation of the Paul Levesque Era.

It’s a case study of what happens when adjustments and mistakes are learned from. When criticism is addressed over time. Given the incoming teases for the return of Uncle Howdy and possibly a Wyatt Sixhistory could be learned from. Or repeated.

It would be arrogant to assume WWE can’t learn from other wrestling promotions both creatively and in real life. The presentations of both Cody Rhodes and Jade Cargill resemble much of their AEW runs. Similarly, how AEW attracts wrestlers, despite its supposed inferiority, is something else I’ve covered here. 

Another (and Lack) of Dimension 

I, like many wrestling fans during the pandemic, waited pessimistically for one man to abandon another potential golden egg-laying goose again prematurely. Vince McMahon.

The scapegoat before Jack Perry for wrestling’s difficulties. In hindsight, and with WWE now seeming to fulfil many fans’ long-held wishes, it’s easy to put most of the blame on Vince. Vince’s control of creative made him, for some fans, wrestling’s devil before Bray turned his boss into a puppet.

The evidence is historic. Many gimmicks that Vince did not help create were mismanaged or diminished. Although Vince’s stubbornness is not the only reason for the Fiend’s failure. Fans were engaged by vignettes, but after The Fiend’s debut and victory over Fin Balor at SummerSlamthe most essential element was already missing.

Ironically for a company that markets itself on telling stories, what was the story? What was the long-term overarching story/reason for The Fiend to exist within the WWE? There was meta-inspired lore. Intentionally cryptic and cyclical and intentionally ambiguous for hardcore fans to make their interpretations. Not accessible or of interest to the often spoken of “casual fans.”

What were the dual personalities’ motivations? How did this fit into the world of wrestling?

At SummerSlam, there was a story that fans could infer. Bray’s previously cancelled match with Fin Balor seemed like an attempt at course-correcting history. The same meta-infused story was present for Bray challenging Randy Orton and John Cena in the Firefly Funhouse match to avenge another historical mistake.

The reality is this type of long-term plan, with a clear narrative and set-out progression, would have given The Fiend purpose. It would have achieved two things. First, incorporating the monster from another dimension into the world of WWE. Secondly, making The Fiend more than one-dimensional.

Storm’s Storyline: The Understudy

Storm’s transformation happened weekly and on the job. It did not arrive as the finished product. It’s why Storm’s delivery and acting early on was uneven. Unlike a Hollywood actor, Storm’s workshopping of the character happened in front of an audience each week.

However, Tony Khan himself helped co-create the gimmick. With Toni Storm, they mapped out the progression. In contrast, reports related to Vince’s views of The Fiend suggested there was no endgame. Plans changed and frustrations boiled over.

AEW’s plan and endgame, like some of their biggest moments, like Swerve Strickland’s championship ascent and Hangman Page’s rise to the world championship, were foreshadowed.

Khan revealed:

Toni and I had a shared vision for this stuff. A long time ago, I came to Toni and I showed her some ideas: old Hollywood movies. It’s exactly the kind of stuff she loved, and she had a very similar vision – the word she had used was “starlet… I’ll say this: it was when I first started working on getting Mariah May’s visa and stuff, which took longer than I would have liked but it worked out great. So, I sat down with Toni a long time ago talking about old movies and plans and things we could do, and she started watching the movies and she sank her teeth into it more than anybody has ever sunk their teeth into anything.” Tony Khan, AEW Full Gear media call.

Since her debut, Mariah May has eyes on replacing Storm. The homage to All About Eve is well-known, but it’s also the traditional mentor vs. student storyline. Mariah’s booking has protected and projected her as the future of the women’s division. May’s presence has kept Storm at least by a balloon string, linked to the ground.

Time to Work Out/In the Kinks

Storm’s process has been more like a comedian than an actor. Toni Storm at points failed to entertain in vignettes, mini-movies and live on air. Toni’s had to learn fast what material works and what doesn’t. There were more successes than failures that left fans talking. Her catchphrase, her rapport with RJ City and Renee Paquette, throwing shoes. These moments were slapped.

The things that work became embedded, repeated in the act. Added layers gave definition. Creative old-fashioned sounding slurs, sexual innuendos and her deluded but hilarious guest commentary spots. Not kid-friendly or for everyone, but memorable, funny and over. Adding these kinks and humour has made the character also more human.

Extending the black and white filter to Storm whenever she appeared on AEW TV was at first jarring. Yet adjustments and creative use of this during storylines with Deonna Purrazzo and Thunder Rosa aided these feuds.

In comparison, Bray Wyatt’s Funhouse vignettes were layered, detailed, and fully formed. Connections to Wyatt’s past and present through each puppet’s symbolism. Lore, Easter eggs and hints made fans excited to see what was next. But the Funhouse did not blend well into the world of WWE.

When it did, it diminished Bray’s character and lore due to its treatment. Seth Rollins by burning down the funhouse sent a message by repeating the historical parallel of Randy Orton burning down on the Wyatt Family Compound. Like the previous gimmick, this one too could be dismantled.

Ultimately, this treatment showed excellent creative ideas and initial execution means nothing if the booking only weakens, exposes and further damages an already detached gimmick.

Storyline Progression: Dragged Kicking and Screaming 

AEW’s identity crisis throughout 2023 did not help. The battle for AEW’s direction between sports-orientated and entertainment made Storm an easy target for criticism. Repetition of the poor booking pattern of the women’s division resulted in a clichéd and self-own feud with Riho.

This was neither woman’s fault. Riho’s return came with the overused trope: babyface saves another babyface from a beatdown. A thin thread of storyline was used with how

Storm and The Outcasts, another gimmick ago, took out Riho. Yet Riho’s perennial babyface appeal was stilted by a lack of character development. Riho’s return was cold. She felt again like challenger of the month fodder. Worse, Storm was still aloof from the world of wrestling.

2024 started with a course correction with the debut of Deonna Purrazzo. While some, like wrestling legend Bully Ray, Storm and Purrazzo “tell him a damn story”, these detractors were selectively blind on the night of the 24th January edition of Dynamite. Purrazzo did not just want the title.

She also wanted her friend back. Their backstory of living together in Japan, and their matching tattoos meant the black-and-white Toni Storm was being dragged from her delusions into living colour. It was one of the strongest women’s storylines in AEW history because it was built on a personal connection.

After Purrazzo, Storm’s feud with Thunder Rosa again became grounded in reality. Connecting the feud with Storm’s frustrations of her first interim Women’s Championship reign with the speculative question: was Rosa injured? A legitimate heat seemed to exist between them. Which at Dynasty resulted in another correction to the biggest weakness of the timeless character.

Storm’s Achilles’ High Heel: Wrestling 

Before being Timeless, Toni Storm was one of the strongest female wrestlers in AEW. Her character work and promo skills were, to inject her own words from one of her worst promos: “Not cool”. With the Timeless gimmick, this created an inversed.

The issue was and still is method acting. In trying to embody the gimmick, Storm tried to replicate an old-school catch style of wrestling that has failed to connect with audiences.

The problem with this old-school style is it’s outdated and meshed awkwardly with her contemporary opponents. Spots like the wind-up punch felt too ridiculous and fake for a forward-thinking wrestling company. Yet after the match with Thunder Rosa, a better medium has been achieved.

In comparison, with the incoming of Uncle Howdy, WWE likewise needs to consider the masked man and his followers will translate to wrestling in-ring. Bray Wyatt’s in-ring skills were solid.

However, his grappling skills remained secondary to his character work. Thought alongside any bells and whistles might be required alongside storyline reasoning to get these characters over now expectations of wrestling WWE is increasing.

An issue with not just Bray Wyatt but various spooky-themed gimmicks inspired by his work. See examples in The House of Black or Joe Gacy. Heels that talk too much and lose too often. 

Even if, like the HOB, they have strong performances in-ring, their ill-logical “dark” storytelling leaves a bad taste of black mist in many fan’s mouths. There needs to be an overall balance.

Toni Storm hasn’t yet reached this balance fully, but she is getting there. There is one thing still to do that WWE may need to consider for the Wyatt Six.

The Misalignment

Adjustments with Storm have been made progressively. A happy medium in-ring is being found. Although, what remains is a common issue with modern wrestling. Fans have grown to adore Storm and her antics, cheering her regardless.

It’s been an issue throughout the build for Storm’s Double or Nothing opponent Serena Deeb. The match will likely be excellent given the challenger’s skills. But the final part of disconnection is the lack of a clear face or heel.

This is a wider issue in AEW right now with many wrestlers neither fully fledged faces nor heels, but tweeners. Too many are shaded grey, like Storm’s filter. Clearer heroes and villains are needed for fans to firmly invest.

For Storm’s story arc, it would make sense that she turns face before the betrayal of Mariah May. Receiving the fan’s approval is partly what Storm desired, which she made clear in her vignettes.

This turning point could dispel this lingering disconnection. A teased feud for the love of Mariah against May’s former Stardom tag partner, Mina Shirakawa for Forbidden Door could be the perfect vehicle. Or lead to more of the same greyness.

WWE likewise with Bray Wyatt and The Fiend failed to give fans what they wanted with the characters. Many wanted to cheer Bray and for the character/man to receive retribution.

Yet this was ignored. Uncle Howdy carries on the legacy of a man who some fans felt was creatively restricted and undermined by WWE’s refusal to adapt. If the group is intended to be heels and fans instead want to cheer for Taylor Rotunda, formerly Bo Dallas, as he continues his brother’s unfinished legacy, there is a real risk that history repeats, despite a different man being in charge.

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.  You can catch AEW Dynamite on Wednesday nights at 8 PM ET on TBS. AEW Rampage airs on TNT at 10 PM EST every Friday night. AEW Collision airs Saturday at 8pm Eastern on TNT. More AEW content available on their YouTube


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