Wrestling isn’t always good at beginnings or endings. When a promotion is running smoothly, it exists as a perpetual motion machine, with angles that lead to storylines that lead to matches that all tangle around each other into a narrative ouroboros of violence and excess. Feuds can have legendary blow off matches and then the same two wrestlers will continue to face each other again at house shows, or square up again on TV within a few months. Unsung enhancement talent will eventually establish themselves as legitimate stars worth pushing, before fading back down the card as their careers wind down. When people compare wrestling to a soap opera, they’re not just talking about the similarly passionate fan bases, the broad acting, or the sense of outlandishness that both share; they’re also talking about the fuzziness of their stories, and how neither ever truly ends until they get cancelled or go out of business.
All Elite Wrestling isn’t interested in maintaining the status quo, though. The new wrestling promotion had its first show ever this past Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, and instead of mimicking how the industry-leading WWE produces its events, AEW immediately established itself as a distinct and significant force in professional wrestling. With its upcoming weekly show on TNT still months away, AEW’s Double or Nothing was a true beginning, ground zero for an exciting new company that’s directly challenging WWE’s long domination of the American market, and it’s hard to see how it could’ve gone any better.
AEW is the brainchild of Tony Khan, an executive with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Premier League team Fulham F.C., and a group of wrestlers who call themselves the Elite. Kenny Omega, the Young Bucks, and Cody Rhodes took different routes to stardom—the Canadian Omega became a top international star after working in Japan for years, Matt and Nick Jackson of the Young Bucks collectively became of the biggest draws on the American independent scene after years of hard work for a wide range of promotions, and Rhodes (the son of wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes) left WWE of his own accord after his career began to stall in order to prove that he could be a top star in the wrestling business. Along with the relatively young wrestler Hangman Adam Page, they all came together while working for Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling, and in the process became the most popular wrestlers in America who don’t work for WWE. Together they form the on-screen and off-screen nucleus for Khan’s new company, along with WWE legend Chris Jericho, the iconic announcer Jim Ross, and Rhodes’s wife Brandi, who serves as the promotion’s Chief Brand Officer.
From the start AEW has positioned itself as the anti-WWE. WWE has squeezed the spontaneity out of wrestling, with wrestlers delivering interviews written by a staff of writers, announcers who are micromanaged through their headsets by backstage observers, and unnatural corporate verbiage replacing natural conversation as often as possible. AEW’s wrestlers will have the freedom to cut their own promos, instead of reciting scripts. In-ring skill and the ability to get over with the audience will matter more than size or appearance when it comes to pushes. Wrestlers will determine the shape of their own matches, instead of matches being guided by producers. Wins and losses will matter, instead of the aimless back-and-forth booking that befalls all but the upper echelon of WWE wrestlers, and that prevents almost any performer from ever looking like a true star. Most importantly, AEW’s stories won’t be subject to the whims of a single 70-something man who long ago lost touch of what his audience wanted and who has always seemed embarrassed to be in the wrestling business. That’s the most crucial difference between AEW and WWE: AEW isn’t run by Vince McMahon, and WWE is.
That difference couldn’t be starker after Double or Nothing. AEW’s first show was full of exciting matches that combined dynamic, high-risk wrestling with consistent and coherent storytelling. The three biggest matches—Omega vs. Jericho in a rematch of an infamous New Japan bout, the Young Bucks vs. the brother tag team of Pentagon Jr. and Rey Fenix, and a bloodbath between Rhodes and his older half-brother Dustin Rhodes—were all fantastic, with better action and more fulfilling stories than pretty much every main roster WWE match this year. The undercard delivered as well, with a four-way woman’s match featuring a surprise appearance by Awesome Kong (aka Kia Stevens from Netflix’s GLOW); a six-woman tag match featuring joshi stars from Japan that almost stole the show; and an electric six-man tag between the team of Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian and Scorpio Sky, and three Japanese wrestlers from the China-based group Oriental Wrestling Entertainment, the Strong Hearts team of CIMA, T-Hawk and El Lindaman.
The only thing that came close to a misstep was starting the company’s very first show with a free battle royale that had confusing rules and was full of wrestlers that the casual viewer probably wouldn’t recognize. It worked fine for those of us in the building, but this was a crowd that was already sold on AEW, and would overlook a lot of mistakes if needed to. The Casino Battle Royale was far from a disaster, though—it had a number of memorable moments and spots, and was a smart way to introduce the bulk of the AEW roster to viewers. It also gave Hangman Page, the battle royale’s winner, a notable role to play after his original match against PAC (the former Neville from WWE) was abruptly cancelled a few days before the show. The other pre-show match between Sammy Guevara and Kip Sabian was, all in all, a better introduction to the promotion; it was a quick-paced sprint between two charismatic young stars who whipped out a handful of unbelievable high spots to entice anybody viewing at home to order the show.
It was a great show from start to finish, but there are three things that most clearly crystallized how and why AEW is different from WWE. The first is the simple fact that every match had a conclusive and clean finish. There were no count-outs or disqualifications or draws—every fight ended with a clear winner, which accentuates the importance of match outcomes. The next came at the end of the show, after Jericho beat Omega in the main event, when former WWE wrestler Dean Ambrose debuted under his old independent name Jon Moxley and beat down not just Jericho and Omega but the referee, as well. Moxley became famous for his unhinged promos on the indie scene, and his dissatisfaction with WWE’s scripted nature visibly drained the life out of his performances throughout his run there. On his first night in AEW he immediately reminded the fans why he was once such a thrilling performer, both with his lengthy assault on Omega and a post-show promo that appeared on Twitter on Sunday.
Finally there was the match between Cody and Dustin Rhodes. There were no bad matches at Double or Nothing, but the sons of Dusty Rhodes had a modern classic with a match that featured everything one hopes to find from great entertainment. It was an emotional battle between two brothers who love each other but whose backgrounds, personalities and relationships with their father are deeply different. Dustin is the older son who grew up with his dad constantly on the road and who had to watch his parents drift apart and divorce, whereas Cody, the younger son from a second wife, grew up with a dad who was retired and spent far more time at home. These differences loomed large in the build up to the match, but in the end their shared experiences and love for each other won out; after Cody, his blond hair pink from his brother’s blood, beat Dustin in the ring, the two made amends and agreed to team up together to challenge the Young Bucks at AEW’s Fight for the Fallen show in Jacksonville in July. More than anything else on Double or Nothing, this match had the feeling of a classic battle from the kind of hard-edged southern wrestling territories that Dusty Rhodes himself worked for in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was about as traditional as wrestling gets today, down to Dustin’s Herculean blade job, but so far removed from what wrestling has become in WWE that it somehow felt fresh and new.
That’s the promise of AEW, though. It’s combining the state-of-the-art in-ring action of Kenny Omega, the Young Bucks and OWE’s Strong Hearts with a classic approach to booking and character-building that the Rhodes brothers learned from their father, and supplementing it all with a powerful but understated dedication to diversity and inclusion that makes the promotion unique in the annals of pro wrestling. All of those facets together helped make Double or Nothing an exhilarating night of wrestling that showed WWE up on every level, that I could show to my friends without feeling embarrassed, and that was an almost perfect introduction to All Elite Wrestling.
Main image: Kenny Omega and Chris Jericho
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.