For the first time this past weekend, and intentionally no matter what they may say, WWE and AEW ran PPVs/PLEs on the same weekend, perhaps being in direct competition with each other for the first time since NXT was backed off Wednesday nights. Feels like as good of a time as any to see where the companies are individually and in relation to each other with big changes, big stories, and the future as exciting and intriguing as it’s ever been. Today, we look at WWE under Triple H and what has really changed and what hasn’t.
WWE does spectacle. That was clearly their intended statement with the scheduling of Clash At The Castle at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium on All Out weekend, and probably SummerSlam in Nashville’s Nissan Stadium (though they only sold half of it). Labor Day weekend has been AEW’s for the past four years now, and though they’ll never admit it WWE was trying to pick something of a fight.
And their main tactic was scale. While All Out takes place at a small arena outside Chicago, WWE went for the football stadium-sized show because it can. AEW has never tried that scale, with its show Grand Slam at Arthur Ashe Stadium being the biggest venue the company has booked. It was a demonstration of reach, if nothing else.
And that’s the difference between the two companies, at least the main one. WWE is about bombast and scale and pageantry, whereas the charm of AEW is its nuance and what is at the center of it all — its work in the ring. There have been plenty of signs, both in his time running NXT and now helming the big chair for WWE, that Triple H understands the actual core of wrestling, the actual wrestling, needs to be improved in WWE. We’ve seen more variety of matches and wrestlers on both weekly shows, they’ve been allowed to go longer, and all the wrestlers are getting to wrestle their kind of match instead of being packaged into the only style that Vince McMahon found suitable. Fuck, we even got one proper Shinsuke Nakamura match!
But having said all that, aside from the returns of wrestlers cast aside by McMahon, there haven’t been too many surprises in the actual matches. And depending on the pops of those returning to the company is what AEW used as fuel for a while. WWE’s actual in-ring storytelling can still be awfully rigid.
There was no starker contrast to how the two companies view things than Clash At The Castle’s opening, six-woman tag, and AEW’s tag team championship match. In the former. Bayley’s new faction with Dakota Kai and Iyo Sky were pitted against Asuka, Alexa Bliss, and Bianca Belair, and were supposed to be the clear heel team. Except the Wales crowd was never going to bring itself to boo Bayley. They serenaded her with the same songs and chants they did when NXT ran a PPV in London in 2015 when she was still “The Hugger.”
Bayley did her best to bite back at the fans, but it made for really awkward viewing as she tried to play the heel to a crowd that made it clear they adored her. She and the booking of the match were trying to swim up a waterfall. At no point did it feel like Bayley had the freedom to try and use the crowd’s support and boost the match by doing so, which she probably could have done given how talented a performer she is. She could have thrown it in Belair’s face all match to give that upcoming feud added spice. It felt as if WWE had its idea for the match and nothing was going to sway that.
Now moving to the tag match at All Out. The champs Swerve In Our Glory (Swerve Strickland and Keith Lee) and the challengers The Acclaimed are both face teams. The fans love both. But they love the Acclaimed more. [Editor’s note: Everyone loves The Acclaimed]. Whether it was decided beforehand or both teams took in how the crowd was salivating for The Acclaimed, it definitely felt like things were adjusted on the fly, and both Strickland and Lee were only too happy to work heel for the match. They went to heel tactics like focusing on Anthony Bowens’s “injury,” jawing with Billy Gunn on the outside, toying with the fans’ emotions, and mocking The Acclaimed repeatedly. It gave The Acclaimed an even bigger underdog role, which helped make the match one of the best AEW has ever run (only a year after I thought I’d never see anything top The Lucha Brothers vs. The Young Bucks at the very same show). Whenever it came, Lee and Strickland were allowed to audible to enhance their match. One of the many charms of wrestling is that it’s interactive with the crowd in the house, making it a unique theater experience. As WWE is wont to do and only shoves rigid stories down everyone’s throat, it doesn’t help the fans feel they’re part of it. That doesn’t mean fans should always get what they want, but they do have a role to play.
Of course, there has been no more rigid story than the continued dominance of Roman Reigns. It’s been over two years that he’s been the biggest personality on the show, carrying at least one belt and now both main titles for six months. Even now when he shows up sporadically, he is still the main driver of everything.
And it was no different on Saturday. Even with a UK crowd practically frothing and begging for Drew McIntyre to get his moment, Roman retained with the assistance of an NXT wrestler that barely anyone knows who he is. WWE couldn’t give in to give the crowd one huge pop (missing another chance with Sheamus earlier in the card, though Gunther is a perfectly reasonable choice to be portrayed as an immovable monster). It has felt for a while that WWE isn’t going to move off their dream of having Roman take the title into a third straight Mania to face The Rock, which removes any drama from any of his feuds (I will retract all this and then some if it ends up being Sami Zayn who dethrones him).
There’s nothing Roman can do to keep from getting stale after two straight years of headlining and main eventing shows, though he’s tried. It’s fine to make your champ feel like the most important thing in the world and a big deal when he gets in the ring every so often, but at some point, we have to feel like he’s going to lose. What are the rest going to do waiting for The Rock, who might not even show up if he decides to film Skyscraper II: This Time It’s Scrapier!”?
Since HHH took the reins, the only title change we’ve seen was Bobby Lashley taking the US Title off Austin Theory (who got his first name back), and that was only so Theory could be more focused on the main event scene with his Money In The Bank briefcase. Sure, HHH inherited a lot of this mess from McMahon, but it’s been a couple of months now. At some point, we need something from left field.
WWE can do spectacle, it can do EVENTS, and yet they still feel a bit empty in the middle. Presentation is always enjoyable, so can be pomp, but goddammit sometimes you just want the fucking steak.