Along with having significant financial backing and a cable TV show, AEW also is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to present pro wrestling differently, with a focus on diversity and inclusion in the ring, in the front office and in the audience. And while AEW is loaded with ex-WWE stars and indie darlings, it’s also making a significant bet on a relative unknown like Rose, who is not only a Native American of Oneida heritage, but the first openly transgender wrestler signed to a major U.S. promotion.
On Oct. 2, Rose will compete for the AEW Women’s World Championship at Capital One Arena on the first episode of AEW’s new show, “Dynamite,” on TNT. The night won’t just be momentous for Rose but for the entire pro wrestling world.
“We expect the ring to look like the world does,” says Brett Weitz, general manager for TNT, TBS and truTV. “When you open up the prism and spread the lens out wider and show people that you as a consumer are represented here... that’s really empowering for people.”
The origin of AEW is a perfect storm of events. It began with a trio of wrestlers — ex-WWE talent Cody Rhodes and the tag team of brothers Matt and Nick Jackson, who perform as the Young Bucks — taking a Twitter bet that they couldn’t sell out an arena with more than 10,000 fans, a feat not accomplished by anybody but WWE in years.
Their independent event, All In, brought an announced crowd of 11,263 fans to an arena outside of Chicago in September 2018. One of those fans was Tony Khan, a co-owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and English soccer team Fulham F.C., and a lifelong wrestling fan.
Khan had been in touch with Matt Jackson since the previous summer about starting his own wrestling promotion. The success of All In catalyzed their discussions. “This was [Khan’s] dream since he was a kid: to run his own wrestling organization,” Jackson explains. “Once we actually ran All In, it became more realistic.”
Timing is everything, and Khan’s interest and All In’s success coincided with a handful of prominent pro wrestlers becoming free agents around the same time. Along with Rhodes and the Young Bucks, AEW would eventually tout Chris Jericho, a veteran who has been at the top of wrestling since the late ’90s and once beat Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in one night; Jon Moxley, who performed as Dean Ambrose at the top of WWE for much of the decade before recently leaving; and Kenny Omega, one of the world’s best wrestlers who built his career in Japan.
What drew these top wrestlers away from WWE’s blackhole-like pull was the opportunity to do something on their terms. For them, the heavily scripted, homogenized wrestling of WWE is too constrictive and doesn’t allow them to do what they’d like to, either in the ring or on the microphone. AEW maintains that will not be the case in its company — wrestlers will be given the freedom to create the art as they see fit. “The actual music you make as a wrestler in there is your own,” Rhodes says.
That is particularly resonant with Rhodes, who left WWE in 2016 after about a decade with the company. While he spent most of his time in WWE in the middle of the card, his last few years since leaving have seen him become a top attraction at promotions around the world.
“For the first time in my career, I’ve kinda found my stance in the batter’s box,” Rhodes says of his “old-school wrestling” style. It’s a style he comes by honestly: Rhodes is the son of the late Dusty Rhodes, one of wrestling’s great minds and performers, who spent most of his career in promotions that competed with WWE (then known as the World Wrestling Federation). “My family has always been contrarian to big, corporate wrestling,” Rhodes says.
In many ways, AEW is a continuation of that family tradition, especially with a show airing on the network that featured years of his father’s career; TNT hosted the then-WWF’s vanquished rival, World Championship Wrestling, until 2001. “It’s so romantic, it really is,” he acknowledges, but he isn’t looking to continue what WCW was doing decades ago.
“It would be real easy to play the old songs... but we have to give [the audience] progressive, forward-thinking, sports-centered wrestling,” he says. Some of that will come from highlighting different styles of in-ring work, whether Southern-style storytelling, athletic showcases, tag-team dramatics, brawling, or styles imported from Mexico and Japan. It may even get more violent than WWE’s longtime PG programming.
“I wouldn’t be shocked to see Jimmy Havoc come out with a staple gun every now and then,” says Matt Jackson, in reference to an English AEW signee known for his hardcore, “deathmatch” style.
But presenting the best possible wrestling is only part of AEW’s mission. Another core value is being open to inclusivity and diversity, according to the company’s chief brand officer (and Rhodes’s wife), Brandi Rhodes.
Brandi Rhodes has worked in the wrestling business for most of the decade, and, as an African American woman, her career is marked by several milestones . Now, her position at AEW makes her the first African American woman to hold an executive position in a major North American wrestling promotion — a “first” that comes with real ability to affect change.
She has spearheaded AEW’s partnership with KultureCity, a nonprofit that helps people with invisible disabilities, such as autism, enjoy live events (the organization will be on-site at Capital One to ensure a sensory friendly event). And just as AEW aims to be for everyone around the ring, it wants to be a place for everybody in it, as well.
“[We’re] looking at everybody as a wrestling star,” she explains. “Sometimes people see wrestlers for other attributes they have — their race, gender or sexuality — we just see this person as an incredible athlete, and we need them on our team.”
Rose is one such athlete. Aside from an allusion about her transition during an interview on its YouTube channel, AEW has not turned Rose’s gender into fodder for a wrestling story line. “That was a huge thing for me,” she says, explaining that transphobic critics who say AEW is “shoving [her gender] down their throats” couldn’t be more wrong. “Nobody said anything!”
However, the critics and hecklers remain, whether online or at live events. “It’s a little hard to see such hateful, spiteful vitriol being spewed daily,” she admits. “It doesn’t cost you anything to use my proper pronouns. That’s how I identify, that’s who I am, that’s not a character, that doesn’t go away when the camera stops rolling.”
While heckling is part of the wrestling package, AEW has worked to remove hate speech from their events. “It’s awesome to have a company have your back like that,” Rose says. “They’re taking steps as best they can to make sure it’s a safe space for everyone, so everyone feels welcome.”
AEW and TNT are banking that inclusion and diversity, along with a sports-centered approach to pro wrestling, will give them staying power, especially in the shadow of WWE, a multibillion dollar behemoth.
WWE is certainly paying attention. In a move reminiscent of what was known as the “Monday Night Wars” of the ’90s, when the then-WWF went head-to-head with WCW, WWE has recently counterprogrammed AEW’s Wednesday night show by bringing their NXT program to the USA Network. If anything, the move makes AEW and TNT confident that they are onto something.
“It’s really rare for a challenger to be on offense right out of the gate and I’m surprised Vince [McMahon, chairman and CEO of WWE] went to defense as fast as he did,” TNT’s Weitz says, adding, “I don’t think a monarchy can last forever.”
Thankfully for AEW, they have a veteran of the Monday Night Wars in Jericho, who will celebrate the 29th anniversary of his first match at the first AEW TV show on Oct. 2 . Jericho jumping ship to the then-WWF was a key turning point in that war, and he remembers how WCW paid too much attention to the other guys — and ultimately paid for it.
“I don’t care [about counterprogramming]. Put on NXT, put on the Super Bowl, put on the return of Jesus Christ from above,” Jericho says. “We’re just worrying about ourselves and worrying about putting on the best show we can.”
All Elite Wrestling: Dynamite, Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Capital One Arena, 601 F St. NW. capitalonearena.com. $125-$450. This event will be broadcast live on TNT starting at 8 p.m.
AEW Full Gear, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. at Royal Farms Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St., Baltimore. royalfarmsarena.com. $30-$307. This event will be broadcast via pay per view.