On March 26, 2001, the final episode of WCW Monday Nitro aired on TNT. World Championship Wrestling and all of its assets had been sold three days prior to its chief rival, the World Wrestling Federation, with whom it had been engaged in a knock-down, drag-out television ratings war for the better part of six years.
The final image of World Championship Wrestling for most who followed it was a split-screen satellite multicast of Vince McMahon — the owner of the WWF and real-life heel — and his son, Shane McMahon, arguing over which one of them now owned the company.
The March 26, 2001 Nitro marked the last time pro wrestling appeared on TNT for nearly 20 years, and signified the day that millions of weekly professional wrestling viewers began tuning out, many never to return.
Since that time, WWF has become World Wrestling Entertainment, it has absorbed not only WCW and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) but also the tape libraries of many historical and shuttered wrestling companies, and it has become a monolith in the world of professional wrestling. To many fans, the initials “WWE” and “pro wrestling” aren’t just synonymous: there’s no difference. And no alternative.
Yet the most diehard pro wrestling fans — far from a small audience, and one of the most passionate fanbases that exists — know WWE isn’t the only option. That it’s never been the only option. For decades, they’ve been nourishing their fandom, investing time, money, and loyalty to a variety of upstarts.
And last year, that investment began to pay off. For the first time in 20 years, WWE isn’t the only one in the ring.
Let’s embark together on a brief journey of how pro wrestling took over North America, how WWE took over the very concept of what pro wrestling is, and how now, after almost two decades of no true competitors, there’s suddenly a new titan going toe-to-toe with Goliath. And this new challenger has all the momentum.
How WWF took over the world of wrestling
At the inception of professional wrestling as we know it (a predetermined series of bouts disguised as a genuine athletic competition, bound by the carnival art of “kayfabe” to never let the audience in on the truth behind the illusion), the logistics of the world more or less necessitated that countries or areas (particularly in North and Central America) were carved up into “territories” run by either promoters or cartels of promoters, each dominating their geographical area with their own regional television shows, circuits of “house shows” (or live events, where all the money was made), and of course, stars.
Minnesota had Verne Gagne’s AWA (home to Nick Bockwinkel and, at the beginning of his run under the guise we know him best, Hulk Hogan); Texas had the Von Erich Brothers in WCCW; Ray Stevens ran the Cow Palace in San Francisco; Florida was home to Dusty Rhodes and CWF; Wrestling at the Chase was the landmark St. Louis television show from Sam Muchnick; television star Andy Kaufman helped Jerry Lawler’s Memphis-based CWA enter the national consciousness; Vince McMahon Sr. ran WWWF out of New York, with its star-studded Madison Square Garden shows; and in Charlotte you had Jim Crockett Promotions, the de facto home of Ric Flair and Harley Race. Most of these territories were at one time or another part of the National Wrestling Alliance, a conglomeration that sought to loosely affiliate the disparate territories and vote collectively on which wrestler would be recognized as the agreed-upon world champion. In theory (and in practice, for many years), that world champion would rotate in and out of the various territories, building up the regional heroes, driving ticket sales, and then moving on to the next a month or three later.
Of course, pro wrestling being the business that it is, territories were often breaking away from the NWA and crowning their own champions — often taking advantage of a loophole, screwjob, or other chicanery involving the established NWA World Champion that gave the breakaway promotion’s chosen man just enough of a leg to stand on that they could be rightfully viewed, in the eyes of their fans, as having a legitimate claim to being world champion themselves.
One of the first to break away from the NWA was Vince McMahon Sr., who was perfectly content to rule the Northeast, and whose WWWF was invariably referred to among wrestlers as “New York.” Back in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, wrestlers were free to come to a territory, make a little (or a lot of) money, and then when their run had ended or there were no more competitors or rivals that made sense, they were given the promoter’s blessing to head on over to another territory and do business there for a while … and they’d probably return again when a new opportunity presented itself.
That all changed when Vince McMahon, Jr. — the Vince most people in the world are familiar with — orchestrated a buyout of his father’s company, dropped a W, and set about making his WWF not just the biggest pro wrestling company in the world, but a wrestling company that reflected his view of what pro wrestling should be: namely, something that was much closer to entertainment than the traditional blood-feud contest of wills to which most fans were accustomed. McMahon relentlessly poached the biggest stars, biggest personalities, and, most importantly, biggest physiques from other territories and made them exclusive to “New York,” while striking deals with national cable companies like the USA Network to get WWF programming on the air every week, from coast to coast. In what many territories considered the ultimate crime, he began usurping long standing television slots in certain regions, driving companies out of business along the way via his various tactics.
Eventually, most of the remaining NWA territories, predominantly led by Crockett, coalesced under the WCW name, and childhood wrestling fan Ted Turner got into the “wrasslin’ business” by broadcasting World Championship Wrestling on the TBS Superstation before going head to head with McMahon by launching Monday Nitro opposite WWF Monday Night Raw in 1995, kicking off what is affectionately known to wrestling fans as the Monday Night Wars.
And of course, McMahon won that war. He achieved his goal of putting all his major competitors out of business, and after losing stars like The Rock to Hollywood, Steve Austin to … a lot of things (including age and injury), and Brock Lesnar to the dream of the NFL and then UFC, he began pivoting to making sure that the WWE product wasn’t any specific wrestler, but the WWE brand itself. McMahon looked to the NFL for inspiration: the Super Bowl sold out every year and was the most watched event every year no matter who played in it; football was the most popular cultural touchstone no matter how awful the on-field product. (McMahon would attempt to outdo the NFL twice via the XFL, but that was just another in his very long line of finding a “legitimate,” non-wrestling enterprise to hang his entrepreneurial hat on.)
The many failed challengers to WWE
Since WCW went off the air, there have been countless attempts to try to create a “legitimate” competitor WWE. Perhaps the most notable is TNA, which for a time had strong ratings. Then those numbers dipped, and TNA went through long periods of appearing on the verge of bankruptcy and collapse. TNA still exists today, under the name Impact Wrestling, and airs weekly on AXS TV. MTV attempted Wrestling Society X. XPW was a thing that briefly threatened to break big before flaming out spectacularly (and becoming its own episode of Vice TV’s Dark Side of the Ring). Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network featured Lucha Underground, whose cinematic, fantastical approach to the artform briefly generated buzz before a far-too-long hiatus demolished its momentum.
And the truth is, the territories that most people associate with pro wrestling prior to the mid-1980s never fully died. The NWA kept chugging along in the 1990s, attached itself to TNA for a while, and continued to field a recognized NWA World Champion via independent promotions. The territories morphed into “independent wrestling” or the more colloquial and affectionate “indie” wrestling. Early indie stars were heavily influenced by the exploits of the bombast of ECW and the tape trading scene that exposed American wrestlers and diehard fans to the hard-hitting “strong style” of Japanese wrestling, the innovations created by Mexican lucha libre stars Rey Mysterio Jr. and Psicosis, and the technical prowess of British legends like Johnny Saint and Jim Breaks, Canadian innovators Dynamite Kid and Chris Benoit, and countless more.
Northern California’s All Pro Wrestling created the first King of the Indies tournament in 2000, and the 2001 iteration was the first big viral independent wrestling tape, featuring performers like “The American Dragon” Bryan Danielson, Samoa Joe, Brain Kendrick, Adam Pearce, Doug Williams, AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, Low Ki, and Kazarian.
Spurred by this revolutionary demonstration of what professional wrestling could look like in the ring in the year 2001 — a jaw-dropping mix of high-flying, technicality, brutality, and athleticism — former Paul Heyman protege Gabe Sapolsky conceived of an East Coast-based promotion that would focus primarily on “dream matches” featuring the best available talent. Ring of Honor was born in 2002, with its first event featuring a briefly-fired-from-WWE Eddie Guerrero and culminating in its main event: a genre-defining Three-Way Dance between Danielson, Daniels and Low Ki.
While far from the biggest, the Philly-based Ring of Honor would prove to be the most influential North American company that popped up in the void left behind by the shuttering of WCW and ECW.
From 2002 to the early 2010s, ROH continued to thrive and build a buzz via its DVD releases and live shows, and eventually began running shows in the same city as WrestleMania during WrestleMania weekend. ROH came to define indie wrestling and be viewed as having the consensus highest quality in-ring product in North America (at least as far as men’s wrestling goes) as it grew. Stars began being created or featured in abundance: CM Punk, Austin Aries, AJ Styles, the Briscoe Brothers, Nigel McGuinness, Tyler Black, Claudio Castagnoli, Kevin Steen, El Generico, Davey Richards.
A strange byproduct of Ring of Honor coloring the next decade-plus of indie wrestling is that WWE kept scooping up its biggest stars. And after a while, as Punk, Castagnoli (Cesaro in WWE), Black (rechristened Seth Rollins), Steen (Kevin Owens), and most importantly, Danielson (Daniel Bryan) became key components of WWE, their indie flavor began influencing the slick WWE product. The wrestlers were changing WWE from the inside.
WWE is in the business of the “status quo”
Even dating back to the days of Vince McMahon Sr., the knock on the “New York” product by hardcore wrestling fans was that it was too flashy, too entertainment focused. It wasn’t like Southern wrestling, where the ultimate object was to make your opponent bleed buckets of blood in pursuit of being the best athlete, or, even better, in pursuit of avenging real-life emotion, like your best friend betraying you, or if your rival enlisted his friends to break your arm with a baseball bat in the parking lot. The NWA had the son of a plumber taking on a rich, spoiled pretty-boy athlete who also had the irritating trait of being the best wrestler in the world. WWF had a cartoon superhero fighting a cartoon supervillain (usually tied to some general bigotry, like the wrestler’s weight or where they were born), with not a whole lot that could even charitably be called “wrestling” going on.
Over the decades, McMahon has never made any bones about his product being fake, or that he preferred to view it as entertainment rather than wrestling, and most died-in-the-wool pro wrestling fans hated the product both in principle and in execution. In the 1980s, they clung tight to their territory … and then to Jim Crockett … and then to the NWA … and then in the 1990s to WCW. And then it was gone. And the only pro wrestling left on television was a product they fundamentally hated. Some turned to indie wrestling. Some retreated to tape collecting and old-timer conventions. Some just turned away and left the memories alone. And for the better part of 20 years, WWE has been free to do whatever it wants, often to the very loud chagrin of wrestling fans.
To WWE’s credit, the gambit has worked. WWE has indeed become synonymous with pro wrestling, and the WWE brand and name has become ever more valuable. Between Raw, Smackdown, NXT, monthly pay-per-views (or “live specials” after the advent of the WWE Network), and other assorted programming, WWE offers a minimum of eight hours of live programming every week, with no offseason. In a television landscape where live sports and live television is invaluable in filling a programming schedule, WWE has never been more crucial to networks and conglomerates, despite pulling in some of the lowest pure ratings of its existence.
(The ratings continue to wrongly be measured against those halcyon days by longtime fans, despite the extreme balkanization of television viewing habits, cord-cutting, the existence of DVR, the uploading of clips to YouTube and Instagram and Twitter and network websites, and a thousand other parameters.)
There isn’t space here to run down the complete list of problems with WWE (up to and including its current, lucrative contract with the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), but many of them stem from Vince McMahon (and popular internet punching bag, EVP of television production Kevin Dunn) having final say in pretty much everything you see on television. McMahon is a truly bizarre and fascinating individual with a singular mindset of what he believes makes a good product, and without anyone threatening to put him out of business since the dawn of the millennium, there’s been no one to hold him accountable or suggest that his method isn’t working. The company has continued to get more and more profitable, despite incessant criticism from fans and the press.
Both fans and wrestlers have many bones to pick about the wrestlers McMahon chooses to feature and the methods in which they’re used. An argument has been made innumerable times that WWE specifically punishes fans and performers alike for having the audacity to complain, or to suggest that certain wrestlers are being utilized while others are being pushed down viewers’ throats. Certain wrestlers (perhaps most notably CM Punk) have opted to take their ball and go home instead of deal with the politics and broken promises from those at the top of WWE, while others have chosen to ply their trade elsewhere in search of creative fulfillment.
Indie wrestling’s rise to the big time
When Cody Rhodes, son of Dusty Rhodes, broke from WWE in 2016, he started on a journey of acting and storming the indies that happened to dovetail with a specific moment in the prominence of global pro wrestling. The United Kingdom, long deprived of a viable product, was experiencing a sudden resurgence of wrestling. Germany’s wXw was thriving. And most importantly, New Japan Pro-Wrestling was the hottest product going, as the gaijin faction Bullet Club ran rampant and followed the template set by Steve Austin and the nWo: never underestimate the power of a cool, iconic shirt that doesn’t say “wrestling” on it.
Cody became a member of the Bullet Club, and he also became Ring of Honor World Champion. In the Bullet Club, he began running with Kenny Omega and with brothers Matt and Nick Jackson, whose tag team the Young Bucks was intended to be the most obnoxious thing they could conceive of. Omega and the Bucks christened their trio “The Elite of the Bullet Club,” and began posting what was originally a travelogue on YouTube. This travelogue quickly turned into the immensely popular and still-ongoing Being the Elite, crammed with bits, ironic sketches, and inside references galore. Cody became a fixture in the BTE episodes, and the four men continued — both together and separately — to rack up acclaim and fans, sell out shows, and most importantly, make gobs and gobs of money off neverending merchandise. Their merch endeavors were assisted by the Chicago-based print-on-demand company One Hour Tees, which spun off into Pro Wrestling Tees, now the official t-shirt home to pretty much every non-WWE wrestler you can think of … and some that are actually currently signed by WWE. As their success kept growing, Cody and the Elite started thinking beyond Ring of Honor as their contracts with that company and with New Japan neared an end.
Cody made a Twitter bet with Wrestling Observer Newsletter founder Dave Meltzer in 2017 that Ring of Honor, riding a wave of popularity thanks to its partnership with NJPW, could sell out a 10,000-seat arena. 16 months later, on Sept. 1, 2018, Rhodes and the Young Bucks presented the All In pay-per-view, broadcast from the sold-out Sears Centre Arena in the Chicago area, in front of 11,263 fans. Utilizing ROH’s production team, the event was hailed as a masterstroke and a landmark moment for independent wrestling.
Things began to snowball after the runaway success of All In, and Cody and the Elite began discussions with lifelong pro wrestling fan Tony Khan, co-owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham F.C. along with his father, Shahid Khan. Trademarks were filed shortly after All In, and in Jan. 2019, the creation of All Elite Wrestling was announced. Rhodes, the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega signed full-time with the company and were named executive vice presidents. Several truckloads of notable independent and international names followed.
In May 2019, a week before the company’s first PPV, a deal was announced for a weekly television show on TNT, marking the cable network’s return to broadcasting professional wrestling for the first time since WCW was bought out. AEW Dynamite debuted in October of that year and was viewed by an average of 1.4 million people. WWE counter-programmed by moving NXT (freshly placed on the USA Network after being a streaming WWE Network exclusive for years) to Wednesday nights to compete directly with AEW. Flash forward to today and NXT has been shuttled to Tuesday nights instead. AEW claimed a victory in the Wednesday Night Wars in less than two years.
All Elite Wrestling has continued to pick up steam since its debut, but no greater shot has been fired than with its signing of CM Punk, who is making his return to pro wrestling after seven years away from the sport entirely. Punk was a crossover star for WWE and had the non-wrestling world talking about him in the summer of 2011 after his “pipe bomb” promo successfully blurred the lines for viewers about whether what he said was “real,” which was compounded by his promise to walk out of the company after winning the WWE Championship on the night his real-life contract with WWE expired. “The Summer of Punk” got off to a rousing start when Punk put his money where his mouth was and beat John Cena for the WWE Championship in his hometown of Chicago on July 17, 2011.
WWE got cold feet and curtailed the storyline, but Punk became a top star in the company from 2011 to 2014, when he walked out after that year’s Royal Rumble and tried a UFC career on for size for a couple of years. He returned to WWE programming (in a sense) in 2019, when he was hired by FOX Sports as a recurring panelist for their WWE Backstage show on FS1, but fans still clamored for an in-ring return.
Punk debuted in AEW on Aug. 20, 2021 on the second episode of AEW Rampage, the company’s new, second weekly show. The episode garnered the highest ratings since the debut of Dynamite two years earlier, but the most telling signifier of success came via the all-important pro wrestling metric: merch. Despite having been around since 2013 and officially partnering with many household name wrestlers and non-WWE companies, and despite having eight years of selling the ubiquitous Bullet Club shirts and partnering with Hot Topic since 2017, CM Punk’s return shirt became the single biggest-selling design in the history of Pro Wrestling Tees within days of his debut and effectively depleted the world’s supply of ringer tees, forcing PWT to print the design on a plain white tee until they could locate another cache of the all-important ringers.
CM Punk and his impending in-ring return were the talk of the entire industry for weeks, leading up to his first match back at All Out 2021 on Sept. 5. AEW pulled out the stops for its first post-pandemic arena show, as the 10,000-plus fans in attendance not only got to see Punk’s return against Darby Allin, but were treated to two huge debuts to end the night, as recent WWE escapees Adam Cole and the former Daniel Bryan, once again Bryan Danielson, appeared to send the crowd into a series of frenzies.
AEW continues to open “the forbidden door” with its ongoing partnerships with New Japan, Impact Wrestling, Mexico’s AAA, and other companies, creating a brave new world of globalized professional wrestling where anything seems possible and where the object seems to be to keep its fans and viewers happy. (For the most part.)
All Elite Wrestling is not at all without its criticisms, shortcomings and bugaboos, as is the nature of pro wrestling companies in general. There are still very real concerns about lack of representation, the employment of some with questionable pasts, the lack of a union (and severe lack of concern about a union by the EVPs), and a very WWE-like propensity of signing dozens and dozens of wrestlers without seeming to have room for all of them.
But the long and short of it is that AEW is here, and it’s a force to be reckoned with. For the first time in a very long time, there is a very real and very crowd-pleasing alternative to WWE — one that is primarily focused on being a professional wrestling company, rather than televised entertainment that happens to be pro wrestling-shaped. It’s a very important distinction, especially where wrestling fans are concerned.
It’s going to be many years — if it ever happens — before the AEW name comes anywhere close to attaining the level of cultural footprint and, perhaps more importantly, the cache and raw value that the WWE name holds, but AEW doesn’t appear to be concerned with that. It’s focused on creating the product that it wants to see, and making it the premier location for the very best in-ring contemporary wrestling in North America … just as Ring of Honor did back in 2002.
It’s the best possible time to be a fan of professional wrestling. You can watch pretty much everything that has ever happened in WWE, WCW, or ECW on the WWE Network (which now resides on NBC’s Peacock app, part of another lucrative deal that WWE has pulled off recently), New Japan has started up a Los Angeles-based arm of its company and airs a weekly English-language show on Fite TV, and numerous other promotions offer streaming services for modest prices.
And every week, you can see the two biggest wrestling companies in America strut their stuff several times a week on national television. WWE vs. AEW isn’t quite WWE vs. WCW yet, but it’s clear that All Elite Wrestling is a force to be reckoned with, and is taking the fight to a company that didn’t believe it would ever have a rival like this again.
Needless to say, wrestling fans are all in.