When All Elite Wrestling's AEW: Dynamite's debut episode managed to soundly outperform with WWE's NXT debut on USA in the ratings, it proved to be a warning to Vince K. McMahon and Co. By pulling in nearly double the audience as NXT, AEW's weekly TV arrival escalated the comparisons it had already been drawing to the Monday Night Wars, when WCW's Monday Night Nitro went head to head with WWE RAW/War Zone in the '90s.
Fronted by Cody and Brandi Rhodes, the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega, with Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham F.C. executive Tony Khan as president and CEO, it was obvious AEW was made by people who haven't lost sight of what's needed to keep an arena's chants going and seats filled. But after previously slipping with Friday Night Smackdown's joke of a match between Brockets Lesnar and then-WWE champion Kofi Kingston, rather than step things up a notch, WWE fumbled its second chance to respond with last night's Hell in a Cell pay-per-view, which featured a main event finish that was so unpopular, fans filled the arena with chants off "REFUND," "BULLSHIT" and, perhaps most importantly, "AEW! AEW!"
This chorus of boos combined with an immediate negative backlash on social media more or less means WWE has managed to give the early edge to AEW in the ratings war.
Following a relatively grueling and lengthy battler, fans were left scratching their heads when the referee demanded the bell be rung after Seth Rollins piled chairs and ladders on top of Bray Wyatt's rebranded persona, the Fiend. Sure, he smashed a sledgehammer down on the pile in order to crush the Fiend's upper body -- but this match is supposed to have a no-disqualification stipulation. When the bell rang, even Sean "X-Pac" Waltman, who was appearing live on the WWE network, wondered aloud how the hell a no DQ match could end in a disqualification.
Over the years, numerous wrestlers have fallen from or even through the cage, taking on major damage both scripted and accidental and the brawl continued. Mankind was famously tossed off the top of the cell by the Undertaker, sailing through the air onto an unforgiving announce table, yet the fight went on. So to say fans expect no referee interference is an understatement. And, as has become tradition, the audience quickly chanted numerous phrases designed to make their displeasure known.
Though the Fiend eventually recovered and choked Rollins out with his signature move, the Mandible Claw ("stolen" from Mankind/Mick Foley, as fate would have it), it was too late. The crowd had been lost, audiences watching at home were destroying the match on message boards and social media, and AEW smelled blood in the water.
AEW's debut on TNT is the first wrestling event to air on the cable network since Nitro went off-air in 2001 so AEW knows it has huge shoes to fill. Which is why fans have taken to the upstart promotion's decision to showcase solid matches and promote young, interesting talent. And from a storytelling standpoint, AEW's champion Chris Jericho, Cody and other wrestlers such Jon Moxley (formerly Dean Ambrose of WWE's The Shield) are blurring the lines between real and scripted far better than WWE seems capable of at the moment.
That's why Jericho and Rhodes fought at New York Comic Con, and it's why Moxley turned down a massive WWE payday to sign with AEW, a place where he's been granted autonomy to develop his character as he sees fit. It's a smarter, more clever brand, run by people who understand why wrestling is special, not just businessmen looking to make a quick buck.
Though no NXT talent was involved in any of the Hell in a Cell matches, the overall view of WWE's current product is an anchor around the show's ability to properly combat AEW's rising star. By burying The Fiend -- both literally and figuratively -- WWE inadvertently gave the new competition another boost, while creating a new and unnecessary hurdle for its Wednesday night brand to overcome.
AEW: Dynamite airs Wednesdays at 8 PM/ET on TNT, going up against WWE's NXT on the USA Network.