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What a week in professional wrestling. John Cena’s return last Sunday night at WWE Money in the Bank feels like it was a month ago given how much has happened since. In a new weekly column here at PWTorch.com, I will present five thoughts on what we’ve seen in the wrestling industry over the prior week.
1. John Cena’s presence lifts the entire brand
John Cena returning to WWE television at the same time as the return of live crowds has certainly injected some life into a product that has been stale for months. Sunday’s Money in the Bank PPV event, though not a heavily-anticipated show on the creative end, had an aura of excitement surrounding it because of some rumored returns. We didn’t get Becky Lynch, but John Cena closing out the show to one of the biggest crowd reactions in company history gave everyone a buzz heading into Monday Night Raw.
Once a character who would receive nuclear heat from at least half the crowd, Cena has returned to find himself admired by a clear majority of the crowd. Some of that has to do with the success he has found outside of wrestling, and some of it is probably due to his extended absence and fans realizing that they may have taken the all-time great for granted.
The return of the biggest star of the post-Attitude Era has given WWE television more of a buzz than it has had in quite some time. It’s a shame that the buzz wasn’t put to better use on Monday night.
2. WWE creative continues to be more frustrating than good
Monday’s Raw opened (Cena) and closed (Nikki Cross’s title win) in memorable fashion. Almost everything that came in between was downright forgettable or flat-out booking malpractice.
The undefeated NXT Champion Karrion Kross loses to Jeff Hardy in under two minutes. Keith Lee returns and is defeated clean in front of what was described as a hometown audience (he shouldn’t have beat Lashley, but there are other ways to do this and keep Lee looking strong). And once again, the show was filled with rematches or various versions of bouts that we’ve seen for weeks (months) on end.
WWE creative is a problem and has been for a long time – that’s no secret. The WWE Championship and Universal Championship matches at SummerSlam are relying on stars from the past, not just for a nostalgia kick and to pop some interest, but also out of necessity – there’s no babyface challengers on deck that the audience can buy as challengers!
A wrestling promotion that is thinking long term will always have babyface challengers in reserve that they’ve been building up for months, eager to finally get that title shot. The entire point of a dominant heel champion is to get over the ascendant young babyface star. Despite historically being a babyface promotion, WWE has sure struggled to build up fan favorite stars for years now. The two best examples from recent years, Kofi Kingston and Daniel Bryan, were movements pushed (forced) by the fans rather than the result of WWE creative. Big E has a chance to break this streak, please don’t mess it up.
3. AEW Dynamite remains the best wrestling show on television
Speaking of must-see television, AEW Dynamite is just that every single week. The company is in the midst of one of their best streaks of television ever, and this Wednesday’s Dynamite in Charlotte might end up being their best show on TNT yet. Having this coincide with their return to live touring has taken the product to another level.
This past week’s Dynamite was a notch below the show one week earlier I thought, match-quality-wise, but the live crowd more than made up for that and kept the show feeling hot. It’s quite obvious when you watch an AEW and WWE show back to back that the AEW crowd is simply more invested in the product. Why? Long term booking and stories.
What I said about WWE lacking babyface challengers to take the torch is not the case in AEW. The company has clearly been building “Hangman” Adam Page for the World Championship for over a year now. The crowd will absolutely explode when he finally takes the title from Kenny Omega, likely at All Out, and the television to get there has been perfectly executed so far. The two men have yet to touch, and despite sharing the ring this coming week in a five0-on-five match, I expect that to remain the case. Fans will be dying to see them get in the ring and face off by Labor Day weekend. That’s the way it should be.
4. The possibility of C.M. Punk and Bryan Danielson to AEW represents a seismic shift in the wrestling landscape
Let’s be clear, when it comes to wrestling viewership, AEW is not all that far behind Monday Night Raw. Considering the company has been on national television for less than two years, that fact alone is mind-blowing. Dynamite has had quarter hour viewership peak numbers very close to Monday Night Raw’s lowest quarter hours. Dynamite has even bested Raw when it comes to 18-49 demographic viewership. The gap is narrowing.
The potential arrival of Bryan Danielson and C.M. Punk to AEW in the coming weeks has the potential to really put the company over the top. Bryan and Punk were two of WWE’s most popular characters of the last decade and have a large following among hardcore fans. Do they command attention from a mainstream audience? Not especially, though neither did Scott Hall and Kevin Nash when they arrived to WCW in 1996. Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen the memes making their rounds comparing the two situations this week.
Here’s the thing. Nash was on top of the WWF as world champion, Hall never was. Bryan and Punk were both world champions for WWE at a time when millions more people were watching the product compared to when Nash and Hall were stars for the WWF prior to their jump to WCW. Am I saying that Punk and Bryan arriving to AEW will launch a wrestling boom period similar to what happened with the NWO in 1996? Absolutely not. But it’s worth noting that Punk and Bryan are bigger stars, both in wrestling and the world at large, than Hall and Nash were when they jumped ship. Let’s see how AEW capitalizes.
5. Go out of your way to see Matt Cardona vs. Nick Gage
I’ll be the first to admit that the hardcore style presented by GCW is not usually my go-to when it comes to pro wrestling. However, the promotion, Matt Cardona, and Nick Gage drew me in for night one of GCW Homecoming on Saturday night. It was well worth the watch.
Cardona had nuclear heat in Atlantic City. John Cena at ECW One Night Stand 2006 was probably the last time I’ve seen a negative crowd response to this level. And give Cardona credit: He leaned into it perfectly and more than delivered. The hardcore style isn’t exactly something one associates with Cardona (unless you count getting pushed off a stage in a wheelchair way back when), but he held his own while he was in there with the best in the world when it comes to this style.
The title change and crowd response has been the subject of much conversation on Sunday (and rightfully so). Whatever your opinion is on that, I know one thing we can all agree on: The chase to get the GCW Title off of Cardona is going to be quite the story. And that’s what it’s all about.
Ryan Droste has been covering the wrestling industry for over 20 years. You can hear him each and every week on the Top Rope Nation podcast, available on Apple, Spotify, and YouTube. Follow him on Twitter @ryandroste.