SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
I said it here in the column last week, and the same thing applies this week: It seems like a month’s worth of news has happened in the last seven days. Following up on last week’s news of Bryan Danielson and CM Punk potentially arriving, AEW doubled down this week. And it worked. Big time.
Let’s get to five thoughts on this week in professional wrestling.
1. NXT looks to have completely lost favor with Vince McMahon
If Vince McMahon ever had any reverence for what was happening down in NXT, that appears to have come to a grinding halt. In recent weeks, WWE has started to not even acknowledge NXT title reigns in their main roster on-air graphics and announcing (see: Charlotte Flair’s Diva’s Title wins being mentioned but no mention of the NXT Women’s Title any longer). There was virtually no talk of NXT on the quarterly investor call this week. And of course there are the issues with Karrion Kross’ RAW debut last week and the reports that he was set to lose yet again this week until Jeff Hardy was pulled due to a positive COVID-19 test.
One has to wonder if McMahon views NXT as a failed brand at this point. NXT was unable to defeat AEW when they were head to head on Wednesday nights, and you know that’s a sticking point with McMahon (no matter what he says about AEW and not viewing them as competition). Heck, McMahon even name-dropped Ted Turner this week! He’s a guy that doesn’t forget. Where does this leave Paul Levesque’s influence?
2. AEW’s unpredictability is a good thing
AEW shocked everyone in the opening match of Dynamite this week when “Hangman” Adam Page and the Dark Order failed to defeat The Elite. At the moment, Page’s widely expected title shot against Kenny Omega at All Out appears to be in jeopardy. It has been reported by several people in the media that the match is indeed off.
This would be one of the first pivots by the company away from the clear direction that fans want to see them go in. Page vs. Omega has easily been the most anticipated match in recent memory and was widely expected to happen at All Out by fans when they sold out the event the day tickets went on sale. Will there be backlash if Omega wrestles Christian Cage or Eddie Kingston on the show instead? AEW is betting on no solely due to the pending return of CM Punk, and they might be right. If it were me, I’d do an Omega title defense on the first edition of Rampage, likely the match versus Christian if that’s one that they want to do.
It’s not impossible that the booking will still lead Page back to Omega at All Out. AEW isn’t a company that battles their fan’s wishes when it comes to creative direction. It’s understandable to feel that an in-ring return by Punk could overshadow Page’s title victory. Then again, doing both on the same show could also make for an all-timer of a PPV. One needs only look back to 2002’s WWE SummerSlam. Shawn Michaels returned on the same show that Brock Lesnar defeated The Rock for his first world championship. But can you have a returning Punk, in his hometown, not main event the show? Do you do Omega vs. Punk right out of the gate in the main event of All Out? Punk vs. Darby Allin is what was teased on Dynamite this week.
Honestly, there are many directions the company could go in at this point, and it’s hard to predict which road they take. That’s a good thing! Real unpredictability in wrestling has been missing for a long time and I’ve certainly enjoyed talking to my friends and hypothesizing where this all goes.
3. Don’t doubt the drawing power of C.M. Punk
Leaning into those rumors of C.M. Punk coming to the company, AEW announced on extremely short notice a show at Chicago’s United Center for Aug. 20 (the second edition of their new show, Rampage). This was a heck of a leap of faith given they are running three televised events starting just 12 days later in the Chicago metro, including a major PPV event.
Well, that leap paid off. During a pre-sale on Friday, AEW moved over 12,000 tickets for the Aug. 20 show. The general on sale is this Monday, so it looks like they will sell-out the largest arena in the United States. If anyone had any question about the drawing power of Punk, this should set those notions to rest. Just a tease of his return at the event popped this kind of ticket movement. What will the arrival of him and (possibly) Bryan Danielson do for television ratings next?
4. Finn Balor got that NXT treatment; time to hire a lawyer.
Poor Finn Balor. He was all set to sign a contract to main event SummerSlam against Roman Reigns for the Universal Championship – until he wasn’t. In a hell of a way for a babyface to get his championship match, an opportunistic John Cena came out and signed the contract in his place after Balor was attacked by the spiraling Baron Corbin.
This wasn’t exactly the best way to get to Cena/Reigns, a match that everyone knew was happening anyway, but here we are. They did acknowledge on television that this isn’t how contracts work, though there’s certainly been times in my life where I wish I could have shoved whomever got a job ahead of me out of the way and signed on the dotted line instead.
So the recently returned Balor will now likely enter into a feud with Corbin. That’s the recent NXT Champion Finn Balor, underscoring once again the positioning that NXT seems to have in the minds of WWE creative.
5. The Bray Wyatt release was shocking for several reasons
While The Fiend character has done little to nothing for me since the infamous Hell In A Cell match with Seth Rollins back in 2019, Wyatt remained one of the top merchandise movers for WWE and an act with a large following among fans. He was even tentatively slated to return to TV in August, so the news on Saturday that WWE had released Bray Wyatt was shocking in more ways than one.
Wyatt is someone who WWE dropped the ball with on multiple occasions. Seven years ago, he seemed like a real main eventer with a high ceiling. His loss to John Cena at WrestleMania XXX was head-scratching. It seemed over the years that any time Wyatt picked up steam, they’d chop him off at the knees before he reached the next level. See also: His title loss to Bill Goldberg in 2020.
Personally, I was a big fan of the Wyatt Family storyline when it first started and feel that was his real chance to ascend (and potentially stay) at the top of the card. The dark, horror movie style nature of that character was easier to buy into for the audience at large than the magical powers and hokey skits that The Fiend and “Firefly Fun House” Bray Wyatt featured. But again, he did move a lot of merchandise, making this release (laughably deemed a result of “budget cuts”) surprising.
If he wants to continue wrestling, Wyatt will have plenty of options to shine. He’s a big guy who is incredibly agile and quick for his size. His character in WWE actually took away from how impressive he can be in the ring as he was often forced to work in a slow and plodding way. I’ll be interested to see what the next move is, but please, let’s lean closer into the character of eight years ago versus what we’ve seen over the last two years when creating the next incarnation.
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.