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So long, Sammy Guevara’s TNT title run, we hardly knew ye.
The Inner Circle high flyer’s unexpected reign with AEW’s secondary men’s singles belt ended at 84 days, cut short by a match with minimal setup.
Guevara’s time with the championship mostly delivered in the ring, with five of his six title matches amassing a rating of 7.1 or higher on CageMatch.net. His tenure also mostly delivered in the ratings, with five of his six title matches scoring above the show average in the 18-49 demographic that advertisers covet.
And yet the very run that was supposed to elevate the 28-year-old, who is talked about on television as one of the promotion’s four young pillars, felt like a missed opportunity. Guevara wasn’t nearly as good as a babyface as he was a naturally cocky heel, but he wasn’t really put in a position to continue to rise with the few middling challengers AEW fed him.
The high point might well have been his win over Miro, who was taking some time off to film the movie “Trail Blazers” with his wife (C.J. Perry, the former Lana in WWE) and some Hollywood has-beens. From there, Guevara defended against three AEW newcomers and one mid-card wrestler before dropping the belt to the flailing Cody Rhodes in a match that was recorded on Dec. 22 and aired Christmas evening.
The rush to switch the title is ultimately a story about Cody, as unfortunately too much of the promotion is right now (and has been for a couple months).
Let’s break it down.
If the thought is that AEW needed to get the belt off Guevara because he didn’t deliver in the ratings, the numbers don’t support that argument.
He was booked to defeat Miro in the main event of the Sept. 29 Dynamite. The match drew 1.168 million viewers, better than the show average of 1.152 million. It also drew the 602,000 in 18-49, besting the show average of 588,000.
The following week, Guevara successfully defended his newly won belt against Bobby Fish, the NXT castoff who was making his AEW debut. The Oct. 6 Dynamite match drew between 1.041 and 1.091 million viewers (it was split between two quarters), roughly around the show’s 1.053 million average, while the 490,000 to 498,000 viewers in 18-49 was slightly above the show average of 489,000 viewers.
From there, Guevara was involved in the Inner Circle-American Top Team angle that culminated in a Minnesota Street Fight at the Full Gear PPV. Along the way, Guevara defended the belt against the only non-newcomer of his reign, Ethan Page. Although Guevara was facing a more established challenger, the Oct. 27 Dynamite match was the only ratings loser of his time as champion. The Q3 match drew 853,000 viewers, well below the show’s 941,000 average. The story was no better in 18-49, where the TNT title match attracted 487,000, below the show average of 518,000.
Guevara’s third defense was against former ROH star Jay Lethal in the main event of the Nov. 17 Dynamite. The match averaged 1.006 million viewers, outpacing the show’s 984,000 average. In 18-49, the bout drew the show’s largest viewership, with 507,000 viewers, outdistancing the 480,000 show average.
The fourth defense was against Tony Nese, another WWE castoff who had been booked as a job guy for most of his time there despite his world-class abs. The opening bout on the Dec. 3 Rampage attracted 551,000 viewers, above the show average of 499,000 (Rampage ratings tend to, but don’t always, taper off as the night gets later). In 18-49, the bout drew 254,000 viewers, slightly above the show’s 241,000 average.
Finally, Guevara was booked to lose to the title to Cody in a match that aired on the Dec. 25 Rampage. The episode’s main event averaged 629,000 viewers in Q4, above the 589,000 show average, and 341,000 in 18-49, which was slightly above the 335,000 show average. The 18-49 numbers were Rampage’s highest since Sept. 24, according to Wrestlenomics.
Guevara’s in-ring style might not be for old-school wrestling fans who like a fair bit of selling between their high-impact moves. But fans with a different perspective are high on his topes, 630 sentons, and willingness to go through and put others through tables. It’s a style that definitely befits a face more than a heel, though Guevara had to try to overcome the fact that his heel character had more of an edge than his face version did.
For nearly all of his run as TNT champ, Guevara delivered quality matches that were well reviewed.
The title win against Miro collected a 7.4/10 score on CageMatch.net. The next week’s first defense against Fish was the low point, match-quality-wise, collecting a 6.43.
The second defense against Ethan Page, which I liked the most out of all of Guevara’s TNT title matches, got a 7.22. The third defense against Lethal, known as a pretty good worker for years, scored a 7.61, the high point for Guevara’s run as champ.
The fourth and last successful title retention against Nese got a 7.27. The loss to Rhodes has achieved a 7.14 score so far.
All About Cody
Just as Guevara’s upset win over Miro was a surprise, so was his sudden loss of the title to Rhodes, who captured it for the third time. Guevara held the TNT championship for 84 days. It’s AEW’s most-switched title, which befits what amounts to a TV title. There have been six title changes after the initial spring 2020 tournament to determine the first champion. The AEW tag team titles have changed hands four times since the first tournament, while the AEW men’s and women’s world titles have each had three subsequent champs following the bouts to determine inaugural champions.
Guevara’s title reign is third-longest, but pales compared to Darby Allin’s 186 days and Miro’s 140 days (Cody’s first two reigns were a combined 113 days).
The idea behind handing Guevara the belt was to elevate one of AEW’s four male young pillars. And having him defeat Miro, who had come across as a main event act since he ditched his “Game Over” persona, certainly had the potential to do that.
The problem, as is sometimes the case in AEW, a promotion less than three years old, was in the follow-up.
Guevara never got a chance to face higher-tier talent while champ. That meant he didn’t get additional wins over wrestlers perceived by fans as at the same level or above him in the pecking order. While that saved certain wrestlers from doing jobs on TV, it didn’t help further cement Guevara. As noted, he also simply wasn’t as compelling as a face as he was a heel, at least behind the mic. And Rhodes, of course, has the juice to book himself to get the TNT belt back if he feels he needs it for his own storylines.
Pulled into the mostly entertaining Inner Circle-ATT feud, Sammy didn’t get to defend the title every week in an open challenge situation like Cody did during his first run with the belt. Guevara made just four defenses during a 12-week championship run at a time when AEW had two weekly national TV shows instead of one.
And yet that’s how Guevara lost the belt. Rhodes came out during what was supposed to be a Guevara interview on the Dec. 8 Dynamite and informed him he’d be getting a TNT title shot courtesy of the open challenge deal.
“Pardon the interruption. I didn’t want you to be blindsided. From one good guy to the next. Your open challenge. It’s going great. Christmas Day, your open challenge has been filled. Tony Khan just made it official. You’ll be defending the TNT title against me. Good luck, kid,” Cody told Sammy as boos rained down upon the challenger.
From there, there was a run-in angle on the Dec. 17 Rampage, with Sammy saving Cody and Dustin Rhodes from an attack by Ethan Page and Scorpio Sky. The Dec. 22 Dynamite had a video package promoting the Christmas Guevara-Rhodes title match, but the focus of the live angle that followed already was all Cody. Dan Lambert gave a meta promo where he noted Tony Khan is trying to use him to get the fans to cheer for the much-booed Cody, who is (mis)cast as a babyface. Outside of the video package, not much was done to establish the Sammy-Cody match or what prompted it.
Much wrestling podcast time has been spent discussing Cody’s tortured attempts to get the fans to cheer instead of boo. Suggestions to tone down the ring entrance by coming out of a tunnel, drop the “Homelander” ring attire, cut off the much-too-much dramatic first part of his entrance song, ditch the entourage, simplify his match booking, and just become less “extra” mostly have been ignored.
Khan has been asked numerous times about Rhodes’s crowd reactions and what to do about it, including during a wide-ranging early November interview by PWTorch editor Wade Keller and by me at the press availability following the Full Gear PPV. Khan’s responses have ranged from hinting at his frustration and noting Cody’s reluctance to turn heel to the WWE/John Cena/Roman Reigns-style answer of “as long as the crowd reacts, that’s the important thing.”
That AEW booked Cody to win the belt likely says one of three things: (1) a full heel turn is imminent, since this is the last thing fan wanted; (2) he’s a transitional champ again about to put someone else over like he did with Allin; (3) he’s going back to what he did during his first run as TNT champ and wrestling both heels and faces to position him as a tweener to justify the boos he usually gets from the crowd. (I’ve been to five AEW shows since Aug. 20, and can attest that Rhodes does get his share of cheers at the start of a match. The problem is that those who want to boo him are way more motivated, and it’s easier to get the boos heard at various points in a match when it’s otherwise quiet.)
Rhodes offered additional breadcrumbs on the Dec. 28 episode of Guevara’s YouTube vlog and during the post-show segment following the Dec. 22 taping in Greensboro, North Carolina.
On the vlog, Rhodes responded to the question of what he’s thankful for, and he heeled it up a bit.
“I am thankful to this vlog, and the vlog crew, as they’re called, for showcasing some of the most endearing sides of people that television doesn’t always showcase,” he said. “And also is going to showcase some of the least talented and hack individuals in existence that will now meander around conventions for the next year to three as just that ‘vlog guy or girl.’ It’s like being a hostess as a restaurant. If you’re doing that past your years as a teenager, there’s something wrong with you.”
Rhodes then thanked Guevara for putting him on his shoulders in a GTS maneuver, his big finish, and noted he kicked out of it. Rhodes bragged about making sacrifices like drinking Diet Coke at parties “where people are just eating gluttonously and drinking” so that he can look good with his shirt off.
But it was perhaps Rhodes’s closing remark that was most telling.
“I am thankful to the fans that cheer me. And I am thankful to the fans that boo me,” he said. “Because both sets of fans are getting ready to go on a ride that is just bizarre and it’s not the path that you think. We’re not doing what’s been done before.”
Just what it is they’re doing remains unclear as he starts his third run as TNT champ. Take Rhodes’s desperate post-show routine from last week.
Rhodes’s first comment was to tell the fans, “Something about that match has really got my heel hurting.”
Tony Khan came out, as he usually does after each show, put over David Crockett (of the family that took the NWA national in the mid-1980s), and then kicked it back to the new champ, who was booed.
“Hold on. Hold on. Guys, we’re off the air. We’re off the air,” Rhodes said to the crowd. “Tony, Tony, Tony, will you try one more time?” Again, there are mostly boos.
Khan moved on and gave the crowd something they might really want in the form of Hook. And Rhodes tried to glom onto Hook’s positive heat by suggesting Khan book him against Hook the next time AEW is in Greensboro. It’s a move his father would do in the ’80s after his popularity had waned a bit – try to attach himself to a babyface the fans actually liked in an attempt to get himself over. It was cringey then. It’s cringey now.
Eventually, Khan kind of relented, in that way you pay lip service to making plans with someone you run into on the street but have no intention of following through.
Rhodes wasn’t on the Dec. 29 Dynamite, but Brandi Rhodes came out to trash talk Dan Lambert, who continued his meta promo line about being used to get Cody over as a face. And booking Rhodes against Ethan Page for the New Year’s Eve Dynamite certainly seemed like a step in that tweener direction where the TNT champ shades face against heels and heel against faces.
And then after Dynamite, Shop AEW blasted out an email with the subject line: Cody Rhodes. Heel? Babyface? That’s certainly the question on many wrestling fans’ minds, and AEW, originally dismissed by skeptics as a T-shirt company, turned it into a way to make money.
The body of the email was a picture of a new T-shirt fans can buy. The poll-style shirt gave three options: Heel, Babyface and Winner. The box that got the check-mark on the T-shirt? Winner.
That probably should have read “tweener.”
(Author’s note: The ratings information in this piece comes from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and Wrestlenomics.com.\ Eric Krol is a former Pro Wrestling Torch columnist circa 1990. These days, he contributes occasional pieces to PWTorch.com and appears as a co-host on Torch AEW podcasts. He closely follows AEW and New Japan Pro Wrestling.)