At 48, Chris Jericho could retire from wrestling. With an unusually long career in the WWE, a rarity in a tough business where opportunity and talent are rewarded in unequal measure, Jericho could walk away now, cash in with reality TV, and sign autographs at conventions. He also has a metal band, Fozzy, that has real success in music wholly divorced from wrestling; a second life under a hot spotlight and away from the brutality of the ring.
But Jericho and his co-stars on All Elite Wrestling (AEW) feel like they’re just getting started. “This is a challenge in a good way,” Jericho says at a roundtable at New York Comic Con. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m here. I could have gone to the WWE and stayed there until the sunset years, but I didn’t want that. That’s the secret to AEW. We’re here because we want to be.”
“Here” is All Elite Wrestling, a new pro wrestling league on TNT and the biggest to challenge Vince McMahon’s dominant World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) in a long time. While AEW is still a traditional wrestling show — it’s still good guys and bad guys duking it out in scripted conflict — there is a coolness to AEW that could siphon away fans fatigued of WWE, and curious parties who don’t know a headlock from a headbutt.
“Comic book fans, wrestling fans, Star Wars fans, KISS fans, they’re all the same. They’re very passionate, very rabid, and very critical,” says Jericho. “They will follow you until the day they die. Now because of AEW and the buzz we’ve created, wrestling is cool again. There’s talk about wrestling.”
If your social media timelines are any indication, pro wrestling is indeed cool again. Once a source of ridicule among “real” sports, pro wrestling has earned recognition for what it is: a spectacle. In an era where even HBO’s prestige TV and Marvel’s blockbuster movies carry whiffs of wrestling’s soap opera melodramatics, when Game of Thrones had its own Sunday night death-matches (Battle of the Bastards! Cleganebowl!), die-hard fans no longer fear saying out loud, “I like wrestling” in public. Even ESPN has pro wrestling coverage.
It’s as if the world finally gets wrestling. No, it isn’t an actual contact sport. It’s a predetermined stage play where ballet, improv, the circus, and kabuki theater collide to fireworks and arena rock music, and that’s totally cool.
But why now? And why is there so much hype on AEW? To Jericho, it’s the mere existence of a new option that makes its immediate potential so exciting.
“If you’re talking in the last 20 years, there hasn’t been an alternative for the fans,” he says. “As soon as we were in existence, the universe changed just because of us. There’s so much speculation and moves that were made before we even had one minute of national TV time.”
Before New York Comic Con took over the far west side of Manhattan, AEW made its cable TV debut on TNT with the premiere of its show, Dynamite. It was the world’s first glimpse at AEW’s roster, made up of WWE vets — Jericho, Jon Moxley, Jack Hager, Dustin Rhodes, and Awesome Kong — and new faces, like MJF, Chuck Taylor, “Hangman” Adam Page, and Nyla Rose, the first openly transgender woman in a major wrestling promotion. In a time when millennials are pulling the plug on cable, AEW drew 1.4 million viewers, a figure that topped WWE’s Wednesday show NXT by a wide margin.
Cable has always been the home, and battlefield, of wrestling. In the late-‘90s, pop culture saw the heated rivalry between McMahon’s WWE (then named WWF), which aired on USA, and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW) on TNT. When McMahon’s WWE/F won the “Monday Night Wars” and bought WCW in 2001, McMahon became the figurehead of pro wrestling. AEW’s place on TNT feels like the faint echo of a bygone war.
In the years after WCW, no one had the resources to compete with McMahon. Few tried, but the mighty WWE prevailed every time.
And then, somebody tweeted.
On May 16, 2017, a Twitter user by the handle @TheWWEGuy_ asked Dave Meltzer, a veteran wrestling journalist, if the independent promotion Ring of Honor (ROH) could sell out an arena with 10,000 seats. “Something like Madison Square Garden?” they asked.
Despite cult popularity and a few TV deals of its own, Ring of Honor never soared to any scale comparable to WWE. And no company besides WCW and WWE, with a gross revenue of $930 million in 2018, have put on a show with 10,000 seats since 1993. So Meltzer told the fan, “Not any time soon.”
Enter Cody Rhodes. The son of wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes, Cody became a star in McMahon’s WWE empire but left in pursuit of greater creative freedom. Now a top star for ROH, took Meltzer’s tweet as a challenge. “I’ll take that bet,” Rhodes tweeted.
A year and a half later, Rhodes and a few friends in the industry, including a tag team called the Young Bucks, beat Metlzer’s challenge, attracting 11,263 fans (plus a 50,000 buyrate) to an original pay-per-view event called “All In.” It took place on September 1, 2018 at the Sears Centre Arena in Illinois.
All In was an apt title, because it was a gamble that paid off. On January 1, mere months after All In, Rhodes and the Bucks announced the formation of AEW. Backed by the billionaire Khan family — father Shahid and son Tony, also owners of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars — AEW secured a coveted cable TV deal in May with TNT, the former home of WCW.
Suddenly, the world had two major wrestling promotions again. Suddenly, fans who were weary of the WWE had options.
Brandi Rhodes, a wrestler herself and the spouse of Cody Rhodes, is the Chief Brand Officer of AEW. “We’ve both heard, ‘I want to start a wrestling company,’ more times than not,” she says at Comic Con. “People [don’t understand] what the undertaking is. Sounds great on paper, but it never really pans out.”
The Rhodes’ were “both pretty skeptical” of embarking on AEW. You can’t blame them. There’s a notable history of celebrity personalities and billionaires outside wrestling who enter the industry to great fanfare, only to burn out, lose interest, or never attract an audience beyond the most dedicated enthusiasts.
“It took until I signed my contract for it to be real,” Rhodes says. “Thankfully for us, the Khans were very real. They have big plans. Tony [Khan] has been a wrestling fan his entire life.”
Professional wrestling, as it exists in its current form, began as a vaudevillian attraction in 19th-century Europe. It took more than a century until it evolved into a multi-million dollar production that sold out stadiums, sold millions in merchandise, and created superheroes like Hulk Hogan, The Rock, and John Cena. Barely in its infancy, AEW has a lot to do, and a lot to prove, before even oblivious observers will know AEW names like Kenny Omega and Nyla Rose.
“I don’t know if the world at large gets wrestling, nor will they ever,” says Jericho, AEW’s inaugural world champion. He is scheduled to defend his championship on the October 16 broadcast of Dynamite.
“There’s people that don’t get comic book movies. Meanwhile Infinity War is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. When it keeps getting put in their face, sooner or later they can’t deny the cool factor. The buzz.”
All Elite Wrestling: Dynamite airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. Eastern on TNT.