Sidelines: For first time in 20 years, World Wrestling Entertainment has real competition

What an amazing time it is to be a professional wrestling fan.

For the first time in 20 years, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) — the biggest pro wrestling company on the planet — has a legitimate competitor.

All Elite Wrestling, a company founded in 2019 by businessman Tony Khan — the son of billionaire Shahid Khan, who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars of the National Football League and Fulham F.C. of the English Football League Championship — has quickly become the No. 2 company in the industry, and aggressively making roster moves that gives pro wrestling fans no choice but to pay attention.

The company’s biggest moves may have come in the last month alone. AEW managed to sign former WWE champion C.M. Punk — who walked away from a lucrative career in 2014 because of injuries and a general displeasure of the direction of his career under WWE management. Punk took that time to try his hand in the fight game with Ultimate Fighting Championship (notching an official 0-1 record), but was adamant on multiple occasions that he had no plans to step back in the squared circle. That was until Aug. 20, when Punk made his first appearance on AEW show “Rampage” at the United Center in his hometown of Chicago. The building had completely sold out on the leaked rumor that Punk MAY have signed with the company, and the roof completely blew off the building when the first few notes of his entrance music (“Cult of Personality” by the band Living Colour) played throughout the arena.

It was a scene that was almost out of a movie. Punk was the returning, conquering hero wrestling fans desperately wanted to have back. His story about his disgruntlement with WWE has been well known. He was infamously served his WWE termination papers on his wedding day to fellow wrestler April Mendez (formerly WWE performer AJ Lee). He was taken to court by WWE after an appearance on the “Colt Cabana Podcast,” saying he had a staph infection on his back that was misdiagnosed by company doctors. When Punk made his appearance in front of the crowd in Chicago, he was clearly emotional and happy to be back in a ring. Punk managed to live up to the hype of his return with an excellent match against AEW star Darby Allin last week at “All Out,” the company’s Pay-Per-View special.

But it didn’t end there. Two more ex-WWE stars made their AEW debut at “All Out.” Near the end of the show, Adam Cole, the longest-reigning NXT champion, made his debut, aligning himself with AEW world champion Kenny Omega. Moments after Cole’s debut, AEW managed to make another surprise, when Bryan Danielson — former WWE champion Daniel Bryan — came out to take down Omega and Cole. The crowd went into a frenzy.

Just like that, in a matter of weeks, AEW had three major WWE stars on its roster. It was almost reminiscent of the mid-1990s during the “Monday Night Wars”, when major WWE stars were making the jump over to WCW. Every week, fans would tune into WCW programming to see who the next star to make that jump would be, and it equated to major television ratings.

AEW seems to be going in a similar direction. The company had major names on its roster before last month. Cody Rhodes and Chris Jericho have been with AEW from its inception. Jon Moxley (formerly known as Dean Ambrose) was an early addition to the roster. Even talent from WWE’s “Attitude Era” of the late 90s-early 2000s line the company, with Paul “Big Show” Wight, Mark Henry, Matt Hardy and Billy Gunn all currently serving as AEW employees. And not only is AEW using former WWE stars, it’s also infusing the company with the top independent wrestling talent from around the globe, meshing different wrestling styles that fits the taste of any wrestling fan.

It’s not just the roster. A major reason AEW is being taken seriously is because of the financial backing of the Khan family. Major money like this hasn’t been put into a wrestling company outside of WWE since billionaire Ted Turner owned WCW in the 90s. AEW has a weekly television deal with cable network TNT (which, funny enough, was the flagship station for WCW in its day).

This isn’t to say WWE is dying. Far from it. In fact, with the program “Smackdown” being moved to the FOX network, and making a deal to move the WWE Network to the streaming service Peacock, the company had a record year financially. However, the current programming has become stale. For years now, WWE has relied on established, aging talent, like John Cena (age 44), Brock Lesnar (44), Bill Goldberg (54), Mark “The Undertaker” Calaway (56) and, on rare occasion, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (49) to carry the company’s biggest shows every year. Outside of Roman Reigns, the company has not established another profitable, main event male star (on the flip side, the company has done well to build and establish new stars in its women’s division). It’s a process that has begun to tire even the most ardent WWE fan.

Can AEW overtake and end WWE? It’s highly unlikely. WWE is a corporation now. Too much money, too many resources. But can AEW make a hit on WWE’s wallet in terms of wrestlers, fans, ratings and mainstream attention? That is absolutely possible.

It may take time. It may take more money and roster movement. But if this trend continues, AEW’s popularity will only grow. And, for the first time in 20 years, WWE may finally begin to sweat over the competition.

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Sidelines: For first time in 20 years, World Wrestling Entertainment has real competition