NXT and WWE Refugees Go Back Home: AEW and Their Fans
All Elite Wrestling is nearing its fourth anniversary and in that time it has secured a lot of wins. Somehow the most competitive win, the Wednesday Night War, has become forgotten. One of the spoils of that victory was the fans of the losing program.
The Wednesday Night War was all about Paul Levesque’s NXT facing head to head against the brand new AEW Dynamite for the first competitive American wrestling battle since the Monday Night War of the 1990s. The winner of this war was Tony Khan. In the 18-49 key demo, Dynamite won 74 head to head challenges to 1. If you only care about total viewers since you don’t understand cable television ratings, Dynamite won 63-10.
This undisputed victory led to NXT being moved to Tuesday night with NXT one day having a complete makeover of brand identity and talent called NXT 2.0. A lot of the fans of NXT and WWE in this era would begin watching All Elite Wrestling as that’s where the stars they were invested in ended up leaving to and thriving in.
The NXT and WWE Refugee Fan
There’s many different reasons why someone can become a fan of a wrestling promotion. None of those reasons are wrong or negative. Gatekeeping is stupid behaviour and everyone is equal as a fan. However, there is a mentality that a new fan can bring that does disrupt their interactions with other fans and their interactions with the promotion itself. That’s the person who becomes a fan in hopes the product changes to what they wanted somewhere else.
These fans don’t come in looking at AEW as a brand new promotion with brand new possibilities. They just see it as a high profile stage to create the WWE they wanted to see. This means hoping AEW acquires as many former WWE talent possible, only featuring non former WWE talent they wanted in WWE, and hoping their WWE wrestlers win. They didn’t watch in 2019 aside from maybe the debut because they were still deep in NXT. Once NXT started losing its lustre and NXT 2.0 replaced their old home, that’s when All Elite Wrestling felt like a new home for these refugees.
In 2020, despite the pandemic, All Elite Wrestling had former WWE superstar Jon Moxley as their champion for most of the year. Cody Rhodes, another former WWE star, was the inaugural TNT Champion. We saw debuts of Brodie Lee, formerly Luke Harper of the Wyatt Family, and Matt Hardy able to do the Broken character he wasn’t allowed to in WWE. The former Revival made their debut as FTR and in months were AEW World Tag champions. With former WWE wrestlers in top spots, that’s when the seed was planted for those fans who wanted WWE to be better. If they couldn’t get WWE better in WWE, and couldn’t get WWE better in NXT, could they get WWE better in AEW?
The flood gates for this type of fan exploded in 2021 due to the debuts of Bobby Fish, Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly, Malakai Black, Ruby Soho, Tony Nese, Miro (in late 2020), Serena Deeb, Andrade el Idolo, 2point0, Christian Cage, Bryan Danielson, and CM Punk soon took spots on the roster. AEW was now shaping up to be the best of wrestlers WWE dropped the ball on, the best of NXT, and the wrestlers people always wanted to see returning to WWE. Every week Tony Khan was putting a spotlight on these wrestlers, sometimes at the expense of his own roster.
Now deep into 2022 we’ve seen more debuts formerly from WWE. Keith Lee, Swerve Strickland, Toni Storm, Marina Shafir, Jeff Hardy, Samoa Joe, Claudio Castagnoli, and others have come into All Elite Wrestling for their share of the pie. That pie is getting smaller with Ring of Honor being purchased by AEW in March of this year. If your vision of All Elite Wrestling is to be the dream scenario of what you wanted to see in WWE? You’re pretty much getting it. CM Punk went undefeated and beat several of AEW’s top young stars. The Undisputed Era broke up in NXT but now reformed as Undisputed Elite. FTR are held in the same regard as The Young Bucks for greatest tag team in the company. All of this has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many who watched their homegrown and year one talents be pushed aside and contracts expire.
Suddenly all of those “WWE guys want to wrestle but are stuck in catering doing nothing” jokes don’t hit the way they used to. As I’ve said on Twitter, it’s an absolute travesty that Stu Grayson was in AEW for three years and not once got a singles match on television.
Of course, this is all a very limited viewpoint of what AEW has done in the past few years. AEW isn’t trying to be WWE. AEW is just acquiring great talent. Most of these wrestlers would have been in AEW back in 2019 if they were free agents then. There’s a lot of guys like 2point0 and Tony Nese that fans in WWE didn’t care about at all who’ve made good careers in AEW. Well, Daddy Magic and Cool Hand Ang have. Tony Nese is just on television every week to be a competently boring wrestler. I guess Tony Khan was a big fan of 205 Live not realizing nobody watched it? I digress. The fact is Tony Khan is filling his roster with great free agent wrestlers, not simply trying to appeal to WWE fans.
Let The Refugees Go Home
The NXT and WWE refugees exist, and were being given the television they wanted. But now that Vince McMahon has scandaled himself into a shadow role in WWE, people are hoping that Paul Levesque can now run the WWE shows and change everything. All of those NXT talents they love will be pushed! All of the workhorses will become superstars! Finally, the WWE they envisioned will now not be in AEW but in WWE. It’s going so good that Sasha Banks and Naomi might stay in WWE instead of leaving!
The reality is that these fans are likely to depart from AEW, and they will do it slowly and very vocally. It will be about comparing HHH’s NXT and WWE to Tony Khan’s NXT and WWE basically. It won’t be how Tony mishandled his young talent from burgeoning on becoming main event stars to relegated to the midcard (Hangman Page) or off the show entirely for a nebulous contract dispute (MJF) but how AEW isn’t doing enough to cater to them anymore.
They are going to start speaking about how they just want all wrestling promotions to be great and they just love wrestling, but everything, *everything* will be about comparing AEW to WWE. Eventually they’ll just watch WWE again. Eventually.
Which is fine. It might lead to AEW losing a few fans and numbers to drop a bit, but it will also tell Tony Khan as booker that he can’t just pied piper the disgruntled WWE fan over. He might not be trying to be WWE, but that’s what happens when you focus on WWE talent over AEW talent before properly integrating them into the roster. He has to create new fans. He has to keep his loyal base happy. He has to continue being an alternative, not just to Vince McMahon’s WWE but to whatever Paul changes the WWE into. You can’t appeal to a disgruntled WWE fan. It would be like the Los Angeles Dodgers trying to appeal to a disgruntled New York Yankees fan. All you can do is wait for that fan to drop the company entirely and be ready for something new. They don’t want you. They just want what they had to be better.
Moving to the end of summer and into the end of the year, there’s going to be a lot of narratives about All Elite Wrestling. Some are absolutely true. The booking isn’t as sharp as it used to be. Ring of Honor has held the AEW roster back from their deserved television time. The choices on what talent to put in television rotation (Marina Shafir shouldn’t get a second of TV time any week Hikaru Shida is working Dark) need to focus on who has drawing ability and actual crowd engagement. There needs to be long term stories again.
These are fair questions to ask. These are criticisms that are grounded in reality. But you’re also going to see a lot of fraudulent narratives built entirely on what AEW isn’t doing that WWE is. AEW should never be WWE. AEW shouldn’t follow in the footsteps of a failed general whose army lost the battles against themselves. AEW should always be the alternative.
Anyone can become a fan, but you have to actually be a fan of the product you’re watching. Otherwise you’re just a refugee yearning to go home. For the NXT and WWE fans who wanted AEW to change into the WWE product they always wanted? It’s time for you to go home.