Former WWE wrestlers are not WWE property
There is something that pro wrestling has trained us to think for the past few decades that we need to train our brains out of. Specifically, that the WWE trained us: that former WWE talent is WWE property.
What I mean by that, is that when someone works for the WWE and goes to a different wrestling company, they are always branded as former WWE talent. No matter where they used to work previously, if they had any success in the WWE and then go to another company, it is discussed of them being ex-WWE talent.
On AEW Dynamite on Wednesday night, the former Rusev made his debut in All Elite Wrestling as Miro. He went into the ring and cut a promo about the myth of brass rings. This led to an expected discussion about whether or not AEW has too many former WWE talent on the roster, and if there’s been too much of a trend of former WWE talent going to AEW to bash their former employer.
I know we live in a society that shames bitterness, but every human being alive that has worked for someone has endured a bad experience which they will express their discontent about to anyone that will listen. You might be going through that right now, and everyone who knows you has heard about it. When it comes to professional wrestlers, or anyone on a public stage, that bitterness is expected to come out and be public. Throughout the 2000s we were in the shoot video generation of wrestlers discussing their pasts for profit on DVD for Kayfabe Commentaries and RF Video. In the 2010s it became more prevalent to hear it on a podcast, whether it be Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling or Chris Jericho’s Talk is Jericho.
Wrestlers being upset with their former promotion is nothing new and we’ve seen it addressed publicly throughout the shows they were on all throughout history. There’s Steve Austin in Extreme Championship Wrestling dressed as Hulk Hogan shooting about how much he hated the company who fired him in World Championship Wrestling. Those shoot promos were the basis of what would be the most successful character of all time in the World Wrestling Federation. There’s Sean Waltman, eventually to be named X-Pac, showing up in the WWF after Wrestlemania and after being fired by WCW to cut a promo about how they did him wrong.
Being bitter about past experiences is okay. It’s also good to get the bile out of your system before you get going in your new promotion. It makes for entertaining television and people watching AEW especially as an alternative to the WWE enjoy the shots as affirmation that they are choosing the right show. It’s also extremely common in sports that you’ll hear players in the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL express how happy they are to be playing for their new teams, and will often discuss how the experiences from the previous teams didn’t work. To pretend this doesn’t happen is to ignore how sports work, and more importantly, how people work.
(Before I get to my next point, remember that professional wrestlers are independent contractors. Despite what the Performance Center shirts say, you are not an employee of any company let alone their property.)
Former WWE is a Scarlet Letter
What’s also common in sports is that the team you’re best associated with will follow you for the first year or two to your new team. Your performance will be compared. The level of success you achieve will decide whether this is the next step in your career or a step backwards. What’s different between sports and pro wrestling is that promotions are judged by how many talent from another company is on their roster. Let me correct myself. Promotions are judged by how many talent with WWE backgrounds are on their roster.
Nobody judged the St. Louis Blues in 2018-2019 for having several former Toronto Maple Leafs on their roster. It was just trivia. The New York Rangers adding some former Edmonton Oilers talent was considered a smart move to get to the Stanley Cup. But signing former WWE talent? One too many and it’s a criticism in the pro wrestling world.
This criticism started in the mid 1990s when World Championship Wrestling brought in Hulk Hogan, and with Hogan came in several wrestlers from the 1980s who worked in the World Wrestling Federation. It didn’t matter if some of them had been misused or let go by the WWF. Macho Man Randy Savage was still one of the biggest stars in wrestling and Vince was forcing him into an early retirement, only allowing him to work house shows and the occasional program. What mattered is WCW was finding success with former WWF stars.
When Kevin Nash and Scott Hall left the WWF to WCW, the fact they were originally talent from World Championship Wrestling when they came to the WWF originally didn’t matter. WWF “made them stars” so this was WCW just using WWF stars to succeed. Nobody in sports thinks like this except obsessive superfans who only care about their teams. Which is fair in describing some WWE fans, but it isn’t fair for the industry to adopt it as the main thought process.
This criticism moved from WCW to NWA:TNA, now Impact Wrestling. Any time NWA:TNA would bring in a former WWE star, it would be immediately criticized. Some of the criticism was fair, when they would take someone from WWE and put them over their homegrown talents that were already established with their fans as stars and deserved wins over the WWE guys and not losses. But if you came to Impact Wrestling from WWE, it was often treated as a criticism. It wasn’t until this year that Impact Wrestling built an entire angle around bringing in guys who the WWE let go, which by making it an angle it was harder to criticize and ended up treated as a great way for Impact Wrestling to refresh their roster.
Please Welcome Miro: Current Pro Wrestler
We now come to All Elite Wrestling, who just started their company in January of 2019. They run two hours of television on TNT each week and will be setting up a third hour on a different day soon. In establishing the company, they brought in the top independent stars in pro wrestling, some former New Japan Pro Wrestling stars, as well as some established former WWE stars. Their first two Men’s World Heavyweight champions are former WWE champions in Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley. The company has done a great job bringing in talent that hasn’t worked in WWE like Ricky Starks, Brian Cage, Lance Archer, and Eddie Kingston. Yet along that, they’ve also brought in former WWE talent in Brodie Lee and now Miro. The moment Brodie Lee appeared, the question was, “Is this too much former WWE talent?” and the same question is coming up with Miro.
The question should never be if there’s too many former WWE guys. The question should be if these are actually good wrestlers with something to give to AEW. There are five former Houston Rockets on the 2019-2020 Los Angeles Clippers. Do you think that’s too many former Houston Rockets players? Or do you think all that matters is that the players are good? The WWE has done a fantastic job training fans and critics to judge everyone other than the WWE on what the former resume’s of those working for them were.
If I treated WWE the way every other promotion is treated, one would judge them in the 1980s for too many former AWA talent (Hulk Hogan, Curt Hennig, Adrian Adonis, Gene Okerlund, The Rockers, Rick Martel, Ken Patera, Jimmy Snuka, St. Slaughter, Jesse Ventura), too many former WCW talent in the 1990s (Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Undertaker, Big Show, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Ron Simmons, Triple H, Marc Mero, Vader, Lex Luger, Sid Vicious, Ric Flair, Road Warriors, Steiner Bros, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash), and too many ROH and TNA stars in the past 10 years (CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Bobby Roode, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Seth Rollins, Cesaro, Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly, and Tommaso Ciampa).
But we don’t. Because that would be silly. But we do for AEW having Jericho, Moxley, PAC, Miro, Brodie, Dustin, FTR, Cody, Shawn Spears, and signing anyone else who once worked in WWE as ruining their alternative identity. What makes All Elite Wrestling an alternative isn’t based on the resumes of the people they put on television. It’s based on how well those people perform under their lights instead of the lights of their past. WWE did a good job convincing us that all former WWE talent is just that. It’s time we stop calling them former WWE talent and call them what they are: current professional wrestlers.
Photo courtesy of All Elite Wrestling