During the Monday Night Wars, wrestlers jumped ship more than pirates and actually turned the tide in one company’s favor for that week. It really felt like sink or swim.
After torturing the nautical metaphor to death, let me get to the point: As dope as Andrade El Idolo and
Tommy End Aleister Black Malakai Black are—and they really are—them showing up on Dynamite won’t keep Vincent Kennedy McMahon up at night. They’re a long way from Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, and not true game changers in this “war” between WWE and AEW.
Part of what made WCW into the monster it became was poaching WWF talent. That’s not a diss to anyone in WCW before the red and yellow one showed up but let’s keep it real. Hogan, Randy Savage, Lex Luger, and Hall and Nash were tippy-top-level cats in Vince’s promotion. And when they went down south, they either used the same gimmicks Vince made famous or loosely connected ones.
Even Savage used his same entrance theme while Hogan settled for Value Brand “Real American” in the form of “American Made.” When the spotlight was its hottest on WCW, they had the names everyone knew. When Scott and Kevin showed up—more importantly, how they showed up—it created a seismic shift. Within a few months, WCW was cool AF and the number one wrestling company on this or any other planet.
There’s a reason Monday Nitro sold out college towns around the country and why dorms on some of those same college campuses routinely held Nitro parties. To quote another legend, it was “a happening.” But that happening was only a thing because guys like Hall, Nash, and Hogan made a name for themselves in the company with the most significant pop-culture footprint. When they switched brands, all WCW had to do was not screw it up. Yeah, I’m fully aware of the irony of that sentence but just let it slide for the moment.
AEW is in a very different position than WCW in the mid-90s for too many reasons to list. But if I have to pick one—and I’m told I do—it’s that the company is still really wet behind the ears. With that youth comes a relatively young roster filled with people basking in the glow of a national television spotlight for the very first time.
Chris Jericho, Christian, and Jon Moxley are the only former WWE main event guys on AEW’s active roster. Miro, Andrade, and Black are WWE castoffs with sky-high ceilings. To quote my favorite rapper of all time, they’re four-mic MCs with five-mic potential.
AEW is betting, hoping, or praying to Miro’s God that these guys pop in a big way. I don’t pretend to know AEW’s long-term goal in terms of ratings and overall global reach, but if the world, outside of our little corner of it, ever mentions AEW and WWE in the same breath, it’ll partially be because those three guys proved McMahon wrong.
WCW bet on sure things like Hall, Nash, and the guy who just so happened to be one of the biggest pop culture icons in the world. WWE is in such a different place than it was all those years ago; it’s tough imagining someone with that much clout showing up on Dynamite or Rampage. People like Roman Reigns, Sasha Banks, AJ Styles, and the cats in the New Day are so ingrained in WWE’s system, from the television product to its online presence.
Long gone are the days where WWF had trouble matching an offer from the desk of “Billionaire Ted.” Today’s top stars are sitting on Scrooge McDuck paper and afforded opportunities to add to their bank account with ventures outside of wrestling. McMahon is Khan right now. No, not Tony, Tony’s dad, or Nick. He’s the Khan who shall have you if he wants you. Maybe, and I mean maybe, someone like Brock Lesnar makes the jump out of pure boredom and his need for another mountain to climb.
But AEW’s offer needs so many commas in it that Vince would need to sell off a dozen or so of his stock shares. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the odds aren’t leaning in that direction.
It’s rare someone in their prime, like Moxley, decides they have all the cash they need and just wants to scratch their creative itches. But Mox had a career before he made it to the big time and knew a life outside of WWE. Minus the Phenomenal One and a few others, many of WWE’s main event wrestlers are homegrown talent who only know Poppa Haitch and Grandaddy Vince. And it’s tough to leave home, even if you want to.
WWE now occupies the same enviable space WCW did when it carried the never-ending checkbook. AEW isn’t broke because, duh, but it will need to do the one thing Vince, and Disney villain Jafar have in common: find a diamond in the rough. When its stars flew to Atlanta to much greener pastures, WWF took a few WCW outcasts, a former college football player, a bunch of young wrestlers previously unheard of or forgotten about, and made pure magic.
Black or Andrade won’t move the needle for someone not reading this, and that’s okay. If AEW takes this opportunity to forge its future by looking to wrestling’s past, those guys’ names will soon ring bells from one side of this globe to the other.
Then, and only then, will defections actually matter.