Last week was certainly a source of whiplash for the women of All Elite Wrestling, as it appears that support and spite for AEW’s women’s division came at them in the same breath.
The week began with backlash from the fans after the first match announced for the women’s tag team tournament was set to take place that Monday night on YouTube — and, to make matters worse, this was announced on Monday morning on social media.
Unless you were plugged into All Things All Elite (and speaking of plugs, you should read Peter Boyer’s weekly AEW articles; they’ll keep you caught up), this whole tournament explanation was wild. And, even if you were paying full attention, certain things were still pretty unclear. The “Deadly Draw” wasn’t just a drawing? There was a match — no, two matches — happening that night? They aren’t announcing the whole tournament bracket until the following Monday?
More than that, people were confused by — and frustrated with — the decision to separate the tournament both from Dynamite and from AEW’s other YouTube series, Dark. To many, it was seen as further burying the division behind a screen of low visibility, giving the women a spot but not a spotlight. Hence, the one match per week on Dynamite and now a removal of the perceived one shot that the women had of fixing that problem.
The women’s week further devolved as AEW Heels, a platform strictly for people who identify as female and want to discuss wrestling in a safe space, was officially launched, sporting a $49 entrance fee and a $4 per month commitment. This last point was yet another a sticking point to a number of vocal fans. Though still interested to see something be done regarding women and AEW, some were spurned by the idea that, in order to enjoy your time as a female fan, you have to cough up 50 big ones during a pandemic, during which many people are struggling.
Twitter has been the setting for many of these debates, including a Nyla Rose tweet that came to AEW’s defense and told fans that, if they wanted to support AEW’s women’s division, they should watch the Monday show and tell their friends about it. Twitter was also the scene where, just one day after launching AEW Heels, Brandi Rhodes deleted her account due to fan hostility.
But here’s my thing: I think that AEW is, for the most part, doing “okay” with their women’s division. Or, at least, they’re doing the best with what they have.
If you watched last Monday’s show, you could see that the Deadly Draw tournament is not some haphazard project, even if the advertising certainly left a lot to be desired. Madusa (a.k.a. Alundra Blayze if you weren’t a Nitro kid) appeared at the top of the show to introduce the cup. Shaul Guerrero was brought in to do ring announcing (and it was great hearing her introduce her mom to the ring). Veda Scott was brought in for commentary and killed it.
Then, the booking of the show was solid. Brandi and Allie’s “double-shadiness” story advanced with Allie cheating the draw and Brandi letting their win go to her head. Anna Jay’s storyline with the Dark Order was expanded upon and is shrouded in a fun mystery; then, she and Tay Conti both impressed in their match with Nyla Rose and Ariane Andrew, who (despite messing up a body scissors move) didn’t provide the train wreck that a few fans were expecting.
And for AEW Heels, to be frank, I don’t see it as a problem at all. I do feel for you if you’re a woman who feels that Heels could be the service for you yet also find it to be out of your price range. However, if the service were cheap — or worse, free — it would be a total nightmare, and not like in the way that Cody and his family brand everything.
When anyone can get in, spaces get a lot less safe. Take, for example, the free dating app that is Tinder. It’s commonly known as a trash app for those who want to genuinely find love; meanwhile, paid services like eHarmony have a better track record in that regard. If AEW Heels was just the $4 a month, any Joe Shmoe who has a weird crush on Aubrey Edwards could find the money in his couch cushions and tag along for this month’s seminar with her and Brandi.
Of course, if you want to talk about actual problems with AEW’s women’s division, there are plenty of takes to go with.
Maybe making part-timer Riho the inaugural champion was a bad move, as even though the match quality was there, she wasn’t available all the time. And, on that same topic, I can’t really defend the sudden booking of Riho vs. Emi Sakura at Full Gear when everything else on the card (including Britt Baker vs. Bea Priestley on the pre-show) had been planned out since the beginning of Dynamite’s TV run, if not earlier.
Ruining Kris Statlander vs. Riho with the Nightmare Collective was a bad move, as was not giving the stable even one wrestler who can really “go” in the ring. I concede that they weren’t interesting as a unit, but even so, the way the whole angle was scrapped suddenly — leaving three of the four-ish wrestlers dead in the water (not sure if we count Kong anymore) while Brandi got placed back near Cody — was a little disheartening.
And maybe AEW could have been more aggressive going after the women who were in the Casino Battle Royale at All Out, because even though a lot of them were already signed to AEW or were signed later (thank God for Big Swole), that proposed roster with Mercedes Martinez, Tenille Dashwood, Shazza McKenzie, Nicole Savoy, ODB — would have certainly made for an “elite” roster, which has been the biggest problem for AEW’s women’s division since the jump.
Their women just weren’t big names like Chris Jericho or The Elite, or even big with hardcore fans like a Joey Janela or a Chuck Taylor. And, like a lot of the male roster (specifically thinking of Private Party as an example), the wrestlers they do have needed a little bit to get TV ready.
The hurdle AEW can’t overcome so easily is that they are the newest American promotion to sign talent, trailing behind WWE, Ring of Honor, NWA, MLW, and Impact (which may be Canadian now, but they’re definitely competition in this market). It’s hard to sign ready-made stars like Asuka or the Four Horsewomen, or notable indie names like Mia Yim, Shotzi Blackheart, and Scarlett Bordeaux, when WWE is already on top of it. It’s also hard to win a bidding war over someone like Mercedes Martinez when WWE has more money and the bigger name value.
Impact already has Dashwood, Jordynn Grace, and Su Young; NWA, as long as they’re still around, has Thunder Rosa, who would be a steal for AEW, as would any number of women these other promotions already have signed.
AEW has run into the same problem Women of Honor had coming out of the gate, because even though they had Dashwood, Kelly Klein, Deonna Purrazzo, and inaugural champion Sumie Sakai, it was hard to keep these names (Dashwood and Purrazzo) and a lot of the women that fans came for (Mayu Iwatani, Kagetsu, Hana Kimura, etc.) weren’t always there. Heck, Sakai is even similar to Riho in her story with the company, as both inaugural champions have history that tied into their win (Sakai being the first woman to wrestle in ROH, while Riho was and sometimes still is the tag partner of EVP Kenny Omega).
AEW’s women’s roster took an immediate hit with the loss of Kylie Rae, and after early performances by Awesome Kong at Double or Nothing and by Allie and Brandi at Fyter Fest and Fight for the Fallen, it was clear that even some of the women that were recognizable names weren’t enough to carry the division themselves.
Britt Baker, Bea Priestley, Penelope Ford, Nyla Rose, Hikaru Shida, Riho, Yuka Sakazaki — all of them were great pick-ups, and between stars in training like Sadie Gibbs and connections to legends like Aja Kong, the roster was well-supplemented around them as well. However, there was no “big name” to bring eyes to the division, like how Impact had Tessa Blanchard and Jordynn Grace, or how WWE has so many women stars that Toni Storm is lost in the shuffle.
But, as I said earlier, I think AEW has done a lot with what they have.
Since Dynamite’s premiere, AEW has signed Big Swole, Kris Statlander, Shanna, Anna Jay, Mel, and most recently Abadon. They’re currently featuring Ivelisse, Diamante, and Tay Conti, among many other women on Dark and Deadly Draw (side note: I’m just realizing how many D-named shows there are in AEW). Then KiLynn King, Skyler Moore, and the rest of Dark’s regular women wrestlers are unsigned but still get booked regular and have a shot to show off their skills.
As far as TV time and stories go, the Nightmare Collective may have been “not great” (to say the least), but it was one of many examples of non-title stories told in the division. Nyla Rose and Shanna’s table-based feud, Baker feuding with Priestley from Fight for the Fallen 2019 until Full Gear 2019, Baker and “Reba” vs. Big Swole right now heading into All Out. Brandi and Allie were rivals last year and are tag partners this year, and that’s just one more thing the women are working with in AEW.
I also think AEW’s Deadly Draw tournament is a great idea in general. It’s a platform for new and current women, and if the first show sets a good precedent, it’s a full 45-ish minutes dedicated solely to a women’s division that’s showing how it can stand on its own.
And, with AEW Heels, I think people need to chill out. It’s not a requirement that you sign up, and it’s not a supplement for AEW treating their women right on TV. The television side of AEW is going through its own apparent overhaul with this tournament, and on the side, they’re doing something that can benefit the fans and keep them safe while doing so.
I have no doubt in my mind that AEW cares about their women’s division, even if they’re having trouble building it up. I cannot guarantee that they’ll fix every problem that the fans may have, and for my money, I think it’d do AEW well to put the rest of the women’s tournament on TV after this second Monday show.
But whether it’s with the fans or the wrestlers, AEW is working with their women right now, and I feel like — at least for the second — we should wait this out for a little while longer and enjoy the finer things as they come.
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