It was a January evening three years ago in Philadelphia at the 2018 Royal Rumble when almost 18,000 fans leapt to their feet and screamed. My brother-in-law and I had left from Ohio that morning and spent the eight hour drive fantasy booking this very moment: who would win the Royal Rumble? Never would we have guessed this.
Roman Reigns’s feet hit the floor. Shinsuke Nakamura was declared the winner of the Rumble. Fast forward a month and Roman wins the Elimination Chamber. Obligatory complaining was quickly drowned out with a unified message: let Vince have what he wants over there, we’re actually getting what we wanted!
Despite the continued backlash of Roman’s main event booking, the message amongst fans was clear, concise, and consistent: Vince gets Roman, we get Nakamura vs. WWE Champion AJ Styles in a Wrestle Kingdom rematch at the Showcase of the Immortals. An even trade.
How peculiar this sentiment now feels in the changed landscape of today’s wrestling. What was once a universally understood language — Vince gets Roman, we get Nakamura — feels contrived and out of touch. The very idea of fans bargaining in professional wrestling for what they wish to see is absurd.
The arrival of AEW has been less of an explosion and more of a slow burn. And with it the simple booking philosophy of Tony Khan has allowed the fog to clear and a better understanding of our relationship with this industry to emerge. So, what is this simple booking philosophy? He gives the fans what they want.
Wrestling is fake. It’s fiction. You can literally make anybody the world champion because it’s not actual competition. That seems obvious, but it is so often overlooked in Vince McMahon’s booking. The idea of pro wrestling isn’t all that complicated. If you’re popular, you’re given an opportunity. If the fans like a wrestler, then that wrestler should be given a chance to succeed. It shouldn’t be a fight. So why has it felt like that for so long?
How many times have we heard the same old adage about Vince McMahon? The wrestlers of WWE are his toys in a sandbox. Every decision that is made is done so with an audience of one in mind — himself. If Vince wants something, even if the fans don’t, it’s going to happen. So when he does relent, when he does cave in and give the fans what they want, it feels like an exhaustive and unnecessary journey.
Daniel Bryan wins the world title at WrestleMania XXX, but only after fans physically willed it to happen. Oh, you want Becky vs. Ronda in the main event? Here’s Charlotte, too, for some reason! Deal with it. You’re welcome. An organic groundswell of support for Kofi Kingston? We’ll give you the summer.
And those are just the examples of the times he’s caved in. When WWE doesn’t want to push someone, despite fans getting behind them, they just won’t. Remember Rusev Day? Remember how every single fan in every single arena chanted that for months? I believe the only response from the company in regards to the grassroots fan movement was a single line from Shane McMahon during a Monday Night Raw, when “Rusev Day” chants drowned out his promo: “Duly noted.”
This isn’t about babyfaces or heels who come out the victor. It isn’t about who wins or loses, necessarily. Giving the fans what they want doesn’t mean that a babyface holds on to the belt in every title defense or a heel loses every feud. It’s about cultivating a culture based on the desire of fans.
And that’s where AEW has stepped up and delivered: the culture. WWE strives to be an entertainment entity over a wrestling company. That’s been their thesis statement for decades. AEW has embraced professional wrestling in its truest form. They service pro wrestling fans by producing pro wrestling content.
AEW isn’t ashamed of wrestling. They don’t pretend to be something they’re not. This is a wrestling company run by wrestling fans and, most importantly, wrestlers themselves. And it’s presented in a manner that caters to what the fans really want. We want to be lost in the story. We want to be rewarded for the time and effort we’ve put into the industry.
AEW honors the past without relying on it as an anchor. It respects the sacrifices and the progress of what wrestling has made before them. And, even if by necessity, they acknowledge and actively work with other promotions. While WWE has almost always acted as a bubble where we have to pretend nothing else exists, AEW supports the growth and development of other wrestling promotions because it makes pro wrestling as a whole healthier.
In competitive sports, fans are important but matter little in the decision making process. The majority of fans may favor a particular goalie, but if the backup is playing better, he gets the start in net. No brainer. In pro wrestling, fans are the only aspect that truly matter because the drama is fictional. The booking should reflect the desires of the fans. It’s really not that hard. For so long, WWE has went against the grain, ignoring or gaslighting their fans into thinking what they’re getting is actually want they really wanted all along. It’s counter intuitive. And just plain dumb.
Batista was right. Give me what I want. And AEW is doing that.
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