The latest chapter in the growing rivalry between the decades-long incumbent leader in wrestling, WWE, and its first true competitor in 20 years, AEW, heats up tonight as both promotions pull out all the stops in their relentless quests for ratings. Both WWE SmackDown and AEW Rampage have plenty of tricks up their sleeves tonight, and even a good deal of trash talking to go along with them.
While WWE’s SmackDown is at a major disadvantage this week as the show has been shunted off to Fox’s cable sports sister channel, FS1, thanks to game 1 of the American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros, tonight’s episode will be “super-sized”, running until 10:30pm instead of the usual 10:00. In addition, the “super-sized” portion of the show will be presented commercial-free. Of course, running until 10:30 means SmackDown will be going head to head with AEW’s Rampage for the first time ever, as Rampage will be in its usual time slot of 10:00pm – 11:00pm ET.
In addition to more air time and fewer commercials, WWE is stocking the show with big-name matchups and appearances: Becky Lynch vs. Sasha Banks will headline in a non-title match ahead of their triple threat match with Bianca Belair at Crown Jewel next week. Brock Lesnar will also appear on the show to promote his Crown Jewel clash with Universal Champion Roman Reigns, and both the King of the Ring and the Queen’s Crown tournaments will continue.
Speaking of the Head of the Table, Reigns hasn’t been shy about how he feels about his position in the industry as well as WWE’s competition. In an interview with Complex, Reigns explained that he doesn’t see AEW as competition to WWE because their audience is a “hardcore fan base”, while WWE is “trying to connect with the mainstream”.
Whether they are succeeding in that attempt is another article altogether, but Reigns also lamented what he sees as free passes fans give AEW. “I think because they are the new kids on the block, they’re the cool kids in town I guess because of how premature and how novel it kind of still is, I think they’re still being babied by these hardcore wrestling fans,” said Reigns.
When asked about CM Punk, one of AEW’s most attention-grabbing coups in company history, Reigns wasn’t much more complimentary. “He’s older now. I haven’t really seen a full match,” Reigns said. “I’ve seen a clip or two. And to me, a step or two has been lost.”
“When it comes down to it,” he continued, “I’ll throw him and pretty much the rest of [AEW’s] roster out the club no problem. They’re just little brothers, you know?”
The Universal Champion isn’t the only one giving his opinions on the other side as of late: the tricks WWE is employing to try to siphon viewers away from AEW Rampage tonight are not lost on AEW President Tony Khan. Khan, who usually takes a more measured approach when answering questions about his competition, has taken the gloves off in recent weeks.
In an interview with the New York Post, Khan had this to say:
Unfortunately, if we are on at the same time it’s harder for people to watch their wrestling, at least live. We can take the commercials out of it. If you want to take the commercials out of it, I can do that too. It doesn’t seem very civil but I have more money than they do so I can afford to do that longer than they can.
Khan also exuded confidence on Twitter, taunting WWE, saying he “can’t wait to beat your main show head-to-head.” “It’s been a long time coming,” he added.
— Tony Khan (@TonyKhan) October 9, 2021
Not to be outdone, AEW is presenting a super-sized evening of pro wrestling in its own right, with an episode of Rampage that will feature CM Punk taking on Matt Sydal, Ruby Soho vs. the Bunny, and the Inner Circle vs. American Top Team.
But even beyond a more star-studded Rampage than usual, this week’s episode will feature its own Buy-In preshow on YouTube, featuring Bryan Danielson vs. Minoru Suzuki in a legitimate dream match. While it’s up for debate if a match of this magnitude, that would have been nothing but a pipe dream just one year ago, should take place on YouTube in a pre-show to the B-show, we should just be happy it’s taking place at all.
Moreover, it speaks to how seriously both companies are treating the competition from the other side, and as a wrestling fan, this is the most fun it’s been to be a fan in decades. Yes, the “Wednesday Night Wars” have come and gone, but that failed to recapture the magic of WWF vs. WCW given that it was WWE’s developmental C-show up against AEW’s flagship. Now, the tables have turned — SmackDown is almost indisputably WWE’s top focus these days, while Rampage is the lesser of AEW’s two weekly television programs.
Despite Tony Khan’s bravado, SmackDown will likely win the ratings war tonight. SmackDown has been moved to FS1 before, and while its ratings suffered dramatically compared to what it usually pulls in on Fox, it still drew 881,000 viewers, which just a few months ago would have been considered an average outing for AEW Dynamite. Meanwhile, Rampage has been falling in the ratings ever since the high of CM Punk’s return in August, netting 640,000 viewers even for its mega Grand Slam show on September 24.
However, as cliche as it sounds, no matter which company earns more viewers tonight, the true winners are the fans of professional wrestling. AEW has ridden an incredible wave of momentum since its inception, and is becoming more and more well known by the week. And as for WWE, they have a fire lit under them for the first time in decades. There hasn’t been a more exciting time to be a wrestling fan in a very long time.
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