Despite the massive disruption caused by COVID-19, AEW Dynamite had a good first year. All Elite Wrestling’s flagship show, which airs on TNT on Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. ET, celebrated its first anniversary in October. There were some bumps and growing pains along the way—and it’s still okay to question the safety and responsibility of running a pro wrestling show during a deadly pandemic that’s shut most of the world down, even in an outdoor venue, even with regular tests of the talent—but still, Dynamite has been the most consistently enjoyable wrestling show on national TV in at least two decades. It’s been the TV show I’m most excited to watch every week since the first episode.
AEW knows it can’t rest on its past, though. The first year was good, and it’ll need the second year to be even better. And so tonight Dynamite will give us the biggest match the company can put on right now, on national TV, with Kenny Omega challenging Jon Moxley for the AEW World Championship. A match that could easily main event AEW’s biggest pay-per-view is instead airing on basic cable, free for anybody who already has access to TNT.
Some of AEW’s critics have called this move desperate. Nevermind that AEW’s next pay-per-view isn’t until February, which would be a long time to keep this story going without a one-on-one match—they’re clearly trying to increase Dynamite’s TV ratings by pitting its two biggest stars together in a World title match. There’s nothing wrong with that, though. That’s kind of the job of booking a wrestling show—create big matches that will increase your audience size.
Crucially, though, AEW is doing it in a way that fits a story it’s been telling for most of its existence. Putting this match on TV with a three week build doesn’t live down to that old wrestling concept of “hot shotting,” when a promotion rushes through a feud or adds an unwarranted gimmick to a match in order to get a one-night ratings boost. Yeah, AEW’s last PPV wasn’t even four weeks ago, but Moxley and Omega’s issue goes back to the company’s very first show. It didn’t take much to reheat a feud that’s been simmering for almost two years, and the addition of the championship immediately gives this rematch a significance their first bout didn’t have.
One of AEW’s strengths is that its stories can be as messy and slippery as real life. Wrestlers can have multiple feuds weaving around each other at one time, and long-running beefs don’t always get neatly tied up by a final blow-off match and then forgotten about. Omega and Moxley hadn’t actively feuded with one another for a year when tonight’s match was announced in November, but their history was never forgotten. That makes it easy to pick up where they left off in 2019, and also makes tonight’s match feel even more important.
It also lets performers do more than just fill whatever spot they’ve been slotted into on the card, which can make for more interesting and less predictable stories. When AEW launched in 2019, it was expected that Kenny Omega, a Canadian wrestler who became an international superstar in Japan and had never had a major run in a North American promotion, would be its top star. Instead of becoming the company’s first World Champion, as many predicted, he spent its first several months feuding with Moxley. After that 2019 feud culminated in an infamously brutal death match and a Moxley victory, Omega then segued into a still ongoing storyline with his friend and tag team partner “Hangman” Adam Page. Their relationship with each other—and with the Young Bucks, the other members of the loose stable of AEW founders known as The Elite—has driven a fascinating story that’s unusually layered and nuanced for pro wrestling. Exploring their emotions has made these pro wrestlers—who are inherently larger-than-life versions of themselves—feel more human and more relatable. And that makes it mean more when Omega starts leaning back into a flashy, arrogant, heelish persona—we can understand from an emotional and psychological standpoint why Omega the character would make that decision. All the while Omega has been pushed as a top act and has been having tremendous wrestling matches, but from a storyline perspective he got to do something with a little bit more depth to it than if he was just the World champion facing all challengers.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. That’s basically what Moxley has been doing since February, defending his World title against a series of big men and mouthy jerks. Moxley has injected these storylines with real-world grit and passion through his incredible promos, but it wasn’t until his fall feud with Eddie Kingston that he had a story as rich and powerful as Omega’s relationship with Page. Moxley’s beef with Kingston was built around their personal history together, a relationship that stretches back over a decade, well before AEW ever existed, and it was our first look in AEW at a Moxley who isn’t strictly a stern, no bullshit loner. It was Moxley’s first feud that was genuinely personal since he won the title, which made it an ideal set-up for him to slide back into the long running personal enmity he and Omega feel for each other.
There’s more that makes tonight’s match so compelling. It’s not just the extra importance of the belt, the character development they’ve both seen throughout 2020, or the fact that Omega is more heelish today than he was a year ago. Tonight’s match is intentionally being promoted as a traditional wrestling match, as opposed to the “unsanctioned” hardcore match they had last year. The idea is that this should give Omega, who many consider to be one of the greatest in-ring performers of all time, the advantage that Moxley, a celebrated brawler and death match veteran, had in the unsanctioned match. Expect that to play heavily into the story of the match.
AEW is still a young company. It hasn’t even been two years since it was first announced. So it hasn’t been that hard for it to maintain more internal logic and a better grasp on its history than its main wrestling competition, which has been around for decades. That short span also makes it more impressive, though, that AEW has been able to build a match like tonight’s, one that’s so deeply colored by the history of its two wrestlers, both with each other and apart. No matter what happens, or where Omega and Moxley go from here, tonight’s match should be a treat for fans, and a testament to how good pro wrestling can be when its stories are told smartly and sensibly.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.