Yep, tonight’s the night: Shaq will kick off tonight’s episode of AEW Dynamite by wrestling in a tag team match. The NBA legend will team up against Jade Cargill to take on Cody Rhodes and Red Velvet right at the start of the show, which airs on TNT at 8 p.m. ET.
Cody Rhodes isn’t just one of AEW’s top wrestlers; the son of Dusty Rhodes is also one of its executive vice presidents, and as such hosts a regular conference call with media before major shows. His latest call was today, and during its 45 or so minutes he touched on a wide array of topics, from tonight’s match with Shaq, to this Sunday’s AEW Revolution, a pay-per-view headlined by an exploding barbed wire deathmatch between Jon Moxley and Kenny Omega. Rhodes also touched on AEW’s next YouTube-exclusive show, AEW Dark: Elevation, which launches on Monday, March 15; the company’s signing of Paul Wight, who’s best known for his 21 years in WWE as the Big Show; and claimed that Pat McAfee, the radio and sports broadcaster who has worked frequently on WWE’s NXT show over the last year, has been trying to work with AEW. Here’s a recap of some of the most interesting statements Rhodes made on today’s call, along with a little bit of news about Elevation and a lot of hints about AEW’s future.
Some of Rhodes’ comments have been edited for clarity or length.
Shaquille O’Neal has long been known as a wrestling fan. As a co-host of Inside the NBA, he’s part of the same extended Turner Broadcasting / Warner Media family as AEW. Shaq teased wrestling for WWE multiple times over the last two decades, but little ever came of it. It’s not a surprise, then, to see him show up with the new wrestling promotion that airs on the same network as his own show. What does a star the size and magnitude bring to a show like Dynamite, and to a young company like AEW?
Rhodes: For me, Shaq’s presence, and what Shaq brings, is obvious. He definitely has a very large audience, a very large following, if you look at everything he’s doing with Shaq Life, and you look at his world and all of his entrepreneurial efforts. He’s really a model businessman. But for me this match I would like to see Red Velvet hopefully emerge as the star, and hopefully emerge victorious. If anything, this match has prevented a big opportunity for both Red Velvet and for Jade.
Our women’s division is continuing to grow, we’re continuing to cultivate it. The Eliminator tournament that’s happening, and to be able, during a pandemic, to cross the ocean to make it happen—it was not easy. Tony Khan moved heaven and earth to get production in Japan, and he made it happen. So for me this emboldens and bolsters our women’s division.
I’m not going to say anything mean about Shaq, because he’s entering a different world. If I was to step on the court and play HORSE with Shaq, it would be a joke. I hope he’s ready. I know he’s trained, and he’s trained near me, but we’ll see. I don’t think he’s got enough gas in the tank to compete with me.
AEW has been building to this big Shaq tag match for several weeks, and originally the expectation was that it would happen on this Sunday’s pay-per-view, Revolution. With the NBA All-Star Game running in Atlanta on the same night, Shaq wouldn’t be available for a live appearance at Revolution, so AEW will be holding the match on its weekly TNT TV show tonight. As Rhodes explained on today’s call, this speaks to a larger strategy AEW is pursuing, one that rethinks the traditional role of the “go-home” show—the final TV episode of a wrestling show before a major pay-per-view.
Rhodes: I think it fits just great on Dynamite. We’ve actually talked about it on [these media briefings] before, whereas the economics of the industry are much different now. The pay-per-view, and the streaming, and everything of that nature, there’s a great deal of opportunity there, but the television money is your bottom line sometimes. And providing the absolute best content for Dynamite, and not doing a really carny “let’s stretch it, let’s stretch it, let’s stretch it” that wrestling has done in the past. So I’m excited that it’s on Dynamite, and it’s live, and that it’s not only live and on Dynamite, but that it’s kicking off the show, it being the very first thing. It just makes for a great show. And actually, to extrapolate a little on this, one discovery I think we’ve made, and Tony Khan seems to be really keen on, and I love that, is that our “go-home” to pay-per-views might always end up in some way being themed. They’re always going to have a heavy hitter of a match on them, because they shouldn’t be a throwaway—a lot of rivalries and stories and angles, if you will. Sometimes the wagon is already in the barn and you run a VTR and hey, if they check out the pay-per-view… But for AEW, we still want that go-home show to not only be significant, but newsworthy. And we’re learning that as we’re finding our own identity. So that will be exciting moving forward.
The main event of Revolution will be one of the most violent kinds of matches possible: an exploding barbed wire deathmatch. Typically that means the ring ropes are replaced with barbed wire, and then explosive devices are placed in or around the ring area. It’s a kind of match rarely seen in a major promotion outside of Japan, where legendary deathmatch wrestler Atsushi Onita popularized it in the Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling promotion (known as FMW). Jon Moxley and AEW World champion Kenny Omega have had an off-and-on feud since the company’s very first show. They’ve already had one excessively violent pay-per-view match, so capping the feud with the most dangerous match around makes sense. Still, it’s a little surprising to see a major American promotion with a primetime basic cable time slot make the dive into the deep end of the deathmatch pool.
Rhodes: Deathmatches have a certain identity that have already been given to them. If you look back at FMW and explosion matches that happened in the past, if you look at what Terry Funk has done, and even fast forwarding to Matt Tremont today, in this era, those are nice parallels. But anything that involves Kenny Omega is going to be unique in a sense, and it’s going to have its own identity. And obviously being under the AEW umbrella… I’m having to speak very vaguely about it, because I’ve only seen the barbed wire that’s starting to be wrapped. I don’t have a clue how the explosions will work. I’m just on the edge of my seat, as everybody is, about it. I think to me the most important thing is the title itself, in that it remains in proper hands. As people know who follow the product from a creative standpoint, Jon Moxley [was] a little bit screwed out of his championship—well, a lot screwed out of his championship, and what a wonderful reign he did have. Kenny Omega returning to form and The Cleaner kind of reemerging on the scene, no pun intended, it creates a very combustible and dangerous environment. This match would be going on last even if it wasn’t for the world title because it’s incredibly violent. Viewer discretion advised on a deathmatch like this. But I’m just as curious as everybody else.”
AEW’s YouTube empire is set to grow once more in a little over a week, as the new streaming-only show AEW Dark: Elevation will launch on Monday nights. Rhodes shared a few details about the new show on today’s call.
Rhodes: I would want people to tune in for the first AEW Elevation. We have Paul Wight joining us on commentary, the first time for him, really, in his career as an analyst and broadcast journalist, as Heenan used to put it. I think to give you a little spoiler potentially on AEW Elevation—again, I want everybody to watch and see—it’s going to be similar to Dark, but there should be more of a focus on, potentially, individuals who are part of our roster, and Tony Schiavone is the one who is spearheading that. I think you’re going to see some one-to-one pieces, some sitdown interviews. I think you’re going to see a little bit more character insights, not unlike you see with American Ninja Warrior or even my other show on TBS, The Go Big Show, where we learn a lot more hopefully about why these wrestlers are stepping into the ring, why these men and women are competing, what this means to them, and their place in AEW. I think that, and a few other items—of course the biggest item being Paul Wight—will separate AEW Dark: Elevation from its predecessor AEW Dark.
In May 2019 TNT announced that AEW Dynamite would air at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday nights. Later that year, in August, WWE announced that the weekly program for its NXT developmental brand, which had a regular premiere date of Wednesday nights on the WWE Network, would be moving to cable, with a two-hour show launching on the USA Network on Wednesday nights just a few weeks before Dynamite launched. This head-to-head competition immediately evoked memories of the so-called “Monday Night War” of the ‘90s, when WCW and the then-WWF went head to head for years with two of the highest rated shows on cable. This “Wednesday Night War” has been fairly one-sided—AEW has won in the ratings almost every week. With the soon-to-be-shuttered NBC Sports Network’s Wednesday night NHL game expected to move to USA, it’s been reported that the network will be moving NXT to Tuesday nights in April, leaving AEW Dynamite without head-to-head pro wrestling competition on Wednesdays. Based on his comments at today’s call, though, Rhodes doesn’t expect Dynamite to run unopposed on Wednesdays even if NXT changes nights.
Rhodes: If that’s the case, if we’re no longer going to be opposed on Wednesday nights, I’m sure we’ll come up with some sort of wonderful statement. What could I say, “congratulations to NXT on a successful move to Tuesday nights, the real winners are the fans who can watch NXT and Dynamite live every week, as this is a marathon not a one-night sprint.” I could say that, but I don’t want to be sassy or a jerk. Because I think them moving, perhaps something else will end up on Wednesdsays. And not only that, AEW Dark is on Tuesdays. So AEW Dark would potentially be opposed. That’s why we can’t get into a matter of being reactionary. We just have to put out the best tshow, we really do, and if they want to beat us, they have to put out a better show. It’s honest competition. Yeah, there are digs, and they’re fun, and they’re light-hearted—believe me, all the locker rooms tend to love each other, it’s more the management that is pointed at one another, and even that, there’s a friendly relationship. Tony [Khan]’s a different type of management, a different type of executive. I would love us to be alone on Wednesday nights, but I’m prepared for there to be something else in that spot. So we’ll see.
On February 24 AEW announced they had signed Paul Wight, aka the Big Show, to serve as a commentator and wrestler. It was a big surprise, as Wight has worked for WWE since 1999, developing a bit of mainstream celebrity along the way; just last year he was the lead in his own Netflix sitcom. Rhodes discussed how and why Wight came to AEW, and what it means for the company.
Rhodes: Paul Wight is a big, big part of my career, as some of you know. We were involved in a WrestleMania together and that will always bond you in a unique way. The Paul Wight that AEW is getting is extremely, extremely motivated. I can tell you there wasn’t a long negotiation process, simply because he wants to be here. He wants to be here in a different capacity, as far as announcing and commentary goes with Elevation. I do think there’s a match, or two, or three, or four, and that’s just me personally, because I know he’s able to still go at a high level. But from a management standpoint, I’m most excited about him just being in our locker room, and being seen, because we have so many young people who are now all of a sudden famous. Nobody knew who Britt Baker, Sammy Guevara, MJF, or Ricky Starks really were a few years ago, and now they’re emerging on cable and across Warner Media, and they’re the future of wrestling. They’re all very important to me. And someone like Paul, not unlike how Sting has been, someone like that is really good to keep people grounded, to keep things in perspective. Paul Wight has more to give, and he’s going to give it, and he’s going to give it at AEW, so I’m very excited to see that.
Quick background: Pat McAfee played in the NFL for eight seasons and has since become a popular sports talk radio host and a broadcaster for ESPN. He’s moved into pro wrestling over the last few years, appearing as an analyst on WWE broadcasts and eventually becoming an in-ring performer for NXT. McAfee immediately won praise from wrestling fans and critics for both his promos and his in-ring ability, and with two matches under his belt is considered one of the most talented celebrity wrestlers of all time. Apparently McAfee has noticed Shaq hyping up tonight’s match, and took issue with the NBA star’s claims that it’ll be the best celebrity wrestling match ever.
Rhodes: I didn’t see this particular comment, especially from Pat, which is super bizarre, because I’m pretty sure Pat’s trying to get a job at AEW like every other day, but that’s another conversation. I like that Shaq made that comment. I stand by that comment myself. I’d make the same one. Because you have to continue to raise the bar. There’s a lot of old veteran wrestlers who have these opinions on how you’re supposed to do a celebrity match. My opinion is this: you have to wrestle. If you’re showing up for a wrestling match, you have to wrestle. It can’t be, ‘oh, they’re not from our world, they shouldn’t be able to lock up,’ none of that. Shaq trained. I never trained with him, but he trained for this, so I anticipate he’s going to know his way around the ring to a degree. Now he doesn’t have the experience that I have, for sure, but if he did train—and we’re talking about a multiple time world champion in the NBA, we’re talking about a former MVP—that athleticism is once-in-a-lifetime athleticism, which is where I would be confident in saying hopefully it is the best celebrity match of all time. I hope we can set a new standard and raise that bar—not only set a new standard but perhaps give a different outlook on what a celebrity or crossover-type match should be.
Perhaps the biggest story in wrestling in 2021 has been the wave of interpromotional cooperation sweeping the business. AEW has long had a relationship with Mexico’s AAA, but this year has started a partnership with Impact, and has also reconnected with New Japan Pro Wrestling, the promotion that helped turn AEW founders like Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks into huge stars. The New Japan relationship is especially exciting for wrestling fans, although the pandemic has limited the scope of what the two have been able to do so far. This kind of widescale cooperation hasn’t been seen in wrestling since the territorial days, and is a stark contrast to how WWE conducts business.
Rhodes: Tony [Khan] really is, as he’s dubbed himself, the “Forbidden Door.” If you think it’s not an area where we can tread into, he finds a way to tread there and do it peacefully and coexist well. I’d definitely think we’ll see more cross-promotion, potentially, with the NWA, or with Impact, or with New Japan, or AAA, or a myriad of companies. It takes trust and it takes time. When we bring people in we always try to treat them better than we treat our own, almost, when it comes to having our guest wrestlers, our guest luminaries, our guest bookers and promoters. I’m glad to see NWA still moving, Billy still moving forward with the project, and I’m sure you’ll probably see a little bit of fun crossover.
Over the last few weeks AEW has held a Women’s Eliminator tournament, with the winner getting a title match against Hikaru Shida at Revolution. The tournament was split into two brackets, with half of it taking place in America and the other in Japan with talent from that country. The finals air on tonight’s Dynamite, with Nyla Rose facing Ryo Mizunami. The breakout star of the tournament actually lost in the first round, though; Maki Itoh, the former pop idol turned pro wrestler, instantly won over the American audience with her high-energy song-and-dance routine, her cheery vulgarity, and her impressive in-ring work. Fans are clamoring for Itoh—and fellow tournament standout Veni—to work more for AEW in the future; Rhodes addressed that in his briefing.
Rhodes: Maki Itoh, the deity of… well, I can’t say it on this call. Maki Itoh,she impressed, as did many of the women in the eliminator tournament, and I thought that was really special. I’d like to give a little shout out to Shida and Emi [Sakura] and Kenny [Omega], of course, and [Michael Nakazawa]. Like I said, Tony [Khan] moved heaven and earth to make that happen. It’s very difficult during a pandemic to get a show in another country and somehow weave it into the fabric of our own show, so they did a wonderful job with this tournament. And I think the discovery from this… is someone like [Itoh], who had a following. And we want people who have a following. The hardest thing to do, they say, in sports is hit a baseball. To me the hardest thing in sports is to connect with the fans. And if you connect with the fans, that’s why you will see somebody like a Maki Itoh. That’s why you see somebody like a Ryan Nemeth. They have a connection with the fans. You don’t want to be the best worker that no one’s ever heard of or never connected with. So personally there’s been conversations on my end. I know a lot of the women in the locker room were a fan and would love to work with [Itoh], so let’s take a look as things open up. I’d say it’s pretty, pretty likely you see her again in an AEW ring.
AEW Dynamite airs tonight on TNT at 8 p.m. ET. AEW Revolution airs on pay-per-view and Bleacher Report Live this Sunday, March 7.
If you’d like to listen to the full media briefing, you can find a recording at the Wrestling Observer’s web site.
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.