AEW Grand Slam, Bryan Danielson Vs. Kenny Omega, And The Risk Of Full Throttle Strategy
Can AEW maintain their balance between stacked TV shows and outstanding pay-per-view cards?
After the recent exploits of Emma Raducanu, it’s safe to say that Arthur Ashe Stadium is well acquainted with things moving at blistering speed.
The world’s largest tennis venue, in all its imposing verticality, bore witness to the 18 year old Brit’s astonishing demolition of the US Open. Raducanu simply didn’t waste any time, failing to drop a single set in her march to victory.
This week, with Tony Khan and co. rolling into Queens, that pace isn’t likely to slow down just yet.
Over the past month or so, AEW have firmly solidified 2021 as their year. 2021 is All Elite. The twin debuts of Danielson and Cole; the return of CM Punk to a professional wrestling ring; WWE cast-offs like Ruby Soho and Malakai Black taking centre stage; Minoru Suzuki showing up to hit people in the face very hard - you’d think we’d be due a breather by this point.
Instead, this week we have AEW Grand Slam. While regular fans of the promotion are certainly familiar with big TV specials (Winter is Coming, Blood and Guts, Homecoming et al.) this is going to another level.
Friday’s show is huge, of course, with Punk’s first televised match since January 2014, the reunion of Cole and the Young Bucks as a trios unit, and an inevitable slugfest between Suzuki-gun, Jon Moxley and Eddie Kingston.
But Wednesday is very much the main attraction in my mind, because - feel free to take a seat if you haven’t heard the news already - Bryan Danielson is wrestling Kenny Omega on free TV.
The show features other PPV-worthy matchups too, particularly Baker vs. Soho and Cody vs. Black, but in booking a bonafide dream match on a Wednesday night, AEW are making a statement.
Recently, I wrote about the earth-shattering decision to debut Danielson and Cole in the same segment, a move which may seem hasty and juvenile out of context, but made perfect sense in the frenzied atmosphere of a phenomenal show. But were I to have guessed what AEW’s next step would be, I would have predicted a patient, dramatic build towards Full Gear.
I would also have been spectacularly wrong, because Tony Khan has barely paused for breath.
Is this simply the continuation of a short-term strategy, piquing the interest and capturing the attention of countless new fans, before settling into a more predictable rhythm? Or are AEW redefining the structure of a large wrestling promotion before our eyes?
Weekly TV is treated with far more importance in Jacksonville than we’ve perhaps been used to over the past two decades. Even before Dynamite suddenly had a must-see cast of high profile newcomers on its hands, it was fairly likely that something big would happen on any given episode.
Some of these moments have become iconic landmarks in Dynamite’s relatively short history, from Britt Baker vs. Thunder Rosa to the Arcade Anarchy match, Cody moonsaulting off the cage to Omega screwing Moxley out of the title.
It’s a model that runs a severe risk of imploding if implemented permanently, at least according to the precedent of modern wrestling history.
Among WCW’s many problems towards the end of its lifespan, a crucial one was an overemphasis on TV at the expense of pay per view.
Big monthly shows were rife with screwy finishes, ill-advised worked shoot angles, and a general sense of impending disappointment. Nitro and Thunder may have been a creative mess for most of the Vince Russo era, but that’s often where you’d find the big matches, shocking title changes, and so on.
Indeed, in our office here at Cultaholic HQ, Omega vs. Danielson has already been compared to Goldberg vs. Hogan: a monumental bout capable of headlining any pay per view, instead given away on a weekday with a much shorter build.
But honestly, at the risk of alienating colleagues I sit within striking distance of, I don’t think it to be too apt a comparison, nor something for AEW to worry about at this stage.
Firstly, we may remain bewildered by Goldberg’s big title win taking place on free TV, but it’s gone down as one of the most iconic, joyous moments in WCW history. Secondly, even if it maybe did set a dangerous precedent for the years ahead, that match took place in a very different world from today.
By that, I’m referring to the fact that both AEW and WWE have raised eyebrows over the past few years with very lucrative TV deals. When SmackDown moved to FOX in 2019, I remember Dave Meltzer wondering if this would reshape the entire wrestling business, putting unforeseen power in the hands of the wrestlers.
Were they to coordinate a strike just before SmackDown is scheduled to go on air, he mused, how could WWE do anything but bow to their demands? That FOX contract would simply be too valuable to breach, and the consistent quality and excitement of weekly TV shows would suddenly become WWE’s biggest priority.
Things obviously haven’t quite panned out that way, but I’m shocked by just how little they’ve moved in such a direction. Yes, we might see the occasional action-packed episode (such as this week’s Raw), but Vince McMahon appears steadfast in his ways. Little of consequence truly happens on either the red or blue brand these days, with storylines usually spinning in place until the next Network Special, and often beyond.
AEW, on the other hand, are attempting a very precise balancing act. We know that one can’t show all their cards on TV, or the PPVs will surely suffer, but Khan clearly isn’t willing to sit back and adopt a more traditional booking style right now.
Equally though, the PPVs are still huge. We only need to look at All Out’s card for proof of that, and I have little doubt that Full Gear 2021 will be similar.
This focus on loading TV shows with almost as much excitement as the bigger events is certainly exciting for the casual or impatient viewer, but as for whether it remains a viable option moving forwards, only time will tell.
However, if the speed at which AEW is hurtling is anything to go by, we probably won’t have to wait very long for an answer.