AEW Must Show Caution, Not Over-Excitement, Amid Bray Wyatt's WWE Release & Adam Cole's Contract Issues
WWE's release of Bray Wyatt's could have a knock-on effect for the entire industry
Can wrestling just calm down for a second?
The industry was always going to pick up quickly once lockdown restrictions eased, but I don’t think any of us were expecting this level of insanity.
Hot on the heels of AEW becoming a realistic destination for CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, WWE have made another shocking roster cut, bidding farewell to another of their top level stars in Bray Wyatt. Having invested so much time - and a hefty chunk of the special effects budget - on 'The Fiend' persona, the company has apparently decided that Bray isn’t worth the money he’s being paid.
In an era where WWE is earning more than it ever has before, this can't be considered anything other than a baffling decision.
From a fan point of view, however, the shock factor was perhaps cushioned due to the fact that Braun Strowman met the same fate a couple of months ago. Another inexplicable departure.
The two releases are surprising for different reasons. Wyatt was born into wrestling, and with over a decade in the company, he had firmly become one of those figures it’s hard to imagine outside of WWE.
Although populated by charismatic figures, prior to Bray’s release, there was truly no other character like him in the locker room. Well, until his gimmick was crudely transplanted onto Alexa Bliss at WrestleMania 37, with little offered in the way of explanation.
Strowman, on the other hand, came to WWE as an outsider. He felt very much like a throwback; not a self-made talent working his way up from the indies, but a prospect plucked from the strongman circuit, valued for his gigantic frame over any other qualities.
To his immense credit, Braun proved the doubters wrong, improving rapidly to become one of the most entertaining and distinctive big men around. Like Wyatt, he made himself seemingly indispensable. Like Wyatt, there was a time when he was the most over act on the WWE roster.
Another difference, one which only serves to make these releases even more startling, is the matter of timing.
Wyatt had barely appeared on Raw since WrestleMania, limited to one or two vignettes before fading from TV without a word. Strowman, by contrast, had not long wrestled his last match for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania Backlash. These widely differing circumstances make WWE’s decision-making seem entirely arbitrary; how can one possibly enjoy job security if factors like popularity, card position, and frequency of use don’t seem to matter at all?
But there are similarities too: as WWE Superstars, both were completely unique, and both were still useful. I doubt many fans could have envisioned a resurgence in the promotion's quality without Wyatt and Strowman as key anchors of the product.
We’re yet to see what either wrestler does next; both have teased on social media, but nothing beyond that.
Their releases could have repercussions beyond the pair themselves. Not long after Wyatt’s release came reports of damaged backstage morale, and following that, news of Adam Cole’s contract situation.
It is being reported that Cole’s WWE deal is set to run out after SummerSlam. Of course, we don’t know the financial ins and outs at play, but in terms of creative fulfilment and career development, it’s honestly hard to see why he’d stay.
The former NXT Champion only needs to look at how his contemporaries have been treated on the main roster - elite-level talents like Shinsuke Nakamura, Keith Lee, Aleister Black and Andrade.
Crucially, they’re all taller than him too. We may see Cole as one of the finest performers in wrestling, but what would Vince McMahon see upon his arrival at Raw or SmackDown?
Should he leave, Cole will presumably be inundated with offers from promotions where height is no obstacle, and where he’ll be able to pick up any number of intriguing storyline threads from earlier in his career. His run in ROH was notorious, many friends and foes reside in AEW, and he’s no stranger to New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Again, I’ll be shocked if Cole stays. Two of the former NXT Champions I mentioned are already taking root in Jacksonville, and are already presented with far more importance than they ever were on the WWE main roster.
So the question now becomes: is a mass exodus on the horizon?
Although it’s impossible to know for sure, I’d suggest that the high profile WWE departures are not over yet. That’s great news for wrestling fans who want to see a vibrant, competitive landscape. But, quite simply, is there enough room?
Thanks to their size and financial clout, AEW is the first port of call for any rumours, and Tony Khan has already proven himself unafraid of snapping up a WWE cast-off or seven. With Punk, Bryan, Wyatt, Strowman, and now possibly Cole floating around in the ether, how many monstrous names will he be able to resist?
If AEW does indeed make a fistful of massive signings, how will it give each name the spotlight it deserves? And, perhaps more importantly in the long run, what happens to the promotion’s existing young talent? As wonderful and refreshing as Dynamite regulars like MJF, Jungle Boy, Britt Baker and Sammy Guevara have been, there’s surely no way they’d enjoy the same level of importance if they were suddenly sharing screen time with the current stars of free agency.
While most of us would like to see AEW draft itself a mega-roster of huge names (just to see what happens), Khan should perhaps err on the side of caution.
This has happened in the past, after all.
When numerous WWF talents followed Nash and Hall to WCW, it became bloated and directionless in a few short years. Once Vince McMahon bought out his competitors, he found himself with a roster containing Austin, Hogan, Rock, Goldberg, and countless others. It didn’t work as one might hope, and had OVW not miraculously brought through Lesnar, Cena, Batista and Orton at roughly the same time, there’s no telling where the new stars would have come from.
On a recent media call, Cody Rhodes spoke about the foolishness of wishing away good talent, but stressed that it is equally important to ‘set the table’ for existing, hungry young stars. That balance, and AEW’s ability to strike it successfully, will define mainstream wrestling for the foreseeable future.
No pressure, Tony.