Why Toxic Wrestling Discourse Will Only Get Worse As Competition Grows Between WWE & AEW
The entire discourse around wrestling has been poisoned in recent years
In 2019, I was fortunate enough to attend AEW Double or Nothing in Las Vegas.
The day before All Elite Wrestling's inaugural event saw a press conference at Caesar’s Palace, where various wrestlers spoke in-character about their upcoming match, future goals in the promotion, and so on.
One wrestler who differed was Cody Rhodes. He dedicated some time to hyping his match with brother Dustin, but the overall tone of his speech bore more resemblance to a rallying cry.
I remember joking that he could have started a revolution at that moment, such was the overwhelmingly positive response to his pro-AEW rhetoric. A day later, Cody smashed Triple H’s figurative and literal throne with a sledgehammer, an act which set the tone for the discourse between AEW and WWE fans.
Online communication in our sphere has always been messy. Pro wrestling is a medium which generates all manner of strong opinions, while simultaneously catering to many different ages and tastes. Elitism is widespread, and when fed through the shallow, anonymous lens of social media, the entire discussion often takes on a rampant nastiness.
This was the case even before the rise of AEW, but since Tony Khan and co. have become genuine competitors to WWE, the toxicity has reached a shocking level.
If you’re reading this article, you’re almost certainly aware of what I’m talking about. Fans abuse and ridicule each other without provocation. Valid arguments are expressed in a toxic manner, and invalid ones even more so. The slightest missteps made by either company are torn apart endlessly, while blind eyes are turned towards similar transgressions on the ‘correct’ side of the divide.
Partisan attitudes have taken over wrestling discourse, and as we’ve seen in politics and sport, those with the most extreme viewpoints often shout the loudest. But our particular culture war carries a special level of inanity. While I’ve been drawn into countless foolish debates defending my political stance or football club, wrestling arguments feel especially hollow and pointless.
That’s because we’re all surely striving for the same thing, right? As consumers of a product, we all want to be entertained, and are free to watch whatever suits our tastes at any given time. The political and sporting worlds encourage tribalism, but we don’t see such hostility between drinkers of Coke and Pepsi; they just buy the brand they prefer.
On the other hand, we’re dealing with an extraordinary set of circumstances. After WWE’s two-decade monopoly, a valid rival has finally emerged. That is, of course, going to drive a sense of passion that is very understandable. We are naturally inclined to support the apparent underdogs, as proven to me first-hand by that initial bellowing response to Cody’s press conference.
Over the past couple of years, AEW have done a great job of galvanising such loyalty. They understand modern pop culture and the wrestling fan’s hunger for nostalgia, a tricky combination to master. Their biggest stars feel like real people, and are allowed to communicate as such on and offscreen.
Of course, it helps that WWE have long been perceived as corporate and sterile, from the tightly-scripted promos and social media activity, to the arbitrary nature of countless booking decisions.
That answers one half of the equation, but further complicates the other. Why on earth have people stepped up to vociferously defend WWE?
I understand wanting the promotion to improve as the result of increased competition, or continuing to support the wrestlers themselves, but to passionately defend such a dominant, gargantuan company is baffling.
This is especially confusing when such loyalty is expressed by attacking other wrestling fans (an argument which extends both ways, because let’s not pretend that AEW fans always have the moral high ground in such debates.)
On the whole, though, I find it far easier to comprehend the idea of throwing support behind the upstart promotion who at least attempt to project a family vibe, rather than rooting for the continued dominance of a global corporate entity.
Maybe it’s habit. If you’ve followed one promotion for decades and see it compared unfavourably to a new, unfamiliar company, perhaps the natural response is to lash out in its defence.
Either way, the situation has clearly been exacerbated by social media. I’m not making any sort of ground-breaking point here, and wrestling fans are hardly the only group to fall victim to it, but social media has poisoned the entire discourse.
It hasn’t just worsened the nature of such debates - nobody enjoys being insulted by a stranger, after all - but also the quality of these engagements. Nearly everything is reactionary, and nearly everything is aimed at the ‘other’ promotion.
Many people have wondered what the Monday Night Wars would have been like in a social media age, and with the wrestling industry occupying a far more central place in pop culture, I dread to think.
Maybe this is the way it was always going to be. By its very nature, wrestling is built upon two things: conflict, and the illusion of that conflict being real. Perhaps we’d all do better to remember the second of those themes, but the more AEW becomes a threat to WWE, the worse the discourse is likely to become.