If you ask most wrestling fans, there hasn’t been a better time to watch wrestling than right now. In addition to the old standby of WWE’s Raw and Smackdown (the latter having found a new identity on Fox), hotshot new company All Elite Wrestling has entered the game on TNT to showcase a different kind of wrestling company, one filled with international stars, indie heroes, and much more diverse styles of in-ring action. The main battleground of this feud is Wednesday night, when AEW’s Dynamite and WWE’s not-so-developmental brand, NXT, have squared off in what many are calling the “Wednesday Night War,” a play on the “Monday Night War” between WWE and the previous company to broadcast on TNT, WCW. With ratings still neck-and-neck on Wednesdays, it might seem a bit presumptuous for either side to claim victory…when it comes to the men. But for women’s wrestling, one of the hottest parts of the wrestling world right now, that war may as well be over.
Despite all the promises by AEW to give women equal treatment to men and run a more progressive company than the famously…conservative WWE, their women’s division has been woefully out of focus, or outright ignored, on both television and on pay-per-view. The sorry state of the division is thrown into sharp relief when compared to WWE’s “Women’s Evolution,” who are coming off of a massive weekend that featured the first-ever Women’s War Games match at NXT Takeover: War Games as well as the first Survivor Series main event to feature women. It became further compounded last night when Rhea Ripley, a star at those two shows and the top babyface on WWE NXT, finally ended Shayna Baszler’s 416-day streak as NXT Women’s Champion in the main event of the show…while AEW broadcast a rematch between two men’s tag teams and the women’s champ making a glorified cameo. It wasn’t supposed to be such a lopsided fight, though, and for a long time, people expected the two companies to be on par with each other in every way.
A Strong Start
At their first press conference in January, the women’s division were given focus and multiple signees and staff member crowed about their value to the company. Brandi Rhodes, Chief Branding Officer and wife of EVP Cody Rhodes, made it clear that women would be paid equal to men (assuming they were of the same place on the card).
“Well as a blossoming women’s wrestler myself, it would have been strange for me to sign a contract for a company that wasn’t going to have a women’s division. So, absolutely there will be a women’s division. But not only that, we want it to be a strong women’s division with the best female wrestlers in the entire world.
In order to do that, you got to cast a wide net, right? You can’t just say that and sit still, there’s work to be done.” – Brandi Rhodes
First signee Britt Baker stated that the company was “dedicated” to its women’s division. Later signings included major indie stars like Kylie Rae, Bea Priestley, and Penelope Ford, Joshi wrestlers like Yuka Suzaki and Riho, and even living legends of women’s wrestling like Awesome Kong (Kharma in WWE and Tammé “The Welfare Queen” Dawson in GLOW) and 30+ year joshi veteran Aja Kong. Some of the biggest headlines came from their signing of Nyla Rose, who became the first transgender wrestler to sign with a major company.
The first pay per view for the company, Double Or Nothing, was a good showing for the women’s division as much as the men. The six-woman tag match showcased the Japanese talent well, and the women’s triple threat (actually a four-way dance with the surprise appearance of Awesome Kong) was a great way to introduce Britt, Nyla, and Kylie to possibly their biggest audience yet. Fyter Fest in June would see Impact veteran Allie go over former Blue Pants Leva Bates on the Buy In pre-show, while Riho battled Yuka Suzaki and Nyla Rose. Fight For The Fallen would see Brandi defeat Allie with the help of Awesome Kong, as well as a tag that sowed the seeds for a Bea Priestley and Britt Baker rivalry.
In a press appearance in LA, Brandi Rhodes continued to emphasize the diversity of AEW. “You can look at this panel and see a whole lot that’s different about this, in that there’s three women out here. You haven’t seen that in professional wrestling in a long time,” she said, referring to herself, Awesome Kong, and Nyla Rose, and added “We aren’t looking for a cookie cutter. We aren’t looking for a blonde that’s 5’4″ because we need a blonde that’s 5’4″. We’re looking for Kia Stevens because we need Awesome Kong.” The last PPV before Dynamite, All Out, set the women up strong going into TV. Nyla Rose won a 21-woman battle royale to contend for the title at the first Dynamite, and Riho would defeat Hikaru Shida in a singles match to get the other spot. They also scored another first by having referee Aubrey Edwards ref the main event, the first time a woman has done so for a major company, and subsequently signed her full time.
In all of the women’s matches featured in AEW, there had been the exact sort of wrestling they and their fans want from men or women. Almost all of them went at least ten minutes, and even more comedic matches like Bates v. Allie went nearly nine minutes. They also had the advantage of running their events in the summer, a time when WWE is generally in a post-Mania slump and even the red-hot Becky Lynch seemed to be cooling off thanks to an interminable storyline with her real-life boyfriend and fellow champion Seth Rollins.
Where’s The Champ?
Cracks quickly began to form, however, when Kylie Rae, the hottest American signing and a wrestler clearly set up as a centerpiece for the division, left the company shortly after All Out. This left the company a bit short on talent, but the women who would lead off the division on the first night on TNT, Nyla and Riho, seemed up to the task of building the division. Until they weren’t even given the opportunity. Despite Riho’s experience in the joshi world, her title reign has been an incredibly disappointing series of tag matches and pointless matches, with her every defense having been won with one of the least dominant methods of victory: a roll-up. Her match against former mentor Emi Sakura at Full Gear, the first PPV since AEW’s TV debut, was made less than a week before the match and had absolutely no build-up. Emi trained Riho back in Japan and is herself a massive legend in the joshi scene, yet the most we got was a few tweets from Emi and Kenny Omega, the apparent shepherd of the division. The match itself was, of course, great, from an in-ring perspective, but it was unclear why they were even fighting? Why was Emi Sakura a heel, especially since her “Freddie Mercury” gimmick seemed like something to get fans behind her? The go-home show didn’t help, eschewing storyline or 1 on 1 confrontation for another thrown together tag match. The non-title pre-show match between Bea Priestley and Britt Baker got more story than the Riho.
It just seemed to get worse after the PPV. Riho, the reigning women’s champion, has only appeared, let alone wrestled, on one episode of Dynamite, reacting backstage to a match between new signing Kris Statlander and Britt Baker. That’s six weeks of wrestling gone by with no sign of their ostensible top female star. It also means that she’s appeared on only 1/4 of all shows since the debut on October 2nd. The excuse you often hear is that Riho had commitments in Japan which kept her out of the country, but why put your belt on someone who can’t show up most of the time? It’s the same thing that WWE does with Brock Lesnar, except Brock isn’t establishing a belt or a division (nor is Riho comparable to Brock as an attraction). The rather neglected state of the title picture has trickled down to the rest of the card as well.
A Bit Too Much of The Brandi
I’m not going to come out and say that Brandi Rhodes, Chief Branding Officer for AEW and wife of Cody, shouldn’t be on TV. But the fact is that despite not being an in-ring or on the mic talent on par with most of the roster, she’s gotten more exposure on TV than anyone not named Britt Baker. Even her pairing with Awesome Kong has been baffling, as any viewer of GLOW (or TNA or, hell, her WWE run as Kharma) would know that Kia Stevens is a hell of an actress and talker. She doesn’t need a manager to get across how dangerous she is. The rotating clown car of women hasn’t exactly shown that they deserve screen time though, with Britt Baker (who is a dentist, as they’ll happily remind you) being the only constant presence. It’s not that there isn’t a lack of talent in the division. Baker, Riho, Hikaru Shida, Bea Priestley, Kong, Allie, Sadie Gibbs, Penelope Ford, and Nyla Rose all have the talent to hold the division down, and the signing of Aerial “Big Swole” Hull and Kris Statlander only bolstered that talent further. Some of them are greener than others, but there’s no real way of getting them better if they’re straight up not on TV. And if they are on TV, they have almost no story. The weird voodoo thing Brandi and Kong are doing is the only thing resembling story that the division has, which is a shame considering how many stories they have going on in the men’s division. They’ve been able to get dudes like Marko Stunt, Darby Allin, and Joey Janela over with fans with screentime on Dynamite and storylines with top stars, but they can’t seem to get their women correct. Most of the women’s division, including their champion, has been relegated to AEW Dark, a YouTube show that even Cody has called “shoulder content” that you watch “if you want to.” The absolute banner year the women at WWE have been having has not helped in comparison.
Warriors & Survivors
Even if we ignore the main roster, who have had some amazing storylines like Bayley’s heel turn, the formation of the Bliss Cross tag team, and a MOTY contender at Hell In A Cell between Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks, the women of NXT have been putting in the work this fall. In the same timespan that AEW has been broadcasting opposite it, there have been multiple storylines happening at once and at least two women’s matches on every episode. Not only did they build to a historic War Games match involving eight different women, but they also built a heel turn for Dakota Kai and established Xia Li, who isn’t anywhere near the title, as a dangerous fighter. And on top of all of that, they still found time to build to the cross-brand warfare at Survivor Series with the NXT women showing up on Smackdown and Raw and stars like Becky Lynch and Bayley showing up on NXT. They did all of this, on top of the men’s storylines, in the same two-hour runtime that AEW has had.
Rise of Rhea
All of this has been anchored by the rise of 23-year-old Aussie Rhea Ripley, who has quickly ascended to the Main Event this year after her move from NXT UK to the main NXT roster. Long considered a “next big thing” thanks to star-making performances as a heel in the Mae Young Classic (when she turned the freak injury of Tegan Knox into a source of massive heat) and as UK Women’s Champ (where she helped establish the division alongside Toni Storm), Ripley’s face turn was a tad unexpected but she quickly slotted in as the cocky badass face in the same vein as Raw Women’s champ Becky Lynch. Not only did she win the aforementioned War Games match (when the odds were four on two), she also led the women of NXT to victory at Survivor Series and, as of last night, finally became women’s champ. Of course, Shayna Baszler has been a big part of it, playing an excellent monster heel that people really wanted to root for.
Where Do We Go Now?
Is there still time for AEW to right the ship? Of course. It’s wrestling, things can change in the blink of an eye. But they, and their fans, can’t keep making excuses for the sorry state of the AEW Women’s Division and AEW Women’s World Championship. Cody Rhodes has said that 2020 will be when they’ll start to focus on the women, but we were told they’d get focus earlier this year as well. They can’t just expect people to be patient when their opposition continues to kill it every night with their women, and WWE is not going to slow down as we ramp up to the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania pay-per-views. If they put as much care into booking their women as Cody puts into his entrances, they’d be in a much better spot. As is? I’ll be watching Rhea stomp people to death.