If you’re reading this, I’d imagine that the letters AEW already bring some kind of emotion to your mind. Sheer excitement or perhaps a cautious optimism, the wrestling world has seen all that and then some in response to the promotion’s long-awaited opening. As is seemingly always the case when WWE and the word ‘competition’ collide, much of the speculation has immediately become talent-based. Who’s jumping ship? Why are they jumping ship? And when are they jumping ship? Investigators got right to work and one way or another, just about every name imaginable has already been pondered.
From what I can tell, this unsurprisingly resulted in takes across the board, with some of the lesser names listed being treated to what can only be described as dismissiveness. Without singling out individuals in this particular case, some of WWE’s less visible talents have already been grouped together as irrelevant players within this brand new ‘war’…or whatever you’d like to call it. In truth though, that perspective feels rather lost considering how we’ve ended up here in the first place.
It was of course just under three years ago that Cody Rhodes departed his decade-long employer, becoming a free agent and entering a brand new chapter of his wrestling career. Considering his background, the whole thing was a mystery. This wasn't a guy returning to his pre-WWE environment but instead, Cody was a main roster mainstay set to enter the unknown. Though Rhodes had been far from a non-factor on WWE TV, his overall importance had steadily diminished and with that, a general feel of pessimism surrounded Cody’s chances.
Regardless of individual opinions though, Cody’s success since speaks for itself and considering his part in AEW’s emergence, it seems somewhat bizarre to still see negativity surrounding currently struggling WWE talents. The truth is that when it comes to maximizing talent, it’s impossible for everyone to thrive at once. Cody’s lack of opportunities as Stardust aren't indicative of his talent or ability but instead, the result of a range of factors that consider every other talent’s needs at that time. There were new faces arriving back then and that shifted Cody’s career which in turn, shifted the modern wrestling landscape.
Since then, that problem has become even more apparent too, with WWE’s current talent roster looking unlike anything the industry has ever seen before. It may not have the individual superstars of prior eras but across its multiple brands, WWE has over a hundred performers that genuinely feel like talent worth watching. It’s difficult to stand out when surrounded by that level of talent and I don’t think that’s hyperbole either, especially when you see a guy like Buddy Murphy suddenly emerging to produce a career year out of nowhere.
That’s of course just two examples of the multiple factors involved in WWE success but in truth, it’s sometimes a little more complex than that. Even without the variables like other talent’s momentum or an individual’s injuries, there’s a reality to wrestling that’s been proven throughout the industry’s history. No single promotion suits every talent and regardless of name, era or direction, some stars just shine brighter elsewhere. Long-term WWE success demands a unique skill-set and that’s nothing new, in fact it’s been the case for decades now.
Cody himself isn’t really a good example of this, but for many of the main roster talents failing to reach their supposed ceiling, it really is just a matter of scenery. You don’t have to look outside of the WWE landscape to prove it either, with a glance at the contrast between NXT and the main roster serving as the perfect example. This isn’t a criticism of RAW or SmackDown Live either, as I understand that they are attempting to reach a different audience and moreover, their job is undeniably tougher considering the amount of hours they produce every week too.
With that being said, you don’t have to feel a firm preference to see that even in ideology alone, NXT feels like a very different environment. It’s not a coincidence that some talents feel like central acts there, and it’s not an indictment of them or creative when their success doesn't immediately translate to main roster acclaim. Simply due to their handling creatively, those two products require differing skill-sets and no matter how you shift someone’s presentation, that’s even harder to overcome when your talent pool leaves you without necessity.
To be frank, it’s fine if one call-up doesn't become a break-out star right away, as there’s a handful of other men and women waiting to try their hand too. The cycle is currently never-ending in that sense, a matter of swimming in the deep end before you sink just long enough to fall on the imaginary talent totem pole. Whether that’s good or not for us as fans is probably individual to you but I would say that in my view, it’s definitely an under discussed outcome of WWE’s recent signing spree.
They just have so many options and as a result, it’s never been harder to be a genuine impact player on RAW, SmackDown or even NXT. Now don’t get me wrong, talent is talent and regardless of booking or feel, NXT’s finest acts have certainly proven their worth on the main roster stage. The Revival are a perfect example, continuing to have good matches when featured even if at times, they feel like a somewhat misshaped piece of the product’s puzzle.
There are other names that probably fit that same description: NXT stars that have been good additions to RAW or SmackDown without ever really recapturing the glow that followed them up to begin with. Has the creative been bad at times? Certainly but the same creative has guided Elias, Alexa Bliss and Carmella to unexpected success so once again, perhaps some talents just fit better than others. For example, when a guy like Tye Dillinger struggles to capture consistent TV time I don’t really see that as a critique of his talent, and it certainly doesn't erase his work in NXT either.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder which in simple wrestling terms means that one man’s midcarder is another’s main eventer. It’s no big deal, just the result of pro wrestling’s subjective nature. That isn’t a modern critique of where ‘WWE has lost touch’ either, it’s always been this way. It’s not my job to analyze the legacies of others but the next time you dive into the WWE Network vault, ponder how differently some of wrestling’s legends would be perceived if during their career, there was no competition.
Imagine some of the great WCW performers if they never had that stage. They’d likely still have had good matches in WWE and some actually did just that, but many of them simply wouldn't have fit that environment the same way. I guess my point in all of this is that when AEW is steadily linked with talent, keep this truth in mind. We’ve seen people overachieve in WWE, but we’ve also seen performers struggle after thriving outside of that machine. It doesn't necessarily make one group better than the other but it’s certainly worth considering nonetheless.
With free agency at the center of wrestling’s speculative world, remind yourself that until someone steps foot in their new home, their ceiling is unclear. If a touted independent star does sign for WWE, don’t overly assume a thing until they grace those glossy HD sets but in the same way, if a struggling WWE talent does indeed head elsewhere, give them a chance at reinvention. After all, it was simply a chance that changed Cody Rhodes’ career and with it, shifted others’ directions too.
Not every place fits everyone, but anything is possible and if the timing is right, stars can emerge when you least expect it. Don’t just take my word for it either, the proof speaks for itself.