The new addition to the wrestling discourse over the past couple of years, and this year in particular with the WWE release series, is dreaming about which wrestlers will go from WWE to AEW, by choice or by force. And also, to dream of what they will do when they arrive, to book your dream matches for them with imagination. You can spend hours doing it and it’s a lot of fun.
And it was fueled because, for the most part, talent only flowed one way, and it does so on a consistent basis. Adam Cole, Bryan Danielson, Malakai Black, Andrade, Ruby Soho – all underrated and / or published by “New York” – finished on Wednesday night and did something fun. Rumors that Kyle O’Reilly, Johnny Gargano, and others might follow suit just make it seem like it’s a lot more like it’s almost automatic. Not only have wrestling fans fantasized about what wrestlers would do once they were unleashed, they also got to see it happen.
Which is what made the news of Kevin Owens’ new deal with WWE Wednesday kind of a shock. It almost looked like the scratch from the record at the party. Wait what? That’s not how it works!
These things had followed such a pattern, regardless of whether any wrestler rumored about was released or left alone. Here’s someone WWE didn’t “catch”. Someone they wasted. Someone who knew they could do better with AEW because they would be allowed to. They belonged to a place that is essentially the end of the road to the indies, instead of a company with shareholders. So instead of turning Adam Cole into a manager, or Andrade just hanging out in catering, for example, they would come and then they would be all the things they could only make fun of under Vince McMahon. And that’s exactly what they did, for the most part.
Kevin Owens checked all of those boxes above. First of all, he is the quintessential independent guy. He looks nothing like a WWE wrestler, which is part of why people love him. He had a huge reputation and fanbase before setting foot in a WWE ring. He just got the business. But it has only had one major event in six years, and that was years ago. Sometimes it disappears from the TV for periods of time. He throws himself into whatever creative things are given to him, but he should have a lot more to work with. He’ll do anything, he can do anything, and he’s one of the best promos on the roster. Why isn’t it always on top of the card?
So it made sense that he would cancel his contract, which reportedly expires next month, and then moved on to AEW. He would join Cole and The Young Bucks, with whom he ruled the indies years ago. It’s what led him to NXT in the first place. He would never leave the top of the card. After all. It seemed an accomplished fact.
And then KO decided to stay. And the thing is, it looked like WWE had finally used the one advantage it has which dominates over better bookings and creative freedom. They can just take a Brinks truck to Owens’ house. You would think they would swing that stick more often. While we’ll never know the exact numbers, reports said the AEW simply couldn’t offer Owens what WWE could offer. They always can, yet they do so rarely. Maybe it’s finally an admission from WWE that they have real competition on the block.
And the Brinks truck, of course, is fine for Owens. This generation of fighters almost certainly doesn’t want to keep holding on into their 50s and 60s, like Ric Flair or Undertaker. Take your money and go, KO Nobody can blame him. We can only hope that Owens has been given some sort of guarantee on his reservation or control of his character, but we’ll have to see only on that. Let’s just say there isn’t much faith to be charitable.
It also breaks a pattern. WWE wanted Cole to stay. He did not. They wanted Danielson to stick around. He did not. They wanted Gargano to stay, and it sure looks like he won’t. If WWE continues to take away people’s jobs, the least they can do is reward those they want to keep with more money.
And it’s still a win for AEW. While it was impossible to resist a reunion of Owens ‘”Mount Rushmore” (Steen outside of WWE), Cole and the Bucks, Owens’ threat walking towards his rival certainly made him more money. Perhaps, by a miracle, someone in Stamford, Connecticut has seen the buzz that the artists they discarded have created and is in no hurry to repeat it, and will really fight to keep some of their talent. And as Tom Thibodeau would say, AEW still has enough to win on their roster without Owens. At some point, a big part of AEW’s buzz can’t be about who’s coming and who’s going to debut. This becomes a kind of Ponzi scheme.
However, it was odd that KO decided to stick with WWE the same day AEW staged a 60-minute match on free TV. This is the kind of freedom we all thought he wanted to KO, and he will never have it with WWE. But at the end of the day, WWE can offer big bucks whenever they want and a seat on a WrestleMania paper. It would be good for more people if they actually started handling it.