2019 will barely be four days old when we see it, but the card for NJPW’s Wrestlekingdom 13 is already looking like it’ll be an absolute monster of an event, boasting some of the worlds greatest talent hitting the stage for the historic Tokyo Dome show. It isn’t mainstream right now, but for many grappling fans, January 4th will become synonymous with quality, cutting-edge wrestling just like WrestleMania is associated with the WWE. The difference with NJPW’s product is that it has become a mecca for quality, well-booked wrestling whereas for the last 15 years WWE has been mired in a severely broken creative dirge. They might have all the casual fans, but with more people tuning out each week, the WWE is haemorrhaging fans into the arms of their competition. Since the failure of WCW in the late ’90s, there’s been a hole in the wrestling world that is only now starting to be filled, just shy of 20 years later,
Boasting an utterly monstrous show, even the opener is a jaw-dropper: The incredible Will Ospreay will challenge for Kota Ibushi’s Openweight championship in a hotly anticipated dream match between two incredible talents. Ospreay the Essex-born high flyer vs the much beloved and similarly bird-like Ibushi promises to be a spectacle that could potentially steal the night. There’s The Young Bucks going up against stablemates Gorillas of Destiny and Los Ingobernables for the IWGP Tag Team Championship, Tomohiro Ishii vs Zack Sabre Jr, Kushida vs Taiji Ishimori, Cody vs Juice for the IWGP US championship, Chris Jericho defends his IWGP Intercontinental Championship against Naito and all of that before we get to the potential generation-defining main event between the electrifying Kenny Omega and the legendary Hiroshi Tanahashi. Whew, got all that? Time to take a breather.
This, of course, surrounds the recently confirmed rumours (as of last night) that The Elite is breaking off from NJPW’s Bullet Club to form their own wrestling company named All Elite Wrestling. The Elite has been the hottest topic in wrestling for a few years now but that crescendoed this year with their independently financed All In show, an indie wrestling event that drew an absolutely ludicrous 10,000 fans to Chicago in September. All In was a watershed moment for both The Elite and wrestling fans, an event that was predicted to fail by critics sold out in 30 minutes flat and was both a critical and financial success beyond everyones expectations. This sent a clear and resounding message out into the wrestling world: the market for a quality wrestling product that counters WWE’s terrible stranglehold on the industry is now unignorable. With the now confirmed All Elite Wrestling, Cody, The Young Bucks and the rest of The Elite team are taking an incredible leap of faith with All Elite Wrestling, but with this much clout and money behind them, even if they fail, everyone wins. Even if the experiment fails, it forces WWE to confront their own terrible ratings and start to turn the ship around.
The dwindling TV ratings for WWE’s Raw programme is also damning in itself, news that prompted Vince McMahon himself to appear on stage at Raw at the tail end of December to address the poor ratings. Acknowledging the terrible creative decisions over the years, McMahon blew his nose on the fans by telling the audience that they can finally be in the driving seat. Sounding more like “be careful what you wish for” than an acknowledgement of failure, whether this new era will actually make any positive changes to WWE’s failing product is yet to be seen. With all the plates that the WWE has spinning at any time, it seems unlikely that AEW will topple the corperatey might of the WWE, at least financially anyway but that doesn’t mean the WWE isn’t feeling the heat. Chris Jericho and Cody both jumped ship from the WWE and have proven to be wildly successful on the Indie circuits with the loss of Chris Jericho probably hurting the most. Chris Jericho was once a reliable company man who was versatile and maleable. Without him, they have spun their wheels trying to book younger, fresher talent and have consistently failed to do so properly.
When the going gets tough, the WWE will make deals with the devil and never was that more clear than with the sacrilegious main event to the already controversial Crown Jewel Pay-Per-View in Saudi Arabia. The HHH/Shawn Michaels match against The Undertaker and Kane was one of the clearest displays of blood money the company has ever flouted, with Shawn Michaels selling his integrity off to the McMahons and the Saudi royal family. In the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi murder, WWE controversially went ahead with their Saudi Arabia show. Along with certain talent being deliberately left off the card for political reasons, women too were forbidden from performing. As if that didn’t grate with WWE’s modern, progressive audience enough, talent would perform in front of the same corrupt royal family that were leveraging for death sentences for peaceful activists mere weeks before the event. The WWE should be celebrating their progressive audience, an audience that openly embraces women’s wrestling and diversity in an industry that has traditionally been tone-deaf, but instead, it prefers to drive a wedge between company and fan by accepting blood money from an obviously broken and corrupt royal family. We’re a long way from the nationalistic main events of the ’80s, with the comedy foreign heel personas being trounced by stars and stripes wielding blonde heroes. On top of disappointing and oftentimes bizarre booking choices, the WWE’s sluggishness on getting with the times has only alienated audiences further.
So with January 4th slowly closing in, the date becomes a milestone not just because it’ll be a generation-defining show, but it will also raise questions as to what happens afterwards. The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, Cody and the rest of The Elite look as though they’re about to put their reputations and their livelihoods on the line to make All Elite Wrestling work, capturing all the downstream alienation from Connecticut will prove lucrative, but whether they can make something out of it long term is still a question mark. Despite the doubts, their existence is important. Their efforts a milestone. And while it may not reach the heady heights of the Monday night wars, AEW’s potential success will be a lightning bolt to WWE to smarten up or lose money. People that doubt whether The Elite can succeed needn’t worry – weather AEW works or not is irrelevant, Their existence might just be the shot in the arm that the WWE needs to awaken from its terrible 15-year slumber. Maybe, just maybe, having that slice of competition again is just what McMahon needs to be relevant again.