by Preston Tolliver
It’s been nearly 20 years since the last episode of WCW Nitro (and any wrestling program, for that matter) aired on TNT, and with it the last gasp of the only real competition to Vince McMahon’s sports entertainment behemoth, WWE. It was the end of an era that brought about weekly ratings wars between McMahon and Ted Turner, as the two traded figurative blows while their performers traded literal (sort of) ones in the ring.
Since then, McMahon’s ratings competition has been null, and his product has suffered for it; after all, competition brings out the best in people. McMahon’s quest to increase his shows’ number of casual fans - the channel surfers scrolling through their guide to find something better to watch on a Friday night than whatever comes on Friday nights - has left the lifelong fans wanting more.
Now, for the first time in 18 years, McMahon has to step up his game again. Sure, there have been other wrestling promotions since the fall of WCW - TNA/Impact Wrestling, Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling - but none ever threatened to pull the mainstream wrestling fan away from WWE. With All Elite Wrestling’s debut Wednesday, Cody Rhodes and Shahid Khan have given McMahon a foe worthy of going toe to toe against. McMahon and WWE were seemingly prepared for their new competitor’s debut - the company’s C-show (and preferred show for the longtime wrestling purists), NXT, made its debut on USA a couple weeks ago.
On Friday, months of anticipation and planning culminated in the premier of Friday Night Smackdown on Fox - the result of the company’s first broadcast network deal. However, for all the money that McMahon must make per second in T-shirt sales and TV contracts, he’s never been so out of touch with what his most loyal fans want, and he proved that by turning what was supposed to be a landmark week for the company into a colossal disappointment, rife with weird booking and storylines about infidelity. McMahon has traded entertainment for wrestling fans for cheap tactics to get a new audience - the kind of audience he hopes MMA standouts Tyson Fury and Cain Velasquez will bring with their debuts on WWE television Friday.
For the wrestling fans who have chomped at the bit for years for less entertainment and more sports in their sports entertainment, there’s AEW and NXT, the latter of which is, while operating under the WWE flag, run by McMahon’s son-in-law and former WWE champion, Paul “Triple H” Levesque. That McMahon has allowed his flagship shows - Smackdown and Monday Night Raw - become rivaled by another program he owns (but has little involvement in) shows not just that he doesn’t know what his fans want. He simply doesn’t care anymore.
While WWE fell flat in its “premier week,” a new era of professional wrestling is upon us. AEW Dynamite premiered not with the whimper of the WWE shows, but with the bang that its own name promised, and at least Levesque and the talent under his wing recognized that there’s a new war again. While Monday and Friday nights will remain dull for wrestling loyalists, Wednesday nights have both a new life and an old; it’ll be a struggle not to flip between USA and TNT like we did 20 years ago (unless you have DVR and have mastered the art of dancing around spoilers on Twitter). Wrestling is good again, even if WWE’s flagship shows aren’t. And that’s more than we could say a week ago.