The formal arrival of All Elite Wrestling on Jan. 8 was heralded as one of the most momentous dates in the long and complicated history of professional wrestling. The Sunshine State was once one of the world’s leading territorial promotions, often headlined by “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. Now, his son, “The American Nightmare” Cody Rhodes, returns to his dad’s old stomping grounds, and he's bringing with him a new organization that represents the first significant challenge to industry leader WWE since the late 1990s.
The website WrestlingData.com, the authoritative resource for hard numbers on old-school territory wrestling, currently lists an all-time total of 1,135 events held in Jacksonville, dating as far back as Feb. 17, 1883. Of these, 777 were held at the old Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The first event there drew 3,792 people on Saturday night, Jan. 7, 1961. On Jan. 8, 2019, 58 years (and one day) later, over a thousand marks, rubes and other assorted fans gathered in Parking Lot J of TIAA Bank Field to observe the birth of AEW. And like any proper delivery, there were plenty of towels, bearing the AEW logo in black, white and gold. The color scheme reflects AEW’s intrinsic link to the Jacksonville Jaguars via owners Shad and Tony Khan. Jackson De Ville himself was in attendance, as were the Roar, who gave out free merch and posed for photographs. The first batch of AEW t-shirts came in Jaguar colors, and a number of the stars in attendance wore their own gear bearing the same color scheme.
The energy was like a really good tailgate session, with broad diversity in age, gender and racial background. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, everyone loves a good hustle, and that’s what pro wrestling does better than anything else.
The rally, hosted by Conrad Thompson (Ric Flair’s son-in-law) and Bryan Alvarez, was designed to introduce AEW's roster, wrestlers like CODY (Cody Rhodes), The Young Bucks, Adam “Hangman” Page, So Cal Uncensored, Maxwell Jacob Friedman, Joey Janela and Penelope Ford. Rhodes’ wife Brandi was introduced as the company’s Chief Brand(i) Officer, and she made clear that women’s wrestling would be given equal prominence and, more important, equal pay. Then came AEW's first female signee, Dr. Britt Baker, a certified dentist and tremendous wrestler who will be hoping to use her skills on behalf of her fallen opponents.
All these athletes are considered luminaries in the independent wrestling world: big fish in an admittedly small pond. Toward the end of the event, however, some late arrivals signaled that not only is AEW ready to pay big money for big stars, but said stars are entertaining the offer. First: PAC, aka Adrian Neville, a former NXT champion and WWE Cruiserweight Champion who had been on the outs with his bosses for more than a year. He came out (ripped, by the way) in his ring-gear to challenge Page and set up the first big feud in AEW history. (PAC’s signing kinda shows why WWE has been scrambling to shore up contract deals with their people, a number of whom have already asked for release to join the competition.)
Can AEW succeed? Absolutely, depending on how they choose to define “success.” Rumor has it that some $20 to $30 million was sunk into the project, so they can afford to hire almost anyone they want. What remains unclear, though, is whether they can land an all-important TV deal. AEW will certainly hope to leverage their stars’ massive social media presence, which can potentially help offset any shortfalls in traditional media coverage. The Downtown rally was live-streamed by about 100,000 people, which indicates a ready-made audience for the product.
AEW's inaugural event (aptly titled “Double Or Nothing”) will take place May 25 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The second event is set to occur in Jacksonville sometime this summer, with a portion of proceeds going to victims of gun violence.
The Jan. 8 spectacle culminated with a surprise appearance by “Y2J” Chris Jericho, a multimedia star who is legitimately one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time and has been a staple of WWE programming for 20 years. His speech ended with a fusillade of fireworks, timed to welcome fans to the rival WWE Smackdown show hosted next door that same night. WWE brass tried to ban fans wearing AEW gear, but soon backed down. Knowing the business as I do, I’d say shenanigans are forthcoming—and that’s a shoot, brother.