EDITOR’S NOTE: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Lucha Central and Masked Republic.
Since its formation in January of 2019, All Elite Wrestling has delivered pretty much everything wrestling fans could want enroute to becoming the strongest number two wrestling promotion in North America since WCW. Well everything except this; a strong women’s division. Ten years ago, hell even five years ago that wouldn’t have been a huge talking point; back then women’s wrestling in the US was largely considered the bathroom break by fans, featuring match stipulations and booking so casually misogynistic it reminded you of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer villain (or even Buffy creator Joss Whedon. Asshole). But while AEW has avoided bra and panties matches and feuds revolving only around who stole whose boyfriend, it’s undeniable that their division, which has featured more than one women’s match on Dynamite only twice in the shows year and a half existence (both in December of 2019) may be lacking a thing or two. It’s especially glaring in an era where women are headline Wrestlemania and, in the case of promotions like Impact Wrestling and the late Lucha Underground, winning world titles. Sure those title holders weren’t the best choices, but it still shows how far women’s wrestling has come and how far AEW’s division, well, hasn’t.
This has been a topic long discussed, but it’s reached a fever pitch again in the past week, ironically during a time AEW arguably figured it out. Bolstered by the Women’s Eliminator Tournament, a sixteen women field featuring stars from the US and Japan duking it out for a shot at AEW Women’s Champion Hikaru Shida, the AEW Women’s Division has caught fire. The two weeks alone have seen a near classic on Dynamite between Riho (AEW’s first women’s champion) and former WWE star Serena Deeb and an absolute barnburner between Nyla Rose and Dr. Britt Baker. Meanwhile on the Japanese side of the bracket, joshi legend Emi Sakura has delivered two straight great matches with up and coming star VENY and Tokyo Joshi Pro ace Yuka Sakazaki, while the charismatic Ryo Mizunami worked her way past cult hero Maki Itoh and the legendary Aja Kong in two underrated bouts. To say this is a good thing is like saying Hayden Christensen struggled to essay Anakin Skywalker; duh!
Here’s the problem; most of what I just described been televised. While the US side of the bracket has been featured prominently on Dynamite, the Japanese bracket has been relegated to YouTube. That’s not by itself controversial; the AEW Deadly Draw tournament was also on YouTube back in the summer and with the Japanese bracket taking place in the Ice Ribbon’s Dojo (a building so small Derek Zoolander would mistake it for a center for ants), the glaring differences in production between the tournament and a normal Dynamite would’ve been jarring. Then AEW decided to air Riho vs. Thunder Rosa, a highly anticipated second round match, to Bleacher Report this Sunday instead of on Dynamite and the flood gates opened.
What should’ve been a big moment for AEW’s Women’s Division instead led to people wondering why AEW booked Jake Hager vs. Brandon Cutler for Dynamite but kept Thunder Rosa vs. Riho on the internet. Some saw it as proof AEW doesn’t care about women’s wrestling, a loud rallying cry for detractors of the division’s booking. Others have defended it, noting, as AEW President Tony Khan did, that Bleacher Report’s platform offers AEW a chance to grab people that normally don’t watch Dynamite and that Rosa vs. Riho (one of AEW’s top draws) is a much more marketable match than the aforementioned Cutler-Hager match (let’s be real; I think we’re all in agreement there). In between all of that some people have even suggested this all some conspiracy, with TNT being against women’s wrestling because it’s the internet and people have way too much time on their hands. Either way, instead of everyone talking about how great the tournament has been (and it’s been great) we are now left with the usual criticisms; some legit, some in bad faith and some, as seen above, completely out of a David Lynch screenplay.
As a fan of AEW and a fan of women’s wrestling the discussion both fascinates and annoys me. Why? Let’s begin the question a lot of critics have; does AEW care about women’s wrestling? I am not on speaking terms with anyone in AEW but I don’t have to be to tell you the answer is yes. Of course they do. For starters, you don’t run a sixteen woman tournament across multiple platforms if you don’t care. Well I guess you could but that would seem counterproductive if you were a promotion that favored more men’s matches. More importantly, the upcoming tag match featuring Cody Rhodes and Red Velvet vs. Shaquille O’Neal and Jade Cargill, one week from now, would be Cody teaming with his brother Dustin while Shaq teamed with MJF (for example) if AEW was so anti-woman. In fact it probably would’ve been easier on AEW, given the resistance to the angle in some circles, if they had surrounded Cody and Shaq with well established male workers. That they instead booked this as a mixed tag to get Cargill, a former college basketball player and fitness model, over as a star should be enough to make people realize AEW wants the women’s division to succeed. It may just not be the women certain fans want.
So what’s the problem then? The better question should be what are the problems, as in plural, and the first answer may just be that the AEW Women’s Division is cursed. I’m talking Josh Barnett vs. Jon Moxley at Bloodsport, Bandido vs. Volador Jr. in CMLL cursed. It’s easy to forget but several things that have befallen the women’s division that aren’t AEW’s doing. Remember Kylie Rae? She was supposed to be the division’s top babyface, only she left the promotion a few months in. Then there’s the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d argue no division in wrestling was hit harder by the last year than AEW’s Women’s division. The pandemic led to them losing access to Riho, Sakura, Sakazaki, Shanna and Bea Priestley (since released) among others. That’s five top level performers, all unavailable just like that. Oh, they also lost Baker for several months due to injury, shortly followed by Kris Statlander, another budding star, going down a torn ACL. The loss of all that talent led to AEW, in the summer months, missing around half of their Women’s Division. HALF! With only Shida, former champion Nyla Rose, up and comers Big Swole and Penelope Ford and a slew of promising but green talent available, it’s no wonder the division struggled for months with short, uninspired matches. Their luck hasn’t turned around much either; of the foreign talent only Riho and Shanna have returned to action in the US, Statlander is still out and just this week AEW was struck with another loss as rising star Anna Jay separated her shoulder in training, forcing her out for 6-12 months. So yeah; cursed!
Of course setbacks are a part of wrestling; everyone suffers them and good promotions work through them as best they can. To their credit AEW has tried; they brought in veteran talent such as Deeb, indie star Leyla Hirsch, former Lucha Underground star Ivelisse, Rosa (arguably the hottest women’s star in North America not in WWE right now) and found diamonds in the rough in Velvet and Tay Conti, the former NXT prospect who now looks to be a future star. A hot feud between Baker and Rosa also gave the division some life after several limp feuds. Steps taken to make this division better, which makes it all the more head scratching that we’re now back to the same old discussion, all because of AEW’s decision to move Rosa vs. Riho onto Bleacher Report.
A large part of me gets the decision. I can understand wanting Riho vs. Rosa on Dynamite, especially when you have the likes of Cutler vs. Hager booked. The women’s match is a show stealer; the other is a squash match featuring a performer who would be the least interesting man in wrestling if not for Ryan “Lil Ziggler” Nemeth making Rick Rude roll over in his grave a few segments earlier. But if AEW is indeed looking to expand partnerships with places like Bleacher Report than that match, coupled with the finals of the Japanese bracket, is, I’ll say it again, a much better combo than putting a lower level men’s match on instead. I get what AEW’s mindset is; I’d probably do it if I were in Tony Khan’s shoes. Yet it can’t help but feel like a let down and that is because no matter the online platform TV is still TV. For all the talk of ratings and their significance, the wrestling TV show remains the most important part of a promotion’s presentation and it features the matches and segments fans, and the promotion, generally deem most important. To see Riho vs. Rosa on a streaming service, when it could’ve been on Dynamite and torn the house down alongside Baker and Rose, it’s a tough pill to swallow, made tougher by the fact that Hager and Lil Ziggler were booked instead.
What is the solution to all this? One word; patience. That’s a tricky thing because if there’s one thing wrestling fans are known for it’s giving things time and not overreacting like me when the Cubs start the year 8-8. But I would remind people that, despite it seeming like women’s wrestling in WWE has been good for a long time, it has only now been six years since WWE was putting two minute travesties on RAW that forced fans to create the #GiveDivasAChance hashtag. That moment was then followed by a post Wrestlemania 31 RAW where fans chanted vulgarities at performers like AJ Lee, Paige and the Bellas and the Divas Revolution storyline that rang duller than a Nickelback album. Even now it’s not perfect; otherwise Asuka, the RAW Women’s Champion, wouldn’t have gone months without defending her title while being portrayed as a secondary character (a situation not all that different from Shida’s, who is now the longest AEW Women’s Champion despite having very little to do herself). It goes to show that WWE Women’s Division, the so called best in the US, isn’t even a finished product. So while it would be nice for AEW to feature two women’s matches per show and they should absolutely be criticized for some of their decisions, it needs to be remembered that even the best promotions can’t just snap their fingers and produce greatness. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes constructive criticism as opposed to bad faith arguments and, most of all, it takes patience. Without it improvement can’t be made; it’s a big reason one of AEW’s biggest reaches, the Nightmare Collective, went away just weeks after debuting. The fans gave up on it immediately, and AEW naturally followed suit.
Does that help? Probably not. It’s been tough for me. As someone who long waited for another promotion to come along and give us what WWE wasn’t, I care about AEW’s success and I care about the success about women’s wrestling within the company. It’s why I’ll be watching, and reviewing, the Bleacher Report show Sunday because how can I say I want this women’s division to be better if I then don’t give them my full support? I care about this, I want it to get better and I believe it will get better. Or at least I keep telling myself that. Either way this tournament now represents a crucial moment. For all the great they’ve done, a great women’s division remains elusive. And how they handle the rest of this tournament, both in quality, booking, promotion and viewing, could shape it, good or bad, for months and years to come.
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RELATED NOTE: AEW Women’s World Championship Eliminator Tournament: United States & Japan Brackets Review (02/22/2021)