After selling out the GM Grand in less than five minutes and months of steady hype that had wrestling fans dreaming of a new golden age for spandex-clad entertainers, the new wrestling promotion “All Elite Wrestling” staged its first major show, Double or Nothing.
For the uninitiated, AEW is the brainchild of a coterie of indy wrestling savants and backed by the billionaire Khan family who also own the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham Football Club in England. AEW’s roster is loaded with the cream of the wrestlers plying their trade outside WWE and topped off by the star power of the legendary Chris Jericho.
Despite the odds being stacked against it- launching a new company in a monopolised industry, dealing with the unreasonable expectations of a rabid and hypercritical fanbase and a last minute change to the card after one of company’s biggest talents dropped out due to creative differences- AEW’s debut can be considered nothing less than a major success. Delivering stellar in-ring performances that catered to a wide variety of wrestling styles as well as providing genuine surprises that shocked and thrilled the audience, the internet wrestling community was left buzzing as they pondered what could happen next.
In the lead up to Double or Nothing, the company announced a TV deal with major network TNT that will see them launch a weekly wrestling show, rekindling memories of the fabled Monday Night Wars of the late 1990s. Despite the runaway hype social media and Reddit, AEW has been careful to reiterate that it isn’t trying to compete with the monolithic WWE but instead is promising to offer an alternative wrestling product to bored and lapsed fans who have become tired with what Vince McMahon and co have been serving up. Yet while it would be foolish to say the nascent AEW poses any kind of commercial threat to WWE, there can be little doubt that it does present the first genuine competition it’s faced in two decades.
In an ongoing series, the experts at Sound the Sirens analyse what wrestling fans can expect to see when AEW makes its TV debut in the coming months.
The Weekly Television Grind
Billy: One of the best things that AEW has going for it now is its scarcity in programming. Each AEW event is a big deal because we’ve waited months to see what they’ve concocted. The fear is that once the weekly television grind kicks in, the surprises and ideas that work become formulas, and then the formulas become repetition, and then the repetition becomes the grind. Like any good television show, the anticipation of any quality programming tapers off when the weekly wait becomes less- bi-weekly, or even daily. AEW events will become episodes and the fear is that the depth-pool of the AEW roster at the moment isn’t quite deep enough to sustain weekly television. Watching the Rhodes brothers feud weekly is a wonderful concept, and the thought of Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley battling it out week in and week out is fantastic, but what happens if Cody is out injured? Or Chris Jericho? What if Mox is out long-term like he was all through 2018? Sure MJF is a future heel superstar, but at the moment, Miz 2.0 isn’t going to cut it. You can sustain the drama when the injury replacement for a major title push is Kofi Kingston, but when it’s Jungle Boy? I don’t think so.
Brad: Anyone who doubts the impact that the weekly grind of television has on wrestling need only watch a few episodes of Raw and Smackdown. Even the epic Becky Lynch storyline that dominated the last six months of Raw huffed and puffed down the final stretch. As Mania drew nearer, the storyline became increasingly circular and convoluted as the creative team struggled to find ways to pad out an angle without actually moving it forward in any kind of way that would take away from the inevitable payoff at the Showcase of the Immortals.
This isn’t meant as a criticism of WWE, as the Lynch storyline was one of the best things to happen in wrestling for years, but a reminder of just how difficult it is to plot an ongoing weekly series and maintain audience engagement. This grind could be mitigated by keeping the show to two hours and perhaps using a periodic season break to allow the talent to refresh and audience interest to replenish.
There’s a reason that the unexpected return is one of wrestling’s greatest tricks- absence makes the crowd’s heart grow fonder.
How AEW manages the weekly format will be one of the biggest challenges it will face.
What has AEW and TNT brass learned from Nitro?
Brad: One distinct pothole that AEW has deftly sidestepped which doomed WCW and multiple reincarnations of TNA and Impact Wrestling, is opening up the checkbook to overpay for washed up or overrated WWE talent. Instead, AEW has opted to sign the best young talent available outside WWE with the intention of creating their own stars that they can mold and develop.
While some might point out that Double Or Nothing ended its show with WWE legend Chris Jericho in the main event and ex-WWE outcast Jon Moxley standing tall, both those signings serve distinct purposes. Jericho is the legend that brings gravitas to the fledgling brand and will help put over the younger but less identifiable talent on AEW’s roster. Meanwhile, Jon Moxley, criminally wasted and underutilized by Stamford, is still in his prime and already has fans fantasy booking matches with Kenny Omega and Hangman Page.
Billy: Television fatigue is a real thing, and while AEW has the luxury of a blank canvas, TNT does not. TNT is a television company that needs to abide by ratings and regulations- something AEW has not had to worry with their two PPVs.
In the WWE Untold episode ‘The Failed Relaunch of WCW’, we learn that the deal that would have seen Eric Bischoff’s Fusient Media buy WCW from Turner soured because then Turner executive Jamie Kellner balked at the idea of giving Fusient Media a weekly two-hour block on Wednesday night for WCW. In the end, the deal fell through because Kellner just didn’t want wrestling on TNT. It’s the nature of the television business as ratings rise and fall and executives come and go. AEW will now have to maintain quality week and week out, something they have not had to do.
One advantage WWE has right now is that if RAW stinks and Smackdown is a bore, you can watch NXT, or even 205 Live (or fire up the network to watch old episodes of RAW), but if AEW stinks, you just turn it off.
On the flipside, AEW has the advantage of being a surprise. Perhaps we have been absolutely ravaged by all the episodes of television ads interrupted by RAW, or that IMPACT has changed networks more times than we can remember that we’ve become so jaded and cynical about the potential of AEW on TNT. But maybe AEW will subvert our expectations of what weekly episodic professional wrestling can be and that TNT will let them do their thing. The best thing that can happen? Old curmudgeon channel changers like myself will be left eating crow every Wednesday night.
IN PART 2: Sound the Sirens turns our crystal ball on what we think will happen in the early days of AEW and who will be the breakout star.
The Sad Demise of Bolton Wanderers Football Club
It is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton Wanderers find themselves in
If you watched the English Premier League during the early 2000s, you would have been familiar with the plight of Bolton Wanderers. The long running club is now in absolute dire straits, bereft of resources, searching desperately for new owners as it staves away its seemingly inevitable end. It is truly a sad turn of events for a club that has been around for almost 150 years, once known as the plucky, never-die team of English football’s top flight.
The Greater Manchester club, gleefully nicknamed ‘The Trotters’, were always a group of ragtag underachievers who constantly overachieved. The club, under the tutelage of Big Sam Allardyce, spent several Premier League seasons languishing at the bottom end of the table staving off relegation before progressing to mid-table safety. It wasn’t that they were good, because, for the most part, they weren’t, but it was because they always found a gutsy way of surviving by sheer determination, miraculous last game results, and for finding the last remaining ounce of juice left in washed-up players looking for one last round of glory.
It’s the latter point perhaps, that endeared Bolton to fans who didn’t spend their weekends at the Reebok Stadium. Bolton was the home to many talents that found new life under Allardyce. Players that managed to thrill a mostly dull part of the footballing world with European flair and Nigerian spice. I have fond memories of the indomitable Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff reminding fans of their class. Then there were the bruising, hard-hitting playing styles of Ivan Campo and Fernando Hierro- adding much-needed steel to that Bolton lineup. They complimented the steadfast if not boring quality that came with the ever-present Jussi Jääskeläinen and Kevin Davies. Atop them all sat Big Sam- who long before he became a joke in English football, was the no-frills, old-school English manager who took Bolton up from the old Division One to the Premier League. And during his run, he became known for being able to get Bolton out of trouble at the last minute, no matter how ugly the season had been. They made an FA Cup Semi Final and the Round of 16 of the UEFA Cup, somehow beating Atletico Madrid along the way.
Those days are sadly long gone as the club find itself languishing in the third tier of English football, once again ending the previous season relegated. Mired in financial disarray, the club has been in control of administrators since May, with its long-awaited takeover by new owners (whoever they may end up being) dragging on and on. The sad state of affairs has been punctuated by the club unable to pay its players and staff, canceled pre-season friendlies, and quite possibly the saddest team sheet in all the time I’ve been a fan of English football. As of this time, their official team page has but 7 players listed (no defenders), not even enough to field a full first team. If by the time you read this they’re able to pull their socks up and field a full team, it’ll be a miracle.
Their financial downward spiral hit breaking point in 2015 when the club found itself £172.9 million in debt. It only seemed to get worse from there. Unpaid taxes, transfer embargoes, manager changes, poor results, and most depressingly, non-playing staff having to use food bank donations to feed themselves (including donations from rival club Preston North End).
It really is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton find themselves in. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a true Wanderers fan to face the reality of their club in 2019. It’s not that the club has ever been successful (their last significant trophy was the 1958 FA Cup), but from the outside, their grit, their pluck, and their ability to seemingly escape the direst of circumstances made them endearing. They were the underdog team of has-beens, never-rans, forgotten souls, and Big Sam.
Now it seems their darkest days are closing in. Football fans surely would love for new owners to come in, reset the club, and start that long, arduous journey back into stability. But their new season hopes don’t even start on any positive note, with their financial failings they’ve already been docked 12 points before the start of the new season. Even with new owners, it will take a significant time to turn things around. The best they can hope for is to pull a Rangers and find themselves back on the up after 5 or so years… but the English Premier League is a far different beast to that of the Scottish Premier League, just ask Leeds United.
The long road back is never going to be easy. And for Bolton Wanderers, once a club that found its soul with players looking for one last spot of luck, may have run out of its own.
The Long Goodbye: A Spurs fan’s final salute to Kawhi Leonard
Am I a product of my generation? Yes, just like Kawhi and many of today’s younger generation of fans are a product of theirs.
The saga of Kawhi Leonard is over and while his signing to the Clippers means that two fanbases are left incredibly disappointed, there’s one group that is making their overdue final goodbyes. For Spurs fans like myself, it is clear that while the Board Man is a special player, he is a product of the current generation of players- loyal to themselves. It’s OK, I’ve resigned myself to moving on because I was happy that he won in Toronto, happy for everyone involved (except for Drake) because I knew that as soon as he signed for the Clippers, his legacy would no longer be built on unbreakable bonds but rather on personal pursuit alone. And that was never the trait of the silver and black. At times during this saga, I’ve felt like Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s 1973 movie The Long Goodbye, blinded by what I initially thought was loyalty. But after living through Kawhi sitting out, his demands for leaving, and ultimately, his winning a ring for the North, I’ve realized that in today’s NBA, allegiance, integrity, and trust are the exception, not the norm.
One of my earliest memories of being a Spurs fan was the ragtag group of players assembled for the 1992 season. It was early in my Spurs fandom and only two years into the storied career of David Robinson. The Admiral would become my favorite Spur, and ultimately, my favorite NBA player of all-time, but it was clear early on that he needed help. While Sean Elliott, Willie Anderson, and Avery Johnson were nice pieces, it was memories of wayward Rod Strickland passes that would ultimately encapsulate that time as an NBA fan. But the truth is, it was an important learning phase for any true NBA fan- that success comes with smart moves and dedicated, loyal, and hard working players who forever would put team above the name on the back of the jersey.
The years that followed was a mix of frustration and hope. The team gelled, especially for the 1994-1995 season where the team finished 1st in the Midwest (62-20) and David Robinson would end up capturing the league MVP after a dominant season (27 ppg, 10 reb, 3 blks). It was all awash come playoff time where vivid memories of Hakeem Olajuwon “dream shaking” The Admiral out of his shoes still haunt me to this day.
Perseverance paid off. Both for the Spurs and to fans like myself. Then general manager Gregg Popovich took on the additional responsibility of running the ship from the sideline, David Robinson was never traded, he rarely complained, and the miracle of the 1997 NBA Draft changed the fortunes of the franchise forever.
The years that followed were graced by the very best kind of basketball for basketball purists. While the league continued to flourish under the star power and glamour of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the Spurs quietly put together championship pedigree devoid of front page drama, superstar whinging and a sense of loyalty to the city and team that has all but become extinct in today’s NBA. My generation of Spurs fans are lucky to have lived through 5 championships, but also lucky that we were able to stay true to a team that had loyalty in their DNA. We were blessed that Tim Duncan got to take the court with players Tony Parker and Manu. Both absolutely crucial to the titles and the teams, both exhibited the kind of character seemingly rare today.
Kawhi was supposed to be the next titan of the team. We saw what was possible with his captaincy and Finals MVP run for the 2014 ring. He was supposed to continue the Spurs legacy. What we got instead was an endless whinge-fest, culminating in his sitting out all but 9 games of the 2017-2018 season. The mysterious ailment that plagued him, his battle with Spurs management, his desire to “go home” to California, and his distance from other Spurs players led to so much unnecessary frustration. In March of 2018, Manu was quoted as saying; “For me, he’s not coming back because it’s not helping [to think Leonard is returning]. We fell for it a week ago again. I guess you guys made us fall for it. But we have to think that he’s not coming back, that we are who we are, and that we got to fight without him.”
It’s the kind of distraction that my 7th-grade basketball coach would have found embarrassing. Kawhi did the Spurs dirty, and while fans often project the burden of legacy on to players even when they never set out to be, it is the unfortunate fall out of being a great player- especially one that at the time, seem to fit the mold. Kawhi has now done the Raptors dirty, and if he wins a title in Clipper-land, he will most likely do them dirty too. It’s his MO, it’s his way, and really, in today’s 2K video game NBA, it’s OK because that’s just the way it goes.
Team basketball is dead, superteam basketball is now the play. Raptors fans are playing it cool, saying that the one title was more than they could have ever asked for. But really, if I was a Raptors fan I would be disappointed because Toronto seemed like such a great place for him to be. A good coach, a good front office, an adoring nation, everything he said he was unhappy with in San Antonio. If I was a Raptors fan, I would be disappointed not because the team didn’t do what the Clippers did and mortgage their future for a chance for more, but because Kawhi proved that there’s no such thing as loyalty- and that it’s OK today as long as there’s some transient success. Perhaps I have been spoiled by Spurs basketball. Spoiled by Popp’s team-first mentality where the glory of championship parades is not the end, but the next beginning. If I was a Clippers fan I would be wary. Not just because Kawhi isn’t as superhuman as we’ve all made him to be. But because the Clippers DID have to mortgage an entire future for Kawhi and Paul George to battle it out against LeBron, against AD, against an entire city that will always hold the Lakers above the Clippers. If I was a Clippers fan, I would be wary of Kawhi’s new 3-year, $103 million dollar deal (with the option to opt-out in two). Not because it means he’s positioned himself for that supermax pay off, but because potentially, he could weasel his way out of the Clippers in two years too.
Am I old and a little bitter? Maybe. I’m grateful of Kawhi’s contributions to that 2014 title- his performance during those finals, especially after the bitter disappointment of the previous year, proved that he was more than capable of being the next Spurs great. He came alive in Game 3, proved his MVP status in Games 4 and 5, and cemented what seemed like the future for the franchise. But in the end, what stands out more for me is the letdown that Kawhi just wasn’t up to par with the Spurs giants that he was supposed to follow. Am I a product of my generation? Yes, just like Kawhi and many of today’s younger generation of fans are a product of theirs.
He could have been placed next to The Iceman, The Admiral, and The Big Fundamental, instead, Kawhi becomes another in the long line of a new generation of NBA superstars beholden to no one but themselves, playing their former teams and fanbases for fools. I feel like Phillip Marlowe, manipulated, trust broken, hearing Kawhi telling me that “maybe I’ll never learn, maybe I’m a born loser”. Maybe he’s right, maybe I’m just waiting for my harmonica moment. It’s the way things go today.