Behind the Scenes of Sting’s Exit from WWE and Arrival in AEW

Sting’s arrival in AEW is a win-win. The young company benefits from the presence of wrestling legend and Steve Borden gets to end his in-ring career on his own terms.
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Every brand can benefit from having a legend. But having just begun operations in 2019, finding one seemed like an impossible task for All Elite Wrestling.

That is no longer a problem. AEW now has their legend, as Sting made a stunning debut last week on Dynamite.

AEW hit a home run on this one. From Tony Schiavone’s call, to Jim Ross’s noting how just seeing Sting made him feel young again, the entire presentation was executed without a flaw. The symbolism was also rich as the segment closed with Sting, the former face of pro wrestling on TNT, staring directly into the eyes of Darby Allin, the current TNT champion.

Every piece of that return was planned meticulously, and the most shocking part may have been that Sting’s signing was never leaked.

So how did it happen? How did Sting arrive in AEW?

Sting’s ascent to stardom took place in World Championship Wrestling. He wrestled Ric Flair to a 45-minute time-limit draw in a singles match for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in 1988 at the first-ever Clash of Champions and left such a captivating and compelling impression on his work that he became the flag bearer of WCW. Following that Clash with Flair, the next 13 years saw Sting take part in an epic rivalry with the Four Horsemen, finally overcome Flair for the title at the 1990 Great American Bash, and ultimately reach a whole new level of stardom during the “Monday Night Wars” in the late ’90s as the promotion’s savior against the NWO’s Hollywood Hogan.

More recently, Sting began a working relationship with WWE in 2014, which was formed in a peculiar manner. Following an 11-year run with TNA, Sting’s WWE run began by working with video game giant 2K, agreeing to a deal that saw him announced in July 2014 as a pre-order exclusive for WWE 2K15.

The response to his inclusion in 2K was so overwhelmingly positive that Sting made his long-awaited WWE debut that November at Survivor Series, beginning a short but uneven on-screen role with the company.

It’s a weird, wacky story, but this is a wacky business,” Sting told Sports Illustrated in 2019. “I’m grateful for all of the people at 2K.”

Sting wrestled his first WWE match amid incredible fanfare at WrestleMania 31. The build was excellent, though it took an odd turn at the pay-per-view before ’Mania, when his opponent, Triple H, cut a promo articulating how their bout stood for more than a match but was rather a final WWE vs. WCW showdown.

In a massive surprise, Triple H won the match, defeating Sting in his in-ring WWE debut. A year later, when asked about the finish, Sting told Sports Illustrated, “People took the loss personally, but in this business, you have to learn real quick not to take anything that personally. For me, it was a memory just being in Levi’s Stadium in California, my home state, with that crowd there.”

Five months following WrestleMania 31, Sting was back on WWE programming, challenging Seth Rollins for the WWE championship. The build to that match was an equal blend of excitement and nostalgia and presented Sting with the opportunity to finally capitalize on a WWE run that took decades to materialize. He wrestled the Big Show on Raw in September 2015 and tagged later that night with John Cena against Big Show and Rollins. He then worked what remains his final match, wrestling Rollins at that September’s Night of Champions. The match was surprisingly good, especially considering Sting continued despite being severely limited after taking a turnbuckle powerbomb, which caused a neck injury that effectively ended his in-ring career.

Following the injury, Sting made more appearances for WWE, and he announced his retirement during his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame during WrestleMania 32 weekend. More recently, he was a surprise guest at Ric Flair’s 70th birthday celebration on Raw in February 2019.

The run with WWE never provided the necessary closure for the man beneath the face paint, Steve Borden. Instead, as the years of inactivity in WWE passed, he came to the conclusion that there was still more left to prove.

Word leaked out this spring that Sting was no longer under a WWE contract and all of his merchandise was eventually pulled from WWE’s online shop in October. Sources close to both Sting and WWE confirmed to Sports Illustrated that the two sides ended their working relationship in a professional manner.

WWE had no significant plans for Sting. In fact, it had no plans for Sting at all. Despite his elite level of fame in WCW, Sting never fit into the WWE landscape. Vince McMahon has so many other legends—Steve Austin, The Rock, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, to name only a few—who are more deeply intertwined in the WWE tape library and WrestleMania history. To the WWE audience, the Undertaker is presented as a far bigger star than Sting, who represents nothing more than a small part of the company’s past.

While WWE had no intention of using Sting in a meaningful capacity, that ran counter to the wishes of Borden, who still has a burning desire to finish his career in a manner befitting a legend. With a new multi-year, full-time deal with AEW, that opportunity now exists.

Instead of ending his career frightened over the severity of his neck injury at Clash of Champions, listening to the company doctor in place of hearing a standing ovation from the crowd as he walked backstage, Sting will have a far different farewell run in AEW. Sports Illustrated has learned the relationship between Sting and AEW president Tony Khan will be collaborative, which was certainly not the case in WWE with McMahon.

Synonymous with wrestling on TNT, Sting proved in one night with his debut on Wednesday that people are still extremely interested in watching him work. His Dynamite debut helped AEW dominate in the ratings battle against NXT, as well as drew in even more fans for the highly anticipated Jon Moxley–Kenny Omega world title main event. Internally, there is optimism among top executives in AEW that this Wednesday’s Dynamite—headlined by Sting speaking with Schiavone and an appearance by Shaquille O’Neal—will draw more than one million viewers, which would mark a phenomenal achievement for the young company. Dynamite has only surpassed the million-viewer mark four times in its brief history, most recently with the post-All Out edition on Sept. 9.

There are certainly detractors, and there is a belief that the 61-year-old Sting is too old to connect with the current audience. That notion has been juxtaposed over the past five days with people flooding onto Pro Wrestling Tees to purchase the new Sting T-shirt. Pro Wrestling Tees owner Ryan Barkan confirmed to Sports Illustrated that the Sting T-shirt broke the company’s record for most shirts sold within a 24-hour span—and that, in only three days, the Sting shirt became one of the top-five selling AEW T-shirts of the year.

Even with his advanced age, there are plans for Sting to eventually enter the ring in AEW. A year ago, in regards to one more match, Sting told Sports Illustrated, “I could get in condition and I could pull it off.” That does not mean Sting will wrestle weekly on Dynamite. The goal for AEW is to leverage Sting’s star power. The possibility exists for cinematic matches, tag matches, and carefully designed spots that allow Sting to shine while also building those around him into even bigger stars.

Sting has global appeal, so working a program with Darby Allin, who already appeals to a younger audience, could be extremely lucrative in the long run for AEW. He would also place a bright spotlight on MJF, Hangman Page, Pentagon, Brian Cage or Powerhouse Hobbs. And more than being beneficial to the talent and profitable for the company, this signing is a huge coup for AEW in terms of both branding and goodwill.

It is also no secret that Sting was Cody Rhodes’s favorite wrestler. When asked about Sting in May, following a match where he used the Stinger Splash, Rhodes told Sports Illustrated, “You can read into every step I take, every breath I breathe, and every glance of my eye. Look all the way back to All In. This is something that was willed into existence. My life is willing s--- into existence. If I was a little boy and got to do a Stinger Splash and that’s where it ends, great. I don’t know what his schedule is like or where he’s at in this world, but nothing would please me more than to stand in a ring across from Sting. There has been no contact, but that’s my way of reaching out.” A main event match against Sting would help elevate Rhodes into another tier of stardom.

As for Sting, the most important part of this signing is another shot at one final run. Unlike in WWE, he now has the chance to finish on his terms. The person most responsible for this opportunity is Tony Khan.

Khan worked tirelessly to make this signing a reality. Sources close to AEW said that Sting was thoroughly impressed with the professionalism, long-term planning and compensation from AEW.

Khan and Sting have been friends for years. While it was newsworthy that Sting’s son, a former tight end at the University of Kentucky, took a tryout in 2015 with the Kansas City Chiefs, he also tried out for the Jacksonville Jaguars, where Khan is the co-owner and senior vice president of football administration and technology. Multiple sources confirmed to Sports Illustrated that Khan made the deal with Sting in secret, and that no one knew about the signing until it was finalized.

Once the deal was complete, Khan revealed the details to his four executive vice presidents, who were ecstatic upon hearing the news, as well as a handful of other people in the company. Wednesday’s debut was not hastily thrown together, but rather the execution of a carefully mapped plan that was always designed to include Allin, Rhodes and Team Taz’s Brian Cage, Ricky Starks and Powerhouse Hobbs.

Sports Illustrated also learned from multiple sources that Khan was adamant that Tony Schiavone make the call when Sting first appeared. Schiavone’s iconic “It’s Stiiiiiiing!” call will long be remembered as one of AEW’s signature moments. Having Schiavone make that call on TNT, after all their years together in WCW, was exactly what was needed.

Another feat for AEW was that Sting’s arrival was kept a surprise, proving that secrets still exist in pro wrestling. Speaking on Jon Alba and Doug McDonald’s Living The Gimmick podcast, the Young Bucks’ Matt Jackson touched on the sheer astonishment on display when the AEW roster first saw Sting backstage: “As [Sting] walked by, he just walked straight through where he needed to get to, and all the boys’ and girls’ heads were turning like it was The Exorcist. … When I saw the reactions to all the talent, I knew that it was going to be an even bigger moment on television.”

A successful run for Sting in AEW will be a major feather in the cap for Khan. Unlike McMahon, who was never enamored with Sting’s work, Khan did not miss a moment of Sting’s career. That respect and admiration will undoubtedly play a role in the way he is booked in AEW, which will aim to capture the essence of Sting and connect back to some of his legendary moments.

There is no other legend who would have fit so seamlessly in AEW. An argument could be made for Ric Flair, but he has spent the majority of the past 19 years in WWE and is still treated marvelously by the company. Despite his legendary run in WCW, Hulk Hogan is simply not a fit in AEW. Bret Hart could have played a role, and he made a one-time appearance at Double or Nothing in 2019, but his most magical moments are deeply associated with WWE.

Sting proudly served as the face of WCW. He fought off Hogan, and years before that, set the standard in programs with the likes of Rick Rude, Cactus Jack, and Vader. He wrestled Flair on the first-ever Nitro in 1995, and defeated him on the final episode in 2001, which marked the last time wrestling aired on TNT until the premiere of Dynamite in 2019. And now it is Sting, again, speaking for the first time this Wednesday on Dynamite, returning to his familiar post in a weekly battle against WWE.

AEW has its legend, and Sting now has a rare opportunity to rewrite his final chapter.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.