On the heels of the blockbuster debut of CM Punk, All Elite Wrestling debuted Ruby Soho (formerly Ruby Riott), Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson (formerly Daniel Bryan) to cap off one of the great pay-per-views in pro wrestling history Sunday night in Chicago.
All Out was memorable for a number of other reasons, including what many fans called the greatest cage match in wrestling history with the Lucha Brothers’ beating the Young Bucks to win the AEW tag team titles; Jon Moxley’s beating Japanese legend Satoshi Kojima only to be confronted and laid out by another debuting Japanese legend, Minoru Suzuki; Chris Jericho’s successfully defending his career against MJF in a match where he vowed to never wrestle again if he lost; and CM Punk's first match in seven years defeating Darby Allin in Punk’s hometown.
But the big surprises were Soho, Cole and Danielson. Similar to Punk, hints had been dropped about all three, including a moment when Punk, unplanned and without approval (although promoter Tony Khan admitted at a press conference that he didn’t care), told the fans they’d have to wait a little longer when they chanted for Danielson during one of his interview segments. But, like Punk, none of the three were announced in advance.
The biggest surprise of the three was Cole. Based on crowd reactions live, most fans expected Soho to be a surprise final entrant in the women’s battle royal, and most fans also seemed to expect Danielson to debut at the end of the show. But Cole’s WWE contract had expired just more than a week earlier, and many insiders expected that with the debuts of Punk, Danielson and Soho, it might be prudent to hold off on Cole for a little while. But they pulled the trigger and debuted both him and Danielson in the same segment to end the show.
Cole, who had given his word verbally but didn't sign a contract with AEW until the day of the show, debuted following the main event, which saw Kenny Omega beat Christian Cage to retain the AEW title with a top rope One-Winged Angel. Omega, flanked by the Elite (the Young Bucks and the Good Brothers) cut a promo explaining that nobody could beat him, and his only competition was either retired or dead. The latter was a wink to fans of the Being the Elite YouTube show, where Adam Cole had been “killed” in a story line before going to WWE. The “dead” Adam Cole made his surprise debut and confronted Omega. But instead of making a title challenge, he superkicked the popular Jungle Boy, who was down in the ring having been beaten down earlier, and turned heel, joining his old friends in the Elite.
Danielson’s music then hit, a version of his WWE theme, “Flight of the Valkyries,” and he made his debut to a gigantic ovation, helping the other babyfaces clear the ring to send the fans home happy.
All three spoke to the press later in the evening and told three different stories about why they made the jump from WWE to AEW. Soho, who had been fired, talked about how this night was the greatest moment of her life, she felt welcomed like she’d never felt before in her career, she had a high she wanted to never end and it was the first time in her life that the fans had ever chanted her name. AEW was a dream come true for someone who had been unhappy in WWE, rarely used near the end and often spent her weeks sitting in catering doing nothing.
Cole explained that he loved NXT (WWE’s “developmental brand” or “third brand,” depending on the week), he loved the people he worked with, he agreed to do a short-term extension of his contract afterward—in a surprise to everyone—it came due about six months earlier than expected, but, in the end, he always knew he was almost certainly leaving for AEW. Cole had been the premier wrestler in NXT for four years, had done all he could do there, and with WWE's latest focus on bigger wrestlers (over 6' 2" and 225 pounds), Cole’s options were basically to go to AEW or roll the dice on a main roster that almost never gave opportunities to wrestlers his size. He chose the former, and during the postshow press conference was glowing with happiness at the creative possibilities he saw in his future.
Danielson, the biggest star of the three, explained that not only did he love WWE and Vince McMahon, but he had a very difficult time deciding whether to stay or go. He noted that everyone there was like family to him (including, he noted, his actual family, wife Brie Bella and father-in-law John Laurinaitis, who, in fact, is the man in charge of negotiating with wrestlers like Bryan Danielson when their contracts are coming due). But in the end, he chose AEW for a number of reasons, including creative freedom, the ability to work in other companies including New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and the fact that, at his core, he was a professional wrestler and he wanted to get in the ring and wrestle with everyone in AEW.
In the big picture, despite the recent big-name jumps and debuts to AEW, WWE is in no imminent business danger. Its billion-dollar television deals and strong demographic numbers on Fox and USA Network make it largely failure-proof for the foreseeable future. But ironically, in WWE it has often been preached that perception becomes reality, and at the moment the perception is that wrestlers from up and down the card are jumping ship, and they are jumping in only one direction: from WWE to AEW.
As much as fans thought Sunday night’s All Out might be a great turning point, history suggests it was not. In the mid-1990s, then WWF and WCW battled for ratings supremacy head-to-head Monday nights, and WCW ultimately briefly overtook WWF for the spot as the No. 1 wrestling promotion in the world. But when you consider all of the great moments in the Monday Night War, there really was only one single moment that you could consider the game-changing moment, and that was Steve Austin winning the WWF title from Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XIV in 1998. But Austin’s rise had been a long process, and even that moment didn’t dramatically and instantly shift the game in WWF's favor. WCW’s rise was gradual, its descent into bankruptcy was gradual, and WWF’s rise to never-before-seen heights was also gradual.
Despite that, while WCW went out of business in 2001, it was evident in the spring of 1998 that they were on the way down, even as they sold out well more than a dozen shows in a row. The signs were there and the tide was turning. It is impossible to accurately predict the future, but between NXT’;s moving out of its head-to-head time slot with AEW on Wednesday nights, AEW’s consistently drawing more than 1 million viewers on Wednesdays, AEW Rampage’s debuting Friday nights on TNT and doing very impressive ratings for the time slot (including, for Punk’s debut, drawing more 18- to 49-year-old viewers than both Raw and SmackDown that same week), and the debuts of Punk and Danielson, two of WWE's biggest stars of the ’10s, it does feel that the tide may have turned.
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