For the past few weeks, AEW fans have applauded head booker Tony Khan for letting babyface talent go over in their own hometowns and home states. In the past two months, Sammy Guevara, Thunder Rosa, Lance Archer, Jon Moxley, CM Punk, and Brian Pillman, Jr. all won their homecoming matches. I might as well throw in Britt Baker into this as well: Baker wrestled as a babyface in Pittsburgh against Red Velvet in a rare fan service, local hero(ine) switch.
Khan put out a tweet in the past week that while it is nice for hometown heroes to go over, it is obviously not going to be the case every single time. What fans assumed was a dig at WWE was actually a spoiler for this past week's homecoming match on AEW's flagship show, Dynamite.
Leyla Hirsch, the Russian-born talent who was adopted and grew up in New Jersey, faced off against up-and-coming—and undefeated phenom—in Jade Cargill. Hirsch, an amateur wrestler in high school, is a 4'11" powerhouse that reminds some fans of Kurt Angle. Hirsch is arguably the best women's technical wrestler in AEW that's not named Serena Deeb. Cargill, a personal trainer and child psychologist, is a rising heel who has been booked as an unstoppable and undefeated physical specimen. At 5'10", she is the second tallest member of the Women's division behind KiLynn King.
Let's make it pretty clear here: Hirsch was never going to be booked to win this match. Cargill is going to be undefeated for a while; probably for at least the next 6 months. Cargill has only been performing squash matches to get her character over, give her TV time, and some learning experience. Understandably, fans were afraid that this was going to be another two-minute Cargill squash special.
Instead, fans were treated to a solid match that started slow and then got going after the first 90 seconds. In fact, Hirsch wrestled one of the best matches of her AEW career. In terms of canon, Hirsch gave Cargill her most competitive and challenging match to date.
Hirsch may not have went over in her home state, but Hirsch as a character and as a performer did not take any hit whatsoever. After all, the finish came when she missed a moonsault, got nailed by Cargill's excellent pump kick, and a pin after the Glam Slam.
A couple of nights later on SmackDown, it was a different—but, expected—story.
Since time immemorial, WWE has had a shtick that the babyface gets humiliated in their hometown to get heat on the heel. WWE doesn't always rely on this, but they sure as hell don't often deviate from it.
At times, WWE will add a degree of pomp and circumstance. In this case, Bianca Belair, the company's top babyface women's wrestler, was given the main event segment in her hometown of Knoxville. This was such a gaudy segment, featuring red carpet, a speech by Belair, a "Key to the County" award from former WWE Superstar and current Knox County Mayor Glenn "Kane" Jacobs.
Predictably, top women's heel Becky Lynch came out to crash the party. In typical heel fashion, she ran down Knoxville and had a confrontation with Belair. Lynch got the better of Belair, hitting her with her modified ura-nage and leaving the heroine grimacing in pain. In the dark match, which is not WWE canon, Belair defeated Lynch in a non-title match to send the crowd home happy.
WWE is an extremely formulaic company. It just is what it is. Critically analytical fans, who often feel that they have "heard it all" and "seen it all" when it comes to pro wrestling's tried and true tropes, get frustrated by WWE's formula. After all, WWE has literally been running with the same formula with slight modernization for nearly 40 years.
Vince McMahon, for reasons only known to him, feels that a babyface getting their ass kicked in their hometown on television is still effective way to sell a future match. Debatable, but that is his belief. WWE books for the character and personality-driven big moment; this is in opposition to the desires of a good vocal chunk of the audience that demands better week-to-week progression in canon storylines. However, I am neither going to criticize nor praise WWE for continuing their, uh, "hometown tradition".
However, I could not help myself but to be amused at the stark difference in treatment of two performers' homecomings within a span of 48 hours.
Let's give credit where credit is due: AEW's approach built towards the long term future of both performers.
For Hirsch, she got to show that she can be an effective storyteller in AEW. We already know what she can do in the wrestling ring with dance partners of any size—her match at Empowerrr with NWA Women's Champion Kamille proved that. It was a brief angle that lasted 2 weeks, but she did well in her promo packages, explained her back story effectively, and told a good story in the ring with Cargill. She also showed the AEW audience that she can be trusted to have a solid match with any performer, regardless of their experience or skill level.
For Cargill, the match displayed her growth as a performer. She has an impressive physique but is still a bit limited in the ring—and I say this as someone that is not a "workrate mark". Cargill's critics had complained up to this point about her lack of convincing wrestling ability—something I disagree with because I think she's a solid performer. She's no Sasha Banks or Belair in the ring (yet), but I hope Cargill's critics will be at least willing to recognize that she can be trusted to do her part in a decent back-and-forth match.
Cargill started off slow. However, as the match progressed, she settled into effectively playing her role as the bigger, stronger heel that was taken to the limit in her opponent's home state. It was a strong performance that will serve as an important building block for her career.
In WWE, it is a bit different for obvious reasons.
Lynch and Belair are not rising stars; they are currently the top heel and babyface in the Women's division, respectively. WWE went back to something that is tried and true for them. It's neither good nor bad, but I would argue that this doesn't sell the way that it used to -- even to the parts of the audience that is less critical about pro wrestling.
On the other hand, I understand why they resorted to this. WWE treats their live arena audience as a live TV studio audience more than other promotions. It comes across better on TV when the live audience is booing the heel. The promotion took a significant gamble by acquiescing to Lynch's request to be a villain and they are going to get her over as such by any means necessary, including relying on a plot device that has grown a bit too predictable for longer term audiences.
The homecoming is just that: a plot device. Nothing more. Both companies have a categorically different approach to it and there's no real "wrong" or "right" way to do it. It is just a matter of your preference; and this was neither a criticism or praise of either company, but just an observation.