Almost every story of every band in the history of the world has a moment where they form together in hopes of changing the world. They notice a void in the genre they love and believe no one else can fill it but them. The group springs itself onto the world like a jack-in-the-box and surprises everyone with a sound no one knew they wanted but definitely needed. Everything is all good for a while.
Actually, everything is great for a long while. Success comes with ease and then everything changes. The inner circle overflows with outside influences. A group of people thick as thieves ever so slightly wander in different directions. And the reality they avoided as long as possible creeps into their worldview like a zombie: The music business is, in fact, a business.
For AEW, the “business” half of that “wrestling business” equation came with the speed of a zombie from Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. How could it not? In a few short years, AEW is more successful than probably anyone inside of its organization dared dream. Seriously, it may be hard, but think about how fast they went from an announcement event in Jacksonville, Fla. to featured articles in Forbes, two primetime television shows, a video game, sneaker deals with Diadora, and selling out some pretty big venues around the country.
Three years sounds like a lot of time—especially these last three years—but it’s really not. Cody Rhodes, Matt Jackson, Nick Jackson, Kenny Omega, and Tony Khan did what few thought possible in any year of our Lord post-2001. There is now another viable North American wrestling company for a bunch of women and men who want to make a living for themselves in front of big television audiences on a weekly basis, and sometimes on weekends.
And come they did. A lot of them.
Some people WWE released, some who left WWE because they were at their wits end, and others who believed AEW’s atmosphere suited their longterm career goals more. It was truly a “come one, come all” type of affair. AEW became the cool new band on the scene with a sound so raw and uncompromising that civilized people dare not say they didn’t at least give it a try. Their fortune was so great that one of pro wrestling’s biggest stars believed AEW was the perfect place to make his comeback after seven years away from the game he says he loves more than most things in his life.
We’ll always have that August night in Chicago when this “pissant company” sold out the United Center and made it the center of the entire wrestling world. But that, ladies and gents, is the exact moment “All Friends Wrestling” became a thing of the past; a relic of a bygone era that lasted a little less than two years. The minute CM Punk’s music echoed throughout the House that MJ Built, AEW became a a wrestling company focused on the business half of that wrestling business equation. Everything that happened after that night was the company fighting to maintain its humble roots. But that’s like fighting your shadow.
Cody Rhodes’ sudden departure with Brandi by his side, Big Swole’s valid criticisms on her way out the door, Max Caster’s questionable bars, along with the whispers of unhappy talent seemingly getting louder; these are all indicative of a big time company in 2022.
Not all of the press is good press and mistakes will happen. Infighting amongst business partners comes with the the territory as well. The relationship between the four cats who started this company is forever changed. AEW’s meteoric rise put Omega, the Jackson Bros., and Rhodes in a very different stratosphere. Cody, whether purposefully or not, became the face of the company as he and Brandi further enhanced their brand outside of the wrestling ring. Kenny dove head first into developing the wrestling video game of his dreams while also carrying the company on his beaten up shoulders for a long time during a time period ravaged by a pandemic.
And then there’s TK. Effectively the fifth Beatle, TK rode this wave to a point where he associated himself with AEW’s biggest signing to date in CM Punk. You didn’t have to be a member of Mystery, Inc. to know who Tony saw as his company’s biggest star. TK’s penchant for “co-hosting” Punk’s press conference appearances and displaying their relationship for fans and foes alike isn’t coincidental. Those aren’t moves made by someone fond of shunning the spotlight. But they’re also what the boss does when the boss knows—or believes he knows—who keeps the lights on in the building. That’s a business move, and one that, prior to recent events, makes the most dollars and sense for everyone involved.
The fall out from All Out makes it clear to anyone in denial that AEW, despite its best intentions, is just another company in the wrestling business. AEW didn’t readily accept that label and maybe they still clutch a few pearls at anyone even mentioning the idea. But tempers flare in business. People pick sides in business. Some disagreements are unreconcilable in business.
And, most importantly, in business CEOs always do what they think is best for business. Even if no one likes it, even if no one agrees, even if fans throw every plant in the produce aisle. TK made tough decisions this week for the sake of his company. Unfortunately, they don’t get any easier.
The good news is AEW’s story isn’t yet finished. But what they do from this point forward determines if they’re Leaders of the New School, who broke up on live television after releasing just two albums, or Aerosmith, a group that defied gravity, logic, and their own drama to flourish for decades, becoming an institution in the process.