It’s been a week where Triple H has admitted that the WWE is directly counter-programming AEW with their NXT shows, essentially an official acknowledgement of the “Wednesday Night Wars” between the companies. Last night seemed the most distinct illustration of the difference between the two. While both were capping two-night, not-quite-pay-per-view cards (and the new trend is that everything has to be “TOO BIG FOR ONE NIGHT!” You can thank NJPW for starting this with their two-night Wrestle Kingdom in January), NXT headlined theirs with a straightforward, albeit excellent, champion vs. champion match between Keith Lee and Adam Cole. Meanwhile, AEW was main-eventing their most AEW star, Orange Cassidy.
AEW staked out its place by not being WWE. And in a lot of ways, it’s made that clear. Mostly that’s been in its utterly stocked tag-team division that runs counter to the completely ignored tag division in WWE. In addition, it’s been able to run gimmick matches that came off (Stadium Stampede) or dips into comedy that have also succeeded (anything with Britt Baker, Chris Jericho cutting a promo on a drone, etc.) and showed how it doesn’t take itself too seriously, a common criticism of WWE. It’s also had its WWE-like misses, specifically its women’s division lacking screen-time or even numbers, so far.
But what AEW has lacked is creating its own type of star, one that embodies the whole ethos. Jon Moxley, Jericho, Cody Rhodes, FTR, Brodie Lee, and Pac (when available) are escapees from WWE but had already made their name. Kenny Omega, Adam Page, and The Young Bucks came to fame in Japan. Hikaru Shida is as close as it’s gotten with the women’s division, and she lacks dance partners to really take herself and the division to the next level.
But Orange Cassidy is what AEW could be, and perhaps should be. A darling on the indie scene, but unknown to the masses.
And he could never happen in WWE. He’s too out there. Too individual. While WWE has had its share of goofy gimmicks — The Fiend/Bray Wyatt being the latest — they never would sanction one that actively mocks wrestling. Even WWE’s more out-there acts get bent to serve the normal, routine vision that Vince McMahon has. Nothing is ever allowed to keep pushing the edges and certainly no act that made wrestling anything less than deathly serious would be given oxygen in McMahon’s company.
Orange Cassidy is a postmodern wrestler. Correction, he is THE postmodern wrestler. It is so easy and so silly to him that he can’t actually bring himself to try. And it’s so easy and silly to him that when he decides to try, he can immediately switch to one of the most lively and acrobatic wrestlers around. And he can do all that without removing his hands from his pockets. He’ll show you how much this doesn’t matter.
He’s a walking reminder of how fun, and stupid-silly this is all supposed to be, while also being endlessly entertaining. While he may be saying wrestling is too easy and too silly to lower himself to, what he’s not doing is judging it, or more accurately the rest of us for loving it. It may be beneath him because he’s so talented, but it doesn’t have to be below us. We’re not idiots for watching, which WWE seems so hellbent on making fans feel so much of the time.
Which is why Cassidy’s feud with Jericho, which culminated last night in the main event of Fyter Fest, was so perfectly played. Cassidy’s mere existence is an insult to Jericho, whose character essentially is the wrestling business. Jericho knows how it all works and where all the angles are and how important he is because he knows all that, and here’s Cassidy to remind him that none of it matters. The thought enrages Jericho, just as AEW’s stance outside of WWE has sent the established guard into orbit. It’s a rocking of the establishment by pointing out all they don’t do and how limited what they do is.
Orange Cassidy is the perfect embodiment for just how different AEW is willing to be, to make itself stand out. By finally putting him at the top of the card, AEW is clearly outlining all the directions it can go. Jericho (the character, again) is all the old ways. He is what Cassidy stands against, and even above. There are more ways to do this, and yours is getting left behind, is what Cassidy says by merely standing there. Jericho, the old way, has nothing to do but rage against the dying of the light and claw more desperately to remain relevant.
It doesn’t hurt that Jericho is just about the best character-worker, either as performer or as broadcaster, the industry has right now to help make this pop.
Jericho went over, using his usual devious ways. While a disappointment, it’s not hard to see AEW saving a landmark win for Cassidy for a live audience, whose reaction to that will rival Lemmy coming back from the dead (if Lemmy can indeed truly die, and the jury is still out on that one). AEW runs the risk of having to wait too long for that, and tiring its fans of Cassidy. But they’ve perfectly played him so far as the ultimate “When are we getting to the fireworks factory?!” character.
So far, in the eight months that AEW and NXT have locked horns on Wednesday nights, the ratings have suggested there’s more than enough fans for both. After last night, it couldn’t have been clearer what the difference is between what each is offering.