The new addition to wrestling discourse in the past couple years, and this year especially with the raft of releases from WWE, is to dream of which wrestlers will go from WWE to AEW, whether by choice or by force. And also, to dream what they will do when they get there, to fantasy book your dream matches for them. You can spend hours doing that, and it’s tons of fun.
And it’s been fueled because, for the most part, the talent has only flowed one way, and it’s done so on a constant basis. Adam Cole, Bryan Danielson, Malakai Black, Andrade, Ruby Soho — all undervalued and/or released by “New York” — have ended up on Wednesday nights and doing something enjoyable. Rumors that Kyle O’Reilly, Johnny Gargano, and others might follow suit only make it feel that much more like it’s almost automatic. Not only have wrestling fans fantasized about what wrestlers would get to do when unleashed, they’ve actually gotten to watch it happen.
Which is what made the news of Kevin Owens re-signing with WWE on Wednesday something of a shock. It almost felt like the record scratch at the party. Wait…what? That’s not how this works!
These things had followed such a pattern, whether whatever wrestler the rumors swirled around had been released or left on their own. Here was someone WWE didn’t “get.” Someone they wasted. Someone who knew they could do better with AEW because they would be allowed to. They just belonged somewhere that is essentially the end of the road for the indies, instead of a corporation with shareholders. So instead of Adam Cole being turned into a manager, or Andrade just hanging out in catering, for example, they would come over and then be all the things they could only tease under Vince McMahon. And that’s exactly what they’ve done, for the most part.
Kevin Owens checked all of those boxes above. First off, he’s the ultimate indie guy. He doesn’t look anything like a WWE wrestler, which is part of the reason people love him. He had a huge reputation and fanbase before ever stepping foot in a WWE ring. He just gets the business. But he’s really only had one main event push in six years, and that was years ago. Sometimes he disappears from TV for stretches of time. He throws himself into whatever creative he’s given, but he should have so much more to work with. He’ll do anything, he can do anything, and he’s one of the best promos on the roster. Why isn’t he at the top of the card all the time?
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So it just made sense that he would run down his contract, which reportedly expires next month, and then waltz over to AEW. He would rejoin Cole and The Young Bucks, with whom he ruled the indies with years ago. It’s what got him into NXT in the first place. He would never leave the top of the card. It all added up. It seemed fait accompli.
And then K.O. decided to stick. And the thing is, it felt like WWE finally used the one advantage they have that lords over better booking and creative freedom. They can just back up a Brinks truck to Owens’s house. You’d think they’d swing that stick more often. While we’ll never know the exact numbers, the reports said that AEW simply couldn’t offer Owens what WWE could. They always can, and yet so rarely do. Perhaps it’s finally an admission from WWE that they have some real competition on the block.
And the Brinks truck, obviously, is good for Owens. This generation of wrestlers almost certainly doesn’t want to keep hanging on through their 50s and 60s, like Ric Flair or Undertaker. Get your money and get out, K.O. No one can begrudge him that. We can only hope that Owens was given some sort of guarantee on his booking or control of his character, but we’ll just have to see on that one. Let’s just say there isn’t a lot of faith, to be charitable.
It also breaks a pattern. WWE wanted Cole to stick around. He didn’t. They wanted Danielson to stick around. He didn’t. They wanted Gargano to stick around, and it sure feels like he won’t either. If WWE is going to keep taking away people’s jobs, the least they can do is reward the ones they want to keep with more money.
And it’s still something of a win for AEW. While it was impossible to resist a reunion of “Mount Rushmore” of Owens (Steen outside of WWE), Cole, and the Bucks, the threat of Owens walking to the rival certainly got him more money. Perhaps, by some miracle, someone in Stamford, Conn., has seen the buzz that the performers they’ve discarded have created and aren’t in such a rush to repeat that, and will actually fight to keep some of their talent. And as Tom Thibodeau would say, AEW still has more than enough to win on their roster without Owens. At some point, a major part of AEW’s buzz can’t be about who’s coming over and who’s debuting. That becomes something of a Ponzi scheme.
Still, it was an odd look that KO decided to stick with WWE on the same day that AEW ran a 60-minute match on free TV. That’s the kind of freedom we all assumed KO was craving, and he’ll never get it with WWE. But at the end of the day, WWE can offer a shitton of money when they want to and a spot on a WrestleMania card. It’ll be good for more people if they start actually wielding that.