Last year, fans expected the “Bidding War of 2024” to revolve around who could sign Maxwell Jacob Friedman. Instead, it’s focused on who would sign three of the hottest free agents: Will Ospreay, Kazuchika Okada, and Mercedes Moné.

AEW won all three of these battles. Yet discussion and discord rightly question if long-term AEW has won the bidding war.

Signing three of the best wrestlers in the world has invited both the usual applause and criticism. Also, this fan-perceived war isn’t over. Some fans still doubt the reports that MJF is still with AEW. Additionally, both AEW and WWE have wrestlers whose contracts will be ending this year. 2024’s bidding war is not over yet.

Although, being an AEW fan, it’s sometimes hard to enjoy the moment and small victories due to the constant criticism and predictions that the end is nigh.

I’ll discuss later the issues with some of these negative takes and they miss the ways AEW’s presence is improving things for wrestlers and the wrestling business.

If WWE wants to keep signing top independent wrestlers, they can learn a few things from AEW’s practices. Just like when I discussed how WWE and AEW could learn from MLW, there are many things WWE can learn from AEW to retain and recruit new wrestlers.

Fair Questions to Ask

If the shoe was on the other foot, there would be criticism also. Differently, it would revolve around another factor. WWE is possibly repackaging some of the best wrestlers into their sports entertainment mold.

Memes of Kazuchika Okada in Chase U gear were laughable. However, it reflected a real fear and disdain that some fans still have for WWE’s past actions. Wrestlers need to be broken down and ‘fixed’ to fit the WWE vision, pal.

In the case of Mercedes Moné, some speculated that if she returned to the fed, initially she might be punished on screen (‘buried’) for leaving unceremoniously in December 2022.

Again, it’s a hang-up of the past. Importantly, it brings up a valid question. If wrestling fans still hang on to these perceptions, what about the wrestlers themselves given it’s their careers and livelihoods that will be directly affected?

With AEW, there is some fair criticism around the booking of new high-profile stars. When analyzing Kazuchika Okada’s AEW debut and winning the Continental Championship, I wrote about how it feels that mistakes of the past have been addressed.

Constantly, Okada, Ospreay, and Moné have been positioned as big deals. The latter might not be the most comfortable on the microphone, but regardless, Moné is positioned as the new leader of a woman’s revolution. Not everyone agrees and that’s fine.

Questions about the enormous size of AEW’s roster are fair also. Fans had the same concern with WWE’s bloated pre-Pandemic roster. It’s fair to question where an influx of new top-level talent leaves everyone else.

For example, when writing about Swerve Strickland’s imminent championship win, there’s already the danger that Will Ospreay could overshadow Swerve’s reign.

Limits of Bad Takes

All that said, some questions, or repeated statements of fact, are said more than in bad faith.

Many comments I have read online about Moné’s supposed value as a performer and draw have bordered on sexism and misogyny and are filled with vitriol. Some fans talk as if they have intimate knowledge of Moné the person off-screen and her real intentions.

Others have criticized Okada and Ospreay for just being wrestlers. When writing about The Bloodline’s display of toxic masculinity, I compared a meme contrasting WWE’s Roman Reigns and AEW’s Will Ospreay. The meme states that AEW has just presented Ospreay as a great wrestler. Yes, to an extent.

However, the Billy Goat’s been on AEW TV for a short period and is adjusting incredibly well to weekly episodic wrestling TV. Something NJPW does not do.

Ospreay declares he is a great wrestler, but the fans in the arena and online are investing in him. Plus, layers are being added slowly. In comparison, it took years for Roman Reigns to be accepted as the next face of the company.

Elsewhere, things have been selective ignored, exaggerated or history is supposedly repeating itself. One fan told me how Moné has a creative control clause like Hulk Hogan.

Others have referenced WCW. Signing these wrestlers to huge contracts is going to AEW soon. Now, discussing money and wrestlers’ pay need a separate discussion to do it justice.

Beyond Money 

Interestingly, most online discord centers around the wrestlers’ paychecks. This is not surprising as ultimately this is what wrestlers are working for. They are physical artists who sell with their bodies to make audiences feel something. It hurts and the effort that goes into maintaining their physical prowess costs money.

However, artists value other things besides money and some fans seem to miss this when discussing AEW signing prominent wrestlers.

They also like to bring up, fairly, that WWE does offer things AEW cannot. Like a bigger platform. A larger more established global audience and brand. Opportunity where if lucky, they could transition to beyond wrestling to popular culture cross-over stars like The Rock or John Cena.

And rightfully so, if they choose, they could go work for WWE as Cody Rhodes and Jade Cargill have. The likelihood is others will do it also. This is what competition is about. The wrestlers win. Fans win.

We need to recognize that WWE has, after years of trying, created a pipeline system through NXT where they are training college and ex-professional athletes to fit the WWE mold. Unlike AEW at present, they can recruit and train homegrown talents like Bianca Belair, Charlotte Flair, and Roman Reigns from scratch.

It’s not just the money that AEW is attracting or retaining some of its wrestlers with. Despite the constant images of empty sections of AEW shows, there are reasons why for some wrestlers this isn’t the concern fans make it out to be.

The Lure/Lore of WrestleMania 

This is rumor and innuendo, but believable given the growing prestige and accolades accomplished by WrestleMania each year. Some online news outlets reported that WWE expected the lure of WrestleMania to be a factor in attracting top wrestlers like Ospreay and Okada.

‘The Grandest Stage of Them All’. ‘The Showcase of the Immortals.’ And so on, is still the biggest night of wrestling in the world each year. It is wrestling’s Super Bowl. But is it the be-all and end-all of a wrestler’s career?

Its legacy, like that of the Monday Night Wars, has been canonized but also edited. The modern lore of WrestleMania, as the place to perform, is in part a promotional myth.

Is WrestleMania the place where the best wrestling and stories are told each year? Push past the myth and look at the whole card, not just the main event, how many in recent years have been perfect?

Time has eased memories of last year’s main event rubber chicken incident but in the aftermath, many were frustrated. Things might be different this year, but is every wrestler guaranteed that coveted WrestleMania moment? No.

Simply, there is no guarantee of a WrestleMania moment or consistent creative or card positioning after the biggest night of the year. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn won the tag team championships in last year’s main event. Their role in the main event spotlight slipped post-‘Mania.

The promise of a WrestleMania match isn’t enough of a guarantee.

Scheduling Conflicts

The WWE schedule compared to AEW’s is full-on, with wrestlers on the road and away from home more often. To work for WWE, talent needs to move to the States. The main reason Will Ospreay signed with AEW was revealed on Chris Jericho’s podcast.

“The main thing was just because I wanted to stay in the UK.” (Talk is Jericho)

AEW is willing to allow talent, like Ospreay and PAC, to travel internationally to their shows. Allowing talent this kind of working flexibility is unprecedented.

For Ospreay, who has a stepson and a young family, being able to remain home is important. Being able to spend time with family and loved ones for anyone let alone wrestlers is important.

This kind of flexibility and freedom is the kind of thing that has attracted many people where I live in the UK to begin working from home post-pandemic. It’s not the only example of AEW’s approach being more forward-thinking.

WWE is still traditionalist in its approach to wrestling scheduling. But as Mike Bennett on AEW Unrestricted highlights, these changes have helped both men and women in AEW are better for everyone:

“Everyone in the 70s and the 80s and the 90s, that was the lifestyle. They didn’t know any better. … Now we realized, maybe that wasn’t the best way to do it… I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m saying they didn’t know… I can’t speak to this but my wife can. If you’re a female, it’s got to be incredibly relieving to know if you decide you want to start a family, your career is not going to be over. There will be a spot for you when you come back.”

Transcript from Wrestling Inc.

Value The Women’s Role

Speaking of women, Becky Lynch told the Orlando Sentinel something interesting related to Mercedes Moné’s salary:

“I think that’s an important part, getting paid equally for the equal work and the equal position we are at right now. Women’s evolutions and revolutions are fine and well, but making sure that they equate to contracts and financial reward for these things when we are doing equal work is hugely important.”

Transcript from WrestleTalk.

Although specific details are not known about the amount Moné earns on her AEW contract, Lynch’s point about equality of pay is important.

Given that across sports, there is a significant wage gap between male and female athletes, WWE may need to consider how it compensates its women’s wrestlers in the long term to avoid its top stars looking to AEW.

Now, AEW’s treatment of women is a contentious issue that I have covered elsewhere (here). However, WWE’s treatment of its women’s division under Triple H has been a repeated source of criticism.

Lynch herself when discussing her WrestleMania opponent, Rhea Ripley, slammed how women are perceived by fans and presented in the ring. In response to Rhea’s viral “stink face” video, Lynch said:

“Well, then that just feels like we’re kind of going back, and I worry about that because if that’s what people see as your champion, ‘Oh, that’s the Women’s Champion! What do I think of when I think of the Women’s Champion? Oh, I think of her a**!’ Then we’re just going back and we’re making an a** of our business!”

Transcript from Pinkvilla.

If AEW’s women’s division does have a revolution and Moné both on screen and in terms of pay helps to elevate the women’s division, in time, it could lead to WWE’s female wrestlers looking to AEW as a viable alternative.

Creativity and Feeling Listened to 

As artists, AEW allows wrestlers more creativity to wrestle in their own way. Some fans rightly question the method of sending wrestlers out without a script. ‘Without the floaties’ as MJF called them, some wrestlers’ weaknesses have been exposed on TV, creating further difficulties for them to ‘get over.’

While WWE appears to be getting better at allowing some wrestlers freedom to cut loose from the script, the WWE style is embedded. There is a set way their wrestlers are expected to work in the ring and on the microphone.

For some modern wrestlers, this artistic expression is important. Whether this suits every fan’s taste is not their concern. AEW is offering an alternative where wrestlers who want freedom can have it.

The debate over how much creative freedom wrestlers should is ongoing. Yet, those experienced and top-of-the-card wrestlers in WWE who have seen the creative freedom given to Sting and Bryan Danielson may be tempted by the idea of creative freedom. Likewise, some AEW talent may prefer the structure of WWE.

Happiness and Mental Health

What usually seems to be last on some fan’s priorities for wrestlers is their sense of happiness and well-being. On Talk is Jericho, Ospreay said AEW was:

“The viable option was where was I happy and what was I doing? Every time I came here, Tony [Khan] has given me nothing but trust and respect the moment I came in here, and it was the right decision for me at this time.

Mental health as a priority is a new focus in many occupations. In the old-fashioned, hyper-masculine world of wrestling, there are still wrestlers and fans who dismiss this as ‘wokeness.’ Yet as stated in my Bloodline toxic masculinity article, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50.

Yet, Tony Khan has made this a priority, and has he discussed it with ABC News:

“I think having a fun place to work where, you know, we create, like an environment where we really do care about the people here… We try to show it and make the locker rooms here places where people aren’t going to dread coming in, and quite the opposite, where hopefully they look forward to seeing the other people that, you know, you get in the ring and fight.” 

Transcript from ABC News

I know some will insert jokes and criticism linked to ‘Brawl Out’ and CM Punk.

Looking beyond this, WWE is still an old-school company, run by traditionalists with an old-school mentality. Mental health affects everyone and various ex-WWE wrestlers over the years have talked about the negative places mentally they have been within the company.

But this focus, alongside other changes in culture AEW has implemented to make wrestlers happier elevates undue stress.

Conclusion: Things Will Change in Time

Both companies are in healthy positions, despite the discord and optics. Wrestlers will jump between the companies over time and that is okay. Moné drew criticism before her AEW debut for saying she would likely return to WWE in the future.

WWE’s reputation is still in part recovering from the scarring left by Vince McMahon. AJ Styles on Battleground Podcast stated recently:

“I wish more guys, who I think would do well in WWE, may have been afraid as far as past things have happened with Vince being there- I wish that they understand that WWE is in this for the long run. We’re talking about ten years on Netflix, possibly 20 years. That’s a long time. We’re not going anywhere.”

AJ is right in what he is saying. Vince’s DNA is still all over WWE, and this may keep some wrestlers away from the federation for the time being.

What AJ misses, along with many other fans, is that it’s easy to dismiss AEW as the younger, less established company. You can’t ignore that not everyone wants to be a WWE superstar or in WWE forever.

Options are good for everyone. AEW in the long-term, like WCW, will benefit the wrestling business. More places to work will mean standards have to keep improving. Everyone wins, especially the fans.

More From LWOS Pro Wrestling

Header photo – AEW – Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world.

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