AEW is trying to pry viewers away from WWE now, much as TNA did in its heyday, which leads to natural comparisons between the two companies. Tony Khan is usually careful about saying that his upstart wrestling promotion isn’t trying to compete with the worldwide leader in sports entertainment. Instead, the company uses the phrase “viable alternative,” which is a fair distinction. Regardless, fans will always compare wrestling shows to one another. As such, Dave Meltzer’s comments about AEW having a TNA-like reliance on ex-WWE wrestlers are interesting.
During a recent episode of Wrestling Observer Radio, the longtime scribe shared the following thoughts: “[AEW] went from their own identity to being guys that WWE didn’t want, and you keep bringing in these WWE hotshot guys for a rating, and it’s almost like — that’s kind of like what TNA was if you remember. It reminds me of TNA. They’d bring somebody in, get this giant pop in the building, no matter what, so you think ‘they’re bigger stars than our stars,’ and then the AJ [Styles] never got their build because it was Kevin Nash. Scott Steiner and Booker T, and whatever.“
Comparing AEW & TNA’s Reliance On Ex-WWE Talent Is Fair
There’s no denying that Khan has been very aggressive in his efforts to hoover up performers who WWE released. Meltzer distinguished Jon Moxley and Chris Jericho as exceptions because of how long they’ve both been with AEW. Jericho was the only household name in the company when it was established, while Moxley joined when it was still unclear if Khan’s venture would succeed on television. Ex-WWE wrestlers who’ve signed on since then have had mixed results while also taking valuable air time away from All Elite’s homegrown stars. For instance, where would Orange Cassidy be if he’d received the attention that Claudio Castagnoli received upon his debut?
Wrestlers have to be consistently placed in main events to be passable marquee players, and AEW has relied on former WWE performers, by and large, to drive their ratings and ticket sales. It’s not too difficult to draw a parallel between AJ Styles in TNA and someone like Wardlow or Darby Allin. Not in terms of wrestling ability—The Phenomenal One is a generational talent—but regarding being underutilized while former WWE wrestlers are pushed in main event matches and on pay-per-views.
Lucky For AEW, There’s An Easy Fix To This TNA-Like Problem
The solution to this issue for AEW is pretty simple: feature homegrown talent more, and rely on WWE’s discarded stars less. Khan does seem to like to sign shiny new free agents when available but doesn’t always seem to think about how they’ll fit in the long-term. Even a legit megastar like Bryan Danielson has gotten lost in the shuffle since making his debut and putting on a handful of dream matches. These returning heroes will always get big pops, but the audience needs something to invest in across weeks and months.
To its credit, AEW does seem invested in building up a few homegrown stars. Daniel Garcia is positioned as a main event-level player, while it looks like Wardlow is on the verge of a big push. It’ll take time and patience before these developing wrestlers click at the top of the card, but that’s OK. Consider how long it took for WWE to figure out how to present Roman Reigns in a way that fans would accept. That took half a decade, but now he’s undisputedly the biggest name in wrestling. AEW must have the same dedication to their wrestlers, lest they fall on the same sword that TNA did.