On October 2, 2020, All Elite Wrestling celebrated the first anniversary of its flagship series, AEW Dynamite. It’s surreal to think that it has been over 365 days since the new company brought professional wrestling back to TNT, creating some much-needed parity in the sport. Although the new venture ended 2019 on a high note, The Elite, and its growing roster, continued to reshape the image of mainstream wrestling throughout 2020, presenting dynamic performers from unconventional weight classes, different backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender identities.
The wrestling industry has been constantly evolving since Brett Hart and Shawn Michaels ushered in a new era featuring smaller guys who wrestled with a technical style. Performers like Daniel Bryan and CM Punk continued that progression, and independent stars have since taken this athletic wrestling style somewhere else entirely. To its credit, AEW has managed to bring those indie wrestling sensibilities to network television and that’s where a great deal of its appeal lies.
At AEW, it’s becoming more and more acceptable to make wrestlers who used to be considered cruiserweights into world champions or main event-caliber workers. Early on, guys like Darby Allin and Jungle Boy became fixtures on AEW Dynamite as the company’s first homegrown stars. Of course, both wrestlers have five years of experience at smaller promotions, but the compact, young up-and-comers have more than made names for themselves in front of a much larger audience, an opportunity that Jungle Boy recognizes is unique.
“I think if you look at the [AEW] roster in a physical sense, there's a huge span of wrestlers,” Jungle Boy says. “Obviously, you have people like Marko [Stunt], and I'd say myself too. We're a lot smaller than the typical wrestler than I think people imagine. All the way up to people like Luchasaurus, who are huge and physically meet the standard that people think of when they think of wrestlers.”
Indeed, AEW’s willingness to promote Jungle Boy despite his smaller stature has allowed the California native to shine as a singles and tag team competitor with Jurassic Express. He hasn’t won a title yet, but it would be safe to assume that he could become one of AEW Dynamite’s top stars even at his size.
“You don't necessarily have to be 300 pounds anymore,” Jungle Boy explains. “I think as the sport itself evolves in terms of the stuff we're doing in the ring, I guess people's idea of what you need to look like to be a star is also changing and it's cool that AEW is pushing that idea.”
"You don't necessarily have to be 300 pounds anymore." —Jungle Boy
Beyond AEW's smaller wrestlers, Scorpio Sky seems poised to succeed as one of the original members of promotion's roster and its first African American male signee. The 18-year wrestling world veteran had a breakout year in 2019, when he became one-half of the inaugural AEW world tag team champions and boasted the best record in the company with 12 wins and four losses. Sky also quietly scored more wins than any other member of The Elite, including Kenny Omega, and even boasts a victory against Chris Jericho. Pointedly, Sky was the first man on the roster to pin Le Champion and is proud to help carry the banner for Black wrestlers in AEW.
“If you look at pro wrestling now, there are a lot more people of color being heavily profiled, which is a great thing, ” Sky says. “I think kids of color can look up and say, Okay, I see people on television. I see people in wrestling that look like me, so maybe I can do it too. And I think that's going to do a lot for their confidence.”
Of course, Scorpio Sky’s stable, SoCal Uncensored, lost the tag titles to Omega and Adam Page on the January 22 episode of AEW Dynamite. But Sky is still having a strong year, even putting the world on notice as he cut the best promo of his career on the August 4 episode of AEW Dark.
“My goals are really simple, man,” Sky explains. “I want to get to the top of the card. I want to be where Jon Moxley is and there was a time where I was almost embarrassed to say that out loud because it was one of those things where I thought to myself like, Man, if I say this, people are going to kind of laugh at me.”
But that’s no longer the case. Although Sky was unsuccessful in his recent TNT Championship bout with Cody Rhodes, he continues to dazzle as in-ring competitor with a magnetic personality. And he’s already set his sights on a lofty goal.
“I want to be a main eventer or I want to be world champion,” Sky says. “I want to be TNT champion, and I don't want to just do it one time and let it be something that, it's like, Oh, Hey, you remember when that happened? I don't want to be that. I want to be a top guy for years to come.”
"I think kids of color can look up and say, Okay, I see people on television. I see people in wrestling that look like me, so maybe I can do it too." —Scorpio Sky
In line with his ambitions, Sky now appears to be a true threat to take it all. Still, despite his current prominence, AEW seemed to have few Black title contenders at its outset. But the promotion has since changed course. In addition to Sky, Will Hobbs is a tremendous signing and a big step in the right direction for promoting more Black wrestlers in AEW. Although he only joined AEW mere months ago, The Embodiment of Willpower has already been involved in an FTW Championship match with Brian Cage.
Outside of men’s wrestling action, COVID-19 travel restrictions and a slew of injuries hit the AEW women’s division hard. But a turbulent 2020 hasn’t stopped its women’s roster from creating excitement among fans, in no small part because it reintroduced the hard-hitting Japanese women’s wrestling style known as joshi puroresu to American television. And AEW's reigning women’s champion, Hikaru Shida, has welcomed the opportunity to be an ambassodor for joshi.
“Joshi-style wrestling, which is Japanese women’s wrestling, is very unique and original,” Shida says. “So, I believe that joshi-style wrestling can be as good as women’s wrestling in other parts of the world. In Japan, our population, which compared to the US, is very few, but now, representing Japanese joshi wrestlers, I can show myself in front of American fans.”
The inaugural AEW women’s world champion, Riho also captured the hearts of American audiences wrestling in the joshi style, following successful stints in Japan with Ice Ribbon, DDT, and Gatoh Move Pro Wrestling. Despite her diminutive size, Riho’s became a fan-favorite thanks to her tenacity, breathtaking flying crossbody, and deft counters.
The 23-year-old prodigy participated in one of the best AEW Dynamite matches of the year when she defended her title against Nyla Rose, The Native Beast. Rose famously lost to Riho in the first-ever AEW women’s championship match on the premiere episode of AEW Dynamite. But, on February 12, Rose earned a rematch, and this time she wouldn’t walk away empty-handed. In the closing moments, the DC native surprised her smaller opponent with a spear and put her away with the Beast Bomb.
In the process, Rose became the first transgender woman to hold a world title at a major American wrestling promotion. As her moniker implies, she’s also of Native American descent. Even more, she made history as the first Black AEW women’s world champion, a fact that often goes unnoticed.
“Part of that is maybe because of my imagery,” Rose admits. “I like to present the fact that I am Native American because I feel that gets overshadowed a lot, but I'm very much a proud Black woman as well. And I will shout that from the mountaintop every day of the week. To have achieved that goal in February is nothing short of monumental.”
Outside of AEW, fans won’t see a titleholder like Nyla Rose or Riho at another major promotion in the US. As a matter of fact, every flagbearer for the division since its inception has been a woman of color.
“Every woman so far has been a person of color,” Rose agrees. “And I think a large part of the public, they have blinders on to that, simply because Riho and Hikaru are fair-skinned. They kind of overlook that but, at the end of the day, they are women of color. They represent a minority, as well.”
Even outside of popularizing joshi wrestling in America, Rose’s rival Shida has made a particularly big impact on AEW. Her success and popularity have even earned her the nickname The Fullmetal Champion, a moniker Shida likes because it references the anime Fullmetal Alchemist. This fall, Fullmetal Champion Shida is enjoying an impressive run following a show-stopping “No Disqualification” match with Rose at Double or Nothing 2020.
"I like to present the fact that I am Native American because I feel that gets overshadowed a lot, but I'm very much a proud Black woman as well." —Nyla Rose
Beyond that, she’s become one of the most dominant wrestlers in the company with a record of 19-1 in singles competition, bringing a level of prestige to her title. Her showdown with Thunder Rosa at All Out was highly-acclaimed and it cemented the joshi practitioner as one of the hottest performers on the AEW roster, a fact Shida doesn’t take for granted.
“Being a champion always comes with great pressure and great responsibility,” Shida says. “I have been the champion for many other promotions. This comes with much more pressure, much more responsibility, because whatever I do affects the image of the company we are trying to create. AEW is a brand new company, so we are building up our image now.”
Apart from the success of Hikaru Shida, Nyla Rose, and Riho in AEW Dynamite’s first year, there have been many moments of brilliance and proof of inclusion for both the promotion’s women’s and men’s rosters. Big Swole is quickly stepping up as one of its newest female stars with a larger than life personality and compelling backstory. On the men’s side of AEW, signing openly gay wrestler Sonny Kiss was a progressive move that will hopefully help to change the trajectory of an industry that still has its share of outdated ideals and problematic figures.
Far from a mere token, Kiss has been a standout presence for AEW. No one else in the company looks or moves like The Concrete Rose and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say AEW has a hidden gem in Kiss, who could eventually become one of its most marketable assets. After all, there are LGBTQ+ wrestling fans all over the world who are clamoring for positive representation.
Despite its incredible solo stars, AEW’s greatest strength continues to be its tag division, which is possibly the most diverse and well-assembled collection of teams in the world. The Young Bucks immediately give the roster legitimacy, but the Lucha Brothers, Proud and Powerful, and Private Party all bring authentic Black and Latino characters to the affair. Each of these teams could undoubtedly be champions in their own right and they all offer something different in terms of presentation.
In that vein, Latino wrestler and Lucha Brothers affiliate Eddie Kingston took a one-off shot in Cody Rhodes’ open challenge for the TNT Championship on July 22 and transitioned into the most pleasant surprise of the year. A week later, he officially joined AEW. At the company’s last pay-per-view of the year, Full Gear, the Mad King challenged Jon Moxley for the world title in the biggest match of his career. After their cutthroat encounter in the main event, it was clear that Kingston had more than just arrived.
To be sure, the Puerto Rican wrestler from Yonkers, New York, is a raw talent who looks like a future star, bringing unmatched mic skills and a straightforward, relatable character to the table. His style and vernacular are unique and very much of the current cultural moment, attributes that make him stand out even among miraculous wrestlers like Luchasaurus.
And even though AEW is still working to strike the right balance as an alternative for wrestling fans, it has done a good job putting together a diverse roster and showcasing distinct talent in 2020. There is still room to grow, but the brainchild of The Elite and Tony Khan is in a great position to change the look of pro-wrestling for the better to the benefit of the entire culture.