AEW has great charisma. You want to like it just as much as you like the WWE or any of your other favorite promotions. It’s such a great showcase of talent and it consistently puts out electrifying displays of wrestling that don’t follow a fixed formula all of the time (a criticism that can be levied on WWE matches, though the formula is still a good one). And yet, more than three years in since it debuted in 2019, a few long-standing cracks in its foundation are threatening to make AEW one of the quickest ‘Rise and Fall’ stories in wrestling history. The highly anticipated New York City show, Grand Slam, made those cracks glaring in its third outing.

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Taking once more to the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, Grand Slam rode in with some hype pushing the event. While MJF vs. Samoa Joe was certainly a big pull, Eddie Kingston’s title vs. title match with Claudio Castagnoli was definitely the match made for the New York crowd. Kingston had homecourt advantage and the crowd let him know it. Saraya vs. Toni Storm was another good match between fan faves, along with Chris Jericho vs. Sammy Guevara giving fans a great finish with an eye for a future storyline that’ll see them feuding for longer. Jon Moxley vs. Rey Fenix, on the other hand, could’ve been a good match. But a bad spot resulted in Moxley getting injured. It didn’t help that the referee in that match botched the finish by failing to realize Mox was hurt, leading Fenix to do another piledriver to end it.

So, what does this all reveal about the current state of AEW? To answer this I’ll be focusing on the Dynamite part of the show here given Rampage, the Friday show, hasn’t aired yet (though it was taped right after Dynamite ended). To keep things easy and accessible, below you’ll find a list detailing the good, the bad, and the ugly of AEW as it is now and how Grand Slam brought all of it to the fore.

Here we go.

Good: Eddie Kingston vs. Claudio Castagnoli
If Kenny Omega is the soul of AEW, then Eddie Kingston is the heart. This man’s wrestling persona is grassroots relatable, a warrior that rose from the streets and earned everyone’s respect through blood, barbed wire, and brutal beatdowns. Having a title vs. title match with Claudio was a great decision as they proved to have great in-ring chemistry and a formidable sense of physicality that made the match feel like an angry street fight.

The match had a good sense of buildup, too, mostly thanks to Kingston’s explosive and emotionally charged promo skills. It felt important. There was story behind it and these two wrestlers gave it their best to make sure the narrative reached its highest point inside the ring. The highs mentioned here, though, lead to one of AEW most serious lows.

Bad: Wrestling is storytelling, and AEW needs…more…stories
Goddamn it, AEW. You really need to invest in storylines, the kinds that build up for a long time and end in an electrifying PPV match. This has been your Achilles Heel almost from the start. It’s the reason why many of us can’t give ourselves entirely to this. We need to care about the fights, why they happen.

I understand AEW’s interest in putting the wrestling first and everything else second, but wrestling thrives when it has great stories propping it up. This means investing a bit more time in promos, interviews, and in-ring verbal back-and-forths. Dynamite didn’t cut any live promos. What few story segments we got were prerecorded. They were effective and funny, but ultimately too casual. People did enjoy it. Maybe take this as a sign that they’d like to get more of it.

I’m not saying AEW needs to go WWE levels of sports entertainment, but giving wrestlers a motivation that fans can get behind raises the chances more people will tune in to see how it all unfolds. Story can makes us feel each win and each loss more deeply. Having a tournament for a title match with nothing driving it other than getting a shot at a belt limits the excitement the audience can feel in these shows. The matches that got more crowd engagement were the ones with wrestlers who’ve invested in building their characters. Toni Storm and MJF are some of the best examples of this.

Good: MJF puts butts in seats
It’s no secret that AEW is struggling to sell tickets for their shows. Other than the massively successful All In event at Wembley Stadium (which had its own controversy regarding final sales figures), social media is rife with crowd shots and attendee pictures that make the promotion look like a glorified indie show. Grand Slam was on its way to being severely underwhelming in this department. That is, until MJF was sent on a promo tour to hype up the event.

MJF went to Mets games, talk shows, and local TV to get people into the Arthur Ashe, and it worked. While Grand Slam wasn’t as packed as it was in the previous two years, people did turn out for it and it was MJF who got them there. Hell, MJF became NYC’s favorite son for his main event, dressed up in baseball pinstripe trunks and pads while also sporting Mets colors wherever he could. 

The AEW world champion is red hot right now, made more evident by the fact many of those in attendance were first timers. His promo push was enough to convince people that probably wouldn’t have given the show the time of day to go out for a night of wrestling. [Editor’s note: Tony Khan asked the audience several times if it was their first Grand slam and many said yes. Those near where we were sitting were actually families – something I didn’t’ see much of at GS I and II. These families seemed more like casual wrestling fans and weren’t singing and chanting along with all the catchphrases. Bringing in new fans is key to survival, and it was clear that MJF’s charisma did just that.]

MJF is becoming more recognizable outside the wrestling ring, more so than other of his fellow stars. The reason? STORY! MJF has built himself up into a legit wrestler. He’s the whole package. Attaining this status requires giving every action a sense of narrative. In this sense, MJF is a walking, talking story machine.

Bad: A Scattered Women’s Division
Other than for a select few female wrestlers, mostly Saraya, Toni Storm, Ruby Soho, Britt Baker (to an extent), and Kris Statlander, the division’s feuds and bookings are all over the place. It’s easy to lose sight of who’s holding which belt and who’s next in line for a shot at them. A lot went downhill after Thunder Rosa got injured and couldn’t defend her recently won belt. Very little was done to make sure interim champ runs didn’t feel like temporary storylines or placeholders.

AEW has great talent within the division, including some up and coming stars that can very easily carry the company for years to come. A lack of cohesion and vision, though, can pull the curtains down on all that. Grand Slam Dynamite, for instance, only had the Saraya vs. Toni Storm match and it wasn’t really given room to set things in motion for future storylines. It was a painful waste of an opportunity.

Good: The few story moments we got
Toni Storm vs. Saraya gave us a shoe beatdown and a kiss between the two rivals. Chris Jericho vs. Sammy Guevara graced us with a betrayal and a great appearance by Don Callis. The crowd responded well to these bits of story and it made the matches feel as if something real was at stake. I already went over this, but it bears repeating: WRESTLING IS STORYTELLING! The loudest audience pops came from these moments. Give us stories!

Ugly: Injuries, injuries, and more injuries
Jon Moxley’s injury during his fight with Rey Fenix was scary, but it was also an unfortunately familiar sight. AEW has had a lot of injured wrestlers over these past few years, some of them were recently made champions at the time of their injuries (CM Punk and Thunder Rosa are just two examples of this). Tony Khan did release a list of banned moves recently to try and stem this very common occurrence. Despite that, Moxley still went down hard during his match, changing the course of the bout and forcing a title change that might not have been in the cards.

Wrestling is dangerous and every match incurs risk, but when you have so many injuries limiting your show’s lineup it might be time to rethink wrestler safety and health. This is a very complex issue and this brief comment on it barely does it justice. It’s just something we need to keep an even closer eye on.

Adam Cole suffered an ankle injury as well when he came out to cheer on MJF during his fight with Samoa Joe. This one was just was bad luck. He jumped from the ramp to the ground and tweaked his ankle, it seemed. Losing Cole now when he’s ROH tag team champion with MJF would be very unfortunate, especially as he’s one of the few who’s also invested a lot of time in building multiple storylines around his character.

AEW is not in a great place right now. It could be worse, but those empty venues are looking mighty bad (ratings on the other hand tell a different story). Every wrestling promotion ever has gone through long stretches of sheer hell, where everything looks like it will come crashing down hard and fast. But a lot in many cases, they persevere…or get bought by the WWE. Here’s hoping AEW builds on its strengths and avoids becoming a future episode of Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring titled “Bloody Foreheads and Concussions: the very short life of AEW.”

Editor’s Note: BAD – the Brawl Out Effects: Grand Slam really showed the lingering effects of a solid year of CM Punk related drama. While the details of the Brawl Out press rant and fight were funny – muffins, chairs, dogs – what happened at All In was just bad – fighting with co-workers and superiors. Whether you’re Team Punk or Team Elite, launching Collision built around one of wrestling’s great personalities – Punk – and then seeing him fired from the company a few months later had to have been incredibly detrimental to planning and storylines. It had to be a major energy suck and the vague booking seen at Grand Slam is the result. (I have to be honest, the crowd was pretty quiet for most of Rampage…maybe because it was hours 3 and 4 of the show, but maybe just not as much to be invested in, especially among newcomers. There were some good matches and moments though, as you will see!) Like Ricky, I really like AEW and what it brings to pro wrestling. I hope they can get things back on track now that a massive distraction is over. – HM.

chris jericho sammy guevara grand slam