The most polarizing character in wrestling right now is Orange Cassidy, a comedic character who performs in the ring as if he just woke up from a hangover and has no interest in anything that is going on. When he enters the ring, he lightly kicks his opponents in a parody of the typical “babyface fire-up” in wrestling, when the heroic character regains their strength and starts hitting all of their impactful moves. Fans react with ironic shock at Cassidy’s “brutal violence,” and it’s generally been a popular gimmick that taps into the type of ironic comedy and memes that are currently popular with the youths.
While Cassidy is a minor player in All Elite Wrestling, the upstart promotion that just began airing a weekly TV show called “Dynamite” a few weeks ago, I increasingly think he is the litmus test for potential fans of the company. AEW stormed onto the airwaves on TNT with a wave of momentum from fans who are fed up with WWE’s monopoly on large-scale American wrestling and its various frustrating creative and booking decisions. However, in a few weeks, AEW has lost hundreds of thousands of viewers as potential fans tuned in and lost interest. I’m one of those who has eventually tuned out, and Cassidy is emblematic of the reasons why.
It’s not that Orange Cassidy is necessarily unfunny — it’s that he represents a flaw in the core of AEW’s DNA that makes it impossible for me to enjoy it as a fan of wrestling. Even though wrestling is fake, I think it is at its best when it feels real and it taps into authentic emotions and makes people feel invested in the winner of the match. Maybe that sounds like a silly notion if you don’t watch wrestling, but think of it like any other form of entertainment. If you read or watch The Lord of Rings, of course you know that the world is fictitious, that hobbits and wizards and orcs don’t really exist. But it is still presented as a world with its own set of rules and logic, which combined with serious storytelling makes you still feel an attachment to the characters. Once you’ve suspended your disbelief in this way and gotten caught up in the world, storytelling moments like Gandalf’s “death” generate emotional reactions that are very real, even though he is a fictional character.
The massive problem I have with AEW that I haven’t really seen discussed much (most hardcore wrestling fans and critic types love this show) is that it has absolutely no suspension of disbelief, in part due to the comedic hijinks of a character like Orange Cassidy, whose entire gimmick and humor is based on knowing that what you’re watching isn’t real. But it goes beyond Cassidy: because the show is aimed at the young male wrestling fan who knows the ins and outs of wrestling shows, it plays constantly to that base with insider jokes and winks at the audience. The matches themselves don’t feel real either, even for the standards of pretend fighting — a lot of the matches in AEW are more like choreographed gymnastics displays, with the clear goal being to “put on a great match” instead of trying to win or hurt your opponent.
AEW’s champion, Chris Jericho, is one of wrestling’s greatest performers, but over the run of the show his character has become increasingly goofy and silly, with promos that more closely resemble bad SNL sketches or improv routines than the classic style of wrestling promo that I love. Instead of building conflicts based on emotion and real-life feelings, his segments are increasingly focused on props and jokes, and because he is funny, fans don’t desire to see him lose the way they should with a heel champion. Even when Jericho gets booed by the fans, it’s obvious that they’re playing along because “this is a good heel promo,” not because they actually hate the guy and want to see someone beat him.
Another potential star, Jon Moxley, left WWE right before the launch of AEW and talked a big game about how he was held back there creatively and was going to change wrestling once the shackles of the evil corporation were off him. What got me most excited about AEW was to see what this guy could do with more creative freedom and a chip on his shoulder. But it became apparent pretty quickly that he had no brilliant ideas: he just wanted to behave like a generic badass who walks through the crowd and loves violence while “wrestling” garbage deathmatches with contrived weapons that are in no way believable or entertaining, such has his indulgent, interminable match with Kenny Omega at their last pay-per-view. Moxley said he hated WWE’s “hokey shit,” but his match with Omega was the hokiest thing I’ve ever seen in wrestling with its use of mouse traps and other dumb weapons.
AEW’s women’s division has also been a massive problem, in part due to WWE having a monopoly on talent and in part due to AEW being run by a bunch of guys who don’t seem to care much about telling stories in the division. Its champion, Riho, weighs about 95 pounds and wins all of her matches with sneaky roll-ups. Undersized heroes will always be a thing in wrestling, but Riho doesn’t even seem to have a mean streak or a switch she can hit where she starts kicking ass. She’s portrayed as completely sweet and innocent, someone who would never hurt a fly, which is boring in a wrestling context where I want to experience some catharsis in a staged fight. So just the idea of this demure character being the best women’s wrestler in the company is another of the many things reminding you of how fake AEW is.
Further damaging AEW was WWE’s ruthless and frankly evil decision to put its “NXT” show head-to-head with AEW by switching to a two-hour cable format. And it’s formed an obvious contrast with AEW by taking itself seriously with high-level performers and a logical storytelling flow week-to-week. To me, the breakout star on NXT since its move to cable has been Rhea Ripley, and she has also served to expose many of AEW’s flaws. She is everything missing from AEW: a wrestler who is serious, has star power, looks and acts legit, and the fact that she’s a woman has only further turned a spotlight on the clown show that is the competition’s women’s division. While AEW’s champion barely looks like she could hold her own in a fight, Ripley gives off the vibe that she’s going to rip someone’s head off at any moment. There is intensity and emotion in Ripley’s performances, which are a far cry from the bland choreography in AEW. She’s now set to take on long-reigning women’s champion Shayna Baszler in a match that feels much bigger than anything AEW has offered.
Baszler is her own contrast to AEW and its champion. While Jericho has been putting on interminable promo segments that seek to “entertain” and make people laugh, even though he is a heel, Baszler is no fun whatsoever. She’s a mean, sadistic bully, and she’s held the title for so long and is so ruthless that fans are becoming desperate to see someone knock her off the mountain. And since NXT has an incredibly talented women’s division, fans get to speculate and hope that one of their favorites can be the one to dethrone Shayna. That’s just classic heel wrestling psychology, and that’s what I find fun in wrestling more than segments that are desperately trying to be clever. Even though the fans of NXT are aware of a lot of the behind-the-scenes information, they buy into Baszler because she is believable and serious, and everyone is emotionally invested in seeing who can beat her.
I feel a little bad for these opinions, because the truth is I wanted an alternative to WWE, and I like that AEW exists to push them a bit instead of letting them become complacent. At the same time, I’m not going to watch a show I don’t like because “it’s the right thing to do,” and I also don’t believe WWE is evil and AEW is some virtuous company when both are run by billionaires, who are all inherently horrible. For all of WWE’s faults, they still deliver storytelling that has more emotion and takes itself more seriously than AEW, which seems to lack the confidence to do anything without winking at you and reminding you that it’s all just for show. That might appeal to certain fans of irony and memes — the people who love Orange Cassidy — but it doesn’t speak to what I think pro wrestling can be.