When All Elite Wrestling’s second weekly program, AEW Rampage, debuts on TNT at 10 p.m. ET tonight, it’ll give the burgeoning wrestling promotion a third weekly hour on TV. The extra time is needed at this point, as the young company has continued to add new talent throughout the pandemic. While the wrestling industry’s dominant company, WWE, has been shedding employees on a monthly basis, AEW has provided steady work to unsigned wrestlers on its two weekly YouTube shows, provided national TV exposure for top indie stars like Wheeler Yuta and Daniel Garcia, and even signed some of WWE’s former talent, from mostly retired veterans like Paul “Big Show” Wight and Mark Henry, to in-their-prime stars like Andrade and Malakai (“Aleister”) Black. And if the gossip is true, two of the biggest wrestling stars of the last decade will both be entering AEW in the next few weeks, with CM Punk and Bryan “Daniel Bryan” Danielson rumored to be on their way in. AEW is clearly in a major expansion mode, and it’ll need more than two hours of TV time a week to effectively use all that talent.
That’s true even if Punk and Danielson don’t wind up arriving in AEW. AEW’s massive roster is full of promising young stars who need more time in the ring and on TV to properly develop. And the entire women’s roster suffers from a lack of TV exposure; Dynamite typically has one women’s match a week, with only one or two other segments per episode devoted to the division. As such, the women rarely have more than one major storyline at any given moment; hopefully AEW will address this inexcusable oversight with its second weekly show and focus more on the women’s division. The fact that the first episode of Rampage is being headlined by a women’s match, with the Women’s World champion Britt Baker defending her title against the rising star Red Velvet, is a promising sign.
For TNT, giving AEW more time is a no-brainer. AEW Dynamite is a reliable hit on Wednesday nights, regularly ranking as one of the highest rated shows during its time slot, and often challenging WWE’s more established shows in the key 18-49 demographic. Its audience can’t match the overall viewership for WWE’s Raw or Smackdown, and AEW has nowhere near WWE’s brand awareness, but what TNT is paying for AEW programming is a fraction of what NBC Universal and Fox pay for WWE’s shows. Going by the ratings, either AEW is underpaid or WWE has been overvalued by its TV and streaming partners; it’ll be fascinating to see how negotiations for both company’s TV rights go as current deals expire over the next few years—especially if AEW is able to sign both Punk and Danielson.
AEW doesn’t necessarily need Punk or Danielson, but either would be a legitimately major addition, the equivalent of an already ascendant football or baseball team adding a future Hall of Famer in free agency. To keep everything in the Turner family, let’s compare them to the Atlanta Braves in 1993: after coming up short in the 1992 World Series, the Braves added Greg Maddux to an already overpowering lineup full of talented young stars, ensuring their dominance for the rest of the decade, and eventually winning what is still the club’s only World Series championship. Either Punk or Danielson alone could have that kind of instant impact upon AEW; bringing in both within a few weeks of each other is an almost unheard of infusion of main event talent, akin to Kevin Nash and Scott Hall forming the NWO in WCW in 1996.
It’s not just that Danielson and Punk, in their primes, were among the best in-ring wrestlers of this generation. (Danielson, who co-headlined this year’s WrestleMania, is still one of the world’s absolute best wrestlers, whereas it remains to be seen how Punk will fare after over seven years away from the sport.) It’s not just that both became extremely popular with the mainstream wrestling audience, breaking out on a level above where WWE had tried to slot them. Both Punk and Danielson represented an alternative to WWE’s standard M.O. when they worked for the company. They proved themselves on the indie circuit in the ‘00s before signing with the largest company in the business, and their popularity with the fans basically forced WWE to push them more than the company planned to, despite neither fitting what WWE looks for in a top star. Punk’s overt anti-corporate rebel persona and willingness to criticize the McMahon family, and Danielson’s history as a beloved underdog intentionally held down and mistreated by WWE, have made them both a symbol of the long-simmering antagonistic relationship between wrestling fans and the biggest wrestling company in the world. AEW has already gone out of its way to appeal to those fans and position itself as the anti-WWE, and adding Punk and Danielson will concrete that reputation once and for all. It’ll be a clear sign to any wrestling fans disenfranchised by WWE over the last two decades that there is finally an actual competitor to McMahon’s monopoly, one able to sign away the two most organically popular WWE wrestlers of the last decade.
The rumors about Punk and Danielson have no doubt helped AEW’s recent ratings surge. This week’s episode was the first to come in at under a million total viewers in five weeks, just barely missing that mark by roughly 21000 viewers. The last month has seen Dynamite’s most consistent ratings success, which means it’s a perfect time to branch out with a new program. Hopefully the addition of Rampage doesn’t upset AEW’s creative balance, but instead lets the company build more stars and establish more feuds and storylines while capitalizing on the momentum they’ve built since the start of July. And if CM Punk and Bryan Danielson are coming in, which at this point feels destined to happen, Rampage will arrive just in time to capitalize on all the attention their debuts will bring.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.