INDIANAPOLIS — Its beginning seems a lifetime ago, in a YouTube show put together by two brothers who quickly became well known among fans of independent pro wrestling — but largely unknown to the general public. Now, with the help of a few more friends and some incredible athletes and minds, it has become the newest and — arguably — hottest promotion in pro wrestling.
Wednesday night, All Elite Wrestling (AEW) brings that fire to Indianapolis for the first time. The broadcast of their weekly show ‘AEW Dynamite” is only the eighth in the fledgling history of the weekly series.
AEW was the brainchild of several wrestlers, all friends and all working for other companies. They had offers to go to the WWE (still the number one brand in wrestling, though its overall numbers are diminishing) or stick with the promotions that had given them a larger platform – including New Japan Pro Wrestling and Ring of Honor. They decided to take the biggest of chances and go out on their own. “We can't take credit for the idea of a new wrestling league as much as for over 18 years, wrestling had really just been centered around WWE,” says Cody Rhodes. “It took having four free agents with their free agency all ending around the same time, me, Kenny (Omega), Matt and Nick Jackson, to do something very different but very old school in a way, too where wrestling was run by the actual wrestlers.”
Years ago, the Jackson brothers – as the tag team The Young Bucks - began using YouTube to document their lives as independent wrestlers – , where the crowd numbers anywhere from 30 to 3,000, depending on the promotion. As they interacted with more wrestlers on the road, their friends would make more and more appearances on the Bucks’ YouTube shows. When the Bucks joined a faction called the Bullet Club in the New Japan promotion, they would hook up with Kenny Omega. The Canadian was a star in Japan, known for his charisma, his technical skills in the ring and his ability to tell compelling stories through lengthy matches. Eventually, the three would form their own Bullet Club offshoot group – The Elite, and a new YouTube series “Being The Elite” would be born.
Wrestlers came and went through The Elite group. One who stuck was the son of one of the biggest stars in pro wrestling history. Cody Rhodes had voluntarily left WWE after a decade, frustrated that his in-ring activity did not match his enormous potential. Critics – usually hiding behind Twitter pseudonyms – said that Cody was too vanilla, that he would forever remain in the shadow of ‘The American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes. The months that followed Cody’s WWE release would prove them wrong.
In two years of competing around the world, Rhodes captured the attention of fans and promoters – winning championships in Ring of Honor and New Japan, among other promotions. (And before you say it, yes, he ‘won’ them. Pro wrestling is pre-determined, but championship titles are only conferred on wrestlers who have the confidence of the promotion to carry it forward.) During their travels, Rhodes, Omega and the Bucks had an inkling that they could present pro wrestling in a different way – better and more fan-friendly than the product typically offered.
Their spark was actually a bet – perhaps not made seriously initially – by pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer. Meltzer stated on Twitter that he didn’t think an independent wrestling promotion could sell out a U.S. arena that would hold more than 10,000 fans. Cody publicly took Meltzer’s bet, and he and the Jacksons personally financed a show featuring some of the biggest independent stars in the world. “All-In” on September 1, 2018 sold out the Sears Centre in Chicago Heights, Illinois (capacity of just over 10,000) in 30 minutes.
After All-In, there was talk of an ‘All-In’ 2. But Cody’s contract – and the contracts of The Bucks and Omega – were expiring. Spurning offers from other wrestling companies, the four went all-in on themselves – with some financial backing from Tony Khan, one of the owners of the Jacksonville Jaguars and a huge wrestling fan. On New Year’s Day this year, AEW was officially born.
Giving birth to a wrestling company with the idea of "changing the world" means including everyone in the world, and that’s where the work of Cody’s wife has been vital. Brandi Rhodes met Cody after she started her own wrestling career, working for WWE until the company decided to make her a ring announcer rather than an in-ring performer. She left WWE soon after Cody, knowing she wanted to get back in the ring. Now, with AEW, she is competing again, but Brandi is also the company’s Chief Brand Officer. Her message that AEW is for everyone is not lip service. “We have people who are from all walks of life. Women, men, we've got all sorts of races represented and different parts of the world. Some of our wrestlers are coming in from Japan weekly and Mexico. We're really just giving everyone a broad scope of what the wrestling world looks like.”
Wednesday night, in Indianapolis, AEW also debuts a full-time partnership with KultureCity, a company they’ve worked with before, that provides services for people with sensory issues, such as autism. Brandi Rhodes says any fan will be able to check out a KultureCity sensory kit from any AEW merchandise stand during all their shows. “For the longest time in wrestling, it's been difficult for people to come to these events because there are so many elements of a live wrestling show that can be sensitive. And if you have no one who can help or no one who cares in that instance, you're just as soon leaving as you walked in the door.”
Oh, did we mention that Brandi is wrestling again? She is, and she recently formed an alliance with one of the biggest names in women’s wrestling history – Awesome Kong. “That’s the team you want to be on,” she said. “One thing that people can absolutely say about me is that I’m always the smartest person in the room.” Brandi also warned fans sitting close to ringside that Kong has a recent history of cutting off locks of hair to keep as souvenirs.
Cody recently lost a match for the AEW World Championship to the man who may be the promotion’s biggest star, the legendary Chris Jericho. He isn’t the only star, though. “More realistically, the biggest star in the company is the fanbase. They're really the sixth man. Our fanbase is incredibly important to the show. And the noise they make and the volume of their participation has a genuine effect on the product, which is what wrestling always should have been. It's the only type of live theater where that actually exists.”
AEW Dynamite is at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum tonight. Bell time is 7:30 pm, and the live telecast on TNT begins at 8pm.