I want to tell you a story. Anecdotes don’t equal data, as contrarians on the internet are always especially quick to point out. But I think stories are important (Tyrion Lannister would back me up on this), and they can provide insight whether or not they exactly equal truth. Because here’s the thing: I see all these arguments about All Elite Wrestling. I see people saying it’s just for indie smarks, and that it will have have to change if it wants to reach casual fans when it comes to TV this fall. I think those arguments are leaving out a lot, and my story illustrates why.
One of my oldest friends in the world is a woman named Devon. We’ve known each other since high school, long before I was interested in wrestling, although I do remember making fun of Crow Sting T-shirts with her in the 90s, because we were goths and he was a poser. Now we’re both 40 and once again live in the same city. I got into pro wrestling in the intervening years, but she never did. Then she watched Netflix’s GLOW, and after the second season last year, she casually said “I’m kind of interested in getting into wrestling, if you want to watch some sometime.”
That’s exciting to hear from a good friend when you’re a wrestling fan, but what do you actually do with it? WWE’s a mess most times, and even when it’s not there’s so much time spent on guys like Brock Lesnar and Bobby Lashley, big boring jocks who don’t even appeal to me that much. I showed her some Becky Lynch videos and she thought The Man was awesome, but it’s hard to find the next step toward becoming a full-time fan when it’s so unappealing to actually sit through Raw (or even a lot of PPVs, if we’re honest). We also watched a bit of the big gothic Knockouts storyline from Impact, but at the end of the day that company’s not very welcoming to women either, and it just keeps getting harder to watch.
We live in Knoxville, so there’s not really local indie wrestling to go to, at least not until our county mayor’s brand new wrestling school starts running shows. And streaming services are a hard sell for a brand new fan, especially when there’s already so much other content streaming from other services, all of which her spouse and kids are more interested in. So the whole “Get Devon into wrestling” project was kind of on the back burner for a while.
Then Double Or Nothing came around. I was excited to watch it, and felt a bit obligated anyway, because of my job. Since I was paying for the PPV, I decided to host a watch party. I invited people of multiple genders, but interestingly only women showed up. Only one of those women was really a big wrestling fan going in, and she came late to the party. Devon was there from the start though, as was a couple that we’re friends with, and all three of these women were hooked from moment one. This is the group I mentioned in the paragraph Brandon quoted in his Best and Worst. They just wanted the show to be fun and engaging, and when it was both of those things while also being way more ridiculous than expected, they were sold.
It’s worth noting also that they enjoyed the show the way women tend to enjoy things, which is not all that different from how I enjoy things as a nonbinary person (and of course, none of these are hard-and-fast rules, people of all genders can enjoy things however they want, but there do tend to be patterns). There was a lot of talk about people’s outfits (fortunately, Double Or Nothing gave us some great outfits to discuss). There was excitement anytime two men hugged, whether they were Best Friends or brothers covered in blood. They immediately adored Sonny Kiss and Nyla Rose for being who they are and presenting themselves the way they do. Devon, who has an autistic daughter, was also delighted when Brandi mentioned that the event was sensory inclusive.
The biggest pop of the night, in that room, wasn’t Jon Moxley. It was Awesome Kong. And it wasn’t because she was in a men’s Royal Rumble or had groundbreaking matches with Gail Kim in Impact. It’s because she plays Tammé “Welfare Queen” Dawson on GLOW. That made me wonder, particularly since she was up for doing this show, whether WWE has ever even invited her back for a match since GLOW happened. The few times WWE has crossed over with GLOW, it always felt like the GLOW stars were there to promote their show. They’ve never given the impression that WWE was interested in drawing GLOW fans toward their product (but as we discussed above, that probably wouldn’t have worked so well anyway). In the context of this show that everybody was already enjoying, on the other hand, the appearance of a wrestler from a show everyone in the room loved helped make the whole event feel that much more welcoming.
The Joshi match went over big too. Nobody knew any of the competitors (even I really only knew Aja Kong), but their characters were so clear that it wasn’t a hindrance. That match was a Glamorous Queen, a Delicate-Looking Princess with two championship belts, and a Cute Butch Lady versus a Freddie Mercury Cosplayer, a Magical Girl, and the Scariest Woman You’ve Ever Seen. What more do you need? This whole idea that AEW isn’t for “casuals,” and that the presence of Joshi wrestling is somehow evidence of that, comes directly from the mindset of the kind of internet smarks who think pervasive knowledge about the product is the key to enjoying it, and I’m here to tell you that just isn’t true.
That’s not to say that I and the other wrestling fan in the room didn’t explain anything. “Those guys are goofy best friends and they’re really funny, and the other team are jerks but they’re really really athletic,” or “They’re brothers from Mexico, the older one’s a skeleton and the younger one’s a phoenix, and the other guys are brothers from California who are obsessed with wrestling and know all the moves.”
Also, of course, “They’re the two sons of one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, but the older one stayed in WWE for decades playing a weirdo in facepaint, while the younger one struck out on his own and founded this company.” That’s really all it took, and the in-ring storytelling did the rest. Cody versus Dustin elicited some cries of “Oh god that’s so much blood, is he okay?” but honestly I imagine that happened in rooms of longtime wrestling fans as well. By the end, when they reconciled and hugged and became a team, everybody was back on board.
The show did run a bit long, and by the end it was just me, the one other wrestling fan, and Devon. Naturally, we had to explain Jon Moxley a bit, but the fact that he showed up and beat up Kenny Omega on top of a giant stack of poker chips was exciting anyway. Then the three of us agreed to do it again, and to invite our other friends, for AEW’s next show, and split the cost of the PPV this time.
I saw Devon the next day, and I brought up a photo from Dustin Rhodes’ twitter on my phone, just to prove he really was okay after that match. Devon said, “Actually I saw this already. I looked up a bunch of stuff today.” So I said, “You really were into it,” and she replied, “Totally! I can’t wait for their next show, and I want to watch them on TV this fall.”
So there you have it. Devon’s a wrestling fan now. WWE couldn’t do it. Impact couldn’t do it. Maybe WOW could have done it if they were on a channel any of us got. But AEW did it in one night by being inclusive, engaging, and telling exciting stories. You can say this story is an outlier, that it doesn’t prove anything. But you can’t say that AEW is only for “indie smarks,” because I’m here to tell you that’s just not true. AEW is for everyone.