It may be the most meaningless short-term consequence of Vince McMahon’s resignation as WWE’s chairman and CEO after 40 years as professional wrestling’s most powerful dignitary — the art form’s creative direction. McMahon almost exclusively called the shots from the top since the first full year of Ronald Reagan’s administration. His decisions, storyline ideas, and more-recent consistent missteps trickle down and set the tempo for every other American and Canadian squared circle. The long-term effect will be staggering.
The attention when mentioning McMahon should now forever come with the caveat of his ongoing removal. Without him calling the shots from just behind the curtain, professional wrestling is guaranteed to change. And the biggest replacement ingredient to be a catalyst for change is Triple H. Yes, he’s got a heavy Vince influence after being his son-in-law and already one of his closest confidants. “The Game” has also proven he’s an individual thinker, making small changes and correcting more than a few missteps over recent years.
We’re in a honeymoon period when it comes to the Triple H-led WWE. It’s the first time the creative process of the company hasn’t had to be funneled through someone with the last name McMahon ever, even if the new locker-room leader is married to Stephanie McMahon. Friday night’s episode of Smackdown! is a prime example of the ripple effect of leadership changes.
Hit Row returned to WWE as a trio, not a quartet. A popular act fired by WWE before they could truly take off last year was brought back to the company, with commentators Michael Cole and Pat McAfee selling how big a deal their presence was. WWE fans with a good memory would notice the absence of Swerve Strickland, as he’s now known, the most talented member of the faction.
Strickland is now under contract with All Elite Wrestling and is one-half of the company’s tag team champions with another NXT standout turned WWE castoff, Keith Lee. Mistakes happen, AEW makes them weekly. WWE made a lot more with Vince at the helm. And yes, both products have been good since McMahon’s resignation. What we’re settling into is truly a new era of professional wrestling. It may be cliche, but this is the first major change to the landscape since the end of the Monday Night Wars.
AEW’s creation gave an outlet to disgruntled fans looking for an alternative. In its bubble, it’s a massive success. Launching a national television show five months before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic not completely derailing the company was a minor miracle. We’re finally starting to see now, more than three years after the company’s inaugural show, Double or Nothing, a long-term vision. There’s no fluke. AEW is here to stay and puts on several solid shows a month.
For most of AEW’s run, the WWE product was stale, and that’s probably the nicest way to say it. Mind-numbingly dumb and frustrating with tangible plot holes left and right, wasting the potential of the most stacked roster in professional wrestling. That’s better. However, to WWE’s hardcore audience, the introduction of AEW to the professional wrestling lexicon didn’t mean anything. Sami Zayn name-dropped the company once. There have been subtle hints from Edge and Cody Rhodes. But a casual WWE fan wouldn’t have picked up on that.
Even the heavy-isolationist WWE fans will eventually notice a change with Triple H in charge. First off, watching the several hours of WWE programming a week leaves an incredible amount of time to digest other media. With an interest in pro wrestling, you couldn’t avoid all the Vince news. Subconsciously or not, change is expected. This isn’t a rematch for Triple H leading NXT 1.0’s failed Wednesday night war against AEW. Tony Khan’s squad should’ve wrecked a developmental territory on television and did. Having a full-strength army at his disposal wouldn’t have Triple H focused on anything but improving things internally. And that’s a great sign for WWE fans.
I started formulating this story two weeks ago. There was going to be a point about how Karrion Kross and Scarlett were the perfect examples of where Vince went wrong. And then Triple H brought them back into the fold. Their NXT presentation was phenomenal. An entrance theme that would’ve become an arena anthem the same way Bobby Roode and Shinsuke Nakamura’s were. They both had “the look” too. And they’ve shown it, again.
AEW will continue to put on great shows regardless of who runs WWE. Triple H has shown he can steer a better ship than his father-in-law with a small sample size. The only way to have a WWE-AEW incursion is if the ratings become similar. Dynamite drew 972,000 viewers Wednesday, while last week’s Smackdown! had an average viewership of 2.01 million. That’s quite the difference, no matter the context for those figures. Yet, the Triple H effect has way more to do with WWE right now than anywhere else. Eventually, and there are no real predictions as to when that’ll be, that won’t be the case.