It’s been a year of ups and downs and tribulations and triumphs, but All Elite Wrestling marks the one-year anniversary of its Dynamite flagship TV show on Wednesday night.
For Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks (Nick Jackson and Matt Jackson), three of the men at the helm of the company, Dynamite’s 12 months of existence have been a yearlong learning experience. The trio – members of The Elite faction alongside Kenny Omega – has been forced to meet the demands of being both on-camera performers, as well as executive vice-presidents of the company. The push and pull of both roles has taken some getting used to for all three.
You can catch AEW Dynamite's anniversary celebration LIVE on Wednesday at 8pm et/5pm pt on TSN2, the TSN app, streaming on TSN Direct and on TSN.ca.
“That’s something we struggle with on a weekly basis,” Nick Jackson, 31, told TSN.ca. “We notice that sometimes the show runs smoother when we’re not wrestling and when we are wrestling, the show is not as smooth because we don’t have our hands on everything that we’re normally producing. We haven’t found a middle ground yet, in my opinion, but we’re still searching for that. It’s funny because I don’t even know what I enjoy more now. I almost get more satisfaction from seeing something that Matt and I helped produced than actually going out there and wrestling. I just love it all, so it’s hard to say what I like most at this point.”
Like the Jacksons, Rhodes takes pride in the work of those around them as much as his own right now.
“I’m probably less of a wrestler than I am an executive,” Rhodes said. “I really like leading people. I really like mentoring and collaboration, especially when you have really talented people who just might need a second opinion or just might need some nudging. Or if you have developmental people and we only have a handful of those, but gosh, it’s so cool to see somebody’s success. I root for everybody. We’re a startup company, so it’s very much a team environment, unlike any wrestling locker room I’ve ever been in – it’s so team, team, team, team. But I probably see myself as 60 per-cent executive and 40 per-cent wrestler.”
As a tag team for virtually all of their 16-year pro careers, the success of the promotion’s tag team division is something of particular significance for the Jacksons. While the pair are more than happy with what they’ve seen thus far in AEW, Matt Jackson says they can still reach another gear.
“I think tag team wrestling is pretty much our flagship,” the 35-year-old elder of the two brothers said. “It’s kind of what we’re known for and it’s one of the first things you think about when you think of AEW. More than likely, whatever show you’re watching, there’s going to be a really great, badass tag team match. I think our expectations were high and I think they’ve been met or even exceeded. I do feel like we did bring up in the early days that tag team wrestling could be the main event. We kept saying that and while it has main evented a couple of Dynamites, it’s yet to main event a big pay-per-view. So I would like that to be the next thing. I don’t know what that match is or what it looks like, but I think that a big tag team match could definitely be the main event of a big pay-per-view.”
For Rhodes, much of the past five months has seen him with the TNT Championship around his waist. Currently in his second reign as champion, the 35-year-old Atlanta native is pleased with the new dynamic a secondary title has introduced to the singles division after its inception in May.
“I don’t want to jinx it, but it’s superseded what we anticipated and I think it’s superseded the general expectation,” Rhodes said. “I don’t want to blame people if they want to put identities on things before they happen and that’s just because WWE has been unopposed for 20 years, so they might be used to how WWE does things, but the TNT title was never going to be a midcard title. It was never intended to be middle of the pack and a lot of people thought, ‘Oh, it’s a workhorse belt’ or ‘Oh, it’s a television belt.’ No, it’s this. And the reality is, it’s none of those things. It’s the first time a network partner wanted a title in their own likeness and looked at a bunch of people they thought would be great fits for it. I can’t wait to tell the full story of it one day. It’s really so rare and makes me really happy to be partners with our partners here in the States and in Canada – there should be a TSN title now that we’re talking!”
Working in creative as executives in the company presents another kind of problem when it comes to fan perception. They’re far from the first on-camera performers to be involved in the booking of a wrestling promotion, but the Bucks say they’ve been mindful of the way they’ve been positioned. The pair has wrestled for the tag team titles just once over the past year – unsuccessfully at February’s Revolution pay-per-view – and have largely remained outside of the title picture.
“That’s always going to be something that we struggle with and any wrestler who is [also] an executive is going to struggle with,” Matt Jackson said. “Because if you win too much, you’re selfish and you’re pushing yourself too much, but then if you don’t, you get that opposite criticism. So it’s really tough to find that middle ground because Nick and I have always been very unselfish wrestlers and very giving.
“If you look at our record overall for our career, it’s probably laughable. You’d probably be surprised by it because we’re probably two of the most accomplished tag wrestlers in the world, but at the same time, we’ve lost a lot of matches and a lot of key, big matches. That’s just our style. We get a lot of joy out of helping out the younger guys or telling a long story arc where we know that at the end of the story that it’s going to benefit or give somebody else the rub. But that’s just us, though. We just enjoy that. But yeah, I hear that criticism and people are like, ‘Are you guys ever going to win the tag titles?’ People fantasized or visualized us as the first ever tag team champions and we’d probably have a yearlong run, but we haven’t even come close in this case. I think it’s weird to a lot of people.”
That choice is a conscious decision by the pair.
“I think the biggest thing for us as the Elite is that we wanted to get right in front of that and show everybody that, hey, this isn’t a vanity project,” Matt Jackson continued. “We’re not here to just put ourselves over. This is bigger than us. I know the Elite is literally in the name of AEW, but we’re here to get everyone who’s around us over and bigger. There will be a time where it is our time and when is that? I don’t know, but I’m also fully expecting when it is our time to get that criticism of ‘Oh, they’re just booking themselves to win.’ I think that you kind of have to drown out all that noise and just focus and have tunnel vision on your vision and do what you think is best. We’ve had hunches our entire careers and we went with our gut and it’s gotten us this far, so I just hope people have the patience and come along for the journey because we like telling long-term stories.”
Having patience themselves is something that the group has learned over its first year of television. Going for big-picture story arcs rather than quick payoffs and frequent gimmick matches might be a riskier play when it comes to the fickle nature of viewers, but Rhodes says it’s the path to more sustained success.
“Unilaterally, we’re very cognizant that you can’t desensitize your audience,” Rhodes said. “And that’s funny because people will think, ‘Oh, the Young Bucks are crazy and do all kinds of crazy stunts and Kenny with his [Japanese promotion] DDT experience,’ but actually everyone – and [AEW president] Tony Khan being the leader of the ship – on this creative core is incredibly disciplined and old-school-minded on how we roll those things out and the specialness that relates to them. Even with a cold match – and I say ‘cold match’ because, perhaps, there’s no rivalry or stakes other than winning or losing – you can still tell such a beautiful story. You can always do that, giving that bell to bell. That’s why we have time limits. That’s why there’s a stress on the rankings. You don’t always need the bells and whistles and you should never be hotshotting your creative and that’s why we’ve been really good, I think, in terms of just looking at the long form – where we want to be at Revolution this year, but actually Revolution the following year, where we want to be at Full Gear. That’s something we’ve been really prepared for and that’s just because we love it. We love to sit down and map out some of these trajectories for people who are going to be big parts of the future – people who are going to be the future of the industry.”
Matt Jackson agrees with that assessment.
“We’ve made it a career of going balls to the wall and every night was WrestleMania, every night was Wrestle Kingdom,” Matt Jackson said. “Save nothing, do everything every single night – we built a career off of it and reputation. That is so much different than weekly, episodic television. These weeks, you burn through them so quickly and don’t realize it. Like you want to have the biggest and best angles and matches every week, but when you’re doing weekly television it’s funny because the whole less is more approach really does work in some cases. No matter what, though, when Nick and I are out there in the ring, we’re going to wrestle our absolute hardest and we’re going to give – in our eyes – the best match on the show. That’s what we do, that’s why we do this. We always want to have the best match, but at the same time, you have to save a little bit for the future because, like I said, time burns quick when you’re doing this every seven days. So I think I would tell myself from a year ago to relax and think of six to eight weeks of stories. Don’t just think about this week because as soon as you get through this week, you’ve got another coming in six days. Have patience and enjoy the ride and just don’t burn through things too quickly.”
Like virtually every other business on the face of the earth (or aspect of life, for that matter), Dynamite’s first year has been greatly impacted by the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Since the pandemic’s outbreak in the early months of 2020, Dynamite has been based out of Daily’s Place, an amphitheatre in Jacksonville, Fla. At first, Dynamite was taped with no crowd at all, before using other wrestlers as an audience in the first few rows at ringside. In recent weeks, with restrictions on large gatherings in Florida loosening, paid fans have returned to the stands at a 15 per-cent capacity of the venue. The promotion has been forced to roll with the punches, but the results, thus far, have been heartening and have opened up new lanes for creativity.
“It’s been so tough, man,” Nick Jackson said. “It’s like we run into a new issue or problem on a weekly basis. We’ve been pretty much booking on the fly for almost the last seven, eight months, so the stuff that we have produced, I’m just so proud of. If this pandemic didn’t happen, then the big match in the stadium probably would never have even been a thing because we wouldn’t even have thought of it, ya know? Things like that have made things go so smooth and I’ll think of that probably forever because it’s one of our proudest moments, that [10-man tag team] Stadium Stampede match.”
Rhodes credits Khan for making sure that the company had a clear, safe direction as the pandemic unfolded.
“He was the one who pushed forward and instantly had the ideas, had the knowledge and was flanked by people in the medical field and the legal field to help us navigate and do this safely for our talent and, now with 15 per cent of our fans returning, safely for our fans,” Rhodes said. “In that moment, it’s like Star Trek on the bridge, we all paused and he’s the one who said ‘Engage.’ Without that moment, it might have been a very different thing. So that was a very big learning experience for me in my first year as an executive. Man, what a thing to get slapped with because we’re reliant on our fans.”
It’s those fans that Rhodes hopes continue to stick by AEW like they have in Dynamite’s first year, consistently helping the program win its head-to-head Wednesday night ratings battle against WWE's NXT show on the USA Network. He points to AEW’s authenticity personalities as to why they’re resonating with fans.
“It’s all about connecting with individual characters and if we can get them to connect with more than one, then that’s really a job well done,” Rhodes said. “People will look back at wrestling in the ‘80s and say that [audiences] thought it was real and that’s what they loved. But if you watched Ric Flair falling on his face and almost goofing around in his ring work to a degree, it wasn’t a matter of they thought it was real, they just loved to hate him. They loved the guy across the ring and they wanted to see that individual. There was a connection to the characters and the only way to connect to the characters is to hear them speak and give real, genuine interviews – hit or miss – that aren’t scripted out and that aren’t a false representation of the talent.”
A second year of making those connections begins on Wednesday night with Dynamite’s first anniversary show.