Friday, March 5, 2021

How The Shaq Match Showed AEW Can Stand To Do Better By Its Female Roster

Red Velvet brought it Wednesday, and she can bring it every weekend
Screenshot via AEW YouTube
You'll have to forgive me if I found the excitement going into this past Wednesday's Dynamite tag team match, pitting Shaquille O'Neal and Jade Cargill against Cody Rhodes and Red Velvet, lacking. The build for the match was flatter than the earth in the mind of AJ Styles. It's what happens when you have most of the build concentrated around someone who can't talk (Brandi Rhodes), someone who might have chops but is still raw as hell (Cargill), someone who is rich enough not to have to take cues from wrestling producers to build his brand (Shaq), and the single most annoying wrestler on the planet since Triple H hung up the boots (Cody Rhodes). Add in the fact that they replaced Brandi with a wrestler who to that point had sparingly been on the flagship show in Red Velvet, and the idea of this match taking up prime real estate on a weekly show that already has had problems fitting in the wrestlers the company keeps signing and signing didn't seem like a good idea at all.

The thing about pro wrestling is that the actual results don't line up with what is expected on paper with regular frequency. Highly-anticipated dream matches can go over like a wet fart, and the stuff you don't expect to be entertaining and fulfilling will knock you onto your ass. In case you're waiting for me to get to the point, the tag match was the latter, but why did it overdeliver? Was it a case of why most celebrity/outsider matches are good, in that it had a lot of bells and whistles to keep people distracted from how inexperienced the guest star is? It did have that, but the quality goes a lot deeper, and in fact, it exposes further a huge problem people have had with AEW since the first episode of Dynamite aired.

The cool stuff is self-evident, obviously. Although Shaq has wrestling training from when his WrestleMania encounter with The Big Show was a possibility, he's not exactly the kind of guy you'd expect to work the bulk of a longer match. Nearly 20 years of NBA mileage on a body that size will limit your wind, especially at age 48. He did what he had to do to make the match pop on his end. Namely, he threw Rhodes down with a wicked power bomb (preceded by a sweet tribute to Brodie Lee), and he took a gnarly, full-speed table bump off the apron. That's about all you can really ask for from him in that setting. I guarantee that when AEW runs the match WWE couldn't and puts Shaq against Paul Wight, it won't last nearly that long unless they do another tag team gimmick along with it.

It was imperative that Cargill and Velvet carried the match if it was going to last longer than a trip to the concession stands.That was always going to be a tricky proposition because Cargill was wrestling in her first match in a major promotion. She had been training extensively for a couple of years before popping up in AEW, but no matter how much a prodigy you are in a wrestling school, you're going to have some things to smooth out before you realize that potential in the ring. Cargill did have a firm grasp on some of the more important things a heel wrestler should have like taunting the crowd, and I was surprised at how relatively polished she appeared right out of the gate. However, there were still signs that she was, in fact, a wrestler in her first major match.

That's where Red Velvet comes in. People who watch AEW Dark regularly probably could have vouched for her, but her appearances on Dynamite have been sporadic at best. With that in mind, her performance in this match was off-the-charts revelatory. She got to have the second-biggest high spot in the match in that huge moonsault to the outside, but the story of her performance is far greater than that dive, as most great matches go. She was the steadying factor in the match, especially given how much time the women were slated to be in the ring. That was always a risky proposition, even more so from before Brandi Rhodes got pregnant. I shudder thinking about AEW's Chief Brand Officer needing to be the match's workhorse for that long.

Velvet, conversely, took the match under control and helped smooth out a lot of the rough spots. She made the match's direction work from all ends. She made Cargill's offense look brutal as it should be given her stature. She helped make transitions as seamless as they could, leading an inexperienced wrestler through sequences with grace and aplomb. It should be noted that Velvet's experience isn't all that veteran in stature either. She's only five years into a career and helped her end of the match flow like she had four times the tenure. Usually, matches like these are graded on steep curves, where the only real box on the checklist is whether it was a great spectacle. Thanks to Velvet, it wasn't just a sports entertainment show with a lot of pomp and circumstance, but it was a pretty damn good match too.

So if Red Velvet could coax that kind of match out of a raw wrestler like Cargill, imagine what she could do in the spotlight against someone on her level like Thunder Rosa or Nyla Rose or Britt Baker or any number of talented women on the AEW roster who regularly ride the pine. Ever since Dynamite began airing on TNT, the big nick on it has been the lack of focus on the women. It's almost akin to WWE before they "Hashtag Gave Divas A Chance," only without the content being filtered through a deranged septuagenarian's hypersexualized gaze. That alone makes it slightly better, but when WWE just laps you in developing that area of wrestling, you're doing something wrong.

Part of it is because AEW doesn't have an equivalent to Cody Rhodes or Jon Moxley to step in and kick-start that division because mainstream supernova women's wrestlers are a recent development. Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair aren't walking through that door. However, in lieu of having an edge in an established name, the time has been long enough that they could have seen the fruits of a longer term build pay off. It's not like you need to have superstars to make superstars. You just need someone who can generate buzz, and it's not like they don't have women on the roster with massive personalities and incredible talent in the ring that they could cultivate from scratch.

If AEW can spend so much time having one-off tag matches with teams that may not again appear on Dynamite for weeks, or if they can carve out 20 minutes every Wednesday for Sting, Darby Allin, and Team Taz to do the same exact thing ad nauseam, there's no reason to put the same faith behind wrestlers like Baker, who should be on the show EVERY WEEK (instead of the old guy) or Rose who should be on there every other week at least. Then you could have someone like Red Velvet be to the women's division what Hangman Page is to the men's singles division.

AEW is at a critical mass, and having shows on YouTube handle the spillover is just not going to be enough going forward. I'm not sure a second show on television will help either, especially if they stick it on something like TruTV. I mean, every year during March Madness, you have a rush of people who ask what channel that network is on their cable listings. What the company needs is a renewed and stronger focus on a group of women who are more than ready do more than fill time at around 9:10 PM ET every Wednesday.

It is imperative to face facts here; Cargill is a star in the making. Britt Baker is a star too. Rose, Kris Statlander, Velvet, Tay Conti, Abadon, Riho, Big Swole, Anna Jay, Ryo Mizunami, and Thunder Rosa all could be big players too if given the chance. They're just not receiving it at this point. It's far past time to assign blame, because honestly, no matter whether Brandi Rhodes or Kenny Omega is running things in the division, the final say goes to Tony Khan. He can't underserve an audience that represents roughly half the viewing audience if you go strictly on a gender binary. Since the official position of The Wrestling Blog is that gender is a work, he should probably just go ahead and dissolve gender boundaries altogether in the ideal situation. I somehow doubt TNT Network will go ahead with that right now, so the compromise position is that he must make more headroom on his programming to account for the women who have star potentials.

As of right now, one can take the positives from that match being far better than it had any right to be and bask in the afterglow. Personally, I can tell you that match and the rest of that episode of Dynamite, of which Rose, Mizunami, and Hikaru Shida were major parts, reenergized my passion for wrestling. But with the passion for wrestling comes the critical eye, and AEW cannot fall behind in establishing an inclusive environment for everyone. Representation means a lot more to that ideal than letting the dudes take the lion's share of the time, no matter how forward-thinking their marketing and ideals are.