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In some ways, the story of AEW so far can be summarized by a look at it's women's division. The women's division has a lot of potential, but almost all of the performers are new to being on major cable television each week. Much like other aspects of AEW, they are being developed on the fly and learning on the job, and because of that not everything is going to be perfect. The women's division has been probably the most maligned aspect of AEW so far, but does it deserve the criticism it seems to generate?
Part of what made The Elite standout in the first place was that their match quality was very high. The Young Bucks were one of the best working tag teams in the world and Kenny Omega was one of the best working single stars in the world. Other names that became associated with the group, Cody, Marty Scurll, SCU and others were all solid to very good workers. Since AEW is in many ways a reflection of The Elite, the assumption was that AEW was going to feature very high match quality.
So far that has largely been the case, the average AEW match is quite good. However, with the women the average match quality has a wider variance, and so far a lot of the worst matches in company history have involved the women. That has been an unfortunate aspect of the women's division so far, as the company has tried to get the division off the ground the reality is that some of the matches have not been very good, which hurts the overall identity of the division. That isn't to say that the division is devoid of good wrestlers and there have not been good matches, but it is a problem for the women in AEW more than it is for the men.
However, I think a lot of the problems for AEW's women's division comes down to the overall lack of depth of female talent in wrestling in general when compared to men. There are fewer female wrestlers than male wrestlers, and up until a few years ago a majority of wrestling fans didn't even take women's wrestling that seriously. This has created a vacuum where that unless you are WWE or an established joshi promotion, it is nearly impossible to develop a women's division of experienced workers with mainstream name recognition.
AEW was built with the idea that Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley and the members of The Elite were already stars who had established themselves to the fans as people who matter. There was not a female Chris Jericho, or a female Moxley or even a female PAC, who could bring that kind of instant recognition and stability to the women's division in AEW; they had to start from scratch.
So far the company has been trying to find something that works. They put the title on Riho, who is an experienced worker that could carry the up-and-comers to good matches and has babyface potential, but she had no name value before debuting in AEW and without the ability to cut good English promos, may always be limited. AEW is clearly high on Britt Baker, who looks the part and has a great personal story, but is still relatively inexperienced as a worker and needs more time to develop before she is ready to be the face of the division. The same can be said for Kris Statlander and Nyla Rose. All three of them have great potential, but need more time to develop.
At the same time the booking and angles surrounding the division haven't helped. The cloud hanging over everything is Brandi Rhodes' stable, The Nightmare Collective which hasn't gotten off the ground and has been responsible for some of the worst segments on Dynamite. Perhaps trying to use the Nightmare Collective as a major enemy to the women on the roster is a way to overcome the lack of star power in the division, but so far it really hasn't worked.
Things came to a head on Wednesday, when what should have probably been a star-making match for Statlander as she challenged Riho for the title, devolved into a complicated angle where Dr. Luther arrived as part of the Nightmare Collective, and the group interfered intermittently during the match, basically ruining any chance the match had at making Statlander look good and instead turning it into a feature for the group.
On top of that, at the start of the match Brandi was on commentary and was dreadful; clearly trying to play a mysterious character but it was boring and did not translate well at all to viewers at home. This is another problem for the group, nobody understands what the Nightmare Collective is trying to accomplish, why they are recruiting members or why they are cutting off the hair of women on the roster.
So with a roster that lacks experience or name recognition, even among hardcore wrestling fans, it is always going to be a work in progress. The angles and booking so far have complicated matters, but that might be a symptom and not a cause. If they had talent that had stronger name value with defined characters, the booking would be simpler and it would be easier to get stuff over. This was always going to be an uphill battle for AEW and they are trying different things to see what works.
As much as we can criticize WWE for how it uses its talent, the fact is that they have spent years investing in the development and marketing of their female talent, and have names like Becky Lynch, Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Bayley, Natalya and others who have tons of experience both as wrestlers and as weekly television stars. The idea that AEW would be able to compete with that in year one is preposterous, even if the company is fairly innovative.
I think that the promotion started with so much hype around it that some people expected that as soon as it launched, everything about it would be perfect. The reality is that the first few years of AEW are going to be building years and that the company was never going emerge like a perfect machine. Even long-standing promotions like WWE and NJPW have problems with angles and creative, as well as getting talent over, and they have decades of experience.
So when it comes to the women's division in AEW, fans are going to have to be patient because realistically it is unfair to expect everything to be of tremendously high quality right from the get-go. Unlike with the men, they didn't have a boatload of stars who had developed names and their characters for major promotions like WWE and NJPW, so it is going to take more time for them to be established.
In time, I'm optimistic that the women's division in AEW should become very good. The company has shown a knack at getting lesser-known wrestlers, like MJF, Darby Allin, Jungle Boy, Private Party, etc. on the path to stardom. They do have people like Baker, Statlander, Rose and others who have star potential in their own way, but it will take time to develop them. The situation with the Nightmare Collective needs to be sorted out because it has been a bit of a black hole for the division, but creative should improve as those people in charge gain more experience as well.
Must Watch Matches
Hiromu Takahashi vs Will Ospreay: ***** - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 14 Night 1
Testuya Naito vs Jay White: **** - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 14 Night 1
Kota Ibushi vs Kazuchika Okada: ***** - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 14 Night 1
Hirooki Goto vs KENTA: **** - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 14 Night 2
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Chris Jericho: **** - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 14 Night 2
Tetsuya Naito vs Kazuchika Okada: ****3/4 - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 14 Night 2
As a bonus, I was on the Wrestling Inc podcast with Michael Wiseman recapping Wrestle Kingdom 14