AEW, Sting and the Legends of Wrestling
Few fans remained on their seat when the Iconic Sting emerged from the entrance tunnel at AEW Winter is coming, in the legends return to the ring. As Team Taz ran roughshod over the likes of Cody and Dustin Rhodes, Arn Anderson and Darby Allin, Sting made his entrance. Despite being 62 years of age, his face paint and trusty bat struck fear into Team Taz. As the snow fell around him and the crowd roared, Team Taz fled.
In the ring, he was alone with the men he saved. He went face to face with young star Darby Allin. They talked. About what? We’ll never know. But from that day on, he had Darby’s back in his fights against the evil Team Taz. Sting even wrestled with Darby, in two tag team matches. One cinematic fight against Brian Cage and Ricky Starks, and another live on Pay Pay View, against Ethan Page and Scorpio Sky.
Sting was presented as a star of the past. Not a rundown, old has been. Not someone whose only value is to dig up 20 year wars nobody cares about.
AEW has continually presented legends like Sting as a threat in the ring, as a wily, creative veteran whose years in the industry are something to learn from. Take his partnership with Darby Allin: Sting is positioned more as a backup. He’s ready to throw down when outside interference rears its ugly head (looking at you Taz). Sting steps into the AEW ring on rare occasions when the peril becomes too much, and Darby requires a legends help.
He’s not a regular member of the roster – He’ll never be in the rankings angling for a title shot. But he wont be forgotten. And most importantly, he wont be shoved into the main event.
The Issue with WWE Booking Legends
Take another former WCW star, Bill Goldberg. His return in 2016 was met with great fanfare, and a feud with Brock Lesnar was perfect. Lesnar was an established star, and a win over him would make Goldberg a force to be reckoned with. Basic booking principles indicated this was the build up Goldberg, to lose to a younger star down the line.
As a man in his 50s, he was not the man to carry the company. A win over him would make a young talent into a main eventer. It would also help build to an eventual title match, where the man who beat Goldberg taking on Brock Lesnar in the future.
As we all know far too well, this did not happen. Whilst Goldberg did defeat Brock Lesnar in an exceptional match, what followed up was absolutely disgraceful.
Despite all logic dictating the opposite, Bill Goldberg became the Universal Champion. Aged 50, he became the oldest Universal Champion of all time (Albeit he was only the third champion ever). He defeated Kevin Owens at Fastlane 2017 to win his first Championship in 14 years.
Kevin Owens, at the time, was one of the brightest up and comers in WWE, having joined NXT just two years prior. Owens had formed an unlikely partnership with Chris Jericho, and the pair seemed destined for a Wrestlemania world title match that year. However, that plan came to a halt once Lesnar decided he wanted another shot at Goldberg.
“Who’s going to be here on Monday?“
Brock Lesnar would go on to defeat Bill Goldberg for the championship that Wrestlemania. It was, in all honesty, the greatest sub-five minute match I’ve ever seen. Both men went all out for the time they had, with crazy power spots that would make Mark Henry blush. Lesnar won with an F5, pinning Goldberg to win the championship, which he would go on to hold for over a year.
Kevin Owens, on the other hand, would go on to win the United States Championship from his former friend, Chris Jericho. What had been built up for almost a year as a main event level feud was relegated to the undercard. It was a rather muted affair, considering the seismic reaction the fames “Festival of Friendship” hard garnered from fans. People wanted to see Jericho kill Owens.
The match was okay. Vince McMahon reportedly was disappointed with the bout, replying “no” when Owens asked him if it was good after the match. Both men were furious with themselves, and Jericho has spoken publicly about how they deserved the main event that year. Jericho even said it was the match that made him quit WWE, and eventually led to his AEW Championship run.
Jericho on the original plans for Wrestlemania 33
“One of the original plans from Vince’s (McMahon) mouth to my ears directly was the main event of WrestleMania, was going to be Jericho vs Owens for the world title, and Jericho wins the title, for the first time ever as a babyface. I’ve never been a babyface world champion ever. Weird to think of it, right? Seven-time champion as a heel“
“Next week the plans changed, which Vince did not tell me, Goldberg vs Brock for the title, because that’s what they wanted to do. That’s fine. Maybe from a marquee standpoint, that might have been a bigger money match, but from a story standpoint ours was worth more. But the difference was we went from the main event to being put on second. That’s an insult, because the second match is just another match“
Echoing CM Punk
The shafting of Kevin Owens for the older star harkens back to the quitting of CM Punk. The loud mouthed former WWE Champion famously quit wrestling after the 2014 Royal Rumble. After a discussion with Vince McMahon and Triple H, he walked out of WWE, never to return. Despite the CM Punk to AEW rumours, he has only appeared under a mask a handful of times, in local promotions run by his friends.
One of Punk’s main gripes was the constant pushing of “Part Timers” over the likes of himself. In 2013, he suffered defeats to the Rock, the Undertaker and Brock Lesnar at three big pay per views, stuttering his momentum he so desperately was cultivating. He even, against his better judgement, turned heel to face the Rock at the Royal Rumble, despite losing money on T-shirt sales he would have had as a babyface.
Vince McMahon infamously said to Punk “I’ll owe you one” after coming back from injury and being defeated by the part-time superstars. Undertaker fought once a year at Wrestlemania. The Rock wrestled 5 times between 2012 and 2013, his first matches for 8 years. Two of them were wins over Punk. Brock Lesnar wrestled on an infrequent basis, never on television like Punk did week in, week out. The double standard hit Punk where it hurt, and led him to question McMahon on why he was losing.”
“Who’s going to be here on Monday?”
That simple phrase was a damning indictment of the WWE’s treatment of their legends. Yes, they treated them like stars, put them up on a pedestal, and showed that none of the superstars of today could hang with these legends. Unless your name was John Cena or Triple H of course.
And that in itself was the issue. They are not “legends”. Legends are figures of myth, a tale built up so much that the reality cannot possibly compare. They are not demi-gods or immortal men, they are flesh and bone and blood like the rest of us. They are born, grow up and die like the rest of us. As age comes wisdom, comes intelligence, but also comes the realisation that the generation that comes after you is faster, stronger, hungrier than you.
WWE don’t see it that way. A 50 year old Goldberg, who hasn’t set foot in the squared circle for 15 years is the same Goldberg who walked out on them in 2004. In the perception of Vince McMahon, he’s a real life hero that no mortal can conquer. And that is the entire antithesis of wrestling.
The Issue Wasn’t Goldberg Winning
The main idea of wrestling, in it’s simplest form, is to build up a bad guy that the fans want the good guy to beat. The bad guy should get the wins to make them seem invincible and have the fans begging for their heads. The issue wasn’t Goldberg beating Lesnar, and Owens, and the Fiend later on. The issue was that there was no-one to beat Goldberg, to get to his level.
To have Lesnar beating Goldberg at Wrestlemania makes Kevin Owens Fastlane loss completely insignificant. Did Lesnar look better, beating the man who beat Kevin Owens? Of course not. Did he need the Championship? Of course not. The prize on offer that day was being the man to beat Goldberg. Exacting revenge on the man who humiliated him. They ruined the best feud in the company in years to add a needless prop to a match that fans would pay to see regardless of a title being on the line.
And the end result? They ended up worse than before Goldberg beat Lesnar. It was all to waste. All the momentum that Goldberg would have had got for beating Owens was wasted, as the biggest monster in the company was took another scalp. Nothing was different, except that Owens vs Jericho was decidedly worse.
Why AEW are different
AEW have shown in the legends they have like Sting that they treat their legends with respect, but not too much. Not to the detriment of their younger wrestlers, the ones competing week in, week out.
Sting has been fused to the hip of young star Darby Allin. Allin has been more of the most popular wrestlers in AEW, with his main events constantly drawing some of the highest ratings on AEW Dynamite. Sting has been somewhat of a mentor, somewhat of a bodyguard for the face-painted daredevil. Sting has protected Darby from outside interference using his trusty bat, as well as tagging with Allin twice.
Both times, Sting and Allin were victorious, but the focus was not on Sting. It was not about Sting being the best and beating all the young wrestlers. He is being used to elevate Allin. All the people who tune in to see their favourite 90s star are welcomed by the skateboarding, brooding Darby Allin. It builds Allin’s star, without taking away from Sting’s legacy.
What about those that Sting beat? The likes of Team Taz weren’t badly affected by their loss. They utilised the numbers advantage to take down Allin before Sting came to his aid, but were never shown as being individually his level. The purpose of a heel is to put over a babyface, as previously mentioned. They did their role perfectly. Without Sting, Allin still would defeated them. Sting just put the icing on the cake, and didn’t steal the limelight from the younger Allin in the process.
Managers, Coaches and Business Associates
AEW also have found a place for aging wrestlers who can no longer compete in the squared circle. Whilst WWE seems against the idea of former legends managing their young stars (the last I can recall was Bob Backlund managing Darren Young) AEW have dipped into their well of experience multiple times.
Arn Anderson was the first big name to join, utilising a new role as “Coach” of Cody Rhodes and his stable, “The Nightmare Family”. Whilst the role of coach is ostensibly the same as a manager, it freshens up the dynamic and makes him seem different to the other. It contrasts with the like so Jake “The Snake” Roberts, who is solely a manager for the Murderhawk Monster, Lance Archer. Matt Hardy, whilst still wrestling, is the business manager of his stable, the “Hardy Family Office”.
The likes of DDP, Tully Blanchard and many more have been brought in for feature matches, to bookend their illustrious career. The two aforementioned wrestling legends both had their final matches in AEW, taking part in six-man tag matches that made sense in story and elevated the young stars around them. Tully Blanchards involvement in the FTR vs Jurrassic Express feud protected Jurassic Express and elevated FTR. Diamond Dallas Page took the pin in a six man tag match, making MJF look like the top heel that he has become.
This is something WWE has been lacking in in recent years, and with the wealth of veteran talent available, should be doing much, much more. AEW use of legends like Sting should give WWE a wake up call and show them that these old-timers are just as usable as in their primes.
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