At one point, the New York Times was known as the paper of record. And while they still use that moniker, the veracity of the New York Times being the paper of record has been in doubt for decades. To be blunt, they have gotten too many stories wrong, far too often mix opinion into their news stories, and far too often overlook stories that matter to the people. And I write all of this, by the way, as a subscriber to the newspaper and as someone who consistently suggests that his students use the New York Times as source material for their written work. Despite how far the newspaper has fallen, it is still the gold standard when it comes to legacy news media companies.
With that as a foundation, I want to consider the role that WWE has played over the years as the promotion of record and whether or not they still hold that space in professional wrestling. For years – decades, even – WWE was professional wrestling’s promotion of record. For example, Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant first wrestled each other in the 1970s in Southwest Championship Wrestling. They fought a little bit in the early World Wrestling Federation before wrestling again in New Japan Professional Wrestling in the early 1980s. However, when someone brings up Hogan vs. Andre, what is the first image that most wrestling fans conjure up? You guessed it – they think of the iconic WrestleMania III match between these two massive professional wrestling superstars.
WWE’s WrestleMania is (was?) the place where marquee matches occurred. The weight of a WrestleMania match – and especially a WrestleMania main event – is what made WWE the promotion of record. Sure, wrestlers may have fought each other in prior promotions, but until they faced off in WWE (and, typically, on the grandest stage of them all), the larger professional wrestling audience was not aware of their former fights or who may have gone over who in those matches.
This is the role that WWE has played in professional wrestling for ages. In fact, in thinking back on key marquee matches that did not take place in WWE over the years, the two major ones that come to mind are Hulk Hogan vs. Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan vs. Goldberg. For the latter, the obvious reasoning behind WWE not getting this marquee match is that WCW was on a major run (though WWE had already rebounded by July 1998, when this match took place) and Goldberg was one of the few homegrown WCW stars. For the former, however, the Hogan vs. Flair match is a great example of the “promotion of record” concept that I am writing about.
Most professional wrestling fans have no idea that Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair actually did wrestle each other in WWE back when Flair had his short stint in the promotion in the early 1990s. They wrestled against each other 64 times, to be exact! In typical WWE fashion, Flair only won two of those matches (and both by count out). For some reason, Vince McMahon never made their matches a part of the television-facing storylines in a substantive way (they did have one televised match on a small, New York City-area television channel). However, since McMahon opted not to pull the trigger on a television storyline with Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, WCW will forever be known as the promotion where these two megastars had their first confrontation (and subsequent follow-up confrontations). Sure, WWE eventually had the two face off in 2002, but both men’s time had passed. The same goes for the TNA versions of their battles – the time had come and gone already.
Throughout its history, WWE has had the benefit of either being the most widely known wrestling promotion or having the best group of homegrown superstars to create marquee matches. For example, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart both had careers prior to their WWE runs, but they both became household names as part of the promotion. By them both being homegrown WWE superstars and now, legends, their matches are part of what made WWE the promotion of record. You could not watch those two men face off in any other promotion, anywhere. The same is true of the legendary battles between the Undertaker and Kane, Steve Austin and The Rock, and even tag teams like Edge and Christian versus the Hardy Boys.
With a deep and controlling grip on the professional wrestling industry, who could challenge WWE to be the promotion of record during those years?
Well, you probably know where the end of this column is going. With AEW being the landing spot for so many well-loved professional wrestling superstars like Chris Jericho, Christian Cage, CM Punk, and Matt Hardy and with rising homegrown stars of their own like Sammy Guevara, MJF, and Jungle Boy, how long will WWE be reasonably considered the promotion of record? McMahon and company continue to trim the budget and reduce the talent roster to smaller and smaller numbers. In the process of doing so, they are letting go of some big names that have found their way into AEW (and into other mainstream promotions like Impact Wrestling). With the constraints of McMahon and his team no longer holding back the potential matches between some of this talent and with AEW, Impact Wrestling, and others signing these individuals, could we see a shift in the promotion of record?
For example, if Cody Rhodes and Malakai Black put on a wrestling clinic in AEW, then will anyone wonder why WWE did not put these two together in 2016? Sure, I know that Rhodes and Black missed each other by a few months with the promotion, but before he took an executive vice president position with AEW, Rhodes was a free agent and could have come back to WWE to wrestle against Black.
Or what about Brian Cage? If Cage and Ricky Starks build to an epic feud, then will Billy Corrigan’s NWA be remembered as the promotion that did not put these two together when the opportunity existed? This would have been when the NWA was partnering with Impact Wrestling during the 2018-2019 time period. Impact Wrestling is the promotion of record when it comes to some amazing matches between AJ Styles and Samoa Joe and Christopher Daniels and others, but I know they would have loved to be associated as the promotion of record for some newer, younger talent. Same with the NWA. They are clearly and undoubtedly the promotion of record for classic matches between Ric Flair, Harley Race, Dusty Rhodes, and so many others. But wouldn’t they love to have a few younger names associated with them, too?
Opinions on those promotions are for future articles. Today, though, my question is whether or not WWE will continue to be the promotion of record given AEW’s ascent, the working relationships between virtually all non-WWE promotions, and the talent releases that have been going on since the pandemic began. Time will tell, as always. However, if Tony Khan and his team at AEW can put together some matches that professional wrestling fans have been dying to see, then it could be as paradigm shifting as the first storyline encounter between Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair was some 27 years ago in WCW. Or as generation-defining as Hulk Hogan taking on Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III. One thing is for sure – it is a great time to be a professional wrestling fan!