So far, so good as AEW hits big with Double or Nothing debut

Jon Moxley's AEW debut was one of several surprises during the company's opening show on Saturday night. Tim Fiorvanti

LAS VEGAS -- It's hard to gauge the historical context of a debut event in any space, with nothing before or after for comparison. With expectations for All Elite Wrestling's Double or Nothing pay-per-view ranging from guaranteeing AEW as WWE's first real competition in the pro wrestling space in two decades to labeling it a vanity project with a short shelf life on either extreme, all the promotion could do was go out there and execute to the best of its abilities on all fronts and let the chips fall where they may.

Double or Nothing was not a perfect first effort for AEW, but the show hit hard where it counted most -- storytelling, emotion and surprise.

If AEW does ultimately succeed, fans will look back on Saturday night in Las Vegas and remember Jon Moxley -- the man formerly known as Dean Ambrose, previously a WWE champion and a member of the most popular faction in the modern era of WWE, The Shield. He went from being one of the hottest free agents to laying waste to Kenny Omega and Chris Jericho on the same night as the newest member of the AEW roster in a single night.

The strongest memories of all may well be tied to the vicious, bloody war waged between brothers Cody and Dustin Rhodes, who got to tell an emotional story that weaved effortlessly through a lifetime of experiences and the big shadow left behind by their father, Dusty Rhodes.

Cody Rhodes on smashing a Triple H-inspired throne with a sledgehammer during his Double or Nothing entrance, and how he's balancing being a wrestler and an EVP of AEW. (Video: Tim Fiorvanti)

Andrew Feldman, ESPN.com4y ago

"A really crazy experience out there," Cody said, still covered in his brother's blood from the match hours before. "I feel like I'm still in the ring, if that makes any sense. That's why I haven't showered -- that's an old Dusty thing ... when you hit a home run, or feel like you did, you don't want to go home. You just want to stay out there.

"When it's done right, you know -- you make people mad, you make people happy, you make people cry. I was crying too, Dustin was crying."

They also might key in on Jericho's shocking win over Omega, or how the entire card reminded people how good tag-team wrestling can be when it's at its best, or how it offered a tremendous cross section of what the future of women's wrestling will look like. Surprises like Moxley or Awesome Kong kept fans on their toes. Even something as straightforward as "Hangman" Adam Page standing in the ring with a wrestling legend like Bret Hart as the AEW world championship belt was revealed brought respect and value to Page, the show and the promotion alike.

Even though AEW is starting from square one, their wrestlers did not. A fresh crop of characters would have had to start their stories from scratch, which likely would have forced fans to pay attention to at least nine different narratives put into play on the same night. As executed, AEW wisely played off pre-existing stories between Jericho and Omega, and Cody and Dustin Rhodes, as well as everything carried over from his time in the WWE.

The difference here, or so it seems, is that in the early days of AEW, the performers feel they have a lot more control over what they're doing than they did in the WWE.

Chris Jericho on what it'll take to spin the success of Double or Nothing into building up AEW's fan base. (Video: Tim Fiorvanti)

Andrew Feldman, ESPN.com4y ago

"This is so exciting, so much fun, because it's what wrestling is supposed to be," Jericho said. "We're artists, we are creative people, and I've found in the past there's a lot of other people's opinions that we shouldn't have to deal with when it comes to putting together a show, or putting together a match, or putting together a character, because nobody knows what's better for my character than me."

Those connections will play an important role as AEW builds out its foundation and gets fans to invest in characters they don't know. If Double or Nothing is any indication of how effectively they'll be able to do so, AEW seems to know what they're doing.

Despite somewhat flat reactions for Strong Hearts ahead of their six-man tag-team match with SCU, it took all of about five minutes for fans to become invested in Cima, T-Hawk and El Lindaman because of what they did in the ring. Part of that can be attributed to the familiarity and support for SCU, but there's also credit to be given to the live audience, who waited to see what Strong Hearts could do and then bought in; they similarly turned around on Sammy Guevara, Kip Sabian and all six women in the joshi match.

No matter how positive the reaction inside the arena and on social media was, AEW isn't going to compete head-to-head with the WWE tomorrow. They will analyze pay-per-view buys and kickoff show viewership on a variety of platforms and look to set themselves up over the next few months with three shows leading up to the debut of their weekly TV show on TNT in the fall.

Some fans chafed against Double or Nothing's $49.99 price point in the United States, but the plan moving forward appears to point toward only a few shows at that level every year for AEW.

Tony Khan compares his experiences producing AEW's Double or Nothing show to his roles with Fulham FC and the Jacksonville Jaguars. He also talks about how his father, Shahid, enjoyed the show, and breaks down his thoughts on AEW's approach to pay-per-views moving forward. (Video from Tim Fiorvanti)

Andrew Feldman, ESPN.com4y ago

"The definition of what a pay-per-view is is changing ... right now, I think, the kind of shows we're doing, an event like this would kind of be a quarterly kind of event," said AEW president and founder Tony Khan. "We certainly won't just be doing quarterly shows, but this is the biggest kind of show you can do. We'll be doing a lot of big shows, but I expect these four-hour shows with a one-hour preshow is probably going to be a quarterly thing -- and most of our shows probably wouldn't be four hours with a preshow."

There won't be much time for the brain trust behind AEW to rest on their laurels. Fyter Fest, attached to the CEO fighting game event in Orlando, Florida, takes place on June 29, followed by Fight for the Fallen in Jacksonville, Florida, on July 13 and All Out in Chicago on Aug. 31. It will be a true test of endurance for the collection of AEW executive vice presidents -- Cody, Omega and Matt and Nick Jackson -- who have to juggle their roles as on-screen talent with the responsibilities and oversight that come with such prominent roles with the company.

Even having the experience of producing All In behind them, Double or Nothing represented a true test of will and spirit.

"I probably did five miles of running today backstage," Nick said. "This is the most sore I've ever been after a match. It was a learning experience, but man, it was so much fun."

"There's a million little fires that you have to put out that you don't even realize," Matt added. "What, we can't find the people who are singing the national anthem? Well, someone find them. Oh, that's me. I have to go do that now. We don't have a table? Oh my God, get a table under the hard cam. It's just impossible. We didn't even get a chance to prepare for our match until the 11th hour."

Stability and structure will come as AEW gets more events behind them and their feet more firmly underneath them. On Night 1, the quality of the matches and stories told in the ring did as much to bolster the confidence of those who have risked a lot to make this promotion a reality.

If the reactions from fans are any indication, the team behind AEW made solid inroads toward giving wrestling fans what they want -- stories and characters they can connect to, high-level in-ring performances and a variety of styles and approaches that keep the show feeling fresh from start to finish.

"We're just trying to do the best show anybody's doing," Khan said, "and I think we did the best pay-per-view anybody's done all year."