By Chuck Carroll
(CBS Miami/CBS Local) — Not long after thousands of pounds of confetti blanketed the air over Times Square and the iconic brightly lit crystal ball completed its 141-foot descent to ring in 2019, the pro wrestling world got a little more crowded.
As expected, Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks (Nick and Matt Jackson), and Adam “Hangman” Page announced the creation of All Elite Wrestling, formally giving clarity to the futures of wrestling’s highly touted free agents.
The group, collectively known as The Elite, is wasting no time in taking direct aim at WWE after reportedly turning down lucrative contract offers for their services. They are planning to hold a free rally at TIAA Bank Field, home of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, on Tuesday, January 8. It just so happens that WWE is also in town that night for a SmackDown Live! broadcast.
In this case, “in town” literally means across the street at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. Talk about making the most of an opportunity.
The group is vowing to release additional details about AEW and its inaugural event, Double Or Nothing, at the rally. Brandi Rhodes and fellow former Ring of Honor talents SoCal Uncensored (Frankie Kazarian, Christopher Daniels, and Scorpio Sky) are also scheduled to appear. Fans are also being told to “expect the unexpected.”
Rhodes has stated that he will double as Executive Vice President of AEW and will be flanked by The Young Bucks. He also promises that a few other familiar names will be part of the corporate structure. Additionally, Brandi Rhodes will serve as Chief Brand Officer, according to a press release.
Matt Jackson called the decision to walk away from guaranteed money — and a lot of it — from WWE and other promotions in order to form AEW a “no-brainer.”
AEW is also taking steps to build a strong women’s division by signing veteran wrestler Britt Baker, according to Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer. The 27-year-old participated in a fatal-4-way match against Tessa Blanchard, Madison Rayne, and Chelsea Green at All In in September. She also competed in WWE’s Mae Young Classic and lists ROH on her resume.
The promotion is being bankrolled and overseen by Tony Khan, who is the son of Jaguars owner Shahid Khan.
Aside from strong connections and deep pockets, Khan brings a wealth of relevant experience to the table. He serves as the Jaguars Senior Vice President of Football Technology and Analytics and Fulham Football Club’s Vice Chairman and Director of Football Operations. The latter, of course, is actually a London-based soccer club that is part of the Premiere League. It is also owned by his father.
In no uncertain terms, Shahid Khan has stated that he did not give either position to his son willy-nilly or because of their relation.
“This is serious money. Serious business. And you can’t screw it up just because you want your son involved,” Shahid Khan told Sports Business Daily last year.
Tony Khan is a graduate of the College of Business at the University of Illinois and also owner and Chairman of Boston-based sports engineering firm TruMedia Networks. The company provides new-era sports analytics solutions for professional sports leagues as well as various media companies. The company’s current client roster includes the likes of the ESPN, the NFL, and more than half of all Major League Baseball franchises.
It’s nearly impossible to watch any football or baseball game or studio show on the network and not see TruMedia’s handy work.
Little has been made of this connection in relation to AEW, but at a time when the upstart will seek to distinguish itself from competitors, including WWE, the partnership could pay huge dividends. No wrestling promotion has incorporated any analytics into their presentation as of yet. The new-age offering would only help lure a fresh fanbase to the promotion, at a time when pro wrestling’s younger demographics are eroding.
>>MORE: From the world of Pro Wrestling
WWE LOSES A LEGEND
The new year was barely a day old when tragedy struck WWE with the revelation that legendary announcer Gene Okerlund had passed away at the age of 76.
Okerlund, who was given the iconic “Mean Gene” moniker by former wrestler and ex-Minnesota Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura, will be best remembered for an unmistakable voice and uncanny ability to create chemistry with virtually every wrestler with whom he ever shared a microphone.
Whether in the ring, on an entrance ramp or, most famously, backstage, Okerlund’s segments were more often than not show-stealers, thanks to his quick wit and jovial, yet straight-to-the-point, demeanor. It was that recipe that combined to create many of the most iconic moments in wrestling history. And in an era dominated by wrestling giants, such as Hulk Hogan and the gargantuan Andre The Giant, the 5-foot-9-inch Okerlund was standing equally tall with fans. He captivated children as a featured cast member of Hogan’s animated Rock ‘n’ Wrestling series that was a staple of the CBS Saturday morning cartoon lineup in the 1980s. Many of the show’s young viewers became lifelong “Mean Gene” fans, who remained loyal throughout his nearly five-decade-long career in sports entertainment.
In some ways, the bond between Hogan and Okerlund strengthened after the pair each exited WWE to sign with rival World Championship Wrestling the following decade. And when Okerlund took his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006, it was Hogan who inducted his longtime friend.
Shortly after news of Okerlund’s passing broke, Hogan paid tribute to the announcer on social media.
He later called Okerlund the best partner he ever had and offered insight into their easy on-screen dance that the announcer would lead.
Condolences continued to pour in from pro wrestling elite — including Jerry “The King” Lawler, Paul “Triple” H Levesque, Stephanie McMahon-Levesque, Ric Flair, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin — not to mention lifelong fans.
A cause of death was not immediately given, but Okerlund had a troubling history of chronic kidney issues and received transplants in 1995 and 2004. His family told The Washington Post that he had been hospitalized in Sarasota, Florida with kidney disease.
Okerlund made his final WWE appearance on January 22, 2018 during the 25th anniversary broadcast of Monday Night RAW.
Okerlund is survived by his longtime wife, Jeanne. The couple were married for 54 years and had two children, Todd and Tor. He also leaves behind three grandchildren.
TV RATINGS CONTINUE TO STRUGGLE
Ratings for the New Year’s Eve edition of Monday Night RAW were a mixed bag for WWE.
The good news? The show averaged 1.985 million viewers, which represents an 11 percent increase from the all-time low mark of 1.775 million viewers who tuned in to last week’s Christmas Eve broadcast.
The bad news? Viewership of the pre-taped show was down a whopping 31% compared to the live New Year’s night broadcast a year earlier, which attracted 2.865 million viewers.
WWE faces another potentially rocky week in the ratings, as Monday’s edition of RAW will go head-to-head with the college football national championship contest between Alabama and Clemson.
ROYAL RUMBLE CARD TAKING SHAPE
The card for Royal Rumble is beginning to take shape. Five matches have been announced thus far, including the men’s and women’s 30-competitor Royal Rumble matches.
Women’s Royal Rumble Match
Confirmed thus far: Natalya, Bayley, Sasha Banks, Ember Moon, Ruby Riott, Sarah Logan, Liv Morgan, and Carmella.
Men’s Royal Rumble Match
Confirmed thus far: Drew McIntyre, R-Truth, Kofi Kingston, Big E, and Xavier Woods.
Universal Championship Match
Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Braun Strowman
WWE Championship Match
Daniel Bryan (c) vs. AJ Styles
WWE Cruiserweight Championship Fatal 4-Way Match
Buddy Murphy (c) vs. Akira Tozawa vs. Kalisto vs. TBD
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.