Detroit is All Elite: AEW brings blood, guts and 'Dynamite' to Little Caesars Arena

Pro wrestling company makes its Detroit debut Wednesday night, and fans are ready for a fight.

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Marc Letzmann was a kid growing up in Warren when he was bitten by the pro wrestling bug. 

It was 1987 and WrestleMania III was headed to Metro Detroit and Letzmann, like the rest of his first grade classmates, was caught up in the hype surrounding the colossal event, which would pack a reported (and widely disputed) 93,000 people into the Pontiac Silverdome. Years later as a teen, he made weekly trips to a Japanese video and bookstore in Dearborn to pick up the latest international wrestling tapes, dub them on his VCR and return them to the store. 

High-flying AEW action comes to Little Caesars Arena on June 29, 2022.

Letzmann's pro wrestling fandom would ultimately lead to a career in the ring, where he wrestled in a facemask under the name Excalibur, and he later became a founder and part-owner of the Southern California wrestling promotion Pro Wrestling Guerrilla.

On Wednesday, his journey brings him home to Metro Detroit, where he'll be calling the action — as Excalibur — as part of the commentary team when All Elite Wrestling, AEW for short, makes its Detroit debut with a live taping of its "Dynamite" program at Little Caesars Arena.

"Detroit, historically, is such a such a tremendous wrestling city," says Excalibur, 41, on the phone last week from his home in San Diego. "The fans always bring that extra little bit of energy. I've wrestled in Detroit on an independent level, but I've never been involved in anything quite like what "Dynamite" is going to be, and I can't wait to see it." 

He's not alone. Tickets for the show quickly blew out when they went on sale in March, proving the pent-up local demand for the 3-year-old pro wrestling company, which is the first legitimate competitor to industry leader World Wrestling Entertainment to come along since Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling folded in 2001.

AEW has amassed a deep roster of talent — almost too deep, some fans and critics argue — of more than 120 bruisers, grapplers and high flyers, including many ex-WWE stars such as CM Punk, Bryan Danielson, Jon Moxley, Adam Cole, the Hardys and more. The upstart company has carved out a base of fans in their 20s and 30s who crave more reality from their pro wrestling, as opposed to WWE's big-top approach to sports entertainment, which these days tends to cater more to families.   

Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa do battle in an AEW ring.

AEW's product is harder-edged than WWE's in terms of profanity, violence and blood, but it avoids the sort of hypersexuality that partially defined the pro wrestling era of the late 1990s and early '00s, says Kenny Herzog, a a longtime pro wrestling journalist who has covered AEW's rise since its inception in 2019. 

"There is the edgy stuff, but it tamps down on the bad optics and politics of some of the wrestling we were seeing a quarter-century ago," Herzog says. "They've made an effort by having performers from across the LGBTQ spectrum, and attending to that in and of itself is sort of a rebuke of the idea that just because they're doing some blood and guts and some cursing, it's just lowest common denominator or low hanging fruit for young boys."

There indeed will be blood and guts at Wednesday's LCA show: the evening is set to feature a 12-man "Blood and Guts" match, featuring two rings enclosed inside of a steel cage, between rival factions Jericho Appreciation Society (led by Chris Jericho) and Blackpool Combat Club (headed by William Regal).

The rest of the card is yet to be determined, but fan favorites such as "Hangman" Adam Page, Darby Allin, Britt Baker, Thunder Rosa and Orange Cassidy are likely to make appearances. The show will be broadcast live from 8-10 p.m. on TBS. 

Chris Jericho in the ring at AEW 'Dynamite.'

Chris Speer has been to multiple AEW live events and has tickets to Wednesday's show as well as several more in the coming months. A pro wrestling fan since the early '90s, when he first saw Bret "Hitman" Hart on his TV during an episode of WWE's "Monday Night Raw," Speer says the fan experience at AEW events is a big part of the draw.

"There's an electricity in the crowd," says Speer, 36, of Carleton, who on Monday was coming down after attending the previous night's AEW "Forbidden Door" live Pay-Per-View event in Chicago. "Last night it was a very hot crowd, people were losing their minds. It's probably going to be that but even more amplified on Wednesday."

Speer gravitated to AEW because he felt its content was geared toward what he likes as a fan. He continues to watch WWE programming when he can but he doesn't miss "Dynamite" on Wednesdays. "AEW is appointment television," he says.   

AEW is owned by Tony Khan, the 39-year-old son of Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan. The company rose out of the success of an independent show put on by pro wrestlers Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks in the Chicago suburbs in 2018.

The Young Bucks show up at AEW 'Dynamite.'

That show, which was dubbed All In, was a major success, selling more than 11,000 tickets, the first non-WWE pro wrestling show to draw a house that big in the U.S. in nearly two decades, proving wrestling fans were craving an alternative to WWE programming.

AEW was officially launched three months later, and began its weekly Wednesday night "Dynamite" tapings in October 2019. ("Dynamite" routinely draws around 900,000 viewers while WWE pulls around 1.8 million viewers for "Raw" and roughly 2 million viewers for its Friday night "Smackdown" program, on Fox.)  

Excalibur called the action at that first event and has been all in with AEW ever since. Like many great success stories, his almost didn't happen: His wife's sister was getting married in California the day after All In, and he says he had to secure "the biggest permission slip" in order to go to Chicago, work the event and get back home in time for his sister-in-law's wedding.

"She said, 'You can't be late, you've gotta be energetic and you've gotta dance until at least 10 p.m.,'" he says. "I said, 'I can do that.'"

Calling the action that night alongside Don Callis and Ian Riccaboni, "it was so much fun, and it was unlike anything I've ever gotten to do," Excalibur says. That night after the sold-out event, he laid awake in his hotel room, trying to come down, and was unable to fall asleep. "My body felt like it was vibrating," he says. 

The next morning he was on the first plane out of Chicago, he picked up his suit from the dry cleaner and he went straight to the wedding. "I danced 'till 10 p.m., maybe even 10:15," he says. "But not long after that I collapsed."

Marc "Excalibur" Letzmann is a Warren native and AEW announcer.

AEW has thrived, even though the COVID-19 pandemic arriving during its second year of operations hit like a frog splash off the top rope. The company continued to put on live events, emanating from the Jacksonville Jaguars' practice facility in front of limited crowds and returning to the road in front of live audiences starting in July 2021. 

Excalibur says AEW has a startup mentality — in addition to being part of the commentary team, he's also AEW's marketing manager — and he says within a few short years, the company has already altered the landscape of the pro wrestling business. Its success has helped bolster several other independent pro wrestling promotions, with whom AEW has fostered working relationships, where it was once considered taboo for rival companies to share talents. 

"For 20 years there's only been one company that has been associated with pro wrestling in the United States and that's been WWE. So for AEW to come along and be as successful as we have been, it's really a game changer," says Excalibur. "It forces everybody to raise their game. It forces WWE to put on better shows and it forces us to prove that we belong in that conversation.

"And it may sound cliché, but the fans are the real winners in all of this," he says. "Because for so long there was only one option, and now it really is an embarrassment of riches in pro wrestling." 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'AEW Dynamite' 

7 p.m. Wednesday

Little Caesars Arena, 2645 Woodward Ave., Detroit

Tickets $29 and up

Ticketmaster.com