Smackdown! Pro wrestling wars heat up as rival companies hit the mat

As WWE heads to Fox this week, a new promotion makes a heavyweight challenge

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the time "Busted Open" airs. 

Couch surfers flipping through the channels this week might stumble across a few more body slams than usual. 

On Friday, World Wrestling Entertainment's "Smackdown" makes its debut on Fox, the first time WWE has ever called one of the big four networks home for a weekly program. That follows Wednesday's debut of All Elite Wrestling's new weekly TV show, "Dynamite," which marks the first time TNT has aired live pro wrestling in almost 20 years.

Brock Lesnar, joined by his advocate, Paul Heyman, will challenge for the WWE Heavyweight Championship during the debut of "Smackdown" on Fox Friday night.

Pro wrestling is having a moment. The choreographed art of suplexes, piledrivers and musclebound drama never really goes away, but every once in a while its impact is felt beyond its dedicated horde of screaming fans.  

Now is one of those times. In addition to the Fox and TNT shows, wrestling promotions such as New Japan Pro-Wrestling, Impact Wrestling and the National Wrestling Alliance are making strides in their growth. WWE just moved its developmental brand, NXT, from its streaming platform to a weekly live show on USA, which will air opposite AEW's "Dynamite." And outlets such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated regularly cover pro wrestling, giving it a mainstream respectability that was unheard of even several years ago.

"This may be the best era and the best time in pro wrestling in history," says Dave LaGreca, host of SiriusXM's daily pro-wrestling talk show "Busted Open." "The fact that you have as many options as you do right now and the fact that is has gone as mainstream as it has, as a fan, it's super exciting."  

If the over-the-top (and over-the-top-rope) theater of pro wrestling was once considered a guilty pleasure, that's been tossed aside, LaGreca says.  

WWE Heavyweight Champion Kofi Kingston will defend his title against Brock Lesnar when "Smackdown" premeires Friday night on Fox.

"When I was becoming an adult, there were the quote-unquote 'guilty pleasures' like heavy metal music or pro-wrestling. I think this generation that has now come up and is making decisions don't look at it this way," says LaGreca, whose show celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this year, and recently announced its expansion from five days a week to six. "I think that 'guilty pleasures' term is thrown out the window, because what they like is what they like."

LaGreca, whose show airs live from 9 a.m.-noon Monday-Saturday on SiriusXM's Fight Nation channel, notes that pro-wrestling combines elements of fantasy sports, video game culture and superhero movies, all forms of entertainment that are capturing the zeitgeist. And pro-wrestler turned actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson just topped Forbes' list of the world's highest-paid actors, earning an eye-popping $89.4 million from June 2018 to June 2019.

Today's pro wrestling is also more inclusive than previous generations. If women were once used as eye-candy — particularly during wrestling's last boom period in the late 1990s — today's women wrestlers are celebrated for their athletic ability and in-ring acumen, not ogled for their bodies. This year's WrestleMania, WWE's flagship annual extravaganza was headlined by a women's match, the first time in the event's 35-year history. 

"They're shown as role models that you can look up to and superior athletes," LaGreca says. "I can say that the women wrestlers in WWE, Impact and AEW may be some of the best wrestlers in the world, period. I don't think you could have ever said that in the history of pro wrestling, but you can say that now in 2019."

The head-to-head competition between AEW's "Dynamite" and WWE's "NXT" marks the most high profile battle between two competing wrestling companies since the end of wrestling's vaunted Monday Night Wars, when WWE's "Raw" aired opposite World Championship Wrestling's "Monday Nitro" program. The rivalry between the two companies, which took hold when "Nitro" debuted in 1995, ended when WCW folded — it was ultimately purchased by WWE owner Vince McMahon — in 2001.

In the period since, independent promotions outside the world of WWE established themselves and found a way to flourish, using social media and internet channels to feed their growth. Fans seeking alternatives to WWE programming found themselves gravitating to other promotions and used the internet as their sounding board to preach to other fans.  

Kenny Omega, Nick Jackson, Brandi Rhodes, Matt Jackson and Cody Rhodes of All Elite Wrestling.

The formation of AEW "turbocharged" the landscape outside the WWE, says Kenny Herzog, who covers wrestling for The Ringer and has written about wrestling for Rolling Stone, Men's Journal and other publications.

"AEW's launching, their ambition and their decision to launch a primetime cable show accelerated the pace and put the pedal to the metal," he says.   

AEW was founded by Cody Rhodes, a former wrestler for WWE and the son of wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes, who launched what would become AEW when he and his pals Nick and Matt Jackson, better known as tag team wrestlers the Young Bucks, sold out an independent wrestling show at an arena in the Chicago suburbs in September 2018.

The success of that show, dubbed All In, drew the attention of Tony Khan, son of Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan. He bankrolled the formation of the new company, and AEW — which includes former WWE Superstars Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley  was officially announced on Jan. 1 of this year. Its TNT deal was announced in May.

Since then, the wrestling landscape has shifted.

WWE announced it was moving "NXT" to the USA Network, where it debuted two weeks ago. Impact Wrestling, formerly known as TNA, recently signed a deal to air on AXS, where it premieres on Oct. 29. The National Wrestling Alliance, which is owned by Smashing Pumpkins rocker Billy Corgan, announced this week that it will air its weekly television show, "Power," on YouTube every Tuesday. And E! launches a new season of "Total Divas," its reality TV show focusing on the lives of WWE's female wrestlers, tonight at 10. 

With all the programming now available, "it's a little overwhelming," Herzog says. Now that some form of wrestling is available to watch almost every night of the week, "that's the kind of thing that can destroy a marriage," he says. 

But what he wants is for it to lead to a long overdue respect of pro wrestling as an art form.   

"I hope that finally we get to a place where there's recognition from the vox populi that professional wrestling is storied, traditional, compelling, comforting, interesting television, and sport, and entertainment, no different than any of the cockamamie ways that entertainment is packaged for us on television in 2019," he says. "For some reason, wrestling has remained a red-headed stepchild. Someone watches reality TV or UFC, and they still feel that is somehow superior to wrestling. At some point something has to break through all of that and make it self evident that this is just great entertainment." 

And regardless of which companies come out on top of the new wrestling wars, the competition is creating a golden era for the pro wrestling faithful.  

"The true winners are the fans," LaGreca says. "There's something for everybody right now."


'All Elite Wrestling: Dynamite'

8 p.m. Wednesday


'WWE Smackdown'

8 p.m. Friday