Here's the good news: After 2019, for the first time in nearly two decades, WWE has competition and fans have an alternative. Here's the bad news: Pro wrestling still doesn't have a true mainstream star.
Pro wrestling's upheaval began on Jan. 1, 2019, when All Elite Wrestling was announced as a promotion. AEW's ingredients for success include legend Chris Jericho, financial backing from Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan and, crucially, a primetime TV contract with TNT that nets its AEW Dynamite show up to 1 million viewers a week.
One year later and AEW has given WWE its first true taste of competition since WCW collapsed in 2001.
But WWE has much to crow about itself. Two billion-dollar contracts with Fox and USA, for SmackDown and Raw respectively, mean it's making more money than ever. NXT entered 2019 as a developmental brand with shows on the WWE Network streaming service, and ended 2019 on USA Network going head-to-head with AEW Dynamite on Wednesday nights.
It's all happening. Huge money deals, WWE vs. AEW competition and a dynamism wrestling fans haven't felt in decades. So there's no doubt 2019 was big. But consider it a first step, a setting of the stage.
For the sake of pro wrestling, someone needs to command that stage like no one else has for 15 years.
The champ is where?
At WrestleMania 19, all the way back in 2003, The Rock pinned Stone Cold Steve Austin, ending a five-year rivalry. It was Steve Austin's last match ever. The Rock was in the middle of transitioning into Dwayne Johnson, the world's biggest action star. Pro wrestling as an industry has lacked a mainstream star of either man's caliber ever since.
John Cena was the WWE's leading man for over 10 years, and is incredibly talented. But his charisma wasn't enough to stop a steady decline in ratings. And what a decline the decade has seen. Coming off Sunday's TLC pay-per-view, Raw this week pulled 2.054 million viewers, while the equivalent Raw in 2010 had 5.16 million.
Up until 2019, the wrestling world's lack of star power was strictly a WWE problem. But now AEW is in the game, and it needs a long-term MVP. So what's AEW doing about it?
Chris Jericho is the company's first and only World Champion. He has far more name recognition than anyone else in AEW, and still wrestles great matches. But he's 49, and signed a three-year contract. AEW needs a new, younger top star by the time that contract runs out.
There are many candidates. There's Cody, an ex-WWE performer who in AEW has proven himself to be an excellent talker with superstar magnetism. There's Kenny Omega, the so called "Best Bout Machine" who has become a god-like figure among hardcore wrestling fans for his in-ring talent. And there's Jon Moxley, who was a big star in WWE as Dean Ambrose.
It's difficult to predict which of AEW's talent could break out into pop culture, if any. In wrestling, corporate brass have limited ability to choose who their leading performer is. The crowd to a large extent dictates this, as characters often inadvertently catch fire among audiences. Neither Steve Austin nor John Cena were originally earmarked as huge stars, for instance.
It's WWE, though, that's grappled with this problem the longest. So who's next?
Becky Lynch, and has been one of the company's most popular performers throughout the entire year. But just like Batman needs a stream of captivating villains to become an icon, Lynch needs a stronger cast of opponents. Ronda Rousey is already a mainstream attraction, but she's gone. Lynch's main onscreen rival has been Charlotte, but they've wrestled a million times now. Her was strong, as is her current rivalry with Asuka. But, barring a return from Rousey, that essentially exhausts her main event opponents.
WWE also put huge chips on Seth Rollins in 2019. Brock Lesnar is WWE's most protected asset, and almost never loses, yet Rollins scored two decisive wins over Lesnar at WrestleMania and SummerSlam. But that momentum was killed with bad feuds withand , and Rollins doesn't have the herculean charisma required to overcome WWE's awful scripting. So despite Rollins being presented as Raw's lead good guy the whole year, fan rejection has led to him ending 2019 as a villain.
Then there's Roman Reigns. Roman Reigns has been groomed to be the next top guy, but three consecutive WrestleMania main events have yet to get him there. He's been conspicuously absent from the main event scene this year, which probably means he'll return there just in time to headline WrestleMania 36.
In other words, no one person stands out as particularly likely to transcend.
So yes, this has been the most important year in wrestling since 2001. But it shouldn't be the end of the story.