Being called the “top guy” in the company is the goal of any professional wrestler.
For decades, the thought process has been that a given promotion’s fortunes rise and fall with the wrestler on top. But in the age of branding and social media promotion, it seems like something of an old-fashioned notion.
Wrestling has evolved over the years. A lot of the old adages that companies lived and died by have gone by the wayside, but the notion of hitching the entire promotion to one wrestler’s wagon keeps hanging on.
As with all things in pro wrestling, the answer is a little more complicated than it should be, and it all depends on how big and well-known your company is. But before we get too deep into this, it’s worth taking a look at what it traditionally means to be “the man.”
What Is The Top Guy?
Dating back to the territory days — before the dark times; before WWE — having one central wrestler to build your promotion around was critical.
When the National Wrestling Alliance, the governing body that held the old territory system together, still ran the table, they would gather the promoters of the various regional promotions and decide who would be the NWA World Champion.
The idea was that the champion would travel throughout all of the territories. Each promotion would declare its own top guy, and when the NWA Champion rolled into town, they would rely on that match-up to fill the arenas. So, if Jerry Lawler was the number one wrestler in the Memphis territory (and when wasn’t he?), it would be up to he and the NWA Champ to draw people to the shows.
And when the world champion would move along to Mid-South, he would take on their number one guy. And so on and so on.
It’s an idea born of a time when there wasn’t national cable distribution and when the mere thought of trying to get your local show on a neighboring territory’s airwaves was tantamount to treason. From a time when selling out the next town was a matter of life and death.
But it’s a very old idea, and it’s one that WWE has outgrown.
Why WWE Doesn’t Need A Top Guy
For the past five years, WWE has been promoting Roman Reigns as the heir apparent to the throne. Or, as the Internet Wrestling Community might say, they’ve been shoving Roman down our throats.
Many of WWE’s moves over the past half-decade have been with the goal of Reigns ascending to the top guy position. To make him the successor to the position that Hogan, Austin, and Cena held before him. The issue here is that WWE is confusing two very different needs.
They’ve merged the top guy philosophy with the need to create new stars, and in their very unique case, the two are very much mutually exclusive.
Since 1999 when the company went public, WWE has changed its corporate structure. There’s a board and shareholders to answer to now, and the only thing any of them are concerned about is bringing in money. They’ve made multi-platform media deals with NBCUniversal and Fox, and the only thing either of those companies are interested in are (relatively) cheap, easy, 52-week programming.
Success for WWE is now based upon carving up new market share, gaining greater international exposure, striking new licensing deals. They aren’t about selling Hulk Hogan or John Cena as their top guy — WWE is the top guy.
Think about what the promotion for WrestleMania used to look like. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the video boxes with just Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior or Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter.
Now, picture the promotion for the last few WrestleMania events. It was either seven or eight wrestlers standing around the logo or it was just the WrestleMania logo itself. The point is, people don’t fly halfway across the planet to watch Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns. They make the trip just to say they were at WrestleMania.
The focus for WWE shouldn’t be to appoint a new top guy. It should be to make a cast of big stars out of the talent they have. The promotional goal when it comes to the talent roster should be to have a revolving door of credible people to hold their world-level championships.
Putting all of WWE’s eggs in the Lesnar or Reigns basket isn’t enough anymore, and if they keep trying, they’ll find themselves in this “war” with AEW that everyone says isn’t really anybody’s goal.
But that only happens if AEW walks down the opposite road.
Why AEW Needs A Top Guy
AEW got almost 100,000 buys from its debut pay-per-view, Double Or Nothing (as reported by Forbes). They have a lucrative TV deal with WarnerMedia and Turner Broadcasting.
They have the support of every wrestling fan within earshot that’s disenchanted with the WWE product. You know what they don’t have?
A top guy.
Electric Bento has mentioned before that the unsung secret to WCW’s success in the 90s was the ability to unwittingly trick channel flippers into thinking they were watching WWE. They had Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and the Outsiders. Joe Casual, who isn’t in the know, would see these former faces of WWE and not immediately know that’s not what they were watching.
Buzz will not be enough to carry AEW to a top position in the pro wrestling universe. Indeed, this is something they seem to already grasp. Their next pay-per-view, All Out, will feature a main event between Chris Jericho and “Hangman” Adam Page to determine the first AEW World Champion.
And if they’re smart, they’ll go with Chris Jericho, the man who main-evented Double Or Nothing with Kenny Omega and the most logical choice to be AEW’s first top guy.
All Out is slated for Labor Day weekend in Chicago. August 31 to be exact. Just over a month before AEW’s likely October debut on the TNT network.
With all due respect to all of AEW’s roster, Jericho is the closest thing they have to a household name. Omega is great, so is Cody, so are the Young Bucks. But they aren’t faces that wrestling viewers know. Jon Moxley has a face familiar to wrestling fans, but not the name they know.
AEW has everything it needs to take on the world, but it still needs that top guy to put out in front.
“To Be The Brand …”
WWE is a brand unto itself. They don’t need one top guy, they need a half dozen. But they need a wide-angle lens to keep them front-and-center. With two major brands on TV each week, hooking up the company’s wagon to one top guy might as well be throwing in the towel.
AEW is a brand as well. But it isn’t yet particularly well-defined beyond not being WWE. A top guy will tighten that focus. Wrestling isn’t just a traveling road show anymore, it’s a TV product. And the seats that need filling are on the couch. For their purposes, a top guy to fill them is still necessary.
The key to success for both companies is the same as it was during the Monday Night Wars. Move as far away from one another as you can.
WWE needs to leave building a top guy to AEW, because it is its own top guy. And AEW can sell out all the arenas in the world. It won’t matter if there isn’t someone the folks at home want — no, need — to tune in and see.
If you’re new to the game, the old ways are best. And if you defined the game, you have the right to change the rules.
Images courtesy of WWE and AEW.