The history of professional wrestling in Northeast Florida goes back to at least 1883, but the most important day in that history was probably January 8, 2019, when the biggest wrestling company of all-time, the WWE, faced its biggest challenge in over 20 years from a new organization based right here in Jacksonville. Last Tuesday, All-Elite Wrestling was born in Parking Lot J of TIAA Bank Stadium.
Over 1,000 fans gathered to watch what was basically a glorified press conference featuring AEW’s first batch of signees, including Executive VP Cody Rhodes, whose father “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes dominated wrestling in this state for almost 20 years. He was joined by his wife, Chief Brand(i?) Officer Brandi Rhodes, as well as fellow VPs The Young Bucks, probably the most influential tag-team since The Road Warriors. All three had turned down lucrative offers from WWE to launch their own company with Tony Khan, son of Jaguars owner, billionaire Shad Khan.
Others on the bill included “Hangman” Adam Page, Joey Janela and Penelope Ford, Dr. Britt Baker, MJF (Maxwell Jacob Friedman), So Cal Uncensored (Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian and Scorpio Sky), PAC (who wrestled as “Neville” in WWE) and, most notably, longtime WWE fixture Chris Jericho, one of the greatest pro-wrestlers of all-time. His last-minute signing was a key indicator that this company was on the right track, in terms of financing and the business model. All indications are that this is no fly-by-night operation, but a serious venture with long-term viability.
Surprisingly, the Jaguars brand was featured prominently at the festivities. Speakers made frequent references to the city and the team, and the company’s color scheme of black, white and gold is similar to the Jags. In addition, much of the talent had their own merchandise ready, also in Jaguar colors. (You can buy this stuff on ProWrestlingTees.com.) Free AEW rally towels were handed out by the Roar, and Jaxson DeVille himself featured prominently in the event. With WWE Smackdown taking place at the nearby arena, AEW made their presence known with fireworks throughout.
Pro-wrestling startups are notoriously sketchy, but the launch of AEW was very much different, with an emphasis on details that is unusual for the genre. As the sun set on downtown Jacksonville, a new day was dawning in sports entertainment. No one can predict the future, but it will certainly be fun to watch. Florida is now officially the capital of pro-wrestling in North America.