In the wake of TNA's failed move to Mondays under the guidance of Dixie Carter, WWE returned to its stranglehold over the American wrestling television market that they enjoyed for nearly all of the 2000s after their buyout of WCW. That changed on October 2, 2019, as All Elite Wrestling's flagship show, Dynamite, debuted on TNT, live from the Capital One Arena in Washington D.C. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work on the parts of Tony Khan, Cody Rhodes, 'The Young Bucks' Matt and Nick Jackson, Kenny Omega, and plenty more. Despite some clear ups, downs, and current issues, AEW was a necessity in the American wrestling market, and its creation was the catalyst for everyone getting better, a net positive for wrestling fans everywhere after four years of AEW television.
A wrestling promotion, however, can only be as good as the talent you see on screen. Luckily for Khan, for every one or two hires that did not pan out for AEW, there are about five more that did. Even now, he just brought in WWE Hall of Famer and multi-time World Heavyweight Champion Edge, now going by his real name, Adam Copeland. With that latest signing in mind, I initially wanted to rank the 10 best signings since the opening episode of Dynamite, which turned into 15 and then 20. Ultimately, this became a much harder exercise than anticipated, and some A+ talent didn't even make it to the final list or honorable mentions.
- All talent listed either started appearing regularly or were outright signed to All Elite Wrestling after the first episode of Dynamite aired (No one from the Elite, Mox, MJF, Hikaru Shida, Britt Baker, etc.).
- A bit of everything is factored in the rankings, such as memorable matches, promos, moments, general impact on the promotion, personal enjoyment, etc.
- Adam Copeland is excluded since he just got there, as is CM Punk, for what I would like to believe are obvious reasons.
- Five spots are reserved for All Elite Wrestling Women's Division hires (seven ladies made the cut).
- Anything that happened on Ring of Honor television post-Tony Khan's buyout is considered. As are Championships won in ROH, Impact Wrestling, New Japan, and AAA as members of AEW.
- This is all subjective, of course. HOWEVER, I'm objectively correct, and I'm not here to argue. Glad we're all on the same page.
- All Names/Groups will have a match and promo/moment recommendation link if available.
Also, not really a list note, but please log off of Twitter @TonyKhan.
Men's Honorable Mentions: Claudio Castignoli, Wheeler Yuta, Aussie Open (Kyle Fletcher and Mark Davis), Daniel Garcia, Miro
Women's Honorable Mentions: Ruby Soho, Skye Blue, Anna Jay, Saraya, Red Velvet
Non-Wrestling Talent Honorable Mentions: Stokely Hathaway, Taz, Renee Paquette, Don Callis, William Regal
Please Don't Curse Me Honorable Mention: Danhausen
Top 20 All Elite Wrestling Signings
No. 20 'The House of Black' (Malakai Black, Brody King, Buddy Matthews, and Julia Hart)
Promo/Moment Recommendation: "I Once Saw a Man Kill a Horse Cody"
Championships: AEW Trios Champions (1x, Black, King, and Matthews)
Despite all coming in separately, the House of Black has been one of the better groupings in the short history of AEW, even with some hot-and-cold bookings. Malakai Black is one of many former NXT/WWE Talents Triple H knew how to book to a T before Vince McMahon failed to come close to capitalizing on him when he got his main roster call-up.
With his legitimate background in Kickboxing and Muay Thai, Black has been one of the best strikers in the business for several years. His finisher, a spinning roundhouse kick labeled Black Mass, has been one of my favorites ever since I first saw him in NXT. Black's striking ability, paired with his elite presentation and character work, made him one of the best parts of NXT in his tenure. So safe to say Tony Khan jumped all over the opportunity to get him to AEW, instantly putting Black in a feud with Cody Rhodes less than 45 days after WWE gave him his future endeavors.
Maybe the best aspect about Black is that despite going from Aleister Black in WWE to Malakai Black in AEW, he's the same character/persona; his first name is just different now. 10 months before his release, Black was in an angle where his eye was injured after having his face driven into the edge of some steel steps. That eye contact he used until the end of his WWE run is still there, and the facepaint 'corruption' you see got larger the longer he's been in AEW.
After ultimately losing that feud to Rhodes in a blowoff match at Arthur Ashe Stadium, this is where the 'House of Black' faction starts to take shape. The first man to join up was Brody King, who at 6'5' and over 280 lbs, looks and acts like a perfect monster enforcer while displaying a great blend of power and speed. King also got a chance in 2022 to compete for the AEW World Championship against Jon Moxley, passing out, not tapping out to a bulldog choke, showing that he can swim in the deep end on his own. Additionally, He and Black currently serve as PWG Tag Team Champions and have for over two years.
Rounding out the men's side of the House is Buddy Matthews, one of the best cruiserweight wrestlers on the planet. Circling back to that eye injury angle that Black had, the man behind that was Matthews, then Buddy Murphy, who then was aligned with Seth Rollins, so there's another backstory tie-in. The three blend perfectly with their in-ring styles, but they also hit like Mac Trucks, which is fantastic.
Member No. 4 is the youngest by a wide margin but perhaps the most interesting. Meet 21-year-old Julia Hart, a graduate of Cody Rhodes' "Nightmare Factory" training program who's been with AEW since the middle of 2021. Starting initially as a valet for the Varsity Blondes tag team (Brian Pilman Jr. and Griff Garrison), she slowly began to align herself with the House of Black after Black 'corrupted' her with some black mist, and she officially joined at the 2022 rendition of Double or Nothing. Given her cheerleading background (legitimate two-time National Champion), her natural athleticism isn't too shocking, and she recently got her first big PPV match against TBS Champion Kris Statlander at Wrestledream.
As a complete four-person unit, the House of Black instantly stands out on a crowded AEW roster with its presentation, aura, and combined in-ring talent. Although some injuries, plus Hart being off on her honeymoon, have kept them off TV here for a few weeks, Tony Khan's handling of this group should be better than what it's been. The House stands out from the moment you see them, and serve as one of the more intriguing acts AEW has to offer. Here's to hoping we see more out of the House because they're an absolute blast.
No. 19 Samoa Joe
Match Recommendation: Vs. Max Caster (AEW Dynamite 4/6/22)
Promo/Moment Recommendation: "You Failed to Recognize the Most Dangerous Man in the Room"
Championships: TNT Champion (2x) and Ring of Honor World Television Champion (1x, Reigning)
I remember turning on Spike TV by happenstance when I was still in elementary school and was introduced to a promotion running shows out of Universal Studios by the name of TNA. Perhaps not the first, but one of the first names I was then introduced to was none other than the Samoan Submission Machine, Samoa Joe. Since then, I watched him become the bane of Scott Steiner's existence, get his foot in the door at WWE, have a main roster feud with Brock Lesnar (I'm not bitter at all that Vince didn't pull the trigger six years later why would you ask???), and end up in AEW by way of returning to his original stomping grounds of Ring of Honor in 2022.
Joe has been one of the world's elite performers for two decades. From his classic with Kenta Kobashi in 2005, his several classics with AJ Styles across ROH, TNA, and WWE, all the way up until recently with his All-In bout with CM Punk, Joe has aged like a fine wine, having lost nothing in his craft, promo skills, and believability over the years. When Joe says he'll dismantle or choke someone out on national television, you believe him by default. He's had that level of aura both in the ring and on the mic and has for at least the last decade. AEW having that level of performer who could credibly Main Event a pay-per-view right now if needed, while also being that veteran presence in the locker room for the younger guys and gals is invaluable, and they have more than a few. In any case, I'm happy to see Joe going strong just months out from 2024
No. 18 Willow Nightingale
Match Recommendation: Vs. Emi Sakura (AEW Rampage 6/2/23)
Promo/Moment Recommendation: Pre-Match Video Package for AEW Women's World Championship Match against Toni Storm at Forbidden Door 2023
Championships: AEW Womens Owen Heart Memorial Tournament Winner (1x, Reigning)
"Nothing matters, smile anyway" is what you see on the entrance set every time Willow Nightingale makes her way out, and that's about the perfect way to describe her: A very wholesome person with a smile on her face every night, and you'd never know it if you only saw her in the ring, because she beats the brakes off of people. To me, that's fantastic. Nightingale is enjoying a career year in 2023, her eighth as a pro wrestler and third in AEW/ROH. Just this year, she's had a trio of great matches with ROH Women's Champion Athena in losing efforts in 2-of-3, won the second-ever Owen Hart Tournament on the Women's side, and picked up the biggest win of her career back in late May, going over Mercedes Mone, perhaps better known as Sasha Banks, for the NJPW Strong Women's Championship.
At 29 years old, Nightingale has come into her own and has been a staple on AEW branded programming throughout 2023, which is no coincidence. It's hard to say how long the go-lucky babyface persona stays fresh, but that shouldn't be a problem for a long while. Nightingale plays that role as well as anyone, and she's gotten herself over with fans very organically with her stout in-ring work. Also helps that that the Willow Nightingale you see on and off TV are the same person.
I don't know when or what belt, but I see AEW gold in Nightingale's future sooner rather than later. She has all the makings of a mainstay star and is still only in her late 20s.
No. 17 Kris Statlander
Match Recommendation: Vs. Julia Hart (AEW WrestleDream 2023)
Promo/Moment Recommendation: Her Return Before Becoming the First Woman to Beat Jade Cargill
Championships: TBS Champion (1x, Reigning)
Speaking of mainstay women's stars, we move on to the reigning TBS Champion, Kris Statlander. Her first night in AEW was not under contract, and before she ever stepped foot in the ring, it sounded like they were more than interested in bringing her aboard. Statlander's fellow graduate of the Create-A-Pro wrestling school, reigning AEW World Champion MJF, put in a good word about Statlander, and the rest, as they say, is history, as she was officially signed just weeks later, and then had multiple World Championship matches inside of her opening three months.
Two separate ACL tears have sadly kept Statlander on the shelf for 20 months combined since then, but MJF's good words were not without warrant. Her look and physique set her apart from nearly everyone else on the AEW women's roster, she's gotten herself over both as "The Galaxy's Greatest Alien" and then as just herself, and continues to improve with every match. Notably, she credits a fellow member of her current group, the Best Friends, Orange Cassidy, for her growth since joining AEW.
Long gone are the days of the finger booping and facepaint dots. Statlander now has the presentation of a Main Event women's star, notably sporting gear with "More Than a Woman" written all over. For her, that means being okay with being different, as she stated to SteelChair Magazine in May of 2022. Well, now she's a Champion above all else, and I think she's only in the opening stages of what should be a long TBS Championship reign, and Statlander is still scratching the surface of her full potential at 28 years old.
No. 16 'The Fallen Goddess' Athena
Match Recommendation: Vs. Kierra Hogan (ROH Honor Club TV 6/1/23)
Promo/Moment Recommendation: Training 'the Minions'
Championships: Ring of Honor Women's World Champion (1x, Reigning)
Although much of what Athena has done in AEW/ROH has likely gone unnoticed to the more casual fan, she's perhaps on the run of her career at the moment as the flagbearer for women's wrestling in Ring of Honor. Her ROH Women's Championship reign is inching close to a full year, with an impressive match catalog over the last 300-plus days. Three bouts a pop with Willow Nightengale and Kierra Hogan, along with some one-offs with Lelya Hirsh, Skye Blue, Diamante, Joshi stars Miyu Yamashita and Yuka Sakazaki, plus Mercedes Martinez, whom she took the ROH belt off of.
A lot of great heel Champions are only as good as their character/promo work, and Athena is doing some great stuff right now with her 'Minions' Billie Starkz and backstage announcer Lexy Nair. Like other great current heels like Roman Reigns and Christian Cage, Athena too has mastered the art of gaslighting, doing so to Starkz in borderline hilarious fashion as of late. The boot camp montages they've run on ROH TV are some of the funnier things I've seen recently.
The biggest net positive for Athena in this run is that she's being presented as the star that she is while not taking frequent losses and still being able to elevate those around her. That's why the second her reign ends, she should be on AEW TV every week by default. I feel confident in saying that a decent chunk of people haven't seen much, if any, of the great stuff she's done since Ring of Honor is behind a paywall, and what she's doing right now could seamlessly translate to Dynamite, Rampage, or Collison. Whether you watch ROH or not, know that when people call Athena the best woman's wrestler on the planet it's well warranted.
No. 15 Adam Cole
Match Recommendation: w/MJF vs. Sammy Guevara and Daniel Garcia (AEW Dynamite 7/19/23)
Promo/Moment Recommendation: Return Promo after a Five Month Absence via a Concussion Issue
Championships: Ring of Honor World Tag Team Champion (1x w/MJF, Reigning), AEW Mens Owen Heart Memorial Tournament Winner (1x)
Had Vince McMahon's removal from WWE happened a year earlier, I believe we wouldn't have seen Adam Cole jump to AEW, but you could say that for plenty of things. The bottom line is their loss was AEW's gain, and when Cole is a full go, he's one of the best wrestlers on the planet. He's sadly, however, had to deal with talk about his physique and 'being too small' from fans and former wrestlers alike, which is a shame given the quality of his work over the last six years. Another unfortunate note for Cole's AEW run has been injuries. He missed a ton of time from '22-'23 after a serious post-concussion issue, and very recently suffered a broken ankle at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
But enough about the negatives, let's get into the positives with Adam Cole because there's a lot. We're talking about a performer with a proven track record worldwide of being a credible top babyface or heel, and he's played both in his AEW run. Even as he's hurt, his current storyline around befriending MJF while former Undisputed Era running mate Roddy Strong now has him hostage, gaslighting him into doing ludicrous tasks with a broken ankle, has been one of the great things to come out of AEW over the last few years. Cole and MJF had arenas on their feet, most notably TD Garden in Boston, at the edge of their seats for something as simple as a double clothesline or a kangaroo kick.
Pair that with some excellent vignettes with MJF over the last few months, Cole was beginning to hit his stride before the ankle injury. He had just given an interview in August, saying he felt "the best I have in years". Despite only working four singles matches in his return stint, one was the biggest of his career, being the Main Event of AEW: All In London at Wembley Stadium against MJF. Since arriving at All Out in 2021, Cole has been presented as a Main Event caliber talent, and I have no reason to believe that won't be the case when it's time for him to return.
No. 14 Thunder Rosa
Match Recommendation: Lights Out Unsanctioned Match vs. Britt Baker (AEW Dynamite 3/11/21)
Promo/Moment Recommendation: Debut Promo
Championships: AEW Women's World Champion (1x)
Thunder Rosa's first-ever appearance in AEW was an interesting one. The then NWA Women's World Champion instantly called out her AEW counterpart Hikaru Shida to a title match at All Out 2021, her second-ever match with the promotion. Her dance with Shida put them both at the top of an objectively weaker AEW women's roster than you see today. After dropping her NWA belt to Serena Deeb, her signature feud with Britt Baker began. Knowing over two full years after their first match, the two had real-life heat with each other, via Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful/Fightful Select, makes things all the more fascinating. Rosa and Baker's Unsanctioned Match, the middle part of the trilogy, was given heavy praise from all corners of the wrestling world, and for good reason.
Once AEW got back on the road full-time, Rosa got herself fairly over pretty quickly, but it would not be until about a year after that unsanctioned match, where she beat Baker for the second time, on the books for Championship Gold inside a Steel Cage. The crowd that night in San Antonio was red hot for her that entire night, and it was the crowning moment for a woman who didn't begin wrestling until she was 28 years old, and worked as a social worker in the Bay Area after graduating from Cal-Berkley. We wouldn't know it then, but she would only have about 10 matches left before an injury, believed to be a back issue, would keep her out of action for over 14 months now. The good news is that it sounds like she should be back very soon here, and that's a huge boost for the AEW women's roster in the post-Jade Cargill era.
No. 13 'Timeless' Toni Storm
Match Recommendation: Vs. Hikaru Shida (AEW Dynamite 200)
Promo/Moment Recommendation: 'Timeless Toni Storm, Portrait of a Star'
Championships: AEW Women's World Champion (2x)
Had this list been compiled six months down the road, Toni Storm would almost certainly be much higher than 13. Right now, the soon-to-be 28-year-old from Gold Coast, Australia, is in the early days of a new gimmick, and it's a fun one at that, 'Timeless Toni Storm'. After losing the AEW Woman's Championship for the second time a couple of months ago, Storm began appearing in backstage interviews, dressed like an early-age Hollywood actress, and began cutting promos like she was on the brink of insanity for several weeks.
Does THAT look like someone who's taking the loss of their championship well? I didn't think so. Shortly after being kicked out of the Outcasts group by former stablemates Saraya and Ruby Soho, things began to get even better. Pre-tapped segments named "Toni Storm: Portrait of a Star" (linked above, well worth the watch), which feel more like acted-out therapy sessions with AEW personality RJ City. These segments culminate with Storm realizing that despite being a 14-year veteran, she's timeless. Just before this, Storm had been coming out with a black-and-white filter, but she now also sports messy lipstick, does over-the-top posses, and even cuts the TV feed to commercial on her own accord mid-match. Hell, she even gave Kierra Hogan a full-on script before a match. I cannot stress this enough: A full-on script with lines, cues, and the whole nine yards. To me, that's real acting, real cinema, if you will.
The new character, which has gotten universal praise, is one thing, but Storm has been one of the best woman wrestlers on the planet for quite some time. She cut her teeth at a young age, both in Japan and Europe, against many of today's top women stars across the globe. Names like Io Sharai, Shayna Bazler, Deonna Purrazzo, Tegan Nox, and even the great Mickie James in 2015 at an event in Blackpool, England. The same city and venue where she defeated maybe the best female wrestler in the world today, Rhea Ripley, for NXT UK Women's Championship supremacy. Pairing her hard-hitting in-ring style with what might be one of the most fun gimmicks in the game currently, Storm deserves every ounce of praise that's come her way in recent months.
No. 12 'The Alpha' Konosuke Takeshita
Match Recommendation: Vs. MJF (AEW Dynamite 2/8/23)
Promo/Moment Recommendation: Flying to Japan with Don Callis Just to Jump Kota Ibushi
When you think of some of the great Japanese wrestlers of the last decade, names like Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito, Kota Ibushi, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Hiroshi Tanahashi instantly jump out. All four of those men carry a visible superstar aura, mastery of the Japanese wrestling style, and the ability to connect with crowds all over the globe. Maybe not to the fullest extent, but you can see a lot of those same traits in Konosuke Takeshita, now dubbed as 'the Alpha' of the Don Callis Family.
Takeshita appeared twice for AEW in 2021, but his first major stint came in 2022, off on an excursion from Japanese promotion DDT, customary for many younger Japanese wrestlers regardless of promotion. Takeshita instantaneously made his mark on fans in America with some great matches, whether he won or not, and over his love of Cinnabon, which was a nice Wrestling Twitter meme for some time. Probably not right away, but certainly before the final match of his excursion against Blackpool Combat Club member Claudio Castingoli, you knew the 28-year-old from Osaka, Japan, was the realest of deals, and just three months after that match, Takeshita got his long-awaited 'Is All Elite' graphic from Tony Khan.
Now, Tony Khan and AEW could have done the safe thing and kept Takeshita as a babyface, but opted to have him align with "carny piece of sh*t" (Christian Cage's words, not mine) Don Callis, now disgraced former manager/mentor of Kenny Omega. Despite the alignment not occurring until the tail end of May, this was subtly teased back in January, with Callis being seen with Takeshita backstage at the PWG Battle of Los Angeles, which I have to imagine that this picture was released intentionally. Supposedly, this was for some sort of TV segment, but I don't recall if it ever made air. In any case, the first promo Callis and Takeshita cut as a unit was nothing short of pure theater. Being able to pull out genuine continuous boos from a crowd like this is an art form.
In 2023, even before his turn, Takeshita has been booked as well as any wrestler in any promotion, and according to Cagematch, he's wrestled 36 singles matches across several promotions and has just four losses. Those coming against former Impact X-Division Champion 'Speedball' Mike Bailey in the BOLA finals, now Don Callis Family member Sammy Guevara, and then Bryan Danielson and MJF. The biggest win of his career came just a few months back at All-Out, where Takeshita pinned Kenny Omega after a barrage of heavy knee strikes and a Super Blue Thunder Bomb. If there's anything to read anything into that, AEW views Takeshita as a major piece on the chessboard, and it's only a matter of time before he secures a belt for himself. But when this partnership with Callis has run its course, Takeshita could become one of the hottest properties in AEW if done right.
No. 11 Bullet Club Gold ('Switchblade' Jay White, Juice Robinson, Austin and Colton Gunn)
Promo/Moment Recommendation: The Gunns Coming Out to 'Many Men' by 50 Cent. Jay White going Toe-to-Toe with MJF on the Microphone.
Championships: AEW World Tag Team Champions (The Gunns, 1x)
Disclaimer: Since it recently happened, the 'quarters' part of the Bullet Club's promo on MJF Tuesday night was in incredibly poor taste and should have never made air. That ultimately falls on Tony Khan. It's his operation, he's the lead booker, and I'd assume that was run by him on Tuesday. I don't mention this below, but I felt that needed to be said.
Although never outright confirmed, the widespread, and I mean WIDESPREAD belief, was that former multi-time IWGP Champion and the fifth leader of the famed Bullet Club faction, Jay White, was going to be a WWE superstar whenever his New Japan contract expired in early 2023. So color me shocked when the leader of the "Bang Bang Gang" rolled up on AEW Dynamite in early April to come to the aid of Juice Robinson mere minutes after the show went live. Together, the two former members of Bullet Club Proper in Japan dubbed themselves Bullet Club Gold. Why Gold, you may be wondering? In their own words, they're the best.
Circling back to White, the Aukland, New Zealand Native has a wildly impressive resume at just 31 years old. He's held the IWGP United States and Intercontinental Title once each for over 150 days and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship twice, including a reign of over 200 days. White is also one of a select few performers since 1960 to headline a wrestling event at Madison Square Garden and the Tokyo Dome. That club includes Kazuchika Okada and [internal sigh] Hulk Hogan. The Switchblade is as savvy in the ring as he is on the mic, and he showed that perfectly once he came into his own as the Bullet Club's leader. Very glad I got to track his rise in NJPW from afar when I did, and he's been a great addition to AEW television in 2023.
Juice Robinson's path to AEW wasn't as high profile as his running mate Jay White's. Serving on the roster of early-day Black and Gold NXT, Robinson would request and be granted his release by WWE in April of 2015. His path would lead him to New Japan Pro Wrestling, largely bypassing the customary Young Lions program before becoming a fixture on NJPW programming from 2016-2022. In that run, he won IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team gold with current Bullet Club leader David Finlay, the 2019 World Tag League Tournament, and the IWGP U.S. Championship three times. All in all, Robinson plays off very well with White in the ring, as a tag team, and in backstage vignettes and promos.
Now, you can't be a faction with only two people, and with the only two members of Bullet Club active in the United States residing in Impact (Chris Bey and Ace Austin), they needed to find some extra bodies to join the Bullet Club Gold ranks, and oh boy did AEW hit a gold mine adding in the Gunns. Austin and Colton, real-life sons of Billy Gunn, joined AEW in 2020 to not much fanfare until they started appearing on screen with their dad and the Acclaimed. Each week, they would get called the "Ass Boys" in Max Caster raps as an ode to Billy Gunn's old gimmick in the late 90s/early 2000s (Shoutout Danhausen for getting that over by the way. Please don't curse me). Ultimately, they betrayed the Acclaimed and their father in the summer of 2022, and the Gunns got the chance to fly solo. It took a bit, but they found their footing and surprisingly won the AEW Tag Titles off the Acclaimed. Although they dropped them to FTR less than 60 days in, it was not before they came out to 'Many Men' by 50 Cent on national television (linked above).
These four as a unit have consistently been one of the highlights of AEW TV since they formally joined forces after the Main Event of the second-ever Collision. They all play well off each other, they have elite presentation as a unit and as individuals (The Gunns may have the best entrance going right now), and they're just beginning to hit their stride with White set to challenge for his first AEW World Championship opportunity at Full Gear. Speaking personally, I wouldn't mind another member or two down the road, but Bullet Club Gold has been a fantastic addition to AEW.
10 names left, and here they are in alphabetical order: The Acclaimed, Christian Cage, Jade Cargill, Bryan Danielson, FTR, Jamie Hayter, Brodie Lee, Eddie Kingston, Ricky Starks, and Swerve Strickland.
Main Image via All Elite Wrestling